DEXCON 15 Debrief

This weekend I returned to DEXCON — site of much of my Leaving Mundania research — on book tour.

While my travel schedule this summer has left me tired, the enthusiasm of the milieu kept me excited and ready to play some games.

The best thing about DEXCON is its bustling hallways, crowded with people running to or from games, or talking avidly about the play experiences they just had. I had a ton of interesting discussions, fun play-tests, and interesting game runs that made me meditate on my GMing style. Here’s the rundown:

Art Larp in the US

There’s a nice cluster of folks interested in freeform, jeepform, and Nordic larp developing at these conventions. Death by Awesome ran five scenarios — including two pickups — all of which filled up. I also felt out the level of interest in full-immersion Nordic larp and found many folks enthusiastically intrigued.

Psychological Safety in Nordic Games. A crowd of sharp listeners focused in on this issue during the Q & A after my Leaving Mundania reading. Maybe it’s the litigious American culture, but this concern has recurred at most of my readings, and it’s a confounding one that’s still a topic of debate on the Knutepunkt scene. Interesting to me that so many folks in the US raise this topic — if Nordic larp is going to cross over into the US, this matter will need a satisfactory explanation.

Tons of interest, as well, in what makes art larp work so well. Do smaller games make for better quality control when it comes to the experience? I suspect that yes, this is true, but I think there are other more important factors, such as the types of plots used and the way the Nordicans strive to create player community before games. I’ve got some other ideas too, such as how the idea of freedom in roleplaying is defined in different cultures…but I think that’s another post.

Awesome Games I Played

Somehow, I lucked into playing only awesome games at this con.

Cat and Chocolate. A short Japanese card game. Everyone plays Japanese businessmen and tells stories about how they avoid fiascos, which are suggested by the cards. The players vote on whether the methods succeed and fail. Short, easy to learn, and fun to imagine — I want to own this one! I lucked into this one by milling around the hotel lobby.

Hyperreality. A new tabletop roleplaying game by Tim Rodriguez, in which player create a reality gameshow too real for television in which participants use their hidden secrets to get ahead. We created the TV show Joe STD and the maturity went downhill from there. (Note: The gross-ness of our game was a facet of our particular group of players and not the game materials themselves.) Dare I say that our run was epic? We had a character “just here for the health insurance,” a rich dude obsessed with creepy dolls, a dude who would eat anything — anything — and a handful of other characters.

To give you a sense of the game play:  I played a plastic-surgery-obsessed bad girl named Fab Fab, and drew the secret trope “unbelievably pedantic” from the pile we had written together, causing Fab Fab to contemplate the essential nothingness of being while trying to catch syphilis from a french tourist in another contestant’s locked truck. The rest of the content is too disgusting to print here, so suffice it to say that four hours of laughing so hard made me lose my voice. Here are a few trailers for the game, from real play experiences.

Project Ninja Panda Taco. A low-prep roleplaying game in which players each portray a mastermind trying to take over the world, and a minion ready to help. This game lent itself to light-hearted silliness and creativity, and would make a great family game — it teaches the basics of how to roleplay, giving participants suggestions that they must then incorporate into their Pinky-and-the-Brain-esque plans to take over the world. The Kickstarter for this wonderful game is here.

Cards Against Humanity. It’s Apples to Apples for the extremely sarcastic. Or as the website says, it’s “a party game for horrible people.”

A Few Lessons in GMing

I ran five games — two runs of the freeform game Let the World Burn, a pick-up of Doubt, The Upgrade, and The Mothers — and learned some stuff.

Three games in one day is too many. On Thursday, I ran a pick up of Let the World Burn, a pick-up of Doubt, and then my scheduled run of Let the World Burn. It was tons of fun, but 14 hours GMing heavier scenarios is too much. I felt exhausted for the rest of the weekend.

Practice makes better. The second run of Let the World Burn went more smoothly than the first, and I felt I was able to game master it with better nuance and attention to the game materials. I have to run a game once to figure out what it’s about. In The Upgrade, our second run of the game, Tim and I better nailed the form, and the game ran more smoothly, tighter, and more intense as a result.

It’s possible to run a game too many times. I’m Doubted out, y’all. I’ve run it so many times that I have many ideas about how the game should run — my idea of what the game should be has hardened somewhat, and this makes me less sensitive to what the players want to do with the game.

I’m a better director than I am an improver. In The Upgrade, which I GMed with Tim Rodriguez, I had a hard time improvising lines as the host of the reality dating show that comprises the game. It’s not my strong suit, and I’m not as practiced in it; as a writer, I rely on editing to help make my words better, and in an improv situation, that’s not an option. I’m much better at cutting, fast-forwarding, helping raise the stakes externally than I am as a GM representing a character. My ability at casting has improved a lot over time — thanks in no small part to the advice of last week’s panel —  and at least from a GM standpoint, that’s making it more interesting to watch the games I run.

Confessionals don’t facilitate bleed. For a while, to get folks comfortable with one another, I’ve been doing a little bit of enforced sharing at the beginning of some freeform games. As in, let’s go around in a circle and say one thing we’re afraid of. My theory had been that it’d get strangers comfortable sharing their lives with one another by breaking the social convention that says we shouldn’t bare our souls to people we just met. I thought it’d help people feel more comfortable putting some of themselves into their freeform characters.

It’s worked well with a few groups, letting folks get things out onto the table. Sometimes it sets the tone of seriousness for the game — but only when everyone shares something of equal intimacy and only if all of the players are equally relaxed about putting things on the table. And that’s impossible to predict. More often than not, I think this suggested sharing does the opposite — it telegraphs what topics are sensitive to the rest of the group, and then, intentionally or unintentionally, we spend the game perhaps avoiding those.

Let the World Burn. I had two good runs in this surreal game about three people (and two abstract concepts) searching for the woman who means the world to them. The biggest difference between the two runs was my ability to run warm ups and explain the game to participants. Much easier the second time around, and as a result, folks used the game mechanics more frequently.

The Mothers. It’s not a nice game, though it’s an interesting one. The game is about group dynamics in a mother’s support group. I found the type of bleed it created particularly intriguing — I think I felt more wrecked after the game than most of the players.

Conversations

One of the more enjoyable aspects of this convention is the intriguing conversations available with designers, game-sellers, and roleplayers of all ages. I had an intriguing exchange with a couple designers about the genres of TV and writing that really sock them in the stomach — horror mostly, which was interesting to me, since I’m more of a literary drama woman myself. Our thread prompted the amusing comment about jeepform, “I don’t need some Swedish person to make me feel bad about myself.” Apparently, that’s what Lars von Trier is for.

I argued with some larpers about whether reenactment is really larp. (Short answer: no. Though it is possible to larp at a non-larp, and I think some reenactors do it). And there was some lively talk with designers and larpers about how to advance larp design in the US. A local campaign game is considering the introduction of ars amandi as a supplementary and optional mechanic. I think emotional one-shots are the way to go, primarily because I think emotionally intense campaign games challenge psychological safety too much. Also some interesting discussion on whether Americans would be willing to play in certain Nordic larps. Short answer: yes.

I also met at least two women who want to start GMing jeepform at cons: yay!

Tragically, I narrowly missed my chance to play Steal Away Jordan, a roleplaying game about slavery I’ve been dying to try. I guess I had to leave something for next time!

See y’all at Gen Con.

DEXCON Fun & Larp Link Love

Tons of stuff new in the larp world in the last couple weeks. Here’s my attempt to stay abreast of the developments.
First, though, a pitch for DEXCON, which runs July 4-July 8 at the Hyatt in Morristown, NJ. I’m running three freeform games (and maybe some pickups) this weekend. See my event schedule for details.
Most importantly, though, Wednesday 11pm- midnight I’m holding a reading/signing/costume contest. So wear your bad-mutha-shut-your-mouth costume for a chance to win bragging rights and a copy of Leaving Mundania!
And of course, you can snag a copy of Leaving Mundania over at the Modern Myths table throughout the weekend.
And now, on to the link love:

Leaving Mundania Reading @ The Fallout Shelter

Does the idea of larp fascinate you or pique your interest? Do you live in New Jersey? Do you play Knight Realms, Dystopia Rising, or another local game? Been to the DREAMATION and DEXCON conventions? Are you friends with a certain Rutgers physicist?

Come on down to the Fallout Shelter (Comics, Games & Collectibles!) tomorrow night for the launch of Leaving Mundania. I’ll be reading from the book and signing copies.

Date: Saturday, April 28
Time: 7pm
Location: The Fallout Shelter, 320 Raritan Avenue, Highland Park, NJ.

If you’re on Facebook, it’d be great if you could RSVP via the Facebook invite.

Cheers!

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.

All About Jeep

Since I’m running a couple jeep games here at DEXCON 14, I wanted to spend a post exploring this play style a bit, and what better way to do this than to get the word straight from the horse’s (chauffeur’s?) mouth.

Meet Frederik Berg Østergaard, freelance game designer and member of Vi åker jeep (tr. We go by jeep), who was kind enough to answer a couple questions.

What are the characteristics of a jeep game?

Most of the games play out quite close to home, seeing that the drama in everyday life is equally as interesting as playing vampires on spaceships. I mean I know how to play out a relationship drama or the sad clown in a circus, but not so much about playing an 3000 year old vampire on Titus. We have to realize that what we put in our characters comes from within us as players; experiences, emotions, etc. We are assuming that players can cope both complex form and content.

What is it like to play a jeep?

To play in a jeepform game requires you to be able to sense the direction of the story and act out your character in relation to that. It’s more about working with your fellow-players to reach a certain goal or conclusion, as determined by the game. We want to experience a emotionally thick stories, stories that are about something. How we get there is more important that reaching our individual goals in it self. What truly set us apart is that our game mechanics are form-oriented, subtle and directed. How we tell the story is equally important as the story told.

So there is a very close connection between how the game is played and the content of the game. It’s about choosing the best form–or structure–for the game. If you’re playing a game about obesity, whats more fitting than using chocolates as a way of propelling the game forward? It’s about eschewing the preconceived elements that belong in a certain play style and just using the elements that fit the story we want to tell. I mean chocolates are a prop, but it resides in the metaplay level and not the actual play level, as part of the structure of the game.

What is bleed and why would I want to experience it?

In the progressive larp scene of Scandinavia, which includes jeepform, bleed is becoming the reason to play at all. Today’s players today want to experience emotionally complex and/or tough situations. In many ways the progressive larps are like extreme sports for your mind.

The kick you get out of being emotionally fucked up brings its own reward. Bleed is just one of those factors that makes it work. When you as a player experience something via your character, that something has a tendency to spill over. Either you had a personal experience that resonates with the something in the game or you put your character in a situation that has an effect on you as a person. It could be an intense feeling of love towards an other character, that lingers on after the game toward the player of that character.

The bottom line is that the magic circle that sets the game world apart from the real world is blurred. Bleed is just one of those mechanics that works in between this division. Remember when you got angry at your dad after loosing a game of Monopoly? Same shit.

How is a jeep game different from more conventional tabletop rpgs and larps?

Tabletop games mainly use simulation to achieve story. This simulation most often takes place through rules describing what you can do, and how you interact with the game world. How much damage does a psionic blast do? How many sixes do you need to roll to make someone to fall in love with you? In tabletop games you are essentially playing in a pre-built, simplified and compartmentalized world. In Jeepform (which is what we call our play style) games we don’t sit around a table, we don’t use rules to describe our play world, and we act out what happens in the story instead of talking about it or rolling for it. In many ways it resembles larps, but is different.

Larps, on the other hand, achieve story through immersion. Players often aim at immersing themselves into an outside consciousness; a character. You try to act and behave as if you are that character in a world that supports that immersion via  furnished locations, costumes and various props. What exists in the game world should ideally also exist in the play world and when playing the game. Instead we use symbolic props and locations. As the tabletop players, we use the powers of the mind to imagine various locations, guns etc. It’s not so much about character immersion but more about story immersion. Having a unified vision of where it would be best that the game should be going among the players. The game master sets the mood, the direction, and the premise. A game about the complexities of maternity should not be about whether to drive stick shift or not. In other words, it’s about staying on target and making the journey towards that target the most interesting as possible

The Story Gamers are doing something along the same lines, except we are using the game’s structure to facilitate play, and not the rule set. Every jeepform game has it’s own structure that shapes the story, and as such the individual game is very different from another. By structure I mean the actual play mechanics of the game and how the story is narrated. It could be playing out two stories in parallel, using physical game mechanics to facilitate character switching, or harnessing the unpleasant power of keeping eye contact while narrating. Jeepform is about facilitating the telling of a specific story, and that story can be pretty much anything, as long as it is about something.

How and why did the jeepers form up as a group?

This year (2011) is our 10th anniversary. The group started in Sweden as a reaction to the staleness of a similar play style called freeform. Freeform was mainly aimed at removing rules, physical tables, dice, dragons, and exotic locations and replacing it with a more free mode of play. Drama was the cornerstone of that play style. But over time, that freedom with was replaced with its own fixed play style. Worse, the games often lacked premise or subject, and didn’t use resolution mechanics at all, replacing them with de-facto game master fiat. Many games lacked complex characters and more often than not took place in exotic locations.

A typical bad freeform of that time would be players trapped in an escalator in New York while screaming at each other for no other good reason than this was deemed ‘good roleplaying’. That sucked and we tried to replace that with something more meaningful. After discovering that other countries had similar interests, the group became more of an international entity, working hard to push our play style all over Europe and the rest of the world.

Where does the name “jeep” come from?

There are different stories about that. As far as I know it was just a silly thing about going to conventions in a Jeep. I don’t know if there was an actual Jeep involved, but somehow the name stuck. It had the added benefit later, that it would make it much easier to Google jeepform than freeform. Try Googling freeform and you end up with a lot of jazz.

What is your favorite jeep game and why?

Eschewing my own games, I think that the game Drunk is formidable. It combines a very hands-on physical play mechanic with very tough content. The game is about the power of alchohol and choosing the easy way out, in the most difficult matter. Using a bottle filled with water, the players attach scenes to it, playing out the scenes when the level of water reaches the scene. I think the game has some very beautiful play mechanics and is elegantly constructed. It is most definitely a game worth checking out.

Frederik Berg Østergaard is a Scandinavian game designer and jeepform evangelist. His work has mainly focused on taking the medium further and farther away from its tabletop roots into an adult oriented form,  that has more in common with performance and psychodrama. Frederik also holds an M.A. in History of Religions from the University of Copenhagen.

DEXCON: Come Go by Jeep

Remember that one time I went to a convention and wouldn’t shut up about it? Now I’m running a game I played there. This week, I’m bringing a little bit of Scandinavia to New Jersey as I run a couple of jeepform games at my local gaming convention, DEXCON 14 in Morristown New Jersey, which runs Wednesday-Friday of this week.

I am running two sessions of Previous Occupants (2010) by Frederik Berg Olsen and Tobias Wrigstad, 2pm-6pm on Thurs and again on Friday, and two sessions of Doubt (2007) by Frederik Axelzon and Tobias Wrigstad, 9am-1pm on Friday and Saturday, courtesy of the marvelous website  Vi åker jeep (tr. We go by jeep). Each of the games are for four players. Previous Occupants introduces players to this style of roleplaying, while Doubt is known for being really intense, and sort of blew my mind when I played it.

These games aren’t your usual larp. In fact, in the Nordic lands, they are considered tabletop games, even though the players act out their behavior physically. There are no dice, no monsters and no dungeons; just players interacting with one another as ordinary, realistic people would, if people could give soliloquies and interacted according to a setlist of scenes.

If most larp is Lord of the Rings, these games are more like Lost in Translation.

The jeepers have a set of fascinating aesthetic principles, and the two games I am running are aimed at inducing bleed, mixing up the emotions of player and character, a move that sometimes gives players a moment of epiphany about themselves as people.

In other words, these two games gave me that good-art feeling afterwards. If you’re into that too, sign up and come play.

Well-organized make believe

<em>Philadelphia Inquirer</em>, September 10, 2008On most days, chaplain Mark Ford works for the forces of good, counseling drug and alcohol addicts at the Atlantic City Rescue Mission, a nonprofit Christian social-service organization.

But late on a Friday this summer, Ford became “Pope Frig’emall,” a chaos-worshipping cartoon priest bent on bringing evil incarnate to his world.

Feature on LARP for the Philly Inquirer that includes some audio and few characters who may appear in the book.

Philadelphia Inquirer, September 10, 2008