A Game Challenge

I do a lot of reading challenges. I usually go through about 150 titles a year – though a lot of that is graphic novels – and they’re a tool I use to pick the next one when it isn’t dictated by work, the university, or the impending Hugo voting deadline. We also have a role-playing game reading circle on Facebook where we read rulebooks from cover to cover and then commiserate how they’re really not designed with that approach in mind. I even have a Goodreads profile.

One of the challenges I do has traditionally been the Helmet reading challenge, so named because it’s run by the Helsinki metropolitan area library system. This year they’re also kicking off a Game Challenge, and obviously I’m all over that thing. While the rules are kinda loose and allow for filling in more than one category with the same game if you feel like it, I could fill all except no. 7 with just the three larps I’m going to this year. So I’ll try to play one game per challenge category. Preferably tabletop role-playing games, preferably new stuff. If I do fill in something with a videogame, it should be a role-playing game. I will also try to stick with games that I expect I would like. Then I’ll tell you all about it. Sound cool? I know, but I’m doing it anyway. Feel free to join in!

I’m not filling this out beforehand because I expect quite a few will be targets of opportunity. The problem with role-playing games is, as ever, that the stars must be right. Also the schedules of a bunch of adults with lives and jobs.

  1. Game by a Finnish developer
  2. Game where no one dies
  3. Game that is based on a book, graphic novel or comic
  4. Game that is based on actual historical events
  5. Game where you play in cooperation with other players
  6. Game that can be downloaded for free
  7. Game that you remember from your childhood
  8. Game where you create your own character
  9. Game where the story is created by your choice
  10. Game where you can go fishing
  11. Game with romance
  12. Game that takes place somewhere you have always wanted to visit
  13. Game that makes you slightly scared
  14. Game from where you think you will learn something new
  15. Game that takes place in your favorite place to live in
  16. Game where you build something
  17. Game that lets you play a game within a game
  18. Game that starts a series
  19. Game that is played in turns
  20. Game that has a protagonist who has a skill that you would like to learn
  21. Game that has only one word in its title
  22. Game that lets you go to space
  23. Game that you can teach to someone else
  24. Game where you can drive any kind of vehicle
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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.

It’s a Trap! – Museum Exhibition About RPGs, and a Convention, too!

As I’ve previously mentioned on the blog, we have in my town the Finnish Museum of Games, a large permanent exhibition about games and gaming in Finland, from Skolt Sámi games played with reindeer bones to political larp about the situation in Palestine.

The most recent cool thing to occur there is It’s a Trap!, an exhibition about role-playing games. It’s in a separate exhibition space, 100 m2 in size, and has nearly every role-playing game product released in the country on display.

The exhibition contains the original D&D booklets donated to Ropecon by Frank Mentzer in 2011. The game designer Jukka Sorsa (right) was on temporary loan for opening night only.

I say “nearly” because every time we thought we had a full list, we turned up another booklet that someone self-published out of their garage in 1994 with a print run of 26 copies that was only sold by a dark stranger at the crossroads on a moonless night. In the beginning we figured there’d probably be around 100 titles – this including not only games but also supplements as well as translations. We ended up with around 350, and counting. Yes, this means we do have more RPG releases per capita than most other European countries, more RPG releases in absolute terms than a quite a few rather larger European countries, and yeah, Lamentations of the Flame Princess is the biggest publisher in the country.

We did a book, too.

“We” in this case mostly means Jaakko Stenros, games scholar and my partner in crime on the book project attached to the exhibition. My contribution to the show was the English translation of the exhibition texts – meaning that none of y’all have any excuse not to come and take a look – and co-editing Seikkailuja ja sankareita: Katsauksia suomalaisen roolipelaamisen historiaan ja nykyhetkeen, or as it would be in English: “Adventures and Heroes: An exploration of the past and present of Finnish role-playing”. It’s an article collection of a slim 128 pages, kinda in the vein of Knutebooks, with texts covering topics such as the history of the Fantasiapelit game store chain (a key player in the Finnish scene), the exploits of the gaming club in the city of Pori in the 1990s, Juhana Pettersson’s study of his character-driven playstyle, and an overview of academic games research. I am very satisfied with how the book turned out.

The exhibition itself is a marvel. It contains rarities even I had never before seen in the wild or even heard about, such as Nousius, the third-ever Finnish RPG, or Verald, the first and to our knowledge only Fennoswedish RPG. There’s outré stuff like Steissin yö (“Night at the Station”), which is a mid-90s youth education game about the dangers of the Helsinki Railway Station at night, or Syvä uni (“Deep Sleep”), a farcical work about nonmilitary service. And there’s a table you can game at, with character sheets and rulebooks available for a bunch of games. Interactivity at its best. It’s there until January 6th, 2019.

We’re also doing an event day called Museocon on the 4th of November, and we’re in the home stretch for hammering out the program. I will reveal that there will be opportunities to play games that few have played before, and hear talks about RPGs from game designers who haven’t taken the stage at Ropecon since the 90s, or ever. I am excited!

Some Observations on the Pathfinder Playtest

Now that I’ve had a chance to engage with the playtest materials for Pathfinder 2E, I have some vague and preliminary thoughts.

First of all, this is what a playtest looks like. We’re not just given playtest rules to flail around with aimlessly like we were back for the first edition. There’s a set of playtest adventures, both for Pathfinder Society and in the campaign Doomsday Dawn, that have been written with specific playtest goals in mind. For each adventure, there’s a questionnaire to fill out. It’s all tickboxes and sliders, which means the threshold for filling it out is low, and the output is going to be raw numbers data for some statistics-minded person to sift through. Very useful, when there’s enough of it.

I’ve participated in quite a few playtests over the years and this is I think the first open playtest that didn’t feel like I was primarily participating in a marketing stunt. Also, the feedback is being listened to and the rules document is a work in progress. We’re already up to version 1.2.

There’s also a playtest forum for expressing views that are more nuanced than “on the scale of 1-5, how challenging was this combat encounter”. It is fortunately moderated quite aggressively but I think it could use a bit more of an iron fist.

My personal play experience with the playtest thus far consists of playing The Rose Street Revenge, and running Raiders of the Shrieking Peak twice and “The Lost Star”, first part of Doomsday Dawn, once.

That first one got played on livestream at Tracon. Finnish only, but here it is, if you want to see people muddle through an unfamiliar rules system for seven hours.

I think that the current version of the game rules runs more or less smoothly, but there are a couple of sticking points, both apparently because they’re fixing known issues in first edition but they’re not quite there yet. The first of these is the rule for dying, which is complicated and not very intuitive even after they rewrote it in the newest update. It removes negative hit points and makes dying an process of incremental Fortitude saves. This is most likely in order to do away with the nonsensical situation where it’s sometimes preferable for your character to go down into low negative hit points than stay standing with a couple of hp left after an enemy attack, because then the character remains an active combatant, will be attacked again, and is much more likely to die from that attack.

The other one is resonance, a resource that’s governing the use of magic items, evidently to avoid the trope of the christmas tree character, as well as beating everyone to full hp with a wand of cure light wounds after every fight. Making healing rarer but giving characters more hit points might be a good direction to go, but resonance as it currently exists isn’t working. Then, we’re going to see a reworked version sooner rather than later.

As for the adventures themselves, both Raiders of the Shrieking Peak and “The Lost Star” were really short. Raiders ran for three hours the first time and two hours the second, and “The Lost Star” we got through in around two and a half. Neither is particularly impressive as an example of the craft, but that’s not what they’re trying to be. They’re good for a fun game, and Raiders of the Shrieking Peak is excellent for trotting out every cow-related pun you can come up with.

In Doomsday Dawn, I’m especially a fan of how each part ties in with a Pathfinder adventure path. I’ve run a few of them and hope to bring in a few old players for the relevant parts.

As for the other big changes… I’m ambivalent on the inclusion of the goblin ancestry, I think switching from “race” to “ancestry” is a good idea both because it easier facilitates the separation of cultural aspects of the rules package from the physical features, and because “race” has some unfortunate connotations, not to mention translating really poorly. In Finnish, the word is “rotu”, and if you use that outside of a fantasy role-playing context and aren’t referring to a breed of domestic animal, you will sound like a 1930s eugenicist who will now proceed to take measurements of the listener’s skull. That’s not a good look.

Another interesting thing I haven’t yet had the opportunity to explore in depth is the collapsing of multiclasses and prestige classes into the archetype system. I vastly prefer the archetype system over prestige classes and am wholeheartedly in favour of this change, as long as retraining rules are also included in the core (which they are). Multiclassing I am not so sure of, and I’ll want to give it a whirl before passing judgment.

Further thoughts as they develop.

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.

 

Chernobyl Mon Amour Crowdfunding

Just surfacing from a ten-day larp conference trip to note that Chernobyl Mon Amour is up on the IndieGogo crowdfunding platform. This is the English-language edition of Juhana Pettersson’s role-playing game Tšernobyl, rakastettuni. I did the translation.

The project has already reached its funding goal and there are no stretch goals to meet, but there’s still 16 days left on the clock.

It was an interesting work to translate since unlike most role-playing games, Chernobyl Mon Amour contains basically no rules mechanics. It’s as freeform as they come. It’s a game about former criminals building new lives and finding romance in the outlaw society of the Chernobyl Zone of Alienation. It’s like no game I have seen before. To quote the crowdfunding page:

In Chernobyl, Mon Amour you play a Ukrainian criminal who flees the long arm of the law to the Chernobyl Zone of Alienation. The concept is based on a Ukrainian folk story about a criminal who fled to the Zone and became so radioactive that the authorities had to leave him there.

You know that there is no return from the Zone. Your crimes are such that society will no longer accept you, and the only thing you have left is the possibility of a new life in the radioactive forest. As you settle into the Zone and meet its inhabitants, you start to yearn for something more. You want love.

Playing out these love stories amidst a radioactive society of criminals is the core experience of Chernobyl, Mon Amour.

Go get it!

My Ropecon Schedule

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.