Like a lot of folks my age, I’ve got a complicated relationship with the Harry Potter universe. There’s a lot wrong with the initial source material, and that’s before you even touch on the miasma of bad choices that surrounds the author and her recent expansions to the universe. All that said, though, nostalgia’s one hell of a drug by itself. When you add in the Harry Potter universe’s rich worldbuilding and its tantalizing promise that, if only you had a wand of your own, you too could easily fold yourself into the mythos, it had (and in some way still has) an incredibly powerful draw.
Back in early 2016, the first few Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them movie trailers had begun making the rounds. This was before the worst news about J.K. Rowling and Johnny Depp had hit the mainstream, so while my feelings about the franchise these days are more complicated, at the time I was giddy at the thought of getting a chance to explore that world again. I absolutely adored Harry Potter when I was growing up, and I love the glamorous aesthetic of the Gilded Age, so the prospect of getting to see them blended together had me watching the first trailer on loop. Even now, I’d still jump at the chance to get to explore the world on my own terms.
Did I massively underestimate the amount of work that went into making it happen, and pull a couple all-nighters to finish the writing in time? Yes.
Near the end of that year, I got my first chance to do just that when I sent out a message to my friends inviting them to a costumed cocktail party LARP called “Fantastic Drinks and Where to Find Them.” Like my relationship with the Harry Potter universe itself, in those early days, the plan for the LARP was still brimming with hopeful optimism—I was cheerfully unaware of the trouble I was brewing for myself with every decision I made.
Let’s rewind to August 2016. I was about a year out of college and settling into my new job as a game designer. At the time, I remember searching desperately for good ways to spend time with my friends. Now that we’d graduated, the easy camaraderie that you get from university-provided access to weekly club meetings and open-at-all-hours computer clusters wasn’t available anymore.
Everyone was moving away from the university neighborhoods in twos and threes. I myself had recently moved across the river to the north side of the city which put me, as my friends liked to say, on the godforsaken frontier of the known world. Our new work schedules and far flung accommodations meant that spending time together was something that needed to be scheduled, not just fallen into on a daily basis. I was on the hunt for a big event of some kind that could bring us all back together, even if only for an evening.
In an attempt to cut through my gloominess, Patrick (my SO) suggested an adventure: a weekend LARP event out in the woods. There was, according to him, a big multi-state event coming up that we could jump in on. I love RPGs and costumes, so I enthusiastically accepted.
Man, what a fever dream. I want you to picture a hundred or so people of all ages, dressed to the nines in Ren Faire costumes and armed with foam weapons, sprinting full tilt at each other in a series of pitched battles. In the woods. At night. I was thrown into the chaos with a foam boffer sword, a vague understanding of the rules, and a hat that was way too big for my head. The first night was a whirlwind of an experience; I don’t remember a lot of specifics.
The next few days were a ton of fun, if confusing and swelteringly hot (it was the middle of July and we were dressed in heavy wool and leather). The rules were a lot to absorb for a newbie and there were clearly cliques of people who’d been doing this for years. I muddled through it, went through on a quest to find a unicorn, slept in a cabin with wards drawn on the door for protection, and met the king. Sometime during the haze of recovery over the next few weeks, I had a thought. “I know,” I said to Patrick, “I should invite twenty people over for a LARP, but with cocktails and air conditioning. Wanna help?”
As December turned to January, I had a few fun ideas turning over in my head. In one corner, I thought, we could set up a bar with custom cocktails and magic potions. We could start with an in-character cocktail party, but then move from small conversations to a larger plot-related activity. I started dropping the idea for the LARP in conversations with my friends and was pleased with how enthusiastic the response was. The guest list quickly climbed from a few people to around seventeen.
I knew that since I had so many people coming, I wouldn’t be able to guide every conversation with the players like I could have in a traditional DMing situation. Instead, I’d need to find a way to give the players the tools and improv material to make their own fun in a cocktail party setting. This meant that I needed to learn about each person’s character, which in turn meant… it was time to send out a survey.
I started with a few questions about how much improv and roleplaying experience people had and how comfortable they were with in-character confrontation. I’d talked with some of my players earlier on, and realized it was critical to make sure that people who just wanted to soak up the atmosphere weren’t going to find themselves in in-character shouting matches with quasi-strangers, and that people who wanted to yell at each other got the opportunity.
After establishing how players wanted to play, I asked people the usual sorts of questions to help them start developing their characters. I asked about their affiliation and character type (witch, muggle, ghost, werewolf, etc.), how their character spent their time, and what sorts of things they cared about (e.g., graduating from school, running for office, potion-making, gossip, legalizing alcohol by any means possible, keeping alcohol illegal by any means possible, winning at everything, getting rich, not getting caught). I topped off the survey by asked players to name something (or someone) that their character hated.
I was cheerfully unaware of the trouble I was brewing for myself with every decision I made.
Armed with the players’ interests, I started work on the structure of the game. I decided that players would spent the first two hours mingling in-character in small groups, chasing down personal goals and sipping themed cocktails, and then we’d convene for that group activity I’d been thinking about back in December. Two hours of solid in-character cocktail conversations seemed like an achievable ask, and capping the evening with the group activity would make a good stopping point before everyone ran out of steam.
In keeping with the theme of a Prohibition-era Harry Potter cocktail party, I decided to design the high-level story around the concept that everyone was attending the event (in good faith or otherwise) to help develop a new Diagon Alley-style market on the East Coast. People would talk amongst themselves for a while to further their own aims, then gather to design this new marketplace together.
At this point, I was feeling pretty pleased with myself. By this point, it was still January. The party wasn’t til February. This was all still very manageable.
This Is Not Manageable
Between the narrative design and the group activity, the group activity was by far the easier part to tackle. I love party games like Apples to Apples and Cards Against Humanity, so I decided to base the main mechanic of the group activity around that basic structure. People would draw a hand of cards from a stack of around three hundred, each of which had a word keeping in the theme of the event (e.g., “Delights,” “Tea,” “Fog,” “Ancient,” “Automatic,” “Nefarious,” “Joke”). One at a time, players would use their backstory and a selection of their cards to pitch a shop or service to the group. After pitching, they would pick a spot on a top-down map and draw their new shop. I wrote up some rules, designed some two hundred cards, and sent them off to the printer. Excellent. How long before the party again? Three days? …Wait, what?
Even considering the mad sprint to the printer to pick up the cards a few hours before the event, designing the group activity was a walk in the park compared to the behemoth that was writing enough fun narrative content for everybody on such a short timeline. As I mentioned before, I wanted to give players enough info to keep them invested and in character with only long gaps between nudges from an NPC.
The best way to do this, I had figured, would be to write each of the players an in-character letter inviting them to the party. Each letter would contain two to three plot hooks—problems that their character was trying to solve, other characters that they should talk to for various reasons, clues about people that their characters had long-standing rivalries with, and other tidbits and light-hearted mysteries to solve. In my woeful inexperience, I thought that seventeen letters would be a challenge, but nothing too strenuous.
To put it bluntly, I was wildly incorrect. Between trying to give everyone at least a few things to do, trying to make sure that everyone had a few people to talk to coming in, respecting the players’ individual interests, and trying to write the letters in character, it ended up being a massive undertaking.
Individually, the plot threads were simple enough: win a bet you had against another character, acquire an artifact that another character had brought, find out what happened to Winston. At three or four plot threads per person, though, the scope of writing the letters quickly spun out of control. Even having started planning the event a few months ago, I didn’t get to the actual writing until three days before the party. It should come as no surprise, then, that I was writing and sending the letters five minutes into the event. Oops.
Once people started arriving in ones and twos, things quickly slid from last-minute planning mode to gameplay. This is where having Patrick as a supporting GM was an absolute godsend. While I had been frantically typing up the last of the letters, Patrick had been using candles, draped fabric, and a carefully crafted playlist to turn my apartment into a dimly-lit speakeasy. While I took on the role of bombastic speakeasy proprietor, Patrick was the mysterious barman in the corner of the room, serving a menu of five themed drinks and whispering the occasional discreet note for players who needed some direction.
I’ll admit I don’t actually remember most of what happened during the event itself. As the room started to fill with players, it was hard to do anything other than dart between from group to group in full-tilt, in-character event-running mode. To my relief, all of my work writing the letters seemed to have paid off—as people trickled in, they immediately joined circles of players and started talking in character. While I was darting from group to door and back to group, greeting new guests and handing out props that were important to players’ stories, players passed from group to group, easily finding the people they were clued to talk with, with some people directing others to the ones they were looking for. As a GM, there were a few gentle nudges that I did to make sure people were headed in the right direction, but mostly it went as smoothly as I could have hoped.
The players were largely able to find their own fun, but we had a few extra tricks to keep things moving. In addition to the drinks, we also had four “potions” available to people who wanted to try them. Players were told that there would be side effects but that they wouldn’t know what they were unless they drank them. The brave souls who eventually took a swig received a rolled up piece of paper with the potion’s effects on them (a crowd favorite was the potion that required the drinker to speak only in vehement insults for the next five minutes).
At the hour-and-a-half mark, we switched over to the group activity. It seemed to be timed well; people were still talking and (with one or two exceptions) hadn’t run out of things to do yet. We played the group game, to uproarious laughter at the ridiculous shop names that everyone came up with, and then officially brought the event to a close. After the applause and congratulations had died down, I sprawled onto the couch and didn’t move for the rest of the evening.
Looking back now, three years later, was this game fun? Absolutely. Did people have fun? It’s still something people talk about, so in my book I’d say we succeeded in that department. Did I massively underestimate the amount of work that went into making it happen, and pull a couple all-nighters to finish the writing in time? Yes. Was there ugly crying during these all-nighters? Also yes.
For all the pain it took to pull it together, though, it was a joy to see people interacting in-character, getting into the intrigue, and enjoying Patrick’s excellent cocktails. It’s probably how, a few months later, I found myself wanting to run another one. Three months after the whirlwind of the first party, people had been telling me how much fun they’d had at the last one, and how they had a brand new character they’d love to play if I ran a second Fantastic Drinks.
Of course I can run another one, I reasoned. I had learned my lesson last time. I was well aware of what had gone wrong in the planning stages last time, so I’d be in excellent shape to avoid them the second time around.
I was very, very wrong.
Marlena Abraham (they/them/theirs) is an advanced game designer at Schell Games, where they work on client and internal projects in VR/AR, educational games, and location based entertainment. They are also the President of Bit Bridge LLC, a community organization for indie game creators in Pittsburgh, PA. In their free time, Marlena is working on an indie title, Tavernlight, with their partner, Patrick Jalbert.