A raving review of an Elder Scrolls LARP and the tale of Inge of Winterhold.
In November 2022, I took part in the Elder Scrolls Chronicles inspired LARP vol. V: The Hold of Winter (What is LARP? See here). It was organised by the Croatian Cygnus society and was their last big adventure in Tamriel, which was originally supposed to play out in 2020, but got postponed due to the Covid-19 pandemic twice. Through sheer hype and geek dedication, both the organisers and most of the players held out and we were all rewarded with 3 days of Elder Scrolls LARP awesomeness.
First things first, the Elder Scrolls is a huge fantasy computer game franchise developed by Bethesda Softworks, with a wonderfully complex world full of all sorts of myths, wondrous creatures, magic, cultures etc.. All the games so far were set on the continent of Tamriel and evolved from the early DOS-based first game called Arena in 1994 to the modern last one called Skyrim, which was released about 10 years ago and featured a lot of dragons. Yes, the franchise is as old as me and surprisingly, despite the abundance of dragons in Skyrim and the fact that you can talk to them and ride them (!!), my favourite Elder Scrolls game is the third one by the name of Morrowind, because I am a sucker for story building. It also has the best soundtrack in my opinion, see example here. However, this LARP was set in Skyrim, which is essentially a Norse-ish frozen wasteland. On the topic of soundtracks, here is the theme for the city of Winterhold where the event took place, so feel free to play it to set the mood while I proceed with the story.
Here is the official intro of what we were getting into:
It is the 122nd year of the 4th Era. In the far north of Tamriel, the small town of Winterhold neighbours an imposing mage college, a center of arcane studies. The years and winters haven’t been kind to the towering keep that changed many faces and names over the centuries. Some have gone by, some have yet to come, but today it happens to be known as the College of Winterhold. With a decennial symposium about to take place, attracting students and masters from the entire known world, the rumors are running rampant. As with any gathering of mages, common folk prone to superstition are starting to notice ill omens – every storm, every falsely attributed glow of light, every dead animal. Irrational fears, as any educated person would conclude. Yet superstition can swallow nations. As the apprentices scurry to gain favor of potential sponsors and the citizens demand explanations, is superstition the only thing that breeds in the cold dark north?
As you would expect, superstition was by far not the only thing causing trouble and I absolutely loved the way the organisers spun the story and how they let us create a hybrid ending out of all the options they had predicted, but we’ll get to that. When we registered for the Elder Scrolls LARP, each character was listed as an archetype and since I was a late arrival, one of the few left was the town leader’s wife Inge, who was listed as the Venomous Consort. That was perfectly up my alley, because I love sneaky, manipulative characters and I believe I did her justice, because she managed to influence the events quite a lot. As it was a 3 day, very action-packed event, I’ll try to summarise the story from Inge’s perspective to give you an idea of the Elder Scrolls LARP fun, but as always, the events lived by all the other characters were a lot different even in the same setting.
The scheming and plotting account of inge of winterhold
Inge was born in Winterhold to an old noble family and bred with a fine pedigree of power games and social skills. When they were both young, she had a tryst with her future husband the Jarl, until he went out adventuring and she was left to stew at home in boredom. When he finally returned home from abroad, they got married and had a son who went on to study at the magic college in Winterhold. The years had taken their toil and as the Jarl player and I agreed: “the love had died but the trust was strong” between the noble town couple. However, Inge had a secret and that secret was about to rock the mages’ world. *evil smirk*
When the mages began arriving for the decennial symposium and strange rumours of two headed cows, bloody footprints in the snow, disappearances and octopi in grain storages started floating around town, many invented by Inge herself, she convinced her husband to gather the retinue and pay a visit to the College to remind the mages of his authority and demand answers. For Inge was in fact a descendant of the old native witches, which had been driven out by the mages when the College was formed, and she was absolutely furious that her son now studied there. She was going to use this opportunity to get her son back and bring down the College once and for all to fulfill the revenge of her ancestors. Along with a powerful grudge, she had also inherited a bit of Illusion magic, which she was not above using to manipulate people when push came to shove, however she’d never once used it on her family.
As soon as the Jarl’s party stepped through the door of the mages’ College, Inge began her smearing campaign and she complained about their flimsy hospitality and lack of control over their powers to anyone within earshot, including the mages themselves. She schemed in dark corners and plotted in broad daylight, she promised power and influence with a smile and distorted the truth with soft-spoken words wherever she could. She even recruited a very resourceful thief (upstanding citizen, in his own words) and found a willing ear in the Imperial buerocrat who was sent to investigate the doings of the College and evaluate whether the mages deserved their continued independence. As the symposium progressed with failed demonstrations of power and malfunctioning castle wards, she did not even have to try that hard to sow doubt and distrust as the mages caused enough chaos to go around by themselves.
At the heart of all the chaos was a magical orb. It had just appeared on the first day and even the masters of magic could not figure out what it meant and where it had come from. Inge had a few theories of her own, but the truth turned out to be worse than anyone had expected. The orb was a portal to the realm of Hermaeus Mora, a Daedric Prince of knowledge and memory, the Demon of Knowledge and an all around unholy entity with tentacles. Through it, anyone could petition the Gardener of Men for power in exchange for their soul after death and eternity in his realm, the Apocrypha. All they had to do, was sign the book.
Many mages were easily tempted with promises of power and lost knowledge, further proving Inge’s conviction that they were dangerous and should not be allowed to exist in Winterhold. Their own Archmage made a deal first – granted, it was for the protection of the College and those in it, but dealings with Daedra are against the law and the buerocrat dutifully noted that down. The Archmage resigned and as events got even stranger, it became clear that the College was trapped in a time warp, its inhabitants doomed to repeat history again and again. The time bubble had been cast by a former scholar whose magical experiment had gone terribly wrong and he was trying to find a way to fix it in different timelines.
All the fixes were rather deadly, however. One option was to invoke a cleansing ritual, which might save the world, but kill all participants. The other was to create a lot of paradoxes and cast magic from an Elder Scroll, which just happened to be conveniently available, but also ridicolously dangerous and impossible to read. The third was to trust in Hermaues Mora, also extremely inadvisable. To avoid certain death, everyone trapped in the College began an open competition of paradoxical thinking, and well, it was Inge’s time to shine. After such a disastrous symposium, the College was probably doomed anyway, but she had to make sure that her family was saved from the time loop first. And wouldn’t it be the perfect paradox, if the arrogant fools were to elect a descendant of the very Northern witches they had killed off and exiled long ago as their new Archmage?
She obviously wouldn’t qualify, but her son did and became the new Archmage, although it cost her dearly to reveal her secret and damaged her relationship with the people she loved most. To make matters worse, some of the mages decided to put their hopes in the cleansing ritual on top of the paradoxes and the new Archmage felt it his duty to join them or at the very least handle the most dangerous magics. So, out of love for her son and with a lot of temptation from Hermaeus Mora’s pet mage, Inge signed her name in the book in exchange for her son’s safety in the most carefully worded deal she could come up with. Needless to say, her son was furious, and in case you are wondering about the husband, somewhere along the way he decided to go off on a suicidal quest of his own due to some revelations of the past and named Inge the acting Jarl(ette). She promptly hoisted that honour on his right-hand man, after she got all she wanted, of course.
As time began to run out, the mages attempted a double ritual: they would both read the Elder Scroll and hope that enough paradoxes had been created to restore the timelines into one, and do the cleansing ritual with the volunteers. After an insane amount of magic, mayhem and heroic sacrifice, Inge was left standing in the castle courtyard with the surviving half of the mages and one weeping, very burdened son whose choice she had taken away by signing the book, because she had believed it was best for him. She also had an eternity in the Daedric realm to look forward to after death, but the world was saved and it was time to get the town of Winterhold back on track just like she always did.
Impressions from The Elder Scrolls LARp V: THE hold of winter
All photo credits to Rafael Milčić.
THe LARP mechanics
Since this is a review as well as a hype post, allow me to bore you with some LARP mechanics as well. As a game organiser for the (currently semi-active) Slovenian LARP group Belesija, I know how hard it is to set up a quality story and keep it flowing, but it is even harder to set up a believable background and really make the players feel the magic. Since the event was held in a castle (castle Bogenšperk in Slovenia, by the way, which is a lovely castle to visit even when it is not a magical college), the background was very solid and they did a really good job with the decorations. Also, I LOVED that we could actually talk to the glowing calamari orb and make deals with the Daedric prince, as there was a GM hidden under the table and the whole thing was really epic. The magic was not so easy, however, and I was quite impressed with the simple mechanics they came up with to accommodate casting spells from the different magic schools.
Each magic school had a code word for spells, for example my Illusion school had I deem thee …insert emotion… and the targeted player had to act as if they were feeling it. Unless they had that ability, they also weren’t aware that a spell had been cast on them or on anyone else around them. Similarily, if the word verily was used to describe something (mostly by the organising team), it was to be taken for absolute truth.
I was less impressed by how the switches between the roles of different NPCs (think of them as extras needed to keep the story moving) and “invisible” GMs (referees to make sure the rules are followed) were done. Because the same people from the organising team both played various NPC characters and acted as GMs, it got a bit confusing sometimes (to be fair, it always does, because there are never enough people to do everything in LARPs). They tried to solve that with nametags so that you would know who you were speaking to, but for me that was more annoying than not, specially because not every character was supposed to know everyone and we all just ended up checking the nametags. I don’t have a good suggestion for switching NPCs, beause it is difficult to change costumes fast, but perhaps the GM status would’ve been easier signified by wearing a simple full-body cloak/cover with a hood in a specific colour or something.
Anyhow, best for last, they had a black box! It was the first LARP that I’d been to with one, but I had heard of them and always wanted to see one. Unfortuantely my character did not have a black box scene, because there wasn’t enough time to have one planned for everyone, but a black box is literally a small stage box where you get to directly experience and act out a pivotal moment for your character. It can be a past memoy, a vision from the gods, a premonition, a temptation of fate where you have to choose between two paths or some other kind of story-relevant revelation and here they had a whole set up with lights and sound effects. I went to check it out after the event and it was run by Ork, a Dutch photographer who has a whole set up for this kind of thing and can help you organise a black box for your LARP event as well, if he is in the mood of course. The black box scenes were also really intense, because they were written by a psychologist on the organising team and she was also one of the two safety officers for the event. LARPs can get emotionally heavy and players can get into conflicts, so it’s always good to have someone to mediate and help make sure that everyone feels happy with the experience and safe.
Black box scenes
If you would like to know more about this Elder Scrolls LARP itself, the other characters, the logistics and for more photos, go check out the official page here. This post would’ve been entirely too long if I’d gone into even more details, so: the food was good, the people were incredible, the organisation was top notch despite all the hiccoughs, the castle is a great setting for more future LARPs and the Elder Scrolls world has a lot left to offer for future events by whoever, wherever – I’ll gladly buy another Elder Scrolls LARP ticket.
More than just playing out as an amazing event, this particular LARP also created a real community, which does not always happen. I am writing this review about 4 months after the event and our Discord server is still kind of active with the memes, inspiring artworks, fan fictions and collaboration ideas for organising future LARPs, so I hope it will stay a place for LARP discussions and connections. With that off my unusually sentimental chest, I would like to thank all the organisers and players again, as it really had been a special experience to tell this story with you. 🙂
my fan fiction
In the days after the Elder Scrolls LARP, I also wrote two short stories about Inge’s time in Hermaeus Mora’s realm. If you are an Elder Scrolls fan, you’ll find some Easter eggs in there too.
Welcome to the Apocrypha
A horde of translucent ghost bodies steps through a portal and into an oily puddle. Except it’s not a puddle, it’s a whole lake of black, oily viscous liquid, which seems to climb up their legs and tickle the edges of their senses. Can ghosts even feel things? It would seem that a soul can.
“RUDE.” A magnificent, ominous many-layered voice booms through the darkness. “It would seem that I have just been ejected from the College of Winterhold bubble by that puny excuse for a cleansing ritual with the Elder Scroll.” The Keeper of Knowledge and Memories, his lordship Hermeaus Mora himself, floats into view as a giant, thought-defying, infinitely eyed tentacleous mass. “Now here you all are, together again.”
The eyes swirl in their dark, non-existent swirling smoke sockets as he surveys the new collection of souls that had signed into his book during the Mages’ Symposium at the College of Winterhold. He is rather displeased that such a promising collection of greedy apprentices and self-serving mortals was extinguished from the mortal plane before he could properly use them and position them around like the chess pieces they were.
“Go on then, all the knowledge you wanted is right there.” One of his tentacles gestures at the infinite stack of book shelves stretching across the realm into darkness. The books are plain black, unadorned with titles or details to hint at their contents, but their lure is irresistible. It is almost as if they are whispering their knowledge into the air and the scent of it is tangible; an intoxicating assault on all senses, a veritable caress for the minds still trapped inside the souls forever doomed to walk the Apocrypha.
Some of them dive into the stacks at a run, the lure of the books too great to resist. And why resist in the first place? The books are the very prize they had bargained away their souls for. As they start to give themselves to the knowledge, their bodies begin to transform into the tentacled forms of the Seekers. All except five.
An ancient Dunmer in simple elegant robes with a weathered face stands leaning on a tall staff, the air of magicka strong around them even in their soul form. A proud Altmer with a cascade of silvery hair and noble bearing. An Imperial battlemage with a stiff posture, resigned to his fate and yet satisfied with his sacrifice, standing next to another unassuming, somewhat posturing Imperial with inquisitive eyes. Lastly, a prickly Nord woman with her chin stubbornly set as if she could change the very fate itself by looking it in the eye.
“Whatever shall I do with the likes of you? I have infinite knowledge to offer, but you refused to ask for it.” Hermeaus Mora muses, swirling his tentacles back and forth in a fascinating display of puzzlement. “I’ll admit all that sacrificing was rather endearing. Be welcome and browse the books, I suppose. No one ever finds what they seek in my domain anyway.”
“Except me, Master.” A petite Breton woman with a large, elaborate black and gold headdress smiles cheekily from atop a nearby bookshelf, her veil swirling seductively behind her as she gives a small wave. If a mass of tentacles and eyes could frown in an annoyed way, the Gardener of Men seems to do just that at her words.
The book stacks start to swell in size, further extending into every direction, and the very sea beneath the five souls seems to extend with them. They can see each other drifting further and further away, until they are left alone, never to meet again.
The Nord woman smiles bitterly at her fate and curiously glances at her hands, expecting them to turn into Seeker tentacles at any moment. “You know, they don’t actually need to do that, but all of them believe that is what a Seeker of my knowledge should look like, so they do.” The tentacled mass of the Daedric Lord of Knowledge appears behind her back, patiently waiting to see which book she will choose to read first.
“I never did put much stock in such impractical beliefs,” says Inge, glaring at the grotesque abomination floating before her: “and I don’t really like books all that much, so this will be one long eternity for the both of us.”
Inge VS Herma Mora
An endless library stretches out into nothingness, with shelves upon shelves of black books with no titles reaching into the darkness like some extremely organized tentacles. A single actual tentacle rises from the sea of roiling black oil that serves as the backdrop to the endless shelves and passageways, spreading in all directions like a greasy ink stain that has not been wiped properly off the table after a night of furious writing stupor.
The tentacle is promptly swatted away by a translucent ghost hand of a short Nord woman with a permanent frown on her face. “I have told you again and again to keep your stinky tentacles to yourself, oh Lord of knowledge, Keeper of memories and the current keeper of my very soul!” she exclaims grumpily. The nearby Seekers browsing through the shelves curiously glance her way and then continue on their quest for the knowledge that they had chosen to trade their souls for.
An ominous deep chuckle permeates the gloomy air of the infinite library. “My dear Inge, all those years and your fire is still burning as hot as ever. I wonder what knowledge and power could have tempted you in the end, if it hadn’t been for your son and your pitiful wish to protect him.” Hermaues Mora rises from the sea and floats above the book stacks in his favourite form, a slithering dark mass of tentacles with a thousand eyes that are all currently staring directly at Inge. It is disconcerting, to say the least.
“Although I am but a memory now, I refuse to read any of your cursed black books, you infernal abomination!” she pouts. But the years have in fact dulled her sharpness, as her hatred of the Daedra and other worldly principles and concerns had melted into nothing in the vastness of the Apocrypha. Since all the Seekers are preoccupied with their obsessive book browsing and the Lurkers are dumber than the shelves themselves, Inge has struck an almost cautious friendship with the Lord of Knowledge, who seems to be highly amused by the fact that she has refused to read a single book so far. Instead, she has chosen to read the people who come to his realm as Seekers and have exchanged their souls for the very knowledge she cannot seem to be tempted by.
More tentacles rise from the oily sea, seemingly at random, and a nearby portal starts to glow with a sickening greenish light. A Black book has been used and a newcomer arrives! It has been many years indeed and Inge was never able to find any of the others who had signed the damn book before the Great Collapse in Winterhold.
“Ah, the Dragonborn! I have been expecting you… Fetch Mirak, will you Inge? You are going to love this.”