The News & Observer

Published: Oct 1, 2004


Modified: Oct 1, 2004 3:45 AM
Fantasy franchise
North Raleigh business caters to imagination



The good people from Tyrra march off to do battle with the monitor lizards during a Nero game at Kerr Lake last weekend as part of a 'live-action role-playing event.' It's all in fun, but it's business for the North Raleigh company that has the license for the game and hosts weekends once a month.
Staff Photos by Chris Seward

HENDERSON -- Larry Pischke was walking down a sun-dappled path near Kerr Lake with some buddies when the sword-wielding man-lizards burst from the tree line.

Pischke and his troupe were startled but unfazed; after all, this is what they paid for -- mass reptile destruction.

They were participating in a live-action role-playing event -- or a "larp," as players call it -- run by Nero Piedmont, a North Raleigh company that hosts weekends once a month in which players like Pischke turn into warriors and wizards.

The company is profiting off the imaginations of people like Pischke who pay $20 a head to buy a national membership and $30 to live out a live-action fantasy novel for a weekend.

Pischke, clad in armor with a shield and foam rubber sword, helped beat back the reptiles before heading back to camp.

About 35 masquerading adventurers drew fake swords to play in the nonalcoholic event.

"You get away from the mundane world, the trials and tribulations, the newscasts," said Pischke, a 37-year-old North Raleigh hobby shop owner.

One might shrug off the event as a souped-up game of cowboys and Indians for adults. But make no mistake: Nero, which stands for New England Role-playing Organization, is a business.

"The way this game works is that we're theatrical storytellers," said Brian Goodson, a banker when not playing the fantasy game, who runs Nero Piedmont along with his wife, Brooks Miller, a paralegal. "We have a staff that gets together like any business."

Goodson paid a $4,000 front-end licensing fee to create his own corner of Tyrra, the name players have given to their magical world where they use spells, represented by packets of bird seed, and foam rubber "boffer" weapons to battle creatures that Goodson and his plot team have devised.

Nero Piedmont pays 7 percent of its gross profits to the home office in Rye, N.Y., in return for help creating scenarios for its players and access to a national database that tracks individual character statistics and the progress of individual kingdoms.

More than just an excuse to wallop people with Nerf-like swords, a large part of the Nero service is based on an evolving plot line that is loosely connected to all the chapters. Therefore actions in Los Angeles or Las Vegas affect chapters on the East Coast. Individuals create their own characters and, for a fee, can insert themselves into the plot line and gain points that translate into characters that are more powerful in the game system.

Characters that are built with the same set of Nero rules are portable to other events, so a character created in North Carolina can be used in Virginia or California -- anywhere that there is a Nero franchise.

Joseph Valenti, Nero's president, invented the marketing model in 1998 and began a marketing push to sign up Brian Goodsons across the country and Canada.

"I spend most of my time preaching how to entertain the attendees," Valenti said.

Dan Silvis, the editor of Seattle-based gamingreport.com, a Web site that covers role-playing games, said that larps have been on the rise in the past several years and that Nero is breaking new ground with its approach to marketing.

"There hasn't been a really good high fantasy larp that's been organized to this extent," Silvis said.

He said that there is always a greater draw to fantasy during times of national crisis.

"People want escapism; the market always gets better [for role-playing] when the U.S. is dealing with any kind of conflict," Silvis said.

"When the economy is down, people look for escapes."

Gary Fine, a sociology professor at Northwestern University who has studied role-playing behavior, said that wanting to find an outlet to separate oneself from the day-to-day world is normal.

Make-believe "is not something that we totally leave behind in childhood," Fine said. "Why do we read novels? It allows us into the scene. Why do you read a romance novel? You're able to put yourself in the position of that character."

Jonni Emrich is facilitating the quest for escapism and bringing Nero along.

Attendance at Gen Con, a convention for gamers in Indiana, has risen in the three years that Nero has participated, according to Emrich, a planner for the event. The convention drew 26,000 gamers in August.

In 2003, about 1,300 people prepaid to play Nero at Gen Con. In 2004 the number grew to about 1,800, not counting those who didn't preregister to play.

Exposure at places like Gen Con has led to businesses that support the larp lifestyle.

"When you have that kind of attention from players, it's easier getting them to buy better weapons and clothes," gamingreport.com's Silvis said. "It's really easy. They're already hooked."

Olan Knight, owner of the year-old Knighthawk Armory, a company that retails latex weapons exclusively for larps, said that Nero accounts for 30 percent of his about $60,000 in annual sales.

He's not making huge profits now. But it's more of a hobby.

"As long as I break even, I'm pretty happy," Knight said.

Like Knight, the players at Kerr Lake didn't think in terms of business nuts and bolts. Their heads, some with pointy ears and animal makeup, were in the game.

Over the weekend, Brooks Miller, Goodson and their plot team tried to create the best game they could.

And even if Nero is considered by many to be one of the more immersive larps in the field, players still might have to stretch their imaginations.

"It's the next step off from the role-playing. You fit in. You find people more like yourself," said Pischke, whose weekend alias is Isdoru Stormwind.

"You get to do, rather than sit and pretend."

Staff writer Sam LaGrone can be reached ar 836-4951 or mailto:slagrone@newsobserver.com

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