Ropecon’s Guests of Honour – Frank Mentzer and Erik Mona!

Ropecon has announced its guests of honour for the year 2011, and they are mighty indeed.

First up, we have Frank Mentzer, who’s known for the famous D&D red box – the original, not the WotC knockoff – that was translated into eleven languages and is easily one of the most, if not the most sold roleplaying game product of all time. Half the Finnish gaming scene started the hobby with it, and the Finnish translation is the stuff of legends (not entirely positive ones, but it is a funny read and translating lists of made-up fantasy creatures is a tough job, and it’s still a damn fine game). He also collaborated with Gary Gygax to create the classic dungeon crawl, Temple of Elemental Evil. He has spent a long time away from the industry, but he’s making a comeback.

Second, we have Erik Mona. Erik Mona is Paizo’s publisher, and one of the masterminds behind Pathfinder RPG. And the Planet Stories line. And back in the days of RPGA (which was founded by Mentzer, incidentally), of Living Greyhawk. For the past six and a half years, he’s been indirectly responsible for most of my gaming, really, between the hundreds of Living Greyhawk sessions, two (and soon to be three) Pathfinder adventure paths and couple of dozen Pathfinder Society games. While it’s not all I’ve played, these form the vast majority.

I don’t think I’ve been this excited about the con’s guests of honour, well, ever. And I’ve been pretty damn excited about quite a few of them.


Ropecon, Finland, July 29th-31st

Ropecon released the themes of this year’s convention yesterday: heroes and Finland. I figure this is as good a time as any to remind the readership of the convention’s existence.

Ropecon is the biggest annual gaming convention in Finland, with about 3,500 individual visitors over three days (if converted to how visitor numbers are usually calculated, this will translate to about 10,000). Also, it is organized from start to finish by volunteers, making it one of the largest, if not the largest, non-profit gaming convention in the world. At least, I am not aware of a larger convention of this kind.

As in the previous two years, I’m sitting in the organizing committee, with the tabletop roleplaying games as my specific area of responsibility. There will be some 120-150 sessions of roleplaying games during the weekend, I would guess. In addition, there will be card games, miniatures wargames, board games and larps, plus workshops, presentations and panels on diverse topics. Something for everybody!

We will eventually also have guests of honour. More information on that once there is information. In the past years, we’ve seen Suzi Yee and Joseph Browning of Expeditious Retreat Press, Keith Baker, Greg Stolze, Chris Pramas, Greg Stafford, Robin D. Laws, Kenneth Hite and other gaming luminaries.

The convention itself is still in its planning stages, apart from the stuff that stays same from year to year. In a couple of weeks, the committee, 31 strong, will hide for a weekend into a cabin in the snow-choked, dark forests of Espoo to plot. I find it is a very efficient way to work, since it gives you total focus and creates a strong group sense right out of the gate (unless, of course, there are people who just can’t get along, in which case something horrible may happen, but I’ve yet to see this occur).

Once our guests of honour have been confirmed, expect a post about the awesomeness.

Cancer, Dragons, Sex, Spaceships and Armies at War – A Review of Nordic Larp

Just before Christmas, I found myself an outsider at a party. Though I knew quite a few people and had met some in previous parties, worked with some, gamed with others and been taught by two, there was one thing that set me apart from everyone else invited. I’m pretty sure that apart from the staff at the bar, I was the only person in the room who had never participated in a live-action roleplaying game, or larp, as they’re usually called. And I’m not sure about the staff.

Therefore, one might think it strange that I was at the release party of a book called Nordic Larp, a work that follows the Finnish tradition of giving books about roleplaying games exhaustively self-explanatory titles (cf. Roolipelimanifesti, Roolipeliopas, Roolipelikirja and the magazine Roolipelaaja). However, they had free bubbly, so there I was. They also had the book on sale, and it was ridiculously cheap for its production values (cheaper than soap for its weight, I am told), so I bought one. Since then, one of the editors has been pestering me on Facebook to review it. The editors are Jaakko Stenros and Markus Montola, whom you will remember as the guys who ran the Tampere University roleplaying studies course I blogged about in late 2009.

The party itself was milked for all the spectacle it was worth. There were actually four simultaneous parties, in Helsinki, Oslo, Copenhagen and Stockholm, and the evening featured a Stockholm-based webcast of video and phone interviews with people in different parties. The video, incidentally, is available at the publisher’s website.

Nordic Larp is, as the brightest readers have already figured out, a book about Nordic larp. “Nordic larp”, in this context, does not mean just any old larp played in one of the Nordic countries, but a larp created specifically in the Nordic international tradition, in Finland, Sweden, Denmark or Norway (I don’t know what they do in Iceland). I understand the project began as a photo book of Nordic larps, but then grew during the process into something greater, and far more ambitious.

And it really is great. Physical measurements, taken from the book project’s website: it weighs 1,9 kg, its dimensions are 28 x 24,6 cm, and it’s 3,5 cm thick. For you benighted slaves of the imperial system, that’s 4,2 pounds, 11 by 9,7 inches, and 1,4 inches thick. This book has heft. Were it a gaming book, it’d be one of those huge manuals I use to physically bludgeon my players into submission.

However, it isn’t. It’s a book about games. In 320 full-colour, lavishly illustrated pages, the authors of the book discuss the tradition and culture of Nordic larping, and its relationship with concepts such as “art”, “games”, “theatre” and so forth. The bulk of the book, however, is dedicated to 30 articles about specific larps of interest. The book does not by any means compile an exhaustive canon, and the introduction rattles off another couple of dozen titles that could’ve been included.

As an outsider from the larp scene, I can’t offer any criticism of the selections. For what it’s worth, I knew twenty of the games beforehand, from anecdotes, other books, the RPG course, or in one case, a 4chan thread.

The games are organized chronologically, and you can track the development and adaptation of certain concepts and ideas from one game to another through the years, such as the 360° illusion (the creation of a fully believable game environment right down to period-accurate underpants, be it a medieval fantasy village or a steampunk spaceship) and first-person audience (the player himself as a spectator to his own character’s thoughts and emotions), and so forth.

The Games

There must never be another Hamlet like this one. Not because we could not, but because we should not. The concern for safety was almost zero, there was too much alcohol – any amount of alcohol in combination with firearms is too much, even if they fire blanks. Rumours of real drugs, compared to the dextrose commonly used as a cocaine stand in, circulated for a long time. The use of pornography is highly problematic, even if it is vintage; in my opinion far more so than (semi) public sex by consenting adults, which was criticized after the larp.

– Karl Bergström on the larp Hamlet

And the game I knew from 4chan wasn’t even that one.

The larps in the book run the gamut. There are fantasy larps, like the thousand-player Trenne byar that starts the book, and Dragonbane with its budget of €500,000. There’s a Vampire larp, the nine-year Camarilla campaign of Helsinki. There’s one children’s larp, the Danish Rollespil i Rude Skov, where they give kids latex swords and let them have at each other, and apparently make €150,000 a year doing this. The games are very different and all of them are interesting. Some of them even look like it would’ve been fun to be there. Heck, I can’t really think of anyone who wouldn’t have liked something like Rollespil i Rude Skov when they were nine.

Another one I probably would’ve found awesome is the Swedish Carolus Rex, a retrofuturist science fiction game set on a steam-operated spaceship of the Swedish empire. The larp was played in a museum submarine, and featured, among other things, a GM playing the ship’s AI, and a rescue capsule filled with survivors from a Danish space vessel, played by a bunch of Danish larpers who’d been smuggled to the scene by the GMs.

Then there’s Dragonbane, which really takes the cake when it comes to huge productions. They had a dragon, made out of a forestry machine, semilegal pyrotechnics and a pretty well simulated magic system. Oh, and a medieval village they’d built in Älvdalen. Then, Trenne byar had three of those. A bit different is Antikristuksen yö (Night of the Antichrist), a hardcore historical re-enactment larp about religious war in Bohemia.

But this, apart from the scale, is still pretty much the normal fare for roleplaying games. Fantasy, science fiction, a bit of horror. There’s also the stuff that I’ve seen people online have apoplectic fits over. The stuff with ambitions in artistic expression, that seek to challenge their players. The games that fully reject the idea that games have to be fun. They explore themes like sexuality, death, war, and madness. They are mature games, and not in the sense that porn films are mature, either.

It is actually rather hard to discuss them without descending into sensationalism, but then, the quote about Hamlet comes straight from the book. That particular larp, played in Stockholm, restaged Shakespeare’s play into a bunker in an alt-historical Denmark in the 1940’s, where the royalty and whoever managed to get in before the doors closed are partying and plotting like it’s the end of the world while revolution rages outside.

I didn’t actually “get” Hamlet from the article like I get the other larps in the book. The article in Nordic Larp feels slightly vague and perhaps falls victim to the sensationalism itself. Fortunately, every article also includes suggestions for further reading, which led me to Johanna Koljonen’s article “I Could a Tale Unfold Whose Lightest Word Would Harrow up Thy Soul” in the Knutepunkt essay collection Beyond Role and Play, edited (again!) by Stenros and Montola, which was far more informative. The collection is also available online.

There’s one other article in the book that I thought could’ve been fleshed out a bit more, En stilla middag med familjen (A Nice Evening with the Family), which is another larp adaptation of theatre plays, in this case seven classics of Nordic drama: Ibsen’s A Doll’s House and Ghosts, Strindberg’s Playing with Fire and Miss Julie, Leffler’s True Women and Jansson’s Moominpappa at Sea. This article, I feel, would’ve benefited from some actual anecdotes about how the (theatrical) plays interacted with (game) play. However, this one has even more written about it, mostly in another Knutepunkt book, Playground Worlds (edited by guess who?).

Those two are the only articles I found insufficient in detail or information. For the most part, the book’s articles tell me sufficiently about their topics to satisfy my curiosity, and tell me where to go for more.

Nordic Larp also includes the quintessential Nordic art larp, Luminescence, which is about a therapy group for people with terminal cancer, set in 800 kilos of flour.

Then there’s the one that 4chan flipped out over, PehmoYdin (SoftCore), and specifically The Sin-Filled Nights of Bratislava, a larp inspired by 120 Nights of Sodom. There’s a four-part post series about it on the LARPwriting blog. I’d also link the 4chan thread, but I can no longer find it. It was very entertaining in a “whoa, are these people stupid” kinda way.

Then there are the less controversial but still interesting games, like The Executive Game, which was a series of five games, inspired by The Sopranos, about a mafia poker game (five-card draw, in case you’re interested), and Mellan himmel och hav (Between Heaven and Sea), which explored the concept of gender and marriage. In the game’s world, far more important than one’s physical sex was their soltid, the new gender system that replaced male and female. You were either a morning person or an evening person. Marriages were between four people – an evening man and woman, and morning man and woman. The game was inspired by Ursula K. LeGuin, and the further reading section lists her novels A Fisherman of the Inland Sea and The Birthday of the World. There are also essays discussing the game in Beyond Role and Play, for the curious.

Mellan himmel och hav is a bit of an oddball among the serious drama larps, since I think it’s the only one in the book that wasn’t focused on some aspect of human misery.

In Closing

Nordic Larp sets out to present the full scale of what you can do in a larp and how people have done it, be it entertainment, social commentary or artistic expression. I think it accomplishes all of this, and looks good doing it. It’s an excellent introduction to the topic and tells you where to go for further information (though I can’t actually find web addresses for any of the Knutepunkt books, which might be handy to have since they’re free online). Though it uses concepts and terminology developed in the study of larp, it explains those concepts as it goes and does not require prior familiarity, merely an open mind.

It’s a fucking awesome book. It’s big, it’s well written and it looks beautiful, which is important for a coffee-table book like this. What quibbles I have are relatively minor. The production values are absurdly high for something that costs only €30. If you have any interest at all in the topic, I can heartily recommend you buy it.

New Year, New Campaigns

At the dawn of a new year, it is traditional to look back on what has happened and forward to what is yet to come.

Gaming-wise, 2010 was a rewarding year. On a personal level, I got to try out interesting games I’ve wanted to run at the TYR game nights. The One Module, Every Game project hasn’t been a resounding success, what with the repeated canceling of the Eclipse Phase session, but it’s not a failure either. It will go on in 2011.

Also, my Rise of the Runelords campaign was seen to its glorious finish, and the group is chomping at the bit to begin the next campaign.

More generally, we were showered with craploads of new games. James Edward Raggi IV gave us Lamentations of the Flame Princess: Weird Fantasy Role-Play and promptly sold it out. I got my copy at Ropecon, but if you didn’t, don’t worry – the Grindhouse Edition is coming out soon. It’s not for kids, though – the art is gonna be quite something.

From Fantasy Flight Games came Deathwatch, the third and (thus far) last of the Warhammer 40,000 roleplaying games – the Space Marine game. I picked up my copy some weeks ago and have been flipping through it. One of my players has expressed a tentative interest in running it, too. I cannot yet give a review, but it looks very pretty and very complex. If I ever do get to play it, I expect there will be some musing on the topic of roleplaying Space Marines.

Under the radar slipped Cubicle 7’s Laundry RPG. It’s not about washing dirty linen, but a spy thriller game, where you’re up against cultists and beasts of the Cthulhu Mythos. The game is based on Charles Stross’s novel series of the same name, numbering The Atrocity Archives, The Jennifer Morgue and The Fuller Memorandum, which I can heartily recommend. The game itself uses BRP, which is a handy thing, compatibility-wise. It’s more than a bit like Delta Green, too, but apparently the two have been created independently with no knowledge of the other. Also, The Laundry is far more British.

I would also like to bring up Evil Hat’s Dresden Files RPG, which I was already waiting for in my New Year’s post in 2010. Well, it came, and it was awesome, and I should be starting a campaign of that as well, once we get the schedules working and the website fixed up.

Finally, there was a neat little (at least when compared to most skyscrapers) book that came out in Finland just before Christmas, Nordic Larp. I will discuss it in more depth in a couple of days.

As for next year…

I don’t actually see any new games in the pipeline that I’m really excited about. There’s the English-language version of Stalker coming out, of course, and Cubicle 7’s Lord of the Rings licence game, but I already have the former and I’m wary about the latter. There’s a handful of Finnish releases that may or may not materialize for Ropecon, with Noitahovi looking the most promising, but we’ll see. Naturally, I’ll still buy everything RPG-related that gets released in this country.

This is not to say that the future looks disappointing, more that I currently have all the games I need and then some. Many of those games have fully-fledged product lines, which I will be following. Bestiary 2 just came out for Pathfinder RPG, for instance, with some 300 new monsters and awesome art, and there might be a Dresden Files sourcebook in the works as well. Plenty of things to keep me occupied.

And then there’s the actual, you know, gaming. Serpent’s Skull adventure path for Pathfinder RPG should be kicking off February-ish, and before that, I’m trying to get a Rogue Trader minicampaign done in some four sessions. There’s also that Dresden Files campaign we’ve been bouncing about with the Alter Ego people, which will be a thing of terrible beauty if we ever get it off the ground. Also, there’s one guy I may be able to rope into running Deathwatch, and another who’s pretty much promised to run the Curse of the Crimson Throne adventure path after we’re done with Serpent’s Skull…

Finally, there’s a Ropecon to organize, and the third one I’ll be watching from behind the Game Master info desk. It’s in the Dipoli Conference Center, Espoo, Finland, from 29th to 31st of July. Be there, for it will be the most awesome gaming convention known to man.