The fourth banner is on the night watch in the Copper camp. The gate guards, who perform that job during the day, are resting while we take shifts. Mine is the first one, probably the busiest one, but the easiest one to stay awake on. People are on top of the gate, scouting, and I’m below with other soldiers guarding the entrance and helping to check the documents.
Night life seems to be busy. Once the soldiers are done fighting and the air chills to the more comfortable levels, everybody else comes out to mingle. Yet, this evening something is wrong; the order comes from above, and we’re on lockdown – nobody comes in or out. Priests come out in droves, searching for the cursed dolls around the camp and warning us not to touch them if we encounter any.
Some highly-positioned people can’t go in or out, and that’s a problem. We are under orders; we’re not letting them out. Lady Zoe tries to push through. Avatar was angry with her for some reason, and it’s probably not a good idea to inquire why. We stop her from passing through. Lady Iskierka is also angry that we’re not letting her through, but the order and the way of things protect us, as they should.
We get new orders. Regulations are a bit relaxed for some. Then we get an unexpected visit – a Black Avatar! We let her in and show her the way to our Avatar, a new one since the Great Copper Dragon chose to manifest itself in female form this year.
Eventually, the situation calms down and normal traffic is re-estabilished. The Black Avatar goes out. Soon, my shift is done. I wash up a bit and head to sleep…
…an alarm sounds, a battle before our gates. Black, our allies, are fighting an opposing force, and our Imperator is out! I storm out of the camp with a squad and reinforce their lines. We stand still, and with the help of Black mages who break their lines with their spells we push through, fighting our way through the night and pushing the Green back. I cut one down, but got wounded in my left arm. I’m close to the Imperator and we make a run for… something, I didn’t hear it well, but we’re passing next to the ritual circle. As we’re running, something cuts me down from behind and I fall down.
Two soldiers from my camp found me, barely conscious, and pulled me back to the camp to our Lazaret, the sickbay. My neck wound – too ugly for stitching – is cauterized by a hot iron and left unbandaged. My arm is stitched, placed into a splint and bandaged. I was helped to the bed and told to return in the morning for another look at these wounds…
Drachenfest. The second biggest and probably most well-known larp in Europe. It’s been held once a year by a company called Wyvern next to the small German town of Diemelstadt, in northern part of the state of Hesse next to the state border. There’s a large wooded hill surrounded by the river Diemel on two sides, and a large meadow divided into two parts – smaller to the south and bigger to the north – which is the terrain on which Drachenfest is played. It’s not just any larp – it has a huge festival atmosphere with many, many shops, taverns, food stalls, etc. – all of them decorated to fit in the medieval/fantasy look and feel as much as possible. Around 5,000 participants make Drachenfest feel a bit crowded, but very much alive and dynamic.
Going to such an event for the first time can be a frightening and confusing experience – like it was for me last year. The European larp scene is not unified – there are vast cultural differences, more across linguistical borders than across country borders, and coming to Drachenfest for the first time was a big culture shock for me. To help you better understand German larp culture, here are some of the general larp terms in Germany:
- Outtime (OT) – off-game or out of character
- Intime (IT) – in-game or in-character
- Spielleitung (SL) – game master/reeve/referee
- Orga – game staff
- Stop – pronounced with “sh”. A call to stop a game immediately. Don’t say “stop” IT, use “halt” instead.
- Heiler – an IT call for healer. Pronounced like “hi-ler”.
- Sani – an OT call for medic, used for real injuries, usually in combination with stop. Pronounced like “sunny”, but with more of a Z sound.
- Weiter – “onward”, game continues after “stop” or similar.
- Time stop – like stop but for IT purposes, only SLs call it. Close your eyes and hum until you hear “weiter”, game continues from that point.
- Vor! – Forward! Pronounced like “for”. The battle line which is yelling this is likely pushing into opponents.
- SC, NSC – PC and NPC, respectively. Might have a different meaning than you’re used to.
- Con – pretty much every German larper calls larp events “conventions” or “cons”.
Returning to Drachenfest this year was a very different feeling than visiting it for the first time. Now there was no overwhelming feeling of awe for an event a hundred times more populous than what I used to call big events in Croatia. Now there was no culture shock from larping with vastly different goals in mind than what I was used to. This time I knew what awaited me, and I knew a lot of people in my camp. I was excited, ready for the challenges that awaited me. Ready to give my blood for Copper – a camp of religious fanatics organized in a way similar to the Star Wars Empire or the Warhammer Empire. Copper is called NPC camp, but this might be very different to what you expect: Drachenfest is a PvP event, and Copper are still playing full characters of their own choosing and role-play. There are only a few limitations – we have to role-play loyal religious fanatics but if you’re OK with that and with the camp role-play direction, you’re in for an awesome experience.
In German larps, a knowledge of German comes in handy. Most people in the Copper camp have at least some command of English and they can give you a short summary of what was just said, but not everyone can engage in a longer dialogue, so some command of German is very useful if you want to catch what’s going on. I understand some German, so I can sometimes make out what it was about, but I’m sure my enjoyment of the larp would be greater with a better command of the language. Then again, I’m playing a soldier, so it’s not as difficult as it would be if I were playing a different sort of character. There are some English-speaking groups – The Grand Expedition (in Gold camp) is one such group: very nice people, and I have some friends there.
Once again I traveled with my wife, son, and a friend (not the same one as last year; this one is from Serbia) for two epic weeks in Germany – first Drachenfest, then Conquest a week after. After a long drive to the location of the larp terrain, we unloaded our stuff and went on to say hi to people we knew, though finding people you know in the huge city of tents can be challenging. Beside the Grand Expedition, there were other people I knew in other camps: Green camp had the Slovenian trio, the same ones as the last year, while Blue camp had four Hungarians from Chronicles of Demgard (who also play on Terra Nova). The Drachenfest’s motto is “Freunde treffen Freunde” – friends meet friends – and this year it rang much more true than my first time there.
One of the first differences we noted were the changes this year: Silver and Black camps switched places, there was only one Chaos camp, and the Orc camp was staffed by different people than the last year. Triumvirat split off the Gold Camp and lodged itself between Red and Blue, taking the old gate with them while Gold got a new, epic-looking gate.
There were more tiny changes: There was no Copper party at the start of the larp, but the Blue camp threw one instead. We also had a different avatar. Camp layout was slightly different, and our camp did not seem as fanatical as last year, screaming our shouts less often (and we changed a few of them). Thinking about it, some major changes would probably be easier to adapt to than this plethora of small changes.
Several things didn’t change, and one of them is weather. Most of the time at Drachenfest it’s either hot – the sun burns so much that you feel like you’re probably developing a cancer – or it’s a thunderstorm. It can change from one to another and then back again in a span of only a few minutes. We had several storms, and the ground of our camp was a field on which nothing had been planted this year. The ground was bare, incredibly sticky when wet, and dangerous to walk on fast, so we got some hay to put it on the ground of the central fighting place to make it safer.
Our camp politics changed. Last year Copper was alone against everyone, however this time we were in a huge alliance with Black, Red, Gold and Triumvirat against Blue, Green, Silver and Grey. Blue camp won the Drachenfest last year, so this was the year of the Blue dragon – they had their coins minted, their colors flying in the city, etc. Last year was the year of the Gold dragon (who won in 2011). This year, the Black dragon won – only one dragon egg ahead of the Silver one – winning this year’s Drachenfest, and making the next year the year of the Black dragon. The number of dragon eggs decide the winner in the end, and the dragon eggs are awarded for various deeds (attack, defense, rituals etc.), but I’m getting ahead of myself.
Opening and closing rituals were epic as always, with fire performance before the opening (as well as a performance by some dancers from the Blue camp and the scene when all Orcs got out of their camp with lit torches, which looked amazing). All dragon avatars are presented one by one in the Ritual Circle, and most players are there cheering for their dragon. They display affection, respect, hostility, or other stuff towards other avatars, and they make a nice show. The opening ritual is not really on the opening – it’s on Wednesday evening, while Copper starts role-playing Tuesday evening, and other camps start Wednesday morning. In this environment which repeats itself every year – dragon eggs, dragon camps, fighting to rule the world for the next year etc. – most things (apart from the avatars themselves) are player-organized and rather sandboxy.
Camp life is a large part of the Drachenfest experience, and that’s very visible in the busy central square. People doing things, soldiers resting in the soldier tent (where we could get some water and sometimes coffee or tea), and many places with specific functions (such as the sickbay, temple, library, etc.) nearby. We even had a store where you could buy symbols of your dedication to the Copper dragon for the in-game currency.
Apart from that, there was fighting – and a lot of it, especially for me as a soldier. Drachenfest is a huge fighting place, and Copper fights often. We took parts in fights big and small, but one of my favorite ones was a night battle against Chaos in front of our camp. I just got back to tent and took my armor off when they yelled the alarm. I picked up the sword and ran for the gate. In front of the camp there was a group of Chaos attacking us – we ran out and gave them a good fight. I had a duel with a huge Chaos guy who missed me a couple of times with his huge warhammer while I hacked at him – and he hit me once, I flew away some distance and rolled in the ground, got up, jumped him, and slayed him with a dagger. Tried to do the same to an orc from the Chaos camp (as I was surrounded by that point) but they got me. Excellent duels, excellent role-play. I love fighting against these guys (even though we hate them in character) because they play nicely and take their shots (it’s similar with orcs too).
I should elaborate the thing about Orcs a bit – they have the highest standards. Orc camp is called “Ork-Clan-Lager” (Orc clan camp), and though it looks the same and performs the similar function, it’s not the same one as the last year’s “Orkheerlager” (Orc army camp). I will not repeat the rumors I heard, but apparently GMs mishandled a situation and made some players from the Orkheerlager very angry, so the entire camp of some 200-ish people switched to Epic Empires instead (third largest larp in Germany, which was two weeks after Drachenfest – that’s a week after Mythodea – unfortunately I couldn’t get three weeks off to visit all three of them). Orkheerlager was simply amazing. Ork-Clan-Lager is also good, but it’s not the same, and they’re smaller. They’re still (from what I’ve seen) better orcs than any other on Drachenfest or Mythodea, though pretty much all orcs I’ve seen are great role-players. And yes, there are other orcs too – there are some in the Chaos camp, and there are some in several other camps as well.
This year, I managed to do more stuff than the last year when I could have done little more than playing soldier. I put in some time to train with the Fighter’s Guild in the town, at which point I got a very interesting experience – the Red Avatar came out of the temple, pissed at something there, he saw me train and actually came to us, pissed (apparently, that’s his natural state) and corrected my stance and strikes. Someone commented: “We still live… he’s in a good mood”.
I also did some quests in camp for our commander. During one of those I actually learned herbalism, and the entire new world of how things work there opened itself to me. I spent two mornings going to the forest to gather some herbs (which are represented with cocktail umbrellas, or paper tokens which are replaced for umbrellas by the GM if you encounter a herb colony). A walk in the forest was nice and refreshing compared to the heat of the field, and I was sort of surprised by the fact that nobody tried to attack me or rob me of my herbs. There was some other content in the forest – once I encountered a party of Copper and Black soldiers who just returned from disrupting some ritual. I gathered a number of herbs which surprised our alchemists – got myself some in-character cash and a healing potion, and delivered it all just in time to get ready for the big battle. There are other options for herbalists, such as building gardens – the actual garden is built with actual plants (and umbrellas are placed there as physreps of the active components), each plant has certain handling properties and requires certain type of soil to grow (I hear there are GMs going every night or morning to replant stuff and sprout new plants in gardens).
The end battle is the high point of Drachenfest. A battle of thousands, it’s very impressive. We marched on the battlefield, and we were one of the last units to march there – which means we didn’t have to wait as much as we did last year. Three cannon blasts marked the start of the battle. We didn’t last as long this year as we did the last year but the fight was fun – against Orcs and Chaos, our traditional enemies whom we taunted in the passing. Plus someone attacked us from behind. Oh well, we had good deaths. At least we had the showers first, and our alliance won anyway.
Death isn’t a permanent state at Drachenfest – but instead of a concept of lives and respawns that some other larps have, Drachenfest has Limbus which is a place of its own. It’s a maze staffed by at least a dozen NPCs. Once you’re killed you have to wait to be signed into a Book of the Dead by the lady in the waiting room – then (after you bribe her or do something else for her) she lets you walk through a hellfire into a dark maze, staffed by NPCs whose job is to frighten you. Some of the stuff they might do is very effective, such as shaking the corridor. Layout of the Limbus might be different when you go in the next time, and there may be secret passages involved. Once you get out, you’re bruised and shaken by experience, and weakened for a while (you pass through Limbus physically, not spiritually). In some cases Limbus is skipped – such as if a person is killed in a ritual circle (that is permanent death), or at the end of the end battle (when everyone is resurrected at the end). Some characters might choose permanent death – it is said they did not find the way through Limbus. But it’s important to note – Limbus is not just a game mechanic, it’s a part of how the world of the Drachenfest works.
After that it was basically over, so it was time for some silly fun before the closing ceremony. Playing with props, eating, dancing, playing an interesting ninja game derived from the German larp phenomenon Tyren Nightfire, cracking jokes etc… Like last year, we stayed for an extra day before we left for ConQuest, watching everyone leave, saying goodbyes and hanging out with others who stayed.
Being a part of the Drachenfest 2013 in the Copper camp was unforgettable. This time I got my orientation around so I was able to do more than the last year. Seeing faces old and new, playing with them again in an experience which is similar, yet very different from the one I had last year. But one thing is certain: Drachenfest is an experience few others can match. If you can get the chance to go there, do it – you won’t regret it.