Larp’s Oral Tradition Is Dying

Credit: Human Writes

Credit: Human Writes

Larp is a young art form, and for most of its life, it’s been part of a largely oral tradition. This makes some sense–larp is ethereal, existing only in a particular time and place–and it’s hard to hang on to a ghost except through stories and memory. Today I want to talk about how larp’s oral tradition shapes larp culture and the emerging written tradition might change that.*

Larp is moving from a largely oral tradition to a largely written one.

In folklore, and oral tradition is one where information and cultural practices are transferred from one generation to another via speech. As a young art form, larp is just at the cusp of being two or so generations old, and as it gets older, more and more of the traditions are being written down. So I’d like to dispense with the generational requirement and say that the oral tradition in larp consists of all the wonderful tips and tricks on exotic larp mechanics and on how to play, design, and run games that are trapped in the heads of the current generation of larp elders, and have not yet been written down.

I think larp is undergoing a shift where it is moving from a substantially oral tradition to a written tradition. But, Lizzie, you say, there are lots of books about roleplaying. Sure, many larps in the US have always had extensive rulebooks, but, say, the Vampire: The Masquerade sourcebook tells me nothing about what happened at your event last weekend and how you employed these guidelines to create a scintillating story. The rulebook is the tool, but the oral tradition is what enables people to use that tool to create art.

In recent years in the Nordic countries and elsewhere, larp documentation has come into vogue. For example, the hugely influential 2010 coffee table book Nordic Larp (now available for free download) included photos and essays of a few dozen games from Nordic larp’s 15-year history. The recent Larps from the Factory collected instructions on how to make a few dozen short larps from the Norwegian scenes in Oslo and Trondheim, as well as collecting some information on the cultural context of these games. In the last two years, no fewer than four books have been published, each documenting a single run of a weekend larp, including the Mad About the Boy book from the US run of the all-women game, the Kapo book on the prison larp, the Just a Little Lovin’ book about the Danish run of a larp about the summer AIDS came to New York City and the White War book about soldiers deployed to a culturally different locale (all free downloads).

And yet, for all this writing, for all the rulebooks, documentation books, and theory books, there is plenty of practical information that has not been written down. For example, you will not find instructions on how to run a Norwegian improvised ritual workshop or an Ars Amandi (technique for using arm-touching to represent emotional and physical intimacy) workshop in print.  There is not much written information on how to design short, tight one-shot larps; only incomplete lists of game mechanics exist; many larpwrights do not write down instructions for their games, rendering it difficult to know what has been tried; and there has been precious little written about some vital components of larp-organizing, such as dealing with problem players, how to be inclusive, and how to push scenes as an organizer to make them more satisfactory for everyone.

Some of these textual silences are simply the product of a tradition still in its infancy–folks haven’t gotten around to writing them down yet–and some of these silences are strategic.

The oral tradition has advantages.

Keeping certain information oral is a way of controlling access to the information. A few weeks ago I met an Australian game designer who liked to create intense, real-life narratives. She does not make scripts for her games, she told me, because they can produce powerful experiences for the players. She feels responsible for her creation and doesn’t feel comfortable putting it in just anyone’s hands. This means that if you want to run her games, you have to meet her, which gives her a chance to check you out and make sure you’re OK.

Oral traditions produce a chain of custody for certain types of knowledge. If I want to run a ritual workshop and benefit from the expertise of seasoned veterans, then I have to find a knowledgeable person and personally ask them for the knowledge. And they, in turn, can decide whether I am worthy and capable of both producing the workshop and respecting the tradition. It also means that I get the knowledge from the source on a personal level and can ask follow-ups and for advice. In contrast, when learning from a written document, one has only the text, which can be open to misinterpretation, and certainly can’t field your questions afterward.

Oral traditions control and confine the reach of a piece of knowledge, and this raises some interesting questions. In cultures that pride themselves on egalitarianism, is it moral or just that I as an individual get to decide what the masses can handle and what they can’t? If I create something mindblowing, should I drop that on an unsuspecting public or create a community that will view it in the right context? It probably depends on whether the technique in question is more like atomic energy–useful but hard to control and catastrophic in the right circumstances–or fire–a basic need that is relatively easy to control the bulk of the time.

Writing stuff down creates abstraction.

41NkedRSiWL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_In Eric Havelock’s The Muse Learns to Write, he talks about what happened when the Greeks moved from an oral culture to a written culture–one of the rare examples of a culture adopting writing naturally, rather than having it thrust upon them. You can see the process happen through Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. Socrates was not literate, Plato could write but wasn’t a literate native, and Aristotle grew up in a world with the technology of writing. Similarly, their theory goes from concrete to abstract. Socrates asks famous people questions about concepts that seem concrete but are actually complex and slipper, concepts like “justice.” His student Plato knows how to write but still uses oral formats–stories and dialogues–to get his philosophical points across. He develops a more abstract theory of forms–the idea that all apples are apples because they access the form of the ideal apple–the platonic form. Then you get to Plato’s student Aristotle, and suddenly we aren’t talking about forms, but about abstract concepts like being and matter.

Similarly, in larp, we’ve started out writing down rules systems and play experiences, which seem concrete to me. Now we’re in a great age of naming subtle things about the roleplay experience from bleed (the mixing of player and character emotions) to steering (being nice to that new kid by the punch table even though your characters have no reason to talk) and other theories. I’d say these are useful abstractions because they give larpers vocabulary to talk about game nuance. There is also a lot of academic theory about larp that is impenetrable to the layman. And obviously we didn’t have that until people started studying larp and writing about it.

Writing a tradition down changes it.

“Gather round, children, and listen to me tell the story of how I journeyed to the brink of Mount Doom to throw the one ring into the lava flow. It was back in ’73, and you have to understand that I was feeling a little peckish on my first day in the field…”

When a tradition is oral, you have to experience it in whatever way the teller chooses. Maybe that involves a long, rambling start that provides lots of contextual information. Maybe that involves learning about the simplest things first, and only then learning about the complex things, if the speaker thinks that best. Oral traditions can provide a lot of deep context.

When a tradition is written, the audience has control of how they experience the narratives. You think my blog post is boring, so you skimmed to the end. I open up the instructional book on writing larps, and I skip from how to craft a compelling adventure narrative past the psychological safety section, and straight to the part that tells me how to recreate the Stanford Prison Experiment. As a reader, I can skip around important contextual information and the beginner’s exercises.

Written traditions also let you bypass the informative, but often very dull step of trial and error; instead of trying seven ways to make a mechanic for violence work, I can stand on the shoulders of the giants who came before me. But this knowledge comes at the expense of a deeper contextual understanding of the work, and at the risk that I am simply blindly repeating what is known to work because it’s always been that way.

Writing down a tradition changes how the audience experiences it. I think the pan-Nordic scene is at an interesting place in its development, as the first wave of larpwrights tries to figure out how to transmit its deep knowledge to the next generation through such ventures as the larpwriter summer school. It’s coming up with pedagogical frameworks and a curriculum to teach the next generation how to do what it does, without having to suffer through 15-20 years of experimentation. And that requires codifying some of the concepts around larp design and putting that deep experiential knowledge into words, with all the consequences that entails.

 

* Disclaimer: Today I tread into the land of folklore studies, but I’m not a folklorist nor well-read in the field. I did bounce some ideas off of my father-in-law, who is a professor of an African oral tradition and who has taught folklore and told me about some of the common dilemmas, which appear in this post but chances are good that I’m not using language as precisely as a real folklorist would, and/or that I’m repeating ideas that are old-hat to folklorists. Your mileage may vary.

 

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Game Design: The Inside/Outside Story

Credit: Steve Mishos, creative commons, some rights reserved.

Credit: Steve Mishos. CC license, some rights reserved.

Whether I’m writing or designing a game, for me, to create is to look critically at my own work. Different ways of looking yield different effects in the finished product; when a thing looks good through many critical lenses, then I know it will hold up as a piece of art.

Last week, I talked about one such lens–the idea of premises. This week, I am going to talk about perhaps the most powerful tool in the writer’s arsenal: the inside-outside story.

I learned about the inside-outside story from writer and legendary writing teacher Pamela Painter, who said, in an interview with Superstition Review she picked up the concept from writer and teacher Ron Carlson. For writers and game designers of all stripes, I heartily recommend the book What If? by Pamela Painter and Anne Bernays. And I write this with some apologies to Painter, as my copy of her book is somewhere in storage, so I don’t have her words at my fingertips, just my memory of them.

What Are Inside and Outside Stories?

The inside story is the internal struggle that the characters undergo. The outside story is typically the plot or action that takes place.

Some examples:

  • Harry Potter Series. The inside story is about a young boy growing into himself and figuring out who he is. The outside story revolves around the trials and tribulations of battling Voldemort.
  • Pride and Prejudice. The inside story is about Lizzie Bennet overcoming her prejudiced nature. In the outside story she undergoes a series of romantic mishaps and falls in love with Mr. Darcy.
  • Anna Karenina. Has several inside stories to go with its several point of view characters. In Anna’s inside story she comes to terms with herself as a sexual being. In the outside story she has an extramarital affair and ruins the lives of herself and those around her.

You can use the concept of inside stories and outside stories to talk about many narratives–the inside story is the transformation of a character or characters, while the outside story constitutes the actions that happen.

The Relationship Between Inside Stories and Outside Stories

When making a story, the inside story and the outside story should be related. In the above examples you can note that it is through fighting Voldemort that Harry Potter discovers who he is. Lizzie Bennet is able to fall in love with Mr. Darcy only because she overcomes her prejudice. It is the extramarital affair that brings about both Anna Karenina’s sexual awakening and her suicide.

It is also possible to create a work in which the inside and outside stories correspond more closely, which creates an aesthetically satisfying thematic unity. Pamela Painter calls this an inside/outside story. For example, in Chip Cheek’s short short “Hickey,” the protagonist tortures herself by thinking about torturing the boy who has a crush on her. The inside/outside story is present in some of the most classical literature and short stories. For example, in the Odyssey, Odysseus’ search for self  (inside story) corresponds to his search for a way home (outside story).

How This Relates to Roleplaying Games

Oh boy. I see the concept of inside and outside stories every time I sit down to play a game. The concepts of inside and outside stories seem endemic to the format. As a player in a roleplaying game, my character necessarily has her own inside story, which happens inside my head. The outside story is what happens between me and other characters and the framework of the game.

As organizers and game designers it is possible to shape both a character’s inside story as well as the outside story of the experience, and I think it can provide a useful way of talking about game design.

As always, I’m more acquainted with larp and freeform games than tabletop, so while this may be more broadly applicable to roleplaying games, I can only speak from my own experience.Your mileage may vary.

The Inside Story and Gaming

One cool thing about inside stories is that every player in your larp will have one, so the inside story is very inclusive of participants. When some Nordic game designers wrote in the Dogma ’99 manifesto, “There shall be no main plot,” preferring instead plot for all characters, I feel they were effectively making an aesthetic move toward designing inside stories. Only five people can solve a given puzzle at a time, and only ten can go to the secret meeting, but 100 people can fall in love or betray each other, etc. during the course of a game.

The inside story represents a democratization of the larp plot. And with the emphasis on inclusion in Nordic larp and freeform, I think it is no accident that so many of these games turn inward.

This is not to say that traditional games don’t have an inside story–they absolutely do. But often, framing this inside story is left up to player choice. When I’m thrown into an indie game or story game, quite often it’s the game master who frames the situation and leaves it up to me to react. Of course the plot of the game influences my internal state, but it’s up to me to string those reactions together into a meaningful whole. Sometimes I’m able to, and sometimes it just feels like a picaresque–a string of experiences united not by theme, but because I’m the one doing them.

Controlling the Inside Story

It is possible to dictate inside stories to players and still leave them some choice. I am reminded of the game In Fair Verona by Jesper Bruun and Tue Beck Saarie, about life in the Little Italy ghetto in Manhattan in the 1920s. The core mechanic of this game was tango dancing–that is how the characters along this street expressed themselves, and the theme of the game was love.

During the workshop, we each received a character dilemma. Mine was something like, “always thinks she’s right and can be preachy.” Tue and Jesper told us that if we overcame this dilemma during the larp we would find love. If we did not overcome this dilemma, we would not find love. At the beginning of the game we were to take a dance with the person with whom we had a negative relationship, and this would catapult us into our character dilemma.

In practice, this was a very effective way of giving us each the same plot with different sensibilities. This story is something writers call a “last chance to change” story. Either our characters would take the last chance, or they wouldn’t. How we handled the dilemma was up to us, our dancing, and the conversations we had along the way.

It’s also possible to have a scenario in which players experience different inside stories around the same themes. The larp Play the Cards by Tyra Larsdatter Grasmo, Frida Sofie Jansen and Trine Lise Lindahl (with Katrin Førde) revolves around themes of status within a close-knit high school. Characters are assigned playing cards–each suit represents a different high school clique, and the value of the card represents a character’s standing in that clique. The head of each group can change the cards of its members at will, rendering the painful status jockeying of high school visible and transparent.

In Play the Cards, the pre-written characters are quite different, but the mechanics of the game support status play and the high school setting supports anxiety around that status play. That tight thematic focus creates strong inside stories, though the story of the clique queen who gets dethroned may be quite different from that of the low-status player who ends the game as the head of a clique.

There are many, many more ways to manage the inside stories of players.

The Outside Story and Gaming

In roleplaying, the outside story often takes the format of traditional plot. There is a dragon we must kill, a bomb to diffuse, a robbery to botch, and so on. This outside story is usually in the hands of the organizer or game master, though sometimes it is also in the hands of the game designer. It can provide adventure and entertainment.

While I like adventure and entertainment quite well for their own sakes, I’m really impressed by games that reach beyond toward thematic resonance and enlightenment.

A well-constructed outside story can enhance an inside story, or help the players form a coherent experience of their own. One way to create a resonant story is to work backwards. If I’m sending the players on a quest to kill a dragon, is there a way to help them experience a metaphorical quest for self as well? If this is a game about the era of McCarthyism, what kind of internal story might have resonance with the themes of inquisition and rooting out the non-conformists? What kind of mechanics or situations would really bring these themes out?

Inside/Outside Story

We can talk about inside stories and outside stories in gaming, but I also wanted to point out that there are some wonderful classic games that accomplish the challenge of lining up inside and outside stories.

One such game is Emily Care Boss’s The Remodel, which is about four women who have just had major midlife changes, such as marriage, losing a business shared with a friend, meeting a daughter put up for adoption 20 years ago, and divorce from an abuser. The woman who is recently divorced is remodeling her house, and the other characters in the game have pledged to help her. Game play switches between scenes in which these women remodel their lives and scenes in which they remodel that house, creating resonance between inside and outside stories. In my run, at least, this thematic unity created a powerful sense of kinship among the characters, and to a certain extent, the players, during the game. We were all accessing the same core story through our individual plot lines.

Another take on the inside/outside story duality comes from classic jeepform game Doubt by Tobias Wrigstad and Fredrik Axelzon. Doubt is about Tom and Julia, two actors in a relationship together. Presently, they are performing together in a play about a marriage on the rocks; they are playing Peter and Nicole on stage. During the course of the game, Tom and Julia will be tempted to cheat, revealing larger issues within their relationship. To make things more confusing, two players portray Tom and Julia, and two portray Peter and Nicole (as played by Tom and Julia on stage).

Doubt is a clever game because it functions like a mirror facing another mirror–the relationships reflect one another on numerous levels. On one level, we might consider the inside story to be Tom and Julia’s crumbling relationship, and the outside story to be Peter and Nicole’s crumbling relationship performed on stage, and those two are in unity. On another level, we might consider the inside story to be the internal doubt that the characters in both couples feel, which mirrors external doubts about their relationships. The relationships of Tom and Julia mirror those of Peter and Nicole. The doubt the characters feel mirror the problems inherent in the relationship.

So those are two methods of creating an inside/outside story with a roleplaying game. In The Remodel, the players all have the same inside story couched with different outside stories, and united thematically by the framing story in which they remodel a house. In Doubt, the inside story is given to two characters, and the outside story is given to two other characters (though on another level, all characters have the same inside story), and the game depends to a certain extent on the two sets of players watching each other to understand the mirroring. 

Making the external and internal struggles match each other creates powerfully resonant aesthetic experience.

The Place of Metatechniques

Metatechniques can be used as a portal between inside and outside stories to enhance play.

Metatechniques are ways of breaking the flow of narrative to heighten the drama. They are also a way of letting players communicate information about their characters to one another without letting their characters in on the drama.

For example, monologuing metatechniques allow a character to open a window into their internal thoughts. Different games have different ways of initiating monologues–sometimes the players control the tool and sometimes the organizers do.

Let’s say the character of Sally is at a dull dinner party and is asked to monologue and she says something like, “Those two look so happy with their children. It makes me feel inadequate because I’m not able to have children.” The players of this game all hear her, but presumably the characters themselves are unaware of Sally’s infertility. Now the other players have the opportunity to help Sally’s inside story along by repeatedly bringing up the topic of kids or referring to this in some other way. By necessity, the character of Sally will now have to deal with her fears, which forces her inside story to develop.

Another example is the metatechnique of bird-in-ear, used in some small freeform games. Bird-in-ear allows the game master or another player to whisper internal thoughts into a character’s head during a scene without stopping play. When I use this as a game master, I use it pretty much exclusively because I can see an inside story developing during a scene that the players might not be catching because they are busy being in scene. By underscoring that theme in their ears, one can help players develop this internal conflict.

Go Get ‘Em Tiger

I think the concept of inside stories and outside stories is useful for game designers and organizers who want to create thematic resonance in their games. And I think it’s an interesting lens for looking at stuff like plot, metatechniques, and mechanics. I’ve undoubtedly only scratched the surface of its applications here, so I invite you to come up with more uses and analysis. Feel free to post ideas in the comments.

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Game Design: Finding the Premise

Credit: Rishi Bandopadhay

Credit: Rishi Bandopadhay

For me, a good game is tight and lean. It’s tight in that it tells me a particular story and wants me to have a particular experience. It’s lean because there is nothing extraneous–all of the game mechanics, the workshop, etc.–aims at heightening that core experience. In other words, the game has a strong premise and does what it takes to realize that premise during play.

I realize, of course, that this is only one style of game, but it’s the kind that sings to me. Having a premise is not part of some unified theory of game design–but it can be extremely useful when designing a game.

Although I’m relatively new to game design–my second American freeform game is due out this year–I’ve edited a bunch, played a bunch, and I have longtime experience with other forms of narrative, such as short stories, novels, etc. What I haven’t done is read a bunch of game design theory, and I think it’s pretty likely that someone else has written about this before. I’m not meaning to crib anyone’s ideas, so feel free to post think pieces or other sources in the comments.

For me, the experience of designing a game goes hand in hand with finding a premise.

What’s a Premise?

Premise is a term I’ve borrowed from some of the theory around novel writing; it’s the core of your story. It is what your game is trying to get at. It is the universal human truth embedded in your story. A premise is what your game is about, and you should be able to state it in a sentence or two without referencing the setting or plot.

Strong premises are usually couched in universal terms–they are a way of describing how your game taps into the shared experience of being human. They are part of what makes your game accessible to a wide audience. I might not be able to relate to being a mutant with superpowers, but anyone can relate to themes of loneliness and isolation. In the words of my journalism prof Samuel Freedman, great art boils down experience to the periodic table of human emotion. Premises express which periodic elements you are striving for in a game.

Therefore, premises usually explain what your players will experience. If the premise of my game is “pride leads to downfall,” then as a game designer I need to find a way to generate those emotions in the players using the tools of structure, character descriptions, setting, and mechanics.

I think “premise” is a slippery concept, so I wanted to give some examples to help explain what I mean.

Examples of Premises

Novels:

  • The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway: The psychic wounds of war prevent healthy relationships.
  • Lord of the Rings by JRR Tolkein: (Male) Friendship conquers all.
  • The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath: Society gaslights intelligent women.
  • Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen: One must overcome one’s character flaws to find love.

TV Shows:

  • Xena: You can’t escape the sins of your past.
  • Law & Order: Crime doesn’t pay, but sometimes legal loopholes condemn or liberate the undeserving.
  • Buffy the Vampire Slayer: High school is hell.
  •  Star Trek: The Next Generation: Humanity and decency are universal values.

Games:

  • Fiasco by Jason Morningstar: Outsize ambition and poor impulse control lead to disaster.
  • Under My Skin by Emily Care Boss: New love alters old relationships forever.
  • Robin’s Friends by Anna Westerling: We must rise beyond petty conflicts to sustain meaningful friendship.
  • Let the World Burn by Petter Fallesen: Romantic passion can be a destructive force.

Some observations about the premises

Of course, the premise of a work will depend a bit on your point of view, and what you see as essential to the narrative–I can imagine disagreement with many of the premises above. But you get the idea of what a premise is.

You’ll also note that there are nearly infinite stories that could be told about each of the premises. Jason Morningstar’s Fiasco particularly proves this point. In Fiasco, players select a setting–it could be a film noir setting, a setting more like Fargo, an 80s wedding, or a rock band on tour, and then build their session within the constraints of the structure of the game. Though these different settings produce different individual sessions, the core of the game, that concept of exploring failure, remains a through-thread. The premise is robust, and it’s the individual trappings–the setting, plot, and characters–that make each instance of the game unique.

Premises help you get to universal human truths, and through setting and characterization, you make those truths particular and concrete.

How Does Premise Help Me Design a Game?

For me, the process of designing a game is the process of finding the premise–refining the premise also means which elements should be added to or pared from the narrative.

Let me explain with an example. About a year ago, I had the idea of making a game about an artists’ colony. In the US, artists’ colonies are retreats where artists go for a number of weeks to focus exclusively on their work, and often result–like many other closed institutional societies–in a social fishbowl. I wanted to replicate the colony experience in a few hours for some larpers, and maybe get people inspired to work on their own artistic projects.

My first draft of this game was heaving on the bells and whistles,  each mimicking a different aspect of the colony experience. The game had 7 identical periods! People were switching characters all the time! There was self-directed meditation! And people drew from stacks of cards to create characters.

Though the play storm went great, the first play test was a failure. I had reproduced the feeling of a colony with some success, but the game had no shape and often felt tedious to the players; I had a long way to go in concentrating the reality of colony life into an experience that would be interesting to play for a few hours. The game’s lack of focused premise was part of the problem–in larp, as in literature, it’s necessary to concentrate real life, and usually, to weed out the boring parts. I was generically reproducing colony life rather than working with one particular aspect or dynamic, which is probably all it’s possible to tackle in a four-hour game.

So I asked myself, “what interests me most about this setting?” as a way of zooming in on a premise. I decided that the most interesting part of the colony experience to me was the juxtaposition between working on intensely personal writing during the day, and then switching into cocktail-party mode at night. I suspected this juxtaposition had forged fast bonds between me and other colony artists.

And that became my premise: Switching between reliving a trauma and cocktail-party sociability bonds people.

With that in mind, I looked at my over-complicated game design and stripped away the mechanics that made no sense–the character-switching, for example, which mimicked the way people were entering and leaving the colony all the time, but didn’t support the core experience I wanted to produce.

The most recent play test of the stripped down and refined game, at Intercon in March, went much more smoothly, and I will publish the game, called In Residency, later this summer.

You can also use a premise to add elements to the game. If this is a game about uncertainty driving unpleasant choices, then I better find a way to make the characters feel that uncertainty, and I better give them some unpleasant choices to make.

All of which is to say that I rarely begin with a fully-formed premise–though some game designers might!–rather, through the process of designing I discover what my premise is, and that in turn tells me what to add, what to keep and what to cut from the game.

So for me, to find the premise is very much to design the game.

The Premise Should Be Accessible to All Players

Once you have identified the premise of your game, it’s important to ensure that all players can access that premise through their characters. If this game is about magic, and five of the six players get to use magic, the sixth one is going to feel cheated, left out, and pissed.

This does not mean that every player has to have the same experience. Premises are flexible, and it is possible to engage with them on many different levels. If the premise of the game is “absolute power corrupts absolutely,” I could give group A absolute power and let group B bear the consequences of the ensuing corruption. Both groups would be engaging with the premise through different angles. But what I wouldn’t want to do would be to make a group C off in the corner that wasn’t affected by the dynamic between A and B.

Sometimes, you can evoke the presence of something through its absence–and this is totally OK so long as you do it intentionally and not by accident, and it’s OK if it works for the narrative, and for the players who portray that character. For example, if this is a game about nine friends falling in love, and one is left out, that might be OK–perhaps that character ends up as a sounding board for the others, which heightens the theme for most of the players, and gives the unloveable character a longing for love that will never come. The absence of love then becomes a presence in the game that serves to mirror and reflect the core premise, adding an additional dimension to the overarching narrative.

Premises and Sandbox Design

I think premises work best when you’re going for a strongly narrative design, as opposed to a sandbox design. In a narrative design, the designer drives the arc of the story with the tools available, but in sandbox design, the designer gives the players the tools for fun, and lets them use those tools to create their own narrative.

As a player, I have a tough time with sandbox design* for two reasons–I end up with decision paralysis (should I do this? or this? what am I supposed to be doing? oh god! everyone is having fun and I’m left out because I’m doing it wrong), and because I like knowing where the arc of the story is going. In a sandbox game, you often have to create that narrative for yourself.

So in sandbox design, I think it is largely up to the players to create their own premises, while the designer decides what tools to place within the environment. So I’m not sure whether asking premise-based questions would help much with this sort of design.

Some Questions to Help You Focus Your Premise

What are the stakes?

How would you make me care about this game if I wasn’t interested in the setting? What’s the universal human story here?

What one element of this situation are you MOST interested in?

What elements of the game are working best? How can you focus the game on them more strongly? What sort of experience are those elements creating?

What do you want your players to be saying about your game after it’s over? What’s the take away?

Further Reading

If you’re interested in reading more about novelistic premises–and I think there is some ground worth plumbing here, you might check out Six Ways to Define the Premise of a Story, which details methods for inventing and describing premises. Per the comments, Lajos Egri’s The Art of Dramatic Writing also contains some wonderful stuff.

*This is not to say that sandbox design is not cool and wonderful and worth exploring, even for me, just that it’s not my favorite because I have a hard time making my own fun in game settings.

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How to Diversify Your Game, Larp, or Con

Credit: DryHundredFear

Credit: DryHundredFear

One of the most frequent questions I get from event organizers is: “My event is full of white dudes. How do I get more (people of color/women/TLGBT folks) to show up?

When I give my standard answer, the organizer in question often complains, “but that sounds like a lot of work.” And it’s true. There is no way around this, kids. It’s hard to change social structures, so fostering inclusivity in gaming is a lot of work.

As game designer and community organizer Mark Diaz Truman told me, “I think the hardest part for dominant groups to grapple with is the fact that homogenous groups tend to stay homogenous. If your core organizing team is white and male, then it’s likely your player base is white and male, and it’s likely to stay that way.” Other people have written more eloquently than I about how such systems perpetuate themselves, so I won’t look at that here.

Just remember: this is among the most meaningful work out there. And taking the first steps is often easier than you’d think. I’m drawing strategies in this post from several places, including:

  • My own experience as a woman being included (or not) and my experience as an organizer striving to be inclusive.
  • Informal chats with the folks over at Gaming as Other (Mark Diaz Truman, Ajit George, Whitney Beltrán) on Indie+
  • Informal chats with feminists, gamers of color and queer activists interested in gaming and related fandoms in Sweden, Denmark, Norway and within the US indie scene.
  • Listening to Mattie Brice lecture on this very topic at Different Games, a gaming conference in Brooklyn dedicated to inclusivity in all sorts of games.

The Big Picture

In the long run, diversifying your event has two basic parts: getting people from diverse groups to show up once to check you out, and then retaining them as community members.

Inclusion is sometimes explained as a chicken-or-the-egg kind of issue. Having women present at your event broadcasts to other women that the space is safe/comfortable/interesting for them, and can get you more women participants–in other words, the best way to have more women is to already have more women. This can leave organizers feeling hopeless.

I prefer to think of it as a snowball model. It might take some time to find those first people of color participants and to make them feel welcome, but the math works exponentially. It might take years to go from zero to two, but then once you establish yourself as an inclusive space, it’s easier to go from two to five and it takes less time.

Acquiring a Diverse Community

Some tips on how to get people from marginalized groups to show up to your event at least once.

Invite Them

I cannot emphasize this enough. If you want queer people/people of color/women to show up to your events, you have to invite them. In general, the more personal the invitation, the better.

Initially, I had trouble getting players for the all-women larp Mad About the Boy. Many women I knew didn’t feel comfortable volunteering themselves for the game–even larpers with 15 years of experience were worried about ruining the game for other players. All it took was emailing or speaking with individual women and saying, “I’d love to have you at this event, I think you’d do a wonderful job, and I’d value your presence there.” This generated around a third of the player base.

There are other ways to invite people. You can also put the word out on the street that a particular group is very welcome to the event. Make it a public statement if you like.  Partner with diverse groups if you can–for example, if you’re interested in being more inclusive toward queer people, you might consider partnering with a local advocacy group, or promoting your events to them.

Why This Works

Aside from the obvious–people can’t show up to events they don’t know about, invitations telegraph a bunch of motives on behalf of the organizers.

Issuing a statement that you are committed to diversity, working with an advocacy group, putting the word out on the street–regardless of whether they bring in participants—these strategies telegraph that this space is striving to be a safe space. That makes it more welcoming.

I also think of invitations in terms of taking social space. Folks from dominant view points–white, straight, male, or cis–are used to taking up social space and holding the floor, volunteering themselves for leadership roles, etc. Our culture expects it. Women, for example, often get socially punished for the same attitudes on many levels.

The reason individual emails worked to get more players for Mad About the Boy was that instead of forcing these wonderful people to take space, I offered it to them. An invitation is, at core, an offering of space. It reassures people that their presence is not merely tolerated, but actively desired.

Personal invitations through email or coffees, etc. work best because at the same time, no one wants to be invited simply because they fit some sociopolitical category, but because their special personal qualities have been recognized. I don’t want, for example, Avonelle to come to my events because she is a woman–I want here there because she has a wonderful sense of how to include other people, is a committed roleplayer who will prep her character well, and because I like her.

Make It Cheap (Offer stipends and scholarships)

Larps, gaming conventions, and academic conferences can cost a pretty penny between travel, lodging, and event admission. Offering funds can make a huge difference in getting people from marginalized groups to attend your event for several reasons. For starters, if I’m not confident I’ll have fun at your larp, I may be more reluctant to invest my money in showing up once–remove that burden and I’ll be willing to try it and see if I like it.

Secondly, in the US at least, there’s some convergence between issues of race and class thanks, in part, to issues of structural inequality (pay disparities, etc). Relieving some of the financial burden on participants is a corrective measure.

Thirdly, as game critic, designer and activist Mattie Brice pointed out in her talk at Different Games, there is a disproportionate burden on prominent folks from marginalized groups. Let’s say there are five women of color who are prominent in the video game design community. Those women will be asked to speak a lot by various communities. Such speaking gigs can be fun and good for one’s career, of course, but travel and lodging are also expensive and can quickly deplete a tight budget.

Part of the solution, of course, to try to work so that instead of five prominent women of color there are 5,000, but in the meantime, if you want one of the five prominent trans game designers to attend or speak at your event, offering them room and board, or at least free admission to the event helps.

Have a Written Policy That You Don’t Tolerate Racist/Sexist/Ableist/Homophobic Crap

Such a policy communicates to your potential audience that you care about their well-being, and that you are striving to make a community that functions better than the rest of the world we live in. The question about “safe space” is always “safe for whom?” If you want to make it safe for people of color, then you want to make it an unsafe space for racists.

If you want people to come back to your events again and again, it has to be more than simply a policy, though. There should be a mechanism detailing what happens if someone breaks the rules, and you should follow it if something unfortunate happens.

Maintaining a Diverse Community

The second half of building a diverse community is, of course, retaining all the wonderful people you’ve persuaded to show up to your events.

Work to Build a Diverse Organizing Committee

It’s not enough to have a diverse participant base. That diversity should be reflected at every stage of the organizational structure. Basically, we all have subconscious biases, and it’s easy to prefer people who are similar to oneself without thinking about it, which is part of why, for example, the white dude culture of brogrammers in Silicon Valley tends to perpetuate itself. If you want to include people from marginalized groups, then you’ll want their input at an organizational level.

Having women on your organizing staff can make someone like me look at your game and say, “this is a community that seems like it values the input of women.” That might make me more likely to show up. It also gives me options of who to talk to if someone does something creepy to me at your event. I might feel more comfortable talking to a lady (or maybe not! It depends!).

Having a diverse set of life experience on your game designing committee also increases the breadth of life experience you have to draw on when creating the next episode of that awesome campaign larp. It means you have a better chance of catching that veiled racist comment on page 8 of the game book. It means an expanded network that likely includes more lesbians than you’ve met in your life, and someone with skin in the game who will invite them to your event. It means a richer experience for your players, and a more eye opening experience for your organizing committee.

That said, the rainbow utopia doesn’t just imagine itself into existence like the Greek goddess Gaia. It’s easy to agree when everyone shares the same viewpoint, so introducing diversity to your organizing committee can mean revising what it means to lead. As game designer and community organizer Mark Diaz Truman put it, “Of course, this brings up conflicts, right? When you welcome POC [people of color], women, queer organizers, they are going to disagree with you! So there has to be a real commitment to that inclusion at the highest level and real relationships built with in-person or video chat meetings that create a holding environment for the conflict that’s going to come.”

In other words: work hard to strengthen personal relationships, and work hard at developing constructive ways to manage conflict among the team.

Mentoring

Related is the idea of mentoring and grooming people to move up the ranks. No one walks in off the street and says they’re ready to run a larp or write their own freeform scenario. There are many intermediate steps–running small parts of an event first, for example, offering ways to get experience guided by a more masterful hand–co-GMing and co-writing opportunities, for example, or introductory lectures on how to get the basics down.

Invitation is also a powerful tool. Simply saying the words, “I think you’d be great at game mastering/writing/organizing” to someone from a marginalized group can be absolutely magical. Again–this has to do with offering space to people, rather than fostering a culture in which they are expected to take it.

Think Critically About Your Game/Event Design

If you’re casting all the women of color as barbarian princesses, that’s a problem. If you’re only asking women to speak about romance in gaming, that’s a problem. If all relationships in your game are heteronormative relationships and the game is not, itself, about heteronormativity, that’s a problem.

Designing against various -ism tropes (racism, sexism, ableism, etc.) is a way bigger topic than I can cover here. But if you’re interested in a few strategies for avoiding racism in game design, I have a post.

Make All New People Welcome/Foster Social Inclusivity

It’s pretty obvious, but bears repeating: if you’re nice to people, they’ll be more likely to come back. This goes for any new participant. Introduce them around, make them feel comfortable, explain the basics about the event to situate them, and be socially inclusive.

Social Inclusivity

One thing I’ve seen work at a variety of cons is a set of informal or explicit social rules. These include things like standing in a horseshoe shape instead of a circle, or always having an open chair in a group that is sitting, to indicate that new people are welcome to join; written rules barring certain oppressive language; rules about always letting a speaker complete their thought before jumping in with a new anecdote, etc.

Structural Inclusivity

If you’re running a big event,  consider having a lounge for people from marginalized groups where they can go to take a break if they’re being harassed. I realize this sounds like “separate but equal” to a lot of people, but I’ve heard lots of positive feedback about rooms like these used at conventions. Likewise, having a quiet room for overstimulated introverts–or anyone else who needs to get away from the lights and constant background noise, can also be nice.

Think about access for all of your participants. Something as simple as putting an “all gender” bathroom sign on one of the loos can go a long way toward including people from every point along the gender spectrum. Structural inclusivity also includes things like wheelchair ramps.

According to Elsa Sjunneson-Henry‘s talk about accessibility in larp at Living Games, if you have players who are disabled in a way that might be relevant to your event, ask them what you can do to increase their comfort and how they’d like you to handle things. Sometimes, people don’t want to disclose their disability to a large group, and so obviously don’t do that. On the other hand, it can make sense for a player who is, say, sight impaired and easily startled by people coming up behind them, to choose to tell the group to not do that thing. Don’t assume–ask.

 

Have additional strategies for inclusion? Post them in the comments.

 

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Three Ways to Organize a One-Shot Larp

 

Someday, I want to write and run a three-day, one-shot larp. You know, the sort of thing with 30-60 pre-written characters, a workshop, a debrief, and a venue that looks just like the game world is supposed to look (360º illusion). A larp that happens in real time, and either offers breathtaking adventure, or makes the participants cry so hard that we can collect their tears in vats to be distilled for later cocktails. (The GM Martini: one part gin, three parts distilled players’ tears, stir to combine with dry ice, drink out of a goblet made from a unicorn’s tusk.)

If only I had a specific idea for a larp. While I wait around for inspiration to strike, I decided to do some legwork figuring out how an individual or group goes about organizing such a thing.

Such large-scale larps require more than one person, or two, or even three at the helm–and as the number of organizers goes up, the way they interact with one another becomes increasingly important.

As I polled organizers in the US and Nordica via social media, it became apparent that the folks I know have developed three core ways of larp organization. (Are there more ways to do it? I’m sure there are.)

 

Hierarchical Model

 

Many US campaign larps use this model. Essentially, there’s a single main organizer steering the ship, who is at the top of a pyramid of different committees. It’s a model where one person functions as the decider, and it’s the job of the committees–plot committee, character committee, etc. to do much of the creative work on their own, and the job of the lead organizer to shape those processes, and make sure everything is consistent.

I see no reason why you couldn’t use this model to create a one-shot larp as well.

Advantages: The buck very clearly stops with the lead organizer–there is one person shepherding the process and that provides some consistency. Personal responsibility is clearly delineated, and there is a clear mechanism for breaking ties. If Billy wants it one way and Sharon wants it the other way, the lead organizer decides.

Disadvantages: Can create a power structure that is overly complicated. Is susceptible to lead organizers who try to be dictators. May mean that staff members don’t feel creatively invested in the final product leading to volunteer attrition. Can also be hard to manage upward, reigning in the truly unreasonable ideas of the higher ups–it’s possible the lead organizer’s ideas won’t be challenged and examined as they should be. Also means that there is only one person of whom the highest level of logistical and creative burden is asked–it’s possible for the lead organizer to get overwhelmed.

 

Large Committee Model

 

Louise has a great idea so she invites about five or six people to join her in creating a larp. These five or six people agree that they are all equal in stature when it comes to the project, and they create the setting and characters collaboratively.

Closer to the running of the event, individuals take on particular responsibilities in terms of logistics, writing, publicity, etc. The team recruits other volunteers as needed close to the larp — for example, a team of people to run the kitchen, a group to build the fort on the hill, etc.

Advantages: Everyone has been in on the larp from the beginning, so there is creative investment on the part of the organizing team. Everyone gets some creative satisfaction from the work. The creative process is full of collaboration, which means ideas are improved by group challenging.

Disadvantages: If your organizing team has six people on it and does almost everything together, scheduling becomes complicated–it’s harder to find a time for six people to coordinate to meet. Also, when everyone is responsible, in some ways, no one person is responsible–maybe the team is so inclusive that the artistic vision gets a bit muddled (yes! We can have spaceships AND dragons!). Occasionally stuff falls through the cracks, or the un-fun stuff endemic to planning any event falls on one person’s shoulders, fostering resentment.

 

Pigs & Chickens Model

 

I’m familiar with the concepts of pigs and chickens from the Norwegian larpers I know. The concept comes from an old joke about a pig and a chicken starting a bed and breakfast together. The pig asks the chicken, “what shall we serve for breakfast?” and the chicken says, “eggs and bacon.” The pig isn’t as cool with that, because it means he has to sacrifice, while the chicken only has to give what is convenient.

The pigs and chickens model combines the structure of the hierarchical model with the team spirit of the committee model.

In larp organizing, a “pig” is a person who will do whatever it takes and pick up whatever falls through the cracks in order to get it done. The “chicken” is someone who is given a discrete job to complete, but is not expected to offer more beyond that.

On this model, you usually have two to three pigs doing most of the heavy lifting and two to ten chickens who have their own jobs. For example, the three pigs come up with a direction for the larp, and then one of them takes on the job of meeting with the two chickens who will do most of the character writing. The chickens still get to be creatively invested, but the pigs steer the ship collaboratively and make sure that there is food at dinner time.

As the larp approaches, the pigs divide different responsibilities among themselves, and coordinate different sets of chickens.

Advantages: Lean organizational structure makes it easier to change directions and meet up regularly. Having more than one person collaborating on the pig committee means that ideas are challenged and reigned in, but that artistic vision is still coherent and narrow. Also means that chickens can be creatively involved while not having the larp take over their lives for ten months. One or more pigs meets periodically with different sets of chickens. If the three pigs meet with the two logistic chickens, that’s a few meetings of five people, rather than a jillion meetings with five or ten.

Disadvantages: Um…if the pigs can’t agree, that’s a problem? I suppose there is also the risk that some of the chickens might not feel as creatively engaged as they would on say, the large committee model. Update per the comments: Sometimes the chickens think they are pigs and deserve more say in a project than their participation warrants. Essentially, this is a problem with expectation-setting about involvement, and it can lead to hard feelings.

Other Considerations

Aside from the organizational structure, when planning a larp there are a few other things to keep in mind.

Whether to Separate Logistics and Artistics

It may seem convenient to separate the team responsible for logistics from the people doing, say, character creation. But this can lead to problems down the road when the people writing the plot decide that the game won’t work without two tons of gravel, without knowing that this is impossible given the site and budget of the game.

Also, when folks working logistics are included in the vision meetings, the set and scenography and other logistics may end up supporting the vision of the game that much more. For example, in The White War, a Danish larp about an imaginary version of the Iraq war that focused on the interactions between soldiers and locals, the organizing team decided that the soldiers would hand out all the food, transforming mealtimes into a cornerstone of game play between the two groups, according to organizer Søren Lyng Ebbehøj. That might not have happened if the logistics team hadn’t been a part of the creative process.

Similarly, logistics are incredibly important to making a game run. If the bathrooms don’t work, the food is nonexistent, and everyone is cold during the whole larp, the game will not be a success (unless cold, hungry irate players is what you’re going for). Attending to these details isn’t sexy, but it’s way necessary to literally everything else that happens during the game. Love your logistics people and give them the opportunity to be creative.

On the other hand…it can be more efficient, time-wise, to separate the groups. But you will need to have at least one person to be the bridge between the two.

How to Pick Your Team

Whatever you do, you want to start out by getting your team on the same page. As Norwegian designer Magnar Grønvik Müller put it, “My experience is that with any volunteer project, if the organizers don’t agree on the vision, goals and audience, you’re off for a bumpy ride. Start defining those, and look at them when disputes arise.”

It’s important to have some balance on your team–pick people with a diversity of strengths and working styles. And don’t forget that organizing a game is supposed to be fun. Here’s how Norwegian designer Eirik Fatland put it:

 It’s a creative collaboration. Who would you write a novel with? Who would you trust to design the covers? In whoose company would you prefer to be when you die?  

There are also intra-person dynamics to consider. Balance perfectionists with “just get it done already!” folks. Introverts and extraverts. Make sure you have at least one collaborator who smiles a lot. Remember to feed people. Talk about ideas and vision until everyone is capable of generating new ideas that fit into the whole and are readily accepted by the group. 

It’s volunteer work. Accept fluff, and factor in off-topic chatting as a natural part of planning meetings. If people aren’t having a good time working on the larp, it’s not gonna work out. Check with your co-organizers before you recruit someone new.”

Finnish designer Juhana Pettersson suggests that your best friends are not necessarily the best people to team with.

“As a very practical note, when thinking about who should be in the team, I recommend a thoroughly unsentimental approach. People who believe in the vision, do their jobs, are efficient and get along well. Recruiting friends and other larp buddies for social reasons means more pointless work later in the process.”

Swedish designer Anna Westerling suggests being bold and asking the people you want to work with:

I hade waited for the longest for an organizing crew to fall in my lap and it just didn’t. So I started thinking, and listing (my university notes are full of these lists), who I wanted to work with and what I wanted them todo. Then I took them out for coffee and asked them, and most people said yes. That is how I got to know Anders Hultman. I wanted the greatest person I know of to do economy, and he was that. Then he turned out to do very much more in the project, but I didn’t know that at the time. My point is, don’t be shy. Ask the ones you want. Have coffee. I can also confess that when I begun I had another organization plan that didn’t really work out later, but then we just updated it. So you might not get it right in your plans, but make sure to have plans. “

Some Roles You’ll Want to Fill

Danish designer Søren Lyng Ebbehøj's five-point star model of larp design, written on a cocktail napkin. The points are game design, vision, fiction, PR, and logistics/production. Note that they are all connected to each other.

Danish designer Søren Lyng Ebbehøj’s five-point star model of larp design, written on a cocktail napkin. The points are game design, vision, fiction, PR, and logistics/production. Note that they are all connected to each other.

Whether you outsource some of these responsibilities to one person, or spread the responsibilities across several, here are some things that will need doing. I’m pretty sure that this list is nowhere close to complete, but it also depends on how you divvy up the stuff needed during a larp, and of course, on how grand scale your larp is.

A larp on a grand scale will need lots of people doing logistics, scenography, etc. A small game might only require one or two people handling these tasks. A lot depends, of course, on how you have designed your game.

Eirik Fatland puts it like this:

The bottom line, I guess, is: there is no pattern. Each time has been different, and each larp concept has presented different skill needs. Five roles always need to be covered, though: Treasurer, Designer/Writer, Producer, PR, and Communications/Correspondence. For small larps, they can all be one person. The big question is more about how much capacity (time) you need. If people are unemployed artists, you need fewer. If they are juggling work, family and larp, you need more.Once you write individual characters, you need lots of creative capactiy. If your vision is heavy on aesthetics, production and scenography blend. I was about to write that no more than three people should have a final say on concept, but then I remembered that at Moirai and the Blinded Eye we were 6 and that was OK, but it still is a good thumbnail rule.”

Producer/Logsitics

Oversees all practical aspects of the production, from budget and venue to insurance, food and props. Someone who can juggle a lot of balls in the air at the same time.

As Finnish designer Juhana Pettersson put it, “A good logistics person is magic, and can make the difference between a good game and a KP mistakes presentation [a public presentation of the mistakes you've made as a larp organizer].”

Budget/Legal

If it’s a big production, you’ll want someone to keep the books. In addition, you might want someone dedicated to getting grant money or fixing the insurance. Someone competent you can really rely on in a pinch.

Set and Scenography

Do you know people who like building stuff or who know how to sew the costumes you’ve promised participants? I hope so. Depending on how much set and scenography you’ve got going, you might need several people, or one foreman and a crew of builders, as it were, to get the larp set up. Does the game involve technology? You might need people to rig lights, run the fake Facebook, etc.

This person will need to interface with the producer about stuff like venue.

Kitchen God/Other Logistics

Whether you’re planning to feed your participants, or providing somewhere for them to cook their own food, if this is a several-day venture, you’ll need someone to manage the kitchen, make sure it’s clean, and that dinner, if any, is prepped on time.

Are the sleeping spaces OK? Do people need wood for the fireplaces in these cold tiny cabins? Are there extra blankets somewhere so no one freezes? Is there toilet paper in the bathrooms? Do you need latrines shipped in?

Game Design

This encompasses a lot, but depending on the game, you might need people to form the game world, write characters, design the mechanics of the game, whether that means skill lists or metatechniques, think about how the space is designed to promote game interaction, forge the workshops, etc.

You might need a designer who is separate from the people writing character sheets, for example.

Communications

One or more people should be responsible for getting the website up and running, writing copy for it, and communicating regularly with participants. This can also include being responsible for overseeing the people who will document the larp, if you have them.

The Human Touch

Does someone need to be sitting in the off-game room in case a player needs to talk? If it’s a complex game, it can be wise to make one person responsible for ensuring that everyone else eats at least one meal and sleeps at least two hours per night.

Some Configurations That Have Worked for Nordic Organizers

  • Halat Hisar (2014): 7 person core team with no leader. That team took charge of writing, funding, production, planning, and design. Near to the larp they recruited a kitchen team, interrogation team, documentation team, and logistics captain. 2 days.
  • Just a Little Lovin’  (2011): 5 pigs (including two writers) and ? chickens. 60 players over 5 days.
  • Kapo (2011)7 organizers + staff. 180 players over 48 hours.
  • Mad About the Boy (2010): 3 pigs and ? chickens. 30 players over 3 days.
  • Skymningsland. 3 main organizers + production team of 12 + 5 people doing character creation coaching for players. 189 players over 4 days.
  • The Mutiny (2004) 2*Directors getting their ass saved by Bjarke Pedersen
  • PanoptiCorp (2003): Producer + 6 uncertainly defined piggish organizers
  • Europa (2001) Director + Producer + Scenographer + 2 * General Crew + Prequel Producer + Treasurer. 4 days.
  • Den Lille Kyrthanilaiven (2000) 3 creative pigs and an autonomous production chicken crew of 4
  • Kybergenesis (1997): Director + Producer + 5 Writers + 5 IT + 2 Others
  • Moirais Vev (1997) and Blinded Eye (1997): 6 Equal Pigs with one as First Amongst Equals. 4 days.
  • (Got more configurations from more different larps? I’d love to know about them.)

Further Reading

Kåre Murmann Kjær, “Design for Work Minimization” and Anna Westerling, “Producing a Nice Evening,” both from Playground Worlds, Solmukohta 2008. (Free download!)

Angles I missed? Got different ideas for organizing a game like this? Know of other organizing combos that worked? More articles suitable for further reading? Leave them in the comments.

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How to Become a Better Larper

 

Larping is a skill, just like public speaking, writing, or painting. Practice makes better. So does self-awareness and concerted focus on improving your skills.

I do think we all inherently recognize good players when we encounter them. Of course, there are many types of “good” player, just as there are many sorts of great painter. Is Artemisia Gentileschi or Caravaggio a better artist? It all depends on your preferences and perspective. And in the case of players, at least, it also depends on whether we’re talking about an intimate freeform game for five, or a large costume drama of three days.

There’s no one recipe for what makes a better larper, but my hope is that through discussing some different skill sets, I, and perhaps you, dear reader, can think about how to become better players.

I have the benefit of having a large and diverse group of international larpers on speed dial…er…social media, and I plumbed the depths of their expertise in assembling this post.

Social Skills

Larp is a social activity, so you better have at least a little savvy, kiddo. Nothing too complicated here, but getting the basics down at least helps contribute to a positive atmosphere in your game group. Happy, functional communities make better larps.

  • Introduce yourself to other players. Be friendly and inclusive, especially toward new people. If you’re new, introduce yourself around as much as you can stand. It’s easier to larp with people you’re comfortable with. If you’re part of an established group, try to give the noob some good play during game as well.
  • Basic hygiene. Sounds silly, I know, but bathing regularly and brushing your teeth means you won’t have crazy BO or halitosis, which is good. Especially if you might be standing close to someone.
  • Confidence. Confidence is attractive, and it’s the sort of thing that allows you to take risks in play. If you don’t have it, fake it till you make it. If you notice someone else without it, think about what you can do to help build them up.
  • Don’t be an asshole. This means caring about other people’s feelings and not breaking the game. At its further reaches, it means being a good social steward for the community–helping out the organizers on occasion, talking with someone who needs to talk after a game, and generally being a caring and kind person.
  • Don’t hog the spotlight. Be aware of how much social space you take up out of the game. Sometimes, this can mean simply shutting your mouth until you are asked a question. Larps are better when all players feel valued, and it’s hard for this to happen if one or a small group of people are always in the social limelight.
  • Sharpen your social antennae. Make a point of noticing who is getting a lot of play and who is left out. Try to see your fellow players–and their characters–for who they are, which is the first step to helping include others, according to Norwegian designer Ole Peder Giæver.
  • “Ask permission. Don’t make assumptions. Unsure if something is ok? Ask first.” This reminder brought to us by John Stavropoulos, a US designer and larper. Be sensitive to others’ social and physical boundaries so that you do not cross them during play. When in doubt, take a break and talk it out. As he added, “If someone is being a jerk, talk to them, be friendly but direct, make sure it isn’t simply a misunderstanding. If they are still being a jerk, stop them or talk to someone who can stop them.”
  • Create off-game trust. Several people mentioned that it’s easier to play with people one trusts out of game. So get to know your co-players out of game over the course of one or more sessions.
  • Talk to people afterwards. Debrief with the group, particularly people you’ve had intense scenes with. Make sure people are OK. Be caring. This works to bond the group and help you go deeper on later jaunts, and it can help folks who are having post-larp feelings deal with those emotions.

Acting Skills

In larp, we act as if we are other people. So it makes sense that having some acting chops helps. In particular, it may help other players suspend their disbelief and really immerse into the world of the larp.

The Basics

Take direction well by listening to the organizers. They’ll tell you a ton of stuff that you need to know and if you actually take that in, the larp will be better for everyone. Read the handouts. I cannot stress this enough.

  • Know the setting and play style. You know how Bill Murray acts totally differently in What About Bob? and Lost in Translation? If this is a realist drama, save your slapstick routine for another game.
  • Invest in the setting. Take it seriously. If you’re breaking into talk dinner during the middle of a tense relationships scene, you’re probably screwing up other people’s games.
  • Think a bit about your character arc. A good arc has a beginning, middle and end. Is your character’s story about a last chance to change? Or is there some more pressing external dilemma? Sometimes the game itself will impose this arc on you, but often it’s up to you as a player to create one. I find that sometimes I need to play a bit in order to understand what my character arc is about–but I also find that stepping out of game mentally from time to time to think about where my character might be headed increases my enjoyment–and my acting skills immensely.
  • Take direction. In some games, the organizer will push you in one direction or another for the good of the game. Sometimes other players try to tell you stuff subliminally through scenes–gear your sensors to try to pick up on that.
  • Ask other players to support youFinnish designer and larper Juhana Pettersson wrote that over time, he’s learned a lot about how to be a better player. “One example is asking other players to support aspects of my character I can’t realize by myself. I did maybe 20 years of roleplaying and larp before I learned how to do that properly.” If you want people to bully you, step out of game and ask them to do so, or better yet, say so during the workshop.

Advanced Acting

  • Be shameless. Finnish larper and academic Jaakko Stenros wrote it best. “Shamelessness is pretty awesome. People who trust the role-play agreement, that one should not make assumptions about the player based on the character and vice versa. Doing things, also terrible, shameful, silly, idiotic things, without winking or irony. Throwing yourself at the larp. That kind of openness breeds trust and intense play. (And no, not shameful to others, but shameful to self. Think Philip Seymour Hoffman.)”
  • Be self-aware about your physicality, and voice. Canadian performer and larper Johanna MacDonald put it thusly: “[A great larper is] self-aware enough to be able to control their voice and body (some acting basics here make for great characters; in my experience people who are good actors simply have more versatility in this because it’s a skill to know what you look and sound like).” There are a ton of acting exercises out there that teach you how to use your body and voice. Books too! So get reading, or take a class.
  • Be self-aware of your emotions, particularly if you are playing near the edge. MacDonald again: “[A great larper is] self-aware enough to be able to play with their own emotions, and if they like to play near their limits, [is] courteous about safety.” This also means being responsible for your own well-being in scenes and calling for a cut if needed.
  • Know your strengths and weaknesses as an actor, and challenge them sometimes. If you are truly terrible at accents, maybe don’t play a role that demands an accent. At the same time, I think that most long-time larpers find that they play the same role over and over again. Try to be aware of this and stretch yourself to try new things.
  • Get a feedback group. Danish larper Søren Lyng Ebbehøj tells me he has a group of buddies who have vowed to give each other friendly, loving feedback on how to improve their larp performances.

Steering Skills

Steering is when you make your character do something for out of game reasons, justified to fit whatever’s happening diegetically (in-game). For example, if I see you looking lonely in the corner, and even though you’re a commoner and I’m the King, I find a nominally in-game reason to go over there and talk to you. “Peasant. You look like a trustworthy woman. I could use one of those on my staff…”

In larp, we all steer all the time. So it makes sense to try and get better at it. The art of steering can be subtle, though; still, I have a few suggestions.

  • Try to figure out what sort of steering is appropriate to the game. This requires having a sense of the game as a whole and the place of your character within it. If this is a murder mystery, emphasis on the mystery, I might not want to steer the game towards a political struggle aimed at taking down the police, because that probably doesn’t serve the larp’s vision, though it might be really fun for me.
  • Do some social engineering to ensure everyone gets play. This tip comes from Danish larper and designer Søren Lyng Ebbehøj, who talked to me about what he does when he’s part of a group that has in-game authority, for example, in a feudal setting. They try to set up channels for people to see the patriarch–for example, they make a rule among their group that the patriarch can only make a decision if there’s another member of the family present, or that anyone can approach the King so long as they talk to the steward first. This tactical approach can help share the spotlight around, preventing one person from getting all the good play. Though I plunked this in the steering section, I think this really falls more under social engineering, since it revolves around thinking about social dynamics before the game starts and coming in with a plan.
  • Share secrets and plot points your group may have access to. Keeping secrets–while practical in real life–is the sort of thing that cripples a larp, as it can create a dinner party where no one says that they are a vampire. Letting secrets into the wild can make other people’s games. It can also set up great scenes for you and others later on, as failure is often more interesting to play than success. When the vampire lord finds out you betrayed him at the big banquet, how awesome is that going to be to play on? Find in-game reasons–character flaws, etc. to let the dogs out.
  • Give people what they needSwedish larper Karin Edman has a great technique for inclusive play. She talks to other players out of game to try to understand what they need during game, and then tries to help deliver on that. However, explicit interviews are not the only way to go. As she told me, “I prefer snooping around and then surprise them [other players] by giving them something they crave.”

Improv Skills

Plays have scripts; larps don’t. This means players are often called to make up stuff on the fly. So improving your improv skills can help make you shine.

Basic Skills

  • Don’t block/Yes and. Accept the suggestions others are offering. If I say, “It’s raining,” and you say, “no it’s not,” it’s hard to know where the scene can go from there. In larp, we build a shared reality together, and part of sharing is valuing the contributions of others. When possible, say “Yes and–“. “It’s raining today.” “Yes, and it makes me feel unusually melancholy…” is a much better start to a scene. Note that you can also say “No” without blocking. “Remember that time we killed a guy?” “No, I was too far gone on quaaludes…” accepts the core suggestion–that we once killed a guy together, while adding a new element to the narrative–we were on drugs. Try to accept other people’s ideas and build on them.If you do feel you have to block a suggestion–it strongly conflicts with your character, you’re really not into that plotline, etc., it’s best to do that in as interesting a way as possible. In extreme cases, you might just have to pop out of character and say, “Sorry X, I’m really just not up for playing on that today.”
  • Be obvious. You don’t need to make up complicated plots and back stories in order for your character to be interesting. In fact, it’s often the opposite–being mundane can fit really well with a realistic setting, and it can be a refreshing change in a fantastical setting. When in doubt, go with the obvious choice. Obvious suggestions are easy to accept and build upon.
  • Think narratively. For me, in a game, I’m trying to think about what would make a fitting arc that’s not too on the nose–not just for me, but for other characters too. It’s possible to push this a bit as a suggestion for other players to latch on to…or not. For example, it can be interesting to make the ladies’ man character experience the one who got away, etc., etc. Losing and failing are generally really, really interesting.
  • Don’t make something new if you can use what happened before. US larper John Stavropoulos suggests that it’s better to try to tie things into one another when possible. If you can, use the narrative building blocks that are already there to get what you want out of the game.
  • Go with the flow. Sense the energy of the group and try to fit in with that. Relax. This roleplaying isn’t so hard, is it?
  • Sense the spotlight. Sometimes the scene isn’t about your character, but about someone else’s. When it’s your turn to be a supporting player, do it cheerfully. As Stavropoulos put it, “Spotlight is like a team sport… spotlight is the ball, seize it, pass it, keep it moving.”

Advanced Improv-ing

Yeah, there have been a few books written about this, and you should probably read them. But in the meantime, here are a few ideas.

  • Bring your own picnic basket. Danish larper Søren Lyng Ebbehøj used this phrase to mean, essentially, “come prepared to make your own fun.” Put a couple ideas for character development in your back pocket, in case the game falls apart. You might make some agreements with other folks ahead of time or during the game to pursue plotlines of your own making. In other words: come prepared to improvise.
  • If you think something sucks, figure out how to make it awesome. Stavropoulos suggested this one. Essentially, if the game is going badly, wrack your brain to help get it back on track. This might take the form of talking with the organizers or other players, or finding something from your picnic basket to bring into game play.
  • Use caution when improv-ing. In a larp, it’s important for the narrative to have what Norwegian theorist and designer Eirik Fatland calls “coherence,” (paper forthcoming). In other words, it’s important for the new stuff I improvise not to contradict with the new stuff you improvise. As you can imagine, maintaining coherence is easier in a small, short game than it is in a big long game. In a game of four players, you can get away with wackier improv than in a game with 30. So when you improvise, you want to fit your creations into the frame of the game narrative. This gets back to the social instruction “don’t break the game.” In general, it’s cool to improv about your character’s past, within limits. It’s not cool to pretend you’re the King of town if your character sheet says otherwise…and probably the other players won’t go along with it.

Logistical Skills

The nuts and bolds of a roleplaying experience.

  • Help with site set-up. Got special skills? Help make the game even better by making it rain blood on those adventurers, or teaching the organizers how to do it themselves.
  • Assemble a great costume and bring some ace propsDo you sew? Do you know a lot about makeup of the 1920s? In many games, looking the part helps people feel like the game world is real. And sometimes others need help with their costumes too.
  • Know the rules. In games with a rulebook, having someone who knows the rules around saves a lot of time.
  • Know the meta-techniques and when to use them. If you’re in a game that uses monologuing, a black box, or other tools that help the narrative along, know what they are and how to use them. Use them wisely–to get other people into game, to provide emotional context, and to make your own play better.
  • Feed/clothe the world. Or anyway, the game. Formally or informally, many players forget that extra coats or bringing your own grub is a necessity at some larps, and they’ll go cold and hungry unless someone nice lends them a blanket or gives them a bowl of soup.

Narrative Skills

Sure, many of the other sections contain stuff that pertains to narrative and character building–these are loose, overlapping categories, my friends), but I felt there were a few tips that didn’t fit under other headings.

American designer and larper John Stavropoulos had a bunch of great tips, including the following:

  • Embrace failure. Revel in consequences. Play for drama.
  • Find the balance between believable and unexpected.
  • Make your character interesting to everyone, not just yourself.
  • Have strong, clear goals and motivations.
  • Tie your character to others.
  • Give your character a weakness. Be vulnerable.
  • Play a character that feels real within the context of the game’s specific genre, theme, or setting. 
  • Allow what happens in game to change your character.
  • If there are rules, use them.
  • Lose enthusiastically and fail in interesting ways.
  • Shepherd the plot and move it forward.
  • Keep an eye out for any loose ends and tie them together.
  • Break these rules if it would make the game better for everyone.

To this I’d add:

  • Think about your character arc.
  • Know the arc of the larp. Don’t peak too early. Typically, in a one-shot, the larp’s plot developments and your character developments should reach their apex 2/3-3/4 of the way through. Campaign games tend to have their weekend rhythms as well. There is a time for heating up the intrigue, and a time for winding down. Find them.
  • Make good stories for other players and be open to the stories they are making for you.

There’s no one way to be a good larper, but most of us can be better. Speaking for myself, I know that I’m better at some of these areas than others. Of course, it all depends on the sort of game you’re playing as well. Improving in a small short game differs from a big weekend-long one. And of course, the more you play, the better you’ll get. So take these as food for thought, suggestions to take into consideration as you wander the big wide world of larp.

Further Reading

The Good Larper Does Not Exist and Must Die (PlanBRollespil. Danish)

Towards a larp-acting culture by Morgan Jarl

The skills of a larper by Oliver Nøglebæk

Play Unsafe by Graham Walmsley

Good Play for Game Designers by Jason Morningstar in the Wyrd Con Companion.

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Everything I learned at Knutpunkt 2014

Photo: Johannes Axner

Credit: Johannes Axner

I had a brilliant visit to Knutpunkt in Sweden this year. Knutpunkt, for those of you who aren’t familiar, is a Nordic larp convention that rotates around the Nordic countries and serves as a melting pot of larp-related ideas. The convention features games, talks, and workshops.

In my last post, I described some of the cool, off-book stuff I saw at Knutpunkt 2014, and in this post I’m going to talk about the theory stuff I witnessed.

Cultural Appropriation

Along with Norwegian designer Tor Kjetil Edland, I facilitated a panel discussion on cultural appropriation and larp with five brave panelists hailing from the US, Sweden, Switzerland, and Finland.

Our aim for the panel was to have some initial discussion about cultural appropriation—to outline what some of the issues are, get some vocabulary on the table, and to create a friendly atmosphere in which it’s OK to try out ideas, make mistakes, be wrong, and change your mind.

Some working vocabulary we laid down at the beginning of the talk:

cultural appropriation – not necessarily a good or bad thing in itself. We all borrow ideas from other places all the time. But there are more and less respectful ways to do it.

race – Race is how we reductively group people based on how they look. So “black” in the US, for example, groups together recent African immigrants from all over the huge and diverse continent of Africa, as well as people who are the descendants of slaves.

ethnicity – more about country of origin or place of origin. Norwegian is an ethnicity as well as a nationality, where “white” is more of a race.

Of course, defining these terms is a huge effort in its own, and we did not want to spend our whole time on that, so these definitions are merely working ones we laid down to help get to the rest of the discussion.

Here are the questions we asked:

  • What’s the difference between cultural appropriation and cultural exchange?
  • What do you do when you are inspired by source material that contains racist stereotypes?
  • In what types of situations can using real world nationalities get you in trouble?
  • What are some good practical rules of thumb around this topic when it comes to game design?

Discussion spanned quite a lot of ground, and we talked around to many many issues. To me, since I’ve been writing about this a bit on my own blog, the most interesting parts of the conversation were ones that felt new to me. Here are a few points that emerged:

  • Talking about cultural appropriation (trying to impose moral codes on other cultures) is itself cultural imperialism. Some of the Nordics feel that the discussion about cultural appropriation is, itself, a form of cultural imperialism on the part of the US. Basically, the US exports culture to the rest of the world, like, say, the Spaghetti Western, and then some of us get mad when Nordic countries use the cowboys and Indians trope because it’s culturally appropriative of Native Americans. It’s sort of like we’re giving other cultures toys and then saying there are only certain right ways to play with them.My take is more that because US society is more diverse than most of the Nordic countries, we’ve had more opportunity to royally screw up–we are kind of experts in screwing this up, trying to fix it, screwing up again and then trying to fix it again. My concept is more like, “learn from our mistakes so you can do better.”
  • If a culture that is 99 percent Finnish, and itself the product of a long time of Russian occupation makes a larp exploiting stereotypes of people who don’t live in Finland in great numbers, is that really an act of cultural oppression? The Nordic countries are comparatively quite monolithic, so issues of cultural appropriation have not come up in the normal course of business there, though in recent years, folks are becoming increasingly aware of them.
  • Nationality and religion can be proxies for race in Europe. Issues of cultural appropriation often intersect with issues of nationality in the Nordic countries. In contrast to the US, which has a large endemic population of immigrants, kids of kids of immigrants, etc., many places in the Nordic countries seem to be dealing more with first or second generation immigrants, so rather than speaking about race, nationality or religion seem to be the statuses discussed. In other words, issues around race can be disguised as issues around culture.
  • Beware the Internet. The Internet is awesome because it lets us all talk to each other across the world. But it also strips away all context. You made a larp relevant to your particular cultural context? Great. Put it on the Internet though, and people all over the world will see it—and that context will be lost. When context is lost, Internet battles can occur. Think before you upload.
  • Think before you appropriate. And do some research to know what you’re getting into. Getting inspired by other cultures is a good thing. But often we take things without examining the context of our own privilege. Borrowing is cool, but be a conscientious borrower: think critically about what you are taking, why you need it, and how you are using it before you take it.

This only scratches the surface of what we talked about, and there was plenty of debate. Clearly, there was enough material here for about seventeen panels. I hope the discussion is continued with greater specificity and depth at future KPs.

The Rant

At the hour of the rant, another American, roleplaying researcher Sarah Lynne Bowman and I did a satirical take on cultural appropriation. I wrapped myself in the flag (literally) and my partner took on the persona of the Statue of Liberty. The point of our rant was two-fold:

  • To point out the rather monolithic view of the US that our Nordic compatriots superimpose over our country. Seriously—the first ten times people hate on the US, it’s like, “you do have a point, the US has done some really problematic things” – and then after that, it’s like, “Dudes. We invented the lightbulb, cars, the IWW, and hippies.” The critical leftist voice in US politics is rendered nearly invisible abroad.
  • We also decided to behave according to the rules laid down by this narrow-minded view of the US. (Hey, tell us that we’re jerks, and we’ll be jerks.) So we appropriated Knutpunkt, or should I say “Living Games East,” on behalf of the US.

The Great Player Safety Mess

In case you haven’t gotten the memo—psychological safety in larp is a difficult, fraught thing. This round-table, hosted by Danish organizer Søren Lyng Ebbehøj, looked at debriefing. Debriefing is the practice of having a mandatory, structured discussion with all participants after a larp.

The structure of the discussion was intriguing—the participants were divvied up into groups of eight, each sitting at a table, and with a moderator-chosen secretary to report on the results of each discussion round—we did three or four, each based on a question chosen by the moderator. I liked the participatory elements of this panel.

To me, the take away was that there is no one debriefing technique that is going to work for everyone, and that there are no easy solutions. I might hate answering the question, “what are you going to leave behind about your character?,” but for another person, doing a round of sharing like that may be essential—and it may be essential that everyone mandatorily contribute to such a discussion, confounding efforts to make certain elements of debriefing opt-in.

When it comes to beating the post-game blues, the biggest help—if my group was any measure—is not necessarily the formal debrief, but going back home and doing the things that make you feel like you.

This doesn’t mean that a structured debrief isn’t useful—far from it—but it does suggest that organizers might tell that to players in addition to any other formal debrief stuff they do.

Superreality Workshop

Run by Danish experience designer Jakob la Cour, this participatory workshop focused on helping people enter into a state of superreality, that is, a state where all senses are heightened.

La Cour suggested several methods for helping people enter into this state. Here’s what I remember, though there may be more:

  • Emotion. Make people laugh loudly for as long as the organizer does it. Or make them seem very sad, etc.
  • Motion. Doing stuff all at the same time can bond the group and sensitize them. La Cour had lived in Africa for a time, and the Masai boys in his village, when they came home, would all stand in a circle and jump at the same time in a particular way. He got us doing that, and sure enough, the sensation of doing something in a group bonded us.
  • Physical contact. We hugged the person next to us in the circle for a full minute, and tried to understand the physicality of that person through the hug. Sure enough, immediately afterward, instead of standing in an evenly spaced circle, we were naturally standing closer to our partner.
  • Individual/Group work. You can do lots of cool stuff with an individual versus the group. We had one person stand facing the group, then we put our hands on them, or on a person who had their hand on them, and focused positive energy in that direction. The recipient of this seemed to feel cool and quite upbeat afterward.

For the final exercise, we split into four smaller groups, each of which came up with an exercise designed to help one or more people enter a state of superreality. They all seemed pretty cool, but I’m already rambling, so won’t relate them here.

Before we started working, la Cour let us know that there is a price for entering into the superreal state–you feel great for a while, but you crash afterwards. And crash, I did. I was barely capable of speech for a while later.

Methods Workshop

Run by Danish designers Nina Rune Essendrop and Peter Munthe-Kaas, this participatory workshop is a system for trying out cool new larp mechanics.

Here’s the system:

  • Get some people in comfy clothes in a room.
  • When someone has an idea, don’t talk about it, just try it out.
  • Under no circumstances should there be more than five minutes of talking.
  • Don’t talk. Try it out!

Sure enough, we tried a bunch of stuff out. For example, we all sat down close to each other, and when one person said their name, the people around that person repeated it more softly until it faded away. This led to the idea of trying it with noises instead of sounds. Then we thought it’d work better if when you wanted to pass along a sound you touched the people next to you. Then we did a thing where we sat closer to each other and faced outward.

We also tried hooking up a single person with four or five others, who lifted them for slow-mo superhero battles.

We tried rambling around like zombies with our eyes closed and arms outstretched, moving very slowly. When you ran into someone else, you made a “bzzt” sound and withdrew your hand. That was pretty cool. Getting caught in a traffic jam made me feel very vulnerable and disoriented–overwhelmed by sensation. Could be interesting in the right game.

The workshop was very fun, and opened us up to some new design idea, I think. Peter and Nina mentioned that when running this, it can be helpful for the organizers to have a few ideas in their back pocket, in case the group isn’t feeling inspired.

Sexy New Theory

Admittedly, I could not make it to this lecture—there’s so much cool stuff at KP, that there’s no way to make it to everything, and this year I chose to prioritize workshops—but folks were buzzing about some suave new theory laid out in speech form.

I’m sure I won’t do either of these theories justice, but happily, the originators will be finishing up the theory and probably publishing it soon. If the peanut gallery wants to jump in to correct me, please do so.

Steering

Markus Montola, Eleanor Saitta, and Jaakko Stenros coined this concept, which describes a type of good metagaming.

Basically, steering is when you do something for out of game reasons to make the larp better for yourself or others. If I see a new player sitting in a corner during a larp, I might find a reason to talk to them, even if our characters don’t have a natural or obvious reason to larp. I’d steer my character to interact with that person, giving them more play.

Or if I’m playing a loner character who hates parties, I might steer my character to go to the party. That would mean, essentially, finding in-game pretense for social interaction. Steering is vital to larping—most larpers do it constantly. We come up with in-game reasons to do stuff that we wanted—as players—to do anyway, and we do it without breaking the game world.

It’s nice to have a name for this phenomenon for a couple reasons. For starters, it’s a way of talking about meta-gaming without using the phrase “meta-gaming,” a term that carries the negative connotations of cheating in many US larp communities. It’s also useful because it allows us to talk about it as its own phenomenon, which means we can talk about how to do it well.

New larpers often worry about doing exactly what their characters would do at all times, not realizing that it’s OK to metagame a little bit for social interactions. I think it’d be a useful concept to explain to noobs that could improve their first experiences.

You don’t have to take my word for it—go read the slides!

Coherence

There was also some talk about coherence, a concept coined by Norwegian larp scion Eirik Fatland that relates to the consistency of a larp. I’m distraught that I missed the lecture, and rather than write down my bastardized third-hand knowledge here, I’ll just say that I look forward to reading the theory whenever it’s ready!

The Prog Larp Debate

Nordic larpers like to argue about what “Nordic larp” means. Does it mean stuff with artsy aspirations hailing mostly from the Knutepunkt conference? Larp produced in the Nordic countries (Finland, Sweden, Denmark, Norway) in general? Can you do Nordic larp in England? Can US authors write Nordic larp? Is it something that contributes to the Nordic larp discourse?

This year, Swedish designer Martin Ericsson proposed that folks throw over “Nordic larp” in favor of “Progressive larp” or “Prog larp.” This launched a thousand Facebook arguments, and–be still my heart–along with the American rant, it inspired three satirical websites.

Sure, “Nordic larp” has problems as a term. So does “Progressive larp.” Among the counter-arguments floated are that it subtly insults other forms of larp by stating that they are not progressive, that it sounds snotty, that it supposes a certain political stance on the part of the creators, etc. etc. On the upside, it’s more internationally inclusive.

I don’t have a strong opinion either way, but I think it’s a debate worth knowing about, especially as it will let you in on some of the inside jokes on the aforementioned websites. I find it fascinating that people argue so fiercely over terminology, since I find those arguments among the most mind-numbing and soul-killing debates. I mean, no one’s going to die if we call it “Nordic larp,” right?

To each their own [label], I guess.

Some larps I heard about

Guys: there are literally SO MANY cool new games I heard about that I’m forgetting about 8,000 of them. Here’s what I’m remembering off the top of my head.

Two games that took place this year that I heard rumblings about. Here’s what I was able to vaguely gather about them.

Brudpris

A Swedish game about a patriarchal society in which women must be controlled because they have the dangerous but necessary “force of life” within them. I believe it was a feminist venture aimed at raising discussion around gender issues. It will be re-run in Norway this fall.

Halat Hisar

A joint effort between a Finnish and Palestinian organizing team run in Finland. The larp reenvisioned the Israeli-Palestinian conflict set in a fictional version of occupied Finland.

And here is a random sampling of the big, full-immersion, let’s-spend-several-days-together ventures set to take place in the next year:

Last Will

Gladiators in the dystopian near future! It’s running twice, in Stockholm this August. Sign-ups for the first run are due in by May 1. I believe it is open to International participants and will be played in English.

KoiKoi

Norwegian larpers doing what Norwegian larpers do best: having tribal rituals in the woods. Sorry foreigners: you’ve got to speak Scandinavian to roll with the big kids in Norway this July.

Priscilla, Queen of the Desert

OK. I have no idea what this larp will be called or even how likely it is to be produced. Or where. Or by whom. But at the end of the Just a Little Lovin’ dance party, there was an announcement that a game based on the cult movie is forthcoming.

(JALL is a larp about the summer AIDS came to NYC that has be re-run three or four times now, in different Nordic countries.)

Morning Red

Hippie commune goes wrong in the 1960s. Sorry kids, you need to speak Danish to play. Also, it’s sold out, but there is a waiting list!

Harry Potter in a Real Freaking Castle Er…College of Wizardry

Harry Potter + castle in Poland=this game sold out within 26 hours of tickets opening. But I have heard whispers of a second run, so watch that space on Facebook.

More Cool Stuff about Knutpunkt 2014

Anything I missed, y’all? Post in the comments.

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A Few Cool Things I Saw at Knutpunkt 2014

I’m just back from Knutpunkt, a progressive larp convention that wends its way around the Nordic countries. Larpers, designers, educators, theater people and art-lovers from more than 25 countries participated this year. By US standards, it’s a small convention–around 350 people or so, and it lasts from Thurs-Sunday, with a few pre-gaming activities the week before.

This year’s Knutpunkt was just outside Gothenburg, Sweden, and it maintained its high standards of awesomeness. I’ll talk about programming and such in other posts. For now, I simply want to bask in the afterglow of a great con and talk about some of the social stuff that makes Knutpunkt such a bonding experience for the participants. So here are a few cool off-program things I saw at Knutpunkt 2014.

(Apparently, I took no photos, so links to pictures are appreciated).

The Check Your Privilege Wall

That’s right, a whole wall where you could check your privilege. It was a huge wall covered with paper on which participants could write down the ways in which they were privileged. If you were privileged in that way, you made a tally mark to the left. The wall revealed that we all carry some kind of privilege, and it provided some interesting reminders that privilege can be context-dependent. For example, in addition to the usual items listed (male, cis gender, able-bodied, etc) there was some KP-specific stuff, like “Is holding a program item.”

It generated interesting discussion around the wall too, where people were helping others check their privilege. At the end of the con, naturally, it was torn down.

“Secret” Room Parties

Knutpunkt has a tradition of one-hour parties. The parties last only one hour because we wouldn’t want to hoard so many awesome people away from so many other awesome people for more than an hour, right?

This year, I went to two. A party for Just a Little Lovin’, a larp about the summer AIDS came to New York that has been re-run in several countries over the past few years. Some folks had come as their characters, and a rather large number of people were packed into a single room, dancing to disco. The organizers announced that their next venture will be based on (inspired by?) the cult-hit The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert.

I also went to a sweet sweet Finnish room party. When I showed up, it was one man drinking alone in the kitchen of the party cabin (“I am doing something very Finnish,” he told us). A while later, we were sitting in the dark, drinking vodka and singing passionately to some swelling, yet depressing tune.

Danceoke

At the final party, Swedish larper Petter Karlsson had made a lovely group activity. They selected short clips of musical videos–some current and some hilariously 1970s, all with specific dance videos. The videos danced, and we tried to follow them. It was cool to watch from behind, fun, and vaguely embarrassing for everyone–in other words, a bonding activity.

The Costume Swap

For the final dance party, we all brought a few items of costuming we wouldn’t mind parting with, and put them on a table. Next, we dressed ourselves and each other in them. I was a bit nervous about how this would work in practice, but the results were fun. I started out in a trash bag blazer, but ended the night in a polka-dotted shirt and a hat meant for someone with a real lot of dreads. It was also fun for me to see my own contributions passed around–I’d worn an American flag sarong and a paper hat I’d made earlier for a rant, and over the course of the night I variously saw these items on women and men, and the sarong worn as a shirt, a shawl and a head-wrap.

The Zombie Cuddle-Puddle

I think it’s a Swedish thing. I could be wrong about this or maybe it’s only Swedish larpers, or maybe I have the whole thing wrong. But it’s a place for your friends to hug you. A few people put their arms around each other and lie on the ground. Slowly, the pile grows. After the Saturday night party, it grew from three to five, to seven, to ten, and even more, on the floor in the kitchen. As new people passed by the doorway, the people in the pile would raise their arms toward that person and chanted slowly, “join us. joyyyyyyyne ussssss.”

Meta-techniques in the Dining Hall

Several tables in the dining hall had metatechniques on them. I didn’t get around to all of the tables, but I sat for a little while at the “open to meeting new people” table and also at the monologue table. For the latter, you could ping someone’s glass during dinner to get them to say what was on their mind.

Meeting New People and Random Conversations

I love meeting new folks, and this KP I met folks I didn’t know from the Netherlands, Russia, Sweden, Finland, Ireland, the UK and more. I am probably leaving like 10 countries out. I also met a bunch of folks I only Internet-know!

I find the level of conversation–even with people I haven’t already met–to be very high at KP. This year, I had some great talks with passers-by about cultural appropriation, imperialism, fashion, gender politics, community-building, world politics and more.

Nordic Larpers Give Good Hugs

Maybe this is because of the hugging workshops. Either way. Good hugs, y’all.

What Knutpunkt Is About for Me

Overall, it’s about the people, finding new projects, and most of all, it’s a great big love-fest. This year more than other years, it was about people telling each other, “you’re awesome, and I like  what you do.” I’d say that about 60 percent of the conversations I overheard began with some variation on that. For me too, this is the first year I didn’t feel like an outsider parachuting into the culture, and that was kind of nice.

Every year, I come to KP imagining it might be my last visit–this year at the end of things, I didn’t say goodbye forever. Like a cuddle-puddle zombie that just won’t die, I’ll come back.

The Aftermath

After such a great few days of conversation and workshopping, it’s hard to go back to the comparatively less intense real world. So yes, I’m suffering from Knutedepression. Also, Knutplague.

More quick hits on Knutpunkt 2014

Thomas B.’s Subjective Recap

Claus Raasted’s Podcast

How was your social KP experience. Did you come home with cool new projects? What other awesome things were happening that I missed?

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Pocket Guide to American Freeform Launches

pocket_guide

Today my e-book monograph Pocket Guide to American Freeform launches! First created for the American freeform Bundle of Holding, this guide takes you through the history of the format, as well as offering instructions for how to play, write, and run games in the style quickly and safely.

The book contains an adaptation of several posts on workshops and debriefs from this blog, plus new material on the history of American freeform, safety in roleplaying games, and a guide for players and designers.

If you want to do me a mitzvah, leave a little review somewhere?

It’s available for $9.50 from online retailers such as Scribd and Smashwords, as well as Amazon and other online retailers.

 

Advance praise for Pocket Guide to American Freeform:

“If you are new to freeform roleplaying, the Pocket Guide to American Freeform is really useful. If you are a grizzled veteran who knows everything, it is a necessity.”-Jason Morningstar, creator of Fiasco, Bully Pulpit Games

“Lizzie Stark is a uniquely important figure in the LARP community, bringing Nordic design know-how to the American gaming experience. In this book, she shares her key findings from the experimental side of the American larp scene as well as the critical components to designing these kinds of games. If you’re a roleplayer looking to make the leap into less linear, more potent, and more original work, the Pocket Guide to American Freeform is the first book you should read.”–Nick Fortugno, Playmatics

“I’m a newcomer to larp and larp design,but I’m already finding Lizzie Stark’s Pocket Guide an essential go-to. Whenever I have a question, it seems like she’s already answered it for me.”
Vincent Baker, Lumpley Games.

Knutepunkt for Noobs

Each year Nordic larpers and folks from upwards of 20 countries meet up in Nordica to talk larp, play games, and argue a lot with one another at Knutepunkt. This year, I’m punching the ticket on my fourth and final KP country–Sweden.

But I remember my first time on this crazy Nordic larp tilt-a-wheel and thought I might offer a few tips for folks in the same shoes.

Come to A Week In

OK, so it’s maybe too late for folks this year, but remember it for next year: A Week is a really nice way to meet some intriguing other people and to get to know them before the big con. Also, you get to play games and games are FUN!

Go To the First Timers’ Guide

It’s a program item that tells you about stuff like the meaning of all the technical terms people are using. That’s super-helpful if you want to understand any conversation that happens.

Parties

There’s a long tradition of parties, secret parties, and “secret” parties. If you nab a flyer to a party, show up on time, as there’s an informal rule that parties only last an hour, to maximize social mixing. Feel OK about showing up to anything. There is also usually a midnight ritual on…Friday or Saturday, I think? It’s sarcastic, and it’s an experience.

Open Chair Rule

People are supposed to have empty chairs in their conversation groups, showing that it’s OK to join. Most folks are pretty good about this, so you can feel comfortable about joining.

Sauna

It’s a weird experience if you come from a country that frowns on nudity, but there are people hanging out in there, and it’s supposed to be a nonsexual area. Both ladies and gents sometimes sauna together. Ask a Nordic person how to sauna properly–there’s a whole thing with going from sauna to shower and rubbing off your dead skin. I still don’t really understand it, but it’s a cultural experience.

Program Items

There is usually an embarrassment of riches, content-wise. I think it’s nice to try both lectures as well as workshops. Lectures tell you about larp; workshops help you expand your toolbox. There’s great conversation to be had in the bar and lounge areas, though.

Sleep Before You Arrive

Restedness is a valuable commodity and prevents sleep-deprivation psychosis that can turn you into a Nordic cultist. Aim for at least two hours per night while you are there, but try to show up fully rested.

If Something Goes Wrong, Tell Someone

One of the things I love about Knutepunkt culture, is that you’ve got 300 best friends you’re just waiting to meet who are willing to pick you up when you’re feeling low. If something goes wrong, tell someone. The folks here are open and kind, and most of them will give you a hug and a sympathetic ear if you just ask.

Personal Responsibility

You are responsible for setting your own limits at this convention. If you say “no,” in my experience, at least, people respect that. In the US, for example, we often rely on the group to set norms and behaviors that are OK. Of course, on some level, that’s true at Knutepunkt. But if you wait around for the community to enforce your unspoken limits, you might wait for a long time. It’s OK to say no, and sometimes you have to say no.

Drink Out of Your Own Cup

Dominika Kovacova: We all remember what happened in Finland (knuteflu). Also, cough syrup is often a hot commodity, so pack an extra bottle.

You Can Argue and Still Be Friends

Nordic larpers like to brawl about absurdly technical stuff like immersion, politics, and Freudian theory. But they can still be friends afterward. Keep your arguments friendly and don’t take it too hard. People tend to be pretty direct about disagreements, but still think you’re a nice person afterwards.

Everyone Feels Uncool Sometimes

It is a truth, universally acknowledged, that everyone feels uncool–even the people you’d least expect–for at least a couple hours. When your time comes, remember that you’re in good company, visit the sauna with a friend, or maybe just ask for a hug.

Be Open to New Things

Wagner Luiz Schmidt mentions that it’s good to go with the flow–wander off on cool new adventures with friends you’ve just met. Sarah Lynne Bowman reminds us that some of the best program items she’s attended are ones she stumbled into.

What cool tips did I miss? What questions do you have? Post in the comments.

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