Translation: Anna Śliwa, Foto: Kaja Skorzyńska
With great pleasure, we are publishing the relation from our recently run larp Stairway to Heaven, written by Paweł Jasiński. Paweł is sharing his, really intense, experiences which may give more insight on what actually happen during this larp. Be warned, content may be a bit disturbing.
Before the larp
The first announcement of Stairway to Heaven made no impression on me. The setting seemed absurd, the prospect of playing the subcultures of the cold war era Poland looked dismal. I put the game off my mind for a long time.
Then out came the design doc that sported a quite intriguing (however not very legible) design concept. The document did a good job of explaining the larp, making it more credible, and gave me a clearer idea of who I could play – a punk. I decided to give Stairway to Heaven a chance.
I made up my mind to create a character with a focus on violence and lost innocence. In this I was aided by Jakub ‘Shonsu’ Barański, who created the punk gang of Moonshine Victims, successors of legendary revolution leader, The Moonshine. To make a long story short, the idea was to play on the dilemma ‘Is it possible to be a punk and not a rebel?’, and going through three stages: euphoria (when we celebrate a victory), bafflement (when waking up with a soul-crushing hangover we find out that punk doesn’t make sense) and evolution (when we decide on the further path and choose whether to stay with the New Commune). The founding father of the gang was Tomek ‘Moonshine’ Jabłoński, a friend and a mentor, who gave his life for the revolution. The idea was intriguing and compatible with my plans, so I no longer hesitated and joined the Victims. Now the only thing I needed was my character.
The design doc helped me here, with the description of mechanics called ‘Kill’em all with a brick’ and the song ‘The Murderers’ Den’ by the Polish band Kult . Drawing from them, I created the character of Zbyszek ‘Bane’ Gubiński. Bane was a thug who was happy to execute enemies of punks: skinheads, Volunteer Reserve Militia, Secret Police agents, all in the name of the revolution and the memory of his grandfather who was the member of the anti-communist Home Army during the war, executing the sentences of the Special Military Court. By filling in the (very long) submission form I managed to picture my character to myself so well that I didn’t even need a character record sheet to play. I had a very clear plan for the game – to play a veteran who is into violence and rebellion, and who’s beginning to believe that the Collective Self cannot do without these two elements. In best-case scenario, he could be a free-loader who leeches off the New Commune and looks for trouble when bored; in worst-case scenario, he could be a dangerous freak who picks up fights because he loves them.
I can’t really say I was truly involved in the pre-larp preparations. I spent some time looking for costume accessories: a spike band, sew-on badges, striped jeans, combat boots and red shoelaces. I added the final touches already at the event, like remaking a jeans jacket (it came handy for another larp as well). I felt prepared and sure of what I wanted to play.
One thing did not surprise me at all: the fact that Moonshine was killed by Black Mietek, feared leader of skinheads. The guy whose face was covered with a black scarf, was a trope similar to the emergence of Darth Vader. Black Mietek was really the same person as Moonshine, who had figured out that only skinheads are true rebels. It didn’t surprise me because it was me who suggested this plot twist to the organizers. As it turned out, great minds think alike, the StH organizers had come upon exactly the same idea.
The concept for the Moonshine Victims gang turned upside down during the group’s blackbox, because Moonshine started immediately negating the sense of the New Commune and identified it with the System (and everybody knows what punks do with the System…). It was, in a sense, Moonshine’s testament because the blackbox was designed soon before his alleged death at the hands of Black Mietek. This meant that the stage of bafflement was triggered very early on. This, and the fact that the players were already pumped up for violence, was a volatile mix.
The punks, instead of being laid back (sex, drugs and rock’n’roll) started off kind of edgy, worked up by cheap wine and smelly smokes. Aggressive language prevailed and I felt like in a pack of wild dogs, ready to bite both my mates and others. The atmosphere was awesome, but soon it became so tense that I decided to look for interaction outside. My journey to see the hippies abounded in interesting events. For example, I found out what my totem animal was (Forest Fauna was able to aptly explain why a wood warbler is suitable for a punk), I cuddled with the Archpriestess, Basia Kittymeow, who enlightened me on the Love Philosophy, but I needed more. I let Edward the Rose persuade me to drop acid and visit the tripzone.
Soon enough, I found out that both the waiting room in the tripzone, and the tripbox itself (like a trip blackbox) are one-player larps: me, music, props and interior design. I understood I will only get as much from the tripbox as I let myself have. I decided I would go for it big time. My trip (or the sequence of tripboxes I was to visit) had been designed by the MG in a way to draw from the dark history of my character – it was a really dark, sad, bad trip. I was, among other places, in Hell, where I tore meat with my bare hands, and I headbanged to some depressive metal music, flailing my bowels around, then I got to the Dream of the Purists, where I found a book. I couldn’t understand a word of it, I only stained it with blood. At the end, I got to the Room of Galaxies with a vague promise of inner Peace. I had no idea, though, how to achieve it.
I figured that the hippies who lived with Psychonauts would help me interpret my trip. I was unlucky enough (or, from the player’s perspective, very lucky) to stumble upon a group of pissed skinheads, who beat me up, robbed me, and left me without my boots on the forest path. When I finally reached the hippie camp, my character was hurting, livid and miserable. It was a true crisis. The fact that the main editor of the Naked Truth, Czarek Głowacki, got attacked by skinheads at the same time didn’t make me feel any better. A retaliation party managed to capture a girl skinhead who submitted to resocialization on the hands of the Archpriestess and Psychodelic Reprogramming Clinic (it’s worth adding here that as a player I wasn’t sure if the skinheads played by the rules, luckily the next day my doubts were cleared).
The larp closed for the day with a hangout on the pier, under a starry sky, which led to the conclusion that the New Commune needs us as fighters, not as rebels. The absinthe drank in a single gulp at the Dope Bar (kids, don’t do that at home, I’m serious, I thought I would choke) and the general absence at the locations persuaded me to retire for the night.
I should point out here that my trip let me avoid a sorry situation that happened at the punk den. One of the players was eliminated from the larp as a punishment for not responding to a safety word. As other players reported, it all happened due to quick escalation of violence in a situation where no enemy (no skinheads) were present, and the stage of bafflement came on unexpectedly. The conflict was ignited by the planned election for the Supreme Punk that night. As a result, some punks stopped playing that day, and the rest of them weren’t so violent any more. This influenced my further gameplay and character interpretation. I realized that my original plan did involve playing a lot of violence (at the climax I had intended to beat up someone innocent and mercilessly kill some peaceful character with a brick), but as I saw it now, it would only spoil the game. I decided I needed to go in a different direction.
The decisions I took the previous night prompted me to write a column for the Naked Truth about the death of punk. I shared my philosophy with punks at the den, then I figured I needed to calm my doubts with some good old sex, drugs and rock’n’roll. My mood improved greatly after beating up some skinheads, and even more so after reading the ‘Ballad of a skinhead’ published in the Naked Truth (imputing that skinheads are all gay) to a captive skinhead. The ballad even included a threat of homosexual oral rape (‘kneel and yawn, bastard’), which was luckily for the skinhead interrupted by Big Momma (the leader of Rastafarians), who argued that it’s better to resocialize him with sweet waffles. This scene proved that punks can also be sadistic freaks, which is important for further events.
Later I proceeded to the hippie camp where I skinny-dipped in the lake. I thought, what the hell, and dipped my bare ass in the water. Nakedness was by no mean erotic in any way, it was liberating and unifying. A downside of that scene was the fact that there were quite a few fully dressed on-lookers on the beach, however some of the managed to play well (the boy-scouts covered their eyes in embarrassment). Then it was all a downhill ride: the Holi Festival when we threw colour powder at each other, the Roll Call for the Fallen, when we threw up from the stage, drenched people with beer, exposed our asses and picked up girls punk style (‘Hi, babe, wanna jump into the bushes with me?’). Crayfish produced his immortal line then: ‘Today we remember those who died, so that now we can run around with our dicks out’. The Roll Call closed for me with dripping more acid in the hope of getting a better trip. In vain, as it turned out, but let’s not get ahead of our story. This way or another, this sequence of events demonstrated how well Argos can implement different rituals as elements of game design, and the idea of having a game schedule worked perfectly well.
Shortly before I arrived at the tripzone, I needed to pee. Hardly did I manage to undo my zipper when I heard somebody yell ‘Bane! Bane!’. I jumped out of the privy and there I saw Black Mietek who was challenging me for single combat. What was I to do? I pulled off my shirt, I faced him in a circle of other punks and the fight started. When Mietek fell to the ground I pulled the black scarf off his face, found Moonshine’s mirror sunglasses in his pocket and then I understood who I had killed.
I’m not entirely sure what happened later: shouting, pushing, lots of obscenities. Potter hit me in the face but got pulled away, a general mayhem ensued. I could hardly fathom what was going on (LSD, remember?) and Twilight finally ushered me to the tripzone.
What followed was a roller-coaster ride. During the trip, I realized that my grandfather had died because he hanged himself, not being able to deal with his wartime crimes any longer (this was not decided before the game but fitted in perfectly). I went through Hell again (first begging not to go there, then crying over pieces of meat that I hugged to my chest). Then I tried to carve Moonshine’s name on a tree trunk, to get some kind of closure, I didn’t manage to finish and got pulled off. Then I got to the Room of Galaxies again, and then to the Tree of Life. The words ‘Have you ever wondered what it means to fall asleep and to never wake?’ and a rope swing hanging there completed the message for Bane.
I came back from the trip frozen to the bone, as I continued to walk naked from the waist up and it was raining, and started looking for a rope to hang myself. In a stupor, I asked the skinheads who were getting ready for Black Mietek / Moonshine’s funeral on the stage for a length of rope. They gave it to me with the comment ‘Go hang yourself’. There were people digging a grave, I told them to dig one more, tied a knot and went to look for a tree that was fit for the purpose. Punk was dead, so Bane had to be dead too. Otherwise, someone else would finish him off, or he would do away with one of his mates.
As a player, I didn’t know if my character should hang himself or not. I was a little sorry to go off the game so soon. I decided to see how others will react, and soon enough I was whisked off to the Dope Bar, where somebody took care of the rope, someone else gave me a warm blanket, hot herb tea, a lot of hugs and tons of positive energy.
As a result, instead of hanging myself, I got to Black Mietek / Moonshine’s funeral. It was a truly sad, emotional spectacle, where adversaries (punks and skinheads) were able to shake hands and find common ground. It was then when I promised to myself that I would never kill anyone again.
A conversation with skinheads at Moonshine’s wake let to further conclusions. The skinheads were right – in spite of being openly racist, they truly were the last bastion of order, responsibility and faith in the New Commune. I realized the obvious truth: Moonshine knew that it was skinheads who were the true rebels in the New Commune because they rebelled against the new reality. He knew that punks needed an enemy because otherwise they would attack each other in fratricidal war. He knew that the difference between punks and skinheads is a thin line. What’s worse, he knew that only his death and unmasking would open our eyes, so he challenged me to single combat knowing I would kill him without a second thought.
I should add here that I had very satisfying interactions with the press. Journalists were more than happy to quote my words, I had the impression that my nickname appeared in the Naked Truth more often than other names. For me it was a perfect opportunity to collect my thoughts and figure out how my character felt. All articles (not only the ones about me) were well-written and presented a creative take on the events of the game. I this it was the best newspaper that ever existed in a larp, a valuable source of knowledge and a useful prop for creating climate (‘Hey, you, bloody boy scouts, you distribute the f***ing paper and don’t even bother to read it!’). It was a great idea to issue the paper on an on-going basis, not once a day. Thanks to that it really featured current news.
When I heard that two skinheads are giving up their racist ideology and want to continue fighting for order, responsibility and faith with peaceful means, I made my decision: if they are not skinheads anymore, then I’m not a punk. My decision was made easier by Crayfish, who attacked me verbally when he saw me wearing my jacket with the % icon on my back, the symbol of the Moonshine Victims. He told me I was no longer in the gang. I had my mohawk shaved off, and when someone told me to go wash my ass I took it quite literally and took a hot, off-game shower. Changing my clothes into a nice and freshly washed white T-shirt was like a ritual that accompanied my inner transformation. I even changed the shoelaces in my combat shoes, from red to white (I felt that the red ones symbolized the blood spilled by Bane), and I knew that now I could truly represent order, responsibility and faith.
As you can probably guess, now I looked like a skinhead (but I did not identify with the darker elements in their ideology). The Goddess of larps favored me again – when I turned up again at the game, I immediately walked into a large group of punks. It’s a long time since I have seen such a festival of hate: spitting at my shoes, death threats and similar attractions. I felt victimized, but I didn’t respond with aggression, I had finally worked out that it was the wrong way. I had to run when my mate Zdzichu tried to pull out my white shoelaces from my boots, claiming that they were ‘racist colour’. Feeling shunned I spent some time observing the stage, the concerts, the preparations for opening the Collective Self, and my former mates from a distance. It was sad and scary to see how full of aggression the group was. I felt better only after Maja (a sexy punk girl I hooked up with earlier), completely disregarding my new style, said she had missed me. Then Frank pushed me right in the centre of the mosh pit and everybody started yelling ‘Punks and skins unite and win!’. I was happy to be able to yell ‘Oi!’ with the crowd again. The ritual of entering the Collective Self started with sex in the bushes (because sex, drugs and rock’n’roll) for me, and closed with dancing round the fire. Then it all finished and although nobody knows what came next, I think we managed to create a new world which was maybe a bit better than the previous one?
After the larp
This account is an attempt at sorting out my thoughts and feelings after the game. I sorely miss a sense of closure, of leaving my character. It’s true that two parties (one after the larp and another after the whole event) helped me unwind a little, and the prizes for Best Costume and Best Gameplay definitely boosted my spirits, but I still feel unhinged. I feel like reading all the issues of the Naked Truth and listening to all tripbox recordings again. I have played in really amazing larps (Anything for N., The Boy who…, The Last Voyage, Mir), but I have always controlled my emotions and never experienced the bleeds that other, more excitable players described. But this larp left me with a baggage of very strong emotions that I have to deal with now and process them in my head. It was a rollercoaster of positive and negative emotions, one big fat psychedelic trip. I did things I had never done earlier. I don’t regret anything, but they left a trace on my soul. After Stairway to Heaven larping will never be the same for me. My gameplay filled the exact definition of an ‘extatic larp’ and it flowed entirely from the assumptions I had made. Of course, this is my subjective impression and perhaps other people’s gameplay was not so intense.