Writing a Con LARP

Behind the Scenes: Writing a Convention LARP

Hello and welcome to another edition of Behind the Scenes!  It’s your friendly, neighborhood Storyteller here again!  Today, we’re going to be looking at how we go about putting together the games we run at conventions, like Conclave, Rant, Refuge, and Uprising.  There’s a whole lot that goes into these games, and we thought it would be interesting to pull back the curtain on how exactly we go about writing them, where we get our inspirations from, and why we do things the way we do.

The whole process starts about two or three months before the convention.  Sometimes, like last year between Conclave and Rant, we’ll even be writing one game before the last one is finished (which led to some real hilarity).  Honestly, I would like getting started even earlier that that, since three months is a pretty tight turnaround, but there are story concerns to take into consideration as well.  Inside this examination, we’ll take a look at concrete examples from Refuge (MidSouthCon 2016).

The First Step

Before ever putting pen to paper and before even coming up with a name for the game, the Narration Staff sits down and discusses where we are in the plot of the game and where we think we might be by the time the next convention comes around.  We have to consider what the power structure is going to look like, who the major antagonists are in the plot of the game as is, and whether or not we foresee anything else major coming up before the convention.  And while we have a great deal of experience, we are not clairvoyant by any means.

Sometimes, we have a pretty good idea.  When we were brainstorming for MCFC in 2015, we were pretty sure that the death of Nicolae Vaedus was going to be fairly fresh on everyone’s mind, so we knew it should have been an important part.  And we had a pretty good idea that Avery Blake, Nicolae’s grandchilde would still be the Prince of Memphis, so we had that going for us.  Caitlin offered that Avery would probably hold a Conclave to commemorate Nicolae’s recent demise, and then we had our setup.

Sometimes, it’s not so simple.  Right now, we are planning for MidSouthCon, and we are a little unsure about how things are going to play out.  We think that maybe Albedo will remain Prince (since upheavals in cities tend to come in three-month blocks in Vampire LARPs, and we just had one), but we can’t say for certain.  Anything is possible between now and then.  And while I would rather go ahead and start writing, we’re going to wait until we see things unfold at this month’s game before we start planning.

When we were writing Refuge, we knew several things.  One, we knew that actions taken by players in the game previously were going to have consequences.  I can’t go too far into specifics since there are both player characters and NPCs in play whose secrets I would have to reveal to do so, but suffice it to say that certain events were put in motion that were going to eventually lead to the fall of the city of Chicago.  Knowing that, and knowing that there were at least two other Camarilla cities in striking distance of Chicago who would feel threatened by the fall of such a stronghold, we thought that there would certainly be those who either survived Chicago’s downfall or just wanted to be out of the line of fire who would be leaving their respective towns.  And where better for those refugees to go than to a place that is rife with player characters?

We also knew that the Camarilla would be ready to strike back before the Sabbat could really entrench themselves in the Windy City.  How would they go about being successful in that regard?  Why, they’d probably stop by every Camarilla city they could find on the way to Chicago and recruit folks to help them fight.

At this point, we had a pretty good idea what we wanted our main external conflict to be, and we knew who the players would be in that situation.  But we had a difficult problem to overcome that was entirely out of character—something entirely logistical.

Factions

The next thing we do after deciding what our scenario is going to look like is estimate how many players we think we’ll have.  Generally, in our experience (at the time), convention LARPs had about 25-50 players in them.  At MCFC, just a few months before, we wrote 30 pregens, thinking that we were going to have around 20 regulars show up.

We sold out.  I felt so bad; we had to turn away something like ten people at that convention.  So we knew going into MidSouthCon that we needed to be prepared for more like 70-80 players; it was a bigger con for gaming, and Vampire LARPs went off like gangbusters there.  We took a look at our number of active characters (28 at the time), and decided that we would need somewhere between 50 and 60 characters—nearly double what we had for MCFC.

That might sound like a huge number.  That might sound like it freaked us out—and it did, but not because of the sheer volume of characters.  See, we like our pregenerated characters to have some play to them right out of the box.  We want them to have an immediate coterie of folks that they can buddy up with and work with to get things done.  And while we can feel free to make them as big or small as we want, we tend to like to keep each coterie small.  The bigger a coterie is, the more information there is to digest and the more overwhelmed a new player can become.  As a rule, the largest we want a coterie to be is 10 characters.

Knowing that, we needed five or six coteries.  We had a few already.  Chicago refugees, Louisville refugees, St. Louis refugees, and the Camarilla war party were all on our radar.  The problem is that even if we filled all of those up, we only had 40 characters.  So we needed at least one more.

What else did we have to work with?  Well, we had a foreign Prince whom we tangentially introduced at the MCFC game, Francis Overwater.  Since a couple of people from his court decided to relocate to Memphis, he might send a delegation of folks to offer aid in the refugee crisis.  Well that presented another problem: Nashville was established as a direct adversary to Overwater already, and they would never tolerate him sending a delegation while Nashville stayed home.  It would just look bad for them.  So we had 60 characters.

Character Concepts

Next, we had to decide who these motley assortment of people were going to be.  At this point, we knew nothing other than Chicagoans were misplaced, St. Louis and Louisville were running from a real or perceived threat, and Atlanta and Nashville hated each other.  So rather than try to write all of those backgrounds in a vacuum and make them fit, I polled the Narration staff for character concepts.  And I wasn’t looking for anything specific, either.  I just asked for generic things like, “A mobster with a heart of gold,” or, “A headstrong second in command who is overlooked because of her clanlessness.”

Once I have the basic concepts and the factions, I set to work divvying up the concepts into those factions.  I know that the folks in Chicago are going to be more or less varied, since they are the survivors of the attack.  I know that there aren’t likely to be many physically-potent characters in Louisville or St. Louis, since they are all people running from a fight.  I know that Atlanta and Nashville are going to send heavy hitters politically and bruiser-backup to support them (but not send any Princes directly).  I know that the War Party is going to be more or less all combat badasses, since they’re on the way to Chicago to kick ass and take names.  After a few hours, I generally have a list of character concepts divided into factions and bios for those factions sketched out.  I then assign each concept a Character ID# (both so they are easy to identify and so that I can sort the spreadsheet as I need to and still return it to its default state).

The next thing I do is alter and polish the concepts to better fit each faction and what I think their general goals might end up being.  I assign each one of them a nickname like, “The Bruiser,” or “The Detective,” or “The Wildcard,” and then I put all that stuff into a spreadsheet and color code the factions.

Faction Bios

Somewhere in between sorting general character concepts into factions and refining them to their nicknames, I write the Faction Bios.  These writeups are the first draft of what eventually ends up being in the character packet at the end of the process, and they’re really important to figuring out what is going on from a narrative and goal perspective for each character.

Each Faction Bio has four parts: backstory, attitudes toward the other factions, faction goals, and a place for each character’s personal goals.  Somewhat counterintuitively, I generally start with a goal or two first.  For the Atlanta Delegation, for example, I knew that they would be actively trying to stop Nashville from progressing any goals while establishing a good rapport with the Prince of Memphis.  Having those goals in mind, it gave me a better idea about what they were all about, and they inspired me to write about how they all fit together and how they came to be a coterie.

Faction Leaders

The next thing I do is pick one of the character concepts that we have to make a Faction Leader.  Unlike the rest of the pregenerated characters, our Faction Leaders are often cast ahead of time and personally selected by the Storyteller to serve a particular purpose in the story.  Our last convention game at MCFC 2016 was a little odd in that it didn’t really follow this paradigm entirely, but generally, they’re the person who is taking point on all the faction’s goals, and they try to keep everyone else motivated to move forward.

At Refuge, we had six factions, so we needed six leaders.  The difficult part here is that oftentimes in order to cast a character, I have to pull one of our regular players or Narrators to play them, which means they end up not getting to play their regular character.  And that situation can cause all kinds of problems in the game.  So before I ask anyone to play a cast character, I have to really ask myself if that character is necessary and whether or not I can just hand it out to people who show up to play at the convention.  At Uprising in November, I decided that I only really needed one faction leader to be cast.  At Refuge, though, we needed all of the faction leaders to be cast… and then one more on top of them.

Character Details

After I decide who I want to play my cast characters and after they have agreed to play them, then I have a pretty solid idea of what my factions are going to look like, regardless of who else shows up to play the other pregens.  I can be confident that no matter what happens with the other characters or who is playing them, there will be at least one experienced player they can turn to for advice both in and out of character.  Make no mistake, playing one of these cast characters is a huge responsibility and is not to be taken lightly.

So now that I know what my factions look like, I go about deciding on the Clan, generation, and genders of each character.  I want more Brujah, Toreador and Ventrue than anything else, followed by Gangrel and Nosferatu, and I want the fewest of Tremere, Caitiff, and Malkavian.  I split them up this way for several reasons.

First, Brujah, Toreador, and Ventrue are, in universe, the most populous Clans to begin with.  Combine that with the fact that they are generally pretty easy Clans to play, and you really want more of them than anything else, especially when you plan on handing out characters to people who either rarely LARP or have never LARPed before at all.  Nosferatu and Gangrel are also fairly easy to play from a mechanics perspective, but socially they are kind of isolated, so we don’t want a ton of them floating around.  As for the rest, Malkavians (while popular) come with very high expectations in Riverside Opera—we take mental health very seriously, and as a Storyteller, I am of the opinion that they are terrifying, not silly—so we want to keep the chance for so-called “Fish” Malks to a minimum (just Google it).  Caitiff are more or less rare in the Camarilla cities, so we try to make that represented in our games.  Tremere, on the other hand, have access to some of the most complicated rules sets available *and* have high expectations placed on them in-character, making them one of the most difficult Clans to represent at a convention LARP.

Next, I add on the generations according to what makes sense for their character concepts.  The spreadsheet I use to plan these games averages out the generation for each Clan and Faction, and I try to shoot for 10.5 across the board.  Sometimes, Caitiff tend to be a little higher gen and others a little lower, but it’s not by much.  At Refuge, the average generation was 10.3.

After all that balancing is done, I go through each concept and ask myself whether that character necessarily needs to be male, female, or if they could be either (or neither).  Male, I mark on the spreadsheet with a capital M.  Females get a capital F.  Characters whose gender is irrelevant get marked with a capital A, for androgynous—E for either looks too much like an F at a glance, as N for neutral looks too close to M.

Then, I make my first foray onto one of the two sites I use to help me write characters: Behind the Name.  I randomly generate names (both first, last, and middle) until I see a name that sounds good to me.  I record them on a sheet of paper and repeat until I have roughly twice as many names for each gender category as I need.  Then, I return to the spreadsheet, where I assign names to characters.  Sometimes, I come up with my own names or use names from other places, but the vast majority of them are generated in this fashion.

Notable Features

Now that I have all of my characters sketched out and in their appropriate factions, I go about assigning each of them notable features.  I don’t do it for every character, and even the characters that end up with notable features don’t all get them at this stage, but I do try to hit the high points.  Some characters are really obvious.  The character who is impersonating a Kindred whose murder he witnessed?  Well, that guy needs Mask of 1000 Faces.  The Malkavian who thinks there are patterns in everything that must be recorded?  That character has OCD.  The Seneschal of Nashville?  I bet she has Leadership out the frame.  The other characters who have Notable Features will have them fleshed out while I’m writing Character Bios.

The purpose of these features is for the other Narrators.  I have so much work to do writing the Bios that I often don’t have time to write the corresponding character sheets, so I ask the Narration staff to help me along in that regard.  The thing is, though, that I need to make sure that the sheets themselves are as close to what the characters ought to have as I can, and the Narrators don’t typically get to read the Character Bios before making a character sheet.  Thus, the need for that extra field in the spreadsheet.

Character Ties

Every character knows other characters.  No man is an island, after all.  Even if one of them doesn’t have any friends, there isn’t a single Kindred who would show up to an Elysium that doesn’t at least have a few acquaintances.  I do Character Ties in three waves.

First, I write down every character in the game, by name, on graph paper.  First, I assign each of them a tie to every other character in their faction (by Character ID#, to save space).  Next, I assign every character a cross-faction tie based on what makes sense (or randomly if there’s not one that jumps out at me).  Lastly, I leave open two or three spaces on every character for ties that pop out at me as I am writing Bios.

After assigning ties, I divide them into one of two categories: generic or personalized.  Generic ties are typically just the Short Character Bio (more on that later) for a given character so that the person to whom that character is tied has a general idea about who that character is.  Sometimes (but not always), generic character ties get a “how you met” sentence.  Personalized character ties are different.  Every pregenerated character gets at least one (but no character has more than two or three), and they often vary wildly from the Short Character Bio that everyone else gets.  These ties are intense and often character-defining, and they are intended to push plot and create drama.

Character Bios

Ah, the monster itself.  I spend the vast majority of my time on this section of the work, and it’s not just because of sheer numbers of words, either.  There are just so many steps involved here, and each one of them requires attention to detail that is difficult for someone who has crippling ADHD.

Before I get started here, I write a brief summary of what is going on in the game called, “The Story So Far.”  It generally includes all relevant information to the plots that we foresee going on and the factions entering play for the game.  It has to be less than one full page, and it has to include only information that characters would have access to in character.  Sometimes it is difficult to share everything relevant here, but generally I find a way to make do.

All of the Bios go into the same Word document to make it easier on us when we’re printing them later, so there are several things I need to take into consideration when formatting it.  Each character is its own section in the document, and each character has a header that includes their name, their faction, and page numbers.  And that’s the easy part, though it can take anywhere from 2-3 hours to get everything input correctly.

Each Character Bio has five parts.  At the top, there’s the Character Snapshot, where I include their concept nickname, Clan, generation, a brief character concept (which might be different than what was on the handout list, which we will cover later), and any of those Notable Traits I listed before (since those are important to the character and should be played up.

Next, there’s the Character Background, which has three parts of its own.  The first part is the character history, which is written more-or-less in-character and from that character’s perspective and includes who the character was as a human, a little bit about their embrace or sire, something about their life as a vampire, and how the character came to be involved in events in Memphis.  The second part is some kind of special information (more on that later).  The third part is roleplaying notes, which includes OOC information about how to play the character—including the most difficult part of the entire writing process, the dreaded character exemplars.  All of this information must fit on the first page of the Character Bio (about 700 words maximum).

The character exemplars are three example characters—one from books, one from movies, and one from television—who give a quick idea about who from fiction the character is most like.  And while that doesn’t sound particularly difficult, I do not have what you would call an encyclopedic knowledge of literary characters; that’s where TV Tropes comes in.  Normally, I have a general idea about what the central idea of a character is, plug that into the search bar of the TV Tropes website, and then peruse until I find a character who matches my description.  Once I have finished all of the Character Background, then I can move on to the next section, the Faction Bio.

At this point, if I haven’t already, I fine-tune and polish the Faction Bio for the characters I am currently writing and get it formatted and ready.  I then copy and paste it into the document.  In each Faction Bio, there is a blank space for Personal Goals, and I fill them out at this stage.

Then I move on to Character Ties.  While I am writing the Character Background and Personal Goals for a character, I usually notice another character in the pregens to whom they can be linked, and I go into my spreadsheet and include them as a Character Tie.  Then, I go through and list the Character ID# for each Tie and note special information about said Tie on the third page of the document.  If a particular character needs a Personalized Tie, I will also write it at this stage.

The last page of the Character Bio is the copy/pasted “The Story So Far” write up.  I know what you’re thinking.  “All done?”  And the answer would be a deafening “No.”

An Aside for Special Additions

Sometimes when I am writing Character Backgrounds, there is a particular mystery or plot that I want to push with the pregens.  It is nice for people to feel like they have something important to do in the game, and things like these can often be critical in making a character go from “Meh” to “Awesome.”  Sometimes, it will be “Something You Noticed,” and others it will be “Secrets You Know,” and still others, it might be something else entirely.

I try to think of these things as puzzle pieces or parts of a story that are separated amongst the members of a particular faction (usually) or the entire game (harder, but sometimes).  If a bunch of the pieces are there, it should be relatively easy to solve.  If there’s only a couple, it should still be possible, though.  And that is a difficult balance to find.  We could just include the same information on different clues, but what happens if only clues 1 and 4 get handed out?  Then no one feels like they have any special information, and the puzzle can’t be solved.  But if clues 1 and 3 are really important to figuring out the puzzle, what happens when no one picks up a character with them?  It is a very difficult thing to balance, and sometimes, the bonus plot we include here rarely comes out.

For example, in Refuge, the Louisville crew had a mole of sorts.  It was a Malkavian with lots of Obfuscate who was masquerading as the (Toreador) Harpy of Louisville, whom he saw get brutally murdered by the Sabbat.  Each character had a little inkling that there was something odd going on with the “Harpy,” but no one put all of the pieces together.  Granted, that much wasn’t really important to the overall plot of the game itself, but it was a *really* neat puzzle with some heavy-hitting implications if anyone ever found out about it.

Short Character Bios

After writing each Character Bio, I go into a separate document and write up a shorter, more compact version (usually less than 60 words).  These shorter bios contain a character’s Character ID#, their concept’s nickname, and whatever pertinent, publically known information ought to be available to other characters to whom he is tied—generally things like who they are, where they’re from, and what notable thing they did.  I never include secrets or delicate information in these shortened versions of the bios unless absolutely necessary.

After all of the characters have a short bio, then I copy and paste each one into the Character Ties section of each Character Bio.  This process sounds simple enough, but when you take into consideration that between three and five of these bios have to have personalized information of one kind or another, the process can take two or three days of work to complete.

Finishing Touches

While I am finishing up Character Bios, the rest of the Narration staff has other things to which they must attend.  Amy plans the setting and props for the game, and she and Patrick work out logistics.  Caitlin assigns each player character a Character ID# and makes a brand new badge for every character (PC and pregen alike).  And every Narrator goes through and helps make character sheets.  After those are done, Jeremy goes through each one and assigns which ones need item cards, then relays that information to Caitlin, who adds those item cards to the character sheet and print list.  Once all that is done, we stuff packets.

Packet Stuffing Party

The Wednesday before the convention game, the Narration Staff all get together to have a brief meeting and stuff Character Packets.  We go through around 100 yellow envelopes, putting sticky labels on each of them with the character’s name and Character ID# for that packet.

Each packet contains several things: a letter from the Storyteller, welcoming the player to the game and explaining the Character Packet to them, which is the first thing a player should see when opening their packet; their Character Bio; their character sheet; a pack of nine Riverside Opera Rock/Paper/Scissors cards; a badge; any relevant item cards; a number of Self-Control cards; and four XP votes.

Once each packet is stuffed, it gets put into the LARP box in order of Character ID#, with pregens coming first.  Player characters get everything but the letter from the Storyteller and a Character Bio.

And that’s it!  All done!  All that’s left is for people to come to the Con and pick up their packets and start the game.  While it might sound simple, the process ends up being over 100,000 words in total and takes more than two months to complete.  And while it might be a huge undertaking, I wouldn’t have it any other way.  I love this game, and I love the people who play in it.

I hope you enjoyed this walk-through of our process for putting together a convention edition of Riverside Opera.  If you have any questions, feel free to drop them in comments down below.  See you next time!