This past weekend, I played in Venezia, a Renaissance LARP of 3 Acts, written by Lovers and Madmen.
Lovers and Madmen has something of a reputation for elaborate set dressing. Redemption: High Noon at the Devil’s Luck (a Western LARP), had a full set of painted Western stage flats- a saloon, a jail, an old Spanish style missionary, and a bank (all drawn by yours truly), as well as other set dressing, including a cemetery and the interiors of the church and the titular saloon. (It all required a u-haul.) Stars of Al-Ashtara had three large tents hosting the merchants and their wares in its Arabian style bazaar, as well as the palace gardens (complete with lily pond and peacock) and a university (containing documents of medieval astronomy in Arabic, and a golden astrolabe.)
Venezia took place at a Renaissance carnivale. The GMs created large white pillars, wrapped in fake ivy vines, and decorated tables with cloths and bowls of fresh fruit. Renaissance music played in the background.
I volunteered to contribute banners to help visually fill out the space. They draw the eye and distract players from the appearance of the event space, which was large and empty and blandly modern — fairly typical for a university, which is where many theater style LARPs are run.
Additionally, they serve as a visual cue for the culture of the LARP setting — these banners bore the coat of arms of the powerful characters, families, and cities present in the LARP.
If any GM is looking for a relatively simple, cheap, and portable way to dress up a LARP space, I’d recommend creating and hanging banners.
Some basics on how I created banners for Venezia (this is very simple stuff for beginners):
For fabric, I went to a bargain store and picked up four table cloths in different colors. Cheap curtains and bed sheets are also options; it amounted to less than two dollars a yard for fabric. (Beware, very cheap fabric may be more likely to fray and tear.)
I cut the tablecloths into long rectangular strips, each about 18 inches wide and maybe 5 to 6 feet tall. In order to create banners with two color backgrounds (or “fields” in heraldry terms), I lay them on top of one another and then cut them in half together, either with straight cuts across the middle (parallel to the top and bottom — also called “per fess” in heraldry terms), straight cuts down the centers (aka “per pale“), diagonal cuts (aka “per bend“), or V-shapes (aka “per chevron“.) I then swapped bottom halves and sewed them back together. (Hot glue or iron-on adhesive tape, which is sold in spools at art stores, can be used for those of us who don’t own sewing machines- but be very careful, both of these can show through, and hot glue can create lumps. I sometimes use trim to mask lumpy glue and other mistakes.)
The v-shapes (per chevron) were the hardest to put back together. Straight cuts (per fess, per pale, and per bend) banners were easiest.
To mix things up, you can also divide the fields into three, or leave some as a single colored field.
For banners with a single point at the bottom, I simply folded up the bottom left and right edges towards the center and sewed the edges to the back of the banner. For two points, I made a cut about 8 inches long, straight up from the center of the bottom. This created two flaps. I then folded up the two flaps. The bottom right corner of the left flap was folded up towards the left edge, and the bottom left of the right flap was folded up towards the right edge, and it was all sewn in place. (If your fabric doesn’t melt on an iron, it’s a good idea to iron the folds.)
(You can trim off the excess triangles created when making two points at the bottom of the banner, but I left them on. If you plan to hang them outdoors but don’t want them to blow too much in the wind, you could put a little weight into the triangular pockets to weigh them down a little.)
For a charge (aka the symbol or beast you add over the field,) all you need is a little extra fabric and iron-on adhesive, which is sold in sheets (or by the yard) at art stores like Jo-ann Fabrics and Michael’s. (And it comes with instructions.) The adhesive has two sides, a rough side and a smooth side. The rough side is raw glue that will get melted onto the fabric for the charge. It’s much easier to draw on the smooth side, but remember: your image will come out in reverse on the final product! This is fine if your image is symmetrical, or if you don’t care if your heraldic beasts face sinister (left) or dexter (right), but if you are copying a very specific coat of arms and want it to be accurate, then remember to draw the mirror image on the smooth side of the iron-on adhesive paper. I screwed up and drew a snake eating a baby (the Sforza/Milan coat of arms) facing the wrong way twice. Third time was the charm!
If the image is detailed, or you don’t trust your drawing skills, you can always print up the image, then go over the outline with a heavy marker. The image will be visible and you can trace it when you lay it beneath a sheet of iron-on adhesive. (This is how I managed the complex fleur-de-lis of Firenze.)
After you’ve drawn the image onto the iron-on adhesive paper, cut it out. (If you really care about perfect symmetry, draw only one half, cut it out, fold it over and trace, then cut the rest out. If you’ve already cut the whole thing out, you can still fold it over and trim the images where it doesn’t perfectly line up.) Iron it on to the fabric in the color you want the charge to be. Cut it out of the colored fabric, and peel off the smooth wax paper. Flip the image over onto the banner (glue side down, of course), iron again. Voila.
Remember to test a small scrap before starting if you’re unsure how your fabric will react to the iron or the glue! (Really cheap polyester might melt!)
If you’re not particular about the coat of arms, simple shapes like crowns, stars, shields, and moons look perfectly appropriate for period banners. (The Medici coat of arms consists of 6 red circles. Nice and easy.) And if you want a certain animal but find the body, paws, and tail hard to draw and cut, do just the head. I ironed a hound’s head instead of a full bodied hound for a tabard once- still the right animal, but saved tons of time.
In a LARP based on George RR Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series, the GMs hung banners along the wall, one for each Great House. It really brought the LARP from a hotel function space to a foreign place (Westeros) and makes for a great background for players who love taking pictures in their costumes. (Like me!)