Not So Happy Holidays: Designing Larp for the Season

(Photo by Andreas Rønningen on Unsplash.)

‘Tis the season, as you all know. If you’re asking what season, well, it’s the time of year that North Americans are surrounded by the inescapable pressure to celebrate capitalism, families, and Christian culture with some doses of minority celebrations thrown in for color (forgive the salty pun.) Even if you celebrate nothing and actively try to tune the holiday season out of your life, simply watching the news will inform you about the ‘War on Christmas’ on a routine basis. If you want to read an excellent article about how even non-believers can impose dominant Christian beliefs on people, check out this piece by Sigal Samuel: “Atheists Are Sometimes More Religious Than Christians.” With all the discussion in larping circles about making larp safe, accessible, and welcoming to people of all orientations, beliefs, cultures, and walks of life, we have done a fairly shitty job of doing so where holidays in larp are concerned. Probably because of reasons stated in that article above. There are so many preconceived notions of what a ‘holiday’ should be in our culture, that in the past we often didn’t realize we were shoving Christian beliefs at people.

Well, that’s shitty and we need to stop.

This actually goes larger than just the holidays, to greater issues in the gaming scene, but it’s most predominant around the Christian holidays. It include issues of systems that pull full-scale from Pagan rituals and beliefs despite promising there is ‘No religion in the game,’ because the only religion they see falls under one lord beliefs. If you don’t think you’ve done it in a game, I invite you to step back a moment and check your privilege, because if you are a part of any sort of privileged section of society, I guarantee you have. None of us are perfect, but we just have to learn to do better.

In acknowledging that, I will say I am a white woman who was raised in a Christian household. I haven’t practiced in 20 years, but acknowledging my background, I felt a bit uncomfortable writing this blog. It’s not my story to tell or my complaint to give. So, I reached out to the community for some discussion and suggestions and their words will be included in this post as well (properly attributed, of course.) However, being that a good amount of game organizers are from a similar background as myself and want to tackle this issue respectfully, I figured I’d share my views on it and what I’ve been actively doing to address holidays in gaming better than before.

Check Your Privilege: Take your first instincts about how to run a thing and stop. Toss them out the window. I don’t care if you are stupidly busy, running low on time, game is this weekend and you have work deadlines, this is not an area where you can just slap something on a page and call it a holiday game. You need to stop and deeply examine the first things you were going to put down on a page. Were they Christmas inspired? Even stupid things like ‘Elf on a Shelf’ has a lot of white, Christian roots and is going to alienate a lot of your players. Take five to ten minutes to reevaluate the things you had planned and remove as much of the obvious, actual religious things possible. If you can’t run a thing without those elements, then DON’T RUN IT. Just examining our bad habits and trying to do better is the first step on a road to writing better holiday themed games.

Ask for Other Stories and Respect Them: If you were not raised in a disenfranchised culture, it’s not your story to tell. Trying to replicate those stories when you were not steeped in that culture, do not understand the struggles they’ve had, and haven’t grown up with other beliefs will cause you (at best) to make mistakes and at worse to be full on culture appropriation. Look around your organizing team or your players. Ask for volunteers. See who would be willing to tell their stories, give you guidance on how to include them in your setting, or help you write/direct them. Where possible, PAY THESE PEOPLE. They are doing emotional labor for you and your community, respect that labor. If you don’t have the funds, offering a free game is the least you can do during these times. Trust me, it’s going to be a stressful game for a lot of those folks anyway, the least you can do is make it on the house. And when they give you feedback or direction, don’t question it. They are the experts. Trust them and help them get their voices heard.

Write (at least) an Equal Amount of Non-Holiday Plot: The holidays can be all encompassing. For people who don’t believe, or experience triggers where holidays are concerned, the last thing they need is to be drowning in holiday plot at a game and nowhere else to go. If you are going to have holidays of any sort at your event, it’s vital to be sure you write just as much totally secular, non-holiday plot which is going out the door at the same time as your big holiday celebrations. You’d be surprised at how many people might opt out of the Holiday Ball to go hunt down a monster in the darkness. People come to game to escape life. During the holidays, escaping those celebrations is often extra important to them. Make certain you give people that out during all points in your game, but ESPECIALLY up against any big holiday feasts, balls, or celebrations.

History Is No Excuse: I have previously staffed for a lot of period piece games and I like period settings. Just because your game is set in 1917 and most people would be of a certain religious belief doesn’t mean that’s the only believe you should celebrate. For one, I promise you there are WAY MORE Jews in your setting that your research is showing you. There are also WAY MORE non-believers. Also, this is a GAME. I am not discussing re-enacting, but larping — a creative fantasy activity. It is on you as an organizer to make that activity welcoming and respectful to your community while still giving a nod to history. Your players reflect your game, give them a chance to bring all their beliefs into that setting and have them displayed in ways they would like to see. Often that means taking a step back from game-enforced holiday celebrations and letting the players, as characters, put forward the traditions they wish to embrace. Of course, this means having a mature, respectful gaming community. It IS your job, as organizers, to step in if a player is making a mockery or a mess of things and have a respectful but enlightening conversation about cultural appropriation and how they are disrespecting other players and cultures. And, once more, make CERTAIN you have non-holiday plot. ESPECIALLY in a historical game.

Fantasy Means Fantasy: I have more experience fantasy organizers writing below about designing for a fantasy setting, but if you are putting holidays into your fantasy setting, it is ABSOLUTELY your responsibility to divest them as much as possible from real-world religious traditions. You have the whole of your entire imagination in front of you, there is no reason for that guy to look like a Santa with elf ears.

Real Discussion from Real Players

Some great points were brought up online from voices I’d like to highlight. While they didn’t have the time to write a full post, I wanted to put their thoughts here (with their permission) to keep the conversation going.

“I find that even when attempts to create religions in a game that do not match up to real ones, the language tends to reflect Christianity. Priests, baptisms, various references to Christmas without saying the word Christ. These things may seem super neutral to people raised in vaguely Christian households or cultures, but to me, a Jew, they’re very not. I very much subscribe to the idea of either making new holidays and rituals, or combining the traditions of multiple holidays.

Right now in DR [Dystopia Rising], I’m working on promoting a Darwin winter holiday that is held (in theory) on the solstice and pulls from Christmas and Hanukkah both. It’s a celebration of lights with similar themes to Hanukkah like I grew up with, but is named CritMass (like critical mass… haha… I’ll be in my corner). “Festival of light” is a theme I find to be really central in the holidays of many religions so I think it’s something good to pull on that isn’t just blatantly one thing re-branded.

My character also celebrates the peak of the Perseids meteor shower as a holiday, because rather than re-branding an existing holiday it’s something that i think people of this fake religion would be drawn to for celebration.” – Evie Ende

“Strong agree on “these words you think are neutral are actually not”. When I bring it up, I often get people protesting “Well, I’m not Christian!” Totally valid, but in America, the default setting is Christian-influenced, whether through religion or just through culture. Unless you were actively raised another religion, you likely grew up Christian-default.” – Samara Metzler

“As a thought, pulling from someone’s comments above re: in-game holidays… look at the core concepts behind the holiday. As an example, if you remove the worship element of Diwali, *one* of its elements the victory of light over the darkness, and has it celebrated usually with fireworks, and also in some areas with the burning of an effigy of one of the mythic figures, and there are also the little diyas (lamps) that are burned. You can look at *what* is being celebrated – the nominal birthday of a historic figure, a day of charity and goodwill, the victory of light over darkness, perseverance against the odds and despite persecution, and create a holiday that suits your setting, without having the regalia and the additional features of a modern-day/real-world faith’s observations.

I was expected to celebrate a lot of the Hindu holidays whilst we were in Mussoorie (and was invited to a lot of pujas and to observe Karva Chauth, which is a married-women-ritual/holiday) so I did a lot of research into *why* the holiday was. Some of them, though, are straight up “this is a god or goddess’ birthday.” – Darcey Wunker

Suggestions for Writing in a Fantasy Setting

“It is very hard to get everything right when it comes to a religious event. (This comes from a writer of larp as well as the son of a minister.) However there are tools from game design/storytelling that can help create your holiday on stage, because, at its core, larping and holidays are both performances… just with very different stuff surrounding it.

Instead of recreation, you are looking for an “evocation” (Your 20$ word of the day). While it may be tempting to copy or mimic the trappings of religious ceremonies and festivities from a reputable source, the small details will always be the hardest. Get the important parts right and leave out the small details. Let the audience, which in this case are your players, fill in the visual and emotional space with their own imagination. This concept is often referred to as “Negative Space” and it has a *lot* of applications outside this scenario.

Don’t try to force a religious space or ceremony to go into any one theme or mood. Doing holidays that are both In Game and Real Life means that the player sets the theme or mood, unless they have given you consent (by whatever method is applicable for the scene, and even then on an individual basis) to do otherwise.

As an aside: If you have players/cast who are into physical role play and not into doing ceremonial or festive party RP. The winter holidays are usually a good time to run a non combat stealth mod where you sneak into houses and drop off presents for children. Not a hard suggestion, but it sounds like a cool idea so I am releasing it into the ether.

To conclude: Running an onstage and real life holiday is a situation where the performance aspect of larp overlaps with the performance aspect of religion. Use storytelling and game design tools to create a presentation of a holiday, where the players fill in the gaps, instead of trying to copy or mimic a presentation (because the errors in small details will grate in the minds of both the players and the ST and at worst spoil the immersion.)” – Michael Duetzmann

“For Lost Colonies we wanted to develop unique cultures and part of doing that involves how the people celebrate. What are their holidays? How we approached world building was like this. First we drew an outline of a map for our world. Then we rotated that 90 degrees, decided it was in the southern hemisphere and drew some mountains. These are all huge decisions that can happen quickly but have tremendous impacts on the world as a whole. You wouldn’t want to decide that your continent was in the southern hemisphere after you’ve written a holiday for people… the seasons might be all wrong all of a sudden. So get your big decisions down early and let them guide you. Next we put mountain ranges, rivers, forests, and major cities. Once you start putting cities down you have to start thinking about the people who live there. Why do they live there? Usually people live places because of the resources that are around. Things like water, food, building materials, and good weather. Based on the climate of a region you can figure out all kinds of other things about the people. Do they hunt or are they farmers? What do they like to eat, what kinds of games do they play? Breathe life into your people and as you get along you will get to know them. What do they believe in? Are they afraid of the world or do they bend it to their will? Have they suffered tragedy? Experienced great joy? What day was their settlement founded? What kind of leadership do they have? How do they treat their young? How about their neighbors? As you answer these questions you should also be thinking about how they celebrate… and what they celebrate? At this point you should know this culture so well that you won’t be thinking about borrowing some celebration from the real world and molding it to fit your made up culture. It won’t feel right to do that at all, that would cheapen what you’ve already invested in.

Ok, so now that you have done all of this, you’ve type up a history of your people, you’ve given them holidays and all sorts of cool things, next you need to have people read it. People who will tell you honestly that it sucks (if it sucks) and will ask questions that you didn’t realize you hadn’t answered already. Find yourself two people, an editor and a sensitivity reader. Pay them to read your words and then, this is the important step, listen to them and take their advice. You pay them for their time but you also pay them because it reinforces with  you that you should listen to them. If you don’t listen then you’ve wasted your money. If either of these people comes back and says “this holiday feels like {any other holiday}” then you probably need to throw it away and come up with something else.

Some specific holiday ideas to get you going include:

    • Founding of a city
    • Death or Birth of a leader
    • Remembering a big battle (happy because we won or sad because we lost)
    • A catastrophe
    • A prophecy is declared, or fulfilled, or doesn’t happen at all
    • Marriages, births, treaty signatures
    • Visitation by aliens, deities, superheros
    • Other unworldly event
    • Tax day!
      • New Years (but, maybe not in January?)
    • Changing of the seasons is pretty universal, just make sure your celebrations aren’t stolen from real world cultural celebrations”

– Joe Hines, Lost Colonies Larp

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2 thoughts on “Not So Happy Holidays: Designing Larp for the Season

  1. Sandra Regina says:

    Its my experience that many (most?) cultures living in a climate where it gets cold and dark in the winter have some kind of feast/celebration around the darkest part of the year.
    Because its cold. And dark. And depressing. And people will seize on any excuse for a party. Plus, they still have an abundance of food from the harvest (stores won’t get lean until March/April).
    So use THAT as your starting point. Not a religious celebration, but a time of year and look at why people would celebrate at that point in time.
    So, Christmas – okay, ditch the priests and the baby in the manger, etc.
    Why have a celebration now?
    Turning of the year – winter solstice, darkest night of the year, its going to get brighter and warmer etc from here on in
    Lights because its dark. Food that shows off your skill and wealth.. Dancing to overcome inhibitions and have fun. Overturning of normal customs (this latter thing is very European, I know, but not specific to a religion). Spending time with neighbours (making those all-so-important social ties for when things get bad). Decoration is evergreens because that’s the only thing that still green and fresh looking at this point in the year.
    Christmas during the Middle Ages was a time when people sort of ignored their normal church obligations to party and feast and have fun – in fact, the reason the Puritans banned it was because it wasn’t Christian enough. So maybe in your world something similar is going on – its just a feast and the one time of the year people avoid their religious responsibilities (or at least pay minimal attention to them).
    Or maybe its super sacred, and people have to be quiet and spend all night in vigil praying that the sun will come back. And then, when it does (ie the day after the solstice), people celebrate their faces off.
    TL/DR: I would start with the time of year, weather, etc. and base a celebration off of that, letting it become organic.

    Like

  2. facingthefireswithin says:

    Well said. Thank you.

    At least two Jewish players have mentioned such frustrations to me over a LARP and, as a Norse Heathen in a Christian influenced culture, I understand the challenge. It is especially challenging when core Christian assumptions become part of the game at structural levels (Last Supper meals in DR) without any real thought to how that affects people of other faith paths or world views.

    Like

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