Yesterday evening, I attended the epilog dinner of the Fifth Gate campaign. It was a gathering five years after the campaign closer, a chance to gain some closure, find out what became of various people and places and institutions after the destruction of the Wrathborn world, and the resumption of war with the Silverfire barons and Ebon Order on the Silverfire world.
Now that the epilog is over, I think it’s time to put my thoughts on my character down on paper, so to speak.
I began the way I usually do for creating characters for both LARPs and tabletop RPGs. I read over all of the material provided by the game staff — game concept, setting information, character creation options — then just started doodling. There were two options for settings for this LARP — the post-apocalyptic steampunk Wrathborn world with its six Origins, and the high fantasy Silverfire world with its six Orders. I settled on the Silverfire world for various logistical reasons (for example, Wrathborn started out with a longer waitlist.)
For those curious, the Wrathborn concepts I doodled up included a Docent who constantly talked to her Spirits and held her half of the conversations out loud, a Silver Bearer whose item was, rather unfortunately for her, a pocket-watch the size of car tire that she had to lug around on her back (“pocket”), a Ranger in a Plague Doctor mask (I just love the way they look) and a Landsworn looking for somewhere to plant the last seeds of a destroyed grove.
Among the Silverfire Orders, the Veiled Ones (undead from a Middle East inspired culture), the Horned Ones (Celtic/Viking inspired worshippers of a war goddess) and the Disciples of the Tempest appealed to me the most. (Although I did really want to try the mechanics of the Maori-inspired Primarchs, with their stone arms that could be used to block.) I finally settled on Disciples of the Tempest, in part for their austere, flowing costuming aesthetics and in part because I liked the idea of belonging to a mysterious, ancient Order whose members dwelled up high in the mountains, descending from the peaks to defend the villages at the foot of their mountains whenever a threat arose.
I like to create ties to multiple regions when writing backstories, to increase the likelihood of being able to connect to disparate plotlines, so I decided my character would be originally from another region, and raised in a third. I picked Asharia for its Middle Eastern flavor for her region of origin, and Kaleris, as the center and breadbasket of the kingdom for where she would be raised. And because she’s originally from Asharia, I gave her an Arabic name meaning “patient”. (It’s usually a male name, but I like giving female characters male names for some reason.)
At this point I got a little stuck, so I reread the history of the setting. The recent history involved a warrior who united many Orders and lead them to victory over the evil Ebon Order, then became a king who appointed his lieutenants as barons to govern the various regions. The barons seemed like they wouldn’t necessarily have the skills and connections to their regions to effectively govern them (they were skilled in fighting and possibly military strategy, but not necessarily in things like civics or diplomacy), and therefore I thought political strife, both amongst the barons and between the barons and their subjects might be a significant portion of the game. (At least until the Silverfire King turned on us and the Ebon Order resurfaced; both of these things seemed extremely likely to me.) I decided to write a background involving courtly life and a connection to one of the barons, so that I’d have an excuse to be involved in political plot.
I took inspiration from the A Song of Ice and Fire books (I am a huge fan), the character of Sansa Stark in particular. (I know she’s a polarizing character among fans of the books, some readers really hate her, but I consider her the most realistically written child of all the Stark children, which makes her progress the most compelling.) I liked the idea of being right in the thick of politics of a dangerous court, learning through observation, subtly trying to influence things while appearing perfectly innocent, being entitled to treatment as a noble, yet never being able to relax her guard. So I settled on the idea of a character who spent most of her life as a political hostage. At first I couldn’t decide if Sabri was a hostage of an Ebon Order court, or the court of one of the Silverfire barons, as I wasn’t sure which was likely to be a larger part of the campaign… then I figured, why not both? So Sabri started out as a hostage of the Ebon Order, then after the end of the War, became a hostage of the Baron set over Stormcoast.
For personality and mannerism ideas, I also looked to Sansa Stark. I was inspired by the line, “a lady’s armor is courtesy”, so I ran with that. I’m an avid reader of Miss Manner’s advice column, and the idea of playing a character who always maintains perfect manners and perfect etiquette seemed like a fun challenge. (And perhaps it might provide an opportunity to create or reflect drama by suddenly dropping them.) Can’t say I always succeeded at this challenge, but I do think other players took note and remembered Sabri’s efforts in the realm of etiquette.
Sabri was inclined to pretend to see the best in people, as manners dictate. Her backstory included a bit where she had put an arrow through the eye of her first archery mentor (an acolyte of the Ebon Order) then took his valuable bow and left him for dead. If anyone asked where her bow came from, she would say it had been a gift. Surely if he had lived, he would have bequeathed it to her. (This is why her bow was black, painted with red scorpions, and too large for her.)
I have a strategy for building tabletop or LARP campaign characters, developed over years of playing RPGs with dysfunctional team dynamics and trouble inserting myself into plots that appeal to me. (Have you heard the story of the time the fighter tried to kill my healer, or the bard who threatened to ditch her at the next town?) I try to always answer two questions: what personality trait or motivation does my character have to avoid conflict with her teammates? And what personality trait or motivation does my character have for potentially following any and every plot hook that appears?
The latter is rather often “extremely curious by nature, and cannot control it” (Taz) sometimes coupled with a poorly developed or complete lack of self-preservation instinct (Quill). The former has been things like “a bit of a doormat” (Quill) “often high on weed and doesn’t judge people” (Sunshine) or “convinced she’s reliant on her teammates for survival” (Taz). In DEX’s case, it’s “literally has to do exactly what she’s told because she’s an AI with built-in programming”, (although as DEX is from a LARP with a dark, dystopic cyberpunk tone, I don’t expect her to necessarily avoid conflict with all PCs for the duration of the entire campaign.)
Developing answers to these questions (why does my character always or nearly always get along with their fellow PCs, and how do I make it always possible to stay in-character and follow any plot-hook, which often involves approaching and talking to strangers) is something I recommend to newbies trying out LARPs where players create their own characters for the first time.
For Sabri, I decided it went beyond impeccable manners. Growing up as a hostage of a court, one that could decide to execute her at any moment for crimes she had nothing to do with, must make her feel acutely powerless. She’d constantly be trying to make herself as inoffensive to those around her as possible, to avoid giving them any excuses to harm her. Moreover, charming any of them might be one of her only avenues to power, however small and limited that power might be. I decided Sabri would be pretty desperate for people around her to like her, and this instinct would be too difficult to shed even once she was no longer a hostage. This hunger for power and desire to use it and exert it over others once she acquired a more direct form of it (that is, becoming a Disciple of the Tempest) was also my answer to the “what excuse will I have for this character to follow any plot hook that might happen by.”
To the end of trying to make everyone like her, I initially decided Sabri was prone to mimicking people around her. Among the serious, cerebral Arcane Circles, she might be try to use bigger words, among the somewhat wild Horned Ones, she might act more boisterous, among the emotionless Veiled Ones, she might be more reserved and lower her voice to their typical hush.
This didn’t work out — I often found myself in situations where personality traits being expressed weren’t unusual enough to be noticeably mimicked, or else there were multiple conflicting ones present, so I often just defaulted to a sort of coy, demure affect. It seemed to suit this character well enough. She would try to be charming, without actually ever opening up and letting herself be vulnerable in any way. Sabri was extremely defensive, and pathologically slow to trust. A little known fact about her: she always had at least one, if not multiple, daggers secreted about her person.
In addition to her courtly manners, I decided that Sabri should perceive fashion and beauty as a source of power. Again, a very small, limited source of power, but one that was available to her, even as a hostage. She would always try to make the best of her appearance, always making sure to do her hair and makeup, and tended to wear the most expensive and appealing clothing she could, despite the fact that most Disciples of the Tempest tended to dress in austere styles.
This afforded some more fun with costuming; I felt justified in creating custom jewelry, using pretty prints with a bit of shine in the patterns, wearing flowers in my hair, and playing around with makeup, though I did, at some point, come to resent my own character a bit. She was a diva, and she made it that much harder to resist new cotton prints at the fabric store. (Sabri ended the LARP with a fairly sizable wardrobe, including a haori made from silk from Japan, and a gray shearling winter coat that proved to be one of my most difficult projects ever.) It also made packing more difficult, and getting ready in the mornings that much more time consuming.
My next character may well be a salt-of-the-earth type.
In addition to hidden daggers, Sabri also had a habit of always carrying small mirrors on her, and she would check her appearance in them often, even at seemingly inappropriate times, such as just before heading out to a battle, or just after one ended. (She would also stop in front of any mirror that popped up in modules.) People generally assumed this had to do with being shallow and vain, and Sabri never disabused anyone of the notion, since her concern with her appearance made a nice cover-up. (I don’t think Sabri was actually vain, since vanity implies thinking highly of her own appearance, which she didn’t — just just tried to always do her best with what she had. She also wasn’t exactly shallow, as she wasn’t into beauty for beauty’s sake, but rather saw it as an avenue to a minor form of social power.)
In truth, there was a bit in Sabri’s backstory about a spirit who would communicate with her by manipulating her reflection, and though she didn’t fully trust it, its hints and suggestions always panned out, so she would often check to see if it had anything to tell her. I think this habit was memorable to other players and tended to amuse people, so I’m very happy I developed it for Sabri.
Sabri’s obsession with power proved to be a rather interesting and fun flaw to play with in a LARP character. I remember I once played out a scene from her backstory in which Sabri was offered a choice: she could return to her courtly life to continue to undermine and sabotage the Ebon Order from within, or she could follow a Disciple of the Tempest, and accept training and attempt to become a member of their order. When she chose the latter, the PC she’d known from her court life, who was secretly a double agent and wanted them to continue on this path of sabotaging the Ebon Order together, said sadly, “why would you send a chess master to play checkers?” That left quite an impression on me.
Now, I think “chess master” is a bit much — I wrote a short story about Sabri using table place settings at a formal dinner to orchestrate one of the Ebon Order’s military failures, but then in-game, I failed at the two social/courtly sort of modules, so I suppose Sabri’s spy-craft skills were mostly “informed abilities” (though I did take satisfaction in always having a hairpin for lock picking and a mirror to peer around corners when sneaking about). But the point is, I realized Sabri was actually more self-interested than any other character I’d played, and this could lead her to make costly (and rather interesting) mistakes. I decided she had taken the test to officially become a Disciple at the earliest possible opportunity, and nearly died for it. When war broke out with the Silverfire King in the very first event, Sabri actually felt relieved — she wouldn’t have to return to the Baron of Stormcoast’s court and could go back to being a warrior. (She felt guilty over feeling relieved, though she would never admit to either the relief or guilt.)
A note on names — most people knew this character as Cricket. I thought it made for a cute character name, so I wrote a short backstory piece about how she once leapt through a window and made a bunch of noise to distract a guard for her co-conspirator in the Ebon Order court. Many of my characters have multiple names, but my intention for this specific character was to create a choice for fellow PCs. I recall a LARPer once saying she liked having a veil as part of a costume because it became a means for expressing levels of formality or intimacy — the veil covered more of her face to create distance with people, and she uncovered it to indicate trust and intimacy, and this inspired me.
My intention for my Fifth Gate character was that people could refer to her as Sabri or even Lady Sabri if they wanted to express formality or emphasize propriety, and use Cricket if they felt close enough to use a nickname. This didn’t really pan out; Cricket is just easier to remember, and learning lots of PC names can be very difficult at the first event of a campaign — even if she introduced herself as Lady Sabri to people, people heard others calling her Cricket and that’s what stuck in their memory.
Similarly, there was the name Ibis, which was originally intended to be a callsign sort of thing amongst the Eyrie. (The ibis is known for being the last creature to take shelter before a hurricane, and the first to return.) I thought it might be cool if the Eyrie had bird names to call one another during combat, like callsigns, but this didn’t pan out… so Ibis ended up as simply a false name Sabri gave to people she didn’t trust and didn’t expect to develop a relationship with. For example, Sabri initially gave the name Ibis to the Survivors at the first capstone event. My intention was to eventually be able to offer her real name (or even her nickname) as a sign of developing trust in the Survivors, but I don’t think anyone noticed it was a false name or even remembered it. Lesson learned — using multiple names doesn’t easily work in campaign LARPs.
A few events into the campaign, I realized I was having an issue with this character. I had learned a long while back, through tabletop RPG, that one can’t rely on other players to provide opportunity for the type of character arc you envision for a character. (It’s a similar rant to the dysfunctional teammates in tabletop RPG rant.) I knew I couldn’t assume that Sabri would ever have reasons to trust others, let down her guard, show her real self, allow herself to be vulnerable… But I did consider it a possibility, especially since we came with built-in teams (warbands) who would likely always have one another’s backs. But I would be fine if Sabri remained behind her walls until the end.
Several events in, I realized I hadn’t really been allowing Sabri to develop trust, even in the other members of the Eyrie warband. And I realized something else. Most people seemed to generally like Sabri just fine; after all, she was desperate to be liked, and therefore inclined to do things like offer flattery and gestures of generosity or kindness. But it was all fake. My character was a total fake. And I wasn’t really developing a better sense of her inner self or her relationship with others because I was never asking myself, “what does my character want? What does my character think?” I was always asking myself, “what do I think this other character wants to hear?”
Arguably, I might have used this as an opportunity to develop my character by adding another layer. I could be asking, “what do I think Sabri thinks they want?”… but often I just wasn’t able to tease apart that subtle nuance. I didn’t really know what Sabri thought of things, and how could anyone develop closeness to her even they never had any opportunity to see any part of her real self? What was her real self, anyway? So I tried to tone down her desperation to be liked a bit as her power grew. I don’t know if I ever fully corrected for this, but I don’t think Sabri ever really developed the ability to trust others.
At the final event, she lacked the faith in the other PCs to not vote to save the Wrathborn world. And she probably didn’t press hard enough for Ruin to win the vote, because that would mean giving up her own access to Power. (This was influenced by out-of-game factors, but I do think Sabri’s lack of trust in others and desire for power played a significant role.) So Sabri decided instead to take matters into her own hands.
Some time back, the Eyrie had a plot where we stole a jar of an incredibly potent poison out of the vault of the Silverfire king. It was powerful enough to ruin an entire land, and was intended for use on a river that fed the lands of the Primarchs. We had no means of destroying it, so the Eyrie just carried it around, trying to figure out what to do with it and keep it out of the hands of the Silverfire armies and the Ebon Order. We still had it at the last event.
Sabri decided if the Survivors (and possibly some Champions) were going to vote to save the Wrathborn world (and condemn hundreds of millions to a refugee crisis… and her along with them) she would take the option off the table, and use the poison to destroy the Twilight Vale, the piece of land many of the people of the Wrathborn world had been surviving on, which had been the Survivor’s home during the campaign.
I knew, on an out-of-game level, the staff wouldn’t allow a player to remove a possible outcome of the vote from the hands of the PCs, but in-character, Sabri spent much of the hour leading up to the vote trying to convince an NPC to take her to the Twilight Vale. She tried being upfront about her intention with some, she tried being cagey and offering deals to others. They told her they couldn’t do it before the vote happened. But Sabri did her best to commit an atrocity, one I knew the Survivors would never forgive her for if she succeeded, regardless of whether or not the Twilight Vale and all of the Wrathborn world would be destroyed anyway by the outcome of the vote. (I suspect they wouldn’t have forgiven her for even attempting it, if they had known.)
It certainly made for a bit of really fun internal roleplay. I rather hope I might have shocked some of the Fifth Gate staff playing those NPCs.
Over the course of the three years of Fifth Gate, I became quite attached to this character, despite my initial struggle with creating her. I really liked playing a character for whom manners and etiquette mattered, and I would certainly like to do that again. Sabri proved more complex than I initially realized, and more deeply flawed, I think, than any of my other campaign characters yet. Closing out her story is bittersweet. She’ll influence my characters of the future, I think.
Sabri’s Fan/Geek Profile
Harry Potter House: Slytherin to the bone
(Bonus for Magischola LARPers: House Croatan)
Song of Ice and Fire House: solid Tyrell
Pokemon Type: electric/water
Pokemon Go Team: Mystic
Major Arcana: The High Priestess
Western Zodiac: Virgo
Chinese Zodiac: Snake
Avatar Nation: Fire
MB Personality Type: Probably ISTP?
And if you’ll excuse a bit more self-indulgence (playlists are self-indulgent by design, aren’t they): Excerpts from Cricket’s Playlist*
Oh, all these minutes passing, sick of feeling used
If you wanna break these walls down, you’re gonna get bruised
Mumford and Sons. “Monster”
eyes with a fire, unquenched by peace
Lorde. “Yellow Flicker Beat”
I’m a princess, cut from marble, smoother than a storm
*A number of members of the local community like to create custom playlists of songs for their characters and/or campaigns. I like to play mine while packing and working on projects for an event.