Non-Digital: What’s a Roleplaying Game Book?

The things we call “roleplaying games” are books that tell you how to play and run actual roleplaying games. The game is what happens when you sit down with the other players and play.

I’m writing one of these books. Chernobyl mon amour (Tšernobyl, rakastettuni in Finnish) is a roleplaying game about love and radioactivity, set in the Chernobyl Zone of Alienation.

The Sarkophagus, a concrete container built over the reactor destroyed in the Chernobyl accident in 1986. Photo: Juhana & Maria Pettersson

The Sarkophagus, a concrete container built over the reactor destroyed in the Chernobyl accident in 1986. Photo: Juhana & Maria Pettersson

I’ve published one of these things before, Valley of Eternity, the game of epic penguin tragedy. However, that game was more traditional in form, so I could just do a book the way they’re usually done. However, with Chernobyl mon amour, my goal is to do a game that articulates the play culture that I live in, instead of adapting ideas to more generally understandable forms.

This has forced me to ask a simple question: What’s in a roleplaying game book? What does this book contain and what’s its purpose? What does it do?

The way I decided to answer this question for myself was this:

A roleplaying game is about experiencing the life of a character within a certain framework. The game book should provide three things.

1 – Instruction on how to play, how to be the character, and how to calibrate the experience so it works well for everyone.

2 – Instruction on how to run a game as the game master. How to make a good, interesting roleplaying game work.

3 – Provide fodder for the experiences the game is made of. An interesting setting, something beyond what the participants would be able to improvise on the spot. Details of scenes, supporting characters, locations, traditions, and other things the participants can use to make their game more particular and interesting.

Number three provides the fuel for numbers one and two.

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The cover of D. Vincent Baker’s roleplaying game Apocalypse World.

Other designers have answered this question very differently. D. Vincent Baker’s game Apocalypse World has numbers one and two, but no number three. It’s instruction has been codified into rules mechanics, and the book is essentially about how those rules mechanics work.

The Player’s Handbook and Dungeon Master’s Guide for various editions of D&D tend to be very weak on setting material as well, but with these games, we’re assumed to get the details of the setting separately. As books, they follow different ideas of organizing material than one-book games.

The book for Vampire: the Requiem is mostly about explaining it’s particular take on the idea of vampires. Since the game’s concept of vampires is very specific, explaining how it works takes a lot of space. Things like customs and social organization are explained in straight prose, while ideas related to conflict and what characters can do are codified into rules.

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The cover of my roleplaying game Valley of Eternity.

This is the model I followed with Valley of Eternity. It explains the basics of how to play and how to run a game, but most of the book is about explaining the game’s specific take on penguins and the world they live in. It too employed rules mechanics for handling some parts of the game experience.

A jar in the ruins of a laboratory experimenting on fish in the Zone of Alienation. Photo: Juhana & Maria Pettersson

Jars in the ruins of a laboratory experimenting on fish in the Zone of Alienation. Photo: Juhana & Maria Pettersson

Writing my new game, the comparison to Apocalypse World is striking in the sense that while both are “roleplaying game books”, they share almost no content of similar description. Of course, if you want to be philosophical, there are many parallels in terms of function, but in terms of what you see on a page they’re different.

Non-Digital: Expressing Play Culture (Also: Chernobyl)

I’ve been writing and designing a tabletop roleplaying game called Chernobyl mon amour for some years now. I started soon after visiting the Chernobyl Zone of Alienation myself in 2010. It’s taken a lot of time to consider some of the ideas in the game, and a core reason for this is that I’m trying to reflect the play culture I’ve marinated in for the last 25 years.

The game will be about love and radioactivity. I hope to have it published late this year or early next year, first in Finnish and then in English.

I have the feeling that none of the established, published roleplaying design philosophies really do what I want them to do, so to be able to write the game, I have to learn to express things that have grown organically in our local game culture. This is not simple.

The ferris wheel in Pripyat is one of the more famous landmarks of the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone. Photo: Juhana & Maria Pettersson

The ferris wheel in Pripyat is one of the more famous landmarks of the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone. Photo: Juhana & Maria Pettersson

Originally, Chernobyl mon amour (or Tšernobyl, rakastettuni in Finnish) was going to be more conventional, but the more I thought about it, the more I felt that to be understood, it would have to contain some pretty elementary stuff. Things about our culture that are obvious to me, but not to roleplayers who haven’t played in these games.

(Please note that the “we” and the “our” in this text refer to the narrow and specific environment in which I normally play tabletop games in Helsinki, Finland.)

With this in mind, here are some principles I’ve been thinking about:

Character immersion. This is at the core of what we do. You immerse emotionally into your character. You experience the game through this character. You experience happiness, sadness, love and anger through your character. You may take metagame factors into account as you play, but emotionally you’re in there, immersed in the character’s perspective.

Life, not story. The goal of the game is to create a lived experience. Things happen to your character the same way they happen to you, except more condensed and probably more exciting. The players are not making a story, they’re experiencing things through their characters. Stories are made of what happened in the game, the same way stories are made from what happens in real life. Stories are the residue of game and life both.

Fiction, yet real. A roleplaying game is obviously fiction. I’m not my character and the events of the game don’t really happen. We’re just a bunch of folks in a room, talking. Yet looking at it from a different perespective, they do happen. They are real. When I play through a date, I have experienced a date, even if it was a fictional date. I have really experienced a fictional experience. Game events are fictional things that happen to me, through the character.

The Chernobyl power plant can be seen in the distance. Photo taken from the roof of a Pripyat apartment building. Photo by Juhana & Maria Pettersson.

The Chernobyl power plant can be seen in the distance. Photo taken from the roof of a Pripyat apartment building. Photo: Juhana & Maria Pettersson

These principles have implications that further shape the way the game is played and created:

The idea of creating a lived experience works best if the metagame aspects of the game are mostly kept in the hands of a game master. I’m not a puritan: Some game mechanical stuff might be fun, and sometimes the players can appropriate some game master control.

Long campaigns running for ten, twenty, fifty or a hundred games work better than short stuff, because life is meandering and there needs to be space for improvisation. The structure cannot be ironclad.

Both the principles of immersion and being real mean that social stuff works very, very well as game content. High-resolution social encounters are some of the most satisfying and fun things to play within this framework.

Other principles might be:

Privacy is freedom. These games are tailored for the specific people who play in them. We are responsible for the people who are in the room, and create things for each other. The fact that a tabletop game is private means that we can create with a freedom that’s impossible in the context collapse -rich environment of the internet or any publicly released media.

Difficulty is strength. While my experience has been that everyone can learn to play like this, good, committed and motivated players are what really makes a game sing. The game demands a lot from the game master. She doesn’t just run the game; she has to be an auteur. She needs a vision.

In the ruins of a cafe. Photo: Juhana & Maria Pettersson

In the ruins of a cafe. Photo: Juhana & Maria Pettersson

So far, trying to write a game book according to this kind of thinking has been all about analyzing what we do when we play. I’ve tried to codify ideas ranging from how games are constructed to what we eat. The last time I seriously tried this was in my 2005 book Roolipelimanifesti. It’s a guidebook about how to run roleplaying games, and includes a scenario or a game of sorts called Joutomaa (Wasteland).

Please note that this kind of roleplaying is agnostic when it comes to genre or style. I’ve run and played in very different kinds of games that together formed this set of ideas, from superheroes to kitchen sink realism. One obvious feature of most of these games has been the use of extremely light or non-existent game mechanics, because rules systems in the style of D&D, Vampire: the Masquerade or Apocalypse World distract from the immediacy of the game. Perhaps that’s another principle: The system must be invisible.

We’ll see how this works when trying to express a specific design instead of general guidelines.  I will also update and refine the ideas presented in this post and probably publish something less tentative once my thinking has been clarified by discussion.

Non-Digital: New People at Baltic Warriors Kiel

Last Saturday, we ran the Kiel game of our Baltic Warriors campaign which tours the countries around the Baltic Sea this summer. Kiel is a small coastal city in northern Germany, close to Hamburg.

The larps have a story continuing from game to game. They are set as close to their real-life venues as possible, and feature environmental conferences about local issues. And that worst of all effects of eutrophication in the Baltic Sea, zombies.

Our venue was the Kiel Kunsthalle.

We’ve always wanted to have both larpers and newcomers as participants in the Baltic Warriors games. I believe that our games are a good choice for those who are interested in larp but shy away from traditional larp themes and genres. If our games manage to spread the joy of larp to new people, that’s a wonderful thing.

However, I also believe newcomers are good for the game. They bring an energy and a perspective that cuts into the core of why larp is so fun and interesting and shake established practices, forcing us to question why we do things a certain way.

Characters trying to find out how to complete the anti-zombie ritual.

In previous Baltic Warriors games, the newcomers have been a minority, but in Kiel, two thirds of our players were participating in their first larp.

Some of them were in their twenties, others over sixty. A few had been specifically invited by us, while others were intersted in larp, Nordic Larp specifically, or had heard of the project in the local or national media. Our benefactors at the Goethe-Institut were responsible for some of the more important ones.

Larp inside art.

Larp inside art.

The Baltic Warriors games we run have similar templates, but vary according to local conditions. This was especially obvious in Kiel, where both our wonderful venue of the Kiel Kunsthalle and the unusual participant composition meant that the game would run differently.

It’s probably no surprise that as an organizer, this has an energizing effect. We added features such as the in-game art tour and tried to stay on top of the chaos of different languages and experiences.

First-time participants deep in the game.

First-time participants deep in the game.

Having players who have larped before brings a kind of “herd competence” to the game: If enough players know how to do it, the rest will pick it up. When the percentage of larpers goes down, chaos increases, but as an organizer I had the feeling that after doing Baltic Warriors in Tallinn, St. Petersburg and Sopot, a little chaos doesn’t faze us.

Pikseliparatiisi: Lepakkomiehenä olemisen vaikeus

Batman-aiheisten Arkham-pelien ideana on alusta asti ollut: “Sinä olet Batman.” Pelatessa Arkham Asylumia tai Arkham Cityä pääsee fiilistelemään, millaista on olla suvereeni yön kostaja.

Ylivertaisen osaamisen illuusion takana on yksi keskeinen pelisuunnittelullinen kikka: Monimutkaisia ja vaikuttavia asioita pitää tapahtua yhdellä napinpainalluksella. Batman syöksyy ympäri taistelukenttää kurmottamassa vihollisia. Minä rämpytän vain X:ää, mutta se näyttäytyy ruudulla komeana toimintana.

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Batman: Arkham Knight: Ruumisskanneri on yksi monista laitteista, jotka yksinkertaistavat monimutkaisia asioita napin painelemiseksi.

Toki pelin systeemissä on myös syvyyttä, mutta olennaista on että yksinkertaisessa peruspaletissa on monia Batman-kokemuksen tärkeimpiä temppuja. Ei tarvitse olla kovin kummoinen pelaaja saadakseen Batmanin syöksymään katolta rikollisen niskaan.

Sama kikka on käytössä esimerkiksi Guitar Hero -peleissä. Niissä monimutkaisemmat musiikilliset asiat tiivistyvät siihen, painanko nappia ajoissa. Jos kyllä, kappale kuulostaa hyvältä. Niissäkin voi tuntea olevansa rock-elvis, vaikka oikeasti tekee jotain paljon helpompaa kuin mitä varsinainen muusikko tekee esiintyessään.

Tempussa on kyse yksinkertaistamisesta. Arkham Asylumia kutsuttiin Batman-simulaattoriksi, mutta se on totta vain jos simulaatioksi hyväksytään palikkaversiot.

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Batman: Arkham Cityssä tarkennetaan, että vihollisen panssarivaunujen ampuminen on hyväksyttävää, koska ne ovat miehittämättömiä. Toki myös ihmisiä voi ampua.

Uusi Arkham Knight siirtää pelikokemusta piirun verran lähemmäs lentosimulaattorin monimutkaisuutta. Batmanilla on lisää leluja, ja mikä olennaisinta, ne kaikki toimivat eri tavoilla. Tärkein on Batmobile, Lepakkoauto jota ohjatakseen täytyy opetella peräti kaksi eri hallintatapaa. Normaali “kaasua ja jarrua” ei riitä, sillä autolla on myös taistelumoodi.

Jos autoa ei osaa käyttää, näyttää Batmanin touhu pelkältä räpellykseltä. Yksinkertaisilla liikkeillä ei enää tapahdu siistejä asioita. Autoa on pakko opetella käyttämään, mutta kun sen osaa, tulokset ovat komeita.

Kokemus on ratkaisevasti erilainen kuin aiemmissa Arkham-peleissä. Ollessaan jalan Batman antaa edelleen halvalla paljon. Kun siirrytään ratin taakse, illuusio kompetenssista särkyy.

Pikseliparatiisi: Sauna, kylpylä ja Witcher 3

Witcher 3:ssa on kaksi kohtausta, joissa puhutaan ja peseydytään. Ensimmäisessä miehet istuvat roomalaistyylisessä kylpylässä, ja toisessa naiset saunassa. Kummassakin tapauksessa ympäristö vaikuttaa siihen miten asioista puhutaan. Kohtaukset ovat myös esimerkkejä siitä, kuinka Witcher 3 onnistuu varaamaan itselleen kulttuurillista tilaa jenkkistandardin ulkopuolelta.

Pelin päähenkilö Geralt on Novigradin vapaakaupungissa etsimässä tietoja suojatistaan Ciristä. Käy ilmi, että hänen vanha tuttunsa Sigi Reuven on ruvennut kylpyläyrittäjäksi rikollisten bisneksien ohella. Niinpä on luontevaa, että Geralt tapaa kaupungin rikollispomot Reuvenin kylpylässä, jossa asioista voidaan puhua pyyhkeet lanteilla.

Kohtaus on pitkä ja hienovaraisesti rakennettu. Kylpeminen on hyvin miehistä puuhaa, ja kohtauksen hahmoilla on historiaa. Rikollispomot ovat tavallaan toistensa vihollisia, mutta kylpylässä vallitsee silti tietty perusymmärrys. Hahmot tölvivät toisiaan sanallisesti samalla kun relaavat altaalla.

Päähenkilö Geralt kylpylässä.

Päähenkilö Geralt kylpylässä.

Kohtauksen tunnelma antaa ymmärtää, että nämä henkilöt käyvät kylpylöissä hyvin säännöllisesti. Itse en ole koskaan käynyt roomalaistyylisessä kylpylässä; lähimmäksi pääsee lapsena kokemani kylpylä Leningradissa tai hamam Palestiinassa. Silti tilanteen oletukset välittyvät pienistä kulttuurillisista signaaleista.

Suurin osa Witcher 3:sta tapahtuu Velenin maaseudulla tai Novigradin kaupungissa, mutta loppupuolella pääsee käymään myös viikinkihenkisellä Skelligen saarella. Siellä on kohtaus, jossa pelaaja pelaa Ciriä, joka on haavoittunut. Paikalliset kyläläiset patistavat hänet saunaan, koska se tekee hyvää.

Ciri vasemmalla, yksi kylän naisista oikealla.

Ciri vasemmalla, yksi kylän naisista oikealla.

Sauna ei ole aivan suomalaistyylinen: Siellä ei istuta koroteuilla lauteilla, ja lämpötila näyttää enemmän ruotsalaishenkiseltä hengailuun sopivalta kuin suomalaiselta paahtamiselta. Kohtaus on silti erittäin tunnistettava. Ciri ja kylän naiset puhuvat asioistaan saunan luoman läheisyyden turvin. Vaikka sauna eroaakin meikäläisestä, saunakulttuuri on tavoitettu hyvin.

Tällaisissa yksityiskohdissa piilee Witcher 3:n hienous. Peli on puolalainen, mutta se onnistuu jotenkin silti olemaan myös suomalaiselle pelaajalle kulttuurillisesti tunnistettavampi kuin jenkkianonyymiksi puleerattu kama, mitä videopelimaailmassa on paljon.

Non-Digital: Beach Larp Manifesto

Today, we played the third of this summer’s seven Baltic Warriors eco zombie larps in Sopot, Poland. Finding a good venue for the serious political discussion and the even more serious zombie action proved to be difficult, but we found a wonderful host in a place called Klub Atelier, a venue in a beach theatre.

Since the weather was good, we held the game itself on the beach. This proved to be a very good choice: The presence of the Baltic Sea was palpable every moment of the game, a very important feature considering the themes and aims of Baltic Warriors in general. It’s easy to ignore the problems of the Baltic Sea when it’s out of sight and out of mind, but it’s something different when it’s right there.

Setting up the scene for the larp.

Setting up the scene for the larp.

Doing a larp on a beach made me ask a very obvious question:

Why are beach larps so rare? Why don’t we larp on beaches all the time? Why can’t we have fun in the sun?

This prompted me to write this manifesto in favor of beach larp, a phenomenon I foresee will take the larp world by storm in the years 2015, 2016 and 2017 before it becomes mainstream and attains global success and recognition as the primary beach activity of our species by the end of the decade.

The politicians, lobbyists and activists come to discuss environmental issues.

The politicians, lobbyists and activists come to discuss environmental issues.

Beach larp is:

1 – On a beach.

2 – Features an intimate thematic link to the water.

3 – Goes beyond the mere superficialities of fun, and becomes a profound participatory experience combining serious questions about our role in the world with being on a  beach.

4 – For players ready to take the experience seriously and dedicate themselves to fulfilling it. Or have been forced to participate by their employers. One of the two.

5 – Conflates surface and content by accepting the fact that larp is public. You don’t go to the beach to not be seen, and the same goes for beach larp. The larp experience becomes complete in the confused Tweet of a stranger. Or a spot done by local television.

6 – For romance. Our beach larp ended with a woman proposing to her pregnant lover.

Viking zombies crawling out of the Baltic Sea.

Viking zombies crawling out of the Baltic Sea.

7 – For tragedy. The lover said no.

8 – Engaging with the public. Beach larp is not insulated. Beach larp takes interventions by outsiders in stride. In our case, in the form of a zombie attack on schoolchildren.

9 – For emergence and coincidence. Anything can happen in a beach larp. The larp incorporates coincidence. Whether military helicopters or a sailing ship, everything becomes part of beach larp.

10 – For meeting larpers and non-larpers, the young and the old, friends and strangers. Everyone is one on the beach.

Join the beach larp revolution now!

Non-Digital: The Joy of the Zeigarnik Effect

I’m standing in front of a wall. It’s made of wood, painted white. There are two black, small holes, probably made by nails, at my eye level. I run my hand along the surface of the white paint. I’m in the present, aware of what’s right in front of me.

I’m playing in a larp called The Zeigarnik Effect, run in Moss in Norway 11th – 13th of June, 2015 as part of the Momentum biennial of contemporary art. Created by the artist Brody Condon, The Zeigarnik Effect consists of two complementary but separate pieces, the larp and a video installation based on material recorded in the larp. During the opening of Momentum, the camera feeds from the larp are displayed live at the installation.

A banner advertising Momentum in downtown Moss.

A banner advertising Momentum in downtown Moss.

The voice tells me, tells all of us to move our focus to the other people in the room. I turn around and face the room. I see the other participants. I look at their faces. I look at their eyes. I’m aware of their presence. I’m in the moment.

One of the core inspirations of The Zeigarnik Effect is the Gestalt therapy of the German psychotherapist Fritz Perls. Being in the moment, being present, is one of the ideas that makes Gestalt therapy so interesting to experience. We play loose characters that consist of motivations for being in therapy, and little else. The specific rituals of Gestalt mean that although everyone in the group is in close, constant interaction with everyone else, we don’t really need anything very elaborate in terms of larp fiction. I have little else than the simple motivation granted to me by my imagined affliction, and it sufficed.

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The installation after the first day of larp, before the exhibition opens the next day.

The voice is telling me to focus on my body. I feel the cramping in my back, the itching in my scalp and the anxiety in my fingers created by the condition I came up with: The fear of losing sensation in my hands and feet.

When we’re not doing mental and social excercises designed to bring us into the present moment, we’re working on someone. The language of Gestalt foregrounds the experiential, meaning that when we describe dreams, it sounds like this: “I’m experiencing remembering standing on a brown granual surface. It’s dark. I feel the heat on my face.” And so forth.

The ideas of Gestalt therapy, combined with the game design features designed by Condon with Nina Runa Essendrop, create a series of extremely intense, socially high-resolution interactions that are sometimes joyful and always interesting. A particular favorite is an excercise in which half the group moves eyes closed and the other half guides them, forcefully or with only a light touch.

In another interesting excercise, one participant asks the question “What do you want?” over and over again, and the other tries to answer. When I do this, I end up tearing my partner’s t-shirt into two. When it’s his turn to answer, he hits me in the face.

The first day is intimate and personal. The second day, animosities come to the surface.

The first day is intimate and personal. The second day, animosities come to the surface.

Playing The Zeigarnik Effect feels like someone has constructed an experimental language of larp, something honed and perfected in earlier prototypes until it runs smoothly and efficiently. Everything is simple, but I’m aware that to reach this level of simplicity, a great deal effort and trial and error is necessary.

The documentation required by the video installation is rigorous and thorough. Implemented by Paul Shin, the set-up includes wireless microphones on every participant and two cameramen who move in the game space, capturing emotions in close up.

During the game, sound goes live from the microphone on each player to the video installation in the exhibition space.

During the game, sound goes live from the microphone on each player to the video installation in the exhibition space.

Visiting the installation space, it’s obvious that this strategy really pays off. Capturing the visual surface of larp has rarely been done to such powerful effect as here, and the key is making sure that the camera is always right there, zeroing in on the face of someone who is not performing.

Non-Digital: Baltic Warriors in St. Petersburg

Last Saturday, 6th of June, the second Baltic Warriors game of summer 2015 was played in St. Petersburg. I’m working on the project as a larp producer, and it’s surprisingly strange to make a game that’s being run in a language I don’t understand, in this case Russian. Others have done this before me, but now was my first time.

Thankfully, the game seemed to be a success.

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(Members of the crew in front of the venue, the art space Taiga on the shore of the Neva river in St. Petersburg)

Each Baltic Warriors game has a similar design and structure, but we’ve learned that local variation will always play a part. The St. Petersburg game was our most aggressively localized one, with character and game design elements adapted so they’d make sense. We also had to provide all material in Russian to make sure all players can comfortably engage with it.

In each country, we have a local producer who’s job it is to do this localization, in addition to practical organizing. In Russia, we had Olga Vorobyeva, who did a wonderful job. We also had significant help from the local Goethe Institute. The Goethe Institute makes the project financially possible, but in St. Petersburg they went above and beyond in terms of practical work.

(Participants workshopping before the game starts)

Bringing people together is one of the key goals of the whole Baltic Warriors project, and if we can do a little larp evangelizing on the side, that’s good too. Because of this, I was happy to see that approximately one third of our players had never larped before. We’d been warned that the actual experts we invited to participate in the post-game panel discussion probably wouldn’t want to play, but in the end every single one did.

(The game is in full swing as some characters listen to speeches given by the politicians, activists and lobbyists, while othets write news articles and make backroom deals)

As in every Baltic Warriors game, eventually the zombies will attack. In the fiction of the game, eutrophication causes the undead to rise from the Dead Zones of the Baltic Sea. The style of the game changes, and debate turns into action as the characters try to save themselves.

This time the action was so fast, we had trouble following it with our cameras.

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(A zombie hangs back as the participants do a debrief round after the game has ended)

Non-Digital: Mechanics Against Character Immersion

In my last post, I complained about the lack of published game systems conductive to tabletop roleplaying with a focus on character immersion. I said that the kind of roleplaying that I like the best seems difficult to put into a published book.

In this post, I’ll attempt to elaborate on the kind of play that to me is ideal with examples, good and bad, from published games.

Vampires

I started roleplaying with Dungeons & Dragons, but the whole thing really started to click for me when I discovered Vampire: the Masquerade. Especially in the second edition core books and the Vampire supplements of that era, the game had a street level focus. A lot of attention was paid to the player characters and who they were. The books brimmed with advice about mood and theme.

I sixteen at the time, so we had our share of vampires with katanas. Still, the game encouraged social stuff like status games in the vampire community, love, and mentor characters. This was great. Finally a game where we play out social situations while being other people.

Unfortunately Vampire also has systems that are pure poison for character-based play of the type I love, and we spent a lot of energy dodging those systems. At that age, I didn’t have the understanding or confidence just to cut them out.

The worst offender is the idea of Blood Bond, a supernaturally enfored love that is imposed on those who drink from a given vampire too many times. The Blood Bond strikes the closest and most meaningful relationships a character has and replaces them with a supernaturally stagnant, emotionally sterile, fundamentally boring force. The Blood Bond is poison because it neutralizes all organic emotional change.

Vampire and other White Wolf games have plenty of similar superpowers that affect a character emotionally or mentally. I’ve found that when playing in this kind of a game, holding onto character consistency sometimes requires a lot of work and serious game mechanical investment into every relevant immunity that can protect the character from in-game forces that would lead to a loss of character integrity on a metagame level.

The Engine

So what do I do when I play a game like this?

Normally, when I create a character, I use two tools. One is Markus Montola’s framework of enabling and disabling characteristics, where enabling characteristics (impulsive, helpful, outgoing) help the character to engage with her surroundings and disabling characteristics (shy, reclusive, distrustful) keep the character away from play.

The other tool is perhaps the more important one, and generates the core of the character. This is the character’s central contradiction, or preferably contradictions. The character is selfish and likes to help people, she’s superficial and loves classical culture, she wants fame but needs to keep her integrity. Juggling these qualities then becomes the engine that moves the character forward, and helps me know how she’ll react to a situation in a game.

Keeping the character’s engine running in my head and coming up with surprising, interesting and logical reactions, initiatives and ideas is central as I experience the world through the character in emotional terms. After a while, the character’s engine becomes second nature, and I can reflect on the things that happen around me from this specific perspective.

The result is often extremely emotionally compelling. There’s bleed all over the place. This is helped enormously by good co-players who’re also playing in a way that resonates with emotional truth. The game is subtle, nuanced and resonates with its own reality.

How to Play

In most of the games I’ve played in or ran, the game mechanics exist to regulate and support the kind of play described above, but they don’t generate it. They just fix some of the problems that arise.

A simple one is the way we as players become so invested in the success of our characters, the drama needs mechanics for us to sometimes fail.

The mechanics can also provide another flavor of enjoyment. Fighting using mechanics can be fun, but it’s not the kind of core fun I roleplay for. Perhaps for this reason, the mechanics present in the best social gameplay of my career have been practically non-existent. Just a bunch of people improvising in a room, guided by a game master.

There’s something very traditional about this kind of character based play, especially in terms of how it relates to the role of the game master. This is especially apparent when I look at modern American story games, often descended from the Forge scene.

These types of games often have a collaborative storytelling aspect, a more collective distribution of game master functions, and interesting metagame mechanics that allow situations to be resolved in different ways. They’re also often very playable, in the sense that you can experience a game with a bunch of friends without massive amounts of preparation.

My experiences with these games have been positive and I often recommend them to people. But so far, I haven’t played a game that would really support what I want. One core reason is that the kind of social play I enjoy is essentially unregulated by designed systems. It’s emergent and messy. In some ways, it depends on being able to radically change the content or the direction of the game on the fly.

Sometimes when playing these games, I feel like a boffer larper in a Vampire game: It’s great and all, but where’s my sword?

Most of all, the game’s mechanics simply can’t fuck with the integrity of my character.

Beyond the System

So how to make published games, how to write a book that would describe the kind of play I find ideal?

One core idea would be to consider what’s the role of game design and what’s the role of the emergent social gameplay and creativity of the participants. How to communicate extremely light social systems that depend on flexibility.

From a system design point of view this kind of play is conservative: I’m not trying to revolutionize the field. I’m quite happy with the tools I have. I would merely like to be able to communicate them better.

After all, campaigns of this type I’ve played in, like Jaakko Stenros’s Lohkeileva kynsilakka (Cracking Nail Varnish), Mike Pohjola’s Tähti (Star) and Maria Pettersson’s St Catherine have been some of the best and most defining experiences of my life.

Maybe these also highlight the problem. None of them are based on published games.

Non-Digital: Character is All

As a matter of purely personal taste, here’s what I like about tabletop roleplaying games:

1 – Playing a complex and contradictory character engaged in interesting social environments. Experiencing the game principally through this character.

2 – Sex and violence, craziness and stupid decisions, the kind of stuff that is a bad idea in real life but great fun in fictional environments.

3 – Playing interesting social situations, or watching others play them.

I like the kind of naturalism that emerges in good groups when people play their characters and come up with cool ideas for the whole game. Consistency is good when it comes to the characters, and immersion in their emotional circumstances is key.

I have never played or read a tabletop roleplaying game that had a system supporting these goals. I’ve been able to realize them only in games that have had a strong game master vision and a group that has had the required level of social and roleplaying competence to really go there.

Many, possibly most, of these experiences in my roleplaying career have been had in games where the system has been a set of loose social conventions and the rules mechanics an ornamental bauble that’s sometimes marveled at and then tossed aside when things get serious.

Tabletop roleplaying games are propagated through published game books that explain how to run particular kinds of games. For me, a big question is: Why is the kind of roleplaying I love the best apparently impossible to package into a book?

I’ve tried once, with my book Roolipelimanifesti, a general interest guide to roleplaying games and how to make them. I’ll leave it to others to judge how we’ll I succeeded. My other tabletop publication, the game Valley of Eternity, is more old-fashioned and doesn’t really reflect my personal playing style. It’s a game of tragic adventure, not a game of social drama.

Games like Dungeons & Dragons, design movements like the Forge and the Fastaval games have their own languages for expressing ideas of tabletop roleplaying in text.

Perhaps the kind of character based play big in my particular niche of the global tabletop roleplaying community needs to invent a new language of communicating about design. Or perhaps we have to ditch the idea of the guidebook as a democratic tool anyone can use, and move to glorify the individual visionaries of each game, be they players or game masters.

Research Blog Antarctica #138 – Throne of Ice

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Comic book: Alain Paris et al: Throne of Ice (Humanoids, 2014)

Right now, Antarctica is an arid continent of ice, but it hasn’t always been so. A long, long time ago the location of the continent was different, and so was its climate. This is borne out in the fossil record, and greatly perplexed early explorers before the idea of continental drift was conceived.

Throne of Ice, a comic book written by the French novelist Alain Paris, employs this idea to tell a fantasy story of a kingdom on the Antarctic continent, before the coming of the ice. Its fate mirrors that of Atlantis, which was submerged before the Antarctic kingdom was frozen.

For much of the story, Throne of Ice is pretty un-Antarctic. It’s a kind of deflated Jodorowsky narrative of kings and betrayals, fights of succession and reversals of fortune. The interesting stuff is in the margins, the larger framework the comic draws from.

In addition to Antarctic pre-history, Throne of Ice references (albeit lightly) classic notions of polar occultism, such as the Piri Reis map and precursor races.

Roleplaying Game Movie Night #19: Mazes & Mutants

I and some friends have a project of trying to watch all movies, tv episodes and other stuff with moving pictures related to roleplaying games ever made. We’re pretty far along on this goal. I’ll write here about old and new things we’ve found and watched.

Mazes & Mutants is a recent episode on the second season of the new Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles animated series. The Turtles find a D&D-style game and start playing. Soon they escalate into larp.

The episode is both a compilation of the greatest cliches of game movies and a surprisingly fun spoof of larp.

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(Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, season 2: Mazes & Mutants)

First the cliches. Once the Turtles start larping, the GAME BECOMES REAL. The larper they meet is an overweight nerd with acne. They have to rescue the princess.

But as the episode progresses, it becomes apparent that despite the wearying cliches, there’s a lot of smart stuff in there as well. The title of the episode references the classic scare movie Mazes & Monsters, about a bunch of kids who go nuts after playing D&D. Mazes & Monsters is the original GAME BECOMES REAL story, and referencing it here (instead of making it Mutants & Dragons) indicates some self-awareness.

Tabletop roleplaying and larp are portrayed as a straightforwardly fun activity, and the episode teems with clever little references to game culture. It has also spawned a series of larp-themed Turtles toys.

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(From the left, the fighter, the elf, the dwarf and the wizard.)

Pikseliparatiisi: Tiskausta vallankumouksen keskellä

Olen saanut töitä siivoojana. Asiakas on rikas, ja hänellä on valtava kämppä. Kaksi kerrosta, valtavia valoisia tiloja ja talvipuutarha. Ensimmäisenä työpäivänä hoidan varsinaiset tehtäväni, mutta teen paljon muutakin. Asiakas on ilmeisesti juuri muuttanut asuntoon, joten availen laatikoita ja laitan asioita paikalleen. Kaikki on mielenkiintoista ja jännittävää.

Pian alan ryytyä. Työ on itseääntoistavaa. Katson työtehtävät, tulen sisään, hoidan hommat, häivyn.

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(Jokaiselle päivälle on työlista.)

Pelin nimi on Sunset, ja se on ilmestynyt juuri. Tekijänä on belgialainen Tale of Tales -studio, ja rahoitus tuli Kickstarterista. Tale of Tales on kahden hengen operaatio, ja se näkyy myös peleissä: Ne ovat pieniä, fiksuja ja kauniita. Sunset ei ole poikkeus.

Tavallinen arkinen työ ei ole kovin yleistä videopeleissä. Mafia II on peli, jossa päähenkilö yrittää pysyä kaidalla polulla ennen kun saa tarpeekseen ja rupeaa rikolliseksi. Kaitaa polkua havainnollistetaan itseään toistavalla ja ankealla pelitoiminnalla, joka ei johda mihinkään. Sen kanssa voi räpeltää kunnes saa tarpeekseen ja ryhtyy mafiamieheksi.

Arki on ankeaa, peli on glamouria. Jos pelissä tehdäänkin työtä, täytyy ammatin olla palkkamurhaaja, hirviönmetsästäjä tai salainen agentti.

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(Kaupungissa tapahtuu, mutta asunnossa pitää silti tiskata.)

Sunset ei toistostaan huolimatta ole siivoussimulaattori. Sen ideana on kertoa latinalaisessa amerikassa tapahtuvasta yhteiskunnallisesta sekasorrosta yhdestä, hyvin tarkkaan rajatusta näkökulmasta. Pelaajahahmo on siivoaja, ja hän siivoaa samalla kun ulkona rytisee.

Pelin toiminnot koostuvat työstä, mutta siinä on ennen kaikkea kyse tavallisen ihmisen näkökulmasta. Joissain muissa peleissä ollaan keskellä toimintaa. Sunsetin kauneus syntyy siitä, että pelaajahahmo on siinä missä pelaajakin saattaisi olla vastaavassa tilanteessa: Tekemässä hommia, huolestuneena siitä mitä seuraavaksi tapahtuu.

Non-Digital: The Last Ropecon at Dipoli

Ropecon is a Finnish roleplaying game convention. It’s also been something that’s been a part of my life for twenty years now.

It was first organized in 1994, but I missed the initial years. I’m pretty sure my first Ropecon was 1996. I was sixteen and had just discovered Werewolf: the Apocalypse. I had made a character I figured was real badass, and wanted to play it in a game.

Dipoli is a conference center in Espoo, Finland. It has been home to Ropecon from 1998, but now was the last year. Next time, it’s going to be at Messukeskus, or Helsinki Fair Centre.

For me, Dipoli was “the new Ropecon venue” for maybe ten years, because the first ones I attended had been at another place. The building has come to define the event with its labyrinthine interior and plentiful greenery outside. The event is usually held at the end of July, but this time it was last weekend.

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(Mike Pohjola places a viking helmet on top of a flapboard at our Baltic Warriors presentation.)

My Ropecon experiences tend to be defined by the program items I go there to hold, and this year was no different. We started on Friday with Mike Pohjola by doing a presentation about Baltic Warriors, the larp campaign we’re organizing this summer. This is something I’ve done a number of years: Go to Ropecon to talk about my latest things.

I got downright sentimental later when we went to drink outside with a few friends. We headed to the end of a pier down at the waterfront, because I wanted to stand there one more time. I’ve published or helped to publish five books at Ropecon, and after the book publishing presentations, we’ve had a little champagne to celebrate at the pier. This time we didn’t have a book, but it was still nice to go there anyway.

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(A larp prop from the game Tonnin stiflat, this is a “torpedo” of canisters that are filled with booze for smuggling during the Prohibition. It was used at the larp costume gala.)

On Saturday night, I held a presentation called Larpin rajoilla, the Limits of Larp, with Maria Pettersson. Our idea was simply to see what are all the places larp has gone to, geographically, socially, within the human body. It was one of the most fun presentations I’ve ever worked on, and seemed to go down well.

Here’s the Argentinean video about Hitler and Vampire larp we used:

On Sunday, we walked around the con area with Maria. It felt nostalgic to think about all the things that had happened there, the larps we’ve run, the books we’ve published, the presentations, the parties, the games and the conversations.

Ropecon will go on, but I suspect that at least for the next ten years, it will feel like its at “the new venue”.

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(The view at the entrance on Sunday.)

Non-Digital: Baltic Warriors Tallinn

I work as a larp producer in the Baltic Warriors project, and first game of our summer season was played last Saturday in Tallinn. It’s quite intimidating to go another country to do a game there. I had never even played in an Estonian larp, but it seemed to go well.

(The Estonian producer of Baltic Warriors, Aapo Reitsak, as a viking zombie. Ingame-photo by Juhana Pettersson)

This summer, we’re doing a series of seven Baltic Warriors games, each in a different country. In each game, the subject is eutrophication and other environmental disasters afflicting the Baltic Sea. The zombies are there to remind us that while we talk, the situation is steadily getting worse.

(For the venue, we had the museum ship Suur Tõll. Photo by Juhana Pettersson)

We had the distinct advantage of having a really cool venue, the ice breaker Suur Tõll, now a museum. It was almost too spectacular: It was easy to imagine a much bigger, much longer game taking place there.

The larp, like all Baltic Warriors games, was divided into two parts: Politics and zombie action. During the political part, characters come together to talk about a given issue that’s being voted upon in the parliament.

(One of the techniques we used was the media wall, in which characters can make news headlines. Photo by Juhana Pettersson)

After the debate has gone for a few hours, the zombies attack. In this case, two viking zombies shambled forth from the hold of the ship, attacking the living. The museum was open to normal visitors during this time, and it was fun to see how they reacted to the screaming and gurgling that was going on.

(Not even the Bible helps against newly zombified people. Photo by Juhana Pettersson)

After this, we have Baltic Warriors games in St Petersburg, Gdansk, Kiel, Copenhagen, Stockholm and Helsinki. It will be fun to see how they change depending on the players, the local issues, the venue, and other matters.