Masque of the Red Death

About a year ago I was roped by my sister to go to what is called a “populace meeting” of the local group of the Society for Creative Anachronism. My sister can be quite persuasive, so I went. I’d heard of the S.C.A. from a fleeting mention of it in Neal Stephenson’s Reamde where a character in the book used to ride down the roads of Western Canada with his biker gang sporting claymores on their backs instead of the guns that are typical of their American counterparts. I’d also been to the Texas Renaissance Festival, but the S.C.A. is different from renaissance festivals. It is a living history group with a twist where the focus is to reenact the “Middle Ages as they should have been”. You learn and experience the middle ages through participation, but you’re allowed modern conveniences unlike many other reenactment societies. The United States, Canada, and a few other countries are divided into fictional kingdoms and then subdivided further. I’m in the Shire of Blackwood of the Kingdom of Gleann Abhann.

A few months after that first meeting I went to my first event — the tenth year anniversary of the Kingdom of Gleann Abhann. I was unsure about the whole thing before the event, but after meeting people that are involved in the society I have become interested in it. I was obviously born American in a republic where everyone is equal by law, so the concept of peerages and especially royalty irritates me because it is accepting that there are people better than yourself. Initially bowing to royalty even in jest got under my skin a bit, but that has worn off with time; it is roleplay and just for fun after all.

Red Death

The Masque of the Red Death — commonly shortened to just “Red Death” — used to be an event held every year around Halloween by the Shire of Blackwood. Blackwood fell apart for a few years but is back functioning again, so there was interest in reviving it and doing a test run in February with a more customary run at it in October later this year. The event was unique in that it played a Halloween-ish morbid game around the plague where someone unknown would be chosen as Death and would have an assistant who would go about on Death’s orders and notify people that they died of the plague. The plague would continue until someone not already dead guessed who Death was. I was tasked with coming up with a logo for the event.

The S.C.A. doesn’t depict any particular time period in the Middle Ages but instead the entire range. I knew I wanted to do something with blackletter, but I didn’t want to stick with any particular variety because as I said the society doesn’t stick to any time period. I’d run across Alter Gotisch a while back, and its design perfectly fits what I wanted to go for — a typeface which doesn’t depict any particular style of blackletter. The original intent was to print the logo large and small enough to fit on wooden tokens, so I redrew the letters so the thickness of the lines of the thin parts of the letters could be changed. Wooden tokens weren’t used in the end, but it wasn’t wasted time because the extra work had the added benefit of making the thin parts of the letters consistent between the change in size between “Masque” and “Red Death”. Accompanying the typography there is a skull illustration at the bottom; the forms and the lines are gleaned directly from the blackletter typography. Because the skull is of the same style as the type it’s suitable to be used as a logo in of itself for the event.

The Wheel of Death

My work didn’t stop with the logo. The Masque of the Red Death has a fighting tournament which accompanies it where men and women dress up in medieval-style armor and proceed to beat the crap out of each other with duct tape-wrapped rattan poles formed into approximations of medieval weapons. A lot of forgotten medieval martial arts have been rediscovered due to the society’s efforts, and many fighters in these tournaments are masters at it. Usually the tournament is rather straightforward, but during this event there is a twist. Before each battle both combattants must spin the Wheel of Death which can either determine what weapon they must use or if they die outright. Think of it as Wheel of Fortune with a macabre angle to it.

Wheel of Death Illustration
Illustration for the Wheel of Death

In the interval between the last “Red Death” event and this one the original Wheel of Death was lost, so my sister and I volunteered to come up with a new wheel. I had to design out a wheel divided into 8 parts where each of the weapon choices, Death, and “List Mistress’ Choice” — a list mistress’ being the woman who oversees the fighting on the list field. Based off of pictures we had of the lost wheel I came up with what is shown above. Each “pie slice” has a hand-drawn skeleton in it depicting each of the choices. In the center of the wheel is the Shire of Blackwood’s device — its heraldic badge.

The Wheel of Death Underside of the Wheel
The Wheel of Death

The wheel itself was made from a sheet of spare plywood in my shed. My sister and I enlisted a mutual friend of ours who is a woodworker to cut the wheel at 24 × 24 (60.96 cm × 60.96 cm), its base at 30 × 30 (76.2 cm × 76.2 cm), and its apparatus from the board. We printed my artwork on adhesive vinyl, and my sister wrapped it around the wheel. Typically a game wheel has pegs on the top and a flapper to swat at and catch the pegs. It’s usually an eyesore when on the top, so we devised a way for it to all be hidden underneath with a dagger designed by my sister and fashioned out of wood by our friend over the top simply acting as the pointer.

The new Wheel of Death was a hit at the event. As people poured in at the gate they were allowed to look at it. Few could resist spinning it. The wheel was rather kind to the fighters in the tournament until the final match; it was decided by a spin of the wheel and the swish of Death’s scythe.