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.

6 thoughts on “Cancer, Dragons, Sex, Spaceships and Armies at War – A Review of Nordic Larp

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