The weekend before last was this year’s second spring Cottington Woods event. It opened with a foray into the Slumberlands, the realm of dreams, to rescue three PCs kidnapped by the Lady of Nightmare. When the rescue mission was over, we discovered that the Cotting House and surrounding woods had been dragged into the Slumberlands, and Nightmares were running amok, evoking visions of our greatest fears.
At sign-in, before the event started, each player received a folded piece of paper with instructions to read it if we heard someone use the call “Imbue Phobia by Nightmare.” (A theater LARPer would label this sort of thing a “contingency envelope.”) The staff had written one to three paragraphs for each individual PC, describing an experience with instructions for its mechanical effects. The experience would end if the appropriate curative spells were used or if fellow PCs managed to talk the victim out of it. (The success of which was up to the victim PC’s discretion.)
Unsurprisingly, it made for wonderful fodder for roleplay. Our deepest fears and reactions to them revealed quite a bit about the inner workings of many of the PCs, as did figuring out what would be helpful to say. Roleplaying my character’s phobia was straightforward– other characters screamed, curled up in a ball, panicked, and attacked people, but Quill believed she had reverted back into a lifeless doll. In mechanical terms, I took a “Stun” effect and slumped to my knees, sitting stiffly with a blank stare until a scarecrow friend reminded Quill of all the reasons others believed her to be a real person. It’s almost bizarre how meaningful an experience can be even when it involves nothing but sitting utterly still.
There was also a ritual that temporarily turned PCs into thralls of nightmare, attacking whichever friends were closest, and, upon defeat, invoked this phobia state deliberately. Successfully getting through the ritual meant that, from then on, any event that invoked the phobia state would last only ten seconds. I think this was a clever concept on three levels — one, it allowed any players who happened to miss the nightmare creatures but still wanted a chance to find out what was in their phobia contingency envelope to invoke it deliberately. Two, it allowed players to duel one another without real antagonism, which is a great way to keep players entertained without using up the scarce resource that is NPCs. And three, it allowed players to have the experience of facing and overcoming their fears without altogether denying them future opportunities to roleplay the phobia states (as they would still have ten seconds of it when hearing “Imbue Phobia by Nightmare” for the rest of the event.)
The nightmare creatures, by the way, who roamed the woods invoking fear in characters were often quite visually striking. One wandered about with five masks around their head, looking like they had five faces staring out at different angles. Another simply wore its mask upside down. When they fell, it was still staring up at me at an unnatural angle. Simple costuming but quite effective. The staff also left tracking markers around the site (i.e. pieces of paper that anyone with the Tracking skill was entitled to read, describing various footsteps and trails to be found) which implied weird, alien things had been wandering about in the dark. One tag, which I found by my tent when I woke, described a purple snake-like trail, which left me with the creeping sensation something had slithered by, just outside my door, while I was sleeping.
I was also rather impressed with the amount of personal plot the staff managed to squeeze into the weekend. I got a chance to meet my character’s aging mentor, a priest who had taught Quill to read and write and illuminate texts. He handed out slips of paper with character’s names in calligraphy as he met them, which I thought was a nice touch. I heard a number of other players met their mentors, old apprentices, and other personages from their backstories, too.
Other highlights included meeting paladins who offered to teach PCs how to specialize in fighting demons, training as duelists with bold swashbuckles, and us blacksmiths completing our masterwork forge. I also received an incredibly kind gift from a fellow PC — a heart necklace, as she’d remembered me mentioning breaking one heart and lacking a proper replacement.
There was also a new cat PC in town. I’d made stuffed felt mouse as a gift to an NPC cat who unfortunately stopped playing before I got a chance to give it to him. It has been sitting in my suitcase ever since. So I gave the stuffed mouse to the new PC cat as a welcoming gift, and later heard that this was his first event ever as a PC, and was pleasantly surprised by the gesture.
There were also a few lowlights for me at this event. On Friday night, while trying to help out on the rescue mission, I took a spell packet to my right eye. I’ve been hit in the eye with both melee and ranged weapons, but it’s never had any lasting effect before. I was leaking tears from one eye for the rest of the night, and on Saturday morning, had to leave my contacts out and wear my glasses, as my eye was red and irritated and the eyelids were mildly swollen. My vision was also minorly affected, which was scary, but luckily, it all cleared up by Saturday evening and I was able to wear my contacts again.
The other lowlight was more of an in-game thing. One of the experiences I’d been hoping to have ever since I signed up to play a dark fairy tale LARP was making ill-informed bargains with capricious or even downright malicious fairies. I got the chance to do just that at this event, (while simultaneously violating my character’s vow of Truth on a fundamental level) which resulted in three innocents getting cursed… and a number of other characters were pretty angry about it. People I’d had no idea were involved and whom I’d had very limited interactions with until then came up to scold me. I had to remind myself that it was probably all in-character.
What made it particularly rough, for me, was that it was hard to justify in-character. I had assumed the situation which lead me to resort to dealing with an evil fairy was dire — that people were very much suffering, that innocents were dying, that time was running out, that there was no good solution and we were being rushed into trying to guess what path was the lesser of evils. I also thought that backing out of a fairy deal or trying to undo the effects would be either impossible, extremely difficult, or have a very high price of its own. And on top of all that, I was mistakenly under the impression that one of the other PCs was willing to kill my character if it came down to it. (It sounds terrible, but OOC, I was quite happy about this twisted relationship. I think I misread that particular PC, but on the plus side, another PC told me rather unexpectedly, after the event ended on Sunday, that he’d been contemplating killing my character in order to fix the problem.)
That was the plot I was really hoping for, and the plot I’d thought I’d been enjoying, anyway. As some of the other PCs seem to see it, the suffering was more of a vague inconvenience, there is no real time limit or reason to feel rushed, and there may well be plenty of good fairies out there perfectly happy to help in exchange for something as simple and low cost as a bit of honey. And backing out of a fairy deal may prove only to have only minor and extremely short lived consequences. It’s not that anyone did anything wrong — there was just kind of a mismatch in how we were reading the situation.
I tried to justify my bad bargain in-game, in ways that quickly became incompatible with my character as I originally envisioned her. (What a pity I completely forgot about the innocent fairies who have died — maybe that would have changed people’s stance?) Maybe I should have just been trying to play the plot as the other PCs see it. Maybe it’s not too late. It’s possible some of the other PCs have undone the effects of the bad bargain. I’m still chewing over what to say in my PEL, if anything, that might help.
Despite this particular plot taking a regretful term, I still had a great event overall, and I think exploring the theme of repentance and penance and absolution will be interesting. The next Cottington event is the Summer one day event, and I’d hate for Quill to miss the Summer Festival! Unfortunately, it’s running against NELCO. The third annual run of the first LARP conference in the U.S. is the same weekend, and I’m quite torn over which to attend. And I’m quickly running out of time to decide.