Recent episodes of HBO’s Game of Thrones (the TV version of my favorite fantasy series, A Song of Ice and Fire) has brought a rather dark topic to mind.
Let’s talk about torture.
A while back, a LARPer friend of mine (actually, the guy who was trying to train me in the art of boffer fighting last summer) kicked off an online discussion about torture in LARPs, specifically how one decides their character reacts to it.
In my experience, it almost never comes up in theater LARPs, for various reasons. Most characters aren’t ruthless enough to use it, have nothing to gain from it, or the situation deprives anyone of the opportunity. If a LARP is written with the idea that torture could or should come up, it would be reasonable to expect mechanics to be created specifically to address it. Those mechanics might define who can do it (I’ve played in LARPs where a character needs the “ruthless” trait in order to commit certain acts, such as killing an unarmed and/or innocent person) and how skilled they are at it.
And, of course, there might well be a system for how the victim responds. Obviously, torture isn’t something that can be well represented and for probably all LARPers, it isn’t something they can easily imagine in their minds, so deciding whether or not the character gives in to it would be dictated by mechanics. Honestly, I can’t think of any theater LARP that I’ve ever played where physical torture came up in game. (One or two character backgrounds have included it.) I’d be interested to hear anyone’s experiences in a theater LARPs with it… particularly how mechanics (if any) were designed and how well you think it worked.
With boffer LARPing, the story is quite different. It actually does come up from time to time. In the Accelerant system, we have various ways for the combat mechanics to apply. Specifically, we have the Agony effect and the Maim effect.
Mechanically, when a character is affected by Agony, they cannot attack for 10 seconds (or, if it’s specifically conveyed in an atypical manner, the duration of the effect). They can defend or flee, but not attack or use non-defensive skills. This typically means the victim of the Agony effect is in unusually intense pain and are supposed to roleplay as such.
When a character is affected by Maim, they lose the use of the affected limb. If it is an arm, they cannot use weapons with that limb, nor cast spells that require that hand. If a leg is maimed, the player must go down on his knee (and cannot hop, but can crawl and/or drag himself.) This is often understood as either a grievous injury and/or a dislocation.
In scenes with torture, I understand it’s not uncommon for the torturer to inflict Maims and Agonies on the victim. I haven’t actually seen any torture scenes in any LARPs I’ve PCed or NPCed. (Don’t know if I ever actually want to — I tend to cringe away from the worst scenes in movies and still regret going to see a medieval torture exhibit at a Ren Faire.) The closest I can think of involved a very powerful NPC demon who was looking for some kind of artifact that a PC had. The demon was too powerful to be affected by anything us mortals could toss at him (every attempt was answered “no effect”) so he just strode up to the PC and demanded the artifact. When the PC refused, he spent a few minutes circling him, threatening him, and tapping the PC with his weapon, inflicting endless Agonies and Maims on him. (I suppose it might have been only four maims. More would have been pointless, mechanically, though I guess it would have conveyed the message “if you weren’t already Maimed, whatever I’m hitting you with now would also Maim you.”) The PC roleplayed the Agonies and Maims, but never gave up the artifact. (Or any information on its location.)
I admit I never learned the background of this scene, so I can’t speak to either the staff or the PC’s intentions for that plot. Maybe it was understood out-of-character that the PC should never have to give up the artifact against his will. But it does make me wonder about where players draw the line when the actual level of pain isn’t clear. (And really, there’s no way to objectively measure pain- this is why one finds those bizarre pain charts in hospitals. Apparently, a slightly more detailed one does exist though it is still in no way objective, and here is a rather humorous version.)
A few LARPers shared some decent ideas for guidelines on how a character responds to being tortured. Accelerant has a system of attributes, which get spent in order to use special abilities. In a number of Accelerant LARPs, the attributes come in the form of elements (Air, Earth, Fire, Water, Void), with Earth potentially representing a character’s resolve. However many points a character has in Earth might be how many Maims and Agonies a character could take before breaking. And if that seems low (or high) some alternative mathematical formula might be created based on Earth, (such as Earth x 2.) Or whatever your system’s equivalent stat might be, be it courage, willpower, resolve, health etc.
Predictably, a single mathematical formula doesn’t appeal to all players. It doesn’t take into account any non-mechanical aspects of the situation such as how important it is to the character that they not give in to torture. A character might last a lot longer if they were being tortured into giving up a family member’s location, and last very little time if someone just wanted to the location of some buried gold.
And, significantly, while Agony has specific mechanical effects (no attacking, only defense), its in-game sources and interpretations vary a great deal. In some cases, it’s caused by people with swords who have enough knowledge of anatomy to make something hurt. Sometimes it’s just straight up magic. I once roleplayed a scene in which an NPC surgeon was teaching surgery to a group of PCs, and when he cut the body open, he announced “by my voice, ambient Agony by nausea.”
For clarification for those unfamiliar with Accelerant, this translates mechanically to “anyone who can hear me, you are now under the Agony effect due to nausea, and something in the environment other than me is the source.” It was pretty clear to the players what was going on- we all roleplayed retching and gagging at the sight of the open body for 10 seconds. Which just goes to show, Agony does not literally have to mean “pain,” just physical sensation intense enough to preclude any attack. It doesn’t even have to be a negative physical sensation.
The point is, the Agony effect is loosely defined by design (the Maim effect is as well, though less so, I think.) So it’s understandable if players reject the idea of saying “I remain resolute at four Agonies, and I will crack at five.” Not all Agonies are created equal.
Additionally, as some players say, “we eat Agonies and Maims all the time in combat.” If monsters toss them out left and right, players might understandably feel that their characters have developed some amount of familiarity with them, and thus are at least somewhat resistant. Or even if they aren’t particularly resistant, the most common form of Agony is one that they can go right on fighting after.
In response to this, some players have said that this puts the onus of ensuring that the Agonies in a torture scene are clearly distinct from the Agonies tossed around left and right on a battlefield on the staff. Setting the scene is one way to do it, such as using a dark room (and not a sunny field) filled with torture implement props (easy to come by in Halloween stores) and an NPC projecting a sense of power over the PC (perhaps by position and attitude.)
Then again, some players feel it will never be enough, because the concept of physical torture will never be appropriately represented in-game, therefore it is anti-immersive. And so all torture should be psychological, and writers should plan on including things that affect the character psychologically. Typically, by threatening loved-ones and/or innocents. Or maybe trying to play up a specific phobia, should the characters have one. But none of that is quantitative, so how do players decide when to give in?
There seems to be some concern that without some kind of mechanical system dictating when torture breaks a character, people will simply decide that their character can withstand anything because they’re just that much of a badass.
I heard one suggestion that seemed fairly reasonable to me. Agonies and Maim effects are not permanent, which allows people to just decide their character shrugs as many off as they like. An alternative would be to cause permanent damage, lowering hit points, lowering attributes, causing permanent disadvantages (cannot be healed by certain types of healing, permanently Slowed, can no longer wield off-hand weapons, etc.)
More specifically, the NPC torturer (or PC, I suppose) might use a timer, and explain that when the timer indicates X amount of time has gone by, the torture has had the effect of permanently damaging the character in whatever way. And if they allow it to happen Y number of times, they die. Perhaps the negative effects get worse over time. In this way, deciding one’s character is badass enough to resist all pain has real consequences. And using the timer gives players a chance to roleplay and time to consider their choice… and maybe still feel a bit badass by holding out until the right before the timer runs out.
And if that seems too harsh, there might ways to fix it, just not with mere resting or one’s standard Heal spells. It would probably require time (some number of events) or successfully questing to find special healing magic or something.
I realize this all seems rather dark, but there’s a reason we don’t only ever LARP as the Carebears.
Any thoughts or experiences with torture in LARPs? Feel free to share in the comments!