The Rambling Thoughts of a Knudepunkt Participant

Back again in real life. Sort of, anyway. Here’s a couple of snapshots from the past week or so .

 

Blackbox Horsens was a fantastic chance to play. So many games, perfect venue and lovely people to warm up for KP. Got to play several games I’ve had on my radar for a long time: Huntsville, The Boy and the Milk, A Mother’s Heart and the new game, Solvang.

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I had to work during A Week, but I had two of the best people in the world staying with me for a bit. One of the drawbacks of international larping, is that we only get to meet each other when we’re pretending to be someone else. So make sure to have facetime without characters once in a while!

The Nordic Larp talks were fantastic, as usual I did my once-a-year appearance on twitter, because it is so much fun to throw hashtags with the twitterati. I look forward to watching them again, but with some time to properly digest. Especially the russian theory seems fruitful! And Eleanor, who always mindblows.

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We drove early to set up the check-in before the crazy rush of attendees. Hundreds of people storming at us, eager to be part of KP. Wonderful fun, tons of hand-shaking and mispronouncing names.

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I really loved the campus-feel of this year’s venue. It felt a lot more relaxed and open than usual. There was space to get away from the crazy and enough comfy places to have the clever conversations in the Hallway track.

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I did a keynote talk with Josefin Westborg! Despite it being first thing in the morning og saturday there was a great turnout. We followed after Eirik Fatland and Tor Ketil Edland, so we didn’t try to impress anyone and just went for the basics.
More on it here!
http://contribute.knudepunkt.org/?p=260

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I also tried out the co-creation and managed to get some really sexily useful ideas out of the participants in our Character Playshop. Read about it here:
http://contribute.knudepunkt.org/?p=254
I’ll probably expand on this, take it to the Nordic Larp Wiki or similar.

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The parties were nice. I got a lot drunker and funner than expected. Not a lot of sleep though. I loved that the room parties were away from actual rooms so you could enjoy them shamelessly and had more space.

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I got books! Not just the KP ones, but a couple more. The Russian-Nordic Larp Dialogues by Alexy Fedoseev and a lovely copy of Pandora’s Promise from Lizzie Stark. I ran out of money before I could grab David Simkins’ The Arts of Larp, but I will catch up on that with an internets. Did I miss any other delicious new ones?

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The best parts were of course the people! It was so glorious to see all of my favourite people at the convention, but especially delicious were all of the Larpwriter Summer School attendees and their magical energies and projects. I also didn’t realize how much I needed to see the other participants from Brudpris smiling and unoppressed.

And all the crazy rest of you of course!

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Brudpris – play report

A larp about honour culture and a lot more

I’m not quite sure where I’m going to start on describing this larp, since it is such a complex experience.

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The premise of the game is an isolated culture, Mo, where people have chosen to stick to their oldways and remove themselves from the march of progress. They look and act similar to rural scandinavia circa mid-1800s, but their beliefs and traditions are what makes this more than just a lovely old-timey game.

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In women, they believe, lies the force of life. This is the force that allows them to be fertile and bear children, but it is also a dangerous and destructive force, that must be controlled so that the world itself is safe.

This is the basis for the rituals we played through during the run of the game. Rituals where girls became women and woke up the life within them, boys were tested to become me and the two were joined in marriage. Each ritual in the sequence itself completely simple, but put together they became a sort of machine that produced horrible, horrible people.

And it was a terrible experience on many levels, this was really the quintessential nordic larp self-traumatizing emotional masochism that we all love and celebrate. But not a gratuitious one, like many strong games it had a basis in reality, that crept up on you afterwards and made you realize new things about people in the world.

 

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For me, that realization came from playing a somewhat innocent young boy forced to become a terrible and tyrranical man, and celebrated for it. A boy who forever regretted that he didn’t kill his sister for the family honour, betrayed his brother and who hated the wife he was given, but felt that he had a just and happy life, that he did right.
I have rarely had less sympathy for a character afterwards, but the whole way through I played him as human as I could. The singular truth of this game for me is that while the society in the game was extreme and unreal, we all carry the seeds of it within us. And there are societies in the world that are closer to it than the life we lead here in the safe and free north.

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There were more realizations for me and a lot of my fellow participants afterwards: How freedom and community is a thing that the oppressed can yearn for, while the oppressors must always be vigilant and lonely. How and why men choose to be the enemy of everyone, rather than open up. How blind women can be, to the realities of how they are oppressed. How children are broken and brought to perpetuate the sickness.

I’ve had to a massive amount of post-processing: Writing, thinking, drinking and crying to extricate myself from the character and his world. But I probably can’t, since the he is made up of traits I have tried more or less successfully to discard over the years: My teenage insecurities, my hatred of women who rejected me, my fear of not fitting in, my anger that lurks beneath, at all times. The massive and yet unbroken walls I can place my emotions behind when it is necessary.

 

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And that was just a fraction of the game experience. At the same time as I had my experiences there were girls losing their freedom in one last violent expression of sexuality; women compeltely subservient to men, hoping for a beating; keips balancing between the genders, free and impotent; and men with no freedom at all, except to fulfill their roles as lone judges and punishers of any missteps. None of which I was part of and barely even aware of.

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I’m not going into details about the game design, it was solid and so far the safest I’ve felt with playing someone who did terrible things to other people. The traditions and rituals were simple and powerful, detailed by us as players. The organizers made some very important points before the game, that I see as the basis of the feeling of safety and that I think should be universal rules:

“When you play a powerful character, you have a responsibility to ensure that those under you have good play. Conversely, those who are controlled should make an effort to communicate their wishes for the play.”

“Don’t worry about fulfilling the vision of the game, it is all about you as a player from now on.”

“Go offgame often and talk with your fellow players.”

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The debrief was a bit short and segregated compared to the experiences we’d just been through, I had to supplement with some personal tricks and extra time to talk during the cleanup and after coming home. There still a lot of stuff floating around unprocessed, but I think that cleaning up from this experience is a long term project. It also means that I’ll have to reconsider a lot of things about gender, equality, masculinity, our current culture and myself in it. I have made some very powerful discoveries that need to be thought through as well, some that feel important and under-explored by a lot of contemporary discourse.

But I’m okay.

And I’m most certainly a lot better off than the poor, poor people of Mo.

 

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The larp market

So three big larps announced at KP managed to sell out in no time. Last Will was over and done with in 8 minutes. I didn’t even realize tickets had gone one sale before it missed them. It’s a bit crazy. I’m going to put on my amateur economist hat* and take a look at what might be going on in the community:

 

There’s some sort of market forces going on, with players willing to put in time, effort and money to play games and organizers making games and wanting players and money for them. Ideally this should mean that the cost and signup for larps should even out by itself, but we seem to lack the critical mass for an invisible hand to make that happen. Instead we’re stuck with a lot of basic problems of distribution.

 

How we got here

It’s hard to tell what developments and factors made things escalate to this level of intensity, but my take is that the nordic larp scene has become globalized, which increasing polarity and inequality following right behind and causing funky effects.

 

It means that the games that aim for an international audience has a bigger customer base than ever. There’s also a huge bandwidth for communication and hype. There’s a lot of people willing to throw large amounts of money at games, including travelling to foreign countries (180 euro attendance fee and tickets to Poland for the Harry Potter game). Meanwhile the individual national scenes haven’t grown at all, players have merely migrated to an international level of interest and expectations, causing local scenes to wither.

 

Your basic model

It used to be that games would be announced, people would sign up, then at a later date they’d pay the fee and finally go to the game. All through this, the organizers would agonize over whether or not they’d have enough players to fulfull the vision and practicalities of the game. Meanwhile the players had a lot of freedom to not go, since the games rarely filled up and the organizers wanted as many players as possible. It was obviously a players’ market, with no selection of participants, any warm bodies to fill up the available slots would make organizers happy!

 

Free market?

Now it seems to me that we’ve gone from a buyers market to a sellers market. In a regular free market, this would mean that prices went up to match what buyers are willing to pay, but since we’re nordic and play by different non-profit rules, that way isn’t happening and organizers aren’t reaping huge profits off their products. It does mean that organizers have a whole new range of problems and opportunities to consider.

 

Money up front!

The first opportunity is that it’s possible to demand money up front for your game, meaning that funding will be immediate and players commit to the game from signup. These are pretty significant advantages for the organizers, as both of them mean more stability for the project. For the player this means that you need to have a rather large amount of money readily available to invest in the game as well as full trust that it will pan out, which can be problematic. I’ll dig into that below.

It also means that the player selection will occur solely based on readiness to pay and first-come first-serve.

 

Pre-signup

Another model is in between the two, where players mark their interest in participating and then the organizers invite players to commit to participation by paying. This model has the advantage of selection being an active choice by the organizers. It obviously only works like this if you have a great er number of potential players, than slots available in the game.

 

Invite-only

There’s also the version which is entirely invitational, but I’m not going to cover that here, as it operates on a different set of rules to what I’m exploring here.

 

Interests of the market actors

For the most part, the interests of both players and organizers are aligned: Both want the best possible game to actually happen and to be part of it. But there are some subtle differences of interest that make the whole thing unstable. A couple of examples:

 

Players want to avoid committing to a game until the very last possible moment, especially if the game might be cancelled, since they don’t want to risk their investment of time and money. Meanwhile, organizers want as many players to commit as soon as possible in order to assure that the game is going to be run.

 

Players and organizers both want the best possible setup of participants, but players are usually much more sensitive about potentially disruptive co-players, since they have much less control over who they get to play with. Organizers can handle a certain amount of risk here, as long as they have enough stable players.

 

Both sides want the game to be cool and get lots of positive responses afterwards, but for the players this means picking the game that seems to become the game of the year, while the organizers are committed to making this one game awesome.

 

The danger of dropouts

What seems to be the biggest fear of organizers right now, is the chance that players will choose to drop out of the game at a late stage. This is again a stability issue, it leaves a lot of work in the hands of the organizers to find a suitable replacement and the insecurity can spread to other players (the offgame social setup in the run-up to games is a quagmire). Currently the strategy is to make it costly for players to drop out, by not giving refunds and similar. But that isn’t fool proof and it can be very problematic, some good solutions here would increase stability of game a lot.

 

Inclusivity & Bias

Time to put the nordic into this discussion. Most of us agree that it would be bad if games were all about who could afford to go, we prefer som kind of “fair” distribution of  who can participate. There are some qualities in players that we think it’s okay to select for and others that are not okay. The way people are excluded can be passive and active by the organizers. Active selection is picking and choosing who can participate and setting up limits like gender quotas or requiring people to sign up in pairs.

Some selection methods are a bit more insidious as they set up barriers of entry that seem fair, but actually work to discourage or keep out certain participants. Some are the socio-economics of pricing, others can be setting content that require certain things from the players.

Some things that organizers try to select for is to get committed players who are going to put work in to make the game awesome for themselves and others, players who won’t drop out, players who play well with others, etc. These things are usually seen as okay to select for, as long as you don’t stray into nepotism.

 

The flipside: Not enough interest

At the same time as these first-world problems are besetting the international stage of larpwrighting, there are a lot of examples of local scene games having to be cancelled due to lack of signups. This can be seen as players’ tastes evolving to prefer the international flavours, rather than what is available at home, while the games being made in the local stages aren’t evolving along with player tastes.

This is going to cause problems on the long term, since we can reasonably expect a dearth of organizers in the future as people become disillusioned before reaching the international organizing community.

I personally think that we have a responsibility to help make more better games in the local stages and encourage organizers, initiatives like the Larpwriter Summer School are hopefully going to be making differences in this regard.

 

The Power of Marketing and Hype

What is the factor that takes a game from the risky national scale to the explosive conditions of international infamy? What makes a game the target of the coolhunters of norp? What brings the KP buzz?

 

Far from trying to make a sure-fire list of things that bring the hype, here’s my take on factors that successful games have.

*Length: The games must be long enough to justify travelling internationally, so a couple of days. Longer and you start to lose players to too much investment of time.

*Size: The games must be big enough to accommodate a critical mass of players while still small enough to feel intimate and exclusive. No more than a couple of dozen players.

* Subject matter: The games should have a clear and interesting subject matter, be it a theme that you explore in play or a much loved setting.

* Controversy : The game has to go out of the usual comfort zone of games in format or subject matter in a way that pushes the limits of the participants. But not too much.

* Effort: The game should be challenging to the players, if it’s too easy or too hard to play it will discourage players. Most likely the effort should be clearly defined in the description.

* Face: The game should be organized and endorsed by popular people in the community. Preferably several at once.

* Strength: The game must appear to be a success before signup, if there’s doubt about the game actually working, it can easily be a dealbreaker.

 

If you manage to hit the tags above and you package it for sale at Knudepunkt, you should be pretty well set. Otherwise prepare for a struggle getting players.

 

So?

To me the larp scene is very much a market consolidating after emerging onto an international level. There’s a need to adapt to the new conditions, which unfortunately creates rather larger barriers to entry when it comes to new organizers and the scale of games will wear out the veterans. Not that that’s anything new. We’ve been saying that for twenty years now and we’re still here…

 

*The one that came with my Freakonomics book.

Trending at Fastaval

Here’s a couple of things I took home from this year’s Fastaval, that seemed to be more than just individual diversions. I might expand more on some of them in individual blogposts if I feel the urge later on, but for now enjoy these ideas:

 

Classic scifi!

This year had quite a few scenarios with scifi settings, two were homages: One to Valérian and Laureline comics and one to the Mass Effect games. Another was based off swedish retrofuturist art and a couple of them had new ideas.

 

Maybe it was just me, but I hope to see more scifi in gaming. It is a powerful lens to illuminate various issues and provides excellent freedom of setting. It’s still a bit tricky to bring into proper larp without either a lot of suspending disbelief or a lot of scenographic and costume work, but hopefully it can sneak into the minimalist styles?

 

Organic gamemastering

Fastaval is usually strong on either very controlling gamemaster styles or the exact opposite, games with little or no gamemaster intervention. This year had some examples of a much more organic style of gamemastering. Rather than the usual “Cut and reframe” gm-interventions with clearly stated instructions to players, I saw a much more intuitive approach to guiding the game flow. Both in the techniques designed and in the craft of the gamemasters. It reminded me more of improvised player-controlled meta-room scenes, than the strictly controlled narrative it was.

 

Gamemaster players

An interesting thing was that a couple of games had split off various traditional gamemaster duties to players. This isn’t a new thing, but it seems to have become normalized to a degree where noone notices. Several games had a player who spent a lot of time playing various secondary characters. Some games had players in charge of narrating setting as well. I really enjoy seeing how the divide is breaking apart and design choices being less constrained by traditions and players taking on greater responsibilites for the game.

 

Paperdolls

A lot of people really enjoyed our game, Paninaro, about fashion-designer reality tv, now with actual designing as a game mechanic. I really enjoyed seeing people expressing themselves creatively while playing, there’s a lot of potential in combining larp with artistic expression, there’s some powerful synergy of alibi going on. Also, I just wanted to plug our awesome game. It’s seriously fun. I’ll have a translation ready soon!

 

The Gender Debate

One of two debates following this year was the return of the great gender debate: Why aren’t more women writing games for Fastaval? This year with a side of “Maybe it’s the overly masculine themes of the games?” It’s good to see the debate is still going strong, we’re going better places for it. I like how it’s turned to a much more positive debate: It’s not about there not being a problem or kränkt menfolk, but everyone agrees we need to find ways to encourage women and remove the structural barriers that are in their way.

 

Fairness Debate

Since the awards at Fastaval are incredibly prestigious and sought after, there’s a lot of critique of how they are given out, as well as of how the games are selected. There’s a lot of people who see a too great potential for nepotism and insularity versus a large crowd of people angry at all the suspicion and problematization. Personally I think this is a very good example of why you need clear communication and even clearer rules. Also it shows that the competition that gave us such a strong incentive to write great games, can also lead to a lot of negative consequences that we must face.

 

Collaboration

The age of the individual auteur seems to be over for Fastaval. A lot of the games have multiple authors and all of them have had feedback from other authors during their creation. I think it’s really great to see the role of the community acknowledged and prized like this. Also that it was veterans and newcomers alike who work like this. The groups behind games seem a bit more fluid also, people working together based on the idea of the game, rather than previous allegiances.

 

If you were at Fastaval, what did you take with you? What do you think is the new hotness?

Nordic Larp Primer

While assisting the inimitable Adam James in introducing nordic larp to UK, through his performance art network, I realized I didn’t have a good starting point for new folks to learn more. What I mean is, that the information is out there, but it’s scattered across a lot of different places. So I’m just going t collect the best places to start learning more about nordic larp:

NordicLarp.org

The hub of the wheel. A community project, this site is all about collecting information on nordic larp. It consists of several excellent parts:

Calendar

The best way to find out what larp is like, is to take part in a game. The calendar covers the biggest upcoming events in the hobby. There are several games and conventions each year and all are welcoming of new participants.

Wiki

The Wiki is a work in progress, trying to gather as much knowledge about the hobby in one place as well as providing a handy reference for definitions and works. If you need to look up a word or thing, go here.

Talks

The Nordic Larp Talks are short, accessible talks on various topics, held each spring. I recommend watching atleast these ones to start with, they’re short and sweet:

Johanna Koljonen – Introduction to nordic larp

A very good introduction to nordic larp, by an experienced journalist.

Johanna MacDonald – From performing arts to larp

This video explains how larp is fundamentally different from the performing arts.

Jana Pouchlá – Welcome to larp. Let’s play.

Some good points on being a new participant in larp.

Games

The games themselves are what brings us together, to really get started understanding the thing, you should try it out. But for reading up on it, these are the books to look for:

Larps from the Factory

So far, the best collection of short larp scripts are the collected works of the Oslo Larp Factory. It has a lot of different styles and subject matters, which provides excellent examples of larps and how they are written down. There’s also a set of videos that show various techniques used in larps that are very useful to conceptualize what might be used during games.

Nordic Larp book

For understanding the bigger, longer games this is the book to look for. It has beautiful pictures and texts from some of the most influential larps in the nordic tradition. It covers some of the greatest moments in the hobby.

Larpwriter Summer School 

The best place to learn about the craft of making larps is  the Larpwriter Summer School, a week of courses on designing games held in the summer in Lithuania. Some of the lectures are available as videos and slideshows on the website. They are aimed at newcomers to the hobby and thus quite accessible.

Knutpunkt / Knutepunkt / Knudepunkt / Solmukohta

The big international gathering of nordic larp, rotating each year between the nordic countries. It is the place to meet the very cleverest people of nordic larp, hear about the latest academic research on the topic as well as upcoming and recently played games and events.

Knutepunkt Books

The convention also includes the production of one or more books each year, that contain various articles on larp. From highly academic theoretical models of experiencing larp, to angry rants, they represent the cutting edge of each year’s thinking on larp.

Especially interesting for newcomers is The Foundation Stone of Nordic Larp, which is a collection of the articles you need to read in order to be part of the discourse on nordic larp. It can get a bit hairy at times, but this is the way into the academic side of it all.

Further reading

Some other things that I think portray important sides of the nordic larp tradition:

Something Wicked This Way Larps

A wonderful online article that picks out several interesting points in the larp landscape, what kinds of play takes place and the thoughts behind the play.

Leaving Mundania

Lizzie Stark is an american journalist who has documented her trip down the rabbit hole of larp, all the way to the nordic countries and further afield in her very well-written book. She also has a blog with a very newbie friendly angle, that cover a lot of topics on nordic larp.

Playground Magazine

A short run magazine on nordic larp, that managed to provide several interesting articles on larp and neighbouring phenomena.

And this is just the tip of the iceberg, each of those links lead further into the depths. I’m sure I missed several other clever places to start learning, so please comment with your favourite introductory materials!

Playground Magazine available online

I was a happy subscriber of Playground Magazine from the start, it’s magazine that took larp seriously in a playful manner, but ultimately suffered the fate of so many wonderful, but narrow-topic ‘zines and faded out. Now you can read them online for free, buy them print-on-demand and download if you are clever.

The articles vary a lot in focus and writing style, but cover a lot of different facets of larp and neighbouring phenomenon. And it does in beautiful style. The layout and editing are very strong elements that make it a very approacable publication, full of pictures and funky graphics.

Some of the magazine-elements aren’t really relevant after a while, but the large majority of the content is still relevant and interesting to read for newcomers. Quite a few of the articles are not on larp per se, but look at cultures and phenomenon that have elements in common with larp, such as pick-up artists, bdsm and gamification. Other parts are introductions to larp cultures outside the nordic imperium or discussions of controversial elements in larp. It can feel a bit like forced sensationalism at times, but it does manage to have an enthusiasm about larp that I often find lacking in publications. And I love that it covers such a wide range of topics with larp as the common thread. It puts our hobby in very interesting company, that’s for sure.

 

If you didn’t subscribe, this is your chance to catch up!

Moving Bodies And Larp

So we’re doing this thing. It’s a ball of wibbly-wobbly movey-performey… larp. It has grown naturally from a group of blown minds and we wish to infect more people with our ideas.

The main question after the performance in London, when Adam James, Nina Runa Essendrop and I sat down for a well-deserved sunday roast at the local pub, was: “HOW DO WE GET TO DO MORE OF THIS!?”

By “this” we mean movement-based larping and playing in the fertile grounds between norp and the performing arts. It’s not a specific thing, but a common area of interesting potentials. And fun, most importantly playing around and having fun exploring what we can do with differerent approaches and perspectives. We’re not going to be writing manifestos and creating groups larpwrights, but try for an open collaborative discourse.

We want to facilitate others being clever and creative, invite everyone to participate in building something on the borderlands of what we do, that might lead to new and interesting games. To frame this we’ve started a facebook group for anyone who finds any of the keywords “larp, movement, physicality, performance and art” interesting in the slightest. It’s called Moving Bodies And Larp, because that is what it is about at the most basic level and it’s open to anyone who wants in.

We’re starting off by using it to coordinate the track we’ve inflicted on the Knutepunkt in Sweden this spring on exactly movement and physicality in larp. We’re out for those of you who have programme item ideas to join us and be part of creating a space for exploring the potentials of this sort of play. The more the merrier!

We’ll also unleash other projects and events through the group and if you have your own, please don’t hesitate to bring it to our attention! We want to hear about everything that might possibly be related to having fun with moving bodies and larp.

 

Special thanks to Petter Karlsson for being a random encounter at exactly the right time and being a kitchen-table social-media guru.