On Player Backgrounds and Personal Plot

The third of our guest articles by David Kibblewhite, talking about the Fairyland game. Here he’s talking about using player backgrounds and how it can be vital when creating personal plot.

Go Big or Go Home

Fairyland was a pretty ambitious event and we went into it with a mindset of “go big or go home”. The key thing about it was that we wanted it to start with a rave, or as I learned from cultural correspondent John Newton it would properly be called, a free party.

We decided 50 was a good number of players; any less and the dance part of the event wouldn’t work, we reasoned. We also decided to host it at Candlestone, which is not a cheap site, but we had no existing player base to draw from (to quote Kat Quatermass, we were the most experienced first time event runners ever) and were nervous about charging too much, so for that reason also 50 players seemed to work on paper. We got our 50 bookings much more quickly than we expected; we had suckered people in with our cool, edgy premise.

At this point we were not massively sure what our plot was. We knew they were going to get transported to a literal fairy dimension by the power of mid-90s dance music and desire for escape of the daily grind. We knew the rest of the event would focus on trying to escape Fairyland, or choosing not to. We also knew it was going to involve a literal Heart of Gold. But we didn’t immediately know what people would do all day once they were in Fairyland.

At a LARP I don’t pay to sit around. I want to be doing something, or I want to be thinking hard on solving a mystery, exploring relationships, or resolving a moral dilemma. So we thought about what people enjoy at events. When I look at people’s lists of hots and nots as an Empire plot writer, the thing that jumps out at me is they very rarely mention the plot.

90% of the good parts of LARP are actually players interacting with each other. They just need something to bounce off; something to give them space to explore those relationships, to take dramatic action, or to perform. And the character that the player is usually most invested in is their own. The best LARPs I’ve been to are ones like Tabula Rasa, where I went on a personal journey, genuinely learning something about myself and how I interact with others.

After Trauma

The bit after the NPCs have traumatised them is at least as important as the bit during. Photo Credit Beth Dooner

So we decided we would aim to provide a personal, private experience for every single character, reasoning that as these occurred throughout the day players would come back, speak about what they meant, and make their own stories. Basically, they would go through some shit. Multiple experienced event runners told us this was insane; completely impossible.

Oh yeah, and we couldn’t run them on Friday because the plot dictated we were not doing anything supernatural then, we couldn’t start right away on Saturday because we needed a transition from party atmosphere to fighting for survival, and we had to be finished by 10PM because we didn’t want anyone to miss our finale stuff for reasons outside their control.

This left about eleven hours to run 50 encounters whilst our main plot continued. Clare also didn’t believe we could do this, but was mostly talked round when she saw how pared back the encounters were, and she was absolutely instrumental in making any of this actually happen on the day.

Pretty Organised

Clare’s pretty organised. Photo credit Martyn Sullivan

Moments

So what were we doing for these personal encounters? We knew most player characters would likely be on mind-bending, potentially mind shattering drugs. This is good because one thing I have learned running Kallavesi visions at Empire (non-interactive, drug-based visionary set pieces) is that if an encounter is a dream or hallucination, you can get away with a lot. Things don’t have to look perfect as long as the right impression and symbolism is there, and it doesn’t have to make sense in a wider context than the people experiencing it because it doesn’t necessarily interact with the rest of the game world.

We also decided the purpose of the encounters; to test each of the ravers to see if they were worthy of becoming monarch of Fairyland. Worthiness was not a moral judgement, it was a measure of how certain you were of your own identity, how well you knew yourself.

Not Worthy (Yet)

Someone who isn’t worthy yet. Photo credit Tom Garnett

Having read an article Harry Harrold wrote about A Wing and a Prayer where he talked about the structure of “moments” that he used I realised that language, even the language you use internally is important. And that’s when I stopped calling these personal encounters “personal encounters” and announced we were now calling them “Trips”, which was much more evocative of the setting and feel we were going for. The other members of the core SparkLRP team told me I was a pretentious tosser, and I wholeheartedly agreed.

So how did we write the trips and make them something the players would care about? That’s where the backgrounds come in.

Player backgrounds for one-offs; How to write them and what to do with them

We never ran an event before this one but we had the idea that we wanted to know personal details about the characters in order that we could give them things they’d actually care about. We didn’t want a wall of text in whatever style the player chose, we wanted some structure. So we asked a series of questions. Our hope was by the time we came to writing these encounters that since we’d asked a few different questions, each background would contain something we could use to hang an encounter off of.

With his permission, I’m going to go through Tim Baker’s background, as whilst he took a while to click with making a character for this game, when he did it was one of the easiest to work with out of all the backgrounds we had.

Goblin Child

Tim with his goblin child. Photo credit Tom Garnett

Q: What’s your name?

A: Albert (Berry) Barker

Even this is good and it’s just the character name. He’s given us a nickname, so we now have three ways to address him. Mr. Barker and he knows it’s something official, Berry for a friend, and Albert, probably a family member.

Q: What’s your standard of education?

A: Failed o levels.

Q: Do you have a job? If so, describe it. If not, what do you do for money?

A: Labourer/builder

OK, we have a solid picture of a working class guy here. So far so good. We also know a thing the character is good at. He’s handy, practical, the sort of person who could turn into some kind of everyman hero in the right circumstances. We know he has a job and is therefore not dirt poor. And since we also know that Tim is a pretty fit and active person, we know we could pitch plot involving some physicality at this character if we wanted.

Heroes

I don’t have any pictures of Tim being heroic at this event, so here’s one of Jenny, Jules, Emma and Nic instead. Photo credit Beth Dooner

Q: How’s your home-life? Live with anyone else?

A: Flat share with Bryony’s character

Brilliant. So you’re attending with your long term OOC partner, but IC your relationship is just flatmates. That is extremely useful to know, thanks.

Q: What are your hobbies/interests (outside of raving)?

A: Loves detective/mystery novels and dreams of writing one himself some day.

Excellent. Berry has an interest and an unfulfilled desire to do something with it. Tim said that overall he got a theme of “change” from our questions and tried to play into that. He was right to do this; it was very helpful.

Q: Do you have a cat? Name and description if so please.

A: Mungo is a stray who isn’t supposed to be allowed in our flat, but the landlord doesn’t know about him. He is a grumpy, scabby alley cat who seems to like us and rewards us for giving him shelter by bringing us prey, that we have to clean up rapidly before any flat inspections.

Tim said this was a good question to help him think about the character. To quote him, “It was an important human touch that helped me think about his home life, because so many things touch on it. Do you like animals? Are you kind to them? Does your life allow you to have a pet of your own? If not, what are the barriers that stop you having a pet?”. 

We asked this question because in the Fairyland gameworld, cats were evil servants of the Cait Sidhe who spied on you and delivered messages between Earth and Fairyland. However Tim’s answer was great here. We know that Berry is kind to stray cats and therefore we’ll brief our cat npc to start out relatively favourable toward him, and we also know that Mungo hates Berry’s landlord, which is why in some documentation the players found, Mungo requested first a handgun, then later a blowpipe to do away with them. The requests were denied.

But based on what Tim said there I think I’d always include that question, whether it’s plot relevant or not.

Cat Files

Of all the cat pictures I gathered for this event, this one of a stray carrying a massive dead bird in its jaws might be my favourite. Photo credit Bea Key

Q: What’s a significant memory of yours?

A: Being told he wouldn’t amount to anything at school. Then dropping out and taking the first job he could find.

We’re back to the fact he is coasting in life, but now we have something external to pin to it, and a specific moment where it started.

Q: Any recurring dreams?

A: Berry stays up late writing, especially after drug-fuelled nights out, when he hits the paranoia stage of his comedown. When he finally sleeps he dreams of his characters, detectives endlessly pursuing complex conspiracies.

This is really good stuff. Now we know about both the dream the character has, and some odd drugs-related behaviour. In our style guide on the event website it says “Drug taking, escaping from reality , and associated effects on the human mind is a key theme for the event.” and oh look, here is Berry doing drugs and getting lost in a fantasy world of his own creation. It’s like he actually read our website or something.

He hasn’t actually told us the time period his stories are set in, or the names of any of the characters, but we expect so long as it was detectives he’d go with it on the day.

Escaping the Daily Grind

Berry, escaping the daily grind. Photo credit Beth Dooner

Q: What are you proud of?

A: The draft of a short story on his desk at home – about a detective called Lily Mayes – that he hasn’t yet dared show to anybody.

Nope, don’t worry, he has now told us the name of his key character, and their gender is also clear. Matt and Andy at Empire sometimes say we don’t care about your parents’ names in your background and it makes me want to throw them through the window of their converted shipping container. In a one-off, you can probably get away with just making up a name. In an ongoing game like Empire, if your parents are significant then I can’t use them if I don’t know their names, because you will know them and I will be wrong. 

Q: What are you ashamed of?

A: Not standing up to toxic masculinity at work. Dropping out of school.

We already knew he wasn’t happy about dropping out of school, but now he has thrown in a reason he doesn’t like his job. It’s the lads culture. This tells us something about his values, and ups the ante on the idea that Berry is not all he has the potential to be.

Q: Do you have any secrets?

A: Ambition to be a writer.

Fair enough. No need to make up anything additional and fill up the page with chaff.

Q: Finally, describe yourself in a maximum of three words

A: Trapped. Creative. Curious.

Look how in the whole background there is nothing that doesn’t tell us something useful. We do not have to wade through acres of text to pick out the interesting bits. I’ve said it a few times but what a great background this is.

Just A Normal Bloe

He’s a normal bloke with some normal problems. Photo credit Beth Dooner

So What Happens on this Trip?

The toxic masculinity thing is interesting, but we couldn’t touch it because discrimination on OOC characteristics was against our conduct policy. We could have done something with his shitty teacher. But clearly the most interesting thing was his writing. He is doing that without needing qualifications. He can do that all on his own; he clearly just lacks confidence as it has been beaten out of him at school and at work.

So we send out Lily Mayes, the detective character from his imagination. She brings him an investigation file with questions in it that invite him to consider the arc of the main plot and attempt to uncover the conspiracy that has brought the players to Fairyland. She instructs him to complete it then gives him the location of a dead drop to put the completed file.

What does Lily Mayes look like? Well we have an NPC who used to ref Tommy Guns and Temperance, and we are confident she can do a decent film noir, prohibition era detective, so we go with that. Is it what Tim had in his head? We don’t know. Probably not, but the truth is this is a short encounter in a one off game. As long as she is instantly recognisable as a detective we’re pretty sure Tim will roll with it and the encounter will work.

Finally we need a win/lose condition. The key thing here is it doesn’t matter what he writes in the file as long as he puts a little effort into it. The point is simply that writing will bring him to his true nature, unburdened by self-deception and whatever other bullshit he is carrying with him. If he doesn’t engage, doesn’t write, then fair enough, he’s going to be an unhappy builder all his life and never get published. 

We determined we couldn’t use a set dressed encounter tent for every trip, and this one doesn’t need one. In fact, the clandestine nature of the meetings simply doesn’t work unless this encounter takes place in the live environment. Easy to write, easy to run out. Requirements: one Ali Hancock, one trenchcoat, one written form in a black envelope addressed to Berry (because he’s imagined her up and that’s the name he calls himself) for Tim to fill out.

Mysterious Spirit

This mysterious spirit wasn’t needed for Tim’s encounter, as it could come to him in the field. Photo credit Tom Garnett

Musical Cues

There’s really only one thing that would have made Tim’s background better, and that would be something that Aislin le Galloudec included in her background, an obvious musical cue.

Aislin’s background was also very well put together. Her character, Myfanwy Carter, was a 21 year old Christian who had just moved away from her home and church community, which were everything to her. She was innocent, lost, lonely and planning to turn up to the rave more or less by accident.

We knew from her Facebook posts on the group that she was planning to get into as much trouble as she could. Great. But in her background she mentioned her last church service in her old church and that during it she heard one of her favourite hymns “You Shall Go Out With Joy”.

This is really useful information. On our website we said Fairyland was “A game about music, ecstasy, love and revenge”. It’s also well known that there are going to be speakers there, speakers that play music. She has told us exactly what music to play if we want to let her know something is about her.

Don’t get me wrong, we could have used something else, but why would we? So when Myfanwy faced her private moment of doubt alone in our encounter tent, we had the hymn playing throughout. She got no other input on how to proceed, she just had to be guided by faith.

Guided By Faith

Myfanwy, looking for guidance in the Extreme Faith Bible, like the sweet cinnamon roll she was. Photo credit Beth Dooner

There was another character who was an environmental protestor, and a massive Levellers fan. This might actually have been a better musical cue, because it was slightly less specific.

I therefore spent a while working out exactly which Levellers song I was going to play during his protest scene. It helps that I too am a massive Levellers fan, and that they produced 95% of their music worth listening to prior to ‘96. Both cues worked really well for the individual characters, from my point of view.

Chains of our Own Making

Johnny Strange, breaking chains of his own making. Photo credit Tom Garnett

Digging

There were one or two things where we wanted further information. Tom Francis’s character for example was Dr. Ed, a sort of psychedelic guru who had been kicked out of Cambridge university because of “administrative concerns” (read: ethics trash fire). Fine. Now, he also mentioned that he believed he was in communication with an pan-dimensional entity called GAMANHA, that appeared as a lozenge of pure energy. We decided we would have that entity talk to him over the PA, loudly and publicly to confront him with his secret:

Large portions of my doctoral thesis were plagiarised from an incomplete thesis text from 20 years earlier which I unearthed in the Berkeley library archives. The author was one Barry Tremaine. As far as I’m aware, I destroyed the only original copy and no micro-fiche was taken as it was never submitted.”

Trustworthy

Would you go into a psych experiment this guy was running? Photo credit Beth Dooner

But we didn’t really know much about GAMANHA, so it’d be difficult to play, and we were concerned Tom might have quite a lot of headcanon on this point so we didn’t want to risk making it up. Also, whilst Tom’s background was very entertaining, very on-theme and contained a lot of crazy stuff that was so close to our actual plot we worried he might be bugging us, it was also written in an IC style by someone who was clearly a bit delusional, especially regarding himself.

We could have contacted him and asked for clarification, but then we’d have tipped him off about what we were planning. In some LARPs they do some or all the character creation in a pre-game workshop, but that’d be too late for us as we like to be prepared. And also, we are of the opinion that we go to a LARP event to roleplay, not to workshop some roleplaying we’ll do later.

So what we did to solve this was workshop it in character. We sent out an NPC on the Friday night while we were plot-lite as one of Dr Ed’s followers from Cambridge to chat shit with him about the universe. In doing so she was able to get a better handle on what GAMANHA was actually meant to be so she could play it the next day.

Of course, by the time we actually came to run that encounter Dr Ed had already done everything it was going to ask him to do and was in the process of turning himself into a cat by overdosing on magical Ecstasy, but I digress.

Transfiguration

Tom’s character as a transdimensional cat wanker (his word, not mine). Note the 10 stickers on the lanyard indicating he’s taken enough drugs to kill a small village. Photo credit Tom Garnett

Actually running all this out

Here’s what we had in place to make this happen:

  • Not actually 50 encounters. There were a few who never submitted a character and after chasing several times we assumed anyone left was either not going to show or didn’t want personal plot and was happy to be along for the ride. There were a few others who we lost over the weekend due to illness, childcare issues etc. But we definitely ran over 20 trips in the tent, and about the same number through NPCs in the live environment, or in a couple of cases we delivered an item that the trip ran through
  • 100% hand picked crew to ensure everyone there was good at what they were doing and caused no dramas. This included actual theater people to manage sets and many old hand larpers who can be relied upon improv a good scene
  • Every encounter in a numbered envelope stating exactly what props, costume and paperwork it required. If it was small enough to go in the envelope it went directly in there
  • A separate hived off team to independently run the tent encounters. The head of set dressing created the timetable for that end of things with an eye to minimising set dressing changes
  • Minimal sets where only the props and furniture that were actually significant to the trip were present, with clever use of signs and so on to indicate where it was taking place. I cannot speak highly enough of Chloe Courtney’s set dressing talent 
  • Nick Livesey to find the players and get them to the encounters IC (he does a similar job at Hades I understand, and therefore has experience)
  • The award winning Clare Evans to run the monster room, and she is hella organised
  • No more than 2 NPCs per encounter, except I think for one where we needed multiple refugees and Serbian military (did I mention this game was pretty grim in places?)
  • Very little concern for “balance”. Some of the trips were harder to “win” than others. Some of them were pretty tame, some of them were potentially lethal for the character involved, or anyone else who tried to intervene, although there was no (immediate) permadeath in Fairyland. Not everyone’s psychological baggage was created equal – we respected the characters as written

Not every single one of these worked. Some fell a little flat, some the players failed at spectacularly, but we really did have a very high hit rate on these trips. And that, my friends, is the story of how we ran out 40+ personal encounters in 11 hours while our main plot bounced around like a barely controlled dodgem.

And of course the PA blasted music the entire time, because in Fairyland, you literally can’t stop raving.

No Messing

Actual footage of Clare when she suspects “someone” might be messing with her encounter timetable. Photo credit Beth Dooner

One thought on “On Player Backgrounds and Personal Plot

  1. Scott Anderson says:

    Gotta say this event sounds amazing!

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