Larp Design Sample: Highsummer Wedding

Introduction

Not too long ago, I ran a one-shot LARP set in White Wolf’s Changeling the Dreaming, using a Nordic-LARP inspired bespoke system. The premise of the LARP, which was titled Highsummer Wedding, was a wedding that would solidify the alliance between two noble Sidhe houses in the Southern USA. Literally, I wanted to write a fairy-tale wedding. From there, I blended in elements of courtly intrigue and terrible consequences, and gave it all a Southern Hospitality spin to create something unique. I’d like to take a moment to talk about the design choices that inspired some of the mechanics we used, and the lessons I learned from the game.

Design Goals

First, our design goals. When I sat down, I knew that I had a few things I wanted to emphasize with the game. It’s important to me when designing a game to keep in mind what these goals are, so I can go back and ask myself “Are the things I just did a credit to these goals?” For Highsummer Wedding, the design goals were as follows:

It will feel like Changeling the Dreaming.

This was probably the hardest of the goals to use as a metric, as I feel like there is a lot to be taken away from Dreaming. On the whole, I felt like I was prone to use interpret this metric as “would someone who knows Dreaming like I do look at this and recognize what they were seeing?” When deciding which Kiths to represent in the game, and especially when working on the magic system, I turned back to the fiction (rather than the mechanics) of The Shining Host and the CtD core books. Difficulties with this goal were primarily in the minutiae–for example, the alliance between House Gwydion and House Fiona. I debated on whether such an alliance was likely to occur, but ultimately decided that it didn’t matter. I chose the two houses because I felt that they were well-developed and that it would be easy to instill that development into the story. In future iterations of this LARP, I want to try to get with others who know the venue like I do, and new players who have only played a little bit and get a sense for what people feel the ‘core’ elements of Dreaming are.

It will not require any knowledge of Dreaming to play.

Those familiar with White Wolf products in general are well acquainted with the massive amount of lore that their lines are known for. Dreaming is no exception. The Sidhe kith alone are broken up into dozens of Houses, many of which are so intensely detailed that they could (and do) have their own novels. In the interest of keeping the game accessible to players who haven’t had the exposure to (or interest in) that detailed level, I chose to restrict the game to two Houses, Fiona and Gwydion, and a handful of nobles associated therein. For the rest of the story, I choose to rely on fairy-tale and southern hospitality tropes. During the game, I felt like this helped players who otherwise would never have played Dreaming grow attached to the characters they were given. At least one player mentioned that he would only play Dreaming again if he could play the character he had been given. In the future, I’d like to see the story distilled more into these common tropes, and flavored by the ‘core’ elements from the above, in a manner similar to what the End of the Line did with Vampire the Masquerade.

Players will not have to wonder what to do.

This goal was actually a dual-edged sword, because it both created and negated work for the creation process. I had an idea for the ‘setting’ of the story which included, by necessity, motivations for some of the characters present at the wedding, but I also wrestled for a long time with the idea of whether or not to include these motivations with each character’s write up, as I wanted to allow players to have the freedom to explore their character in their own way. In the end, I decided to include a number of objective for each character, but to stress to players that they could incorporate or ignore them as they see fit. This seemed to work well, as most of the game appreciated the guidance, and those who didn’t need it ignored it to great effect. In the future, I’d like to consider writing a story where the characters have no motivation other than what brings them to the event, but I do not know if I would use that kind of setup for this game.

Mechanics: Duels, Resources, and Magic

When designing the mechanics for this system, I knew that the two major ‘mechanics’ I would require would be some method of handling Combat (both physical and chimerical) and some method for adjudicating the magic of the world of Dreaming. I also came to the decision that I wanted some way to model Glamour as a resource to create a kind of economy for the characters to take advantage of, and I wound up employing Willpower as another resource so that I could experiment with two different mechanics.

These boiled down to 5 actual mechanics. While this may be more than the usual Nordic LARP, and a far cry from the purists call of free form, the mechanics were unobtrusive enough to not impede roleplay, while providing some structure for how to handle purely imaginary constructs.

Brawl and Gremayre

For adjudicating Combat, I borrow the idea of the Brawl Score from End of the Line. It’s a fairly simple system that worked really well and did not need any further complications: when combat comes up and who wins the fight cannot be negotiated ahead of time, you can compare Brawl scores. The higher score wins unless he chooses not to. After negotiating the results of the duel, players were welcome to act or describe the element as they saw fit.

When deciding how duels waged with the stuff of dreams would be decided, I lifted the concept and applied it to a second number, which I then called Gremayre, after the skill from the tabletop. This gave it a nice symmetry to the ‘physical’ combat score, and was not too much information for a player to recall. Much like physical combat, players were welcome to either describe the effects of the battle, or to otherwise act them out as they saw fit.

Willpower, Glamour, and Cantrips

I chose to make Willpower a resource that could be spent to increase temporarily increase Brawl or Gremayre on a one-for-one basis. This introduced a small element of unpredictability into an otherwise static system, while keeping it as simple as possible. A character with a low Brawl but high Willpower might find themselves able to fight their way out of what should’ve been a thorough beating (but only once). This system ran really well but it also not strictly necessary, and in future runs I will either leave it as it is, or remove it entirely.

Glamour, on the other hand, was used to activate Cantrips, which is my implementation of changeling magic (more on that in a bit). I knew I wanted to have some kind of physical representation of Glamour so that they could be physically traded in the back-room dealings that accompanies courtly intrigue, and so I decided that each point of Glamour would represent a Dream taken from a mortal. This took the form of a card, wherein I wrote actual dreams that I pulled from either the Internet or through player submissions that had been granted to me before hand (you can see an example of a block of these Dream Cards here: HW – Dreams 1).

I knew coming in that I wanted to model Glamour in a way that made their origin as the dreams of mortals very clear. Having them be print-outs of actual dreams worked really well in their role as a resource, as now Changelings could not only trade Glamour, but they could decide if there were particular “flavors” of Glamour that they wanted: the Redcap looking for dreams of food and plenty, or the quiet Shadow Court Sidhe secretly looking to buy nightmares.

I will admit that I was hard pressed to consider how to implement the wide variety of effects that are possible in a world of dreams and imagination. I knew that I wanted to have the players’ creativity and imagination be a vital part of the spell-making process, and forced to make an experimental decision, I decided on a simple system that pulled from the Dream Cards. The players were capable of performing any action they could describe as long as they spent one of their Dream Cards to do it and announced it loudly using at least one of the words in the text on the cards. This system, nebulously defined by the time of the first run, still seemed to run fairly well and achieved the intended effect of getting players to be creative with which aspects of their dream they could use. When making deals involving Glamour, I noticed some players carefully reading the words in the dream to see if there were any elements that would be useful to the plans they were making.

In this way, I was also able to provide flavor and depth to the character’s Court and Kith. By providing the character with a list of words they could use ‘for free’ in their spells, it gave Kith and Court a mechanical meaning and also had the advantage that certain elements tended to show up more often among specific groups. For example, because “Darkness” was one of the words available to Unseelie Characters, a lot of the Unseelie magic was crouched and described in terms of shadows.

In the future, I think I will implement a modification of this system that draws inspiration from New World Magischola, which is that any given spell will have an Incantation (which is constructed using words from Kith, Court, or Dreams), but that the actual effect of the spell will be determined by the person who is directly targeted.

Character Write Ups

When writing the characters, I decided to handouts in a modular system that had worked well for me in previous iterations of this very LARP (as a note, this is not the first time I’ve run the Highsummer Wedding scenario. In college, I ran an iteration of it that used the full ruleset from The Shining Host, and you can see one of the original Shining Host write ups here: Corran of the Red Fields).

The write up consisted of sections relevant to what I considered each of the core elements of the character:

  • A basic description of the character and his goals.
  • A description of the Faction they belonged to. In this case, every character was assigned to one of four factions:
    • House Gwydion – Members of this house, here for the wedding.
    • House Fiona – Member of this Sidhe house, here for the wedding.
    • Party Crashers – Those who were not supposed to be at the wedding at all.
    • Waystation Workers – The Kithain who worked at the waystation where the wedding was taking place.
  • Their Court and Kith. There were very few mechanics associated with these two things, and they were primarily included to give the players a set of behavior rules to help guide their roleplay.
  • A list of connections, which would allow the players to have individuals they could reach out if they were having difficulty becoming integrated into the network of relationships that formed the basis of the conflict within the story.

Here are some samples of the Write Ups that were generated for the most recent run of Highsummer Wedding:

Sir Corran – Writeup
David Wolfe – Writeup
Jimmy Fuzz – Writeup
Tobias Shade – Writeup

For the most part, I felt like the write ups provided a good deal of information, though I continue to wonder if it was perhaps too much information. There are a couple of places where I made obvious typos, because I am only a one-man production group (in Sir Corran’s card, his Kith is Troll, but the header says Satyr). As I explore slimming down the system and cutting information from the overload that would be presented to new players, I’m going to have to make some real choices about what is important and what isn’t.

Character Cards

In this LARPs equivalent to a character sheet, I focused on making them as unobtrusive as possible, while providing the information necessary to interact with Highsummer Wedding‘s magic and combat system, including their Brawl and Gremayre scores, their starting willpower, and the number of Dream Cards (glamour) to draw at the beginning of game. Also included were their character’s goals, to help give them a reminder, and a set of keywords that players could incorporate into their spells, based on Court, Kith, and a small selection of “Personal” words that varied from character to character.

Sir Corran – Character Card
David Wolfe – Character Card
Jimmy Fuzz – Character Card
Tobias Shade – Character Card

I printed them out on high quality card stock, in the hopes that players would be able to take them home as a momento of the game (for some reason, I’m obsessed with the idea of players taking home something tangible from the games I ran), and I did not see any problems with the cards getting in the way of play; I think that there is probably room for them to be reduced in size so that they can be more easily stored in a pocket, but that’s all logistics for a future case.

Conclusion and Coming Up

The game is still in development, and there is a lot to be done in regards to streamlining the system and distilling the core experience. That being said, I feel like the major elements of the mechanics are all either very close to something presentable or right where I want them to be and if I ran a third iteration of Highsummer Wedding, I would want to focus on how to best emphasize the dramatic story-elements of the game and capture the blend of southern hospitality, fairy-tale mythos, and courtly intrigue that is the hallmark of this unique story. In the comments, please feel free to leave any questions or thoughts you might have about the design experiences and mechanics in play.

In a follow-up to this article, I want to write out the dramatic elements of Highsummer Wedding, including the major themes and moods that I wanted to include and how the various characters interacted with those themes and moods.

 

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