News from the North

There have been a few interesting developments in the past month or so on the fields of academia and Nordic larp.

First of all, the fourth issue of the International Journal of Role-Playing was released back in September. The issue contains five articles originally presented at the Role-Playing in Games seminar back in 2012. There will be more articles from the seminar in issues to come.

Incidentally, one of the articles from the conference, ‘Threesomes, Waterfalls, and Healing Spells: The utility of magic, fantasy, and game mechanics in erotic role-play in World of Warcraft’, saw daylight this summer as a chapter of Ashley O’Toole-Brown’s PhD thesis.

The articles in this issue range from an ethnographic study of problems in role-playing communities (or the Drama Llama Paper, as I like to think about it) through a literary analysis of rulebooks and how they affect the formation of narrative in role-playing games all the way to edu-larp. It’s a fascinating smörgåsbord of different ways to study gaming.

Also, the larp PanoptiCorp was played this past spring in Denmark. It’s a Nordic-style larp about an advertising agency that takes all the clichés about ad people and dials them up to eleven. The larp was first run in 2003, and Juhana Pettersson discussed it in a column about it back then. It is worth reading. This time, Cosmic Joke made a fifteen-minute mini-documentary about the game, apparently as a part of a larger, feature-length documentary. Here you go!

It could maybe have more Claus Raasted talking, but then, I like listening to Claus Raasted talk. He has a pleasant voice.

For the parts of the audience who read Finnish, the player Jonne Arjoranta wrote about it for LOKI.

BDSM Role-Playing and Librarians

No, my blog has not been taken over by a spambot and a Markov generator. Last week, I witnessed J. Tuomas Harviainen defend his doctoral dissertation, Systemic Perspectives on Information in Physically Performed Role-Play, mere three weeks after Markus Montola defended his own.

Apparently we’ll have to wait until next year or thereabouts for Jaakko Stenros to complete the trilogy.

Again, I’m not writing a review. Not qualified.

Like Markus’s, Tuomas’s dissertation is from the School of Information Sciences and therefore rather far from my own field. As a general thing, I usually expect to understand about half to one third of any dissertation I read, unless it’s from my own field in which case it’ll be utterly incomprehensible. In this case, however, I have this weird feeling that I actually understood most of it. This is possibly because, as the man himself pointed out during his defence, the cross-disciplinary nature of the work has required an unusual amount of explanation and is, at points, even deliberately layman friendly. This has the side effect of actually making the work reasonably accessible. I could also follow the actual defence. This is strange and off-putting, and may be a variation of the Dunning-Kruger effect, since I have no business understanding library and information science. It may also be a testament to Tuomas’s exceptionally articulate and clear expression of his ideas in both speech and writing.

So, what’s it about? Well, the abstract is 700 words long and includes concepts like metatheory, hermeneutics, information systems, anomalous states of knowledge and liminality informatics. There’s also sadomasochist role-playing (strangely enough, mentioned only once during the whole of the defence, despite there being an entire paper on it included within the dissertation – “Sadomasochist Role-Playing as Live-Action Role-Playing: A Trait-Descriptive Analysis”, originally from The International Journal of Role-Playing, issue #2) and post-modern magic. Sounds intimidating? Well, it has a pretty high competence bonus on that.

Basically, it is about how players seek and appropriate information in a live-action role-playing game and how information is brought in from outside the diegesis to facilitate the smooth running of the game. There’s a term used, “berrypicking”, that means choosing the most convenient and most available sources of information, instead of going for the best, most reliable or accurate sources (or “cherrypicking”). Another handy term from the library sciences side is the “anomalous state of knowledge”, which is when you know you need more information to figure things out but do not know what kind of information you need.

Tuomas also discusses the concepts of larp and larping and separates them into two concepts. While all larps by definition include larping, not all larping occurs in larps. Other places where larping occurs include historical re-enactment, bibliodrama, and sadomasochist role-play. The key difference is that in these other cases, the frame of reference is different. At a larp, it’s a game. For historical re-enactors, larping is only an optional part of the hobby and the events. In BDSM role-play, the primary difference seems to be that it’s not regarded as a game by its participants. Incidentally, these cases are mostly covered in the last article of the dissertation, “The Larp That Is Not Larp”, which is, according to Jaakko Stenros, the first Knudepunkt book article that has found its way into a doctoral dissertation. It was published last year, in Think Larp, also available as a free PDF. It is probably the most accessible part of the dissertation apart from the acknowledgements.

I’m not even going to try to distill the dissertation into a blog post. Go read it yourself, it’s a free download, because that’s how you make science. (The PDF version is missing two of the papers, though, since Sage Publications has their online publication rights for a few years more. They’re included in the print version, however, and I could access the PDFs through my university’s portal.)

The defence itself was a remarkably short affair, and I think Tuomas mentioned that it broke the record for the Tampere University School of Information Sciences, at something like 55 minutes. The usual length, in my experience, has been around two hours. Markus, a couple of weeks back, was grilled for three.

I do not have anything pithy to say at the end, here, except that it’s a fascinating time to be a role-player in academia, and I don’t even play the stuff that these people do. Here’s a video of a presentation that Markus Montola gave in Germany recently.

What’s Up, Doc? – Role-Playing in Academia

This has shaped up to be an interesting year from a role-playing game studies point of view. There was the Role-Play in Games seminar back in spring, Lizzie Stark’s Leaving Mundania came out, and most recently, last Saturday, Markus Montola defended (with distinction!) his doctoral dissertation on role-playing games. The dissertation, titled On the Edge of the Magic Circle: Understanding Role-Playing and Pervasive Games, and is available as a free download, because that’s the proper way of doing science.

My long-time reader will remember Markus Montola as one of the two men behind the role-playing games studies course that I reported extensively on back in 2009. Indeed, many of the theories and even specific examples in the dissertation were familiar to me from the course.

Doctoral dissertations tend to be fairly heavy stuff and I once sat through a two-hour dissertation defence that was utterly incomprehensible to me – and that was in my own field. However, Markus has managed to keep his text intelligible even to the well-read layperson. (In the end, my background is in philology and linguistics, while the dissertation’s angle of approach is mostly sociological.)

I can’t give much of a description of the actual dissertation defence, since it’s already been nearly a week and I don’t trust my brain to be able to reconstruct an intense, fast-paced and theoretical discussion between Markus and Professor Mary Flanagan, who they flew in from Dartmouth for the event. Mostly, I remember some slides of Flanagan’s one of which showed the field of prominent game researchers as a series of blue orbs. Top left, Caesar; top right, Aristotle. In the middle, names like Huizinga, Caillois, Goffman, Salen & Zimmerman, Fine, Juul, Mortensen, Stenros… and at centre bottom, in a red orb, Montola. This was quickly dubbed as “the Montola V-model” during the break. The other thing I remember was the final slide, which featured, among other things, me:

Well, there’s also Markus. It’s Rafael Bienia’s group shot from the Role-Play in Games seminar. (I’m the one with the tam-o’-shanter, front right. Markus is almost directly above me, the bespectacled gentleman with the arrow necklace.)

I was amused.

The thesis itself, then… Well, I’ll be cheap and quote the abstract:

On the Edge of the Magic Circle studies two threads of contemporary western gaming culture: Role-playing and pervasive games. Recreational role-playing includes forms such as tabletop role-playing games, larps and online role-playing games, while pervasive games range from treasure hunts to alternate reality games. A discussion on pervasive role-playing connects these strands together.The work has four larger research goals. First, to establish a conceptual framework for understanding role-playing in games. Second, to establish a conceptual framework for understanding pervasive games. Third, to explore the expressive potential of pervasive games through prototypes. And fourth, to establish a theoretical foundation for the study of ephemeral games.The central outcome of the work is a theory complex that explains and defines role-playing and pervasive gaming, and allows them to be understood in the context of the recent discussion in game studies.In order to understand these two borderline cases of games, the work establishes a theoretical foundation that highlights gameplay as a social process. This foundation combines the weak social constructionism of John R. Searle with the recent game studies scholarship from authors such as Jesper Juul, Jane McGonigal, Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman.

It is comprised of a 160-page dissertation proper, which is followed by seven articles previously published in different places, such as the International Journal of Role-Playing. It begins by a long discussion defining terms such as “game”, “rules” and “play”. They may feel obvious, but there’s been a long debate on whether role-playing games are games at all or something else entirely. The question of what are rules may also seem intuitive, but even they come in many guises (Petri Lankoski summarizes Montola’s rules typology on his own blog). There are also less obvious key concepts such as the magic circle of play, the agreed-upon boundaries of the game, such as who’s playing, how long the game lasts and what is the play area. This becomes a very interesting concept when considering pervasive games, which are pretty much defined as games that stretch, bend or break those three boundaries.

Another key concept is diegesis, that which is real within the world of the game. The concept was appropriated from film studies, originally, and the classic example is film music. Most of the time, film music is non-diegetic – it’s there to build the atmosphere of the film and the characters in the film do not hear it. Indiana Jones doesn’t hear the classic John Williams tune every time he kicks some Nazi ass. However, “Anything Goes” was performed by a character within the film – it is diegetic.

The discussion on diegesis, amusingly, is illustrated with some photoshopped artwork from Knights of the Dinner Table, where the characters try to construct an equifinal diegesis. There usually being more than one person in a role-playing game session, there will also be more than one diegesis, and the players and GM must negotiate until all of them have roughly the same idea of what’s what and who’s where in the game world – equifinality. Things get difficult if people have strongly differing ideas of what’s happening.

A third key concept I’d like to highlight is ephemerality, a quality of games that makes them challenging to study. Once a game is over, it’s gone. You can document a lot – video the proceedings, record discussion, get detailed debriefs from all participants, but you can never recreate the game exactly, since you can’t peek within the heads of the players and access their experience of the game as it unfolds. This ties in with the idea of the first-person audience. The players themselves are their own audience, since so much of the game happens in their minds. This was illustrated by Montola during his lectio as (and I’m paraphrasing here) “If I were roleplaying now, I’d be my own audience, getting the experience of giving this speech, and the audience would be here to get the experience of being the audience.”

A lot of the discussion is centred on the Prosopopeia larps, two pervasive prototype larps that were run in Stockholm. The first was 52 hours, the second lasted for weeks. They blurred the magic circle in interesting ways and seem to have been fascinating games in their own right. The 2006 Knudepunkt book Role, Play, Art has an interesting article on the first game, by the way, and there are a couple more about the second game in Lifelike.

I can recommend reading the dissertation, if this stuff seems at all interesting (or understandable). Remarkably, we’re less than a month away from second RPG thesis defence, to occur on October 18th, when J. Tuomas Harviainen (the shaven-headed gentleman just behind Montola in the above photo) defends Systemic Perspectives on Information in Physically Performed Role-Play, which has a terribly intimidating title. I haven’t dared delve any further in yet. I will probably have a post up once the defence is over and done with, but I have to warn you that it may just be “herp derp” and a selection of the best lolcats on Facebook that day, since I don’t have too high hopes of actually understanding most of the content. (Given time, I probably could, but my workload this autumn is so massive it threatens to implode on itself. This will be reflected on my update rate, and I apologize.)

Now, to go and figure out how I can use this stuff in my Experience of Horror essay…

SCIENCE! – The Role-Playing in Games Seminar

Both my longtime readers will probably remember how I took that course on researching roleplaying games back in 2009 and reported about it in excruciating detail. Well, the gentlemen Stenros and Montola are back, and this time they brought some friends! On April 10th and 11th, the hypermedia lab at Tampere University hosted the Role-Playing in Games seminar. They do a spring seminar every year, and this year the theme was RPGs. So, we got what Jaakko Stenros speculated to be the largest gathering of RPG researchers in one place, ever. I’m told there were about 50 people present, though I wouldn’t quite go so far as to call myself a role-playing game researcher. Yet. I’ve had published pretty much every kind of text related to roleplaying games except the academic paper. Its time will come and there are bits about Living Greyhawk in my 2009 study journal that could be translated, expanded and refined into something that can stand daylight.

It was a working paper seminar. Researchers sent in their works-in-progress, which were then distributed to the registered attendees via e-mail in advance. There were 17 papers in total. You can see the list of people and their topics at the seminar’s website. At the seminar, they then presented their papers, which were first commented on by the expert commentators and then the rest of the audience. The experts were Torill Mortensen and J. Tuomas Harviainen. The criticism was constructive, the discussion was lively. The papers themselves were very interesting.

This being game studies, of course, it’s all ridiculously inter-disciplinarian. I don’t consider myself really qualified to even have an opinion on half of the papers because they’re so far from my field, English philology. I will, however, note that “The Correct Cthulhu and the Real Batman: Structuring the Power Relations in Cultural Semiospheres” is exactly as interesting as it sounds (which I guess would be deeply subjective, but I think it’s pretty nifty), and that Sarah Lynne Bowman’s “Social Conflict and Bleed in Role-Playing Communities” begs for the subtitle “The Ecology of the Drama Llama”.

For those who do not know, the Drama Llama is a fell beast that rises up from the pumpkin patch and brings drama to all the nice boys and girls. Not the good kind of drama.

Most of the stuff relevant to my interests was presented on the first day, such as Evan Torner’s “Empty Bodies and Time in Tabletop Role-Playing Game Combat”, which was right up my alley, as were the four papers in the Playing with Text sessions. On the second day, the edu-larp stuff was less interesting to me since I’m desperately trying to avoid the career of a teacher and I don’t larp, though Michał Mochocki made his presentation intriguing, and the stuff being done in Brazil is just amazing. Finally, there was Ashley Brown’s “Threesomes, Waterfalls, and Healing Spells: The utility of magic, fantasy, and game mechanics in erotic role-play in World of Warcraft“, which was quite interesting. (Okay, how could it not be? Being academic text, though, it was not prurient in the least. Lesbian Night Elves didn’t come up until the audience comments.) This much I will say… being the GM patrolling in Winterfell or wherever to make sure that there’s no digital nookie being had amongst the snowbanks must be among the weirdest jobs ever.

I can’t give you a link to the papers. They’re works in progress and not meant for public consumption – which is also why I refrain from discussing their contents in greater depth – though there will be a special issue of the International Journal of Roleplaying with a handful of them once they’re good and done. I’ll try and keep an eye out for the others as well.

I will note, though, that I have now witnessed a serious academic paper discussing Harry Potter’s penis. I hear they cut most of it.

What I can give you access to is our Twitter hashtag, #rpig. I really have no idea if anyone who wasn’t there can get anything out of it, but that’s essentially the MST3K track of the seminar, observations on Twitter made during presentations and commentary. More importantly, people used it to post links to articles and books mentioned during the discussion. I find this a fascinating use of the service.

Additionally, there’s Rafael Bienia’s blog, where he has photos of the event from both days. He is also now the curator of the largest collection of photographs of the back of my head in the world. (Presumably also the backs of several other people’s heads, but I can’t be sure and anyway, this concerns me less.) Likely of more interest to the public at large, he has a link collection to resources for studying role-playing games.

For me, the event was an immensely motivating experience. It felt kinda like going to a gaming convention, a feeling enhanced by the seminar being bookended by A Week in Finland events, a pub crawl on the preceding night and the States of Play release party on Wednesday.

It was also a humbling experience (not to be confused with a humiliating experience [Stenros 2007]). They’re a valuable thing to have, every once in a while. There’s still a lot of work ahead of me before I can really engage at an event such as this at the assumed level. Even so, it was awesome.

After the seminar ended, we all boarded a train and headed to the States of Play release party. It’s a great book, and I am proud to have been a part of making it, however small. I will tell you all about it next week. For now, regardless of how much of a media construct Felicia Day is, I feel kinda like this:

The RPG Course – A Session of Praedor

This is, yet again, a post on the roleplaying studies course I took at the University. By the way, I received my grade a couple of days ago. On the scale of 1-5, it ranked a full five. I am currently very satisfied with myself, which probably has to change since my ego is currently so bloated I have to buy it a separate ticket on the bus.

Aaaaanyway. As I’ve mentioned, the requirements of the course decreed that I had to study two games from a preset list, and play or run one of these. I’d never played any of them, but Praedor was the one closest to my usual style. Access wasn’t an issue with any of the games, since most of them were included with the course materials download and the rest I just happened to own. Even Tähti. I’ll probably cover the rest of the games in a future post.

What’s This “Praedor” Thing, Then?

Praedor, for the foreign devils reading this, is a Finnish fantasy roleplaying game. It’s based on the comics of the same name by Petri Hiltunen, which ran back in the old days in Magus, an RPG magazine, since deceased. The style of the game is rather gritty, kind of a medieval Warhammer Fantasy Role-Play in tone. Movie suggestions would include Flesh + Blood, The 13th Warrior and Kingdom of Heaven (director’s cut – the theatrical is useful only as a coaster). It is inspired also by the Strugatsky novel Roadside Picnic. Ville Vuorela, the designer of the game, later went on to write a game based on the novel. Both Praedor and Stalker are pretty good reasons to learn Finnish, in addition to knowing the language of the ruling class after our inevitable world conquest.

Were one inclined to be pretentious (and as an English major, I certainly am), one could describe Praedor as deconstructing the fantasy adventurer, the Unforgiven to D&D’s Fistful of Dollars. This adventuring thing, it’s glamorous. It’s not, generally, for people who have a choice. The life of the average praedor (the in-setting name for adventurers) is nasty, brutish, and short. There’s one short story, where Ferron (the protagonist for most of the stories) is taking a young would-be praedor to the cursed ruins of Borvaria to seek treasure. Despite Ferron’s warnings, the kid strays into one of the buildings. We see him plucking a large jewel from the grip of a skeleton, one of a pair that has seemingly fallen in battle with another over the treasure, both slaying the other. There’s a shadow with burning eyes rising behind him, and we cut to Ferron on the outside, when he hears the blood-curdling scream of his protégé.

Ferron’s reaction: “Shit. I wonder how much his horse is worth.”

The Praedor stories are full of this stuff. Life is cheap, death is meaningless, and while you can find treasure to make you rich beyond your wildest dreams, you’re far more likely to be crippled for life or die an ignominous death in the jaws of some nameless creature somewhere in the cursed, haunted wizard-ruins of Borvaria. Violence has ugly consequences and is best avoided, but leading the life of a praedor means that this is not an option nearly as often as you’d like. There’s another story, where young Ferron meets a legendary retired praedor, now a blind and crippled man, disfigured by horrible burns. Did he receive them while exploring Borvaria or the wizard city of Warth? Why, no, he received them when the party was out carousing in a tavern, someone tipped a candle and he was too drunk to get out from under his whore in time. It doesn’t really get much more pathetic.

That said, praedors really are tough customers, a notch above the common man. They’ve got a dangerous attitude and the steel in their balls and sheaths to back it up. When you prick them, they bleed, but they’ll do their damnedest to prick you back.

The system is pretty light, and has a certain elegance. It uses dice pools of six-siders, roll under, with degrees of success. I could learn it well enough to run by studying it for a few hours and ignoring subsystems I deemed unimportant for a one-off game, such as alchemy.

The Session

I generated the characters myself since I ended up with five players. With one book and five players, none of whom had any experience with the system, characters generation could’ve taken hours. So, no. I asked what kind of characters they’d like to play and ended up with a bunch of fighter and ranger types and one roguish sort. The system is classless, but the rulebook does present four broad character archetypes, which could be translated as warrior, ranger, rogue and sage, the last one being the guy who knows stuff and mixes healing potions. The game is pretty low-magic and the true wizards aren’t really PC material. They’re immortal recluses, subtle and quick to anger.

For the adventure, I adapted an old Living Greyhawk module, Stuart Kerrigan’s COR5-18 Kusnir. I debated between that and Lamentations of the Flame Princess’ Death Frost Doom. While the latter is by far the better module, I felt it wasn’t really right for what I was doing, since it relies a lot on playing off assumptions the players have about how a D&D dungeon crawl runs, and I was gamemastering for five newbies. So, Kusnir it was. The module also had the advantage that I’d both played and run it before and knew how it worked in play.

Kusnir is a pretty straightforward module. The PCs are hired to rescue an old man from a village ruled by a madman with a powerful magic item. I just felt the atmosphere of the module was right for Praedor. I rewrote parts of it to fit the setting and the system better. I lifted the NPC stats sheet from one of the free online adventures for the game to use with the barbarians and berserkers the party would encounter in the village. Kusnir isn’t the best of modules, but it does its thing well.

The game started with the party, who already knew one another, heading to the warehouse/brothel of a local criminal underworld figure, to ask about a job offer his cronies had posted to the tavern. It was in a seedy part of town, and on the way there, they encountered things such as a father trying to sell his daughter to slavery, and a beggar who was selling his own cut-off hand as a good-luck charm. One of the praedors (with the Superstitious drawback) even bought it.

The prince of thieves here turned out to be a morbidly obese lecher, transported around on a palanquin carried by some very unhappy slaves. He wanted someone to go down south, a week’s journey, to the town of Kusnir, where a mad cult leader had taken over with the help of a strange magical item. They were to rescue an elder of the town, should any still be alive, and bring him back to be pumped for information on the madman and his rule.

The party accepted the terms offered after a bit of haggling and hit the road. They travelled for a week without incident, and noted that the severed hand purchased as a good-luck charm was beginning to smell. They’d encountered no trouble, so the character who’d bought it deemed it to have served its purpose well, and buried it at the side of the road.

Nearing the village, now only hours away, they encountered a camp of soldiers. After some scouting and finally being spotted and captured by them, the PCs learned that they were former soldiers of Kusnir, who now sought to reclaim their village from the madman leading it. However, their leader was a raging egomaniac and the party was unable to recruit any great help from him, though he did hand over a prisoner who’d bitten off his own tongue in case he’d be more useful to them.

He really wasn’t. The party ran into an ambush by some savages, presumably Kusnir’s berserkers. They managed to spot the hiding warriors before the ambush was sprung, and a vicious melee ensued. The berserkers were all dispatched, and the tongueless prisoner was likewise slain. However, the lethality of the system reared its head on the players’ side as well – one of the characters lost his left hand to a barbarian’s axe. Ironically, this was the guy who’d bought the beggar’s hand. Other than that, it was just scratches for the PCs. They bandaged their wounds, and the one-handed man insisted on going ahead with the mission.

They scoped out Kusnir from the cover of the forest and waited for nightfall. The plan was to head to a small, dead orchard adjacent to the palisade and go over the wall from there. However, when they got to the orchard in the night and snooped around, they actually found a trapdoor covering an underground tunnel that led under the walls.

The party opted for the tunnel. It took them to the lower levels of a temple of some description, where they found torture implements, manacles, and someone’s dismembered corpse. They headed to the upper level, surprised a priest of some description, beat him up, tied him down, and pumped him for information. After sufficient applied violence, the priest told them that there indeed was a surviving elder in a wooden stockade next to the temple.

One of the characters grabbed the priest’s robe with its face-concealing hood, and left the temple to check out the stockade. He called out the elder’s name, but the prisoners quickly figured out this wasn’t the usual priest and pulled the Spartacus stunt. In order to get the elder, they had to set free the entire stockade, which they then did, but not surprisingly, attracted the notice of the local warriors, who came in hot pursuit. The party picked out the elder from among the prisoners and hoofed it, after barring the temple doors. They ran back to the underground tunnel, up to the orchard, and across the exposed ground between Kusnir and the forest. Fortunately, it was night, and visibility was low. The party’s ranger lagged behind since he stayed back to close all doors, and had to hide in the grass when the berserkers came up from the orchard with their torches. They passed him by and ran after the rest of the party, who were slowed down by wounds and the weak elder. They caught the party in the forest after some cat-and-mouse, and there was another fight, which the ranger-type joined soon after. The berserkers fought hard, but in the end, all the PCs survived and the barbarians were slain.

However, the superstitious guy sustained a serious injury. Yeah, he lost his other hand. I’d be superstitious, too…

After this, they got out of the woods, camped, healed their wounds, and travelled back north to claim their reward. We’d already been playing for four hours at this point, so I decided not to have them doublecrossed.

Analysis

Praedor is a good game. It does its thing well, doesn’t get bogged down even in combat, and is easy to learn. I learned it after just a few hours of perusing and the players picked it up very quickly. We spent almost no time flipping through the rulebook, since even the combat charts stuck to memory and were pretty intuitive to begin with. After reading the rules again, I couldn’t even find any rule we’d misinterpreted.

There wasn’t much of what is traditionally considered “roleplaying” in the session. It was light fun, no great immersion. That said, some players did get in character on occasion, especially when provoked by me playing as an NPC. To put this in the terms of Gary Alan Fine’s frames, very little of the dialogue around the game occurred in the diegetic frame. I didn’t really even try to push the game into the diegetic frame and just went with the flow.

I converted the module to Praedor on the fly, adjusting numbers and types of enemies and required skill checks as needed. I think I managed to estimate the lethality of adversaries fairly well, since while no PC croaked, they were certainly challenged.

So. Good game. Fun session. The system is light and seems ideal as a gateway game and for one-shots at conventions. I have some convention game ideas that Praedor might work with very well, with some bending and adaptation.

The RPG Course – Lecture Seven

I should be getting my grade for the course soon. I already received feedback on my study journal, the tone of which suggests that I probably have not failed the course.

The final lecture of the course discussed roleplaying games in society and culture. It’s been a few weeks since then, and my memory is not perfect, so there may be inaccuracies and rambling.

Examples of roleplaying games used outside of pure entertainment context include educational uses, product development, crisis therapy, and, interestingly, product development. Apparently Nokia’s got a patent pending for something that was thought up during a Shadowrun game. There are also roleplay elements in product development when they try to figure out how a given gadget would actually be used by the consumers.

For educational RPGs, we’ve got loads of examples. Especially the Danes have done well in this area. There’s a three-person LARP they use to train social workers, and then there’s “the RPG school”, Østerskov Efterskole, whose headmaster, Malik Hyltoft, was a GoH at Ropecon this year. Nice guy, very good English, ran an RPG session I was later told was seven sorts of awesome. The system at Østerskov Efterskole is very interesting, and apparently works very well for students who underperform in a conventional school setting. There’s an article by Hyltoft himself, describing it in some detail, in Playground Worlds, a book published in conjunction with Knutepunkt 2008. Ransomware, unfortunately, not available for free download. Yet. I’m considering buying a copy myself. There’s an in-depth review on RPG.net.

The slides also describe shortly an American military exercise/LARP in Baghdad, Louisiana, that costs $3,000,000/week and employs 1,200 professional larpers who speak Arabic. The purpose of this is to train American soldiers for counterinsurgency warfare in Iraq and Afghanistan. Unfortunately, I can find no online information and the entire sources slide for the lecture is conspicuously blank. A military cover-up? The Wired article on it is here.

Then there’s reading roleplaying games as cultural products and how they explore their themes. Trinity was their parade example (future optimism, narcotics optimism, criticism towards government surveillance, the rise of Africa and China to replace USA as the dominant world power), but games such as Shadowrun (the implications of everyone having Augmented Reality systems on all the time, body modification), Transhuman Space (well, transhumanism), Paranoia (government surveillance, McCarthyism), Blue Rose (“probably impossible to play, but a fascinating read”), and Mage: the Ascension (the negotiable nature of reality) were also discussed. Then there were the LARPs, like Europa, which was set in a refugee centre somewhere in Eastern Europe, after the Nordic countries kicked the shit out of each other. The players were larpers from Finland, Sweden, Norway, Denmark and (I think) Russia, with the Russians as the camp guards and staff, and the rest refugees from their homelands. That had just kicked the shit out of each other. Ethnic tensions and hijinks ensued.

There was also a very amusing exploration of the political overtones of World of Warcraft. It’s a profoundly capitalistic utopia, where everyone starts at the same square and with hard work can make it to the top. The success of one person does not require that another one fails, so everyone can succeed. Resources are infinite, and there’s practically no cap to one’s personal development. Of course, the result of this is that begging is condemned.

After that followed the discussion of gender and sexuality in roleplaying games.

Gary Alan Fine, in his study of roleplaying games way back in the 1970’s, noted that in many (most?) gaming groups, members of the all-male party killed and raped female NPCs. Games with female players present were “cleaner”, but also, according to some of the interviewed, “not as fun.”

Here, I would like to note how happy I am that we, as a society and as a hobby, have come far since the 1970’s.

For a long time, RPGs were nearly exclusively a masculine hobby. It wasn’t until the early 90’s that the balance shifted, with Vampire: the Masquerade and larping bringing in women in significant numbers.

Apparently, around this time, there was serious debate in Sweden about whether women need handicaps to make the game fair. There was even a LARP where they’d taped hints to the wall of the girls’ bathroom.

It was probably necessary that it happened, so that the hobby could just get over it.

Once it was established that there are actually quite a few of these strange new people who were different inside their pants, and that they wanted to game and it wasn’t okay to treat them like they were dense, they could start treating the topic maturely. This resulted in things like Hamlet, where the PCs were written as gender neutral, to avoid the problem of people playing characters of the opposite sex (turns out that if you have 15 mat and 15 female characters, the first 30 players to sign up will probably not have an equal gender split). Since the relationships of the characters were written in, this inevitably led to homosexual relationships. Then there was Mellan himmel och hav, a Swedish LARP inspired by the novels of Ursula K. LeGuin. I missed which ones, specifically, but I’d assume The Left Hand of Darkness is in there (If you’re not familiar with the work, get it and read it. It won both the Hugo and the Nebula Awards, which is a reliable indicator of quality.). They’ve also developed different methods for roleplaying sex in a LARP. There is also a LARP called Gang Rape. It’s not as bad as it soun- well, actually it is, but it’s a mature work, and not in the sense that Jenna Jameson’s filmography is mature. The game was written as a criticism of the Swedish system where it’s practically impossible to get convicted of rape or gang rape. Takes some balls to tackle a subject like that. I haven’t read the entire game nor played it (nor do I actually want to), but trying to provoke thoughtful discussion of taboo topics without resorting to outright trolling is a commendable goal.

Nordic LARP, or some elements of it, have occasionally been described as sex-obsessed. I don’t consider myself to be in a position to really comment on whether it is or isn’t, but I would describe humanity in general as sex-obsessed. At least the larpers seem to be putting a degree of thought into it.

Moving on, we come to the topic of world-building. A core aspect of roleplaying  games is the development and exploration of new worlds. What kinds of worlds are possible? What the world should be? What the world should be? What the world actually is? In some of the bigger LARPs and certain online RPGs, you get entire (dys)functional societies. An interesting example here was Hiljaisuuden vangit (“Prisoners of Silence”), a mid-90’s Finnish RPG set in a fascist Finland after the Nazis won WW2. Finland was an ally of Germany back then, so it’s not as bad as it could have been, but it’s still a dystopia. The game is next to impossible to acquire nowadays, unfortunately. The makers thought there was no longer any demand and dumped their remaining stock into paper recycling. There used to be a Finnish website that lavishly described a setting that may have been inspired by the game, but seems to have followed it into oblivion.

There was discussion of games as escapism, games as propaganda or counterpropaganda, games as a method of exploring themes and concepts, and so forth. More discussion of studying and researching roleplaying games, also outside of the actual game – historical research, for instance. Discussion of the impact of roleplaying games on culture in general. While D&D isn’t the only reason for the current “fantasy boom” in media, as BBC claimed (there’s a certain Oxford English professor who has a lot to answer for, and Harry Potter is not entirely blameless either), things would certainly be different without it. Electronic gaming in general would be very different, and World of Warcraft (11.5 million subscribers, at the moment) could not exist as it currently does. Trying to track the influences of D&D (and other roleplaying games, but let’s face it, to the outside world, it’s mostly D&D) in popular media is very interesting. There are a number of authors, such as China Miéville and Charles Stross, whose work has been influenced by roleplaying games quite a bit. I think  Chaosium’s Call of Cthulhu isn’t also entirely blameless for the popularisation of Lovecraft. Vampire and modern depictions of vampires are an interesting topic as well, although most of it can be just traced to the source, Anne Rice. Other things… not so much.

Well, I think that just about wraps things up. I’ll still be writing a post or two on the course, but I’ll be discussing something else before that, in case I still have a readership after this.

The RPG Course – Lecture Six

Well, it’s been a while. Soon after writing the last post, I found myself with all sorts of deadlines and duties and even parties, which, among other things, led to me finishing the study journal for this course two days late, writing the last pages in a hurry with a second-degree burn on my left hand. I managed to steam-cook my hand in the afterparty sauna of the Helsinki University RPG club’s anniversary celebrations. While alcohol was involved, I hold that it was mostly my own stupidity.

The study journal required for the completion of the course is now finished, though I haven’t yet received a grade. I will probably not post it here, because in the end, I opted to write it in Finnish, and because even those who can read it are unlikely to glean anything interesting out of it. Also, there’s a good chance that it’s crap, since parts of it were written in a hurry and I had to fit in a great deal of material, not all of which I found entirely fascinating. After a while, even the interesting schoolwork starts feeling like schoolwork, which is destructive to my motivation.

Aaanyway, the penultimate lecture of the course discussed pervasive games. The lecturers recently published a book on the topic with one Annika Waern. After finishing the book, they also started a blog about it, since they couldn’t fit everything in, and new stuff keeps coming up.

In short, pervasive games are games that break the “magic circle” of the game. The “magic circle” is the contractual area within which the rules of the game preside, and sometimes override the general laws of the land. To use their example, when you step inside a boxing ring, it suddenly becomes permissible to hit another man in the face, but you are not allowed to remove your gloves. In Monopoly, it’s the board; in tabletop RPGs, a bit fuzzier but generally around the space the players occupy. The game is played in an area more or less clearly marked, it has a clear beginning and end, and the players generally know they’re playing.

A pervasive game, then, erases one or more of these things (or at least expands it to such a size that it might just as well be gone). Instead of a LARP taking place within three rooms in a schoolhouse, the playing area is the entire city. A pervasive game does have beginning and an end, but the game might be continuous for several months (also, at least one of the Prosopopeia games had a false ending before the game really kicked off). Finally, it’s possible that people unaware of the game get interacted with in the context of the game.

Examples of pervasive games include the live Pacman games played in Manhattan, assassin games such as Steve Jackson’s Killer, alternate reality games like I Love Bees, and pervasive LARPs.

As an interesting example of pervasiveness in a LARP, they presented the Finnish trollpunk LARP campaign Neonhämärä (“Neon Twilight”) where some of the PCs belong to a troll rock band Sysikuu (“Darkmoon”). Some weeks ago, actually during the RPG course, a session of the LARP was played at Cultural Arena Gloria in Helsinki, at the band’s gig. As I recall, there were actually two bands playing, the first of them not even associated with the game in any way. Anybody could buy a ticket. Players had white armbands to mark them. For the players, it was a LARP session, but it also doubled as a gig (and a rather good one, I’m told). Hell, I think this is the first I’ve heard of an RPG session of any stripe that had meaningful content for an audience.

Other examples included Sanningen om Marika, the Swedish TV production that had interactive elements and went on to win an Emmy last year, and street LARPs that have been popular in Finland for a long time. This has spawned a number of anecdotes about things going pear-shaped when innocent bystanders or police officers have taken the game for real. For instance, there’s one tale the lecturers related, of a criminal LARP of some description, where members of two rival gangs encountered at the Helsinki Central Railway Station. Everybody was packing, so they pulled their reasonably realistic-looking prop guns on one another – and caused everyone else to hit the floor or take cover. At this point, the players went “oops”, and made themselves scarce before the police showed up.

In another case I’ve heard of, a few players were doing an arms deal in front of the Helsinki Cathedral, at night, and the authorities took an interest. Things were easy to explain, though, since their guns were toys and the money in the briefcase wasn’t worth the paper it was printed on.

This, of course, brings up the ethics of pervasive gaming. There’s a chapter on ethics in Pervasive Games: Theory and Design, and we had to read it for the course. Taking your game out into the streets does bring up all sorts of interesting and important things to consider, such as how responsible it is to wave a realistic-looking replica gun in a crowded place. I’d imagine the questions are even more important in places like USA, UK or Israel (yeah, they do larp over there), where you’d likely stand a good chance of getting shot or prosecuted for it. In Finland, you’d probably get told off by the police and might even avoid a fine if you didn’t do anything spectacularly stupid.

Pervasive games aren’t my area of expertise (and it occurs to me that there are exceptionally few people in the world who can claim they are), but they are interesting. Somewhat annoyingly, my university seems to lack a Killer guild to run assassination games, and setting one up would be an awful lot of trouble. It seems like an interesting game with a low threshold of participation. Also, contrived plots to assassinate people? Excellent.

Next up is the seventh and final lecture of the course, RPGs and society. I’m also gonna be posting about the Praedor session at some point, though that’s gonna be more relevant to how I found the game and what happened in the session than to the course.

asive Games: Theory and Design

The RPG Course – Lecture Five

I’m catching up! Lectures six and seven are tomorrow and the day after, though, and then it’s a wrap. I expect to post about the Praedor session I ran sometime next week, and will be wrapping up with a post about the games of the course.

This lecture was about the history of RPGs, and probably held the least new material for me. I’ve written one myself, and know the legends in greater detail than they had time to present us. They also gave us a history of Dungeons & Dragons as a case study. I’ve written one of those as well (Neither one of these was listed as a source, likely for many reasons including that they are not very well sourced. I would have laughed for a week.). It’s the old yarn, Arneson, Gygax, Chainmail, Dungeons & Dragons, woodgrain box, and so forth. Look it up on Wikipedia, they’ve got a decent article (indeed, apparently that one was used as a source).

Of course, it is not an entirely accurate one. I don’t think anyone has conducted a rigorous historical study of the topic, and then there’s all that stuff that came before Dungeons & Dragons. The lecturers gave us examples such as Pharaoh Senusret III’s games at Abydos, and the naumachiae of Ancient Rome. I could add certain religious rituals in some tribal cultures, where members of standing in the tribe took on the roles of the tribe’s gods. Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart depicts several such rituals among the Ibo people.

Then they pointed out that the act of taking on a role, pretending to be someone else, is universal among human beings and children learn it at an early age.

We also went over the 1980’s moral panic about Dungeons & Dragons, with Pat Pulling and Mazes & Monsters, of which clips were shown. Yeah, Mazes & Monsters as lecture material. I ordered the DVD from Play.com the very next day, and expect it to be magnificently hideous. Interestingly, my fellow RPG blogger Sami Koponen over at Mythopoeia recently started dissecting Pulling’s book, making surprising finds and casting doubt on the generally accepted view that she was a fanatic. Unfortunately, he posts in Finnish, and is apparently using a Finnish translation that is not entirely faithful to the original, The Devil’s Web. The Finnish version also includes a chapter on Satan-worship in Finland, which is less than objective. Might be an interesting read, that. Especially when compared with The Pulling Report, by Michael Stackpole. I’d also be interested in comparing the translation with the original.

Following these was the brief history of virtual roleplaying games, from MUDs to Second Life.

We were also given a brief glimpse of the Czechoslovakian LARP scene, which had evolved behind the Iron Curtain with little to no influence from the west. The government considered larping subversive, and the games were more or less secret, out of the way, and little documented. What documentation there is is in Czech, which makes the researcher’s job a bit difficult.

We also got a history of roleplaying games in Finland. I’ve written one of these as well, though it’s admittedly not very good.

Possibly the most interesting part of the lecture was the development of gamers’ self-understanding. The development of terminology and slang, the switch from mere dungeon crawling to playing the role, and so forth. Here they also trotted out the gamer typologies such as the GNS, though neglecting to mention Real Men, Real Roleplayers, Loonies and Munchkins.

Finally, there is the problem of studying and documenting RPGs. A roleplaying game session can’t be studied after the fact because you cannot possibly have all the data. An audio tape and even a detailed transcript cannot reveal where people are looking and how they are acting. A video would, but even in the best-case scenario, you can’t get inside the minds of the players, to determine the invisible content of the game. You can’t record the game, merely the act of playing.

From that and the economic insignificance of RPGs it follows that not much research has been done. They could fit the full list of all academic RPG critique, designer reports and studies on a single slide. Additionally, new theoretical tools need to be created since the player is not the audience and the traditional theories from theatre, movie or even digital gaming studies cannot be directly applied.

Additionally, following an RPG session as audience isn’t very fruitful, and in the case of any LARP taking place in a space bigger than a few rooms, impossible. To properly study an RPG, the researcher must participate in it, and that explosion you just heard was the concept of academic detachment imploding. Also, much like in quantum mechanics, it is not possible to observe the system without changing the system.

Every time you observe a roleplaying game, Schrödinger kills a kitten?

Next lecture, pervasive larping.

The RPG Course – Lecture Four

The fourth lecture of the RPG studies course was about virtual roleplaying games. That is, RPGs online. However, it started by differentiating virtual RPGs from other types of RPGs that are played online or that have online components, such as RPGs that are played on IRC or an instant messenger program or a forum or by e-mail or what have you, or LARPs where the characters have Facebook profiles. Me, I use a Finnish campaign wiki called Mekanismi for managing my Pathfinder campaigns and try to run the downtime stuff like selling loot and crunching numbers online to save time at the table, but this does not make it virtual roleplaying.

The concept of virtual roleplaying was also differentiated from the concept of artificial personalities, fictional characters passing off as real people online, either covertly (lonelygirl15 before she was figured out) or not (Heroes characters’ MySpace pages). I find these, especially lonelygirl15, interesting. I like a well-crafted lie or plot. I think the ultimate example of this kind of creation is the Brits’ Operation Mincemeat during World War II, where a carefully equipped body planted in the right place at the right time led to the German forces being moved to Greece and Sardinia to guard against an impending invasion while the Allies took Sicily, and in the future led to them repeatedly disregarding actual Allied battle plans that had fallen into their hands. Operation Mincemeat is such a skilful deception that I can only weep when faced with its sublime beauty.

But I digress. The virtual roleplaying games meant here were roleplaying games in an artificially created world – that is, in a programmed game. Roleplaying in a MUD, World of Warcraft, EVE Online, Second Life. There was also some talk of text, hypertext and cybertext, but the terms “texton” and “scripton” made my little philological heart blot out most of it.

In regard to virtual roleplaying games, they expressed in more detail and academically what I said over a year ago in this blog about the limits imposed by the interface and graphics of the game, what’s coded in, and how this affects roleplaying in the world. Here, there are two broad varieties of MMO, the amusement park and the sandbox. The amusement park is a game where all the attractions are open to the player and he can go and have a ride in the carousel or whatever, and come back tomorrow and do the same, while the world remains unchanging. Examples of this are World of Warcraft and EverQuest. You can’t change anything, you can’t create anything of your own.

In a sandbox world, you can change things, and players can sometimes even provide content. Roleplaying is easier in a sandbox environment, I think. The ultimate example of a sandbox is Second Life, while EVE Online also has strong elements of it.

There were many interesting cases presented. I won’t go into the Gor roleplayers of Second Life, mostly because I do not know much about them and I feel I will be happier the less I know about anything associated with John Norman’s writings in general.

Another case presented was that of the Guiding Hand Social Club, the famous and awesome event in EVE Online when a mercenary corporation infiltrated another corporation over the course of ten months, real time, with numerous agents, including the so-called “Valentine Operative” whose purpose was to get in very close with the corporation’s leader. Then, at the go-code “Nicole”, they stole everything the corporation had, shot up the corp leader’s ship and vacuumed her frozen corpse into a cargo hangar. They stole about $16,500 worth of assets and really ruined someone’s day. I can only stand in awe. While it was also a horrible thing to do to someone, it’s also EVE, and that’s the name of the game. According to the article linked, both corporations are also roleplaying corporations, so it can be said that the entire thing happened in-character, but in an online RPG the line between the character and the player can be thin, especially over such a long period of time.

The second really interesting case presented is another classic – Twixt, a social experiment in City of Heroes, where the player, in playing the game as it was designed to be played instead of how it actually was played, became the most hated person in the game. It’s an interesting case, but I get this nagging feeling there’s more to it than presented. I doubt a man could arouse such animosity just by how he plays. I suspect, but cannot confirm, that he also acted like a dick on the discussion channels. The article only presents Myers’ version of the story. Apparently, there’s also been a complaint to the ethics committee about his research methods.

The fifth lecture was last Thursday. Its topic was the history of roleplaying games.

The RPG Course – Lecture Three

First off, I apologise for being late with this. The third lecture of the RPG course was sometime last week and a number of things (other games, drinking, schoolwork, flu and fever, more drinking, and most recently, my browser crashing and eating a draft of this post when I tried to open the PowerPoint presentation for the lecture from the course website) conspired to keep me from getting an update done. It’s now half past six on a Sunday morning. I got up an hour ago to finish writing up Praedor PCs and create an adventure for today. It’s game time in eight hours, and one of these days I’ll tell you all about it.

Aaanyway. The third lecture was about LARP. For this lecture, we’d read Professor Frans Mäyrä’s (whose name means “badger” and whose AD&D Forgotten Realms campaign stories in TYR’s archive are some of the earliest RPG material I ever read on the net, well over ten years ago) article “Muodonmuuttajien maat” (“The Lands of the Shapeshifters”), which is a very general overview of roleplaying games, their history and how they work in practice. There’s also a couple of paragraphs on the geek culture and fandom surrounding RPGs, which I think is a very interesting topic, especially in the Finnish context. The science fiction side of the fandom was pretty thoroughly dissected by Irma Hirsjärvi earlier this year in her PhD thesis Faniuden siirtymiä – suomalaisen science fiction -fandomin verkostot (“Transitions of Fandom – The Networks of Finnish Science Fiction Fans). It reminds me that Finland is a very small place and our fandoms are even smaller.

The second article we read pertained more closely to LARP. It was “Eye-Witness to the Illusion: An Essay on the Impossibility of 360° Role-Playing”, from the book Lifelike, an essay-collection on RPGs. They publish one every year around Knutepunkt, this annual LARP convention that keeps jumping around the Nordic countries.

360° role-playing is Koljonen’s term for the school of thought which seeks to provide a WYSIWYG game environment – what you see is what you get. Everything must be made as real as possible, right down to the characters’ medieval underpants. This has spawned some awesome things, like Carolus Rex, a pulpy space opera game set on a spaceship of the Swedish Imperial Fleet during a war with Denmark. The game itself was played on a submarine. At one point, they made contact with an escape pod, which then turned out to be filled with Danish space marines, played by Danish larpers smuggled to the scene by the GMs. Then there was Dragonbane, for which they built not only an actual medieval village but also a fucking dragon. And then there’s Luminescence, which I dig up every time someone asks me on IRC what art larpers are. Tell me, Americans, are your larpers as creatively insane as ours, or is this a uniquely Nordic (or European) phenomenon?

But I digress. Koljonen puts forth the theory that the 360° immersion actually damages suspension of disbelief because normally you must concentrate to maintain it and imagine that the northern barbarian’s sneakers are actually fur boots and that sheet hanging over there in front of the garage door is the castle wall, which helps in actively filtering everything through your character’s perception. When everything is real, there’s no longer any disbelief to suspend. As she says, “if no effort of self-estrangement goes into putting you in that fictional space, then it is indeed often you, not the carefully constructed character with its carefully filtered thoughts, that stands awed in the medieval village.” This ties in an interesting way to my experience with MUDs – I still maintain that the best roleplaying I’ve ever done was in a text-based environment. I think that ought to be good for a few hundred words in the study diary, if I can present it coherently…

Personally, I do not larp, for a variety of reasons, most of which I think stem from old preconceptions, but also because I’m lazy and the type of stuff that most interests me would, it seems to me, require a certain amount of work. There was one LARP once I’d signed up for, called Faerûn IV: Baron of the Stonelands, a fairly large affair as I understand, but it was cancelled after the head organiser got sick. Therefore, I have no personal experience of this topic as I do with tabletop RPGs or online RPGs.

A lot of the lecture dealt with applying Peirce’s semiotic theory to LARP and the formation of the diegesis. I will spare you the details, because it’s not even eight o’clock on a Sunday morning and it’s too early for semiotics. Fucking Peirce hounds me across academic disciplines. The damn theory has thus far popped up on both general and English linguistics courses, literary analysis, two journalism courses, and now here.

Next up, virtual RPGs. I’ll try to get it up before the next lecture.