On Ending a LARP

This past weekend we ran the concluding event of Anarchy, a historical LARP set in the Stephen-Matilda civil war of the 12th Century. I learned a lot of lessons about running LARPs over the course of the campaign – as happens whenever I run a game – but I was particularly gratified with how one experiment we tried at the weekend panned out.

This related to how we handled the end of the event, which was also the end of the campaign itself. I think handling the finish of a LARP event is a very tricky thing; there is no widely-adopted one-size-fits-all solution, and whilst many games put a lot of thought into climactic, final encounters, I think there is a difference between “how do we do the climax?” and “how and when do we declare an end to the event?”

To be clear, I am not talking here exclusively about how you end a campaign – though obviously this will be relevant to this article – so much as how you end an individual LARP event – whether that be the last episode of a campaign, or a preceding one, or a one-shot event. There seem to be three models which are particularly widespread; what we did at Anarchy constitutes a fourth. I think this sort of thing genuinely merits significant thought, not least because of the “LARP drop” experienced my participants post-event; a little attention to getting an appropriate sense of closure can’t eliminate that, but I would be willing to hypothesise that it might alleviate in some cases. Here’s those three common methods, followed by the Anarchy experiment.

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We Don’t Want Any Adventures Here, Thank You!

This past weekend I had an extremely good time at the second run of EyeLARP’s Second Breakfast. This was a charming little game set in Middle-Earth, in which the Wild West town and Viking village at EyeLARP’s site stood in for the little village of Frogmore, a hobbit community in the Shire. The basic concept of the game is that it’s the weekend of the Mayor’s birthday, there’s going to be a lovely party, the four extended families of the village (the Thornburrows, the Greengawkers, the Kettlebrights, and Puddlefoots – or is that Puddlefeet?) are engaged in some light-hearted rivalry when it comes to baking delicious pies and/or cakes for the big event, but are all united in one thing: they don’t want anything so exciting as an adventure so any meddling dwarves or wizards showing up trying to coax right-thinking hobbits off on one can move right on, thank you very much.

As you might expect, this was basically a fairly light-hearted, easy-going sort of event, but I think there’s still some interesting points of LARP design which arise from it. In particular, it’s a great example of a LARP which managed to deliver a great event on the strength of pure ambience, after dialling back on more or less every other factor LARPs usually go out of their way to provide.

There was basically no peril to characters, and no real combat, In theory, Second Breakfast worked on EyeLARP’s usual “FilmSim” principle, which includes as a feature a systemless combat system: rather than fighting being a genuinely competitive process, you basically die or get injured when you think that it would make sense or be dramatically appropriate for your character to be. In practice, we were briefed not to expect or initiate genuinely life-threatening combat, and indeed none happened. The biggest outbreak of violence that happened during the second run was a massive food fight, in which a party of annoying dwarves were pelted with LARP-safe “food” (basically sponge balls in different food shapes) to make them go away. EyeLARP’s approach to combat already sets aside their LARP from the vast majority of old-school games which try to make a satisfying tactical game out of the combat system, but still included combat in its function as a cheap and easy power fantasy; Second Breakfast didn’t even have that.

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Serendipity and Scale

This past weekend I participated in the fifth event of Heathen, a LARP campaign based around a historical fantasy take on King Alfred’s war against the Danish invaders of Dark Ages England. I had a great time, in part because I came in with a different player character type which meant I could better target the parts of the game I found interesting than my previous character did.

Specifically, I was playing a character in the “cunning folk” archetype, a practitioner of pagan-tinged magic. (Some PCs in the system are outright pagans, some are Christians, I am specifically choosing to play a character who’s a bit of a syncretist.) One thing which impressed me with how the referees ran this part of the game is how they gave it sufficient rules and structure to feel like it wasn’t totally arbitrary, whilst at the same time being very open to what effects your ritual might bring about and adopting what in tabletop circles is called a “fail forward” approach a lot of the time: even when rituals went awry, it seemed like the referees made sure that something substantive which could prompt further action still came of them, even if it wasn’t as helpful as a successful ritual would have been.

The way you are encouraged to construct rituals in Heathen is that you are meant to find a suitable Focus for the ritual – an object or place appropriate to the ritual being attempted – a Connection to the target (an enemy NPC was cursed by the player characters using his hair, blood, and teeth acquired through various means), and a source of power like prayer, blood, or the sacrifice of a soul.

Within that framework, you can ask for a wide range of things, but there’s obviously limits. There’s several examples in the current version of the rules calling out things which won’t work – making the sun rise at midnight, driving the Danes into the sea and winning the war in one fell swoop, turning invisible, walking through walls, or killing people with a mere glance – all come down into two fairly simple categories: stuff which would spoil the game by “solving” the entire plot or otherwise making it trivially easy, and stuff which can’t really be adequately physrepped. (Apparently the refs have had to say “no” at least once to the “sunshine at night” thing on grounds of it being impossible to meaningfully implement.)

Within those restrictions, though, you could achieve a lot, and what impressed me was how the ref team were able to very effectively take players’ spontaneous rituals and roll with them, both tweaking pre-planned plot stuff to help it reflect what the PCs had done and going the extra mile with what was possible. There’s two examples I particularly want to talk about here.

In the first example, I’d managed to intercept a letter between two NPCs (having blagged it off a faery herald), and I decided to do a solo divination ritual with it to see if I could discern information written between the lines – in other words, pick up details which were not written in the letter (I could just find someone who could read Latin for that!) but which were germane to its subject, recipient, or sender. I’d already had indications that a particular Celtic cross erected in the game area was something to do with my elf-lord patron, Mabon ap Modron, so I used the cross as a Focus, the letter as a Connection, and my blood as a power source (represented by fake blood, obviously).

All this was fine, and the ritual went off successfully, and I got some very useful information which I hastened to tell to others. But less than five minutes or so after I was done, Mabon and his entire faery court showed up in the game area, kicking off a memorable sequence in which the player characters had to contest with Mabon to gain certain prizes, including invoking the magic of the Celtic cross to communicate across long distances. They specifically made a bee-line for me, and Mabon was quick to tell people that I had summoned him.

Now, OOC, it’s obvious that Mabon and his court showing up was a planned encounter, which the referees had put together before they knew I was going to do that ritual – it involved a significant number of crew with fairly extensive makeup jobs, getting it prepared would have taken a good chunk of the morning prior to them rolling out, I’d only mentioned I was doing the ritual some 5-10 minutes before they showed up. The referee who adjudicated the ritual was doing some fairly intensive talking into his walkie-talkie at the time out of my hearing, but it’s not hard to guess that he was telling them to hold off on rolling out the encounter until the outcome of my ritual could be built into it.

So on the one hand, Mabon and his court were always going to appear, whether or not I did the ritual and whether or not I succeeded – but at the same time, the referee grabbed onto the lucky coincidence of me doing that ritual right as the encounter was primed to go out in order to give extra flavour to the encounter. It’s a small thing in the grand scheme of things, but for me at least (and quite likely for any other player who was trying to suss out my character) it made the encounter land very differently, and making the effort to incorporate the ritual like that was something the referees 100% didn’t have to do but enriched the overall story of the event by doing. It’s the sort of thing where if it hadn’t happened, I wouldn’t have noticed or felt short-changed, but because it did happen it was really cool.

The second example happened later. Many of the PCs were off on a combat encounter, but I was observing the Kabbalists at work. The Kabbalists are essentially the monotheistic-flavoured magicians in the game system, using magic along much the same lines as the cunning folk in terms of ritual framework, only with more use of prayer and saint’s relics (but not actually that much less in terms of blood). They had a bit more social clout, because in the setting Christianity is the default religion of the Saxons and pagans are either a) on the back foot or b) in the case of the Danish invaders, often our adversaries; this is balanced by, among other things, cunning folk having the ability to act as healers whilst Kabbalists don’t. That’s why I was sat to one side as they worked – rituals sometimes causing injury when they fail.

In this case, the Kabbalists were investigating a theft of an artifact from a sacred reliquary, and applied some lateral thinking. The artifact in question had exhibited a tendency to spontaneously appear back in the reliquary when given the opportunity to – so summoning it back felt like a waste of time. Merely divining the identity of the thief might be worth doing, but wouldn’t necessarily help get the relic back, and a previous attempt by me and some others to divine the identity had backfired. However, summoning the thief would not only identify them, but also get the relic back – either because it was on their person or because distracting the thief would allow the artifact to use its own capability to return.

Amazingly, this worked. Sure, they drew a black bead (which usually means a ritual backfires) in the resolution, but that just meant they took some horrible consequences; as the ritualists were coming to terms with the curse that had been placed upon them, another PC walked in, a blind monk, and after a moment we realised from something he said that he’d been summoned. (As it turned out, he’d been possessed for multiple events, and had been acting as a traitor in the player party all that time, in a magnificent bit of play from the player concerned.)

The thing which impressed me about this was that the PC in question had been out on the combat encounter – which meant that the ref adjudicating the ritual had used his radio to contact the refs running the combat and get them to tell the player in question to go back to the main camp and enter the longhouse, due to being summoned. In more or less any other LARP I’ve played, that wouldn’t have happened; at a fest-scale LARP it wouldn’t even be viable to have the result happen that quickly (because at something like Empire there’s thousands of people on the field and only a fraction are in sight of a ref at any particular time), and at many smaller-scale games the refs would most likely have just waited until the combat encounter wrapped just to make it logistically easier.

Indeed, it’s entirely possible the Heathen refs would have had second thoughts about doing the summoning had the combat encounter been way over on the other side of the site – but things happened to line up in such a way to make it possible. As it happened, all this led to a really intense scene as the exposed traitor cackled and the blighted Kabbalists resorted to dire measures to resolve the situation, and it wouldn’t have been quite as dramatic if we’d all had to wait half an hour or so for the combat encounter to resolve.

What I think is interesting about both of these incidents is that they’re the sort of thing which is only possible in a game of roughly the sort of size of Heathen. Make the game much larger and your ref team is probably spread thin enough that they’re not going to be able to keep the same track of where everyone is and what everyone is doing (in terms of ritual use, at least) that the Heathen team were, and the less scope they’re going to have to delay things, change things, or work out a plan on the fly to take the effects of a ritual into account. But if the game were significantly smaller, these little techniques wouldn’t have seemed so impressive – if a game is of a scale where most participants are able to see where everyone is at all times, then it’s that much less of a surprise when these happy accidents line up.

One could argue, in fact, that part of the point of involving randomisers in tabletop RPGs is to allow for these serendipitous moments – because otherwise, in a tabletop session an attentive player can keep track of more or less everything that is happening in the game, because the action is entirely contained in the conversation at the table. At the other end of the scale, in very large fest LARPs and the like, such coincidences might be much harder to design for – but arguably they don’t need to be, because there’s so many people doing so much stuff in the field that plenty of interesting quirks of fate happen entirely organically. This is just one of a great many respects in which the scale of your game has such a big influence on your design considerations that it’s often misleading to treat the design of fest-scale LARPs and smaller-scale LARPs as though they were just larger or smaller versions of the same task; like relativity, classical mechanics, and quantum mechanics, different tools are called for at different scales.

On Pausing the Game At a LARP

I encountered a situation I don’t remember running into at a LARP this past weekend (Land Without a King, run under the auspices of EyeLARP, as it happens). This was when the entire game was paused in order to deal with a breach of the conduct policy.

Pausing the entire game for this sort of thing is generally more common in tabletop, because it’s vastly easier to pause the game when every single participant is sat around the same table (whether in person or over voice chat). Various safety mechanics like the X-card have been developed for the tabletop context; whilst the X-card can be used in a way which maintains the flow of play (if everyone at the table is happy for that, and if the thing which triggered the X-card is unambiguous enough that it’s clear what content needs to be steered away from), the X-card writeup makes it clear that in some contexts taking a break from play would be necessary.

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LARPing Internationally At Short Notice

Recently I took my first foray into the world of international LARP, attending the first run of A Meeting of Monarchs. This was a historical game based around the meeting of King Henry VIII of England and King Francis I of France at the Field of the Cloth of Gold; it took place in a scenic French chateau, with a player base from a range of European countries, and boasted an exceptionally good quality of both costuming and performance from the players in question, the majority of whom had booked for the event months in advance and had the advantage of spending a long time preparing for the game.

I, on the other hand, had picked up a ticket late – having acquired it following a player dropping out in early March – and, with other LARP commitments intervening, essentially had less than a month or so to prepare for the game. Here’s how I prepared, and how well that preparation served me.

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Sorties Into the Dark Ages

So, despite having been involved in LARP in some capacity for twenty years or so, for a good long while I’d never been to what you might call a “traditional” Vampire: the Masquerade LARP, despite the prominent role those have played in the field over the years. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve been to Vampire LARPs – of both Masquerade and Requiem flavours – but never one which used the venerable Mind’s Eye Theatre system as maintained by By Night Studios.

There’s various factors why that has been the case. I started LARPing in university; at the time, there was a local branch of Camarilla UK (the major Mind’s Eye Theatre-based World of Darkness LARP network), but there was also other options. If you were into a more physically active LARP, with combat actually implemented using pulled blows with latex weapons, Mind’s Eye Theatre wouldn’t be your thing anyway – that system has never used “hard skill” combat but instead uses game mechanics to resolve violence in an abstract fashion. There was a local system which ran frequent afternoon sessions of a Saturday, so if you preferred that, that was what you did.

Mind’s Eye Theatre-esque games are somewhat suited to games which put a strong emphasis on political networking and social skills – but for that there was also alternatives, with at least one (and often several) freeform games which delivered a similar style of play. These would run campaigns in short runs (since they were associated with the local university’s RPG society and so needed to complete their arcs within the academic year due to student turnover), and as the “freeform” title implies tended to be extremely system-light.

This meant there were not much in the way of rules you needed to keep in mind to play, and not much in the way of the sort of long-term baggage that any RPG campaign accumulates over the passage of time. By contrast, the local Camarilla UK game seemed rather unapproachable. The Mind’s Eye Theatre system provided a significant barrier to entry and seemed daunting to handle in play – whilst in a tabletop context it’s much easier to pause and look up a rule when playing a crunchy system, LARPs really thrive on pausing the action as little as possible, so a rules logjam in a LARP can be significantly more disruptive to the play experience than a difficult rules problem in a tabletop context, and needing to keep a large amount of rules information straight in your head to ensure smooth play is a perennial LARP system design issue.

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Lessons From the Dinner Table 5: LARPing, Blackballing, and the Price of Doing Business

Welcome back to an occasional series of posts where the joke is I am taking a gag strip about tabletop RPGs entirely too seriously. Specifically, Lessons From the Dinner Table is where I like to look over old Knights of the Dinner Table compilations and ponder what sort of lessons applicable to real-world gaming we can take from them – whether it comes to storytelling considerations of how the issues themselves are written, gaming techniques used (or abused) in the comic, or ideas concerning larger gaming communities which the series touches on.

Bundle of Trouble 16

There’s two plot threads in this Bundle I want to highlight, one of which isn’t so good, the other of which pretty funny, and a lesson that can be drawn from how each of them landed.

The not so good one is an entry in the occasional “retro KODT” series of strips set earlier in the continuity, which are usually thrown in so that each issue can have a more small-scale story not bound to the longer-form storytelling in the main strips. In this case, they’re an expanded sequel to the old strip where Dave and Bob join a Vampire LARP and start acting weird. Back in the day, the original strip wasn’t so annoying, mostly because it was too brief to expose the weakness of the writing – and in particular, the comparatively shallow level of understanding of LARP on the part of the Knights of the Dinner Table team, which is exposed here.

This isn’t me being overly defensive – there’s some good satire you could do about the quirks of the LARP community, particularly the drama-prone world of Vampire-inspired games. But you need to really know the scene to produce something which isn’t outright shallow, just like you need to know tabletop RPGs to make something like Knights of the Dinner Table‘s usual fare. The plot here fails to convince me that it’s the product of sufficient research.

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The World Is Your Setting Guide 2

A while back I wrote about how the advantage of running a game set in the real world is that there’s ample setting information to use, and offered examples of sources I’d found useful in working on Anarchy, the historical LARP I co-run that’s set during the 12th Century civil war between King Stephen and Empress Matilda in England. I’ve decided it’d be nice to keep that going, and turn it into an occasional series providing profiles of useful source material for designers and referees of historical games.

Holy Women of Twelfth-Century England by Sharon K. Elkins

Running games set in historical time periods when the culture was overtly and unapologetically patriarchal can be tricky. If you simply ignore this and present a setting where that sexism doesn’t exist (or doesn’t apply to the PCs) this can make the game more appealing if your players feel like they deal with enough sexism in everyday life and want to play a game where they don’t have to think about it; at the same time, this does mean that if you are very keen to explore history through the game, that motivation is compromised. It also means you are specifically passing up the chance to tell stories specifically addressing themes of prejudice and gender and so on.

On the other hand, if you go with “we’re running a game where the society in question has the sort of assumptions about gender roles and sexism that it historically had”, there’s always the risk of that degenerating into sidelining the role of women in the setting entirely, particularly if you frame the game around male-dominated activities for the era and if you gloss over the existence of exceptional women who bucked the biases of their era – or who did notable things within the scope of those biases and informed by them.

This was a Christmas present from some of the other Anarchy referees, and I’ve found it helpful in looking up interesting anecdotes and stories of nuns, hermit women, anchoresses, rulers of priories and abbeys, and other women who dedicated themselves to a religious life in the time period in question. There is also a lot of detail on institutions that included such women, circumstances around their foundation, controversies around their governance, and so on. (Some of this may also be applicable to bodies of monks as well as nuns in the era, whilst other aspects are particular to nuns.)

It’s an academically-oriented piece which is a bit heavy going and would probably be a bad fit if your campaign is more historical-flavoured than full-fat historical, but if you’re running something like Chivalry & Sorcery or Maelstrom Domesday and going with the sort of campaign where rich historical detail is part of the appeal, it may be worth a look if you want inspiration for women existing within a sphere (the Church) where it’s easy to just assume it’s all men.

The Discoverie of Witchcraft by Reginald Scot

Reginald Scot was a 16th Century debunker; perturbed by the uptick of witchcraft trials in Elizabeth I’s reign, he put this book out in 1584 in which he put forth the view that the Malleus Maleficarum‘s claims about witchcraft were nothing more than “popish” superstition and nonsense, that witches could not possibly have many of the powers supposedly attributed to them, and that many witchcraft trials were mere harassment of confused elderly and vulnerable people, often poor and very often women.

That isn’t to say he always argues from the same logical grounds that we would; for instance, he makes the case that witches cannot cause storms and thunder and rainfall and whatnot because there’s Biblical reason to believe that only God can do that (and that indeed an apparent power over the weather was a sign that Christ was the Lord), and therefore the Devil could give to witches powers which were God’s alone.

Then again, his Biblical objections to the witch trials also strike on salient points – like how the whole thing about how “thou shalt not suffer a witch to live” may be a mistranslation from the Hebrew and it should instead read “thou shalt not suffer a poisoner to live”. He goes on to say that if a supposed witch has killed someone by poison, then there’s already a good law to convict her by – namely, murder – so accusing her of witchcraft and allowing all sorts of nefarious characters to testify against her who’d be given no credence in cases built on other charges is pointless (Along those lines, Scot points out that a lot of the ills that witches supposedly do are already covered by other laws, and if ultimately they commit idolatrous worship or are apostates from Christianity there are already laws against those things.)

At the same time, the book also provides interesting documentation of various historical stage magic tricks, intended to put an end to the idea that these were accomplished through real magic, and the book is therefore an important early text explaining how some tricks were accomplished. There’s also a brief grimoire-like rundown of demonology, in the context of a section largely dedicated to accusing “popish” clergy and monastics of being the main practitioners of such.

Though it’s a bit of a tricky read due to its archaic language, The Discoverie of Witchcraft is such a deep resource of period material that it would be worth a look to anyone running, say, an Elizabethan-era Maelstrom game, or Clockwork & Chivalry, if they wanted an example of how then-current thinkers might raise objections to witch trials – or how Elizabethan conjurors and street magicians might have plied their trade. (For that matter, it could also provide potential inspiration for WFRP, since WFRP has a highly Renaissance-era atmosphere to it.)

The World is Your Setting Guide

At the moment I’m involved in running Anarchy, a LARP set during the 1135-1153 civil war in England between King Stephen and Empress Matilda. As I’ve found running Ars Magica, the advantage of running a historical RPG – in whatever format – is that there’s stacks of material out there you can use for reference material. Here’s an overview of some of the materials I and others on the GM team have found useful as resources.

The Middle Ages Unlocked by Gillian Polack and Katrin Kania

This doesn’t quite have as wide a scope as the title might imply – it specifically focuses on life in medieval England and France in the span of 1050-1300 – but if you are looking for a general overview of that place and time, this isn’t bad. The emphasis is less on reciting the sequence of historical events so much as it’s to offer an overview of what everyday life was like in the era. Usefully divided into subject-specific chapters, it offers a solid foundation and a useful jumping-off point for deeper inquiry.

Stephen and Matilda: the Civil War of 1139-53 by Jim Bradbury

This is a brief and highly readable summary of the history of the period we were looking at. It wasn’t perfect – it’s arguably a bit pro-Stephen, though where the line exists between being partisan and treating Stephen fairly lies is hard to judge. Nonetheless, it’s useful with this sort of project to have a main reference you go to to set a baseline before you incorporate other features or make alterations, and for that purpose it’s pretty good.

The Oxford History of the Laws of England Volume II: 871-1216

As an academic reference work, this obviously has a bit of a price tag on it, but I’ve found it fascinating. It gives an overview of the development of English law ranging from the Anglo-Saxon era all the way to the end of King John’s reign. John Hudson, who wrote this volume, writes in an extremely accessible style, arising from the necessity of making law intelligible to historians and history intelligible to interested lawyers, so this is really handy if you want to depict the legal procedures and norms of a particular era within the time period covered.

If you want a book which, whilst still quite detailed, is substantially easier to digest (and easier on the wallet), John Hudson’s The Formation of the English Common Law might be a good option. Covering the span of time from Alfred the Great to Magna Carta, it’s quite good at teasing out how the law developed over that period of time. Whilst this subject can seem quite dry, it also opens a window onto how people generally saw their relationship with the law and their rulers, and thus is a bit of a snapshot of society in general, and so is particularly useful if you want to think about how society changed over the time period in question (and change it very definitely did). Such considerations are really important if you want to avoid treating the medieval period as just one big generic blob of time.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles

As a historical document, this is available in various translations into modern English; I’ve got the one that is translated and edited by Michael Swanton, who provides all the different variant texts of the different chronicles presented in a nice clear way, and also extensively annotates them to help unpack matters which the monks writing entries don’t explain very well, offer additional insight, and point out outright errors or propaganda. The time period covered in detail ranges from the coming of the Saxons to Britain to nearly a century after the Norman Conquest, including the events of the Anarchy. What it lacks in precision, neutrality and accuracy it more than makes up for in flavour.

The Domesday Book

A rather dry prospect if you attempt to read it cover to cover, this is another text which is mostly handy for inspiration – just dip into it anywhere and you get a snapshot of just how much individual character William the Conqueror’s surveyors managed to capture of each manor and holding in England.

The Bible

If you are running a historical game set in a time period and a culture where Christianity is a significant force, then you’re going to want its base text, of course. For actual quoting purposes I like to use the New English Bible from 1970 which I picked up second hand – it casts the text in modern English, distinguishes neatly between text that seems to have been intended as poetry or song and text that seems to flow better as prose, though it isn’t especially gender-inclusive and uses a default “he” to a greater extent than the original text necessarily mandates.

However, any edition of the Bible is a dense old text to look stuff up in, which is why it’s nice that some of my co-referees got me the Illustrated Family Bible from DK. This thick, handsome book boils down a surprisingly large number of Biblical stories into easily-understood two-page spreads, with useful sidebars providing additional historical context. This is very handy to look up the broad brushstrokes of an idea in before you look up the full-fat text in your Bible of choice.

The History of the Kings of England (by Geoffrey of Monmouth)

This is absolutely wackydoodles, so it’s perfect either for emphasising how confused medieval scholarship could get or for mining for a mythic history of Britain that didn’t happen.

Heresies of the High Middle Ages (ed. Walter L. Wakefield and Austin P. Evans)

This is a translation into modern English of various first-hand sources on the subject, ranging from Church condemnations of heresies to heretical texts themselves. (Cathar fans note: this has got the full text of the Book of the Two Principles which was quite significant to Cathar theology.)