It Started with a dream

In 1977, Maryland college freshman Brian Wiese saw the movie “Robin and Marion” with its intense, realistic battle scenes and read “The Lord of the Rings” for the first time. An avid improvisational actor, Brian wanted to live the excitement and energy of a medieval/fantasy battle…but how?

This was before the modern Internet existed; no email, FaceBook, web sites, or Google searches to find other adventurous souls. So Brian created what he initially called, “Hobbit Wars,” later renamed “Dagorhir” – Elvish words meaning “Battle Lords” in Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy.

The first proto-Dagorhir Wargame battle took place in October, 1977. The first six battles (held sporadically in 1977 and 1978) were all woods Capture-the-Flag Battles with forts. All included camp-outs the night before, but not in parks where camping was actually permitted. Members parked in nearby neighborhoods and snuck into the park for “commando camping.”

Initially, costumes were encouraged but not required. After noticing that the people who came to events without garb had no interest in the role-playing aspects of the game, Aratar the Stormbringer (Brian Wiese’s Dagorhir name) began requiring garb.

Early battles focused on improvisational acting as much as fighting: dramatic deaths or display of wounds; insults and challenges shouted between warriors. Each team marched away into the woods and spent an hour building forts, waiting for the horn to sound, announcing the start of combat. Teams didn’t know the location of the enemy’s distant fort, so lightly-armed scouts served a critical role.


The Dagorhir “rock” came about because Edwin of the Danes asked, “What can we do with scraps of leftover foam? Can we call them rocks and say they only kill if they’re thrown and hit someone in the head?”

Originally, it took 2 hits from a blue sword to an unarmored torso to “kill” someone, so fighters had the chance to live a bit longer in the early days before Dagorhir had a lot of members. When a fighter died, they went to Valhalla and the Herald (referee) there recorded their death and rolled two 6-sided dice. The result would be multiplied by 3; that’s the number of minutes (from 6 to 36) you had to stay “dead” before you could re-join combat. Each fighter got only three lives per battle.

Modern closed-cell foam and fiberglass cores were unknown; Swords, spears, and axes were mostly wooden closet-poles cut to length and padded with huge amounts of open-cell “couch foam.” Most shield-cores were metal saucer sleds. Weapons checking was largely subjective: Does the weapon hurt when swung/stabbed full-force?


An archer came to an early battle and fired one of his “padded” arrows before check-in…and the arrow stuck into the ground. The first-timer had just folded some foam over the target point on the arrow and taped it in place!

The original Dagorhir rules or “Scrolls” were printed on the front and back of 3 to 4 pages of legal-size paper. The Scrolls included a description of Dagorhir, info on ways to make weapons and shields, examples of simple costumes, and the combat rules.


The Scrolls were printed on legal-size paper because it cost the same to copy legal pages at the library, and you could fit more info on each page!

Aratar found he couldn’t do it all himself, so he formed the “Council of Seven” to help organize events, check weapons, and disseminate information. This was before e-mail, before the World Wide Web, before voice mail – even answering machines were a rarity – every member had to be called via a phone tree and given the information for upcoming events.

The seventh Dagorhir battle in March, 1979 was the first “day battle” with no camping the night before the woods/fort battle. Dagorhir got into a routine of holding one battle per month plus unit practices.

June of that year saw the first field battle (short scenarios with varying rules or objectives and no “resurrection”) including the first Dagorhir unit battle.


It’s still true today that the best way to grow your Dagorhir chapter is through media exposure. Dagorhir appeared on a local Public TV station and The Washington Post featured Dagorhir in a large article. Interested people tracked down Dagorhir information by contacting the station or the paper.

Membership mostly grew by word of mouth. Someone would learn of Dagorhir and tell her friends, “We have to try this!” Dagorhir placed ads in gaming shops and bookstores, and recruited while performing staged fights at the Maryland Renaissance Festival in Fall 1979. Regular membership ranged between 50 and 60 fighters. Many units formed among groups of friends from local high schools.


In 1979, Dagorhir made a huge technological leap by getting an answering machine. Now members could call “the Dagorhir Hotline” and get information on the next battle’s date and location. Since answering machines anywhere but a store were such a novelty at the time, people often left messages on the machine as if they were ordering a pizza.

Dagorhir’s rules evolved as ideas were tested and accepted or rejected, especially when a safety concern was identified.  The unpadded wooden handle of a weapon gouged a player’s head and sent him to the ER for stiches; Dagorhir began requiring padded pommels.

In the early years, Dagorhir weapon construction often involved wrapping the sword or axe entirely in duct tape.  Several inches of soft foam under the tape ensured the weapon didn’t slap.  Eventually, innovative members experimented with cloth covers.  The first closed-cell foam weapons began to appear. The denser, thinner foam allowed blades shaped more like a real sword…but the only easily available closed-cell foam came from camping pads called Ensolite…which hardened at temperatures below freezing.


Members used to drive to Winter battles with their Ensolite swords resting against their car’s heater vents, to keep the foam soft. The swords would pass hit-testing at weapons-check…but 2 hours later, the foam hit more like the edge of a piece of plywood.

In 1980, a disgruntled and power-hungry member threatened to take the new Dagorhir Rules Handbook and copyright it in his own name.  No one involved in Dagorhir administration knew anything of Copyright Law at that time, but the threat worried Aratar and the Council of Seven enough to ensure that the 1980 Dagorhir Handbook got Copyrighted with the US Library of Congress.  This marked the beginning of Dagorhir realizing it needed to protect the “intellectual property” (rules and name) associated with the game.


Dagorhir initially had difficulty in figuring out how to create a “meat-grinder” battle where the two sides basically marched toward one another until one side died.  We eventually figured out Bridge and Pass battles.


  • Arrows could be blocked by swords
  • After that was changed, arrows could be blocked by the FLAT of axe-blades
  • Removed that for simplicity.
  • Throwing axes (padded all over; could be used as hand-axe but had to hit with the head to count when thrown)
  • Different types of armor (mail, plate, leather) each providing different levels of protection
  • Mourning stars (flails) had no length limit on chains. For a while there was a requirement for the balls to be Nerf soccer balls, which ensured the weapon had significant mass and hit with force similar to a sword or axe.


  • Yellow heads on javelins (so people would know not to throw SPEARS)
  • Weight limits on javelins (Head-hits from heavy javs felt like a boxer’s punch)
  • Javelin shafts fully padded (not just the rings on the bamboo shafts)
  • Half-draw rule with arrows
  • Missiles taken off field when wet
  • No grappling in armor
  • Pommels required on weapons

Rules in 1980 are very similar to today’s rules, except for fairly minor changes:

  • One blue hit to unarmored torso is death
  • Two limbs hacked or smashed is death
  • Armor protects from one blue hit, all one-handed stabs
  • Armor on the head protects from all missile weapons to the head
  • Two red hits destroys a shield (used to be different for swords vs. axes)


The rule stating that helms/armor on the head protects from all missile weapons to the head was established to encourage people to wear helmets because they look good on the field.  Without that rule/reward, few people would bother with head armor.

When Dagorhir performed and recruited at the Maryland Renaissance Festival in late 1979, Dagorhir caught the eye of producers from the “PM Magazine” prime-time ABC TV entertainment program, who included clips of Dagorhir combat in their Renaissance Festival story.


Dagorhir held the record for the most cancelled PM Magazine shoots – every time they would schedule to film us, “Aratar the Stormbringer” would live up to his name and pummel the event with rain or snow. Finally, we had clear weather (although with two inches of snow on the ground) for the filming in the Winter of 1981-82.

PM Magazine aired a 10-minute piece on Dagorhir on ABC’s Washington, DC, TV station in Spring, 1982 and Dagorhir membership skyrocketed. Attendance doubled at for the next battle, and attendance reached levels of more than 200 fighters by 1983. PM Magazine later rebroadcast their Dagorhir episode nationally, and letters poured in to Dagorhir’s PO Box from all over the US, many asking, “How can I start a Dagorhir group where I live?”

Aratar/Wiese founded Dagorhir to fulfill his own dream of dark-ages adventure. Dagorhir had never been envisioned to be a multi-location entity. And Wiese had grown tired of dealing with the politics and petty “power plays” which come with being in a position of authority in any sort of club or organization. The letters went unanswered for several years.

Aratar retired as President of Dagorhir in 1983. His parting advice to the folk who remained in Dagorhir: “Don’t let the assholes ruin the game for you.” Members of the previous Council of Seven continued organizing Dagorhir events. Bron served as the next President of Dagorhir, followed by Shaitan, and then Graymael.


The Dagorhir Telephone Hotline not only included information on upcoming events, but also a short synopsis on the most recent feast or battle, almost always ending with “And a good time was had by all.” Also, sometimes members who happened to be in the room when the Hotline would ring would answer the phone with, “Dagorhir Main Office, may I help you?” just to mess with the heads of the callers.

When Graymael discovered Dagorhir had more than 200 post-PM Magazine hardcopy letters unanswered (still pre-Internet, remember?), he and Shrike sent a form letter to each sender thanking them for their patience and offering a new Dagorhir Handbook to anyone who sent in a stamped, self-addressed envelope.

These letters, combined with several local Dagorhir moving out of state, began the spread of new Dagorhir chapters. The folk in the original Dagorhir group helped other groups start up in other parts of the country, often communicating by hardcopy letters and occasional phone calls – in 1985/86, the phone companies still charged extra for “long-distance” phone calls; it was much cheaper to call more than 20 miles away at night or on the weekends.

One of the people who wrote after seeing Dagorhir on the national showing of PM Magazine requested a pile of handbooks, became Beowulf the Dreamer (and later Sir Geoffrey of Bright Hills), and founded Dagorhir Middle Earth in Illinois in 1985. 

On a long-distance phone call, Beowulf got into a bragging match with the then-president of the founding Dagorhir group, Graymael, which went something like this:

Bey: “I know you Washington Dagorhir think you’re tough. But you’ve never seen anything like us. You couldn’t HANDLE us if you ever had to fight Middle Earth! We send people flying through the air. Grown men weep when they see us coming.”
Gray: “No way! We’d kick your collective ass!”
Bey: “Oh yeah?”
Gray: “Yeah!”
Bey: “I’m in Illinois. You’re in Maryland. What’s halfway between the two?”
Gray: (Looks at map)  “Uh…Ohio?”
Bey: “Then it’s settled. We’ll fight in Ohio.”

Thus began planning for the first Dagorhir “Tribal War.” Dominus of Rome noted, “When we die we go to Valhalla. We call our annual Law Meeting Althyng – both from Viking history. Our Great War should be Ragnarok.”  And so it was.

Unbeknownst to either the original Dagorhir Tribe or to Middle Earth, a charismatic young fighter named Falcon had moved West from Maryland to Cleveland, Ohio, in the early 1980’s, taking with him his padded weapons and Dagorhir handbook. Falcon founded Dagorhir Pentwyvern.  Falcon made contact with the other Dagorhir groups and Pentwyvern offered to host the first Ragnarok.

The members of the original Dagorhir group decided they needed a name to differentiate themselves from their new siblings. Shengar (formerly one of the Council of Seven) declared, “We were the first of Aratar’s children. We shall be known as the Aratari!”  And so it has been, ever since.

Ragnarok I included 80+ fighters from 5 states, including 2 from Massachusetts who had seen the PM Magazine broadcast. It was fought on Private property in Ohio on a weekend in April, and featured the Thunderstorm of the Gods, followed by the first hot, humid day of the year (and thus, a lot of fighters nearly fainting from the heat).

Rag II fielded about 80 participants at a State Park in Ohio. The weather was more temperate. The battle featured the first-ever Ragnarok Bridge Challenge Battle (and in it, the first-ever cross-chapter Unit, the Bridgeborn) and the famous phrase, “Dude, seven hits to the torso is DEATH!”

Ragnarok III (and IV and V) took place at a private campground in Ohio. Rag III lasted four days, and included snow, the first Ragnarok Woods Fort Battle, and the first Ragnarok Unit with members from every chapter – The Old Guard.

By Ragnarok IV, new groups began to appear, some splitting off of the original three, others springing up like new-sown wheat.  But growth was slow for many years. Some chapters started, but later folded; others soldiered on.

The number of chapters grew slowly. Ragnarok eventually reached attendance levels breaking 300 by Ragnarok 15, with the event lasting a full week.

The original Dagorhir Scrolls and Handbooks included all sorts of information, including guidance on weapon construction, costuming, and battle scenarios.  Combat rules were scattered throughout the documents.  Based on a suggestion from Dagorhir Pentwyvern, Dagorhir Aratari produced the first Dagorhir Manual of Arms (MOA) in 1989.  The MOA distilled just the combat and event rules from the Dagorhir Handbook without the other guidance and suggestions.  Later versions of the MOA added a numbering scheme to ensure tracking of rules changes and clarifications.

Starting at Ragnarok III, the attending Dagorhir groups met to discuss the rules of the game.  Sometimes a group proposed a changed or new rule as a result of a safety concern; other times a rule change might reflect a change in technology or materials available to members.

This Ragnarok War Council eventually codified the rules for proposing and voting on rules proposals via the RWC bylaws. 

Over time, Dagorhir has moved from being the original LARP to more of a hard-hitting combat sport.  There is still opportunity for roleplaying and improvisational acting, including whole events set up with LARPing in mind, but most Dagorhir battles have less roleplaying and more straight-up athletic combat.


A number of other padded-weapon fighting groups were founded by fighters with Dagorhir experience who based their group’s original combat system on Dagorhir’s tried and true rules. This makes it great for fighters who want to cross-game: you’re likely to find many similarities in the weapons and rules used by Amtgard, Darkon, Belegarth, or any of Dagorhir’s other “Cousins.”

In the lead-up to Ragnarok 16 in 2001, Dagorhir capitalized on media attention around the long-awaited release of the first Lord of the Rings movie, The Fellowship of the Ring.  Two documentary film crews came to Ragnarok; Dagorhir chapters leveraged media interest in Fellowship to recruit new members and excite old ones.  The “Impossible Dream” had always been a Dagorhir event with 500 participants.  For the first time, Ragnarok broke 500 attendees that year.   

Rag 16 also saw a greater codification of weapons check rules and the beginning of establishment of formal weapons-check standards to ensure that every chapter checked all equipment for safety the same way.

Ragnarok 17 was somewhat smaller (back to just over 300 attendees) due in part to a change in date and some Dagorhir groups spinning off to form a new combat group called Belegarth.  But by Rag 18, attendance again broke 500. 

Dagorhir had realized the Dream.  The time had come to dream even bigger.

Starting in 2003, the number of Dagorhir chapters grew explosively, from about a dozen chapters in 2002 to more than a hundred by 2009. 

Inspired by the ongoing success of Ragnarok, members founded more regional events like Gates of Summer, Badon Hill, Ides of March, Battle of Five Armies, and Gates of Fire.  Many of these events grow to rival earlier Ragnaroks both in the number of participants, and how far people are willing to travel to attend. 

Ragnarok remained Dagorhir’s premiere event.  From Rag 16 in 2001 to Rag 24 in 2009, Ragnarok remained at Spring Valley Campground in Ohio, but the event began to outgrow the campground’s facilities.  The time came to find Ragnarok a new home.

Ragnarok 25 marked the move from our beloved (but alas, now too small) Spring Valley site to Cooper’s Lake campground north of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  Cooper’s Lake is well suited to host Ragnarok; for decades it’s been the site of the Society for Creative Anachronism’s Pennsic War.  As that event grew, the campground grew with it.  Cooper’s lake includes an enormous field battle area, woods with large trails for woods battles, and a sturdy wooden castle front, complete with archer towers and a gate.

In recent years, Ragnarok attendance has been around two thousand people.  Multi-chapter/regional events are so numerous members have a hard time deciding which ones to attend.

Cottage industries have sprung up where people support themselves exclusively by making and selling quality Dagorhir weapons, armor, and garb.

More than 40 years after that first small “Hobbit War,” Dagorhir has grown into a widespread combat sport across much of the US with some chapters popping up in other countries.  Battles, tournaments, practices, and feasts happen somewhere every week of the year. Events have hundreds or even thousands of attendees and include many varied activities beyond just fighting: craftwork classes, competitions for singing and story-telling, children’s activities, and more.

Welcome to the Dream.  Welcome to the Great Game!