What Do We Do When We Play Available!

Last year’s Solmukohta larp conference could only be held online, but we did produce a book for it. What Do We Do When We Play? is a very nifty hardcover with the stated intention of starting to conceptualize a theory of, well, what do we do when we play. Player skills. What does it mean to larp well, or badly for that matter? What are the skills of a good player, and how does one get better at them? The book is a collection of tools, tales, and essays, often in the original, Montaignean sense of an attempt to put thought into words. It’s throwing spaghetti at the wall and seeing what sticks. Some of the texts come with decades of authoritative experience behind them. Others are from a fresh perspective, unburdened by preconceptions. All of them are interesting.

Though pretty much all of the texts except for the anecdotes have been published on Nordiclarp.org over the past two years, we also have a few copies left for sale. The shipping is probably something hideous, but 28€ for a pretty hardcover is not a bad price. Get yours at Ropecon’s webstore.

The Forbidden History

“And all should cry, Beware! Beware!
His flashing eyes, his floating hair!
Weave a circle around him thrice,
And close your eyes with holy dread,
For he on honey-dew hath fed,
And drunk the milk of Paradise.”
– Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Kubla Khan, c. 1797-98

Zamek Czocha a.k.a. St. Theodora’s College. Photo by Anoisina spoušť.

There are tales that demand to be told, and some tales that resist it to the utmost. Sometimes, they are the same tale, which is often how I feel about my larp stories. It’s why I never wrote about my Just a Little Lovin’ experience, for instance. I feel that though the experience has been intensely personal for me, it is not entirely my story to tell. It has been intensely personal for many people, and their experiences are not only not mine but also often wildly different, even if we have played a close relationship. A story I tell can only be my story, and often this limitation has kept me quiet. It feels too much like infringing on someone else’s subjective experience, like raising my voice over the voices of others. I do not want to do that. On another level, these often lead to introspection and self-doubt – I said the wrong thing here, I should have escalated there. This can be crippling. As I begin this, I do not know if I will ever press “Publish”.

But, dammit, sometimes the story is just too damn good not to try.

So, earlier this month, I woke up on a Monday morning, looking ahead to a week of nothing in particular. Then I looked at Facebook, and there was a post that The Forbidden History was looking for a Professor to replace a cancellation, if you could just haul your ass to the game site in time. Which was two days hence. In Poland.

For a bit of necessary background, The Forbidden History was something I was aware of. Run now the second time, it was a larp based on Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, one of my absolute favourite novels. It is a sprawling, baroque work that, among other things, features what I consider one of the finest scenes in all of English literature where the protagonist makes friends by demonstrating his knowledge of the Ancient Greek locative case. In the words of one of my former professors, it makes my little philological heart go pitter-pat. Moreover, some friends had already courted me to sign up the month previously at Knutepunkt in Oslo.

So, obviously, I did the responsible adult thing and checked flights before contacting the organizers and securing my place.

<

St. Theodora’s College

“This other Eden, demi-paradise,
This fortress built by Nature for her self
Against infection and the hand of war,
This happy breed of men, this little world […]”
– William Shakespeare, Richard II, 1595

The setting was 1986, and the school was called St. Theodora’s. It was liberal in arts and social mores, conservative in everything else, a safe haven against discrimination and prejudice yet locked in the Victorian era with its curriculum and structure. The school was split into two tracks, Classical and Modern, with the latter being an innovation so recent we were about to graduate our first Seniors come spring. Classical had subjects like Philosophy, Ancient Greek, Assyriology, Egyptology, and Drama, while the Modern had Rhetorics, Applied Ethics, Literature, Poetry, History, and so on. Students who wished to pick from the other track were relegated to taking extracurricular classes.

The year of the game was somewhat arbitrary, and as far as I could tell mostly picked because a) it would remove mobile phones from the historical context and b) it was the year Donna Tartt graduated from Bennington, on which she based the Hampden College of The Secret History.

Overlooking the Cavendish Hall. Photo by Anoisina spoušť.

St. Theodora’s anachronistic acceptance towards minorities was explained in the backstory as Theodora being an illustriously self-sacrificing woman who masqueraded as a monk was only found out after her passing. Amusingly, in the real world, the Eastern Orthodox Church also recognizes a Saint Theodora, better known as Empress Theodora of Byzantium. One of the major contemporary sources on her is a book written by Procopius, Ἀπόκρυφη Ἱστορία, commonly translated in English as… The Secret History. I do not know if this was intentional from the writers, but I like to think it was. [Edit May 18 2022: It has been brought to my attention that the Saint Theodora of St. Theodora’s College is another actual Orthodox saint called Theodora of Alexandria. But I still think that The Secret History thing is cool.]

St. Theodora’s open-mindedness was also about art, and passion. It was an environment where we could be freely passionate about art, without being thought strange, or mocked. We wrote, recited, and discussed poetry. We studied Lord Byron, and debated the merits of Tennyson, discussed what Shelley meant, read Cavafy, and asserted that Larkin’s “This Be the Verse” was inspired by his own experiences at St. Theodora’s. When I got back, a friend commented that it sounded pretentious, but it was precisely not that. It was entirely in earnest, untainted by irony (except maybe the Larkin bit). That love of beauty and learning was the kernel of truth in our fiction.

Our college was housed, once again, in Czocha Castle, a venue I have larped at before, and which I literally had to escape in March 2020 when borders started closing. It was one of the reasons I could jump at the opportunity. I have been there a number of times already and there was an element of routine to the travel logistics – this time slightly disrupted by the introduction of the new Berlin Brandenburg Airport, which is an affront to Hermes.

Let Me Tell You About My Character

“Mad, bad, and dangerous to know.”
– Lady Caroline Lamb, about Lord Byron, c. 1812

As the spot was a cancellation, I received a character that I probably would not have, had I filled out the casting form myself. Professor Dale Merrington was in some ways very far outside my comfort zone – dude had more intimate contacts than my entire previous larp history combined, including the guy in a polycule at JaLL – and in some ways so close to home that my partner, looking at a paragraph of his 11-page character brief, said to me “So you’re playing yourself?”

The man himself. Photo by Zachytit ten moment / Míša Portychová.

Fortunately, it was not one of the awful bits, just a sad one. Professor Merrington was a bisexual man in 1986 (AIDS was specifically noted not to be a theme in the game), living at St. Theodora’s College because he could openly be what he was and still retain his job. Also, he was incapable of forming lasting relationships, and filled the gaping hole in his soul by having meaningless affairs with students. There was more than a bit of Lord Byron in him. He was manipulative and remorseless, and the damage he may have caused his students was inconsequential – they came for four years, and then they would leave, and never cross his path again.

Also, the good Professor’s discipline was Philosophy of Science and I had to give a total of seven lessons in three days.

While I have been described as well-read and my personal library is the envy of many, when it comes to philosophy of science, I am an idiot child. In most larps this would not have been a problem, but in The Forbidden History, there was an expectation of actual lessons. The other professor players not only all had actual expertise in their characters’ fields but had also had time to prepare.

But hey, I had two days, no problem. So, while I was organizing my travel logistics, packing, reading up on the game materials, talking with my contacts, and figuring out my props, I also took the opportunity to read up on A Very Short Introduction to Philosophy of Science. Of course, as my calm Monday morning had metamorphosed into the frantic last days before a larp, I could not actually retain any of what I had read.

To give an idea of how high-strung I was… I wear an activity bracelet. It measures my heart rate and counts my steps and if I reach a set activity goal during the day, it buzzes and stuff. Usually, it takes me about 10-12 000 steps to reach the goal. On that Monday, my activity was 188% with only 4 500 steps and without leaving my apartment. This gives an idea of where my heart rate was.

Fortunately, my travel itinerary afforded me the opportunity to pick the brains of wiser larpers, some of whom had played the first run. Another thing I had going for me was that I had taught at Czocha before. There’s an art to teaching in a larp, and it’s far less about pedagogics than it is about facilitating play.

It also helps that everyone else is there to pretend you have your shit together. Mostly, I discussed basic epistemology and scientific method, but we also had an interesting discussion on Harry Frankfurt’s On Bullshit. I would only characterize my extracurricular class as a failure, and that was because I tried to bite off more than I could chew and go over some actual science. Fortunately, as I was there dying in front of the students, I had the power to interrupt my own torment and dismiss the class early.

Professors Merrington and Northbroke trying to not break up. Photo by Anoisina spoušť.

Teaching was easily the smaller challenge that Professor Merrington presented me. As noted, he could be a complete monster. This is difficult for me to play at the best of times, let alone with a two-day prep time. I am not particularly good at dredging up the darkness from the bottom of the soul and finding the headspace for intentional cruelty is tough. Of course, beyond the comfort zone is where the magic happens, and I did push myself.

The flipside of the Professor was that in the teachers’ lounge he had actual friendships and potential for a real relationship, complete with a triangle drama. The Professor of Rhetorics was an old boyfriend, Professor of Music the one that got away, and Professor of Applied Ethics an old friend and partner in crime.

Anecdotes and War Stories

“Poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquillity.”
– William Wordsworth, Lyrical Ballads, 1798

The set of the stage at the start of the larp was that the midterm exams were just over, and everyone’s grades had been posted in the hall, and Knock Night was approaching. The Knock Night, of course, was the time when the secret societies of St. Theodora’s College would induct new members from among the freshmen and the sophomores. The secret societies were a whole big thing, something that happened in the shadows and was not spoken of or acknowledged in public. There was no conflict or interaction between them. They were self-contained, and did their own thing behind closed, often secret doors. Suffice it to say that the one Professor Merrington was in could be described “abusive Neoplatonic psychodrama self-actualization society with lovebombing”. There was also a highlight moment during the final evening when a group of us professors were advising a student about her opportunities in life after St. Theodora’s, and discussed Yale, and someone mentioned Skull and Bones, and we all burst out with mocking laughter. It was a moment of humour among peers united by the common secret that we all had a secret from the others.

The Professors. Photo by Anoisina spoušť.

At the start, the professors were grousing about the shortcomings of their classes in the teachers’ lounge, while the students were… I do not know what the students were doing, I was at the teachers’ lounge. There was port. (A Czocha teachers’ lounge always has port.)

It was the typical “year of events in four days” type of turbocharged experience. Over the larp, Professor Merrington was rejected, jilted, and coldly dumped by three different paramours, and still he ended up dancing the waltz with his old flame, Professor Francis Northbroke, at the Masque on the final night, and they had their happy ending. First time I had played a same-sex relationship, actually.

There was a night of drinks and poetry with Merrington’s mentee students, the Poetry Circle. Troubled youths, not the least bit helped by Professor having slept with two of them and treating the rest as puzzle boxes to be opened or projects to be remoulded in his own image. But we had a good time, writing poetry and reciting verse, with one memorable enactment of John Wilmot’s “The Imperfect Enjoyment”, and a running joke of erotic poetry about salad.

I played a double role, too. A few weeks before the larp, a friend who had courted me for the game needed a photo for the yearbook for his character’s dead brother. Anything for a friend. This became a small issue when it was realized I would be joining the staff, but with a bit of facial grooming and a different set of glasses as well as instructions for everyone else not to play on the coincidental similarity between Professor Merrington and poor Everett Larsen-Howoll fixed that. Of course, the dead student was also a plot point I could not touch at all lest it immediately devolve into metahumour.

Right on the bloody front page, too. Photo by Jukka Särkijärvi.

But I cannot tell everything. Memory fades and twists, some stories are too intimate for public consumption (in keeping with the source material, there were at least two incest plots), and others would bore the dear reader. I will leave you with this one, perfect moment of comedy.

Scene: classroom, day. The class has just concluded and the students have filed away but for one, staying behind with the Professor.

Student: “Professor, my grade from the midterm was so low. How could I ever raise it? Is there something I could do for you? I am willing to do anything you’d like.”

Professor, seeing where this is going: “Miss, that is not how this works. First, you work hard, and apply yourself, and raise your grade. Then, and only then, can we look at… extracurricular activities. Now, please deliver me a thousand words on the state of epistemology before and after the Age of Enlightenment by Monday.”

Later in the lounge: “We cannot go around fucking the underachieving! We have standards to maintain!”

It was a good larp. Perhaps even great larp, but I did not get as much out of it as I should have. There’s a yearning in me, a feeling that there’s still something left there for me at St. Theodora’s. For days after the larp, I found myself having to restrain myself from reaching out and touching people, and wondering why everyone wears so little tweed, missing that community of the mind and the people who existed for mere days.

We were all awful people, but we were beautiful, and we wrote poetry, and it mattered.


Complete photo galleries:

Anoisina spoušť, general picture gallery

Zachytit ten moment / Míša Portychová, black and white photos

Zachytit ten moment / Míša Portychová, colour photos

Zachytit ten moment / Míša Portychová, portrait gallery

Featured image by Anoisina spoušť.

Larp Crowdfunding Things!

There’s two larp-related crowdfunding campaigns live right now that I thought I should highlight.

First, with twelve days still on the clock, there’s the scriptbook of the Norwegian larp Just a Little Lovin’. I played in the Finnish run in 2018, and it was a powerful experience. The larp is a masterclass in designing for emotional impact. It is about three consecutive Fourth of July celebrations during the early years of the AIDS crisis, about friendship, death, and desire.

The other campaign is Engines of Desire: Larp as the Art of Experience, an essay collection by Juhana Pettersson, up on IndieGoGo for a few more weeks. It is 460 pages long and contains 31 articles and essays. Nine of them are new to this book, the rest collected from larp books and other publications from over the years. I proofread the book, and it is marvellous.

Both books have already been funded and the latter is basically finished already, so it’s a sure deal!

MOAR ODYSSEUS

As the dust has settled after Odysseus, photo galleries have come out of embargo and a lot of interesting material has been uploaded in various places.

First of all, all of the photo galleries from all the runs are now public. Most of them are accessible through larppikuvat.fi, except for the photos of Ami Koiranen, which are found at amikoiranen.com.

Second, two of the three Odysseus talks from Ropecon have gone through postproduction and been uploaded to YouTube.


The first is about the spatial design of the larp, by Mia Makkonen.

And the second is Essi Santala’s and Sampo Juustila’s talk on the IT, audio, and lighting of the larp, which is one of those cases where being told how the magic trick works makes it more impressive.

The third and final one is the GM team telling what Odysseus was and how they did it.

The final item I wish to link is a real doozy. While the physical objects that made the game are spread to the four winds – the costumes and signage sold, the wall elements sent off to Germany, smaller props stored away – the character briefs, soundfiles, software, and everything else electronic endures. So they collected it all in one place and put it up for download. It’s all free for non-commercial use, and it’s a marvellous treasure trove.

Odysseus, Part II: War Stories

This is the second half of my Odysseus larp report. For Part I, see here.

The first post covered the basics of Odysseus, which I will not repeat here. In this post, I talk about my personal experience and the story arc of my character. This is by necessity a narrow perspective. The game had 312 players over three runs. The text reflects my experience and is neither meant to nor can it invalidate someone else’s.

This will be very long. Grab a drink or something.

It was a very large game and different character groups had completely different experiences to a greater degree than I’ve seen even in larger larps. I have no idea what it is the engineers actually did, didn’t understand the depth of medbay’s work until I saw the photos of them pulling parasites from someone’s arm, only heard about the Zodiac crime organization after the game, and so on.

You don’t see this on House. Photo by Mira Strengell.

Protector Jardan of the Velians

My character was Mission Commander Jardan (to the EOC), or Protector Jardan (to their own people). They were a leader of the Velian character group. In postgame conversations the Velians have been described as “space elves”, “space hippies”, and “hippie space elves”, but really none of these are good analogies (though I am reliably informed that their spiritual leader, the Guardian, was indeed “Space Jesus”). I’m not sure there is a good analogy. While you could make a case for bits of the Velians being inspired by certain sci-fi and real-world cultures, they’re more or less their own thing. There’s maybe a dash of Star Trek’s Vulcans in there. They were an offshoot of humanity dwelling on the inhospitable planet Velian in a single city built by an ancient alien species, covered by an energy dome that made the environment liveable. Their science and technology were far beyond what the EOC had, though they did not have spaceships.

Their society was basically a kind of spiritual gerontocracy, with the oldest members of the Protector caste forming a ruling council known as the One Percent. Other castes were Healers, Shields, Sentinels, Ambassadors, Mechanics, Labourers, and so on. Technically above the Protectors was The Guardian, the mysterious figure who was not quite a god, but maintained the dome. The Guardian was an alien, which the Velians knew and would be revealed to the rest of ESS Odysseus during the game.

Because city-sized environment domes don’t make population growth a great idea, they had adopted the lawfully-mandated practice of using implants that suppressed romantic feelings or lust, and procreation was clinical, controlled, and performed with extracted genetic matter and womb tanks with no need for physical attraction or messy coitus. In a workshop before the game, we also agreed that Velians would always refer to each other as “they”. To them, gender mattered little.

We started our game stranded on Velian with some EOC crew, in a blackbox. You can see the blue he/him pronoun pins on Jardan in the centre and Commander Rowen on the right. Photo by Mira Strengell.

As a note on design, we were all given unobtrusive pronoun pins to go with our name tags. During the workshops we had out-of-character name tags. During the game, military characters had their names on their uniforms, while civilians had ID cards that it was recommended we wear visibly. Their design was not entirely ideal since the type was fairly small and I couldn’t always read the name even when I was talking to the person. Fortunately, I have a pretty good memory for larp character names – except for the Velians, some of which I never managed to memorise.

Protector Jardan was old. At 68, they were the second-oldest character in the larp after The Guardian, who was an alien being so old that age became meaningless. They were also a member of the One Percent. Jardan was very much a traditionalist, set in their ways, and as much of an authoritarian as the consensus-political system allowed. Their faith in The Guardian was deep, and they were Jardan’s only confidant. Jardan was rather like a distant father to his people, especially during the game when his entire peer group had just died.

The Waiting Game

As the game began, the energy dome on Velian had been shrinking. The One Percent had concealed this from the people of Velian to avoid mass panic, but finally, rather too late, sought to evacuate the planet. Jardan had been the leader of the delegation and had been off-planet to negotiate for aid with the EOC when the dome finally did collapse, coincidentally at the same time as the Machines attacked the EOC. They started the game stranded back on Velian with the remnants of two different EOC naval crews and the last survivors of Velian, in an ancient spaceship whose life support systems were functional but hours away from breaking under the strain. (Long story.)

The ship was a large classroom that’d serve as the offgame sleeping area once we were done using it. As is visible in the photo below, it was rather more symbolic than the rest of the larp’s set design, with school furniture, and mattresses on the floor. The lighting did a lot, though.

A Velian standoff. Photo by Santtu Pajukanta.

The first five or six hours of our game were about fixing the communications systems so a distress call could be sent, boosting the life support what little we could, talking with one another, and waiting.

Jardan was overjoyed to discover that The Guardian had survived, and crushed to find out that these few survivors were all that was left of the thousand strong people of Velian. Entire castes had been wiped out. The only other member of the One Percent who still lived was Protector Omyr, who had survived grievous radiation burns.

I only realized around the time they were on their deathbed around three hours in that they were an NPC that was scripted to die. Down to 16.

Goodbye, Protector Omyr. Photo by Santtu Pajukanta.

The engineers figured out the technology and the medics tried to patch up everyone. We were all dinged up so bad that the start of our game got slightly delayed because everyone needed to get their wounds and injuries on. It was not a bad delay since it did not affect the game of anyone but us and we still got a good six hours of frustration and waiting before getting rescued. The design was purposefully such that we got on the edge as the life support ticked down.

Finally, rescue arrived, in the form of a team of gung-ho Marines and a cowboy shuttle pilot from ESS Odysseus. Six at a time, we were shepherded onto the shuttle and taken up to the ship. In practice, we were hustled out of the room, out of the side door of the school, into a van tricked out as the shuttle, and driven by some route to another door that led to the hangar bay. At this point, I fell entirely out of character. The dimly lit classroom had been nice and everything, but it was also very recognisably a classroom, and now we were getting a taste of the 360° illusion and high production values. I was grateful for my hood, because it could conceal that I was grinning like an idiot during the entire drive. We then went through the airlock and entered the Odysseus.

It was already late so there wasn’t much of a welcoming committee. Those needing medical attention (which, to be frank, was all of us, but there’s minor scrapes and then there’s severe radiation sickness) were taken to the medbay, we met Quartermaster Hayakawa and had our details taken so we could be issued ID cards, and around the time Doctor Peters called time of death on Researcher Fide, I realized we had another scripted NPC. Down to 15.

It was a beautiful ceremony. Photo by Mira Strengell.

We’d hashed out a decently complex memorial ritual for the dead in the workshops. Turns out there was a good reason. It was performed at least three times during the game.

Here, I had one of those moments. I do not, as a general thing, cry on demand, and it takes quite a bit of psyching up for me to produce tears. When the realisation hit Jardan that Velian was a dead world and they shouldered part of the blame, I did not cry. When Protector Omyr passed, I did not cry. When Researcher Fide lay there dead on the medical table, I did not cry.

And then, when at the lowest priority for medical attention, the scrapes on my hands were being cleaned, I figured “this would sting”, and that’s when my face started leaking full force. I played it as a collapse of Jardan’s leaderly reserve now that the immediate crisis was over and he could relax for a moment.

Cogs in the System

Odysseus’s nature as a clockwork larp soon became evident. The EOC characters all basically had their duties already set, either officially in one of the crew positions or unofficially as politicians or criminals or whatnot. The Velians came to this from the outside, and our first order of business was to get into the mesh. That was my priority as a leader both in and out of character – to get eyes and ears everywhere as well as prove to the EOC that we could pull our weight, and to get people play, respectively – and we very smoothly got our warriors into the Marines, the pilot into the cockpit, the physicians into the medbay, one person into Engineering and us political types into… position-type things. There was a lot of politics going on that Jardan took one look at, decided they were so far out of their depth they did not know which way was up, and delegated it to the Ambassadors. The one position they operated in was the War Council.

Shield Tarai and Protector Jardan having a serious conversation. They were all serious conversations. Photo by Mira Strengell.

The core experience of my game ended up being the burden of leadership, in trying to hold together the Velian group and find a way to keep their culture alive with fifteen people, many of them excitable youngsters. We also had the issue of the implants running out of power and the younger Velians feeling an entirely new spectrum of emotion, which Jardan disapproved of, especially in the middle of a crisis. I’ve never had so many conversations about procreation.

The other part of this was negotiating a place for Velians in the social, legal, and political structure of the fleet, which also involved keeping up The Guardian’s sacrosanct status. Velians were an independent nation, not citizens or subjects of the EOC, but we were all in the same boat now and had to move fast to get some security.

The Guardian, delivering an object lesson in appearing cryptic. Photo by Mira Strengell.

Of course, The Guardian’s true identity as an alien was one of the big secrets of the larp, and the narrative function of a secret is to be revealed. When the chips came down and orders came from up the hierarchy to get their medical information, the Odysseus crew was just too damn nice for that to happen. It was actually the Quartermaster of the Odysseus who came up with the idea of mocking up an innocent-looking dummy medical profile for The Guardian and running that up the flagpole to the Galaxy Commander, by dint of martial law the effective head of all humanity. This was called Operation Mushroom – “keep them in the dark and feed them shit”. Of course, the secret had to out eventually, but nobody got shot over it, despite all my strident invoking of 500-year-old cultural taboos and blasphemy.

Of course, keeping alive a culture of 15 people is not a goal destined for success, which was something Protector Jardan came to understand during the game. Though they counselled their people to adapt, Jardan realised they did not have the capability for it themselves, and in delegating responsibility, they made himself less and less indispensable to the Velians. Thus, when they were dragged from the deathbed of Aid Naethan to a meeting looking for volunteers to embark on a suicide mission and destroy the Machine mothership – which The Guardian was an important part of – the decision to stand up and take one for the team came very naturally.

Morituri vos salutant. At the microphone on the right, Captain Zeya Cook of ESS Odysseus. Photo by Santtu Pajukanta.

I’d never died in a larp before.

My last fifteen minutes of the game were sitting aboard ESS Starcaller, operating an alien cloaking device that allowed us to approach the mothership so we could blow up it up with an explosive device we had on board. Though there were pilots, a scientist and some Marines on board, we were a microcosm of five volunteers, paralysed by the machine, sharing stories and talking about mortality.

There was one of those perfect moments right at the end, when the countdown was already running. I’d been pressing the button on the cloaking device for fifteen minutes, and the situation was tense, so I was pressing it rather hard, and my hand began to shake. Opposite me, fellow volunteer Kerrie Ray asked: “Sir, are you alright?”

With a wan smile, my melancholic reply was drowned out by cockpit chatter and swallowed by the explosion: “No, I’m dying.”

We sat together in silence until the end of the game, listening to the cheers of the pilots coming back to the hangar. There may have been crying.

Trading Lives

There was a lot of dying, and a lot of that dying was some variety of suicide. The character of Tristan Fukui, the secret android and XO of the Atlantis, was scripted to space herself and come back. There was a suicide bombing whose circumstances I am somewhat unclear on. And then there was the last journey of the ESS Starcaller, a kamikaze mission to take out the enemy. We were not aware that taking out the mothership and the paranoid AI would, in addition to the Machines, kill every android on board.

The suicide mission was not the only possible end scenario, though it was the one that all three runs ended up with. According to the organisers, the other two possibilities were for the Odysseus to run and leave the fleet behind to be destroyed by the Machines, or take the mothership on in a straight fight and lose. While communicating with the AI was possible, success through diplomacy wasn’t in the cards. The AI, you see, had a bunch of human minds inside it so it knew how humans are. Odysseus’s image of humanity is a bleak one.

Before we embarked on our final journey, there was a scene where us volunteers took the stage, and The Guardian revealed their face to the whole ship, and gave a speech about what it was we were going to do: give our lives to end an intelligent species so that our own might live. The core message was that this was the endpoint of consistent failure of societies to live up to their own ideals. This was what fucking up looked like. “When you tell this story to your children, do not omit the mistakes, for it is there that the lessons lie.”

While we were flying out for our date with destiny, the civilians aboard Odysseus could watch the events unfolding on the large screen. As the mothership exploded, the androids died, and the final photographs of the larp paint a mournful picture.

Communications Specialist Ziva Callahan, the only known android at the beginning of the game. Photo by Tuomas Puikkonen.

Tristan Fukui collapsing. Photo by Tuomas Puikkonen.

Mourning Doctor Pearson. Photo by Mira Strengell.

Odysseus was never going to have a happy ending, and it was the greater work of art for it.


The Game Masters have published a blog post explaining larger story design decisions and spelling out a great deal of the background stories. It is very useful for context, and the “Final Words” section is vitally important.

These posts owe a great debt to the photography team of the second international run of Odysseus: Tuomas Puikkonen, Mira Strengell, Santtu Pajukanta, Ami Koiranen, and Henry Söderlund. I am deeply grateful that they have donated their time and skills to preserve glimpses of the magic.

Their full galleries can be found at larpkuvat.fi. The galleries of Ami Koiranen and Henry Söderlund are not yet public at the time of this publishing, but once they are, I may return to this post to edit in a few more appropriate shots. They captured their own share of gold.

Thanks also to Ninni Aalto for proofreading the first, vastly less coherent version of this text, and providing many helpful suggestions.

Header image by Mira Strengell.

Odysseus, Part I: I’ve Been to Space

As I start writing this post, probably well over a week before publication, my hands still ache from using crutches after I got shot in the leg by a robot soldier (the leg is fine). My left wrist still holds the white band that contains an NFC ticket, holding my medical information. Behind my ear is still a clump of hair and skin glue from my implant. It all feels very fresh, still.

From the 9th through 11th of July, I was at the larp Odysseus, which broadened the horizons of what larp can do. This is the first of two posts. In this one, I describe the production, while the second one will be about my personal story and closer analysis. As I was not involved with the making of the larp, my information is imperfect and I will gladly correct any errors that are pointed out to me.

To get into the mood, here’s the theme song, the EOC Anthem, by Hannu Niemi, Helena Haaparanta, and Mia Makkonen.

Odysseus was the first international blockbuster larp run in Finland. It was loosely based on Battlestar Galactica, with the serial numbers filed off. It took over two years of production before coming into fruition. I played the third and final run, where the last issues in technical execution had been ironed out. The way I’ve been hearing it, though, there wasn’t all that much to iron out. The team that created the larp numbered over a hundred volunteers in positions great and small. The lead producers were Laura KrögerSanna Hautala, and Antti Kumpulainen.

The initial setup was that seven days ago, a mysterious enemy called the Machines had attacked the EOC, a planetary nation state consisting of the planet Ellarion and the moons Osiris and Caelena. The decapitating strike had taken out all major cities. At the same time, the environment control dome of Velian had collapsed. The survivors of the human race were essentially all on spaceships. The first hours of the game were about coming to terms with the new situation and picking up survivors, all the while being harassed by periodic Machine attacks. The Battlestar Galactica episode “33” was a major inspiration.

The bridge, not in a crisis for the moment. Photographer: Santtu Pajukanta.

ESS Odysseus

The starship ESS Odysseus was constructed into the Torpparinmäki school in northern Helsinki. Over three weeks, the team built the interior of the school into a spaceship. The cafeteria became the mess hall and crew bar. The gym became the shuttle bay. Classrooms were turned into the Celestial Lounge, the War Room, the bridge, medbay, engine room, the Captain’s quarters, three in-character dormitories, and the hydroponics garden/greenhouse. In addition, there was the science lab, a freestanding structure that was built in the cafeteria. There were, of course, also dedicated GM areas, an offgame player area, and the offgame sleeping area that doubled as a blackbox for the planet Velian for the first few hours of the larp. Student lockers were concealed inside computer banks. Spaces were divided by freestanding walls. Existing walls were turned into bulkheads.

Covering visible walls served not only the purpose of making them more starship-like but also concealed a lot of wiring for speakers, the computer banks, and lighting. Everything was designed. The space was lit in the cold tones of sci-fi television – blues and greens, with a harsh white for medbay. The yellow and red alerts were exactly that. In the background, there was always the hum of the engine. The ship jumped once every three hours, and I’ve been to metal concerts with less bass. There were concealed banks of speakers whose low rumble was heard, felt, and if you happened to have a glass of water, seen. The engine room is a story all of its own. There was the jump engine, a huge device straight from a Syfy series, its control panels festooned liberally with blinkenlights.

An engineer at work. Photographer: Santtu Pajukanta.

The Tech

I cannot claim to understand half of the computer stuff and the public documentation only covers a part of it, but one of the news articles mentioned that at various points in the project, a total of ten coders worked on setting up the various computer programs used in the larp. I also did not personally engage with any of the systems except for the fleet intranet.

A civilian accessing the data systems. Photographer: Santtu Pajukanta.

Indeed, there were I think around ten laptop computers here and there in the corridors, the lab, bridge, and other locations that players could use to access the fleet intranet. What parts of it they could access depended on their user privileges. For instance, I wasn’t even a citizen let alone held an official position, so I got nothing but the bare bones personnel search, message function, news, and influence votes. Others could get into the artifact database, see people’s medical files and service records, and other cool stuff. I mostly used it to catch up on the news.

The news were also broadcast on larger screens in a few key locations such as the mess hall and the bridge. These screens had a rotation of the most recent news items and a clock counting down to the next jump.

Then there was all the spaceship stuff. ESS Odysseus’s bridge and fighters worked on EmptyEpsilon, an open-source spaceship simulator based on Artemis that the team had further refined for their needs. The simulator has six different player positions for different bridge officers – the Captain, Helm, Engineering, Science, Relay (or Comms, if you will), and of course Weapons. The Captain has no actual controls except her voice. It’s her job to tell everyone else what to do and keep the ship flying.

The fighters, placed in separate stations in the hangar bay area, ran just Helm and Weapons. The fighters were thus two-seaters, though I heard that one of the pilots flew at least one mission solo, controlling both stations at once, in the best tradition of hotshot rockstar pilots.

Pilots talking to a navigation officer. Photography: Santtu Pajukanta.

Then there were the NFC tags used and scanned by Engineering, the scientists, and the medics. There was a mobile app called HANSCA – short for “hand scanner” but also homophonous with the Finnish word for “glove” – that could read NFC tickets on wounded people, alien technology, and broken stuff. Every player also had an NFC ticket on a white wristband that contained their character’s pertinent medical data, such as whether they carried a certain genetic mutation that allowed them to use Elder technology. Seriously wounded characters had NFC tickets strapped to their wrist, which would reveal more serious injuries when scanned with HANSCA. Some of the engineers’ tasks likewise relied on scanning NFC tickets in certain places on the ship and then solving some kind of minigame or puzzle. One of them was described to me as a Flappy Bird clone about piloting a maintenance drone.

The science lab, sciencing the hell out of a thing. Photo from the first international run. Photographer: Santtu Pajukanta.

The most mind-blowing thing, though, was that it all worked. The systems were stable and there were no catastrophic failures. While of course things were fiddly and runtime adjustments were needed, EmptyEpsilon did not, for instance, decide to crash in the middle of an epic space battle. The only time the data systems were down was during a jump when they were supposed to be down. The only time I saw a program not do what it was supposed to do, it was Discord, of all things. It may feel like I am belabouring the point, but this does not happen. It’s long been a truism that relying on your software to do key things at your larp is a recipe for embarrassment at best and disaster at worst. Odysseus had a variety of systems and they all just worked from the first run.

Her Crew

The mess hall. Note the freestanding structure of the science lab on the left. Photo from the local run. Photographer: Tuomas Puikkonen.

Then there was the actual character writing and game design of the character groups. Odysseus has been described as a “clockwork larp”, in the sense that different character groups performed their duties at their workstations, reliant on other character groups to get their work done, and thus the game advanced. Engineers prepared the jump engine for a jump to a new location, which was then plotted out and executed by the Bridge. The Armoury would equip the Marines, who’d be shuttled down to a planet and end up in a firefight more often than not. They’d usually recover an ancient beacon. Wounded Marines would get dragged to the Medbay to get patched up or have parasitical worms cut out from them or whatever, while the beacon would be hauled off to the Science Lab for the Scientists to puzzle over. Once the Science Lab had figured out the coordinates for the next beacon, the Machines would usually be breathing down our necks, so the Bridge would be scrambling the Pilots to keep them off. Hopefully the Engineers by this time had repaired whatever had been damaged in the previous jump and prepared the jump engine to get us he hell out of Dodge.

There was also a bunch of politicians, criminals, and other civilian refugees from EOC and the planet Velian keeping things interesting in the meantime.

While Velians and other civilians were to supply their own props, characters serving in the EOC fleet had rental costumes – jackets for Bridge officers and Medbay, overalls for Engineering and Pilots, tactical vests for Marines, lab coats for Scientists. They also had name tags on them. In fact, all characters received an in-character name tag, though the ID cards of the civilians were in too small a typeface to read without conspicuous peering.

The Medbay got pretty graphic at times. Photo from local run. Photographer: Tuomas Puikkonen.

The character writing was top-notch. In the Finnish style, the character briefs were individual and on the long side. Mine clocked in at eight pages, plus another eight pages of Velian cultural brief. I also apparently ended up playing out the exact character arc that the character’s writer had had in mind for my character. Notably, this arc is not readable from the brief. As the plot of the game was reliant on surprises such as who are the hidden androids, the briefs were not readable ahead of time for all players. I am given to understand that they will be made public eventually.

The larp was extensively documented by photography teams. Most of the photographs are still in post-production or under embargo, but some sets have been made public. They can be found at Larppikuvat.fi, and new photosets will be added there as they become available. Also, as certain photosets from my run of the game are released from embargo, the photos in this post are subject to change.

Jaakko Stenros, who played in the first international run, wrote a long post analysing the clockwork nature of the game as well as its themes. Of course, I played a different run where some key pieces fell very differently, and a different character from his, and though I agree with a lot, my experience was fundamentally different. And that will be the topic of the second half of this post.

Velians having a meeting, with yours truly as Protector Jardan in the beard and the white robe. Photographer: Santtu Pajukanta.

Free Stuff! Chapters from Role-Playing Game Studies: Transmedia Foundations

Among all the other interesting works that came out for Free RPG Day, the scholars who wrote Role-Playing Game Studies: A Transmedia Approach put a handful of chapters from the book up for free download.

The book came out from Routledge last year after having been in the works for a very long time. I have read it, and it is mostly good. It’s the first and thus far only book to present in one place all the different strains of RPG studies.

These links originate from a Facebook post by the editor Jose Zagal, and I’m reproducing them below for convenience, along with the rest of the table of contents. I will update the post as more chapters become available.

1 The Many Faces of Role-Playing Game Studies
Sebastian Deterding and José P. Zagal

PART I: DEFINITIONS

2 Definitions of “Role-Playing Games”
José P. Zagal and Sebastian Deterding

PART II: FORMS

3 Precursors
Jon Peterson

4 Tabletop Role-Playing Games
William J. White, Jonne Arjoranta, Michael Hitchens, Jon Peterson, Evan Torner, and Jonathan Walton

5 Live-Action Role-Playing Games
J. Tuomas Harviainen, Rafael Bienia, Simon Brind, Michael Hitchens, Yaraslau I. Kot, Esther MacCallum-Stewart, David W. Simkins, Jaakko Stenros, and Ian Sturrock

6 Single-Player Computer Role-Playing Games
Douglas Schules, Jon Peterson, and Martin Picard

7 Multi-Player Online Role-Playing Games
Mark Chen, Riley Leary, Jon Peterson, and David W. Simkins

8 Online Freeform Role-Playing Games
Jessica Hammer

9 The Impact of Role-playing Games on Culture
Esther MacCallum-Stewart, Jaakko Stenros, and Staffan Björk

PART III: DISCIPLINARY PERSPECTIVES

10 RPG Theorizing by Designers and Players
Evan Torner

11 Performance Studies and Role-Playing Games
Sarah Hoover, David W. Simkins, Sebastian Deterding, David Meldman, and Amanda Brown

12 Sociology and Role-Playing Games
J. Patrick Williams, David Kirschner, Nicolas Mizer, and Sebastian Deterding

13 Psychology and Role-Playing Games
Sarah Lynne Bowman and Andreas Lieberoth

14 Literary Studies and Role-Playing Games
David Jara and Evan Torner

15 Learning and Role-Playing Games
Jessica Hammer, Alexandra To, Karen Schrier, Sarah Lynne Bowman, and Geoff Kaufman

16 Economics and Role-Playing Games
Isaac Knowles and Edward Castronova

17 Science and Technology Studies and Role-Playing Games
Rafael Bienia

18 Game Design and Role-Playing Games
Staffan Björk and José P. Zagal

19 Communication Research and Role-Playing Games
William J. White

PART IV: INTERDISCIPLINARY ISSUES

20 Worldbuilding in Role-Playing Games
Karen Schrier, Evan Torner, and Jessica Hammer

21 Role-Playing Games as Subculture and Fandom
Esther MacCallum-Stewart and Aaron Trammell

22 Immersion and Shared Imagination in Role-Playing Games
Sarah Lynne Bowman

23 Players and Their Characters in Role-Playing Games
Sarah Lynne Bowman and Karen Schrier

24 Transgressive Role-play
Jaakko Stenros and Sarah Lynne Bowman

25 Sexuality and the Erotic in Role-Play
Ashley ML Brown and Jaakko Stenros

26 Representation and Discrimination in Role-Playing Games
Aaron Trammell

27 Power and Control in Role-Playing Games
Jessica Hammer, Whitney Beltran, Jonathan Walton, and Moyra Turkington

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.

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.