Larp’s Oral Tradition Is Dying

Credit: Human Writes

Credit: Human Writes

Larp is a young art form, and for most of its life, it’s been part of a largely oral tradition. This makes some sense–larp is ethereal, existing only in a particular time and place–and it’s hard to hang on to a ghost except through stories and memory. Today I want to talk about how larp’s oral tradition shapes larp culture and the emerging written tradition might change that.*

Larp is moving from a largely oral tradition to a largely written one.

In folklore, and oral tradition is one where information and cultural practices are transferred from one generation to another via speech. As a young art form, larp is just at the cusp of being two or so generations old, and as it gets older, more and more of the traditions are being written down. So I’d like to dispense with the generational requirement and say that the oral tradition in larp consists of all the wonderful tips and tricks on exotic larp mechanics and on how to play, design, and run games that are trapped in the heads of the current generation of larp elders, and have not yet been written down.

I think larp is undergoing a shift where it is moving from a substantially oral tradition to a written tradition. But, Lizzie, you say, there are lots of books about roleplaying. Sure, many larps in the US have always had extensive rulebooks, but, say, the Vampire: The Masquerade sourcebook tells me nothing about what happened at your event last weekend and how you employed these guidelines to create a scintillating story. The rulebook is the tool, but the oral tradition is what enables people to use that tool to create art.

In recent years in the Nordic countries and elsewhere, larp documentation has come into vogue. For example, the hugely influential 2010 coffee table book Nordic Larp (now available for free download) included photos and essays of a few dozen games from Nordic larp’s 15-year history. The recent Larps from the Factory collected instructions on how to make a few dozen short larps from the Norwegian scenes in Oslo and Trondheim, as well as collecting some information on the cultural context of these games. In the last two years, no fewer than four books have been published, each documenting a single run of a weekend larp, including the Mad About the Boy book from the US run of the all-women game, the Kapo book on the prison larp, the Just a Little Lovin’ book about the Danish run of a larp about the summer AIDS came to New York City and the White War book about soldiers deployed to a culturally different locale (all free downloads).

And yet, for all this writing, for all the rulebooks, documentation books, and theory books, there is plenty of practical information that has not been written down. For example, you will not find instructions on how to run a Norwegian improvised ritual workshop or an Ars Amandi (technique for using arm-touching to represent emotional and physical intimacy) workshop in print.  There is not much written information on how to design short, tight one-shot larps; only incomplete lists of game mechanics exist; many larpwrights do not write down instructions for their games, rendering it difficult to know what has been tried; and there has been precious little written about some vital components of larp-organizing, such as dealing with problem players, how to be inclusive, and how to push scenes as an organizer to make them more satisfactory for everyone.

Some of these textual silences are simply the product of a tradition still in its infancy–folks haven’t gotten around to writing them down yet–and some of these silences are strategic.

The oral tradition has advantages.

Keeping certain information oral is a way of controlling access to the information. A few weeks ago I met an Australian game designer who liked to create intense, real-life narratives. She does not make scripts for her games, she told me, because they can produce powerful experiences for the players. She feels responsible for her creation and doesn’t feel comfortable putting it in just anyone’s hands. This means that if you want to run her games, you have to meet her, which gives her a chance to check you out and make sure you’re OK.

Oral traditions produce a chain of custody for certain types of knowledge. If I want to run a ritual workshop and benefit from the expertise of seasoned veterans, then I have to find a knowledgeable person and personally ask them for the knowledge. And they, in turn, can decide whether I am worthy and capable of both producing the workshop and respecting the tradition. It also means that I get the knowledge from the source on a personal level and can ask follow-ups and for advice. In contrast, when learning from a written document, one has only the text, which can be open to misinterpretation, and certainly can’t field your questions afterward.

Oral traditions control and confine the reach of a piece of knowledge, and this raises some interesting questions. In cultures that pride themselves on egalitarianism, is it moral or just that I as an individual get to decide what the masses can handle and what they can’t? If I create something mindblowing, should I drop that on an unsuspecting public or create a community that will view it in the right context? It probably depends on whether the technique in question is more like atomic energy–useful but hard to control and catastrophic in the right circumstances–or fire–a basic need that is relatively easy to control the bulk of the time.

Writing stuff down creates abstraction.

41NkedRSiWL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_In Eric Havelock’s The Muse Learns to Write, he talks about what happened when the Greeks moved from an oral culture to a written culture–one of the rare examples of a culture adopting writing naturally, rather than having it thrust upon them. You can see the process happen through Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. Socrates was not literate, Plato could write but wasn’t a literate native, and Aristotle grew up in a world with the technology of writing. Similarly, their theory goes from concrete to abstract. Socrates asks famous people questions about concepts that seem concrete but are actually complex and slipper, concepts like “justice.” His student Plato knows how to write but still uses oral formats–stories and dialogues–to get his philosophical points across. He develops a more abstract theory of forms–the idea that all apples are apples because they access the form of the ideal apple–the platonic form. Then you get to Plato’s student Aristotle, and suddenly we aren’t talking about forms, but about abstract concepts like being and matter.

Similarly, in larp, we’ve started out writing down rules systems and play experiences, which seem concrete to me. Now we’re in a great age of naming subtle things about the roleplay experience from bleed (the mixing of player and character emotions) to steering (being nice to that new kid by the punch table even though your characters have no reason to talk) and other theories. I’d say these are useful abstractions because they give larpers vocabulary to talk about game nuance. There is also a lot of academic theory about larp that is impenetrable to the layman. And obviously we didn’t have that until people started studying larp and writing about it.

Writing a tradition down changes it.

“Gather round, children, and listen to me tell the story of how I journeyed to the brink of Mount Doom to throw the one ring into the lava flow. It was back in ’73, and you have to understand that I was feeling a little peckish on my first day in the field…”

When a tradition is oral, you have to experience it in whatever way the teller chooses. Maybe that involves a long, rambling start that provides lots of contextual information. Maybe that involves learning about the simplest things first, and only then learning about the complex things, if the speaker thinks that best. Oral traditions can provide a lot of deep context.

When a tradition is written, the audience has control of how they experience the narratives. You think my blog post is boring, so you skimmed to the end. I open up the instructional book on writing larps, and I skip from how to craft a compelling adventure narrative past the psychological safety section, and straight to the part that tells me how to recreate the Stanford Prison Experiment. As a reader, I can skip around important contextual information and the beginner’s exercises.

Written traditions also let you bypass the informative, but often very dull step of trial and error; instead of trying seven ways to make a mechanic for violence work, I can stand on the shoulders of the giants who came before me. But this knowledge comes at the expense of a deeper contextual understanding of the work, and at the risk that I am simply blindly repeating what is known to work because it’s always been that way.

Writing down a tradition changes how the audience experiences it. I think the pan-Nordic scene is at an interesting place in its development, as the first wave of larpwrights tries to figure out how to transmit its deep knowledge to the next generation through such ventures as the larpwriter summer school. It’s coming up with pedagogical frameworks and a curriculum to teach the next generation how to do what it does, without having to suffer through 15-20 years of experimentation. And that requires codifying some of the concepts around larp design and putting that deep experiential knowledge into words, with all the consequences that entails.

 

* Disclaimer: Today I tread into the land of folklore studies, but I’m not a folklorist nor well-read in the field. I did bounce some ideas off of my father-in-law, who is a professor of an African oral tradition and who has taught folklore and told me about some of the common dilemmas, which appear in this post but chances are good that I’m not using language as precisely as a real folklorist would, and/or that I’m repeating ideas that are old-hat to folklorists. Your mileage may vary.

 

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Everything I learned at Knutpunkt 2014

Photo: Johannes Axner

Credit: Johannes Axner

I had a brilliant visit to Knutpunkt in Sweden this year. Knutpunkt, for those of you who aren’t familiar, is a Nordic larp convention that rotates around the Nordic countries and serves as a melting pot of larp-related ideas. The convention features games, talks, and workshops.

In my last post, I described some of the cool, off-book stuff I saw at Knutpunkt 2014, and in this post I’m going to talk about the theory stuff I witnessed.

Cultural Appropriation

Along with Norwegian designer Tor Kjetil Edland, I facilitated a panel discussion on cultural appropriation and larp with five brave panelists hailing from the US, Sweden, Switzerland, and Finland.

Our aim for the panel was to have some initial discussion about cultural appropriation—to outline what some of the issues are, get some vocabulary on the table, and to create a friendly atmosphere in which it’s OK to try out ideas, make mistakes, be wrong, and change your mind.

Some working vocabulary we laid down at the beginning of the talk:

cultural appropriation – not necessarily a good or bad thing in itself. We all borrow ideas from other places all the time. But there are more and less respectful ways to do it.

race – Race is how we reductively group people based on how they look. So “black” in the US, for example, groups together recent African immigrants from all over the huge and diverse continent of Africa, as well as people who are the descendants of slaves.

ethnicity – more about country of origin or place of origin. Norwegian is an ethnicity as well as a nationality, where “white” is more of a race.

Of course, defining these terms is a huge effort in its own, and we did not want to spend our whole time on that, so these definitions are merely working ones we laid down to help get to the rest of the discussion.

Here are the questions we asked:

  • What’s the difference between cultural appropriation and cultural exchange?
  • What do you do when you are inspired by source material that contains racist stereotypes?
  • In what types of situations can using real world nationalities get you in trouble?
  • What are some good practical rules of thumb around this topic when it comes to game design?

Discussion spanned quite a lot of ground, and we talked around to many many issues. To me, since I’ve been writing about this a bit on my own blog, the most interesting parts of the conversation were ones that felt new to me. Here are a few points that emerged:

  • Talking about cultural appropriation (trying to impose moral codes on other cultures) is itself cultural imperialism. Some of the Nordics feel that the discussion about cultural appropriation is, itself, a form of cultural imperialism on the part of the US. Basically, the US exports culture to the rest of the world, like, say, the Spaghetti Western, and then some of us get mad when Nordic countries use the cowboys and Indians trope because it’s culturally appropriative of Native Americans. It’s sort of like we’re giving other cultures toys and then saying there are only certain right ways to play with them.My take is more that because US society is more diverse than most of the Nordic countries, we’ve had more opportunity to royally screw up–we are kind of experts in screwing this up, trying to fix it, screwing up again and then trying to fix it again. My concept is more like, “learn from our mistakes so you can do better.”
  • If a culture that is 99 percent Finnish, and itself the product of a long time of Russian occupation makes a larp exploiting stereotypes of people who don’t live in Finland in great numbers, is that really an act of cultural oppression? The Nordic countries are comparatively quite monolithic, so issues of cultural appropriation have not come up in the normal course of business there, though in recent years, folks are becoming increasingly aware of them.
  • Nationality and religion can be proxies for race in Europe. Issues of cultural appropriation often intersect with issues of nationality in the Nordic countries. In contrast to the US, which has a large endemic population of immigrants, kids of kids of immigrants, etc., many places in the Nordic countries seem to be dealing more with first or second generation immigrants, so rather than speaking about race, nationality or religion seem to be the statuses discussed. In other words, issues around race can be disguised as issues around culture.
  • Beware the Internet. The Internet is awesome because it lets us all talk to each other across the world. But it also strips away all context. You made a larp relevant to your particular cultural context? Great. Put it on the Internet though, and people all over the world will see it—and that context will be lost. When context is lost, Internet battles can occur. Think before you upload.
  • Think before you appropriate. And do some research to know what you’re getting into. Getting inspired by other cultures is a good thing. But often we take things without examining the context of our own privilege. Borrowing is cool, but be a conscientious borrower: think critically about what you are taking, why you need it, and how you are using it before you take it.

This only scratches the surface of what we talked about, and there was plenty of debate. Clearly, there was enough material here for about seventeen panels. I hope the discussion is continued with greater specificity and depth at future KPs.

The Rant

At the hour of the rant, another American, roleplaying researcher Sarah Lynne Bowman and I did a satirical take on cultural appropriation. I wrapped myself in the flag (literally) and my partner took on the persona of the Statue of Liberty. The point of our rant was two-fold:

  • To point out the rather monolithic view of the US that our Nordic compatriots superimpose over our country. Seriously—the first ten times people hate on the US, it’s like, “you do have a point, the US has done some really problematic things” – and then after that, it’s like, “Dudes. We invented the lightbulb, cars, the IWW, and hippies.” The critical leftist voice in US politics is rendered nearly invisible abroad.
  • We also decided to behave according to the rules laid down by this narrow-minded view of the US. (Hey, tell us that we’re jerks, and we’ll be jerks.) So we appropriated Knutpunkt, or should I say “Living Games East,” on behalf of the US.

The Great Player Safety Mess

In case you haven’t gotten the memo—psychological safety in larp is a difficult, fraught thing. This round-table, hosted by Danish organizer Søren Lyng Ebbehøj, looked at debriefing. Debriefing is the practice of having a mandatory, structured discussion with all participants after a larp.

The structure of the discussion was intriguing—the participants were divvied up into groups of eight, each sitting at a table, and with a moderator-chosen secretary to report on the results of each discussion round—we did three or four, each based on a question chosen by the moderator. I liked the participatory elements of this panel.

To me, the take away was that there is no one debriefing technique that is going to work for everyone, and that there are no easy solutions. I might hate answering the question, “what are you going to leave behind about your character?,” but for another person, doing a round of sharing like that may be essential—and it may be essential that everyone mandatorily contribute to such a discussion, confounding efforts to make certain elements of debriefing opt-in.

When it comes to beating the post-game blues, the biggest help—if my group was any measure—is not necessarily the formal debrief, but going back home and doing the things that make you feel like you.

This doesn’t mean that a structured debrief isn’t useful—far from it—but it does suggest that organizers might tell that to players in addition to any other formal debrief stuff they do.

Superreality Workshop

Run by Danish experience designer Jakob la Cour, this participatory workshop focused on helping people enter into a state of superreality, that is, a state where all senses are heightened.

La Cour suggested several methods for helping people enter into this state. Here’s what I remember, though there may be more:

  • Emotion. Make people laugh loudly for as long as the organizer does it. Or make them seem very sad, etc.
  • Motion. Doing stuff all at the same time can bond the group and sensitize them. La Cour had lived in Africa for a time, and the Masai boys in his village, when they came home, would all stand in a circle and jump at the same time in a particular way. He got us doing that, and sure enough, the sensation of doing something in a group bonded us.
  • Physical contact. We hugged the person next to us in the circle for a full minute, and tried to understand the physicality of that person through the hug. Sure enough, immediately afterward, instead of standing in an evenly spaced circle, we were naturally standing closer to our partner.
  • Individual/Group work. You can do lots of cool stuff with an individual versus the group. We had one person stand facing the group, then we put our hands on them, or on a person who had their hand on them, and focused positive energy in that direction. The recipient of this seemed to feel cool and quite upbeat afterward.

For the final exercise, we split into four smaller groups, each of which came up with an exercise designed to help one or more people enter a state of superreality. They all seemed pretty cool, but I’m already rambling, so won’t relate them here.

Before we started working, la Cour let us know that there is a price for entering into the superreal state–you feel great for a while, but you crash afterwards. And crash, I did. I was barely capable of speech for a while later.

Methods Workshop

Run by Danish designers Nina Rune Essendrop and Peter Munthe-Kaas, this participatory workshop is a system for trying out cool new larp mechanics.

Here’s the system:

  • Get some people in comfy clothes in a room.
  • When someone has an idea, don’t talk about it, just try it out.
  • Under no circumstances should there be more than five minutes of talking.
  • Don’t talk. Try it out!

Sure enough, we tried a bunch of stuff out. For example, we all sat down close to each other, and when one person said their name, the people around that person repeated it more softly until it faded away. This led to the idea of trying it with noises instead of sounds. Then we thought it’d work better if when you wanted to pass along a sound you touched the people next to you. Then we did a thing where we sat closer to each other and faced outward.

We also tried hooking up a single person with four or five others, who lifted them for slow-mo superhero battles.

We tried rambling around like zombies with our eyes closed and arms outstretched, moving very slowly. When you ran into someone else, you made a “bzzt” sound and withdrew your hand. That was pretty cool. Getting caught in a traffic jam made me feel very vulnerable and disoriented–overwhelmed by sensation. Could be interesting in the right game.

The workshop was very fun, and opened us up to some new design idea, I think. Peter and Nina mentioned that when running this, it can be helpful for the organizers to have a few ideas in their back pocket, in case the group isn’t feeling inspired.

Sexy New Theory

Admittedly, I could not make it to this lecture—there’s so much cool stuff at KP, that there’s no way to make it to everything, and this year I chose to prioritize workshops—but folks were buzzing about some suave new theory laid out in speech form.

I’m sure I won’t do either of these theories justice, but happily, the originators will be finishing up the theory and probably publishing it soon. If the peanut gallery wants to jump in to correct me, please do so.

Steering

Markus Montola, Eleanor Saitta, and Jaakko Stenros coined this concept, which describes a type of good metagaming.

Basically, steering is when you do something for out of game reasons to make the larp better for yourself or others. If I see a new player sitting in a corner during a larp, I might find a reason to talk to them, even if our characters don’t have a natural or obvious reason to larp. I’d steer my character to interact with that person, giving them more play.

Or if I’m playing a loner character who hates parties, I might steer my character to go to the party. That would mean, essentially, finding in-game pretense for social interaction. Steering is vital to larping—most larpers do it constantly. We come up with in-game reasons to do stuff that we wanted—as players—to do anyway, and we do it without breaking the game world.

It’s nice to have a name for this phenomenon for a couple reasons. For starters, it’s a way of talking about meta-gaming without using the phrase “meta-gaming,” a term that carries the negative connotations of cheating in many US larp communities. It’s also useful because it allows us to talk about it as its own phenomenon, which means we can talk about how to do it well.

New larpers often worry about doing exactly what their characters would do at all times, not realizing that it’s OK to metagame a little bit for social interactions. I think it’d be a useful concept to explain to noobs that could improve their first experiences.

You don’t have to take my word for it—go read the slides!

Coherence

There was also some talk about coherence, a concept coined by Norwegian larp scion Eirik Fatland that relates to the consistency of a larp. I’m distraught that I missed the lecture, and rather than write down my bastardized third-hand knowledge here, I’ll just say that I look forward to reading the theory whenever it’s ready!

The Prog Larp Debate

Nordic larpers like to argue about what “Nordic larp” means. Does it mean stuff with artsy aspirations hailing mostly from the Knutepunkt conference? Larp produced in the Nordic countries (Finland, Sweden, Denmark, Norway) in general? Can you do Nordic larp in England? Can US authors write Nordic larp? Is it something that contributes to the Nordic larp discourse?

This year, Swedish designer Martin Ericsson proposed that folks throw over “Nordic larp” in favor of “Progressive larp” or “Prog larp.” This launched a thousand Facebook arguments, and–be still my heart–along with the American rant, it inspired three satirical websites.

Sure, “Nordic larp” has problems as a term. So does “Progressive larp.” Among the counter-arguments floated are that it subtly insults other forms of larp by stating that they are not progressive, that it sounds snotty, that it supposes a certain political stance on the part of the creators, etc. etc. On the upside, it’s more internationally inclusive.

I don’t have a strong opinion either way, but I think it’s a debate worth knowing about, especially as it will let you in on some of the inside jokes on the aforementioned websites. I find it fascinating that people argue so fiercely over terminology, since I find those arguments among the most mind-numbing and soul-killing debates. I mean, no one’s going to die if we call it “Nordic larp,” right?

To each their own [label], I guess.

Some larps I heard about

Guys: there are literally SO MANY cool new games I heard about that I’m forgetting about 8,000 of them. Here’s what I’m remembering off the top of my head.

Two games that took place this year that I heard rumblings about. Here’s what I was able to vaguely gather about them.

Brudpris

A Swedish game about a patriarchal society in which women must be controlled because they have the dangerous but necessary “force of life” within them. I believe it was a feminist venture aimed at raising discussion around gender issues. It will be re-run in Norway this fall.

Halat Hisar

A joint effort between a Finnish and Palestinian organizing team run in Finland. The larp reenvisioned the Israeli-Palestinian conflict set in a fictional version of occupied Finland.

And here is a random sampling of the big, full-immersion, let’s-spend-several-days-together ventures set to take place in the next year:

Last Will

Gladiators in the dystopian near future! It’s running twice, in Stockholm this August. Sign-ups for the first run are due in by May 1. I believe it is open to International participants and will be played in English.

KoiKoi

Norwegian larpers doing what Norwegian larpers do best: having tribal rituals in the woods. Sorry foreigners: you’ve got to speak Scandinavian to roll with the big kids in Norway this July.

Priscilla, Queen of the Desert

OK. I have no idea what this larp will be called or even how likely it is to be produced. Or where. Or by whom. But at the end of the Just a Little Lovin’ dance party, there was an announcement that a game based on the cult movie is forthcoming.

(JALL is a larp about the summer AIDS came to NYC that has be re-run three or four times now, in different Nordic countries.)

Morning Red

Hippie commune goes wrong in the 1960s. Sorry kids, you need to speak Danish to play. Also, it’s sold out, but there is a waiting list!

Harry Potter in a Real Freaking Castle Er…College of Wizardry

Harry Potter + castle in Poland=this game sold out within 26 hours of tickets opening. But I have heard whispers of a second run, so watch that space on Facebook.

More Cool Stuff about Knutpunkt 2014

Anything I missed, y’all? Post in the comments.

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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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Building Larp Communities: Social Engineering for Good

Last weekend I had the honor of delivering one of the keynotes at the Living Games Conference, the US’s first academic larp conference. The whole experience was a blast, and I wanted to post some of my notes for whoever wants them.

I started out by talking a bit about American Freeform. I’ve covered that elsewhere, and you can read more about it in my Pocket Guide to American Freeform, an ebook monograph, which should be out at major online retailers later this month. Then I got into some of the stuff I’ve learned about building larp communities from being part of this emerging one.

Some general thoughts on gaming community

Some issues around community include, how to introduce new things to existing communities,  how to capture people not currently into gaming and get them into larp, and how to be intentional about the community you are creating. One of the things I love about gaming in general and larp in particular, is that it’s a social hack: even if the experience sucks, it bonds you together.

When we design games, the rules and guidelines structure a social interaction. In the same way, we can use rules and guidelines to structure community interaction–we can do social engineering for good.

When we talk about larp community, we talk about it on three levels. One is on the micro-level–how does one create a sense of shared community in this game right now? Two are on the macro-level–how does one create community on the city or national level, and how does one create intra-scene community between cities or countries?

There are many ways to create community on a game level–most of them have to do with helping participants feel safe enough to take the risks roleplay requires, and helping them get to know one another before and after game. I’ve covered these topics in depth elsewhere, in posts on workshops, debriefs, facilitating, and safety techniques .

When it comes to creating community among local scenes, I think the main tactic is facilitating cultural exchange–go to other places and try stuff, try to get people from other places to come to your scene and try stuff. Hold events like Living Games! Try to find ways to get funding so people who might not otherwise be able to go can go. The internet is also a great place for cultural exchange–read about other people’s scenes, and interact with them a bit on forums like Story-Games or on G+ or Facebook. By the way: some of the more exciting discussion among indie designers is taking place on G+. If you can’t find it, plus me, and I’ll try to help you. On Facebook you might look to groups like LarpHaven, I <3 Freeform, and North American and Nordic Larp Exchange among many others.

Most of the rest of this post will focus on techniques for building a local scene, though of course many of the tactics are applicable in other contexts as well..

What does a functional community look like?

Before we build a scene, we have to figure out what the blueprint looks like. Here’s my picture of what a healthy community looks like:

  • Inclusive.
  • Deals with conflict well/Low Drama
  • Deals with criticism/critique well and open minded.
  • Open to new things.
  • Robust/many people writing and organizing; doesn’t rely on one person or group.

I’ll go through each of these below, sharing tips and tricks I’ve learned from practice, and also by picking the brain of various organizers in the US and Nordic countries. The latter group of organizers have been active in creating most sorts of community, often across national borders. There are lots of principles and practices we can borrow–some of this stuff may be controversial, but there are tactics here that can work.

Inclusive

So what does inclusivity look like? Of course, we often think about it on the level of race, gender, sexual orientation, etc. But there’s also a social inclusivity, and that means making everyone feel valued.

  • Introduce yourself to new people and introduce new people to old ones and to each other.
  • Make space safe. Safe space always raises the question “safe for whom,” and that necessarily excludes some people. If we want to make a safe space for people of color, then we might want to exclude racists. Or at least provide an avenue to help them change their views.
  • Be sensitive to concerns that you might not share—i.e. if you are straight and a person who is gay says they don’t feel welcomed or included in a certain way, listen to them.
  • Be sensitive to issues of social space. Some people take up more social space than others–just as you would in a larp or other game, try to sense where the spotlight is and do things to support that. If Sally really needs to tell an anecdote about this book she read or else she will feel crushed, try to turn the conversation around to that. If Thompson has had the floor for a long time, try to switch the spotlight to someone else.
  • Invite people from groups that are not represented. Some people don’t take social space unless it is offered to them. I found this when organizing Mad About the Boy–a lot of women, for example, didn’t feel comfortable volunteering themselves for the game. All it took was two emails to reassure a new player that we would be welcoming and supportive, and that I really did want her there if she decided she was up for it. This will probably works for other groups who are underrepresented in gaming circles.
  • Deal with people who are not socially savvy or who break the social contract. This is one of the hard parts of being part of a community, and there are several tactics I know of. You can:
    • Quietly exclude that person—sometimes exclusion is necessary. If people are irrevocably breaking the social contract by being predators, for example, then you’ll want to exclude them.
    • Pass people around. This is an implicit agreement among a community that to be part of that community means including folks who are slightly problematic–maybe they are dull to talk to, or just don’t have great social antennae, but you want them to be part of your scene because they add to the milieu and because you want your scene to be a friendly scene. Basically, you can include problematic people by working together. Sally talks to him for twenty minutes at the post-larp party and then hands him off to Ellen who does her shift and hands him to Pedro.
    • Positive social engineering. If you are in a position to create things–and in a functional community, many people will have this agency–help Frank learn that he does X too much by putting him in a position where he can learn. Give him a mentor, or cast him into a role on the organizing team or in the game where he doesn’t get to do X too much. Talking to people directly is hard, but it can help too.
  • The open chair rule. I learned this one from the kids at the Nordic convention Knutepunkt. When you run an event, make it a rule that any group that’s chatting have an open chair nearby–this signifies that anyone can come and join in the conversation. When a new person comes, help them get a new chair! This also puts that idea of openness and inclusivity into everyone’s minds, which makes people more accepting in other, non-sitting situations.
  • Remember: Stuff happens. Even in the best communities, people disagree and have their feelings hurt. This is a normal part of being human. Remember, too, that there is a difference between offense and hurt. Offense is when something you don’t agree with happens, and hurt is what happens when your ability to be part of an event or scene is hampered. Offense is something we all risk every time we leave the house. Hurt is what we want to avoid, and hurt brings up conflict. So let’s talk about conflict.

Deals with drama/conflict well

Conflict is part of life, so we might as well get better at it. Being able to resolve disagreements is a relationship and community skill, and it’s possible to improve at this through practice. Part of dealing with conflict and drama well is trying to head it off at the pass, so that we are only having conflict when it’s really essential, so if possible, we’ll want to try to set up a community that doesn’t facilitate drama.

  • Address things directly. I learned this one from the Knutepunkt kids. Basically, everyone in a community has the responsibility to do this, because it short-circuits drama and trash talking. If you complain about someone at Knutepunkt, the first response is generally, “Well, have you talked to them about it yet?” There is social pressure to talk to people who have upset you directly rather than letting bad feelings fester. Even if the situation doesn’t resolve in one’s own favor, there’s a feeling that the air has been cleared. It also short-circuits missed connections. If I really pissed off Joe, but he doesn’t tell me, I might have no idea that I have done so, so I will keep on doing it. If you have a disagreement with someone, at least have the decency to try to work it out with them.
  • Mediators. If you truly cannot approach someome to work it out–if you are too nervous or emotions are too high, then ask a neutral party to help facilitate that conversation.
  • Don’t ask your friends to take sides. This can make things get into an us vs them situation pretty fast–if they agree with you based on the facts of the situation, great, but friendship doesn’t obligate them to support you if they feel otherwise.
  • Don’t participate in standoffs from the sidelines. If Dorothy and Francis  break up and then say they can’t be at the same larp together, don’t let them pressure you into inviting one or not the other. Everyone is adults, and you like them both. Invite both of them to your larp and let them make the decision about whether or not they can handle being in the same room.

Deals with Criticism/Critique well.

In a game community, we don’t just have the social conflict of big personalities colliding, we have aesthetic disagreements as well. You’ll experience my art, and it’ll make you have opinions about what I did well and poorly. Any aesthetic community needs to deal with this stuff, and in my opinion, it’s one thing that gaming communities often have some trouble with. This is the game design side of handling conflict well.

  • Remember that it is really really hard to make things, and that criticism is the easiest art—everyone has an opinion and it is easy to tear people down. Complaining and trashing people is easy, offering positive solutions is hard, and nothing makes creators never want to make anything again more than feeling personally attacked.
  • Critique and constructive criticism come from a place of love. This means giving people the benefit of the doubt when it comes to stuff they didn’t get right, and offering suggestions and tactics to help them be better. Make thoughtful critique that offers suggestions as well as tearing games down.
  • Try to separate the works from their creators. People are not the same as their artistic creations. If I make a game with a provocative premise, that doesn’t mean that I hold that premise, necessarily, but rather that I am interested in exploring some issues around it. By the same token, separating art object from artist makes the critique easier to hear. Of course, as creators we are all invested in our work, but if we are discussing a problem with scene five of my freeform game, make it about that rather than the fact that I am a failure as a designer.
  • If you have to vent about something, do it privately. Real discussion can only start once the venting is at least partially purged.
  • If you have a serious problem with someone else’s design, a public forum is often not the best one. If we all hate Marcella’s design and complain loudly on the internet, chances are good that she’ll feel singled out and publicly humiliated. That’s a crappy way to get her to change her behavior.  On the other hand, if she has to have a private conversation with each and every one of us about the same three things, and it’s delivered with love and support, that is way harder to ignore.
  • After an event, you can channel critique by offering avenues for feedback. If you don’t give me a venue, then I’m going to make angry posts on social media. If you do give me a venue, then there’s at least a fighting chance that I’ll use the form, which short-circuits internet drama.
  • Responding to negative criticism about your own designs on the internet is almost always a bad choice. It almost always ends in you looking petty and people hating you more.
  • Take critique with grace. Write it down, put it away, and come back to it when you have some distance on the process
  • You have the power to facilitate this within your own communities. Don’t give extra attention to internet threads that are excessively negative. Try to head negativity off at the pass by reminding people that the act of creation is substantial. Reach out to creators who might be hurt to support them. You can also use some of the tactics in the above sections to help mediate this. Does Bob always hate on Jane’s designs, but never make anything of his own? Try to get him to walk in her shoes by making something. Or just tell him that you think he’s poisoning the well and that it’s bringing down the community.
  • Remember: In a functional community, people can make mistakes and learn from them without too much embarrassment. Mistakes are part of learning. Make it easy to make mistakes, and easier to learn from them.

Robust, many people organizing different things

  • A living community doesn’t depend on one person or on one hierarchy to survive. If Alex organized all the larp events in North America, he’d quickly get tired and burn out, and then the secene would be gone! A vibrant community has many spaces where cool stuff is happening. 
  • Provide opportunities for people to learn how to do it. For the most part, no one walks in off the street and says, “I want to organize a larp.” They need to be mentored. Provide people with opportunities to learn—co-facilitation opportunities, talks.
  • Ask new people to run and design games. Sometimes the best thing you can do is just ask someone to run or design something–doing so gives them confidence, and lets them know that the community supports them. It’s good to ask people who have never done this stuff–in a scene based around organizing events, organizing gives you status, so asking people to organize things and then supporting them is a good way to ensure that the status gets shared around.
  • Saying nice things is contagious. The cool people are the ones who make others feel good about their work and their place in the community. I want to be part of a community where Hubert says nice things about our new player Franklin and tells everyone that Eloise has this one really good safety technique. Give out status to others–this can help them feel confident enough to run stuff.
  • Organize with many different overlapping groups. This undermines the idea that there is one true way or one true community. It’s also a great way to help new designers or organizers make a name for themselves. When a high-status person, or a person with a lot of experience, organizes with someone who is less well known, some of that status rubs off. In addition, an experienced person can mentor the less experienced and show them tips and tricks of the trade.
  • Support other people’s ventures. Go to your friends’ games, help send appropriate players their way, offer to do the less sexy but still-necessary stuff for them like gathering props, even if you aren’t majorly involved in the creative work.
  • Remember: when there is more cool stuff happening, YOU WIN. Sometimes we get invested in our scene status or in being the one unique person who can do X. Fight that feeling!

Open to new things.

It can be difficult to introduce something new into an entrenched community with its own traditions. This is often perceived as threatening. But exposure to new stuff can make the stuff you’re already doing better, both by forcing you to consider whether you’re operating on dogma or whether the way you’re trying stuff really does work well. It can also prompt new combinations of game techniques, leading to aesthetic innovation, and that’s awesome. Here are some things you can do to get people to be open to new styles of game.

  • Trojan horse model: if you want to convert an existing group to a style of play that is new to them, think about what game in the new mode would appeal to them. For example, if you want to take people off the street and get them into Nordic larp, a game like Tor Kjetil Edland’s Limbo, about people hanging out between life and death is a good pick, because it takes place at a party, and most people know how to be ordinary people at a party. On the other side of things, if you want to get indie gamers or Dungeons & Dragons players into Nordic larp, Håken Lid and Ole Peder Giæver’s The Hirelings is a good pick, because it’s about new characters on their first dungeon adventure and their post-dungeon therapy afterwards. It uses different techniques but has a comforting familiar story.
  • Throw spaghetti at the wall method: Basically, something is better than nothing, so try lots of stuff, be prepared for a lot of failure, and see what works. This model builds slowly at first. For example, when I first came to the Dreamation convention with jeepform games in 2012, only three of my four games (each with four players) ran. But I found two other people who liked this style of play. At the next convention, there were three enthusiastic people instead of one. We had enough manpower to run more games, and we discovered other people already into the same stuff we were. At the last Dreamation, my organizing group ran 60 hours of programming for more than 40 people.
  • Try new things, within reason. Expose yourself to new things. But you don’t have to expose yourself to everything. If Sally hates Dungeons & Dragons, she doesn’t have to keep playing games based on it, which would be a waste of time. But maybe she’d play a game like that if it used techniques from Nordic larp…
  • Don’t badmouth other games. Critique of a style or scenario is fair game, but hating on other groups  is not cool. The games I like may be the best games for me, but that doesn’t mean they are the best games full stop. In the words of Mo: fuck stratification. There are enough games for all of us to enjoy.

Did I miss some facets of this topic or tactics for achieving a functional community? Got wonders or community quandaries you’d like advice on? Hit up the comments.

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A Primer on Safety in Roleplaying Games

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Credit: Raniel Diaz

Dreamation rocked, you guys. Seriously. It was an awesome con filled with rules-light Nordic and American freeform games and larps, and many new people playing and facilitating. Over the past few days since, my feed has been filled with <3 <3 <3 for the con and the co-players. It’s also overflowing with emotion, and with concerns about psychological safety in roleplaying games.

We are not the first scene to think about this, of course–I have been following the Nordic scene, where this style of game spawned, for years and have had a chance to observe many of their safety practices, with their attendant successes and failures. Recently, safety has been a bit of a hot topic over there, so there’s been a lot of discussion. I’ve written a little safety guide for players, designers, and facilitators as part of my Pocket Guide to American Freeform (soon to be available for download at an online retailer near you), but I wanted to go over a few things here, in hopes you might find them helpful. I don’t have all the answers or methods, but perhaps this can help serve as a starting point for other folks who are thinking about it.

Also, I’m talking here about emotional safety, not physical safety, since the latter is more clear-cut and the boffer campaigns over here have it pretty much handled. I’m more familiar with freeform games and larps than I am with tabletop, so while some of this stuff would probably work for tabletop, it’s not tailored to that.

First thing’s first, though: Eirik Fatland’s post on safety is really great. You should click on that link immediately and read it.

The Problem with Safety

There are a few obvious problems.

  • It’s hard to know what will be hard in a game. If we’re just sitting down at a convention together, I probably don’t know what pushes your buttons  and you might not feel comfortable sharing that. In addition, while I know some stuff about the scenario, I can’t possibly know what might come up in play and how you would react to it. More importantly: I don’t think I can reasonably be expected to guess.
  • It’s hard to recognize when you are in a bad situation sometimes. If spiders terrify me and they come up in game, my emotions might take over, making it difficult to shift between the mental space player and character. I may also feel social pressure to be hardcore and not ruin your play. This is why cut words, discussed below, are problematic.
  • We carry our experiences with us after game. In some ways, the game is never over. Sure, the scenario ends, but feelings and thoughts and impressions can linger for days or even longer. Sometimes you learn stuff about yourself in a game. Sometimes that stuff is stuff you’d rather not know.
  • Safety defeats itself. Safety measures can create situations where people take more risks, and are thus more at risk of damage. Don’t take it from me, take it from some experts on economics.

In other words: roleplay is not completely safe and there is no way to make it so. It is a risky activity. Furthermore, for some people the risk is part of the pleasure of it–it can be rewarding to play games that go deep and challenge you. It’s possible to manage the risks, yes, but not to completely eliminate them. It’s up to each participant to decide how much risk to accept.

That said, lots of people play roleplaying games all the time, and the vast majority of them find the experiences fun, and at times moving. Just like the risk of a bike crash is worth the pleasure of riding, so too do most roleplayers find that the pleasure of roleplaying worth the risks.

With that in mind, I offer up some of the classic safety techniques. A lot of them overlap, or are ways of getting at some of the same things. This probably isn’t an exhaustive list or even an exhaustive description–it’s aimed at providing a working knowledge in relatively little space.

Transparency

As with many of life’s social interactions, informed consent is the cornerstone of a good experience. The issue in roleplaying games is that it’s impossible to be completely transparent because the games all rely on improv on some level, and it’s hard to consent to an experience where you can’t control what will happen, necessarily.

There is no absolute fix for this. However, if you know something is going to come up in your game–if this is a game about ethnic violence–say that up front. That helps me, as a player, decide whether I want to play on those themes. Tell me what you know about the scenario and give me the opportunity to leave before the game starts.

The Door is Open

I stole this heading from Fatland’s post. But basically, this means that anyone can leave the game at any time for any reason. It means more than just telling players this–it means that everyone contribute to an environment in which people feel OK about leaving. It means not socially pressuring others to play or stay in a game they don’t want to stay in, even if that means the game won’t run. It means not bad-mouthing those who leave. It means trying to diffuse the attitude that the best hardcore players stick around for that waterboarding scene.

One way to do this is as a facilitator is that in addition to telling people they are welcome to go, you should also tell them that a game is never more important than their personal well-being and that it’s not a big deal to stop play, because it’s relatively easy to regain immersion.

Community

Out of game community helps with safety on several levels. For starters, if you are playing a jerky character and say something mean to me, I might think you’re mean, unless I know from talking to you before and after the game that you are not. Building community helps people deal with stuff that came up in game.

Community also sets the tone when it comes to safety. If I know that someone will care for me if I have a really intense game experience, then that makes it easier for me to share things in the way that I need to. It also means that instead of having one or two people looking out, you have five or ten. And that’s good.

It’s possible to facilitate community formally–with workshops and debriefs, for example–or informally, but encouraging mingling among players by starting “late,” for example. Or on a player level, by making effort to meet co-players.

Know Yourself

Basically, if a game is going to press on a hot-button topic for me, it is a good idea for me to think about whether I am up for that or not. Facilitators and designers can help me do this by budgeting a moment of time for this during the workshop, or maybe, in the case of really intense games, by talking it over with me in advance of the game. This dovetails with transparency–let me decide for myself if I’m up for a scenario that includes romance.

Safety Signals

Cut and Brake

“Cut” and “brake” are the most basic rules for a larp. Essentially, just as consent should be freely given, there should be a mechanism for people to freely withdraw it if necessary.

The idea is that if your boundaries have been or are about to be crossed, you call for a cut and game play around you, or in some cases, for the whole larp, stops. You make the person who cut comfortable and take them away from the play area. You don’t force them to talk about why they called a cut unless they want to. “Brake” is its gentler cousin. If you don’t want play to escalate, you call “brake” and your scene partners back off and give you a chance to play yourself out of the scene.

The problem with “cut” and “brake” is that in practice, it’s really hard to use them, in part due to social pressure and in part because when you are in the throes of something that might make you call for a cut, it’s hard to do so through emotion. That is why everyone has the responsibility to call a cut if they think someone else is in serious trouble. Also, simply having them there as tools communicates to players that they should feel aware of their boundaries, and that’s good.

There has been some suggestion that having strong players and facilitators call for cuts and brakes early in a game could set the tone and make it easier for others. That may be true, and the idea is floated a lot, but it seems to not happen in practice. I think this may be because it feels like there is a risk of cutting for no reason, which would feel funny. It may also just be that it is hard to see a scene and know when to cut, because emotions are internal, and I don’t know if you’re enjoying roleplaying an angry character, or if something has actually tripped your switch.

Other Methods

There are other variations on “cut” and “brake.” One is to find a diegetic topic to talk about that signals something to the other players. If I say, “when was that test?” and you say, “Tuesday” then I know you’re OK. If you say “Friday,” then I know you’re not OK. Another is to use a hand signal to check in, a small OK sign, or two fingers against the clavicle, or whatever the group decides. It sounds like my scene is about to start experimenting with these. I’ll be interested to see whether they work better or are subject to the same problems.

Go Words

Of course, cut/brake rely on stopping something, but what if we did the opposite and tried to use enthusiastic consent to heighten scenes? I have heard about the use of go-words, but they don’t seem to be a big part of most of the safety discussions. I suspect this may be because in a larp or feeform game, conflict and drama is good–that’s sort of the point–so people naturally go for it, rather than waiting to hear “yes, please.” But hey, it’s possible they have worked somewhere at some time. Worth a shot, right?

Discuss Boundaries Directly

Sometimes, it works to have a facilitator simply ask the group, “does anyone have boundaries or worries they’d like to get on the table?” If folks are comfortable speaking up, they can simply say, “I am not interested in having people gang up on me,” and then everyone knows. This tends to work a bit better in smaller games, since in a room with 30 people, if everyone has a major concern, that’s too much to remember.

This can also help with setting physical boundaries for a game that might involve touch. With big groups, a facilitator can ask everyone to close their eyes, and then ask questions about physical boundaries. “Who isn’t cool with hugging?” that then allow them to set a blanket boundary for the whole group without embarrassing anyone.

Meta-Gaming

Negotiation

I most often see this happen informally, but it’s also possible and a good idea for designers and facilitators to budget some time for negotiation before a game or during it. This is when I have a chat, out of game, with the person who is playing my arch-nemesis, and we agree a bit about how we will play it. I can say, “bring the drama” or “I’m cool with a few verbal insults, but I really don’t want you to even pretend to shove me.” It’s also a chance to say, “I’m thinking I resent you because my parents are divorced and I’m jealous that yours aren’t–does that work for you?” It makes me and my nemesis into out-of-game conspirators, angling to make a good story. It also means that we both have a sense of how far it’s OK to go during play, and it establishes that all-important community relationship between us, providing a foundation for aftercare.

It is also great to negotiate with scene-partners about physicality. If we’re playing lovers, maybe I’m cool with hand-holding, but a hug is a bridge too far–you won’t know until you ask!

Check-in

Check-in is something that happens during play. It’s possible to briefly go out of game and make sure someone is doing OK. Maybe I take a moment with my arch-nemesis. Maybe I see that Frank’s character is taking a lot of flack and I want to make sure he’s doing OK. Maybe I want to tell my nemesis to bully me more and request that we play a certain scene. Designers and organizers can help facilitate this by building off-game breaks into the experience, or providing a place where players can go to have such discussions during play.

Off-Game Space

Most commonly used in big immersive larps that last a long time, this is a place where you can go to be out of game. Fatland suggests that the existence of such a space weakens cut/brake by implying that it’s mandatory to be in game in the game space.

Game Tools

In freeform or tabletop games, it’s possible to use game tools to create safety without calling someone out. If I’m facilitating a game for Bob, Mary, and Sue, and I see that Sue looks a bit upset and I’m not sure whether it’s OK, I might cut to a scene with Bob and Mary to give her some time to recover without obviously singling her out. Maybe I use the pause to check in with everyone. Not a possibility in all games, but certainly, it is in some.

Soft Take-off and Landing

Essentially, this is a way of easing people in and out of game with music, meditation, ritual, etc. so that it’s not as jarring. For example, I might play a song to give my players some time to get into character. At the end of the scenario, I play the song again and give them a quiet moment to release their characters. You can also do it with other sensory cues, I suspect.

Sometimes this is combined with an end-of-game ritual. At the end of Mad About the Boy, for example, after the ending son, we placed one item of costuming onto the ground as a way of saying goodbye to the character.

Part of getting people out of character can include asking them to talk about their characters in the third person after the game is over, to underscore the difference between player and character.

Delegate

Some games have an organizer dedicated to looking after player well-being. Everyone is responsible for each other’s well being, of course, but sometimes it’s nice to have one person who is also dedicated to the job, since organizers get busy with other things.

Aftercare

Aftercare means that you don’t just send people off into the sunset after a game. On a group level, it includes at least a minimal debrief to get people processing their feelings. Talking about feelings usually helps.

For facilitators, aside from running a debrief, this might include

  • Assembling contact info for players and passing it along to connect people after game.
  • Checking on individual players who seemed to be having a tough time hours or days later.
  • Making yourself available in the bar or coffee shop after the game in case people want to talk informally.

For players, this might include:

  • Checking in with people you had intense moments with. Especially if you feel animosity toward them. Give Bill the opportunity to apologize for that thing he did in game, or at least talk to him about the way you feel. Sometimes this is really hard. Do it anyway.
  • Check in on people who had a tough time, particularly if you might be the cause of it.
  • Channel your feelings into writing in the form of feedback to organizers, social media, email or something just for yourself. Don’t keep those feelings bottled up!
  • Debrief with other players who need support.

For longer games, aftercare can also include assigning people a debrief buddy, a player you meet up with before and after the game to talk about what might and just did happen. They work better for some people than others, but at a minimum they serve as an additional point of contact. Facilitators or players can set this up, but it’s up tot he players to follow through.

Workshop and Debrief

I include these together, because while they are part of safety, they provide the structure for many of the other safety techniques. So during a workshop, a facilitator has the chance to be transparent and set the tone that the door is open and get players to negotiate with one another, just as during the debrief, the facilitator can ask players if they want to apologize for something their character did, and can suggest that people who had intense scenes together should talk to each other. Both of them build community.

They are also their own topics, and ones I’ve covered elsewhere on the blog. You can see my post on workshops here, and on debriefs here.

A Final Thought

I know this probably sounds like using a sledgehammer to drive a thumbtack into a wall to many readers, but the bottom line is that you never truly know what is going to happen during a game, and that even the lightest of games can provoke an intense reaction in someone. I don’t think every safety technique has to be used every time, but I think it’s wise to use at least a couple in every game. At a minimum, safewords, transparency, a debrief and some community-building are probably wise.

I think that people at every stage of the process of making a game–organizers/facilitators, designers, and players–have the responsibility to be part of the practice of safety. Designers can do it by instructing their facilitators to do certain things. Facilitators can do it by creating social space where other safety practices can happen. Players can do it by taking initiative and applying some of these techniques–for example, negotiation and some of the aftercare stuff–even when not instructed.

Caveat

I am not a mental health expert and have no official accredations. I also did not invent any of these methods–they are things I have osmosed by being around a bunch of Indie gamers and Nordic larpers who care about safety. Your mileage may vary.

Have more safety ideas and quandaries? Let’s hear about them in the comments.

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Organizer Fatigue: Larp’s canary in the coal mine

Photo: Diriye Amey. Some rights reserved.

Photo: Diriye Amey. Some rights reserved.

It’s a common story. A certain person loves larp so much that they involve themselves in every aspect of putting a larp on; they organize, run, and write larps, sometimes filling all three roles for the same game (especially in certain American circles); they support the community by playing in many games; they do support for the larps of their friends, cooking food, organizing props, and cleaning up after. Maybe they even run a convention.

At some point they break—maybe they realize they haven’t made time for their families in a few years, maybe they are tired of player negativity, maybe they are simply exhausted by all this running around. And so, they quit, at least temporarily.

My friends, this is organizer fatigue, it’s that sinking feeling in the pit of your stomach when someone asks you to write an article or come rig that last set of lights for the black box, or just show up at all. It’s when you organize a larp and think, “thank god I don’t have to do that again for six more months, or maybe ever.” It’s when you read that last G+ comment that says you’re fascist and love oppressing people who aren’t in your social circle, and you think, “why am I putting myself through this hate? I could be reading a book.”

Organizer fatigue spans scenes and countries. When I asked my social media stream about the topic, the response surprised me. I heard from organizers on the California, New England, and Mid Atlantic scenes, as well as from organizers in England, Norway, Sweden, and Finland–about ten in total. I heard from people who worked on boffer campaigns, theater style games, and on Nordic larp. Almost no one wanted their names in this post, for fear it would drive away players and prove embarrassing. Clearly, I’d hit on a nerve.

Unsurprisingly, organizers from different scenes had different ideas about what caused fatigue, but at core, most of the causes boil down to community dynamics. I began to suspect that a high rate of organizer fatigue might be the canary in the coal mine for larp communities, signifying underlying problems.

So let’s explore the causes, the effects, and the cures.

Causes of Organizer Fatigue

Cause: too many responsibilities, too few people to bear them.

On the New England theater scene, it’s common for the designer, organizer, set designer, stage manager, and producer to be the same person or the same group of two to three people, which means that “organizing a larp is a lot more work than it looks like from the player side,” according to one seasoned designer, let’s call them A, who pointed out that in addition to design, organizers handle things as diverse as booking a venue, juggling props, occasionally flaky co-GMs, in addition to managing set-up, breakdown, and food and sometimes insurance and safety checks as well as casting and design. “All of that is invisible to the player,” they said.

That all this responsibility can fall on one person is exhausting. As organizer A put it:

“I’m tired. Tired of scrambling to find last minute replacement players when I should be focused on creating the game. Tired of having to do runtime checks to make sure that people aren’t being left out and that vital information is being shared. Tired of designing a 60 player game and then, upon writing the characters, discovering that I really have 50 characters and ten half-characters. Tired of not being able to talk about this in public for fear of people saying that I’m blaming the players for my problems or that I hate my player base. I don’t. I love my player base; they are creative and dramatic and bring things I’ve written to life in ways I could never have imagined. They are wonderful. But running a larp is so, so frustrating. And the reward is immense and also infinitesimal at the same time.”

Cause: Negativity from the community; creative exhaustion.

In England, I heard from Graham Walmsley, one of the few people who said he’d be cool with appearing by name in this piece. Graham organized a series of one-shot larps in 2002 or so, but then burned out and began working on tabletop games.

The immediate reason he stopped making larps “was that I started getting less positive reactions from my games. But also, the games started to feel like work. Before, I’d been doing silly things I enjoyed (a Paranoia/Cthulhu crossover larp, a big stupid werewolf thing); now, I was starting to think about mechanics and what worked and what didn’t. I was less creative, less fully of silly ideas. (To this day, I value being silly in games.)”

Many organizers told me that player and community negativity played a role in their own fatigue. And in some ways having too few organizers can fuel negativity. If a handful of people feel pressure to churn out games for the community, then they can end up focusing on quantity over quality–creative exhaustion can lead to worse games that garner more negativity.

Cause: Players don’t care about my game, only about their status within the scene.

Organizer B, also from the New England scene, has felt fatigue when the scene takes them “back to the pointless scenester politics of high school, rather than to the creative space of the larp medium.” Basically, B doesn’t like it when people only show up to a larp if a scene celebrity will be there as a player or organizer, and cut out if the celeb doesn’t make an appearance. In other words, B gets tired when scene politics trump the creative effort of players and organizers.

Cause: Good friends can end up enemies if the organizing group doesn’t work right.

When I spoke to Norwegian and Swedish organizers, their burnout was more about the inner politics of the game team. One Swedish organizer cited “conflicts within the organizer group” as part of why they ended up fatigued. A Norwegian organizer told me, “the essence of it was that our team of organizers was really dysfunctional. We were four organizers with very different work styles, and we never really figured out how to deal with that. Also, there was some sex intrigues within the organizers’ team.”

Sex intrigues: making things more complicated and drama-filled since…um…35,000 BCE.

Cause: Real life interferes.

And then, of course, many people spoke to me about real-life interfering with larp. Organizing an event and dealing with school, breakups, marriages, babies, job changes, and so on made making larps more difficult. More frustrating, I suspect, is the way other members of the community or organizing team don’t always respect these real life priorities.

Effects of Organizer Fatigue 

Organizer fatigue has its good points and its bad points. Here’s my fast take on both.

Organizer fatigue is good.

When prominent people retire from a scene temporarily, it can make room for new organizers to do stuff, sort of like how after a forest fire, a whole bunch of new trees and shrubbery have room to grow. Organizer fatigue can make room for new designers and organizers to hone their skills.

Organizer fatigue is bad.

When experienced people get alienated from a scene, their institutional knowledge is lost, and that’s not good for larp as a hobby. New organizers can learn a lot from experienced organizers and don’t have to re-figure out how to run a workshop, for example, or how to mitigate level inflation in campaigns.

Also, if a community isn’t very functional, organizer fatigue can kill it. If only three people are running games on your scene—a sign of a scene in trouble, I think—then when they retire, there may not be any more games and the scene dies.

Cures for Organizer Fatigue

While the cures for fatigue for any one designer will likely include bed rest and a judicious application of whiskey, I think that a high rate of organizer fatigue is simply the symptom of a bigger problem, namely of a community that has some dysfunctional elements. With that in mind, let’s go back through the list of causes and think about how to eliminate them.

Putting too much weight on one or two people

As the saying goes, “Many hands make light work.” In a healthy community, people help each other out, and responsibilities are distributed so no one person reaches the breaking point.

I think social engineering is the main way to remedy this cause. Rather than organize something all by yourself, enlist friends and new folks. Creating roles with minor responsibility can help teach new organizers about the process of designing and running a larp. Consider separating the roles of design, logistics, producing, game mastering, and scenography, if appropriate.

By the same token, we’ve got to get away from this martyr mentality—organizers should value their own well-being and ask for help when things get hard. But starting out with a team rather than trying to do it all themselves–unless you’re working on a very small game–is probably a good start.

Recruiting and supporting new organizers is essential to a healthy community. Organizer A came from a scene that didn’t support new GMs and had a norm of harsh criticism of newbies. As A put it, thanks to organizer fatigue “What the local community has lost is the local community. […] One of the things that larp communities NEED to do is grow their player base and also grow their organizer base. The Boston community is doing a very good job of supporting its players and organizers and constantly looking for new ones. They are a growing and healthy community. The DC community actively campaigned against growing the player base and didn’t try to create or support new GM teams. Now the big teams are all in retirement or they run things up in Boston. We have no local larp scene any more.”

A robust, healthy community has many designers and organizers who support each other. When many people are running cool things, everyone wins, and in running fewer things, organizers are more able to focus on quality over quantity, thus avoiding creative fatigue.

Negativity from the community

Feedback, both good and bad, helps designers grow, so long as it is constructive. Constructive feedback comes from a place of love and wanting to help make the game even better.

I think many larp communities have trouble giving constructive feedback. In my mind, constructive feedback is stuff delivered directly and often privately (in just the player group or in an email) to the organizers and written in a tone that conveys respect for the game and the effort of the designer. It’s not passive-aggressive whining on social media, often from people who have not even attended the game.

The culture of feedback affects whether organizers and designers want to continue organizing and designing—and it often has broader ripples. A culture of negativity and hating on games and their organizers can have a chilling effect on newbies who are thinking of writing their own games. I can’t tell you how many times people have told me, “I was going to design a game about X, but then I saw how organizer Q got treated, and I don’t want to be in their shoes.” This always makes me very sad.

Even if you hated a game, remember that it is often dear to the organizers, who spent hundreds of hours creating something, typically for no other reason than the satisfaction of entertaining other people. Critique it like you’d critique your sister’s parenting style: with careful words and a loving motivation.

When you play a game, give constructive feedback; if you organize a game, take a breath and accept constructive feedback. Don’t feed the culture of negativity.

I think that some of the negativity that arises around game critique in the US comes from our idea that everything is a customer/business relationship. In larp, that’s mostly not true–it’s a community effort on the part of the designers and the players. As players, we think we can demand things because we paid an entry fee to help our GM cover props, as organizers, we feel like we have a responsibility to please everyone. Neither is true! You can disrupt these expectations by building community through things like pre-game workshops.

I also like a rule of politeness I heard many Danish larpers obey for big multi-day events: don’t criticize a game until you’re off the game premises. I think that’s a nice way of respecting the effort of the game creators.

Scene status dynamics can make things suck and take focus away from the game.

Not sure I have a cure for this one, y’all. Small scene politics can be the pits, and certainly the issue is thorny. But as community members, we all have some sway over the atmosphere in our groups. Show up to games that interest you—and if there aren’t games that interest you, make games that do, and be patient. At core, larp is a do-ocracy—if you make effort as a player or organizer, people will respect you and show up to your events, but it takes some time.

Don’t give status to people who suck.

Most of all, be supportive of each other—collaborate on projects together, show up to other games, and generally be the kind, decent people I know you are.

Organizing a game can make you hate your friends.

Instructions on how to make a functional organizing group is beyond the scope of this post. But I have a couple quick suggestions, culled from my experiences organizing over the past few years and from discussions with other organizers.

For starters, your friends are not necessarily the best people to make a game with. Maybe pick some people you respect and want to get to know better instead. You can think of it a little as a professional interaction—it’s far better to turn down your bestie Bob, who is a great guy but can’t show up to a meeting on time to save his life—and to align yourself with Susie, who is a little type A for your tastes but who you know will have all of the props in their places at go time. Sure, Bob’s feelings might be a bit hurt, but not as hurt as they’ll be two hours before the game when you scream at him because he forgot to assemble that giant pile of foam rocks for the climactic scene. If you end up hating Susie, well, no biggie, but if you end up liking her you’ve gained a new friend.

Try to avoid people who thrive on drama and blow tiny things up into big issues, and people who always need to have their way.

Other things that can help are having meetings, sizing your staff to the size of the game, fitting your expectations to the scope of your budget and site, and divvying up responsibilities clearly at the outset.

Real life interferes.

No cure for this one—real life does interfere and it always will. Being there for my niece’s birth is way more important than some game. But if you have a robust community, it’s not such a problem. Sure, I’m down for the count, but Eloise can fill in for me in a pinch!

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How to Run a Post-Larp Debrief

Debriefs make game experiences not-quite-so weird. They help you switch from game mode to real life mode, and avoid awkward post-larp encounters with people you played closely with.

A couple weeks ago, I posted about how to plan and run a basic pre-larp workshop, so I figured I might as well bookend the experience with a little something on post-larp debriefs, another eminently steal-able technique from Nordic larp that would benefit many American games, in my opinion. As usual, this post comes with a caveat–I’m just one person with one attitude toward debriefs, which I’ve used many times as an organizer of freeform games and larps–there are doubtless many many other methods that are just as good or even better.

Here are the basics as I see them.

What is the purpose of a debrief?

A debrief–a structured discussion after a larp, run by organizers and including all participants–can help players begin to process their emotions about the game, address things that were or could have been problematic about the game or the way it was played this time, and can provide feedback to organizers.

Do all games need debriefs?

Well, that depends on who you ask. Serious emotions can arise from many games–even Monopoly!–so while certain games definitely need them (did my character just waterboard yours? Let’s unpack that.) in other games it’s more a matter of judgement on the part of the organizers. I’d say that a debrief rarely hurts a game–it’s another chance to build community among participants by basking in the shared experience created.

What are the basic debrief phases?

Not every game needs all of these, but I’ve noticed that there are four possibilities.

Immediately post-larp: Get people out of character.

You can hold a little ritual to help people say goodbye to their characters or get out of character. Sometimes it’s as simple as saying, “thank you, and that’s the game” to people. Here are a few other methods I’ve seen:

  • Ask players to put an item of costuming symbolic of their character onto the ground all at once. You might ask them to think about an aspect of their character they would like to say goodbye to, as they do this.
  • Sometimes, during the workshop, players get counted into character (“Close your eyes, while I count from one to ten, at ten, you will be your character.”) If so, they can be counted out of character and back into real life.
  • Music can cue players out of game as well–you can play the same song at the beginning and end of a game to bookend the experience.
  • Add your own!

The discussion.

Typically the meat of a debrief, the discussion is a chat with all the players.

If you have lots of players, it can also be good to collect them into smaller groups–as with the workshop, when you want to work people in small clusters and big ones, it’s a good idea to do that during the debrief as well. I think it’s wise to do this somewhat randomly to avoid strengthening in-game power structures. It’s tempting to try to debrief with only the people you interacted with during the game–but I think it’s important to break-up in-game cliques; getting out of their in-game social role helps people get their heads out of game and back into the real world. Also: those cliques will naturally find each other after the game to talk together, so it makes sense to spend your debrief points getting people who wouldn’t otherwise talk to discuss things.

The Nordic Larp Wiki post on debriefing suggests that discussion covers at least three sorts of conversations, including “what really happened” (the revealing of secrets and recounting of war stories), player critique of the larp design and execution, and de-roleing (helping players process emotions about the game).

In my book, debriefs that recount “what really happened” tend to be both long and boring, but some element of this is inevitable in most debriefs, because of course everyone is excited about the game. I think design critique is valuable, interesting, and educational for the organizers, but not as essential as de-roleing–though sometimes critiquing design can be part of the experience of de-roleing. For my part, I think de-roleing is the most essential function of most debriefs, and so this post is skewed toward that.

Suggestions for discussion exercises at the end of this post.

On-site mingling and post-larp party.

It’s nice to let people run into each other during cleanup, and it’s a good idea to build in some time for an informal debrief afterwards. A post-larp party lets all the war stories out, and lets people get to know the players behind the characters. Sometimes it can be nice to suggest that players try to find and talk with people who shared intense in-game scenes–good or bad, but especially negative scenes–with them.

Interactions way after.

Sometimes debriefing happens after the game, in the form of a summary letter from player to organizer, or through emails or on forums. Certain games offer players debrief buddies, partners who they can share game experiences with at certain points after the game, if desired, as an extra means of support. Occasionally, you’ll meet people months later who still need to talk about what happened during the game–the distance of time has changed perceptions about what happened, and it feels good to discuss.

What should an organizer do during a debrief?

The main function of organizers during the debrief is to make space for people to have their own reactions. Here’s how you do that:

Shut your mouth.

Of course, you’ll need to ask questions and direct players into groups if you are using them, but as an organizer, the most important thing you can do is to listen to the experiences of the players, and take in their criticism. Chances are good that your players are feeling a bunch of feelings and need to get some of them out. Sometimes, their critique will be clouded by the emotions they’re feeling, so take it with a grain of salt.

It can be tempting to defend your game design or explain why dinner was late that one night, or did they get what you were trying to do with that one metatechnique? or whatever, but usually the debrief isn’t the best place to do that. For now, at least, it’s all about the players and validating their experiences. Listening is love, and attentive listening can be transformative for both parties.

It’s OK to feel weird.

Make sure you let players know that it’s OK to feel whatever they’re feeling, and that it’s normal to have emotions (or not!) after a game. If this game was supposed to blow people’s minds but didn’t, it’s important to validate that reaction–otherwise the debrief ends up being a lie, with players forced to dance around how they are really feeling. This nerfs the point of the whole exercise.

Make space for quieter players, and if needed, check on people individually afterwards.

It’s a little bit like running a classroom–some people will take up a lot of social space, and others less so. Some people stay quiet because they don’t feel comfortable interrupting someone or grabbing the group’s attention. I think it’s important, especially during debriefs for small games, for everyone to say a little something–building the shared narrative of the debrief requires community participation. You can get people to speak by asking them questions directly. You can also ask them to keep it short and watch the clock as needed.

It is a bit delicate, though. Some players really need to get this whole long anecdote off their chests. Likewise, if a player intensely doesn’t want to talk, it’s generally a bad idea to push them. If you sense during the debrief that a player has had a really rough time but isn’t interested in talking about it, don’t push it. However, it’s generally a good idea to try to talk to them individually afterward and make sure they are OK.

Ask neutral questions.

As organizers, of course we want players to have liked the game. But for now, it’s more important for people to get their real feelings–good or bad–on the table so that processing can begin. “What made the biggest impression on you in this game?” is a more neutral question than, “How much did you love the game structure?” which might require players to fake an enthusiasm they don’t feel.

Be bold and address problematic stuff directly.

This varies from larp to larp. I played in one game where my character’s role was to have good ideas that everyone else continuously ignored, for example. Although the game topic was quite light, my experience in that game was rough, and it went unaddressed by the organizers afterward. I left feeling very hostile toward my fellow players. It would have been great if they’d included a debrief at all, and if they had, a good question would have been, “What was it like to constantly ignore that character? To be ignored?”

Sometimes there is an elephant in the room–one person obviously didn’t have a good time, or there was a big fight during which people’s real emotions definitely seemed involved. It can be hard and scary to do it, as an organizer, but cut through the miasma of fear and social anxiety and simply ask people to talk about it. This means the topic isn’t taboo and validates everyone’s response.

Ask players to focus on emotions, not war stories.

War stories are rarely entertaining, and the focus during the debrief should be on the emotions and issues raised, not on the specific cool things that happened. Larpers ALWAYS want to talk about what happened in game right afterwards, and some of this is OK during the debrief. Sometimes people need to confess bad things they did and feel the absolution of the group and reassurance that it was good for the story but doesn’t make them a bad person. On the other hand, hearing a really long story about an amusing conversation isn’t all that interesting or the best use of time. So moderate the war stories and try to keep them to a minimum.

There will be plenty of time for anecdotes during mingling or the post-larp party.

Ask for practical feedback, if you have enough time.

These players have truly experienced the game, so they might have great ideas or critique about the design, or about the organizers’ execution that could be useful for future events. It’s great to get this sort of feedback, but don’t let it dominate discussion, since it has a secondary function. You can always bug players with an online questionnaire afterwards.

Encourage the debrief to continue during clean up and beyond.

For the players, the debrief is only the first step in the process of boxing up this story and putting it on the fictive shelf of their minds. Your job as an organizer is to start them on that path, but it’s also a good idea to encourage them to keep talking, particularly to people they might have been mean to in-game.

End on a high note

It’s good to make the last question one that will emphasize the good stuff that came out of this larp. A debrief can totally set the story of the experience of the larp. I’ve seen great larps end up with “that was a horrible game” as the tag because the debrief ended on such a downer. Own up to mistakes you made, yes, but accentuate the positive as people leave. You can do this by asking something like, “what will you take with you from this larp?” or “what was your game highlight?”

How long should a debrief last?

As long as it needs to. A general rule of thumb is “the more intense the game, the longer the debrief.” You should note that even short games can be very intense. A very intense one-hour game where everyone is bullying one character might need a two hour debrief. An intense, three-day larp might want a half-day debrief. On the other hand, a hilarious, slapstick game that lasts six hours might only need 15 or 20 minutes.

Debrief length also depends on how many players you have, because shuttling around lots of people requires more time and logistics. You’ll sense when people are getting board and antsy–like a workshop, a debrief can definitely run too long.

In general, a short debrief is better than no debrief. A very minimal debrief would be going around the circle of players once and asking each person to share one sentence about their experience. A maximal debrief might include a half-day of discussion in different groups plus the use of debrief buddies or forums.

Some useful exercises and techniques

As with workshops, not every game requires every technique, and certainly I’m no expert on debriefing. I have, however, played and organized a number of games that use them, so I’ve got some ideas. These aren’t the end-all be-all, just a few ideas to get you started–you’ll want to suit your debrief to your game and player group.

Make a round.

Gather everyone in the circle, ask a question, and have each person respond briefly. Go around the circle.

Ring the bell for small groups.

If you have a lot of players, ask people to mingle around the room. When you ring a bell or raise your hand, ask them to gather in groups of 2-3 players and then briefly answer a question for a short period of time. You can do this several times. It’s a great way to get some war stories out of the way, if you handle the questions right. It also exposes players to lots of other people in small groups.

Focused discussion.

If you have an unwieldy amount of players, split them into medium sized groups of say, 8-10 and have a chat, maybe about some of the issues the game raised and the connection to real life?

Debrief buddies

Ask players to pair up before the game or afterward and turn them into debrief buddies. It’s your job to check on your debrief buddy via phone or email or in-person one day, one week, and one month after the game.

Jump in when you’ve got something

Gather players in a big group and ask a focused question. “Would anyone like to apologize for something their character did during game?” Tell players they can jump in with one sentence if they have a good response. This is a low-stress way to invite inclusion but make space for people who don’t want to talk. (Hat tip to James Stuart for this one.)

Writing exercises

These can take the form of organizer feedback, what you as the player would want to tell your character, or general impressions as in a blog post. I also participated in a debrief where each player got three Post-It notes, on which you wrote something you loved about the game, something that seemed just OK, and something not great. Then, one by one, we put our notes up on the wall, explaining what went into each of the different categories.

Physical exercises

You could ask players to hug each other or shake hands, or if you’ve had a real downer of a game, I recommend this exercise I tried once at a Court of Moravia workshop at Knutepunkt 2013. Have the players all gather together in a big mass and get really really sad with their faces and body posture. Slowly, count them up from 1 to 10, with the idea that at 10 they will have the postures and expressions of the happiest people on earth. It’s a good one to end on.

There are probably many more out there.

Character v. player

It can be helpful to ask people to refer to their characters in the third person during the debrief, which emphasizes that “I” is no longer “Orc lord of Minar” but rather, themselves. Talking about characters as separate from oneself can help shelve this experience on the “fictional” shelf. It can also be good to get players out of their costumes and back into their normal outfits.

Questions/Prompts

I’ve recommended asking questions in many places above. Here are some questions I’ve seen used effectively in debriefs. Of course, your mileage may vary depending on the game, and you’ll want to add some questions specific to your scenario.

  • What made the biggest impression on you about this larp?
  • What will you take away from this experience? What would you like to leave behind?
  • Would anyone like to apologize for something their character did during the game?
  • Describe one cool thing that happened to you.
  • Describe one cool thing you saw that someone else made happen.
  • Let’s talk about X, that problematic thing that happened.
  • [In small games] I was a little worried about you, X, during the larp. Are you OK?
  • What do you wish had been different?
  • How did you feel when X happened?
  • What was it like to play Y?
  • What was hardest for you about this game? What came easiest?

Further reading

How to debrief a freeform game (Advice from many different GMs)
Nordic Larp Wiki-Aftercare

Did I leave something out? Do you have more tips? Post them in the comments.

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New In Larp: November 2013

Here, in a pre-Thanksgiving nutshell, is what’s ringing my larpy bell these days:

11/26/13 Edit:

How to Plan a Basic Pre-Larp Workshop

Ah, the pre-larp workshop! It’s the linchpin of many a larp I’ve enjoyed. The pre-larp workshop is a place where participants get to know each other, learn about the game, and develop their characters, so that instead of spending the first hour of a game warming up, you can be right there in your alter-ego’s skin.

It is great for attracting newbies–if they want to, they can leave after trying out the workshop–but in my experience they mostly don’t, because the workshop has reassured them that they’re going to do fine and the group will support them.

Plus, workshops are FUN!

I think the technique is also murderously opaque to people who haven’t been to a pre-larp workshop before. I’m no expert–I’ve run a couple pre-game workshops, largely designed by other people, and written one of my own. But I’ve noticed that most well-designed workshops have a few things in common, and take a particular angle toward the game.

So here’s what I know about what I believe is one of the most steal-able techniques from the Nordic larp scene.

What workshops do

Workshops have many functions. The largest, macro-function, I think, is to develop the players into a community, a collective that will be able to make good scenes for one another. Underneath that, workshops also teach about the techniques of the game and underscore its themes, communicate the play-style, and help players develop their characters and the relationships among the characters.

There are three basic ways to communicate with your players: through lecturing to them, through short exercises in big or small groups, and through demonstrations.

Most importantly, though, each element in the workshop is trying to do something particular, and fits the game’s scope, design, themes, and player base.

How to design a basic workshop

Below, I’ve listed the seven potential parts of pre-larp workshops, as I see them. You’ll probably want to mix and match some of these according to what you are trying to do in the larp, and how much time you have. Few workshops contain all of these. At a minimum, I’d include the practical stuff, the safety talk, and an icebreaker.

You also might put these together in a slightly different order. It can be good to mention the safety stuff more than once, for example, or to practice it if your group is unfamiliar. People have limited attention spans, so you might want to organize the workshop so that they’re not just listening to you talk for an hour–break it up with some exercises or small group work.

A note on workshop length and organizer jobs:

Many of the pre-larp workshops I’ve attended last as long as the game itself. Two hours of workshop, two and a half hours of game, and half an hour of debrief is a usual ratio. I’ve also been to great games that had a half-hour of workshop/prep and three or four hours of play. Some of the bigger Nordic larps have several days of workshop and then, the following weekend, several days of play. Experiment with the ratio and see what you like best. I find that for a 4-6 hour slot, about an hour and a half or two hours of workshop is more than sufficient–any more than that and it’ll seem to drag.

It’s a very good idea to make a list of the exercises you plan for a workshop, and about the amount of time you’d like them to last for.

As organizers, your job may be to design the workshop, or simply to run it as written. Either way, you’ll probably be talking a fair amount, so it can be good for voices and collaboration to spread that out among a few organizers. Other important jobs include watching the clock like a hawk, answering questions, and trying out some of the exercises ahead of time so that you can explain them properly.

1. Practical stuff

Helping the rest of the workshop run smoothly.

  • Awkward mingling
  • How to get quiet
  • Timeline
  • Pee breaks

If you have time, let people mingle awkwardly for half an hour or so before the workshop starts. Eventually, they’ll start introducing themselves to each other; a little hangout time before the game can help bond the group. This can also be a good time to distribute character sheets or other materials needed during the larp or workshop.

If you have a large group, it’s good to start out by teaching your players how to get quiet. When the organizer raises a hand, you raise your hand and get quiet too.

You’ll want to include some practical stuff at the beginning of the workshop. Usually, it’s a good idea to give people a timeline of how the rest of the day is going to go. Something like “we’ll be workshopping for about two hours, and then we’ll have a half hour break, and then we’ll play for about two hours followed by a short debrief and cleanup.”

You should also remember to leave breaks for people to drink water, pee, have a smoke, etc. If it’s a long workshop, you might need to break for food. I have forgotten this before, and let me tell you, players who need to pee badly do not workshop well.

Leave time for questions. People will have them.

2. Safety rules

Helping people look out for each other, making players feel comfortable leaving their comfort zone if they so choose.

  • cut and brake
  • physical violence and triggering topics
  • site-specifics like that loose floorboard

Always leave time to at least explain (and maybe try out) safety rules. The basic safety rules for larps are “brake” and “cut.” If a player says “brake,” this means their co-players will maintain, but not intensify a scene, and give that player a chance to play themselves out of the situation. If a player says “cut” all play around them stops until the player who called “cut” is made comfortable again. If the player who called “cut” wants to talk about it, fine, but do not push them, as the reason why they cut may be quite personal. Players also have a responsibility to cut on behalf of other players, if someone seems like they are in trouble, or if there is an accidental physical injury, for example. Do you want people to find you if someone cuts? If so, tell them now.

I think it’s important to emphasize to the players that playing a game is not more important than their personal well-being, and that you’d much rather they cut then continue to play if they are in a bad place. Depending on the topics your game covers and how familiar your player base is with playing with these themes, this chat might include discussion of the difference between good-uncomfortable–pushing boundaries to make you grow–and bad-uncomfortable–pushing boundaries in a way that is not productive or is actively harmful. Talking about potentially problematic content ahead of time is generally a good idea.

You can read more about cut and brake from Norwegian designer Eirik Fatland. You can also see a video demonstration/explanation of “cut” and “brake” here.

You might also have safety rules related to physical violence if that is included in the game.You might want to discuss triggering topics that may come up during the game to make sure players are aware of them.

Perhaps you have an off-game area for people who need a break. If so, show it off!

Your site might have safety issues, like that one patch of rocks on site that everyone will trip over in the dark, or bears. Always warn people about bears.

3. Ice-breakers/Group bonding

Getting the players to trust each other, so they’ll feel comfortable looking silly later.

  • say names
  • do something silly

I think ice-breakers are important. You might go around the circle and have everyone say their names and how they came to be here, for example. This can also help you identify how many new larpers you have, which can help you pitch the rest of your talk accordingly. For small games of twelve or fewer players, the name thing is absolutely essential, because otherwise it seems weird that you haven’t done it.

A short physical exercise gets people used to doing odd things in front of strangers, and bonds the group in doing something silly together. For big games, I usually do a couple, for smaller games, one is enough. If you are going to have physical contact in this larp–if people will be playing out romantic or familial relationships, for example, this is a good opportunity to break the touch barrier. Have your players shake hands with everyone else in the room, for example, in 60 seconds, 30 seconds, and 15 seconds. Or have each person, in a continuous train, shake hands with the circle and introduce themselves.

There are loads of ice-breakers out there. For example, here’s a bus stop exercise, or a theater machine. Or penguins and pelicans. Penguins waddle in tiny steps with arms by their sides. Pelicans take big marching steps and flap their wings. They also eat penguin brains. When a pelican touches a penguin on the head, the penguin transforms into a pelican. Play until there are no more penguins.

Another of my favorites is a game called “switch.” Make the same number of slips of paper as people, divided into three or four categories, like Ninjas, Cowboys, Robots, Zombies, etc. Hand them out to the players and have them run around swapping papers with each other while saying “switch switch switch switch.” Clap your hands, have them open the papers and act like whatever is on the slip. Like groups have to find each other. You can do this a few times.

A few rounds of the hokey-pokey, or “Head, shoulders, knees and toes” works too. And of course, these are only a few ideas. You could do trust falls! Or that absurd party game where people do a relay race passing donuts on straws! Feel free to make up your own.

4. Explaining the Game

Help the players understand what’s about to happen.

  • game themes
  • game structure
  • play style
  • walk-through of game space
  • explanation of game mechanics

It’s essential to let the players know about the first three items above so that they all play together, that is, so they all play the same story. If I think this is a realistic tragedy and Sue thinks it’s a farce, that’s a problem. So explain what the game is about, both in a plot sense–“this is a murder-mystery drama set in 1920s England among the elite” and in a thematic sense, “this larp is about regret and the choices we wished we’d made.” You should describe the larp’s structure, including how it begins and ends.

All of this influences play style, but it’s good to talk about that explicitly too. How should I pace my character arc? Should players be trying to get ahead in the game? Or is this larp more suited to playing to lose, that is, to playing flawed people who will probably fail? Is this a farce where I should be playing big and hilarious, or a quiet relationship drama with a more realistic bent?

It’s often wise to remind players that when in doubt, they should make good scenes for other people.

You’ll also want to let the players know about the layout of the game space–if it’s very large, you should walk them around to the different areas. And finally, you may want to explain/demonstrate any game mechanics, if you are not workshopping them later.

5. Underscoring the themes of the game

Getting players understand the themes of the game and its relevance to their own lives.

  • explaining the themes of the game
  • have players talk about their own experience
  • put them in the right mindset

Not all larps use workshop activities to develop the themes of the game, but many games do. If this game is about bullying or relationship foibles, or alcoholism, or birthdays or bad sex etc., you can ask players to bring some of their own experiences into the game.

One way to do this is to have an open conversation, mediated by an organizer, during which the players talk about this stuff briefly. You can “make a round,” that is, ask each player to talk in turn, or do it more informally. Usually, though, if these players are creating something all together, it’s important that everyone talk. Sometimes, if you make a round it can be helpful to give players the option of lying, so long as they do not say they are lying. If people don’t have experience with X, sometimes it can be helpful to talk about X as an absence rather than a presence.

A less chatty version of this can be to write a guided meditation that the players think through as themselves, not their characters. If the game is about high school, as in Play the Cards, ask players to imagine a typical high school day. Sometimes people respond strongly to guided meditation–it can be helpful to tell folks that if things get too intense, they can open their eyes and sit up if they need to. Or you can give them the option of doing this in character as well.

Other ways to reinforce the themes of the game might be to give the players some pre-game reading, or to ask them to come up with and play short scenes from their experiences with the topic at hand.

Again: there are lots of ways to do this, and what you do/whether you do this at all will all depend on the game.

6. Develop the characters

Help the players learn about their characters, and about their place in the overall social structure within this larp.

  • work the characters mentally
  • work the characters physically
  • work with factions
  • work with relationships
  • work with the larger group

I won’t cover character/faction creation or casting here; though it is possible to create characters through workshopping, I haven’t done much of that and I think how you do it depends heavily on other elements of the game design, making general advice tricky. For exercises related to character/faction creation–or for additional exercises related to workshops in general–I heartily recommend the Workshop Handbook blog.

Working with characters

You can help your players deepen their characters by getting them to talk with one another. One useful technique is the “hot seat” technique, where you split players into small groups, say 2-3, and they present their characters to one another. One person sits in the “hot seat.” The others fire simple and complex questions at them “what is your favorite color?” “How is your relationship with your father?” and the hot-seat character answers for a pre-determined period of time (1-3 minutes). You could ask players to come up with three adjectives describing their character, and ask them to present those in small groups, or to draw a picture of their character, or imagine an important scene from their characters’ pasts and present those in small groups.

On a physical level, if you have time, you can workshop how this character moves. Ask players to walk around the room as themselves, for example, then to shift the body part that leads their motion to different locations in the body (the pelvis, the shoulders, the head, etc.), and then to find what their character leads with. You can ask them to practice making lots of eye contact, and little eye contact, and then to do so as their character. If someone in your group is familiar with theater workshops, that is an easy way to get ideas.

My favorite exercise comes from a workshop I attended run by folks from the Court of Moravia at Knutepunkt 2013. Ask players to start out walking as their character slightly, then do a crescendo from 1 to 10, where they increase the characterization as they walk accordingly. By 10, they’ll be wildly exaggerating their walk, so when you ask the players to dial it back to a 5 or a 7, that’s about how their character might move during the larp.

In-game questionnaires can also work, if the game is suitable.

Working with factions

Many games organize the players into affinity groups or “factions.” Maybe it’s groups of friends, maybe it’s business interests, or maybe it’s people who all play tennis on Sunday. If you have factions, you can split players up accordingly, and ask them to figure out what the faction does normally, or who rules the roost or thinks they do, how they know each other, where they hang out, and so on. This has the added advantage of getting the players familiar with faces they will need to know in game. If you like, you can also use this opportunity to help people learn character names.

Working with relationships

If characters have pre-written relationships to other characters, it’s a good idea to give those pairs or groups a few minutes to chat and talk about what those relationships are like and how they might play them. Encourage people to talk about their comfort zones here too, especially when working with romantic relationships. If everyone in the game is in a romantic relationship, you might want to workshop this more formally, with some specific exercises.

If players don’t have pre-written relationships in their character sheets, you can also have them mingle around the room, yell stop, and gather in groups of two to gain a negative relationship. Then let the players figure out why that relationship is negative. You can do the same for positive relationships or other sorts of relationships–lots of possibilities here.

In a smaller group, you can also use a relationship building tool like the Ball of Yarn. The first player takes the loose end of the ball, and throws it to someone else in the circle and states a relationship, like “we’re sisters.” The person who catches it, if they wish, can further define it (“I was mommy’s favorite and you’ve always been jealous of that”) or simply pass it to another person. This makes it really clear who is not looped in. Don’t do a round two until everyone has at least one relationship, and watch the time–this game is pretty fun and people often want to play for a long time. At the end, go around the circle and have each person repeat their relationships to set them in your mind.

Work with the larger group

It can be helpful to work with all the characters at once. One favorite technique is status lines, where the characters make a line from highest to lowest. The lines you make will depend on the game, of course. For my new artists’ colony game, I make people line up by age, by who has been at the colony the longest, by actual level of fame, and  by self-perceived level of fame, and by how well they’re liked in the colony for example. The lines you choose should be relevant to the theme of your game.

Another idea comes from Play the Cards, a game about teenagers and status that is on my mind since I played it recently. During the workshop, we also made “constellations,” where everyone put their hand on the shoulder of the person they were secretly or openly in love with. This technique seems pretty adaptable.

And of course, there many more techniques out there, waiting to be discovered.

7. Practice mechanics or elements of play that might be hard or are particularly important

A lot of larp isn’t intuitive or goes against our intuitions to be nice low-key people. Help your larpers break out of their shell.

  • Try to figure out what will confuse your players ahead of time, or what is really important to get right during play. Then demo it for the group, or have them practice.

This requires knowing your player base a bit and trying to guess what might be hard for them. If you are using a monologue technique, and the players are all super familiar with monologue techniques–where a character delivers their interior thoughts for the players, but not the characters to hear, often set off by a fist-bump, or pinging a glass, or opening and then closing a monologue box in the air–you might not need to workshop it.

On the other hand, if you’re working with a group that has no idea what you’re talking about, it’d be a good idea to use a scene to demo it, and then to have them practice.

By the same token, most people like to be nice. But perfect characters make for a boring larp, so it can be a good idea to get people used to being jerks (if the game calls for people to be jerks). If this is a game about bullying, get your players to try (lightly!) bullying each other’s characters in sample scenes. Otherwise, you might have a great larp plot that never gets off the ground. This can also be a good way of encouraging people to play to lose, as they get some practice at screwing up.

Likewise, if there’s a particular dynamic that is essential to the game–status play or being able to yell really loudly or following the orders of the faction leader–then it may be helpful to do a few exercises that help players practice this dynamic.

Sample Workshop Schedules

A sample schedule for a game about unlikely friendships across football teams that I just imagined, might be:

– (Awkward mingling: 15 minutes)
– Organizers introduce themselves, timeline, and quiet (5 minutes)
– Brief explanation about game structure (5 minutes)
– Cut and break explanation (2 minutes)
– Players introduce themselves and hand-shaking game (5 minutes)
– Penguins and pelicans (5 minutes)
– Hot seat (10 minutes)
– Characters talk to people they’ve got relationships with (10 minutes)
– Work the teams: Name-game (7 minutes)
– Teams talk about how they met and status within the group  (12 minutes)
– Questions? (2 minutes)

– Pee break (7 minutes)

– Game lingo–sports lingo for larpers (3 minutes)
– Introduce “who’s got the ball” metatechnique (5 minutes)
– Practice “who’s got the ball” with partners (5 minutes)
– Repeat game structure and cut and brake (5 minutes)
– Last questions (2 minutes)
– Break before game (30 minutes)

See also: the workshop schedule in  Screwing the Crew by Elin Nilsen and Trine Lise Lindahl, or many of the workshops from Larps from the Factory.

Final thoughts and tips

A good workshop is fitted to the game design, its theme, and your players.

I’ve outlined the basic sorts of things you might think about above, but there is no hard-and-fast rule. Some games don’t need long workshops (or some would argue, any workshops at all), but I think most games can benefit from even a very short one–just something that lets me meet my co-players as people, talk to the people my character has relationships with, or make some new relationships if I need them, or get my worries on the table.

Unless you’re running a really intense multi-day thing, you probably won’t need all of the above. Select a few exercises based on what you most want to emphasize about the game, and what you think the players most need, and leave the rest on the cutting room floor.

Of course, there are many ways to run a pre-larp workshop. My ideas probably come from the handful of games I’ve played with them, and are thus somewhat limited. For more advice, see the Workshop Handbook blog, and the Larps from the Factory video section, which contains video demos of many exercises and techniques.

Got different ideas? Got questions? Post them in the comments.

Stockholm Scenario Festival: Super-Nordic Roleplaying

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During my recent Nordic trip, I finally made it to Sweden, the last Nordic country I had to check-off my list.

I visited the Stockholm Scenario Festival, a brand-new convention that brought classic and new freeform games and blackbox larp to the Stockholm community. With perhaps 200 participants and numerous games, the convention felt small by US standards, but with intimate size comes cosiness. In contrast to Grenselandet, which I’d visited the weekend before, the SSF lasted three days and packed them full of games.

The Scenarios

This convention is definitely a festival in the model of Fastaval, with an emphasis on games about serious topics, from adult bullying to cancer to love and relationships and so on, with a few lighter scenarios sprinkled in for contrast.

In addition, designers wrote six brand-new scenarios for the convention and received mentoring as they went about their creative process.

But the very coolest thing is that head organizer Anna Westerling required most of the scenarios–both old and new–in written form. This means that THERE IS A WHOLE NEW BASKET OF GAMES AVAILABLE FOR FREE DOWNLOAD AT THE SSF SITE, IN ENGLISH! Simply click on the scenario in question and download away.

Black Box Larps v. Freeform Games

Did you know that black box larps are totally a thing? I have just become aware of them in the last year or so, and I played my first official black box game here in Stockholm (more on that later). Someone has probably defined such games better than I’m about to, but here’s my take: black box larps take place in a black box theater space, a dark room that has the capacity to be rigged with lighting. They seem to involve elements that are traditional aspects of theater–symbolic props or furniture, lights that help set the mood and that game masters can use to control elements of the production, mood music and other sounds, etc.

In short, black box games strongly use elements of theater, even though there is no audience. The one I played was evocative and poetic rather than realist, but I don’t think that’s necessarily a facet of the genre.

Freeform games, in contrast, utilize a game master that has strong control over a scenario by setting scenes and giving directorial input to players by whispering inner thoughts to them, calling for monologues, telling players to play scenes over and over again, or physically manipulating them to enhance mood, by pressing down on someone’s shoulders or directing their gaze, for example. Freeform scenarios typically include a number of scenes set by the game designer, that the players play their way through.

Freeform games are about story sequence; black box games are about using theater techniques to set atmosphere and enhance play. I’m sure the categories aren’t as discrete as I’ve made them sound, but you get the idea.

What I Did

I ran a bunch of classic jeepform scenarios–Previous OccupantsDoubtand Summer Lovin’all things I’d run and played before, sometimes with a few extra time limitations or additional players. I also ran my own game, The Curse. And I played in the excellent scenario The White Death. More on this later.

GMing for Nordic Players

The Nordic roleplaying scenes come with very high expectations for quality, in terms of writing, playing, and GMing. I don’t know if it’s something to do with the more communal culture there or what, but I’d say the pressure to be “good”–whatever that means–is fairly high and this both enhances the quality of game experiences, since if I’m nervous about something I prepare more, and shakes my confidence.

I find it hard to GM for Nordic players. Firstly, when they play with me they’ve got to speak in English, which isn’t their first language. They always do a great job, but it can make the scenes a bit slower, as people mentally translate lines in their head, or occasionally, search for the right word.

There’s also a layer of player culture between us. I am used to GMing for Americans, who tend to play fast and hard, cutting to the chase quickly and obeying GM suggestions immediately. They often need to be pushed to go toward the interesting, psychologically intense material. I feel like I don’t have a grip on the boundaries of play culture for Nordicans–I don’t know what their “normal” is. It tends to be, I’d say, more emotionally intense? They are not at all afraid to touch each other or really really seduce one another, so scenes that might involve either of these activities escalate quickly. They have different expectations about immersion and are used to GMs using inner monologue techniques in slightly different ways. Monologues need to sounds more poetic for Nordic players, I think, and they expect the GM to do atmospheric stuff supporting and enhancing their emotional paths (maybe) compared to Americans, who expect the GM to push them to the place they want to go but are too afraid to enter. Nordic players also tend to do just what the scenario writer says, and seem to have a slightly harder time inventing (or maybe just vocalizing) ideas for new scenes. Americans tend to invent new material easily and have a tendency to test the boundaries of scenarios in ways that can break them.

If you do a great job or a mediocre job in America, people praise you afterwards, and if they have critique, give it much later in compliment sandwich format. Whether you do a great or a mediocre job in Nordica, people will give you constructive criticism in plain language immediately after. So there’s a validation gap too.

So anyway. Running games for Nordicans makes me anxious, because there are high expectations and I always feel I’m doing it wrong.

Danish People and Swedish People

Both in Norway and here in Sweden, it was fun to hang out with Danish people. Normally, at places like Fastaval in Denmark, the foreigners develop a special bond as the outsiders together. But since I keep going to Denmark, I’m always developing this bond with Norwegians, Swedes and Finns. It was fun to see some of the Danish crew relaxed, without many obligations, and ready to be trolled.

The Danes, of course, delight in pushing boundaries and are all over all the crying and bullying scenarios, so it was fun to come up with ideas that might actually offend Danish roleplayers. Incest games? Why no. Their scenario tradition has casual surprise incest and rape aplenty. One night, though, they told me the secret weakness of Danish roleplayers: genuine compliments. Or else they were just trolling me for praise.

One cool thing I did at the SSF was get to chit-chat with a larger variety of Swedes than I’ve seen on the Knutepunkt scene. I talked game design with several bad-ass creators and learned a bit about the history of larp in Sweden. And of course, I got to experience the famous Swedish feminism. Rock on!

White Death by Nina Runa Essendrop and Simon Steen Hansen

The highlight of my experience was playing White Death, a short black box larp about a group of pioneers who goes up into the mountains to make a new life for themselves, and end up dying during the winter.

The game does not use any language, rather it’s played out poetically with a minimum of props and set. As players, we would all portray two characters, a human and a white one. The humans inhabited a lit portion of the stage and the white ones inhabited the dark. White ones might be angels or spirits of the snow or something else entirely. Over the course of the game, all the humans would gradually die off and become white ones.

Workshop

We started out by moving around the space in different ways, trying out hard movements, sudden movements, light movements, heavy movements, etc. Then we gradually combined several of these movements until we were moving like the humans, who move hard, heavy, sudden and violent. The white ones moved lightly and fluidly, and…with one or two more adjectives. That done, we began character creation.

Character Creation

Our human characters all received a physical restriction that would govern how we moved. Mine was that my head had to loll to one side, but never rested in the middle, and my fingers had to be pointing at the ground. Another person had that their hands and gaze had to follow each other. Some people had magnets between their hands and head, or moved like marionettes, and so on.

We practice moving like humans (hard, heavy, sudden, violent, etc) with our new restrictions. Then we got slips of paper that defined our relationship to the group. For example, my character thought she was better than people who were taller than she was. One guy wanted to be cared for my someone with smaller feet than his, and so on.

We milled to find an enemy and a friend and defined those relationships a bit through play. Sounds would be allowed during the game, but absolutely no language, sign language, or gibberish mimicking language.

Game Structure

The game had two halves. In the first half, we would experience being human, occupying the human side of the stage. Gradually, during the first half, the game masters would introduce three sets of props in a spotlight on the dark side of the stage. They were: white balloons that represented dreams, cups of sugar representing sustenance and survival, and white paper representing faith. We could play with the props as we chose.

During the second half of the game, storms would arrive, cued by the sounds of bells and then whirring wind. There would be four storms. During the first storm, some of us would transform ourselves into white ones. The white ones can always see the humans, but the humans can only see the white ones during the storms. During the storms, the white ones could reach across, pull humans across the boundary, and transform them. This consisted of closing the human’s eyes, and helping them move their arms to remove physical restrictions, and putting a white ribbon around their necks.

The white ones had some props to play with too–sheets, and bubble stuff that they could blow over to the human side if they wished.

The game had a variety of music playing the rest of the time–a series of songs. The workshop lasted about two hours, followed by about a one to one-and-a-half hour game. The rest of the time–half an hour to an hour–was spent on breaks and debrief.

Play Report

I was surprised at how far physical interaction got us in terms of defining our characters. It did, indeed, feel quite oppressive to be a human.

The props were pretty cool. Balloons blown up to various sizes were variously easy or difficult to pop. And if your wrists have a pretend dowel between them, well they might be hard to hold on to. The sugar immediately went all over everything, having a nice gritty surface that made you feel sticky once the sugar melted on your skin. I didn’t really want to get sugar all over myself, since I hadn’t brought a change of clothes, so that affected how I interacted with it, but many people writhed around on the ground, tried to lick it off the balloons, sprinkled it in the air, and so on. I swear I’m still finding sugar in my bra three days later. The paper was fun because it could be ripped and combined and fluttered and stolen, and put in the sugar cups along with the balloons representing our broken dreams.

At one point, when the music was pretty harsh, and I was standing over someone else who was writhing around in sugar and making incoherent shrieking noises, I looked around a bit at the chaos around me and thought “Whoa. This is some truly Nordic shit.”

As we became white ones, the light props on the dark side of the room–where we billowed the sheets up and down, blew bubbles, hugged each other and giggled while dancing, provided a nice contrast.

In terms of my own play experience, I felt mixed. The game and its mechanics are truly fascinating and thought-provoking and say a lot about what you can do with minimal stripped-down tools. The design of the whole experience was pretty ace. But during the debrief, I couldn’t help but think that I don’t know how to make the most of an experience like this. Other people talked about their stories, how they’d established relationships with other people during the game and had real story arcs. That didn’t happen for me, exactly. I had some interesting moments with various players, but I was mostly contorting in the sugar-covered dark thinking about how out of the box this seemed to me. I sometimes find it hard to make my own fun in a game, to make my own story, and this game was so far outside of what I’m used to that it was doubly difficult. Still, that’s not the game’s fault, it’s mine, and I know I’ll be mulling over the possibilities the design opened up to me for a long long time.

So What?

Fascinating games and good people. As I told Petter Karlsson, I love the idea of having a classic scenario track at a convention where I can play the awesome games of yesteryear that I missed the first time around. Maybe just a few more opportunities for chatting over beer next time around? Since this festival is only in its first year, there are plenty of times to make adjustments. Would definitely larp it again.

Read and watch more about the Stockholm Scenario Festival on Swedish larper Petter Karlsson’s blog.