My Ropecon Schedule

Ropecon is just around the corner! Like, starting this Friday.

As usual, I’m busy expounding my opinions on all kinds of things. The programme’s been out for a while now, and I’m personally appearing on the following three items.

Friday, 21:00-22:00: All the mistakes we’ve made
Massi and her fantastic guest speakers share their strangest, most magnificent and just plain disastrous mistakes in the name of designing more or less great games and events. By sharing our mistakes we all learn that failing is not the same as being a failure, it is part of designing. Let’s learn from our mistakes and laugh the shame away together!

Saturday, 14:00-15:00: Translating Role-Playing Games
A role-playing game translator tells about his work, his process, and the challenges therein. Expect strange linguistic trivia and wild anecdotes. Jukka Särkijärvi has translated Stalker, Astraterra, and Chernobyl Mon Amour into English and The Whispering Road into Finnish.

Saturday, 22:00-04:00: Hunter: The Vigil – Doubting Souls
Guest of Honor Monica Valentinelli leads a team of players through a one shot campaign. Join them to see if their characters survive the hardships of the 17th century. “In 1690, violent clashes, supernatural beliefs, and demonic influences spelled disaster for Salem Village and its surrounding towns, while others fought werewolves and vampires on the frontier. With so much at risk, only god-fearing men and women were deemed innocent — and those were few indeed. You play a hunter in these dark times, forced to question your fellow villagers to discern friend from foe and bring them to justice the way hunters know how.”

There’s a load of other cool stuff on offer, but here are a few I’ve marked down for myself and will probably miss because I’m too busy catching up with friends.

Friday, 18:00-19:00: White Wolf – The Evolution of Monsters
Vampire: The Masquerade was built on a combination of the classic Gothic vampire novel and the late 80’s / early 90’s literary ”punk” trend of injecting irreverent perspectives and socially conscious social analysis into stale fiction genres. But there is so much more to say. How does Vampires imagining of the undead, werewolves and monsters differ from those of legend and literary analysis? How far have literature and games strayed from their literary and legendary sources of inspiration and have they lost something along the way? This talk also includes hints on the direction we have mapped out for the monsters of the World of Darkness as they face the tumultuous changes of the 21st century.

Saturday, 20:00-21:00: A Talk of Darkness
Come and join Guest of Honor Monica Valentinelli and operations director Matt M McElroy from Onyx Path, as they meet up with WhiteWolf lead storyteller Martin Ericsson and game designer Juhana Petterson, for a talk about the world in which all of their careers entwine: The World of Darkness. The game industry and storyteller veterans talk about their love for the lore and share war stories from their respective careers. The talk is moderated by renown cosmologist, writer and role playing enthusiast Syksy Räsänen.

Sunday, 9:00-10:00: Adaptation to Larp
How can you adapt existing works of art into the format of a larp? Works like books, plays or music? Are there different strategies for different media, and what have been done so far? What happens when the beautiful predefined story meets the freedom, interaction and participation of larp? I will discuss works such as Inside Hamlet, A Nice Evening with the Family, College of Wizardry, MacBeth, Love stories by ABBA and the Jane Austen larp Fortune & Felicity.

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What’s up in the world? Award things, larp in Palestine, Sotakarjut!

The award season is upon us!

In addition to the Diana Jones shortlist I mentioned earlier, we now also have ENnie shortlists. First of all, I would like to note that Broodmother Sky Fortress, for whose PDF version I wrote Pathfinder RPG stats, picked up one of the Judges’ Spotlight awards. I’m pretty sure the win has jack to do with the PF stats, and everything to do with Jeff Rients’s insane visions, Ian MacLean’s art, and Jim Raggi’s uncompromising attitude toward quality. So, congratulations to Jeff! It was fun to write for!

Lamentations of the Flame Princess has a strong selection of stuff up for vote. Other things to look out for are 7th Sea’s second edition rules, and Free League’s Tales from the Loop. If that one doesn’t win Best Interior Art, there’s something wrong with the world. Voting for the ENnies runs from July 11th through 21st.

Also, it’s now nine days until the voting for the Hugo Awards closes, and I need to read one book per day to make it. Doable. It’s open only for Worldcon members, but there’s still time to pick up a membership, download the voters’ packet of something ridiculous like 30 books this year and lament about how you have to eat and sleep and work and can’t just read all day and night.

In other news, Sotakarjut is finally out. It’s Miska Fredman’s military sci-fi role-playing game about human/pig hybrids with Hans Zenjuga’s gorgeous, atmospheric artwork. It’s a bit of Revelation Space, a bit of Starship Troopers, a hint of 3:16 Carnage Among the Stars, a smidge of Aliens. I playtested it a long time ago. The system is very crunchy and looks fairly robust. Of course, at this point in time, it’s only available in Finnish. Now that it’s out, the next edition of Astraterra and the wrap on its English translation are next on the slab.

And finally, a group of Palestinian larp organizers are raising funds to take their organization to the next level, develop their practices and to be able to do more. The group includes people who ran Halat hisar in Finland, and they are doing impressive and important work in an area of the world that needs it. I threw them a bit of money, and you should consider doing the same.

College of Wizardry: The Challenge

Last month, a couple of weeks before embarking on my trip to play Cabaret, I was at a very different larp, in Poland. Some of you may remember my exploits at College of Wizardry 10 last year. This was more of the same, with a twist. Whereas most College of Wizardry games are about the beginning of the term at the magic college – or in some cases, the midterm exams – The Challenge lifted its concept from Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. Three colleges of wizardry had been invited to test their mettle against one another, to foster cross-cultural cooperation, and engage in hijinks, shenanigans, and skulduggery.

One of the photosets for The Challenge was released the evening before Cabaret. Talk about tonal whiplash.

The Red Trio, being totally serious. Photo by Iulian Dinu / Dziobak Larp Studios.

The three colleges were the Czocha College of Witchcraft and Wizardry, the setting of the main College of Wizardry games, Nibelungen Universität für Magische Bildung und Studien (or NIMBUS among friends), the school for the German-language spinoff, and New World Magischola, the North American college from the larp series of the same name. NIMBUS was the host school and the game was played at the Kliczków Castle in Poland. NIMBUS itself is located in an indeterminate place but probably somewhere in the Harz Mountains of Germany. The colleges all have five different Houses for students, but there is variation in the paths of the students and the subjects taught.

This was the first run of The Challenge. While my CoW experience was the tenth run of the series and there was a certain routine to the proceedings, this one hadn’t been tested out yet. I see myself as a fairly ideal player for a first run of something like this, because I will let a lot of stuff slide before allowing it to impact my game, and it takes a lot to stress me out. Not that a lot of the design issues were even visible to me until after the game. The Challenge was a good game and a great experience, but there’s work to be done yet.

Voodoo and Top Hats

This is where I talk about my character. I’m still not gonna buy you a drink.

My character this time around was Étienne Rabasse, a third-year artificier from Lakay Laveau, one of the houses of New World Magischola. I figured that this was pretty much my only chance for a very long time to get to play a NWM student, so I went for it.

Étienne Rabasse and distant cousin Dárjá Rosenrot, played by my mother. Photo by Iulian Dinu / Dziobak Larp Studios.

I’d originally signed up for an organizer-written character, but especially the NWM writing team took their time, the majority of players had chosen to write their own characters, and the fairly recognizable popcultural touchstones of Lakay Laveau had started working in my mind, so I finally mailed the lead writer that I’d be creating my own character.

Lakay Laveau is named after its founder Marie Laveau, an actual historical person, who was known as the Voodoo Queen of New Orleans. So I did some reading on New Orleans and the relevant history. Learning from my experience at CoW10, I went for something more outgoing, vocal, and outspoken than Charles Duke had been. I decided Étienne would be more or less a nice person and entirely unconcerned with anyone’s blood status, partly because I knew I’d get enough of that particular theme at Cabaret. He ended up rather what I imagine to be the archetypical Lakay Laveau.

Among my prep, I also put in a lot of hours working on an accent for Étienne, using YouTube videos. I have a knack for accents, but they’re hard. I usually affect a British Received Pronunciation, sometimes Standard American English. Étienne, though, was from the South, and not only the South, from New Orleans, which has a very specific local accent.

It’s also hideously difficult. I don’t know what the specific process for learning an accent is for actors, but at least they get to practice their lines beforehand. To pull off an accent at a larp, you need to be able to dress it on whatever topics emerge in conversation. Dialects are even harder, because you need to be able to use words outside your own active vocabulary spontaneously. Étienne, in the end, spoke with a generic Southern accent that I’m pretty sure hit most states south of the Mason-Dixon at one point or another. No “y’alls”, some French but less than I had planned.

Meet the Press

The regular College of Wizardry has its student clubs – the A.R.M., the W.A.N.D., the Basement Beer Brigade, the Dueling Club, and whatnot. The Challenge had just three: Marconi’s Mumbling Masters, the Devil’s Dealers, and the Snifflers. The first was the radio and the announcers, the second was the bookies and black marketers, and the last one was the staff of The Challenge Chronicle newspaper. Every student was sorted into one of these.

We originally agreed on an editorial triumvirate, with one editor from each school. Étienne was the NWM editor, and I ended up doing most of the work on the paper. If the concept was to produce a newspaper during the Challenge, well, isn’t that the same as a conzine? The execution was simple. I brought in my laptop that I’d prepared with a user account for the Snifflers that would keep anyone away from basically anything that wasn’t the Chronicle’s files. It was always on with the layout file for the next issue open, so anyone on staff – or hell, outside of it but that never happened – could wander in and type up a story at their leisure. At certain times I’d have the accumulated stuff printed out at the GM room – one page, sometimes two.

Spectating the duels. Photo by Ewan Munro.

I ended up doing most of the work. This is not an indictment of anyone else. It’s a big game, there’s lots of stuff going on, challenges and personal plotlines and everything, and it takes a certain mentality to go in the middle of the game to a quiet room and make up a column’s worth of stuff. Especially if English is not one’s first language. Me, I think this is fun, and it also served as character content when Étienne ceased to be a neutral and objective observer and took a political position after a public execution.

We did have a selection of filler material created before the game, but in the end none of it was used and everything that got printed was written during play. There was no shortage of interesting stuff to report on.

As a side note, the issue criticizing the execution was out within the hour. I’m a bit proud of that. Also, “I need to get the morning issue printed” was an excellent justification for getting a hall pass and wandering around after curfew. And if I mentioned in my CoW10 writeup that I wrote more stuff than during actual college courses, I’m pretty sure I outdid my output here.

The issues of The Challenge Chronicle, which are probably not interesting to anyone who wasn’t at the game, are available for download.

The Game Itself

I’m not going to go into a detailed account of everything. The game had something like 140 players, so there was a lot going on pretty much at all times. There were the obligatory rituals at night (we did one at the gazebo! it was awesome!), and werewolves, and vampires, and there was a lot of duelling, and drama, and the most mind-boggling wedding. One of my few regrets is that I didn’t have the time to cover it for The Challenge Chronicle.

And then there was the core of the thing, the actual challenges, the tasks we were given. The game of it. The winning.

In classic CoW, there is of course the House Cup and the race for House Points, but it’s not the main goal of the game, or at least doesn’t need to be. It’s perfectly legitimate not to give a damn about points and do your thing, deductions be damned. You can play to lose. In The Challenge, there’s less alibi for that since the characters are there as the school team, the students picked for their skill, talent, motivation or mystical and hard-to-define protagonistiness to represent their alma mater. When you’re there for the tournament, it’s hard to not care about the tournament.

So, playing to lose gets harder to justify to the character, and to the game. You play to win. This is something I feel should be reflected in the design of the challenges.

For the record, I have no knowledge of how the challenges were designed. Some of them were created by the organizers and most by the staff players. Most of the challenges worked well for me and I had great fun.

The duellist Daniel Fabel. Étienne was a fan. Photo by Ewan Munro.

There were a couple of places, though, where I felt that the rule that the target or recipient of a spell gets to decide its effect intersected badly with the goal to win, and the situation looked like the player of an opposing school had the opportunity to screw you over for points. I am merely commenting on the optics of the situation, not that anyone would have consciously done so. It was especially troublesome when the spell isn’t simple, like an attack spell – reacting to breakaleggio in the appropriate manner is easy. The duelling challenge worked fine and was a great show besides. However, dropping into a complex emotional situation is really hard, and while I do have trust in the judge players, it was not obvious or transparent how the challenge was scored.

Mostly, though? Great fun. There were ball games, in and out of the swimming pool! There was a scavenger hunt! There were riddles (which I sucked at)! There were a number of ethical challenges, and one about wandmaking, and one about potion mixing.

Incidentally, the House Cup also made an appearance at The Challenge. Since there were a total of fifteen Houses present and giving each one a common room of their own would have been silly, they were lumped up into five Trios, with one House from each school, who then acted as one to score points in the Collaboration Cup.

Conclusions

Yeah, I had fun. Now at my second CoW, I had a far better idea of how to play to catch plotlines and get into cool things. Yeah, I would go again, especially since of all the castles Dziobak Larp Studios uses, this is by far the shortest trip for me. There were some design issues, but nothing game-ruining and nothing that wasn’t fixable. The food was good, from the point of view of someone with no dietary limitations. I would also like to see how The Challenge would work with the over 200 players it was designed for.

Doing the newspaper was interesting. It’s something I would be interested in revisiting in larp, either at a CoW game or somewhere else entirely. I may pitch an article on the topic for next year’s Knutebook.

Oh, and I also discovered how to get the photographer’s attention: wear a cool hat.

Photo by Iulian Dinu / Dziobak Larp Studios.

Stuff I’ve Been Up To: PlayLab! Magazine

One of the reasons it’s been quiet over here at the Worlds in a Handful of Dice is that my writing energies have been directed elsewhere. I completed a rather large creative writing module at the university over the past two years, I have been doing some translation work, and then there’s a thing I can actually link you. Well, quite a few things, really.

These past two semesters, I was involved with PlayLab!, the webzine from the game researchers at the University of Tampere. It’s a game journalism course, basically, where the texts are peer-reviewed. I did nine pieces in total, and if PlayLab! returns next semester, I may be back. Here’s my stuff:

I also wrote three research highlight pieces, where we took a game studies paper from a recent publication and wrote a popularized version of the text. These are my own words, but not my own thoughts:

Also, the Conan: Adventures in an Age Undreamed Of review by Markku Vesa and Vampire: The Masquerade review by Aleksi Kesseli are based on game sessions that I ran.

And last but not least, we did a collaboration article where each of us listed their favourite game from 2016, PlayLab! Best Games of 2016. My pick was the Vampire larp End of the Line, which was also recently nominated for the Diana Jones Award.

Cabaret – The Musical Larp

This past Saturday, I took a leap out of my comfort zone and played at Cabaret. It was a musical larp, based on the musical of the same name. The setting was The Silhouette, the city was Berlin, and the year was 1933.

At this point it probably behooves me to mention that this post is going to deal with the same very heavy and unfortunately current themes as the original musical – the rise of the Nazis, and persecution of Jews, Roma, gender and sexual minorities, and the political Left. Just so you’re warned. Cabaret was not a happy larp. There were moments of comedy, sure, but at least my experience of it was a study of one of history’s greatest tragedies on the level of the individual.

I will also be using the word “diegetic” a lot. It’s a term yoinked by larp researchers from film and theatre studies and I am greatly amused I get to use it simultaneously in both contexts. Basically, it means that which is true in the world of the story. The classic example is background music. For example, in The Temple of Doom, Willie Scott’s opening act singing at the restaurant is diegetic. It’s her job and the other characters present enjoy the show. In contrast, when Indy and co. fly over the Himalayas, they’re not really doing so to the tune of the iconic John Williams theme, nor is there a bright red line being actually drawn across China. These are non-diegetic.

This is not a review, more like an analytical description and utterly biased observation of the larp as I experienced it. It’s also going to be really long since this is the only venue where I get to write as long as I want. Oh, and there’s gonna be spoilers. This may be relevant, since the game script is a thing you can ask for to produce yourself. This was not the first run of Cabaret, and I would not hope that it was the last. The below is solely a reflection of my own experience and my own game, and should not be taken as the view or experience of the designers or any other player, except for certain points made about the Nazis which I am given to understand were, indeed, intentional.

As a final warning, I’m gonna be talking about my character.

Though the larp was based on the musical, it was not slavish about it: the club was different, the date was two years later, and though certain characters had clear models in the source material, there were no familiar characters walking around.

The comments are moderated.

The Concept

The basic idea is simple: take a larp and mash in elements of the stage musical. It’s not the first time this has been done: Åbo by Night was a Vampire larp in a karaoke bar, the Russians have done stuff with songs as documented in States of Play, my very first larp experience included singing, the list goes on.

There were three different types of musical number: there were the meta-songs, which were non-diegetic musical numbers. The player would take the stage and belt out a song they’d practiced and prepared that would somehow express their character’s inner conflict. What our characters would witness would not be that character, who might be the 60-year-old landlady with no reason to be on stage, singing a song that likely would not even be composed for another 70 years, but an undefined musical act with the same emotional and thematic content. Basically, how most musicals operate. Everyone understands that in the story, Javert and Jean Valjean are not facing off in a song battle and that even if the Phantom did deliver his threats in verse, Monsieurs Firmin et André didn’t sing them out as they read them. It’s metaphor.

Then there were the stage shows, performed by a troupe of players who’d invested a lot of time and energy to practicing them. These were used to structure the larp and ground it in the source material. They were mostly drawn from Cabaret, except for one piece that had been adapted from Chicago. These existed as we saw them in the world of the game. The characters performing them were the singers and dancers of The Silhouette club, and it was their job to perform them.

Finally, there were the act-ending big pieces, which we all sang together. The first and the last were non-diegetic, while the second segued from a stage piece, was diegetic, and utterly chilling.

The performances were extensively workshopped on the game day. Indeed, there was a great deal of pre-game workshopping, around five hours of it, excluding breaks for food. This included figuring out the meta-numbers, getting to know the people in our social circles and practicing some safety techniques to escalate and de-escalate situations. Cabaret is the most extensively workshopped larp I have played, though I understand that four or five hours is not uncommon when it comes to the heavier and more complex Nordic games. To note: this was only my tenth larp.

The other part of the core concept is that it’s set in a drag club in Nazi Germany.

The Background

Cabaret the larp was adapted from Cabaret the musical, adapted from the play I Am a Camera, adapted from the novel Goodbye to Berlin. The novel was Christopher Isherwood’s semi-autobiographical account of his time in Berlin in the early 1930s, and was published in 1939. It’s somewhat distant from what eventually won an Oscar – for one thing, Isherwood’s self-insert character exists only as a passive observer in the book. “I am a camera”, he describes himself on the first page. In the stage musical, he’s Cliff Bradshaw, who has agency, who acts. Then, by that time Isherwood’s homosexuality was far less of a scandal.

Between the Imperial Germany of WW1 and the Third Reich, 1918-1933, Germany was the Weimar Republic. Weimar was a very liberal state with liberal policies. Berlin had a vibrant cultural scene and cabaret culture. Though (I think) homosexual acts were still criminal, the laws were largely not enforced. Magnus Hirschfeld’s Institute of Sex Research pioneered sexological research and advocated for women’s emancipation, sex education, contraception, and social acceptance of homosexual and transgender people.

As the curtains go up for Cabaret, that’s just about over. The date is the 10th of May, 1933. In 1929, the Wall Street Crash hit Germany hard, creating mass unemployment, widespread dissatisfaction and political unrest, paving the way for a populist, nationalist movement. Adolf Hitler has taken office in January 1933. The Reichstag went up in flames on the 27th of February. There’s a crackdown on cultural venues, and most cabarets are closed. The first of the concentration camps was opened in Dachau on the 22nd of March and promptly filled with members of the banned Communist Party. Around the same time, the Enabling Act was passed, allowing Hitler and his cabinet to bypass the Reichstag and the President in passing even unconstitutional laws. On April 26th, Hermann Göring signed a paper creating the Gestapo. On May 6th, the German Student Union, by this point in time an organization nearly synonymous with the National Socialist German Students’ League, raided the Institute of Sex Research and carried away their library and archives.

On the 10th of May, that library, along with works by Jewish, pacifist, or otherwise “degenerate” or “anti-German” authors was burned in great bonfires on the streets. Smoke darkens the skies of Berlin as a crowd of cultural workers, prostitutes, criminals, Nazis, homosexuals, singers, dancers, businessmen and intelligentsia gather for one more night of entertainment at The Silhouette.

It was a moment of uncertainty. This was six years before war would break out and Hitler hadn’t been in power for six months. Communism was a more than just a bogeyman, the USSR was right there, and was rightly considered a thing to fear. The horrors of the Holocaust would have been unthinkable. Although people were already leaving the country in self-imposed exile, street violence was commonplace and minorities were openly persecuted, nobody knew how far it would go before the end. Things had been happening quickly and folk were still reeling.

My Role in All This

Marcel Scholz, owner of The Silhouette. Pre-game photo
© Joel Höglund.

The characters were two or three pages long, name, history, contacts, social groups. Some room for players to fill in gaps. They were and also remain public, so you can go check them out yourself.

My character (no I’m not buying you a drink) was Marcel Scholz, second son of a wealthy Berlin lawyer and a Frenchwoman. He was the prodigal son, spending a lot of time in the universities of France and England, studying art, history, literature, architecture, the classics, and also the wine houses, theatres, and pubs. He’d finally been called home and given a cabaret to run by his father who had acquired it after its former owners went bankrupt, and told to make himself useful. To everyone’s surprise, he did.

At 36 he was old enough to have been adult during the Great War, but was also privileged enough not to have seen action or heard a shot fired in anger. This also meant that his university years fell in the 1920s, the age of prosperity and ballyhoo, the era when F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, and all the rest were hanging out in Paris, while J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis were both beginning their teaching careers at Oxford. I was amused to realize this and took it as an excuse to go through some period classics.

As the stage was set, The Silhouette was one of the last, if not the last cabaret open in Berlin, and that only because his patrons included some prominent Party officials and because he had removed some of the more outré acts, like the drag queen La Scala. Because of a last minute player drop-out from the performers, he had also recently pulled a Romani dancer from the stage under pressure from the Powers That Be.

The Silhouette was also financially in dire straits, and he was receiving pushback from the old patrons for his artistic compromises and pulling in the Nazi crowd. There was a possible investor showing up tonight, though, which was nice.

The Story

Nice, my ass.

This is the bit with the spoilers, by the way.

The first act was the soft start. We mingled in the cabaret, met our contacts, kindled the plotlines written in our characters. Marcel’s lover Anastasia introduced him to Mr Moneybags, Anthony Brown, who was looking for investment opportunities in Berlin. He also had to go an explain his decision to exclude Esmeralda from tonight’s act in the dressing rooms, which was immensely uncomfortable. And then there was my meta-song.

It bombed, horribly. It was the worst crash and burn I’ve had on stage since third grade. I was nervous, lost the plot of the song about halfway through, and fled backstage, shaking like a leaf. It was utterly mortifying. Fortunately, some other players reached out, brought me water and helped me bounce back. Additionally, it fit my character so well that a few players didn’t realize it wasn’t planned. Finally, it was pretty much the best spot in the larp for that to happen. There’d already been one song and I didn’t get to set the tone for the evening, and another player’s meta-song came right after me and the audience wasn’t given time to dwell on it. It was horrible at the time, but not the end of the world, and though it left me rattled, I think I managed to draw upon the emotion in my later game.

I’m still happy “Gonna Build a Mountain” isn’t the kind of song I’m likely to hear on the radio by accident. I ran into another player’s meta-song, “Hard Time”, at a shop the next day and was hit with all the feels.

It certainly did set the tone of the later game, when the Nazi footmen began to commit violent acts in the shadows during the second act, beating up Anastasia over something she had written. Anastasia’s father made the executive decision to leave with her daughter to London. Marcel was upbraided by Perle Sommer, an old customer, over his artistic compromises, and came to realize that while he had been rationalizing his actions as a way to ensure the continuity of the club and provide employment and a refuge for his friends and workers, he had in fact committed a graver crime than bad art and invited in the Nazis to prey on them. The second act had me in tears on multiple occasions.

And then there was the closing number of the second act.

What they’d done was take “Cell Block Tango” from Chicago and rewritten it so that instead of the murderers, it gave voice to the victims of the Nazis – a homosexual, a Jew. The Romani singer had been pulled from the act, her chair on the stage was pointedly in the front row, draped with a scarf, and her verse was not sung, the other singers just staring at the audience, accusing.

Then, it was interrupted by the Nazis, and “Tomorrow Belongs to Me”. And Anastasia turned to Marcel, whispering “I’m Jewish.”

As the song went on, those loyal to the regime joined in first, and then one by one, everybody else, lest they be pegged as dissidents and subversives. Targets. It was an intense scene, and I cannot do it justice with my words. It was the same kind of demonstration of strength and demand for loyalty, demand to join in, as in the clip from the film, except not gentled by the subtlety of the camera. It was brutal, blunt, aggressive.

It also basically settled Marcel’s endgame. There was no way The Silhouette was going to stay open anyway, so in the third act he made his plans to head to London with Anastasia, who made the unorthodox move of proposing to him. He accepted. When, expectedly, people came to twist his arm and force him to sell his share in the club, he acquiesced, sad and angry but also aware he was letting go of a failing business and could rebuild elsewhere. He sold it off for less than the price of its glassware, said his thanks and farewells to the staff, and was at the door the moment the final song, “What I Did for Love”, started playing.

It was a very neat dramatic arc, which I think is my first in a larp. It was all also disgustingly convenient for Marcel, so in his epilogue he got killed during the London Blitz.

(As a side note, when I ran the numbers for the price he was paid, 200 Reichsmarks, I discovered it was actually the equivalent of a few thousand of today’s euros when adjusted for inflation and probably worth even more than that when adjusted for cost of living. But that’s ultimately irrelevant for the purposes of the scene as it played out.)

“Swastikas, everywhere!”

Not really. They were forbidden, and not just because there was a photographer present and there’s some pictures you don’t want floating around removed from context. The second reason was that the organizers attempted to recreate the atmosphere before anyone knew what the Nazis would be capable of, and thought that having overt Nazi symbolism would detract from that. Personally, I thought it worked. Also, not having the Nazi characters with visual tags on them meant that you couldn’t lump them together or mentally other them. You had to keep tabs on individuals – people, with names, histories, likes and dislikes. The point I am making here is not about humanizing the Nazis. Really. Fuck those guys. It’s more to note that they were not a faceless throng of stormtroopers who marched out fully-formed from a barracks. Actual people, brutalized by an ideology.

It was also a study in how dissension was silenced, and how much easier it is to hunker down, mind your own business, and attract no attention. After all, I was not a Communist, or a trade unionist, or Jew. How, when everyone around you repeats the same things as truth, it’s so easy to go “yeah, maybe it is like that and those folks are to blame”. Tribalism, the lies that our genetic heritage or cultural rituals make us somehow superior to those other people down south.

For Marcel, though, there wasn’t really much of a choice. The “Cell Block Tango” in the script meant that he’d decided to speak out, and since he was already an educated man of the world, it was not a hard decision to pull up stakes and skip town.

And it’s relevant, today. It’s frightfully topical. On the day we played the larp, a Finnish government party elected as their new chairman a person I have no qualms calling a fascist, who’s on record for racism, homophobia, and the kind of violent fantasizing that makes poorly-socialized 14-year-olds particularly unpleasant company. During the writing of this post over the past couple of days, we’ve seen some well-choreographed political theatre play him into leading a stump party in the opposition, but this was not an event that should ever have occurred.

I don’t know if I’ve mentioned it here, but over the past couple of years, the whole Nazi thing in entertainment media has grown stale to me. They’re enough on the news already, and not the kind you can get rid of by aligning the crosshairs and pressing Mouse Left. I rather hope things will never escalate to the point where that’s necessary. There’s also the issue of the present-day Nazi movements co-opting the imagery of even anti-Nazi material, such as American History X and… Cabaret. There is a very good video essay by Lindsay Ellis about this very topic which I recommend to everyone and not just because then I don’t have to repeat its content here.

Larp as a medium avoids the issues inherent in a blockbuster movie, though, since it is ephemeral and (usually) doesn’t leave you anything to replay to your friends, the audience is strongly self-selecting to begin with, and it does not support either mass consumption or passive consumption, certain Danish-Polish productions arguably notwithstanding. To get anything out of it, you must engage with the material on its own – and its designer’s – terms. There may not be such a thing as an anti-war film, but an anti-war larp is certainly a thing.

There is also the pitfall of trivializing the horror of what happened or the experiences of the victims of the Nazi regime. I realize that as a straight, white guy who wasn’t alive when it happened, who probably could’ve coped in the Third Reich just fine, since the kind of diagnosis I’ve got probably wasn’t in the books in the 30s and 40s, and whose country was kinda allied with Germany, I am the last person who gets to make this call, but I think Cabaret avoided that.

Conclusions

Do I feel like I have a greater understanding of history? Well… kinda? But that’s what you get when you do historical research for a larp or otherwise. I don’t feel like specifically the experience of being Marcel Scholz imparted me any greater understanding about life in 1933. Indeed, he was probably very 21st-century, even in the context of the liberal alibi provided by the Berlin cabaret. For one thing, I’m Finnish middle class. I don’t get antisemitism. I have no cultural touchstone, no context beyond history books for it. It would take a lot of reading to get into the headspace of someone in the 1930s who grew up in Central Europe at an era when blood libel was still a thing and the Nazis inundated the media with anti-Jewish propaganda. It’s also really not a headspace I feel a particular need to occupy and while there’s a time and a place for historical accuracy about the nuances of prejudice, I’m not sure it was this.

Cabaret was an harrowing, intense experience. I would not describe it as “fun”. Indeed, there were fewer comedic moments in my game than in the film. Rather than smiling, I spent more time in tears or on their verge. It was, however, a rewarding and satisfying experience, and far too topical in that way that makes certain uncomfortable pieces of art necessary.

Bedroom Wall Press/CAIR Offer

Continuing in yesterday’s theme, the gentleman John Berry of Bedroom Wall Press is making a similar offer. All their products have been priced at Pay What You Want at DriveThruRPG, and all proceeds will go to support the Council on Islamic-American Relations’ legal action against Trump’s racist fuckery.

The offer is valid until the Muslim ban is overturned.

Bedroom Wall Press’s products include the sci-fi dungeon crawler Hulks and Horrors and the urban fantasy game Arcana Rising. My favourite is the Arcana Rising supplement Welcome to Neuro City, which is set in the Åland Islands, of all places.

Lamentations of the Flame Princess/ACLU Offer

Jim Raggi over at Lamentations of the Flame Princess is offering a deal, giving a free book to anyone who donates $50 or more to the American Civil Liberties Union.

Donate here: http://www.aclu.org
Choose from here: http://www.lotfp.com/store/
Email all the info here: lotfp@lotfp.com
It’s good from January 29th through the end of February or until 500 books have been given away.
You can donate even if you’re not an American or in America. They could use a hand. Also, there are some splendid books available, such as the eerie Carcosa, the grisly Tower Two, the sublime Red and Pleasant Land, and the exhilaratingly weird Broodmother Sky Fortress.

D&D and Timelines

As a word of warning, this article is a work of highly pedantic nerdery to a degree that I feel such a warning necessary on a role-playing game blog. It is also of questionable use.

I have always been fascinated by the idea of the living campaign world, a place where things happen independent of the player characters, where history moves on even when there’s no party of adventurers to witness it. The 90s AD&D scene feeds right into this: Forgotten Realms, Dragonlance, Greyhawk, and all the other campaign settings occur in the same multiverse, connected by the Spelljammer and Planescape settings, and brought together in its own way by Ravenloft.

The potential of crossovers raises the inevitable question of timeline correspondence. Where do the timelines cross? The major settings were heavy with metaplot, none so much as Forgotten Realms, and to a certain mindset, it’s relevant to know what’s going on in Waterdeep when the party of kender steps through the portal.

One reason this is such an interesting thing to study is that as far as I can tell, the designers and developers at the time did not coordinate for this and what little data can be harvested from the gazillion sourcebooks of the AD&D era is often vague and contradictory. The work of assembling a coherent canon is an exercise in cherrypicking your sources. I, for instance, choose to ignore anything in Ravenloft that would contradict other stuff because the Demiplane of Dread plays fast and loose with time anyway. However, others have trod this ground before me, such as Paul Westermeyer, whose Spelljammer Timeline research I use as a base for my own study. There’s also a timeline converter app largely based on it, though I have one quibble with it. I’ll come back to that.

We can pretty reliably state that Dragonlance’s 358 Alt Cataclius corresponds to Forgotten Realms’ 1361 Dalereckoning through the Spelljammer novels Beyond the Moons and Into the VoidBeyond the Moons is mentioned to occur about five years after the War of the Lance, and Into the Void, according to Dragon #196 article “Novel Ideas”, is set in 1361 DR. The novels follow one another and are set within a relatively short span of time.

Greyhawk can be connected to that through the first Wizards Three article in Dragon #185, “Magic in the Evening”, which describes the meeting of Dalamar, Elminster and Mordenkainen in Ed Greenwood’s living room. It’s set right after the events of the Forgotten Realms novel The Parched Sea and before the Greyhawk adventure Vecna Lives, set in 1360 DR according to “Novel Ideas”, and Common Year 581 according to Adventure Begins, respectively.

As a side note, though there is no point of connection between the world of Warhammer and Forgotten Realms, I do seem to have notes from around 2002 about a character who crossed over from a D&D campaign I ran in Old World to another campaign that took place in the Forgotten Realms

There are also points of connection for Birthright, Dark Sun, and Planescape out there, but they’re less relevant because the metaplot is not nearly as strong in those. Same for Mystara, though the points of connection are tenuous. Eberron is floating free to my knowledge. I may someday trawl the material for that, but for the time being, it’s less interesting to me.

What is interesting to me is, of course, Golarion. Of course, as the setting of Pathfinder RPG, it’s not an official D&D setting. However, it shares an interpretation of the same cosmology and the points of connection exist and are clearer than those of many AD&D settings with one another.

This ties in with my quibble above. The converter application ties the timelines of Earth and Mystara with the note “This vague link is provided by the official TSR document “Chronomancy and the Multiverse,” which placed Diane de Moriamis’ home time in around the year 1600.” However, what the document actually says is “Averoigne could be part of a magical Europe around A.D. 1600 in HR4 A Mighty Fortress, and this wizardess could be met at various times through Earth’s history prior to her move to the world of Mystara.” That’s a lot of “could”, especially for a time traveller. We also could disregard it and take a closer look at how Greyhawk and Forgotten Realms tie together – in Ed Greenwood’s living room, clearly meant to be in the present day at the time of writing, 1992. I thus posit that the Earth equivalent year to 1361 DR is 1992 Current Era.

From here, it’s just a skip and a hop to Golarion. The Reign of Winter adventure path happens in the year 4713 AR, the year when Queen Elvanna should be stepping down from her throne in Irrisen. Its fifth adventure, Rasputin Must Die! takes place in Siberia, in 1918. This is explicitly reinforced in the foreword to the fifth adventure of Strange Aeons, What Grows Within, which was released to subscribers while I was writing this post, where James Jacobs states “After all, if you do the math that we’ve established, the implied year that Strange Aeons begins in (4716 AR) does in fact correspond to the year of 1921 here on Earth…” Therefore, Golarion’s 4713 AR = Earth’s 1918 CE = Dragonlance’s 286 AC = Forgotten Realms’ 1289 DR = Greyhawk’s CY 509.

This does set Golarion very far from the “current eras” of most of the other settings – a good sixty years before the War of the Lance kicks off, Drizzt Do’Urden isn’t going to be born for another decade, and Oerth is going through the era of relative peace just after Iuz the Evil has been imprisoned by Zagyg the Mad. Back in AD&D, they were all happening more or less at the same time.

Then, the current year in Forgotten Realms is sometime in the late 1400’s by now, the newest timeline for Dragonlance I have ends at 419 AC, and Greyhawk only goes up to CY 598, when the Living Greyhawk campaign ended. Oh well.

Meanwhile, I do see the rationale for making the corresponding point in Earth’s timeline in 1600. Early Modern Era is roughly the level of the most advanced technology in Forgotten Realms. However, the game also has a history of bringing characters from strange places to the then-modern Earth. In Dragon #100, we can find the adventure “The City Beyond the Gate”, which takes a party of adventurers from Oerth to London circa 1985 to hunt down the Mace of St. Cuthbert. The D&D adventure Immortal Storm is set in 1980’s New York City. The Wizards Three meet not in a medieval castle but a Canadian librarian’s living room. It’s the crossover where D&D meets urban fantasy, where the high-level adventurer gets to be a fish out of water in the face of firearms. It’s where things get weird. London in 1600 is just a smaller Waterdeep, but London in 1985 is unfathomable.

Also, you know what is in 1918? The first entry in the timeline for Masks of Nyarlathotep, that’s what.

masksrajattu

My Play History, at the Finnish Museum of Games

mph_2017

The Finnish Museum of Games opened at the Vapriikki museum complex last week. It was a crowdfunded project, and its mission statement is to showcase the history of Finnish games in all their forms. The core exhibit consists of 100 different games deemed relevant in one way or another. A surprisingly big portion of them are role-playing games or larps, and many of them are playable at the museum.

I will write up a larger report of the museum from a role-players point of view next week. I should have a pretty good feel for it then, since I will be spending my entire Thursday there, the complete opening hours.

This is because I got involved with a university course on the game studies side where we created the first temporary exhibit of the museum. The course was run by Annakaisa Kultima and Jaakko Stenros, who also blogged about it. It opened today and runs until February 10th, and it showcases the experience of playerhood through our personal histories as players and gamers. It’s called Minun pelihistoriani, or My Play History. There are thirteen of us from various backgrounds, and in addition to the texts narrating our histories and the objects that contextualize them, we’re present in the flesh. Each of us has a couple of days in the calendar when we’re sitting in a chair and chatting with visitors, perhaps even playing a game with them.

My dates are Thursdays January 19th and February 2nd, and Friday, February 10th.

It’s an interesting concept, and I feel we’ve made a hell of an exhibit for one hell of a museum. The folk at Vapriikki grok how to run a museum and make it interesting in a way I’ve rarely seen, and I go to a lot of museums. They use space in interesting ways, and the experience goes beyond just walking around and reading plaques. There are things to touch and try out for yourself. It’s how a museum should be done.

I will report on how things went once the month is over and done with. If you’re out and about on the dates above, come and say hi.

All the texts in the museum are available in both Finnish and English. Entry is 12€, 10€ for the unemployed or 6€ for students and kids. Children under 7 get in free.

Another Year!

So, that was 2016. May we never see its like again.

Okay, gaming-wise it was not a bad year. Gaming-wise, 2016 was a remarkably good year, I think both personally and on the level of the hobby at large.

We saw a number of fine Kickstarters fund: ConanDelta Green 2nd EditionPugmireThe 7th Sea 2nd EditionUnknown Armies 3rd Edition, and the Swedish Tales from the Loop. From Finland, we’re getting Sotakarjut and Astraterra 2nd Edition.

Additionally, unless I miss my mark, Lamentations of the Flame Princess delivered the last of the adventure modules from that one serial campaign so many years ago – Towers Two, and Broodmother Sky Fortress, and they were worth the wait.

Other cool stuff came out, like Hood from Myrrysmiehet, the Hell’s Vengeance and Strange Aeons adventure paths from Paizo, and the anniversary edition of Curse of the Crimson Throne, with impeccable timing as our party is next embarking on the last part of the campaign.

In play numbers, our Curse of the Crimson Throne campaign advanced by ten sessions, our Reign of Winter by 11. My Legacy of Fire reboot got one game in, and then there was a bit of Pathfinder Society, a Vampire: The Masquerade session that one of the players reported on, and some playtesting of various things.

I finally broke down and bought the D&D 5E Player’s Handbook. It looks like a solid game, though it of course does a thing that I already have a game for and its product support is tumbleweeds. If I ever run Paizo’s Second Darkness adventure path, though, I might convert it to 5E just to see how that goes – it’s in 3.5 and would need to be converted anyway.

So, what’s up for 2017?

The convention season of the year kicks off for me in February with the larp conference Knutepunkt in Norway. I’ll be attending the Week in Norway as well as the conference itself, but I have no responsibilities beyond good behaviour. Have to relax at least at one convention.

I should probably note that in mid-February there’s also Valocon in Jyväskylä, but I doubt I can make it.

Following that is Tracon Hitpoint in March, where I just shot off my program suggestion mail – a very important thing since the program division head has been telling me they’ve got an hour scheduled for me anyway and I’d rather not talk to a chair for 45 minutes. We had the first Hitpoint in 2015 at a school, but the convention is moving up in the world and is taking over the Tampere-talo conference centre. Apart from being bigger and better-suited for actually running a convention, this is nice for me since I can see it from my window. The venue will also host the comics festival Tampere kuplii two weeks later. In late May, I can probably be found in Uppsala for Kontur.

Ropecon 2017 is in late July, and stays at Messukeskus. Two weeks later, the venue will host Worldcon 75. Finally, in September, Tampere-talo will see Tracon 2017.

Whew, that’s going to be a busy year. As for upcoming releases, I hope they’ll include most of the Kickstarters I listed above, the majority of which aren’t yet out with full products. Though it’s a computer game, I will note that Torment: Tides of Numenera is set to launch in February. It is the spiritual successor of the venerable Planescape: Torment, a game so good it basically killed computer games for me. In August we should be getting Pathfinder‘s science fantasy cousin Starfinder.

As for gaming, we’ll be finishing both Curse of the Crimson Throne and Reign of Winter soonish, and I would expect my Legacy of Fire to wrap up before the year is out as well. We’ll see what will be run after that. I have received requests for Vampire: The Masquerade, and I’d like to have at least one adventure path running, but we have nothing solid yet.

And that’s what 2017 looks like to me. I’m probably overlooking something, there are things I’ve forgotten and things that never drew my attention. Please, let me know!