States of Play, the New Larp Book

In my last post, I referred to States of Play, a new book of articles about larp and roleplaying that was released last week. They do this every year for the larp conference Knutepunkt (or Solmukohta, as its known when it’s in Finland).

I could not make it to Solmukohta itself due to budget issues and a scheduling conflict, but I did make it to the release party to grab my copy. For an exhaustive description of Solmukohta, I recommend Evan Torner’s blog post. It sounds awesome and kinda makes me regret I wasn’t there, but on the other hand, I am not struck down with a respiratory infection and can write this blog post. Also, what I actually did on the weekend included singing dirty drinking songs with Her Majesty’s Ambassador to Finland in an 18th-century banquet hall, so I can’t bring myself to regret all that much.

Moving on. This is not a review, as such, since I was involved in the making of the book as a proofreader. Think of it more as me going through the book and going “ooh, this is nifty!” at things.

Indeed, there’s a great deal that is nifty in these 180 pages. If you want the hardcopy, the Society for Nordic Roleplaying can probably help you there, but they also supply the free PDF. It doesn’t come with the DVD, but apart from that it’s got everything that the book itself does, typos and all.

The book starts off nicely, with a series of photos from Solmukohta 2000, where Mike Pohjola released his Manifesto of the Turku School, a copy of which was promptly burned. From there, it goes on to Elin Nielsen’s article “High on Hell”, which is about a larp called Kapo. Kapo wins the 2012 Award for Game That Drives NiTessine Drink Just for Reading About It. It’s basically Stanford Prison Experiment: The Larp, and Nielsen seeks to explain why people (or at least her) make and play larps like these. This is good, because with quotes like:

I was gangraped Ars Amandi style, bad enough in itself, but for me, the truly humiliating part was being forced to caress a metal stand while calling it by the name of my in-game boyfriend. I broke down. Completely.

I must admit that I was wondering. I do get why, but I still don’t want to be anywhere near these games. There’s not enough alcohol in the world. There’s also a documentary about Kapo on the DVD, which wasn’t nearly as unpleasant to watch as I expected.

Ars Amandi, by the way, is a larp technique for simulating physical intimacy. To quote Emma Wieslander’s article “Rules of Engagement” from Beyond Role and Play, the 2004 Solmukohta book:

It is both a very limiting and enabling method. The lovers restrict themselves to touching only each other’s hands, arms, shoulders and necks as part of the lovemaking. Above armpit and below earlobes is permitted. To make this exciting they use eye contact, a lot of focus and vary the touch in sensual, rough or playful manners.

Fortunately, the rest of States of Play is comparatively upbeat. Then, there are films about the Holocaust with more cheer than the above. Anyway, there are a couple of articles about a larp campaign in Helsinki called Valve. The first one of these is a documentation thing from the game masters, where they tell what the game is like and how it’s made. The second is one of the funniest pieces in the book, Juhana Pettersson’s “The Joy of Kidnapping”. His character is a kidnapper who hangs out with other kidnappers. Occasionally, they kidnap other player characters in their Kidnapping Van. The photo they picked for it is perfect, and I can’t even quote the article because I’d have to quote it in its entirety. As it says on the tin, he discusses what great fun it is to kidnap people. It uses the marvellous phrase “exploratory kidnapping”. Valve is another game featured on the DVD, with an 11-minute video clip. It was pretty nifty.

Then there’s the article “Golden Rule of Larp” by Simo Järvelä, which is about ethics and safety in larps. Lacking actual larp experience, I’m hesitant to evaluate the quality of the article’s content, but it is well written, and with the existence of games like Kapo, Gang Rape and Fat Man Down, not to mention the 2011 winner of the Award for Game That Drives NiTessine Drink Just for Reading About It, Journey, it’s important and somewhat assuring that there is discussion about how these games can potentially fuck you up and how that can be prevented.

After that there’s “A Moment of Weakness”, by Yaraslau Kot. This is an interesting one, since it tells of a larp that failed. In fact, one of the categories of article in the book is “Good Game Bad Game”, which is about personal larp experiences both positive and negative. I think, as did the editor apparently, that failure is a topic too easily overlooked. Failure can be embarrassing, sure, but there is a great deal that a failure can teach you, and it’s better to have people write articles about them so you can learn from their failures instead of having to make your own.

Another immensely funny article in the book is Mike Pohjola’s “Folk Fantasy”, about his larp Täällä Kirjokannen alla, which contains the following paragraph:

You swore by your dark god, Black Kullervo, the patron of suicide and incest, to save the world even if it killed you. You traveled with your plain women and miserable men, until you finally reached Pohjola, the top of the world. Your only solace was your girlfriend, less ugly than most of the women you knew.

He goes on to discuss the larp and folk fantasy, which is a label he came up with for describing fantasy that draws from the specific mythology and folk beliefs of a certain people. In this case, it’s Finnish, but he gives a recipe for creating folk fantasy from the myth and legend of any culture. For us, well…

Hatred of lords, sisu, foreigners, misery, sex robots, revolution, misery, dead people, giant penises and ancient poems. That is what Finnish fantasy is made of.

Personally, I think he went too easy on the misery, but then, he wasn’t writing fantasy Kapo so maybe he can be forgiven.

Continuing the themes of national and cultural identity is “Reliving Sarmatia”, Michał Mochocki’s article on using roleplaying games as a tool for shaping national identity and developing patriotic feeling in players, using the Polish game Dzikie Pola as a case study.

I am honestly not sure how I should feel about the article. It is one of the best-written articles in the book, with strong argumentation, attention to detail and a comprehensive bibliography. At the same time, it’s about, well, that. There’s an element of culture shock in reading it, since in Finland, the polite society keeps a certain distance from people who are focused this much on patriotism. On the other hand, we didn’t spend 45 years behind the Iron Curtain and have no historical or even mythical “Golden Age” to look back to. Poland… buggered if I know. The current republic is younger than I am. The building of identity may be what’s needed at this point. Hell, we had that happen in the 19th century, when a bunch of Swedish-speaking writers and statesmen basically invented Finland. I still think they need to make a caper film about the Fennomans.

I lack information on the situation in Poland to really judge this thing. Even so, if you applied this stuff in certain other nations, I’d be fucking terrified.

However, it makes a point to recommend Henryk Sienkiewicz’s novels, so it can’t be entirely evil. I can heartily recommend them. Sienkiewicz wrote in the late 19th century, and even the English translations of his work are nowadays in the public domain. His main work is probably the Trilogy, three historical novels set in 17th-century Poland. They’re available gratis for Amazon Kindle. Here’s the first one, With Fire and Sword. It’s followed by The Deluge (in two parts on Kindle) and Pan Michael.

They’ve also been filmed. The third part (called Colonel Wołodyjowski) came out in 1969, the second part, rather confusingly, in 1974 and the first part in 1999. They’re all directed by the same guy and the total running time is about the same as the complete extended edition of the Lord of the Rings trilogy. There’s sabre duels. Also, the two older parts are bloody impossible to find with subtitles in a language I can understand. May have to settle for German. They do seem to be available in full on YouTube, though.

Okay, digression over.

Another intriguing article is Alexey Fedoseev’s “Songs and Larp”, which discusses the various ways that song has been used as an element in Russian larps. It’s been utilised to evoke atmosphere, to create cultural immersion and even as a game mechanic. Since this parallels something I’ve been bouncing around mostly as a joke, I’m all sorts of excited about the article. I had a brief discussion with the writer before the States of Play release party, but missed the opportunity to pick his brain further.

The game idea I have is a tabletop RPG that’d somehow integrate student drinking songs into the mechanics, but I’ve yet to figure out how to do it. The name would be Rather than Well (“Mieluummin kuin hyvin”), after an old joke about how tech students sing. I think the name also crystallizes the attitude towards singing that such a game would require. You don’t need to be a great singer, or even a particularly good one, as long as you have confidence and the proper songs. Drinking and marching songs are good for this, since they’re generally pieces that will sound adequate even when bellowed out by a horde of drunks who couldn’t hit the broad side of a note if their life depended on it.

I am also reminded of a conversation I had with some of the Solmukohta organizers sometime last year, about a larp idea for A Week in Finland – the sitsit larp. It never happened, but if they’d done it, they would’ve accomplished something no mortal has yet achieved – they would have got me to larp.

I could go on. There are loads of interesting and fascinating articles in the book. There’s documentation of larps such as the Swiss “Shadowrun” and the Finnish “¡Lucha Libre!”, as well as “Valokaari”, about a larp that the organizers thought was an abject failure and the players loved. There’s Lizzie Stark’s “We Hold These Rules to Be Self-Evident”, discussing how the Knight Realms larp (or D&D, or World of Warcraft) is the American Dream. There’s Ari-Pekka Lappi’s “Playing Thus Spoke Zarathustra”, which is a very strange philosophical piece that I think I understand but can’t be sure since I never read Thus Spoke Zarathustra.

States of Play is a fascinating collection of articles about new ways to do roleplaying games. Though it is mostly larp-specific, there is material that can be mined for tabletop gaming. It offers glimpses into other gaming cultures beyond our own, where things are done in ways we hadn’t even thought of, or hadn’t thought possible. Stuff like this is valuable, even when it is about as far as humanly possible from what you’re doing at your game table. It broadens your horizons and reminds you that there’s more than one way to play, far more than one game to play, and perhaps the least intuitively and most importantly, more than one reason to play.

SCIENCE! – The Role-Playing in Games Seminar

Both my longtime readers will probably remember how I took that course on researching roleplaying games back in 2009 and reported about it in excruciating detail. Well, the gentlemen Stenros and Montola are back, and this time they brought some friends! On April 10th and 11th, the hypermedia lab at Tampere University hosted the Role-Playing in Games seminar. They do a spring seminar every year, and this year the theme was RPGs. So, we got what Jaakko Stenros speculated to be the largest gathering of RPG researchers in one place, ever. I’m told there were about 50 people present, though I wouldn’t quite go so far as to call myself a role-playing game researcher. Yet. I’ve had published pretty much every kind of text related to roleplaying games except the academic paper. Its time will come and there are bits about Living Greyhawk in my 2009 study journal that could be translated, expanded and refined into something that can stand daylight.

It was a working paper seminar. Researchers sent in their works-in-progress, which were then distributed to the registered attendees via e-mail in advance. There were 17 papers in total. You can see the list of people and their topics at the seminar’s website. At the seminar, they then presented their papers, which were first commented on by the expert commentators and then the rest of the audience. The experts were Torill Mortensen and J. Tuomas Harviainen. The criticism was constructive, the discussion was lively. The papers themselves were very interesting.

This being game studies, of course, it’s all ridiculously inter-disciplinarian. I don’t consider myself really qualified to even have an opinion on half of the papers because they’re so far from my field, English philology. I will, however, note that “The Correct Cthulhu and the Real Batman: Structuring the Power Relations in Cultural Semiospheres” is exactly as interesting as it sounds (which I guess would be deeply subjective, but I think it’s pretty nifty), and that Sarah Lynne Bowman’s “Social Conflict and Bleed in Role-Playing Communities” begs for the subtitle “The Ecology of the Drama Llama”.

For those who do not know, the Drama Llama is a fell beast that rises up from the pumpkin patch and brings drama to all the nice boys and girls. Not the good kind of drama.

Most of the stuff relevant to my interests was presented on the first day, such as Evan Torner’s “Empty Bodies and Time in Tabletop Role-Playing Game Combat”, which was right up my alley, as were the four papers in the Playing with Text sessions. On the second day, the edu-larp stuff was less interesting to me since I’m desperately trying to avoid the career of a teacher and I don’t larp, though Michał Mochocki made his presentation intriguing, and the stuff being done in Brazil is just amazing. Finally, there was Ashley Brown’s “Threesomes, Waterfalls, and Healing Spells: The utility of magic, fantasy, and game mechanics in erotic role-play in World of Warcraft“, which was quite interesting. (Okay, how could it not be? Being academic text, though, it was not prurient in the least. Lesbian Night Elves didn’t come up until the audience comments.) This much I will say… being the GM patrolling in Winterfell or wherever to make sure that there’s no digital nookie being had amongst the snowbanks must be among the weirdest jobs ever.

I can’t give you a link to the papers. They’re works in progress and not meant for public consumption – which is also why I refrain from discussing their contents in greater depth – though there will be a special issue of the International Journal of Roleplaying with a handful of them once they’re good and done. I’ll try and keep an eye out for the others as well.

I will note, though, that I have now witnessed a serious academic paper discussing Harry Potter’s penis. I hear they cut most of it.

What I can give you access to is our Twitter hashtag, #rpig. I really have no idea if anyone who wasn’t there can get anything out of it, but that’s essentially the MST3K track of the seminar, observations on Twitter made during presentations and commentary. More importantly, people used it to post links to articles and books mentioned during the discussion. I find this a fascinating use of the service.

Additionally, there’s Rafael Bienia’s blog, where he has photos of the event from both days. He is also now the curator of the largest collection of photographs of the back of my head in the world. (Presumably also the backs of several other people’s heads, but I can’t be sure and anyway, this concerns me less.) Likely of more interest to the public at large, he has a link collection to resources for studying role-playing games.

For me, the event was an immensely motivating experience. It felt kinda like going to a gaming convention, a feeling enhanced by the seminar being bookended by A Week in Finland events, a pub crawl on the preceding night and the States of Play release party on Wednesday.

It was also a humbling experience (not to be confused with a humiliating experience [Stenros 2007]). They’re a valuable thing to have, every once in a while. There’s still a lot of work ahead of me before I can really engage at an event such as this at the assumed level. Even so, it was awesome.

After the seminar ended, we all boarded a train and headed to the States of Play release party. It’s a great book, and I am proud to have been a part of making it, however small. I will tell you all about it next week. For now, regardless of how much of a media construct Felicia Day is, I feel kinda like this: