Drachenfest US: The Review
So I recently had the pleasure of attending Drachenfest: Origins, the first game of what will hopefully become an annual event here in the States. (This game is also colloquially known as Drachenfest US to differentiate it from the original German game.) In constructing this review I will also be doing a bit of an overview as the game is large and multi-faceted, and I wanted to make sure to give it ample context for proper understanding. That’s a polite way of saying this review is also pretty long, so, you know, get comfy. Before I go further, it should be noted that this review refers only to Drachenfest: Origins, and so its rules and other game elements discussed here may differ from those found in the original Drachenfest game as it is played in Germany. For brevity’s sake, however, for the purpose of this review I will simply refer to this event as Drachenfest.
In the interest of full disclosure, while I have some friendships among the staff and players – something of an inevitability in the close knit larp community of the Northeast – I am not affiliated with the Drachenfest US event in any way and I did not receive any discounts or comped materials when I attended, nor did I receive any compensation for writing this review. Last but not least, this review is of course based on my point of view, and so I might be mistaken about certain details where I did not have access to the bigger picture. I have tried to make sure this review does not contain any rules errors or misrepresent events that occurred at game, but even so, feel free to take my account with a handful of salt if you feel it’s necessary.
A dramatic, often intense game full of spectacle, featuring varying ways to engage with the story and a strong emphasis on community play. Drachenfest delivers on its premise of a rules light, roleplaying centered, gently multiversal high fantasy setting with lots of combat, ritual, and intrigue, ably balanced with plenty of relaxing socializing and community carousing. As it is a fundamentally competitive game, some players may be turned off or become frustrated if their faction is losing, but the game tries very hard to give people multiple paths to enjoy the play experience outside of the competition itself.
Should I Play?
Provided you are comfortable with camping, are cool with seeking out and engaging in various kinds of roleplaying, and enjoy latex/boffer combat (or at least don’t mind enduring/avoiding it at regular intervals), then yes! Absolutely. It’s a rich, immersive spectacle well worth the modest ticket cost for the great entertainment value you get. No question.
No, I Mean, Should *I* Play, Specifically?
I mean, I dunno? If I don’t know you it’s hard to say, but I suppose you could write me in the comments or privately and I’ll talk to you about your personal tastes. 🙂
Five primordial dragons, siblings who each personify a different aspect of existence, come together once per year and create a special realm to vie with each other for dominance in a competition known as the Drachenfest. The dragons are Silver (order), Blue (freedom), Red (conquest), Green (nature), and Shadow (the void). Each dragon summons champions from across various realms in the fantasy multiverse to form their “team”, who then compete on their behalf to obtain dragon eggs, which are used for scoring the competition. (Despite the name they are not eggs containing actual baby dragons, merely a scoring device.) There is another faction, a neutral – or more accurately, mercenary – group of merchants and trainers known as the Bazaar who set up shop at the festival to cater to the champions, teach them advanced skills and techniques, and sometimes even sell their IC services to a faction that can meet their price. However, they are not directly part of the competition and do not score points. While the game’s numerous OOC vendors are part of this faction by default, players may apply for a spot in this faction as well, though these openings are limited and you must pitch staff a suitable intriguing concept to get one, ideally one that features excellent costuming and props as well as adds a lot of roleplay value.
Players may create characters from almost any fictional fantasy world – or one of their own devising! – subject to two rules: 1) you can’t play an existing fictional character, so for example you can be a Witcher but not Geralt of Rivia; 2) your costuming/tech level should fit into a vaguely medieval/Renaissance larp look. This means things like no personal firearms (cannons exist but are very limited); no sci-fantasy such as Jedi or Warhammer 40K psykers; and no modern/urban fantasy along the lines of the Dresden Files or Percy Jackson. The game also frowns on cultural appropriation in costuming and actively disallows painting your skin the color of real world races/ethnicities, so you know, don’t do that. And I mean that in general sense, not just for Drachenfest.
Other than that, though, you can be from most anywhere – I met characters from Ravenloft, Terra D’Ange, Sigil, Rokugan, Krynn, Golarion, Hyrule, Westeros, Middle Earth, and plenty of others. It was, in a word, awesome. How you feel about being called to this place can be part of your roleplay as well – some people made a big deal of it, others acted as though it was a dream, some mostly ignored it, etc. It is as much a factor as you wish to make it, though it is assumed that having answered the call you are a willing participant in the competition on some level; while you can grumble about being “abducted” or express confusion as to where you are and how you got here, ultimately players are encouraged to lean into the contest and their chosen faction (more on that later).
Review: Giving players this much latitude sounds like it could be a disaster in terms of clashing styles and cultures but in practice it actually worked really well – players didn’t have to learn tons of new lore since they’ve been brought to a strange new world, but instead they could bring favorite characters or come from favorite worlds, making them immediately invested. There were a lot of truly great costuming, makeup, and props on display. I was concerned that some players would skirt the line of what was appropriate or spend a lot of time winking at the proverbial camera trying to get across where they were from, but I needn’t have worried; there was only one character I met who felt like they were constantly forcing their origin reference, and even then it was just a little annoying and not game-breaking. The staff may have to contend with joke characters or people trying to slip pre-existing fictional characters into the mix, but I have the feeling it’s not going to be much of an issue due to the cost of the event – dropping a couple hundred dollars to play a silly reference for a few hours before staff forces you to change your character or leave isn’t something I think most are willing to do. It’s worth noting that while you can play most anything within those guidelines, the game asks for as much WYSIWYG as possible when designing characters. So if you want to be a dragonkin, for instance, you have to represent that with makeup and costuming – you can’t just narrate “you see I’m actually a dragon person” or something like that.
One way all of this works is that character creation is very simple – no matter what world you come from or what capabilities you had there, the dragons make sure to level the playing field for the contest. With that in mind, everyone starts with 2 Health Points and the ability to wear armor and use any one handed weapon. Then you pick two skills or capabilities from the same two groups of choices as everyone else. (You can pick twice from one group or one from each, your call.) Aside from some starting coins and item cards, that’s pretty much it.
The first group of possible choices mostly have to do with your role in battle (or how you stay out of it), as a lot – but definitely not all! – of the competition involves camps battling each other and champions fighting duels and other martial contests. Your choices here can do things like add to your base Health or let you use two handed weapons, shields, fight Florentine, etc. It’s also worth mentioning that players are encouraged to justify their powers as they see fit in terms of roleplaying – a character with the Warden role can negate a single spell effect tossed at them, but whether that’s because of warding amulets, rigorous magical discipline, proficient counterspelling, natural immunity of some kind, or something else entirely is up to the player.
Your next group of role choices to pick from are among learning crafting/repair skills, medical training, and casting spells. You can dabble or specialize – picking a category once gives you partial access to what it can do, while picking it twice gives you pretty much all of it. For example, in the Crafter section there are a total of four crafting avenues, and each time you select Crafter as a choice you pick two of them. As with other choices, while all players follow the same game mechanics for things like casting spells, exactly how those powers manifest is up to the player – innate gifts, enchanted items, rigorous training, etc.
In the end for my two choices I selected one level of Healer and opted for its Surgery training aspect so I could do field medicine to restore Health in battle; my other choice went into one level of Spellcaster, which let me pick five spells from their list of 12 spells.
That’s it. Aside from getting cards for your weapons and armor and your starting coins, that’s character creation.
Note that this is by no means all that characters can do, but other things are locked behind role-playing and guild membership. For instance at base the Alchemist role only gives you the ability to make healing poultices, but if you join the Alchemist Guild in-game and train with them you can potentially learn to make other things like poisons, healing potions, antidotes, etc. Likewise, training with the Warrior’s Guild can teach you advanced combat abilities like knockbacks and shield breaking that aren’t available to those outside the guild. So there’s plenty to learn and do in game, giving players a natural incentive to explore the setting and rewarding those who put in the time and roleplaying for doing so.
Review: Everyone starts equal, and if you want any extra fancy cool stuff, you have to really engage in the game and its roleplaying. Simple, effective, elegant. Which I think is pretty great as it means even the most ardent powergamers looking for advantages to help win the contest must dive into character and invest time in roleplaying and training. It can be a little tough for players like me who are more in and out but that’s my issue, not the game. Also, by design most of the things you can learn from this advanced training are lateral choices, not just straight up better than what’s commonly available, so there’s a tradeoff of some kind involved. It balances nicely. Especially because while you can theoretically join multiple guilds, the time investment involved in training with them and maintaining membership becomes increasingly demanding the more guilds you join, so in practice you have to carefully consider where you want to focus and learn more advanced stuff.
If all that sounds imposing, however, consider by contrast that I didn’t join a guild or learn anything extra during the weekend, and I still didn’t feel cheated or outgunned. I might feel differently if I play the same character for three or four years and don’t learn extra things while others do, but that’s a different issue.
Combat & Spellcasting
Drachenfest subscribes to lightest touch, dramatic combat – act out injuries, exaggerate swings, etc. Larp archery can be performed with professionally made, padded larp arrows. No thrusting attacks are permitted since latex weapons are heavily preferred and thrusting with such weapons can present a real safety risk for neck and eye shots. Real metal or leather – or realistic looking fakes – are required for armor, so plastic or aluminum chainmail is fine but not fabric with a chainmail print. Characters have low, low numbers for Health and armor and healing is very slow, so if you don’t want to get dropped quickly in combat you need to be cautious, lucky, or pretty darn good. (I opted for lucky!) First Aid requires Healer training and 5 minutes to stabilize a downed character, and on top of that receiving First Aid is a prerequisite for getting Health back via surgery or even basic healing magic. Unlike many fantasy games, in other words, you can’t just zap people back up from dying to totally fine in a few seconds.
Combat is very deliberately a rock-paper-scissors affair – arrows bypass armor, shields block arrows, and spells affect shields. Two handed weapons do the same damage as one handed ones, but are the only player weapons that can destroy siege weapons or harm large summoned creatures like elementals that camps can conjure up for an extra edge in combat, so even though they don’t do more damage there’s a reason to use them apart from extra reach. Of course, standing around holding a single big weapon – or two vicious small ones – means that you have no defense against arrows, and so we’re back at the rock-paper-scissors again. It’s a simple but very effective circle that ensures no one combat loadout can totally dominate all situations; each one has a counter that a coordinated and diverse group can use to overcome.
Spellcasting is very simple – 15 seconds of loud, clearly mystic verbalization, then most spells simply require you to point at a target and name the effect. At base the only thrown spell is Orb of Power, which is effective if it hits a shield and bypasses armor to do major damage directly to Health. The balance is that once you cast a spell, any spell, you are magically exhausted and cannot cast again for 5 minutes. (You can fight or move normally, just no spells.) In addition if you are hit while verbalizing you are still exhausted even though the spell doesn’t go off. Ouch. Like a lot of things, the Mage’s Guild can potentially teach you new spells and tricks, such as raising undead or cutting down spell exhaustion time.
Review: For the most part the combat I saw went very smoothly, especially for a first game – the low numbers and simplicity of spells and weapons makes things easy to track, there are no numbers and few calls cluttering the air, and people generally did a good job taking hits, roleplaying pain and injury, and otherwise avoiding just running forward and flailing. There’s always going to be some rhino hiding, players cheesing spells, players getting excited and swinging too hard/too fast, of course, and I saw some of that for sure. I also heard talk here and there that certain players had to be cautioned or even benched for certain combats due to violating the fighting guidelines. By and large, though, people leaned into the fighting style the game is after. The fact that refs are required to be present for almost all combats helps too (more on that soon).
Each dragon has a camp where their followers gather, and dragons often appear there in person as an avatar (great makeup!). Avatars are there to add roleplaying, guide players when they need a hand, assist rituals, or spur action if players look bored or frustrated, but they very definitely do not call all the shots. Players elect a camp council to decide their strategy and make decisions. This council has roles to fill, such as Warlord, Diplomat, Spymaster, Champion, etc. How to pick these people and how they do their jobs once chosen is left up to the players – our camp, Green, favored large meetings where everyone had a chance to speak before our councilors made their final decisions, but other camps could adopt any system that worked for them.
Camps also host the camp’s banner, which other camps can attempt to capture for points in the contest (and where any banners you capture are displayed to be won back), as well as the dragon shrine where eggs are brought to tally points scored. (These two things are always near the entrance, you can’t hide eggs or your banner.) There are also areas like the garden for herbalism and the alchemy lab, plus anything players add. We had some wicked good grillers in our camp, for instance, so there was always food cooking. Our avatar had a lounge and people were often there roleplaying with her and each other, which provided a nice place to rest and re-center in character.
Of course, you are not by any means bound to your camp and can wander around as you like, make friends in other camps, visit the Bazaar or the tavern, take a dip in the lake, cast rituals in the Great Ritual Circle, etc. Diplomacy and intrigue are essential parts of the game as well, and alliances both verbal and written are absolutely crucial. Our strong alliances with Silver and Red helped us stave off attacks or win back our banner when we lost, which was especially key after we betrayed Blue in a big way early on.
Review: As you can imagine, what camp life is like will vary wildly depending on the players and characters involved, though the thematic nature of each dragon means that characters summoned to their faction tend to have similar interests, motivations, and/or personalities, which helps people find common ground. (The avatar also acts as a touchstone to facilitate play.) I did worry a bit that having a council of players with important roles would create a “cool kids” problem where some people get to do all the cool stuff and everyone else just gets pulled along behind them. I suppose that could happen, but for this game and my Green camp at least people were very cool about delegating, getting other players involved and keeping them informed, etc.
There is also an element of “you get out what you put into it” to camp life, as there is with most larps. If you don’t roleplay a lot with people, don’t get involved in camp business, don’t check in often, don’t do rituals, etc, well, yeah, you may feel disconnected from game, but that’s on you at that point. It’s important to remember that between the Drachenfest itself, guild business, and camp politics/roleplay, players can easily have plenty to keep them busy even if they arrived with no specific agenda in mind!
It is assumed that no matter where they’re from or how they feel about being called to the Drachenfest realm, now that they are here all characters are invested in helping their faction win the contest; otherwise they wouldn’t have been chosen or answered the call. (If you want to play a truly neutral or mercenary character, apply for one of the Bazaar spots.) While I suppose technically you could try to deliberately betray or undermine your camp, it’s generally disallowed in the interest of keeping the game fun and fair and to avoid a metagame problem such as players joining to deliberately sabotage a faction on behalf of friends in a rival camp. There’s enough to worry about with other factions, they don’t want camp members to actively worry about their own people! You also cannot switch camps during play, so you can’t trash a faction and then swap to the winning team.
That said, the simplest way to score points is to capture an enemy banner and bring it back to your camp. (You also score points for every banner you keep in your camp overnight, as judged around 9 AM.) As it’s unlikely your enemy will simply hand over their banner without a fight, however, you need to declare a siege. Each camp has dedicated OOC game refs who are onsite pretty much nonstop, so you go to them and tell them you are preparing a siege, then they alert the rival camp’s OOC refs that a siege is incoming. This is done in part to simulate that armies gathering is hard to miss, but also because the enemy ref can actually veto a siege or any other sort of raid/PVP if they feel their camp is demoralized and/or has been kicked around a lot recently. No one likes being repeatedly stomped into the ground, after all, and even though it’s a contest it should still be fun for players.
Camp attacks involve clearing defenders from the defending camp’s courtyard (a taped off area inside each camp’s gate entrance) – if you can clear that ground of defenders and keep it clear for a short time, boom, the banner is yours. You can only attack a camp through the gate into the courtyard; you cannot circle around through the woods or take another path. It’s main gate or nothing. If this sounds stifling, I hear you, but in practice I found it actually isn’t as limiting as it sounds – having a clear victory condition and refs on hand to judge it avoids a lot of sticky questions or arguing about when a banner is captured. Also, confining the conflict mostly to the courtyard means that if your camp is attacked but you don’t want to fight, you can just move away from the courtyard and attackers will ignore you.
Of course, members of the elusive and nefarious Thieves Guild can learn ways to sneak into camps through other entrances and do things like sabotage alchemy labs, burn herb gardens, damage a camp’s weapons/armor, etc, but even then faction banners and any dragon eggs a faction had earned absolutely cannot be stolen – those prizes must either be won in battle or given freely. This also means that camps don’t have to post guards 24/7 since they don’t have to worry about sneak thieves grabbing them. Which is appreciated because few players want to stay up all night for the chance to stopping a robbery, maybe.
All that said, camps may earn dragon eggs via many other means than raw fighting – eggs can be exchanged as part of a diplomatic pact, for example, or earned by completing challenging quests from the avatars or certain members of the Bazaar. I was told that the winning camp this year, Red, came back from an early deficit in part by having members aggressively seek out and complete such quests. Likewise, a member of Green earned a dragon egg for winning the semi-OOC garb competition at the Bazaar, and we won another for having NPCs judge our camp as having the best looking in-game garden (we covered it in props and decorated it extensively because, well, nature is sort of our thing).
Then, of course, there’s the War. On Saturday afternoon all five armies gathered and fought as one of the final acts of the contest, with the goal of capturing enemy avatars and taking them off the field. This is where alliances really pay off, because having no friends in a five-way fight is a good way to get stomped to paste really quickly by folks that do. As it was, weekend allies Green, Silver and Red all agreed to fight the rival Blue and Shadow alliance, and when they were defeated Red asked us (Green) to stand down while they fought Silver because Silver had broken a treaty with them and they wanted revenge. After Red dispatched Silver, we finally took them down in a hard fight. Points are awarded based on order of defeat, potentially turning the tide in close scoring.
It was 2+ hours of almost continuous, intense fighting and no small amount of roleplay (keeping/breaking alliances especially). It was tense and exhausting and awesome, with an incredibly small number of stoppages of play for a huge battle (and most of those very early on).
Review: As the heart of a competitive game, point scoring has to feel fair, logical, and consistent, or everything falls apart in a hurry. I’m happy to report it was all of those things. One interesting wrinkle is that dragon eggs are currency as well as points – some of the most powerful rituals require spending them, for example, and offering an egg as payment is a powerful inducement to cement a potential treaty or make amends for a misunderstanding or betrayal. I enjoyed this because it adds a level of risk/reward – spend or give away too many eggs and you’ll fall short in the competition, but don’t spend/offer any and you might lose because you don’t have allies and your rivals are strong enough to raid you repeatedly and/or beat you in the War.
As for the regulation of violence, requiring players to run most violence by refs first for approval and have them present to do it is a great choice. While yes you can get mugged by a small group if you’re out on your own, and you don’t need a ref for friendly duels and sparring and the like, requiring refs to be present for most physical conflict means that people by and large feel free to move around camp without feeling they need to be in large groups for safety or the like. It’s nice because free fire PVP zones tend to turn games into armed camps of paranoid cliques, but there was really none of that here and it was welcome and conducive to roleplaying.
When it comes to how the OOC coordination of combat worked, for the most part the battles I saw seemed to go fairly smoothly, especially considering it was a first event and it’s no small matter to coordinate multiple camps trying to wage war on each other. There were definitely times when things seemed to get scrambled and it took the refs a while to work things out, but only time did it go seriously wrong that I saw (more on that later). During the War there were several stoppages of play that turned out to be called in error, but again, those seemed to be based on player misunderstanding more than anything else – for example, many of us have been conditioned for years to stop play when we hear “HOLD!” called loudly, but that is a totally permissable term at Drachenfest (“Time out” serves that function instead). So we had several pauses that turned out to be players hearing something like “Hold the line!” and years of instinct reflexively kicking in to make them pause play. Not a huge concern overall – as someone who has run large events in the past, though not on this scale, it’s inevitable that communication and logistics will have issues, especially on a first run. From what I saw, the infrastructure was solid and should only become moreso overall with experience in future years.
Death & Character Loss
Ah yes, that. While characters are easy to drop, they generally take deliberate action to kill. If you’re left on the ground you can try to crawl back to safety after a few minutes. Enemies have to take a moment to specifically act to kill you, and generally most camps avoid this if possible because it tends to set off a chain reaction of retaliatory murder. (And since healing is slow, many times you don’t need to kill your enemies to achieve your goal – you can claim a banner while they’re all on the ground being tended by medics.) If the worst comes to pass and you are slain, you go to a place called the Limbus, which is located near the Shadow camp (fittingly enough).
There a special, dedicated team runs you through an experience that is between a visionquest and a Harrowing from Wraith: The Oblivion – if you succeed, you return to life at your camp’s shrine, with no knowledge of five minutes before your death. (You also cannot fight or cast for a time due to resurrection exhaustion, so people can’t simply recycle right back into action.) If you fail you lose your character, but you can make a new character and join a different camp to return to play.
Review: I didn’t die during the weekend, so I can’t speak to the Limbus experience directly. However, to a person everyone I spoke to who went through it said it was amazing. More than one said it was one of it not the best part of the weekend, and described it as amazing and intense. So there’s that.
The Long Game
Drachenfest is intended to be an ongoing annual event, with characters potentially being called time and again to take part in the competition on behalf of their chosen faction. (Or possibly switching factions between runs due to major roleplaying events during an event!) This means that players are also encouraged to take the long view and plan things like multi-year alliances between camps, as well as dive ever deeper into guild discoveries and secrets. Established characters will never become fundamentally better than newcomers to the point where the game separates into different strata – especially since there’s no guarantee anyone will return from the Limbus! – but after attending several festivals you’ll find seasoned veterans will have more and varied tricks, not to mention friends and favors to back them up. Dangerous, for sure, but not insurmountable by any means.
Review: As the first game here in the US, naturally there was no long game at work when we arrived, but I could already see the seeds of such multi-year planning taking root. Literally, in the case of Green camp – after the War we performed a long, emotional ritual designed to create a divination tree that would bloom in later years and offer roleplaying opportunities for future Green camp members, and possibly help defend the camp too (think Whomping Willow crossed with the Oracle at Delphi). Likewise, while both sides did their best to mend fences after a rocky weekend, I’m pretty sure Blue and Green will regard each other warily for at least another festival or two, and as this year’s winner Red will almost certainly have a target on their back when the Drachenfest reconvenes next year. Being the camp of conquest and honor, I’m sure they wouldn’t have it any other way.
This was an extremely impressive and ambitious first run, and on the whole a very entertaining and successful one. Yes, Drachenfest has been a huge success for years in Germany, but that by no means guaranteed it would work well here. Fortunately I think this run laid a strong foundation for an American offshoot to find its footing. The biggest problem I personally encountered was a failed attempt at a siege, but that apparently turned out to be the result of one or more players violating the honor code and lying about crucial OOC information. So as frustrating as it was I obviously can’t hold that against the game, especially since staff did their best to remedy the situation despite bad faith by some players. I try never to hold those sorts of problems against a game, especially since they seemed isolated and far between, and while I’m sure it wasn’t everyone’s cup of tea it certainly seems like there is plenty of enthusiasm even among factions that didn’t come out on top.
I think the best way I can sum up my feelings is simply this: I can’t wait to go back next year.
- You do not need to be a fighter to enjoy the game. I played as a non-combatant, I did not have any offensive spells, I did not even bring a weapon. I was a vulture and a healer during battles and still had a blast.
- If you don’t fight you still need to figure out what you will do if a battle breaks out near you, even if it is just “walk away” or “surrender” or “die and go to Limbus.” Due to the ref oversight required there aren’t many if any spontaneous mass battles but you can get mugged walking around at night or accidentally walk into a situation as it kicks off (I arrived at Green camp on Saturday morning literally 15 seconds ahead of an attack by another camp).
- “Can I play in a different camp than my friends? Like, if I’m in Red but they’re in Blue, will that mean we don’t see each other?” Short answer: No, with a but. There’s nothing that prevents you from hanging out with people from other camps – especially at the Bazaar – but depending on the politics of the weekend you may find yourself facing off against your friends in battle, and there may be times when you are not permitted to be in another faction’s camp (such as council meetings or when planning battles). Likewise, if your friends are in a rival camp, others in your own group might look at you with a little suspicion and ask you to prove your loyalty. My advice? Talk to your friends before game and make sure everyone is ready to lean into it, and just enjoy the drama and roleplaying opportunities that come with being part of different factions.
- Drachenfest issues cool metal currency, and it is yours to keep. The rulebook literally states that these metal coins are player keepsakes. You can spend them or give them away however you want, but they cannot be stolen, and no magic or skill can compel you to give them up. If you are dropped in combat enemies can take all your item cards – weapons, armor, potions, scrolls, etc – but they cannot take your festival coins. Though the rulebook does recommend “tipping” your killer a coin or two if it was a fun roleplaying experience. 😂
- Non-com spectators are permitted at the big War on Saturday afternoon. Bring a chair and snacks. Especially water.