Odysseus, Part II: War Stories

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

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

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

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

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

Protector Jardan of the Velians

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Waiting Game

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

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

A Velian standoff. Photo by Santtu Pajukanta.

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

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

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

Goodbye, Protector Omyr. Photo by Santtu Pajukanta.

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

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

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

It was a beautiful ceremony. Photo by Mira Strengell.

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

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

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

Cogs in the System

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’d never died in a larp before.

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

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

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

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

Trading Lives

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

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

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

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

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

Tristan Fukui collapsing. Photo by Tuomas Puikkonen.

Mourning Doctor Pearson. Photo by Mira Strengell.

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


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

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

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

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

Header image by Mira Strengell.

Advertisements

Odysseus, Part I: I’ve Been to Space

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

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

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

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

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

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

ESS Odysseus

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

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

An engineer at work. Photographer: Santtu Pajukanta.

The Tech

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Her Crew

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Cabaret – The Musical Larp

This past Saturday, I took a leap out of my comfort zone and played at Cabaret. It was a musical larp, based on the musical of the same name. The setting was The Silhouette, the city was Berlin, and the year was 1933.

At this point it probably behooves me to mention that this post is going to deal with the same very heavy and unfortunately current themes as the original musical – the rise of the Nazis, and persecution of Jews, Roma, gender and sexual minorities, and the political Left. Just so you’re warned. Cabaret was not a happy larp. There were moments of comedy, sure, but at least my experience of it was a study of one of history’s greatest tragedies on the level of the individual.

I will also be using the word “diegetic” a lot. It’s a term yoinked by larp researchers from film and theatre studies and I am greatly amused I get to use it simultaneously in both contexts. Basically, it means that which is true in the world of the story. The classic example is background music. For example, in The Temple of Doom, Willie Scott’s opening act singing at the restaurant is diegetic. It’s her job and the other characters present enjoy the show. In contrast, when Indy and co. fly over the Himalayas, they’re not really doing so to the tune of the iconic John Williams theme, nor is there a bright red line being actually drawn across China. These are non-diegetic.

This is not a review, more like an analytical description and utterly biased observation of the larp as I experienced it. It’s also going to be really long since this is the only venue where I get to write as long as I want. Oh, and there’s gonna be spoilers. This may be relevant, since the game script is a thing you can ask for to produce yourself. This was not the first run of Cabaret, and I would not hope that it was the last. The below is solely a reflection of my own experience and my own game, and should not be taken as the view or experience of the designers or any other player, except for certain points made about the Nazis which I am given to understand were, indeed, intentional.

As a final warning, I’m gonna be talking about my character.

Though the larp was based on the musical, it was not slavish about it: the club was different, the date was two years later, and though certain characters had clear models in the source material, there were no familiar characters walking around.

The comments are moderated.

The Concept

The basic idea is simple: take a larp and mash in elements of the stage musical. It’s not the first time this has been done: Åbo by Night was a Vampire larp in a karaoke bar, the Russians have done stuff with songs as documented in States of Play, my very first larp experience included singing, the list goes on.

There were three different types of musical number: there were the meta-songs, which were non-diegetic musical numbers. The player would take the stage and belt out a song they’d practiced and prepared that would somehow express their character’s inner conflict. What our characters would witness would not be that character, who might be the 60-year-old landlady with no reason to be on stage, singing a song that likely would not even be composed for another 70 years, but an undefined musical act with the same emotional and thematic content. Basically, how most musicals operate. Everyone understands that in the story, Javert and Jean Valjean are not facing off in a song battle and that even if the Phantom did deliver his threats in verse, Monsieurs Firmin et André didn’t sing them out as they read them. It’s metaphor.

Then there were the stage shows, performed by a troupe of players who’d invested a lot of time and energy to practicing them. These were used to structure the larp and ground it in the source material. They were mostly drawn from Cabaret, except for one piece that had been adapted from Chicago. These existed as we saw them in the world of the game. The characters performing them were the singers and dancers of The Silhouette club, and it was their job to perform them.

Finally, there were the act-ending big pieces, which we all sang together. The first and the last were non-diegetic, while the second segued from a stage piece, was diegetic, and utterly chilling.

The performances were extensively workshopped on the game day. Indeed, there was a great deal of pre-game workshopping, around five hours of it, excluding breaks for food. This included figuring out the meta-numbers, getting to know the people in our social circles and practicing some safety techniques to escalate and de-escalate situations. Cabaret is the most extensively workshopped larp I have played, though I understand that four or five hours is not uncommon when it comes to the heavier and more complex Nordic games. To note: this was only my tenth larp.

The other part of the core concept is that it’s set in a drag club in Nazi Germany.

The Background

Cabaret the larp was adapted from Cabaret the musical, adapted from the play I Am a Camera, adapted from the novel Goodbye to Berlin. The novel was Christopher Isherwood’s semi-autobiographical account of his time in Berlin in the early 1930s, and was published in 1939. It’s somewhat distant from what eventually won an Oscar – for one thing, Isherwood’s self-insert character exists only as a passive observer in the book. “I am a camera”, he describes himself on the first page. In the stage musical, he’s Cliff Bradshaw, who has agency, who acts. Then, by that time Isherwood’s homosexuality was far less of a scandal.

Between the Imperial Germany of WW1 and the Third Reich, 1918-1933, Germany was the Weimar Republic. Weimar was a very liberal state with liberal policies. Berlin had a vibrant cultural scene and cabaret culture. Though (I think) homosexual acts were still criminal, the laws were largely not enforced. Magnus Hirschfeld’s Institute of Sex Research pioneered sexological research and advocated for women’s emancipation, sex education, contraception, and social acceptance of homosexual and transgender people.

As the curtains go up for Cabaret, that’s just about over. The date is the 10th of May, 1933. In 1929, the Wall Street Crash hit Germany hard, creating mass unemployment, widespread dissatisfaction and political unrest, paving the way for a populist, nationalist movement. Adolf Hitler has taken office in January 1933. The Reichstag went up in flames on the 27th of February. There’s a crackdown on cultural venues, and most cabarets are closed. The first of the concentration camps was opened in Dachau on the 22nd of March and promptly filled with members of the banned Communist Party. Around the same time, the Enabling Act was passed, allowing Hitler and his cabinet to bypass the Reichstag and the President in passing even unconstitutional laws. On April 26th, Hermann Göring signed a paper creating the Gestapo. On May 6th, the German Student Union, by this point in time an organization nearly synonymous with the National Socialist German Students’ League, raided the Institute of Sex Research and carried away their library and archives.

On the 10th of May, that library, along with works by Jewish, pacifist, or otherwise “degenerate” or “anti-German” authors was burned in great bonfires on the streets. Smoke darkens the skies of Berlin as a crowd of cultural workers, prostitutes, criminals, Nazis, homosexuals, singers, dancers, businessmen and intelligentsia gather for one more night of entertainment at The Silhouette.

It was a moment of uncertainty. This was six years before war would break out and Hitler hadn’t been in power for six months. Communism was a more than just a bogeyman, the USSR was right there, and was rightly considered a thing to fear. The horrors of the Holocaust would have been unthinkable. Although people were already leaving the country in self-imposed exile, street violence was commonplace and minorities were openly persecuted, nobody knew how far it would go before the end. Things had been happening quickly and folk were still reeling.

My Role in All This

Marcel Scholz, owner of The Silhouette. Pre-game photo
© Joel Höglund.

The characters were two or three pages long, name, history, contacts, social groups. Some room for players to fill in gaps. They were and also remain public, so you can go check them out yourself.

My character (no I’m not buying you a drink) was Marcel Scholz, second son of a wealthy Berlin lawyer and a Frenchwoman. He was the prodigal son, spending a lot of time in the universities of France and England, studying art, history, literature, architecture, the classics, and also the wine houses, theatres, and pubs. He’d finally been called home and given a cabaret to run by his father who had acquired it after its former owners went bankrupt, and told to make himself useful. To everyone’s surprise, he did.

At 36 he was old enough to have been adult during the Great War, but was also privileged enough not to have seen action or heard a shot fired in anger. This also meant that his university years fell in the 1920s, the age of prosperity and ballyhoo, the era when F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, and all the rest were hanging out in Paris, while J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis were both beginning their teaching careers at Oxford. I was amused to realize this and took it as an excuse to go through some period classics.

As the stage was set, The Silhouette was one of the last, if not the last cabaret open in Berlin, and that only because his patrons included some prominent Party officials and because he had removed some of the more outré acts, like the drag queen La Scala. Because of a last minute player drop-out from the performers, he had also recently pulled a Romani dancer from the stage under pressure from the Powers That Be.

The Silhouette was also financially in dire straits, and he was receiving pushback from the old patrons for his artistic compromises and pulling in the Nazi crowd. There was a possible investor showing up tonight, though, which was nice.

The Story

Nice, my ass.

This is the bit with the spoilers, by the way.

The first act was the soft start. We mingled in the cabaret, met our contacts, kindled the plotlines written in our characters. Marcel’s lover Anastasia introduced him to Mr Moneybags, Anthony Brown, who was looking for investment opportunities in Berlin. He also had to go an explain his decision to exclude Esmeralda from tonight’s act in the dressing rooms, which was immensely uncomfortable. And then there was my meta-song.

It bombed, horribly. It was the worst crash and burn I’ve had on stage since third grade. I was nervous, lost the plot of the song about halfway through, and fled backstage, shaking like a leaf. It was utterly mortifying. Fortunately, some other players reached out, brought me water and helped me bounce back. Additionally, it fit my character so well that a few players didn’t realize it wasn’t planned. Finally, it was pretty much the best spot in the larp for that to happen. There’d already been one song and I didn’t get to set the tone for the evening, and another player’s meta-song came right after me and the audience wasn’t given time to dwell on it. It was horrible at the time, but not the end of the world, and though it left me rattled, I think I managed to draw upon the emotion in my later game.

I’m still happy “Gonna Build a Mountain” isn’t the kind of song I’m likely to hear on the radio by accident. I ran into another player’s meta-song, “Hard Time”, at a shop the next day and was hit with all the feels.

It certainly did set the tone of the later game, when the Nazi footmen began to commit violent acts in the shadows during the second act, beating up Anastasia over something she had written. Anastasia’s father made the executive decision to leave with her daughter to London. Marcel was upbraided by Perle Sommer, an old customer, over his artistic compromises, and came to realize that while he had been rationalizing his actions as a way to ensure the continuity of the club and provide employment and a refuge for his friends and workers, he had in fact committed a graver crime than bad art and invited in the Nazis to prey on them. The second act had me in tears on multiple occasions.

And then there was the closing number of the second act.

What they’d done was take “Cell Block Tango” from Chicago and rewritten it so that instead of the murderers, it gave voice to the victims of the Nazis – a homosexual, a Jew. The Romani singer had been pulled from the act, her chair on the stage was pointedly in the front row, draped with a scarf, and her verse was not sung, the other singers just staring at the audience, accusing.

Then, it was interrupted by the Nazis, and “Tomorrow Belongs to Me”. And Anastasia turned to Marcel, whispering “I’m Jewish.”

As the song went on, those loyal to the regime joined in first, and then one by one, everybody else, lest they be pegged as dissidents and subversives. Targets. It was an intense scene, and I cannot do it justice with my words. It was the same kind of demonstration of strength and demand for loyalty, demand to join in, as in the clip from the film, except not gentled by the subtlety of the camera. It was brutal, blunt, aggressive.

It also basically settled Marcel’s endgame. There was no way The Silhouette was going to stay open anyway, so in the third act he made his plans to head to London with Anastasia, who made the unorthodox move of proposing to him. He accepted. When, expectedly, people came to twist his arm and force him to sell his share in the club, he acquiesced, sad and angry but also aware he was letting go of a failing business and could rebuild elsewhere. He sold it off for less than the price of its glassware, said his thanks and farewells to the staff, and was at the door the moment the final song, “What I Did for Love”, started playing.

It was a very neat dramatic arc, which I think is my first in a larp. It was all also disgustingly convenient for Marcel, so in his epilogue he got killed during the London Blitz.

(As a side note, when I ran the numbers for the price he was paid, 200 Reichsmarks, I discovered it was actually the equivalent of a few thousand of today’s euros when adjusted for inflation and probably worth even more than that when adjusted for cost of living. But that’s ultimately irrelevant for the purposes of the scene as it played out.)

“Swastikas, everywhere!”

Not really. They were forbidden, and not just because there was a photographer present and there’s some pictures you don’t want floating around removed from context. The second reason was that the organizers attempted to recreate the atmosphere before anyone knew what the Nazis would be capable of, and thought that having overt Nazi symbolism would detract from that. Personally, I thought it worked. Also, not having the Nazi characters with visual tags on them meant that you couldn’t lump them together or mentally other them. You had to keep tabs on individuals – people, with names, histories, likes and dislikes. The point I am making here is not about humanizing the Nazis. Really. Fuck those guys. It’s more to note that they were not a faceless throng of stormtroopers who marched out fully-formed from a barracks. Actual people, brutalized by an ideology.

It was also a study in how dissension was silenced, and how much easier it is to hunker down, mind your own business, and attract no attention. After all, I was not a Communist, or a trade unionist, or Jew. How, when everyone around you repeats the same things as truth, it’s so easy to go “yeah, maybe it is like that and those folks are to blame”. Tribalism, the lies that our genetic heritage or cultural rituals make us somehow superior to those other people down south.

For Marcel, though, there wasn’t really much of a choice. The “Cell Block Tango” in the script meant that he’d decided to speak out, and since he was already an educated man of the world, it was not a hard decision to pull up stakes and skip town.

And it’s relevant, today. It’s frightfully topical. On the day we played the larp, a Finnish government party elected as their new chairman a person I have no qualms calling a fascist, who’s on record for racism, homophobia, and the kind of violent fantasizing that makes poorly-socialized 14-year-olds particularly unpleasant company. During the writing of this post over the past couple of days, we’ve seen some well-choreographed political theatre play him into leading a stump party in the opposition, but this was not an event that should ever have occurred.

I don’t know if I’ve mentioned it here, but over the past couple of years, the whole Nazi thing in entertainment media has grown stale to me. They’re enough on the news already, and not the kind you can get rid of by aligning the crosshairs and pressing Mouse Left. I rather hope things will never escalate to the point where that’s necessary. There’s also the issue of the present-day Nazi movements co-opting the imagery of even anti-Nazi material, such as American History X and… Cabaret. There is a very good video essay by Lindsay Ellis about this very topic which I recommend to everyone and not just because then I don’t have to repeat its content here.

Larp as a medium avoids the issues inherent in a blockbuster movie, though, since it is ephemeral and (usually) doesn’t leave you anything to replay to your friends, the audience is strongly self-selecting to begin with, and it does not support either mass consumption or passive consumption, certain Danish-Polish productions arguably notwithstanding. To get anything out of it, you must engage with the material on its own – and its designer’s – terms. There may not be such a thing as an anti-war film, but an anti-war larp is certainly a thing.

There is also the pitfall of trivializing the horror of what happened or the experiences of the victims of the Nazi regime. I realize that as a straight, white guy who wasn’t alive when it happened, who probably could’ve coped in the Third Reich just fine, since the kind of diagnosis I’ve got probably wasn’t in the books in the 30s and 40s, and whose country was kinda allied with Germany, I am the last person who gets to make this call, but I think Cabaret avoided that.

Conclusions

Do I feel like I have a greater understanding of history? Well… kinda? But that’s what you get when you do historical research for a larp or otherwise. I don’t feel like specifically the experience of being Marcel Scholz imparted me any greater understanding about life in 1933. Indeed, he was probably very 21st-century, even in the context of the liberal alibi provided by the Berlin cabaret. For one thing, I’m Finnish middle class. I don’t get antisemitism. I have no cultural touchstone, no context beyond history books for it. It would take a lot of reading to get into the headspace of someone in the 1930s who grew up in Central Europe at an era when blood libel was still a thing and the Nazis inundated the media with anti-Jewish propaganda. It’s also really not a headspace I feel a particular need to occupy and while there’s a time and a place for historical accuracy about the nuances of prejudice, I’m not sure it was this.

Cabaret was an harrowing, intense experience. I would not describe it as “fun”. Indeed, there were fewer comedic moments in my game than in the film. Rather than smiling, I spent more time in tears or on their verge. It was, however, a rewarding and satisfying experience, and far too topical in that way that makes certain uncomfortable pieces of art necessary.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Staff and Students, Living and Dead

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

Charles Duke. No smiling.

Charles Duke. No smiling.

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

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

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

Learn from Your Elders and Learn from Your Peers

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

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

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

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

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

Magic Will Flow Through Your Hands and Your Heart

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

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

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

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

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

Two points for Faust.

Two points for Faust.

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

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

Listen to the Tide of the Centuries

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

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

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

Raise Your Wand to What Lies Ahead

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

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

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

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

stuff


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next Year

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The Bus Tour

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The dragon is not alone. Photograph © Jukka Särkijärvi

The dragon is not alone. Photograph © Jukka Särkijärvi

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

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

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

I like swords. Photograph © Jukka Särkijärvi.

I like swords. Photograph © Jukka Särkijärvi.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Nordic Larp Talks

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

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

Ysaria III: A Tale of Pirate Dwarves, Black Wizardry and Hangover Cures

As I mentioned last year when I first larped, someone had floated the idea that in order to get me to try larping, they would draft Juhana Pettersson to kidnap me in a van and drive me to Ysaria III.

The thing about that is that it’s what we call a credible threat. This is the man who wrote an article titled “The Joy of Kidnapping” for State of Play. I have played with him, and he’s good at projecting an aura of quiet menace. Opposing the stick of Juhana, there was the carrot that all people named Jukka received a discount on the game fee.

Sensing that there was no way out of this, I resigned to my fate, received my character (a total of 18 pages of documentation), and found myself last Friday sitting in a completely different van with a rottweiler on my lap, headed to the west coast of Finland, in a state of mounting terror.

To get into the proper mood, I recommend that you play “Legenda taikamiekasta” by Heavy Metal Perse in the background while reading.

Those of you who cannot understand the Finnish lyrics will have to settle for Rhapsody’s “Emerald Sword”.

Setting the Stage

Ysaria (translates roughly as Ninetisia) was a parody game. Specifically, it was a parody of the clichés and themes of 90’s fantasy larps. Heavy Dragonlance influences, elves, dwarves, the whole Tolkien/D&D kit and kaboodle, high drama and always at least one player wearing sneakers. Obviously I never larped back then, but a lot of that stuff is universal. Of course, modern popular culture was also referenced. Indeed, one event I witnessed during the game was a duel challenge issued with the words: “My name is Caelthalas! You killed my father! Prepare to die!”

Captain Brungrus the Bottomless. Photo © Antti Halonen.

Captain Brungrus the Bottomless. Photo © Antti Halonen.

Me, I played the pirate dwarf Captain Brungrus the Bottomless, formerly of the good ship Venture. I had close to two feet of beard crepe glued to my face and a remarkably large hat. Brungrus was a greedy drunkard even by the standards of pirate dwarves, a breed not known for either sobriety or charity. He was a bullshitter, a cheat and a liar, and a bluffer. Not much of a fighter, though we all enough carried axes, swords and pistols for a regiment. His ship had sunk under mysterious circumstances (he was blind drunk at the time and the only survivor), leading to him becoming stranded on a deserted island with a mermaid princess named Nerida. From there, they were rescued by fellow pirate dwarf Captain Dargon Blackbeard and his submersible Fireball IV.

The game was set during diplomatic negotiations in the tavern of the Drunken Dragon on the island of Jesaria between the free peoples of the world on how to deal with the impending apocalypse of the seas rising and drinking the lands of Ysaria, Generia and Ulinor. Global warming, you know. So there were people from the courts of those lands, the local druids and dryads (With whom we had some history, on account of Captain Dargor smoking in bed the last time we’d been at Jesaria and accidentally burning down the Forest of Whispers. The party line was of course that we didn’t do it and it was an accident anyway.), the goblins (who were actually really smart and philosophical and brewed a moonshine with roughly the same effects as LSD), a couple of adventuring parties, the Black Wizards, and two crews of elven pirates, whose princess was Dargon’s onetime lover. The rest of them turned out to be cultists, and not our kind of cultists either. (Some of Fireball’s crew had a theologically colourful history. In the words of Able Seaman Dammot Sea Serpent: “It was a really good sex cult!”) There was also some kind of good-aligned cult in there, I think, but I didn’t really catch what they were about. The pirates mostly there to carouse, engage in casual larceny, and find the hidden treasure of the Druid King. We did have a certain vested interest in stopping the seas from rising as well, since coastal cities and the resulting shipping industry have a certain relevance to the pirate way of life.

One member of our valiant crew was played by a Dane who spoke no Finnish, so I also got to fulfill a lifelong dream and play a dwarf with a fake Scottish accent.

The following is my subjective perception of what occurred and is coloured by misunderstanding, lack of all available facts, and my poor memory. The chronology of events likely doesn’t jive and material has been omitted in order to keep this at a manageable length. It should not be taken as ultimate truth.

Yo ho ho, and a bottle of rum!

At the start of the game, we had just disembarked and concealed Fireball IV, and immediately came upon a dying mermaid on the shore. She spouted off a mystical prophecy that we committed to memory on the off chance that it might lead to money (prophet, profit, all the same) and promptly croaked. She had no treasure, but mermaid tears are apparently a potent hangover cure so we got at least that out of it.

We made our way to the tavern after that and made a lot of noise about booze. We did come prepared, though. I had two hipflasks myself, one under my hat and the other hanging around my neck. While the game itself was nonalcoholic, the characters included the crews of three pirate ships and a small tribe of goblins and were therefore functional alcoholics, so a variety of props were deployed. I used kvass, which was a stupid idea since the stuff is carbonated and carbonated drinks and hipflasks do not mix. Neither of them was destroyed, but I did have to force one of them back into shape.

The Postal Gnome. Photo © Samuli Airaksinen.

The Postal Gnome. Photo © Samuli Airaksinen.

Once drinks were received, we got down to business. One of the big moments of the larp for me came early on when Captain Dargon and the pirate elf princess Adien’thalee fought a duel in the tavern’s common room. There was shouting, dramatics, wrestling, badass boasting, swordplay, guns, and tableware. (There were latex tankards that could be used for drinking or brawling!) It was the kind of show that doesn’t get put on without rehearsing the choreography, but damn it looked great. There was drama and tension, even though at the back of my mind there was the understanding that nobody is going to get killed forty-five minutes into an eight-hour larp.

The combat rules, incidentally, ran on a system of common sense, gentleman’s agreement and sportsmanship. You get hit, you react appropriately. The recipient of the hit decides how badly they are hurt. It was also generally agreed that being shot with a gun would first take out your hat. Combat was for creating problems, not solving them, more or less. I frequently had my weapons out, either to threaten or to defend, but never actually fought.

I received a plot coupon early on in the game. The Postal Gnome brought me a letter from the insurance company, saying that I must fill in their forms before they can consider paying my insurance for the good ship Venture. Obviously, the truth wouldn’t fly, so some creativity was needed. In addition, there was a clause for an extra 8% if I could prove I had a family to support. We quickly agreed with Princess Nerida that it was best if we married quickly. We didn’t have any priests around, but hey, a sea captain can perform a marriage ceremony, right?

All this took some time, though, since we also had a treasure to hunt. We ran from waypoint to another, faced down an undead mermaid, and later a horny goblin who had to be… satisfied.

Another rules aside: sex in the game was simulated by waggling your hands next to your head, not unlike in the choreography of Caramelldansen, and singing a song of your choosing. The song and its style would reflect the style of the act (rough, passionate, “I’m just doing my job”) and the singer’s skill would reflect if it was any good. Of all the sex mechanics I have seen in various role-playing games, both tabletop and live action, I must say that this is my favourite. I am also in favour of any games mechanic that makes the players sing.

Anyway, we finally discovered the location of the treasure, managed to breach the magical wards by some minor blood sacrifice, and laid our hands on a magical rock, some centaur blood, and a magical crown that allowed its wearer to control the waves. The usefulness in combating rising sea levels is obvious. Of course, Dargon wanted it, Princess Nerida wanted it, some evil pirate elf person wanted it, and Princess Adien’thalee wanted it. A Mexican standoff resulted, only broken once the druids and dryads showed up and we decided to retreat. It was apparently the grave of the Druid King that we just robbed.

Them druids… there was already bad blood between us and them, because of the Forest of Whispers thing and because the mast of one of the elven ships used to be a dryad. One of them, Aeron Oakenbough, was a warrior, and wielded the Sword of the Druid King, or something. “Legenda taikamiekasta” (“The Legend of the Magic Sword”) was basically his theme song. Apparently we’d burned down his dryad along with the forest, and he was kinda pissed. He had been forbidden from killing us (“Lad, if you want to threaten someone, don’t tell them you’re not allowed to do anything to them.”), but I think that got waived when we looted the tomb.

What followed was this sort of running argument/retreat between us and the druids and dryads with lots of threatening and arguing that was frankly getting bogged down. In a tabletop game, it would’ve been open combat in thirty seconds flat, here it was just a load of sabre-rattling. Nerida, me and some druidy type who wanted to see the ocean snuck off and left them to it. There was lunch.

Lunch was hard. I got interrupted three times while I was eating, twice by a demon and once finally when Aeron attacked Nerida outside the tavern and yoinked the crown. Later, we also had to give up the rock.

Aeron Oakenbough, our nemesis. Photo © Samuli Airaksinen.

Aeron Oakenbough, our nemesis. Photo © Samuli Airaksinen.

Another stated goal we had was to nick a barrel of the famous mead of the Drunken Dragon. The druids were carrying around a barrel, so naturally we assumed that was it. So, as night was already falling and the game nearing its end, Nerida, me and First Mate Glint Goldfist snuck upon the two druids guarding it. Glint knocked them out cold (“KNOCK-OUT! KNOCK-OUT!”), and I grabbed the barrel and hoofed it to where we’d left the submarine. Some dryads had laid a curse on it to prevent it from leaving, but he Captain said he had a solution for that.

Then, five minutes later, some head druid person shows up and tells them it’s not booze, it’s his cursed wife, and he’d like it if we returned it.

So we did. There’s not much you can say to that. (Except “Is every godsdamned thing on this island cursed!? Cursed ships! Cursed weaponsmasters! Cursed rocks! Cursed booze! I hate this place!”)

Every damn thing we stole had to be returned. I’m pretty sure that the only crime our crew managed to successfully commit was Nerida’s and my insurance fraud, because despite the squiggles and winged unicorns the insurance company accepted the explanation, and we got not only the extra 8% but also a honeymoon trip to the city of Ironia.

In the end, negotiations had broken down and Captain made the call that we were leaving. At this point he was also accepting everyone else on board who could pay with something and felt like staying in Jesaria was a poor idea. I think we ended up with most of the state treasury of either Generia or Ysaria, at least one Black Wizard, possibly a kender, the goblin leader, and various other individuals of questionable reputation and a loose attitude about personal property. Captain Dargon unleashed a one-trick bottled genie to dispel the curse on Fireball IV, and off we went, firing our torpedoes at the damn island on our way out of sheer spite.

In real life, at this point we were standing in the woods on the beach, behind a shed, making submarine engine sounds. Ironically, there was a demon-summoning circle there that had been propped by the GMs, but the Black Wizards were using something they’d made themselves at a more central location. The Black Wizards using a demon-summoning circle was also on of the reasons why getting the hell out of Dodge was a Good Idea.

As it turned out, we made it just in time, because at this point hideous screaming started at the tavern, followed by equally hideous cackling laughter. Demons. Bad mojo.

Then the game ended.

What I Took Home from All This

Of course, getting off the island when the world was about to end was not too useful in the long run. Our final fate was never set in stone, but there were some remarks in the final debrief about the seas turning to fire once the Demon Prince showed up. Poor Captain Brungrus never made it to Ironia. I actually miss playing him, and a couple of days after the larp went through a similar process as after a convention. I am given to understand that this is called the Post-Larp Depression.

Since most of my gaming nowadays is Pathfinder Society, I found myself frequently falling into the goal-oriented D&D mindset, which was good for getting an extra 8% and the title of Prince-Captain, but less so for drama. The instruction at the beginning of the game was “play to lose”. Impulsive people making poor decisions make for better drama than rational professionals approaching problem-solving in a structured and logical fashion, and if you’re only playing the character for this one afternoon, it’s not necessarily a bad thing if he dies ignominiously in the third act. I was also running my mouth far less than I probably should have, Captain Brungrus being written as a loudmouth. That was not the hat of a quiet person, either. Something I need to work on. One of the reasons I play games other than Pathfinder is to get a different play experience and it’s no good if I bring the playstyle with me to other games. Well, you live and learn.

Also, it was far easier to play a drunken character last year when I was actually drunk. This time, I took notes from a Simon Pegg interview about filming The World’s End (appropriate!), but I’m not entirely sure how I carried it. Then, if professional actors think it’s hard…

Okay, it was still a very different playing experience. Like I said, I never engaged in combat. There was also the obvious lack of dice thing, and the rules operating on common sense and sportsmanship, and working. There’s no off-game. There’s also the aspect that time advances on a 1:1 pace with reality and there’s no cutting away into the next scene (some other larps use narrative meta-techniques for this). A lot of time was spent simply hanging out at the tavern, in-character, and especially in the running argument with the druids about the crown, some bogging down could be observed when nobody was willing to escalate things into open violence.

One thing I clearly did right was in stealing the barrel, because one of the kitchen crew mentioned to me after the game that he’d broken down laughing when he saw me sneaking off with it towards the beach, trying to look inconspicuous in a most conspicuous fashion. That hat was not designed for sneaky.

My only real regret is that we never had a proper tavern brawl with the elven pirates.

There Goes the Virginity – My First Larp Experience

It had become a sort of a running joke in the local scene that I do not larp. Like all jokes do, it grew old.

Also, someone floated the idea that I’d be kidnapped and bodily transported to the next installment of the Ysaria larp saga. I decided that it was a prudent idea to pre-empt that plan and sign up for a larp on my own accord. Also, the bastards at Alter Ego set me up a trap. Back when they were planning the larp conference Solmukohta, someone else came up with the idea of a sitsit larp. As is well known, I have a hard time turning down a sitsit invitation, and I foolishly made the promise that if they do that, I shall willingly relinquish my larp virginity. Alcohol was involved.

Thus, last Friday, I played my first larp, the 300th Anniversary of the Pan-Ugric Nation. What follows is an exacting and explicit description of it all.

Key Concepts

Before I continue, I should probably explain some key concepts about the larp’s setting that are peculiar to the Finnish student tradition, such as sitsit and nations. To foreigners, the concepts will probably be… foreign, and to be honest, the layers of tradition, history and inside jokes are laid so thick that they’re generally impenetrable to anyone not immersed in the environment. Those readers familiar with the culture may feel free to skip down to the next header.

First of all, sitsit, or “sittning” as Wikipedia knows it, is an academic dinner party in the Finnish and Swedish tradition. A typical sitsit includes a three-course meal, a great deal of singing and often a lot of drinking. The level of formality varies, and the framework is very flexible and allows for a lot of interesting variation. The most formal ones tend to be the anniversary parties of university student unions and nations, which would typically have a white tie dress code, an invited guest speaker and very rigid take on rules. There are rules for everything, such as how to toast after a song, what songs you are allowed to sing at which parts of the proceedings, under what circumstances is it acceptable to leave the table and so forth. Those are pretty rare, though, and even I’ve never been to one. Most sitsit are rather less strict and I’ve never been invited anyplace with a dress code above formal. Usually, you can get by with a dark suit (or the female equivalent), or in the case of theme sitsit, whatever the theme requires.

Personally, I have an unhealthy affection for sitsit and by a quick count have 37 of them under my belt, two as a master of ceremonies and a few where I’ve given speeches. Last year, I edited a songbook. The biggest sitsit I’ve been to had 207 guests, including Her Majesty’s Ambassador to Finland, Matthew Lodge, and the smallest had just six people. I’ve been to sitsit wearing a suit, a tuxedo, a tailcoat, elf ears, a kilt, a monk’s robe, a Czechoslovakian PVC overcoat and an East German gas mask, and my red student overalls. One, a couple of years ago, was on a bus that went around Pirkanmaa (less fun than it sounds – the food was bad, a bus has no acoustics for this kind of thing and one of the MCs laboured under the mistaken impression that racism is funny), and another was on a boat. Thus, I can speak with some authority when I state that Alter Ego, the roleplaying club of Helsinki University, are among the masters of the craft. I could go on at length about the topic and differences in traditions, but this is not a blog about my drinking habits, and so I’ll just summarize: at sitsit, you sit at a table, usually in formalwear. There will be food, and people will sing a lot. During a song, you are not allowed to eat, and it is a generally held truth that if you get to eat your main course while it’s still warm, it’s a bad sitsit. After a song, you toast the people sitting adjacent to you. Unless you ordered the nonalcoholic option, you will usually be rather tipsy towards the end. The songs are generally easy drinking songs that sound decent even when sung by a bunch of people who aren’t too good at it and may also be pretty sloshed. A student, it is said, sings rather than well.

The other key concept is the nations. They are a type of student organization peculiar to Finland and Sweden, and the oldest students’ clubs in the country. The nations have a specific legal status outlined in the university law, and to my understanding, you can’t found a new nation. Of course, there would not be much point to doing so, since the nations are organized according to the old provinces of Finland. You have the Savonian Nation, the Tavast Nation, and so on. The idea was that a student would join the nation of his home region. The oldest of them track their history to the mid-17th century, and most of them have quite a bit of property.

Actually, if you count them as belonging to the student unions, the Helsinki University Student Union is one of the wealthiest in the world with assets measured in hundreds of millions of euros, because of a quirk of city planning. Way back when they were building Helsinki and had established the university there, the students were given some worthless land that was basically a marsh somewhere at the edge of town. Fast-forward a couple of centuries and the economic and social centre of the city tiptoed westward, resulting in the current situation where the central point of Helsinki is considered to be at the doorstep of the Old Student House and the students own something like half of central Helsinki. For instance, there’s a block next door to the Parliament that belongs to the Ostrobothnian Nation.

So, basically, the nations are something of a big deal. The Pan-Ugric Nation, upon which our tale focuses, is of course completely fictional. We now conclude our brief introduction to Finnish student tradition and get on with the game.

Occasionally, the tradition requires you to stand on your chair. © Tuomas Puikkonen

Occasionally, the tradition requires you to stand on your chair. © Tuomas Puikkonen

Who Am I?

My character, mailed to me the week before the game, was the first-year chemistry student Jaakko Nevalainen. He was a bit of a thief, which had resulted in some unfortunate tension at his apartment, where his roommate Sauli was angry because someone had nicked his milk from the fridge and some records. This tension motivated Jaakko to get a new apartment and see if perhaps the apartment liaison of the nation could do something for him. Another thing he had recently stolen was a folder containing details of some rather shady financial transactions between the nation’s curator Aleksi Stjernvall (chairman, basically) and Laura Välske, a representative in the student union’s general assembly. Other characters mostly viewed him as a promising new recruit for… various things. Also, he’d showed up at the party well ahead of time and noticed this weird bag in the foyer.  He’d checked it out and found some old bones. However, he heard voices approaching and chucked it into some random box he spotted so he could investigate things later, but when he returned, the box was gone.

Also present were his contacts: his roommates Daniel and Sauli, and a friend of his in the nation, the theology student Aapeli Ullakko. Due to late registration, absent was Joel, a drug-dealing musician who’d already graduated and was my character’s second cousin. I did not find this out until after the game and was rather perturbed by his insistence in offering me the nose candy in the gents’.

The first-year student attending his first big academic dinner party pretty much mirrored the game as my first larping experience. Another player described the character writing process as (freely translating) “piss-take writing”, where characters had an aspect or two caricaturing the players they were tailored for. In good humour, I might note. I had trouble keeping a straight face when I realized that a player active in the politics of the Left Alliance was playing a right-wing nationalist character. In the registration form, we also got to pick some preferences for what kind of plots we would prefer to have. I no longer recall accurately the sliding scales they had, but I think “intrigue” was one and “relationship drama” another. I also don’t rightly remember where I placed my sliders, but I think I opted for moderation. First larp and everything, didn’t want to jump in the deep end and find I can’t swim. After all is said and done, I’m not that good a roleplayer. I was nervous as all hell despite knowing nearly all of the other players and considering most of them good friends, but I figure a first-year student at his first big formal dinner would also be nervous. Especially when he found out who he’d be sitting with.

Seating order is another significant thing at sitsit, since they’re the people you’ll be spending the next four, five or even six hours with. Tradition states that one should be flanked and opposed at the table by people of the opposite sex, one of whom will be your avec (or designated avec if you didn’t bring your own). In practice, you almost never have an equal mix of sexes so you do the best you can. I had my roommate Daniel at my left. To my right, Professor of Mathematics, Ville Kovanen (oh dear), and opposite Kaarlo Susimetsä, the nation’s photographer, incidentally played by Tuomas Puikkonen, who graciously gave permission to use his work to show in addition to telling here. Also, made me look good in a tailcoat. There were also the aforementioned Laura Välske and the apartment liaison, Mirjami Kiuru, in close proximity. Plot-significant characters for me.

Jönssi's toast. © Tuomas Puikkonen

Jönssi’s toast. On the left, Jaakko Nevalainen and on the right, Daniel Haanperä. © Tuomas Puikkonen

What Happened?

The larp began with a short cocktail event before moving on to the dinner party part. This was good for socializing and mingling and meeting people, and included the welcoming toasts (It should be noted that in the interests of maintaining a proper 360° illusion, alcohol in the game was represented with alcohol. If the game sucked for you, you could always just get hammered.), as well as the unveiling of a new painting commissioned to honour this, the 300th anniversary of the Pan-Ugric Nation. It was very modern and might be described as a less than aesthetically pleasing experience, which was good for giving people something to talk about as they eased into character.

As a side note, the artist was named as Aldous Kohl, who was a vampire prince in another Alter Ego larp a couple of years ago.

Sauli was on my case from the beginning, suspecting me of nicking his records. I owned up to throwing away the milk, claiming it’d smelled funny and as a chemist, I’d know when organic matter has gone off. He went off to gather witnesses against me and apparently found some, but because of reasons I never found out more about them.

Another major plot point in the larp’s background was a legal row between the Pan-Ugric Nation and the Ural Nation, who’d together built a brand new building for the two of them that now lay unused because they could not agree on who had the rights to which parts of it. There were three representatives from the Ural Nation, including their curator, Henrik Mäyränen, at the party. They brought a gift. In a box. You can see where this is going. Our curator, of course, went to accept it, leading to pretty much the funniest moment in the game.

Curator Mäyränen first gave his speech about how this gorgeous vase would look quite magnificent in the lesser hall of mirrors at the new student house. Curator Stjernvall: “Oh, it’s fragile?”

How to make a lasting impression on your guests. Not to mention the floor. © Tuomas Puikkonen

How to make a lasting impression on your guests. Not to mention the floor. © Tuomas Puikkonen

The bones, incidentally, were quickly gathered up from the wreckage by Aapeli, at the command of Professor Kovanen. Interesting, that.

Soon after, Mr Susimetsä and Miss Välske recruited me to portray myself as an ardent fan of Curator Mäyränen and obtain his autograph on this blank piece of paper. Despite being transparent as all hell, it pretty much succeeded, except that the original paper got torn and stepped on and possibly eaten, and I had to settle for something scrawled on notebook paper, complete with a dedication “To Jaakko”. Not quite as useful for forging legal documents, but Susimetsä and Välske seemed happy enough with it.

Those bones, then, were the bones of Jönssi, the war hero dog mascot of the Pan-Ugric Nation, who held an important place in the Nation’s tradition. Toasts were drunk in his memory. Or her, as the hardline feminist culture admin of the Nation pointed out. The bones had also some mystic significance, as I found out after the main course, when Aapeli, Professor Kovanen, and the movie club’s chairman Vladimir Tikkanen requested that I join them in the smoking room. There, the Professor conducted some sort of mystic ritual and suddenly I realized I’d had the genre all wrong. I’d thought it was college comedy, while in fact we were operating in urban fantasy.

Soon after the ritual, a GM approached me and told me that from that point on, I was Ville Kovanen, Professor of Mathematics, and would be offended when people treated me as a first-year student. In a not completely unrelated bit of trivia, said GM’s own character in the game was also his Hunter: the Vigil character from a campaign set in the University of Helsinki, a connection I only made afterwards. Their quote page is hilarious.

Hijinks ensued and I caused great confusion with the other professors present. I think most believed I had partaken of the devil’s dandruff that my second cousin Joel was semi-secretly distributing in the men’s room. Professor Kovanen, the real McCoy, of course knew what had happened and ran some interference and damage control while I fought to keep a poker face of righteous indignation. For one thing, at this point Sauli came to confront me with his witnesses, unaware that Jaakko Nevalainen was no longer on the premises, and the Prof led him away and quietly paid him off. Aapeli, it later turned out, had also become a Kovanen clone, but in a more subtle fashion. Vladimir had been included in the ritual but had either made his save or he was a vampire and immune to such mortal magics. If there’s ever a sequel (which was discussed and not dismissed out of hand), there will probably be several Professors Kovanen among the characters.

Among the faux pas committed were taking the Professor’s seat and rising up to drink the toast of those who started their university career in 1986, as well as barging into a position unbecoming of my lowly station in the group shot at the end. The great thing about larping the sitsit was that you could break the etiquette and decorum in ways that would never fly at a normal sitsit.

There were, of course, also drinks thrown around, Curator Stjernvall receiving one from his fiancée. There were speeches, including one particularly impassioned and fiercely patriotic one extolling the virtues of Jönssi, by the Nation’s host, Teijo Tulervo, that caused in me a paralyzing uncertainty of whether I was supposed to take it seriously or laugh at its brilliant, full-throated absurdity. There were break-ups, and the knighting of the new Knights of the Karelian Pine.

Curator Stjernvall and another Kodak moment. © Tuomas Puikkonen

Curator Stjernvall and another Kodak moment. © Tuomas Puikkonen

At the end, there was a group photo and it was over.

What I Took Away From All This

No, not that way. My character was the kleptomaniac, not me. Was being the operative word, since I think he sorta died.

To answer the obvious questions: yeah, I had fun. Yeah, I’m willing to do this again.

What I could’ve done better: I should’ve pursued that shady dealings plotline more aggressively and right from the start. I figure it would’ve been pretty juicy if I’d managed to get it activated. I also should’ve realized I might need the folder and acquired a suitable prop for myself. Part of my timidity with it was inexperience, part an attempt to gather more info about the situation, and part my inability to figure out how I should really approach it. Then, poof, I was Professor Kovanen and that plotline was gone. The Professor transition sort of terminated all my plots that relied on me being proactive in advancing them. With the others, such as Sauli’s accusations, it intersected and went in weird directions, which at least created content.

Another thing I need to work on is my poker face. While the alcohol did have some effect, I probably grinned far too much, especially when I should have been offended and indignant. Deeply in character I was not.

What I think I did well: when I became Professor Kovanen, I went with it and damn the decorum. There’s no need to worry about consequences beyond the immediate when you’re playing a one-shot, which I find liberating. Also, a game of this type contrasts strongly with my usual fare of Pathfinder Society. There, you essentially play to win, while here we played to have fun, keeping in mind that even losing can have entertainment value. It’s the kind of game that I should play more often. There’s also the fact that there wasn’t much in the way of game mechanics to get in the way, which was refreshing.

It seems I’m a larper now, then. Huh.

On a more general level, I think that the university is an underutilized game setting. I know there’s Alma Mater, and GURPS: IOU and that one playset for Fiasco, but there could be more, and good luck trying to find that first one. In your average a bit older university, you have a load of really ancient tradition that most people no longer understand but is adhered to because of TRADITION, DAMMIT! This intersects with a student body of young, modern people who form their own cliques and social groupings and clubs with their own in-jokes and weirdo traditions. Half the faculty in any given university seems deranged and the other half is. There are real, honest-to-goodness secret societies. In German universities, they still practice the art of academic fencing, where the goal is to get spiffy scars. In Oxford and Cambridge, the traditions are so arcane and inscrutable that they could pass for magical rituals. The politics of both the faculty and the students council can be amazingly backstabby and, of course, they are good breeding ground for political radicalism (my university spent most of the 1960s and 70s being full of Communists). Especially in smaller cities, there’s tension between the university, populated mostly by young people from out of town, and the locals. In Tampere, there’s still a sizable population that thinks it’s still a factory town. It’s a grievously underutilized setting.

One big, happy family. Note the portraits of former curators in the background. © Tuomas Puikkonen

One big, happy family. Note the portraits of former curators in the background. © Tuomas Puikkonen

Oh dear. Now they’re trying to cajole me into some weird game in Latvia, of all places.

Nordic Larp Wins the Diana Jones Award

The Diana Jones Award for Excellence in Gaming was given out last night, and to my delight and rather great surprise, the perspex pyramid is coming to Finland. I kinda figured that it’d go to Kickstarter, but apparently the esteemed judges agreed with me that the most deserving recipient would be Nordic Larp by Markus Montola and Jaakko Stenros, the coffee-table book documenting the history of, well, Nordic Larp. It’s a magnificent piece of work, and I congratulate its writers.

Here’s a selection of links for your perusal: