As darkness descends over Shadforth Park a group of fantasists prepare their equipment for a different kind of sporting duel.
Swords and shields replace soccer balls, as Swordcraft Bendigo members lace up their outfits for two hours of semi-scripted ‘battles’ under the dim floodlights at the sporting reserve.
“The way I like to describe it is football for nerds,” Swordcraft Bendigo president Simon Vincent said.
Mr Vincent helped found the Bendigo chapter six years ago after playing the game in Melbourne.
“My first night I fought a guy who was two-metres tall and got knocked unconscious. I thought ‘this is full on, this is the best thing ever’,” he said.
Swordcraft is a version of live action role-playing games (LARPs), and participation has increased due, in part, to the popularity of fantasy television dramas Game of Thrones and Vikings.
In 2012, four or five like-minded people would gather in Bendigo each week.
That number has ballooned to 50, with participation and membership increasing around 15 per cent each year, Mr Vincent said.
From afar, Mr Vincent conceded the battles could be perceived as a group of people in armour “beating each other up”.
Mr Vincent, who identifies as Godrick, from Sigmar’s Iron Legion – a group of religious zealots who want to “burn the world” – said injuries were expected during swordcraft, like any other sport, but nothing overly serious has eventuated during his time at the helm.
Community understanding, and indeed intrigue of the practice, has developed due to greater exposure.
The group does periodic performances at events like Scots Day Out and the Bendigo Record, Comic and Toy Fair.
Importantly, swordcraft has a degree of separation from official medieval reenactment groups that exist across central Victoria.
Those groups, according to Mr Vincent, replicate historic battles from a defined script.
And while swordcraft can be semi-scripted, the group is too large and interactive to follow a defined pattern.
“We define ourself as a live action battle game and focus less on the role play side of things,” he said.
Both groups had a “friendly rivalry”, poking fun at one another, according to Mr Vincent, who said both groups “were not popular enough to be hating on each other”.
“There’s a competitiveness within the chapter but we try to keep it as friendly as we can,” Mr Vincent said.
Finding the balance between making the group welcoming for all age groups and physical capacities, but competitive for others is something Mr Vincent has to manage.
“It (swordcraft) is a way for people who aren't into traditional style games and sport to get some exercise but we want to keep that competitive element because we need people to feel and be challenged to get better,” he said.
Some battles can include a capture the flag element or a VIP assassination, while characters can swap ‘war bands’ and fight against former teammates, if they wish.
Mr Vincent was quick to caution the battles were not an unsolicited free-for-all, where broken bones abound.
Marshals, similar to referees, keep a close eye on proceedings, and have the ability, through red, yellow and purple cards, to moderate players.
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“The purple card is the unique one really, if a person is using a piece of equipment they're not good with, for example consistently shooting people in the face with a bow and arrow, you are taken aside and have to prove to the marshal you can use the bow safely by firing at a (non-human) target,” he said.
Central Victoria a perfect medieval setting
Central Victoria’s swathe of national and state parks may offer an ideal setting for a medieval battle, but the group uses them less frequently that you would imagine.
“As long as we are careful and don’t frighten people, they (Parks Victoria) are perfectly happy with us doing it, but camping overnight in the parks is usually more difficult,” Mr Vincent said, explaining the group generally made weekend trips to residential farms where they could easily set up camp sites in addition to their weekly battles at Shadforth Park.
“We’re looking to do more of it, for sure.”
Adam Dare, or Amund the Thane, has risen through the swordcraft ranks, and raves about how socially inclusive the group has become.
Mr Dare first discovered the hobby five years ago while at university.
“I got thrown some costumes and thrown into a battle with 20 people, told ‘here’s how to fight, here's how to plan, and away you go,” he said.
“The adrenaline is one of the attractions (to swordcraft). It’s exhilarating, it's suspenseful it’s tense and when you win it feels awesome.”
Mr Dare, who after a few years at the club has become one of the organisers for the Swordcraft Bendigo chapter, travels from Deniliquin each Wednesday for the weekly battle.
“Being involved in the club at a high level is a really fun experience,” he said.
Mr Dare helps with creative writing for semi-scripted battles and weekend-long fighting and socialising events.
“It’s a great platform for people who may not have other hobbies, people that might be a bit awkward or shy, to meet like-minded people,” he said.
“The adrenaline is one of the attractions (to swordcraft). It’s exhilarating, it's suspenseful its tense and when you win it feels awesome.”Adam Dare, aka Amund the Thane
Married couples, university students, older individuals – the demographic of Swordcraft Bendigo members is varied, and ever changing, according to Mr Dare, who said more women we becoming involved in the sport.
“It feels great to see our community grow,” he said.
The practice also acted as a gateway into other sports, like historical martial arts and professional medieval combat, he said.
“It’s as physically demanding as you want to be,” he said.