(Photos by Kristin Story and Cake Golem Productions.) In early April 2019, I had the pleasure of being invited to cover Hanging Lantern’s event “Real Royalty” written and designed by Natasha Borders, Jeffrey Steele, and Benji Michalek. The game was a dark fairytale incorporating stories and inspiration from the world’s most famous, classic stories. From a designer’s standpoint, Real Royalty was an amazing and fascinating game. While not everything worked and the experimental mechanics certainly could have used more playtesting before going live, the fact that the Hanging Lantern team was willing to try so many experimental things meant that Real Royalty helped push freeform mechanical design forward dramatically faster than any game I’ve played in the last two years. I learned so much and I am so thankful for the chance to participate in this innovative game. Therefore, let’s get into the deep critique of what happened during my two days living in a dark fairytale. As usual, I’ll start with what didn’t work and move up from there.
What Didn’t Work
Workshop Faction Building: While the Friday workshops did well to help everyone establish a sense of status among characters as well as get into the headspace of the game, there was no time for introductions, bonding, story, or safety measure building within our factions. For a game which prided itself on the players not needing to do ANY pre-planning or work before the event, having no pre-game workshop time with our factions was immensely difficult. If I didn’t know almost everyone in my group already, I’d have been lost for who they were, what kind of play they wanted, and how to steer into the story for the weekend. This is an easy fix by setting aside at least 30 minutes within the workshop time for strictly faction building and introductions.
Poison Mechanics: They created a system where the poisoner, a storyteller, and a healer in the storyteller’s faction all needed to be involved for one PC to poison another. The PC would approach the storyteller and tell them who they were poisoning and what the effect should be, then it was written on a piece of paper. The storyteller then went to find a healer and with that healer, what the antidote would be and the PRICE for that antidote were written on the paper. Once this was done, the other PC could be poisoned and would have to find that specific healer for treatment and to pay them. While they were explained at the top of the event, the explanation wasn’t clear to most people and the mechanics quite complicated. The system was so clunky I opted not to involve myself with it at all. When I spoke to a few poisoners after the event, they said they actively poisoned less people than they planned because of how complicated it was. When a mechanic no longer suits your narrative or actively hurts play, it’s not a good mechanic for a game. This was the only mechanic I felt actively hurt the game for its presence. It is good example of why game runners need to do some basic playtesting before putting experimental things into a live event. If the explanation had been given clearer, or written down and discussed before the event with the player base, maybe this would have gone smoother. The lesson learned here, for me, was don’t make mechanics which involved 25 to 50 percent more people to adjudicate the scene than are actually affected by the scene.
Act Climaxes and Food: Food service was timed around one climax of a major act and the opening of another. There are longer conversations to be had about formalized in character eating at games; many people in the community seem to dislike it entirely. I enjoy taking in character meals, but I think they need to happen at downtimes or in slow hours where people can just focus on being people as characters and not be worried about plot. I’ve routinely seen people (myself included) have to forgo eating because they are so caught up in plot there simply isn’t time. This is a note for ALL game runners to time meals better, to when nothing important is happening in character, or keep them out of character entirely.
Hard Cut Off at Game End: The last act of the game was utterly beautiful (more below about this.) But the final moments of game were incredibly abrupt. The game ending was called with little warning and we were given no time to wrap scenes or even conversations. I hastily insisted on holding hands with the person I was scening with just to get the conversation done before we dropped character and went to end game negotiations. This can be mitigated by some mechanic that warns players they have 5-10 minutes before game is off. At Pandaemonium, they used a song which the players were warned about before game. When that song started playing, the characters had 11 minutes to wrap their stories before game was called. It let us all get a more satisfying ending and prepare for it to be over instead of jarring back to reality so quickly.
The Interesting Challenges
Grim vs Bright / Double Thumbs Up or Down: They adapted verbal escalation/de-escalation mechanics from Inside Hamlet. If the word ‘Grim’ was uttered you wanted the scene to get more intense and if the word ‘Bright’ was spoken, you wanted it to de-escalate. These words ended up quite hard to adapt into natural in character conversation and, when the game gave us another escalation option, I saw everyone around me using that instead. The second option was that players could give double thumbs up if they wanted something escalated or a double thumbs down to de-escalate a scene. This silent visual cue was simple, easily remembered, an echo of the OK-Check in, and I saw several people use it during the game. So, double thumbs up to that style of mechanic as a stand in for diegetic words that are awkward to use in natural play!
Vignettes: I actually loved the vignettes but think their implementation was clunky and it took until the second day of game play for the collective game to figure out how they worked. Vignettes were spotlight scenes that happened at the open and closing of each act. When it was time for a vignette, music played and the lights in the main play space went down to just a spotlight stage. Then a group of PCs got to come on stage and play out an important scene (to them or to the greater plot) with the attention of the entire game. Then, once lights were back up, players were instructed to take that scene they witnessed into play as if they’d heard it over rumors whispered around the castle. It was an amazing way to walk the line of theater and larp; to get important information out to ALL characters; and to motivate players to do slightly more narrative climax play in their stories. The initial ways they casted these scenes and how they were explained didn’t work great on the first night, but everyone hit their stride by the second day. I’d love to play more with spotlight scene mechanics in the future and I think this gave us designers in the crowd a lot to chew upon.
Workshop Day Two: Benji lead an exercise where everyone lined up according to if they felt like they had too much plot, not enough plot, or somewhere in the middle. Then the line was folded in half and the people with too much plot partnered up with those who had too little (those in the middle met others in the middle). Once you found a partner (or small group) we were coached on making some character plans to hand plot off to the characters who had too little, or get them involved in the too busy stories. It was AMAZING for character bonding, cross-faction planning, and getting shy players involved. I loved having a second day workshop for calibration entirely. Sadly, we didn’t get the time to calibrate in faction the way I wanted, but everything else about that second workshop was great. Using an exercise where players who have too much to do are teamed up with players who have too little is an incredibly valuable tool and we should do it more.
The Ball/Act 3: In short: too little time for something that was too damn good. We barely had three hours in the most gorgeous space in the hotel (which the game staff had kept secret to everyone.) Marble everything, glass doors, crystals everywhere, mirrors, I truly felt like we were in a fairytale. And the plot surrounding the ball was fascinating: everyone was called there and trapped in a happy dream world by the pied piper. Characters had to convince each other to come back to reality and unlock their masks by doing so. People were bonding, finishing stories, dancing, pulled through a hugely dramatic climax to the game. It was feverish and beautiful. But then it abruptly ended, game was called off with no warning, and the factions gathered out of character to discuss as a group their faction ending. I wish we’d had 2-3 more hours in that space to let all these good ideas play out better instead of shoving it into such a short time where things felt rushed and were confusing. If a story team has a quite complicated, multifaceted ending to a game planned, it’s best to give it at least 4-5 hours in an act, because players will need that time for YOUR story and to end their own stories gracefully.
Time Jumps: The players had no clue going into game, but between each act there was an in-character time jump of a month. Because fairy stories are strange, the time didn’t move the same in the outside world. It was confusing and jarring, both in and out of character. The first time it happened was a total shock and it was slightly clear the players didn’t totally understand. However, after a bit of explaining, that shock was used as a good form of bleed and people took their out of character confusion to being in character (which happens with time shifting.) It turned out to be really lovely, confusing, and let a lot of emotional plot build up between acts that we would have had issues building naturally in a two day game. I wish we’d had a bit more time in the workshops to plan what happened in that time jump (maybe give us actual structured time for this discussion), but shocking the playerbase with time magic ended up working out quite well as an emotional mechanic.
Secrets and Vignettes: I’m lost for a good answer to this, but it was a challenge I and others faced. Secrets and secret keeping were a VITAL mechanic of this game; it was important that people were not transparent with their biggest plots because, when they were revealed, it made the biggest payoffs. However, the vignettes were all pre-planned and negotiated. Therefore, the places where it made the most sense for the biggest secrets to be revealed directly contradicted the preferred lack of transparency in the game. For me, it meant I had to time one of my major secrets to be revealed in character ten minutes before my vignette, and then have the vignette be a response to the fall out of that secret instead of the secret reveal itself. It also meant that one of my closest in character relations had the big secret revealed to him off stage so the vignette could be planned, and I felt bad that we had to spoil him. If the game would run again, I’d love specific direction from the game runners whether the no-transparency on major secrets rule is most important, or if secrets should be revealed if people wish to plan vignettes around them and that it is okay to spoil for the sake of literally spotlighted narrative climax.
Memory Fog: They had a set of mechanics surrounding lost memories for characters. Many characters had a grayed out blank spot on their sheets, this was to represent a missing memory that may be revealed during the game. Other characters, who were the important sections of those memories (or reasons they were missing), were given envelopes with the first character’s name on it and an act. At some point when they had an emotional interaction with the character missing memories, they would pass that envelope over. Then the character who had forgotten would open it and their memory would return in a rush. It was a beautiful, subtle, incredibly emotional system which encouraged characters to have meaningful interactions with each other, put some dramatic emphasis on key points in history, and was easy to work into the play of the game. I loved it and might steal it for future games myself.
The Lore: This game’s lore was beyond amazing. They took so many beloved, well known fairy tales and not only reset them to be dramatically interesting to intense roleplay oriented adults in a dark fantasy setting, but managed to weave them all together that each Kingdom (a land oriented around a specific fairy tale) had ties, backstory, and in genre relevant connections to other Kingdoms. It was like I could see the entirety of Grimm’s fairy tales come to life as a complete world. My mind was blown and I really hope they turn this into a table top, because there is too much beautiful writing here for it to sit on a larp shelf.
Faction Identities and Costuming: The factions were written so well, clearly, and with focused aesthetics that you could look across a room and immediately be able to identify every character’s faction just by their clothing. It was quite powerful as a roleplay mechanic, because I didn’t have to guess at someone’s faction or my character’s ties to their Kingdom because their clothing told me so much. This was a great feat of writing and setting, but also the players for bringing all those factions so clearly to life. This was one of the most vibrantly beautiful costumed games I’ve ever played.
Character Sheets and Ties: There wasn’t a single inch of wasted words on my character sheets. The interfaction ties were important, dramatic, and all had relevance to the current play in the event’s active story. Cross faction ties, both negative and positive, were all compelling and easily worked into the current narrative line. The sheet was written in such a way that it drove me to roleplay clearly with every person on it and provided moments to easily do that. I might ask the Hanging Lantern team what their strategy was behind writing such characters, because I don’t even fully understand it and I’ve never been able to use a sheet so effectively as I did this sheet.
The Bard: There was a live pianist they had hired to be a ‘Bard’ through the entire event. She was amazing. Not only an incredibly talented a musician, but also was able to improv dramatic music, sad music, exciting, etc, depending on what scene was happening at hand. It meant that big scenes that took place in the main room always had a scene appropriate soundtrack happening live on the ground which was responsive to the character’s actions. It was incredibly story supportive and made us all feel like actual movie stars.
The Venue and Food: The Tudor Arms hotel in Cleveland might be the nicest thing in the whole of Cleveland. It was a gorgeous venue with an entirely appropriate two level main ballroom/dining room and then a truly gorgeous fairytale ballroom mentioned above. All the staff were incredibly nice and even took us on a tour of hidden, historical parts of the hotel late on Friday night. The food was delicious, if sometimes awkwardly timed. I’d love to run an even with this staff at this venue again.
WATER!: Hanging Lantern staff told me that they requested the hotel put out fresh water in multiple areas every fifteen minutes. At first, the hotel was surprised and didn’t think we’d go through that much, but the game absolutely did. Having fresh, cold, easily accessible water in multiple corners of every room of the venue was a huge self-care win and helped the entire game on so many levels. A huge thanks to Hanging Lantern and the hotel for doing that. It’s something I’d love more of the games I participate in to focus on doing.
Self-Care: Speaking of self-care, the Hanging Lantern team put a wonderfully large emphasis on self-care, decompression, and debrief in the days after game. They not only ran a really beautiful debrief that focused on the actual, physical issues of post-game drop and understanding what happens to your body in the days after the game, but helped players emotionally process an intense event on several traditional levels. Lastly, they supplied each of their players with a post-event self care package that had a bathbomb, face mask, chocolate and Emergen-C packet in it! I know not every game can do that, but I felt incredibly valued as a player and it was a very good reminder to take care of myself when I got home.
Queer Supportive Larp: While the game wasn’t specifically a queer-coded game, it was one of the most queer supportive larps I’ve ever attended. People were incredibly respectful and aware of other people’s pronouns. There were factions clearly straight out of camp and queer culture which were played respectfully and lauded for the gorgeous queerness they portrayed. There were gay characters, poly characters, ace, non-binary, and every shade of every identity under the sun. The nice thing about the diversity of identities, however, is it was never THE story for the character. It simply was who the character was. It was a normalized part of the world, everyone treated it all as normal, and many queer players afterwards said it made the whole game a breath of fresh air.
Faction Storytellers: Here’s a huge shout out to all the faction storytellers who made our game amazing. The faction STs had a huge job — not only were they there to ensure we all had a fun, captivating, and inclusive game but they were also helping the players navigate the whole slew of new mechanics that Hanging Lantern had put into its game. The STs had to make certain they understood them well enough not to just help us use them, but incorporate them seamlessly into game play even if we felt like it was chaos behind the scenes. The look on Tyler’s face was pure gold when he realized I’d not only requested to do a vignette, but to time a major in game scene for just minutes before that vignette AND THEN MAKE CERTAIN the vignette happened shortly after. He nearly had a heart attack, but then he said “Sure, let’s make this happen!” and rolled with all the crazy in character plans we had. A huge hat off to every faction ST who knew how to lift and adapt to all the crazy player ideas.
Access to Special Effects Makeup: Just like Eskhaton, Real Royalty allowed players to have full access to their SFX makeup artist and room. That is such a huge enhancement to the game and makes players feel incredibly special when they can go get special make up they don’t have to do themselves.
Escape Room: I, sadly, didn’t get to actually go on the Escape Room. However, the feedback I got from other players that went was that it was enjoyable, just challenging enough, and the solutions from the puzzles actually mattered to the overall plot. So, players got an excuse to affect the entire course of the event AND go off to play a fun escape room side game. That seems the best of both worlds to me and a great way to implement these kinds of side games in a bigger larp event.
Final Scenes: While game being called off was abrupt, the following part was really nice. Each faction got together to discuss how their games ended. They got to decide what the epilogue for their individual characters stories were, and how that affected the faction entirely. Once the groups discussed and settled on a collective ending for everyone, these endings were presented to the entire room under spotlights and received with cheers from most everyone. It really felt like that gave the whole event a fairy tale, somewhat happily-ever-after ending right on the ground of the game instead of waiting for days or weeks after when people write their personal wrap ups.