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TESC IV: Ebonheart review

TESC is a Croatian Elder Scrolls-inspired larp, started by Marko Zadro and ran by him and his team for more than 4 years so far. During its first two years of existence, four larps were ran (the second was the one actually counted as first, as first larp was counted as playtest) which were well-received, well-visited and raised the visual level of Croatian fantasy larps.

Yet TESC IV: Ebonheart was a whole different beast altogether. General ideas were formed by organizers far before the logistics to do them became available, and 2.5 years elapsed between the previous larp of the series and this one. Also, this is the first larp so far directly inspired by the organizer's (and mine) favorite game of the series, Morrowind.

Inspired by the European blockbuster castle larps, TESC IV became the first Croatian blockbuster castle larp - although at the far lower entrance price (€85 as opposed to €500+ price typical of those). While this means production values weren't exactly as high as in those instances, they blazed past every other Croatian larp done so far (which are usually done with a budget that has 4x-10x lower entrance fee, or less), and raised a bar high in the local larp community. The Cygnus society joined the organizing team providing tons of logistic support, as did a group of volunteers who played the staff personnel.

What was new, or mostly new? Here's a few details:

  • The castle Lukavec, although already used for Croatian Conclave, was decorated by a ton of props, including fake mushrooms, skulls, an enchanting table, banners of the Empire and all Great Houses of Morrowind, and much more.

  • Full catering service - five meals prepared by the Taberna Historica, who specialize in local historical dishes. Also, they were served by the larp staff, who also did the dishwashing and plenty of other game support. Meaning us players had to pack less, and the downtime due to eating was minimal.

  • Make-up and several pieces of costume were provided by the organizers, providing high-quality look which was very unified across the in-game races and factions.
The ruleset was also heavily redesigned for this larp, going for increased simplicity and improvisation. Available here, some of the inspirations included the Demgard series, my own Terra Nova series, Black Friday, as well as several experiences from players who attended College of Wizardry. Like the larp itself (in which I also noticed some structural similarities to the Croatian Conclave), it was a mix of previous, more system-heavy and exact rulesets, and Nordic-like improvisation and trust based systems. As a result, both the system and the larp itself were designed in a way which were in some way familiar to everyone who ever played any larp (or an Elder Scrolls computer game), regardless of their background - but there were still some things to learn.

One of the things I didn't like in the rules was the lockpicking system, which was based around connect-the-dots puzzle solving, and as such was very non-visual. Thankfully, my character didn't have to deal with it - and easy locks could be bypassed by the Unlock spell for everyone skilled in Alteration magic.

Some time after we paid and signed up, we were cast and got teasers of our characters. Then a few weeks before the larp started, we got the full versions, which also included our characters' and factions' agendas, as well as the general guide to the events of the larp, covering lore and the asset trading system used by several Councilors. We were put in Facebook groups according to our factions.

Great House Redoran - Athyn Sarethi, Fathasa Llethri and Miner Arobar

Many (or most?) of the characters were pulled straight from Morrowind. I played Miner Arobar, Councilor of the Great House Redoran. Two other players played Redorans (all of us were Dunmer - Dark Elves of the setting), and we did a meeting before the larp started. A lot of the larp was shrouded in secrecy, so we were asked not to reveal too much, and we didn't really have the chance to arrange some of the stuff with players of the other characters - even if our characters knew them in the backstory.

Week before the larp started was hectic regarding preparations, as my wife made large parts of my costume, and one for our friend, and various people were at my place to try out some gear. In the end, we ended up partially equipping five players other than me - with latex weapons, armor, clothes, or more. The Hungarian players who arrived also brought a lot of their extra weapons, which they lent to other players, since Croatian larpers who own non-boffer fantasy weapons are in the minority. I arrived to the larp with my friend Gabriela, whom I met in Berlin and who flew in all the way from UK.

The event started on Friday with pre-game workshops. They were supposed to start at 15:00, but they started a few hours late due to various players being late. As such, they ended up later than they were supposed to, and they were cut a bit shorter than they were planned. The workshops went through all the rules - I thought they were a bit too long, but there were plenty of players who had a lot of questions about the details, so it would seem they were necessary since players arrived from vastly different backgrounds and larp cultures. We went to sleep after that (sleeping was on the council room floor), since the wake-up was at 8 AM.

Saturday morning started out of character, after waking up and preparation we had breakfast and makeup done by a group of organizers, staff and volunteers - us Dunmer players were airbrushed first, and then we went to the contouring station, and there were different workflows for different races. Group photos were taken then, and we were late again - instead of planned start around 10 AM, we actually started to play around noon.

We started with our introduction at the castle grounds, after which we made our way to the council chamber. The first day basically consisted of several council sessions, in-between which we had breaks which allowed us to play with characters who were not a part of the council, as well as have lunch and dinner.

Basically, us characters on the council had a vastly different play than those not on the council, with interaction limited to when we had a recess. Frankly, I'm a bit burned out regarding the long, subtle political play, as I played that kind of larps too much for my own liking - thankfully, I was cast as the best possible councilor for that purpose, since my character had little patience for delays and wasting time, and was a great fan of brevity and effectiveness, often cutting in others' arguments to stop wasting everyone's time and hurry up. Also, my character's bullshit tolerance was about zero.

Apart from the political play - set as the apocryphal version of a Grand Council in Ebonheart, several years before the game events of Morrowind, and based on renegotiating the Armistice between Empire and Morrowind - there were some other stuff we managed to do - plotting with others, creating alliances, discovering the new info, stealing heretical texts from the library (which was stocked with texts from Morrowind) and handing them to the Tribunal Temple, etc. The Imperial Legion was largely busy trying to deal with Telvanni Master Neloth's summoned Dremora who was giving them some trouble.

The highlight of the evening was the appearance of Sixth House, and their attempt to gain admittance to the council. Except for Morag Tong assassinating the Duke on Sunday, this was the only time when someone changed their costumes in order to temporarily play other characters. Naturally, they were repealed, but some time later the Council got disturbing visions from Dagoth Ur. Saturday's play ended with a soft end, and after a while we went to sleep.

Sunday started off much like Saturday, but we started the play quicker as the makeup artists got their workflows faster, there was no photo shoot, and the introduction went faster. Most of the Sunday was one big council session, with a lunch break, and there was less play out of it.

However, the last hour of play was probably the most intensive one in the larp. Everything happened back then. We quickly voted the new Armistice, pressed for time, while we had heretics, dissident Nerevarine priests, Daedra worshippers, Sixth House sleepers, assassinations and everything else happening at once. There was no time to resolve all that chaos properly before larp ended, so a lot of these were swept under the rug to maintain a chance of peace. If they only popped out earlier...

The larp ended in the afternoon, and after a debrief it was time to hang out and chat, as well as pack our stuff. Sooner or later we all went home, most of us wishing we had more time...

Personally, I had excellent time. Lots of people experienced post-larp depression. And while this larp was not perfect - seriously, which one really is? - it marked a huge leap forward in the Croatian larp as a whole. And even the downsides were not that bad - true, it was late like everything in Croatia, but the organizers made a huge effort to not make it late, and the staff ensured the players' downtime is minimal. I didn't like the lockpicking system, but I never had to interact with it. I didn't like the long political sessions, but it was in character for me to tell them where to stuff it. And this was very appreciated. The environment, the props, the makeup and the costumes were objectively the best of any larp so far held in Croatia.

And more than anything, I enjoyed the chance to finally play a proper Dunmer, something that I wanted to do for 15 years, this time supported by the larp, the environment, the wonderful make-up artists, and my wife who made some really cool costume props and cut my hair in the Dunmer style... yes, this was the first time ever I went for the larp-specific haircut.

I was immersed completely. The larp left me in post-larp high, which is only now slowly shifting to a post-larp depression. Part of the character and the larp world remained with me, and I even started a new game of Morrowind the day after I came home.

This larp wasn't a revolution - but it was an evolution of the local larp scene to the next level, and most certainly a landmark larp in the local larp scene and history.

Photos by Tibor Rogulja.

The ending of the words is ALMSIVI.


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