Three Speeches on Nordic and American Larp

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

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

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

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

Playing in Graveyards: When Terror Collides with Larp

This is the text from the Nordic Larp Talk I gave in Helsinki, Finland in spring 2012. You can see video of the speech, which included some slides, here — I encourage you to explore the website to watch other great talks on Nordic larp.

Since I’m a journalist, not a designer, today I’m going to tell you a story about a group of urban larpers I encountered while reporting for my narrative nonfiction book, Leaving Mundania. Their story didn’t make it into my book, but I found them fascinating.

It’s not easy to organize a larp in New York City, primarily because space – especially in Manhattan – is cramped and expensive. Two hundred dollars – about the max game budget for the larp community I encountered, will barely buy you a cheap hotel room in Manhattan, let alone enough space for dozens of vampires and werewolves.

In the mid 1990s, larpers gathered at a goth club that ran vampire night, but when it closed down, they were out of luck. The local group was a racially, educationally, and monetarily diverse mix of college kids, professionals, and self-proclaimed street kids from the wrong side of town. The group played primarily White Wolf games – games focused around factions of vampires or werewolves fighting for power.

They handled the venue issue by finding free public spaces in Manhattan, the central borough of NYC. They larped in parks and public parking lots.  But hanging around parks late at night can be sketchy, non-skanky public bathrooms were hard to come by, and in the winter, NYC gets cold. Not Finland cold, I know, but still, it had a chilling effect on their games.

Finally someone found the Winter Garden, a huge indoor public space, heated in the winters, and air-conditioned in the summers. It was convenient to multiple subway lines, open until four in the morning, and it had public bathrooms, indoor trees, restaurants, and a nice view of New Jersey, straight across the water. Its location in the financial district, right next to the World Trade Center, became a convenient in-game hook. Vampires and werewolves gathered here because it was the seat of power. The Winter Garden quickly became the primo larp grounds in New York City, hosting a couple different games each month.

The larpers made friends with the security guards. Different vampire and werewolf games ran on different nights, and frequently they’d play until the building closed, then head over to a local sandwich shop to run downtime scenes and gab about the evening’s session. Sometimes tourists snapped photos of them, but of course, if bystanders noticed players, than the players could be called out for breaking the masquerade.  It felt deliciously transgressive to play in the Wintergarden. Of the place itself, a larper named Crystal told me, “There were so many places to interact, so many norms watching us. We’re talking about ‘bombs’ and people with assault rifles. People would pause and come over and ask about about the group. “Oh, we’re an improvisational acting group. We’re playing an improvisational game.””

And then. And then. [photos]

9/11 changed a lot of things that are bigger and more important than the local larp scene, but it changed the local larp scene.

For starters, the larpers temporarily lost their space, since the Winter Garden was about 500 feet from the twin towers. The explosion smashed the windows, destroyed the pedestrian bridge that led from the towers to the Winter Garden, and killed many of the palm trees. The city spent 50 million dollars fixing the Winter Garden, which was the first major structure to be rebuilt after the attacks. In September 2002, President Bush attended the re-opening ceremony.  The larp community did not return for another year, but even then, the scene had changed into something more fragmented, not merely because they’d lost their central larp grounds, but because the attacks changed the larpers themselves.

The attacks made some larpers more resolute than ever to continue playing, as if nothing had happened, because terrorist attacks are only successful if they cause terror. Some players sank into the games as a way of escaping the bleakness of reality.

Some players had lived near to the Twin Towers, or had family members who lived or worked close by, and didn’t feel up to roleplay. One larper who lived 20 blocks from ground zero told me, “I got covered in dust. You weren’t there. I was. I played at the Winter Garden. It was a place for me to go to do something that I really loved where I could be happy. It was taken away from me. I was angry at the terrorists for blowing it up, I was angry at our government for letting it happen and not doing their job in maintaining defense, I was angry at all the people around the US who bought the government’s line and went to war, and I got angry at the whole debacle in the middle east and all the kids who were getting killed by being sent there. I didn’t have that much rp [roleplay] in me at that point.”  His girlfriend ended up moving out of state, in part due to emotional repercussions from being covered in dust that was once people.

When vampire and werewolf games finally did return to the site, many players got their first glimpses of the area since the attacks. Of his first time back after the attacks, a longtime larper named Warren told me, “We had to walk over the bridge from the subway; it was my first time looking at the flat earth, the construction machines sitting idle. It was almost a solemn feeling. It didn’t have the same “I’m going to game excitement.” Everyone did take a little bit longer to get into the flow of things. Once they did, it felt just like old times again, especially because I was seeing people I hadn’t seen in a while. It felt like an old shoe you haven’t put on in a while and then you walk around and it feels like old times. Walking back across the bridge was uncomfortable again.” Later, he told me, “When the games end there’s always a lot of joking around and socializing on the walk to the trains. I remember the walk to the train from the first game back. No one was laughing.” Another gamer mentioned that a few people hung behind to say a prayer over the excavation area.

The man who lived 20 blocks from the Twin Towers was also more impressed with the location than with the game itself. He said, “the first game back it felt kind of weird. You could still see the towers from the Wintergarden, and I didn’t look up at first, until it was night, and when I finally looked up, you could see the stars. The towers were so big and they were so well lit. They were a whole city block. The light dimmed out the stars. I went “wow, I’d never seen the stars before” I remember sitting by the marina and thinking “I never thought I could see the stars from down here.””

The comparison between the often-violent nature of the larps and the attacks was not lost on this larper. He reminisced to me, “When perdition was there, the Sabbat attacked the Camarilla [two factions of vampires] by blowing up the towers, a long time before the towers went down. They flew something into the towers too, it was very uncanny. You don’t want to think about that. You’re playing make believe and [when] something out of your make believe world happens, it makes you kind of sick to your stomach.”

In fact, the relationship between in- and out-of-game terrorism would grow problematic. Beginning around 2006, a number of different GMs made several attempts to incorporate 9/11 plots into vampire and werewolf games, but met with reluctance and resistance on the part of players. Such plots are often viewed as in poor taste and a little too close to home.

This tension, the tension between GMs who want to run plots with serious, solemn implications, seems at odds with the desire of players to take a weekend off from the daily grind. There’s a sense too, that some things are not meant to be played, that some events are too sacred to recreate, even if such recreation might be informative or therapeutic. And then, too, there is the sense that the script is already written – this act of terrorism has already happened, and it is not possible to prevent it in game, only to prevent the next act. We can re-write our own reaction – probably without prison torture, or invading the wrong country – but we can’t re-write that indelible act itself. And to try to do so seems sacrilegious, seems to diminish the lives already lost, to make their terrible final moments into a farce.

This dilemma, to bring the real into game or not, is an issue for many US larpers. In my book I profile a lifelong larper, WWII reenactor, and a former soldier named Jeffrey McLean who has four deployments under his belt, three of which were post-9/11 deployments to Afghanistan and Iraq. For years he played a shining hero in his local game, which meets about two hours outside of New York City, a paladin of one of the game’s gods of light. But somewhere around his second or third deployment, his character became less fun, with the fantasy world echoing the reality he experienced on the ground. Certain aspects of the character – the way he stood in a doorway protecting a family, for example, roused unpleasant feelings and memories in Jeff, memories that he didn’t care to relive. His character tended toward zealotry, and Jeff had seen the effects of zealotry firsthand. At first, he didn’t understand why the game roused such unpleasant feelings in him, but eventually he acknowledged that he had PTSD and sought help. And yet, all of his hobbies – war gaming, WWII reenactment, and high fantasy larp have to do with war. Maybe these games offer him a safe space in which to relive and deal with what he saw on deployment, a way to revisit it in an environment where he has some control over circumstances and outcome, an argument in favor of including realism in larp. Maybe he larps because in a synthetic reality, everything has meaning and heroism is still possible. He may have started out as a hero paladin, but twelve years and four deployments later, he can’t play that role anymore. Instead he’s created a new character and a new history for himself, a man named Radu Dragovic, a gravedigger.

His story echoes that of the Wintergarden larpers. The intrusion of reality into a fantasy world can be disruptive and life changing, both literally and metaphorically. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised that a major world event affected the subculture that I reported on, but I was surprised that it affected this community so directly, by destroying the community’s physical playground and altering the psychic landscape of the larpers who gamed there. One woman couldn’t bear to walk across the bridge where the towers once stood anymore; she’d always come up with some excuse, something she needed at the store, an errand she had to run, to avoid seeing the space. And others still haven’t been back. As another larper told me, “My ghosts of the past and the ghosts of those who died are there. It’d be like ‘playing in a graveyard.”

Top 5 Blog Posts of 2012

With a new year in the offing, I’m taking a look at the last one.

On a personal level, I had a busy year — Leaving Mundania came out; I traveled to conventions all over the US (and Scandinavia) on tour, I helped organize the Nordic larp Mad About the Boy in the US, tried my hand at writing freeform, and landed a second book deal.

On the blog, things cooked too — 53 blog posts! That means 53 days of scouring the internet for your comments, feverishly checking analytics, and obsessing over how many “likes” I logged on social media. Here is how the year fell out:

 

Top 5 Blog Posts By Viewership*

If Famous Writers Had Written Twilight

I snarked on Twilight, imagining what it’d be like if famous authors had penned the teen vampire novel. Technically, I wrote the post in 2011, but after io9.com reposted it in early 2012, it went viral, even landing a mention in the New York Times. 440,000 people read the thing on io9 and posted more than 300 comments. Even on my little site, the post exploded, logging about 40,000 pageviews and 251 comments.

Given the high traffic on this post, it’s no surprise that the much older How to Read Twilightlinked in the famous writers text, logged the second-highest page views of the year with around 9,000 pageviews.

 

Mad About the Boy Sign-Up

Coming in a distant second with nearly 3,000 page views is sign-up for the US-run of the Nordic larp Mad About the Boy.

 

Nordic Larp for Noobs

Clocking in at number 3 with 1,800 page views is this post, which tries to explain the deceptive term “Nordic larp” to a new audience.

 

American Jerkform: A Manifesto

With only six weeks of publication under its belt, the American Jerkform Manifesto (“There’s no negotiating with bees.”) scores a #4 slot with nearly 1,200 page views.

 

Mad About the Debrief

My initial take on how Mad About the Boy came out closes out the top five with 987 page views.

(* Though they logged mega-page views — more than 1,000 each! — I didn’t count How to Create a Fun Larp Character or How to Assemble a Larp Costume since they came out in 2011.)

 

Top Five Countries of Readership

After my native US readership, which dwarfs the competition, I’ve got readers in…

  1. United Kingdom
  2. Canada
  3. Australia
  4. Denmark
  5. Sweden

Happy New Year!

Press Tips for Larp Groups

Credit: Roger H. Goun

Since Leaving Mundania came out a few months ago, press, larp, and the relationship between the two of them has been on my mind. Rather than advise journalists and scholars on how to cover larp, I thought I’d focus on the other end of the equation, offering press tips for larp groups, helping larp organizers manage media coverage. In April, at Solmukohta, I spoke with many other lovely and smart people on a panel about how to do just that.

Here’s the synthesis of that discussion, and some of my thoughts for organizers on letting media into their games in the US:

  • Vet your media. All members of the media are not created equal. Reality TV is different from a newspaper article, which is different from a documentary film. Journalists are bound by truth and accuracy while reality TV producers may have different concerns. I’ll talk mainly about journalists, below, since that’s what I’m familiar with.And of course, some filmmakers and journalists do better work than others. Think about what type of media producer has pitched you — do you want a documentary film crew at your game? — and look at their prior work — is it good? is it impartial? is it fawning?. If someone wants to come report on your event, it’s fair game to check out their earlier work and judge its quality. This is the main control you are able to exercise over a journalist – whether you will give them access to your larp or not.
  • The reporter/source relationship is based on trust. They trust you to tell the truth and help them get the information they need; you trust them to tell the most compelling story.
    • Do not tell a journalist that they can only talk to people you’ve vetted. It evidences contempt for their skills by suggesting they can’t separate good sources from bad. It also suggests you have something to hide, that there are certain people you wish to prevent them from meeting. For a reporter this begs the question, “why? What are they afraid I’ll discover? What are they ashamed of?” Not a great way to project a positive image.
  • Explain the jargon. Larp is a highly technical hobby with lots of words that might not be familiar to the average journalist – OOC, GM, boffer, etc – and sometimes journalists forget to ask about all of them. Help them out by explaining as you talk.
  • Explain the big picture. Journalists covering larp will want to capture the human story. The hobby seems odd at first, so a driving question is “why do people larp?” I think it’s  important to communicate that there are many reasons, in part because I think this breaks down the stereotype. Ideally, reporters are supposed come to a story with their personal assumptions checked at the door; in reality, sometimes it’s hard to see one’s own assumptions. It’s also important to communicate that there are many types of larp that are equally good. Offer to connect them with local groups who larp in a different style from your own.
  •  Keep it short. The job of a journalist is to listen. And listen. And listen. If you can be informative, but brief, they’ll appreciate it.
  •  Niceness goes a long way. Larpers often complain that they are stereotyped. And yes, there is a cultural narrative about larpers out there and yes, it’s lazy reporting to just accept it. But the stereotype goes both ways – plenty of larpers  — and other people — have stereotypical ideas about journalists as untrustworthy, sell-their-mother-for-a-dime, sensationalist jerks. Only recently have journalists jumped ahead of politicians in polls about trustworthiness. Translation: many people will happily be mean to journalists before they’ve so much as introduced themselves. Niceness means so much more in this context; it’s a psychological hack to their heart.If you want to be helpful:
    • Hook them up with other larpers with interesting stories, if they ask.
    • Make the game creators available to them
    • Lend them costuming and invite them (and their kids) to your game to try it first-hand.
    • Offer to be available if they have extra questions about terminology, or fact checking, or refer them to someone who can. [A note on fact-checking: don’t expect your quotes to be read back to you, or to read the piece unless it goes to press. Expect the reporter to ask other folks for verification of stuff you’ve told them. It’s standard practice to triangulate facts, to verify something one person has said by asking others.]
  •  The press won’t write the piece you would have. Their job isn’t to publicize your larp group, it’s to write an interesting, even-handed story for their audience, which might be mainstream, rather than say, gamers. This means including the awesome stuff — adventure! community! — as well as the not-so-awesome stuff, the middling stuff, and sometimes, the extremes. Perhaps that local reporter has exactly 12 hours to file a story on your larp and doesn’t have time for depth and makes a couple errors, despite their best effort. Try to be gracious about this.
  • Get the story out on your own. The best way to control the narrative about larp is to make your own narrative. Write press releases and send them out to members of the media to get them to cover your event. When you pitch media on your event, try to think like a journalist — what is new and different about this particular event, and how can I package it as part of a broader cultural movement? Blog about your hobby so that you own some of the keywords in Google searches. Or else journalists will steal them. (Search “Ars Amandi” to see what I mean). If you’re easier to find on the Internet, it’s more likely that the media will find you.

My Gen Con Pilgrimage

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

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

 

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

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

The People

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

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

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

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

Gender

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

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

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

Save me from the male gaze, spider lady!

The Games

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Panels

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

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

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

Nordic Larp in the US?

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

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

 

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

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

The Souvenirs

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

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

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

 

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

Batman Villain Cosplay

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

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

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

New in Larp: July 22, 2012

Summer is a busy time for the larp community, which has been concocting theories, writing papers, and running conventions. Here’s what’s new in larp:

Leaving Mundania has garnered a bit more press. New on my front:

 

DEXCON 15 Debrief

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

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

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

Art Larp in the US

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

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

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

Awesome Games I Played

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Few Lessons in GMing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conversations

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

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

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

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

See y’all at Gen Con.

DEXCON Fun & Larp Link Love

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

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.

This Week in Larp: Web Series

Larp is blowing UP y’all. Two new webseries have arrived. Realm of LARP is a reality series released via the Nerdist YouTube channel, and will launch next week. In the meantime, they’ve got a teaser that explains what larp is:

This same week, Larry the LARPer, a cute show about a hapless hero who just wants to larp, also made its debut. (Hat tip to Larping.org):

In larp news locally (NJ-CT-PA), the sci-fi game Doomsday — run by several of the wonderful people who helped me produce a Cthulhu larp for my book — kicked off its campaign.

And in other roleplaying news, Jason Morningstar of Bully Pulpit Games, creator of Fiasco, my favorite RPG, has a Kickstarter up for his new game Durance, a game about a dystopian future penal colony.

Finally, y’all can catch me at Wyrd Con in Costa Mesa, CA this week at a variety of events. I’m giving a talk on US larp as metaphor for American national values, and running a couple jeepform games and an Ars Amandi workshop. Of course, there will be copies of Leaving Mundania available too.