This past weekend, I had an awesome time playing in Lost Eidolons, a Lovecraftian Steampunk boffer LARP, in which I play Taz, a half-breed (Tasmanian devil girl) healer and warlock. I could ramble on about all the cool things I did and saw, but for now I’m going to focus on my thoughts on a scene I found profoundly uncomfortable- a public hanging and public whippings.
Frequently, in the mornings during Lost Eidolons weekends, there’s an argument going on in my head between sleeping a bit longer and possibly missing early morning plot, or risking getting sleepy in the afternoon (often because I’ve been up late fighting Go to Bed Monsters) and nodding off in the tavern by the fire. Or outside on the benches, depending on the weather.
It’s even harder to get up when you’re ensconced in a sleeping bag rated for below 0 weather and your cabin (and costume) are freakin’ freezin’. (It actually snowed. It was very atmospheric, until the LARP got cut short.)
By the time I finally convinced myself to get up this past Saturday morning, I heard several PCs had gotten arrested by the (evil cultist) king and his minions after a battle in a mine… and were going to be hanged.
A crowd of PCs gathered outside to watch the prisoners, who had their hands positioned to indicate ropes or cuffs, get marched single file into town where they had an actual noose hanging from a tree, which creeped me out. I don’t think anyone was there just to rubber-neck — I think we were all ready to fight… to interfere… if we thought there was a chance to accomplish anything. The king is one of those obscenely powerful NPCs, well out of the league of any PC, the sort of character who freely tosses around death effects (or stun or silence or root or paralyze or drain, etc.) to anyone and everyone whenever he wants.
And then, among the prisoners, I spotted Dmitri, the last member of my original little team (all of our other teammates were absent or have switched to other LARPs), and Taz’s closest friend in Greyhook. I moved forward to ask him what the hell happened, but an NPC guard got in front of me and told me to stay away from the prisoners.
Death isn’t the biggest deal in Lost Eidolons — we have the Outsiders, a pretty reliable source of resurrection (of course, there are limits and exceptions and negative effects so death isn’t just a minor inconvenience.) But when Taz saw Dmitri walking in the line of prisoners, suddenly, to me, it wasn’t just, “well… the worst thing that will likely happen is that they’ll end up with the Outsiders” anymore.
The king made a short speech about how, unpleasant as it is, they broke the law and Greyhook isn’t lawless and so on. The PC that the king considered to be responsible was sentenced to death. He spat at the king’s feet (rather nice bit of RPing, I thought) and they RPed hanging him. (Held the noose in front of his face and used the mechanics for a killing blow, at which he slumped to the ground.)
The rest of the prisoners were either let off thanks to diplomatic immunity, or lined up beside the noose. Dmitri was second in line.
This was followed by an RPed public whipping: the executioner (complete with creepy hood) tapped the prisoners (who were under silence and root effects, that is, magically bound and gagged) on the back with a wavy boffer weapon (usually used to indicate tentacles) and inflicted one damage and an Agony effect with each tap. And even after the prisoners ran out of hit points and slumped to the ground, they kept going with the taps to some predetermined number I can’t recall. Maybe ten?
I felt like I very badly wanted to look away but was somehow obligated to watch.
I’m looking back over my Master List of LARPs (I keep a running list of every LARP I’ve played) and I think I can say that this was easily the most distressing scene for me to RP, both as the player and the character. We take Agony effects in combat all the time (screaming and, usually, backing up for ten seconds)… we also get rooted and paralyzed and silenced. When I had to miss a weekend a while back, I told the writers I wanted the reason for my character’s absence to be kidnapping by cultists, who tortured her. They sent my teammates a bloody ear nailed to a piece of wood with a note mockingly hinting at what they might be doing to her. And I thought that was freaking fantastic.
Which begs the question why the bloody ear and implied torture was entirely good fun to me, but this scene with the king and prisoners wasn’t. I’m not entirely sure why it made me so profoundly uncomfortable… I think it might be the helplessness aspect (it wasn’t mid-combat) and the public humiliation aspect.
I think part of it was also that Dmitri wasn’t first — I watched the first prisoner get “whipped” and knew that Dmitri was next. I guess there’s a kind of anticipation and dread involved.
And the only way to interfere with someone’s actions in game is to use an approved boffer weapon (or spell packet or nerf bullet.) Obviously, I’m not going to charge someone, football-style, and physically shoulder them out of the way. But I didn’t have my boffer weapon on me at the moment, and there was nothing I could physically do to stop the effects that held the prisonors in place, or prevent the executioner from causing the damage and Agony effect.
(The kind of ridiculous side to this is the fact that Taz is a half-breed and her weapon is her claw, so she’s technically never disarmed. But it doesn’t do me any good if I’m not actually holding the red boffer sword that represents her claw.)
The regret aspect comes in because while I couldn’t have physically stopped the king or the executioner (even with my boffer weapon, they are just too powerful)… I still could have RPed some noticeable response, instead of standing frozen, thinking, “there is nothing I can even attempt without my claw.”
It’s not the first time I’ve been in this frustrating situation. For example, there’s an utterly adorable Thek (bug-person) character whom I accidentally got killed by introducing him to someone who was hunting him. The hunter then stood over him and performed the slow killing-blow mechanic (“Deathstrike one, deathstrike two, deathstrike three.”) The idea behind it is that a coup de grace takes a moment to line up and perform, which gives people a chance to interrupt. And though I was standing inches away, I couldn’t even attempt to defend the bug-guy without a boffer weapon.
Classic case of learned helplessness? I don’t know. I keep playing out scenarios in my head, what might have happened if I’d actually done something. Like maybe thrown myself over Dmitri. Maybe yelled something at the king. (And maybe gotten myself killed or arrested or just incapacitated and tossed out of the way by the king for my trouble? I dunno.) I think I might have been considering it, but then held back for fear of embarrassing the LARPer who plays Dmitri. Or maybe I was petrified of Taz getting arrested and having to join the line. I don’t know.
Anyway, after Dmitri’s turn, Taz darted forward to pick him up and bring him to one of the doctors (whose healing is faster than hers). I’m pretty sure I missed the rest of the whippings, probably because Taz was sort of clinging to Dmitri pathetically with her face buried in his coat while he was getting healed.
I know that I sometimes have regrets about not taking opportunities to do more dramatic RPing in LARPs, and futilely trying to protect someone at significant personal risk in front of a crowd is the kind of dramatic scene I often hope for. But I think in this case, a lot of the regret is coming from the idea that Taz is now a character who sits on the sidelines and just watches while someone she cares about gets lined up and publicly whipped into unconsciousness and then whipped some more. And I really, really wish she was the sort of character who would have acted somehow, no matter how futile those actions.
For the record, while the scene made me profoundly uncomfortable and kind of oddly anxious… I still think, overall, it enhanced the experience of playing Lost Eidolons for me. Maybe knowing this sort of dark occurrence takes place in Lost Eidolons makes the game more able to exact an emotional response in me. And that somehow makes Taz less of just an outer facade. Maybe that’s just ridiculous. At the very least, I bet I could try to make some nerdy sociological or psychological observations about where I used first person pronouns and where I used the name Taz in the above ramble.