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.

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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.

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.