Posted by: NiTessine | February 21, 2015

In the State of Denmark: Knudepunkt 2015, Part the Second

Read the first part here. Or just scroll down, or something. It’s not hard to find, it’s literally the previous post.

On Thursday, we piled into a succession of buses and headed out.

The actual Knudepunkt 2015 was held in the town of Ringe, where the town’s schools and leisure centre had been commandeered for the use of larpers. I slept on a classroom floor, the cheapest rung of accommodations, but it came complete with a mattress and all the stuff I needed to sleep like a grown-up, which was convenient. I have, in the past few years, discovered that I am no longer young and spry enough to go around sleeping on bare floors and expecting to be a functional human being the following day.

The venue was functional, but having stuff spread out across three different addresses, with my accommodations in yet fourth, did mean a fair bit of walking. There were three meals a day at the leisure centre, of which the first I managed to miss on both Friday and Saturday. I must admit that I am not a morning person. The ones I did not miss were edible but nothing to write home about (so I’m writing the whole of the internet). Good thing I am omnivorous, since the catering company wasn’t apparently entirely on the ball with special diets, nothing was labelled and Thursday’s vegetarian option looked like a bowl of sadness. General dissatisfaction about the provisions reached the point that one enterprising fellow negotiated us a small pizza delivery on Sunday morning.

Anyway. It being a conference, there were talks! As an ostensible newbie, I opted to follow the four-item Fundamentals track to begin with, which covered the “Knudepunkt scene”, larp theory, major larps in the tradition, and finally design. As I kinda predicted, there wasn’t much new in them for me except for the last one. I’ve been following along with interest for several years, but I have not considered larp from a design angle. The design lecture, given by Eirik Fatland, will at some point be available online. I will edit it here once I see it posted, for it was good and interesting, and enough full of information that at least I could not take it in all at once.

The first lecture ran us through what the conference is about, where it came from, who are doing it and what are the key things currently being talked about. Some of these are theory, like the concept of “bleed“, emotions leaking from player to character (“Here’s an ex you had a really difficult break-up with. Your character is her supportive friend.”) or vice versa (“Over the past eight hours, your character saw everything they cared for cruelly destroyed. Try and smile after the game.”). While it’s probably unavoidable in any circumstance the game manages to pluck a player’s emotional strings, there is apparently some controversy over the topic.Another big thing at the moment is larp tourism and going mainstream. The flagship for both is of course College of Wizardry, the Harry Potter larp to end all Harry Potter larps that you probably heard about at some point late last year. Incidentally, their IndieGoGo for next November’s games is going live on the 28th, for $375 a ticket. I am giving this serious thought. Good thing I like ramen. They’re apparently also coming out with Fairweather Manor, a Downton Abbey -inspired game.

Incidentally, replayable larps is another big thing. As the lecturer put it: “The question nowadays isn’t going to be ‘did you play?’, but ‘which run did you play?'”Also of note is the scene’s generally heightened awareness of the discourse on gender, sexuality and diversity.The theory talk was given by Jaakko “Žižek of Larp” Stenros, who also taught me some years ago. Therefore, it isn’t entirely surprising the material was familiar to me. I’ve also discussed most of the stuff in my original posts on the lecture course back in 2009 – magic circle, 360° illusion, diegesis, etc. – and won’t revisit those here. Of course there was some newer material from places like Markus Montola’s PhD thesis, but, overall here the benefit was having the same content delivered in a new package, sometimes rephrased and with fresh examples.

Then there was the key works lecture by Joc Koljonen, where I basically came away with the feeling of being well-read and knowing the meaning of the word “kapo” (a collaborator or ‘trusted prisoner’ in a concentration camp). It contained a number of examples from Nordic Larp, as well as the later examples of the Battlestar Galactica larp Monitor Celestra; the prison camp larp that drives me to drink every time I hear about it Kapo (there’s a book you can download from Rollespilsakademiet); the Finnish-Palestinian collaboration Halat hisar (or “State of Siege”; book downloadable from the Society for Nordic Roleplaying); and, of course, College of Wizardry (Book upcoming – oh, I forgot, the first lecture also covered documentation. Big on documentation, the scene is.), all of which I’ve had players gush at me after the fact and making me feel sorry I wasn’t there. Well, except Kapo. I’m feeling pretty good about that.

Finally, there was Eirik Fatland’s design lecture, delivered as a history of larp design thought, with the strengths and weaknesses of different approaches. I will not try to summarize it, since there will be video forthcoming and I will look like an utter tit if I get it wrong. One concept that did stick, though, was “brute-force larp design”, an older way of writing larps, where the solution to creating content was usually to have two conflicting hierarchies (orcs vs. elves) and basically throw as much plot as possible at the players and hope some of it sticks. The weakness of this is that it easily leads to the elf king getting all the limelight, and if one of the conflicting hierarchies, say, succeeds and wipes out the other one before the game is supposed to end, you’ll end up with one group of players whose characters are dead and another whose raison d’être was just removed. One solution, originally written by Fatland himself, was the fateplay system, where it’s decreed beforehand that, say, an assassin bumps off the elf king on the second day of the larp, and this is written into both of their characters, and it’s the players’ job to make it as dramatic as possible.

Okay, I’m not gonna summarize any more of it.

Another thing we tried to go see but was full by the time we got there was a talk on debriefs. Instead, we sat around a table outside the classroom and talked, which was probably at least as fruitful as the talk would have been. I got some food for thought on the use of music, specifically singing, in games. It’s a topic I’ve pondered previously, as drinking songs are a bit of a hobby that I have and sometimes crossing the streams is exactly the thing to do, especially when both streams are, above all, participatory forms of self-expression. This may shape itself into a blog post, or a convention workshop, or an article, or something, at some point. An entire game, if I can ever figure out the core mechanic for Rather Than Well…

This, really, is the core of what I took away from Knudepunkt. Talks and lectures are all good and well, but it is such a tight-knit community that discussion and conversation are where the meat of it lies. I spent a long week putting faces to names I’ve seen in articles and blog posts and in my friends’ Facebook comments. Friendships were made. There were parties. At the Finnish party, we sang Finnish schlager that we would not be caught dead singing in another situation, at the top of our lungs. There was a Portuguese chorizo-burning ritual at midnight, complete with chanting. There was a second-hand RPG vendor who sold me Toon. On the final night, there was a party on the theme of the Seven Deadly Sins and Four Heavenly Virtues, with hotspots around the leisure centre for each of them.

My favourite, I must admit, was Envy, which was a window to the bar, where Gluttony and Lust were. It was lit green. At one point during the evening, it was also the place for the Swedish socialist song workshop, which I am not certain was intended but was deeply ironic.Also, each of the four Nordic countries had produced a short comedy sketch show, Knudepunkt TV. If you click no other thing on this post, click this one.

Next Year

So, next year, Finland. Well, at least some of the time. The Week in Finland is going to be precisely that, but the conference venue itself is going to be all over the place. If things go according to plan, we’re on a boat, one of the massive floating hotels and shopping centres that ferry people between Helsinki and Stockholm. It ought to be pretty awesome. See you there.

The annual larp convention Knudepunkt is an odd duck among gaming conventions. It has no single set location, but rotates between Denmark, Finland, Norway and Sweden. It is not a large event, as far as these things go, usually averaging a few hundred attendees. This year broke the record at high five hundreds. Knudepunkt is the cradle of the Nordic larp tradition, the often surprising, sometimes harrowing, usually ambitious and never boring collection of styles of design and play that developed here. For a crash course, check out the book Nordic Larp.

A note on the name: it’s called Knudepunkt when it’s in Denmark, Knutepunkt when in Norway, Knutpunkt in Sweden, and Solmukohta in Finland. Spot the non-Indo-European language. These all mean the same thing, “nodal point”. I’ll be using Knudepunkt throughout this post to refer collectively to all the conventions.

For me, this was my first Knudepunkt. I figured that if I am to edit books for next year’s event, it would probably behove me to find out what the event is like. Immerse myself in the atmosphere, so to speak. Also, I like cons. This one was no exception.

Traditionally, the event itself is preceded by a week of other related stuff in the local capital, where there are larps, parties, local culture and other attractions and distractions. Our team hit Copenhagen on Sunday the 8th of February, so we missed some of the initial stuff like the Black Box Horsens larp con (you know you’re dealing with a serious convention when the run-up to the con includes another con).

I attended a bus tour, the Knudepunkt book release, and the Nordic Larp Talks. I also did a lot of touristy stuff like shoring up the economic prospects of Copenhagen’s bookshops in a bibliophiliac spree that left my luggage at a whopping 300 grams under the airline’s weight limit and taking a guided tour through Christiania, which is a fairly interesting place but probably best discussed elsewhere. Also, I did a lot of hanging out at the Bastard Café, which was the ground zero of A Week in Denmark.

 

The Bus Tour

On Tuesday, we loaded ourselves aboard a bus and hit a sequence of interesting targets in Copenhagen and the vicinity.

The first of these was the HQ of Iron Fortress. They’re a Danish company that manufactures professional-quality larp gear for larpers – latex weaponry, armour in both leather and metal, all sorts of garb, makeup materials, even latex tankards for when you absolutely have to flip the table and conk your drinking buddy on the head. And man, they look good.

The Iron Fortress lobby is well protected. Photograph © Jukka Särkijärvi.

The Iron Fortress lobby is well protected. Photograph © Jukka Särkijärvi.

Moreover, they are affordable. The company doesn’t do direct consumer sales, so I am now idly browsing through the selection at Faraos Cigarer, a Copenhagen gaming and comics store (the finest of its kind in the Nordic countries, I believe), just waiting for an excuse to splurge and start purchasing bits of platemail.

It was an eye-opening experience. I did not know there was enough of a market for this kind of thing to make it economically feasible to produce, but apparently and fortunately I was mistaken. No retailer in Finland, to my knowledge, stocks their products. Of course, there is a very strong DIY element in the larp scene and many people enjoy making their own gear, especially since it is, in the end, often cheaper.

A hundred marks to buy them all
One day to wind them
Three weeks to cut them all
And into a chain coif bind them
Ilkka Puusaari, Larppaajan käsikirja

The dragon is not alone. Photograph © Jukka Särkijärvi

The dragon is not alone. Photograph © Jukka Särkijärvi

Their range is also pretty wide, and in addition to fantasy there’s stuff like postapocalyptic/modern gear, like latex baseball bats, lead pipes and wrenches. In addition to latex, which is in the end more for looks than realism, they also make (or are putting into production, I do not recall) another weapon range more suitable for full-force combat. It is apparently a thing in Canada. I would like to say that the term for such games is HARP, but because of obvious reasons, it is remarkably resistant to googling. I tested a sword, and they will cause bruising. Wearing armour is advised.

Completely out of the left field, they also do a zombie run type event called Zombie Løbet.

After Iron Fortress, we headed out to the town of Roskilde, where we hit a local game store called Fanatic, where we could buy the stuff we had just spent an hour drooling over.

I like swords. Photograph © Jukka Särkijärvi.

I like swords. Photograph © Jukka Särkijärvi.

One thing I noticed in my tour of the store, as well as the brick-and-mortar Faraos Cigarer in Copenhagen was that the Danes don’t seem to produce much in the way of tabletop RPGs, which is a marked contrast with the Finnish scene. Even the otherwise ridiculously well-stocked Faraos Cigarer did not carry more than a few. The one I ended up buying as the requisite addition to my collection of games in weirdass languages was a 90s thing called Fusion. Very pretty.

After that, we hit the Rollespilsfabrikken villa in Copenhagen. Rollespilsfabrikken is the biggest Danish larp organization, and since they do valuable work in keeping the youth of Denmark busy with role-playing games, they are subsidized by the powers that be. Like, by renting them this villa that the city of Copenhagen had lying around. It’s 376 m2, too. I am feeling moderately envious here. Our clubs have club rooms. They have a club villa.

The villa was appropriately decorated. Lord Croak, made for a Warhammer larp several years ago. Photograph © Jukka Särkijärvi.

The villa was appropriately decorated. Lord Croak, made for a Warhammer larp several years ago. Photograph © Jukka Särkijärvi.

Rollespilsfabrikken was followed by Rollespilsakademiet, the place where they try to make money at this thing. It’s also the outfit that they publish books through, and most relevant to non-Danes, their website is to my knowledge the only location where you can download all the Knudepunkt books from the same place, including The Book, which was for a long time unavailable and elusive. They also have a load of other books available, mostly larp documentation. They make for fascinating reading, showcasing the Nordic larp tradition. Many also have beautiful photography.

Following the final stop of our tour was the release party for the 2015 Knudepunkt books. The release happened without much fanfare, and Claus Raasted repeated most of what he said there at next day’s Nordic Larp Talks.

The Nordic Larp Talks

Another tradition of Knudepunkt is the Nordic Larp Talks, a series of short speeches or presentations about larp and related topics. The event was held at the Copenhagen main library the day before Knudepunkt itself started. I am not going to describe the content of the talks themselves because they were streamed online and you can go check them out yourself. For what it’s worth, I found Ann Kristine Eriksen’s, Massi Hannula’s, Eleanor Saitta’s and Evan Torner’s talks of special interest, though they were all good. There’s also Claus Raasted’s very short book presentation, and he’s always entertaining. (He’s also the guy who did the narration on that archery video that you probably saw recently. If the professional larp organizing thing folds, he’ll always have a future as a voiceover artist.)

After the talks, we adjourned to Bastard Café for board games and beer. The next day, Knudepunkt 2015 would begin.

Posted by: NiTessine | January 22, 2015

Some New Releases of Interest, News, Conventions

It has been a while, but it is not because I’ve vanished off the face of gaming. It’s at least in part because I have been writing elsewhere. One of these elsewheres is the International Journal of Role-Playing, whose fifth issue just came out and has a couple of pages of Mika Loponen and I giving the 2012 history book Playing at the World a very critical look.

Our dynamic duo is also responsible for editing the book for released for next year’s Solmukohta (or Knutepunkt/Knutpunkt/Knudepunkt) larp conference. That rabbit hole got really deep really fast. It is traditional for the larp conference to publish one or more books for the convention. These are collections of articles about what the Nordic larp scene has been up to in the past year, ranging from academic papers to photoessays.

This year’s Knudepunkt is going to be in Denmark next month, and the first one of their two books came out recently, the Nordic Larp Yearbook 2014, which takes the concept of Nordic Larp and limits it to material just from the past year.

On the convention front, the Finnish flagship RPG convention Ropecon is moving this year from its customary late summer location to May 15th-17th, due to Dipoli’s renovations. There is no word as yet about 2016, though people are hard at work on it already. For this year, the theme of the convention is Journey, the call for programming has gone out, and Michelle Nephew has been announced as the first guest of honour!

After Ropecon, June 25th-28th, we have the science fiction convention Archipelacon, in Mariehamn. It’s a small-scale, understated affair of only about 800 guests, and like its predecessor Åcon, the guests of honour are little-known up-and-coming authors who can use the exposure, like George R.R. Martin, Johanna Sinisalo and Karin Tidbeck.

Finally, there’s going to be Tracon, September 5th-6th, which will have some gaming stuff as usual and I’ll be present, but at this point things are still up in the air so there’s nothing specific to tell.

And even more finally, there’s the one where I’ll be doing more than just talking or running games, Tracon Hit Point. We don’t know when (late 2015)! We don’t know where (Tampere)! We do know it’s going to be awesome, and there will be more information once we have managed to generate it!

As I mentioned last year when I first larped, someone had floated the idea that in order to get me to try larping, they would draft Juhana Pettersson to kidnap me in a van and drive me to Ysaria III.

The thing about that is that it’s what we call a credible threat. This is the man who wrote an article titled “The Joy of Kidnapping” for State of Play. I have played with him, and he’s good at projecting an aura of quiet menace. Opposing the stick of Juhana, there was the carrot that all people named Jukka received a discount on the game fee.

Sensing that there was no way out of this, I resigned to my fate, received my character (a total of 18 pages of documentation), and found myself last Friday sitting in a completely different van with a rottweiler on my lap, headed to the west coast of Finland, in a state of mounting terror.

To get into the proper mood, I recommend that you play “Legenda taikamiekasta” by Heavy Metal Perse in the background while reading.

Those of you who cannot understand the Finnish lyrics will have to settle for Rhapsody’s “Emerald Sword”.

Setting the Stage

Ysaria (translates roughly as Ninetisia) was a parody game. Specifically, it was a parody of the clichés and themes of 90’s fantasy larps. Heavy Dragonlance influences, elves, dwarves, the whole Tolkien/D&D kit and kaboodle, high drama and always at least one player wearing sneakers. Obviously I never larped back then, but a lot of that stuff is universal. Of course, modern popular culture was also referenced. Indeed, one event I witnessed during the game was a duel challenge issued with the words: “My name is Caelthalas! You killed my father! Prepare to die!”

Captain Brungrus the Bottomless. Photo © Antti Halonen.

Captain Brungrus the Bottomless. Photo © Antti Halonen.

Me, I played the pirate dwarf Captain Brungrus the Bottomless, formerly of the good ship Venture. I had close to two feet of beard crepe glued to my face and a remarkably large hat. Brungrus was a greedy drunkard even by the standards of pirate dwarves, a breed not known for either sobriety or charity. He was a bullshitter, a cheat and a liar, and a bluffer. Not much of a fighter, though we all enough carried axes, swords and pistols for a regiment. His ship had sunk under mysterious circumstances (he was blind drunk at the time and the only survivor), leading to him becoming stranded on a deserted island with a mermaid princess named Nerida. From there, they were rescued by fellow pirate dwarf Captain Dargon Blackbeard and his submersible Fireball IV.

The game was set during diplomatic negotiations in the tavern of the Drunken Dragon on the island of Jesaria between the free peoples of the world on how to deal with the impending apocalypse of the seas rising and drinking the lands of Ysaria, Generia and Ulinor. Global warming, you know. So there were people from the courts of those lands, the local druids and dryads (With whom we had some history, on account of Captain Dargor smoking in bed the last time we’d been at Jesaria and accidentally burning down the Forest of Whispers. The party line was of course that we didn’t do it and it was an accident anyway.), the goblins (who were actually really smart and philosophical and brewed a moonshine with roughly the same effects as LSD), a couple of adventuring parties, the Black Wizards, and two crews of elven pirates, whose princess was Dargon’s onetime lover. The rest of them turned out to be cultists, and not our kind of cultists either. (Some of Fireball’s crew had a theologically colourful history. In the words of Able Seaman Dammot Sea Serpent: “It was a really good sex cult!”) There was also some kind of good-aligned cult in there, I think, but I didn’t really catch what they were about. The pirates mostly there to carouse, engage in casual larceny, and find the hidden treasure of the Druid King. We did have a certain vested interest in stopping the seas from rising as well, since coastal cities and the resulting shipping industry have a certain relevance to the pirate way of life.

One member of our valiant crew was played by a Dane who spoke no Finnish, so I also got to fulfill a lifelong dream and play a dwarf with a fake Scottish accent.

The following is my subjective perception of what occurred and is coloured by misunderstanding, lack of all available facts, and my poor memory. The chronology of events likely doesn’t jive and material has been omitted in order to keep this at a manageable length. It should not be taken as ultimate truth.

Yo ho ho, and a bottle of rum!

At the start of the game, we had just disembarked and concealed Fireball IV, and immediately came upon a dying mermaid on the shore. She spouted off a mystical prophecy that we committed to memory on the off chance that it might lead to money (prophet, profit, all the same) and promptly croaked. She had no treasure, but mermaid tears are apparently a potent hangover cure so we got at least that out of it.

We made our way to the tavern after that and made a lot of noise about booze. We did come prepared, though. I had two hipflasks myself, one under my hat and the other hanging around my neck. While the game itself was nonalcoholic, the characters included the crews of three pirate ships and a small tribe of goblins and were therefore functional alcoholics, so a variety of props were deployed. I used kvass, which was a stupid idea since the stuff is carbonated and carbonated drinks and hipflasks do not mix. Neither of them was destroyed, but I did have to force one of them back into shape.

The Postal Gnome. Photo © Samuli Airaksinen.

The Postal Gnome. Photo © Samuli Airaksinen.

Once drinks were received, we got down to business. One of the big moments of the larp for me came early on when Captain Dargon and the pirate elf princess Adien’thalee fought a duel in the tavern’s common room. There was shouting, dramatics, wrestling, badass boasting, swordplay, guns, and tableware. (There were latex tankards that could be used for drinking or brawling!) It was the kind of show that doesn’t get put on without rehearsing the choreography, but damn it looked great. There was drama and tension, even though at the back of my mind there was the understanding that nobody is going to get killed forty-five minutes into an eight-hour larp.

The combat rules, incidentally, ran on a system of common sense, gentleman’s agreement and sportsmanship. You get hit, you react appropriately. The recipient of the hit decides how badly they are hurt. It was also generally agreed that being shot with a gun would first take out your hat. Combat was for creating problems, not solving them, more or less. I frequently had my weapons out, either to threaten or to defend, but never actually fought.

I received a plot coupon early on in the game. The Postal Gnome brought me a letter from the insurance company, saying that I must fill in their forms before they can consider paying my insurance for the good ship Venture. Obviously, the truth wouldn’t fly, so some creativity was needed. In addition, there was a clause for an extra 8% if I could prove I had a family to support. We quickly agreed with Princess Nerida that it was best if we married quickly. We didn’t have any priests around, but hey, a sea captain can perform a marriage ceremony, right?

All this took some time, though, since we also had a treasure to hunt. We ran from waypoint to another, faced down an undead mermaid, and later a horny goblin who had to be… satisfied.

Another rules aside: sex in the game was simulated by waggling your hands next to your head, not unlike in the choreography of Caramelldansen, and singing a song of your choosing. The song and its style would reflect the style of the act (rough, passionate, “I’m just doing my job”) and the singer’s skill would reflect if it was any good. Of all the sex mechanics I have seen in various role-playing games, both tabletop and live action, I must say that this is my favourite. I am also in favour of any games mechanic that makes the players sing.

Anyway, we finally discovered the location of the treasure, managed to breach the magical wards by some minor blood sacrifice, and laid our hands on a magical rock, some centaur blood, and a magical crown that allowed its wearer to control the waves. The usefulness in combating rising sea levels is obvious. Of course, Dargon wanted it, Princess Nerida wanted it, some evil pirate elf person wanted it, and Princess Adien’thalee wanted it. A Mexican standoff resulted, only broken once the druids and dryads showed up and we decided to retreat. It was apparently the grave of the Druid King that we just robbed.

Them druids… there was already bad blood between us and them, because of the Forest of Whispers thing and because the mast of one of the elven ships used to be a dryad. One of them, Aeron Oakenbough, was a warrior, and wielded the Sword of the Druid King, or something. “Legenda taikamiekasta” (“The Legend of the Magic Sword”) was basically his theme song. Apparently we’d burned down his dryad along with the forest, and he was kinda pissed. He had been forbidden from killing us (“Lad, if you want to threaten someone, don’t tell them you’re not allowed to do anything to them.”), but I think that got waived when we looted the tomb.

What followed was this sort of running argument/retreat between us and the druids and dryads with lots of threatening and arguing that was frankly getting bogged down. In a tabletop game, it would’ve been open combat in thirty seconds flat, here it was just a load of sabre-rattling. Nerida, me and some druidy type who wanted to see the ocean snuck off and left them to it. There was lunch.

Lunch was hard. I got interrupted three times while I was eating, twice by a demon and once finally when Aeron attacked Nerida outside the tavern and yoinked the crown. Later, we also had to give up the rock.

Aeron Oakenbough, our nemesis. Photo © Samuli Airaksinen.

Aeron Oakenbough, our nemesis. Photo © Samuli Airaksinen.

Another stated goal we had was to nick a barrel of the famous mead of the Drunken Dragon. The druids were carrying around a barrel, so naturally we assumed that was it. So, as night was already falling and the game nearing its end, Nerida, me and First Mate Glint Goldfist snuck upon the two druids guarding it. Glint knocked them out cold (“KNOCK-OUT! KNOCK-OUT!”), and I grabbed the barrel and hoofed it to where we’d left the submarine. Some dryads had laid a curse on it to prevent it from leaving, but he Captain said he had a solution for that.

Then, five minutes later, some head druid person shows up and tells them it’s not booze, it’s his cursed wife, and he’d like it if we returned it.

So we did. There’s not much you can say to that. (Except “Is every godsdamned thing on this island cursed!? Cursed ships! Cursed weaponsmasters! Cursed rocks! Cursed booze! I hate this place!”)

Every damn thing we stole had to be returned. I’m pretty sure that the only crime our crew managed to successfully commit was Nerida’s and my insurance fraud, because despite the squiggles and winged unicorns the insurance company accepted the explanation, and we got not only the extra 8% but also a honeymoon trip to the city of Ironia.

In the end, negotiations had broken down and Captain made the call that we were leaving. At this point he was also accepting everyone else on board who could pay with something and felt like staying in Jesaria was a poor idea. I think we ended up with most of the state treasury of either Generia or Ysaria, at least one Black Wizard, possibly a kender, the goblin leader, and various other individuals of questionable reputation and a loose attitude about personal property. Captain Dargon unleashed a one-trick bottled genie to dispel the curse on Fireball IV, and off we went, firing our torpedoes at the damn island on our way out of sheer spite.

In real life, at this point we were standing in the woods on the beach, behind a shed, making submarine engine sounds. Ironically, there was a demon-summoning circle there that had been propped by the GMs, but the Black Wizards were using something they’d made themselves at a more central location. The Black Wizards using a demon-summoning circle was also on of the reasons why getting the hell out of Dodge was a Good Idea.

As it turned out, we made it just in time, because at this point hideous screaming started at the tavern, followed by equally hideous cackling laughter. Demons. Bad mojo.

Then the game ended.

What I Took Home from All This

Of course, getting off the island when the world was about to end was not too useful in the long run. Our final fate was never set in stone, but there were some remarks in the final debrief about the seas turning to fire once the Demon Prince showed up. Poor Captain Brungrus never made it to Ironia. I actually miss playing him, and a couple of days after the larp went through a similar process as after a convention. I am given to understand that this is called the Post-Larp Depression.

Since most of my gaming nowadays is Pathfinder Society, I found myself frequently falling into the goal-oriented D&D mindset, which was good for getting an extra 8% and the title of Prince-Captain, but less so for drama. The instruction at the beginning of the game was “play to lose”. Impulsive people making poor decisions make for better drama than rational professionals approaching problem-solving in a structured and logical fashion, and if you’re only playing the character for this one afternoon, it’s not necessarily a bad thing if he dies ignominiously in the third act. I was also running my mouth far less than I probably should have, Captain Brungrus being written as a loudmouth. That was not the hat of a quiet person, either. Something I need to work on. One of the reasons I play games other than Pathfinder is to get a different play experience and it’s no good if I bring the playstyle with me to other games. Well, you live and learn.

Also, it was far easier to play a drunken character last year when I was actually drunk. This time, I took notes from a Simon Pegg interview about filming The World’s End (appropriate!), but I’m not entirely sure how I carried it. Then, if professional actors think it’s hard…

Okay, it was still a very different playing experience. Like I said, I never engaged in combat. There was also the obvious lack of dice thing, and the rules operating on common sense and sportsmanship, and working. There’s no off-game. There’s also the aspect that time advances on a 1:1 pace with reality and there’s no cutting away into the next scene (some other larps use narrative meta-techniques for this). A lot of time was spent simply hanging out at the tavern, in-character, and especially in the running argument with the druids about the crown, some bogging down could be observed when nobody was willing to escalate things into open violence.

One thing I clearly did right was in stealing the barrel, because one of the kitchen crew mentioned to me after the game that he’d broken down laughing when he saw me sneaking off with it towards the beach, trying to look inconspicuous in a most conspicuous fashion. That hat was not designed for sneaky.

My only real regret is that we never had a proper tavern brawl with the elven pirates.

Posted by: NiTessine | August 24, 2014

The Beauty of Loncon 3

Finncon was big. Ropecon was bigger. The 72nd World Science Fiction Convention was the biggest. I attended Loncon 3 at the tail end of a two-week holiday trip to London and, as prophesied by the late Iain Banks, it was great fun and a total hoot.

As last year, I worked with the Helsinki bid for Worldcon. Though we suffered narrow defeat last year running against Spokane, we have come back stronger than ever and are targeting 2017. More on that in a later post.

What was different from last year, though, was that with the Worldcon located in Europe, we had vastly more boots on the ground than last year and I felt more comfortable with not being on call or on duty all the time or at every party. This resulted in me seeing probably more programming than in all the other cons I’ve been during the entire previous year put together.

Emmi Itäranta signing her novel Memory of Water at the Helsinki tent

Emmi Itäranta signing her novel Memory of Water at the Helsinki tent

The convention was at the ExCel Centre in London, a ginormous convention centre from which even the ten-thousand member Loncon only took over one half. The convention comprised a couple of larger auditoriums, around 17 upstairs rooms for panels, one very large exhibits hall featuring the art gallery, vendor area and Fan Village, and some other spaces. It was big, and it was easily a five-minute brisk walk to get from the Fan Village to watch a panel. Longer than that if it was a busy time of day. I literally walked so much I destroyed my shoes. And I’d only had them for three months, too…

The Fan Village, then. Last year, and I gather normally at Worldcons, the parties thrown by the different bids and other instances are in suites at the convention hotels. This year, the con committee had arrived at the alternative solution of placing everyone in a large exhibit hall in their own tents, where they promoted during the day and threw parties in the night. I actually prefer this solution to the hotel suites, since everyone is in the same space, there’s more air to breathe, you don’t have to switch floors to go to another party, and there’s no issue with other people trying to sleep in the vicinity.

Along with our competitor the DC bid and the 2016 Kansas City bid, we were in one of the largest tents, having bid parties for three nights of the weekend, with one on Sunday night for Archipelacon, where the convention also announced its third guest of honour after Karin Tidbeck and Johanna Sinisalo. It’s George R.R. Martin.

The Hugos

I suppose I should say a few words about the Hugos, since I held forth at such length on them before. I even went to see the awards ceremony, which I missed last year at San Antonio.

I have absolutely nothing to complain about. While not all the awards went exactly where I voted them, most of them did and the ones that did not were all well deserved. Congratulations to all the winners, and keep on being awesome.

The Stuff I Saw

An observation about Worldcon programming: it emphasizes panels a lot more than single-person presentations. This is, from my point of view, unusual. I mean, over half of all the items on the Worldcon programme were panels, while if I filter the Ropecon programme for this year, which has four tracks of speech programming over three days for panels, I get a grand total of one (1). This is an interesting difference and the programme is probably easier to put together this way than how we at Ropecon do it due to the sheer mindboggling scale of it all. Loncon 3 had over 1000 programme items over five days and I imagine it simplifies a lot when you can just tell people “you’re gonna be in these panels” instead of negotiating every lecture separately.

This does, of course, require you to have all those warm bodies to allocate to different panels, but I suspect that Worldcon might be one of those “build it and they will come” type deals.

The following is mostly written for memory, rather too late after the fact. The long trip, ExCel’s overenthusiastic air conditioning, five days of convention centre food and proximity to people and bacterial strains from every continent but the Antarctic conspired to lay me low soon after I had returned home on Tuesday and it’s taken me this long to put together anything coherent.

So, instead of going through every damn program item, let me just offer up a few observations.

First of all, Mark Oshiro is one of the best panelists I have seen. It’s a different skillset from holding a presentation by yourself. It requires the ability to improvise, be spontaneous, and work with any number of other people in front of an audience. I’ve seen it done well, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen it done this well. His is a rare talent.

The audiences at Worldcon also impressed me. With one single exception, audience comments and questions were good, informed, intelligent, and respectful. Admittedly, I did not go to any panels with a historical topic. Those tend to bring out the armchair historians. I wish they’d just do the honourable thing and sign up as panelists if they love the sound of their own voice so much.

During the Food in SF/F panel on Friday, someone pointed out that during the olden days, water wasn’t really the safest thing to drink, so people primarily drank beer or wine. The appearance of coffee and tea in Europe coincides roughly with the beginning of the Enlightenment – so basically everyone went from being slightly tipsy to being highly caffeinated all the time. (No, historical causality is not that simple, but I find this an amusing coincidence.)

Perhaps the best panel I saw during the convention was called “Sinbad Sci-Fi presents The World at Worldcon: Arabic SF/F”. It turns out there actually is science fiction and fantasy being written in the Arabic world. Harry Potter has been translated into Arabic and is being read, not burned. According to the panelists, there are problems with translating stuff into Arabic, but they’re mostly financial and though there’s a prejudice against science fiction and fantasy, it’s that the stuff won’t sell rather than it offending someone’s religious sensibilities. At least, this is the case in the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, where most of the panel hailed from.

From the left: Noura al-Noman, Ibrahim Abbas, Amal El-Mohtar, Yasser Bahjatt, and Yasmin Khan

From the left: Noura al-Noman, Ibrahim Abbas, Amal El-Mohtar, Yasser Bahjatt, and Yasmin Khan

As was also pointed out, talking about “the Arabic world” as a monolith is not really constructive, since there’s like 23 different Arabic countries and they’re culturally, economically and geographically very diverse. Heck, I have developed over the years a certain dislike towards discussing even sufficiently large single states like India, the United States, China or Russia as cultural monoliths.

Of course, the way we get our news from foreign cultural spheres is wonderful at creating the perception of such cultural monoliths. Seriously, when did you last hear a news story from an Arab state that was positive? Because I cannot remember if I ever have. That’s part of what made the panel so wonderful. It dispelled myth and prejudice and served as an important reminder that even in nations whose leaders we think are terrible (And seriously, do we like even our own leaders that much?), there’s this thing called normal people, who live and love and read science fiction. Write science fiction, too. Ibraheem Abbas’s books HWJN and Somewhere! have been translated into English. I missed out on the freebie copies distributed after the panel due to technical difficulties (my phone had died on me and the spare I was using was only slightly more advanced than smoke signals and by the time I got a new smartphone this week, the link behind the QR code had expired), so I haven’t yet had the opportunity to peruse them, but the few Goodreads reviews I of them I can even begin to make sense of look promising.

Also, the publisher Yasser Bahjatt introduced himself as a Spartan Jedi, because he was born in Sparta, Michigan and lives in Jedda. That was probably the most deftly done bridging of a cultural gap I have seen in my life. Here we have a panel looking very much the part of the Other, and then boom, Star Wars joke. Now we’re all on the same page, let’s talk about books. It literally brought a tear to my eye.

The Fan Village, as seen from the dealers' area.

The Fan Village, as seen from the dealers’ area.

These are the things that to me, make Worldcon special. While I can meet my Finnish and even most of my Nordic friends at almost any convention I go to in Finland, and they are great fun, and I think getting involved with running Ropecon is one of the best things that I’ve done, it’s at Worldcon that I can meet, well, the world. According to the con’s website, there were attending members from 54 countries. I made new friends from across oceans. I bought lots of books and talked with the people who wrote them (and now Scott Lynch thinks I’m stalking him). This lasted for five whole days.

I have this thing about conventions that I have mentioned before. When I go to a con, until it’s over I don’t really do anything else except attend the con. When I wake up, I go to the con site and I only leave it to crash for a few hours so I can do the same thing all over again the next day. I am fully immersed in the convention, I am with my tribe. I have no nationality but the convention, and my badge is my only passport.

It’s a hard crash back to the real world after a high like that, but it has never been not worth it. For this, I thank the fandom. For all its faults and occasional capacity for truly mind-boggling amount of drama, it remains awesome.

Posted by: NiTessine | August 2, 2014

Ropecon 2014 – The Same Old Song and Dance

Last weekend’s convention, with a fortnight of breathing space (yeah right) after Finncon, was Ropecon, 21st of its name.

This year, I’d taken on a lighter slate of duties, refusing a con committee position in favour of focusing on Pathfinder Society. In practice, this resulted in organizing and supervising a 34-table slate of Pathfinder Society games, including overseeing an eight-table Siege of the Diamond City special, and participating in two different presentations. I was still less busy than during my con com years, though.

The kill list of the weekend's Pathfinder Society games. Photo by Jukka Särkijärvi.

The kill list of the weekend’s Pathfinder Society games. Photo by Jukka Särkijärvi.

Friday was the busiest part of the con for me. I had to get the Pathfinder Society games going with seven GMs starting in the beginning slot, do both my presentations and in general get attuned to the convention.

The first part of that was the easiest, really. The GM desk, under the leadership of Arttu Hanska, was helpful and energetic in a way that I can only hope it was under my management, and made its new placement in the Takka-Poli-Palaver corridor work. Had to do some wrangling and one game started late, but all the first-slot games eventually went off, all the GMs got their paperwork in order and I could head off to do some final planning for my first presentation.

Well, I say my, but in reality, there were three of us. Along with Teemu Korpijärvi and Joonas Katko, we had a 105-minute talk about the British Empire, its reasons and history, and how those elements might be adapted for use in roleplaying games, titled “Guns, Germs and Tea”. Teemu talked about exploration and seafaring, Joonas talked about warfare and famous battles, while I discussed colonialism on the ground and how “the evil empire” is really a tautological phrase. It apparently went rather well, we got a lot of positive feedback, and it should be up on YouTube at some point for you to enjoy and me to curse every pause and “um” that I mumbled into the mike. Here’s a link to our slides. They’re in Finnish, but the bibliographies at the end should be useful for everyone.

Following on the heels of the British Empire, there was our presentation about the next really evil empire poised to dominate land and sea, Myrrys.

Myrrys

So, last year I started working with the small Finnish game publisher Myrrysmiehet. Myrrysmiehet is the outfit behind such games as the pirate-themed storygame Hounds of the Sea, the concept games LGDS and Swords of Freedom, last year’s Lands of the West (Lännen maat, written by Risto Hieta) about the Egyptian afterlife, and the most recent and ambitious project, Children of Wrath (Vihan lapset), a bleak, dystopian science fiction RPG about a world taken over by totalitarian aliens, who keep the population illiterate and easily controlled. It runs on the Flow system used by Stalker. This year we also released another one of Risto Hieta’s games, The Agents of Mars (Marsin agentit). In addition to myself, the Myrrysmiehet were Ville Takanen and Jukka Sorsa.

Then there was this another Finnish small game publisher, Ironspine, comprising the gentlemen Miska Fredman and Samuli Ahokas. They are responsible for making such games as the space opera Heimot, the occult action game ENOC – Operation Eisenberg, and the fantasy parody Legends of Generia. Most recently, they produced the frankly gorgeous family RPG Astraterra that got everything it asked for and more in its recent IndieGoGo and is, in my view, the prettiest role-playing game product to have been released in Finland.

There’s also this third outfit called Ironswine, guilty of The Fly (Kärpänen) and most recently the most awesome RPG in the history of awesome RPGs, Strike Force Viper. It’s a postapocalyptic action RPG set fifteen years in the future, after the Fourth World War, in 1999. The relationship between Myrrys and Ironswine is hard to define and slightly embarrassing for all concerned, so I’m not going into that right now.

Anyway, it so happened that the gentlemen of Myrrysmiehet and Ironspine alike took a weekend retreat to brainstorm games and playtest new material last winter, and the idea was floated that we should merge.

No, not like that, you perverts.

The idea was deemed to have merit, and looked good even once we’d sobered up. Our philosophies in game design are similar, there was a history of cooperation, and surely five guys can get more done than two or three. We then spent a while drafting plans and talking a lot, and made the final announcement at Ropecon.

Purveyors of fine role-playing games and terrible humour.

We also discussed our upcoming products. We have plans to release everything in both English and Finnish, starting with the Astraterra English translation which I’m raring to get my hands on and should be out in time for December. Also upcoming is Robin Hood, another family RPG, which is another short-term goal. There’s also a bunch of long-term projects whose priorities are subject to change as whim and mood takes us, but among those are Ville’s deckdrafting card game The War which is beautiful and atmospheric and has solid mechanics and just needs a crapload of playtesting so that the damn Conclave stops winning all the damn time, the second edition of ENOC which Jukka Sorsa and I are provisionally focusing on once Robin Hood is done.

There’s also those Ironswine dudes who are kinda suspicious and I really don’t trust, but they’ve got a game called Sotakarjut that I’m really, really tempted to translate as War Pigs, and Strike Force Viper, which has been pegged for further development.

More information forthcoming as stuff gets done. Once we have something to sell in English, we’ll be opening a DriveThruRPG storefront.

The Rest of the Convention

The last of my real duties at the convention was overseeing the Siege of the Diamond City Pathfinder Society special scenario, which we ran for eight tables. The job of the overseer GM in a special is easier than it sounds – it is just about keeping track of time, calling act breaks as they occur, and tallying results as they come in. It did require me to stay in the game room for the whole of the third act, though, which was slightly inconvenient and I must remember to draft myself an assistant GM for next time. The sweltering heat, associated requisite fluid intake and the resulting bathroom logistics were a thing. Fortunately, at least I had the foresight to request a microphone. Last year’s module had me shouting myself hoarse.

Siege of the Diamond City in full swing. Photo by Jukka Särkijärvi.

Siege of the Diamond City in full swing. Photo by Jukka Särkijärvi.

I must say, I thought the scenario went quite well. In my view, it is thus far the best of the multi-table specials released for the campaign, featuring interactivity between tables and level ranges, a suitably epic plot, and a chance for every table to affect the outcome. As it stood, the valiant and resolute Pathfinders emerged overwhelmingly victorious against the demonic horde.

Well, I thought that was the last of my duties. Remember that Finncon report from two weeks ago? The one with the dancing? Well, the editor of Conteksti, the Ropecon conzine, was in the audience, and decided to do a comic strip. The strip, for those of you unable to read the lines of anyone except Jim Raggi, features a bunch of Finnish game designers and publishers discussing the state of the horse, interrupted by the appearance of an Astraterra crowdfunding backer benefit of a flying galleon and my song and dance show.

Note: This is not an actual Astraterra backer benefit, nor will it be.

After it was printed, there was only one way things could end. I expect the video of the closing ceremony will be out around a year from now. That is the length of my reprieve.

All in all, I deem it a very successful Ropecon (as does the treasurer – at 3,933 visitors, we fell 13 short of breaking the record). I had fun. I met all the old friends I never see anywhere else. I got some books. I even had time to play games. I got my ass kicked in a sumo suit.

Me in a sumo suit, during a rare upright moment. Photo by Peksu Järvinen.

Me in a sumo suit, during a rare upright moment. Photo by Peksu Järvinen.

However, as all good things, it had to come to an end, and as ended Ropecon 2014, so ended the convention’s time at Dipoli. Probably. The Dipoli conference centre, famously described by guest of honour Jonathan Tweet as a building designed by Cthulhu, has been the home of Ropecon for over fifteen years. The convention has taken on the shape of its venue, and the surrounding businesses have adjusted themselves to accommodate us and profit from our presence. Seriously, the grocery store next to Dipoli has a clause about working nights solely because during Ropecon, they’re open around the clock.

And now, they’re renovating it. The renovations will begin sometime next year and will likely take it off our hands for the next two years. After that, we are not sure if the venue is still suitable for our needs or if changes will be wrought. It is time to look for a new home. We do not yet know where it will be, but we do know that it will be somewhere. Ropecon will happen in 2015, and 2016, and all the years to come.

And now for a smattering of links.

What I did not have time to do was talk a lot with the guests of honour, Privateer Press’s Jason Soles and Luke Crane, he of Burning Wheel and other roleplaying games. Fortunately, for that purpose we had interviewers and intrepid cameramen. The GoH interviews were the very first things from this year’s convention to be edited and uploaded to our YouTube channel. The noise in the background is the convention’s afterparty.

 

Posted by: NiTessine | July 23, 2014

My Ropecon Schedule

Ropecon is starting this Friday. I have a few program items that I hope I’ll be able to talk my way through coherently despite the sweltering heat.

On Friday, apart from puttering around the Pathfinder Society gaming area (in Takka, same as previous years):

  • 18:00 – 20:00, Klondyke: Along with Teemu Korpijärvi and Joonas Katko, I’ll be talking about the history of the British Empire from one Elizabeth to the other, how the Empire came to be, what happened to it and how all its myriad wars and crimes are excellent fodder for role-playing games.
  • 22:00 – 23:30, Room 26: With Ville Takanen, Miska Fredman, Samuli Ahokas and Jukka Sorsa, we will be discussing the present and future of our two gaming companies, Myrrysmiehet Oy and Ironspine, our games (especially the new Ironspine release Astraterra, which is absolutely great) and our future releases.

Additionally, I am doing the usual Pathfinder Society thing, helping games run smoothly and overseeing Saturday’s seven tables of Siege of the Diamond City, a game for up to 42 players. Overall, we have 34 tables of Pathfinder Society at Ropecon this year, mostly Season Five scenarios.

Apart from that, I may be reached either behind our sales table in Kaubamaja, hawking our wares, or in Cantina, enjoying a large pint of refreshing beer. There’s also a non-zero chance I will try and catch a program item I’m not participating in, such as one of the following:

  • Saturday 11:00 – 13:00, Auditorium: Our guest of honour Luke Crane expounds on the topic “How to write one to two books a year and not die”. This is relevant to my interests.
  • Saturday 20:00 – 22:00, Auditorium: Esa Perkiö, one of the most gifted lecturers we have at the convention, talks about yet another fascinating phenomenon of our world and how it may be applied to games. This time, slavery.
  • Sunday 10:00 – 12:00, Auditorium: If I’m awake at this ungodly hour, there’s Joonas Kirsi discussing the historical court intrigues of Japan. The reason he talking at this ungodly hour is that he’s good enough to be worth it.

See you there!

Posted by: NiTessine | July 22, 2014

Review: Dangerous Games Trilogy, by Matt Forbeck

About a year ago, I joined a role-playing game film club. The unofficial club’s stated goal is to watch every movie, every documentary, every episode of a television series, every reality show, every damn television advert and fan production that somehow references role-playing games or larps. This is part sociological research into how gaming is presented in media and part turkey film

We’ve watched a lot of spectacular turds, but that is a topic either for a later post or a teary-eyed rant at a convention bar sometime not too long before last call. For a taste of what we’re up against, see our host Juhana’s blog.

Anyway, in my opinion the best film I’ve seen there was The Gamers: Hands of Fate. Unlike most of the stuff we watch, it’s a genuinely good movie, made by people who understand not only their source material and the phenomena they are commenting, but also the limitations of their budget, the basics of filmmaking and screenwriting, and even comedic timing. (Better than Knights of Badassdom which was a bit formulaic and relied too much on CGI that wasn’t up to the task, or Zero Charisma which is a good film but tremendously uncomfortable to watch.)

What does any of this have to do with the post’s headline? Well, it turns out that Hands of Fate has a novel tie-in, a moment where a character slips from one work to another and then stumbles back, shocked by what he has found. Matt Forbeck, in his mad attempt to write twelve novels in a year, produced The Dangerous Games trilogy of novels. They’re short, NaNoWriMo length crime comedy thrillers, and they’re spectacular fun.

Mmm, graph paper…

Mmm, graph paper…

The trilogy comprises the novels How to Play, How to Cheat and How to Win, and traces the life of police-academy-trained game designerLiam Parker through three Gen Cons, each novel starting at the Diana Jones Award ceremony and then leading inevitably to murder and criminal investigations in the largest role-playing game convention in the world. Forbeck had fun writing this, and it shows. Well-known game designers, many of whom are undoubtedly his friends, are mercilessly stabbed, shot and thrown off tall buildings. Half of Ropecon’s former guests of honour make cameo appearances, such as Peter Adkison who ends up being Parker’s employer, and Frank Mentzer.

The moment when I truly fell in love with the trilogy was in the third novel, where Frank Mentzer gives Parker copies of the original Dungeons & Dragons rulebooks as a minor plot point. I went “squee”. It should be stated that not many things can make me go “squee”.

What I think Forbeck really succeeds at is in presenting a strong sense of place and atmosphere at Gen Con, and conveying his own love of the convention to the reader. I have never been to Gen Con myself, but I can recognize the sense of community from Ropecon, the one event that gathers together all of Finnish gamerdom from the four corners of the land, where weirdness reigns, games are played and shop talked into the wee hours. That shared experience translates across the ocean, from gaming con to gaming con. That’s what makes this trilogy special.

They’re by no means perfect – I think the second volume suffers from the usual problems of the middle book in a trilogy, and the third is a bit too dark, but these are flaws I can forgive. Apart from all the stabbing and shooting and murder, that’s what a gaming convention looks like. It’s what a gaming convention feels like.

It also looks like they’re on discount at DriveThruFiction for the rest of the month. They’re cheap and short, 192 pages each. There are worse ways to spend an afternoon.

Posted by: NiTessine | July 17, 2014

Finncon 2014, Part II: The Obligatory Literary Snobbery

Continuing from my previous post, this is a sort of appendix about my thoughts on the Hugo fiction categories. Quite a few of them are available online, and links have been supplied.

The panel. Note my thousand-yard stare from reading a million words of Wheel of Time in the space of two months. Photograph © Johan Anglemark.

From left to right, Tommy Persson, Marianna Leikomaa, Jukka Halme, yours truly, and Carolina Gómez Lagerlöf. Note my thousand-yard stare from reading a million words of Wheel of Time in the space of two months. Photograph © Johan Anglemark.

I tried to read all the material before the panel. I got everything else done but had to give up on Wheel of Time after the fifth book. I simply cannot see the appeal of the series, and I object to the length. I think that in a novel, the first 300 pages are free. That’s a good length for a novel. It may suck, but it’s a decent pagecount and whatever else its successes or failings, will not feel too long. After that, though, you have to earn every page with something more than just “entertaining”. You need to have themes, depth, ideas, beautiful prose, something to bring it meaning. Neal Stephenson can pull it off. Eleanor Catton can pull it off. Umberto Eco, George R.R. Martin, Thomas Pynchon, and yes, J.R.R. Tolkien himself can pull it off. Should Hannu Rajaniemi someday be possessed by the imp of the perverse and pen an 800-page doorstopper, I am sure he would pull it off and look good doing it. Robert Jordan did not, in his first five novels, even remotely pull it off. The length of the series is respectable, yes, but apart from the distinction of numbering among the longest works of literature ever written, it doesn’t really bring anything new to the table. There’s your Chosen One, complete with whining about his destiny, your Prophecy, your guiding Obi-Wan dudes, your orcs and your Dark Lord and your plot coupon collection. To top it off, it’s so damn humourless. David Eddings told the same story, but he only took five to three novels per telling and he could be funny when he tried.

I admit that I cannot speak for the Brandon Sanderson novels that cap off the series since I never got that far. Perhaps they are better, perhaps not, but I am separated from them by a gulf of thousands of pages I’ve no intention of reading.

That said, the Wheel of Time is not the most objectionable thing on the ballot this year. It merely bores me and takes up far too much space. It does not actively offend me in the way that Vox Day’s “Opera Vita Aeterna” does, for instance. Apart from what thoughts I have of the author’s political views (he’s something of a caricaturish embodiment of all the negative stereotypes about Christian fundamentalists), it’s some remarkably bad writing, with clumsy English, clumsier pseudo-Latin, and a vestigial plot that has the tension of an overcooked noodle. It feels like background worldbuilding for a larger series and the entire payoff of the story is tied to that some other series. There are also enough descriptions of medieval monastic interior decoration to make a novelette-length story somehow feel bloated. Then, it’s probably necessary for the story because it would never have made the shortlist at short story length.

I am also not entirely taken by Brad Torgersen’s stories, “The Exchange Officers” and The Chaplain’s Legacy, which read like someone found a couple of unedited first drafts written in 1956 and decided to print them as-is.

Larry Correia’s Warbound, on the other hand, I was predisposed to dislike, but the entire trilogy was in the voter’s packet so I read it all and was quite entertained. The 1930s superhero setting works, and reminds me of Godlike in a number of very positive ways. It feels gameable. The story keeps going, it maintains a sense of humour about how goofy it is (Count Zeppelin was an Active supergenius) and has a nice touch in Hitler getting executed for his troubles after the Beer Hall Putsch and the bad guys being Imperial Japan. I’ll read any novel where Ishii Shirō gets offed. That said, I still don’t think Warbound has much of a place on the ballot. It’s not nearly as strong as the trilogy’s first part, Hard Magic, and for all its virtues as fun entertainment, it simply has no depth. I am also not enamoured with the occasional gun porn or the overly gory descriptions of violence. They feel off and out of place.

Read this.

Read this.

Ranting over. Like I said, we all thought Ancillary Justice was the best of the lot. It’s science fiction doing what it was born to do, exploring the what ifs and why nots of the human condition. The novel focuses especially the concepts of identity and language. The main character is actually a part of a spaceship, whose native language has no gendered pronouns – and she defaults to she in English (it also just occurred to me that “Radch”, the name of the empire that is the main character’s home, is probably pronounced /ɹɑːdʒ/). It is a simple and elegant way of highlighting and problematizing something that we take for granted, the male as the default. It also probably renders the novel untranslatable into any language that doesn’t do gendered pronouns, like Finnish.

It’s also a bit of a send-up of Iain M. Banks’s Culture series, another favourite of mine. It’s already deservedly picked up pretty much every other major award in science fiction, and the Hugo would be a logical extension of the series. I mean, I won’t cry if it loses to Neptune’s Brood (Charles Stross at his internet puppiest, complete with an extended Monty Python joke, clever ideas by the bushel and a rather too abrupt an ending), but it really shouldn’t.

In the novel category we also have Mira Grant’s Parasite. I do not have a lot to say about it since it brings together medical horror, which I dislike, and zombie horror, which I hate, and the pacing is off. Almost the entire first half of the novel consists of doctor’s appointments, treatments and the protagonist’s everyday life. It does pick up once the zombie outbreak gets going, but it’s too little, too late. Additionally, there is a revelation at the end that was implicitly told to the reader a hundred pages previously. Even I caught it and I was skimming at that point. Sometimes figuring out the big reveal ahead of time makes the reader feel smart, but this one was too obvious and felt like sloppy writing. Personally, I think the zombie novel has jumped the tapeworm.

In the novella category, we get Catherynne M. Valente’s Six-Gun Snow White, which is a fascinating blend of western and fairytale. The story is beautifully written in this frontiersy, Deadwood kind of voice, and I ended up reading it aloud to myself to better appreciate it (as well as the sound of my own voice).

There’s also Equoid by Charles Stross, which is a worthy instalment to the Laundry series, with H.P. Lovecraft and the coolest unicorns anywhere. my favourite thing about the story is how the writing dates it between the second and third novels of the series, sometime in 2007 or 2008 – someone has a MySpace account. The category also features Wakulla Springs, an evocative story of the early days of filmmaking. And swimming. It has a very strong atmosphere and a powerful sense of place, but I find the speculative fiction elements kind of lacking. Someone commented that it should be read as a work of American magical realism, which I guess works, but does not quite do it for me.

This, too.

This, too.

In the novelette category, my favourite is Mary Robinette Kowal’s “The Lady Astronaut of Mars”, a sentimental, beautiful and sad retro-futurist story about getting old and the pull of the final frontier. It’s just good enough to pull it off without becoming cloying. Aliette de Bodard’s “The Waiting Stars” was interesting and well-written, with an intersting way of tying the two seemingly unrelated narratives together. Ted Chiang’s “The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling” I felt was somewhat distancing and cold, a very methodical exploration, perhaps even a dissection, of its themes. It was too explicit about them, and I think I would have preferred a subtler approach.

Finally, there are the short stories, the only category where I did not feel the necessity to field the dread “no award” option. My favourite was John Chu’s “The Water That Falls on You From Nowhere”, very closely followed by Thomas Olde Heuvelt’s “The Ink Readers of Doi Saket”, which is seriously funny. I think too many writers forget that humour is sometimes necessary to offer contrast to the bleakness and even more often that something being legitimately funny in its own right is a valid thing to aspire to. Sofia Samatar’s “Selkie Stories Are for Losers” and Rachel Swirsky’s “If You Were a Dinosaur, My Love” don’t quite do it to me in the same way, but neither is bad.

The darkly funny thing about the inclusion of Correia and Vox Day and Torgersen on that list is that they’re all known for being politically somewhat to the right (sufficiently to come around into being politically wrong), and there is a certain temptation to frame this particular year’s ballot as a true test for the fandom, to reject the bigotry and the outdated values of yesteryear, to once and for all declare that science fiction and the people who love it truly stand for progress, for looking into a better future. However, it really isn’t. If it were Orson Scott Card or Dan Simmons on the ballot, that argument could possbily be made. What we are up against here, though, is one decent entertainer and a couple of guys whose work has the subtlety of a political manifesto, the finesse of a boot to the head, and a grasp of language easily rivalling that of an an eight-year-old English-as-second-language student. I can come up with no metric of literary quality that would see any of these men walking away with a rocket statuette. It is defeat enough that they’re on the ballot. While I would have no problem voting No Award over any of their works simply because there is a point in political discourse where I can no longer in good conscience agree to disagree, it is not relevant to the situation because their works are not the Best Novel, or Novella, or Novelette of the year, or even among the ten best, or in most cases any good at all.

Rant over, hopefully for good this time. We’ll see next month.

Posted by: NiTessine | July 15, 2014

Finncon 2014, Part I: A Little Song, a Little Dance…

The science fiction convention Finncon 2014 took place last weekend in the sunny city of Jyväskylä. Along with Ropecon, it’s one of the two conventions that I consider my home away from home.

It’s kinda like that, actually. Except with more aliens and alcohol-based humour.

I was originally only scheduled for one program item, the Hugo discussion panel on the Friday before the con proper. The Finncon Friday in Jyväskylä sort of gently eases into the convention, with only a single program track and a smaller venue at the Writer’s House, close by to the university buildings where the remaining two days took place.

The panel was great fun. 90 minutes with Guest of Honour Jukka Halme, Carolina Gómez Lagerlöf, Tommy Persson and me talking about the nominees in the four fiction categories for the Hugo Award this year, moderated by Marianna Leikomaa. We all agreed that Ancillary Justice is the best novel and Wheel of Time is too damn long regardless of whether you like it. More on these in a later post that I already wrote up last night in a sort of a flow state before realizing that leading my convention report with 1,000 words of literary criticism is not an idea with merit.

I was also there to promote Ropecon, which led to a lot of sitting behind a table next to the Helsinki in 2017 Worldcon bid table. Ropecon is in two weeks, and we handed out lots of fliers. It was interesting to note how many people were not really aware of the convention even though the overlap between Finncon’s and Ropecon’s target audiences is great and Ropecon’s been around for over 20 years now.

One reason I like Finncons in Jyväskylä (the hosting city rotates between Helsinki, Turku, Jyväskylä and Tampere) is that they’re generally smaller and there’s this social signal-to-noise ratio that is a lot clearer than in the other cities, where there are more people who just drop by on a whim or come to gawk at the spectacle (Finncon is free, so the threshold to do that is very low). Thus, a larger portion of the attendees are into the fandom. It feels like home. As the fan guest of honour Jukka Halme commented: “Fandom is love.”

Because I spent most of my time at the Ropecon promotion table and because it was frankly rather hot in there, I did not go see a lot of programming. On Sunday, I caught the duel between Shimo Suntila and Tuomas Saloranta for the title of the Last Trash Writer of Finland, where the two prolific (the Finnish small publishers are currently releasing anthologies at a sufficient clip that I can no longer afford to buy them all, forcing me to start writing short stories so I can get author copies – my first story is going to be in the Hei rillumapunk! anthology, which is coming out this autumn) authors and editors talked smack and went at each other with boffer swords. Judges were bribed, illegal weaponry was utilized, the electric kannel sang, and the end result was a tie.

“You interrupted my story, you scoundrel!”
“It was bad!”
“You’d still publish it!”
– harsh men, harsh language

The duelists. Photograph © Antti Kiviranta.

The duelists. Photograph © Antti Kiviranta.

I also managed to catch Jukka Halme’s guest of honour interview, though it was late in the day and I’m afraid I nodded off at one point.

The guests of honour, by the way, were magnificent. I might ascribe Finncon’s success with guests of honour to luck, but really it’s about skill and experience in first inviting cool and interesting people and then treating them with the honour they deserve, which in turn brings out the best in their own speeches, panel discussions and general attitude at the convention. They’re kept happy and in turn they make the attendees happy. This year we had Hannu Rajaniemi, the erudite author of the sublime Quantum Thief, Fractal Prince and Causal Angel; the just as erudite and staggeringly prolific Elizabeth Bear (winner of Hugos for “Tideline” and “Shoggoths in Bloom”); Jukka Halme, a great man of wit; and Scott Lynch, a man of great wit (and author of The Lies of Locke Lamora). Also featuring, as ever, a horde of other authors both foreign and local and the honourary Finn Cheryl Morgan, who reported on the convention daily (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6).

And then there was the masquerade. Oh boy, the masquerade. I was asked to do some minor co-hosting for the masquerade a couple of hours before the event itself, with the actual hosting being done by Cheryl. I was just supposed to announce the halftime show, during which the judges deliberated and passed their final judgments on the contestants. The halftime show was Juha Jyrkäs reading poetry from his Kalevala poem workshop and excerpts from his own epic poem Ouramoinen, likewise in troichaic tetrameter.

Sounds easy? Yeah, well. Because of reasons, the length of the halftime was rather in excess of the amount of material that had actually been reserved to fill it, and our professional entertainer had a rather tight schedule himself, as he had to go do that thing professional entertainers do and head off to an actually paying gig. This left me with a mike, an audience and a somewhat awkward situation.

So, I improvised some stand-up comedy, danced a bit, sang a bit and was fortunately rescued by some of the masquerade participants who picked up when I could no longer come up with more material. I’d like to thank Laku, Paavo, Eemeli and all the rest for helping me salvage the situation. The audience was entertained.

This is one thing that I love about Finncon. The audiences are intelligent and understanding. There were a hundred people in the room and not a single heckler.

Best in Show, Geralt of Rivia. Photograph © Joonas Puuppo.

Best in Show, Geralt of Rivia. Photograph © Joonas Puuppo.

Mind you, I prefer the traditional model for the masquerade, where the awards ceremony is separate from the contest proper, giving the judges all the time they need. A halftime show like this requires a different skillset from panels and presentations. It calls for showmanship and stage presence, and I am not sure how easy it is to dig up the people who can pull it off. This is something to keep in mind for Finncon 2016 in Tampere and next year’s Archipelacon (because of reasons, there’s not going to be a Finncon next year so to fill the gap we’re banding together with the Swedes and producing Archipelacon in Mariehamn).

I also bought a pile of books. The sci-fi flea market is the bane of my existence. It’s not that it’s expensive, since it really is not, it’s just that carrying all the books home is a lot of work. I even picked up some French children’s comics because they were only one euro apiece. My French is not particularly good. Also, neener neener neener I’ve got The Causal Angel.

The haul. Photograph © Jukka Särkijärvi.

The haul. Photograph © Jukka Särkijärvi.

This Finncon was the end of an era. It is the final convention of a nine-year period when there was a Finncon every year, the longest such unbroken streak in the history of the convention. Next year, we go to Archipelacon, while Finncon will make a victorious return in 2016, in Tampere.

So, that was Finncon. It was lovely, one of the most fun conventions I’ve been to. I am proud to have done my small part in making it happen, and proud to be a part of the community that produces such joyous events, and creates a place where people of all backgrounds can come together, united by their common interest in strange fiction and all of its modes of expression. It gives me this warm, fuzzy feeling inside.

Photographs used with permission, courtesy of http://usvazine.tumblr.com/.

Older Posts »

Categories

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 857 other followers