Billy Ujhely always dreamed of living in a fantasy world with creatures, magic and adventure.
While other 11-year-olds waited for their letters of admittance to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry or hoped to find an entrance to Narnia, Ujhely took matters into his own hands.
He joined the Amtgard, Omaha's largest live-action role-playing game, known as a LARP.
“I always wanted to be in the age of dragons and magic and wizards and having a king and whatnot,” said Ujhely, now 21. “Amtgard is living that.”
In Amtgard, players create and act as characters outside themselves. It mixes the medieval with the magical.
If you were to stumble upon the group's weekly events at Elmwood Park, you'd see players swinging harmless homemade swords, completing quests, hurling magical spells and socializing with other characters.
In essence, the game is a real-world adaptation of “Dungeons & Dragons.”
“LARPing was a natural progression,” said Mike Beddes, 44, who co-founded Omaha's Amtgard group and currently serves as the group's ruler within the game. “It's cheesy, it's geeky, but it has an element of fun to it.”
Beddes, a human relations specialist by day, also plays D&D and other tabletop games as well as occasional video games.
The fighting is what sucked in Beddes and Ujhely, and it's that way for many players. It's a big adrenaline rush when a trio of giants (OK, people dressed as giants) come rushing at you with padded clubs.
Ujhely started his fighter training after discoving Amtgard from Beddes' son in elementary school. In the decade since, Beddes has helped groom Ujhely into a top fighter.
“Billy has all but been adopted in our family as a son,” Beddes said. “He literally has spent half of his life in the game.”
Now Ujhely is poised to take over as the group's ruler after Beddes' six-month reign comes to an end this spring.
Some people, of course, think it's weird for grownups to pretend fight with magic, and that prevents some from joining.
Beddes said that out of the thousands of people who try Amtgard, only a few hundred come back. The group, dressed in homemade armor and wizard's robes, does attract attention at its events, which take place every Saturday afternoon at Elmwood Park.
Most of the time, those passing by the park stop and ask questions and watch the spectacle, but occasionally, someone will yell an obscenity out a car window.
“There are some jerks out there,” Ujhely said.
His attitude, however, is “who cares?” Plenty of people are proud to play and are invested in the game, he said, and he appreciates them.
“Anytime I have a lot of people around me that are as into it as I am, that's when it really hits home,” Ujhely said.
Omaha's Amtgard group began in 2000 with 12 people in Beddes' living room. Though it wasn't the first LARP in town, it has grown into the largest, with 20-40 players each week.
Amtgard is only one of many LARP groups. Other LARPs have a similar medieval magical fantasy, while some involve vampires and all kinds of other mythical characters.
Some players may have multiple characters in different LARPs, but it's uncommon. Only two members of Amtgard in Omaha play in other events, Beddes said.
They make their own weapons and armor, often from foam or plastic. Homemade weapons are made with golf club shafts padded with foam and chunks of mattress pad. Magic-wielding players cast spells by throwing foam balls.
To make samurai-like armor, Beddes used a special plastic sheeting and cut up other thick plastic pieces. He also made many of his weapons, including a sword, shield, florentine, polearm and other melee weaponry.
Players buy other pieces from Warlord Sports, a company that manufactures weapons, shields, costumes and materials especially for LARPing.
On game days, players make up a name and choose one of 14 classes, such as a warrior, wizard or healer. Attendance as well as battlefield accomplishments can earn upgrades for a player's character. It pushes players to work harder and play better to advance a character's status. Some LARPers say that's gratifying because it doesn't always happen in the real world.
“There's a reward system,” said Lynell Stafford, an Amtgard LARPer. “You don't necessarily get that at work. You can do your best work and not get recognized for it.”
Founded in Texas in 1983, Amtgard is a national organization that includes dozens of “kingdoms” and other lands, including the land Querna Tema, the name of Omaha's Amtgard group, and Ivory Tower, the Lincoln group of Amtgard players. Local groups have a contract with the national Amtgard board of directors. The contract includes a statement that they play by the rules, among other provisions. Omaha's group can review the rules and have them considered for changes.
For a new LARPer, swordplay is the first step. The rules are pretty straightforward: get hit, lose a limb. If you lose two limbs or get whacked in the torso, head or groin, play dead. New fighters are lucky to get in a clean shot before losing a few limbs at the mercy of more experienced fighters.
Beddes is the group's main fight trainer, and hosts a practice and training session every week. He also has a yearly fighting camp with other LARP fighting experts. He says this is his athletic outlet, so he likes fights that offer a workout.
A training session with Beddes begins with basic sword swinging technique. Since the game is safety-centered, with foam padding and no sanctioned headshots, shots to the body don't need to be strong — a simple touch is all it takes for the hit to count. Swing the sword the shortest distance for the quickest hit.
Next, he details how to shield yourself from a hit, finally wrapping up with a moral lesson.
“It's a game,” Beddes emphasizes, and says that cheating — headshots or standing up after being struck “dead” — are discouraged in Amtgard, which is built on honor.
Events go on year-round, being canceled only when the temperature is below zero. Not surprisingly, attendance drops during the winter — sometimes only a couple people show up — and spikes in the summer.
Ujhely is always interested, no matter the weather. From the day his childhood daydreams became reality the magic never faded away.
“I keep saying that I see myself doing this until I die,” he said.