I’ve just played Exodus 22:18, a witch-hunt larp by Michael Tice. The game is pitched as a dark exploration of why witch-hunts happen, and the briefing is heavy on themes of betrayal and the need for a safe-word. In practice, it played as a comedy. The core problem? When most kiwi larpers think of witches, we think of this:
Or maybe this:
To modern, secular kiwis the medieval view of witches as literal servants of the devil who fly around naked and sour milk is inherently ridiculous. So a game which asks you to buy into this then accuse your neighbours of it on the flimsiest of “evidence” is fighting an uphill battle. You can go into it with the best of intentions, but its hard work to hold the mood. All it takes is one person to laugh, and it sets everybody off.
(There’s also an element of you have to laugh or you’ll cry, because there was real persecution, resulting in tens of thousands of executions. Accusing someone of witchcraft means they would be imprisoned and almost certainly tortured before possibly being murdered. Humour is a psychological defence against this horror)
So how do you stop this from happening? Provide more support for the players so they don’t have to work as hard to overcome their inner incredulity. Exodus 22:18 (Tice) was an intentionally “thin” game in the Nordic tradition: a deliberately undefined setting (“somewhere in Europe in the 1500s”), characters identified only by their profession with the merest skeleton of detail, with the players being expected to fill in the huge gaps. The only really solid part of the game was that all characters were required to believe (or at least profess) the medieval view of witches.
We can compare this with another game, with the same title, which ran at Hydra a few years ago. That game was (more normally for NZ) a “thick” game, explicitly based on the Trier Witch Trials and with fully developed setting and characters. Most importantly, the network of secrets, sins and grudges was real and established rather than being a shallow and formulaic sketch, and there was a range of views on the existence and nature of witches. Plus the Inquisitors were outright nasty, and the horror was in your face rather than being pushed neatly into the future: they put people to the question in-game, and the screaming was hard to ignore. There wasn’t any laughter in that game, because the design made it easy to get into and stay in the required headspace - so much so that our Inquisitors felt they had to shower afterwards to cleanse themselves of the role.
Maybe the Tice game worked better in its native California, or with the Nordic audience for which it was written. Maybe we’re all just shit roleplayers. Or maybe, design matters, and it can make the job of the players easier or harder. Contrasting two games with the same premise but different designs, I think its the latter.