(Content Warning: mentions LARP sucide, real life bereavement and real world mental health, is a very rambly ramble about a LARP with way too many digressions AND contains Spoilers for The Castle LARP)
Photos by Míša Portychová
So, The Castle, whew. It was amazing. Despite all my nerves, and I had many, I came out of that game really feeling like I was a decent enough roleplayer to play as well as that game needed me to. I’m not getting into a bollocks definition argument today, it self-described as Nordic LARP and took place on multiple levels, the characters were people who had for various reasons decided to enter what was basically a Cult and take lots of drugs and get enough hypnosis that they could believe that they were the Personas that they took on in there. Essentially they LARPed incredibly unhealthily without timing out for twenty years and obviously they roleplayed the Court of King Pellam, loosely based on their interpretations of vaguely Arthurian myth.
I got a drop out spot with scant weeks to go, in some ways that was a blessing because I think I might have been too stiff for that role if I’d had time to over-prepare and get into my head. In any case, my character sheet had the Persona full in it, implying to me that Catelyn the Free was Very bought into the Charade but it suggested that she might break Charade when she was drunk and that she was running away from some sort of demons. I didn’t feel like I could go into the game without knowing how I was going to play Catelyn slipping in and out without knowing what I was slipping in and out of. So I took a couple of the suggestions on the sheet and Jennifer Stinton was born, specifically to a military family, grandfather, father, brother all in the army and so was she. Now I think the idea of the role originally was that she was a bit younger so maybe wasn’t actually supposed to have served but ducked out after training but the thing is, I’m forty I may as well play closer to the age I am and give a little more to the tale than would perhaps look real on someone in their twenties. So I decided she’d done one tour in Afghanistan, stole a bit from a previous character that I’ve played and gave her PTSD from Khandahar. She started an English degree but then dropped out of therapy and her course and started looking for something else, she’d tried a couple of communes but in The Castle she could forget entirely modern life.
Except for when she couldn’t and that’s what alcohol and Elixir are for of course.
I like to do my calibrations before we get to time in (and given I was late to the workshops I was glad I did) but one thing that definitely changed when we got to the actual LARP was how comfortable I was with actual physical touch. Maybe I’m getting over the pandemic…
I had half an idea she might have more flashbacks to Jennifer than I actually played through in game but one thing I’m quite glad I sorted out pre-game was Heloise seeding that Catelyn was actually some kind of warrior. Of course Catelyn vehemently denied it, but that vehemence got more so everytime it was repeated. I had half an idea to maybe do a blackbox scene of her having full PTSD in a therapists office but I got too invested in Catelyn to want to explore Jennifer much within the game. Perhaps that’s because I’m so used to games with a single flowing narrative, I need to clamber back out of my comfort zone again.
As with Together Forever time was fluid, so the setting was about eighteen months when the game was two days. One thing that I quite liked was being given a scene to start with, I do wish I’d actually calibrated that scene and how we were going to approach it a bit more specifically with the player of Godfrey though. Godfrey being the toxic masculine knight who Catelyn was completely In Love With. I’d intended to do it a little differently with Catelyn using a love potion on him after pining, but then I was enjoying the heartbreak of pining so much that I didn’t even take advantage of the Masked Ball. Godfrey was, of course, in love with The Queen and how could a vagabond poet compete with that? Well, I made her write a poem that was Definitely about Godfrey and the Princess and not at all about her love for him in full court so – y’know there was that. Aldus the Monk definitely got that one and I twisted the knife to my little poet’s heart by having her misunderstand and start looking for a Proper Lady that Sir Godfrey could marry. Such heartache.
I was very proud of myself actually, I knew I had to write poetry within the game in order to get across that she was a poet. I knew I was going to hate it because there was no way I would have the time I wanted to edit pieces. Equally I’ve won Viking Rap Battles in games before now, I knew I just needed to let it flow and it would be good enough for LARP. So I read as much poetry as I possibly could before the game, I read 14th century chivalric verse, I read a lot of Arthurian romances, I read The Wasteland. And then as soon as I was able in the pre-game calibration I warmed up with speaking, because if I can start I know that some of it won’t be shit. With any luck I figured I’d be able to write some of it down – and I did! I really did. Two people apparently thought I was a professional storyteller and I later got a compliment from a professional writer. I spoke more of it than I wrote, which seemed to really surprise and impress other LARPers. I was pretty sure it was a fairly generic LARP skill – I was basically trying to channel my favourite LARPers who I’ve seen do it. I’m suspecting that particular ability is more one that I’ve developed as a tabletop GM though.
Maybe next time I should try and sing, that really would be hard, also I’d have to actually take some singing lessons I suspect.
One thing that I wasn’t expecting was the game that I had with Maynard, the Castle Historian who was positioned as Catelyn the Free’s Best Friend, I assumed we’d be drinking buddies and maybe I would boast about the women I had laid over the course of the event. Instead he started making Arthurian literary references in amidst his mentioning Fifty Shades of Grey everytime we saw Duke Malcom (that was relevant, I swear). The amount of modern references I found quite interesting to decide what to do about, mostly Catelyn said things like she didn’t know that story if he made them too obviously modern but when he was talking Mallory (and yes ok Zimmer Bradley – I figured if it was Arthurian I was going to go with it) I could just about match and give back. So we ended up spending our time swapping references and discussing literary forms and themes, which I really enjoyed. I figured as the event continued and broke down that gradually Catelyn would be happier getting gradually more modern in her references.
My particular favourite moment came after she had told the story of Calico Jack’s last night on earth and Maynard made reference to a famous pirate sailing into the harbour, past Calico Jack’s gibbeted body as his ship sank beneath him. Catelyn said that she didn’t think he sounded like a particularly good pirate and Maynard of course responded; “But you have heard of him.”
I do love all the small moments that make up a LARP. I very much end up roleplaying for my little audience of one, I worry sometimes that that makes me a selfish player but I think I’m just about self-aware and reflective for that not to be the case most of the time. I LARP for the experience, for the feelings, for ideally the heartbreak and snotty crying. Something that turned out to be more subtle moments rather than full on gut wrenches was the relationship between Godfrey and Catelyn. After basically telling the court she rather liked him and him being very mean at the start about her poetry I had thought she might get her heart more directly broken at some point on Saturday. Certainly Godfrey’s player started out nicely by saying his impression of her poetry had improved his mood over the winter (this LARP had a fluid time mechanic) and then, well to be honest I was enjoying looking miserable everytime he went and made cow-eyes at the Queen. (Obviously he was in love with the Queen) So I never quite got around to seriously seducing him, only throwing myself onto his obliviousness, the one or two conversations that could have gone somewhere being interupted as the drama of the situation sped up, overtaking the possibility of romance. To be honest I rather liked it that way, conversations where they never quite said anything explicitly though it was entirely obvious that Catelyn wanted to be wanted and Godfrey didn’t want to have to reject her. I had been a bit worried that the fact that Catelyn was a woman made the romance between her and toxic masculine knight less interesting than when Catelyn had been Connor and played by a guy. However, I rather liked the idea that Catelyn was on some level reacting as Jennifer to a guy she had some sense of familiarity with, not exactly a soldier in the same sense as she had been but a familiar darkness.
I had hoped to have a dramatic scene when Godfrey took on the Inquisition to discover who had poisoned the King – it had been Catelyn, mazed by the Witch into doing it for the safety of The Castle and slowing the inevitable marriage of the King. However, that entire sequence was very confusing, not least because I was supposed to be not entirely aware of exactly what was going on according to the descriptions of the interactions with Sibyl (the witch) and Catelyn. I found it my most stressful LARP poisoning because I wanted to give people the chance to see it, but also I wanted to try to get away with it. Despite asking in full court who had given him his drink, and Catelyn having walked the length of the hall in a bright yellow dress and purple skirt combo… no one admitted to seeing her do it. I still don’t know if I genuinely got away with it because people don’t notice big obvious normality in a LARP or if social pressure conditioned people not to drop her in it. In anycase Lillian, the apprentice witch, eventually confessed. Though not before Catelyn had had her first threesome of the event (happened a surprising amount) to try and distract herself from the stress of it all. Lady Sibyl had suggested that before the poisoning she take Duke Malcolm to bed and pump him for information, I honestly forget about what, she did it and turned out Duke Malcolm quite fancied Lady Amabel, the ‘innocent’ who Catelyn had kissed the previous night. That player was an absolute delight, she managed to express herself as being a total innocent and very shy whilst simultaneously wanting to learn! Grabbing her for a kiss would have been much less fun if she’d just done shy! As it was it was just too much fun and I ended up pursuing Lady Amabel as a pleasant distraction whenever Catelyn was sad, after all it was just ‘comforting a friend’. Of course it meant that when Malcolm suggested Amabel and then Catelyn really needed a distraction she suggested that to Amabel… who needed basically no persuading! So that happened.
At some point the previous night Catelyn had flirted with everyone, including the Old mystic, Peregrine, who aged backwards. She made suggestive comments to him about when he got younger. Which meant that when the Tourney happened and Peregrine appeared in leathers looking quite young and handsome she could only really do one thing. See, immediately before his appearence the ladies of the court had given their favours to the knights and Catelyn had gotten sad because everyone wanted Godfrey to wear their favour (I’m pretty sure the actual favours also conferred magical effects or possibly only Lillian’s did because witch), sigh’s Catelyn how could she compete. Honestly I don’t know if anyone other than Amabel and Yvette were noticing Catelyn’s mooning because I was varying from over the top to really too subtle. Anyway, a raggedy scrap of cloth was Catelyn’s favour and she was delighted that Peregrine agreed to wear it. He subsequently lost to Princess Miranda and when the Princess demanded she receive Catelyn’s favour I kinda didn’t want to remove it from a knight, so I gave her one that looked identical but was grey so as to go with her dress. On her wedding night her husband found that favour in her bra! Which again – delighted me.
My boundaries for romantic play have, over the pandemic, gone back and forth and back again. I genuinely thought I would be up for far less touching than I was in the end and that includes men. I need to get into better habits with calibrating boundaries, I was actually shocked at how often I forgot to do so, but then it occurred to me, I am used to playing a sex worker. When I calibrate boundaries as Liissa I do so after physically walking into a tent and before people take any clothes off, there’s a very physical and standard transition to take advantage of and necessitate explanation of what the play options are when they’re literally just about to be there. What I need to do is be aware that I’ve been relying on this and get into organic calibration without the structured transition I’ve been too used to having. Having said that, I was concerned I wouldn’t be able to do justice to Catelyn in this LARP but she was so much my type of character it was unreal, I certainly wasn’t stretched in characterisation, the evidence of that is by how many characters told Princess Miranda to take Catelyn’s advice before her wedding night.
Bleed is always something that people like to warn me about when I talk about roleplaying emotional reaction by nicking things from my real life to trigger the right sort of physical responses, but to be honest as long as I’m doing it with self-awareness I’m pretty happy with it. And you know, as long as I remember to warn the other players that I like to be quite physically emotional… which as already covered, I was not doing consistently well. Generally speaking I don’t get emotional bleed, I do get very ritualistic about shedding characters though. The bleed I tend to get I suppose suits my internal play, it’s not usually about other people and my relationships with them, it’s all about me and the patterns of thinking that my brain gets into over the course of a couple of days.
Catelyn was much more prepared to act on her sexual urges than her romantic ones, she fell for the Princess and Sir Godfrey and was very aware that her social position wouldn’t allow her to act on either of these things… well, she got a lot further with the Princess than with Sir Godfrey but that’s possibly more to do with my being faced with a hot woman and a hot man and acting accordingly. Not show great awareness there I suppose. Had a lovely scene later with Sir Peregrine. The Masquerade Ball was full of craziness and of course Godfrey vanished laughing with the Queen and the Witch (who had dressed as each other – wonderful touch so Catelyn was miserable before she headed outside and witnessed Peregrine causing Duncan to be possessed at Benedict’s behest. Benedict used this pagan ritual to discover his mother had been Rosalind and at the same moment he and Peregrine discovered that Peregrine was Benedict’s father. There was much recriminating so Catelyn and Peregrine retreated in a healthy manner to down Elixir, fuck in the chapel and whirl crazily around the great hall with no one else present. I was then pretty knackered so suggested repairing to the Haystack which meant that we could lie down on beanbags, everyone passing would understand we were engaged in something sexual without the exhaustion of phys-repping and in the end we were joined by Esclamonde the Bard in yet another threesome for my vagabond poet.
Sunday was when the Charade, the drug-induced LARP that the characters had been engaging with, began to break down. I had a lovely moment with Sir Orlando who had arranged to do a women’s sword training session, well, I had basically only had the subtlest of hints about my past at that point, and most of them gentle slips with Maynard and anyone who’d asked me about why Heloise was so determined that I should go out fighting with the knights. So I had a full on, learns to swordfight, her stance radically improves and then she almost beats Sir Orlando before throwing the sword and running sobbing the length of The Castle to the Chapel. Amabel came and comforted Catelyn, then she “comforted” Catelyn. Then later I almost managed to crack in front of Sir Godfrey but I take too long over my scenes. (Side note, being raised listening to The Archers might have given me an appreciation for narratives that take a decade for their pay-off but I really need to get better at getting to where I’m going in my drama to give people a chance to join in before they need to run off). In anycase I had Jennifer’s little PTSD episode in front of Brother Aldus for whom the Charade was basically completely gone by that point. I had intended it to be a short episode and then I ended up rolling into a long and pretty full one, not so heavy on the flashbacks as I’d thought it might be but it didn’t need to be. The other player managed me pretty well in floods of snotty tears as he had no clue where my touching boundaries were or not. This is the guy who had previously said that Catelyn’s joy clearly masked her inner sadness, so I guess it was kind of a reward for making the observations I wanted made about my character.
I suppose the sidenote to that is I really was putting a lot of myself into Catelyn to bring her to life as fully as I could. At it’s the war stuff that I really draw pretty close to my genuine emotions for, because when it comes to veterans, it doesn’t matter what the wars they fought in were, I draw on the emotions I felt when we were writing the Vietnam Horror LARP and that means Dad. Because conversations with him gave me a hell of a lot of insight into that war and how I needed to write for it. All that to say that I’m already crying and describing the aftermath of an IED near Khandahar when Brother Aldus starts asking about Jennifer’s family. I claim a brother still in the service and that her father had served… he asks if her father was alive… I couldn’t stop myself. Not only was Jennifer’s dad dead I decided but I started describing his favourite poem… bloody certain that Jennier’s father had never heard of the Australian poet Banjo Paterson, let alone The Last Parade but that was what I went for, the poem I still can’t recite in my real life because it made my actual deceased father cry. I have no idea who was appreciating that scene or if I was just playing for myself at that point and making selfish use of my fellow players but I’m damned sure it looked reasonably good as a backdrop to the Castle Cult’s Charade breaking down. The bright butterfly Catelyn sobbing her heart out on a summer’s day.
And then there were people coming to various terms with what was happening, all the money funding this drug induced twenty year long LARP had evaporated and the drugs were gone, so the question then became what were people going to do. Then I had my delighted realisation, which I immediately went and triple checked, suicides were allowed. They hadn’t been specifically mentioned in the workshops though so I didn’t like to signal what Catelyn was going to do in the diary – which was an awesome OOC mechanic in the LARP – you could write your character’s innermost thoughts in them and other people could give you a chance to riff off of them without their character’s knowing this. In anycase suicide is weird, even writing about it, if someone’s struggling can set them going so I reasoned this one would need to be low-key and though I like to do things on-screen it wouldn’t be in front of everyone (that’s hard to do if you actually don’t want anyone to rescue you anyway).
I did remember to check in with the organiser about timing for this, and I didn’t immediately assume she would top herself, but the more she talked to people and thought about returning to real life as a veteran with PTSD the less she wanted to do it. Especially after Brother Aldus said ‘we look after veterans now’… oooh… I mean, as compared to many points in history sure but an overcrowded NHS and PTSD…. well, it didn’t discourage me. Making the decision to commit suicide in a LARP is a bit like the relief of deciding to do it in real life, there’s the relaxation of having a plan, and simply waiting for the right moment to enact it. Going around and saying goodbye to her friends… but studiously avoiding Maynard because if anyone was going to understand what making the free-est choice she could meant it would have been him. It was all just very good fun, also doing it by hanging herself from a tree she had enjoyed a couple of conquests beneath seemed very right. She gave one person her name outside of The Castle, Sir Peregrine who turned out to be called Peter, that seemed nicely significant. The one person that Catelyn basically told what she was going to do was the innocent who she was pretty damned sure wasn’t going to follow what she was saying, Benedict, who told her he felt that he’d grown up in a cult. She said he was lucky, that cults usually ended with the police being called or people commiting suicide. (Later, cutting her body down, he said ‘if only you’d told me Catelyn’ and then after the LARP was over the player did actually come over to say he had eventually realised I had told him.)
The suicide itself was great fun, because the big goodbye scene that everyone else planned turned into a fight. An excellent distraction as I skirted the outside of that and made my way up to the tree dropping brightly coloured props as I went (so people would know I was there). I was pretty happy with the very gentle phys-repping of the noose (didn’t tie anything, just wrapped it around my neck so it would look good from a distance) and made even happier that I dropped Catelyn’s drinking horn with the favour she had gifted Sir Peregrine as that player told me that he’d felt that upon seeing it discarded after cutting her body down. He sat with her and said that of all the people in the castle she’d been the only one to make him smile.
It was a very satisfying ending.