A Few Cool Things I Saw at Knutpunkt 2014

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

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

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

The Check Your Privilege Wall

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

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

“Secret” Room Parties

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

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

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

Danceoke

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

The Costume Swap

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

The Zombie Cuddle-Puddle

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

Meta-techniques in the Dining Hall

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

Meeting New People and Random Conversations

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

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

Nordic Larpers Give Good Hugs

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

What Knutpunkt Is About for Me

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

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

The Aftermath

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

More quick hits on Knutpunkt 2014

Thomas B.’s Subjective Recap

Claus Raasted’s Podcast

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

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Knutepunkt for Noobs

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

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

Come to A Week In

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

Go To the First Timers’ Guide

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

Parties

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

Open Chair Rule

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

Sauna

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

Program Items

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

Sleep Before You Arrive

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

If Something Goes Wrong, Tell Someone

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

Personal Responsibility

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

Drink Out of Your Own Cup

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

You Can Argue and Still Be Friends

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

Everyone Feels Uncool Sometimes

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

Be Open to New Things

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

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

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New in Larp: June 25, 2013

The cast of Limbo poses with their eyeshades and tickets to the hereafter.

The cast of June’s Highland Park, NJ run of Tor Kjetil Edland’s Limbo poses with their eyeshades and tickets to the hereafter.

There’s been a whirlwind of activity over here at chez Stark, but I’ve still managed to cram in some larp-related activity. Since the last time I ran one of these, there’s been lots that’s new in larp. Here, in no particular order, is what I’ve been reading, running, and drooling with envy over:

Larp in the Middle East

Did you know that there’s larp happening in places like Lebanon and Palestine? Well, it’s on, my friends. And it’s got lots of Nordic support.

  • Piece on the first kids’ larp in Lebanon, from Fantasforbundet, a Norwegian larp group
  • The Palestine larp scene is heating up, thanks to local larp group Peace and Freedom Youth Forum (PFF):
    • Last fall, a dual project between the Nordicans and the Palestinians ran in Ramallah — ‘Til Death Do Us Part, a wedding game.
    • Some Finnish designers are collaborating with PFF on a two-part game called State of Siege, about living under a military regime. The first part runs in Helsinki on Nov 15-17, and is open to foreign-born but English-speaking participants. I’ve heard rumors that a second edition will run in Palestine next year.
    • I had the pleasure of meeting some folks from the PFF at Knutepunkt this year. Sounds like they’ve got a short larp going every few weeks, including the Superhero Dance Battle produced as part of this year’s Larpwriter Exchange Academy.

Talking and Writing About Larp

 

Actual Larps that Ran Or Will Run Soon

Re-runs of earlier games:

  • Panopticorp ran about a week ago in Copenhagen. It’s a larp about a cut-throat PR company doing business with morally questionable clients. The game was a re-run of an earlier Norwegian larp played about a decade ago. This time around, more than 40 larpers from at least six countries Skyped, emailed, called and walked-in to play the customers for the game’s 20+ players. I’ve heard whispers that if someone produces a script, there are organizers in at least three countries who’d be willing to run it again…
  • This weekend and next weekend, Mad About the Boy runs again in Sweden. One run is mixed-gender, the other is all-women.
  • In August, Just a Little Lovin’, about the summer AIDS came to NYC, will be re-run in Copenhagen.

New runs of new games:

My Corner of the World

  • Together with performance researcher Emma Leigh Waldron and RPG researcher Aaron Trammell, I helped run the Norwegian game Limbo, by Tor Kjetil Edland in Highland Park, NJ. We had about 25 players, including people completely new to gaming or to larp, seasoned US larpers, and a few folks who have played Nordic-style games before in the US. We did a two-hour workshop, inspired by Edland’s run of the same game at Knutepunkt this year. Our version took place in the parlor of a local church. On the same day, Limbo also ran in Croatia — you can read organizer Ivan Zalac’s play report here.
  • I’m helping edit a book of Norwegian larp scripts in English. Welcome to the Larpfactory Book Project. The project also includes a series of workshops in Norway on how to write larp scripts, as well as a website containing game materials and video demonstrations of various Nordic larp techniques. Join this Facebook group for updates on the project, including downloads when they become available. Or visit the project website!
  • Designers and US art larp veterans John Stavropoulos, Terry Romero, and Kira Scott have pledged to create a Monsterhearts larp system as a stretch goal if the Kickstarter for this game about teen monsters in love is funded. They’ll use a modified version of Ars Amandi to optionally represent the tabletop’s signature sex moves.

New Conventions and New Scenes

Dude. So much exciting stuff happening.

Whew. I know I missed something else awesome. What else did I miss?

Trampled By the Herd: Mimes and Larp Safety

This year’s Knutebooks — the books of larp theory put out each year by the pan-Nordic convention Knutebook — are out and available for free download here.

Edited by Karete Jacobsen Meland & Katrine Øverlie Svela, this year’s trio of tomes focuses on short articles written for the layman.

My piece on larp safety and the social dynamics of large groups, called “Trampled by the Herd” is in the Crossing Habitual Borders (.pdf) volume. It combines a Freakonomics podcast on rules and mimes with some original reporting with clinical neuropsychologist Dr. Maria Schultheis, whom I asked to evaluate some safety techniques common to Nordic larp.

Readers here may also be interested in Eleanor Saitta’s piece “Mad About the Yankee” from the Crossing Physical Borders (.pdf) volume, which is a nice exploration of some of the issues — intra-national and otherwise — around the game.

How To Win Arguments On the Internet

Internet debate is a double-edged sword. It can help us undertand each other, but it can drive us apart, too.

In the past year, I’ve watched lots of internet arguments — some ugly, some not — unfold within the gaming community, most recently around issues of gender and inclusion in the aftermath of the Knutepunkt convention.

These debates have crystallized some thoughts on argumentation and tone. Forgive me for meandering a bit below: my core point here is that tone matters — sure, it doesn’t affect the content of your argument, but it does affect how that argument is perceived by your core audience, and therefore it affects your overall persuasiveness. This is my pragmatic world view — that if you want your argument to achieve maximum effectiveness, tone matters.

Yeah, “Tonal Arguments” Are Problematic.

I should point out that, yes, I am familiar with the inherent problems around tonal arguments. In a nutshell, the problem with tonal arguments is that when used abusively, they can derail the content of a debate and silence people who need to be heard. In other words, if I’m  just in from two weeks of exposure in the desert and I say, “I’m dying of thirst, fetch me a glass of water, jerk,” you might respond with “hey there spanky, you get more flies with honey. Say please!” you do have a point, but your point doesn’t actually negate the contents of my speech. I still really need a glass of water, like, now. The idea is that you should respond to the content of my speech, rather than the manner in which I’ve made it. And in general, I agree with this. But the tone of an argument also hits people on a gut emotional level, and that means it affects how likely your message is to penetrate your audience.

To reiterate: I agree that tonal arguments can be problematic, especially when they’re used like a weapon to deliberately derail productive conversation. I also acknowledge that sometimes, people — often people from non-dominant groups — just get tired of explaining stuff over and over again. If I had a flame thrower for every time I’ve had to argue about concepts that seem like feminism 101 to me, well, let’s just say there’d be a lot of crispy bodies scattered around the earth. I assume that trans people get tired of explaining trans issues, that people of color get tired of explaining racism, that larpers get tired of explaining larp, etc. etc. For me, at least, this fatigue causes the phenomenon of “ragesplaining” (it’s what mansplaining makes me want to do!). This is what happens when I feel like I have to explain X to a new group of people for the bazillionth time for me, although perhaps it’s only the first time for my audience.

I think all of this comes into play when talking about sensitive stuff on the web, or honestly, in person. And while tone doesn’t negate the contents of anyone’s speech, it makes a huge difference in how your message is received by others.

(Sidenote: Though the “basic” conversations can feel frustrating to have repeatedly, I think they’re some of the most important conversations to have, because they bring outsiders up to speed on what must sometimes seem like inside baseball. And usually, people who haven’t encountered basic concepts before simply haven’t thought about the issue very deeply yet, so it’s a good opportunity to spread some basic knowledge, and persuade these noobs over to your side.)

Pick a Tone Appropriate To Your Audience

Though there are lots of reasons to to engage in debate about sticky wickets like, say, gender or free speech, or whatever, I see four main reasons:

  • To rally the base that agrees with you
  • To change the mind(s) of the person(s) that you disagree with, but who are weighing in on the debate
  • To persuade people on the fence who may be listening, but not necessarily posting.
  • To give voice to people who may feel the same way you do, but who don’t feel comfortable speaking up.

All of these audiences are important. But to my mind, the middle two are the most important because they are the most likely to create real change by growing the base of people who agree with you. Persuading someone who is a fierce advocate of an opposing position has ripple effects as well — if I can change Darth Vader’s opinion on planet explosion, how many storm troopers will follow? My argumentative mantra is: every “enemy” is a potential ally.

To my mind, ragesplaining may feel really really good, but it pretty much only appeals to an audience that already agrees with you. I think it alienates fence-sitters, and it makes the people you disagree with feel attacked. It also takes focus away from the issues at hand and gets people’s pride involved.

How do I know this? Well, I’ve been on both sides of the equation.

During and after Mad About the Boy, I had a lot of arguments about feminism with different sects of people. Early-on, this argumentation meant persuading some men in the community that it was OK to have a game and invite only women. Later, the game took a lot of heat around gender issues from a number of feminists. I don’t want to reopen what was a painful episode for people on many sides of the equation, but this discussion felt frustrating to me, and others on the organizing committee, in part because we consider ourselves feminists and felt we had many goals in common with our adversaries. However, from our perspective, the tenor of the arguments made it difficult for us to want to engage in debate. Plus, we’d used up much of our energy for debate before the game. For me, this felt like a wake-up moment, because I learned what it feels like to be told that you are not being politically correct/understanding enough, and so I feel like I have some empathy for both the critics and the criticized.

Giving the Benefit of the Doubt

To me, the best arguments begin by giving your opponents every advantage — by giving them the benefit of the doubt. Here’s why I think it works:

  • If you couch your opponent’s position in the strongest way possible, then your devastating critique is that much more damning. It doesn’t leave them the wiggle room of, “you misinterpreted me.”
  • As much as we like to think debate is abstract and about the issues, most of us identify strongly with the beliefs we hold and the activities we do. Attacking these can feel like an attack on a person’s identity. That gets pride involved, which makes it emotionally more difficult for the opposition to “give in” on points you might have otherwise persuaded them about. Giving someone the benefit of the doubt, generally includes assuming that:
    • most of us are normal human people who sometimes make flawed decisions
    • most of us don’t intend to hurt others, but sometimes do so inadvertently
    • most of us are thoughtful people who have tried to do their best

As the saying goes, “intent isn’t magic.” To borrow a metaphor from the Knutepunkt debate, even if I didn’t mean to kick you on the dance floor — even if my intent was good — your shin may still hurt, and perhaps you’ve got a bruise to contend with for a few weeks. No apology can fix that. But surely, “I don’t know if you noticed, but you kicked me rather hard, and I’d like to talk about the dance moves you try to bust,” is likely to get a better return than “you’re a horrible person. Why’d you kick me, jerk?” (By the same token, “I’m really sorry I kicked you, but this is the dance style I strongly prefer,” will get a better response than “Stop being so sensitive, it was just a little shove.”)

I don’t want to put the burden on the person who is already hurt to be extra understanding and extra nice and to overcome lots of natural rage. That isn’t fair. It sucks. It’s a nearly superhuman demand. I think people in the position of handling critique should also exercise their empathy, to understand that perhaps this isn’t the first time I’ve been kicked on the dance floor and that I’m having a compound reaction, to give me space to calm down, perhaps to help calm me down so we can have a productive discussion, and so on. Of course, that can be difficult as well. But as Lewis Carroll put it, we should all try six impossible things before breakfast, right?

I think this is particularly important to remember within debates about charged topics within the gaming community, in part because most people do gaming stuff on a hobby level, not for money, but because they want to create things for others. Hostile debate and not giving organizers the benefit of the doubt can produce a chilling effect on the community. After all, we want to encourage people to organize stuff because then there’s more cool stuff to go to — if the perceived social cost of organizing an event becomes too high, that’s going to discourage well-meaning people from participating, and I think that’s not good for the community in general.

Venting vs. Arguing

When I’m really mad, it’s hard to argue, because I can’t control my tone, which doesn’t effect my goal of bringing people around. It can alienate fence-sitters. It can make the opposition dig in its heels merely out of pride. For that matter, it can make me dig in my heels out of pride.

So before I argue, I vent privately to a small circle of trusted people I know won’t judge me for saying stuff that will be mean. And sometimes, I really need to say stuff that is mean, to get it out of my system. To calm down. Only then am I ready to argue, that is, to give my opponents the benefit of the doubt and try to win them over to my side.

I’m not anti-anger. Anger is important — it’s part of what drives us toward passionate and needed debate, but it’s possible to explain why you’re angry/hurt/etc without making the person you’re talking to angry as well.

TL;DR

I’m not concerned here with what’s fair or easy — the world is neither — but I’m concerned with what works. And in general, I think a kind tone, working hard to understand your opponents, and giving them the benefit of the doubt works. Sometimes that means dampening the natural urge to ragesplain things, even though that feels SO JUST AND GOOD.

When things get heated, try to remember that the point of communication is to get ideas across, which means considering what your audience is able to hear.

My Knutepunkt 2013

A bunch of stuff happened to me at Knutepunkt 2013, dear readers, but most of that would doubtless bore you. So I’ve sifted my experiences through the fine mesh of “the coolest, most interesting stuff,” and come up with this greatest-hits compilation, plus, you know, some scenery.

Since I’ve described the convention in lots of other places, this time around, I’m sticking to the content.

Scenography and Ritual

The site for the convention — cabins on the bank of a freaking giant frozen lake, was beautiful. And true to the rumors I’d heard, the Norwegian hosts were big on scenography and ritual.

Destroying Personal Limitations…WITH FIRE

On the bus ride to the convention, we all received tickets for the opening ceremony. The ticket instructions asked us to write something that prevented us from crossing borders on the back. I wrote “fear.” Then came a hilarious and spot-on Twin Peaks parody set in the red room, which represents the spiritual world in the TV show. Watch the video here.

At the end of the opening, we deposited all our tickets into a golden egg held by the log lady. During the Saturday night ritual — which involved drums, chanting, high priestesses of larp, and a giant paper mache phoenix, someone placed the egg into the bird. During the closing ceremony, they put the bird on the edge of the giant frozen lake and set it on FIRE, thereby burning all our boundaries.

The ritual in full swing on Saturday night. Photo: Eleanor Saitta

The ritual in full swing on Saturday night.
Photo: Eleanor Saitta

Phoenix burning with all our boundaries inside it Photo: Eleanor Saitta

Phoenix burning with all our boundaries inside it
Photo: Eleanor Saitta

Of course, during the opening ceremonies, and per Twin Peaks lore, one of the players informed the audience that “the owls are not what they seem.” Obviously, the organizers had littered the campground with stuffed owls in trees, in roof beams, etc.

The owls are not what they seem. Photo: Eleanor Saitta

The owls are not what they seem. Photo: Eleanor Saitta

Program

An embarrassment of riches this year — I couldn’t show up to lots of good stuff because it was scheduled across my own program items, or other stuff I wanted to go to. A great problem to have. Here’s what I learned.

Blackbox Larp: Totally Its Own Medium

When many larpers hear “black box,” they think of the metatechnique of black boxing. Metatechniques deliberately break the flow of narrative in a larp to heighten the drama. The black box metatechnique provides players with a room with controllable lighting and sound that allows them to play scenes outside of the linear narrative of the larp — scenes from the past, the future, the possible future, dreams, etc. During a larp, if I reference that one time that I choked during my lecture to the adventurer’s club, I can grab some people, go to the black box, and play it out one or more times.

At Kristoffer Thurøe’s talk on black box larp, he redefined the term. In recent years, he explained, the black box larp has emerged as its own separate form. A black box larp takes place in a black box theater or similar room. Although at the upper end, games in black boxes can last several days with players sleeping and eating on set, more commonly they last for less than a day. For organizers, black boxes have the advantage of permitting total control over the setting of the game. This means you can use cool theater stuff to make the experience better for people. Stuff like:

  • Lights. Different colors of lighting can set the mood. You can also spotlight certain areas but not others, which creates intriguing opportunities for play. Lights can simulate stuff like campfires, or the grace of god, or metaphorical space, etc. If the players sleep on site, you can also control how long the “days” last for.
  • Sound. Add crackling noises to that campfire light, and you’ve added to the setting. You can also play sounds that influence the mood. A low-level grating noise during a tense scene might enhance the atmosphere, for example. Or record pre-interviews with your players about their earlier experiences with love and then pipe them into scene at strategic moments to make them feel quite mad, as in the game Delirium, about love in a mental institution.
  • Scene jumps. Much like in a freeform game, in a black box, it’s possible to jump forward and backward in time by setting scenes.

Getting Physical as a Player

I went to two great workshops on larp and physicality. The first revolved around physically embodying a character, run by Jana Pouchlá and someone else whose name I failed to catch (bad reporter! help me peanut gallery!), but who are the awesome folks over at the professional Czech larp group Court of Moravia. Here’s some of the stuff we did:

Interacting with just the eyes.

Make eye contact with a partner, walk up to them. Get close. Raise up on your toes and then down. Break eye contact. Find a new partner. We did this several times, with different levels of eye contact and different emotions crackling between us. Super-intimate, and cool to see how much one can communicate using only the eyes.

Interact with simple gestures.

We split into pairs, and our crack workshop organizers provided us with four simple gestures and responses that we could use to tell a story:

  • Person A strokes person B’s cheek. Person B returns the gesture.
  • A puts one hand on B’s shoulder. B uses their opposite hand to remove it.
  • A puts both hands on B’s shoulders. B moves their arms between and up to break A’s grip.
  • A puts both hands on B’s shoulders and slides them down to hold hands. A and B lean away from each other, and then come back to center.

Note: anyone could take the role of initiator at any time during this exercise.

Using these four gestures, but keeping our faces neutral, we practiced telling little relationship narratives. It’s possible to fling off someone’s arm, for example, or to remove it slowly and sensually. A cool exercise.

Walking As Your Character

We envisioned a character and established two default postures — relaxed and open, and closed and anxious. Then we practiced walking as our characters, and our fearless organizers advised us to crescendo. In other words, at count 1 we were normal people at number 10 we were outlandish cartoon exaggerations of our characters. We walked around, and the organizers counted. Then we tried walking as our characters again. It was different and better.

Getting Physical as a GM

I also went to Morgan Jarl’s excellent workshop on GMing in black box games, and much of what he said is applicable to GMing freeform as well. Some of the tactics he described were familiar to me, for example, getting the quiet character to monologue, or drawing focus to a conversation during scenes with two plus conversations happening by freezing half of the players, etc. But he added a few tools to my toolbox, namely noise and physicality. You can use the noises of finger tapping, scratching, stamping, snapping by players’ ears, etc. to add to their distraction, tense-ness, etc. Cool!

By the same token, it’s also possible to touch players during scenes to heighten the drama. For example, if a character feels depressed, the GM might physically represent this sorrow by pressing down on the player’s shoulders. If a character’s in love, a GM could lift them slightly by the armpits. If a character is supposed to be in love with X but is talking to Y, the GM can direct the player’s gaze by simply turning their head lightly. Another interesting technique I’d like to try.

Swedish Shocker on US Play Style

I was part of a program item on the US run of Mad About the Boy, along with one of the Norwegian writers, one of the Swedish players, and one of the American players. Coolest thing I learned? Well, the Swedish player talked about how frustrated she’d been during the larp because she’d tried to provoke characters and it seemed like no one responded. She’d wanted the public drama, and the US players didn’t give it to her, so she wondered whether the game had truly engaged them. After the larp, during the epic email debrief, she’d been shocked by the depth of emotion. To me, this revealed something about the US play style.

As Sarah Bowman (larp academic and US player of Mad About the Boy) pointed out, much US larp relies on secrecy, and so perhaps we’re used to playing close to the vest. By the same token, public emotion isn’t something that’s considered cool here — remember that one time Hillary Clinton got teary eyed on the campaign trail? or consider how much flack John Boehner takes for crying in public — so perhaps there is a cultural prohibition against visible public emotion. Perhaps, emotion here is private. And finally, Americans are pretty polite — the cultural standard for critique is something like a) share five compliments, b) insert gently phrased critique, and c) close with a general compliment. In other words, if you’re trying to provoke US players, the response to it might come inserted in the middle of a bunch of compliments.

Check out the free documentation book for the US run of Mad About the Boy, edited by Sarah Lynne Bowman and produced by Rollespils Akademiet!

Larpscripts and Mistakes

Along with Trine Lise Lindahl and Elin Nilsen, I’m co-editing a book of Norwegian larp scripts this year, so we ran a short workshop on writing game instructions. Some day, the hand out will be available on the ‘net. The book project will also have a partner website with video of some of the the techniques, including workshops and metatechniques.

And on the Mistakes I’ve Made panel, I said a few words about stuff we could have done better for the US run of Mad About the Boy, like inter-organizer communication, leaving food near an open door accessible to raccoons, internet drama and more. Other speakers included Anna Westerling, Martin Ericsson, and Mike Pohjola.

Rants

This year, the rants — short speeches ranting on topics as diverse as “screw larp misery” and “let’s use toilet brushes to break immersion — were excellent. Last year, I delivered a rant “write a damn rulebook,” inspired by my fruitless search for simple definitions that could help me understand the scene. This year, a quartet of women subverted my request for a damn rulebook by writing a “f***ing rulebook” and presenting it at the rants. You can download its hilariousness here.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Rantgate 2013, in which some dudes gave a rant about not viewing them as sex objects (a reasonable request) but unfortunately included a Powerpoint with photos and names of women they’d slept with. Some of the women had been asked if this was cool, and some hadn’t. The rant-givers had clearly not done this to make anyone feel bad — rather, they thought of Knutepunkt as a space so safe and equal that even jokes like this would be cool — but then again, intent isn’t everything. So then everyone talked about it and group dynamics and slut shaming, and so on for much of the rest of Knutepunkt. Plus there was a poster war! The rant-givers apologized publicly on more than one occasion. More on Rantgate 2013 in a later post…maybe. If the flayed horse corpse hasn’t bored us all to death by then. (Update: some oblique thoughts on Internet debates spurred by the response to the rants here.)

Other Revelations

One weird thing I learned in Norway: it’s hard to tell what time it is based on the sun, because that far North it doesn’t seem to pass into the center of the sky! It feels like 10am/2pm all day every day! Is this why Nordica can seem crazy at times? Space…er…sun madness?

Photos: Sarah Bowman

At the Saturday night party, the dead walked among the living. Or as I also learned at Knutepunkt this year: if you want to give someone alibi, put them in a mask. Photos: Sarah Bowman

Danish Design Braintrust

Here’s a cool thing that happened to me in the lavo, a giant conical tent that I presume is part of traditional Norwegian culture, where you could sit around a central fire and drink canned beer, or eat snacks. A group of expert Danish designers put their heads together and offered advice on a larp about racism that my US team is working on. Best part of the chat? They pointed out the endemic challenge of working with racism as a subject matter — part of racism is ostracism, so you need 50 people to ostracize 15. That means that it’s really hard to give all players the same experience, which is more of a Nordic game design goal than a US one. Hmmm. Lots of great and thought-provoking ideas.

How to Troll Nordicans

There are lots of great ways to execute this sacred American duty, which is not at all a jerkform game. Here are a few I found particularly effective:

  • Talk about how social democracy, socialism, Marxism, and fascism are totally the same thing!
  • Remind your peers about how America is, not just a really awesome country, but the BEST country in the world. Extract compliments about the US from your peers. (Actual play report: “It’s pretty great that you don’t execute your albinos.”)
  • Learn how to say, “I am an American spy. Give me liquor now. Thank you,” in a local language.
  • Americans learn to give compliments before most of us can talk. Nordicans have this whole super-modest thing happening. Extravagant compliments work. I found them particularly effective on a specific Finn.

I’m Pretend Finnish

It’s no secret that I’m Nordicophile. I love the social fray of the Danish conventions I’ve been to, and the openness and individuality on the Norwegian scene. Perhaps it’s not fair to judge, since I haven’t fully immersed myself in the Swedish scene yet — looking forward to next year, Sweden! — but in the Nordic thunderdome, I think I’d use my chainsaw of justice to back team Finland. Weird hair? Yes please. Linguistically distinct (read: weird) language with no word for ‘please’? Yes please. Addition of weird licorice flavor to random comestibles such as vodka? Um, I guess it’s part of the package. (Translation: I spent much of my Knutepunkt with Finnish people, talking theory, and participating in the secret Finnish sunshine unicorn rainbow ritual they’ve been hiding from you all these years.)

Looking forward to next year…maybe.

 

Other Takes on Knutepunkt 2013

My post on my extended stay in Norway
My post on A Week in Norway, the run-up to Knutepunkt
Swedish game scholar Annika Waern’s post
French larper Thomas Be’s subjective recap, part 1, part 2, part 3
Norwegian designer Ole Peder Giæver’s recap
German larper Stefan Deutsch’s take
Norwegian larper Secretmoose’s take
US larper Shoshana Kessock’s take

A Russian larper’s take (in Russian)
Italian larper Raffaele Manzo’s take (in Italian)

Photos Galore

Peep Eleanor Saitta’s Knutepunkt 2013 collection on Flickr.
Photos from Eugenia
Johannes Axner’s photos from day 1, day 2, day 3, day 4

 And feel free to post links to other photo sets/blog posts I’ve missed in the comments.

 

A Week in Norway Recap

Toot toot! Getting this limbo on the road. (Photo: Johannes Axner)

Toot toot! Getting this limbo on the road. (Photo: Johannes Axner)

Yeah, I spent more than a week in Norway, but I also attended the “A Week in Norway” events, a week of planned gatherings, games and talks aimed at getting people comfortable with one another and introducing folks to the local larp culture before the Knutepunkt convention. Aside from mingling with excellent people from all over the world (hi, friends!), I also went to some actual events.

Ritual Workshop

Learning about rituals from our Norwegian masters. (Photo by Johannes Axner)

Learning about rituals from our Norwegian masters. (Photo by Johannes Axner)

Choosing a favorite “A Week” activity is a little like choosing a favorite child, but, well, this kind of blew my mind.

As I understand it, rituals and scenography are important to the Norwegian larp scene. But how does one hold a cool ritual, you ask? There’s a workshop for that. Run by local larp kings Eirik Fatland, Erlend Eidsem Hansen, and Matthijs Holter, the ritual workshop taught some 30+ participants how to hold an improvised ritual. Here are the techniques we learned:

  • How to incorporate speech into a ritual. Basically, if one person is speaking, she does so with a raised fist. If she wants the group to repeat the last phrase she spoke, she holds two fingers aloft while doing that.
  • How to chant like champs. We all tried humming together on one tone, and were encouraged to improvise. Of course, humming gets boring after like five minutes or so, and there was a natural move to hum harmonies, or to use percussive consonant sounds, or  to sing with different vowels and different sets of tones. THIS SOUNDS REALLY FRAKKING AWESOME IN A BIG GROUP. It reminded me a little of improv warmup for the a capella group in high school. Many of us wanted to do it for hours, and spontaneous chants broke out at strategic moments during Knutepunkt.
  • How to move in a group. We split up into smaller pods of around 7 people, and practiced moving together. We used two different formations, a line, and a diamond. They key, as we learned, is to stand really close to one another, and to follow the person in front. When they turn their bodies, the new person in front is the new leader. In order to move the whole group, small deliberate steps are needed. The other key is to follow what the people around you are doing.

After having a sense of the basics, we headed to a pretty cool site to try out our skills, an actual artist’s tomb. The space is really cool. Artist Emmanuel Vigeland had serious inadequacy issues — overshadowed by his brother, who designed the most famous park in Oslo — and so Emmanuel designed his tomb to promote his own awesomeness. The artist’s ashes are in an urn that sits over a doorway so low that you must stoop to enter. So everyone bows to his remains. The interior of the tomb is one huge dark archway, with acoustics so resonant that a pindrop would echo. As your eyes become acclimated to the soft light, large black and white paintings seem to emerge on the walls, depicting different stages of life and death. (See a photo of the site here!)

Here, we split into groups and began the ritual. Each of the four acts dealt with one stage of development — childhood, love, parenthood, and death, which one of the organizers announced. The amazing acoustics made some of the instruction difficult to hear, but we got the general gist, and embodied each stage in our small group.

My group — a bit smaller than the rest — was situated with me in the center, which means I didn’t get an opportunity to lead the gestures or anything, and I found that an intriguing experience; I always had to follow, which is not something I’m used to. For me, this involved a high level of concentration, and an openness to accepting the leadership of others. I came out of the ritual feeling the repercussions of the background noise and concentration, but also felt quite close to one of my fellow participants in particular, a person who said that the experience was the closest they’d gotten to a religious experience, that it helped them understand the draw of religion. So certainly, something worked quite well there, and the bond between us proved enduring — we hung around each other quite a bit at the convention later.

TL;DR: Ritual rocked. Would ritual again.

 

Larp Exchange Academy/How to Collaborate to Create a Larp

Earlier in the week, I rambled down to the Larp Exchange Academy with my cohorts Elin Nilsen and Trine Lise Lindahl to give a short talk on larp scripts. (We’ve been thinking deeply about how to write them, as later this year we’ll co-edit a book of Norwegian larp scripts.)

The Larp Exchange Academy (LEA), organized for the first time this year by the Norwegian organization Fantasiforbundet, in conjunction with Lajvverket (Sweden), Bifrost (Denmark), Court of Moravia (Czech Republic), Peace and Freedom Forum (Palestine) and Minsk Larp Factory (Belarus). Over three days, the 46 participants were split into small groups and created 8 larps later played during the “A Week in Norway” activities.

This was a tall order — for groups comprised of different national identities and play cultures to find common ground and create a larp in a mere three days, but somehow they pulled it off. The program included short talks from experts on how to create characters, collaborate, etc., and featured plenty of time for group work and feedback.

When I visited LEA, I was intrigued to see large pieces of paper up on the walls, each one covered with Post-It notes that had been neatly organized under various headings. So naturally, I sat down with Lars Nerback, a professional larpwright who works with a Swedish company to produce edu-larps for use in schools. He explained a little bit about the method the groups were using. (And he has a killer Powerpoint presentation on this that will go up on the internet along with some text in the coming weeks).lea

The first piece, Nerback said, is to get the group to agree on a vision for the larp which takes the form of a purpose, goal, and target audience. What is the difference between a purpose and a goal? It’s a subtle thing, and one this rookie doesn’t feel confident of yet, so I’ll wait for the experts to weigh in. Once this short group statement has been drafted, Nerback said, the group can use it as a yardstick during later collaboration.

Then comes a series of targeted brainstorming, performed with a time limit, during which participants write down stuff on post it notes that comes to their mind as they ponder the group statement. They present those Post-Its to the group by sticking them onto the wall. Then the group uses the original statement to determine whether what’s on the Post-Its fits. So sure, a battleship would be really cool to larp on, but if you’ve decided to make a quiet domestic drama, it doesn’t fit the concept. They eliminate half the Post-Its, then go a few more targeted rounds, during which like notes get clustered together with like notes and given headings. Then the group looks at the headings and sees if any are lacking. A 3-day larp in the woods for 50 people definitely needs a section on practicalities, for example. Part of the reason for this, Nerback told me, is to help avoid a rookie mistake: often, new designers will burn most of their time and energy on say, characters, or plot, to the exclusion of all else. This method ensures that at least a little thought/work has been put into the other areas.

My description here is by no means exhaustive or fully descriptive — I simply wanted to get at the gist of the process.

Let’s Face It

A few days later, I had the opportunity to try out one of the LEA games, a four-hour thing that dealt with how cyber reality relates to actual reality. I thought it was pretty solid, with an interesting mechanic standing in for Facebook profiles. The game was divided between the “real world” of an office party and the “cyber world” in which we all interacted on social media through large pieces of poster board with profile pictures, friend numbers, and status updates (delivered verbally or through pieces of paper taped up) that we could read, comment on (with sticky notes) and like (also with sticky notes). The game had a few kinks that could use ironing out, but the game was totally playable and pretty much fun — and I found it amazing that they created it in such a short time.

One of the LEA organizers tells me that a full .pdf of all eight larp scripts should be available later this year. Oh, and for those attending Camp Nerdly, I’m bringing a Danish larper bent on running a superhero dance game for kids produced as part of the program!

 

Limbo

Credit: Sarah Lynne Bowman

A real antique tram car! (Credit: Sarah Lynne Bowman)

 

Guys, the Norwegians played true to their “scenography matters” mantra by RENTING A REAL ANTIQUE TRAM CAR for us to larp in.

Along with many others, I played the game Limbo by Tor Kjetil Edland, about the place where souls go after death but before the hereafter. It featured a short character-creation workshop and lots of existential discussion about who we had been in life, how we’d screwed up, and what sort of experience we wanted after the hereafter. As we drove through the streets of the eternal city. In an awesome tram car.

A great larp, and one that comes complete with some very nice directions. It doesn’t require a whole lot of scenography, props, prep, or play time, so I’m hoping to help put it up on the East Coast sometime soon.

 

Nordic Larp Talks

The Nordic Larp Talks are a short, TED-style series of talks about Nordic larp, and they are always pretty awesome. This year was no exception. Go to the site and check out the excellent content on stuff as diverse as “What the hell does ‘Nordic larp’ actually mean?”; how to figure out what happened during a larp; what happens when player and character emotions get mixed up; how to build more inclusive larps; the connections and challenges of larp, training, and nonprofit work; and much much more.

Go there and watch them immediately.

 

Larp Culture in Norway

I spent an epic four weeks in Scandinavia this April. Fastaval, a freeform gaming convention in Denmark, was my first stop. Then I hopped to Oslo to hang out with friends for a few weeks until Knutepunkt, the Nordic larp convention that rotates its way around the capitals of the Nordic countries, changing its name according to the local language.

I mingled with many wonderful people during my tenure and learned a lot about larp culture in Norway from them. Here are a few of the things I enjoyed before the convention even started:

Larper’s Beer

Although the city of Oslo is small by American standards — about half a million people — it has a robust larp scene, easily composed of — and I’m estimating here — more than 100 very active players and organizers, as well as some old hats who pop up at parties. Every Wednesday, this rag tag group meets at an Indian restaurant in central Oslo to talk over old projects, new projects, larp and more. I had the pleasure of showing up twice. The first time around, perhaps 20 people showed up, and the second time we had only 10 or so. I understand that attendance was a bit low because so many people had sequestered themselves in pre-Knutepunkt committee meetings.

The Norwegians worked so very very hard to plan Knutepunkt, y’all.

Itras By

I had the pleasure of playing this rocking RPG with one of its two creators,  Ole Peder Giæver (the other creator is Martin Gudmunsen), in the GM seat. Itras By takes place in a surreal city that looks rather 1920s/1930s. It’s home to talking apes, people whose faces froze when the wind changed, prophetic opium, and more oddities. Things in the city center can be quite normal at times, but as one ventures further out, things become increasingly surreal.

The game is quite mechanics-light, and focuses around collaborative storytelling. The core mechanic is two sets of cards. Resolution cards have text that begins “Yes, but” or “No, and” and inspire the player to create how things went right or wrong for the character. Chance cards introduce new elements into scenes and are often drawn by players who are not in the current scene, who then have the opportunity to introduce random elements, such as monologues, or cut scenes. Not a lot of game mechanics, and the ones that exist are focused around improv and storytelling? Yes, please.

Aside from the creativity of the setting — most of the game book is dedicated to describing it — and the improv rules that make for good collaborative play, I like that Itras By is a forgiving game for players. Since the setting is surreal, we could improvise fish with long sexy lady legs attached to them, back-door clinics that perform leg-ectomies, and so on, without fear that we’d be breaking the game. I found that liberating.

You can find out more about Itras By, including reviews, a surreal video trailer, and places to buy over at the Itras By website.

Stocking Larps

I met some stocking larpers at the Wednesday beers. From what I gathered (and please correct me if I’m wrong, oh peanut gallery), stocking larps are games set in particular historical periods, and for which historical accuracy in dress is somewhat important. The genre includes stuff like Civil War era larps about slavery, Jane Austen games, French revolution games, and WWII games. These aren’t reenactments, but larps with a strong historical basis. My understanding is that the stocking larp scene has been dominated by women organizers and players.

Ritual and Scenography

Apparently, Norwegian larp is known for using improvised rituals — more on this later in my post on A Week in Norway and on the actual Knutepunkt — and realistic scenography. While touring Oslo with various larpers, I heard stories of dark rituals performed in public parks for game, and earlier Norwegian Knutepunkts where everyone arrived in a train station to find that the organizers had painted it prettily. I heard tales of doorways to Knutepunkt made into eight-foot-tall velvet vaginas, and rituals that featured sentences such as, “Behold! The cow of larp!”

Starting a Scene Through Social Engineering

Like many Nordicans, the Norwegians love them some social engineering, which is the practice of setting up environments to facilitate a desired social result. An example of social engineering originating at the last Danish Knudepunkt is the open chair rule, in which groups of people sitting and talking must have an empty chair in their circle, signifying that anyone is welcome to come join. The idea is that this will create group inclusion, and I have to say it’s pretty effective.

Back to the Norwegians though. The Oslo larp scene has a lot of people interested in helping create new scenes in far-away places such as Palestine and Belarus. They’ve been very active both in helping produce larps in other countries — including the US run of Mad About the Boy — and in organizing places where new people can learn to make larps, through this year’s Larpwriter Exchange Academy (more on this in a later post), and through the Larpwriter Summer School. They’ve also been at the forefront of making and disseminating larp scripts, which make Nordic larp re-runnable all over the world, and are a boon to small, hungry scenes like the one in the US.

Here in the US, there’s a group of people interested in fostering a Nordic larp/freeform style scene, so naturally I asked some of the organizers of these different ventures for tips. Here’s the best one I received: To make a robust scene, you want many different groups to feel they have the initiative to do cool stuff, because that’s what keeps the scene vibrant.

So how to do this? Lots of different ways. Let’s say that on this new scene there is one established organizing group, called X, full of people who know each other. X can straight up encourage other people to form a new group Y, which is good for the scene, since when there is an X and a Y, newcomers might feel more ennabled to make Z (and P and…). If people aren’t ready to form Y yet, though, X can help things along by inviting new people into X. Perhaps after running a few games under the umbrella of X (and thus gaining some of its cred), the new folks will feel comfortable enough to depart and make Y. Alternately, the members of X can absorb everyone into X, stick around for a while to help the new people learn, and then depart to make a new group, Q.

Did that make any sense?

I found a new favorite game, learned about the Norwegian larp scene, and even discovered something about social engineering in Oslo before Knutepunkt even approached. Oh yes. And did I mention that plenty of this knowledge came from the fabled Awesome Nordic Ladies (TM)?

In Praise of Awesome Nordic Ladies

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

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

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

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

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

Awesome Nordic Ladies…

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

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

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

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.