Saturnalia Dev Diary #3

Saturnalia Dev Diary #3

Posted by Reverie Studios on 4th Jun 2022


One of the most important things in larp design (outside the major themes and potentially venue selection) is character design. To help design an experience that had so many venues, participants and potential event flows, Reverie Studios worked with Juhana Pettersson on coming up with what we think is an ideal system for this style of larp.

What We've Done Previously

For many of our experiences, Reverie did what we consider to be a more traditional Nordic character design: we sent a character survey to our participants based on the event themes, we took the survey responses and meshed them with the previous ideas we had around the things we were trying to develop with the larp, and then sent out character summaries. The participants could respond and comment on them, ask for a different character, or allow us to just proceed. We’d take these conversations and send them back to the writing team where the final character development would begin.

For 'The Haunting of Gray Manor' larp we ran in October 2021 this included:

  • Character name
  • Character pronouns the player selected
  • Descriptive traits: 4-5 words to summarize the character.
  • Groups: What in-game group(s) does the character belongs to
  • A background: No more than 1 page on the character's history.
  • Connections: Other connections the character has
  • Core aspect: What motivates the character to come to this event
  • Questions: Questions to answer for yourself about the character’s motivations
  • Motivations: A small list of potential things to do at the event

Then we had a second section for what happens after the character dies

  • Core aspect in Death: What do you want to do now that your character has died.
  • Questions in death: What questions should you ask yourself if you’re dead to fill out the experience.
  • Motivations in death: Now that you’re dead, what do you want to try to do.

As you can see the above has a fair amount of writing but more importantly is designed to connect the player to the ecosystem. It gave players a solid foundation to build their play upon.

Potential Challenges with this Design

This design works really well in smaller experiences. With a limited number of characters, motivations and potential connections, a small design team can really easily flesh out a solid design and understand how everything will fit together from the uniqueness of both background and connections. However, this design had exposed some flaws in the events we wrote, and the events of the last couple of years with COVID and the fragility of in-person events caused us to rethink how we came up with characters:

  1. How do we recast someone quickly into an event if a participant can’t make it and still have it be a great experience for them?
  2. How do we deal with people not showing up to the event due to real-world uncertainty?

The main reason for that is the fragility of having hardwired connections between characters being a fundamental part of the experience. I’ve both seen the outcome on the designer and player side. It can actually somewhat break the experience for that character to have another character miss the event and that potential plot thread die.

The other side is that with a larp this big spread across so many locations, people might not find each other easily, so we needed to make sure we had a system that kept connections more fluid, given the massive amount of uncertainty we have on the operations side of things.

Our Solution

Juhana had the fundamental idea of lifting things from the character interaction level, and moving things more into groups participants can opt into. That way, the groups themselves can drive the plot, and players during their character creation can choose what affiliations they want to have/make connections with other people with those affiliations if that aspect of Vampire V5 appeals to them.

So, we put most of our effort into the macro group design, and then wrote character seeds that participants can select. The goal would be to take that seed and breathe whatever unlife they wanted into it. Because the simple truth is, while we might have written what clans and powers people have had in older incarnations of our design, it actually matters very little to the overall metaplot of the event. In these situations, we deemed it better to let participants pick their own clans, vampire religion, age, beliefs… and most importantly doom to let them have their own impact on the event.

This isn’t to say that characters and their motivations have less impact. As always, participants are driving this event, and they can fundamentally push for whatever experience they want. It just helps us be certain that “Saturnalia” is actually the big vampire party we want it to be without worrying about specific character connections. And, it gives participants the ability to determine their group's actions/how it blends with their character motivation on Discord prior to the experience or during the dedicated time in workshops.

From a macro design perspective, this will make sure we have the right mix of core themes being pushed by groups, and it’s not a massive impact on the experience if a specific character doesn’t show up/can’t make it. We hope it lends itself to a more rigorous experience and increases the number of fun participants has both building and portraying a role, while hopefully applying some of the lessons learned in this post-COVID larp universe.

We’ll be doing more on the character creator and larp operations in diaries to come.