All the Stuff I Didn’t Write in 2018

It’s time for my semi-annual “imma write more this year i promise” post. Last year was terrible on so many levels, and though my inability to stick to any kind of posting schedule is kinda eclipsed by the President’s office of Chechnya whining about RPGs, this is at least the kind of thing I can affect personally.

Hey Mr President Ramzan Kadyrov, is this your cat?

Well, in any substantial fashion, at least.

Truth be told, there were a lot of posts that I started and then never finished, or that never made it past the outline stage, or that I promised but never even began to write. It’s been an exhausting year and news, gaming and otherwise, make the entire genre of horror fiction feel redundant. Writing about anything of substance – and a lot of perfectly inconsequential things – feels like it carries with it an invitation for abuse from a myriad of online cesspits.

But hey, illegitimi non carborundum. So here’s a turn-of-the-year listing of the ten most interesting posts that never made it off the drawing board but actually really should have, cut down into a couple of paragraphs instead of the nuanced 2,000 words most of them would deserve.

Delta Green Has Aged… Poorly

First of all, let it be known that I love Delta Green. The first edition and Delta Green: Countdown are some of the finest gaming books ever written, and especially Countdown keeps getting named as the best ever. It’s not entirely undeserved. The idea of a conspiracy of agents within the American law enforcement, intelligence, and military organizations fighting against the gribbly things of the Cthulhu Mythos was a really great idea. In the 90s.

The problem with this is, of course, that we’re no longer in the 90’s. The cultural touchstones for FBI agents and American special forces is no longer The X-Files and Hollywood action films. Nowadays it’s Guantanamo Bay, and Seal Team 6’s war crimes, Black Lives Matter, NSA Director Keith Alexander’s megalomania, and a drone strike after drone strike. While as a game DG2E is very good, where it falls down for me is in its lack of acknowledgement that as a member of these organizations the PCs themselves or their superiors at the very latest are very likely complicit or directly guilty of some pretty terrible crimes. JSOC isn’t a heroic background, it’s what you should be fighting against. And it really doesn’t help that Tcho-Tchos are nowadays a legitimate and recognized ethnic minority in the United States with their own anti-racism initiative.

This post actually did make it out into the world, in the surface-scratch form of a review I wrote for PlayLab!

I Was a Magic Newspaperman

Professor Rabasse. Photo by Przemysław Jendroska.

I played at College of Wizardry again, bringing back my character from College of Wizardry: The Challenge. This time around, Étienne Rabasse was a hotshot young journalist attached to a visiting lecturer position at Czocha College, which meant that I did the school paper again.

This post, if it ever sees the light of day, would be a practical look at churning out several issues of a fake broadsheet during a larp, what the benefits are for the game, how to make the on-site production as painless as possible, and perhaps a different alternatives to how it could be made. I will not even attempt a summary, and to be honest, it’s more likely to be in a future KP book than here, because it’s also going to be rather more rigorous work than my usual word-noodling here and possibly even deserves the dead-tree treatment.

As an entirely tangential side note, I will be playing Professor Rabasse for the third time at College of Wizardry 20 in April. I will not do the newspaper.

Vampire: The Masquerade Fifth Edition – Twelve Hangry Men

I bought and played the fifth edition of Vampire: The Masquerade. I liked it, especially the Hunger Dice and how they drive the game onwards. I also like the recommendation that combats are played for three rounds and the ended the way things were going. Fighting was always the least interesting bit of Vampire for me. I like the graphic design, though admittedly a part of that is because some of the images are from the 2016 run of the larp End of the Line, which I played.

I also like the Anarch and Camarilla books, except for the Chechnya chapter which really is badly written, though in my opinion if it offends Ramzan Kadyrov that he’s depicted as a bloody-handed tyrant in thrall to a greater power he really should stop oppressing his own people and donate his collection of Vladimir Putin t-shirts to Goodwill or something.

I think the ruleset in general is superior to the older version, and the advances in metaplot and slight rewriting of things make for a more playable setting. Tremere are allowed to do cool shit without being immediately dusted by their superiors. The major sectarian conflict being now Camarilla vs. Anarchs feels like both sides are playable much more than the former Camarilla vs. Sabbat. I’m kinda on the fence about the Second Inquisition, but it’s very versatile in how it can be played.

I backed the Chicago by Night kickstarter. I’m looking forward to future releases, though if Modiphius is really not going to make Camarilla and Anarch available after the preorders are done, that is a shame.

And though the current incarnation of White Wolf made some definite missteps in PR and marketing, their stewardship also saw the production of a Vampire larp in the European Parliament.

Living Greyhawk Ten Years Later

The Living Greyhawk organized play campaign ended ten years ago. The campaign saw the release of over 2,000 adventure modules in its eight years of existence, and it was magnificent. Sometimes it was terrible, sometimes weird, often clunky, but always fun. It was a baroque creation that ran away from its creators as the regional triads started creating their own regional identities and the players took plotlines in unexpected directions. It was simultaneously a marketing scheme and an enormous, unique co-creative work of art. Nothing has approached it since – Pathfinder Society and Adventurers’ League are both too firmly in the leash.

We shall never see its like again, and it should not be forgotten.

I did write a post about Living Greyhawk for Loki, but of course, the language barrier applies.

Fairweather Manor Revisited

I also played at Fairweather Manor. Again. Whereas my last game was mostly serious except when it a scene out of P.G. Wodehouse intruded, somewhat political, and somewhat removed from the scheming of the aristocracy, this time was the complete opposite.

My character was Patrick “Jack” Hennessy, the firstborn son of the Duke’s black sheep brother. He was born in Hong Kong, lived there for most of his life and was stuck in England because of the war along with his younger sister Ginny. He was essentially an entitled brat with no sense of consequence but all the privilege. He was also Buddhist, and Orientalist in a somewhat insipid culturally-appropriative way, and wrote letters to his Chinese mistress in Hong Kong. I folded them all text-side outwards and gave them to servants with the instructions to mail them to Hennessy House in Hong Kong, they’ll know what to do with them. They were signed “Your Monkey, Jack.”

It’s a testament to the robustness of design that what for me in one run was a serious and emotional experience, in another run was transformed into an upstairs-downstairs comedy while still allowing other people to play the experiences they sought. Partly this is due to the sheer size of the game, partly because having a fully realized character also allows you to step into more – or less – serious play when someone else’s game requires it.

This is another game I will be revisiting in 2019. Having played two of the three male pacifist characters in the game, I thought I’d go for an officer.

We did some fencing. Photo by Kamil Wędzicha.

War of Agaptus: Fate of Ashes Review

This is actually something I was supposed to do over a year ago, but a computer malfunction ate around a thousand words of text, and I was too pissed off to continue, and then it was just one distraction after another in real life, around the same time as my output here generally petered out. I’ve returned to the review now and then to noodle around with it, but I’d really need to re-read the book to do it with the proper depth. So here’s the short version.

War of Ashes: Fate of Agaptus is a new [okay, was new] fantasy role-playing game from Evil Hat. Like most of the company’s games, it’s got FATE System purring gently under the bonnet.

The lead designer on the project is Sophie Lagacé. Fate of Agaptus is actually based on a pair of miniature wargames from ZombieSmith, called Shieldwall and Shieldbash. To capitalize on an existing miniatures range, Fate of Agaptus contains a more detailed combat system, involving the use of those miniatures. The book itself is 370 pages long.

The setting is an early Medieval fantasy that eschews the D&D cast of fantasy races and instead presents the four factions: Elvorix, Vidaar, Jarl, and Kuld. The Elvorix are a formerly great civilization now in decline, the Vidaar are an aggressive offshoot of the same race that are raiders and pirates, the Jarl are militarist expansionists, and the Kuld are beastly creatures that are coming down from the north to eat everyone. The sun is growing dim and the inhabitable area of the world is growing smaller, driving everyone to fight for resources. The game calls its aesthetic grimsical. It’s The Muppets in the ranks of The Black Company.

The setting is designed for a wargame and unsurprisingly there’s a lot of combat rules. Some of the stuff adds on to the standard FATE set, such as the froth phase in combat, a cultural feature of the world, where the warriors psych themselves up and try to intimidate their enemies before the bloody business starts. There are occasional asides where the writer highlights this or that thing and explains why it works the way it does, which I like.

Overall, it’s a cool game and executed well, but the setting has a very specific aesthetic that will inevitably divide opinion. Definitely worth a look.

Just a Little Lovin’: A Larp About AIDS and the 80s

In June, I played in the Finnish run of Just a Little Lovin’. It is a larp about the AIDS crisis in the USA, and is set over three consecutive 4th of July parties from 1982 to 1984.

It was one hell of a larp. I have never had my emotions manipulated with such deftness and elegance. It is a larp about friendship, love, and death. It’s regularly described as a life-changing experience. I can likely never hear Dusty Springfield’s “Just a Little Lovin'” or Dolly Parton’s version of “Star-Spangled Banner” without a part of me returning to the yard outside Mr T’s summer retreat, saluting a flag as Dennis, a veteran of Vietnam and a member of a free love commune. It’s weird to miss people who are not real. It was a deeply emotional, sad, sometimes sexy game with the warmest, kindest, most supporting player community around it that I have been a part of. 

I’ve had several abortive attempts to write about it but trying to unpack the staggering complexity of the larp and my personal experience feels like a daunting task. There’s a book about the 2013 Danish run of the game available as a free download, and I feel like explaining everything I have to say would probably take another. And then I always have to answer the question of who the hell am I even to tell this story? I belong to none of the communities hardest hit by the AIDS epidemic. It is emphatically a story that I have no ownership of. It’s a question that occupied me even about the game itself, and throwing up a wall of text about it on my blog is something I’ve yet to find the confidence to do. 

Just a Little Lovin’ will be run in the UK in the summer of 2019. Signup is now open. The photos on that site are all from the Finland run, incidentally, if you want to see what it looked like.

In Memoriam – Greg Stafford

Finally, I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge the passing of one of the greats of the field. Greg Stafford was the father of Glorantha and creator of King Arthur Pendragon. It’s one of my favourite games even though I’ve only managed to play it a couple of times. Stafford’s grasp of mythology was tremendous, and the influence of his work runs through the DNA of many modern role-playing games.

I never met him, though I did see him in passing when he was at Ropecon many years ago. Unfortunately, I had yet to discover Pendragon at the time.


Hell of a year. I have plans for 2019, but they warrant their own post.

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Knutpunkt 2018, a Report

I spent last week at Knutpunkt 2018, the newest incarnation of the Nordic larp conference, this year in Sweden. The Week in Sweden pre-event programming happened in Malmö, while the conference itself took place in the nearby town of Lund.

The Week in Sweden this year was light on stuff other than larp, so apart from the Nordic Larp Talks I spent my time mostly in non-larper company I knew in town, when I wasn’t doing touristy stuff or recording episodes of the LOKI vlog. It was my first foray into video blogging – a short daily video talking about what was up and an interview of whoever didn’t run away fast enough. There were a couple of other people I wanted to interview, but because the whole thing was very much unplanned, quick and dirty, that was not to be. The videos are mostly in Finnish, though the interviews in episodes two, three, and four are in English.

The Nordic Larp Talks, though… that was when I got properly into the KP mentality again. This was my fourth KP, and the event remains unlike any other gaming event I regularly participate in. While it’s not always a serious event, it always takes larp seriously, as art, as a game, as a vehicle for self-expression, as a political statement, as a research subject.

The NLT is a series of short talks, not entirely unlike TED Talks in style, that explore the topic of larp from a variety of perspectives – theory, practice, “here’s a cool thing we did and what we learned”, social issues. Fortunately, the video team was on the ball this year and the edited videos are already on YouTube, so I won’t have to rely on my imperfect human memory to summarize complicated, complex, and important topics. Here’s the first of the fourteen.

I do, of course, recommend them all, but if you’re pressed for time, go for Evan Torner’s “Emergence in Larp” for the entertaining, Jonaya Kemper’s “The Good, the Bad, & the Internalized: Searching for Self Liberation in Conscience for the thought-provoking, and Maria Pettersson’s “Larping in the Political Heart of Europe” for the sheer mind-boggling wow factor. In the week before KP, they also managed to upload last year’s Nordic Larp Talks from Oslo, which are also well worth checking out.

After the Talks, it was time for bed (okay, we hit the bar first) and in the morning we drove to the hotel in Lund, where the event proper could start. One of the first things at the opening ceremony was the declaration that this Knutpunkt is an intersectional feminist conference, which warmed my heart. Also, the meals defaulted to vegetarian. Meat was an option, but it was considered a special diet. The scene is outspoken and political. They’re more or less my politics, which is one of the reasons I feel so at home there. It is not a monolith and the conversation is always ongoing.

One of the things that’s usually been a part of the Talks but wasn’t this year – wasn’t a program item at all that I noticed – was the book release. There’s a book released each year as a companion for the conference. I think this is an important part of the tradition, and as a bibliophile and one of the editors of the 2016 books I noticed this. This year’s book, Shuffling the Deck, was released primarily as an electronic work, a series of articles on the Nordiclarp.org wiki. The print-on-demand version from Lulu is pretty affordable as long as you don’t want it in colour, though. There’s also a PDF download, but it appears to have printer-quality images, which means it’s 286 Mb. My download’s been running through the past two paragraphs and there’s still a bit under 90 minutes to go. My preference would be to include the book in the price of the KP ticket, but I suppose that at 20€ including postage I can’t complain too much.

There was also a pay-what-you-want book table since a Danish outfit was clearing out storage space. I grabbed a few older KP companions, a few larp documentation works I’d had my eye on, and what turned out to be a children’s larp book in Danish and Greenlandic, which was pretty cool. I didn’t have a book in Greenlandic yet.

I find it difficult to write about the talks and panels of Knutpunkt. It’s partially because they tend to not be very simple and trying to articulate someone else’s fairly advanced thinking a week after the fact while doing it justice is an intimidating prospect. It’s also partially because one of the items I saw had the clause that there was to be no recording or tweeting from it due to the private nature of the subject matter (nothing dirty, you perverts). It’s partially because most of the best content of KP for me was outside of the programming, in the random encounters over lunch, at room parties, at lively moments of cultural sharing over a cup of tea.

Also, the most educational thing I saw was the Larpers of Colour panel, and that one was also recorded and uploaded on YouTube. There’s not much point in me telling about it if I can just show you.

Apart from being immensely educational on the experience of racialized players in larps and designing for inclusion, it also has the distinction of being a six-person panel that manages to dig properly into the topic from a variety of viewpoints while giving everyone enough talking time and staying coherent, and though I could’ve listened to this for another hour, it did not feel short. And none of the audience questions were horrible. Like, at every convention I’ve seen this panel topic, when you get to the audience questions there’s always gonna be That Guy speaking up for their right to be awful. Not so here.

And there’s KP’s strength. There’s a willingness to learn, an understanding of when to shut up and let others talk, the basic assumption that everyone means well even if they come from a different culture – and though it’s a Nordic conference, this time we had people from 27 countries. It’s a warm, friendly and welcoming community as long as you play by the rules, and the rules aren’t hard.

Next year, Denmark.

 

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.

College of Wizardry 10, or, “I want to go back”

Last Monday, I returned home from the larp College of Wizardry, tenth of its name. Physically, at least. Mentally, I haven’t yet, not really. Emotionally… time will tell.

If the concept is not familiar, CoW is a Harry Potter -inspired larp for 135 players, played at Czocha Castle in Poland and organized by the primarily Polish-Danish team Dziobak Larp Studios. Unlike the boarding school of Hogwarts, the Czocha College of Witchcraft and Wizardry is a university-level institution, where the students are adults and have already graduated from one magic school. Not Hogwarts, though – the CoW larp series started out as a Harry Potter spinoff, but the serial numbers were filed off after the third game. The family resemblances remain, but it is its own thing.

First thing out of the way, when I say “Czocha Castle”, I really mean castle. It was built in the 14th century, is accessed by a bridge, and features both dungeons and secret passages. Like, actual secret passages. While at least one of them is dead obvious by the marks on the floor in front of the bookcase, I cannot get over how cool it is to move a bookshelf to reveal a stone staircase beyond.

The characters are both staff and students – Headmaster, professors, janitor, and juniors, sophomores and seniors. The students are sorted into five Houses. There’s the coldly intellectual and ruthlessly pragmatic Faust, the tight-knit and secretive Molin, the diplomatic and honourable Sendivogius, the artistic and bohemian Libussa1, and Durentius, whose motto is “valour and diligence” but who are really the party house.

The game is set at the beginning of term, starting with the students marching over the bridge into the castle on Thursday evening and ending with the Grand Opening Ball on Saturday night. In between, there’s two full schooldays, a few student parties, the Sorting Ceremony, and lots of drama, relationships, duels, and demon summoning. As students do.

Staff and Students, Living and Dead

The characters are handled differently from what I am used to in Finnish larps. We had the option of either writing up a character ourselves or taking a prewritten one. I opted for the latter because I was aware of constraints on my time, and because I wanted to see how they’re executed. The character was formed of a series of elements. There was their unique background and personality bit – in my character’s case, his mother was from an old and respected Hexblood family, but had married a Mundaneborn, which my character resented and had moved to his grandparents as soon as it was possible – and a number of boilerplate elements like House, what school he’d gone to before coming to Czocha, what was his year of studies, an extracurricular club, and his Path. The paths were Artificer, Healer, Guardian, Curse Breaker, Cryptozoologist. All of the material except House, year, and Path were just suggestions that you could edit, adapt, discard and change at will.

Charles Duke. No smiling.

Charles Duke. No smiling.

The characters were written to be gender-neutral, with a first name initial and a surname. It is thus that Charles Duke, Sophomore of House Faust, student of the Guardian Path, graduate of Stenøya Trolldom Akademiet, and member in good standing of the Alliance for Reclaiming Magic, was born.

Some readers may have twigged on to what was not included in the above – contacts. Those you had to figure out for yourself, and for the avid player, there was ample pre-game available online in the formation of relationships, friendships, acquisition of friends and enemies. People used Facebook, Google+ hangouts, Google Docs, and a special social networking site set up just for the larp, Czochabook.

Or then you could just skip that and show up at the larp. There were pre-game workshops for Path and House, where we figured out a bunch of contacts, how we think about one another, and generally who’s who and what’s what. This worked to a degree, though it’s still on the player to figure out what they want to do in the game and come up with plot. This is not a bug as such, just how the system works. It’s also entirely possible to go through the game just attending class and playing a student in as close to an everyday life it’s possible to have in a school for witchards. There’s also the race for the Czocha Cup and the acquisition of House Points, which offers additional structure and motivation to attend classes, answer the Professor’s questions, do homework and generally come up with stuff. It’s of course up to your character whether they care about all that. Mine was ambivalent; House Faust had won the past six House Cups, and Charles thought such a long streak would breed resentment in the other Houses and complacency in Faust, which would weaken them all as well as the whole of Czocha, where his deepest loyalty lay.

Learn from Your Elders and Learn from Your Peers

So, how’d it go for me? It was a learning experience. Point one: I should’ve engaged in the pre-game. I had a lot of real life going on and deadlines up the wazoo and back again, but I should’ve squeezed in something. The thing is, Charles was written as a kind of a dick. He was Hexist – that is, prejudiced against those with Mundane blood – hated werewolves, and was active in the A.R.M., which was the conservative political club. Additionally, he was House Faust, who have more than a little of the Slytherin in their DNA. Just showing up and playing a dick is problematic, because if everyone else’s character thinks your character is the online comment thread in the flesh, they have no motivation to drag you along into wacky student hijinks, and a lot of your game is going to be brooding in the corner. To my mind, it would’ve required preparing some contacts, both for like-minded characters and a few with a history of mutual antagonism just to keep things interesting. In the end, Charles was much less of a dick than I’d figured him; traditionalist, conservative, utterly humourless, polite and formal.

Another reason to do the pre-game would’ve been to get a better feel for who the character is before being thrown into his shoes and forced me to prepare with more depth. I could’ve figured out the elements which I needed to jettison earlier, and generally been farther along in the process of developing Charles into a person by the time I needed to embody him. Having a history tied to people at the school would have made me answer quite a few more “whys” of his past and personality than I did.

I did have one contact set up before the game; my mother played Assistant Professor Laura Ulfred, my character’s aunt, but we had very little contact during the game beyond her threatening to dock House Faust points if I did not ask my date for one more dance during the Grand Ball, fifteen minutes before the Book of Points was closed for the evening.

House Faust, incidentally, won the House Cup by one point, 536 points vs. Libussa’s 535. The victory was made of the Faust’s Fireball Dragons victory, so many extracurricular activities, homework essays, clever answers and questions in class, trespasses we got away with and such small moments. That one point made it special. Everything we did mattered.

One thing about having a game with so many players is the variety of experience. My genre was comic fantasy, to the point of being harassed with a cube-shaped rooster named Cockblock. I’m reasonably sure that was the experience most players had (comic fantasy, not Cockblock – though that bird got around). However, there were also dark, tragic, and even epic plotlines played out. Two characters died on Saturday night. I think there is room for it all as long as the plots are inclusive. The original source material gets both dark and epic at times, occasionally at the same time.

Magic Will Flow Through Your Hands and Your Heart

So, witchard school. Lots of magic thrown around. Magic in a larp is always slightly tricky since you can code a spaceship navigation system, you can simulate beating people up by beating people up, and you drugs can be so realistic people will wonder for years afterwards what they actually were, but magic doesn’t exist in the real world. Hence, the need for rules. In College of Wizardry, they were delightfully elegant: the target decides what the spell does. Most of the characters were still students and students’ spells didn’t always work as intended. It was always helpful to inform the recipient what you were trying to accomplish, like “Imma set your hair on fire, you werewolf-lover! FUEGO!” This rule was coupled with the aesthetic of “Play to Lose” – it’s more collaborative and usually gets you better story. Of course, this was more or less only relevant when dealing with attack spells, like in duel situations. My character wasn’t so much as threatened with violence, though did end up witnessing a very dramatic one between the gentlemen Rayford Elton and Raiden Grim.

Most of the spells cast were during class, mostly testing stuff on one another. This ranged from summoning the spirits of the dead inside one’s classmates to prank spells like “vox animalis”. There was also a chapter on common basic spells in the student handbook. The Czocha College of Witchcraft and Wizardry Student Handbook, incidentally, is a 559-page faux-leatherbound book that was included in the price of the ticket. It’s also available as a free PDF, as is the Von Schlichtwald Grand Bestiary. There’s also the out-of-character Book of College of Wizardry 4-6, which is a work of documentation. I know they are working on a series of other CoW books, both in- and out-of-character. For a bibliophile such as I, this is a very exciting game.

Reading them was by no means necessary to play, though it did deepen the experience. Still, out of the six teachers Charles had, two noted that the book was useless and one declared it should be burned. The fourth, Professor of Alchemy, on Friday mentioned he hadn’t actually read what the book said about alchemy. The following day, he had studied it and said it was actually quite good, but we should not feel bound by the printed word, so how about each of you pass this book around, tear out a page, and burn it on a candle.

The classes were a big part of the game. While you could skip them (and I did, once) without losing points, they were very entertaining. In Demonology, we summoned spirits of mischief and interrogated angels. In Necromancy, we summoned the spirits of the dead. In Mind Magic, we first simulated different fears and the second day, to offset the heaviness, Professor Nikandros had drinks and prank spells for everyone.

Oh, and in physical education we did knife blocking techniques. The second day, Professor Ikonomopoulos graded the bruises.

Two points for Faust.

Two points for Faust.

You know you’re in it when your sparring partner is the only guy in class who had separate gym clothes2.

Of course, there was also homework. I am fairly sure I have written less material for real-life college courses than I did during College of Wizardry. My favourite was an essay about consent and mind magic.

Listen to the Tide of the Centuries

We also summoned so many demons. There was an excellent NPC system in place. If you needed NPCs, like summoned demons, angels, visiting parents, investigating Guardians, drunk alumni, or harpies, you could go into the NPC room, explain what you needed, what kind of scene it was for, when, and where, and then you’d get the appropriate NPC in the appropriate time and place to do its NPC thing. The results were impressive. So. Many. Demons.

On the topic of drunk alumni, there was an interesting cultural difference to how alcohol is handled in Finnish larps, where in my experience it’s typically “not until the afterparty” or at least strongly limited. Here it was “bar’s open after the classes” and afterwards some of the teacher players remarked that this was the first time the teacher’s lounge wasn’t a drinking club. I didn’t see any disruption because of drunken players. We were all there to larp rather than get liquored up. Some did sleep a little late but that may also have been due to past-curfew rituals in the dungeon. Faustians, I would note, were generally early risers3.

In general, apart from some kitchen hiccups and a certain confusion about our bus from Tegel Airport, the game was extraordinarily well organized. Stuff that needed to happen happened. Information was delivered. When schedules shifted, as they sometimes did, new ones were distributed with such smoothness I barely registered anything had happened. Conveniently, in the setting, magic was not incompatible with technology and I could carry a mobile phone with me. A lot of stuff ran on schedule and knowing the time was important.

Raise Your Wand to What Lies Ahead

Three days is a long time to live in the skin of another person. You discover stuff about them. For instance, Charles was a much less terrible dancer than I am. The game also stuck around for a while, and the morning after I’d returned I first spoke to my girlfriend in English before realizing I’m not in the castle anymore. For a couple of days, I couldn’t really accomplish much beyond gluing myself to the Facebook groups and going “I want back” in Google+ Hangouts. Straight off the plane, it was hard to relate to non-players. This text is already my fourth longer piece about the game, and there’s a fifth one coming, maybe even a sixth.

There’s something magical about the whole experience. I wouldn’t necessarily call it bleed since my character had the emotional range of a dead cod, but afterwards I had all the feels. There’s a sense of community, a feeling of shared experience. Together, we created stories. We made friends. Hearing the Hymn of Czocha, sung both at the beginning and the very end of the game, makes me misty-eyed.

Whether Charles Duke will be returning to Czocha is still up in the air. I think there’s still a good story in him, and it is not dependent on really any other specific characters from CoW10 being present. I might go for a midterm game with him. For another term-starter, perhaps something else. We shall see.

I know that I am returning. The 11th and 12th games are sold out, but the rest of next year’s lineup will be released on December 16th. It may not be cheap, but I like eating noodles.

stuff


1 I only figured it out now. Libussa was founded by the mythical hero Libuše, who founded Prague. IN BOHEMIA.

2 As a point of order, we did a brief OOC negotiation on how hard we’re going to play this and concluded “let’s just do this”. The same repeated on Saturday with another player, on whom I had both reach and weight, but who happened to have self-defence training. I limped for half the larp.

3 Leading to the breakfast table exchange “Why are all the Faustians up so early?” “It’s the nightmares.” My best line in the game and I don’t think anybody even heard it with everybody else talking. Oh well.

In the State of Denmark: Knudepunkt 2015, Part the Second

Read the first part here. Or just scroll down, or something. It’s not hard to find, it’s literally the previous post.

On Thursday, we piled into a succession of buses and headed out.

The actual Knudepunkt 2015 was held in the town of Ringe, where the town’s schools and leisure centre had been commandeered for the use of larpers. I slept on a classroom floor, the cheapest rung of accommodations, but it came complete with a mattress and all the stuff I needed to sleep like a grown-up, which was convenient. I have, in the past few years, discovered that I am no longer young and spry enough to go around sleeping on bare floors and expecting to be a functional human being the following day.

The venue was functional, but having stuff spread out across three different addresses, with my accommodations in yet fourth, did mean a fair bit of walking. There were three meals a day at the leisure centre, of which the first I managed to miss on both Friday and Saturday. I must admit that I am not a morning person. The ones I did not miss were edible but nothing to write home about (so I’m writing the whole of the internet). Good thing I am omnivorous, since the catering company wasn’t apparently entirely on the ball with special diets, nothing was labelled and Thursday’s vegetarian option looked like a bowl of sadness. General dissatisfaction about the provisions reached the point that one enterprising fellow negotiated us a small pizza delivery on Sunday morning.

Anyway. It being a conference, there were talks! As an ostensible newbie, I opted to follow the four-item Fundamentals track to begin with, which covered the “Knudepunkt scene”, larp theory, major larps in the tradition, and finally design. As I kinda predicted, there wasn’t much new in them for me except for the last one. I’ve been following along with interest for several years, but I have not considered larp from a design angle. The design lecture, given by Eirik Fatland, will at some point be available online. I will edit it here once I see it posted, for it was good and interesting, and enough full of information that at least I could not take it in all at once.

The first lecture ran us through what the conference is about, where it came from, who are doing it and what are the key things currently being talked about. Some of these are theory, like the concept of “bleed“, emotions leaking from player to character (“Here’s an ex you had a really difficult break-up with. Your character is her supportive friend.”) or vice versa (“Over the past eight hours, your character saw everything they cared for cruelly destroyed. Try and smile after the game.”). While it’s probably unavoidable in any circumstance the game manages to pluck a player’s emotional strings, there is apparently some controversy over the topic.Another big thing at the moment is larp tourism and going mainstream. The flagship for both is of course College of Wizardry, the Harry Potter larp to end all Harry Potter larps that you probably heard about at some point late last year. Incidentally, their IndieGoGo for next November’s games is going live on the 28th, for $375 a ticket. I am giving this serious thought. Good thing I like ramen. They’re apparently also coming out with Fairweather Manor, a Downton Abbey -inspired game.

Incidentally, replayable larps is another big thing. As the lecturer put it: “The question nowadays isn’t going to be ‘did you play?’, but ‘which run did you play?'”Also of note is the scene’s generally heightened awareness of the discourse on gender, sexuality and diversity.The theory talk was given by Jaakko “Žižek of Larp” Stenros, who also taught me some years ago. Therefore, it isn’t entirely surprising the material was familiar to me. I’ve also discussed most of the stuff in my original posts on the lecture course back in 2009 – magic circle, 360° illusion, diegesis, etc. – and won’t revisit those here. Of course there was some newer material from places like Markus Montola’s PhD thesis, but, overall here the benefit was having the same content delivered in a new package, sometimes rephrased and with fresh examples.

Then there was the key works lecture by Joc Koljonen, where I basically came away with the feeling of being well-read and knowing the meaning of the word “kapo” (a collaborator or ‘trusted prisoner’ in a concentration camp). It contained a number of examples from Nordic Larp, as well as the later examples of the Battlestar Galactica larp Monitor Celestra; the prison camp larp that drives me to drink every time I hear about it Kapo (there’s a book you can download from Rollespilsakademiet); the Finnish-Palestinian collaboration Halat hisar (or “State of Siege”; book downloadable from the Society for Nordic Roleplaying); and, of course, College of Wizardry (Book upcoming – oh, I forgot, the first lecture also covered documentation. Big on documentation, the scene is.), all of which I’ve had players gush at me after the fact and making me feel sorry I wasn’t there. Well, except Kapo. I’m feeling pretty good about that.

Finally, there was Eirik Fatland’s design lecture, delivered as a history of larp design thought, with the strengths and weaknesses of different approaches. I will not try to summarize it, since there will be video forthcoming and I will look like an utter tit if I get it wrong. One concept that did stick, though, was “brute-force larp design”, an older way of writing larps, where the solution to creating content was usually to have two conflicting hierarchies (orcs vs. elves) and basically throw as much plot as possible at the players and hope some of it sticks. The weakness of this is that it easily leads to the elf king getting all the limelight, and if one of the conflicting hierarchies, say, succeeds and wipes out the other one before the game is supposed to end, you’ll end up with one group of players whose characters are dead and another whose raison d’être was just removed. One solution, originally written by Fatland himself, was the fateplay system, where it’s decreed beforehand that, say, an assassin bumps off the elf king on the second day of the larp, and this is written into both of their characters, and it’s the players’ job to make it as dramatic as possible.

Okay, I’m not gonna summarize any more of it.

Another thing we tried to go see but was full by the time we got there was a talk on debriefs. Instead, we sat around a table outside the classroom and talked, which was probably at least as fruitful as the talk would have been. I got some food for thought on the use of music, specifically singing, in games. It’s a topic I’ve pondered previously, as drinking songs are a bit of a hobby that I have and sometimes crossing the streams is exactly the thing to do, especially when both streams are, above all, participatory forms of self-expression. This may shape itself into a blog post, or a convention workshop, or an article, or something, at some point. An entire game, if I can ever figure out the core mechanic for Rather Than Well…

This, really, is the core of what I took away from Knudepunkt. Talks and lectures are all good and well, but it is such a tight-knit community that discussion and conversation are where the meat of it lies. I spent a long week putting faces to names I’ve seen in articles and blog posts and in my friends’ Facebook comments. Friendships were made. There were parties. At the Finnish party, we sang Finnish schlager that we would not be caught dead singing in another situation, at the top of our lungs. There was a Portuguese chorizo-burning ritual at midnight, complete with chanting. There was a second-hand RPG vendor who sold me Toon. On the final night, there was a party on the theme of the Seven Deadly Sins and Four Heavenly Virtues, with hotspots around the leisure centre for each of them.

My favourite, I must admit, was Envy, which was a window to the bar, where Gluttony and Lust were. It was lit green. At one point during the evening, it was also the place for the Swedish socialist song workshop, which I am not certain was intended but was deeply ironic.Also, each of the four Nordic countries had produced a short comedy sketch show, Knudepunkt TV. If you click no other thing on this post, click this one.

Next Year

So, next year, Finland. Well, at least some of the time. The Week in Finland is going to be precisely that, but the conference venue itself is going to be all over the place. If things go according to plan, we’re on a boat, one of the massive floating hotels and shopping centres that ferry people between Helsinki and Stockholm. It ought to be pretty awesome. See you there.

In the State of Denmark: Knudepunkt 2015, Part the First – A Week in Denmark

The annual larp convention Knudepunkt is an odd duck among gaming conventions. It has no single set location, but rotates between Denmark, Finland, Norway and Sweden. It is not a large event, as far as these things go, usually averaging a few hundred attendees. This year broke the record at high five hundreds. Knudepunkt is the cradle of the Nordic larp tradition, the often surprising, sometimes harrowing, usually ambitious and never boring collection of styles of design and play that developed here. For a crash course, check out the book Nordic Larp.

A note on the name: it’s called Knudepunkt when it’s in Denmark, Knutepunkt when in Norway, Knutpunkt in Sweden, and Solmukohta in Finland. Spot the non-Indo-European language. These all mean the same thing, “nodal point”. I’ll be using Knudepunkt throughout this post to refer collectively to all the conventions.

For me, this was my first Knudepunkt. I figured that if I am to edit books for next year’s event, it would probably behove me to find out what the event is like. Immerse myself in the atmosphere, so to speak. Also, I like cons. This one was no exception.

Traditionally, the event itself is preceded by a week of other related stuff in the local capital, where there are larps, parties, local culture and other attractions and distractions. Our team hit Copenhagen on Sunday the 8th of February, so we missed some of the initial stuff like the Black Box Horsens larp con (you know you’re dealing with a serious convention when the run-up to the con includes another con).

I attended a bus tour, the Knudepunkt book release, and the Nordic Larp Talks. I also did a lot of touristy stuff like shoring up the economic prospects of Copenhagen’s bookshops in a bibliophiliac spree that left my luggage at a whopping 300 grams under the airline’s weight limit and taking a guided tour through Christiania, which is a fairly interesting place but probably best discussed elsewhere. Also, I did a lot of hanging out at the Bastard Café, which was the ground zero of A Week in Denmark.

 

The Bus Tour

On Tuesday, we loaded ourselves aboard a bus and hit a sequence of interesting targets in Copenhagen and the vicinity.

The first of these was the HQ of Iron Fortress. They’re a Danish company that manufactures professional-quality larp gear for larpers – latex weaponry, armour in both leather and metal, all sorts of garb, makeup materials, even latex tankards for when you absolutely have to flip the table and conk your drinking buddy on the head. And man, they look good.

The Iron Fortress lobby is well protected. Photograph © Jukka Särkijärvi.

The Iron Fortress lobby is well protected. Photograph © Jukka Särkijärvi.

Moreover, they are affordable. The company doesn’t do direct consumer sales, so I am now idly browsing through the selection at Faraos Cigarer, a Copenhagen gaming and comics store (the finest of its kind in the Nordic countries, I believe), just waiting for an excuse to splurge and start purchasing bits of platemail.

It was an eye-opening experience. I did not know there was enough of a market for this kind of thing to make it economically feasible to produce, but apparently and fortunately I was mistaken. No retailer in Finland, to my knowledge, stocks their products. Of course, there is a very strong DIY element in the larp scene and many people enjoy making their own gear, especially since it is, in the end, often cheaper.

A hundred marks to buy them all
One day to wind them
Three weeks to cut them all
And into a chain coif bind them
Ilkka Puusaari, Larppaajan käsikirja

The dragon is not alone. Photograph © Jukka Särkijärvi

The dragon is not alone. Photograph © Jukka Särkijärvi

Their range is also pretty wide, and in addition to fantasy there’s stuff like postapocalyptic/modern gear, like latex baseball bats, lead pipes and wrenches. In addition to latex, which is in the end more for looks than realism, they also make (or are putting into production, I do not recall) another weapon range more suitable for full-force combat. It is apparently a thing in Canada. I would like to say that the term for such games is HARP, but because of obvious reasons, it is remarkably resistant to googling. I tested a sword, and they will cause bruising. Wearing armour is advised.

Completely out of the left field, they also do a zombie run type event called Zombie Løbet.

After Iron Fortress, we headed out to the town of Roskilde, where we hit a local game store called Fanatic, where we could buy the stuff we had just spent an hour drooling over.

I like swords. Photograph © Jukka Särkijärvi.

I like swords. Photograph © Jukka Särkijärvi.

One thing I noticed in my tour of the store, as well as the brick-and-mortar Faraos Cigarer in Copenhagen was that the Danes don’t seem to produce much in the way of tabletop RPGs, which is a marked contrast with the Finnish scene. Even the otherwise ridiculously well-stocked Faraos Cigarer did not carry more than a few. The one I ended up buying as the requisite addition to my collection of games in weirdass languages was a 90s thing called Fusion. Very pretty.

After that, we hit the Rollespilsfabrikken villa in Copenhagen. Rollespilsfabrikken is the biggest Danish larp organization, and since they do valuable work in keeping the youth of Denmark busy with role-playing games, they are subsidized by the powers that be. Like, by renting them this villa that the city of Copenhagen had lying around. It’s 376 m2, too. I am feeling moderately envious here. Our clubs have club rooms. They have a club villa.

The villa was appropriately decorated. Lord Croak, made for a Warhammer larp several years ago. Photograph © Jukka Särkijärvi.

The villa was appropriately decorated. Lord Croak, made for a Warhammer larp several years ago. Photograph © Jukka Särkijärvi.

Rollespilsfabrikken was followed by Rollespilsakademiet, the place where they try to make money at this thing. It’s also the outfit that they publish books through, and most relevant to non-Danes, their website is to my knowledge the only location where you can download all the Knudepunkt books from the same place, including The Book, which was for a long time unavailable and elusive. They also have a load of other books available, mostly larp documentation. They make for fascinating reading, showcasing the Nordic larp tradition. Many also have beautiful photography.

Following the final stop of our tour was the release party for the 2015 Knudepunkt books. The release happened without much fanfare, and Claus Raasted repeated most of what he said there at next day’s Nordic Larp Talks.

The Nordic Larp Talks

Another tradition of Knudepunkt is the Nordic Larp Talks, a series of short speeches or presentations about larp and related topics. The event was held at the Copenhagen main library the day before Knudepunkt itself started. I am not going to describe the content of the talks themselves because they were streamed online and you can go check them out yourself. For what it’s worth, I found Ann Kristine Eriksen’s, Massi Hannula’s, Eleanor Saitta’s and Evan Torner’s talks of special interest, though they were all good. There’s also Claus Raasted’s very short book presentation, and he’s always entertaining. (He’s also the guy who did the narration on that archery video that you probably saw recently. If the professional larp organizing thing folds, he’ll always have a future as a voiceover artist.)

After the talks, we adjourned to Bastard Café for board games and beer. The next day, Knudepunkt 2015 would begin.

Some New Releases of Interest, News, Conventions

It has been a while, but it is not because I’ve vanished off the face of gaming. It’s at least in part because I have been writing elsewhere. One of these elsewheres is the International Journal of Role-Playing, whose fifth issue just came out and has a couple of pages of Mika Loponen and I giving the 2012 history book Playing at the World a very critical look.

Our dynamic duo is also responsible for editing the book for released for next year’s Solmukohta (or Knutepunkt/Knutpunkt/Knudepunkt) larp conference. That rabbit hole got really deep really fast. It is traditional for the larp conference to publish one or more books for the convention. These are collections of articles about what the Nordic larp scene has been up to in the past year, ranging from academic papers to photoessays.

This year’s Knudepunkt is going to be in Denmark next month, and the first one of their two books came out recently, the Nordic Larp Yearbook 2014, which takes the concept of Nordic Larp and limits it to material just from the past year.

On the convention front, the Finnish flagship RPG convention Ropecon is moving this year from its customary late summer location to May 15th-17th, due to Dipoli’s renovations. There is no word as yet about 2016, though people are hard at work on it already. For this year, the theme of the convention is Journey, the call for programming has gone out, and Michelle Nephew has been announced as the first guest of honour!

After Ropecon, June 25th-28th, we have the science fiction convention Archipelacon, in Mariehamn. It’s a small-scale, understated affair of only about 800 guests, and like its predecessor Åcon, the guests of honour are little-known up-and-coming authors who can use the exposure, like George R.R. Martin, Johanna Sinisalo and Karin Tidbeck.

Finally, there’s going to be Tracon, September 5th-6th, which will have some gaming stuff as usual and I’ll be present, but at this point things are still up in the air so there’s nothing specific to tell.

And even more finally, there’s the one where I’ll be doing more than just talking or running games, Tracon Hit Point. We don’t know when (late 2015)! We don’t know where (Tampere)! We do know it’s going to be awesome, and there will be more information once we have managed to generate it!