There Goes the Virginity – My First Larp Experience

It had become a sort of a running joke in the local scene that I do not larp. Like all jokes do, it grew old.

Also, someone floated the idea that I’d be kidnapped and bodily transported to the next installment of the Ysaria larp saga. I decided that it was a prudent idea to pre-empt that plan and sign up for a larp on my own accord. Also, the bastards at Alter Ego set me up a trap. Back when they were planning the larp conference Solmukohta, someone else came up with the idea of a sitsit larp. As is well known, I have a hard time turning down a sitsit invitation, and I foolishly made the promise that if they do that, I shall willingly relinquish my larp virginity. Alcohol was involved.

Thus, last Friday, I played my first larp, the 300th Anniversary of the Pan-Ugric Nation. What follows is an exacting and explicit description of it all.

Key Concepts

Before I continue, I should probably explain some key concepts about the larp’s setting that are peculiar to the Finnish student tradition, such as sitsit and nations. To foreigners, the concepts will probably be… foreign, and to be honest, the layers of tradition, history and inside jokes are laid so thick that they’re generally impenetrable to anyone not immersed in the environment. Those readers familiar with the culture may feel free to skip down to the next header.

First of all, sitsit, or “sittning” as Wikipedia knows it, is an academic dinner party in the Finnish and Swedish tradition. A typical sitsit includes a three-course meal, a great deal of singing and often a lot of drinking. The level of formality varies, and the framework is very flexible and allows for a lot of interesting variation. The most formal ones tend to be the anniversary parties of university student unions and nations, which would typically have a white tie dress code, an invited guest speaker and very rigid take on rules. There are rules for everything, such as how to toast after a song, what songs you are allowed to sing at which parts of the proceedings, under what circumstances is it acceptable to leave the table and so forth. Those are pretty rare, though, and even I’ve never been to one. Most sitsit are rather less strict and I’ve never been invited anyplace with a dress code above formal. Usually, you can get by with a dark suit (or the female equivalent), or in the case of theme sitsit, whatever the theme requires.

Personally, I have an unhealthy affection for sitsit and by a quick count have 37 of them under my belt, two as a master of ceremonies and a few where I’ve given speeches. Last year, I edited a songbook. The biggest sitsit I’ve been to had 207 guests, including Her Majesty’s Ambassador to Finland, Matthew Lodge, and the smallest had just six people. I’ve been to sitsit wearing a suit, a tuxedo, a tailcoat, elf ears, a kilt, a monk’s robe, a Czechoslovakian PVC overcoat and an East German gas mask, and my red student overalls. One, a couple of years ago, was on a bus that went around Pirkanmaa (less fun than it sounds – the food was bad, a bus has no acoustics for this kind of thing and one of the MCs laboured under the mistaken impression that racism is funny), and another was on a boat. Thus, I can speak with some authority when I state that Alter Ego, the roleplaying club of Helsinki University, are among the masters of the craft. I could go on at length about the topic and differences in traditions, but this is not a blog about my drinking habits, and so I’ll just summarize: at sitsit, you sit at a table, usually in formalwear. There will be food, and people will sing a lot. During a song, you are not allowed to eat, and it is a generally held truth that if you get to eat your main course while it’s still warm, it’s a bad sitsit. After a song, you toast the people sitting adjacent to you. Unless you ordered the nonalcoholic option, you will usually be rather tipsy towards the end. The songs are generally easy drinking songs that sound decent even when sung by a bunch of people who aren’t too good at it and may also be pretty sloshed. A student, it is said, sings rather than well.

The other key concept is the nations. They are a type of student organization peculiar to Finland and Sweden, and the oldest students’ clubs in the country. The nations have a specific legal status outlined in the university law, and to my understanding, you can’t found a new nation. Of course, there would not be much point to doing so, since the nations are organized according to the old provinces of Finland. You have the Savonian Nation, the Tavast Nation, and so on. The idea was that a student would join the nation of his home region. The oldest of them track their history to the mid-17th century, and most of them have quite a bit of property.

Actually, if you count them as belonging to the student unions, the Helsinki University Student Union is one of the wealthiest in the world with assets measured in hundreds of millions of euros, because of a quirk of city planning. Way back when they were building Helsinki and had established the university there, the students were given some worthless land that was basically a marsh somewhere at the edge of town. Fast-forward a couple of centuries and the economic and social centre of the city tiptoed westward, resulting in the current situation where the central point of Helsinki is considered to be at the doorstep of the Old Student House and the students own something like half of central Helsinki. For instance, there’s a block next door to the Parliament that belongs to the Ostrobothnian Nation.

So, basically, the nations are something of a big deal. The Pan-Ugric Nation, upon which our tale focuses, is of course completely fictional. We now conclude our brief introduction to Finnish student tradition and get on with the game.

Occasionally, the tradition requires you to stand on your chair. © Tuomas Puikkonen

Occasionally, the tradition requires you to stand on your chair. © Tuomas Puikkonen

Who Am I?

My character, mailed to me the week before the game, was the first-year chemistry student Jaakko Nevalainen. He was a bit of a thief, which had resulted in some unfortunate tension at his apartment, where his roommate Sauli was angry because someone had nicked his milk from the fridge and some records. This tension motivated Jaakko to get a new apartment and see if perhaps the apartment liaison of the nation could do something for him. Another thing he had recently stolen was a folder containing details of some rather shady financial transactions between the nation’s curator Aleksi Stjernvall (chairman, basically) and Laura Välske, a representative in the student union’s general assembly. Other characters mostly viewed him as a promising new recruit for… various things. Also, he’d showed up at the party well ahead of time and noticed this weird bag in the foyer.  He’d checked it out and found some old bones. However, he heard voices approaching and chucked it into some random box he spotted so he could investigate things later, but when he returned, the box was gone.

Also present were his contacts: his roommates Daniel and Sauli, and a friend of his in the nation, the theology student Aapeli Ullakko. Due to late registration, absent was Joel, a drug-dealing musician who’d already graduated and was my character’s second cousin. I did not find this out until after the game and was rather perturbed by his insistence in offering me the nose candy in the gents’.

The first-year student attending his first big academic dinner party pretty much mirrored the game as my first larping experience. Another player described the character writing process as (freely translating) “piss-take writing”, where characters had an aspect or two caricaturing the players they were tailored for. In good humour, I might note. I had trouble keeping a straight face when I realized that a player active in the politics of the Left Alliance was playing a right-wing nationalist character. In the registration form, we also got to pick some preferences for what kind of plots we would prefer to have. I no longer recall accurately the sliding scales they had, but I think “intrigue” was one and “relationship drama” another. I also don’t rightly remember where I placed my sliders, but I think I opted for moderation. First larp and everything, didn’t want to jump in the deep end and find I can’t swim. After all is said and done, I’m not that good a roleplayer. I was nervous as all hell despite knowing nearly all of the other players and considering most of them good friends, but I figure a first-year student at his first big formal dinner would also be nervous. Especially when he found out who he’d be sitting with.

Seating order is another significant thing at sitsit, since they’re the people you’ll be spending the next four, five or even six hours with. Tradition states that one should be flanked and opposed at the table by people of the opposite sex, one of whom will be your avec (or designated avec if you didn’t bring your own). In practice, you almost never have an equal mix of sexes so you do the best you can. I had my roommate Daniel at my left. To my right, Professor of Mathematics, Ville Kovanen (oh dear), and opposite Kaarlo Susimetsä, the nation’s photographer, incidentally played by Tuomas Puikkonen, who graciously gave permission to use his work to show in addition to telling here. Also, made me look good in a tailcoat. There were also the aforementioned Laura Välske and the apartment liaison, Mirjami Kiuru, in close proximity. Plot-significant characters for me.

Jönssi's toast. © Tuomas Puikkonen

Jönssi’s toast. On the left, Jaakko Nevalainen and on the right, Daniel Haanperä. © Tuomas Puikkonen

What Happened?

The larp began with a short cocktail event before moving on to the dinner party part. This was good for socializing and mingling and meeting people, and included the welcoming toasts (It should be noted that in the interests of maintaining a proper 360° illusion, alcohol in the game was represented with alcohol. If the game sucked for you, you could always just get hammered.), as well as the unveiling of a new painting commissioned to honour this, the 300th anniversary of the Pan-Ugric Nation. It was very modern and might be described as a less than aesthetically pleasing experience, which was good for giving people something to talk about as they eased into character.

As a side note, the artist was named as Aldous Kohl, who was a vampire prince in another Alter Ego larp a couple of years ago.

Sauli was on my case from the beginning, suspecting me of nicking his records. I owned up to throwing away the milk, claiming it’d smelled funny and as a chemist, I’d know when organic matter has gone off. He went off to gather witnesses against me and apparently found some, but because of reasons I never found out more about them.

Another major plot point in the larp’s background was a legal row between the Pan-Ugric Nation and the Ural Nation, who’d together built a brand new building for the two of them that now lay unused because they could not agree on who had the rights to which parts of it. There were three representatives from the Ural Nation, including their curator, Henrik Mäyränen, at the party. They brought a gift. In a box. You can see where this is going. Our curator, of course, went to accept it, leading to pretty much the funniest moment in the game.

Curator Mäyränen first gave his speech about how this gorgeous vase would look quite magnificent in the lesser hall of mirrors at the new student house. Curator Stjernvall: “Oh, it’s fragile?”

How to make a lasting impression on your guests. Not to mention the floor. © Tuomas Puikkonen

How to make a lasting impression on your guests. Not to mention the floor. © Tuomas Puikkonen

The bones, incidentally, were quickly gathered up from the wreckage by Aapeli, at the command of Professor Kovanen. Interesting, that.

Soon after, Mr Susimetsä and Miss Välske recruited me to portray myself as an ardent fan of Curator Mäyränen and obtain his autograph on this blank piece of paper. Despite being transparent as all hell, it pretty much succeeded, except that the original paper got torn and stepped on and possibly eaten, and I had to settle for something scrawled on notebook paper, complete with a dedication “To Jaakko”. Not quite as useful for forging legal documents, but Susimetsä and Välske seemed happy enough with it.

Those bones, then, were the bones of Jönssi, the war hero dog mascot of the Pan-Ugric Nation, who held an important place in the Nation’s tradition. Toasts were drunk in his memory. Or her, as the hardline feminist culture admin of the Nation pointed out. The bones had also some mystic significance, as I found out after the main course, when Aapeli, Professor Kovanen, and the movie club’s chairman Vladimir Tikkanen requested that I join them in the smoking room. There, the Professor conducted some sort of mystic ritual and suddenly I realized I’d had the genre all wrong. I’d thought it was college comedy, while in fact we were operating in urban fantasy.

Soon after the ritual, a GM approached me and told me that from that point on, I was Ville Kovanen, Professor of Mathematics, and would be offended when people treated me as a first-year student. In a not completely unrelated bit of trivia, said GM’s own character in the game was also his Hunter: the Vigil character from a campaign set in the University of Helsinki, a connection I only made afterwards. Their quote page is hilarious.

Hijinks ensued and I caused great confusion with the other professors present. I think most believed I had partaken of the devil’s dandruff that my second cousin Joel was semi-secretly distributing in the men’s room. Professor Kovanen, the real McCoy, of course knew what had happened and ran some interference and damage control while I fought to keep a poker face of righteous indignation. For one thing, at this point Sauli came to confront me with his witnesses, unaware that Jaakko Nevalainen was no longer on the premises, and the Prof led him away and quietly paid him off. Aapeli, it later turned out, had also become a Kovanen clone, but in a more subtle fashion. Vladimir had been included in the ritual but had either made his save or he was a vampire and immune to such mortal magics. If there’s ever a sequel (which was discussed and not dismissed out of hand), there will probably be several Professors Kovanen among the characters.

Among the faux pas committed were taking the Professor’s seat and rising up to drink the toast of those who started their university career in 1986, as well as barging into a position unbecoming of my lowly station in the group shot at the end. The great thing about larping the sitsit was that you could break the etiquette and decorum in ways that would never fly at a normal sitsit.

There were, of course, also drinks thrown around, Curator Stjernvall receiving one from his fiancée. There were speeches, including one particularly impassioned and fiercely patriotic one extolling the virtues of Jönssi, by the Nation’s host, Teijo Tulervo, that caused in me a paralyzing uncertainty of whether I was supposed to take it seriously or laugh at its brilliant, full-throated absurdity. There were break-ups, and the knighting of the new Knights of the Karelian Pine.

Curator Stjernvall and another Kodak moment. © Tuomas Puikkonen

Curator Stjernvall and another Kodak moment. © Tuomas Puikkonen

At the end, there was a group photo and it was over.

What I Took Away From All This

No, not that way. My character was the kleptomaniac, not me. Was being the operative word, since I think he sorta died.

To answer the obvious questions: yeah, I had fun. Yeah, I’m willing to do this again.

What I could’ve done better: I should’ve pursued that shady dealings plotline more aggressively and right from the start. I figure it would’ve been pretty juicy if I’d managed to get it activated. I also should’ve realized I might need the folder and acquired a suitable prop for myself. Part of my timidity with it was inexperience, part an attempt to gather more info about the situation, and part my inability to figure out how I should really approach it. Then, poof, I was Professor Kovanen and that plotline was gone. The Professor transition sort of terminated all my plots that relied on me being proactive in advancing them. With the others, such as Sauli’s accusations, it intersected and went in weird directions, which at least created content.

Another thing I need to work on is my poker face. While the alcohol did have some effect, I probably grinned far too much, especially when I should have been offended and indignant. Deeply in character I was not.

What I think I did well: when I became Professor Kovanen, I went with it and damn the decorum. There’s no need to worry about consequences beyond the immediate when you’re playing a one-shot, which I find liberating. Also, a game of this type contrasts strongly with my usual fare of Pathfinder Society. There, you essentially play to win, while here we played to have fun, keeping in mind that even losing can have entertainment value. It’s the kind of game that I should play more often. There’s also the fact that there wasn’t much in the way of game mechanics to get in the way, which was refreshing.

It seems I’m a larper now, then. Huh.

On a more general level, I think that the university is an underutilized game setting. I know there’s Alma Mater, and GURPS: IOU and that one playset for Fiasco, but there could be more, and good luck trying to find that first one. In your average a bit older university, you have a load of really ancient tradition that most people no longer understand but is adhered to because of TRADITION, DAMMIT! This intersects with a student body of young, modern people who form their own cliques and social groupings and clubs with their own in-jokes and weirdo traditions. Half the faculty in any given university seems deranged and the other half is. There are real, honest-to-goodness secret societies. In German universities, they still practice the art of academic fencing, where the goal is to get spiffy scars. In Oxford and Cambridge, the traditions are so arcane and inscrutable that they could pass for magical rituals. The politics of both the faculty and the students council can be amazingly backstabby and, of course, they are good breeding ground for political radicalism (my university spent most of the 1960s and 70s being full of Communists). Especially in smaller cities, there’s tension between the university, populated mostly by young people from out of town, and the locals. In Tampere, there’s still a sizable population that thinks it’s still a factory town. It’s a grievously underutilized setting.

One big, happy family. Note the portraits of former curators in the background. © Tuomas Puikkonen

One big, happy family. Note the portraits of former curators in the background. © Tuomas Puikkonen

Oh dear. Now they’re trying to cajole me into some weird game in Latvia, of all places.

7 thoughts on “There Goes the Virginity – My First Larp Experience

  1. Do you feel that the actual fun part was acting out your character (or immersion into it) or playing liberally, because it was a one-shot? I conclude from your post that it was the latter. Interestingly my little experience of larp is exactly the former. I really wouldn’t dare to rock the boat in a larp as hard as I’d do in a table-top rpg, one-shot or not.

  2. A bit of column A, a bit of column B, really, as well as column C, following the wacky hijinks of others. The thing about rocking the boat is that currently the pretty much only tabletop gaming I get is in Pathfinder Society, where rocking the boat is frowned upon since the assumption is that you’re playing to win, and screwing it up for yourself will screw it up for the rest of the party, which may mean the loss of player characters people have spent years building up and consequently may make the player unable to participate in scenarios of certain levels until they’ve built up another PC to the same levels.

    Additionally, the setting was a sitsit, where we have rules of etiquette and codes of conduct to follow, and the imp of the perverse delights in an opportunity to break the rules, now and then.

    Of course, there’s also the thing that once I became a clone of Kovanen, that became the only content left for me in the game, since every interaction after that, regardless of what it started out as, became about me being Professor Kovanen, who was getting steadily more annoyed by everybody having forgotten his name. There really wasn’t much else for it except a steady escalation.

    It should also perhaps be noted that the student formerly known as Jaakko Nevalainen was far from the only person present to cause eyerolling with conduct unbecoming. The threshold for intentional social gaffes steadily lowered during the event.

  3. The nations have a specific legal status outlined in the university law

    Or to nitpick, the ones at the University of Helsinki (plus the one over at Aalto) do. Nations at other universities aren’t legally nations.

  4. Pingback: Ysaria III: A Tale of Pirate Dwarves, Black Wizardry and Hangover Cures | Worlds in a Handful of Dice

  5. Pingback: Cabaret – The Musical Larp | Worlds in a Handful of Dice

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s