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Verdict from the Court - John C. Kirk

Jul. 18th, 2013

03:07 am - Verdict from the Court

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Another month, another LARP event at CP. This time it was The Court of Crimson and Gold, and it was certainly a busy weekend. The good news is that Cedric (my character) finally got promoted from Cadet to Private. The bad news is that it was posthumous.

(Apologies in advance: this is another long post.)

The basic concept for this event is that the Fae had invited all the factions to their homeland to take part in various contests. I gather that the equivalent (July) event in previous years has been a fayre (as described here) but this year was a bit of a change, to make it a more dangerous environment. I can understand why some people didn't like Fayre: arguably it was more like "a tug of war in fancy dress" than actual LARP. On the other hand, I've been to a few fancy dress parties, and I've never had the opportunity to play medieval games (e.g. at a Renaissance Fair), so it sounds like fun. Anyway, for better or worse, things were different this year.

There was also an election going on: IC this happens every 101 years, and decides whether the Court of Crimson or the Court of Gold will be in charge. In basic terms, Gold have been in charge for a very long time, and their policy is to stick to the status quo. In particular, they have a mist around their land which traps (most) creatures who try to attack, and they're quite happy to sit inside and mind their own business. Crimson would be much more active about going out into the world: this might make them a powerful ally, but it could also make them a potential enemy in the future. When the event started on Friday evening, I spent some time sitting at the Round Table while people discussed this. My biggest concern was that if the Crimson court won the election and dropped the mist then this would unleash all the monsters who've been trapped inside; the Crimson representative freely admitted that he had no idea how many there were, but he was confident that the Fae would be able to handle them. Based on that, I decided that I'd vote for Gold.

Meanwhile, a new officer took charge of our unit (the Arcane Tempest). We discussed my career plans on Friday evening, and specifically my inability to use a sword. He then told me that I was booked in for a ritual on Saturday which would address this. Basically, I could sacrifice some other skills (definitely my literacy, possibly my numeracy too) and in return the ritual circle would hopefully grant me a new skill. I was aware of this possibility last month: "Using a sword rather than a dagger should help, and there are a couple of options for achieving that." However, I deliberately didn't go into details because I didn't want to jinx it. Ritual magic isn't entirely predictable, so the results can't be guaranteed in advance; the rules specifically mention "catastrophic failure" as a possible outcome.

We also discussed my name. IC, I didn't have a surname, because my first name was sufficiently unique within the scope of my village (Stonegate). When I joined the warhost, I introduced myself as "Cedric of Stonegate", but that was enough of a mouthful that everyone just called me "Cedric". So, after I enlisted in the AT, I then became Cadet Cedric. However, everyone else in the unit uses their surname, so we agreed that I'd become Private Stonegate if and when I got promoted.

The tests began on Friday evening, then continued on Saturday. These involved genuine (IC) injuries, e.g. when I took the Corporeal test the Fae said "bring a friend". They took him away, stabbed him in the chest, and called me in when he was bleeding out on the ground. So, if I hadn't cast the correct spell, he would have died. That seems a little harsh for the sake of a competition. Similarly there were tourneys (hand to hand combat between groups of knights) where several people were mortally wounded, and the Fae refused to let any healers enter the arena until the contest was over. As far as I know, nobody actually died in any of these "games", but it severely depleted our stock of spells.

A bit later on Saturday, I sat down outside the arena with a drink to watch the next test. However, the Merlin then called out for magic users (4 from each sphere); in particular, he said that he needed some greater Corporealists, and if he didn't get enough people then he was in imminent danger of death. So, I stepped forward to help out, and then the whole group was teleported away. (OC, this meant that a referee called for a "time freeze", then everyone else shut their eyes and hummed while we all dashed off to a different field, then the referee called "time in" and people opened their eyes to continue the game as if no time had passed.)

When we all arrived in Manx, our mission was to find a pillar and unlock it to wake up the land (a sleeping giant). Unfortunately, there were a couple of "constructs" (monsters) guarding the pillar. So, we spent a while fighting/dodging them, while other people tried various ways to deal with the pillar. At one point, I saw several people hitting it with swords! I was able to blind one of the constructs with my magic, then hit it a few times with my dagger, but that didn't have any noticeable effect. Other than that, I kept an eye out for anyone who was wounded so that I could heal them up.

The next part is all a bit of a blur, but I think this is roughly what happened. I saw someone lying on the ground (mortally wounded) so I went over to heal him. This put both of us on the far side of the pillar/constructs from the rest of our group. After I healed him, I saw a construct coming towards me. They weren't very fast, so I could have run away, but I took a moment to check how much magic I had left in case I could cast any useful spells against it. So, I glanced down at my chest to check my spell cards (hanging from a lanyard), then a voice behind me said "Whatcha doing?" I turned around and saw an imp standing there. I don't know where he popped up from, but presumably it was related to what everyone else had been doing with the pillar. This distracted me for a moment, and I turned back to the construct just in time to see his hammer come down on my head. OC, this was just a gentle tap, but IC it caved in my skull so I collapsed on the ground and started my death count.

This wasn't the first time I'd been mortally wounded, and I knew that we had a few other healers there, so I wasn't too worried. I had my eyes closed, so I couldn't see what was happening, but I got a rough sense of where the voices were coming from. It sounded as if the rest of the group (including the guy I healed) had all gathered on the far side of the pillar, and they were ready to return to the teleport point. I then heard this conversation (with my unspoken thoughts in italics):
"Do we have everyone?" "Yes." "No, you don't, I'm still here!"
"Are you sure?" Yes." "No!"
"Let's do a headcount. 1, 2, 3, ... 11." "There are 12 of us!"
"Where's Stonegate?" "I'm here!"

They then spotted me lying on the ground, but they couldn't get to me with the monsters in the way. By this time there were at least 2 imps (as well as the original 2 constructs), and some kind of spirit who'd been trapped inside the pillar. The seconds ticked by, and eventually my 2 minutes ran out. When I've been monstering, this is the point where I put 1 finger in the air (to show that I'm OC and therefore invisible to the characters) and move away from the area. However, when I opened my eyes and sat up there was a referee who told me to lie back down. She said that I could move over into the shade and drink some water if I wanted to, but I was ok where I was, so I lay back down and closed my eyes.

Some of the others from our expedition then got a bit closer, and the imps helpfully informed them that my head looked like a smashed watermelon. The others wanted to reclaim my body so that they could take it home, and the imps offered to negotiate. This moves into the tricky territory of "making deals with demons", and one person almost agreed to let them possess him before he realised what he was committing to. In the end, the deal was that they could take my body back if they could tell a joke that would make the head demon laugh. The joke was "Is it solipsistic here or is it just me?" which actually worked, so the others picked me up and took me back to the teleport point. (IC, 3 of them were carrying me. OC, I walked along with my arms around their shoulders and my eyes half open so that I wouldn't trip over anything.) Just as we were about to teleport back, there was an earthquake that knocked everyone to the ground, possibly from the land waking up. The rule for teleporting is that you have to be touching someone else (a daisy chain effect); the others "dropped" me during the earthquake, then I wound up at the bottom of a dogpile when a few of them jumped on top of me to stop me being left behind.

Another time freeze got us back to where we started, so everyone who'd seen us go then saw us reappear. OC, we walked back to the arena then arranged ourselves in the same pile as before, so when the referee called "Time in" everyone started to stand up. The people outside the arena (including the Sergeant Major and Captain from the Tempest) then realised that I wasn't getting up. After a quick report from the survivors, the Tempest then carried me back into our camp, and laid me down next to our tent.

Up until this point, I wasn't too bothered about dying. It was unfortunate, but these things happen, and it was my own fault for getting distracted. I could have ignored the imp rather than turning around, but equally if he'd been hostile rather than mischievous then he could have struck me from behind before I even knew he was there. OC, I'd also considered retiring this character and creating a new one as an alternate way to get the sword skills I needed (rather than doing the ritual); I didn't want to do that, but it was an option, especially since I couldn't afford to pay for the ritual on my own. This all happened about 3 hours before I was due to do my ritual, so it was similar to a story where a cop gets killed on his last day before retirement (as parodied in films like The Last Action Hero). The actual injury wasn't traumatic at all, and I've died several times while monstering, so this was all fairly familiar. My main concern was that I didn't want the Sergeant Major to blame herself for this, because I knew that she'd taken it badly (IC) when she lost several people on a scouting mission at a previous event.

It only really started to sink in after I was on the ground again, and people gathered around to pay their respects. This basically meant that I was attending my own funeral, and it was actually quite nice: someone put copper coins over my eyes, and then I listened to people saying kind things about me. In particular, the Sergeant Major asked permission to promote me, and the Captain agreed that I'd be entered in the book of the dead as Private Stonegate. I wasn't expecting that at all, and I was quite moved by the gesture.

When that finished, I got out of their way and went to the tavern for a drink. However, one of the other guys spotted me in there and advised me not to go too far, because they'd need me for a final task. There's a Shaman spell called "Speak With Dead": if you have a dead body then you can summon the spirit back and ask it 3 questions, which the spirit has to answer truthfully. I think this would normally be used to interrogate an attacker, e.g. "Why did you attack us? Who sent you? How much did they pay you?" In this context, it can also be used to get some final words that are a bit more eloquent than "Huh? What? Aargh!"

I'd heard of that spell, but never actually seen it being cast. The Tempest found an experienced player to handle this and he guided me through it. I'd assumed that I'd stand up and talk to them face to face (a bit like Yoda or Obi-Wan appearing to Luke as Force ghosts in Star Wars), but in fact I stayed lying down on the ground, in the same position I was in before. The Sergeant Major told the shaman which questions she wanted to ask, he whispered them in my ear, then I whispered my answers back to him, and he relayed them to the onlookers. In other words, the shaman is the only person who has direct contact with the spirit, and they could ask different questions or keep the answers to themselves, although they wouldn't do that in a situation like this. One advantage of this method is that I heard all the questions before the shaman spoke to me directly, so I had a bit of time to plan out my answers.

Q: "What does he want us to do with his remains?"
A: "I died as a member of the Arcane Tempest and I'd like to be buried with them."

That was fairly straightforward; I assume that IC there's a veterans' graveyard back in Santia.

Q: "Is there anything we need to know?"
A: "This wasn't Sergeant Major [name redacted]'s fault."

I'd planned to elaborate on that, by saying: "She didn't order me to go, and she wasn't leading the mission." However, I literally couldn't get the words out, because I couldn't keep my voice steady. The shaman paraphrased this a bit, saying "He wants you to know that there's nothing you could have done."

Q: "Does he know how proud I am of him?"
A: "I do now."

By this point, I could feel tears running down my cheeks, and I'm glad I had a short answer prepared because I was almost sobbing. After that, the spell ended, so I made myself scarce; it's going to put a strain on their immersion if I'm hanging around nearby.

To a non-roleplayer, I realise that this probably all seems like a big fuss about nothing. After all, I haven't really died, and I can rejoin the game with a new character. Thinking about some of the computer games I've played (e.g. multiplayer Doom), I died a thousand deaths, but I didn't expect the other players to give me a minute's silence; I'd just respawn with an identical character and carry on. I haven't played any MMORPGs, but a former flatmate used to play Ultima Online. As far as I can tell, there isn't much roleplay in terms of personalities, partly because there isn't much downtime: people log in to do what they need to do (e.g. combat or stocking up on equipment) then log out for a while. At LARP, you get some interesting conversations during the quiet moments, e.g. debates about the ethical implications of using zombies as unpaid labour, or singing together, or telling silly jokes. At the same time, I think that you need the plot/action to give you things to talk about, e.g. "Who are you going to vote for?"

When I've spoken to people about LARP, some of them ask "How do you win?" The answer is that you don't; it's not that kind of game. Similarly, you don't get a score. You just play until you stop, and the only way to tell how well you did is the legacy you leave behind. So, I think it's a bit like real life in that regard.

Similarly, one of my regrets is that I didn't get the chance to talk to the Sergeant Major IC about my guilt from last month (when she was abducted). We spent several hours together at this event before I died, but I was waiting for the right time to bring it up, and I waited too long. So, maybe that's another metaphor for real life: if you have something important to say then make time for it. I also remember something that Peter David wrote in the "Spider-Man: Death of Jean DeWolff" TPB. Basically, some readers had complained about killing Jean off because she had lots of potential for future stories; his response was that death is supposed to be a tragedy, not just a way to clear the decks of people who've outlived their usefulness.

After this, I took a long lunch while I figured out what to do next, i.e. which skills I should pick for my new character. When other characters died late at night, the players waited until the following morning to introduce their new characters, but I didn't want to miss the rest of the day.

I definitely wanted to stay with the Arcane Tempest: I like the group concept (battle mages/skirmishers) and the people. Also, from an OC point of view, I've just bought the uniform (coat and tricorn hat) and I never actually got to wear the hat as Cedric! That simplified things a bit, because some of the choices were made for me:
* 11 points for greater magic (in any sphere).
* 2 points for 1-handed weapon (e.g. a sword).
* At least 1 point for contribute to ritual.
That's 14 points total, and I'd only have 19 points for this character (rather than the 20 I had for Cedric), so I basically had 2 decisions to make:
* Which sphere of magic should I specialise in?
* What should I spend the other 5 points on?

With Cedric, the key concept was to be a healer. However, I haven't performed a great deal of surgery (I normally used magic to heal people), and ditching that skill would save me 4 points. I originally chose that skill as a bit of a security blanket: I was confident that I could do a decent job of roleplaying the first aid, based on my SJA experience. However, I now have enough LARP experience that I can branch out a bit. On the other hand, I wanted to stick with Corporeal magic, mainly because it's taken me so long to learn all the spells. I'm familiar with the Shaman/Mage spells, i.e. I know enough to react if someone casts them against me, but I don't know all the cantrips to cast them myself, or which spells are greater/lesser, or which ones have to be cast by touch. I had a digital copy of the rules on my e-reader (in my tent), but this didn't seem like the right time to do a frantic cramming session. That said, I do want to learn the spells for all 3 spheres eventually. There are times when I go monstering and they ask for someone to be a Mage/Shaman, so I'd get the opportunity to use the spells that way. Anyway, I stuck with Corporeal this time. I kept numeracy (being able to count higher than 10), which cost me 1 point, but I ditched literacy; that fits in with what I'd planned to do during the ritual, if I'd survived that long. I spent the other 4 points on contribute to ritual, giving me 5 points total on that.

As for my name, I already had "Private Godfrey" in mind, but I didn't want to be too blatant about copying Dad's Army. So, I made Godfrey my new forename, then tried to think of a suitable surname. I settled on "Groat" (copied from one of the Discworld characters in Going Postal); this meant that my initials would be "GG", which is alliterative and sounds a bit like "gee gee" (slang term for horse), and I hoped that it would fit in with some of the other names from the unit (e.g. "Private Practice").

Once I'd decided on this, I went along to "GOD" (Games Organisation Desk) to swap over my character card. While I was there, I handed in the money and "lammie" (laminated card) for a magic item that I'd been carrying. That was based on what I'd read in the rules, but it turns out that I shouldn't have done that; since my friends had recovered my body, they could "loot" it, i.e. take the valuable stuff that I was carrying. (I confirmed this on the rules forum after I got home.) I'll know better if I die again, but I think this point is a bit confusing for new players.

I then went back to camp, and reported to the Captain as my new character. (The handwaving explanation in these cases is that the new person has "come up from the baggage train" or similar, which coincidentally happens just after someone else has left.)

My first job was to go to the ritual circle, along with the rest of the Tempest. Since Cedric didn't need his ritual anymore, it was swapped around to be a "maintenance" ritual for someone else instead (renewing existing abilities). The original plan was that we'd all go into the circle, but when we arrived the lead ritualist said that she didn't need us, so we'd wait outside instead; fair enough. However, when I then mentioned that I could contribute "one hand of power" by myself, she was quite impressed, and decided that we would go in after all. Cedric could only contribute 2 points, so I didn't get the same reaction with him; I took part in a huge ritual at my first event in May, but at the second event in June someone turned down my offer to help. Basically, it's a balancing act: the more people you have involved, the harder it is to make it coherent, by giving everyone a specific role to perform. So, you want to maximise the points (power) and minimise the number of people, which means that you'll pick the people who can contribute the most. In a way, this reminds me of the group magic from Diane Duane's cat wizard books; in particular, one member of the group (Urruah) has the main role of being the power source for each spell, while the other cats channel that power.

We didn't have time to rehearse the ritual in advance, but the Tempest role was fairly simple: we stood equally spaced around the edge of the circle, then joined in with the chanting. Standing still turned out to be a bit of a test of self-discipline, because it was a hot day, and I could feel my face itching as I sweated, so I had to resist the urge to wipe the sweat away. Aside from that, I think that the chanting went well: we didn't have specific cues to stop, so we just had to pay attention to what other people were doing, and work out when the end of the sentence (in that particular iteration) would coincide with a natural breaking point. It all ran like clockwork; possibly a little bit too much like clockwork, since a couple of other participants started to get turned into constructs (like the thing that killed Cedric), but the ritual succeeded and there was no permanent harm done.

Later on, I went out of camp with the Sergeant Major and one of the crew of the Santia Maria (IC, that's the ship that moves the Tempest around, i.e. the crew is an affiliated group). When we got to the end of the path, she sent us off in different directions to look for someone; we followed her orders, but when we got back she was gone. We went looking for her, and it turned out that she'd been abducted again, by the same enemy as before (she'd been possessed, and that's why she ordered us away).

This was a slightly tricky situation to roleplay, partly due to IC/OC issues. OC, I didn't actually realise that she was being kidnapped, but there were a couple of red flags: I saw a referee talking to her before we left camp, and I could see the person that we were looking for eating dinner in the OC camping area. However, the referees and the OC area are invisible to characters, so IC I couldn't act on this knowledge. I don't know whether I overcompensated; I'd like to think that Cedric wouldn't have gone off and left her alone, since he was still guilt-ridden after what happened last month, but Groat didn't know anything about that. Since he was following a direct order, I/he didn't feel guilty about this incident, but I was happy to learn better for the future, and she made it very clear that nobody should be out on the paths alone.

More generally, the Sergeant Major enlisted Cedric and taught him almost everything he knew about the Arcane Tempest, whereas Groat was trained in Santia (with several other AT) and he'd only just met her, so he wouldn't have any particular loyalty there, beyond a general sense of duty to the group. This is where I'm glad that we now have a Captain: he ordered me to keep her in my sight after that, which gave me an IC reason to do what I already wanted to do OC, and if she ordered me away again (possessed or not) I could simply say "Sorry sir, he outranks you."

We then went to the Fae (and a few other people) asking for help. The Court of Gold basically said "Tough luck, you haven't been harmed, not our problem." The Court of Crimson said that they'd cheerfully bump off the kidnapper if they were around, so we should call them if we saw him again. Based on that, Groat decided that he'd be voting Crimson; OC, I still thought that Gold was the best choice, but IC Groat didn't have the same information as Cedric, since he wasn't around the previous evening.

Later again (22:00-00:00), our faction took a break from our characters to go monstering. I still haven't actually won any fights, but I think I am surviving a bit longer before I die (e.g. I was able to parry a few blows with the sword/shield that I borrowed) so hopefully my combat skills will gradually improve with practice. When we went to attack the Teutonian camp, a few of us were playing beastmen: the basic idea was that we'd sneak up the path, then charge out at them. It was dark by this point, but we decided to be ultra sneaky and go through a ditch rather than following the path. The referee who was supervising the attack stayed on the path, and when he saw us down there he asked: "What the hell are you lot doing? No, seriously, what are you doing?" This strategy turned out to be slightly less effective than we'd hoped, since the ditch ended next to the path so we had to climb back out before we could get into the camp. However, the next time around we went a bit off at an angle from the path, and found a good hiding place. While we were waiting to attack, we heard some other people (from a different faction) taking a shortcut to their own campsite. I crouched down, and we all stayed completely still/quiet, and they stomped past about 2 metres away with no clue that we were there. That was quite satisfying, and it bodes well for future scouting missions when I'm in character.

As a more general point, I think it's ok to transfer this kind of experience between characters. Groat wasn't there when Cedric died, but if I as a player learn to be more aware of who's around me then I don't think that's cheating.

On Sunday morning, someone else lent me a magic sword to guard the camp ("Sir Cadawyr's Vengeance"). This is a nice fringe benefit to getting the sword skill: it's not just that a sword is a better weapon than a dagger, it also means that I can use specific swords which have special abilities. As it turned out, I just held onto the sword until I returned it to the previous holder, but I felt better knowing that I could wield it if necessary.

In the afternoon, we went into battle. I healed up one of the senior people from our faction when he was mortally wounded, and I ran up to fight next to the High King when he was outnumbered. Granted, I then got knocked down and had to be healed myself, but at least I was able to divert their attention away from him.

The event ended with the results of the vote (a 3rd party candidate won after a late entry), then we all packed up to go home.

So, I now need to decide what to do about the next event; do I stick with Groat, or retire him and pick a new character? The main problem is that he feels too similar to Cedric, and a few people called me by his name/rank. So, IC and OC it feels as if I'm standing in a dead man's shadow. The real reason for this is that both characters are basically me. Cedric had started to diverge (via his guilt and conflicted loyalties) but that was cut short when he died. Groat may get to the same place, but then I'm just rehashing the same story again. I've made an effort to distinguish the characters, e.g. with their voting preferences, but really that just means that Groat is Cedric with amnesia; their personalities and skill sets are still pretty similar. If someone had to describe Cedric, I suspect that the key points would be:
* Did a lot of healing.
* Crap in a fight.
Both of those points apply to Groat too, even without the surgery skill.

Plan B is that I go for a different sphere of magic: probably Mage, so that I get a lot more offensive spells. That should make me more effective in a fight, and if I can't heal people then I'll have to behave differently. Basically, I'm thinking about Scrappy Doo: "Let me at them, I'll go out there and splat 'em!" (I know he's not very popular amongst adults, but I liked him when I was in the target age group.) This may mean that he initially treats the war as a game, until he learns that (IC) it's a bit more serious than that.

If I survive the next event then I can add a "veteran pick" to my skills sheet. If my character has to stand by helplessly when people are dying because he can't heal them, that would give him an IC motivation to pick up lesser Corporeal magic as a vet pick. So, I'd come back to healing from a different direction. (It would take me about 3 years to get greater Corporeal and surgeon/literacy this way, i.e. to restore Cedric's skillset, and I'd need a ritual too.) Alternately, if there are enough other healers around to deal with it all, I may be able to choose a completely different skill for my vet pick.

At the same time, this is supposed to be a fun activity. The whole reason I joined SJA in the first place is that I wanted to know what to do if someone keeled over in front of me at a railway station or whatever. I'm far more likely to encounter that situation within the game, so will I just make myself miserable if I can't help them? That would be good for the character, but maybe not so good for me as a player. Then again, maybe the point (or a point) of roleplay is to make different choices, and move out of my comfort zone?

The thing is, I enjoyed playing Cedric, and in an ideal world I'd like to keep doing it. I.e. I'd rather play that old character than any hypothetical new character who can blast enemies with fireballs. However, I can't do that, because he's dead. So, I need to accept that, and move on.

Maybe I should have taken a longer break between characters, rather than jumping back in with Groat. Apparently when people do weekly roleplay groups, if a character dies then the player would typically skip the following week's session. In this case, I could have hung around in the tavern (OC) to watch the contests going on in the arena and gone out monstering on the Saturday evening; delaying my new character wouldn't mean spending the rest of the weekend in my tent. On the other hand, I'm glad that I didn't miss out on the events that went on (e.g. the kidnapping). Also, I really liked the "Wow!" reaction to my ritual power, and the Captain talked about lending me out to other groups to help with their rituals. So, I'm glad that I had a chance to try that out, and if I do go for a new character then I'll definitely keep that element. (In fact, with a new 20 point character I could push it up to 6 points of contribute.) This will give me a chance to interact with more characters/factions, and it's always useful to build up a bit of goodwill in case I get into trouble on the battlefield; hopefully someone will be more likely to rescue me if I've previously done them a favour.

So, final thoughts. It was a good event, and I got lots of new experiences. I'm sorry that Cedric died, but his final mission was a success, and I'd like to think that he contributed to that. If he hadn't died, I wouldn't have been able to attend his funeral, i.e. that's the price I had to pay for a highlight of the weekend. I'm not sure where I'll go from here, but I'll definitely be at the next event in August. It's not too far from London/Oxford, so if any of my local-ish friends would like to come along and try it out, I'd be happy to show you around.

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