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Troy’s Crock Pot: A faire bit of inspiration

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 [1], 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.

Bristol's defenders are skilled with the pike and are glad to serve the queen, so long as they must not be sent to any foreign shores -- such as Scotland! (Photo by Dixie Schroeder)

Bristol's defenders are skilled with the pike and are glad to serve the queen, so long as they must not be sent to any foreign shores -- such as Scotland! (Photo by Dixie Schroeder)

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.

A sprite appears straight out of Master Shakespeare's works. (Photo by Dixie Shroeder)

A sprite appears straight out of Master Shakespeare's works. (Photo by Dixie Schroeder)

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.

People watching

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.

Little things

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.

The queen's Master of the Horse keeps her eyes on Sir Cheats Alot, a braggart and villain who seeks any advantage on the field of honor. (Photo by Dixie Schroeder)

The queen's Master of the Horse keeps her eyes on Sir Cheats Alot, a braggart and villain who seeks any advantage on the field of honor. (Photo by Dixie Schroeder)

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.

7 Comments (Open | Close)

7 Comments To "Troy’s Crock Pot: A faire bit of inspiration"

#1 Comment By Patrick Benson On July 20, 2009 @ 8:49 am

I’m about 30 minutes from the faire and they do put on a good show. Is it historically accurate? Not by a long shot, but it is fun. Plus, not being historically accurate is a good thing in this case. It is more akin to how people imagine such a time and place to be which makes it more like a D&D game setting.

And being able to handle those items that Troy described helps a GM tremendously. You begin to describe things in better detail, and you note the little things about swords, pikes, and chainmail when you see them in use.

#2 Comment By Kurt “Telas” Schneider On July 20, 2009 @ 9:41 am

Agreed; renfests are like a shot of espresso to the imagination. Before our daughter was born, we’d camp at the [2] outside of Houston, one of the largest renfests in the country. The after-hours entertainment is definitely something to behold. (Faire Maidens Gone Wilde!)

The [3] in NE Texas (near Tyler) is pretty small and cozy, but they do actual jousting, not the WWE-style stuff you see at most faires. They also have a late night April Fool’s Masquerade Ball.

[4] in Waxahachie (south of Dallas) is an excellent renfest located in and around an old oak forest, although sadly there’s no onsite camping. Scarby promotes the handmade items whenever possible.

Bonuses for Texas faires: Real weapons allowed (peace-tied, though). Relaxed alcohol and tobacco policies. And <a href=http://www.insultor.com/<Christophe the Insulter.

#3 Comment By Kurt “Telas” Schneider On July 20, 2009 @ 9:49 am

Dang, forgot to close my tag…

Scarby also has a Memorial Day Veteran’s Parade. Everyone who has served gets a yellow sash, and marches through the faire. The first year they had it, there was a hundred-yard long arch of swords as we marched out of the holding area. Everyone marching went dead silent, and even the hard-assed ex-Marines got misty-eyed at the sight of it.

Geez, now I’m babbling about renfests… Gotta get another hobby.

#4 Comment By Patrick Benson On July 20, 2009 @ 11:26 am

[5] – Christophe the Insulter travels a circuit and he performs at the Bristol Faire as well. I totally recommend seeing him live at least once!

#5 Comment By John Arcadian On July 20, 2009 @ 1:07 pm

I used to work at ren faires when I was a teen. It was fun times. They are definitely a fantasized version of life at the time, but that is what makes them fun. Fantasy games are also like that, the details of realism are left behind in order to have fun.

The [6] is the one I’m most likely to go to these days. I’ve got family about a mile from it and the faire is really nifty. It is on the grounds of a winery, they have a house and indoor amphitheatre where they do edgar allan poe weekends in the fall, christmas carol days in the winter, etc. They’ve got something going on year round.

[7] – I had a lot of friends who traveled the circuit and said Scarborough was one of the biggest they went to. I’ve always wanted to check it out, but never been down texas way.

#6 Comment By DocRyder On July 20, 2009 @ 11:05 pm

I used to participate in Renaissance Faires throughout California (including once or twuce as Shakespeare and Dr. John Dee, Elizabeth I’s astrologer), and the research we did to make our characters more real for faire has given me lots to work with to make my worlds, when I’m DMing, more real.

I’ve also used that research for more modern games, where relatively immortal beings are concerned. Being able to discuss my characters’ life in Renaissance England or pre-Garibaldi Italy made my Vampire characters seem more ancient. And that was when I was playing.

#7 Comment By Scott Martin On July 22, 2009 @ 3:36 pm

I enjoy Renaissance Faires on both sides, though it’s been years since I was a performer. It’s also provides a good pool of research– as DocRyder mentions above, it can add spice to historical descriptions for characters. I still remember way too much about fifteen and sixteenth century taxes and legal restrictions on merchants due to my Renfaire character research…