Three Speeches on Nordic and American Larp

While touring for Leaving Mundania over the past year, I’ve given a couple speeches about American larp. One revolves around American values and how they influence US larp. One explains Ars Amandi to a US audience and talks about why people might be interested in playing love plots. And one tells the story of how 9/11 influenced the US larp scene. Here are the notes for each of the talks, which I’ve stashed on my blog:

Larp Love, Not War: Nordic methods for sexy roleplaying” – a talk I wrote for a Valentine’s day event held by NYC game collective Babycastles. I also gave it at Gen Con in 2012, and I’ve given abbreviated versions before various Ars Amandi Workshops.

Don’t Touch or I’ll Sue: American larp as national metaphor” – I wrote this talk based on some work I’d done for the 2012 Knutebook and on a few blog posts. I delivered it in 2012 at Solmukohta, Wyrd Con, and Gen Con.

Playing in Graveyards: Terror collides with larp” - the story of a set of larpers who gamed in a public space in NYC, and how 9/11 affected their community. I delivered this as part of the Nordic Larp Talks in 2012. You can see the video here.

Don’t Touch or I’ll Sue: American larp as national metaphor

This is the talk I gave at Solmukohta 2012, Gen Con 2012, and Wyrd Con 2012 on American larp as emblematic of US national values. It is based on my essay in States of Play(pdf), the 2012 Knutebook, as well as on some older blog posts about tall tales and US larp, and physical contact and litigiousness in US larp. It’s a little rough — talking points to jog my memory during the speeches, but I think the bulk of the substance is there.

Introduction

This talk was inspired by my 2011 visit to Knudepunkt, an art larp convention that rotates its way around the Nordic capitals. As I watched, tried, and learned about their way of larping, it struck me as really Nordic, in the stereotypical sense of the word – communal in important ways.

That got me thinking that if Nordic larp is Nordic, maybe American larp is American.

I had the idea that Nordic folk took roleplaying – which originated in America – and evolved it to fit their local culture. Perhaps the reason that American larp hasn’t changed greatly since its inception is because it already had that quintessential American-ness about it.

So I went looking for American-ness – surely a slippery quality — in one of the games that I followed extensively for Leaving Mundania.

I looked at Americanness in larp in two ways.

  •  The effect that American values have on larp
  •  The American values that arise out of larp

*Disclaimer: The US is a huge and diverse country, with many different larp scenes – I can’t presume to speak for all of them, and I don’t presume to think that the idea of Americanness that I’m using is the only sort of Americanness. I did the bulk of my research on the Eastern seaboard between DC and Boston.

 

Knight Realms

Knight Realms – I didn’t want to focus on generalities, so I decided to examine a specific larp, Knight Realms, which is a boffer campaign typical of US boffer campaigns.

  • Based in New Jersey
  • Has been running since 1997, meeting about once per month
  • Events typically last a weekend, and take place at a Boy Scout or Girl Scout campground in the tri-state area.
  • It’s well attended – 150-200 people regularly show up for events.
  • The setting is medieval fantasy, and it uses boffers – padded weapons – for combat.
  • Most plots revolve around NPCs, non-player-characters, who attack or offer puzzles. Player versus player action is permitted but not encouraged.
  • It’s got a ton of rules – more than 166 web pages worth.

US Culture’s Influence on Knight Realms

How American Culture affects Knight Realms on a structural level:

  • Litigiousness. Lawsuits, and legal liability, real or threatened, are a facet of life in the US. (explain attractive nuisance tort). And they create incentives to run larp as a business.
    • Litigiousness creates a high financial bar
      • KR takes out liability insurance, which costs money.
  • Litigiousness means that someone must be legally liable for stuff that might go wrong:
    • So it makes sense to incorporate larp, so that the corporation and not the person is liable.
  • So our cultural litigiousness makes running larp expensive, and encourages organizers to incorporate themselves. In short, cultural litigiousness creates an incentive for organizers to run their games as businesses.

 Litigiousness affects the stories told in game:

  • implied no-touching rule, which means that some themes, like say, love, aren’t typically played. This is true at KR. If players want to play romance among each other, they can, but it’s not something that’s part of the game plot.

Running larp as a business affects the game dynamics at KR via the following:

  • Death systems
    • Players sink time and money into their characters in the form of admission fees, event attendance, and costumes. From a business point of view, if a character permanently dies, that represents a player’s lost investment in the game. So at Knight Realms there’s a forgiving death system – everyone is allowed five deaths.
  • Inheritance from one character to another.
    • If you retire a character (or the character dies the last death), the investment isn’t toally lost – you can role over a percentage of skillpoints to your new character. This means that new characters aren’t always low level – keeps the social structure rigid
  • No end of the world plots
    • They’re a staple of high-fantasy literature, but in order for the game to be interesting, the players must have the chance to succeed or fail at any given plot. If the players fail at a world-ending plot, the game has effectively written itself out of existence, and that’s not in the business model.

 An anti-realist tradition in larp:

We’ve got an anti-realist tradition. If you want realism – go find some reenactors, because in general, you won’t find clearly consistent worlds with hard historical underpinnings in larp.

  • The Setting: Disneyland style; atmosphere as pastiche.
    • Knight Realms, while set in the 1200s, isn’t historically accurate in setting. It’s really a pastiche of medieval fantasy movies, myth, and history, and because of that, you’ll see many different sorts of dress among the characters. The owner, James C. Kimball, spends a lot of effort trying to make things look medieval, trying to evoke the medieval era without necessarily replicating the medieval era.
    • I’ve got a theory about this phenomenon: Maybe this is because we don’t live alongside our  history the way, for example, that Europe does. Therefore, larps set in older time periods necessarily require suspension of disbelief.
    • This is echoed by the game reality. because things have to go back to normal between games, there’s not much institutional memory within campaign larps.
  • Tendency to play hyperbolic characters – mighty heroes, not ordinary people…even though we’re a democratic country that deifies folksiness (eg Joe the Plumber) The dream is to be an exceptional person who will achieve extraordinary goals – someone who can get ahead.
    • This hyperbole is written into the KR rules put it, “Every PC in this game is a ‘hero’ in the Knight Realms world. They are above and beyond the normal man.”
    • The irony at Knight Realms, of course, is that everyone is exceptional by definition – we’re all heroes above mortal man; it’s a new form of equality, and one that by design can’t satisfy the desire to be the center of attention.
    • I see it as fitting in with the only national myths we have; the tall tales from the frontier, which tell of exceptional people doing exceptional things – Pecos Bill riding a giant cat fish down the Rio Grande – Paul Bunyon clearing redwood forests with a sweep of his hand, and so on.
    • Liberal-minded anxiety also affects how we play Racism and classism – we come from a country where “anyone can grow up to be president,” as the rhetoric goes, a country that prides itself on offering equality and freedom and upward mobility. So racism and classism make us profoundly uncomfortable
  • Racism
    • The US has a fraught relationship with race and racial dress up. Playing race produces liberal minded anxiety.
    • It’s more common to see larps with green people and blue people than with black, white, and Hispanic people. This is certainly true at KR.
    • When racism is played at KR – and it’s written into some racial descriptions – it typically isn’t played, except among friends. Or when it is played, we get a Mary Sue type plot to the effect of “it’s not right to make the Khitanians live on one side of town.” In other words, KR plays racial stuff that we settled in the 1960s – most games don’t touch current issues of racism because they are seen as too explosive, or because they’re too complex.
  • Class culture.
    • In the US, we like to think that class isn’t a thing. The idea of upward mobility, regardless of class, is linked into how we construct our national identity. Even when we’re pretending to live in medieval times, it’s hard to overcome the idea that we’re all equal.
    • Travance, the barony where Knight Realms takes place, is ruled by nobility. Real medieval nobility inherited their titles, but at Knight Realms, it’s a meritocracy – nobility gain titles through acts of bravery and by proving, out of game, that they are responsible enough to handle a role important to the plot.

How Knight Realms Reflects US Cultural Values

So that’s the background for the rest of the talk. I wanted to talk a bit in general about some cultural forces that shape larp in the US, and how those elements effect KR directly. Now, I’m going to talk more in depth about how the elaborate rules systems of Knight Realms, and games like it, reflect American values.

We love us some rags to riches stories in America. We love stories about people who start out at the bottom of the social order and head to the top in one generation. And we pride ourselves of being a nation in which upward mobility is possible, where hard work and the protestant work ethic pay off, because everyone starts on an equal playing field. That’s the rhetoric, at least.

Excessive rules help create a similar atmosphere in game.

 Why do we have rules?

  • Emma Wieslander says organizers introduce rules whenever they want player and character to experience something differently. E.g. death. (see Beyond Role and Play)
  • That may be a fine description for rules-light Nordic games. But it doesn’t explain why Knight Realms has rules for stuff like reading, which isn’t physically impossible or unsafe to other participants.
  • I think that the excessive amount of rules at games like Knight Realms create equality.Take the literacy skill at KR. In real life, my literacy skills are pretty awesome – I’ve got some graduate degrees. And a book! But in game, I’m no different from a 14-year-old high schooler playing a warrior until my character uses a point to obtain literacy. In effect, the literacy mechanic deprives me of my educational advantage. It means that the 14-year-old and I start the game on equal footing. I’d connect this to an American vision of equality

The American Vision of Equality

  • We think if “equality” as equality of opportunity, not equality of access or outcome.
    • The 14th Amendment of our Constitution says, for example, that the law must treat people equally. The law’s equal treatment of citizens, this supposed lack of structural boundaries to success is supposed to give every citizen the much-vaunted equal playing field. If we’re all beginning at the same starting point, then we succeed or fail by virtue of how much effort we put in.
    • So Knight Realms’ rules ostensibly evoke equality of opportunity – the large amount of rules create an equal playing field, they try to promote the meritocracy of the game, which is something players are very concerned about.

So the rules create an equal playing field. But elaborate numeric systems also imply leveling up.

  • The rules also imply leveling up – if I have +5 strength, I want to know when I’ll get +6 strength.
  •  At KR, they keep track of levels in the form of build(explain how build works, that it’s the raw stuff of character creation that you can spend by investing in stats, skills, or professions. For every 10 build you invest, you gain one level)
  •  You can get extra build through:
    • paying more
    • doing service for the game
    • excellent roleplay.
  • However, because KR doles out build for event attendances, characters will inexorably gain power and influence whether they take advantage of the extras or not.

In other words, KR characters follow the path of the ideal American immigrant.

The Rags To Riches Myth

The Emma Lazerus poem on the statue of liberty says, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” The implication is that we’ll take them in, and through the magic of capitalism and democracy, (and if they’re good immigrants who follow the rules) make them rich and awesome over the course of one or more generations. That’s the American dream – to work hard and get ahead.

Tied into this is our rags to riches myth – we love to hear about people who go from immigrant to famous in one generation. Eg Obama, Sotamayor, Jay-Z.

So games like KR mirror the path of the ideal immigrant. When we enter a new game, we leave behind our everyday worries, our community relationships, and our very conception of self—in favor of taking on a new identity and new position within the game world. If the rules strip players of their natural abilities, then new characters—the huddling masses immigrating to a new, fantastical world—enter the game virtually naked, without many health points, skills, or protections. Over time, players who follow the rules – making real-life investments of time (event attendance), money (costuming and admission fees), and talent gain influence in game, their road to power conveniently quantified by level.

Achieving the American dream isn’t easy in real life. It requires hard work, ingenuity, old-fashioned gumption, and no small amount of luck – how many people are still living in the projects for every Jay-Z or Sonya Sotomayor? However, at Knight Realms, power, wealth and influence inevitably accrue to players who simply show up; leveling up is the perfected, democratized version of the American dream in which everyone is exceptional enough to “make it.”

Conclusion

So in conclusion – America’s culture of litigiousness impacts game play both structurally – creating incentives for larps to run as businesses, which in turn impacts storylines through forgiving death mechanics, continuous plots, and lack of touching.

America’s complex relationship with history and cultural rhetoric of equality mean that accuracy in setting, race and class aren’t motivating goals.

Finally, elaborate rules systems enforce in-game equality among players and enforce a certain kind of meritocracy in which hard workers get ahead, recreating the American rags-to-riches trope.

American Jerkform: A Manifesto

by Elizabeth Snark and George Flocke

Mr. Humveeform (a/k/a http://brooklynindiegames.com/) will make you WEEP. With gasoline fumes. Credit: John Stavropolous

Jerkform

Bigger. Badder. More dice.

Playing games is so 1990. American Jerkform is part of the new wave of unplayable games. (Note: Do not attempt to play any of the following games.)

No one knows exactly what American Jerkform is. Don’t mistake it for the similar Libertarianform games (not to be mistaken for freeform), or the newer, spankier Humveeform. They are both subsets of its marvel.

American Jerkform cannot be defined. Literally. By definition. Its intensity is so intense that if you even think about trying to pigeonhole it with a definition, Jerkform will imagine itself into being like the Greek God Gaia and burn down your house.

American Jerkform is too intense to be played. It’s meant to be ridden, like a motorcycle through town, stereo cranked up, moustache hair tangling in the hurricane of emotion oozing off you like cheap cologne as you belt out Bon Jovi with your dude-bros in a dive bar because Jerkform does not CARE about mixed metaphors, continuity, or consistency.

All Jerkform wants out of life is for you to love it.

Jerkform is not meant to be understood. It’s meant to be grokked.

THE HANDBOOK FOR DUCHAMP SCOUTS

Collect 3-5 friends and head to the men’s room. Everyone puts two found objects into a bag. Stand several standard stoppages apart in a big circle. Ululate and call the spirit of the great artist Duchamp into you.

One by one, each person grabs one or two objects from the sack, joins them into a readymade and tags someone else to perform a short skit around that object. At the end of the skit, decide what Duchamp Scout motto has been uncovered and write it down into a little book.

Eat the book.

WAITING FOR BECKETT

Grab a friend and head to the local Cheesecake Factory. Tell the hostess that you are waiting for your friend X. Drink at the bar until you are broke. Stand outside and talk with your friend until you realize that X isn’t a person at all — X represents an abstraction, like the futility of life, or your own inability to score a date under honest pretenses. Roll for bleed.

HIPSTER GOLF

This is a pervasive game meant for a several-day conference event or other large social gathering. It discourages hipster behavior.

Prep
Give each player a false moustache, or teach them how to make a finger moustache, by placing a finger on their upper lips. Hand out the scoring cards, which should have the list of banned strokes on the back. The goal is to reach the end of the event with as few points as possible.

Banned strokes

  • unnecessarily introduces Foucault (or a similar intellectual figure) into conversation (+1)
  • unnecessary or irrelevant introduction of technical terms, esp. without explanation (+1 or +2)
  • referencing having liked people or cultural trends before they were cool (+1)
  • references a small band, author, or other cultural object as if you should have heard of it (+1)
  •  exuding apathy about political, social, or moral outcomes. (+2)
  • <insert your own>

Game Play
When a player executes a banned stroke, everyone around him or her simultaneously lifts false moustaches to their noses and solemnly intones “their first album was better.”

You may wish to handicap anyone wearing skinny jeans, plaid, or natural facial hair.

MURDER, SHE COMMITTED. (MURDER, SHE WROTE MY CONFESSION?)

Collect 6-10 friends and reenact an episode of Murder, She Wrote. One person plays Angela Lansbury, everyone else plays her web of “friends” in Cabot Cove. The rule is that everyone fears Lansbury’s rage, since she’s a sociopath masquerading as a kindly old mystery writer who solves crimes. She kills at random, and no one is safe. She’s skilled and fearsome enough that even the police try to cover up her crimes with their own ineptitude. The game ends when the killer she’s framed confesses, and the player of Lansbury mimics her classic face of disgust and horror/contempt.

This game can also be played by adding Lansbury to any boxed murder mystery dinner party.

COOLNESS ABOUT COOLNESS

Coolness is a morally bankrupt currency. Take a minute and think of all the things you’ve done to seem cool. Do you feel bad yet? Good. This pervasive game teaches you how to overcome your natural tendency toward coolness by forcing you to do un-cool things like:

  • talking to people whose relative coolness level has not yet been established.
  • listening to people whose coolness score is equal to ½ of your own or less.
  • singing along to a pop song in public.
  • dancing without inhibition
  • caring about anything.

AMERICAN SAUNA WORKSHOP

Everyone meets in the sauna wearing a bathing suit and an overcoat, and feeling a decent, God-fearing sense of shame about the human body.

The winner is the person who studiously ignores everyone else’s bodies, and/or  pretends that this situation isn’t totally awkward for the longest continuous time.

AMERICAN JERKYFORM

by Terry Romero

We play for the bleed. We play to be chewy, salty, and richly seasoned by fear, loathing, and nitrates.

There is only one game we play: close your eyes, chew on some jerky. Don’t care if it’s meat or soy or a doggie toy. Imagine the following, in no particular order

  • It’s your left arm
  • The first time you realized you are dead inside
  • The cat
  • The sweet taste of freedom

Trade your jerky with the person to your left. Repeat until all the jerky is gone.

Humveeform

Humveeform is a special subset of Jerkform so avant garde, that not only are the games unplayable, they are uncreated, intangible, and existing only in the deepest, darkest, most gasoline-inefficient corners of your mind…

But that is only how we define Humveeform. For each Humveeer defines the genre differently.

Humveeform is aimed at making you cry. Most of the games utilize a universal bleed mechanic designed to ensure that you do.

The bleed mechanic tells you how similar you are to your character and how bad you should feel about that.

Remember:  not every Humveeform involves a bleed mechanic, and not every game with a bleed mechanic is Humveeform.

Bleed Mechanic 1

Roll a d-20. On a:

1: You’ve forgotten what sort of game you are playing. Get the powerup and win the game.

2-3: You don’t feel very bad at all. Feel ashamed about your inability to commit to the role.

4-5: Is someone cutting onions nearby, or is this room just dusty?

6-8: That thing you really hate about your character? It’s true of you too, but everyone’s been too polite to say it until now.

9-12: You aren’t just bleeding now, you’re hemorrhaging. Put on a headband (size, shape, and color corresponding to your race and class) soaked in red Kool-Aid.

13-15: Break up with your significant other.

16-19: Make the sound of ultimate suffering.

Crit 20: Total success!  Kill yourself.

 

We invite you to add your own Jerkform or Humveeform games to the comments.

 

*Marc Machjer’s Twenty-Four Game Poems, an awesome book of completely playable super-short, almost prep-less games that you should immediately buy, inspired this post, as did the collective of gamers that attended a recent jeepy weekend in southern NJ.

** Also: have you bought my book? You should probably buy my book. It is journalistic nonfiction about larp.

My Gen Con Pilgrimage

Gen Con is big. Really, really big. Bigger than any other convention I’ve been to. And although I walked around the convention center and at least four hotels over my three-day stay, Gen Con is so tremendously huge that I know I missed many sections of the convention. More than 45,000 people were there. It is big. BIG. Get it? VERY LARGE.

Just look at how many people came to the costume parade…

 

For this reason, the con felt impersonal at times. A simple trip into the buzzing vendor’s room nearly blew my introvert spoons. Fortunately, I had two home bases — the Games on Demand area, packed full of indie tabletoppers ready to run games for you…on demand! And the Metatopia play  test area, run by Double Exposure, who also runs my local NJ gaming cons.

The one place I could reliably go to for quiet and solitude? The women’s bathroom. So nice to be able to do that.

The People

Praise the great old ones for sending memorable people to Gen Con, because they helped me navigate the huge space. For example, this giant balloon dragon helped me remember where I was in relation to the vendor’s hall. And for a little while, after I first arrived, I navigated by remembering where the pan-Spiderman cosplay league was posing for photos, and where the Renaissance a capella group performed.

There were many wacky outfits — cosplay and otherwise — but really, black is the go-to outfit of choice for gamers. Black t-shirt, perhaps with some joke on it, black pants, and let’s say, visible tattoos. Kilts are also big for dudes — utili-kilts on regular people, but plaid ones for the storm troopers.

Steampunk! Rennaisance! Ghostbusters! This convention had it all.

Also fun: the city of Indianapolis has clearly embraced the con. The food trucks outside the convention center featured gaming-named dishes, for example, “Grilled Cheese: the Nomming.” The bars outside the convention featured wait staff in superhero costumes. Even the homeless panhandlers got in on the action. I definitely saw a sign about an evil paladin dropping someone’s wealth level to zero.

Gender

After arriving at the con by my lonesome, I wandered into the cyclopean vendor’s hall and this assaulted my eyes:

It made me feel like running for a mumu. I wondered whether this is what this convention and culture expected me to be — available for the male gaze, posed like a porn star, garbed in a farcically impractical adventuring outfit. I hoped that this was not the lens that would be applied to me. I don’t think the image would have made such an impression, except it was the first thing I saw at Gen Con, which in turn, was my first big convention.

As a woman at a gaming convention, I expected to be in the minority, so I don’t know why this sort of fan service slapped me across the face. All I can say is that I ran away from this game-playing area and toward the Dungeons & Dragons booth, in hopes, perhaps, that the giant spider lady would protect me with her evilness.

Save me from the male gaze, spider lady!

The Games

I tried out several indie roleplaying games at the  Games on Demand area.

Mouse Guard — in which you play mice adventurers protecting mice villages from the horror of snapping turtles, snakes, and other beasties. Great game design — the permissive mechanics make sense, support game play, and allow for a lot of creativity. But I have esoteric tastes in roleplaying games (it’s a personal failing) and found the game slightly too crunchy for me. I’d totally play it again, though, if I had an enthusiastic group.

Dungeon World — I played in two late-night rights, facilitated by the lovely and talented GMs Jason Morningstar and Jim Crocker. The game has mechanics simple enough for even me to grok, but complex enough to make things interesting. D&D-style adventuring at its most approachable.

The Tribunal — a larp about totalitarian oppression. Mechanics-light, roleplay-heavy. Tense. Serious. Awesome. I want to run it at a local con.

Fiasco — one of the best games of Fiasco I’ve played, thanks to excellent co-players, including game designer Jason Morningstar. The four of us collectively ruined a wedding. We played a sociopathic spendthrift bride, her unstable cousin with tragic gaydar, a bisexual bounty-hunter groom with a cash-flow problem and his hapless agent/ex-lover, who was desperate to get his cut of the new TV deal.

I also playtested a new jeepform game by Emily Care Boss. It was awesome and intense and everyone should be awaiting its release with baited breath.

The Panels

I gave a couple talks that garnered small audiences, full of people who asked really good questions. I went solo on the first two, about how rules-heavy boffer larp reinforces traditional American values (based on my essay in States of Play and some blog content), and about Nordic methods for roleplaying romance.

I teamed up with designers Jason Morningstar and Emily Care Boss on the third talk, an introduction to Nordic larp, with a big assist from some wonderful Finnish people who attended. Morningstar recorded the hour-long discussion, and you can download an .mp3 here. The sound quality degrades at certain points as trains rampage over our panel room.

And be sure to check out the rest of Jason’s awesome talks, available for download at his +Google page!

Nordic Larp in the US?

The coolest thing I learned at Gen Con is that there’s a group of larpers in Wisconsin trying to make a Nordic-style medieval campaign game. They showed up at my panels and even swung by the Leaving Mundania signing down at the Indie Press Revolution booth in the vendor’s hall.

The full awesomeness and detail of their costumes cannot be seen with my cell phone camera.

 

These folks are from Last Hope Larp in Wisconsin. They are interested in getting in touch with some Nordic larpers from the boffer scene to find out how those games work. One of our core discussions, at the panel, revolved around immersion and monsters. Apparently, the game is trying to move away from battles with NPCs as an end in themselves, and has created an NPC race less for combat and more as a source of mystery, to the consternation of some players.

Their rules set is very short for US larp — only about 45 pages.

The Souvenirs

I picked up a few awesome things, a copy of Marc Majcher’s Twenty-Four Game Poemsan awesome booklet of super-short games (less than 1 hour) for two to five people that can be played with minimal prep using stuff I carry in my purse anyway. Get there.

I also nabbed the second volume of Stone Skin Press‘ new The New Hero anthology, a collection of stories. And of course, an advance copy of the new Dominion set for my Dominion-obsessed husband.

But the hands-down winner for best souvenir (for cheapness, uniqueness, and portability) is definitely the moustache monocle, a handy way of transforming myself into my douchebag hipster alter-ego, Joshua:

 

Some Other, Slightly-Less-Good Photos for Your Pleasure

Batman Villain Cosplay

A pop-up gameshow I saw a  couple times that looked like fun. Here, the contestant has 90 seconds to sort the audience by height. And he does it!

Folks spent a long time building elaborate structures out of cards. Then later, as I understand it, you could bid to throw coins destroying the towers. Profits went to charity. This photo is only partway through the construction.

The outside of the lonely convention center after it was all over.

Link Love: Larp Conventions

Shout out to some of the world’s larp conventions. This list would be way longer if I included all the general gaming conventions that offer larp as part of the fun; I tried to keep it to just the larp cons here.

Conventions for talking about larp, meeting larpers, and occasionally larping:

Mittelpunkt — The German Knudepunkt held in January near Frankfurt.

Solmukhota 2012 — This year’s Knutepunkt. April 12-15, Finland.

Odraz — The Czech Knutepunkt, in 2011 it was in April.

WyrdCon — the American Knutepunkt. June 21-24, California.

Larp Symposium 2011 — The Italian Knutepunkt (use Google translate to read it) held in October.

GNiales — The French Knutepunkt held in November in Paris.

 

Conventions for larping in larps:

Chimera — August convention in Auckland, New Zealand

InterCons — conventions sponsored by LARPA that focus on theater-style games. In DC in September and Massachusetts in March.

DREAMATION and DEXCON — General gaming cons with a larp presence in New Jersey. DREAMATION runs in February, DEXCON runs in July.

Women Should Organize More Larp

Some of my lady-friends have voiced a common complaint: they have to organize the freaking Halloween/Christmas/Goodbye parties at work, not because they want to, but because they’re asked to. It’s a thankless job, and one that seems to fall deferentially on the shoulders of the employed woman.

I can’t help but notice a similar dynamic on my local larp scene. It’s no secret that larp tends to skew male, at least in the New Jersey area, though I’ve seen changes in gender balance for the better during the three years I’ve spent watching the scene.

Although more women than ever are attending games, I noticed that a proportionally smaller number of the women take on leadership roles in game or out of game. While there are wonderful women GMs and storytellers on the scene, generally, men predominate. Often, when I see women on GM teams they’re doing traditional lady work (read: often-thankless organizational jobs behind the scenes)  — gathering props, making player databases and other clerical work, booking venues, etc — not the high-profile creative work of inventing stories and running plots. Maybe this is a lag problem — a lot of women are new to the scene, and perhaps want to familiarize themselves with it before stepping up. Maybe the women on the scene are happy with the status quo. But maybe encouraging more women to run games would help the balance too.

I don’t think that anyone has created this imbalance with malice and forethought; the gaming community is far from the only part of our culture with skewed gender ratios. But like other skewed areas of our culture — politics, science, etc — the gaming community has a lot to gain from including more women. And the imbalance isn’t going to change itself. According to my physicist husband, whom I trust on matters like this (because SCIENCE!), polarized systems in nature stay polarized unless you put in work to change the balance. In other words, unless people actively try to get women more involved in running and designing games, inertia will prevail.

Here are some strategies for changing that imbalance: seek out and mentor women GMs and game designers. Gently encourage your female friends to step out of their comfort zones and start running games. Publicly thank women who do clerical work for your game. Think twice about assigning clerical work to women. Support women who do run and design games. Invite women to your games specifically and listen to their suggestions and concerns.

I think larp is a beautiful medium for telling stories, and I think women have a lot to add to this conversation. Where one woman goes, many women follow, and that’s good for everyone.

Watch this space in the coming months for some link love aimed at lady gamers. I’m sure there are some other cool venues for women gamers and game designers out there, but for starters, check out these Beautiful Brains Women in Gaming Chats or RPGirl Zine. There’s also the Facebook group The Larpettes. Know of more lady-gamer spaces? Let me know in the comments.

Link Love: Larp Magazines

I wanted to start out the year with some good karma, by throwing out link love out to all the hard-working larp magazines out there.

From Abroad:

International Journal of Roleplaying — where the big kids of roleplaying theory come out to play. I wish their site had permalinks, though.

LARPzeit — a German (?) larp magazine with an international edition printed in English. Even includes some costume patterns.

Playground Magazine – an international magazine originally based out of Norway about the “new wave” of roleplaying. You can subscribe or purchase .pdf copies. A nicely-produced magazine with some pretty interesting articles. UPDATE: Apparently, Playground will not be closing as previously reported. Rather, as a commenter pointed out, it’s continuing under new Danish management.

Interacting Arts — OK, not really a magazine so much as a collective of larpers, based out of Sweden, I think. But they’ve got some interesting theory up.

Rolle|spil — I hope you read Danish, because if you don’t, you can’t read this.

 

Meanwhile, in the US…

While there are some (largely corporate-linked) US tabletop RPG magazines out there — Kobold Quarterly, The Crusader, Dragon, etc. — for the most part, I haven’t been able to find any active American larp magazines. Examiner.com’s larp vertical is the notable exception. In addition to the national column, Examiner.com has regional columnists in Minneapolis, Los Angeles, Albany, and more.

Otherwise, the best I’ve got are the archives of some now-defunct ventures:

Metagame — this larp magazine ran from 1988-2000; it was the official magazine of the Society for Interactive Literature (SIL), a predecessor of LARPA. Full archives available.

LARP Magazine — ran from 2006-2007. It’s got practical tips on how to larp and a little coverage of the US scene. Full archives available.

The Larper — a magazine that ran for two issues in 2001. Appears to be associated with LARPA.

Dreaming Larp Magazine – a nicely-designed one-time magazine that documents a larp run at SUNY from 2002-2010.

Interregnum — a roleplaying magazine that covered some topics in larp, ran from 1995-2001 out of Cambridge, MA, before folding. Some articles and a sample back issue are available at the link.

Alarums and Excursions — I can’t tell what sort of content this California-based magazine has, since there’s none on the website, but it appears to be a tiny magazine that is still issuing subscriptions.

Maybe this is an opportunity for some enterprising US larper to cater to a new market.

 

Know of more larp mags? Hit me up in the comments.

I Caught a Fish THIS BIG: Realism, Tall Tales & American Larp

In Europe, a lot of larpers care about historical accuracy, or so I’m told. The “360 degree” larpers want illusion so complete that one could mistake an “Old West town” for an Old West town, right down to the period undergarments. Even the medieval boffer larpers have costumes that look historical and are made of period-appropriate materials.

In contrast, American larpers just don’t care about historical accuracy that much; sure, they want the game world to be consistent and feel real, but (outside of reenactment) they’re not fanatical about it. We wear rayon, polyester, and sometimes tennis shoes to medieval larps. “Wench” costuming is prevalent, even though the whole corset-skirt-chemise combo doesn’t hail from a real historical period. It simply looks “medieval” in the most generic sense.

I can’t help but attribute this difference to the United States’ lack of ancient history — we’re newbies compared to the old world.  For games set in worlds before 1500, we have no national barometer in a physical sense — abandoned castles, monoliths, etc — of what accuracy might look like. If you’re in Massachusetts, sure, there are old churches and buildings dating from the 1700s. If you’re in Topeka Kansas, the date is much more recent. We don’t feel our history; we don’t live alongside it the way Europe does.

Medieval Disneyland

Medieval larp is a way of creating and reclaiming a shared primordial past, a past of mythic heroism. Despite our country’s more modern origins, we’re preoccupied with medievalism, which perhaps grows out of our own lack of a medieval past. We’re obsessed with recreating it and living it. Consider Dungeons & Dragons, the first roleplaying game, the wildly popular World of Warcraft, and the stateside prevalence of medieval boffer larp and battle games. Sure, these games aren’t realistic — they contain stuff that never existed like elves and fireballs, but still, it constitutes an attempt to forge a connection to a past that has never existed for us.

To me, the larp worlds created in the U.S. remind me of Umberto Eco’s book Travels in Hyperreality, a loose collection of essays about Eco’s journeys through America’s simulacra.  A simulacrum, according to philosopher Jean Baudrillard, is a copy or simulation of something that never existed. So Disney World is a simulacrum — it’s not a recreation of something that actually exists in real life. Rather, it’s an imitation of Walt Disney’s fairy-tale fantasy made concrete. In the U.S., we don’t have concrete ancient history, but we do have simulacra.

Simulacra are part of the hyperreal — a fantasy made indistinguishable from reality — a fantasy or fiction that seems truer than what really is. For example, Cinderella’s Castle at Disney world looks like a medieval castle, but it’s not a reproduction of any particular castle or medieval style of architecture — it simply looks “medieval.” Somehow, the feeling of “medievalness” has been concentrated, and eventually, this unreality takes the place of the historical medieval in our minds.

European larpers have a concrete historical standard by which to judge their costumes — they live alongside their history and can imitate it. On the other hand, Knight Realms players and other American larpers base their costumes on other simulacra — stuff they’ve seen in Lord of the Rings, stuff that seems medieval, that is evocative of the medieval. Historical accuracy is simply irrelevant.

Tall Tales

In America, we don’t have myth; we have tall tales from the frontier. There’s Paul Bunyan, a giant logger with a huge pet blue ox, Babe, who dug the Grand Canyon when he dragged his axe behind him. John Henry famously raced a steam drill and won only to die with his hammer in his hand. Who could forget Pecos Bill, raised by a pack of coyotes, who lassoed a tornado and rode a giant catfish down the Rio Grande?

These tall tales concern men who are larger than life; they describe exceptional people who take extraordinary risks and accomplish super-human feats.

The set up of the medieval fantasy boffer larp Knight Realms echoes these tall tales. According to the Knight Realms website, “Every PC in this game is a ‘hero’ in the Knight Realms world. They are above and beyond the normal man.”

All of the player-characters at Knight Realms are considered better than the normal human, which is why they can dispatch many of the non player characters with aplomb. The irony is, of course, that when everyone is extraordinary, the extraordinary becomes normal. My priest may be awesome compared to the game world in general, but compared to others in town, she’s barely average. Because everyone else is also exceptional, it’s hard to stand out, which may create competition among players for the spotlight during a plot-point or other scene.

Perhaps our cultural tendency toward hyperbole, as evidenced through our national tall tales, explains why larps that aim at social realism are few and far between. We don’t play commoners with interesting emotional lives; we want to play characters of mythic, steel-driving stature.

Is this a uniquely American phenomenon? Or do larpers in other countries prefer to play larger-than-life characters too?

Ars Amandi: The Post-Coital Review

On Saturday at METATOPIA six brave souls — two men and four women — tried out Ars Amandi, a Nordic game mechanic for simulating romance and sex in a larp. I think it went pretty well.

The Mechanic

In a nutshell, Ars Amandi allows players to touch permitted zones (arms, shoulders, sternum, upper back, neck below the ears) using permitted bodyparts (hands, arms, neck). Experienced practitioners say it’s all about the eye contact, and the rhythmic breathing, which allow couples to dial the intensity up and down.

I based my workshop on the detailed account that Swedish mechanic creator Emma Wieslander sent me. The workshop operated a bit like a dance class, with participants swapping partners after short sessions. I functioned as the square-dance caller, telling people where to go and what types of touch or emotion to explore during each segment. While they explored, I watched and kept neutral music on in the background.

The Workshop

At first, we limited ourselves to just the hands, and the pairs rotated until everyone had “met” each other. Folks tried out active and passive roles with their eyes closed, then with eyes open. The permitted zone expanded from hand to elbow. Then, instead of taking on active or passive roles, couples mutually explored each other’s hands and forearms.

During this first leg of the workshop, the participants laughed and talked with one another, across couples, almost incessantly. All the chatter helped them diffuse the tension in the room, but it also helped them ignore the intimacy of touching someone else’s hands. At first, their touching was tentative and very unsexy — they simply tried to touch every different part of their partners’ hands. But by the end of this first phase, they were touching each other with more liquid strokes, and were experimenting with different hand positions. Still, the chatter was protecting them from really going for it emotionally.

During the second phase of the workshop, they graduated to the shoulder. We had discussed the clavicle and neck as a zone of touch, but not everyone was comfortable with that, so we stopped at the shoulders. I forbid talking and enforced it, with the almighty power of the “shh.” For the first few rounds, there were still some nervous giggles, but the air in the room subtly changed, becoming more charged. They tried moving around each other, touching their partners’ arms from behind. They tried breathing more sexually. At first, everyone tried out the novelties incessantly — lots of eye contact, lots of heavy breathing, lots of walking around each other, arms folding together and apart like some swing-dance move. Very quickly, everyone backed off of the new additions, using them more as a garnish to the lovemaking than as its substance. Later, they mentioned how far a very small amount of eye contact goes toward increasing the intimacy.

As the workshop progressed, the sessions between partners lengthened, and we tried playing scenarios — storybook romantic love, oppositional and angry love, a one-night stand, the casual sexual opportunities of a long-term relationship. By this point, each of the participants seemed to have developed a signature style, a method of playing Ars Amandi unique to themelves. The dynamics between different couples differed quite widely, even when I didn’t give them anything specific to play — I saw innocent flirtations and intense, fraught bedroom scenes. Some pairs touched each other with slow tenderness, some almost danced together, others seemed both exploratory and ashamed at time. Beautiful love scenes unfolded.

The Response

Afterward, we all sat down and talked about the mechanic and its possibilities. Here are some of the observations that came out of that discussion:

  • All of the participants felt surprised at how intense the mechanic felt — no one had been prepared for that — and everyone mentioned how exhausted they were after these two and a half hours. People were also surprised that the technique felt so “hot.” A couple folks said they’d be bringing it home to their significant others.
  • As a group, they said they really enjoyed this technique and asked when it might be used in a larp and how this technique might play out in a five-hour convention larp setting. Sadly, I didn’t know the answer to either of these questions. I figure you’d have to require workshop attendance before a game, and I didn’t know whether convention-goers would be willing to give up two slots of time (one for the workshop, one for the larp).In terms of running an Ars Amandi larp, I’m no game designer, but I’d borrow and run someone else’s shorter scenario, if such a thing existed. However, most of the Scandinavian Ars Amandi larps I’ve heard about lasted a couple days and had really complicated staging unsuited to a short convention game. So, Nordic people: are there shorter Ars Amandi games out there?
  • We had some lively discussion about costuming possibilities — velour opera gloves (kinky!) — staging possibilities — wouldn’t chopping celery in the kitchen make for a great, handsy set-up? — and made lots of jokes about everyone being arm sluts now.
  • The participants felt that as the workshop became more intense, everyone got better at enforcing their own limits, typically in a non-verbal fashion. People said things like, “you showed me how you wanted to be touched,” and “you could tell when someone wasn’t comfortable with a specific move.”
  • While the workshop proceeded without interruptions, during the debrief, a couple people tried to walk through our room, despite the signs I’d put up. This led to some interesting discussion — one participant said that she wouldn’t have cared if someone watched the workshop, but that now, in this moment, while talking about her emotions, she especially didn’t want an outsider in there. Several people echoed her feeling, testament, I think, to the power of this mechanic.
  • Some interesting discussion about whether an Ars Amandi game could have a “non-combat” equivalent. Many stateside boffer games, for example, allow players, either by choice or by necessity (in the case of children) to wear a non-combat headband. If you’re wearing the headband, that tells other people not to hit you with boffers. Instead they call their damage from a distance. Would this work in an Ars Amandi game?
  • Ars Amandi ettiquette. A couple people thought it would be fun to write up a little sheet advising hand-lotion, getting the grit out of your fingernails, and gum. At least one of the ladies sighed longingly after another’s manicure. If only she’d known it was going to be so intense, she said, she’d have done the same.
  • General improvements: I could make the workshop better by limiting talking earlier on, introducing a safe word or a specific motion that people could use to ask their partners to back off, just as a fail safe. I could also have done a better job of letting people know when they were about to change partners — several people (very politely) complained that my abrupt cuts had resulted in coitus interruptus. I needed like a one-minute warning method, or a “3-2-1, stop.” Also, a more formal warm-up game might have helped diffuse some of that initial chatter.

Not enough Ars Amandi in your life? Tune in on Wednesday for an interview with Emma Wieslander, creator of the technique.

Thanks to the folks at METATOPIA, Double Exposure’s new awesome game design convention, for making space for this. Rob Donoghue has a really nice description of what the rest of the convention was like.

Don’t Touch Me: Physical contact and litigiousness in American and Nordic larp

I learned a lot during my stint at Knudepunkt in Denmark, but one of my most surprising finds was the difference in physical contact routinely permitted on the Nordic larp scene, and the relatively touch-free American style of gaming, a difference that derives in part from different cultural attitudes toward lawsuits and property, in my opinion.

In Norway, Finland, and Sweden, citizens have the “freedom to roam” or “everyman’s right,” which eases larp organization. While the specific parameters of the right vary from country to country, roughly speaking, the freedom to roam means that any member or group of the general public may swim in lakes, gather mushrooms, ski, sunbathe, picnic, etc. on public or private land, so long as they stay a respectful distance away from houses and don’t do permanent damage. The public can even camp on other people’s property for a day or two without asking permission, a feat that seems inconceivable from an American perspective. In terms of larp, the freedom to roam meant that it was easy to organize boffer larps set in the forest, which contributed to strong larp culture among the Nordic countries.

The freedom to roam also illustrates a difference in litigiousness between the US and the Nordic countries. My larp group would never be allowed to camp on your 50-acre farm, thanks, in part, to liability issues. What if I broke a leg while running through your forest at night? Who would pay for my pain and suffering? Of course, in Scandinavia, the nationalized health care systems would pay for the health costs of an accident, but even so, the Scandinavians simply don’t sue each other the way Americans do. The freedom to roam abroad might be compared to the domestic freedom to sue — the US has an attractive nuisance tort, for example, which says, roughly, that if you build a pretty sandcastle on a public beach and my child twists his ankle while kicking it, I can sue you for damages.

This litigiousness of US culture affects the end result of a larp. Boffer games in the states are difficult to organize, both because venues cost money and require advance planning, and because a full-contact game essentially requires liability insurance, and getting liability insurance requires a certain amount of money and organization.

Litigiousness, combined with other cultural values also plays into the level of touching allowed in American and Nordic larps. Nordic larpers often play emotional storylines, storylines involving romance or love, storylines that invite and sometimes require physical contact between players. For this reason, Nordic games often involve touching, mediated either through a game mechanic, such as tango dance, or through mutual agreement made during the workshop or pre-game phase of a larp.

Typically, touching between players is not allowed in American larp, although of course, there are exceptions to the rule. In general, outside of regulated boffer combat, players do shake hands, and occasionally, certain male personages kiss ladies’ hands in a show of chivalry. Touching the shoulder of another person is permissible, for example when casting a spell. If two players are friends, the social bounds of acceptable touching expands to hugs, back massages, arms around shoulders, and in some cases, the larp “cuddle puddle,” a group of several players lying platonically on one another in front of a fire in the inn, for example.

However, touching between strangers is often explicitly or implicitly prohibited at American larps. I asked a number of American GMs and larpers why this was so, and they gave me a number of possible reasons, chief among them was to protect women in larp community, particularly young women or women who might not feel comfortable asserting their own physical boundaries. The rule, the larpers said, is designed to punish creeps who might try to take advantage of a situation in which other usual rules of engagement – like “act normal, not like an orc” – are temporarily suspended, creeps who might use the excuse, “I’m not a groper, but my character is.” In short, the American worry is that players might use larp as a social hack, power-gaming the social rules of engagement in an inappropriate way.

Larpers also cited cultural reasons, noting that Americans like to give strangers plenty of personal space, and that given the litigiousness of American society, no touching rules help avoid potentially explosive “he said/she said” situations, and are a way for large companies or individual GMs to cover their butts. In addition, US larps are usually open to the general public, so while participants are self-selected, they aren’t necessarily screened by the organizers for non-creepiness.

Similarly, the incredible diversity of the US, at least on the East Coast, where I did much of my research, means that a wide range of people, from Asian to Hispanic, from Republican to Democrat, from deeply religious to atheist, may show up at any given larp, and in order for a game to include everyone and keep even the most reserved participants comfortable, no-touching has to be the rule; it lets people know that they are going to be safe, that their physical boundaries will not be crossed.

In short, in Nordic larp, players often negotiate what kind of contact is permissible directly with one another or through explicit rules mechanics (more on this in the forthcoming Leaving Mundania), while in the U.S., such contact is legislated primarily through the rules, out of fear of future lawsuits.

*I know I’m generalizing about American larp v. Nordic larp here, though both scenes are pretty diverse, but the difference in attitude between what I saw in my brief time abroad and what I saw during my research stateside really struck me.