Grenselandet

 So, I had some money saved up and what I thought was a cheap trip to Norway, no reason not to visit the short-larp festival Grenselandet:

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The festival itself was held at Chateau Neuf, a huge concrete block where the norwegian student’s association has bars, theatres and seminar rooms. All of us out of town participants stayed in the homes various Oslo larpers. It was a bit crowded at times, with so many participants at each place. And the offices of Fantasiforbundet got packed at the party on saturday. But it was part of the fun, what made this more of a festival than the usual convention. There were three slots of games, the signup for them was a bit confusing, but there was something to play at all times if you were willing to grab an open slot. I had all my slots filled from the start with three games:

 

Exile

My friend Asbjørn had his novella game along to the festival and I helped him by running it. It’s a two hour gm-less game about loneliness for four players, originally written for tabletop play, but adaptable to semi-larping.

After some warmup scenes to get everyone used to narrating and cutting, you get the characters handed out. One plays A, a lonely person, possibly the last person left in the world another A’s shadow, always egging on and wanting new things, the third plays the white cat, who hangs out with A, because he gets tuna and the last plays loneliness itself, which is lonely because there’s only A left.

You play three scenes, between each one of the players narrate a story from A’s life where A has no meaningful interaction with other people. The scenes consists of the four characters in A’s apartment just after the cat ate the last tuna, then at a dark and abandoned supermarked that has the very last can of tuna in the world and finally back in the apartment again.

It’s a very pretty little game, it delivers some solid feelings, experiences that you don’t usually play with in larp. The no-drama, no-story situation is interesting to play with. 

  

My Mad, Mad Carousel

I got to play this finnish game saturday afternoon. It is a story of five people being treated for split personality. Each of them is played by two players that get different roles to portray, ten in total. You play in two rooms, representing a single therapy room in a mental hospital and the hallway between them is a limbo where you get directed in your play. You get to interact with eight of the other players, but not the one who plays the same person as you. The players of a character switch between the two rooms at various times, representing the other personality taking the person over. It gets quite messy when one side is a human puppy dog and the other an epic macho man or one of the personalities believes himself a superhero. Or when you make the switch yourself and find yourself in a completely new situation being blamed for things you don’t remember doing.

I played the second personality of a guy with a horrible past whose original personality was a control freak with violent outbursts, but who’d come up with me, a lazy slacker who didn’t care about anything other than doing just what he felt like right now. And who were married to another of the patients, a woman who was either an angry, spiteful mess or the most bossy mom you’d ever meet. My character adored the bossy side, since she’d always make sure he’d get what he wanted. It was weird being in this sort of four way marriage, unlike the other characters we knew that we were all crazy, but some of us liked it. It didn’t take long for the chaos to escalate into arguments, nervous meltdowns and physical assaults.

The ending was a bit confusing and forced, but it was hilarious to see each pair of players sitting in identical poses at the debrief. All in all it was a fun game, with some good moments of character play and interesting relations. It was actually quite hard to play a character that actively went against the drama and try to get everyone to chill out. And I loved the organizers playing nurses, such lovely uncanny ladies.

 

White Death

The last game I played was also a danish one, I’d hoped to play more foreign ones, but since I missed the first run of this I had to try.

The game is weird, very weird and beautifully abstract. It is wordless, you only have your body and sounds to communicate with, no words allowed. And your body is restricted like a puppet in some combination of locked joints, magnets or strings between bodyparts and other weird rules. You also get a prejudice with regards to the others and a postive relation to someone else.  Luckily there’s some good warm up excercises to get your body language and movement going.

The play lasts for two very intense hours, the story is that you are pioneers trying to survive in the cold and frozen north, but one by one you die or give up and join the white ones, who live outside the light but can move freely, play and dance as they like. It has a powerful soundtrack of sad whiskey-voiced songs by Waits, Cave and Cash that really set the tone.

At first you have three rounds of symbolic props entering play. Balloons symbolizing hope, cups of sugar symbolizing survival and blank pages symbolizing faith. This really kicks the play into gear as you relate to the others and the symbols. 

After that the music is interrupted four times by the sound of wind howling as snowstorms beset the humans, it is in these that the white ones appear and start luring the humans to join them. In the end, noone is left.

It was quite hard to make the usual kind of sense out of the play, the interactions were spontaneous and changing from moment to moment, the overall story merely a framework for the fascinating interpersonal relations developing. You really got into the wordless physicality of it, when we debriefed it took a long time before anyone remembered how to use words and even longer to use them on the thing we’d just done together.

If I’d have to try and piece out a story from my experience, I’d say I played an insecure young man trying to appear stronger than he felt. He was scared of, but fascinated with the two female players. When things started getting tight around the appearance of the props, he became angry and vengeful with anyone who mistreated them or his friends. So vengeful that he’d throw the sugar on the ground or tear up another’s belief just to return spite. His anger sustained him until he was the last survivor along with a girl helpless without others, but his strength failed and she pushed him out into the darkness to be taken by the white ones, while they closed in for her. And then all was dark and only the white ones were left dancing and capering.

 

There were some things with the festival that kept it from being a all good though. One of the major things for me is how expensive Norway is, even though the festival and sleeping arrangements were free and the travel cheap, just buying food and drink is hideously expensive. And being a difficult sleeper, the accomodations cost me a lot of energy. 

Still, it was a great opportunity to try new games from other countries, play with new people and see their styles of roleplay. Quite an inspirational experience. And the socializing was a good chance to get to know old friends and new, plus hear of the upcoming games and events. Grenselandet fills in an empty area in the international larp calendar, filling the space between the international larps of summer and Knutepunkt in spring. Fun and games to keep the spirits high through the dark nordic winters.

Unintentional larphacking and learning

I’m going to try and sort out one of the big perspectives that the 2027 game gave me, that came as a complete surprise during the game and has been popping up in my mind afterwards.

So, 2027 was designed to be a larp about postcapitalist living in a utopian setting. It manifested in the game consisting of a pleasantly hippie communal society, where everyone pitched in and things were decided at meetings. A quiet, functional society with clear, if unstated, values and social mores.

Then, halfway through you introduce a largeish group who’ve spent two days playing through scenes of horror, oppression and fighting together, with the intent to integrate them into the hippie society. 

This did not go smoothly, both in the fiction and on the meta level. I was with the newcomer group and the cultureshock of arriving at the commune was scary and offputting to say the least. After playing on fear and secrecy for a long time, being pulled into a big circle of people to introduce yourself and then being pulled from those you came with was incredibly threatening. Even though it was done with the best of intentions.

Later, when things settled down, there were numerous smaller and larger cultural clashes, when our rough and angry way of communicating grated on the hippie mentality. Or the socially enforced sharing went counter to our resource preservation mindset.

From the other side, you had your wonderful utopian society intruded upon by loud, angry people, who did not value your culture or your functional ways of doing things.

It wasn’t really surprising how hard it was to interact between the two groups. And on the meta level, the two playing styles and kinds of drama were interruptions to each other. So it very much became parallel play.

When we tried to create awareness of our struggles as refugees and guerilla fighters, they were largely ignored or countered with being inappropriate.

What I’ve taken away from this is an insight into the mechanics of integrating refugess into society. I can imagine how this mirrors why ghettos form. Where the anger at society starts. How much easier it is to fight and break things. How painful it is to be unable to explain yourself. How there’s no room for your way of life, even in the most accepting of societies. How much work it takes to bridge the cultural gaps and understand each other. How little things can trigger negative emotions. 

I’ve come to the realization that why these insights are so strong, is that they were unintended. There was no special focus on it, on the contrary we were told to make our stories utopian. There was no active attempts to make us feel unwelcome, we did not set out to disrupt the utopian. But we still ended up feeling very much us-and-them. And they probably feel that we were an unwanted interruption, ungrateful and abrasive. All things I see every day in the immigration/integration debate. 

Had there been a design focus on these aspects it would likely have been over the top, too clearly cut and in focus. It was the lack of those exact things that made the experience real.

During the game it felt very much like we larphacked these things into being. As an example: During the party at the climax of the game we staged a silent protest. It was very difficult to reconcile our characters desires to make trouble, with our knowledge as players that we would be disrupting the expected utopian play of others. So we did a half-hearted compromise, the wording of our signs were carefully vetted instead of honest expressions. It would have been so much more satisfying to go all overboard and fuck shit up, so much more dramatic and so much worse for the game as intended.

I’m still not sure how all this makes me feel about my principles as a larper towards my own desires, creator intent and the game at large. But it was interesting to find the jagged edges of them and get to explore a bit. And some valuable perspectives too.

Larpskill: Emoting

The ability to show emotions in a nuanced and clear way. Society usually wants us to hide them away, but they are essential to good larp. There’s a wide range of emotions to try out and many ways to show them.

Emotions are the life of larping, it is the special edge we have over any other medium or hobby. For many of us, the thing we want out of larp is the experience of powerful emotions. It’s a safe space to experience them and we are exempt from the societal taboo on feeling in public. But like anything we do, we can be better at it, even if it is a completely natural thing for all of us.

If you’re into nordic larp, chances are you’ll want the most intense emotional output as possible. Then it’s a good idea to know what makes emotions tick and how to play with those bits.

Cognitive psychology has a basic model of the human condition that puts thoughts, feelings and actions as the three elements that make up our inner workings in a continual feedback system. What we feel runs on it’s own particular logic, but we can shape it via the two other elements. The way we chose to think and act shapes our feelings, which is why larp can really get under your skin.

And you can help the emotions along in various ways:

Stay with iti If something is making you react emotionally, keep your attention on it. We’re quick to put up barriers or move our attention, especially if it’s a negative feeling. This requires some unlearning, but it’s the healthy kind.

React immediately. The longer you wait, the more the feeling fades. Same goes for your co-players. If you respond quickly you can get some real synergy going in your punches.

Savour it. Some emotions are tasty on the long scale though, and this is the beauty of larp: You have time to stick with them and feel the slow change.

Be weak. Make your character human with weaknesses that others can get to you through, both for good and bad relations. Make the choice and you can control what gets to you and what needs to slip by.

Rebuild emotions. Sometimes you lose an emotion you’d want to keep. Go off on your own and try to find it again, do something that get’s you back in the game. Kick a car to get your anger back.

Repeat. The more you go into a situation the more you feel it, bring back words and gestures from previous encounters. Words can become ritualized and make relationships stronger.

Bleed-in. Using your out of game experiences to trigger emotions is a dirty trick, but it works.  Just be careful not to dig too deep.

As always, do it safely. Realize that your emotional systems are engaged on high alert and that they will need time to reset back to normal. And there’ll probably be a comedown of some sort, the brain deals with intense floods of feelings by crashing afterwards.

Don’t let the emotions make real-life decisions for you. Make sure you have someone to debrief with after intense games. It takes time and talking to get back to normal. The more powerful the play, the longer it usually takes.

Showing those emotions is an additional layer you can work on, which has a double effect. It helps you become easier to read and gives more to play on for your co-players and it makes your own experience stronger.

Faking an emotional response is a quick way to actually feeling that way. Engaging the facial muscles in a smile or a frown will make you feel either happier or more concerned.

Practice the feelings you expect in a game beforehand, find out how your character uses your body, what thoughts go through their head. Recalling an emotional response is easier than making it up on the spot.

And the more used you get to expressing emotions, the safer you feel taking them further.

Larpskill: Awareness

Being aware of the other players, what they are experiencing and where they are going.

It’s both a matter of reading the subtler clues while ingame, but also having the courage to ask up front. And vice versa being comfortable speaking your mind.

Larp is a communal effort. It doesn’t really work as a solo excercise. So we have to work with the other participants. And that’s really where larp exists, in the interactions of characters.

Interaction is what makes larp exciting, you never know exactly which way it is going and what the others are going to do. To get the most out of this aspect you need to be able to read characters, players and situations.

This is one of the basic social skills people are assumed to have, but it varies immensely in reality. Coming from the pale geeky side of roleplaying, this is something I have had to upgrade myself in, so I find it should be on the curriculum for all of us.

Reading people is not hard to learn, but it does take discipline. Mostly in learning to shut up and actually listen. Once you take the effort to actively focus on what other’s are saying you’ll learn an awful lot. Reading people lets you react with more confidence and keep the play flowing.

You also need to be able to read a little deeper and see where the player behind the character is going. If at all possible, this is best done entirely offgame by asking directly, but a sense of it during play is a valuable skill to cultivate.

Getting a feel for more than just you and those immediately next to you is the next step, seeing how the game itself is progressing and how you fit into it, what you can do and not do to make it better.

Improv theatre has a whole suite of fun games that teach how to “listen” to what other’s are bringing to the stage. Most are easy to use directly or adapt to larp use.

Active listening is a good tool too, it’s mostly “fake it till you make it” practice for listening to others and showing attention, but if you make a habit of it, you get a lot of new info.

Communication the other way is also important: You need to be able to clearly tell or show your co-players what you want out of a game and what you can contribute with. It means finding a way of talking about what goes on in games that is understood by those you play with. And knowing how to ask them for information, sometimes the best thing to do is ask offgame and directly. But more of that will come in later posts.

It’s a good skill to have in any circumstances, but for larp it can make the difference between having your own little fun and being part of something collectively awesome.