I recently rediscovered my ‘fear’ of flying. This isn’t ideal when I have plenty of travel plans, a job that sees me skip across the country occasionally, and a hobby that also encourages a bit of local travel. New Zealand’s capital city, Wellington, is known for its windy temperament (which can lead to some interesting flights at times) and last month I flew down to Wellington to spend the weekend with some of the LARP (Live Action Role-Play) community. Most thankfully the flight down was smooth and entirely uneventful – I’m using it to top up my “See, flights are fine!” list.
LARP (which can basically be described as dress-ups and make-believe for all ages) has become a favoured hobby of mine, not that I would ever say I’m super “good” at it. I love the escapism, and I also love simply being around the community we have here in New Zealand. I’m quite a shy person, and while I’ve been attending LARPs for at least three years now I wouldn’t consider myself to be highly proactive in the community. When I’m at LARP events I think I only need to know I have at least one or two people I’m relatively close to, and after that everyone else adds to the positive experience just by being there even if they haven’t interacted with me at all. I’m certainly one who would say she experiences “LARPover” (an emotional low after the games are done). I think it’s because I revel in that escapism so much, and each and every person in some way adds to my experience, so I end up missing everyone to a notable extent – even if some of us have hardly spoken at the particular event.
At last month’s weekend I had a different experience to any other I’ve had while LARPing. A lot of people consider a LARP experience to be successful if they have really felt raw emotion, or if their characters have been affected quite deeply by something. I used to steer far away from anything that had a “Warning: Emotionally intense, this game is for experienced LARPers only” label on it because I didn’t think I would be able to handle it, but I feel I’m somewhat more confident to tackle increased emotionally-involved games now.
A while ago I wrote about my first ever LARP experience, which was at a ‘campaign’ game called Teonn. Different LARPs have different lengths – you might have a game that only lasts a couple of hours, or one that lasts a whole weekend. You may even have ‘campaigns’ where people meet up every so often to play a game that has a continuous storyline. The current campaign we are playing is known as The Crucible, and this story was planned to span out across three or four years. Every six months we have a big game that lasts for three or four days, and in between those weekend games we have little events or ‘day games’. The LARP I’m writing about in this post was a Crucible day game, and played out for several hours.
In Crucible (and many other LARPs) you can choose to ‘Play’ or ‘Crew’. Players tend to write their own characters to fit in with the setting, and make character connections with other Players to create some kind of back-story. Crew flesh out the rest of the setting like the extras (very important ones!) of a movie – they play the ‘NPCs’ (Non-Player Characters); the quest-givers the Players have to satisfy, the monsters the Players have to fight, villagers and townspeople, etc.
Crucible is basically a dark fantasy game with different factions that you can pledge your loyalty to. Some of the factions could be loosely compared to those in Game of Thrones. We also have several Demon factions and other interesting creatures to keep us on our toes. I started Crucible as a Player, but for the day game last month we didn’t have too many crew so I decided to help out on the NPC side. One of the GMs (“Game Masters” – they organise the games and oversee the plot) got in touch with me a few days before the game and asked if I would be happy playing a particular NPC for the day. I jumped at the chance because I far prefer character-focused role-playing as opposed to being involved in heavy combat – plus it sounded like an exciting character.
The setting of the day game was this: a Hold that the different factions often congregate at was under attack by demons. The Jarl (Jarl Garm Vandholtz – played by the NPC Coordinator) had called to the factions for aid, and so they came along to see if they could put an end to the attacks. Garm has a daughter named Rikku (played by one of the amazing Crew), but she and a few of the Players were captured right at the start of the game by some demons – and so the other Players had to find and rescue them.
Rikku and especially Jarl Garm have been important parts of the Crucible story so far, and make regular appearances at games. It was common knowledge that Rikku’s mother (Garm’s wife) had passed away some years ago. It was not common knowledge that the Lady’s ghost was still lingering atop a mountain, underneath which a cache was hidden in some sealed catacombs. I was to play Garm’s wife, Astrid Vandholtz, and the Players were to eventually find and placate my “spirit”.
At the start of the game I had a briefing with a couple of the GMs who helped me understand what to expect, and what my aims were for the game. I had several warnings that it was going to be emotional, so I tried to prepare myself as best I could.
Astrid’s story was that she had been the much-loved Lady of the Hold, a powerful mage, a loving wife and utterly devoted mother to her children. Seven years ago she had been captured by a group of demons and dragged into the mines near where she and her family lived. The demons wanted to take advantage of her powerful magic and undying love for her family: they wished to bind her to the area to protect it from strangers. In order to do this, though, they had to kill her painfully in a ritual that lasted many days. During this ritual her screams echoed throughout the tunnels of the labyrinthine mines and out into the mountains, and the Hold’s people (including the Jarl) were forced to hear it day after day, night after night, until the ritual finally took her life.
After that day Astrid’s spirit took to the mountainside above the mines and she had haunted it ever since, a tragic and all-but-living memory of what had occurred in the depths of those tunnels. During the ritual the demons had ensured that Astrid’s love for her family was transcribed into her desire to protect the mines, and she did so passionately – her ghost was extremely hostile. If people ever came to find her she would simply frighten them away with her ferocity.
On this day, when the factions gathered to bring aid in response to Jarl Garm Vandholtz’s call for assistance, some of the Players stumbled across Astrid’s ghost. She would have turned them away completely, but they spoke the name of her daughter – Rikku. Astrid’s love for her family was still as strong as it was in life, and eventually the Players realised that in order to get Astrid to be reasonable with them they had to bring Garm and Rikku to her restless spirit. However, Jarl Garm and his daughter had no idea that Astrid still had a presence on this earth. They believed she was long gone, at peace with their Gods. When the Players did finally bring Garm and Rikku to the place of Astrid’s haunting, they could not believe what they saw. Rikku was convinced it was but an evil manifestation, and refused to listen to her lady mother’s ghost speak.
A disbelieving Garm watches as Astrid’s ghost turns on him
Unable to convince her daughter that she truly was the girl’s awakened mother, Astrid turned on her speechless husband, Garm. He stood, watching in disbelief, yet knowing that this was indeed remnants of the wife he knew had died seven years ago. But she was furious.
“Why hadn’t you come to find me?” she accused. “Seven years I have waited in this place for my family – seven years! And not once did you seek me out.”
Garm, torn with grief and guilt, could only implore to Astrid that he had wanted to – their family had been tortured by the knowledge that she had been slaughtered in those tunnels, but they knew it would be impossible to find her in that demon-run labyrinth, and eventually they sought solace in their belief that she was at rest.
Meanwhile, the Players were gathering around trying to figure out how to pacify Astrid’s unrelenting spirit. Earlier, some of them had met a Hag in the woods who had taught them a ritual of how to set the ghost free – however they needed Astrid’s body to do this, and in her furious state she wasn’t going to give them any assistance.
It took some convincing, but once Rikku saw that her father very obviously believed that this truly was Astrid’s ghost, she inched closer and closer to her mother’s spirit and they finally touched hands. It was quite a reunion – careful, cautious, and almost too good to be true. Astrid smiled, her eyes gleaming with bittersweet sorrow, and sighed, “Rikku, you have grown so much, my beautiful girl.” The two dissolved into tears and an embrace.
For me these tears were not false. The situation, of course, was in that make-believe realm, but it slightly echoed something in my real life. Many people have methods for separating character experiences from their real selves, and I have for the most part managed to do so thus far. But this was something else. That slight echo gripped me, and shook me, and caged me in those tears, and wouldn’t let go.
After the embrace with her daughter Astrid disappeared, whispering the location of her body to Rikku and granting her and her friends (the Players) access to the mines. (At this point I ran off with one of the GMs, down into the tunnels of this gorgeous LARP location: the Players now had to face a maze to find Astrid’s body.)
Once the Players reached the correct mine entrance, Astrid’s ghost awaited them. The Players were certainly wary of her, but one was brave enough to approach and have a short but gentle conversation with her. It is always interesting, for me, to see the types of characters people play – the ones who want to make things right, the ones who want to ensure their deeds are honourable and intentions clear. Once Astrid caught sight of her daughter she disappeared into the tunnels, beckoning for Rikku and her friends to follow. The tunnels were long and dark, and Astrid’s ghost would appear at every corner, calling to her daughter, leading the Players to her final resting place. The Players, of course, did not know what to expect. Finally, Astrid led them to a room in which they found a raised platform. The GMs described the scene to them as this:
The Players find Astrid’s final resting place deep within the catacombs.
Atop the platform is a throne, and in the throne sits a sunken body: the corpse of a female. Her clothes are torn, and there are deep symbols etched into her flesh. Her lifeless body sits here, but you can also see her ghost over the top of the flesh – Lady Astrid. To the right of the throne is a tall demon. He smiles as you enter.
While in this form, tied to her body, Astrid’s ghost was able to slightly move her physical limbs and still had the ability to speak. But at first I – myself – could not. The Players filed in to the room, one by one. I truly did feel like a fragile, vulnerable body atop this little throne. Rikku cried as she entered, and I couldn’t stop.
On seeing the demon the Players demanded to know who he was and why he was there. He laughed and said that Astrid was the one they should be concerned about – she was a problem that needed to be “dealt” with. I stared around the room at the Players, imploring them to help, feeling desperate. The goal was to have the Players successfully release Astrid’s spirit and finally allow her to rest. I knew this, but I also knew that I was feeding off my own raw emotion – a resolution in this story would not bring me peace. I was not sure what to expect after we had concluded this scene.
Rikku seeks the comfort of a friend in the presence of her mother’s tortured spirit.
Thanks to the Hag in the woods the Players had the ritual they needed, and asked Astrid’s ghost if she would accept them performing it in order to bring her the eternal sleep she had longed for all this time. It was what she wanted, of course – she had been reunited with her family, and knew her daughter and husband were safe. But she wanted to hold them one last time. This was the hardest thing for me – “saying goodbye”. The simply gorgeous girl playing Rikku was astounding – she grasped my hands and cried out about how this shouldn’t be how it ended. Garm begged to trade places, but Astrid told him that he needed to continue leading his people and raising beautiful Rikku. There were so, so many tears.
Finally, the Players performed the ritual and released Astrid’s spirit. Her body slumped down into the throne, and her protective ward was lifted. After all of that the Players now had access to the cache she had been protecting. They also managed to dispel the demon! It all went according to plan.
Except, there I sat, with ‘Rikku’ crying over my ‘body’. She gently placed my hands together in my lap, and fell back into the friends who were there to comfort her. My face was tilted down and tears were tumbling off my cheeks – I kept willing myself to stop; “Corpses don’t cry, Sam, corpses don’t cry…” but I couldn’t help it. That scene had been too much. I couldn’t stop thinking about the things my real-life family were going through right then, and what they would be having to endure in the near-future, and I just couldn’t shake that tragic pain. The lovely lass playing Rikku then whispered to me that we would leave the tunnels, and pretend that she was carrying Astrid’s body out. I followed her and couldn’t speak. The Players had to wage through a final battle, and I sat out of the way with my wonderful friend who played the Hag and a couple of others who wanted to spectate. I still couldn’t shake the tears.
I needed to get that out. While it was certainly one of the best role-playing experiences I have had, it also grabbed me in a way that meant some real-life pain came out. It is almost surreal knowing you are feeling this real emotion, caused by something in your true life, while being in the middle of a fantasy-based game where people all around you are pretending. It felt incredibly lonely and isolating.
There are articles floating around describing a phenomenon known as ‘Bleed’ from LARPs, which is an affect that occurs when the emotions of your character actually creep their way into your real life. I suppose this encounter was the ‘Bleed-in‘; real life affecting an in-game experience. It meant that some of those feelings I made out to portray were actually coming from me, myself, and not just the woman I was meant to be playing.
The surreal forest Hag
A huge mention to everyone involved. Everyone had different experiences with this particular game, some more positive than others, but I want to thank those who interacted with me in any way, shape or form, whether it was causally hanging out before the game began, or afterwards when we were all feeling drained and tired.
If any GMs from anywhere are reading this, thank you for all that you do.
To everyone dealing with the loss of a loved one – you are in my thoughts.
Help me fundraise for my next wildlife conservation trip to Borneo!