What’s the Crock Pot? Just a simmering bowl of lentils and herbs, with a dash of DMing observations. Don’t be afraid to dip in your ladle and stir, or throw in something from your own spice rack.
I spent the past weekend with some friends at the Bristol Renaissance Fair, which straddles the Wisconsin-Illinois border and for nine weeks of the past 30 or so summers exists in a 16th century timewarp. The fair offers a mix of historical re-enactment (Queen Elizabeth has brought court to village of Bristol in the summer of 1574) and the fantastic (a LARP-styled adventure in which rival teams are on a quest for the dragon Bloodtharken’s lost egg).
For the GMs seeking inspiration for their fantasy-themed games, there’s nothing like a visit to the faire. If the array of participants in period costume doesn’t immediately bring of sense of immersion, what about handling some of the wares for sale in the many shops of the village? Feeling the weight of a shirt of chain mail, examining a dirk or trying on a hat with a feather in it gives a sense of yesteryear that a description in a book can never truly convey.
Certainly, there’s nothing like seeing a demonstration of men armed with pikes to understand how terrible and awful ranks of such defenders must seem to a knight on his charging steed. Let the queen get the best of an uppity noble in a duel of verbal sparring to catch the gist of courtly intrigue in play. As for the knights — maybe they were more businesslike than the braggarts who took the field this day — even so, displays of horsemanship and martial skill are impressive regardless of the circumstances. And besides, if the knight in your corner isn’t a black-hearted villain, as ours was, then what’s there to cheer for? Only a villain would put the tip of his lance into a pile of horse droppings to add insult to injury.
The wonder of the faire is just that, of course, a wonder. Go back to the 16th century and experience the squallor, the misery, the religious oppression (or promotion, if your like) and the despair on your own time. A GM should never forget the hard, muddy reality of the era when scraping together a game. It’s the grit that gives our adventures their drama and tension. All the same, the only place you’re likely to see a faun walk the streets (goat legs and horns, to boot) and a fairy sprite lean out of a tree or dally by the fountain is at the faire. Why ignore the allure of the play? If Shakespeare can give us “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” then we can certainly let our imagination wander into faerie realms.
But at the end of the day, as the gypsy drums fades into the distance and you leave through the gate to the twinkling tones of a lone harpist, how do you take your experiences and distill them for your game?
Remember, while the renaissance faire clearly offers a thematic component that his hard to duplicate, the fact is any fair is fair game. Whether it’s a visit to the local county agricultural fair, the circus or the zoo, or even should a carnival come to town — the sensations of the midway and stroll through center of Bristol have a great deal of similarities. So even if the 16th century is out of your reach, there’s other opportunities to take what you see and let it find a spot in your Pathfinder, Forgotten Realms, Eberron or homebrew campaign.
Here’s a few tips for taking your day at the faire and putting them into your roleplaying game.
Ordinary patrons, like yourself, are always interesting. But the guilds and players in full costume who are playing or re-enacting all have their quirks and mannerisms that are easy to duplicate. For the jewelry merchant who says to me: “It’s so good to see a gentleman unafraid to look at finer things for their lady … so many brave and brawny knights run away at the sight of a simple necklace,” there’s a ready-made script for the next time the players go looking for that perfect magic item in a situation that threatens their persona. Recall your interaction, and those mannerisms and quotes that strike home are fodder for any game.
A pouch for one’s table utensils (skewer, spoon and knife). A staff topped with a painted carving of the Green Man. A small glass orb in the hands of a juggler. A thimble on a chain. A crown of flowers. A hollowed-out horn for drinking. A spread of hand-painted Tarot cards. A broadsheet stuffed with a serving of fish’n’chips. Salt your game with these little things and your players will remember their encounters more vividly — and hopefully — more fondly.
Sights and sounds
Choking on the dust of the passersby. The stomp of feet on the bridge. The staccato and flourish of regiment’s drummer. A hawker’s delivery. Cheers for the queen. A glint of sunlight off mail. The toothless smile of an old woman in rags. The crinkle of parchment while turning the pages in a leather-bound book. The gong of a deep chime. The clank of mugs in toast at a pub. The jingle of small bells on costumes of all sorts. A hearty laugh. A windblown scarf sailing through the air. There will always be noise. There is always something to see. But keep the distinctive things in mind for when a scene needs that particular touch.
Incongruity of fantasy
Some things shouldn’t be, but they are. It’s up to you how much whimsy to throw at your players, but the faire offers more than its share. A gaggle of giggling maypole sprites accompanied by a Green Man, who have come to spy upon the queen and her courtiers in the glade. A would-be Conan, enjoying a cigar. A mad-dash by some ladies in waiting, on some errand for the queen. Two lumbering elephants. Some flying children on a contraption supposedly designed by an Italian fellow named da Vinci.
Oh, how can I forget, a coupla beggars willing to eat mud.