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Thaliondor: Ocala LARPers find community through fighting

Listen above: David Pitts, Kassidy Matthews and others from north central Florida share why they love coming together for Thaliondor in either Ocala or Gainesville. (Jimena Romero/WUFT News)

As someone who participated in armored combat sports with real metal weapons and steel armor, Luke Rueberg used to make fun of Live Action Role Playing (LARPing).

That was until he lost a bet against a friend in a card game and had to spend a day swinging a foam sword and wearing medieval-inspired clothing, or garb. Now, two-and-a-half years later, Rueberg, 24, goes by his game name, “Bulwark,” which means strong protection, and spends every Sunday foam fighting in Thaliondor at Brick City Adventure Park in Ocala.

“It was a big eye opener,” said Rueberg, a construction company project manager. “When I came out here, the acceptance (I) got immediately, regardless of (my) background and upbringing, completely changed my opinion of the people that had like this big cloud around them initially.”

Thaliondor is a medieval, fantasy-themed role-playing, foam-fighting group of 40-50 people. With their foam swords, spears, jabalines, plastic crossbows and tennis balls that represent spells and fireballs, weekly participants transform into fighters, archers, wizards and clerics.

During fighting sessions, participants tend to fight a few rounds to warm up and then play games with objectives such as “Capture the Flag” or “Payload.” They must work together to move a person from one side of the field to the other without getting “killed” by the other team.

Rueberg now mentors new players in learning the game’s rules and acquiring better fighting techniques. He said he travels in his free time to LARPing events elsewhere and learns from fighters who have been in the sport for over 20 years.

“I bring back all that information I gathered to help teach everyone here, so they can be safer fighters, better, and can live up to their personal potential,” Rueberg said.

Watch above: Participants tell why they enjoy playing Thaliondor, a Medieval/fantasy game, regularly on weekends in Ocala and more recently in Gainesville. (Jimena Romero/WUFT News)

In July, the group will celebrate 10 years of congregating every Sunday, rain or shine, from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Nickolas Muti, 29, and his wife Marci Muti, 31, are the only remaining founding members of Thaliondor still with the group.

“I like hitting people with a stick,” he said. “And a friend of mine asked me if I wanted to start a foam fighting game where we get to hit people with a stick, and I was like, ‘Of course.’”

Marci Muti said she enjoys being able to share the battlefield with him. “I love fighting with my husband, fighting with him and against him – it’s a lot of fun,” she said. “When I fight with him, it's like we’re a team, and it just solidifies that bond of we kick butt together.”

In Thaliondor, participants fight each other with foam weapons. “I’ve hardly ever had a bruise fighting,” Thaliondor councilman Nickolas Muti said. “Because the swords are padded, you are not going to be too hurt from it.” (Jimena Romero/WUFT News)
In Thaliondor, participants fight each other with foam weapons. “I’ve hardly ever had a bruise fighting,” Thaliondor councilman Nickolas Muti said. “Because the swords are padded, you are not going to be too hurt from it.” (Jimena Romero/WUFT News)

Throughout the years, Nickolas Muti has noticed changes in the game, from the complexity of the rules to the attendance.

“Ten years is a long time for people to go through changes in their regular life,” he said. “I’ve seen kids grow up ... we have seen people pass away that played the game. The roster is always changing, and the people that have been there since inception to now are few and far between.”

According to an article by Vice, LARPing dates back to the ‘70s with the foundation of Dagorhir. Thaliondor is based on Dagorhir and Amtgard, another type of LARPing. However, Thaliondor has a few variations that make the game unique.

There are usually two teams with the same number of participants and a balance between the classes they play. Each position has a different role and particular skills. Fighters do most of the full-contact combat. Archers and wizards fight in the distance by shooting arrows and, by throwing tennis balls, “enchanting spells.” On the other hand, clerics are in charge of bringing their teammates back to life, although at that point with a sword and a shield.

“If I don’t fight in a week, I’m jonesing for it,” Nickolas Muti said. “I would fight every day if I could. It’s everything that I want to do in life.”

As someone who grew up wanting to be like Link from “The Legend of Zelda,” he added: “Now, I get to do that on the weekly basis, with a ton of different people. It’s fantastic.”

Bryce Chancellor is almost 13 years old, the minimum age requirement to participate on the battlefield at Thaliondor. He was close enough in age to have his father Ryan Chancellor sign the mandatory waiver so he could participate for the first time.

“The foam weapons looked awesome,” Bryce said. “The combat was amazing, and it didn’t hurt. I had a great time overall.”

His father, a military veteran, said Bryce had been talking a lot about foam fighting.

“He’s been tearing apart my pool noodles, making his own weapons,” Chancellor said. “And when he saw the flyers, his eyes got real big, and so his mom and I finally found (Thaliondor) on Facebook, and we were able to make it work.”

Chancellor said he wanted Bryce to learn many of the same skills – including following rules, being a team player and communication – he did while in the military.

“During this time frame I heard him already say, ‘No ma'am,’ ‘Yes sir,’ ‘No sir,’ ‘Hey, can you help me with this,’” Chancellor said. “He’s learning already. They’re doing a really good job.”

According to an article by DoveMed, LARPing offers several social and health benefits for its players, including confidence building, social connection and increased cardiovascular exercise.

For some, Thaliondor has also helped them make friends and deal with their personal issues.

Ashley McQueen, 32, said it has helped her deal with her various mental health concerns. She attributes this to the social skills that must put into practice while in the field.

“I feel like I can interact with people again,” said McQueen, who has played as a cleric and wizard. “It takes so much communication to not only count your hits back and forth to one another, but also ... if you accidentally hurt somebody, you have to learn how to apologize.”

Thaliondor has been one of the friendliest communities she has been a part of, she said: “I’ve been a part of (other groups) just over being in nerd culture. Sometimes they can be very closed, especially if you’re queer, if you’re a woman, or if you’re not even white. It could be very closed, but this hasn’t felt that way at all, which is awesome, and I love it.”

Sebastian Diaz, 20, aka “Kenway” on the field, dresses up as a pirate when LARPing. He said his character is inspired by his favorite video game, “Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag.”

Diaz has been LARPing for two years now but is new to Thaliondor. “Whenever I’m out, I’m always having fun,” he said. “Even if the activities themselves don’t keep you coming out, normally the people will, because you just enjoy spending time with them, or vice versa.”

Paul Valenti, 31, has been playing the game as a fighter as “Pontius the Willful” for almost seven years. Before starting to fight in the group, Valenti said he was out of shape and overweight. He has lost over 60 pounds thanks to running non-stop under the sun in heavy armor in Thaliondor.

“(It) has allowed me to be way more athletic, get in shape, feel way better about myself, and it’s such a fun thing,” he said. “I can run a 5K now. A lot of people can’t say they can do that. And I can.”

Robert Pace of Ocala (left) plays as a fighter in Thaliondor on Sundays at Brick City Adventure Park. (Jimena Romero/WUFT News)

Thaliondor has been slowly expanding to Gainesville, with activity beginning late last year at Possum Creek Park one Saturday a month, and recently every other weekend.

Glenn Thornton, 53, aka “Silver Glade,” is a remote tech support manager at a company based in California. He lives in Gainesville and has been LARPing since the early 2000s, initially because it looked fun and was free exercise.

“You don’t have to pay gym membership fees or anything like that,” Thornton said. “You can come out here and work out, break a good sweat, and you will be sore at the end of the day.”

Nickolas Muti has big plans for Thaliondor in the future. He wants to own a building that works as an indoor arena, with padded floors and walls, and make it all a larger-scale attraction.

“This is my passion,” he said. “Every waking moment, I’m thinking about how to progress this to the stage that I want it to get to.”

Jimena is a reporter for WUFT News who can be reached by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news@wuft.org.