Torture in LARPs

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!

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About Fair Escape

I've been LARPing for years in all different styles, including both boffer and theater. I love classic LARP but I'm always happy to try something new. I have a sort of "gotta catch 'em all" attitude towards experiencing LARPs. I'm currently serve as a board member of NEIL, a member of proposal com for Intercon, the largest all LARP convention in the US, and as en editor for Game Wrap, a publication about the art and craft of LARP. I was also con chair of Festival of the LARPs 2017, and I'm on staff for NELCO, the first all LARP conference in the US. I'm
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13 Responses to Torture in LARPs

  1. Tony V says:

    I’m very sympathetic to the idea that “people will simply decide that their character can withstand anything because they’re just that much of a badass.” Or rather, people will decide whether they feel their character succumbs or doesn’t (roleplaying a weak person who’s been broken can certainly be interesting) rather independent of the actions inflicted on them. Your more munchkiny players will probably shrug it off, like you say.

    The discussion of how various mechanics were used is certainly interesting, thanks! Though I don’t get how mechanics can make someone give it up. A (munchkinny) player could just say “well I would lie” And truth, in the real world torture usually leads to more lies than helpfulness.

    • Fair Escape says:

      I do feel some sympathy towards people getting to choose whether or not their character breaks- after all, many people LARP in order to get to experience of being an amazing hero. It just steers the LARP in a particular direction that GMs may not want. For example, it feels less dark when torture always fails. It also may encourage gamism, meaning people can and often will choose a response for their character that gains them them most, rather than trying to actually decide how their character would react to extreme pain.

      For the record, I’m not saying that’s a bad thing, I don’t think gamism is inherently bad, just that it may not work well with the sort of game the GM wants to craft. For example, if the GMs wanted to use the scene where the demon was torturing the PC into giving up the item to show not how badass the character is but how weak and puny humans are in the grand scheme of things (which fits in with the Lovecraftian flavor), they might need mechanics to force the PC to give up the item, instead of allowing the PC to essentially ignore it.

      You bring up an excellent point, one that I didn’t consider. What does it mean to give up? As you say, torture often results in whatever the victim thinks the torturer wants to hear, rather than the truth. If it’s something immediately verifiable (for example, an NPC torturer wants the PC to perform a spell for him right away, or give him the code to a safe, or sign a confession) mechanics could say “you’re compelled to do it” but if it’s unverifiable information the torturer is after, it’s not realistic to insist the victim give up the truth.

  2. Aaron says:

    Great topic (errr…)!

    I have many thoughts on this, so if this reply seems scattered, I apologize.

    1. There’s torture to get information, and then there’s just torture to traumatize the person. Think of the scene in the movie “Reservoir Dogs”: he cut the cop’s ear off just to do it, not because he wanted any information. He was a sadistic bastard.

    2. The most famous torture larp that I heard of was Kapo, a Nordic larp (obviously). I wasn’t in it, but I can tell you what I know if you want, or I can put you in touch with the people who ran it if you want to explore further. http://vimeo.com/25272009
    There are other videos about Kapo if you search “Kapo larp”.

    3. I NPCd in a Firefly larp as one of the blue-handed dudes. I had a torture sound device that I would use on the players. If they heard it for 61 seconds, they would die. I often played it to 59 seconds. But to add to it, I held it near their ears (it was screeching loud). Unfortunately, none of the players cracked, because the whole party (20+) was in the room at the time, and could see four or five of their friends on the hot seat. I worked with another (two by two, obviously), who did all the talking, while I didn’t say a word. I walked up very slowly behind them, seated, being asked questions by my partner, and I would then lean in real close and set the device off a few inches from their ear. I think it would have worked better if we were in a separate room, or we took them in one at a time.

    4. I have come to realize that the mechanic for sex that I just made for my upcoming Dreamlands larp could be modified for torture. Essentially (for sex), all participants decide how intense the act will be (defaulting to the lowest, low key level), then they link pinkies and hold them over their heads. This indicates to anyone who see that they are engaged in coitus. Then, depending on what level they chose, they narrate what happens in various degrees of intensity: from no narration at all to narration in the third person, clinically, as in “Yes, they make love passionately and lovingly, each seeking to please the other,” to a potentially erotic first person “I do this to you” narration. Furthermore, eye contact is regulated. At the lowest level (no narration), there is also no eye contact: you stand there holding a pinky finger for a few seconds or minute, then finish. You had powerful orgasmic sex (or not). At the most intense level, you look into the other person’s eyes while you say what you are doing to them. Again, the only physical contact is touching a pinky finger. Also, at any time, they can scale back, stop, etc., OOC, but it still happened IC.

    I would think this could be modified as a torture mechanic: eye contact and narration. I would add some safewords for the victim: too weak, push it harder, this is about as far as I want to go, and too much, please stop.

    5. I participated in the Halloween haunted house “Blackout” in Los Angeles (Haunted house is a misnomer, IMHO). There were elements of torture in it: I was shoved around rooms, handcuffed and forced to kneel with a bag over my head, my face shoved into a mattress by a naked masturbating man (not really, but I couldn’t see), etc. We had a safeword (it was “safeword”) that we could say to pull us out of the haunted house (no refunds, and it cost $50). It was very interesting to go through, in terms of my own understanding of myself. It was by no means pleasant, but I don’t regret it and am glad I did it. Then again, I don’t think that all interactive experiences MUST be “fun”, and I also know that different people have different definitions of “fun.” I can give you more info about this if you like; I have written up a long recap on my Facebook page (not sure if we are FB friends or not). Here’s the main website: http://www.blackouthh.com/

    6. Overall, if I were to include a torture aspect in a larp, I would:
    a. Let all participants know that there is a torture aspect, and to what degree, e.g., it is possible but not certain, or it’s an entire larp about torture and therefore guaranteed.
    b. Ask questions of the participants to find their known limits: physical, mental, emotional. Some people might be fine being actually, physically slapped around, but it could really bother them to be verbally insulted about their appearance, weight, competence, intelligence, etc.
    c. Give participants safewords–not just an on/off, but a throttle as well.
    d. REQUIRE a mandatory check in with staff (who don’t play the torturer) at the larp and also a mandatory check in after the larp (possibly more than one).

    The Nordics have been talking a lot about psychological player safety, at least, they were at Knutepunkt last year (Solmukohta 2012), and have a lot of good ideas on how to handle it.

    Understand that torture is as varied as sex: it could be short or long, for a specific purpose or just for the sadistic pleasure of one. It could be physical or emotional or both. And also, too, many people don’t know what their limits are, and someone might go too far without ever knowing it.

    I think it could be done safely in a larp in a way that doesn’t involve throwing skill numbers at one another. There are also ways to frak it up in a dangerous manner. IMHO, the larp GR (which stands for two words with different vowels than “Gong Rope”) is not as bad as Fat Man Down, primarily because in FMD that trust, the safeword, is ignored and broken without the knowledge of the player. That’s too much for me and amounts to real damage. In GR, all the participants know what is going on and consent to it; there are no surprises.

    Some other links about torture and larp that you might be interested in:
    GQ journalist paid for an experience like “The Game” (Michael Douglas movie) to be kidnapped and tortured:
    http://www.gq.com/news-politics/mens-lives/201304/how-to-be-kidnapped-abducted

    Markus Montola’s essay on “The Positive-Negative Experience in Extreme Role-Play” (this is a direct link to the PDF): http://bit.ly/13L4mMa

    Brody Condon’s Level Five art-larp (I was in the pre-larp workshop, but was unable to participate due to work, but some of my friends did): http://youtu.be/J8YhmLAobPg

    • Fair Escape says:

      It’s interesting to see the various ways people come up with to make the torture immersive- it requires finding means of torture that are acceptable to reproduce, at least to a certain degree, and then ways of making them more intense. So actual pain is (mostly) off-limits, but discomfort and annoying noises, restraint, deprivation, even humiliation… all of those get played with. (I admit I spoiled myself on some of the previous year’s Blackout Haunted Houses.) I suspect you’re right- seperating the Firefly players would have increased the intensity. (Which is probably why one of the rules of Blackout is you must go alone.)

      Your mechanic for torture is an interesting one, and I wonder if it would benefit from a workshop before the LARP, as with Ars Armandi.

      Thank you for the links– it’s all very interesting stuff. I’ve watched all the shorter things, and now I’m reading the Positive-Negative Experience.

  3. Good post…

    A little thoughts from here.

    At Monitorship Celestra (BSG larp) there was a simple rule: “When you’re tortured, you spill the beans within 15 minutes. Unless you’re part of the Ha’la’tha (the gangsters. Then you just feel the pain, but don’t have to cooperate.”

    Torture was played out as torture. Mild torture, of course, but still slaps, roughing up, yelling and the like. You could choose to play brave and tough or soft and weak, but no matter what, you gave in. It just might take a bit.

    At KAPO (prison larp) torture was part of the game, but the questions didn’t make sense and it wasn’t even possible to confess, since the prisoners didn’t know what was being asked of them.

    Torture was also here played out as torture – a little bit more severely, using techniques from Guantanamo and the like. No breaking things, no real beatings, but cold water drenching, forced postures and sensory deprivation were all part of the package.

    I think in the Nordic countries, usually torture is played out this way – as light, but real torture, and with a strong emphasis on “feeling if the other player is ok”. Usually, it’s the guards who suffer the worst, but we’re learning to get better at protecting them also. 😉

    • Fair Escape says:

      I find it very interesting that the guards usually suffer worse than the victims. With the more mild stuff, I imagine the guilt and awkward feeling and concern about doing it wrong (too intense? not intense enough?) is very uncomfortable.

  4. Ivan Zalac says:

    Well, regarding that here’s a Nordic larp which was specifically about prison life and torture which you might find interesting: http://www.kapo.nu/
    Experiences from one of the participants can be read here: http://www.nordicrpg.fi/wp-content/uploads/2012/03/states_of_play_pdf_version.pdf (article “High on Hell”, page 10)

  5. Albert Lin says:

    Shadows of Amun actually has a torture skill set for their mobster header:
    http://shadowsofamun.com/2012/10/11/header-mobster/

    Aralis also has the Inquisitor, who can plant their feet and throw infinite Agony by Light.

    From what I’ve seen, psychological torture is generally the best way to elicit a PC action they ordinarily wouldn’t do. For physical torture, the more mechanicky it gets, the less effective. The reverse of NPCs being tortured actually does get results since there is more of an obligation to reward stats being burned and/or for players being hardcore (not to mention most of these are scripted!).

    I think the best way to handle physical torture of PCs is to have light mechanics (using maim/agonies) coupled with a very strong context. Build it up. Have it be by someone they know and trust. Hands-on ad-libbing can heighten this, although it requires a certain threshold of familiarity and trust between the PC and NPC. I’ve seen it work, especially for certain players willing to roll with it.

    • Fair Escape says:

      The Shadows of Amun skills have a very interesting take on torture. I see the actual torture skill doesn’t actually allow you to gain information or force any particular action, it mostly grants you a way to kill people slowly that will bypass up to two Resist Death abilities. It also addresses the issue of what it means to be tough in the face of torture (in the form of granting Resists to effects by torture.) There’s also an interesting commentary on what it means to be able to perform torture- just knowing the skill grants the Ruthless trait.

      I agree that the impetus to reward spent stats likely causes torture to be more successful when the PCs are doing the torture. I suspect another factor is that the person playing the NPC has less emotional investment in how badass the character is, and less investment in the results.

      Interestingly, I’ve never seen a boffer LARP staff send out emails or anything warning people about how intense or disturbing some content may be, which tells me that either the level of intensity is always considered clear enough from the public reading materials available to all newbies (as in Shadows of Amun, where the rules for torture indicate that torture will likely come up in game) or else it isn’t necessary to warn players, possibly because the rules in play create enough of a safety net. (For example, people can always call halt, and there’s a no-touch rule.)

      • Albert Lin says:

        On the last point, Accelerant does have built-in calls to end a scene and there is a no-touch rule. In my experience it’s more that the PCs and Staff know each other OOG and are comfortable enough to do that scene. Most games wouldn’t do that to a newbie player unless they explicitly state their comfort level.

        As an aside, I would totally encourage you to submit this post to: http://collabnarration.blogspot.com/

        It’s a collective blog on a lot of LARPcrafting and discussion that this would really spark good conversations on.

        • Fair Escape says:

          Which built-in calls that end a scene?

          Oh, I love CollabNarration. I read it all the time. I’m not sure they want duplicates, though, do they? Maybe I should work on something to submit to it.

          • Albert Lin says:

            Knowing Zoe, I think she would be fine with that. 🙂

            “Caution” and “Let my clarify” are LARP safewords. You can pretty much break game to end a scene.

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