Why ‘Nordic Larp’ Is Confusing

Sometimes terminology is just confusing. One of the questions I’m most often asked during panels or at conventions is, “What is Nordic larp?”

It’s hard to answer this question because the term “Nordic larp,” and what it represents still seems up for debate among the Nordic larpers themselves. While this is an exciting sign of the robustness of the community, it’s also frustrating for those of us who live elsewhere. For us, ‘Nordic larp’ isn’t a storied living tradition, it’s a vocabulary term — people here just want to know the basics so we can talk about Nordic larp at cocktail parties without embarrassing ourselves, our friends, and all of Nordica in the abstract.

Here are a few ways the term is used:

-“Nordic larp” sounds like it refers to all larp that happens anywhere in the Nordic countries. If the Nordic scene is anything like the US scene — composed of many disparate groups of larpers doing their own thing, and often unaware of each other — then this designation is simply geographic. I’m guessing that there are probably some larger similarities, but that there isn’t a set of characteristics that applies across the board. (But hey, I’m not an expert, so what do I know?) It’s unclear whether this makes the term useful or not, since it lumps in big fantasy games with artsy fartsy ventures. Do they really both have stuff in common?

-Nordic Larp is also a delightful coffee table book that you must all run out and buy right now. In the book, Finnish editors Jaakko Stenros and Markus Montola assembled a collection of essays and photographs documenting some important and interesting games of the last 15 years. The book tackles stuff from large medieval summer larps, to the most existential of experiences. The book, and the larps in the book, also define the term in some way. Stenros and Montola are aware that this may be problematic, and authored a paper explaining their process, and some of the dilemmas they faced along the way.

-Many people use “Nordic larp” as shorthand for “art larp that comes out of the Knutepunkt tradition.” Knutepunkt is an art larp convention that rotates its way around the Nordic capitals, changing its name to the local language depending on where it’s hosted. (So it’s called Knutepunkt, Knutpunkt, Knudepunkt, and Somukohta — confusing!) These games seem to have a core set of aesthetic principles. My sense is that since art larpers comprise only a fraction of their national — Norwegian, Swedish, Danish, Finnish — scenes, they banded together across borders and raised a flag, calling their games Nordic. So “Nordic larp” is constructed, perhaps, in opposition to “Danish larp,” “Finnish larp,” etc.

On this reading, the term “Nordic larp” narrowly applies to a school of design and play and as such, it’s quite useful. On the other hand, since “Nordic” sounds like a geographic area, the slippage between a concrete design school and a geographical area is problematic. Some people in the US interpret this definition as, “The Nordic people are trying to say that they have a monopoly on cool art larp!” That may not be the intention, but it can come across that way. I’ve also heard that some people who do more mainstream larp in various Nordic countries interpret the term as, “The arty larpers are suppressing narratives about my lovely boffer game by making ‘Nordic’ synonymous with ‘arty.'”

And so we’ll leave it there — nobody knows what “Nordic larp” is, but people still use the term all the time. So if you want to use it as a pickup line at your next party, just know that whatever you say, you’ll probably get it wrong in someone’s estimation.

Until you come to consensus through whatever byzantine coalition-building process you use, my dear Nordic larpers, we Americans will just persist in calling any game that originates in your territory ‘jeepform,’ even though that term has a specific and narrow meaning. Why? The jeepers mounted an early campaign that clearly defined their play style and marketed it so successfully that in America it’s now synonymous with any game — larp, freeform, tabletop — that originates in your homeland. If you’d like it to be otherwise, then you’ve got to put some clear definitions out on the internet, like yesterday.

Further reading:

The Swedish Larp Workshop’s Definition
Thread on the term at the Nordic larp forum
Johanna Koljonen’s Nordic Larp Talk Intro to Nordic Larp
Why We Play, Petter Karlsson’s introduction to Nordic larp
Nordic larp for Noobs, my attempt to help US players of the (Nordic?) larp Mad About the Boy
Roads & Kingdoms article on Nordic larp

GMing Nordic Freeform: A Beginners’ Guide

Photo Credit: Flckr user TrippChicago

 

Though I’ve run dozens of Nordic freeform games for Americans in the last year or two,  I’m probably still a rookie GM. But, as the saying goes, “You don’t need Santana to show you how to hold the guitar.” I suspect it’s true for GMing Nordic freeform too. There are many ways to run freeform for Americans, and mine is just one of them.

To me, the key component of GMing freeform for Americans is creating the right sort of atmosphere, letting people know what to expect with verbal and non-verbal cues, and explaining what will be expected of them.In the Nordic countries, the heavily collaborative style of play is already out there, and it’s supported by a communitarian culture. In the states, we tend to view things more individualistically and competitively — in roleplaying games there’s often a sense of waiting for your spotlighted moment and wanting to make it totally, totally, awesome — and that is the expectation that many players arrive with. So it’s important to support players and to engineer them to collaborate with one another.

Most of my advice is geared toward trying to create the right set up — setting the tone, explaining certain things, helping people understand what the play style is — rather than the act of running the games, which is pretty intuitive once you’ve tried it a couple times. And of course, since some of these games can hit unexpectedly hard, especially for an audience that may not be used to them, debriefing is key.

I think Nordic freeform is great because it’s so easy to run — no costumes, no set, just a handful of people together in a room for a few hours. You can find free downloadable scenarios in English at Alexandria and Jeepen.org

 

THE GM SETS THE TONE

Always and forever.

 If the scenario is serious, act serious.

The attitude of the GM sets the tone for the game. I think this is particularly important when running games for Americans, because our cultural context for play is different.

If you act seriously, people will bring their realistic a-game. If you crack a lot of jokes, in my experience, they won’t. Your attitude sets up the players’ expectations about the game, so act accordingly.

 Use as few words as possible.

Don’t waste people’s time: explain the scenario in as few words as you can. And try to keep the focus on the players and what their experience will be like, rather than jetting off into anecdote. If you don’t waste words, they’ll be less tempted to as well, and that will serve the game.

Make it clear you care about the players’ well-being.

For me, setting the tone also means making sure people know that this space is a safe space to enact intense emotion, whether the game rises to that intensity or not. This means asking everyone about their physical boundaries, giving people cut words, and making sure that people know you’ll take their concerns seriously.

I often tell people beforehand that we’re going to use “writer’s workshop rules,” in other words, that if someone lets something heavy drop during the game or the debrief, it stays within the group and doesn’t get spread around.

I also tell players that if they are comfortable getting a bit physical with each other — shoving each other during a fight, for example — that’s fine with me, but they should keep it playful, since I don’t ever want to feel that anyone is in real danger during a game. The physical boundary talk isn’t just about fighting — it’s also about how comfortable people are with strangers touching them. Some people are fine with a casual arm around them, but no more. Some people are comfortable with the “bikini limit.” Some people don’t want to be touched at all. Getting this on the table at the outset settles some unrest, and gets people thinking about their own limits, which is good.

One time we skipped this physical boundary talk, and unbeknownst to me two of the players dating each other were stage combat experts who love sparing with each other. They had a very serious-looking physical fight during the game, and it freaked everyone out, since we didn’t know about their agreement. Other players thought, “If they can do that to each other, can they do that to me too?” I’ve never forgotten to have the boundary talk since.

Tip: Choose an enclosed room that’s not too big — four people will be dwarfed by a ballroom. And make sure to hang a sign on the door asking people to stay out. Absolutely no spectators. Just trust me on this.

 

GIVE THEM CONTEXTUAL INFO

This lets people know what to expect and what is expected of them.

Tell them where the games come from.

Since this style of play is new to many American gamers, I usually give a little thumbnail sketch of the style’s history.

“Freeform is a style of game that comes from the Nordic countries and incorporates larp and tabletop techniques. It arose when tabletop players decided they wanted to start acting out scenes, rather than just describing them, and eventually they lost the table completely. These games use tabletop techniques — like fast forwarding through the boring stuff — and larp techniques, like acting out your character.”

That’s the cliffs notes version, though sometimes I’ll go into a little more detail.  If I’m GMing jeepform, I am careful to explain that jeepform is not identical to “Nordic larp,” which is a misconception many people have — you can explain it as a type of freeform that uses metatechniques which are ways of breaking the narrative to heighten the drama, or ways to let players communicate with one another when their characters cannot.

I try to keep this explanation to 1-2 minutes.

Tell them about cutting and about the rule of yes.

“Instead of playing out one long, continuous scene, this game is more like a movie, where I’m the director, cutting the scenes together.

“Also, this game is sort of like an improv exercise. Try to adhere to the rule of ‘yes and…’ This means that when someone gives you a suggestion, ‘Do you remember that time we went to the Waffle House together?’ you add on to it. ‘Yes, and you were wearing that totally dumb hat.’ “

You can also note that the rule of ‘yes,’ doesn’t always mean saying ‘yes.’ “‘Do you remember that time we killed that guy?’ ‘No, I think I was too far gone on Quaaludes…’ also advances the narrative. The important thing is not to deny what other people have made up, what you don’t do is say, ‘No, we never killed that guy.’”

If the game is bleedy, explain the concept of bleed.

Bleed is what happens when character emotions and player emotions get mixed up, and in many gaming communities in the states, people try to avoid this. Some freeform games are designed to facilitate bleed.

Some people aren’t prepared for games to address their real lives and real emotions so directly. Let people know that it’s normal to have strong feelings (or not!). Explain that there will be a debrief afterward where we’ll talk about the game and anything that came up.

Explain the bare bones of the scenario and any meta-techniques used.

Do it with few words and do whatever else the scenario tells you to do before gameplay begins.

 

WARM THEM UP

Warming players up emphasizes that they are part of a collective team that is working together to create an interesting experience for everyone. Warm-ups also get people comfortable with one another and start the creative juices flowing. I usually try to include:

A physical warm-up or other energy-raiser. 

Make people do the hokey pokey or sing heads, shoulders, knees, and toes. Doing something silly in front of other folks breaks down some boundaries. Alternately, say short phrases with various intonations and make everyone repeat after you as a group. Or come up with your own.

A mental warm-up.

Get people’s minds lubed up for the game by saying a word and asking the player to your left to say the first word that comes into his or her mind. Go around in a circle enough times that people are speaking quickly. I’m told that great GMs say words that bring back the themes of the scenario.

You can also pass a sound and a motion around the circle, and even get more than one going.

A teamwork/focus warm-up. 

Part of running these games is getting people to work together as a team, and this can mean making them sensitive to the emotions, boundaries, and moods of other players.

Make a face at the player to your left, they mirror it back to you, then make a new face to the next player.

Have people stand in a circle, with their arms around shoulders (which gently breaks the touch barrier), everyone closes their eyes, and counts to 20. Using a pattern to do this is forbidden. If two people talk at the same time, you go back to zero. This is one of my favorites, as it makes people sensitive to the energy of the group and even the breathing of other players.

Tip: Build the group’s confidence by complimenting them on how they do the warm-up exercises. Saying stuff like “We’re going to have a great game” can be a self-fulfilling prophecy. If the scenario calls for pre-game collaboration among the players, a heartfelt “thank you” after each person’s contribution has a similar bolstering effect.

 

CAST AND PLAY THE GAME

Like it says in the game materials.

Co-creation

Some games involve co-creation, in which the players get together and decide some stuff about how the narrative will go before the game starts. Often, the GM moderates these discussions by asking questions and so on. In these cases, it’s really important to get buy-in from each of the players, and to make each of them feel that their contributions are being heard. So if one or two players are dominating the conversation, it’s really really important for you to step in for the silent types and make sure their contributions make it into the game.

Festering resentment between players makes for a terrible game.

Casting

The best casting advice I’ve gotten is to never cast the loudest player in the loudest role, because they’ll take over the game. Casting introverts in extrovert roles and vice versa can help quiet the loud and louden the quiet. The game is best when everyone participates equally.

It’s hard to give blanket advice, since casting depends on the individual scenario you’ve chosen. Use your observations of the players from the warm-up to help you make good decisions.

I try to think about the dynamics between the players, rather than who most resembles a given character, because the dynamics make the game. If Sue and Joe don’t like each other all that well, casting them in a romantic relationship probably isn’t a good idea (unless it’s supposed to be unhappy!). If Bob hates public speaking, maybe I won’t cast him in a part that requires being super-eloquent, because I want him to feel comfortable.

If you’re playing relationship drama, the chemistry between the couples is obviously important. You can also be sneaky and cast people according to the roles you think might help them grow. Maybe I will give Bob the role of mayor so he’ll see that he can be eloquent. Sometimes it’s fun to play against type. Gender is often not as important as you think it is in casting.

That advice, and more on casting here.

Tip: If someone looks lost during a scene, you can ask them to monologue about the action to draw them in, if rules permit.

Cutting

It can be hard to cut scenes as a first-time freeform GM. There are a bunch of different schools – cut before the tension peaks to frustrate the players, cut when stuff gets boring, cut slow to draw out awkward situations– but most of all, when in doubt, cut fast rather than slow, because cutting fast keeps up the tempo and energy of the game.

It also depends on the game. In some games, I like to cut long early-on, to draw out the core dynamic of the scene, and to give players time to happen upon something wonderful. But if you cut long, you also risk slowing the energy of the group and letting it peter out.

Lots more advice on cutting here and here.

The main thing to remember: the more you cut, the more you’ll get the hang of when to do it. There’s no wrong or right here, so don’t worry about it too much. As you GM more, you’ll develop your own style, and that’s good.

Tip: Silence can be pregnant with meaning, and it’s OK to let it lengthen awkwardly.

 

DEBRIEF

Always hold a debrief. A five minute debrief is better than no debrief. A fifteen or thirty minute debrief is better. A rule of thumb is: the more intense the game, the longer the debrief should be. And games don’t have to last long to be intense.

The most minimal debrief is for everyone to go around the circle and say one thing that stood out to them about the game.

The most important part of the debrief is that everyone should talk and no one person should dominate the conversation. Some people are naturally more talkative than others, of course. So watch for the quiet ones and try to draw them out. If they really don’t want to talk, don’t make them, but maybe go up to them casually later and make sure they’re ok.

Of course, people will tell some war stories, and that’s great, but you also want to cut to the heart of the matter and ask people to talk about their feelings. If something seemed problematic or could have been problematic, but wasn’t, now’s a good time to talk about that.

You should ask questions, but know that the questions you ask also set the tone for the debrief and therefore for the experience that the players leave the game with. Neutral questions, “What did you think of X?” are better than critical questions. At the end of a decent but not great game, I once asked “What were the problems with this game?” People left nitpicking the game design and GM style, instead of talking about the impact of the experience. If you want GM feedback, get it later and privately.

You may also find that players want to talk to you solo after the game down at the bar or in the lobby, or whatever. This is natural and good, so let it happen.

And a reminder: as the GM, your job is to listen and not talk during the debrief.

Lots more advice on debriefs here.

 

TIPS, TROUBLESHOOTING, AND LEARNING FROM LIZZIE’S MISTAKES

I’ve tried out a bunch of stuff. Here are some miscellaneous things I’ve learned:

  • During my first few games, I looked at players and thought they were miserable, bored, etc. In the debrief, it was plain they’d had a great time. Players look serious while playing serious games. This is normal, so don’t freak out about it.
  • It’s up to the players to make the game good. Sometimes they’re just not in the right mood, or the group dynamics are wonky and the game is shallow in a boring way. This isn’t necessarily your fault.
  • Not every person is a good audience for every game, or even for freeform in general. Just accept that not everyone will be into it.
  • People play better in the afternoon and evening.
  • If a game tanks, it’s better to end it early and talk about it that then to let it drag on. Sometimes admitting this hurts your ego. Suck it up and do it anyway. You’ll learn a lot, and the players will respect you for not torturing them.
  • I experimented with “enforced sharing” during warm-ups, asking people to share a fear or hope, for example, as a way of bonding the group and making them comfortable bleeding. I found that instead of driving the players closer and facilitating bleed, most of the time this made it more difficult for players to play hard; it sort of pointed at issues players might want to explore, and in doing so, made people feel self-conscious.
  •  It’s normal to flail around for the first two-thirds of a freeform game – people are still finding and focusing in on the story. The magic seems to happen in the last part.
  • It’s OK for you to have feelings about the game too, but it’s probably best for you to share them with an external party.
  • Confidence. If you don’t have it, just larp it; like dogs smelling fear, players can sense when you feel weak and that weakens the experience for them.
  • If the game isn’t perfect, or if it fails, no one will arrest you. So get out there and try new stuff.

So there you have it: set the tone and let the game unfurl, and use your GM tools to manage the interpersonal dynamics between people and make sure no one is left out.

Happy adventuring.

And for the comment crowd: What games would you recommend for a first-time freeform GM? What tips did I miss? Share your experience with us, or come ask questions!

___

PS. You know what still makes a great Christmas gift to relatives confused about your hobby? Leaving Mundania.

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.

 

Engaging with Games at Babycastles Summit

On Saturday, I spent a great day over at the Babycastles game design summit, which took place at the Museum of Art  & Design in Columbus Circle.

Nietzsche and Game Design

Nicholas Fortugno, chief creative officers of Playmatics, gave a thought-provoking talk on narrative in games, covered in depth over at the Verge. Although he explored a lot of intriguing ground — including the public perception that games shouldn’t address serious topics — his discussion of games as an art form most interested me.

In particular, he focused in on a quote by critic Roger Ebert suggesting that games aren’t art, since games invite in players as co-creators, and often, players aren’t artists. As Fortugno put it, if you gave Romeo and Juliet to some dude off the street, chances are good it wouldn’t surpass Shakespeare’s version.

Fortugno gets around this “games aren’t art” argument by exploring what we mean by “art,” using Nietzsche’s distinction between Apollonian and Dionysian artistic impulses. There’s probably been a jillion books written on this, but to grossly simplify, Apollonian art appeals to reason and aesthetic, while Dionysian art appeals to emotion and sensuality. So as Fortugno suggested, ballet is Apollonian — it’s meant for looking! — while Dionysian art is dancing while wasted — meant for doing. If you judge a drunk dancer on whether his toes are pointed, you’ve missed the point.

Fortugno extended this understanding of art back to games, suggesting that games are a Dionysian art form, one where judging the poignance of the story misses the point, which lies in the doing of the player, the engagement and engrossment of the player.

Of course, my mind jumped to larp. Nietzsche held that theater — well, the ancient Greek tragedies — unified the Apollonian and Dionysian elements. And it seems to me that good larp does the same thing, encouraging a Dionysian participation — immersing players in their characters — while still telling a beautiful Apollonian story. To me, the Apollonian element in good larp is the design of the game, which should create moments of Dionysian intoxication, of intense emotion on the part of the player.

Take, for example, the jeepform game Doubtin which Tom and Julie, a pair of actors in a relationship, perform as Peter and Nicole — a couple having relationship problems — in a local play. Two people play the real-life couple Tom and Julie, and two play the fictional couple Peter and Nicole. Game play cuts sharply between them. The game design has an Apollonian elegance, with themes that play against and echo one another, almost regardless of the quality of the players. I’ve run this game six or seven times, and the story is always intriguing to watch on a thematic level. And yet it’s got the Dionysian too — the structure of the game allows people to pour themselves into their roles. It’s written to create bleed — the interplay between a character’s emotions and a player’s emotions — and it does so with amazing frequency. Not every run of Doubt I’ve facilitated cuts close to the bone, but it does so with remarkable frequency.

So to me, that’s good larp design — using the Apollonian to create opportunities for Dionysian immersion. (FWIW: I feel dirty and academic even writing that.)

I have the sense that perhaps applying notions of the Apollonian and Dionysian to larp is nothing new in the larp world. I’m not well-read on this topic, so I’d love suggestions for further reading in the comments, if you feel so moved.

Ars Amandi

I ran my fifth Ars Amandi workshop for some of the Babycastles crowd. Ars Amandi is a method for simulating romance/intimacy in larp, where the touching of arms represents amorous contact, including sex. It’s one of a host of methods of simulating romance in Nordic larp, and it’s one of the most successful at creating emotions of intimacy as well as an in-game representation.

I had twelve participants, and as usual, even though I warned them it’d be unexpectedly intimate, the intimacy of the technique suprised everyone. One source of tension in the room, I think, is that the vast majority of participants weren’t roleplayers, but rather digital gamers. In the workshops I’ve run for larpers, participants take on a sort of amorous persona as they experiment with the technique, which is a way of creating some distance from the intimacy.

In this workshop, the stakes felt higher, I think, for the participants, who didn’t create a facade between themselves and the technique — they represented themselves in a very brave, but perhaps anxiety-producing way. Roleplayers are used to slipping in and out of character, for example, so the idea of what happens after the experience (off-game) is over is more familiar. So I think the participants evidenced a lot of courage in trying something new, especially given that our room had a glass wall that attracted spectators. (Typically, I try to cordon the workshop off from prying eyes). I wish I’d done a better job of easing the folks in to the idea of roleplay up front.

Still, judging from the intense debrief after the workshop, I think the participants went away changed.

Games in Public Spaces

I enjoyed the panel “Designing Games for Public Spaces,” which featured three interactive game designers, including Ramiro Corbetta, who designed the simple sports game Hokra, played with four people, numerous spectators, and a large screen; Mathew Parker who created Recurse, a game played by moving crazy with your body in front of a screen; and  larpwright J.R. Blackwell, who recently scored a judge’s spotlight Ennie for her one-shot zombie larp Shelter in Place.

Listening to the digital designers discuss their work alongside an analog larpwright created some interesting resonances, particularly after watching Fortugno’s talk. Here were three games, two of them digital and narrative-less, and one of them analog and narrative-heavy.

Parker and Corbetta’s games directly involve only a few players — one to four people could play their games at a single time — but they got around this limitation by creating games that are interesting to watch. In the case of Hokra, people like to root for a team, and in the case of Recurse, spectators gather to watch people moving their bodies in silly ways. In contrast, Blackwell’s Shelter in Place directly engages ten to twenty-one players, although it may not be clear to spectators what is going on.

Parker and Corbetta’s games seek to engage people for a few minutes (but hopefully longer), while Blackwell aims for a few hours. And the sort of engagement they are aiming at is fundamentally different. Larp, arguably, has a transformative aim — in embodying a character, participants leave the magic circle fundamentally changed by it, while the digital games offer a quick-hit of achievement and skill-building.

This creates an interesting inversion. The digital games are for a small direct audience of players, but a large possible audience of casual observers. The larp, in contrast, has a bigger direct audience, but is less accessible to the casual passerby because it requires a deep engagement. At the same time, spectator engagement, when it does happen, is deep and intense.

I’m reminded of the larp Dublin2which took place in the Helsinki city center in 2011, and is slated to be run again in Stockholm this year. The game, set up in a public space, looked at what it’s like to seek asylum in a foreign country — what it’s like to go toe to toe with the migration board, risking possible jail time or deportation. Players were able to talk to passers-by about their in-game plight during the run, creating public engagement around the issues of asylum. And sometimes, casual observers became very involved. In his Nordic Larp Talk, game creator JP Koljonen talked about these interactions, including what happened when some players — portraying fascists — staged a riot against the camp.

Thanks for a thought-provoking Saturday, Babycastles!

DEXCON 15 Debrief

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

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

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

Art Larp in the US

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

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

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

Awesome Games I Played

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Few Lessons in GMing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conversations

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

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

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

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

See y’all at Gen Con.

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.

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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.

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.

Wyrd Con 2012: Larp Meets Transmedia

The very nice Wyrd Con badge; someone noted that it made us all look like Lovecraftian cultists.

This blog post is up late because I’ve been in Los Angeles for a week, attending Wyrd Con, a convention of participatory culture.

One of the more interesting conventions I’ve attended, Wyrd Con combined both panels on larp, transmedia and alternate reality games (ARGs; more on this later) with innovative convention larps and ARGs. In the mornings, you could learn about gaming theory; in the afternoons, you could practice it.

Wyrd Con is only in its third year, but the mix of theory and practicum, of intriguing game line-up, high production values, and interesting people, made this convention one of my favorites. Although it’s still developing its identity, it’s got loads of promise, and if it were closer to me, on the east coast, I’d be there every year. It’d be a great choice of con for Nordic larpers wanting to experience the arty American way.

Enough with the preliminaries, on to the good stuff, subtitled, because I broke the blogging rule and wrote a long post.

The Teams

Team transmedia — a friendly tribe almost uniformly dressed in black clothing or business casual — could be found watching panels or networking at the hotel bar and other locales I failed to uncover. I don’t think I’ve ever given away all the business cards I’m carrying, but it happened here thanks to team transmedia.

Meanwhile, team larper chilled largely on the lower level, where most of the games ran. Easily identifiable by their jeans, T-shirts, and/or crazy costuming, they spent the convention playing and/or talking about games.

The staff’s attitude was very laid back and welcoming; this was the most photographed/media-ized convention I’ve been to; I liked that there was a staff member dedicated to liaising with GMs before their larp events.

Awesome Game Designers Who Happen to be Women

Coolest thing about Wyrd Con: SO MANY women designers on the transmedia and larp sides. I talked with some transmedia ladies, who told me that their field has almost half women designers, and many women spoke on panels. On the larp side of things, while the player base was about 40% female, women ran MORE THAN HALF THE GAMES.

What I Learned About Transmedia 

The stuff I know about transmedia probably wouldn’t fill a teaspoon, so take my comments with a bucket full of Cthulhu guts. I did get a nice introduction to both transmedia and alternate reality games (ARGs).

For starters, defining “transmedia” is a little like defining “freeform” — ask three people and you’ll get seven definitions with different details. Near as I can tell, it seems to mean something like multimedia storytelling, using different platforms to tell one story, begging the question — is something like this interactive piece on Darfur transmedia storytelling? I wonder whether there’s a requirement of interactive-ness inherent in transmedia, and if so, whether this Darfur piece meets the bar. Clicking isn’t enough on the ARG side of things, that’s for sure — alternate reality games seem to require some sort of deeper engagement.

What I Learned About ARGs

Before this convention, my main understanding of ARGs game from a couple essays and this video on the Conspiracy for Good, which I learned about on my trip to Knudepunkt 2011. (Sidenote: the Nordic folk who helped make this have a new ARG about to launch).

Thanks to the panel, ARG 101: An Introduction to Alternate Reality Gaming, moderated by John Greg Gomez with speakers Bret Shefter, April Arrlington, and Maria Alexander, I learned a bit more about ARGs, including some of the terminology. The entrance to an ARG, the “rabbit hole,” is often not publicized or is deliberately hidden. For example, in The Beast (2001), a game produced for Stephen Spielberg’s A.I., designers hid one rabbit hole in the movie poster, listing Jeanine Salla as “Sentient Machine Therapist” in the credits. Googling her name sent players to the start of the game.

ARGs often produce a “hive mind,” a collective of individuals working together from disparate locations to solve a puzzle, from hacking into a website, to assembling information dispersed widely in time and space by the designers. Players collect information stashed in various media — websites, real world locations, via phone calls, tweets, in online video, etc — and piece it together to solve puzzles that then reveal new bits of the story — like an elaborate scavenger hunt.

ARGs are also pervasive, and at times conflate the real world and the game world, as in the game Red Cloud Risingwhere I mistook a nasty sodden pair of pants wadded up on a NYC park bench as a potential clue. This plays into the “this is not a game” aesthetic, also characteristic of ARGs, which I didn’t fully understand as a concept. This is not a game seems to involve telling players that the game is not a game, which contributes to an ARG’s pervasiveness, but it also seems to refer to a linguistic point. ARGs aren’t games in the proper sense because they aren’t closed systems with rules that are defined, rather, the playing of the game helps define the rules and the narrative.

I left the panel with a number of questions, later discussed with a couple of transmedia folk — have standard structures for ARG narratives emerged, ways of defining beginning middle and end? (Answer: no, all ARGs are different, though they do use common sorts of puzzles.)

As ARGs are a participatory medium, I’m also intrigued by what counts as participation — at first glance, it seems like ARGs create railroad narratives that shepherd players through a pre-determined story. Of course, the players can solve puzzles and unlock the narrative quickly or slowly, and the bonds they make with co-players would influence the experience, but I wonder how much control players have over the narrative. Are ARGs susceptible to the criticism levied at Sleep No More, that nothing you do really matters when it comes to changing the story’s outcome? Or are some ARGs more open-ended?

The panel also recited some of the history of ARGs, the big canonical games that influenced their brethren. Made me wish for a Nordic Larp-style book documenting the most important games from this nascent medium.

The Purposes of Transmedia

Jeff Gomez gave an awesome keynote that covered his stirring life story, and how he’s used roleplaying games on a personal level to keep himself happy, and on a professional level, using his knowledge of how characters work to advise companies like Disney. He also gives seminars and has produced curricula aimed at helping kids overcome personal difficulties.

To me, this opened up questions about the goals and potential goals of ARGs. Most ARGs appear to be tie-ins designed, at core, as advertising that intrigues consumers and pulls them in (in contrast to traditional “push” advertising, which is forced on consumers in the form of TV commercials, website ads, etc).

The way team transmedia talked about their projects mirrored this — rather than discussing the story, the novel, the movie, they talked about developing a “property.” This terminology is interesting both because it’s neutral — it doesn’t commit to one medium over any other, leaving the end product open — and because it also emphasizes the commercial value of creative endeavor, transforming it into a commodity that can be monetized.

As a writer, I believe artists deserve to be paid — handsomely paid — for their work. And certainly, partnering with a corporation to tell a story and advertise wares is a natural fit. But certainly, it’s not the only way to do transmedia storytelling (though perhaps it is the only sustainable way?). I mean, look at writing. I can write advertising copy  to sell stuff, I can write newspaper columns to inform people, I can write essays to persuade politically, and short stories to get across an artistic vision. These different sorts of writing all pay different amounts, but the opportunities are available.

For this reason, it intrigued me that I mostly heard about corporate opportunities. I can’t tell whether that is a facet of creating an ARG — it requires lots of investment (of time and money) to get the player base, and to create the types of puzzles that will interest players over the game’s timeframe, so corporate funding is required — or whether it’s a facet of the community as it now stands, and these other niches are yet to come. To me, the ability of ARGs to activate an audience and move it to action suggests some interesting possibilities. What about a game designed to turn out more voters? To uncover contemporary injustice? To enthuse participants about supporting their local art communities?

Jeff Gomez suggested I check out Shankaboot, a Lebanese webseries with a transmedia component aimed at highlighting artists throughout the Middle East. Are there other projects I should know about?

My Programming

I kept busy during the convention. I gave a talk on Dungeons & Dragons as the American dream, based on my paper in this year’s Solmukohta book, States of Play (free download at the link), and on some content from the blog.

I also ran the jeepform games Previous Occupants and Doubt, as well as an Ars Amandi workshop with six players that went well enough for three of them to come play in a Doubt pickup. So I kept busy. And now I’ve run Doubt like eight gazillion times. (Check out Amanda Mielke’s photos of the Previous Occupants game here, #125 through 322.)

I sold a handful of copies of Leaving Mundania too — after all, I was on book tour.

Friday night, I participated in an insanely fun run of Kirsten Hageleit’s Sunken Places, in which the players forestall a war between elves and goblins by designing a game — to be played by disinterested players with no concept of the stakes — to decide the outcome of their conflict. It’s a game about making a game and getting other people to play it. After the characters create “the game” they grab random con-goers to play it. I was one of them.

The Sunken Places characters wanted us to interact with the convention, so we had a fun time scavenging for players with various costume items, posing and photographing costumed folk to resemble the art deco tarot cards we’d been given, and going on a pictorial treasure hunt.

Movies

In the evenings, the convention had a spate of larp-themed films running in one of the rooms. While I missed Lloyd the Conqueror, I caught the amusing if somewhat gender-straitjacketed Marital Combata 25-minute high-production film about a fighting couple stranded inside a larp, filmed at a game many of the audience participated in. The evening also introduced me to my favorite larpy web series to date, Walking in Circlesa comedy about a D&D party that can’t find its way home.

Art Larpers

Wyrd Con was a great place to meet folks interested in larp with more serious themes, folks intrigued by art larp. A bunch of us found each other and pow-wowed on Saturday night, talking larp theory, plans for new games, and organizing strategy. Kirsten Hageleit started a tradition too with an informal rant, “when I ask about your character I don’t want to know everything about your character.” 

We argued too, about where this scene is going and whether it’s really sustainable, and we liaised with folks more interested in boffer games, and found some common ground. I felt tremendously enthused — we’d doubled our number by the end of the convention, a sure sign of interesting things to come out of the US.

Final Thoughts

  • This con wasn’t as wild and crazy as other cons I’ve been to. That meant people slept and were even capable of holding intelligent discussions at all times of day
  • Wyrd Con had lot of polish, from the convention badges, to the documentary photographers and media presence, to the technical acumen displayed on the panels.
  • Not much gnarly long hair, or as many hipster outfits carefully designed to look nonchalant. I saw calculated haircuts, crisp blazers, weird jewelry, and almost everyone made some sort of idiosyncratic statement with their dress. Folks seemed more conscious of the image they were projecting to the world.
  • Diversity! Holla! My local scene is largely, but not exclusively, white. I found it refreshing to see that love of geekery cuts across racial boundaries — a substantial contingent of Black, Asian, and Hispanic participants attended. It’s either a reflection of the area’s demographics, or Wyrd Con should share its secret weapon of inclusiveness with the rest of us.
  • Many of the larps that I didn’t get to play looked fascinating, from J. Li’s emotional drama The Lake (as Aaron Vanek pointed out, she seems to have invented Nordic larp in a vaccuum) to Mike Tice’s Death in Valhalla, a murder mystery involving the Norse gods that used logic as a mechanic and scored rave reviews from its players. There was an arcade-style boffer mod and an ARG undvertised in the elevator. Some of the most intriguing, mechanics-light games I’ve seen at conventions.
  • Fascinating conversation with David J. Peterson, who created the Dothraki language for HBO’s Game of Thrones. Apparently, the way to make a new language is to start with a proto-language and evolve it. (Easier said than done). He and his wife, both linguists, knew a ton about how language has evolved (surprise!), and explained it with great facility. Apparently, a lot of people into language creation start during childhood.
  • This con had a good mix of people, academics, industry professionals, larpers, and organizers.
  • Highly recommended.

Other Wyrd Con write-ups:

Seen other Wyrd Con debriefs? Did I get something wrong about transmedia? Have a game I ought to know about? Post ‘em in the comments.

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.


Leaving the Larp Closet

Photo: D. Sharon Pruitt

Apologies for the pause in Monday larp posts — my site was hacked last Sunday, but now, courtesy of the awesome Daniel Quinn, everything’s back to normal.

Today we’re tackling a thorny issue: how to come out of the larp closet.

While reporting for Leaving Mundania, I encountered many gamers who kept their weekend selves separate from their work-, friend-, and family-selves, often reminding me of “the first rule of fight club” at parties where non-larpers were present. One of them, a nameless larper who wishes to leave the closet at work, asked me to ask my panel of experts for advice on how to make the leap.

Their de-closeting advice requires three easy steps: 

Step 1: Explain it in terms that non-gamers can understand, using analogy.

Avonelle Wing:

I might be lucky, in that nobody in my world has ever been dismissive of larp as a hobby and an artform. Anyway – when I’m shopping for costuming or makeup and need guidance, I tell people it’s like street theater meets flash mob meets cops and robbers for adults, and then I reference the 90’s murder mystery games.  Everybody seems to “get it,” at least a little, and sometimes people bowl me over with their enthusiasm

Michael Pucci:

Finding if the person likes fantasy books, MMORPGs, or even fantasy based TV series helps a lot.  That way when you want to broach the subject of gaming you can mention a story that relates to a similar interest with the other person.  Explaining to people that you go and live a ‘World of Warcraft‘ type environment, or that you do a more in depth version of a ren fair allows people who are not gamers to have a point of reference to your hobby.

We find that the easiest way to come out with Dystopia Rising is to say “You know Zombieland or ever play Silent Hill or Fallout?  Yeah, I spend a weekend a month living in that.  Fighting zombies and camping and the like.  What did you do this past weekend?”

Part of explaining larp is explaining the medium’s variety, J. Tuomas Harviainen advises:

I suggest mentioning some of the more cool games, in a context where they are appropriate, without taking up the word “larp” at once. There is nothing wrong with it, but it does tend to create immediate associations when non-larpers hear it. When I describe a larp, I treat it as an individual role-play work, and can then say that “Others of course like to do the same but in a different fashion, such as fantasy larp in the woods. To each their own style of play, just as there are different kinds of TV programs, but it’s the same medium.”

As Kate Beaman-Martinez points out, the corollary to this step is “know your audience.”

I suggest easing people in. First be aware of what they think of it. If it’s a sweet church lady who might think that your zombie-raising dark mage might really be a cover for devil worship, odds are you should just say that you’re playing a murder mystery dinner party and leave it at that. More times than not I describe it as “cops and robbers with rules on who shot who first.” If it’s your weekly poker buddies, talk about whats cool about it like getting to hit your friends with foam bats or getting to do wild things with your makeup.

Step 2: Once you’ve explained what the tarnation larp is, own it. Because larp is awesome. And eff the haters.

Mike Young:

Just tell them and don’t worry about being mocked.  In fact, I’ve found that you less often get mocked as you do complete ignorance.  They just can’t wrap their heads around larp no matter how much you explain, and some of my family still think that I do some sort of theater thing on the weekends. But every so often you get responses like I did from a completely mundane cousin who had seen larp on a tv show and thought it was really cool that I do that sort of thing.  That makes it all worth it. And finally, anyone who mocks you for your hobbies just isn’t worth your time.

Aaron Vanek:

Show up to work or family’s home in full costume. FLY YOUR FREAK FLAG LOUD AND PROUD!

Seriously though, it depends on who you are coming out to. Here in Los Angeles I say things like “improvisational acting” or “structured communal storytelling” and most people get excited and want to know more. My wife says larp is a “themed improvisational costume party.” I mention that the United States military uses taxpayer dollars to run a larp that trains soldiers before deployment to the Middle East. My analogy is fantasy foam combat campaigns are to larp like super-heroes are to comic books. They’re the most prevalent, the most colorful and flashy, the most recognizable, but they aren’t all of the art form of live action role playing.

Both larpers and non-larpers need to separate the content of larp (World of Darkness or NERO) from the form of larp (the bubble or magic circle of play pretend). I got that concept from page 6 of Scott McCloud’s brilliant (and highly influential) Understanding Comics.

Sarah Bowman points out that owning it helps defy the stigma’s power:

I never felt the need to stay “in the closet” in terms of my role-playing and it saddens me when I hear stories from other people who do feel that way. I understand that role-playing incurs a stigma, but I believe that the best way to dispel a stigma is to provide a good example of someone who does not fit the negative stereotype. I find that most people remember the experience of playing make-believe as a child and think fondly of those days. Also, the ability to play dress up tends to draw the interest of females, at the risk of sounding totally stereotypical. Men like dress up too!

Step 3: Some cool documentation doesn’t hurt.

Claus Raasted:

Show them the Nordic Larp book. :o)

[Lizzie's note: I hear that Leaving Mundania is now available in ebook form and makes a great gift for the non-larper in your life. ;) And also, the Nordic Larp Wiki and Nordic Larp Talks might provide some helpful material.]

But remember, you can’t win everyone over. Know when to fold ‘em.

Geoffrey Schaller:

Be warned – some people carry notions, and others will talk about your hobby to people you don’t want them to – like the CEO of your company. Just like some people don’t get rap, opera, or show tunes… some people don’t get larp.  Know when to explain it, and know when to avoid it, and that gossip travels in professional environments.

Finally, know that the geek closet isn’t as dark and deep as it used to be.

Frederik Berg Østergaard:

I think that these days it’s become less of an issue. If you look at how often old-skool Dungeons & Dragons is portrayed in TV-series and films, it has become a part of the broader cultural luggage that we all carry around these days. I mean, the founding fathers have all died, and we’re all getting older. The geek shall inherit the earth and so we have. Of course coming out of the closet as a larper can seem to be a *big thing*, but lets face it, people have a lot nerdier hobbies these days, and how often do you get a chance to say “Oh, yeah. I larp. In my last larp I came out of the closet in a dark room at a gay larp.”

 

Read more First Timers’ Guides.

____

Kate Beaman-Martinez  has been acting since she was 11 and started gaming at 17. She cut her teeth on White Wolf’s Werewolf: The Apocalypse and naturally got up when there was a heated debate on the proper uses of torture in her weekly table top group. Shortly thereafter she joined The Avatar System and hasn’t looked back. Through larping, she has found her partners, and moved to New York. Kate is currently a full time student and the Executive Assistant for Double Exposure, Inc.

Sarah Lynne Bowman received her PhD from the University of Texas at Dallas in 2008. McFarland press published her dissertation in 2010 under the title The Functions of Role-Playing Games: How Participants Create Community, Solve Problems and Explore Identity. Her current research focuses upon understanding social conflict within role-playing communities and applying Jungian theory to the phenomenon of character immersion.

J. Tuomas Harviainen comes from Finland, and is one of those pesky  professional larp researchers. In addition to studying larps, he also designs them. His mini-larps have so far been run in at least 14 countires and translated to seven languages.

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

Michael Pucci is the CEO of Eschaton Media and the creator of multiple larps, tabletop books, scripts and gaming-related media.  He has more than twenty years experience storytelling for larps, tabletops, and convention games, and spent five years in the business side of the gaming industry. He proudly holds the title of ‘Zombie Lord‘ while looking for more inventive approaches to modernize gaming.

Claus Raasted (32) claims to be the world’s leading expert on children’s larps, and so far nobody has challenged that claim in earnest. He’s the author of six books on larp, is the editor-in-chief of Denmark’s roleplaying magazine ROLLE|SPIL and has been a professional larper for nearly a decade. He also has a past in reality TV. But these days, who hasn’t?

Geoffrey Schaller is a gaming gypsy, having wandered into and out of tabletop RPGs, Collectable Card Games, Miniatures, larp (WoD, boffer, and other), Board Games, MMOs, and countless other forms of gaming, as a player, play tester, demo-runner, author, and staff member.  He still dabbles in all of them when he gets the chance. He is the Technical Director of Double Exposure, Inc.

Aaron Vanek has been playing, designing, running, and thinking about larps for 25 years. His larp publications include the illustrated essay “Cooler Than You Think: Understanding Live Action Role Playing“; “The Non-United Larp States of America“ in the Talk Knutepunkt 2011 book, “Predictions for Larp” in Journeys to Another World, the Wyrd Con book, and the blueprint for “Rock Band Murder Mystery” in the Do Knutepunkt 2011 book. He hopes for at least another 25 years of larp.

Avonelle Wing is the Senior Vice President of Double Exposure, Inc. Along with her partners and a team of friends, comrades and co-visionaries, she works to produce two full-sized gaming conventions and a variety of other gaming related productions each year.  She is a larper at her core – collaborative storytelling is her art form of choice.

Mike Young has been writing live roleplaying games for over 20 years.  His award-winning larps have been run across the world, and many of them are available for free download at his website.

Larp Likes and Dislikes

Welcome to the first-timers’ series, where a panel of seasoned gamers and experts from the US and beyond weigh in on topics pertinent to the larp newbie.

Part of enjoying a larp is finding a game you enjoy, but there’s huge variety when it comes to the hobby, so knowing what you don’t like can be helpful. As Claus Raasted put it,”There are plenty of larps that don’t appeal to me, just like there are plenty of books, movies and poems that aren’t really my thing. Larp is a way of creating and experiencing stories – and not everyone likes the same kind of story.” 

In other words, no one sort of larp is “the best,” but some will be more or less fun to particular people. To give a sense of the scope of games and preferences, today the experts answer the question: What sort of larp does not appeal to you, and why?

Mike Young doesn’t enjoy physical fatigue:

As I’ve gotten older, fatter, and slower, pure live-combat larps really don’t appeal to me anymore.  I’ve swung my share of padded weapons, but I have absolutely zero desire to do so all weekend long, camping out in the great outdoors.  I have become quite the fan of indoor plumbing and air conditioning/central heating.

But I’ll play any genre and any style.  I love to try new types of larp just to see what they are about.

Because Michael Pucci desires physical immersion, he loves physical fatigue but theater-larp mechanics:

Wow.  Talk about a question that could gain me some hate mail.

I personally no longer enjoy theatrical style or card pull larps.  I have played and story told for theatrical style larps for just about a decade, and as a whole, these sort of larps are designed in such a way that the system gets in the way of the immersion and enjoyment of the environment.  The breaking of character to resolve conflicts, the reliance on pure mechanics for physically oriented tasks, and the unbalanced ratio of storytellers/NPCs (non-player characters, aka, extras) to players makes for a lacking campaign game.

I want to feel and experience a full range of emotions and events when I am at a game; I don’t want to avoid conflict because the resolution of a physical contest may have me out of character throwing chops or pulling cards from 15 minutes to multiple hours.  I don’t want to wait for half an hour for a storyteller to narrate my experience walking to someplace other than the one room assigned for game, I want to walk the 2 miles to a new location in real life.  I love waking up as a character, going to sleep as a character, eating as a character, and having a full range of all my interactions from my character’s world view.  I don’t think I can get that with a theatrical style game any longer.

Sarah Lynne Bowman  wants the best of  Young‘s and Pucci‘s worlds– a rules-light game that doesn’t feature combat:

I definitely do not enjoy heavy rules-based larps or games focused on combat. Games with excessive rules, in my opinion, take away from the immersion into character and story, which are the aspects I most enjoy. In rules-heavy games, people often spend more time out-of-character contemplating or debating rules than they do actually role-playing. I understand that the gamist-type players find this sort of activity pleasurable, but excessive rules discussion makes my interest in the game instantly wane.

As for combat, I am, by nature, a pacifist, so I never feel the urge to “best” someone else in physical battle. However, many people feel a strong release from this sort of activity, both physical and emotional. Though I do not enjoy these sorts of games, I still play in games that feature these aspects and respect others who like rules and combat.

Avonelle Wing has practical, DIY concerns:

I don’t like games with a steep startup investment – of time, energy, money, materials.  Give me something I can jump right into with what I have on hand, and I’m a happy girl. Games that become a flashy show of who spent the most at the costumer’s or the weapon smith? no thanks.  A game that encourages crafting and creativity? perfect!

Frederik Berg Østergaard wants meaningful stories and creature comforts:

Two things: Any larp that confuses setting for story. That pretty much excludes most vampire larps and fantasy larps. I prefer larp that is ABOUT something. Also I play very badly when I’m cold, hungry or tired, so strike those larps as well. Oh, you can also put actual violence on that list. I don’t like getting hurt.

J. Tuomas Harviainen wants player freedom:

I dislike larps that are so obviously railroaded that they don’t leave room to actually role-play. And I have no interest in attending games where the game masters overrule player decisions in order to push their own inevitable agenda. Fates and such are fine, but telling players they can have an impact while actually blatantly preventing it is boring. Beyond that, I am open to all sorts of larps, and have written them as well.

Kate Beaman-Martinez finds unicorns and goblins boring:

I am increasingly not a fan of sword and board larps, meaning high fantasy. Larp and role playing in general really got their start there. With Dungeons & Dragons and other fantasy games, they were the ground floor and to me that feels tired. I cut my role playing teeth on Werewolf: The Apocalypse and for me going back to that just doesn’t give me the role playing jollies I get when I play a modern day supers games or CyberGen.

But in the end, I’ll try anything if I know there is a good GM team or if there is an interesting angle being used.

Geoffrey Schaller prefers noncompetitive larping:

I am personally not a fan of larps that encourage PvP (Player versus Player) activity, without it being a specific, pre-determined, and well-communicated part of the game beforehand.  The point of a larp is to enjoy having fun with other people in a communal environment – if I want to gank other players in a competitive environment, I’ll play paintball, or otherwise be involved in a competitive sport.  The only exception to this is a larp that is designed to be competitive, and makes its intent clear from the get-go, such as warring factions or such – and even then, only if it’s a one-shot.  I don’t want to invest time, money, and energy into a game and character that someone else is trying to bump off.

Aaron Vanek is omnivorous:

I learn something from every larp I participate in, even the horrid ones (learning what NOT to do is invaluable). I want to know how each designer and player approaches and deals with the art–what key are they in, how many beats per minute, what effect pedals, etc. My biggest restriction is my time, so the only larp that doesn’t appeal to me, I guess, is one that would be all weekend long, every weekend, where I play the same character in the same venue with the same game master and other PCs/NPCs (player-characters/non-player-characters). Although now that I wrote it out, maybe “Shawshank Redemption: the larp” spanning decades would be cool…

More game guides for newbies.

_______

Kate Beaman-Martinez  has been acting since she was 11 and started gaming at 17. She cut her teeth on White Wolf’s Werewolf: The Apocalypse and naturally got up when there was a heated debate on the proper uses of torture in her weekly table top group. Shortly thereafter she joined The Avatar System and hasn’t looked back. Through larping, she has found her partners, and moved to New York. Kate is currently a full time student and the Executive Assistant for Double Exposure, Inc.

Sarah Lynne Bowman received her PhD from the University of Texas at Dallas in 2008. McFarland press published her dissertation in 2010 under the title The Functions of Role-Playing Games: How Participants Create Community, Solve Problems and Explore Identity. Her current research focuses upon understanding social conflict within role-playing communities and applying Jungian theory to the phenomenon of character immersion.

J. Tuomas Harviainen comes from Finland, and is one of those pesky  professional larp researchers. In addition to studying larps, he also designs them. His mini-larps have so far been run in at least 14 countires and translated to seven languages.

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

Michael Pucci is the CEO of Eschaton Media and the creator of multiple larps, tabletop books, scripts and gaming-related media.  He has more than twenty years experience storytelling for larps, tabletops, and convention games, and spent five years in the business side of the gaming industry. He proudly holds the title of ‘Zombie Lord‘ while looking for more inventive approaches to modernize gaming.

Claus Raasted (32) claims to be the world’s leading expert on children’s larps, and so far nobody has challenged that claim in earnest. He’s the author of six books on larp, is the editor-in-chief of Denmark’s roleplaying magazine ROLLE|SPIL and has been a professional larper for nearly a decade. He also has a past in reality TV. But these days, who hasn’t?

Geoffrey Schaller is a gaming gypsy, having wandered into and out of tabletop RPGs, Collectable Card Games, Miniatures, larp (WoD, boffer, and other), Board Games, MMOs, and countless other forms of gaming, as a player, play tester, demo-runner, author, and staff member.  He still dabbles in all of them when he gets the chance. He is the Technical Director of Double Exposure, Inc.

Aaron Vanek has been playing, designing, running, and thinking about larps for 25 years. His larp publications include the illustrated essay “Cooler Than You Think: Understanding Live Action Role Playing“; “The Non-United Larp States of America“ in the Talk Knutepunkt 2011 book, “Predictions for Larp” in Journeys to Another World, the Wyrd Con book, and the blueprint for “Rock Band Murder Mystery” in the Do Knutepunkt 2011 book. He hopes for at least another 25 years of larp.

Avonelle Wing is the Senior Vice President of Double Exposure, Inc. Along with her partners and a team of friends, comrades and co-visionaries, she works to produce two full-sized gaming conventions and a variety of other gaming related productions each year.  She is a larper at her core – collaborative storytelling is her art form of choice.

Mike Young has been writing live roleplaying games for over 20 years.  His award-winning larps have been run across the world, and many of them are available for free download at his website.