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
"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
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
"I spend most of my time preaching how to entertain the attendees,"
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
"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
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
Exposure at places like Gen Con has led to businesses that support the
"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
"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
"You get to do, rather than sit and pretend."