I am planning to attend a LARP set in Rokugan - when (and if) that happens. It's a rather story- and character-play-heavy setup with little to no combat planned.

Now, I have already a character with some cliff notes established and approved by the organization crew, and I want to write out some of that backstory in some sort of travel log. What my cliff notes show is that the character is a Kakita Duellist. During the Clan War (and some years before) they have served as a Yojimbo to a certain person which was given a possible placeholder name, yet that wasn't confirmed or logged in yet.

That certain person is only known to have served as an envoy for the crane during the clan war, nothing other is dished out - and as there are no NPCs planned, that character might be filled with another player. That means I can't define stuff about that certain person of rank without talking to the organizers or that other player... which gets to the problem that the certain person is just a placeholder for any player that might want to be a Crane with a courtier background. And at the current point, that is an unfilled position.

I guess I might refer to them as a certain person as it happens in translations of Japanese literature for an unknown person or person that can't be mentioned for any reason, but that technique might be hard with the cliff-note that my character: They were a certain person's guard for about 5 years and have traveled quite a lot of Rokugan in that time. Which is the timeframe I actually want to write about.

How could I refer to that undefined (and for me undefinable) certain Character in a way that doesn't make the resulting narrative unreadable or establishing cliff notes that might conflict with what the future player of that certain Character might want?

  • \$\begingroup\$ What sort of events are going to appear in this journal? Are you intending for it to contain observations of your interactions with that certain person? Do you know where you went, or is that something left up to the certain person to define? \$\endgroup\$
    – Glazius
    Commented Jun 27, 2021 at 21:25
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Glazius it is meant to take the shape of a travel journal. I might put descriptions of some customs and places into it just as well as people witnessed... \$\endgroup\$
    – Trish
    Commented Jun 27, 2021 at 21:33

4 Answers 4


Do it when you are ready to do it

My experience

I have been attending LARP games since ~2007, and I started writing my own characters not much longer after that (my first chars were GM-written). In this time, I have written a lot of character backstories. Sometimes, I wrote a backstory without knowing important details: about the setting, the actual plot of the game, the rules, etc. Here are some tips that I can give you.

Ask the organizers for other possible details

Maybe they know something that you don't. Maybe they will disclose this to you, even if that's meta information, so that you can finish your log.

Don't finalize your character until you are ready

Until all details are known, remember that anything you write is subject to change. New details may arise, GMs may tell you that they don't like something about your character, a player can drop off the project and ruin a plot hook without anybody else to take their place, a GM may drop off the project without anybody else to finish their plot hooks, etc.

Outline your character roughly, and say that you will finish your backstory when you have everything you need. Given that the next LARP is not likely to happen anytime soon because of COVID-19, you have plenty of time to do it.

For example, if this log you are talking about will be a physical prop, don't craft it until you are sure the text is ready.

The one who applies earlier has more narrative rights

The fact that this undefined person is/was your in-character boss doesn't make them your boss IRL, nor does it give them extra narrative rights. It is OK to establish certain things that affect another character, with their consent if they have already applied, and sometimes just with a GM's approval if the spot is still vacant.

It's OK for GMs to dictate something, too, and to establish some things about your character not being a subject to debates. This makes their job of writing the main plot a lot easier. So, when this person of interest applies, they will most likely be presented with a Hobson's choice of accepting the character or taking another role. Alternatively, they can discuss things with you, and you will have to rewrite the travelling log.

Don't define too much

Give this person a placeholder name that you might change yet, and define things that you can define, just avoiding talking about episodes that require their permission. This doesn't always work, but usually, it does.

Attempting to write a comprehensive biography for your character is often counter-productive because it can constrain your role-play. You don't need too many details to be able to role-play well.

Whatever you do, ask GMs if things you are doing are OK

Your GMs are the ones who establish norms at their event, so make sure that anything you do complies with those norms.

  • \$\begingroup\$ the LAPR is aimed to be (re-)planned for 2022 or 2023, so ample time, but character design and such material can take time - and that travel log would come as a physical prop to the game \$\endgroup\$
    – Trish
    Commented Jun 28, 2021 at 10:04
  • 2
    \$\begingroup\$ @Trish Basically, only craft the prop when you know all the details. I hope you don't need to present it before the event is at least properly scheduled. Edited the answer. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Jun 28, 2021 at 10:59

You're a poet, and you know it. Make use of that.

Yeah, there's the expectation that poetry is going to be a meaningful part of your L5R life no matter what kind of clan your sworded person comes from, but you're not only Crane but Kakita, which is like, Crane squared.

I'm not saying "go full tanka" because adopting another language's poetic forms to your own language might not work so hot. But, based on the period pieces from the period this is supposed to be a fantastic version of, your duelist can probably think in tanka if they want to.

Excursus: From Tanka to Haiku

A quick backgrounder: The Pillow Book and The Tale of Genji are 10th-11th c. CE works where the dominant form of courtly poetry is tanka, poetry written using Japanese characters and consisting of two halves - one with 5-7-5 syllable lines that may seem familiar, and two closing 7-7 syllable lines. The halves could be written by the same person or different people.

The split-person form would evolve in later years to renga, improvisationally written series of alternating halves beginning from a single prewritten "seed" 5-7-5 verse, called the hokku, which probably really seems familiar. Quality seed verses were regarded more highly than the improv followup.

And then we get to the 17th c. CE and Matsuo Bashō, who polished his hokku game to a mirror shine, amplifying the popular sentiment that it could be a quality standalone poem in its own right. A couple of centuries later these standalone poems, as separate from their responses, would be classified as haiku, which should close the circle.

A short-form poem is more about sense impressions than proper names.

You want to explore your own character through a travel journal style of document, without having to have any specifics nailed down about where you went and with who. So think poetically, though again, you don't have to actually write poetry. Take a moment full of detail and prune it down to just the part that says the most about your character -- and since you're a bodyguard rather than a mover and shaker, that part is almost never going to relate to some specific fact of the setting, but rather to a sense impression from the moment.

Like, if you have an idea for an entry that's about how the road got muddy and you had to pause your journey, don't write about where you were coming from or where you were going or why. Write about how it feels to move in heavy mud, or how city mud differs from your memories of country mud (or vice versa), or how frustrating it is when the sun's in full blaze and the road's still not dry.

If you have an idea about an experience at a festival, don't write about who threw the festival or what it was for. Write about how it feels to be in a festival crowd, or to watch a festival crowd from a long distance, or see fireworks in the clear night, or see them against clouds. (Because what are you going to do, not have fireworks? It's a festival!)

If you have an idea about a fight you have you don't need to say who you fought or why the fight happened or what style they used. Write about the fight as related to the anticipation of the night before, or about how it felt to draw blood or take a wound, or some background detail that doesn't even matter at all to the fight but still sums up how the fight went.

Of course, if anybody else reads this, they're not going to know anything about where you actually went or what you actually did, but as a tool to help yourself explore a character's mindset, zooming in very tightly on a particular moment in time can give you a solid anchor point to extrapolate them from.

A Game of Points in Time

This is actually the approach taken by a storytelling game called a penny for my thoughts, but in kind of a reverse sense. The conceit of the game is that you're playing people with severe episodic memory loss, taking a drug which was thought to be hallucinogenic but actually has telepathic properties. It opens by producing just these disconnected moments from the "shared telepathic space" as prompts to create the memories you explore throughout the game - literally writing sense impressions on a slip of paper and throwing them into a hat, with no idea what kind of past they actually relate to.

And yet, I've found in play that what the game says is true. "The drug works!" When you've sketched out a past, however fragmentary, even a random sense impression from a hat, disconnected from anything, can still fit into that character.

So don't worry about losing something by carving off details that don't matter. You can get a lot of character exploration out of just some feature of a moment.

  • \$\begingroup\$ Ahh! that you meant. Though the oldest Japanese Travel text is written in a somewhat more free Waka-style - of which Tanka is just one. Rokugan is rather... anachronistic: in many regards, it is Heian court with Edo samurai, there is no separation of kuge and buke, And the Clan War is a mix of Sengoku Jidai and the Romance of the Thre Kingdoms. \$\endgroup\$
    – Trish
    Commented Jun 28, 2021 at 6:33
  • \$\begingroup\$ Note that the Changelings was not written Waka Style but was one of the highly received pieces of Heian writing. \$\endgroup\$
    – Trish
    Commented Jun 28, 2021 at 7:01
  • \$\begingroup\$ Have you had any experience implementing this or is it just "hey, I've got an idea that may work..." At the moment it appears to be the latter. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Jun 28, 2021 at 10:10
  • \$\begingroup\$ @LioElbammalf I've explored characters through poetry before, but I've attached proof of concept for the idea that a single sense impression can be used to define a character. \$\endgroup\$
    – Glazius
    Commented Jun 29, 2021 at 15:12

Use a title as a name.

'His lordship requested that we cross the river without dirtying our kimono, so myself and Hanabira were engaged to rouse the local fishermen so as to use their boat. This led to a conflict with the fishermen, who wished to catch the morning tide - I was required to pay the man half the cost of his boat simply for the use of it for the day, which struck me as extortionate'.

This is an english-language technique. It's a bit of a mouthful if you were using say 'the leader of the expedition' continuously, but people still did that historically, so something like 'his lordship' or 'the noble lord' or 'my master' or whatever is fairly easy by comparison. As long as you use the same title to refer to this person and consciously differentiate the use of that title from any other person - say if your character ran into a scorpion landholder who refused to name himself they refer to him as 'the Scorpion lord' rather than 'the lord', or 'another crane lord' etc - it is readable and understandable by most people that that phrase is referring to a specific person.

You can introduce the use of this phrase with an introductory paragraph - 'My lord and I were on an expedition to' etc, which tells people that you are referring to a person by 'my lord' thanks to the grammar, and repeated use of it later on cements that you're referring to a single person.

I would not try to use japanese cultural memetics in a game with largely western english speaking people, as cultural awareness of those memetics will vary largely. Even in a L5R larp, the amount of japanese/chinese memetic knowledge will not necessarily spring all the way towards archaic or esoteric facts. Many people may be there simply to do roleplaying and not even have much knowledge of the L5R setting beyond the basics.

Establishing cliff notes that might conflict with what the future player of that certain Character might want?

Mutable canon. You put in some stuff about this character's predilections or whatever based on your vision of the character. Someone comes along and instead of the stuffy Crane courtier with a fast wit you've got a dumb and ill-mannered boor of a courtier but who's connected by blood to like, everyone.

So now all your travelogues are wrong. This means if you want to continue counting them as canon you need to rewrite some parts of them, which shouldn't be onerous - instead of the crane's stuffyness leading to needing a boat from the fishermen, the crane's dumbness and boorishness led to needing a boat from the fishermen.

Everyone else at the LARP is aware of the limits of roleplaying, so something being tenuously canon or needing to be rewritten to fit other things should not be hugely shocking to them.

  • \$\begingroup\$ His lordship/Lord however is gendered: it has a counterpart in the lady. \$\endgroup\$
    – Trish
    Commented Jun 29, 2021 at 8:47

Borrow a technique from modern Freedom Of Information releases and mark out the specifics with [REDACTED]. The implication is that either the Crane clan, or the Empire itself, does not want those details to be legible to anyone, ever. A degree of secrecy, paranoia, and deniability that ought to work well for whoever ends up playing the role of the courtier your character protected; all while giving you ample opportunities to round out your character's personality and the strength of the relationship with the (unidentified) diplomat.

I have had moderate success with similar techniques when creating backstories for table-top games. I have not used this technique for a LARP, though the only time I was in a similar situation I wish I had had time to do so.

  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ How has this worked out for you in the context of using it for larp? \$\endgroup\$
    – NotArch
    Commented Jun 27, 2021 at 15:54
  • 3
    \$\begingroup\$ The problem, even with [redacted] or certain person is I would establish stuff that I might not be allowed to. Also, deniability is not much a problem - Censorship is with it is not a thing in rokugan. The whole text would just be destroyed. \$\endgroup\$
    – Trish
    Commented Jun 27, 2021 at 16:04
  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ @NautArch or even Rokugan (L5R, any edition) \$\endgroup\$
    – Trish
    Commented Jun 27, 2021 at 16:09

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