Immerton: A Fire in the Desert

Immerton: A Fire in the Desert

I knew as soon as I heard about Immerton that I wanted to go. I’d been to one other women-only larp — the U.S. run of Mad About the Boy (2012) — and while it was some of what I wanted from the experience, it wasn’t quite all of it. Immerton sounded closer to what I was hoping for — a game focused on a community of women, with all of the intimacy and conflict that implies. Immerton was that, but in the end, it was so much more than I could have imagined.

three women looking off into the desert landscape

Pre-game: Players surveying the Joshua Tree, California landscape. Photo by Sarah Lynne Bowman for Learn Larp, LLC.

Immerton, produced by Learn Larp, LLC, centers on a community of women, each devoted to one of four goddesses. Each goddess focused on different elements, energy, and aspects: Innara, the goddess of creation; Rahdira, the goddess of fortification; Ellishara, the goddess of destruction; and Tohtma, the goddess of reclamation. The community of Immerton was in crisis, all of us drawn together by and hoping to find a resolution to that crisis. The larp was held at the Joshua Tree Retreat Center in the California desert on the full moon weekend of October 5-8, 2017.

I played Candra Franklin, host and producer of a paranormal reality show and devotee of Ellishara, goddess of destruction and fire. Each of the four goddesses has empowered aspects and shadow aspects, and Ellishara’s empowered aspects of shedding of burdens, righteous indignation, and fighting oppression all appealed to me and resonate with some of the themes of my own life. Like me, Candra works in a male-dominated entertainment industry and, also like me, has trauma in her background, although in her case it’s the loss of her sister when they were children.

The author as Candra Franklin, devotee of Ellishara and, later, of Axia. Photo by Sarah Lynne Bowman for Learn Larp, LLC.

In addition to choosing a goddess devotion, we each chose a vocation. I chose seer for Candra – I thought with her career choice and the lost sister, the ability to see beyond and see the dead made sense, and also opened up the possibility of roleplaying visions during the course of play.

After character creation, we were given access to each other’s character sheets. Each of us was given ties to the other characters, including the assignment of a pillar and a crowbar. These reciprocal relationships were meant to either support and encourage — in the case of the pillar — or, challenge and confront — in the case of the crowbar.

We arrived Thursday afternoon and went through some workshops to introduce ourselves and our characters. We learned about and practiced some aspects of play like the OK Check-in and the Goddess Chamber (black box). Then we had dinner, during which we were encouraged to write invocations on notecards; I wrote “Take up SPACE.” After dinner, we got into costume and play started.

The women of Immerton often gathered in a circle to discuss community matters near the sacred scroll. Photo by Sarah Lynne Bowman for Learn Larp, LLC.

We sat in a circle and discussed the crisis briefly. Immerton was cut off, we were told, and we were all stuck there, the passages to the worlds closed to us. One of our sisters was lost in between her world and Immerton as well. The scroll, which contained all of the history of Immerton, had been erased somehow. We were guided to meditate on what each of us held within us that could be tying Immerton to a fixed location in time and space and something we desired that would set us free. We were asked to write both of those down on pieces of paper. I wrote “my grief” down as the thing I was holding on to that was tying Immerton in place, but could not think of a desire.

In silence, we took candles and walked side by side with our pillars outside and into the darkness, ending our short journey outside the labyrinth. Within the labyrinth stood four devotees of Immerton, each wearing a different goddess mask, signaling that they were channeling that goddess (referred to as aspecting). Holding my candle in the darkness, waiting for my turn to walk the labyrinth and greet the goddesses, I worried that my candle would go out and I would be a failure in Ellishara’s eyes. Despite my fears, somehow I managed to keep my flame alive throughout the entire ritual.

The women of Immerton walk the labyrinth and meet the four Goddesses. Photo by Learn Larp, LLC.

Each goddess in turn asked a question. I recall that Innara asked how I expressed myself creatively and Ellishara asked how I maintained boundaries. “Not well,” I replied. “I push people away.” She chided me and I was terrified for a moment that she would cast me out of the labyrinth, but she stepped aside and permitted me to continue. I don’t remember what Rahdira asked; I think I was too worried about Ellishara to concentrate on her words. Tohtma spoke to me about how I was allowing grief over my lost sister to define me and it shook me so much I forgot what she asked me too.

After the labyrinth, we walked further into the desert and started a bonfire. We cast our blocks and desires into the fire so that Ellishara could release and transmute them. I realized as I cast the paper with “my grief” written on it into the fire that it was a lie. Candra had never accepted that her sister was gone, never allowed herself to even feel her grief enough for it to be a block. We stood around the fire and offered up a song to Ellishara and then howled into the night sky. Some coyotes returned our call.

These rituals and the labyrinth were an incredibly powerful way to begin the larp. I don’t think I’ve ever been so fully and so quickly jolted into immersion before. I didn’t know what to expect of the next few days, but I could already see how different and how powerful it might be.

Women gathered around a bonfire

The women of Immerton gather around the bonfire for the destruction ritual. Photo by Sarah Lynne Bowman for Learn Larp, LLC.

Most of the rest of our time at Immerton was spent in a similar pattern — conversing and socializing over meals, followed by the planning and performance of rituals. Most rituals focused on a specific goddess or vocation and each reflected in form and tone the nature of that focus. There was a reflective and heartfelt Tohtma ritual in the pool, a joyful and spiritual mask ritual led by a devotee of Innara, an intense and emotional Ellishara ritual involving fire and destruction, a quiet and contemplative guided meditation for the seers.

Over time, through our communion with the goddesses, we learned the source of Immerton’s crisis. There was a fifth goddess, Axia: the trickster goddess, she who controls portals and the between spaces, the shapeshifter goddess. She had been banished by her sisters long before because she was too destructive, too like a five-year-old girl who did not understand the consequences of her power. Each of us responded to this revelation in a way that clearly reflected our characters’ own experiences. Candra saw in Axia the sister that she had lost so long ago and the joy of sisters reuniting. Others saw in Axia an abusive family member or problematic person in their community and wanted her to stay cast out. The discussions grew incredibly heated. Some of us were also angry with the goddesses to which we had devoted ourselves for hiding the truth from us for so long.

A devotee aspecting Axia during the rite of passage ritual on the final day. Photo by Sarah Lynne Bowman for Learn Larp, LLC.

The devotees of Ellishara gathered together and consulted on the questions that we wanted to ask her. We were angry that our history had been erased, that Ellishara had withheld the truth from us. She had a sister! None of us knew about her! Had Axia had her own devotees? What happened to them when Axia was banished?

We went to the Goddess Chamber and we called on Ellishara to speak with us. Our sister Igne took on her aspect and faced our hostility and our sense of betrayal, our many questions and accusations. It was not easy, Ellishara told us, for the goddesses to banish their sister. They did love her, but she had done too much harm to reality and had no sense of consequences. They could not teach her, so they needed to put her out of harm’s reach.

“How could you?” I asked. “She is your sister!” Thinking of Candra’s own sister, gone for many years, her whereabouts unknown, an open question like a wound on her heart.

Your grief has hollowed you out,” Ellishara said, telling me that I would find her eventually. I wept.

three women comforting one another, one masked

Ellishara guiding the resolution of a conflict between two of her devotees in the Goddess Chamber. Photo by Sarah Lynne Bowman for Learn Larp, LLC.

It quickly became clear that consensus about what to do about Axia — bring her back? leave her banished? — was going to be unattainable. Despite the conflict and some reservations I had, I felt that my character was drawn to her and wished to become her devotee. It was interesting to realize how I struggled with this decision a bit. I think I had internalized some lessons from other larps and elsewhere, an injunction against pursuing the “new shiny” for the sake of the drama and not in a way that is “realistic” for the character and the setting. Remembering the exhortation to “Take up SPACE” that I’d written on the notecard at the beginning of the larp helped nudge me towards embracing the more dramatic storyline. I think it also made for a more satisfying resolution to Candra’s character arc. She had upended her career and had a blowup with her best friend because she felt conflicted about the show they were creating together. As a Seer who could commune with the dead, she struggled with working on a TV show where they frequently “enhanced” the truth to create drama. Embracing the trickster goddess would allow her to make peace with this conflict: Her show could be a trick played on the audience in a way that helped them find peace and reassurance.

Thinking about the ways Candra was drawn to Axia prompted me to also think about the ways in which I’m drawn to trickster figures. As a game designer, I create fictions that are a kind of “trick”: that hide within them truths about the world and about humanity (or at least I hope so).

Since consensus was impossible, the potential devotees of Axia agreed to have a private ceremony to invoke her, express our devotion to her, and welcome her to Immerton, apart from those who opposed her presence there. We would wear her mask and share with her what she meant to us and why we welcomed her. We thereby defined a new role for her in Immerton — a less destructive one — a role that respected boundaries and limits.

Candra aspecting as Axia in the invocation ritual. Photo by Sarah Lynne Bowman for Learn Larp, LLC.

It is so hard to talk about Immerton without speaking in detail about the many rituals we performed in the course of play. For me, these rituals were transformative. The bleed enabled me to think about myself in the context of my character and focus my energy on the ways in which we both needed to grow. Both of us had experienced trauma, had dealt with sexism and harassment in our careers, had worked to make ourselves numb in order to cope with both. I’ve done a lot of therapy work, so I think I’m a bit further along on these issues than Candra, but I still struggle with letting myself be courageous and authentic in ways that allow me to connect. I also found myself frequently thinking how much therapy had made me a better role-player, as I was accessing my emotions so much more easily than in previous larps. With each ritual, we meditated upon a different task, an emotional blockage, a creative desire, a personal goal — and each of these aspects of my character mirrored my own life.

On the final day, I participated in two last rituals. The first was a revocation: Hertha, a new friend and a Vigilant in service to Rahdira, wished to leave Immerton and give up her service to Rahdira. She asked me and a few others to witness. As she spoke to Rahdira, she told her how so many of us have been in communities where we have spoken up about abuse and warned about a predator, only to have our communities ignore our warnings and turn away from us. I felt this emotion so keenly and yet, I was torn. Each of us there witnessing spoke our support of Hertha.

A devotee aspecting as Rahdira. Photo by Sarah Lynne Bowman for Learn Larp, LLC.

“I have known you just a short time, but in that time I have come to love you,” I said. “I understand if my choice of devotion means there must be space between us.”

Here Hertha shook her head, “No, not that. But you will always hold a place in my heart.” I was sobbing. I don’t think I’ve ever felt so intensely in a larp before, but there were so many of these moments in Immerton.

Then we closed with a rite of passage ritual, in which nearly all of Immerton stood with all five of the goddesses proclaiming their gifts for us. We proclaimed for ourselves something we had become or were becoming. I was connection, which to me meant a willingness to be open, authentic, and vulnerable with others. We embraced each other and shared with one another what we had proclaimed. Many of us wept and also laughed in recognition of the many things that we had learned together.

In the end, the players talked about what community meant to us. Every one of us shared some extremely heartfelt significance that we had brought to Immerton. I said that after many years of trying very hard to be “one of the boys,” to my detriment, I had begun to seek out community with women who shared my interests. Immerton was a place where I found it, flawed in all of the ways any community of women is flawed. But Immerton was a space that felt safer and richer in some ways for being free of men and the kinds of competition that their presence can introduce. I find myself wanting to take home with me not only that sense of community and belonging, but also the rituals and transformation of Immerton. Perhaps I will create an altar to Axia in my home. Or perhaps an altar to all of the goddesses.

The Immerton scroll, which evolved throughout the weekend as women added information and inspiration. Photo by Sarah Lynne Bowman for Learn Larp, LLC.


Dates: October 5-8, 2017

Location: Joshua Tree Retreat Center, California

Production and Design Lead: Maury Brown for Learn Larp, LLC

Players: 23

Design: Maury Brown, Sarah Lynne Bowman, Tara Clapper, Quinn D, Caille Elizabeth Jensen, Kat Jones, Orli Nativ

Characters: Sarah Lynne Bowman, Tara Clapper, Quinn D, Caille Elizabeth Jensen, Kat Jones

Run Time Facilitation: Maury Brown, Sarah Lynne Bowman, Quinn D, Kat Jones, Orli Nativ

Art: Orli Nativ, Jess Comstock, Dagmara Gąska

Costumes and set design: Orli Nativ

Food Coordinator: Emily Rose

Photos: Sarah Lynne Bowman

Cover photo: A devotee of Tohtma at Immerton. Photo by Sarah Lynne Bowman for Learn Larp, LLC.

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Kanane Jones is an indie dev and creator of the video game Final Girls. She likes to make small personal games and is currently working on a haunted house game. She started larping before she knew there was a word for it, although she’s mostly been on hiatus for the last decade or so. She has lived in several countries, but currently resides in San Francisco with her sphynx cat, Teto.