From the moment I received my Armistice Arcane character blurb, I knew I’d put the pressure on myself to inhabit this character deeply. Her name is Moira O’Connor, a woman devoted to Cernunnos, the Horned God. Originally from Ireland, Moira emigrated to Pennsylvania (United States) after a supernaturally long life and a complicated relationship with magic, monster hunters, and her god.
Born in the early 1700s, Moira experienced the tragic history of her people. She carried the resounding grief and anger of personal and cultural losses in a lengthy way that she felt only her god could understand – until she determined he didn’t.
Playing Moira, I explored many themes that touched not only on my own culture as an Irish American, but also many sensitive themes.
I am writing this less than a day after the conclusion of this dramatic, Penny Dreadful-inspired live action role play experience, and I find the nature of the bleed (emotional spillover between player and character) I experience is significantly different from any I’ve had before.
Content Warning: This post includes discussion of food-related issues, suicide, extreme grief, patriarchal oppression, and infertility.
Additionally, while I enjoy ‘chasing bleed’ and heavy immersion as a LARPer, that’s not the only way I enjoy this LARP or LARPs in general, nor is it the only means by which we should generally measure the success or enjoyment of live action experiences.
How Was This Character Close?
I played this character close to the heart, as we say in LARP, purposefully exploring my sense of self and my heritage through the portrayal of this character. While I’ve been growing used to empowering myself by playing through arcs that provide my characters with agency, no experience has been quite as personal as this one.
In real life, my superficial similarities don’t stop with heritage. My Irish ancestors came to the United States through the port city of Philadelphia (a central point for the Irish American characters in the game), which is where I live today. As of late, this community has been largely coopted by white supremacy and “Irish pride” has become an unfortunate synonym for “white pride.”
I have a fair amount of stories of my ancestors, though Irish oppression is a careful topic to approach when it’s often used as a tool to justify white supremacy and defend racism in a modern context. However, it’s still very much part of the immigrant experience and who we are today.
I’m left with an exiled pride for my heritage very much reflected in this character’s journey, and I went full force with my immersive capabilities in this game to enjoy and explore what it means to be of Irish descent – without worry of this journey being coopted by white supremacists.
I did my best to be sensitive but fearless in my approach to play an oppressed individual, and felt that it was permissible to do so as I was exploring the richness of my own heritage, and examining stereotypes through the lens of a historically pertinent pain that permeates culture, songs, and other practices.
Moira and I have many things in common. Here’s what I’ve been dealing with since the game.
Religion and Fertility
I don’t speak terribly often about faith in my life, but I was never baptized as a Christian. In my twenties, I took a neopagan spiritual path, and find myself connected to the goddesses Epona and Athena.
My Armistice Arcane character began the game as a devotee of Cernunnos, or the Horned God, who (as a general ‘hunter god’) also has a place on my real-life altar at home, though not a central one.
Like Cernunnos, Epona is a deity of fertility. She often appears in dreams for me, and I’ve a complicated relationship with this aspect of the goddess. Life likely isn’t going to work out for me in a way that I’ll be a mother, even though I wish I could have been. I’ve had a sad past with relationships, and on top of that, I have multiple chronic illness issues. It’s a regret that people don’t like to hear about; one you’re not supposed to discuss. Instead, I’m expected to be an independent and empowered woman completely satisfied with life. Anything else upsets people close to me and is counterintuitive to what I’m supposed to represent in various communities.
Grieving the inability to have children is not a privilege often granted to women, especially divorced ones.
I’ve come to accept Epona’s fertility in the form of creativity. I am grateful for such gifts, but the grief of having no children still persists.
Moira and fertility worked a bit differently, but her issues and grief were nevertheless the same as mine. After watching her own parents fall at the hands of the Sentinels (a group that tracks down those they deem magical miscreants) and nearly dying herself, Moira made a choice to kill instead of be killed. This set her on a constant cycle of revenge with the Sentinels, and a power that gave her youthfulness through a cycle of sex, fertility, and death.
Cernunnos was a voice and a presence in her life, encouraging these actions.
Eventually she grew tired of running and hiding. She fell in love, married, and became pregnant. But after her husband died as the result of a curse, her son was born, and she gave him up. She left him on the doorstep of wealthy folk decades before the game takes place, and had to mourn the chances that she’d never have with him. This grief was her strongest, and one I connected to and internalized.
Moira spent decades wondering about what happened to her son. She’d often dream of him, and I found that during the event, I would wake up with a dream and a worry. “Is my son okay?” was a more intrinsic thought than any power or practice Moira otherwise had.
Moira eventually found her son Aldous (this happened during the event, early in the game). It was the strongest relationship I played in the game, but it was also personally so very painful to me since I may never come to know this type of maternal love.
In real life, I’ve lost loves, just like Moira. But Moira was reunited with this most pleasant reminder of her deceased husband, and her care for her son was rather pure. The worry over him was constant, mutual, and comforting.
This made her feel a joy so occasional in her life, but one so strong she didn’t even know how to identify it or express it.
In preparation for the game, I’d asked parents, particularly mothers, to describe their bonds to their children. I received many powerful stories and expressions of emotion. When I was fully immersed as the character, though, with Moira protecting and being protected by her son, all of those feelings were quite natural. His different interests (scientific) opened her mind to viewing magic in a different way. Her trust of him was immediate. And in the purity of that relationship, it didn’t backfire.
I am about to get on a plane to return to an empty room. Every time I nap, I still wake up wondering that: Is my son okay? And it’s heartbreaking that I don’t have anyone or anything to really worry over. Even my dog passed away in October. And according to all those magazine articles, there’s totally something wrong with me if I don’t feel like my life is complete without the burden of a child and a husband.
But that’s just not true. I feel how I feel, and it’s not simply a matter of being conditioned by the patriarchy. It’s not a weakness to want to lay your head down next to someone, and that’s where I am, and that’s what I don’t have.
As the positive interactions increased between Moira and her son, I knew that I would have to face my own difficulties: desperately experiencing and internalizing a selfless love I’ll never give or receive. That alone furthered the tears and the protectiveness the character demonstrated towards Aldous.
In addition to these concerns is another matter of spirituality: tarot.
I’ve always deemed it inappropriate to use my real life tarot deck (I use Wildwood Tarot) at a LARP event. The call to use this deck this time around was very strong. I did use it; it felt natural and lighter than it does when I use it for real-life purposes, and it also felt easier to read in-game. As I portrayed a character who embodied intuition, I learned a great deal from her spiritual confidence.
Spirituality, Sex, and the Hunt: Cernunnos and Moira
I’m still humbled by a particular scene at Armistice Arcane. About halfway through the event, Moira was summoned to the main room – because her god was present. This powerful scene resulted in the most interesting reflection and post-game bleed, primarily due to the decisions made.
Half of the power in the scene resulted from the fact that Cernunnos didn’t give a flying fig leaf about who else in the room heard what (which made for a great scene, too). What just a few characters had previously known was then revealed to many: that Moira’s dealings with Cernunnos had a rather intimate component, and that she had done a great deal of hunting for him.
In a previous LARP years ago, I had been called ‘a cougar’ in game (though the slight was most obviously meant out of game), even though I wasn’t interested in anyone at the game, and my In a previous LARP years ago, I had been called ‘a cougar’ in game (though the slight was most obviously meant out of game), even though I wasn’t interested in anyone at the game, and my character was intensely interested in just one specific character. Most of the players at the game were five to ten years younger than me, and the stinging comment has held me back in pursuing various relationships, platonic or romantic in nature, in and out of game at many LARPs since.
It makes me feel like I have to hold back a part of who I am, or only discuss sex in very specific circumstances, while younger women are permitted to embrace their sexuality as part of a more open feminism from which I feel excluded. I should be hitting my stride when it comes to sex; instead I’m still ashamed, mostly due to age and relationship status and that shaming comment that still hangs in my head even though I should know better.
Playing out this scene was exceptionally transformative. Generally, the player age at Armistice Arcane was a bit higher than I am used to, so at 36, my age was about average, and I felt less awkward about playing a character who worships a fertility god. In fact, Moira was honest with some younger folks about such matters in a very no-nonsense way.
The scene itself wasn’t inherently sexual in what was performed, but the elements of power exchange and possession were on display for all to see, laced with knowing language and interactions. The scene and Cernunnos’ intentions towards Moira cast my character as a sexually powerful and desirable person; an embodiment of the Ireland she represented, starved but wanting. And although it was a god who wished to take her away – possibly as a permanent sacrifice combining deaths both petite and eternal – she still had the power of the choice.
I can only guess at what the other characters and players were thinking during that particular scene. The language between the locked gaze of Cernunnos and Moira spoke louder than anything either of them said. She trembled in reverence more than fear; she stood up to him; she gave in. Whatever the others were thinking, I don’t think it was ‘ew, I can’t see Tara or her character in that way, she’s disgusting,’ which is what I had been previously conditioned to believe. I know there are individuals who feel that I’m attractive (or at least not disgusting and/or nonsexual), but that’s never been an assumption I’ve had of a crowd before.
My scene partner as well as the other characters who had a part in that scene played true to character. Nolan, a character charged with protecting Moira, sacrificed himself, offering his heart to Cernunnos so that Moira would not have to go with him. (She has mixed feelings on that, though is primarily appreciative since she wanted to stay around to get to know her son better.)
As a pagan, I feel that we permissively crossed a spiritual line with that scene: like some greater power was amused and appeased. I felt like I was LARPing and not necessarily being inhabited by a higher spiritual force, but near to that, I was playing a part in a way that deeply married spirituality and drama. On top of that, New Orleans has the feeling of permanent Samhain for me, as though the veil between worlds is always lowered.
It doesn’t feel like a coincidence that my tarot readings, in game, were effortless and ridiculously accurate.
I’m sure this may make various individuals and practitioners uneasy, but it felt more like a pagan passion play that we were spiritually permitted to perform. While I haven’t spoken with them about this yet, I know that there are others of a pagan path who participated in the scene. I look forward to getting their read on it, as the line between spiritual and fictional felt comfortably blurred to me. Of course, to me it is all about the sacred duty of storytelling.
To portray Moira, I had to embrace the fact that “the Hunt” in all ways was not good or evil, but about balance, and I did a great deal of work on myself to get to that point of empowerment. It was instrumental in me being able to have Moira play her part during this scene.
Not a shred of clothing was removed, but I stood there naked, and it felt powerful.
Relationship to Food
Like many Irish Americans, I have a complicated relationship with food. I’ve had lean times, when there isn’t always enough nutritious food to eat, and I’ve experienced binge eating when there is. Throw in the anxiety and unpredictability of a new environment (like a LARP), and the availability of food is often a concern that breaks immersion for me. If you’ve ever been at a LARP event in the middle of the woods with just $3 in your pocket when they run out of food, you’ll understand where I’m coming from.
At Armistice Arcane, the availability of food wasn’t a problem. We had goody bags with snacks on top of the regularly scheduled meals and snack buffets, and the hotel had a peanut butter and jelly hour nightly, per La Pavillon’s tradition (it was a rather agreeable venue).
While I’m not suggesting any of my experiences are remotely comparable to those of a person who experienced hunger and watched others starve (as my ancestors and my character did), I found it necessary to examine my own relationship to food before taking on this role.
I thought considerably about what it would be like for someone like Moira to experience the constant availability of food at the hotel. During the gala dinner, I took two plates, including two of the mini desserts, and made a comment about how guilty I’d feel over wasting a bite. Internalizing the magnitude of the suffering this character had experienced during the Great Hunger was specific; due to her age and being foreign, it was also something she felt very alone in. The Irish Americans knew about the event, but there was no way they could internalize the experience as she had. It was one of many aspects of grief that Moira buried.
Immigration and Restarting
Moira’s been around for a long time, and due to the difficulties in her country and her complications with the Sentinels, she’s moved around a lot – from Ireland to England to the U.S. Each time she hoped to find something fulfilling, but her chance at happiness was either taken away or simply not present.
This was one of the difficulties of preparing for this character, for it applies to me as well. I’ve moved for many jobs and relationships that haven’t worked out, and I often find that a search for a ‘new start in a new place’ is an attempt to fill a hunger, which is not unlike that of a literal hunger. That emptiness is something Moira attempted to learn to live with.
Knowing she had a son provided her with an opportunity to take a new start – she even ended up changing societies to join him and to enjoy a respite. However, the emptiness remained for her.
Departed Family and Suicide
On top of the serious and traumatic losses Moira experienced (and caused), she had so much loss, which piled up over her long life. The saving grace was the son that arrived in her life again. When it came time to possibly go with Cernunnos, to make that sacrifice, she was ready to go. And if she hadn’t an earthly reason to stay, she would have gone with him as an additional sacrifice.
The uncomfortable truth is one that hits home hard: Moira isn’t really living for herself, she’s living for others. She knows their world would be more difficult without her. She knows it’s otherwise her time to go, but that people benefit from her existence and don’t want her to leave.
I remember about a week before my dog died; it was clear the little guy was just miserable, and starting to have real problems with his pain. I looked at him and said, “I love you, Odin. It’s okay if you need to go. I love you and I understand.” And a week later, he did. Sometimes, when my chronic pain and related struggles are at their worst, I wish people would say that to me; sometimes I’m glad they never have. As for Moira, she sought a reprieve.
By the end of the game, Moira’s Order of Cernunnos had reorganized and scattered based upon their reactions to the god himself. Prior to the god’s appearance, Moira had confessed matters of her past (that she had killed, and even without intending, had pretty much done blood magic in their god’s name). She had been told she’d go on trial within the order, and at that moment, she reached out to Aldous to seek protection within the Esoteric Institute, where he had a leadership role.
Following the presence of Cernunnos, it was obvious that she should stay this course. While Moira will be active at the institute, both in being a subject of study and in researching a scientifically combined way to stop any occurrence of potato blight in the future, she sees it as a sanctuary from the intense loneliness she’s felt for decades. In this way, at least one person’s death has meaning – since Nolan sacrificed himself to Cernunnos, Moira feels that she must live life with a purpose to honor him.
On Questioning Grief
One thing I can’t stand about real life is the way in which I’m constantly questioned for having an occasionally negative outlook. People need to understand that sometimes things aren’t okay, and sometimes attitudes need to temporarily shift accordingly. I’m not going to smile while I drown.
Moira, however, has been so much. All she had to do was simply allude to what the English had done to her people, and others would stop criticizing the depth or intensity of her grief. Some even opted to experience it to a slight degree. Generally, especially within the Order, she did not need a justification for sadness. The cultural association was more than enough for anyone to question her.
I found that grief was much easier to process when given the space to do so.
Heritage, Feminism, and Armistice Arcane
One of the greatest challenges of any historical LARP involves the treatment of people who were historically marginalized. I noticed that there were several players of color who received characters reflective of what was likely their own heritage and origin.
In real life, my Irish American heritage is extremely important to me. I took my research and portrayal of an Irish character very seriously, particularly when it came to the Great Hunger and to drinking, as those events and customs are so tied up in stereotypes. My goal was for Moira to embody Ireland; to exist regardless of what happened; to give of herself to better the world no matter how much it hurt her. Thinking of the character as Ireland herself was especially empowering, specifically during the scene with Cernunnos. Out of game, it functioned to provide a bit of distance between myself and Moira without losing immersion, and allowed me some control over how much I internalized her grief and anger at any given time.
Regarding the treatment of women, there were some comments, in game, about equality and rights and sex that left me with mixed feelings. These things probably wouldn’t have been said were the game in a modern context. That said, I felt that my character had an interesting means of agency, being one of three women of spiritual importance to her community, and being important enough to be one of the people assigned hired gun-style protection. Within my character’s group, she was certainly powerful and respected as such, though she appropriately deferred to the spiritual and political leaders.
I played with the idea that both Moira and her mother had been hunted for worshipping as they did, and that at least in her mother’s time, it was possibly a way to subdue the power of women – particularly the power to heal the island and its people. This was my way of pointing out the patriarchal nature of England’s oppression of Ireland in terms that my character might have used. All of this, Moira had to reconcile with her worship of a male god, running immediately to her male child for protection, and choosing her (male) date to the ball with particular calculation regarding her own safety. (He still attended the ball with her, for the record, even after a fertility god claimed her as his own.)
An interesting point that came up within our Order group was written versus oral agreements and laws. Our group strongly respected the importance of agreements in the tradition of Brehon (early Irish) law, and on an out of game context, this stirred an unexpected amount of pride resulting from a respect of this tradition. It felt wonderful to experience this without having to second guess whether the intentions of the others in my group were geared towards focusing Irish American nationalism towards a white supremacist agenda, as in real life, that is so often the case now.
Tools for Bleed and Immersion at Armistice Arcane
I carefully entered this experience knowing about these similarities between myself and the character, and realizing that these topics would come up. So much of the process was solo, unlike my experiences at other games, which rely heavily on character connections. (There is not a major difference in game design; rather, depth of character.) I used the following methods to prepare:
- A full day in character, alone, not interacting with anyone else, reflecting only on how to embody Ireland and her grief and hunger. This was meditative as much as it was method.
- The Irish History Podcast by Fin Dwyer, which helped me refresh my knowledge of Irish history and adapt the accent as I paused to repeat certain phrases.
- An eight-page character sheet provided by Peculiar Crossroads Productions, and weeks to prepare.
- Whiskey, imbibed before and during the event, not just as a cultural convention for Moira but as a coping mechanism for the character. For reasons of health and emotional and physical safety, I remained responsibly ‘buzzed’ almost the entire time, but I was not inebriated before or during the event. I found that the alcohol added a sepia overtone to the entire affair, and using it, I could control the amount it dulled or exposed the rawness of Moira’s emotions and experiences. (Note: While I’ve gone through periods in the past where I might have consumed alcohol more often than was wise, I do not have a drinking problem and would not advise this method for anyone who might. It isn’t something I would have done if the event was any longer, either.) When I imbibed after the event, it felt important to switch to rum to further separate myself from the character, even though I typically drink whiskey myself.
- Two major revelations in the game – seeing the strand of fate between Moira and Aldous, and the interaction with the Horned God – were both surprises. The lack of planning increased immersion. I feel that I could have performed better in both scenes with more planning, but would not prefer a do-over because the level of immersion was so raw in both instances.
- Victorian Conventions (and violating them) – the formality of introductions and interactions served as a baseline for violating norms. It was easy to accomplish a small offbeat goal due to the formality of the occasion.
- Our embedded GM played a character who was our driver, Pat. He was in and out of game there to help us. I spoke with him briefly about furthering certain plots, but most of the time I utilized him in game by asking him to find someone for me. In one instance, I requested a pen and paper to write a note which he then delivered, which allowed me to focus on role play and to make an important scene come about quicker. Even though I played a mentor role in the group, I didn’t feel responsible for every other player or character’s emotional wellbeing or activity, since the GM was there to step in.
- Costuming was a challenge for this game, but it was also a helpful tool. I dressed ‘old school Irish’ but also Victorian, and wanted to avoid looking typical medieval fantasy. The one piece of clothing I wore with almost every outfit was a black high-collar blouse. The slight tightness of the collar was a constant reminder of the era and the restrictions my character faced. Once the game was through, it was the first thing I unbuttoned to help separate myself from Moira. The petticoat isn’t something I usually wear in general or at LARPs, so it was also very specific to the era and to Moira.
- Available counseling wasn’t something I used, but I went as intense and immersive as I felt comfortable doing, pushing boundaries only because I knew that help was available to me if I needed it.
I didn’t expect to use some of these tools to control the volume or intensity of the emotions I experienced during the game, but they definitely helped me play very deeply without entirely losing myself.
My resulting emotions remain as I described them in game: an ocean of grief, stretching from the old world to the new. I feel honored to have been able to explore these feelings in such a different way.
Photography by: Alicia Nicole Trisciuzzi