Every summer, a 30-acre fairground on the border between Illinois and Wisconsin transforms into the English city of Bristol circa 1574. The Bristol Renaissance Faire is filled with shops, taverns, and rides, and it’s populated by a mix of costume-clad staff and customers who take on medieval roles ranging from knights and noble ladies to sorcerers and monsters. It’s a place to spend a day of watching shows and eating giant turkey legs, but for the past seven years, it’s also been the setting of a massive role-playing game.
Six hundred people played RenQuest last year, traveling throughout the faire over the course of several visits to take on quests from performers, solve puzzles, and wage battle with foam weapons.
“RenQuest was developed in the height of the World Of Warcraft era, because we wanted to take that sense of community and put it back where it belongs: face to face,” said Julie McMillin, a RenQuest writer and cast member.
The effort involves a team of writers who spend the nine months between faire seasons working on the script and putting together elaborate props both small—runes and vials of mysterious substance—and large—a massive dragon egg. The game has a cast of 30 non-player characters, each played by a different member of the RenQuest staff, who spend their days at the faire talking in British accents and dressed up as scribes, gypsies, and scientists.
“It also gives people who are a bit reticent a reason to interact. It’s really hard to go up to strangers and talk to them, but we can give them a safe place,” director Mandie Zeller said. Zeller also runs RenQuest at the Original Renaissance Pleasure Faire in Irwindale, California.
Players can take on the role of a mage, warrior, rogue, or bard. Each class has its own quests and a unique part to play in uncovering the game’s plot and helping the heroes win the day. First time players are sent on easy missions that McMillin describes as “fetch quests” meant to help them learn the Faire’s layout. From there, though, the action intensifies.
In the current story, the Draco Disciples, a group that worships the five-headed dragon Tiamat and seeks to rule the world, is trying to use a set of powerful artifacts to bring the Black Death to Bristol and resurrect a dead dragon. Rogues are tasked with stealing plans from the Disciples to figure out where they’re hiding the artifacts. Wizards learn about alchemy from a cart filled with science experiments and are responsible for creating a potion that can keep adventurers safe from the plague. Bards uncover clues about the Disciples’ motives by listening to performers around the faire, and warriors learn to fight with foam weapons to battle the Draco Disciples head on.
The team makes sure RenQuest avoids the problems too often found in World Of Warcraft and other online role-playing games where players have to wait around for their turn to fight an enemy or interact with an important character. “We’ve never had anyone actively wait longer than five minutes,” McMillin said. “If we see there’s a line for the person doing the foam fighting, we have people who can step in to test them. Everyone is capable of giving the quests to proceed you along with the story line. Even if you’re going to work with an understudy [character], you’re still going to get the same story.”
The game is geared to ages 12 and up and draws both casual fans, who might play dressed in shorts and sandals, and diehard renaissance faire lovers who adventure in costumes that correspond to their character. Cara Strong has been playing the game since it started along with her son, who’s now 18. “It just seemed like a lot of fun,” she said. “We like to play video games, and I thought, ‘Let’s do something fun together.’”
They got hooked and now come to the faire to play every weekend they can during the two months it runs. “Bristol by itself is amazing already, but it just added such an interactive element,” Strong said. “You’re playing, and you’re the hero, and you don’t get that in everyday life. Most of our friends can’t say, ‘We helped slay a dragon this weekend.’”
While the game is written so that people who only visit the faire once a year can get a satisfying conclusion, complete with a final cutscene-style performance, it’s meant to be played over the course of three days. The dragon that Strong and her son battled was the conclusion to one plotline. The beast came to life as a three-person puppet complete with sound effects, light-up eyes, and smoke billowing from its mouth. In order to keep people from damaging the prop, players used foam weapons to battle the Draco Disciples who were magically controlling the dragon. Once all of the villains were slain, a RenQuest staff performer finished off the dragon and everyone present got to drink from the monster’s glass heart (which was filled with Kool-Aid).
Players can also get into their characters in ways that have little to do with the main quest. Bards write their own ballad and stories, and if they’re good enough, have the chance to perform them at the faire. Other players come up with elaborate backstories and spend much of their time at the faire roleplaying with others.
“There’s a wizard who’s now the Grand High Dragon Wizard of all the dragons of the Northern Mountains, and we just let him do his thing,” McMillin said of one player. “Someone died in the offseason. Now they’re back as necromancer.”
The organizers will help with the personalization aspect of the game when they can. One player visiting from out of town submitted a story about her character being robbed on the way to Bristol. “I read the backstory and we realized that in the leftover costume accessories we had an extra belt and pouch,” McMillin said. “We greeted her saying ‘We heard you were robbed. Here, borrow these.’”
Six hundred pages of fan fiction have been written about RenQuest, and McMillin has to read all of them in her capacity as Bristol’s webmaster to make sure they can appear on the website. “So far, the only problem has been with language,” she said. “Fortunately, no one’s gone the other way.”
Players have even started taking their RenQuest characters outside of Bristol, showing up at other faires in character or running smaller versions of the game at a local park. One couple met playing RenQuest and held their wedding at Bristol, officiated by McMillin and former RenQuest director Shane Hill. “We’re all one big crazy family,” said player Joe Kipp. “It started out as just a small thing and it just exploded.”