Non-Digital: Profound Larp Thoughts

This year’s Knudepunkt larp conference saw the publication of two books, first the Nordic larp yearbook 2014 and now a collection of articles about larp, the scene, game design, and other related matters. Edited by Charles Bo Nielsen and Claus Raasted, it’s called The Knudepunkt 2015 Companion Book, and you can download it here as a free PDF.

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Introducing new concepts and terminology is one of this year’s book’s themes. Steering is one of these concepts, and it means consciously directing your game experience towards some kind of a goal for other than in-game reasons. Trying to kill the king because my character hates the king is not steering. Trying to kill the king because I want to get killed in a glorious death scene is steering.

The two articles about this idea are one of the highlights of the book. Markus Montola, Jaakko Stenros and Eleanor Saitta outline the idea in their article The Art of Steering. Mike Pohjola gives it personal weight in his excellent essay Steering for Immersion in Five Nordic Larps. He writes about his personal experiences steering towards certain kinds of play.

I have an article in the book about documentation and questions of private and public play. Jamie MacDonald writes about similar subjects in a more comprehensive way in his article On Publicity and Privacy, using data from a survey on the subject of larp documentation.

Another strong theme in the book is a sense of history: We’re finally old enough to have some perspective. This shows in many different ways. Myriel Balzer’s article about edularp is not about using larp to teach; it’s about teaching people how to use larp to teach.

Eirik Fatland and Markus Montola have a wonderful article called The Blockbuster Formula, analyzing the design of recent games like The Monitor Celestra and The College of Wizardry. It goes through some classic methods of larp design, and how these are updated and complemented by new ideas. It finally rehabilitates some old school ideas of design for a new era of Nordic larp.

The practical and the political intersect with design in an article by Kaisa Kangas called Processing Political Larps. She writes about political games, and talks about the challenges you can have debriefing them, as seen in the larp Halat hisar, on which I also worked.

This year’s book is a fast read, and you can get into some really interesting ideas and concepts in an afternoon. Short is sweet. However, perhaps next year we’d be ready to read some longer essays along with the shorter pieces?

Research Blog Antarctica #134 – Eldritch Horror: Mountains of Madness

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Board game: Eldritch Horror: Mountains of Madness (Fantasy Flight Games, 2014)

Eldritch Horror is a follow-up to the successful H.P. Lovecraft -themed board game, Arkham Horror. In Arkham Horror, the action is limited to a small New England town, while in Eldritch Horror, the entire globe acts as the stage. Mountains of Madness is an expansion in which Antarctica is brought into the spotlight.

As can be seen in the above photo from when we played it, Eldritch Horror is a massive game, with or without the expansion. Its focused on story, exploration and ambiance, and while its mechanisms are more elegant than those in Arkham Horror, this still isn’t German board game design. The Byzantine sprawl is a part of the charm.

The expansion is based on the Lovecraft novella At the Mountains of Madness. A scientific expedition modeled after the explorers of Lovecraft’s time reaches Antarctica and discovers traces of ancient civilization.

In the expansion, Antarctica is represented by an extra game board, and two new threats, Ithaqua and Rise of the Elder Things, make cold-based Lovecraft stuff into the focus of the game. Based on one test game, the expansion works very well, and the Antarctic content integrates neatly into the wider experience.

The test game ended with our investigators at the Antarctic Lake Camp, trying to free people from the terrifying mind control of the elder things.

Non-Digital: Last Year’s Nordic Larp

Knudepunkt is an annual conference dedicated to ambitious larps and other roleplaying games. Every year, one or more books are published along with the event.

The Danish book editors Charles Bo Nielsen and Claus Raasted are attempting to start a tradition of a yearbook collecting articles about games played the previous year. To set an example, one of the two Knudepunkt books this year is called The Nordic larp yearbook 2014. You can download it here as a free PDF.

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There’s one big issue I wish to get out of the way before I go deeper into the meat of the book: The issue of geography.

Put bluntly, the Nordic larp yearbook contains a lot of larp not played in the Nordic countries. The biggest individual country represented in the book is the Czech Republic, with four games. There’s three Swedish games and three games I’d characterize as international, for different reasons. Russia, Denmark and Finland follow with two games.

There’s been some debate lately about what is “Nordic larp”. The editors chose to end this book with a quote from the game researcher Jaakko Stenros: “A Nordic larp is a larp that is influenced by the Nordic larp tradition and contributes to the ongoing Nordic larp discourse.”

Following this definition, a game can belong in the category of “Nordic larp” without taking place in the Nordic countries, since the tradition is the thing. The upside of this definition is that it’s inclusive, but it has a side-effect of drafting a bunch of games from other traditions into Nordic larp. This is especially glaring with countries like the Czech Republic and Russia, with extremely rich larp traditions of their own. Then again, many organizers in these countries are influenced by Nordic larp, as should be obvious by the fact that they write in this book.

The non-Nordic games are also some of the most interesting. The “why didn’t I play in this game” prize goes to the Russian larp Saint Summer. A game about the Sixties in the U.S., it sounds absolutely crazy, with Woodstock, free sex, soldiers fighting the Vietnam war, and a lot of other stuff.

Other articles feature both fascinating games and interesting methods and details. Another highlight is the Danish game Morgenrøde, about the hippie movement in Denmark in the Sixties and Seventies. (Indeed, reassessing Sixties counterculture is one of the big themes in the book. Another larp about a similar subject is the Russian Ticket to Atlantis.)

Morgenrøde’s mechanic for drug use sounds extremely interesting, and definitely worth stealing. It involves a black box type solution instead of the classic “pretend to be high” method of playing it out. Danish speakers can read more about the game in the documentation book Bogen om Morgenrøde, available as a free PDF here.

Another big theme in the book is gender. The Norwegian rerun of the Swedish game Brudpris featured in the book seeks to model extremely oppressive gender structures. The Swedish fantasy game Livsgäld is about redefining both gender and the fantasy genre. Other games, such as the Finnish Tonnin stiflat and the Swedish Mare Incognitum, had various solutions to ensure gender equality and equality in terms of game content for players of different genders.

Reading the book, one thing I think we’ve become better at is writing for people from other scenes. This means we have to explain somethings that are obvious in our local context, but strange for people from other contexts. There’s a great example of this in the article about Danish fantasy larp called Nemefrego 2014. Apparently, characters killed in their sleep has been a traditional problem in Danish fantasy games. This is called a “sleeping bag murder”, and in this game it was forbidden. The article uses this as an example when talking about changing play culture.

I have an article in the book too, about the larp Baltic Warriors: Helsinki. I was part of the organizing group of the game, which is a part of the wider Baltic Warriors project.

Vuoden elokuvat 2014

Listalla on elokuvia myös viime vuodelta, mikäli niillä kesti vähän pidempään päästä Suomeen asti.

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Parhaat elokuvat, jotka on tehty aiheista jotka ovat minulle henkilökohtaisia keppihevosia: Antarctica: A Year on Ice, Dark Dungeons & The Gamers: Hands of Fate

Muille: Antarctica on hieno ja kaunis, vaikka ei olisikaan aiheesta harrastunut. Pelielokuvia ei tajua ellei tunne roolipeliskeneä.

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Paras vampyyrielokuva, ei pelkästään tänä vuonna vaan ehkä koskaan: Only Lovers Left Alive

Kaunista, herkkää, seksikästä, omaperäistä, jne. jne.

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Paras elokuva joka on tällä listalla siksi, että se saa presidentin josta en pidä näyttämään pöntöltä: Presidentintekijät

Voi Niinistöä.

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Paras roolipelaamista käsittelevä elokuva, joka kykenee kilpailemaan muuallakin kuin harrastelijasarjassa: Zero Charisma

Toivon kuitenkin, ettei kukaan muodosta mielikuvaansa roolipelaamisesta tämän perusteella.

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Paras tajunnanräjäyttävä spektaakkeli joka käsittelee inhimillisyyden, esiintymisen, viihdeteollisuuden, teknologian ja tietoisuuden tulevaisuutta ja nykytilaa: The Congress

Lajityyppinä animaatio-live-hybridi.

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Paras yritys myydä vanhuksien seksikkyyttä: Gerontophilia

Me kaikki olemme vanhoja joskus.

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Paras Itä-Eurooppalainen elokuva jossa maailma on kauhea ja seksiä ja väkivaltaa riittää: The Tribe

Tällä kertaa Ukrainasta. Jossain vaiheessa Serbia ja Unkari oli hyviä näiden kanssa, mutta nyt tuntuu että enää Romania liputtaa.

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Paras elokuva ohjaajalta, jonka kuvitteli olleen jo uransa ehtoopuolella: La danza de la realidad

Jo varsin iäkäs Alejandro Jodorowsky on hämmästyttävän hyvässä iskussa elokuvassa, joka näyttää erilaiselta kuin mikään muu.

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Paras elokuva jossa on rupihinkkausseksiä: Moebius

Finnkinon levityksessä!

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Paras elokuva jossa Mooses ja Jumala havainnollistavat yksilövetoisen terrorismin ja valtioterrorismin eroja: Exodus: Gods and Kings

Elokuvaa voi haukkua vaikka mistä, mutta Jumalan Egyptiin iskemien vitsausten rinnastaminen siviileihin kohdistuviin terroritekoihin oli inspiroitunutta. Myös hieno opetus siitä, miten keskustelu rajataan: Mooses kannattaa rajoitettuja iskuja siviilejä vastaan, kun taas Jumalalla on enemmän jenkkityylinen kaikki paskaksi -linja.

Vuoden videopelit 2014

Hesarissa ilmestyi pari päivää sitten juttukokonaisuus, jossa oli mukana multa kolmen vuoden parhaan pelin lista. Halusin siinä painottaa indiepuolta, joten tässä laajennettuna parhailla peleillä mässäilyä.

Eli siis: Vuoden pelit 2014 (paitsi Never Alone, The Detail ja This War of Mine, joita jo hehkutin Hesarissa)

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Vuoden paras päähenkilö: Zero pelissä Drakengard 3

Monissa peleissä pelataan murhanhimoisia psykopaatteja, mutta Drakengard 3 ei yritä peitellä asiaa nololla jeesustelulla.

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Vuoden peli, joka on ehkä liian pelottava: Alien: Isolation

Alieni ei noudata kohtausten ja jaksotuksen logiikkaa, vaan voi iskeä milloin vain.

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Vuoden paras peli, jossa on todella ruma 3D-kartta: Wasteland 2

Wasteland 2 on niitä pelejä, joita arvioidessa pitää miettiä kuinka olennaisia puutteet lopulta ovat hyvien puolien rinnalla.

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Vuoden homoisin (ja paras ja ainoa) homopeli: My Ex-Boyfriend the Space Tyrant

Pelin henki vaatisi, että tässä ois liukkarivitsi.

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Vuoden paras puludeittailusimulaattori: Hatoful Boyfriend

Odottamattoman paljon uudelleenpeluuarvoa!

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Vuoden paras deittailusimulaattori, jossa ei ole puluja: Dragon Age: Inquisition

Pelissä voi deittailun myös hakata jotain mörköjä, pelastaa maailmaa, yms.

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Vuoden paras peli, jonka pelaaminen deadlinen kanssa oli ankeaa: The Legend of Grimrock 2

Jotkut pelit vaatii sitä, että saa rauhassa koluta joka nurkan.

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Vuoden paras peli, jota jouduin työn takia pelaamaan pakon edessä mutta joka olikin tosi hyvä: Forza Horizon 2

Plus, pelissä voi kokea olevansa turisti stock photojen ja mainoskuvien sliipatussa, kliinisessä maailmassa.

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Vuoden paras poninhoitopeli: Horse Master

Sopii erityisesti lapsille ja herkästi traumatisoituville. Pelattavissa ilmaiseksi täällä.

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Vuoden seksikkäin design: Bioshock Infinite: Burial at Sea

En ole varma ymmärsinkö tarinaa, mutta portaikkojen kaiteet olivat upeat.

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Paras peli, jossa on professori Layton ja Phoenix Wright: Professor Layton vs. Phoenix Wright

Koska professori Layton ja Phoenix Wright.

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Vuoden paras peli, joka epäilemättä olisi tällä listalla jos olisin ehtinyt pelata sitä: Danganronpa 2: Goodbye Despair

Joistain peleistä kuulee vasta, kun lukee muiden “vuoden pelit” -listoja.

Muita hyviä: Dreamfall Chapters, Wolf Among Us, Betrayer, The Banner Saga.

Research Blog Antarctica #133 – Whale Wars (season 3)

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TV series: Whale Wars (season 3): U.S.A. 2010

Whale Wars is an American documentary tv series about the conservationist group Sea Shepards. Each season follows one Antarctic summer in which the Sea Shepards attempt to disrupt the operations of Japanese whalers in the Southern Ocean.

Season 3 is quite amazing in the sheer amount of danger and derring do. This time, the Sea Shepards have three ships, the familiar Steve Irwin, and the new Bob Barker and Ady Gil. The Ady Gil is a speedboat captained by a New Zealander called Pete Bethune, who emerges as the star of the season.

Bethune ends up taking many of the risks that make following this season of the series so hair-raising. You guess that probably everyone survived from the fact that there’s six seasons of this series, but it doesn’t make it less exciting.

Roleplaying Game Movie Night #18: Uber Goober & Dark Dungeons

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.

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(Uber Goober)

Uber Goober is a case study in how to defend something in such a way as to make it look as bad as possible. It’s a documentary about roleplaying games, larp and other non-digital games and people who play them, but more importantly, it’s a documentary about prejudices against gamers and gamers who have internalized them.

Two of the interviewees appear only in silhouette because they fear repercussions if they’re publicly outed as gamers. In one scene, a man who doesn’t want his face shown sneaks into a children’s playground at night to collect some sand for a structure he’s building for a miniatures game.

It’s true that gamers face a lot of attitude in U.S. society. However, when someone appears in a documentary in silhouette, it makes him look bad, like there’s something shameful to hide. The set up communicates the shame, and reinforces it.

The bad impression is strengthened by the low technical quality of the movie. Because of bad lighting, normal folks look grubby.

The whole thing has a depressing, defensive tone, and many of the interviewees seem desperate to justify gaming. The problem is that when they do this, they, and the makers of this documentary, implicitly accept the premises they try to argue against. In cases like this, you have to change the rules of the discussion, not try to win by arguing that roleplaying is not Satan worship, honest!

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(Dark Dungeons)

Dark Dungeons is a roleplaying pride movie. It’s well made, hilarious, and makes roleplaying look cool. In 1984, Jack T. Chick published a little comic about the Satanic menace of roleplaying games. At that time, the moral panic about roleplaying games and their occult connections was still going on, and the comic tried to dissuade young people from playing. You can read it here, it’s pretty funny stuff.

Dark Dungeons is a movie adaptation of the comic. It’s quite loyal to the source material, often using dialogue word for word. It trusts the sheer weirdness of the original comic to carry the day, to great effect.

Since it needs to sell roleplaying as a dangerous, seductive menace, all the cool bad guys roleplay. Of course we’re meant to take this with a wink and a nudge. It’s a joke. But that doesn’t take away from it’s effectiveness: We see roleplaying that looks fun, the same way sex, drugs and rock’n’roll is fun.

The movie Mazes & Monsters was Dark Dungeons, except they meant it. It was shown on Finnish television in the late Eighties, and essentially started the Finnish larp scene. Many different folks around the country saw it, thought it looked cool, and decided to try to do the same. Dark Dungeons takes this aesthetic of making things seem seductive by advocating against them, and uses it knowingly.

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Turkmenistan looks like  something from another planet. Or more precisely, from a science fiction movie.

Here’s a few buildings in Ashgabat. Note the consistent architectural style, common to many fictional space civilizations:

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A view from the spaceport parking area.

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The “Golden Eye” defense system is ready to blast hostile spacecraft.

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The dimensional portal is operational.

(The buildings are actually a circus, a wedding palace and a Ferris wheel.)

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The weird surface formations of an alien planet.

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The fire planet. A visiting alien shown in the upper right for scale.

(All photos by me.)

Research Blog Antarctica #132 – Whiteout (the game)

Video game: René Rother: Whiteout

Whiteout is a small game playable either in a browser or as a stand-alone installation. Made as part of a 48-hour game creation challenge, it distills a simple Antarctic experience. You’re an expeditioner, and your partner has disappeared. You’re in the middle of a white nothing. Using flags, the sun and the widn to navigate, you try to find your partner.

For such a small game, Whiteout is stylish, atmospheric, clever and true. It communicates wonderfully the desperation and peace of Antarctica’s empty whiteness. You can play it here.

Roleplaying Game Movie Night #17: Good Luck Charlie, Huge & Emily Owens, M.D.

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.

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(Good Luck Charlie, season 2 episode 5 “L.A.R.P. in the Park”)

The larp episode of the American family comedy series Good Luck Charlie is one of the most miserable pieces of roleplaying television we’ve seen. Larp appears as ridiculous and stupid, but the real issue is the general conservative atmosphere. The gender roles in the family, the assumptions about the Mom, all of it seems to be from some kind of a rancid Eighties tribute.

Teddy (in the picture, left) tries to learn to play a Pokemon-stand-in to get closer to a guy she has a crush on. The guy proves to be a total dork and even talks Teddy into joining his larp group. The only upside to the whole thing are the bizarre costumes worn by the larpers.

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(Huge, season 1 episode 3 “Live Action Role Play”)

Huge is an American tv series about a group of people at a camp for losing weight. In this episode, one of the characters wants to organize a larp, another hijacks it and corrupts her vision, and moderate drama ensues.

As seen in the picture above, the view of larp in this episode is not the most dignified I’ve ever seen. For some reason, the apparently adult people at the fat camp behave like twelve year olds with their temper tantrums and pouting, so the whole thing is emotionally unsettling to watch.

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(Emily Owens, M.D. season 1 episode 9 “For the Love of LARP”)

One of the side-effects of our project is that we see a lot of individual episodes from tv series we’d never watch otherwise. This is true especially for inconsequential American series that don’t really make any kind of a splash here in Finland. Without our project, I wouldn’t even know that a series called Emily Owens, M.D. existed.

Emily is a blonde and bland doctor in a featureless hospital. In this episode, larpers have medical problems too. In the end we learn that they can separate reality from fiction! What a relief!

Roleplaying Game Movie Night #16: Shakma, Gamerz & Skullduggery

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.

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(Shakma)

Of all the larp movies we’ve seen, Shakma has one of the simplest, yet singular concepts. A group of medical researchers and students lock themselves into a building to play a really crappy-looking larp. A raging baboon kills them one by one.

The best thing about the movie is that the baboon is played by a real baboon, called Typhoon. No special effects bullshit here! Only hardcore baboon action.

The larp seems to be a treasure hunt style thing where players communicate with the game master via walkie talkies. “I’m using one of my keys to open this door.” The game master has a primitive computer simulation of the game, connected to tracking devices each player has.

During the movie, we had a lot of speculation about how it would end. Perhaps the baboon would kill the game master and take his place. Maybe he would rescue the princess and they would live happily ever after. He could kill everyone, and the last shot would be him driving away smoking a cigar.

Unfortunately, none of these things happened in this movie.

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(Gamerz)

We’ve seen a lot of movies about roleplayers or larpers, but most of them have been made in the U.S. A typical feature of these films (Unicorn City, A Game of the Year) has been a depiction of the hobby and the people in it that I can’t recognize from my personal experience.

The 2005 movie Gamerz was made in Scotland. In style it’s a European slightly comedic slice-of-life film, with little of the overly mannered structure or self-hate that characterizes bad American films of this type. Along with Zero Charisma and The Gamers 3, its one of the best movies about roleplayers out there.

The movie is about Ralph, a university student and game master who hijacks the local roleplaying club and starts to run the game himself. He falls in love with the only female player (like almost all roleplaying movies, Gamerz is routinely misogynistic). His local bully wants to join the group. Off-game bullshit creeps into the game.

I spent my high school years roleplaying intensively, and a lot of the people and situations in Gamerz are recognizable from my youth. Some of the people made me go: “I’ve played with that guy!” One of the themes is the responsibility of the game master not to use the game as a vehicle for personal power games.

Unfortunately, the movie doesn’t quite carry to the end. The scene where Ralph goes over to the dark side (so to speak) is too hard for a movie like this.

Despite it’s problems, Gamerz is worth watching. In the opening credits, the letter i looks like a penis. This is not an accident.

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(Skullduggery)

Skullduggery (1983) was described as Mazes & Monsters meets El Topo. This description is accurate. It feels like an Eighties moral panic movie about roleplaying games where the filmmakers have gone native in the weird and occult world of fantasy games.

The movie is about Adam, who works in a costume shop and playes in a game that looks something like early D&D or Talisman. There’s a game master and other players, one of whom does exactly the same sexist jokes as a guy in Gamerz. It was uncanny.

Adam is cursed: one of his ancestors played a game and fell victim to a sorcerer or possibly Satan. The curse manifests through Adam and the game, making him attend strange amateur theatre where immensely talentless people try do do farce and a janitor wanders around with a game of Tic-Tac-Toe on his back.

I don’t mean that negatively. That was all great stuff. For much of the running time, Skullduggery felt like something directed by Jodorowsky.

Unfortunately, by the end Jodorowsky fades away and is replaced by Dario Argento. I suppose one could charitably say that the persistent misogyny of roleplaying movies reached its logical conclusion here in the form of a killing spree.

Skullduggery follows one of the two main cliches of game movies: “The game becomes real”. However, it would be reductionist to think it was nothing more, because this time the cliche was only a starting point in a movie that became something else. By the end, it’s unclear in a metaphysical sense if Adam is still alive or acting from beyond the grave. As his last act, he reaches out to kill his game master.

Sometimes the movie was also pretty funny. There’s a hospital scene where we see the sihouette of a nurse fucking a doctor on a hospital bed. The nurse moans: “You’re the best! In this room. At this time.”

That’s a great line.

The nurse comes out from behind the curtain in her underwear. The doctor sneaks behind her back, and startles her. He’s wearing a gorilla suit.

Because this is Skullduggery.

Roleplaying Game Movie Night #15: King of the Nerds, season 2

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.

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(The contestants on King of the Nerds, season 2)

King of the Nerds is an American reality tv series in which a group of people compete on who’s the nerdiest. We watched season two because one of the contestants, Xander Jeanneret, is a larper. In the picture, he’s the guy with the red pants.

A lot of the second season is characterized by a single casting choice that makes the whole thing seem exploitative and unpleasant. I’m fine with strange people on reality tv, but this time it felt like watching someone who probably shouldn’t be on tv.

Simplistic tasks, crass sponsor visibility, terrible hosts and pointless cheesecake all carry over from the first season. There’s little to like in King of the Nerds.

Roleplaying Game Movie Night #14: High Road

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.

This is the music video for the song High Road, by the band Mastodon, released in 2014. Watching this after seeing so many movies about larp feels strange. It’s like the condensed essence of a certain type of American larp movie. If you want to know what many larp movies are like with the bare minimum of effort, watch this.

Research Blog Antarctica #131 – Southern Exposure

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Non-fiction: Alia Sorensen: Southern Exposure (AuthorHouse, 2005)

Southern Exposure documents writer a year of Alia Sorensen’s working life on Antarctica in the early 2000’s. It’s not an ambitious book, and perhaps that’s its strength. Sorensen worked both a summer and a winter at McMurdo station in the kitchen.

The book’s perspective is on describing the working culture and conditions of the people who make an Antarctic station run. I’ve always liked these blue collar accounts of life on Antarctica, and there are not too many of them around. Sorensen’s lack of artifice means that you get a clear idea of how everything is.

At the end of the book, there’s a pointless and overlong account of tourist activities in New Zealand and Australia. These can safely be skipped.