Fangs of New Orleans: Saturnalia LARP
December 16, 2022 Jamey Alea 0 Comments
It had been a few years since I’d done a blockbuster LARP, but that changed in November when my girlfriend and I traveled down to New Orleans to participate in Saturnalia, a blockbuster nordic event hosted by Reverie Studios. Not only was it my first event since 2018, it was also my first nordic that I had ever done that wasn’t hosted by Jackalope LARP, so I was curious to see how another studio would do it!
As suggested by the name, the game was based around the ancient Roman holiday Saturnalia, and the themes of the game were related to Saturnalia traditions: celebrations and letting loose, subversions of expectations and role reversals, and most of all, change. In the traditional Roman Saturnalia, slaves would be treated to a fine banquet, served by their masters, and this VtM-themed Saturnalia thought about how that kind of role reversal could play out between Camarilla elders and Anarch neonates. Players were encouraged to put everything on the table and explore ways that our characters could change and grow. Gifts are also a Saturnalia tradition, and I’ve seen some gifting at other LARP events, but I loved that there was more of a focus on the gifting of tokens, because I love making little crafts for other people.
From a logistical perspective, there were a couple things that were very different about Saturnalia than other LARPs I’ve been to. Probably the biggest one was the setting: rather than taking place at a single venue, it was spread out across the French Quarter at a number of different venues. It was also less structured than I was used to in terms of plot and character options, with the game runners leaving much more up to the players than I expected. I found both of these things to have pretty distinct pros and cons, but let’s start with the good stuff.
Like other LARPs I’ve played in, there were pre-made characters, or at least, there kind of were. I grabbed a character seed that put me in an occult-themed coterie called the Arcana. All the members of the Arcana were themed after tarot cards, and my role was Temperance, the peace-maker of the group.
But past that, I was left to my own devices to decide what my character would be like. This suited me just fine, as I had something awfully specific I wanted to play: Leslie Flores-Alea, the childe of my long time character, Owen Alea. The problem was, as veteran vamp players know, that the longer you play characters, the more special snowflakes they become. So Owen and Leslie are Anarch Tremere from a unique bloodline that’s related to the Salubri—I apologize if you’re not a VtM person because deep lore, haha—but the big way the bloodline manifests is in the form of a third eye, which both Owen and Leslie have. Most games would not have let me do something so unusual, but the Saturnalia organizers encouraged me to tell the story I wanted to tell.
This worked out great for me! It was thrilling to play Leslie in live action and I was excited to introduce some House Alea lore to some of the other players in advance of it becoming canon in the upcoming War of Ages book. (I’ll have more to share about that when it gets closer to the release!) I also connected with the actual Salubri of the game and got involved in his ideas for a plot related to creating more Salubri via a ritual, which was super fun and compelling for me and would never have been allowed in more restrictive games. But I know some other players found the open-ended nature of the game very challenging. I definitely wouldn’t have been able to have such a rich experience if I hadn’t pretty much curated the entire thing myself in the weeks leading up to the game. Making your own fun is cool, but for an expensive blockbuster event, you shouldn’t have to make your own fun in order to have fun. For people who didn’t have time to invest that much energy beforehand, like I did, I could see how they would have trouble getting involved or figuring out what to engage with at the event.
The location logistics had similar pros and cons, actually. Part of the draw for me was the immersion of wandering around the city, moving between venues, and interacting with different people, all in character. I wanted to really feel like Leslie would feel on the streets of New Orleans, like they were a vampire passing through a world of unknowing and unsuspecting mortals who could never guess what kind of fantastical feats they were up to. And y’know what? In a lot of ways, that was how it felt. My coterie-mates and I had a couple really memorable chance experiences, like being approached by a small group of women wondering if we could tell them where they could get their cards read, “since we seemed like we would know,” and giving them an in-character reading without them even realizing we were playing a game. There was something about it that felt secretive, and a little powerful.
But, again, it was also challenging, and this time in a way that I felt too. There were so many locations and no way to tell who was hanging out where, or even which people at a certain place were part of the game or not. I found that the first half of game, before everyone met up at the main location for the last part of the night, had me plagued with feelings of FOMO. I’m having a pretty good time here, but would I be having a better time elsewhere? What’s going on at the other venues right now? Am I using my one night of LARP in the best way, or am I wasting it??? It set me up with a lot of anxiety and I wasn’t able to slow down and have any quietly meaningful moments until later in the game. (Having a main location for the second half of the night was absolutely necessary; it didn’t prevent me from feeling this way, but it made sure I wasn’t feeling it the whole time.)
Ultimately, I think Saturnalia was set up so that it could be about different things to different people, for better or worse, and so it makes sense to me that people would come out of it with a wildly different range of experiences.
For me, Saturnalia was about immersion. I’ve played Leslie for a while, but for one night, I wanted to be Leslie. And I structured my own experience around that. I spent a lot of time on props, because having real things to hold makes a character feel more real to me. (Leslie’s jacket is my favorite prop I’ve ever made and I think I’m going to do a separate post all about it, to explain the level of creative energy that can go into a prop.) I spent the days leading up to the game taking the train down to New Orleans, which helped me get into character. I approached everything I could about the event in terms of how Leslie would engage with it. (Even the FOMO I described, while not a pleasant feeling, didn’t ruin my immersion; I just felt like Leslie was the one stressing about what they might be missing during their Saturnalia party.)
And in return, I got a number of really special moments where I was deeply immersed in the game. One was during the funeral procession to the final venue, when I looked back into the crowd behind me and saw one of my coterie-mates happily dancing with someone I didn’t know, and I felt a surge of compersion for a friend having a good time doing something different than me. Another was during a tense conversation with someone who was supposed to be my enemy, whispering clandestinely without looking at each other so his compatriots wouldn’t realize he was having doubts. Near the climax of the game, after the ritual that turned Leslie into a Salubri, I took off my hat and rejoined the rest of the party, baring my third eye in public for the first time. And as I walked in, the party around me stopped. A hush came over the crowd, and people stared and pointed and whispered and I felt profoundly exposed and vulnerable, and in that moment, there was no separation between me and Leslie.
And that’s what I love so much about blockbuster LARPs: it feels like everything—all the locations and planning done by the organizing team, all the costumes and props and emotional buy-in done by the players—is in service of immersion. Everyone is there because they want to tell a story. Not everyone’s story is the same, but they all weave around each other in complicated ways and there are lots of ways to affect, or be affected by, what other people are doing. Just like real people’s stories.