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.