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Archive for the category “Live role-playing games”

A comment on ‘Brute Force’ design of larp

In-game footage from Monitor Celestra by John-Paul Bichard,

In-game footage from Monitor Celestra by John-Paul Bichard, Bichard Studios.

I recently read this piece by Eirik Fatland and Markus Montola on what they call ‘Brute Force’ larp design. The piece analyses two larps: The Monitor Celestra and the College of Wizardry, that both received viral attention and attracted players – and commercial interest – far beyond the Nordic larp scene. Within the scene, they were also two of the productions with the highest participant fees ever, opening a route towards commercial viability (remember that these still were non-commercial fandom larps).

The reason that I want to comment on the article is that Christopher Sandberg has criticised it in semi-public. Since I can’t link to his criticism here, I will briefly summarise it: Christopher argues that the design principles brought forward as key elements by Eirik and Markus were in fact problems and design issues, and that the key to blockbuster success was that both larps attached themselves to well-known IPs.

Firstly, it’s interesting to see what Eirik and Markus are trying to do: they are trying to outline what they see as a new and potentially commercially viable approach to Nordic larp design. We may even call it a genre. Attempting this on the basis of exactly two larps is of course a bit dangerous. With a data set of two, you are bound to uncover design choices that are similar but may have very little to do with how the larps played out, and underplay crucial design decisions that may have been instrumental – but different – in the respective productions.

So, let’s abstract a bit, to see what Eirik and Markus include as common design elements for the two productions. The highlighted design choices can be summarized as

  • An established IP and a cool location,
  • A ‘more is more’ approach, incorporating basically every trick in the book from classical fantasy larp design, and
  • Various design elements brought in from art-house Nordic larp.

What I find particularly interesting with the text is that in arguing for this as a ‘blockbuster formula for Nordic larp’, the authors prioritize quantitative evaluation over the experience of the individual player. Celestra faced problems with individual players being extremely dissatisfied, and both larps have been described also by players that enjoyed them as ‘not very good larps’. In selecting a quantitative approach, the authors deliberately take a step towards mass-market approaches of larp evaluation. They are establishing a ‘Candy Crush’ attitude towards the study of larp, where Monitor Celestra and College of Wizardry stand as models for larps that people are willing to pay for playing – but not necessarily like. (I don’t mean that this was a design strategy from the designers, nor that these were bad larps. It’s the approach to analysis I’m talking about.)

From this perspective, the central question becomes if there is a design approach emerging here that is at the same time key to success for the many, and a source of problems for the individual. Markus and Eirik seem to argue that there is, whereas Christopher argues that the problems can, and should be, eliminated. I think we can isolate the core issue as ‘plot trains’ and I need to dig a bit deeper into the highlighted design features to get at the controversy.

Firstly, the established IP. No controversy here. All three agree that this is a good thing, but not only because it generates hype and viral attention. Where old-style fantasy larps came with extensive world creation documents (the infamous ‘wall of text’), the use of well-known IPs means that the players already understand the world and knows how to act in it. Without much preparation, the players are able to co-create the fantasy and escapism that is a fundamental factor in the positive experience for these larps. A cool location – a battleship and a genuine castle, respectively – has essentially the same effect.

The controversy arises from the ‘more is more’ approach. Included in this design feature are things like overt command hierarchies that can be adhered to or subverted (teachers vs students, officers versus privates), prepared conflicts (rebels vs reactionaries, enemies and allies), secrets and quests given as personal information beforehand, and plot twists and quests introduced during play through NPC characters. Both larps used all of these, in abundance, and the effect was that there was “a lot going on all of the time”. Crudely summarising Markus and Eirik, they argue that this is at the same time a problem and an asset: while this means that there is always something to do and a plot to catch onto, the risk is that your attempt to play on a certain plot collides with another group on another quest; you ‘get run over by a plot train’.

But this must happen in traditional fantasy larp as well, yes? But this is where the last design feature comes in: these weren’t designed to be traditional larps. In particular, both productions included instructions to ‘play to lose’. As Eirik and Markus point out, this instruction is a very strong indicator of a larp that emphasises drama and narrative over competitive / gamistic play or even simulation. (Compare this to when Bøckman depicts a dramatist player as someone who “decides this would be a fine time to make a dramatic scene, and sacrifices him selves for the town, without regard for the role’s agenda”.) Furthermore, both larps combined this with rules of combat that emphasised its narrative rather than competitive role.

Thing is, dramatic play is hard. In a previous post, I discussed how dramatic play emerges from a mutual engagement in collective storymaking. It requires a fair amount of agency and negotiation. In this context, being run over by a plot train is not just irritating but outright destructive. If you play to win and lose, it still makes for a good story. If you play to lose and fail to do so, you end up with no story at all. (Christopher’s critique is more elaborate than this, but for me this is a core issue.)

Will the problem go away? The blockbuster formula article may be mistaken in concluding that the ‘more is more’ approach is a key feature. College of Wizardry indeed toned it down a bit in its later runs, in particular by making NPC-initiated plots less important. But it is also possible that these games work well for players that go with the flow, who react more than act. The sheer abundance of content will ensure that there will always almost be something to do, some plot train to board. If the goal is to create decent experiences for many, it may be less important if the design strategy sometimes backfires for the individual player.

References:

Bøckman, Petter. “The Three Way Model“. As Larp Grows Up (2002): 12-16.

Fatland, Eirik and Montola, Markus. “The blockbuster formula – Brute force design in The Monitor Celestra and College of Wizardry”. In ed. Nielsen and Raasted: Knudepunkt 2015 companion book, 2015. Available here.

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Larp Design for Storymaking

Beatrice of house Polonius from Inside Hamlet; A larp with heavy use of fate play. Photo by John-Paul Bichard, Bichard studios.

Beatrice from “Inside Hamlet”; a larp relying heavily on fate play. (Most of us died.) Photo by John-Paul Bichard, Bichard studios.

In refusing my very first sketch at a scenario for the Stockholm Scenario Festival, Tobias Wrigstad once gave me this advice: “A larp scenario should help players tell stories they wouldn’t be able to tell by themselves.” This is what this post is about.

To be clear: I won’t go into any itty-bitty gritty details on role-play design. Firstly, I am by no means an experienced designer myself. Secondly, to design is to balance a host of design factors, in a complex web of design decisions where all affect each other. Every designer does this differently, guided by his or her own preferences and experiences. Finally, storymaking is just one possible design goal for role-play design. Some role-playing games focus on telling a set story, others on creating good game experiences, and some on creating an alternate world for players to immerse into.

In previous posts, I have discussed why I believe that the stories that are generated by gaming do not just ’emerge’ but are consciously created by players. I have started to sketch why it is that the structures of a design help players in generating stories – by first analysing sport  and then role-playing games. But so far, I have primarily discussed what players do; I haven’t discussed what tools are available to designers to help players engage in storymaking.

First, a bit of theory, again from Bruner’s article ‘Narrative construction of reality’. Narrative is one of the most important ways through which humans make sense of the world – we tell stories about it. Narratives are not true or false: Bruner describes them “a version of reality whose acceptability is governed by convention and ‘narrative necessity’ “. But Bruner makes an even stronger argument: he argues that narrative is an instrument of mind that “operates in the construction of the world”. This makes sense if you accept social constructionism (Burr 2003). It is immediately and obviously true for the collective creative process that constitutes the fictional worlds of role-playing games. Bruner identifies ten different qualities that make narratives into narratives. Most of them are relevant to role-playing games, but I will focus on three that are readily applicable to larp design.

Hermeneutic composability is the requirement that a story must take the form of a text or something equivalent to a text, through which somebody has attempted to express meaning and from which somebody else is trying to extract meaning. As I discussed in my previous post, storymaking in larp is aided by the way players read narrative intent into the actions of others, by interpreting them as invitations to collaboratively tell a story.

The Nordic larp scene has imported meta-techniques from freeform and jeepform scenarios, that primarily are used to support hermeneutic composability. Inner monologues allow players, but not their characters, to hear what a character is thinking. Black-box scenes can be used to play out things that have happened in the past, may happen in the future, or even be dream scenes that never happened. For example, in my recent scenario ‘Revolver’ I used a version of blackboxing where scenes are replayed from the perspectives of different characters. Finally, a great tool is also to just pause the larp for a while. A break lets players re-plan their course of action and re-negotiate their relationships. Finally, while safety words are used primarily to ensure safety (duh), they can also function as meta-communication for negotiating what kind of narrative you are playing towards. I saw this use in ‘Monitor Celestra’, where the in-game swearword ‘Frakk’ was used as a signal that a scene could be escalated. In this usage, the word is not just a safety word but also functions as a signal about what kind of scene you are playing towards. ‘I am inviting you to a particular type of narrative, are you cool with that’.

The concepts of canonicity and breach explain why not all sequences of events are stories worth telling. According to Bruner, as story can only be created when there is a breach of script, where a ‘script’ is what we typically do in a culturally defined situation. An example is going to a restaurant: we know that we will be ordering food, eating and paying and exactly how to do it, and unless something out of the ordinary happens it doesn’t make for a story to be told afterwards. To be worth telling, a tale must be about how a canonical script has been breached, in a way that somehow questions the script. But Bruner also points out that the breaches in turn tend to be highly conventional, they follow narrative conventions and typically describe well-known human plights. Innovative storytellers are marked by their ability to tell stories that subvert the familiar conventions for breaches. In larp design, you cannot assume that your players will be innovative storytellers, but you still expect them to engage in storymaking. This is where Tobias’ advice comes in: ‘A larp scenario should help players tell stories they wouldn’t be able to tell by themselves.’

I think we can identify three main strategies in how larp designers do this. The first is to subvert normality. When larp designers create a fictional society with different norms and social rules, they install social scripts that are alien to the players. When playing along with such scripts, the players experience a breach of normality. Giving players characters, with personality traits and goals that are different from their everyday personality, also subverts normality. Even when these characters live their normal everyday life, it generates a stories for players.

It can be hard for designers to subvert norms that are ambient in our everyday society. A recent report from the larp ‘KoiKoi‘ illustrates this. While the cultural compendium for KoiKoi explicitly instructed players that marriages needed neither be heterosexual nor pairings, the players still ended up in classic heterosexual pairs.

The second strategy is that designers embed story content that push narrative progression in their desired direction. There are a host of more or less explicit ways to do this. Tested and tried methods include presenting players with new information during play (e.g. sending them a letter from a long-lost love), or use non-player characters. Rules regulating fate play (such as telling a player that they should die at a certain time) is also an explicit way to control storymaking. Less explicit strategies include giving characters personal goals to play on, or design characters that, when meeting, are more or less certain to react in certain ways to each other.

And finally, there’s chance. There is always a level of randomness in larp; so much depends on events such as who happens to meet with whom, external factors like weather, how the players inspire each other, etcetera. Every run is a unique event. Hence, designers tend to rather work against chance to make the events a bit more predictable; but chance can also be conciously designed into larp. Staged battles and the lottery of death in Just a Little Lovin are examples of this. As a player in Mare Incognitum, I learned to do basic card reading – which turned out to be a realy useful way to introduce a controllable level of chance into the game. I personally like when there is a bit of chance designed into a larp. Meybe it is when chance intervenes that we as players start to feel that stories truly ’emerge’, that our experiences are unique enough to be worth telling.

Oh well. I am not sure that I’ve been useful to a designers here; actual design is a good deal more complex. Let Tobias’ wise words guide you: Design for storymaking is not about designing stories into larp, it is about helping players to tell stories they wouldn’t be able to tell on their own.

References

Jerome Bruner. The narrative construction of reality. Critical inquiry (1991): 1-21.

Vivien Burr. Social Constructionism. Routledge; 2Rev Ed edition (2003).

John Kim. The three-fold model. http://www.darkshire.net/~jhkim/rpg/theory/threefold/

Your larp sucked – or how to get useful feedback from players

So, I did a little inspirational talk and a follow-up workshop at Knudepunkt 2015. Some people seemed to want to get access to my slides. They are available here.

It’s about things to think about when gathering feedback from players after a larp. Since it may all sound very obvious and simple, I would recommend anyone who want to do it to carry out the exercise at the end of the slides. The devil is, as always, in the detail.

Storymaking in Larp (an overdue post)

Attentive audience

Participants in the October 2014 run of ‘Cabaret’, a larp musical that I was part of designing and staging.

This is a long overdue post; a follow-up to my reflections on storymaking in sport from 2012 (!) and why I don’t believe in emergent narratives in computer games.

Firstly, a recap: I look at emergent narrative as storymaking; as stories that do not just ‘happen’, but that we actively and consciously create from (or during) an experience of events. It is not something that every player is good at or even wants to do, not even in larp. Players engage in different ways in larp just as they do in computer games. In particular, there is an interesting and confusing interplay between storymaking and character immersion, which I’m not attempting to figure out in this post.

Let’s dig a bit deeper into storymaking. It is a learned skill, but it is also something we do in our everyday lives. Narrativists have studied it e.g. by looking into diaries and memoirs. Labov and Waletzky have characterized such stories as characterised by two aspects: “what happened, and why it is worth telling”. Bruner argues that we as humans organize our experiences primarily in the form of narrative – as stories, excuses, myths, and reasons. But again, narratives are constructed; they don’t emerge just because there are real-world events:

“Narratives do not exist, as it were, in some real world, waiting there patiently and eternally to be veridically mirrored in a text. The act of constructing a narrative, moreover, is considerably more than “selecting” events either from real life, from memory, or from fantasy and then placing them in an appropriate order. The events themselves need to be constituted in the light of the overall narrative … to be made “functions” of the story.” (Bruner)

Bruner doesn’t make a clear-cut difference between narrative in thought and in communication. He believes that creating narratives is like a tool that we learn, and that we internalize as part of our thinking about the world. It doesn’t matter if we tell the stories or not; they are still actively created by us even if only in our heads. The latter happens a lot in larp.

Since we have acquired skills for storymaking, designers can build on those skills. There are some popular cultural phenomena that are designed less as embedded stories, and more as fertile grounds for storymaking. Sports and reality TV shows are just two examples. While larp is less mainstream (although this may be a passing phase), it is interesting because it excels in creating structures that support storymaking.

Firstly, the qualities that I listed for sports are present also in larp:

  • Larp events provide a basic story structure (an identifiable beginning, middle and end points)
  • Larp typically provide background material on setting, characters, conflicts, and various groups/factions/cultures
  • Explicit rules for interaction can help to create a dramatic curve
  • Players create their own stories, in which they are the protagonists (the ‘first person audience’ concept)

But larps are more complex than sports. In sports, the storymaking process is unidirectional, based on a sequence of events that play out pretty much irrespectively of the stories people tell. By contrast, larps are collective storymaking machines. Kim has described how it works in table-top role-playing, and the same is pretty much true for larp:

“… an rpg player is acting in two capacities. As author, a player has a conceived story which is his imagination of what his character is thinking, among other things. By speaking and acting, he communicates this conceived story to the other players. As audience, the player also has a perceived story which is his interpretation of the actions of other players, which becomes his imagination of what happens elsewhere in the world.

However, these two stories are constantly interacting. The conceived story will be revised by what is perceived and vice-versa. Indeed, it is questionable whether they should really be considered as separate entities.”

This powerful storymaking process involves both designers and players. Larp designers will create settings, characters and in-larp events that serve to take the developing stories in certain directions. When players sense a story developing, they can individually or collectively decide to take it further. The stories created in a larp affect and steer the larp, while it is being played.

The key to understanding larp as a collective storymaking machine is that we as players read narrative intent into settings and events. If we were just ‘conceiving’ story, we would do what the sports journalists excel at: pick out the events that together well enough to create something worth telling. But when we assume that what is happening is already part of a narrative (somebody – actually a lot of people – are trying to tell stories), we try to figure out the intention behind what is done and said. We use our background knowledge about the narrator to figure out how each piece of information fits into the pattern. We hope to find some kind of consistency in our personal overall narrative as well, so we interpret the pieces we receive from that perspective – sometimes creatively misinterpreting them. It’s a rather confusing puzzle since a larp typically has dozens of stories going on at the same time. We communicate back in the same way, to gradually converge on synchronized if not identical stories – and the larp develops.

It doesn’t always work, of course. The design can help or hinder; the role of design cannot be underestimated (and I do have things to write on that too). Player chemistry is also important: sometimes we do not trust our fellow players enough to engage in collaborative storymaking, and sometimes we play in storylines that are too disparate to coordinate. But when it works, it’s like a dance where we sometimes lead, sometimes follow, every step contributing to our overarching experience.

REFERENCES

Bruner, Jerome. “The narrative construction of reality.” Critical inquiry (1991): 1-21. ()

Labov, William, and Joshua Waletzky. Narrative analysis: Oral versions of personal experience. Journal of narrative & life history, Vol 7(1-4), 1997, 3-38.

Kim, John. Role-playing games as reverse drama and immersive story: A view of role-played drama. In “Beyond Role and Play” 2004.

Brudpris and the power of ‘skav’

brudprisIt seems like I am fated to digest my Solmukohta rant from 2012 many times over. The larps “Just a little Lovin” and “2027” may not have changed the world, but they have certainly taught me a lot about the world and about myself. And now, I have played Brudpris, beautifully designed by Anna Karin Linder Krauklis and Carolina Dahlberg, in this year’s Norwegian run produced by Tor Kjetil Edland and Trine Lise Lindahl, and got another reality check.

Brudpris is quite possibly the most terrifying larp I have ever done. This is a larp about a fictional Nordic honour culture, the ‘Mo’ people who live apart from the rest of society and uphold an oppressive lifestyle. In ‘Mo’ everything hinges on how much honour the ‘patriarch’ (the husband and father) of a household is considered to have; and honour hinges on keeping your own emotions and those of your family under tight control. An excellent report from the larp is available here.

In ‘Mo’, women are considered emotional and dangerous, and must be kept under close control. The household patriarchs hold all power and decide all marriages, never to be looked into the eye by a woman. Women serve, obey, and are regularly beaten. The name of the larp – Brudpris – means ‘the price of the bride’. Patriarchs pay to get their daughters married off, to men who can ‘take responsibility’ for them.

My role in Brudpris was that of a woman anthropologist, who coming from a gender-equal society entered Mo with the aim to understand how the Mo women lived. The anthropologists are primarily written into the larp to provide a mirror for the participants playing Mo people, highlighting the differences between Mo and the world outside. As such, they are rather thin characters with little opportunity for development. Yet, playing Beatrice was a horrifying experience. Starting out as a high-spirited, outspoken and active woman Beatrice became more and more subdued and controlled as the larp progressed. She ended up married off as the third and very slighted wife to a widower. who took responsibility for two unmarried women for money and honour. I have no doubts that Mo would eventually crush her, and that she never would write that spectacular book she was dreaming of writing.

What makes Brudpris a terrifying experience is however not its story, but what happens after playing it. Some larps are fairly easy to shrug off even when they are tough to play. KAPO for example, depicted a horrible and slightly absurd concentration camp that I (as an intern, I need to get back to the guard experience) could shake off quite easily as it had little to do with the life that I – or anyone else in the western world – lives. It was hard to see the KAPO camp as realistic, even when it was. For similar reasons, some characters are possible to shrug off even when they are quite despicable. I had great fun playing a racist anthropologist in Terra Incognita (a Lovecraftian horror larp). While enacting a kind of pre-war racism that I had dug up in antique books, I never for a moment considered myself to be racist.

Brudpris didn’t offer those ways out, as became obvious during the debrief. The first part was kept separate for those who had played women and men. The women started to talk about their backgrounds, how they had played their grandmothers, or how similar their patriarch had been to their own fathers. They told stories of abuse. Among the men, those who had played young boys told stories of guilt, and of how much they had to give up to become men. The patriarchs – at least those played by women – told stories of how vigilant and lonely the oppressor must be. But what only gradually dawned on us – sometimes weeks after – was that it had been all too easy to play Brudpris. That we (who played our everyday gender) found it all too easy to succumb to the destructive Mo culture. This same larp report, written by a man who played a young boy in Brudpris, is a good example. What makes Brudpris so terrifying is not only a ‘bleed‘ experience, but one that has been called “skav” (friction) in Swedish. The feeling of awkwardness in a socially dysfunctional setting, and the discovery that that fictional culture we enter as an alien world is in fact all too similar to our everyday experience.

An it is here I have my only real critique against Brudpris: this experience seems not to be all that accessible to the men who played patriarchs. When I first read their post-game reflections, I was struck by their intense desire and ability to distance themselves from their roles. They had a tough experience enacting oppressors, wrote about how horrible their roles were, and how they hated them. There is a distinct difference between these stories and the story told by a person playing the even more abhorrent role of a guard in KAPO. The KAPO guard tells a harrowing story of how easy it was to become a torturer, how it became routine, and how difficult it was for him to acknowledge this as a side of himself. Seen in this light, the patriarchs in Brudpris had it easy.

I have one possible idea about why this happened. In the pre-game instructions for the larp, the men playing patriarchs were instructed to take a great deal of off-game responsibility for the people playing in their families. As a result, they tended to organize also the off-game discussions and decide when and where they would happen. Essentially, they played patriarchs also off game, albeit of a benevolent character. These roles came easy to them and were accepted by their families, the groups were enacting well-known frames of social interaction from our everyday world. I do not believe that these men recognized their off-game roles as benevolent patriarchs.

Myself, I wrote this as my farewell to my stupid, smart, Beatrice:
“What made it so easy for you to go native? Where did that body language come from, so different from your own? You didn’t have it in you. You are brought up in an equal society, you are used to foreign cultures, you are already a recognized academic. You wouldn’t know how to bend your head or knee.
It came from the teenage girl who wouldn’t ask a boy to dance. Who felt awkward if she laughed too loud or talked too much. Who never could tell a boy that she was in love; since he should be the one to ask. Who could not show her sexual desires for fear of being a slut. It came from the twenty-four year old who fell in love with a man because he was much older and seemed to be able to support her – and fell out of love two years later, when it was clear to her that the support went the other way. It came from me.
I learned to stand on my own and I carried out my career in a male-dominated environment. I am a professional project leader, manager, teacher, and mentor. I found a man who needed not carry me and neither I him, and our relationship is equal. I laugh, I swear, and I dance with whom I want.
And yet, that alluring lack of responsibility for my choices, that wish to be carried, that fear of talking and laughing too much, all resurfaced in you and moved you to give up everything. I wish it all had come from you – because I certainly didn’t want to find that in me. I’m sorry.”

A Knutepunkt 2013 report

The Knutepunkt bird burned as an ending ritual.

The Knutepunkt phoenix, in flames during the ending ritual.

This year, I started Knutepunkt in Oslo to speak at the Nordic larp talks. My presentation was the last and shortest one, and I talked about how to study larp. As most previous articles (including those I have co-authored) make this sound almost impossible, my aim was to give a few useful hints that make the task manageable. (I am not particularly proud of the presentation, by the way. Since I always go overtime, I had prepared a script. But as I am not used to speaking from a script I didn’t manage to use it, and ended up desperately chasing my notes. Did I already say this? Oh, I missed that! I think I managed to say about half of what I had planned to say.)

Of this year’s Nordic larp talks, I would recommend Stefan Deutsch’s presentation of serious educational larps. Very interesting and thought-provoking. And of course, Jaakko Stenros’ presentation of a definition of Nordic larp is a must-see.  (Actually, he gave us two definitions.) His presentation is smart and true, but don’t expect simple and easy to use definitions from a die-hard academic like Jaakko.

Next, off to Knutepunkt, situated at a gorgeus Norwegian fjord. I find it harder to summarize Knutepunkt this time than last year. The main reason is that I tried to stay off the beaten track: I skipped the rants to play a small larp (“Autumn of life” by Tomas Mørkrid, a small gem), and I skipped several high-profile workshops and talks of which I have seen previous incarnations. No doubt all of them were worth attending more than once, but I wanted to see things that were new to me. In this vein, I attended a workshop on writing larp Russian style, the costume larp panel, and chaired the panel on political larp.

The larp of the year was without doubt the Monitor Celestra. Johanna Koljonen organised a whole afternoon session discussing the production, with panellists ranging from the designers and producers, over players to game academics who also had played in the larp. In all, I think the session managed to capture both the truly awesome ambitions and achievements of the production, as well as its problems and shortcomings. The only thing the session missed was to discuss why we came to expect so much of the Celestra production. The marketing hype of Celestra was a double-edged sword, which at the same time managed to draw a lot of attention and participants from all over the globe, and raised expectations to a level that is almost impossible to meet. Despite all its production value and the professional experience of most of the crew, Celestra was still a volunteer production with few of the organisers lifting any sort of salary. I am deeply grateful that I had a chance to play Celestra, it is a memory that will live with me for years to come – but I have had stronger larp experiences from much less ambitious productions.

For me, the highlight presentation was again Eirik Fatland, this time talking about how to design characters for larp. (Seriously Eirik, you have to write a book on larp design!) Right after the talk, there was a character design workshop that I most fortunately was thrown out of for lack of space. The six of us that did not get in teamed up, occupied a cottage and sat down to read and de-construct character descriptions from four different larps (material that had been handed out for the workshop that we missed). This analysis exercise was really useful (thanks to you all that participated), and judging from reports by those who attended, more of a workshop than the real one. (And I spent most of the train ride back from Knutepunkt designing a larp together with some other Knutepunkt participants. It might even materialise sometime in the future…)

I also enjoyed chairing the political larp panel. The panel consisted of larp designers that all have designed larps with clear political agendas. It started a bit mellow, but heated up when the audience got involved both with asking challenging questions and answering them. I want to direct a particular thanks to Teresa Axner who was not on the panel, but still contributed with very interesting experiences from ‘LajvVerkstaden’, and the educational larp they stage in Swedish schools. ‘We teach the ethical agenda about democracy and equality that is written into the Swedish school curriculum. We might just be a bit more thorough in doing so.” Kudos!

On a sad note, this years’ Knutepunkt might become remembered as the year of the harassment scandal. It was a bad story that I don’t care to recount, but I think that it also was a sobering moment for the community. (And luckily, I have yet to get laid at Knutepunkt.)

Can Larp Change the World? 2027- a larp that tried

This is a long version of the text that I wrote together with Peter Munthe-Kaas for ‘Crossing Habitual Borders’ – one of the books for Knutepunkt 2013.

Read more…

Just a little lovin’, and techniques for telling stories in larp

The poster for ‘Just a little lovin’.

I am trying to gather my thoughts after participating in the art larp “Just a Little Lovin” (or JALL for short), designed by Tor Kjetil Edland and Hanne Grasmo. The larp was first staged last summer in Norway, and was now re-staged in Sweden in collaboration with Miriam Lundqvist, Anna-Karin Linder and Petter Karlsson trough LajvVerkstaden. Reports from other players are gradually coming up on-line: I recommend in particular Elin Dahlståls report for a comprehensive and accurate description of the larp design and its game mechanics, and Mikolaj Habryn‘s report of a first-time larpers experience of this quite hard-core Nordic larp – larps that designed to move you at a personal level rather than to be fun. Also, Nathan Hook has written a light-weight review of the techniques used in the game, especially concerning sex simulation techniques.

The Nordic larp genre differs from most other forms of larp in its focus on immersion (in role and world) and storytelling. You cannot game a Nordic larp because there is nothing to win. Whereas ten years ago the genre was dominated by a strive towards complete and realistic simulation, the last ten years have seen an increased focus on various ‘meta techniques’ – here we could call them game mechanics. Some meta techniques are primarily about safety – techniques for simulating violence and sex as well as the safety words for pausing play belong to this category. Some of them focus on the development of story, and this is where I would like to focus this post, because I think that “Just a Little Lovin” provided the best storytelling mechanics that I have so far seen in a larp of this genre.

From a storytelling perspective, the goal of larp  is to make every single character the protagonist of his or her own story. To make this work, players must  collaborate by getting involved as support characters for each other. You will constantly present invitations to plot openings and play on the invitations of others; you will be playing out several stories at once and so will your co-players. In practice, this becomes unmanageable unless you have some game mechanics to help you. JALL used four main techniques to support this: inner monologues, black box scenes, act breaks, and an element of randomness. In addition, many players made up individual or collective goals for the dramatic curve of their storyline. For example, I had decided in advance that my character would emerge from the larp as a stronger and less conflicted person (unless she died), no matter what she went through during the larp. My core group decided to play on the theme of children (I had two fictional children in-game, with different fathers and no functioning relationship with either father), going from a custody conflict towards a rainbow star family. Hence, we added an element of fate play into the game – we did not know exactly how to get there, but we knew where we wanted to take our story from start.

Inner monologues: These are thoughts that a character says out loud, in-game, to let your fellow players know your feelings, plans, or thoughts without communicating it to their characters. Inner monologues provide great opportunities for plot openings and story development, but they need a game mechanic so that players know when something is a monologue rather than something the character says. In JALL, the inner monologues were part of the sex simulation – if your character had sex with another character, the scene should end with the two characters side by side both speaking their thoughts. Personally, I think this might have been the story development technique that worked the least well. Sometimes, these inner monologues indeed became very intense and emotional, but since they were compulsory they very often just became reflections on how good/bad the sex had been. Furthermore, the monologues were usually only heard by a few people (often only one sex partner), it was impossible to share an inner monologue with a character you could not share a sex scene with, and some players preferred to play out pillow talk post-sex rather than inner monologues. I think the game would have benefitted from an additional form for inner monologues that players could initiate at will.

Black box scenes: Black box scenes are scenes played out outside of the time and place of the ongoing event. They are often used to play out scenes in the past or the possible future of the characters, they can be dream scenes or abstract scenes representing a mood or emotion. In JALL, there was a room reserved for blackboxing, but players could just go offside to play out a black-box scene anywhere, and players could do them on their own or recruit an organizer to help direct the scene. We also did some blackboxing before the larp and in act breaks. The black box scenes became really popular in JALL, to the extent that the organizers started to recommend players to consider playing out more of this content in-larp. I played about four blackbox scenes in-larp, which is more than I have ever done before, and found them extremely useful. In particular, they helped my core group develop their parental relationship to each other and to the (non-present) children. On one occasion, we recruited help from a co-player to act as the teacher of the oldest son, and her confusion when three parents turned up for the teacher meeting. It was funny, but became very uncomfortable when she started to talk about how our son did not respect the personal border of the other children…

Act breaks: One of the most important story development method used in JALL. The larp lasted for three days, but the larp was broken off at eleven o’clock each day for a round of debriefing, ‘world’ briefing for the next act (as it played out a year later), and work-shopping to develop new relationships and plan out the core group goals for the next act. (The next act would then start at five in the afternoon the same day.) I found it very hard to break game after the first day of play, but it worked better the second time. The act breaks were crucial in order to develop new stories and groups, and to get a story back on-track that had been going in a unproductive direction. Some players would change characters between acts (especially those who’s characters had died), or re-design their character a bit. In my case, I used the act breaks primarily to develop secondary relationships. When the larp started we had two main contact networks: the core group (me and the two ex-boyfriends) and a social circle. My social circle had basically no play at all during the first act. For the second act, we reshaped the social circle a bit and I also got a tiny link into a second circle. In the third act we decided to dissolve it altogether, and I changed to a new circle ‘the aids prevention campaign’ which worked much better. Also, my core group got together to plan out when to play out our main story arch. We also had debrief sessions in larger groups to see that everyone was feeling (reasonably) well and having a good play experience. In my debrief group, there was one player who definitely didn’t. We helped him to reshape the character and his social relationships, and he ended up having a much better play situation in the last act.

Randomness: JALL was a larp about love, desire, and living in the shadow of death. Whereas the techniques for simulating kissing and having sex were central to play on love and desire, the risk of dying was simulated by a lottery. Any character could get infected by HIV, ill in aids or cancer, or die. Each morning, we played out a very emotional meta-scene (as all participated, it can hardly be called a blackbox scene) called ‘lottery of death’. It was conducted by two angels in black costumes, who handed out lottery tickets. Depending on your risk level, you put one to five tickets with your name on into the lottery. Ten people were called, who went off to the black box to get their sentence: maybe they had a false call and were well, maybe they got infected or ill in cancer – or maybe they died. These scenes were among the most emotional in the game. Those who were not called up waited silently, and we were then called to the chapel for a funeral ceremony that was the end of the current act. On our way there, we would be met by those who had been called away but allowed to come back, and together we would go up to the chapel to say farewell to those who did not. The lottery of death came very close to almost everyone in the larp, and in my case it became the device that shaped my character’s story arch throughout. One of my character’s former boyfriends (the one she was still in love with) was called up already in the first lottery but came back. I cried the whole time while waiting, and when I ran up to meet him (together with all the other women that loved him – he was not particularly monogamous) he was strangely distant. The year after, he was called up again and when I walked towards the chapel I soon understood that he was not among those who met us. I collapsed in a hug with his most permanent girlfriend, and while she started crying I let out a scream that I know not where I got – it was a sound I have never heard from myself before. For me, the last act became entirely centred on mourning someone I’d lost twice and had no real right to mourn – a deep and complex emotion and a great story arch.

Fate play: Fate play means that you have some sort of pre-planned story development for a character or a group of characters. JALL used a tiny bit of fate play in the pre-set story arch, as it was played out over three years and certain events were scripted into those years. During the first year, aids was still largely unknown and we were just partying wildly. During the second year, people had started to die (only one in-game character), and we understood that many more were infected although we did not know how it spread nor how to prevent it from spreading. This year was played on fear and paranoia. During the third year, the HIV test had been discovered and we also knew it could be prevented by using condoms, but it was still a death sentence to get infected. As many had died and even more were ill,  the story became focussed on comforting each other and overcoming loss. It was up to us as individual players to use this story content. For example, since my former boyfriend had died from aids I decided I had fairly high risk between the second and third act (I still escaped in the lottery of death) and I also decided to take the HIV test in a very uncomfortable blackbox scene (negative, phew!). Secondly, I got involved in aids prevention (and as a consequence, handled more condoms than I probably have done in my entire life before). I have also mentioned that my core group planned out a story arch concerning parenting. When one of the guys got infected after the first act, we decided to speed it up so that it would be completed during act two, as he most likely would be either dead or seriously ill during act three.

In all, the level of rich and complex storytelling that went on in JALL was amazing. Almost all players have stories similar to mine, or even more powerful. The characters became rich and complex, far from any stereotypes, even though most of us had spent rather little time preparing them prior to the larp. Our relationships were equally complex and varied, ranging from uncomplicated or conflicted friendships, over the loving jealousy between myself and my former boyfriends true love, to intense passion.

Finally, our individual stories were put in context. After the larp, we had yet a ‘world brief’, this time with  a queer activist, an aids activist and a HIV-positive participant who told us about the status of alternative lifestyles, aids prevention in the world today, and the life as HIV positive. Larp is primarily a personal experience and a collective ritual, but by this world brief our personal experiences were put in context and politically and ethically framed. I believe that in particular the queer movement gained many new members this day – many of us straight. Through this framing, JALL succeeded to bee not just an artsy larp but also a persuasive game. This was probably my best larp experience ever – heartbreaking, mind-opening, and life-changing. Larps may not change the world directly, but they can surely change people.

Summarizing Solmukohta 2012

As usual, Solmukohta was absolutely draining: late nights, intense discussions, at least three parallel sessions you want to go to, both formal and informal parties, and a bar that closes way too late tend to have that effect. I’ve lost track of how many Knutpunkt conferences I’ve been to, but I still end up trying to do too much, and feeling that I’ve missed most of it.

The international presence at the conference is increasing, again. This year it actually became an issue, as the  sign-up filled up so fast that many of the regulars came to late to it. (Luckily, everyone on the waiting list was eventually able to get in.) I think that the number of U.S. participants was what surprised me the most. I was particularly happy to see the practitioners – Apparently Markus Montola and Jaakko Stenros have done a very good job of marketing ‘Nordic larp’ to the U.S. tabletop community. I also had a fantastic time talking to the visitors from Belarus – in particular the couple with the most complacent one-year old I have ever met. I believe that a childhood which includes seeing your parents sometimes turn into zombies and gorillas – together with thirty other laughing grownups – must be a pretty good one.

The number of academic participants is also on the rise. Apart from the regular suspects, I shared room with Torill Mortensen (who was moderately impressed by the artistic aspirations of the community – a sentiment I sort of share) and had a brief chat with Sarah Lynne Bowman.  This does not mean that the conference itself is getting academic – the presentations are dominated by discussions, opinions, rants and creative ideas but very little results in an academic sense of the word. Which probably is a good thing.

As with GDC, certain productions get more attention than others. This year, these were ‘KAPO‘ – the prison larp I already played in, and ‘Just a little lovin’ which I have signed up to play when it’s restaged in Stockholm later this year. As both were productions that evoked very strong emotional experiences for at least some of their players, this is not so surprising. Many of those players were at Solmukohta, still in the process of creating their own stories. It wasn’t hard to spot who was who, though: while the ’just a little lovin’ players met hugging and touching, the KAPO players crouched in the corridoors in their black hoodies with prison numbers on the back… Both games featured prominently in this year’s bleed panel – this time focussed on safety measures and potential dangers. I left the panel with a feeling that the Nordic larp community likes thinking about these productions as being psychologically challenging and life-changing – perhaps more dangerous than they actually are. As Karl Bergström adequately pointed out afterwards: larp is likely to kill someone sooner than it will make someone catatonic.

What were my highlights, then? For me, Solmukohta is more about the in-depth discussions that happen in the lobby than the actual sessions. Still, I was impressed by Eirik Fatland’s presentation on ’fundamentals on larp design’. Being a larper schooled in interaction design, Eirik has applied theory from the latter to larp, outlining a middle level theory that might become a ’larp grammar’ of sorts. This is a text I want to read and cite – Eirik please write it!! I also truly enjoyed the 20-20 vision session organized by Johanna McDonald. The session was made up of five seasoned designers, using 20 minutes and 20 slides each to present a vision for what larps could become. The fact that these were positive and visionary contributions made the session particularly interesting – this in comparison to the hour of ”rants” that I participated in myself, that also was good but a bit less productive. I enjoyed becoming a tiny piece of the puzzle that will make up ’the spiral’ – and soon, you will know what that is – I learned more about pre-game workshops from Peter Munthe-Kaas, and about character creation from Tor Kjetil Edland and Trine Lise Lindahl.

As usual, I left Solmukohta with my mind made up to contribute to next years’ book – I had at least two or three ideas on what to write. In the end, I typically end up missing all such deadlines – let’s see if I can meet them next time!

Solmukohta 2012 – My rant about why larps may not change the world

Arrived at Solmukohta, I immediately got fired up by the larp correspondant to Gamification: The everpresent idea that Larp Can Change The World that formed the theme of the keynote speech by Mike Pohjola. So I wrote and delivered a rant. (I wrote it while listening to Eirik Fatland’s excellent presentation on the fundamentals of larp design – sorry Eirik for typing away during your presentation!)

“I want to rant about one of the most recent and most popular dogmas in larpdom – in fact, it was the opening talk of Solmukohta this year:

“LARPS CAN CHANGE THE WORLD”

I am afraid that this isn’t much more than a convenient excuse for us to feel good about our hobby. I seriously doubt that larps can change the world, and they very definitely don’t do it as they look today.

Most scenarios we design have no power to question anything; rather, they reinforce and emphasise the societal structures that we know from our daily lives, from literature or from history books. Fantasy larps play in societies with feudal structures, racism and rampant hegemony; second world war larps in military settings with set hierarchies, bullying and violence. The reason why this happens is not laziness, it is because these structures are recognizable – they tell people what to do in the larp. Ursula LeGuin faced this problem when trying to write feminist fantasy, and she described is as ’having to walk the untrodden path’. Well, in a larp, it is even harder – because you will have to make all your players collectively walk this untrodden path. So it is no surprise that we stay with these well-known worlds. If you wanna make another ’between sky and sea’, expect to have to train your players in pre-game workshops for a year.

Well, we can still question them, can’t we? We certainly do – I played in KAPO, a game that aimed to re-create the experience of losing your humanity to the system. Nobody goes out of that experience without questioning such systems. But very often we just go out of the larp thinking ’Well we are SO lucky not living in THAT kind of society!’

Furthermore, even if we play a larp that questions structures in our contemporary society, we cannot change the world by just questioning it – we need to also construct the alternatives. And constructing the alternatives in LARP settings is not only hard, it very rarely happens. I don’t think that we ever play alternative utopian societies in Larp settings – a world without conflict is simply too boring.

Can larp change people, then? Can larp change the world one person at a time? Well, yes. I do believe that a good larp can challenge our perspective of the world and allow us to reflect on ourselves. But it happens much more rarely – and may be more shallow- than we’d like to think. When did you see the school bully play a low status role? In the larp, he’ll almost always be a high-ranked soldier or the larp might just break down. When did you last see a beautiful young girl play an old hag? In most scenarios, she’ll be cast as a princess and dressed up in clothes that makes her even more beautiful.

Finally, even if larp did all of this: if we learned to question, enacted the alternative, or learned to understand ourselves, how would this change society? Society doesn’t consist of individuals but is a structure. It is changed by politics and activism on the streets, and not by hiding in a forest or castle larping. And sorry to say, even when larping takes to the streets – in the kinds of larps that I have  both helped stage and studied –  it does not really become a sustainable form of activism. I still entertain a hope that it can, but I have yet to see it happen.

Dear larpdom – don’t fall into the ’gamification’ trap! Face facts – most lapers don’t go to larps to learn. We go to have a great experience! Truth is, most larpers go to larp to have fun – sometimes by crying our eyes out, but it’s still for fun. You may even call it a ’pasttime’ or a form of ’entertainment’.  So if you want larps to change the world, evenif it is  one player at a time, this is what you have to work with – and against.”

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