I’m not entirely sure where this is going, so bear with me. Inspired by the american presence at Solmukohta, some thoughts have been brewing:
I have two great loves in roleplay, one is dramatic nordic larp (which should be obvious from this blog), the other is story games. Story games are compact, focused tabletop rpgs that frame collaborative storytelling grown in indie game community in the eastern US. It is also here, that roleplaying theory as we know it started. The community of indie game creators made the original threeway model and many other observations on our hobby. Since then, the studies have diverged and met other intersecting areas of study.
Larp theory has taken a decidedly academic and phenomenological route. We’ve had a great crowd from nearly all fields of the humanities to study us and what we do. We’ve gotten very good at the personal experience.
The indie gamers have likewise been shaped by their form, they strive to perfect the art of the collaborative story. Using traditional roleplaying forms such as dice, cards, pen and paper, expressed mainly through mechanics, they have made some wonderful, sharp games and even sharper observations on the nature of emergent stories and the play that shapes them.
The two traditions have both shaped the nordic freeform traditionas, like Fastaval. Games at Fastaval contain elements of both the collaborative storygaming mechanics and the personal experiences of larp. It has become a very refined hybrid form of roleplaying that yield powerful experiences. Lately, it has also served as a wonderful meeting point for the two traditions, we’ve managed to lure several american guests in and getting them to Knudepunkt, alongside the nordic larpers.
I’m pretty stoked about this cross-polination, I believe we as norpers have much to teach other roleplaying traditions and that we can learn even more from them. But there are some issues with culture that are in the way. The way we play is based on a lot of unexpressed assumptions and expectations. These are nearly impossible to convey outside of actual play and the way we design our games always build on top of them. It’s become very clear to me, through my collection of storygames. I have nearly a hundred of them, but I only had three of them run smoothly as intended, with very open-minded, but danish roleplayers. The rest either fail as games or require active change in the mindset of the players.
We should be mindful of the differences, so we can learn both to design for different audiences and be able to play outside of our home turf. I believe the way we play our games says a lot of how we are as people, both individually and collectively. Once we get past the little stumbling blocks, we can find out just how much we share and reap the benefits from the other traditions.
I’m going to contrast and compare the design and play of nordic larp and american storygames, with the ultimate goal of bringing some of the story magic to larp and perhaps build on the bridge we’re establishing.
I will look at the differences between two kinds of roleplaying: Nordic freeform and american tabletop indie games.
It might seem odd, to compare two such different strains of gaming. But:
1. They are the two most extensively theorized styles of roleplay.
2. I have personal experience with both styles, both first and second hand.
3. The US visitors to Fastaval and Solmukohta come in part from the indie game community.
And a lot of it is not really that different, roleplaying in all forms have several elements in common across the globe.
Be warned: I’m going to make some broad, sweeping assumptions and leave out nuances to clear the picture.
Nordic freeform is a tricky thing to pin down exactly, it’s a many-headed crossbreed of roleplaying forms that have evolved quite a bit over time, incorporating many elements from other gaming and media.
The freeform games straddle both tabletop and larp, many games are playable as both.
The tradition has a minimalist approach to many things, as few interruptions as possible to the flow of the game. Game mechanics are very light if they are even used and the structures of play are mostly in regards to framing scenes. Many games try to remove as much of the character-player barrier as possible. The gamemaster is often given very few extra powers over the game, serving more as a keeper of process and director for the players. Every game is played as a single instance, between two and six hours of play.
A central pillar is immersion into character, which also leads to a penchant for realism and “close to home” subject matter. An interesting contrast is that it also has a very literary angle, stories with deep meaning and poetic tones. This also appears through pre-written characters and the fact that games are usually written down as instructions to be run by others. Play is almost always in the first-person perspective, stepping outside of character to narrate is used as little as possible.
Most of the content of games are expressed through direct social interactions of characters, with action or setting as a backdrop to drive the character interactions.
The goal of the games are to experience a moving story through collaborative play. Personal tragedy is a common trait in the games, dealing with and experiencing deep issues is popular among the players. Collaboration is a key element, winning a game is nearly unheard of and losing conflicts is often a more desirable outcome for the players. Characters are almost never directly opposed either, their interactions that fuelt the game are based on self-interest and drama.
Many decisions in game are made by consensus, the best idea for an outcome is carried forward. Or it is pre-established in the game materials what the outcome will be and the players perform it to conclusion. Play is for the experience of the story, not the making of it. It is telling that the creators of the games are attributed as “authors.”
Indie gaming comes from a desire to fix the broken parts of traditional table top gaming. Removing or changing counter-productive elements of game design, but not going completely over to rules-free play. It lead to a serious study of our creative agendas when we play games, and how to work that in the design of the games.
A large swath of indie games spring from one creative agenda, the desire to be part of creating an emergent story. Narrativism, as it is called, is about establishing an initial situation and characters, then letting a satisfying narrative emerge naturally from that starting point.
The subject matter of indie games span a wide region of genres and inspirations, from comedy to serious issues. Media-wise, a lot of the games draw from film and television, either as direct subject matter or through tropes and formats. Each game has a narrowly defined focus, the setting and subject matter is outlined beforehand, but the details and story are emergent in play itself.
Indie games are written to be replayable. While tightly focused, they allow for variety in characters, details, content of story and outcomes. The games usually contain procedures for creating your own characters, rather than use prewritten ones. Characters consist of mechanics, personal issues and motivations that put them at odds with each other or the world around them. Some games are written for a single run, while others are made for shorter or longer term campaign play.
They work as procedures of play, a tightly designed set of instructions for interactions at the table and how game mechanics influence the construction of fiction. Games are usually very well worked out, with several playtests leading to a finished product being sold to gamers.
They rely on random elements (such as dice or playing cards) to help shape the stories, so that no two runs are alike. Many games use the random elements to add unexpected or complicating factors to the narration.
The random mechanics have final authority over the direction of the narrative. Either dictating an outcome or deciding between alternatives proposed beforehand by the players.
Play supports both the first and third person perspectives, but is heavy in narration of events so outside perspective is common in either case.
Play requires proactive participants, the players are expected to drive their characters both in the fiction and in engaging the mechanics. The two are seen as equally necessary elements of roleplaying games.
Likewise the fictions and mechanics are geared towards direct action. Games tend to either only have mechanical contributions to physical actions or transform arguments and social conflicts to a mechanical process.
The games are driven by conflict, either between players or players versus the game. Most rely on having a gamemaster creating opposition to the players or creating characters in direct opposition.
What we have are two traditions of gaming that have both grown as a subset of a larger gaming community. Both come from a time when neither traditional rules-heavy or system-free games scratched the itch, so in both cases a minimalist creative agenda surfaced. The games are limited in scope and length, each is a focused portrayal of situation. Any superfluous elements have been cut away, to give as clear an experience as possible.
In both areas the games are meant for adults, they can and do deal with serious issues, they aren’t just for a fun adventurous romp any longer. (But in both cases there’s room for that sort of story as well.) Characters are usually flawed and human.
Part of the difference is the focus of game developments. Both sides work with strongly structured styles, but freeform is more about structured play, where indie is about structuring the game. The performance aspects has lead to freeform creating a wealth of tools about directing players and layering interactions. Indie games on the other hand have perfected creating balanced and constructive game mechanics for creating action. While the designed structures of freeform games may seem looser than the hard mechanical imperatives of indie, they are in many ways more overt. Player input in freeform is usually limited to character play and possibly scene setting, while indie games allow players to create setting, situation, characters and story to a very wide extent.
A lot of the variations in the two gaming traditions are expressions of some fundamental differences in the way the players act in the game:
The nordics have a basic approach to gaming that is very democratic and inclusive. The game becomes a collective endeavour, we play it together, Even when we are playing against each other, I oppose you in order for you to have a good experience, not because I wish to win or even have a conflict.
The very core experience of nordic roleplaying is to be part of an emotional experience.
In contrast the american way is far more proactive and individualistic. You play the game to win at all times, even when you know it’s impossible to do so.* We may play a friendly game together, but I’m going into it for my own character first. And it’s not a win unless losing means something to someone.
The heart of the games is to create a moving story of actions and consequences.
Due to these differences it can be anywhere from challenging to downright impossible to take a game from one tradition and play it in the other. While the subject matter may be of exactly the same interest to players from both groups and the instructions perfectly understandable, it still leads to a failure of the game due to the default stance of each group. A nordic group may have a swell time of playing an indie game, but leave out the mechanics, since they don’t seem to contribute. Or americans may enjoy playing a freeform but never feel the story move anywhere since the game doesn’t contain a system for bringing it forwared.
The parts that each group finds interesting and / or challenging is also an area where the games differ, a game may simply not satisfy the other group. A few games have managed to bridge the gap and appeal to both groups, but that is mainly the result of very simple designs that can engage either style, but probably not at the same time.
Having strong traditions that independently search out the potentials of roleplaying gives us several very well developed ways of gaming, that satisfy various tastes and creative agendas. Having broad creative millieus let’s us see past the details of single games and say something meaningful on the players and creators.
I think we need to become more conscious of the things we assume implicitly about roleplaying, things that are such deep social structures that we don’t see them. Atleast not until they crash into another set of structural assumptions. It’s good to discover what and how other gaming cultures play, what entertains them and how they go about it. It makes us better at looking at ourselves and gives us a chance to find and possibly work with some of the unconscious assumptions in gaming and other parts of life. If we do so, we might be able to create games that bridge cultures and lets us play with people we wouldn’t otherwise be able to relate to.
Thanks to Emily Care Boss and Epidiah Ravachol for looking at this from the other side of the pond and sharing it with me.
* An interesting sidenote is that I have observed plenty of danish roleplayers take this exact stance when playing boardgames. But it seems to dissappear as soon as play changes to roleplaying.