Now that I’ve written about my general experiences and impressions of the mechanics of politics and war in All Quiet on the Potomac (a weekend long theater LARP about the American Civil War), I feel I should also address the way this LARP addressed two sensitive issues: slavery and sexism.
It seemed to me that most of the characters supporting the Confederacy were not actually strongly motivated to push for the continued existence of slavery, and I don’t think I heard a single one push for it to continue indefinitely. I wonder if it would simply be impossible to write a character a modern player would find sympathetic enough to play that was also strongly against abolition in any form. The Confederates of the peace commission seemed more than happy to agree to terms that included the end of slavery within the near future, and I think it is possible that the only reason they were not content to simply abolish slavery right off the bat was that it would bring the LARP to a conclusion too early. (Notably, during the LARP, Jefferson Davis lost control of the Confederate government. He was replaced by General Robert E. Lee, who was himself was not in favor of slavery, but fought for the South because he was loyal to his home state of Virginia, which had seceded.) The Confederates seemed much more concerned with the issue of being allowed to secede. And contrary to history, I don’t think President Abraham Lincoln had any trouble passing the 13th Amendment.
This version of events clearly bears little resemblance to history, in a LARP that otherwise drew heavily from history. I’m sure the LARP would have provided a very different experience if it were to require modern players to try and put themselves in the mindset of characters who are hellbent on defending the institution of slavery. In fact, simply discussing it proved to be a struggle for me even though I was playing a fairly forward thinking abolitionist. Historically, arguments like “the economy of the South will utterly collapse” and “abolition might lead to universal suffrage and integration, and not every abolitionist wants that” would have carried some weight in political forums in 1862, but my version of Clara Barton was entirely deaf to such statements.
The systemic sexism of the age is represented in Potomac in the mechanics — the amount of Political Capital each character receives is determined primarily by their social rank. Male characters receive PC equal to one-half their social rank. Female characters receive PC equal to one-fourth their social rank. To compensate, I think, for this decrease in influence, there is a mechanical system representing social rank and scandal for the females. The highest ranking female is labeled the Social Queen, and the second highest is labeled the Social Arbiter. The former can hand out three white or black marks, the latter one white or black mark. Black marks represent social disgrace (and could enable removing a character from office.) White marks counter them. There is also a system for becoming the social partner of a male character (“hostesses” arranged their male partners’ social lives) which enables male and female characters to improve (or decrease) one another’s social ranking.
In theory, I think this is a neat way to maintain the atmosphere of the setting, recognizing the struggle of women before they were able to vote or hold government or military offices, while still providing agency for the female characters to have significant influence over the political element of the LARP.
In practice, it felt as though the female characters were given mechanical means to act snobbish and gossip and incentive to basically scratch one another’s eyes out and climb the social ladder to become Queen Bee. Since there were only three female characters cast (Clara Barton, Kate Chase, and Adele Douglas), two thirds of the female characters had black marks and white marks to hand out. I never expected Clara Barton to ever socially outrank two wealthy socialites, so I mostly ignored these mechanics. Late in the game, it occurred to me that offering to play hostess to one of the men would simply be a net gain in Political Capital for myself (and therefore, a net gain for the Union). So Clara Barton became hostess to the highest ranking male still present in game late Saturday evening (William Seward) and the next morning received an additional two PC. This apparently also meant Clara now outranked Adele Douglas and became the Social Arbiter. I was given one black dot to hand out, and was thinking about what to do with it, when suddenly a GM came over to me and took the black dot back. Apparently, serving as bridesmaid to Kate Chase provided additional social rank to Adele Douglas, who was now Social Arbiter again.
That was sort of the kicker for me – up until that moment, I felt I was able to see how the various mechanics applicable to the female characters might enhance the LARP by providing setting-appropriate mechanical and social challenges and enabling female agency in politics. I like the idea of playing female characters who use their social skills to cleverly subvert the patriarchy, but… I really dislike the notion of women being encouraged to climb over one another before anything else. That being chosen as bridesmaid was one method for doing so felt demeaning — was I supposed to be trying to get picked as a bridesmaid while the men were passing constitutional amendments and leading armies into battle?
I wonder how having a larger cast of female characters might have affected our run. Part of me worries that having more female characters might have made it worse — as it was, two-thirds of us were able to hand out black and white dots. If a much smaller percentage of us had black and white dots, that would have meant a larger percentage of us had minimal influence over politics, and it probably would have put more emphasis on competition between the women.
Additionally, I think women’s suffrage might have been a significant plot in this LARP (and maybe if we’d gotten it passed, we might have removed the reduction of Political Capital for women?) but with so few of us present (and notably, Susan B. Anthony uncast)… it didn’t get off the ground until late on Sunday.There was a moment where Kate Chase looked at me and asked, “how come you never invited me to join the Suffragettes?” and I suddenly realized that none of the women present were written to lead that cause, and in Susan B. Anthony’s absence, people might have assumed Clara Barton would be the first to bring it up. I proposed a bill to grant universal suffrage, but we were nearly out of time, and remainder of the LARP was focused on the battles.
If this LARP was ever to undergo any edits for another run, I’d probably recommend, at the very least, not making the women compete with one another in order to obtain black spots to hand out.
If you find these topics interesting, there are two articles that were published in Metagame, (a publication about LARPing that Intercon used to put out,) written by one of Potomac‘s authors on the challenges they faced regarding the sensitive topics of sexism and slavery while writing a Civil War LARP. Metagame Issue 9, Volume 1 (published in Feburary of 1996) has an article titled, “Making Politically Incorrect Plots Work” and Issue 9, Volume 4 (published in November of 1996) has an article titled, “Women in Historical Games”. Both were written before Potomac was completed. (Some of the “Women in Historical Games” content reminds me of conversations I’ve had with GMs writing a LARP about famous figures from the Renaissance.)
Overall, I’m so very glad I was able to participate in this LARP. I had initially thought that I wouldn’t be able to make it, and signed up quite late. My weekend was not only entertaining, but thanks to the prep work involved, also very educational. On top of the reading material from the LARP, I also read various history articles online and watched Lincoln and a Civil War documentary on Netflix). Playing it also helped solidify much of the content and concepts I’d picked up. I think I learned much more about the Civil War than I remembered from 5th grade history class.