Trial of Grasses: risking something you care about on a player level
We are happy to publish an article written by one of our participants. Łukasz Grabowski is describing his own experience connected with the idea he came up with and introduced to his game in October 2019 (S04E01). The text is spoiler-free. Enjoy reading. If you have any thoughts and experiences you’d like to share on our blog – contact us via [email protected].
This is an article about how during recent Witcher School larp (international Storyline 4, Episode 1) I put something immensely valuable for me in the hands of fate and how it created one of the most intense larping experiences I’ve ever had… at a cost.
I have been larping for about 4 years. During that time it has become probably the biggest part of my life. It is my main hobby, it is something that captivates me deeply, it’s where I have most friends and where my main social group is.
People play larps for different things – gaming, creating a narrative, simulation. I play mostly for immersion, for being able to feel and experience uncommon things from outside the scope of ordinary everyday life. And to do it as strongly as possible. No mechanics. WYSIWYG. I am kind of a bigger, faster, stronger type of a player. My other life passions are meditation and experiencing alternative consciousness states. But even taking all that into account, I did not expect what was coming for me here.
The Trial of Grasses
In the Witcher universe – created by Andrzej Sapkowski’s novels and the computer games – to become a Witcher one has to go through something called The Trial of Grasses. In very short it is a process during which a human becomes transformed by mutagens and surgery into an insane monster slayer… but obviously it’s not free. Except for “losing” part of one’s humanity, there is a risk of dying.
In canon – books and games – less than 1 in 10 survive that process. In the larp, we play (because of an actually very interesting plot solution) the chances of dying drop down to about 30% in-game. But on an off-game level, there is another layer of plot-armour. Witcher School is a larp in which each player decides for themselves if and how they get hurt if they die or not.
So to be able to continue the story, as this blockbuster larp consists of multiple episodes (in real life they usually happen once every few months), most choose not to die. On rare occasion some player decides to die and create a story out of that. I decide to do yet something different. I decide to roll a die.
I told the organizers to actually roll a standard six-sided die and if it falls on 1 or 2… to kill my character at the end of the Trial.
The things to live for
For the few hours before the Trial of Grasses I was super scared… both in-game and off-game. Though at this point it was hard to distinguish the two, because of the bleed I was experiencing. I know it’s not the best thing for derolling hygiene, but I want to tell the story as faithfully as possible, so I’ll describe it mostly in the first person.
I knew that I could die. I knew that every conversation, every handshake, every hug, every kiss, every exchange of looks could be the last one with that person. The important thing was – it “could be”, not “would be”. If we decide to create a story, where we kill our character at the end of it, it might create sadness, longing, etc… But not fear. Here my main emotion was fear. I wasn’t planning to die. I didn’t want to die. I had so many things to live for.
The group we had in-game – The Mindless – was absolutely amazing. The camaraderie, the dynamics, the inside jokes. We are so tight-knit even now after the game it is a wonder. I wanted to continue being one of them. This exact one of them.
The friendship – with Leeroy, fellow adept. Our characters knew each other for years. They were best friends. I didn’t want to leave him alone. I wanted so much to be at his side for the things to come in the future. Leeeeeroy!
The love interest – somehow unplanned I dived into an intense romantic story. Not the “we have 15 minutes before the class, let’s get shagging to exchange sex cards” type, but one that developed over time. One where our characters didn’t do more than a kiss, but one that felt meaningful. I didn’t want to lose it.
The conflict – I got deeply involved in a conflict between two of the NPCs. And I did it in a way, where while I was fond of the first one of them, on the outside I was showing loyalty to the second one. I was planning to use it in the future, to hurt or to kill the second one, once I gain their trust.
The addiction – I was showing it only very subtly, but my character, while being judgmental of those who use Fistech (an in-game drug), was himself overusing the witcher potions and getting addicted to them. I wanted to play up on that in future episodes.
I wanted for all of those things to happen, to continue. I did not create any closure for them. I did not make nice, complete story arcs out of them. Some of them were just in my head. Some of them were in their infancy.
I was experiencing it all on the character level, as I was scared for my life. I was experiencing it all on a player level, as I was was scared for the future experiences and episodes, that I might not be able to participate in as this character.
On the evening of the last day of the larp, we were unexpectedly sorted into groups, in which we were to go for the Trials. (Because of off-game reasons) those were different groups, than the ones we played in throughout the whole game. (Also because of off-game reasons) we were told, that the groups will start moving out immediately. I was put in group number 2… and was told that I have about 5 minutes before we leave. Group 1 didn’t even have that much.
This was the moment when it hit me the hardest. I didn’t get to say goodbye to my friend. I didn’t get to say goodbye to my love interest. I didn’t get to say goodbye to my fellow Mindless. I didn’t get to say goodbye to my Master.
I spent those 5 minutes running back and forth between anyone I could find, between anyone I cared about, to at least spend *seconds* with them. To look at them for at least a moment. I cherished every interaction I was able to make at that time. Each of them felt like the world to me. A hug. A goodbye. Receiving a Swallow (regeneration potion) from a groupmate. Each one was like a train of feels hitting me.
Then we actually waited a while longer outside the castle before proceeding to the Trials and it was very peculiar for me. The atmosphere was like on a picnic. People were mostly happy and excited. On an off-game level, this is the part of the larp, that is supposed to be the most amazing one. The one everyone is waiting for. And on an off-game level we are all looking out for each other, so everyone feels safe, so everyone feels as comfortable as possible. That is the case right?
Well, not for me. I guess I was pale. I guess I was shaking. People were asking me (in-game) – what is wrong with me. And I was replying to them – well, there is a great chance, we die tonight; there is a great chance, those are our last moments.
People were continuing their stories, trying to close up some of the plotlines, as one does at the end of a larp. I was just staring into distance and feeling that all those small grudges or errands are inconsequential. In the face of possible, unwanted death other things seem small.
I took one action though. Spontaneously I spoke with an NPC character, who I was faithful too, but I was showing otherwise (as mentioned earlier). I had this thought, that if I don’t do it, and if I happen to die – he will never know. He will never know, that I did not betray him. He will never know, that all I did was actually to support his case. If I knew, I would live, I wouldn’t have slipped that secret, as it’s a better plotline that way. If I knew, I would die, I wouldn’t have played the whole thing that way at all. The uncertainty made my play.
Then finally we started the trials. They were kind of a blur to me. Then directly before the last one – the Trial of Grasses – atmosphere again seemed to me kind of too light. People were chatting, laughing, listening to the bard playing a song… I was sitting on the floor, pictures of my last interactions with different characters flashing in front of my eyes, shouting in my mind to no one in particular “Please, don’t let me die! Please don’t let me die! …”
So then they rolled a die…
I won’t spoil any way how the Trial of Grasses looks like… but when at the end of it one of the NPCs whispered into my ear “I’m sorry, but I think you didn’t make it”… I just went numb. They threw my body into the tavern, which was adjacent to where the Trail was taking place.
Someone tried to revive me, by giving me a Swallow. It just filled my mouth and run down my cheek. Some people drank “For the fallen” over my body. Some exchanged some comments. Then they moved my body to the servant quarters (the off-game area). And the game was over for me.
But not only that game. Further games too. The ones, that are gonna be played in the next five or six episodes. The ones, that are gonna be played over the course of the next couple of years.
I put on a black cape covering me whole. I went to the third floor of the castle, where I knew I wouldn’t likely meet many players. And I haunted the corridor like some wraith of a dead adept. I sang to myself a mellow version of a song we had in-game called “Rosemary and Thyme”. It’s lyrics talk about a tavern, that is “For hungry, for weary, For richest and poor”. For everyone. But not for Deckard. Not for my character, as he was dead. I spent over an hour walking back and forth sad and sometimes crying, and didn’t even notice the time pass.
After that I went to the off-game area to share my story, fortunately having people there, who I felt comfortable and good with. I started the derolling and debriefing process. As one usually would after an intense larp. But things were a little unusual this time.
The blind luck that hit the player
Am I happy with what I did? It’s over a week after the larp now, the post-larp-blues has started to wear off already… but I’m still not sure. Probably yes, as the intensity of the experience I got out of this was superb. And I don’t mind “dying in the cold water” larp experiences, as we call them. I cherish them. I search for them.
But the thing is – after the game, and even now, I have been having very strong negative feelings on a player level. I have been sad not only on a character level, as something bad happened to the character. I have been sad and angry, that I will not be able to come to the future episodes of this season of Witcher School (at least not in a way, that I would like to). That it has come to this, not because I planned it like that, but because of some blind luck. Though… I am aware I might have not planned it directly, but indirectly I obviously did. I did design it that way.
After the game there came an urge, to somehow cheat the system. To maybe talk it out and decide my character was considered dead, but actually he survived. Or use some other twist. But it would devalue the whole thing. It would steal it from other people, who might try to repeat it in the future. Witcher School is a larp about choices. I made mine.
Do I recommend it? I can’t decide. I am rewriting this last part of this article for the fifth time.
It would create an amazingly intense situation, if a third of the players lost their beloved characters at the end of an episode and were unable to continue their story, after having lived only a small part of it. I would love to participate in, or even just see, how strong of an emotional situation this would create. But it would also create a cesspool of tough emotions to handle. For players, for the organizers, for everyone.
I’m not going to make a judgment. Everyone can make their own. If you are an experienced player, if you are a player who is coming back to Witcher School… maybe try it. And after that you can tell your version of the story, about how one can use randomness and uncertainty to enhance their larping experience, to feel fear in a way I think no classic horror larp can ever provide.
It was a blast to be Deckard of the Mindless. I would love to be him again. I can’t. I won’t. But despite it all, or maybe because of it all, I’ll always carry in my heart the time, when I was.
— Łukasz “Grasiu” Grabowski