When I first instigated these investigations, part of the incentive was the opportunity to hang out with sports stars, drive fast cars, and, of course, operate heavy machinery. What I didn’t envisage was mincing round a cave in a smock, wielding a rubber sword and playing a recorder to a cast of misfits. Tragically, this unlikely scenario has come to pass as your intrepid reporter unearths the terrifying world of LARPing, effectively the ‘real life’ incarnation of Roleplaying Games. Our hosts are a hardcore group of LARPers called Labyrinthe, and Chislehurst Caves in Kent is the venue, a fully equipped five-mile cavern system where this underground activity has continued unchecked for over a decade.
I at least have some moral support in the shape of a barbaric colleague who is to spend the day as a Paladin, apparently some kind of ecclesiastical warrior. Whereas he provides the muscle, I provide the music, thanks to an earlier phone call in which he stressed to the organisers my long held – and entirely fictitious - desire to be a Minstrel. Thanks for that. In the absence of a flute, or indeed a lute, I am equipped with a standard primary school issue recorder, replete with unsavoury mouthpiece. Not any old saliva-ridden instrument though, but one with the power to heal, enchant and mesmerise, providing I can muster a decent tune. A triumphant spell as the captain of the school recorder team sees me in good stead, and I am soon blasting out a competent interpretation of Three Blind Mice, along with some freestyle noodlings of my own.
THANK YOU FOR THE MUSIC
With 50 Grulls each to spend, weapons are bought from the permanent onsite shop, and a brief training session follows in which we are taught to ‘pull’ our blows, stopping short of actual connection, with just a gentle tap for the last few inches to avoid physical harm. With character classes decided, our first quest awaits: Into The Tomb Of Mithra. Entering the caverns as a group, the task is to defeat the Skeletal Centurian (some bloke in a costume) and his host of minions (teenage boys). Bearing in mind it’s pitch dark, I adopt a cautious approach, lurking towards the back of the group. The only source of light is a collection of glowsticks - as favoured by early 90s ravers - and by throwing them into the blackness it is possible to forge a path ahead.
When the first attack comes, it’s bedlam. Those at the front are slain in a flurry of hit points, with no amount of incantations or rubber maces enough to repel the hostiles. Surveying the carnage on the battlefield, I tend to the sick, nursing them back to health with a baleful lament from the mystical wind instrument. Regrouping, we continue onwards, but danger lurks in the shadows. An unseen foe strikes from behind, catching me on the wrist with a full strength blow, my assailant barking “two, two, two” as each hit diminishes my imaginary health bar. Resisting the temptation to smack his skull against the cave wall, I claim to be dead and slope off to respawn.
Lunch is taken on the surface, and it’s a bewildered public that witnesses a couple of dozen wizards, archmages and half-elves scoffing burgers and supping tea, our café visit cruelly coinciding with that of the local comprehensive: “Nice smock, mister.” Back in the bowels of the Earth, people buy coloured potions, enabling their characters to level up, thus unleashing a new array of skills. It’s an absurd business, but the enthusiasm and authenticity can’t be faulted, and it is genuinely comical.
The afternoon’s quest, Darkness Falls, is a demonic battle against a variety of underworld enemies. Split into groups, attacks come from all sides, and there is even a grossly misjudged cameo performance by a pair of camp elves. Deep into the heart of the caves, probably the scariest thing is the possibility of getting lost, as without help, you would die down there. The battles are relentless, and there is actually some kind of underlying story, although deciphering it is a secondary concern when a grown man is laying into you with a big stick, any notion of ‘pulling’ blows seemingly left in the briefing.
By this stage, my limited patience is waning. My colleague, however, has gone feral, a week of office-bound drudgery clearly being exorcised. Leading daring raids into enemy territory, hacking and slashing his way through the darkness like a man possessed, he is literally steaming, with sweat pouring down his face as he dispatches demons left, right and centre. Facing the end-of-level boss, it’s a fierce contest, but our boy comes good, emerging triumphant with the beast’s head in hand, unleashing a primal scream that echoes chillingly throughout the cavern. Afterwards, in the pub, Barry the beast offers his congratulations. He works in IT.