What Does “Dark Arthurian Roleplaying” Mean, Anyway?

The title says it pretty well. This is a question I get asked fairly often, so I’m going to use this as a forum to put the information out in one place.

First, we need to address why I keep getting asked the question at all.

In a discussion about LARP, it’s obvious that the most common “genre”, by far, is the Medieval Fantasy LARP—and most of them get described as “it’s kind of like Dungeons and Dragons, but you get to act out the character.” I think we can pretty much agree on that, but it's a rather crude explanation that has too many negative connotations for my taste.

Here’s the thing—I think we (meaning players, Staff, and the entire Brittanis community) can do BETTER. I know we can, in fact. And that was part of what influenced the heavily-focused setting for Brittanis.

PART I: WHY

Instead of “it’s kind of like D&D. . .” what if you could instead say, “We’re playing a game, it's a live action retelling of the Arthurian myth cycle.” This accomplishes several things (I like bullet point lists. You have been warned):

  • Completely bypasses the American (and ONLY American) stigma surrounding LARP, meaning we can access a greater player base.
  • Completely bypasses the stigma surrounding D&D and fantasy RPG in general.
  • Subconsciously (and then, later, consciously) accesses the greatest shared mythology in the entire history of western civilization.
  • Creates a focused player expectation.

I’m going to hit each of these, but I’m going to combine the first two.

Bypasses negative stereotypes involved with LARP and fantasy gaming. I wish this wasn’t the case, but it still is in the US today, and I take it seriously enough to deliberately make an end-run around it as best we are able. I think that LARP loses out on a lot of potential players because of the negative stereotypes associated with it. In business this would be considered a “barrier to entry”, meaning that folk discount or decide not to participate without even giving the game a chance, simply because of what they have heard, or the connotations of a thing. Movies like Role Models didn’t really do the LARP community any favors. As such, Brittanis refers to itself as Live Action Adventure. We want as many folks from as many different culture groups and walks of life to come and play—we don’t want them deciding not to come because of the letters L.A.R.P., and the stuff they may have heard or seem poorly portrayed by mainstream media.

Subconsciously (and then, later, consciously) accesses the greatest shared mythology in theentire history of western civilization. This is one of the main reasons Brittanis exists. I’ve loved Live Action Gaming for a long time, and getting other people into the hobby is something I’ve always been passionate about. Finding a way to do that which gives everyone something to connect to right out of the gate is something I’ve been looking for, and I found it in the Arthurian legends. Just about every single person who has gone through elementary school has heard of King Arthur, the Round Table, Lancelot, Guenevere, or Merlin. They are universal, iconic figures that resonate through western civilization, and the success of medieval and renaissance faires since the late 60s give voice to the fact that these themes still loom large in our imagination. Why not tap that? Why not give people a chance to be a part of that story and live in that world for a while?

It is important to note that Brittanis is NOT attempting to be a historical re-enactment of the Arthurian tales. Far from it. Brittanis is designed to be an alternate-reality Live Action Adventure game, using the themes and guidelines of the Arthurian myth cycle to tell a unique story. The choices and decisions the players make along the way will undoubtedly have a HUGE impact on how the Brittanis “version” of Arthur’s story happens.

It’s interesting to note that MANY of the Arthurian cycle of stories, myths and legends largely concern the people AROUND Arthur, as opposed to Arthur himself. Especially when you count in the Romances and the modern retellings of Arthur’s tale, Arthur himself is often not the focus of the story—the knights,adventurers, enchanters, and nobles of Camelot fill in and flesh out the story and put life into the tales. That is what Brittanis is designed to do—allow the players to create and live their own legends within the Arthurian framework.

Creates a focused player expectation. This is intrinsically important in any RPG, whether it is live action, tabletop gaming, or computer gaming. When millions of people play World of Warcraft, they know what they are getting into for the most part—a computer-simulated world where the focus of gameplay is to kill monsters, take their stuff and trade it for better equipment so you can tackle bigger monsters and take THEIR stuff. It’s a known commodity, and the wild success of the game proves that it is a winning model. Live-Action and Tabletop games, however, have a much more uphill battle to set that expectation.

The GM for a tabletop game or the Staff for a Live Action game MUST set the expectations for the game and for gameplay in order to let the players know what the game is going to consist of, and how it will play. There has to be an understanding of how the game is going to feel in order for players to compare their experience with that expectation. In WoW, you have an objective scale of success—looting more powerful monsters and getting better gear. Interactive RPGs MUST have established expectations in order for the players to see progress and have goals for future progress. Otherwise players get confused and bored (and rightly so) because they don’t have anything to judge behavior, in-character actions and personal achievement against.

Brittanis, by using the Arthurian legends as a collective starting point, gives players both conscious and subconscious benchmarks and guidelines. In Brittanis, knighthood is a major achievement for players to attain. Once the Round Table comes into existence, then there exists an even more prestigious tier of acclaim. Characters might encounter Merlin, or Morgan LeFay, or any one of the hundreds of famous knights who the tales speak of— or a player might find themselves cast AS one of those heroes in the tale!! Brittanis is an alternate universe, so instead of the tale of Sir Yvain and the Lion (historical) it might be Sir Edward (a player character) and the Lion who bards and tales speak of for hundreds of years after!

Anything is possible, but the Arthurian framework gives the players a shared mental database to draw from, even before they start play.

PART II: WHAT

So—now you know the “why” of it, let’s get down to the business of what “Dark Arthurian Roleplaying” actually means to the Staff. Since “dark” modifies “Arthurian”, I’m going to start with the base first and then modify it with the “Dark” afterwards.

In Brittanis, “Arthurian” means. . .

  • King Arthur. This one is kind if a “Duh”, but it needs to be said. Arthur will be an NPC and many of the plotlines for Brittanis will involve him, though MANY will be indirect or “offscreen” involvement. While the stories of Brittanis happen IN an Arthurian setting, the game is about the PCs and their characters, not what Arthur had for breakfast that morning. In fact, as Chapter 1 begins, Arthur isn’t even born yet. More on that in another blog post, though. Arthur and the legends surrounding him will be ever-present story factors, though Arthur himself might be hundreds of miles away (or not even born yet, or “dead”, etc). Some of the other Big Name characters will also be NPCs, but the staff will always be working hard to have the players fill those famous roles as often as possible—often in surprising ways.
  • Permanent Magic Items are Rare and Special. Many Arthurian stories a magic item (or several) are present. These items are also mysterious, SPECIAL, and almost always named items of heirloom value. Finding and keeping one will be a rare, momentous occasion the players will ALWAYS have to quest for and earn. The Crafting system is designed so that weapons, armor, and other accoutrements can be invested with powerful abilities without being magical. Also, consumable items (herbal poultices, potions, etc) are commonplace in the tales and are in the rules as well. Expect far more of the consumable type in play than the permanent.
  • Feudalism, Politics and War. The Arthurian tales reverberate with these themes, and the game does as well. EVERY PLAYER CHARACTER WILL HAVE A LIEGE LORD, someone to whom they are responsible and who will occasionally call for them to perform tasks and missions. Even characters with noble titles of their own (regardless of whether they start with those titles or earn them in-game) will have someone above them on the "food chain" who they owe fealty to. Everybody works for somebody, and those alliances are what will be driving a large majority of the plot forward.Likewise, the politics between nations—especially in the more modern retellings like those of Bernard Cornwell and Jack Whyte—are the greatest single factor in determining plot. Expect a lot of “Lord So-and-So is doing X and we have to respond” as plot hooks rather than “demons from the plane of X are ravaging the countryside!!” common to less-focused fantasy games.
  • Birth Matters, but So Does Merit. In many cases, the Arthurian legends have plot revolving around a ruler dying and the fallout from that ruler’s family over who gets to be King/Queen, etc.There are also a lot of plotlines in the myths about characters of common birth and station earning their way up into the ranks of the lords and ladies of Camelot. Expect both of these kinds of stories to be commonplace. Often times in the real world, putting a crown on your head was the same as putting a target on your back—in a realm filled with dark magic and monsters, this is especially true.
  • The Fair Folk & Real Magic. In Arthurian legend, the dividing line between faerie and reality is as thick as the writer wants it to be. Sometimes, the fae make no appearance, but especially in the Romances and later re-tellings, pointed ears, excursions into Faerie, and uncanny magic is commonplace. As Brittanis is a full-on fantasy re-imagining of the Arthurian legends, expect the Fae (both in the form of PC elves and NPC archfey from the Otherworldy Realm of Faerie) to have heavy influence on the game. Likewise, magic is a real and accessible tool for both PCs and NPCs to use, and they will. Many plotlines will revolve around a magic ritual, spell, or item needing to be dealt with in one way or another. However, magic is not simply a tool; it has its own drawbacks and issues (see below).
  • Many Different Arthurs. There are literally thousands of different versions of the Arthurian myths and legends, each with a slightly different focus,viewpoint, and ideas of how the legends might have been inspired by reality. The French Romances are pure fairy-tales in the best sense of the word—they inspire our imagination and sense of the heroic; Tennyson puts in poetry the glory and drama of Camelot; T.H. White writes a purist, black-and-white version of the cycle, bringing it to its simplest incarnation; Stephen Lawhead writes a heavily theological tale that reaches all the way back to Atlantis as the beginning of the Arthurian cycle; Bernard Cornwell writes a gritty, hyper-realistic Arthur who was never even a King, is decidedly not Christian at all, and in which Lancelot is a cowardly villain; Marion Zimmer Bradley writes a supremely feminist retelling of the cycle that focuses largely on the conflict between paganism and Christianity; Jack Whyte brings the Roman-ness of the tale into the forefront. Each of these is inspiration for Brittanis; each of these has elements, themes and characters they might be lending to the plot and stories we will be telling. So, to answer a question I have received many times—"Which version of the Arthurian tales will you be using?" my answer is a very solid ALL OF THEM. We're going to be taking pieces of all these things, and using some of our own interpretations, to build the plotlines and adventures for Brittanis.

In Brittanis, “Dark” means. . .

  • Death is easy; Staying Alive is Hard. While the characters in Arthurian mythology survive wounds that would kill lesser folk, once they are dead, they stay that way (except Arthur, of course…). Permanent character death will occur in Brittanis, likely far faster than it does in other games. The Reserve Point system is designed so that dedicated players don’t lose out completely when a beloved PC suffers Permanent Death—while it sucks for the character, Brittanis doesn’t support that the player should be punished as well.
  • No Black and White Morality. There is no “alignment” in Brittanis—no objective code of behavior that can be argued by flame war and internet “debate” until the end of time. Instead, Brittanis has Character Values—core principles that infuse the very fabric of existence and tie all living creatures together. Each Player Character has three Values that are part of their very nature, and those influence the character’s decisions, behavior and personality. Expect the conflict between those Character Values to be a plot device as well. Likewise, many creatures and ALL NPCs will not be moustache-twirling villains, obvious with a “please kill me” costume and dialogue. Characters who seemed like allies may betray you, and those who you thought enemies might end up fighting alongside you against a common foe. Judging a book by its cover is almost always the wrong decision in the Arthurian tales—Merlin, Perceval, Uther, all serve as examples—and it is the same with Brittanis.
  • Dark Temptation of Magic. All the Arthurian tales agree on one thing—messing with the fabric of reality is not to be taken lightly. Even the most fanciful of fairy tales usually have some reference or obscure story that shows the hubris of magic users coming back to bite them. Brittanis is no different. All forms of magic come with strings attached, and it is these strings that make the common folk, uncertain of the motivations of those who wield magic with impunity, wary or even fearful of magic in all its forms. Those who gain their magic from the gods are beholden to the whims and goals of those unknowable beings. The wielders of primal magic commune with capricious and sometimes vengeful nature spirits and the ghosts of long-dead ancestors. Most dangerous of all are those who harness arcane magic are toying with the very fabric of the reality around them with barely any heed for the consequences. Creatures from the Otherworld constantly whisper in the mind of all wielders of arcane magic, offering more power, knowledge, items of tremendous power. Some arcanists remain strong against these tempting whispers, but those who succumb begin a long, gradual slide into darkness. Many do not even realize what is happening and have no idea of the shadowy path they are walking down. Eventually, they become dark and twisted slaves to their whispering masters with no care for others.Every single arcane magic user must fight this battle of wills, and many do not win.
  • NO GUARANTEED HAPPY ENDING. Every character in Arthurian mythology has a code of beliefs, even if it is not recognized as such overtly. The characters who stay true to their convictions are those of whom the greatest tales are told. Many tales tell of a knight in a “no-win” situation, who must choose between his beloved and his honor, or the lives of two innocents, etc. The greatest tales often show the knight making the best decision possible, then working to right the wrong he was forced into. The knight MAY eventually end up in a happy place, but not before he has worked tirelessly to secure his dream. Even the great dream of Camelot comes crashing down—depending on the version you read, any one of a dozen things could cause that downfall, but eventually Camelot does fall, and it’s the failure of people—not monsters, not dark gods or dewho cause it to weaken from within and come tumbling down.

In Brittanis, “Roleplaying” means. . .

  • Player & Character Immersion FIRST. Brittanis is focused on providing the best experience possible to the players—every spare dollar will be spent on costumes, makeup, props, plot items, and improvements to the game. Likewise, the Staff is dedicated to making the game the best it can be. Likewise, we ask our players to come along with us and work towards making the game the best we can possibly make it. This is why the Advancement rules offer bonuses for those who devote time and effort and invest in the game experience for everyone. Excellent costumes and weapons (referred to as "kit") as well as in-period camping equipment make for a game experience that EVERYONE enjoys more. Just like the staff and NPCs are focused on fully in costume/makeup/character as possible, we ask the players to do the same thing, and offer in-game rewardsfor those who come along with us on that journey.
  • Interactive. This might sound counter-intuitive when I’ve been talking about following the Arthurian legends for a couple thousand words now,but here's what I think: players pay hard-earned money to come and live out these stories. They let the Staff try to kill them over and over and beat on them with foam weapons, and they pay for the chance! The players come to play in order to escape the weekday world for a few days and be heroes for a while. In order to really, truly be a hero, things have to be better when you’re done than when you started. In order for that to really have any weight, two things have to happen; the players have to have real, visceral chances for failure and whether they succeed or fail, those actions have consequences that are real and affect the game in other ways besides character death (PC or NPC). Bittanis is designed from the ground up for the players’ decisions to have major influence on the world. Yes, the major arc is still going to happen: Arthur will be born,become a powerful King, and die. But HOW does he come to be King? What battles are fought, alliances made, wars wages, monsters defeated, etc? What kind of a King does he become? Do his battles make him bitter and autocratic, ruling withan iron fist or does he become a beloved monarch whose death is mourned by all? It is the players’ decisions and actions that will decide all of these factors, and the tale of Arthur’s ascension to the throne and his reign as King will bedetermined by the actions of those who support his story. In the end, the Staff isn’t telling the tale of King Arthur in Brittanis. We are telling the story of the heroes of CAMELOT in Brittanis, who lived, fought, struggled and died during the life and reign of King Arthur.
  • Player-Generated Plot. Every character came from somewhere, had a family, and grew up. Every character had something that put them on the trail to adventure,even if it’s as simple as “my mother was a knight and I am expected to follow in her footsteps.” Every character has friends, and rivals, and a history.Every character makes choices and those choices have consequences, for good or ill. In Brittanis, players who provide the Staff with the seeds of adventure in their background will be rewarded with adventure, because the best stories are the ones you tell us you are invested in. The more hooks you give us to work with by your histories, your choices in-game, and roleplaying, the more adventure you give us the chance to present to the game. BRITTANIS ENCOURAGES PLAYER PLOT SUBMISSIONS. Whether it involves your own character, someone else’s character, or a more general adventure/plotline idea, all submissions by players will be strongly considered.
  • NOT A COMBAT SPORT GAME. With as many times as I’ve mentioned the words “plot”, “story”,etc, this should be pretty obvious, but I want to be blatantly clear. If your idea of Live Action gaming is only beating people with foam tubes, getting drunk and failing at getting laid, Britanis is NOT the game for you. If you want to build an Arthurian-appropriate character in appropriate kit, roleplay that character in the framework of the tales of Camelot and the legends of King Arthur, and make the legend of your hero grow into tales that might be told around fires and among friends for years to come then Brittanis IS the game for you, and welcome. But if boffer combat is all you’re into, there are other venues for you to get that gaming fix.
  • (Relative) Gender Equality. This is something else I want to be clear about—though the stories of Arthur and Camelot are heavily patriarchal and misogynistic, Brittanis is not. The influences that sent our own world down that path didn’t exist in Brittanis, and relative gender equality is the norm. This doesn’t mean that there will be a perfect 50/50 mix of NPCs and such, but it does mean that the first born male isn’t pre-destined to inherit a crown, and females aren’t predestined for homebound and non-heroic roles. It also means that those creatures/races/cultures that ARE blatantly misogynistic are the exception and not the norm.

Okay, I’ve rambled on for a good ways here. I think this is about as thorough an explanation as I can manage. I’m always open for questions and comments. Feel free to register on the Home page and comment on this post, and I’ll answer as soon as I can. Or you can email me at brittanislarp@gmail.com, too!


Artwork is "Sword in the Rock" by Eaworks on Deviant Art.