The Curse: A Freeform Game About BRCA

family

At long last, I’ve finished The Curse, a freeform game about hereditary breast cancer, the BRCA mutations, and making decisions around these issues.

It premiered at the Danish gaming convention Fastaval in 2013, where it nabbed an Otto nomination for best larp script.

I wrote The Curse in the Fastaval style. This means that it features a strong game master who cuts together the scenes like an improvised play. The game attempts to tackle a serious topic — BRCA mutations and the decisions they spark — with nuance. It’s not meant to be fun in the funny ha-ha sense, but it’s meant to be interesting and provide insight into a situation that many women face.

It’s free to download and distribute so long as you don’t try to make money off it. If you run or play it, I’d love to hear about your experience at LizzieStark@gmail.com.

FREE DOWNLOAD (PDF) OF THE CURSE  HERE.

 

THE CURSE AT A GLANCE

Would you cut out healthy body parts if you thought it might save your life?

Rita and Elle bear a heavy legacy: a mother who developed breast cancer at 30 and died of ovarian cancer 20 years later. When it comes to their family tree, that’s just the tip of the tumor. There’s a BRCA mutation lurking in the family DNA, an inherited genetic error that dramatically ups a woman’s chances of developing aggressive breast and ovarian cancer at unusually young ages. After Rita and Elle test positive for the family mutation, they can choose to live with their fear or cut it out with a scalpel.

Will they mutilate themselves to avoid their mother’s fate, or stay strong and face down dread? How should the men in their lives deal with the news? Will this condition mutilate their romantic relationships as well?

This freeform game is about making life-altering decisions in uncertain circumstances and passing on the horror of that choice to the next generation. A scenario about fear of death, vanity, and relationships under pressure.

Factfile

Time: 4-5 hours.

Number of players: 4 +1 game master. Preferably two women and two men.

Genre: Cancer narratives, relationship drama, realism

Player type: You want to explore some challenging emotional territory, including cancer, unclear consequences, and amputating body parts you’re fond of. And you don’t mind talking about breasts. 18+ only, please.

Game master type: You’ll be the players’ guide and teach the techniques of the game. You’re equally happy pushing the players when they need it, or standing back and watching them twitch like fish on hooks.

In Praise of Awesome Nordic Ladies

I’m in Scandinavia this month. First I visited Fastaval, a Danish freeform convention, and now I’m hanging out at a friend’s place in Oslo for a couple weeks before heading to Knutepunkt, a larp convention that rotates its way around the Nordic capitals.

This means I’ve been lucky enough to get an up-close peek at Nordic culture, and in the process I’ve learned a few things I’d like to share.

And now…a paean to Awesome Nordic Ladies of the Nordic larp scene.

Nordica apparently has a long proud tradition of awesome women. They differ a bit geographically — if stereotype is true then Sweden is on the bleeding edge of gender equality/political correctness, with Denmark — still great on plenty of gender stuff — lies at the other pole, with Finland and Norway in between.

However, Awesome Nordic Ladies know no national boundaries, and they support one another across them. Here are some of their qualities:

Awesome Nordic Ladies…

  • …show solidarity for each other by supporting each other’s projects. For example, at Fastaval, four Nordic ladies agreed to run my scenario about breast cancer. A couple of them also helped by reading the game text and offering feedback. (Note: “solidarity” isn’t the same thing as “unquestioning acceptance of everything women say or do.” Awesome Nordic Ladies also critique with love and care. They say how they feel and what you could do better, but in a manner that’s geared toward making your stuff better.)
  • …unapologetically espouse feminist ideals and act on them. In addition to speaking up, this also means looking out for other women.
  • …have mad style. 1950s dress seems “in,” as are androgynous looks. Lots of iconic fashion choices going on.
  • …take risks and do projects. They’re frequently in charge of things. They are active participants in their scenes, as players and game creators.
  • …deal with their emotions openly and rationally. I’ve sat in on lots of interesting talk about body image, jealousy, and scene politics. What’s cool is that they seem able to talk about this stuff and acknowledge others’ feelings without things turning bitter and competitive.
  • …are super-smart and able to converse intelligently about a wide variety of topics.
  • …have keen social antennae and include others socially. This can mean working as a team to include folks who are less socially savvy, for example, by rotating around hanging out with less savvy folks in big groups. It can also mean they make good larp casting choices, or think about how to help their friends grow as people.
  • …think about social engineering. That is to say, how to maneuver situations to produce the best social outcome. This includes…
  • …foster leadership skills in the next generation of Awesome Nordic Ladies. They do this by giving honest feedback, including less experienced women in their projects, and by serving as mentors for other women working on their first or second projects.
  • own their own awesomeness. 

In conclusion, Awesome Nordic Ladies are awesome. Start a sect near you today!

What else makes Nordic women so awesome? Post your bit in the comments.

Fastaval 2013

You can always tell which Americans have been to Scandinavian roleplaying conventions, because they have the look in their eyes of having dropped acid or shot heroin. That’s a little how Scandinavia feels to me – like a vivid waking hallucination, perhaps because Nordic gaming conventions are an exercise in sleep deprivation. This year, I alleviated that a bit by arriving a day early, which gave me an extra 24 hours to adjust to the time zone, before committing to a serious regimen of partying and watching the sun come up. And then there are the games, thought-provoking entries into experiences you might not otherwise encounter. I’m obviously hooked on Nordican games, and last week, I had my new fix at the Danish convention Fastaval.

FASTAVAL

For those who aren’t familiar, Fastaval features juried selection of about 30 freeform games, which are then entered into an Oscars-style competition called the Ottos, where participants have a shot at winning a coveted golden penguin. Although the convention also features larps and board games – the latter of which earned its own awards this year – it’s mostly about the freeform scenarios. Freeform scenarios are short (2-4 hours) roleplaying games for between two and ten un-costumed players, featuring a strong GM who cuts together scenes, sort of like the director in a movie, and uses the tools selected by the scenario writer to push the characters.

This year I had a scenario in the running called The Curse, a short game about hereditary breast cancer and relationships, and I’m pleased to say it received an Otto nod for best writing. I have a few tweaks I’d like to make based on the feedback I received, but then I’ll post it up soon.

For more on Fastaval, check out my report from last year’s convention, or last year’s list of 5 Things US Conventions Could Steal From Fastaval.

 

THE SCENE

Fastaval takes place in a school rented out for the occasion, and all the participants pitch in with a work shift to help out the staff who spend the convention making things awesome for everybody. It also means that unlike conventions in the states, there are no non-gaming outsiders around. In addition to running a boatload of games, the convention is set up for socializing. Inside the venue there is a participant-run café that sells food and cocktails, and sometimes has performers, both burlesque and guitar-and-singer style. It’s a great place to hang out and have a chat, and it’s populated with an older crowd. The bar is just down the hall, stays open much later, and has a beer, shots, and death metal vibe. The Danes definitely believe in alcohol as a social lubricant, and the drinking age is younger here, though there is a separate booze-free lounge provided for the youth.

In addition, there’s a TV crew running around shooting little amusing sketches about the convention and its culture that get edited into an episode shown each night in the bar at 4am. If you think you can’t stay up that late, you’re wrong.

The Dirtbusters, a pervasive larp about fighting the forces of chaos (read: cleaning) runs alongside the convention and provides much-needed cleanup services. They have their own culture, and rumor has it, a beer-and-porn laden command center somewhere on the premises. They provide a vital service to the convention, and seem to be in the midst of an important cultural transition – in recent years, as women have become more vocal on this scene, there has been some tension around issues of sexism and Dirtbuster culture. While the situation hasn’t entirely resolved itself, most of the chatter I heard suggested that things have been improving at a fast clip.

At the same time, the convention consists of only about 25 percent women – far less than other conventions I’ve been to – and you can see those demographics (or sometimes more skewed ones) reflected in the organizing committee, who ends up writing scenarios, the Otto awards etc. As a woman, I sometimes found it intimidating to talk to the other writers and participants, for example – watching ten tall dudes who all know each other well standing in a circle having an important-sounding discussion in another language – made me hesitant to approach. At the same time, the women I’ve met at Fastaval have been highly highly awesome, so it seems like it’d be in everyone’s interest to increase their numbers.  One thing I learned from running the all-women larp Mad About the Boy is that often women don’t feel comfortable taking space, but rather need to be invited in. Having women in a space also often “proves” that it’s safe for other women. I wonder if Fastaval could benefit from a “get women gaming” initiative of some sort.

In the cafe with game designers.

In the cafe with game designers, sporting mad Fastaval steeze.

International participants felt particularly welcome this year, with a host of nods to our presence — the usual games in English, typically with a few locals mixed in for flavor; subtitles for the awesome Otto Channel TV series; and translators available during the award ceremonies. In addition, most people speak pretty kick-ass English, even when  tired or inebriated.

The crowd represents an interesting mixture of the usual gamers, present at every convention I’ve been to in any country – black t-shirts, long hair, relaxed attitude – and then folks sporting some pretty serious style. Of course, go anywhere and you’ll find women with sharply honed senses of style, but here there are many men working a specific look – certainly many more than I am used to. Yes, Fastaval, I am complimenting the outfits of many of your dudes. Here are some things that appear to be “in”: waxed moustaches, bowties, ties of any sort, blazers, interesting hair (long, short, dyed), suspenders, squarish glasses, monochromatic anything, newsboy caps, pocket squares, lots of facial piercings. And of course beards. Always beards.

 

THE OTTOS

Otto, Vincent Baker, and me.

Otto, Vincent Baker, and me.

This year, I learned a lot about the Otto awards, both through doing, since I wrote a scenario, and by way of research – I spent quite a bit of time talking to former judges about how they do their thing, since there’s some interest stateside in getting up our own competition, and we like to do our homework. Here are the most surprising things I learned:

  • There are no hard guidelines on which scenarios are able to be submitted to each year’s Fastaval. In general, they want new scenarios, and good ones. What does “new” mean, you might ask — like, written in the last year? Or not played at other conventions? what about edge cases? The answer is unclear, perhaps by design. Two folks who organize the convention use their discretion in picking scenarios.
  •  The committee of six judges agrees on all nominations and winners unanimously. As you can imagine, this means a lot of long meetings and therefore, presumably, arguing. People sometimes refer to this as the “judges’ larp.” I’ve heard that it sometimes turns into its own sleep deprivation competition, as judges passionate about certain scenarios out-argue and out-last their fellows into the  night.
  •  The judges spend most of their time reading scenarios, as opposed to playing them. This supposedly gives an edge to scenarios that are well-written.
  •   In addition to reading scenarios, the judges look at feedback forms written by players and GMs. The questionnaires, handed out after every run, feature questions like, “how did your group function?” “what was the best thing about the scenario?” “What could have been improved?” “What do you want to tell the writer?” and so on, along with a numeric score. Finally, each judge spends some time hanging out in the café and bar and so on, listening to people talk about their game experiences. Interestingly, the judges are also assigned a couple of authors to talk to informally during the convention. I found this very low-key and nice.
  •  The Otto categories include things like Best Characters, Best Story, Best Scenario, Best Mechanics, Best Presentation (writing), and so on. Rather, the committee interprets these each year. When a judge retires, someone with a similar perspective to that judge is invited to fill in.
  •   In addition, a separate committee awards an honorary Otto to a person who has contributed a lot to the scene. And of course, there’s an audience prize too.

As a writer, it’s pretty cool to have the scenario you labored over read with such care and attention to detail. It’s a little scary of course (is there anything worth doing that isn’t?), but typically writers write because they’d like to be carefully read. I’m looking forward to the feedback that the committee offers.

 

WRITERS’ CULTURE

My sparring partner, Troels, and I.

My sparring partner, Troels, and I.

Fastaval supports scenario writers. I understand that for folks local to Denmark, there are weekend retreats and scenario workshops designed to nurture both experienced and new writers. Although writers are spread out across Denmark, I believe there are activities in a few different cities to help folks connect, play test, and get feedback on their writing.

In addition, there’s the option of a sparring partner, which is also available to international participants. Sparring partners help improve your scenario by offering pointed feedback and challenging design ideals. Often, they seem to specialize in something particular. I wanted special help with play testing, since I was new to scenario writing, but my sparring partner ended up reading a truly sick number of drafts, discussing structure and format with me, and working as a general sounding board for new ideas. Super super helpful.

The culture at this convention – or perhaps it is a facet of Danes in general? – has a marked absence of bullshit. Feedback is direct and honest, and there wasn’t the veneer of fake praise and excessive politeness over everything that so often marks gatherings of writers. I found this in turns refreshing, exciting, and intimidating.

 

THE GAMES

Dulce Et Decorum had lovely packaging.

Dulce Et Decorum had lovely packaging.

I played two scenarios and ran two scenarios this year. My best experience was running Dulce Et Decorum, a tabletop game about the trenches of WWI, written by my sparring partner Troels Ken Pedersen. Since the game ran long, I had a fun time cutting viciously and controlling the spotlight of the scenario. And from the feedback sheets I collected at the end of the scenario, the players enjoyed themselves too, which is the whole point.

I wish I’d played more scenarios this year, or perhaps played them in a different order. The convention starts on Wednesday, with most play wrapped up by Sunday morning. Stateside, the best stuff usually runs on Fri/Sat night of conventions, so that’s what I signed up for, but here, it seems the opposite is true. Conventional wisdom among participants suggests that the best stuff happens on Wednesday night, and Thursday and Friday during the day, mainly because as the convention wears on and the parties stretch out into the night participants and GMs alike become more fatigued and hung over as the convention progresses.

 

PLAYERS

Recently, renowned Swedish person (and bad-ass GM/designer) Anna Westerling visited the US, and we all ran freeform games for Americans. She observed that Americans tend to follow directions really well and quickly — if the point of this scene is for A to flirt with B, then they get right in there and make it happen quickly. This can make cutting easier, and often means that emotions for players escalate rather quickly.

With her observation in mind, I found the Nordic players fascinating. Their style of play seems more subtle to me; rather than cutting to the chase many of them approach the point of the scene sideways rather than head on, and they layer tension slowly and often rather quietly. This approach has advantages, of course — it’s more realistic, and often the conflicts created felt quite intriguing. Not better or worse; just different.

This makes me wonder having both sorts of players in the same game would make things mismatched or perfectly matched. I’d imagine that the Nordic way of playing would add richness and detail, where the American style of play drives the plot forward and raises the stakes. I’ll be watching future games carefully to see how it works out in practice.

 

HIGHLIGHTS

The hotel's brass tiger.

Here’s Claus Raasted on a brass hotel tiger.

Some of my best Fastaval fun took place in the café, talking design and American culture with guest of honor and new freeform convert Vincent Baker, and chatting with other designers and folks I feel I’m starting to know now that I’ve been to a few international conventions.

I also happened to stay in a pretty pimping hotel room with an international crew. In addition to two small rooms for sleeping, we had a large common area decorated with animal skulls and preserved deer heads, a set of elaborate golden couches, and a long baroque dining room table. The room opened out onto a little terrace with a view up a wooded hill, perfect for watching the sun rise.

 

 

THE FASTAVAL CHALLENGE

Need some Fastaval, but live outside Nordica? Many of the scenarios are available in English at the Alexandria project. I know that my local scene would love to see many more sets of GM instructions translated into English, and so I offer this incentive: if you translate your scenario, my GM crew, Sex & Bullets, will make sure that it runs at least once at a con or private gaming event.

(Caveats: we can’t play some topics here, though, and we’ll be the final arbiters of what those are. When in doubt, ask! lizzie.stark@gmail.com We’d love both traditional sad-sack scenarios as well as ones that are a bit lighter and more fun. And we can only promise for scenarios with 1-15 participants and a minimum of set/costuming)

 

 

Jeepform for Noobs

Featured

Jeepform games have a mysterious rap, perhaps because the Nordic games in general defy neat taxonomy, and this is the most definable word that’s made it over here. In the course of my travels, I’ve heard gamers drop “jeepform” to describe any roleplaying game  that comes out of the Nordic countries. For indie gamers, dropping the neologism works a bit like mentioning Belle & Sebastian did back when I was in college — it identifies the hipsters to one another; it functions as a code word for people who are in to serious roleplay, even if they aren’t quite sure what it means.

Well, my beloved gaming hipsters, I’m here to explain what the #$%! jeepform is to you…at least what I’ve gleaned during my travels.

Jeepform is a style of freeform game.

What in tarnation is a freeform game? That’s a good question — ask three Nordicans and you’ll get five answers. More or less, the freeform scene developed out of the tabletop gaming scene and now centers around the Fastaval convention in Denmark. Basically, people started standing up and acting out their characters during tabletop games, and things progressed until suddenly there were no tables at all. Freeform games use some techniques from larp, like acting out your character, and some techniques from tabletop games, like fast forwarding through the two-week trek you take to the dungeon.

Here’s a handy chart:

Think of it this way — in a platonic larp, there’d be a one-to-one relationship between reality and the game world. So if I bought you a mug of ale, we’d go to the inn and I’d buy you a mug of ale. In a tabletop game, there’s a symbolic relationship between the real world and the game world. So if I stab your character, I represent that by saying “I stab your character.” Freeform games use some one-to-one correspondence — if I shout at you in real life, I’m shouting at you in the game — and some symbolic relationships — I can make my pen into a sword if necessary.

Because freeform games (and by extension, jeepform games) came out of the tabletop scene, folks refer to them as tabletop games. So jeepform is not larp, even though you act out a scene physically.

Most of the games are for 3-8 players and can take place in any room with a reasonable amount of privacy and space. No set or costumes required.

Jeepform is whatever the collective of (mostly) Danish and Swedish people say it is.

The jeepers get to decide what counts as jeepform. Inducted jeepers make jeepform games. Other people can create jeepish games, but really, if it’s not on the Jeepen.org website (with rare exception, as pointed out in the comments), it’s not a proper  jeepform.  This is sort of like how if I made a phone with a touch screen it wouldn’t be an iPhone unless Apple said so. Or how if I slap LV logos over a kicky purse I designed, it’s not Louis Vuitton unless the company says so.

Certain themes characterize jeepform games.

For the most part, they’re set in the real, mundane world. No dragons here, just ordinary people having ordinary problems with their relationships, jobs, and personal lives. Linked to this is the idea of playing close to home — playing characters with whom you have something in common.

Playing close to home also means making the story emotionally relevant for yourself by bringing your real life into the game. If I’m playing a relationship game and choose to riff off of that fight I had with my husband last week, that creates a very different play experience than playing on an issue that’s alien to me. Playing close to home can cause bleed, which is what happens when player and character emotions get mixed up. In the US, we often think of bleed as something to be avoided, but in many Nordic roleplaying games, it is encouraged and managed by the game formats. Playing for bleed can lead to insight about oneself and the world, and it creates intense emotions that some players crave.

Since these game experiences are more about the emotion (the inside story), and less about the plot (the outside story), their surface stories often don’t have a lot of bells and whistles. For example, a game might be about a Mother’s support group that turns vicious, or a relationship where at least one of the partners experiences temptation and doubt, or about a drunk guy dying from alcoholism. It’s not uncommon to know how the story ends before the game begins, because the point is not really to discover what happens, but rather, to explore the themes and emotions suggested by the scenario.  Similarly, because many of the jeepform games — but not all — encourage bleed, character sheets are minimal or nonexistent. If all I know about my character is that she’s an actress,  then during the game I’ll necessarily fill in from my real-life experience, creating a character relevant to my life.

While bleed can sneak up on you, it’s important to remember that players have some control over how close to home they want to play it — you can choose to create a character, a mask, between yourself and the game, or you can try to play it as if you were in the game situation.

Jeepform games are highly structured.

Rather than letting one scene unspool continuously, most jeepform games are cut together more like a movie, with a series of scenes. The GM serves as the director of the movie, cutting scenes at points of tension by saying “cut,” helping set scenes, keeping track of time, and introducing other elements to help heighten the tension. Sometimes, the GM can call for scenes to be replayed — if a scene is dragging on or not escalating the drama, the GM can say, “do it again, but this time talk about your relationship with his mother.”

Most scenes focus on a couple of characters. Anyone who is not playing in a particular scene either watches the drama unfold, or perhaps enters as an NPC to help the spotlighted characters explore their emotions.

Jeepform games use metatechniques.

Metatechniques break the flow of the game narrative and heighten the drama. There are many different metatechniques; some games use more, some games use fewer. Here are a couple of the most commonly-used ones:

Monologuing. During a scene, the GM can demand a monologue from a character by pointing and saying “monologue.” The character delivers a soliloquy about what’s going on in her head. When the monologue is over, game play resumes as if no one on stage has heard it. Monologues help flesh out characters and relay important information to other players. If I mention my character’s infertility during a monologue, then later perhaps my co-players will push me to address this by repeatedly bringing up children.

As jeeper Emily Care Boss once told me, monologues and several other metatechniques often create dramatic irony between players and characters. This can be played for laughs — for example, two characters are flirting and one delivers a monologue about how repugnant the other’s breath is — and also for complexity/tragedy — for example, when a character delivers a monologue about how he’s thinking about cheating and then returns to a lovey-dovey scene with his wife.

Bird-in-ear. The GM whispers stuff into the ears of characters to push them, either by offering direct suggestions or simulating thoughts that might be winging through the character’s mind.

Telegraphing. You can bring any object you need into the game through the power of your imagination. The best way to do this is in-scene, for example, by saying, “I bought you flowers” when presenting someone with a pen. The phrase telegraphs to them that the pen now represents a bouquet. It’s also possible — but less elegant — to do out of game, by saying, “this pen is a knife,” and using it appropriately.

Temporal play. There is probably some more official-sounding word for this, but many jeepform games play with time. GMs can fast forward a scene to two beers later. In some games, it’s possible to play flash backs and flash forwards, often using different physical locations in the room to help everyone keep track of the present.

Character nonmonogamy. Several people may play the same character. For example, if two players are on stage and the GM calls for a possible future, two other folks might get up and play it out. Or we might play different aspects of the same character, as in the game Doubt, where two player portray actors in a relationship, and two players portray the characters in the play that they’re performing in.

Where does the name jeepform come from?

The jeepers put out many apocryphal stories about the term’s origins. The best way to hear one is to buy a jeeper a beer.

Further reading:

Interview with jeeper Frederik Berg Østergaard
Vi åker jeep! (includes free downloads of games. Previous Occupants is a good place to start for new GMs)
Nordic Larp Wiki on jeepform
Emily Care Boss and others ask Tobias Wrigstad questions on StoryGames.
Tobias Wrigstad on designing jeepform games on StoryGames.
How to approach a jeepform game on StoryGames.

 

New in Larp: September 10, 2012

Want to know what’s new in larp? Here’s the coolest, most interesting stuff I’ve been reading about the hobby for the last couple weeks:

  • A fascinating series called The Gamer Wife, over at Gaming as Women. Written by the pseudonymous Finaira, an analog gamer-for-life who married a pillar of her local gaming community, the series deconstructs the stereotype of “Gamer Wife.” With wit, candor, and a side of anger, the series tackles the ways her marriage has impacted her gaming life. Part 1 (the intro), Part 2 (switch from girlfriend class to wife class), Part 3 (wifely responsibilities), Part 4 (how the rpg table changed), Part 5 (accusations of favoritism).
  • This Just In From Gen ConA podcast series of interviews with many awesome gamers who went to Gen Con. I really enjoyed John Stavropoulos’ talk on safety in tabletop roleplaying games. There are many other interview gems too, from Emily Care Boss to Margaret Weiss and everything in between.
  • ENnie winner JR Blackwell talks back to this bonehead with a savvy piece of satire about the geek pecking order. As she puts it. “If there is a Geek Hierarchy, one where the more knowledgeable, experienced,  “truer” geeks get to question the authenticity (questions usually directed at women) of others, then I submit that you, infintile-excretion-who-asks-me-to-name-10-DC-characters, may no longer question me, and furthermore, I claim the right to question YOUR authenticity.”
  • The landing page looks scary in Finnish, but just click on the link to download Finnish roleplaying guru J. Tuomas Harviainen’s doctoral dissertation on larp, Systemic Perspectives on Information in Physically Performed Role-play. According to the synopsis, it takes a look at larping in “historical re-enactment, sadomasochist roleplaying and post-modern magic.” I am still working my way through it, but if you’re into larp theory, you won’t want to miss this one — not the least for the impressive bibliography at the end.
  • Thomas Be tells us all about  a Swiss one-shot demon larp in readable prose. Come to gawk at the costumes, stay for commentary on game design.
  • The rumors are true! Swedish games do get government funding, and Elin Dalstål tells us how over at Gaming as Women.
  • Identities at Play, British researcher Nathan Hook’s master’s thesis on bleed, immersion, and larp as therapy, is available both in book form and for free download. I haven’t managed to wrangle a download yet, but am looking forward…
  • Behold! A diverse taxonomy of story games. Some enterprising soul made a fascinating list of genres and illustrative games.
  • Hat tip to Jaakko Stenros, who hipped me to awesome-looking new games magazine Continue.
  • Fiasco designer Jason Morningstar taped all of his panels from Gen Con. I thought the international gaming one was particularly interesting. You can also catch audio of panels from Dragon Con including him and others over at Third Eye Gaming.

And a few more time-sensitive concerns:

How to Debrief a Freeform Game

This new series delves into the complexity of game mastering a freeform game.

What is a freeform game? No one knows for sure, so let’s say that it’s somewhere between a larp and a tabletop roleplaying game, with some scenes acted out, and with a variety of scenes enacted, rather than just one single long one.

Since some games are emotionally intense, game masters sometimes hold a structured conversation afterward, called a debrief, which serves as a buffer between the game and the return to real life. Players may talk about what happened in the game, reassure each other, mull over complex emotions, and give the GM feedback during the debrief.

I asked my panel of freeform GMs whether they used debriefing, and if so, how they used the time. 

Emily Care Boss gives a nice introduction to what debriefs are and what they can or should do:

What is a debrief? Is it a lie-session where you tell what “really happened” in the game? Sorry, that’s what often happens in larps. Freeform has the advantage, generally, of everyone having experienced the same events of play. So what is valuable about a debrief is sharing the experiences of the players, rather than the intent of the game writer. This is valuable stuff.

If a game has been hard-hitting, it is good to have some space to decompress. Whether the impact was good or bad. Although, if a game did bring up strong negative emotions, that may not be expressed by the player until a later time, perhaps with friends, or one or two other participants in the game. If the majority of the players had a good time, the debrief can be this wonderful moment to relive these experiences with the only people who are or who can ever be shared witnesses. It’s a wonderful thing for people to be able to hear how they have affected others through their portrayals. Debriefing on a playing high can be a bonding experience.

If the game went horribly wrong, or fell flat, or had technical issues, this is also the time when the players get to let the GM know what went wrong for them. They may not be brave enough to say so (my experience says that that is more often the case in the US than in the Nordic countries), but if they do, and you can stomach it, those are really great pieces of feedback. One has to not take them to heart too deeply, it’s rare that you actually ruin someone’s life through a game. But this is one of the hardest parts of it for me, so if you do have to suffer through some negativity, you have my solidarity.

Reflecting on it, I do find it important to build in time for a debrief into the game. It will not always fulfill all of the functions that it could, or even should, but at least you give everyone the time and space to be heard on whatever their reaction was to the game.

Debriefs haven’t always been about the emotional stuff, according to Lars Andresen:

The tradition for debriefings at Fastaval (my point of reference) is based on the actual written scenario. Not the feelings and emotions of the players. Since we introduced the Otto it’s been customary that the game master and the players discuss the game afterwards and writes down grades and comments. So there is a debriefing but it’s definately not in the usual larping sense. Now there are games at Fastaval that affects players emotionally in a very unpredictable way and we need to talk about establishing debriefings and methods of debriefing.

It sounds a bit silly but normally I do my debriefings over a beer in the café or the bar. If a player needs to talk about the game (and a player often needs to talk about the game) we go down to the bar or café together and talk about it. Perhaps with other players and game masters coming down after finishing the game. I haven’t mastered a game at Fastaval where I got the feeling that any of the players *needed* a debriefing. I played some games where I definitely needed a debriefing and I talked to the other participants afterwards but it was all done in a very unplanned way so to speak.

Debriefs can provide a crucial moment where community bonds are forged and the experience is affirmed as a positive one.

Sanne Harder:

I always do a debrief. Some roleplaying experiences can be pretty intense, and you simply need to withdraw from them together with someone who understands. For that reason, I try to make the players bond. We now have a mutual experience, and that ties us together. I usually also try to make sure that arrangements are made so that we will meet again in a situation where we can talk and reflect on the scenario together.

But also: I’ve noticed that the most important element in how players perceive the roleplay afterwards is the ending. You might have had a terrible experience with the game, but if you end it on a positive note, the players are most likely to remember it fondly anyway. Unfortunately the opposite is true too. So, in order to make sure the players come away with a good experience, I make them talk about all the good things: Not just the scenario, but also other players’ performances.

Anne Vinkel:

I really like what the scenario My Girl Sparrow says about debriefing: The GM’s role is to create a space where it’s all right to have weird feelings about what you just played and to talk about those feelings. And where it’s equally all right not to feel weird. Tell the players that, and tell them that if they are feeling weird the best thing might be to talk about it – to the other players, to you, to somebody else entirely. Bringing snacks for debrief is a good idea too.

Most scenarios don’t really need debriefing, IMO, but it’s always good to chat a bit with the players, say thank you for playing and tell them which of the things they did you liked the most. This is also a good time to try and get their names right so you won’t end up adressing them by character names for the rest of the convention (I would never do that, of course).

The debrief can be about creating a shared narrative — or a lie —  about the game experience. It’s unclear whether this is a good or a bad thing. Matthijs Holter:

Debrief is not usually part of my games. Maybe I should do more of that, since it tends to focus and cement the experience. On the other hand, it tends to create a consensus reality after the fact – a reality that none of the players may have experienced or perceived during the game. It can feel like a lie, or a game after the game.

Several folks stressed the idea that the debrief is all about the players, and noted that GMs should stand back.

Oliver Nøglebæk:

Debriefing should always be about the players; they’ve been through quite a ride and need to offload emotions and tell warstories. So give them time to do that — it’s important for each player to hear that the other participants also had a great time. Sometimes you think your contributions were crappy only to discover that everyone else actually loved them. As a GM you should try to keep the talk moving and make sure everyone gets to say something about the game; it’s easy for the vocal players to steal the spotlight. And don’t be afraid to ask questions or bring your own observations, as long as you leave most of the space for the players.

Peter Fallesen:

If it has been a tense experience, I try to design some kind of exit-ritual to let the players leave their characters behind. Besides this I let the players talk and define their experience. The GM-role holds some authority, so I try to be careful not to take up too much space. Yet, one should remember that as a GM you also push the players, so you might need to join in on the debrief at some point for your own sake. Besides this, I always ask the players to give me feedback on my own performance as a GM – you can always become better at the trade.

Frederik J. Jensen:

I carefully wait before presenting my view of the session since a strong statement from me can easily discourage other players from presenting their views. Instead I let the players do the talking and ask plenty of how/why/what questions about specific situations. This helps me discover when I misinterpreted a scene or a player’s intent.

I also give praise to the players who contributed an extraordinary moment to the game.

Don’t lay down the law unless it’s a tough game and the players are pretending they are too tough to have felt anything major, says Troels Ken Pedersen:

Usually I hold an informal brief. If the game has had really tough and challenging content I might say that it’s a debrief. I usually just serve snacks as a tension-breaker and hand-occupier, and let people talk. I take part myself with brief questions and compliments, as a player among players.

I only step in with game master authority if the game was tough and people start establishing a consensus that we’re all good and hardcore roleplayers who don’t have problems with content and who don’t feel embarrassing and unpleasant things on account of games. If that happens I shut it down fast, and as hard as I have to. I’ve laid this out in advance in the past with tough games, but lately I’ve meandered to the conclusion that laying down the law is not a great idea. I might deviate from that if, say, one or two players seem so domineering and hardcore-happy that it’s bound to come up if not put down with gamemaster authority anyway. Possibly. Or I might just lead the way and throw something into the conversation about something in the game that made me queasy.

It’s not just a time for everyone to congratulate one another, according to Klaus Meier:

I suck at debriefing. I usually just keep the players in the room for 10-20 minutes where we talk about the game and what went well and what went bad. I try to refrain from letting the players and me just pat each other on the back; I try to get some pointers to what could have been done better by me, the game and the players. But it is hard and all too often the debriefing becomes too comfortable. Considering how much time goes into writing a game and planning to run it, very little time is spend on how to do the debriefing which is a shame especially in more psychologically challenging games. People need to be un fucked and we need to get better at doing it.

And maybe the best way to debrief isn’t right after the game, but informally, and later on. Tobias  Bindslet:

I’m a big proponent of taking post-game debriefing (and defucking) seriously, but in most freeform games the social space immediately after the game is most suited for a brief evaluation and establishing a common ground version of the shared experience. I then try to ask for feedback on my gamemastering. But the actual debriefing on a more personal level, is something I often do after the game itself, over a drink or in smaller more informal groups.

So go forth, give your players snacks and maybe beer, and let them talk about their experience as a way of creating community, dealing with tough emotions, and reminding themselves that they totally had a good time.

More from the freeform series:

How to Cast a Freeform Game
How to Cut a Freeform Game 

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Lars Nøhr Andresen is a Danish roleplayer and designer who has been writing Fastaval scenarios since 1994.

Tobias Bindslet is a roleplayer with one foot in the Danish freeform scene at Fastaval and the other in the Nordic larp scene (Knudepunkt). At Knudepunkt in 2011, he co-organized a “de-fucking” workshop on how to handle difficult experiences in roleplaying and another on the ritual and play style of the collectively organized larp campaign Rage Across Denmark. Recently, he’s also been involved in a number of smaller projects to help make local games and methods available in English.

Emily Care Boss is an acclaimed American game designer and theorist who owns the trademark on romantic role-playing games with Breaking the Ice, Shooting the Moon and the jeepform-y Under my Skin.

Peter Fallesen, 27, is a sociologist who knows stuff about crime, and who tries to make a living in academia. He started roleplaying and larping in the mid-nineties. He wrote his first freeform game in 2003. It sucked royally. The next one was better. At present he is working on two games about loss, trauma, and the things players don’t say to each other during the game.

Sanne Harder is an experienced scenario author, who has contributed scenarios for the Danish freeform scene for the last 15 years or so. She has had the pleasure of having several of her scenarios published, and even translated (into the Finnish language). In real life she works as a teacher at an alternative school, where she uses roleplaying as a teaching method. She also writes a Danish blog about roleplaying

Matthijs Holter (b. 1972) is a Norwegian roleplayer and game designer. He’s fond of throwing random things at groups to see what happens, and believes friendship is magic. He once wrote the Hippie Method Manifesto. Currently working on Play With Intent with Emily Care Boss.

Frederik J. Jensen is a Dane living in Sweden. He enjoys taking chances with new games but tends to have a weak spot for GM-full story games. Designed and published Montsegur 1244because nobody else did.

For the past three years Klaus Meier has been in charge of the games at Fastaval and is now moving on to become head organizer of the whole shebang. He has been writing free form games since 2000 and quite good free form games since 2004. Klaus has won numerous of Fastaval’s Otto awards, been the editor of a book of Danish freeform games and given lectures on the Fastaval style of games at conventions in Denmark, Sweden and Finland. 

Oliver Nøglebæk studies interactive landscape architecture, which influences his view on larp. He’s been attending Fastaval for nearly ten years and game mastering much longer than that, though mostly indie games and traditional systems. He writes an English language blog on Nordic larp.

As a game writerTroels Ken Pedersen does both off-beat action and drama games about grownup subjects. He believes fiercely in roleplayers as co-creators, and is headmaster of the Danish School of Game Mastering, found at conventions and online. An all around anti-authoritarian dirty f*cking hippie, both as regards roleplaying and other things.

Anne Vinkel Anne has GM’ed about 17 conventions scenarios in her life – some of them more than once, two of them written by herself. She still gets nervous before GMing, but in a sort of good way. The things about freeforming she does worst are cutting and exercising authority. The things she does best include being a fan of her players and creating a good atmosphere for play.

How to Cast a Freeform Game

This new series delves into the complexity of game mastering freeform games.

What is a freeform game? No one knows for sure. Freeform games incorporate elements from larp and traditional tabletop roleplaying. They feature a small group of players — usually less than ten — and may involve acting out scenes away from the tabletop as well as describing player action as in traditional games. The story doesn’t unfold in a single continuous scene, rather, the GM (and sometimes the players) may cut scenes like a director, moving the players forward or backward in time to advance or deepen the story. The Nordic Larp Wiki has also taken a stab at a definition.

For now, let’s pretend that we know what freeform is and get to the question I asked my (mostly Nordican) panel: What’s the best way to assign roles in a freeform game?

Of course, there’s no one right way to cast, but some through-threads popped up among the responses. Introduce yourself and the game and get to know the players; watch their first social interactions and the warmups carefully to distinguish introverts from extroverts, and consider whether you want to cast with or against player type.

First, we’ll tackle the issue of whether it is better to let the players cast themselves, or for the GM to do the casting. Here are some folks in favor of letting players cast themselves:

Matthijs Holter:

I’m not sure I’ve ever had to pick roles for people. In nearly all games I run, people create their own characters or collaborate on creation. I don’t see the point in picking roles for others unless you have a very specific point to make, or know them better than they know themselves. Otherwise it seems like an unnecessary thing to do.

Emily Care Boss:

Generally I prefer to let players self-cast. That’s likely due to my tabletop background. If at all possible, I prefer players to be part of character creation. This is more tricky to effect in freeform, though it’s been beautifully in A Flower for Mara and The Man with the Long Black Coat. Many freeform games give the players a simple pre-drafted character which is then fleshed out in play. A great joy of this style of play is, in fact, seeing the incredible variety with which people interpret what is essentially, a single role. As a game designer or GM those surprises are sweet.

That said, there are roles I look to cast with specific players in mind. I tend to look at the rigor of the requirements of the piece and look to match it with a strong player. Having someone who is experienced in this style of play in a key role can make all the difference. In a game style that is predicated on player interaction, the role a character plays depends on the player’s ability to carry through on it. For example, having a less assertive player in a role intended to put pressure on others could mean that the experience would be limp and easy, where the intent of the story was to put people through hell. Or having an uncertain player play the character who must stick to her guns on an issue in order for the game to move forward. Though again, these are interpretations of the role as seen by the GM.

Mara, the central character in A Flower for Mara, is woman who has died before the game and play surrounds her family’s attempts to move on. Mara is a ghost who interacts with each of them, living on in their memories. When cast as this character, I saw the intent of the role to hold on to each character as best she could, to torture both by criticism and care, but to try the family. I was so mean. A stylistic choice. In another game, Mara was so gentle, and so loving, the family had a terrible time letting her go. The same task is accomplished through different means. More of that endless variety of how the tales turn.

If you’d like to take an approach inspired by an experimental larp community in the US (New England Interactive Literature) you can allow people to sign up in advance, respond to a survey and then cast them based on their preferences and responses!

Anne Vinkel lets players cast themselves only sometimes. Here’s how she decides:

As a tentative rule, let the players choose if the really important part is what they like to play. If the important part is what they are able to play, you should probably do the casting as you know the scenario and the roles. If there is at least one character who must be cast with a player who is able to do something specific – take charge, put on a good show, be convincing as this particular character – you should probably cast the roles.

If you let the players choose characters it is important to describe the characters less in terms of who they are and more in terms of what the player of each character gets to do during play, and what makes each character fun to play. ”You get to plot and manipulate”, ”This character should be played by somebody who wants to pursue the plot aggressively”, ”This character is fun if you like your characters to suffer for their sins”, ”This character is fun if you want to immerse in the character” – all more informative than ”This character is a six foot tall baker who is divorced from his wife and dislikes fruit-eaters.”

Cast people as the characters they can play, not as the characters they seem most like. A confident male player will probably play the Femme Fatale role better than a shy female player, and an energetic female player will be better cast as the charismatic male charlatan than as the wilting female wallflower. The same goes for player characteristics other than gender.

Oliver Nøglebæk matches role complexity with player competence:

For convention games I usually start out with a quick introduction of the characters and ask the players if there’s of the roles they’d rather not play or really want to play. With that in mind I usually try to match the complexity and/or how crucial it is for the character to be played well with how competent each player seems to be. It’s always a nice thing to get a positive surprise out of a seemingly weak player stepping up, but absolutely disastrous if a central character isn’t played well.

In some games the roles that are important for the gameplay might not be the the main narrative protagonists, but rather the people around them. So be careful when planning the game.

Anna Westerling always casts the players to give them plausible deniability:

I generally cast the game due to two reasons: First, it gives the players absolution. They didn’t decide themselves to play the super-evil guy, or have that type of relationship to another character played by another player. I did all that. Secondly, as a player, I think it is hard to know what to play based on the limited information I know about the game. The group always gets quiet and slightly nervous when to choosing characters as well; it’s easier to eliminate that by choosing characters for the players. However, I do not mind when players have opinions; if I can fix it, I will, but in the end the decision is mine.

Klaus Meier never lets the players decide, and strives for a balance between player comfort and avoiding cliche:

I never let the players decide. Usually there is an asymmetric distribution of information and I know more about the game than the players and more about what characters suits what kind of playing style. I usually spend a lot of time talking with the players before I cast. Both about their preferences in characters and games and some more casual chit chat. I do this both to establish a feeling of safety – especially if the players are inexperienced or have not played with each other before – and to gauge the players personalities. Based on all the information I get I do the casting.

There are two caveats to this:

1: At Fastaval you sometimes end up with an all male group and a game with one or more female characters (the opposite happens as well, but I do not think I have been in that situation). If that is the case I specifically ask if anybody is comfortable playing a female characters. This is not because I think that female characters are harder to play or that you can only play chracters of your biological sex, but because some players do think that and therefore is not comfortable playing a female character. There is no need to make anybody needlessly uncomfortable.

2: If I play with players I have played with before I have two strategies. If the game contains a very difficult or important character I usually let the player I know play them (if I think they are able to do it well). This is about my comfort level and knowing that the an important part of the game is in the hand of someone I know and trust. Sometimes I like to challenge players I know, especially if they are usually cast in a specific type of role. I then cast them as something completely different to keep them on their toes and make sure that they don’t play the character as a routine they have done a lot before.

Casting is ultimately about finding the balance between making the players comfortable enough to trust each other and me and keeping things fresh enough to avoid clichés and repetitions of other games.

Lars Nøhr Andresen shares his Jedi mind tricks:

Never ever ask the players anything that they could disagree to. A typical mistake is to ask: “Should I just hand out the characters or do you want to choose for yourselves?” MEEEEB! We’ve just met each other and nobody wants to be seem bossy and put themselves in a position where others can disagree with you.

If you want to be a bit more sophisticated get the players to tell about a recent really good role playing experience. Or a type of role that they really enjoyed playing and why the role was satisfactory. Personally I think it’s to direct just to ask them: “What kind of character do you prefer to play?” Ask them easy questions at first and the slowly get them to reflect over the more complex issues. I would use about 15-20 minutes on the initial talk.

When the players have told about themselves then you can start telling about the game. Perhaps tell about the different characters if there are characters as such. Observe the players. With the knowledge you acquired from the initial talk and your observations from telling about the game I would say that you could do a good casting.

So if a GM does choose to cast players, what’s the best way to go about it?

Tobias Demediuk Bindslet considers the tone of the game:

An important part of game-mastering is setting the mood in the room, leading the way for which social atmosphere should frame the play experience – which starts a long time before casting or even actual play. If I want a tense, brooding atmosphere I’ll cast differently than if I want a safe and personal space or a light-hearted and playful place for improv. In general I consider two main options for the actual casting though: type casting people according to my feel for what they would play the most believably, or anti-type casting people in other to challenge them. Often I will use a mix of these two types while trying to guesstimate group dynamics based on warm-up interactions.

Peter Fallesen attends to social dynamics:

Never cast the loudest player in the loudest role, s/he will take up to much space. Also, it is seldom the main protagonist (if such a one exist in the game) that moves the story forward. Therefore, it is often best to cast the weakest player in that role, because the other players will keep him or her involved, while they also move the story forward. I often do my casting while talking to the players before we even start the warm-up exercises.

It is my firm belief that the roleplaying situation is not different from other “normal” social situations, so how people present themselves to others before the game is probably the best indicator you get for how they will act during the game. This especially holds for high status roles – status is not something you can take during a game, the other players have to give it to you, and you give status more easily to some than to others. You can of course be proven wrong during warm up exercises, which is another reason to always do some warm up with players pre-game.

Frederik J. Jensen identifies character skills and matches them to players:

When preparing the game, I identify the key characters that require special skills to play. Typically, leader roles requires active players with lots of drive. There can also be characters with complex issues or who can end up being alone against a group. These require strong players who can handle the challenge. Finally, there are often relations between characters that are key to explore during the game. These may work best when played by players on equal level.

Later when I pitch the cast of characters to the players, I make sure to mention the challenges for playing these key roles and try to influence where they end up based on my impression of the players from the initial socializing. However, I am often positively surprised by a player performing much better than I expected. If casting is very critical for a game, doing warm up exercises before casting can be a necessary tool to spot the right players for the key characters.

Morten Greis Petersen gets to know the players:

Not all scenarios require casting; some are structured in such a way that I all I have to do is present the characters, and let the players choose, but when casting is demanded, I strive get to know the players first.This is done in two ways. Firstly by talking with the players, asking them about their experiences, their favored play styles and types of characters, about their expectations and what they would like to play. Secondly through warm-up exercises (various kinds of impro-theater style games), which build up trust, mentally prepare the players for some quick thinking etc., and give me an idea of who they are and how they play, and the chemistry between the players.

When talking to the players, I begin by presenting myself. What have I played, my favorite styles and such, then we take turns listening to the players presenting themselves. Afterwards I talk about, what we are going to play, expected play styles, and we talk about what the players expect from the scenario. Finally before dealing the characters out, I ask if there is anything, they would prefer to play or not to play – for instance do you mind playing opposite gender, a character in charge, a quiet character etc.?

Warming up using various kinds of impro-theater exercises builds trust among all of us, and it prepares the players for quick thinking and expressing their roles. Also it reveals some of their skills and personalities, which I use to gauge what character, they should be playing.

Sanne Harder casts against player type…but not always:

Somebody once told me that every person has a limited amount of ‘role types’ that they can play convincingly. I think there is some truth to it. One of them is usually a default role – the one role where the players feel most at home, and which they have tried out in many different scenarios. However, some players (myself included) like to challenge themselves by playing roles that are out of their comfort zone.

At a convention you are most likely directing a bunch of players who have never played together before. It’s a difficult task, because they have no idea of each other’s limits or abilities. So I play it safe: I make the decision. In a situation where you are feeling a bit uneasy, having decisions made for you actually feels more comfortable.

I usually do some warm-up exercises, or I might just have a chat with the players about what they have played before, what they do in real life, etc. This gives me a fairly good idea about who will be able to do what, and I do the casting based on what they would be best at doing.

However, at home with “your own” roleplayers, it’s a different situation. Here you have the option to let players experiment. Sometimes I let players cast themselves, or at other times I might go with a completely counter intuitive casting, where the introverted girl plays the scheming femme fatale, and the clever geek boy plays the sports jock.

Troels Ken Pedersen scrutinizes the warm-up and talks cross-casting:

How to cast for freeform depends on the nature of the game. If it’s very jeepy, going for bleedy close-to-home characters by deliberately using the players as material for the characters, casting can matter less …they’ll be playing themselves anyway. Unless the game has specific functions in mind for particular players, in which case see below.

If the game has specific characters or functions, and it isn’t a short game, I like to do warmup exercises because they give me a body of observations on which to base casting. One of my favorites is a brief association exercise (you start by saying a word, the player to your left says the first word that springs to mind, you let it go around the table three or four times, sneaky gamemasters will pull the exercise back towards the theme and mood of the game on their turns), and it’s really useful for spotting player initiative vs. perfectionism.

If you specifically need a player to drive the game forward with strong initiative, be sure to pick one who delivered without hesitation in the association exercise. This is seriously the most important casting tip I can share. Players who hesitated to come up with something “good” can be good for roles requiring exploration of the character’s feelings, but you can’t count on them to be the source of shenanigans. At least not today, that is.

Use warmup exercises and pre-game chats to size up who’s where on the introverted to extroverted scale. Hitting somewhat extroverted players with somewhat introverted roles can be fun in moderation, too introverted players shouldn’t be given roles where they’ll fail if they don’t put on a loud show.

Casting “off” can be good. If you have a player who looks like a perfect fit for the role of scheming “bitch” or suave lover, don’t go for it. If possible (as in, it doesn’t go against what the association exercise gave you) give such stereotypical roles to players who seem capable of pulling it off but who aren’t the most obvious fits. If the game called for a sceming “bitch” type AND a suave lover, and I had a good match for each, I’d very seriously consider reversing, that is casting the “bitch” fit as the suave lover and the lover as the “bitch”. That challenges the players and doesn’t throw them into too-familiar ruts.

Which brings me to gender. There are schools of thought regarding casting and gender. Some like to be pretty strict about casting women for female roles as far as possible and to a lesser degree, men for male roles. I say fuck that noise, even for a game dealing with sex and romance. Actually, especially for a game dealing with sex and romance, like my own My Girl’s Sparrow. I make it a point to cast on the basis of other psychological/social traits, as detailed above. Gender isn’t irrelevant as such, but I find it a shame to let it get in the way of more important qualities (as far as roleplaying and a number of other things are concerned), and anyway it’s fun to mess with a bit. Messing with the players a bit, gently, through casting and other means, makes for good gaming in my experience.

Read more from the series on how to GM freeform games.

_____

Lars Nøhr Andresen is a Danish roleplayer and designer who has been writing Fastaval scenarios since 1994.

Tobias Bindslet is a roleplayer with one foot in the Danish freeform scene at Fastaval and the other in the Nordic larp scene (Knudepunkt). At Knudepunkt in 2011, he co-organized a “de-fucking” workshop on how to handle difficult experiences in roleplaying and another on the ritual and play style of the collectively organized larp campaign Rage Across Denmark. Recently, he’s also been involved in a number of smaller projects to help make local games and methods available in English.

Emily Care Boss is an acclaimed American game designer and theorist who owns the trademark on romantic role-playing games with Breaking the Ice, Shooting the Moon and the jeepform-y Under my Skin.

Peter Fallesen, 27, is a sociologist who knows stuff about crime, and who tries to make a living in academia. He started roleplaying and larping in the mid-nineties. He wrote his first freeform game in 2003. It sucked royally. The next one was better. At present he is working on two games about loss, trauma, and the things players don’t say to each other during the game.

Sanne Harder is an experienced scenario author, who has contributed scenarios for the Danish freeform scene for the last 15 years or so. She has had the pleasure of having several of her scenarios published, and even translated (into the Finnish language). In real life she works as a teacher at an alternative school, where she uses roleplaying as a teaching method. She also writes a Danish blog about roleplaying

Matthijs Holter (b. 1972) is a Norwegian roleplayer and game designer. He’s fond of throwing random things at groups to see what happens, and believes friendship is magic. He once wrote the Hippie Method Manifesto. Currently working on Play With Intent with Emily Care Boss.

Frederik J. Jensen is a Dane living in Sweden. He enjoys taking chances with new games but tends to have a weak spot for GM-full story games. Designed and published Montsegur 1244because nobody else did.

For the past three years Klaus Meier has been in charge of the games at Fastaval and is now moving on to become head organizer of the whole shebang. He has been writing free form games since 2000 and quite good free form games since 2004. Klaus has won numerous of Fastaval’s Otto awards, been the editor of a book of Danish freeform games and given lectures on the Fastaval style of games at conventions in Denmark, Sweden and Finland. 

Oliver Nøglebæk studies interactive landscape architecture, which influences his view on larp. He’s been attending Fastaval for nearly ten years and game mastering much longer than that, though mostly indie games and traditional systems. He writes an English language blog on Nordic larp.

As a game writerTroels Ken Pedersen does both off-beat action and drama games about grownup subjects. He believes fiercely in roleplayers as co-creators, and is headmaster of the Danish School of Game Mastering, found at conventions and online. An all around anti-authoritarian dirty f*cking hippie, both as regards roleplaying and other things.

Morten Greis Petersen is an experienced roleplayer, who blogs about roleplaying on his personal site, Stemmen fra ådalen, at the blog collective, planB, and sometimes at his third blog,Roles, Dice, and Fun. Presently he is involved with several scenario-projects for Viking-Con, participates in projects on game mastering and scenario-writing, and is developing an alternate history-setting in which roleplaying developed late 18th century.

Anne Vinkel Anne has GM’ed about 17 conventions scenarios in her life – some of them more than once, two of them written by herself. She still gets nervous before GMing, but in a sort of good way. The things about freeforming she does worst are cutting and exercising authority. The things she does best include being a fan of her players and creating a good atmosphere for play.

Anna Westerling is game designer and producer on the Nordic Scene. Anna has written several freeform games and is a member of the writter collective “Vi åker Jeep.” Also a larp-creator, she designed the cross-over larp/freeform/theater hybrid A Nice Evening with the Familybased on plays by Strindberg and Ibsen. She also produced the Nordic Larp book and Knutpunkts 2006 and 2010. You can find some of her games here.

How to Cut a Freeform Game

This new series delves into the complexity of game mastering freeform games.

What is a freeform game? No one knows for sure. Freeform games incorporate elements from larp and traditional tabletop roleplaying. They feature a small group of players — usually less than ten — and may involve acting out scenes away from the tabletop as well as describing player action as in traditional games. The story doesn’t unfold in a single continuous scene, rather, the GM (and sometimes the players) may cut scenes like a director, moving the players forward or backward in time to advance or deepen the story. The Nordic Larp Wiki has also taken a stab at a definition.

For now, let’s pretend that we know what freeform is and get to the good stuff.

I asked a number of (mostly) Nordican freeform GMs to explain how they do what they do. Today’s question is: What’s the best way to cut a freeform game and why? And  what sort of advice would you give to a new GM? 

Settle in, friends: my panel had a lot to say about this thorny topic. 

 

GENERAL ADVICE

End scenes when they’re over, says Matthijs Holter:

A lot of people like to cut scenes when they’re “done.” You develop a feel for that very quickly, and it’s pretty easy to find the natural ending for a scene if you look for it. I look for one specific thing: The tension that makes you want to end a scene. I like to draw that out, to stay with the moment of grief or loneliness or disbelief for a bit longer – and then even longer.

If you haven’t tried to cut scenes before, go for it! Cut hard, cut often. Try to cut very early, before you even know what happens, and come back to the scene later. Just like with any new technique, be bold and crazy and have fun with it. Just make sure you have everyone on board with the idea.

 

Consider the scene’s purpose. Frederik J. Jensen:

The key point is to listen.  Have lots of eye contact with the players and listen to what they say. A scene has a purpose. Once that has been achieved, staying in the scene will not drive the story forward. Find a point where a character has made a strong statement and cut the scene right there.

Sometimes players need time to warm up before they can get to the meat. A good scene can be full of pauses and have a strong emotional build up. If you cut too early, you kill that. More often, the scene states its point rather quickly and the players end up repeating their arguments and reinforcing their positions over and over. The extra time adds nothing.

 

Let scenes run so long as they are relevant. Peter Fallesen:

My rule of thumb is that as long as a scene holds relevance for the narrative — if it either drives the story arc forward or allows the players to develop upon their characters it can be allowed to keep running. That does not mean that it will be in the games best interest to keep a seen running, for example if it would mean that a character’s personal climax would be reached too soon.

Three things worth having in mind: 1) silence does not necessarily mean that nothing is happening – some of my most intense experiences as both player and GM have been during silence – this can be hard to pick up on as a GM if you are not very aware of your players. 2) If the scene does not bring the story forward in anyway, cut it. 3) Cutting after a great one-liner makes the scene more memorable.

When in doubt, cut short! I never allow a game to run more than 4½ hours including warm-up and loose talk before start. People – and myself – cannot deliver good performances if play-time run too long.

 

If players talk about the same stuff more than twice, cut it. Troels Ken Pedersen:

As a hard and fast rule for newbies (you can deviate when you’re no longer a newbie), always cut if the conversation covers the same ground MORE than twice. Or if you stay bored for more than ten seconds or so.

Also, cutting doesn’t exist in a vacuum. When to describe and how much, when to ask and how much, when to throw in NPCs and how much of your own acting to do, are all relevant to both cutting and game mastering in general, and depend very much on the game, players and situation in question.

 

Fill your toolbox with different styles of cutting. Tobias Bindslet:

Different styles of cutting are tools you can use create different experiences. Sometimes tight scenes focused on conflict are best – for keeping play focused, players hungry or the pacing fast. Other times meandering scenes can let players grow into their characters, or leave room for more nuanced interactions. Note how this relates to genre as well. Realism, psychological drama and emotional immersion require a slower pace than action, comedy or melodrama. Finally – variety is always good.

 

HOW TO USE CUTS TO CREATE DIFFERENT MOODS

Interpret the game, cut during fights to frustrate players, and play it twice for clarity. Sanne Harder:

Freeform is an umbrella definition: It covers a whole host of different scenarios, each of them meant to be played out differently. As a game director (I’m not keen on the word ‘game master’, as it implies an asymmetrical relationship between director and players, whereas in actual fact it’s a collaboration), my most important skill is actually literary competence. I have to be able to decode how this scenario needs me to direct it.

There are many different ways of cutting a freeform. Which one I would use depends on the story I’m helping bring to life. For action scenarios, cutting in the middle of a climax generally works well. In a chamber play about relationships letting the awkwardness accumulate might be a good idea – however, I’ve also cut people off in the middle of a big fight. It works like a charm, because the players are left just as frustrated as the characters would be!

I would like to mention another alternative to cutting scenes: You can ask players to repeat the scene they have just played. Often the result is a much more direct, crisp rendering the second time around. You might think that it would ruin the players’ immersion, but on the contrary.

 

Cut hard for drama and slow for poeticism. Troels Ken Pedersen:

If you’re going for rising drama, cut fast and hard. Let the players get to the point of the scene, let them lay it out, but cut before they get into negotiating and resolving. That racks up tension and frustration, useful as (emotional) fuel. You can spice it up with other means as required, like asking, right out or bird-in-ear-whisper, provocative questions at players who aren’t going for the drama.

If you’re going for slow paced (whether miserable or poetic), let the scene play out until it feels done or gets boring. When that happens can be rather subjective, though, I’ve cut scenes and later it turned out the players thought they were just getting into it.

Of course you might find yourself going for different mood and pacing at different points in the same session.

 

Cut long for awkwardness; cut short to create tension or to give players time to think.  Morten Greis Petersen:

Most often I cut on a high note. This tends to increase the dramatic tension, and curiously it can shape how the players play, as they sometimes begin to focus on presenting sharp lines, which makes cutting easier. Sometimes, however, I cut before a reply, so just as one player wants to reply to a comment from another, I cut, usually a jumpcut to some other situation. And then there are times, when I cut for just the exact opposite reason, when a player needs time to come up with a comeback, I cut to some other situation, letting the player have time to think about his or her reply.

In the opposite end of the scale, there are the times when I let things drag out – and I do it on purpose to create or enhance awkward situations. In a sense I refuse to cut the scene forcing the awkward situation to last. Sometimes it creates moments of silence as the characters remain in the situation, and as the situation won’t end, it forces one of them to begin saying something again, or it simply creates a room of silence, and silence can be potent.

Cutting can also be done on behalf of the story if there are multiple storylines running at the same time. So you cut just before a player’s character is about to reveal something, so you can show what is about to be revealed instead.

Basically I cut to create tension (by either cutting sharply to increase tension and emphasize oneliners or drawing out cuts to emphasize for instance awkward silences), to assist the players by giving them time to think or sometimes before they get to reply in order to leave a situation unresolved.

 

Cut hard for horror and humor, and longer for character drama. Emily Care Boss offers some jeepform case studies:

In a character-driven game like Doubt or my game Under my Skin (heavily influenced by Doubt), which both deal with relationships and possible infidelity, it’s important to allow enough room for the players to develop the dynamic between the characters, and for the other players to begin to understand how the characters in the scene relate. Since everyone will build on these scenes in later events, even little things that happen can be critical and create material for play that will enrich the game for everyone. Also, since what’s important about these scenes is simply to learn about the characters’ lives, allowing them to interact naturally is fine, and may play more easily for the players than if there is a need for drama or suspense.

Games that call for a more heightened emotional states benefit from sharper editing. Both horror and humor come to mind, found in the games Previous Occupants and The Upgrade.

In Previous Occupants, a ghost story about guilt and murder, stopping at a pregnant moment is key. Stopping when tension is high escalates the fear and anger expressed by the players. This game has an interesting mechanism that encourages tight cutting. The ending of a scene is opened up to the group. Anyone can signal when a scene comes to a close by ringing a bell, so as soon as anyone thinks it should be done, you move on. The scenes alternate between two parallel timelines, with the tension and stakes ramping up and culminating in a climax–literally in one storyline, figuratively with a murder in the other.

The Upgrade is a humorous, tongue-in-cheek look at reality television with couples essentially on Temptation Island, swapped for two weeks. The question to be answered at the end, will they stay with their original mate? The game uses the tropes of this visual genre to frame scenes of all types: confessional scenes, flash-forwards and flash-backs, even meta-level scenes where the players–in the role of the producers of the show now–brainstorm ways to increase the tension on the various characters to help  the show’s “ratings”. A stacatto, at times rapid-fire scene cutting style is ideal. Improv instincts and techniques of cutting a scene on a funny beat, or when some one has capped a scene with the “button”, a funny comment, cut down or re-incorporation of an earlier element all come in handy here. The game is meant to throw the characters into situations of stress and duress, so if it’s not working that way, better to end the scene and move on to something else that does a better job. Those quiet moments would likely have been left on the cutting room floor in making the television show.

But, there’s no right answer here. Developing your own aesthetic sense of what communicates well is the most important thing. You are always experimenting, and it’s good to try something, to take a chance. In general, the deeper, more personal the experience you want to have, give more room and time to the players to experience the roles. For strong effect, briefer scenes may be harder hitting. But, as always, variety is important. A momentary scene may change the way the players see a character forever. Or a languorous scene in a humorous game could set up characters for a harder fall later on.

 

PACING IS IMPORTANT

Cut fast all the time. Klaus Meier:

I always cut very hard. I comes from my own preference as a player as there is nothing I hate more than trying to keep a scene going after it has played itself out. Why play a so-so scene for five minutes, when you can play a kick ass scene for 30 seconds and move on to the next?

As a GM I try to cut the scene when the tension is high. I usually try cutting the scene at a poignant quote from one of the players. By doing cutting before everything is resolved and leaving the scene with a great line from one of the players we have both the freedom to pick it up again later – as it is still ambiguous and can go in a different direction as we pick it up again – and a point of reference for the next scene and where the characters are with the exit line. Even if the scene is never picked up again the exit line creates scenes that are a lot more memorable than when they are just cut because they are starting to repeat themselves.

When using this type of cutting it is supremely important to let the players know before the game starts. If they know that the scenes will be cut hard they are more likely to infuse them with drama from the start instead of beating around the bush. This is once again a personal preference as I both as a player and a GM hate playing when there is nothing at stake and the scene is just about portraying the character. Give me drama or cut the scene!

I think I represent quite an extreme in how hard I cut, as I usually run games almost twice as fast as other gms at Fastaval. Normally I point this out before the players are distributed so that players know what to expect if they choose to play in my session of the game.

 

Consider cutting long in the beginning and shorter at the end. Oliver Nøglebæk:

Pacing is an area of gamemastering that you can always improve at. I tend to cut late at the beginning of a game and progress towards shorter and shorter scenes. At first the players usually need more time to find their characters and feel of the game, so no rushing! As the game moves on, you need less time and fewer words to communicate each scene and then it’s better to cut short and sweet to keep the energy flowing. If the scenes don’t include every player, it’s even more important to cut short so everyone is part of the game. If you cut right before a major outcome in a scene, you leave the players with a cliffhanger, which gives them time to think out their next move and at the same time heightens the tension. Those moments can be pure gold, if cut right.

 

Sometimes, all you need is one word. Anna Westerling:

Sometimes you see that magic could happen if you just let the players continue a bit longer, but make sure your game doesn’t turn out as a wait for that magic moments that didn’t happen. You can also cut really quickly, just after a word, because often that word says it all. For example the GM asks a character: “Did you like the date?” The character answers: “ehm.” and you cut. The “ehm” really says all we need to know.

Of course this depends on what type of game you are gamemastering – I was GMing a game about the intensity of silence, being miserable and going towards an inevitably bad ending, and in that type of game, as a GM, I  took a distanced position and cut very little and carefully. If you are cross-cuting between two scenes that affect each other, then try to cut when one scene has delivered something the other scene can put into play. For example if one scene says “and that dog was hysterical” and then you cut and the other scene gets to tell the story of the dog.

Cutting is also something you learn through practice; you will make mistakes, but that’s how you learn. But to me the risk is more often that the game is slow and boring rather than quick and to the point – therefore cut more than not.

 

And a final word from Anne Vinkel:

Cutting is hard. There seems to be general agreement that the time to cut a scene is before you think you should, even when you really want the scene to continue a bit longer because everything is going so well. If you sit down and wait for everything to be said, the scene will run out of steam. (I do have a mean theory, though, that part of the reason for this piece of advice is that a GM who cuts early gets to exercise more authority and the GMs who like to dispense advice tend to be the ones who like having authority.)

A dirty trick: If you (like me) tend to cut way too late, get your players to help do the work. Tell them up front that, hey, you’re no good at cutting so they are welcome to signal when they want you to cut – or to cut it themselves. (This doesn’t work with all scenarios, of course.)

 

___

Tobias Bindslet is a roleplayer with one foot in the Danish freeform scene at Fastaval and the other in the Nordic larp scene (Knudepunkt). At Knudepunkt in 2011, he co-organized a “de-fucking” workshop on how to handle difficult experiences in roleplaying and another on the ritual and play style of the collectively organized larp campaign Rage Across Denmark. Recently, he’s also been involved in a number of smaller projects to help make local games and methods available in English.

Emily Care Boss is an acclaimed American game designer and theorist who owns the trademark on romantic role-playing games with Breaking the Ice, Shooting the Moon and the jeepform-y Under my Skin.

Peter Fallesen, 27, is a sociologist who knows stuff about crime, and who tries to make a living in academia. He started roleplaying and larping in the mid-nineties. He wrote his first freeform game in 2003. It sucked royally. The next one was better. At present he is working on two games about loss, trauma, and the things players don’t say to each other during the game.

Sanne Harder is an experienced scenario author, who has contributed scenarios for the Danish freeform scene for the last 15 years or so. She has had the pleasure of having several of her scenarios published, and even translated (into the Finnish language). In real life she works as a teacher at an alternative school, where she uses roleplaying as a teaching method. She also writes a Danish blog about roleplaying

Matthijs Holter (b. 1972) is a Norwegian roleplayer and game designer. He’s fond of throwing random things at groups to see what happens, and believes friendship is magic. He once wrote the Hippie Method Manifesto. Currently working on Play With Intent with Emily Care Boss.

Frederik J. Jensen is a Dane living in Sweden. He enjoys taking chances with new games but tends to have a weak spot for GM-full story games. Designed and published Montsegur 1244 because nobody else did.

For the past three years Klaus Meier has been in charge of the games at Fastaval and is now moving on to become head organizer of the whole shebang. He has been writing free form games since 2000 and quite good free form games since 2004. Klaus has won numerous of Fastaval’s Otto awards, been the editor of a book of Danish freeform games and given lectures on the Fastaval style of games at conventions in Denmark, Sweden and Finland. 

Oliver Nøglebæk studies interactive landscape architecture, which influences his view on larp. He’s been attending Fastaval for nearly ten years and game mastering much longer than that, though mostly indie games and traditional systems. He writes an English language blog on Nordic larp.

As a game writer, Troels Ken Pedersen does both off-beat action and drama games about grownup subjects. He believes fiercely in roleplayers as co-creators, and is headmaster of the Danish School of Game Mastering, found at conventions and online. An all around anti-authoritarian dirty f*cking hippie, both as regards roleplaying and other things.

Morten Greis Petersen is an experienced roleplayer, who blogs about roleplaying on his personal site, Stemmen fra ådalen, at the blog collective, planB, and sometimes at his third blog, Roles, Dice, and Fun. Presently he is involved with several scenario-projects for Viking-Con, participates in projects on game mastering and scenario-writing, and is developing an alternate history-setting in which roleplaying developed late 18th century.

Anne Vinkel Anne has GM’ed about 17 conventions scenarios in her life – some of them more than once, two of them written by herself. She still gets nervous before GMing, but in a sort of good way. The things about freeforming she does worst are cutting and exercising authority. The things she does best include being a fan of her players and creating a good atmosphere for play.

Anna Westerling is game designer and producer on the Nordic Scene. Anna has written several freeform games and is a member of the writter collective “Vi åker Jeep.” Also a larp-creator, she designed the cross-over larp/freeform/theater hybrid A Nice Evening with the Family based on plays by Strindberg and Ibsen. She also produced the Nordic Larp book and Knutpunkts 2006 and 2010. You can find some of her games here.


Solmukohta Ahoy

After my stop in Denmark for Fastaval, I headed to Helsinki to participate in Solmukohta, the Finnish installation of the Knutepunkt conference that rotates its way around the Nordic capitals, changing its name according to the local languages. The event features larps, workshops, run-downs of completed or upcoming games, and tons of talks on larp theory.

The convention took place at a building that seemed like a cross between a hotel and a boarding school, a labyrinthine complex of hallways, lounges, and classrooms that seemed built into a hill.

Zombies and Bleed

Rather than attend the opening ceremonies, my Fastaplague-ridden body required a nap. When I awoke, I stumbled through the corridor, blithely ignoring the “game area,” signs, since I wished to find the info desk without wandering out into the snowy forest. (Although the skinny, red-barked pine trees looked lovely).

Scores of groaning conventioneers shambled through the hallways, their mindlesss half-witted expressions and limping gaits perfectly mirroring my physical well-being. Apparently, I had stumbled onto the convention’s opening scenario, a zombie game. The zombies inexorably advanced, and I could find no escape from their gnashing teeth, which latched onto my shoulder.

I, too, became a zombie, damned to wander the corridors, limping, until the government arrived and killed us all.

Rants

Later that evening, I attended the Hour of the Rant, where various folks get up on stage and make pointed comments, sometimes funny, sometimes serious, often a mixture between the two. There were rants on why larps may not change the world, and why they should. Rants on how current measures for psychological safety don’t work as well as they should, and rants on how larpers should do a better job of giving out credit to everyone involved in a project. American game designer Jason Morningstar zinged the crowd with a rant on why they ought to play more and document less.

Like an American jerk, I delivered a rant titled “Write a damn rulebook.” Last year, while reporting for Leaving Mundania, I’d gotten frustrated that there weren’t readily available easy-to-understand materials explaining basic concepts on the scene. In what may have been a case of “arrogantly demand and ye shall receive,” (or just serendipitous magic) the Nordic community has remedied this as of Sunday, with the delightful, searchable, work-in-progress Nordic Larp Wiki. Run! Run to your nearest new browser tab and check it out!

Mistakes

I love the Beckett quote “Ever tried. Ever failed. Try again. Fail again. Fail better,” so I attended a panel titled “All the Things I’ve Learned From All the Mistakes I’ve Done,” a run-down of larp-organizing errors, presented by larp organizers, including panel host Rasmus Høgdall. Among the lessons learned:

  • as an organizer, it’s possible to spread yourself too thin
  • know when it’s going to be a disaster and don’t be afraid to cancel
  • it’s better to have a few awesome things in game than lots of mediocre ones
  • also, bribing your players with booze only works if you buy a lot of booze

Safety

When explaining Nordic larp — with all its serious, emotional impact — to Americans, their first response is usually something like, “that’s not a game; that’s therapy” or “that sounds like the Stanford Prison Experiment. Do people come out of these things permanently damaged?” So I was fascinated to attend The Great Player Safety Controversy Panel and listen to a well-reasoned, in-depth discussion of these issues. I took tons of notes, so check back here later this week, when I’ll post them. (4/26/12 update: here are the notes.)

The Roleplay Contract

Riffing off the safety panel, larp maker Bjarke Pedersen gave a talk titled “Five Things We Lie About in Larp,” which generated some interesting discussion. He suggested that the “roleplay contract” is a lie, which was doubly interesting both because I’d never before heard of the roleplay contract, and because lies are fascinating.

The roleplay contract, apparently, is an agreement between players not to judge players for their characters and vice versa. So if I’m a jerk to you in game, you agree not to judge me for it later at the diner. Or if we’re both dark elves in game, I’ll roleplay with you even if I don’t personally like you, because that’s what makes sense for the narrative.

As Bjarke pointed out, this isn’t always true in practice. People want to roleplay with their friends and may shut others out. Sometimes we dislike people after seeing the way that they roleplay. I came out of the session thinking of the roleplay contract as being a bit like philosophical debate around freewill: whether or not we have it is irrelevant, because we behave as if we do.

His point that not everyone is equally capable of playing every role also generated some discussion. He suggested that super-tall dudes can’t really play hobbits, because it breaks our idea of what a “hobbit” is too much. Some members of the audience disagreed, noting that players have a remarkable ability to overlook out of game stuff during games, and that “hobbit” is a fictional category anyway, arguably one capable of expanding or contracting according to the game’s surroundings.

Saturday

I had a big Saturday at this con, but since I flapped my yapper instead of listening, I didn’t learn all that much. I caught the end of a really interesting talk on a game based around a Norwegian brass band (I think), and a bit of Sarah Lynne Bowman’s talk on social conflict and bleed, which I’m hoping to catch in its entirety at WyrdCon.

I went to Johanna Koljonen’s fantastic talk, “Designing Supernatural Terror,” in which she outlined myriad ways to make players feel creeped out, frightened, and terrified. Her slides are definitely worth a look, especially if you organize horror games!

I gave a talk based on my paper “We Hold These Rules To Be Self-Evident” in the convention book States of Play (free download!), which was about American larp as emblematic of American national values. I also incorporated some ideas floated on my blog that had to do with American hyperbole and lack of historical accuracy and American litigiousness. In addition, I sat on the panel “How to Communicate About Larp to a Mainstream Audience.” More on that at a later date — including some press tips — in this space.

The Next Episode

These formal programming items only capture half of the fun of this con. Stay tuned this week for the second installment, featuring more of a social angle.

For some takes on Solmukohta by other bloggers, check out blogs by:

Thomas B: part 1part 2, part 3, part 4
Evan Torner
Annika Waern
Rafael Bienia
Mike Pohjola
Oliver
Twinners
Story Games Forum
The Solmukohta documentation page has tons of content from other panels too!

(Got more links? Post them in the comments, please!)

Five Things US Conventions Could Steal From Fastaval

The Dirtbusters receive accolades at the award ceremony. Credit: Bo Jørgensen

Yesterday,  I riffed on Fastaval, an awesome Danish roleplay convention I attended as part of my two-week Nordic roleplay junket. Today, I want to talk about a few favorite elements of the convention that US convention designers might import into their own conventions:

  1. The Dirtbusters. So far as I know, the Dirtbusters were created — maybe a decade ago or longer? — when no one wanted to clean toilets. These folks — mostly men — don jumpsuits, sunglasses, and pink tutus and spend the entire convention engaging in a larp in which they fight the forces of entropy with semi-military precision armed with plungers and mops. In the states, we’d have to do it minus the beer and porn-laden command center, but I love love love the idea of creating a pervasive larp that convention staff can participate in. Because people who help out deserve to have fun too.
  2. Communal Service. Fastaval has everyone do a couple hours of service for the convention, which really changed the dynamic from one in which we came to be entertained, like clients, into one where we were in it together. The hours I spent serving food weren’t necessarily my favorite, but they changed the nature of the experience for me. Many hands make light work. I’ve seen this helping-out super-power work at my local boffer larp, where everyone signs up for a mandatory NPC (non-player character) shift during the course of the weekend, with similar community-building results.
  3. Game Exchange. Bring an old board or card game you haven’t played in a while, and exchange it for another. The only stipulation is that when you’re done with your vintage game, you can’t sell it, but must pass it on. The games had little library cards in them, showing their history of ownership.
  4. Scenario Writing. In addition to the Fastaval concept — people writing and workshopping games for the convention, which is awesome and should be exported — Fastaval also ran a scenario-writing competition that took place during the convention. Participants were given their inspiration — two obese women and the scent of marzipan — at the start of the convention and had a couple days to write a scenario, which was then-judged. A cool idea.
  5. Photo Competition. Not immediately related to games, but another community-building activity. Maybe it’s just me, but there seemed to be tons of gamers walking around with serious photo equipment at Fastaval. Folks took photos of the convention, quickly printed them and slapped them into frames, and set up a display within the main function room. A cool way of encouraging people to document the convention with unusual angles, bright colors, and razor-sharp focus.