Research Blog Antarctica #158 – Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage

Non-fiction: Alfred Lansing: Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage (1959)

Written by the American journalist Alfred Lansing and published in 1959, Endurance is an account of one of the most famous stories in the history of Antarctic exploration, the failed Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition of 1914. Shackleton attempted to traverse the Antarctic continent, but his ship was locked in ice before he got to shore, and was crushed. This forced him and his crew to move heavy small boats to the edge of the sea ice and then attempt to escape to safety in the stormiest seas in the world.

It’s a story told many times, but Lansing tells it very well, straightforwardly and simply, as if you were watching a movie of the events. Some of the quirkier details of the trip are missing, but Lansing has a good understanding of the minutiae and mistakes of daily expedition life. He interviewed surviving members of the expedition, giving his story a lot of human detail.

If you want to read an approachable and exciting account of the Trans-Antarctic Expedition, this is a good choice.

Research Blog Antarctica #157 – Quick, Before It Melts (the novel)

Fiction: Philip Benjamin: Quick, Before It Melts (Random House, 1964)

Philip Benjamin was a New York Times reporter who had been to Antarctica twice when he published the novel Quick, Before It Melts, later made into a movie. The title is a joke based on the idea that the Antarctic is eternal, and that being worried about it melting is funny. In this regard, the world has changed.

It’s a comedy novel about a reporter who goes to the Antarctic as a guest of the U.S. operation there. In factual terms, it’s very faithful, with a lot of fun little detail. The story follows the broad pattern of many non-fiction Antarctic books, with the stop in New Zealand, arriving in the Antarctic, adventures there, and ending when the protagonist leaves.

The reporter and his friend contrive to get their girlfriends visit Antarctica, at that point pretty much a men-only continent. A Soviet scientist defects to New Zealand. The story is a product of its time and the tone of the book is laddish, but sometimes it’s still clever in a lighthearted way.

Research Blog Antarctica #154 – Riding the Ice Wind

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Non-fiction: Alastair Vere Nicoll: Riding the Ice Wind (I.B.Tauris 2010)

By now, books about moderns expeditions to Antarctica are a relatively big genre. Earlier examples on this blog can be found here, here and here. The challenge of this sort of book is that it’s always the same story.

1. Decide to go to Antarctica.

2. Engage in tedious fundraising.

3. Travel through the Antarctic continent, often in an attempt to do something new.

4. Gain important life lessons.

In Alastair Vere Nicoll’s book Riding the Ice Wind, there’s an added human element where Nicoll’s baby is going to be born roughly at the same time as he’s supposed to finish the expedition. Will he make it in time?

Nicoll is frustrating as a writer. He seems very honest and straightforward, and for much of the book, manhauling a sledge of provisions on Antarctica seems like hellish drudgery punctuated by moments of pure wonder. Yet Nicoll doesn’t really transcend the format of this type of a book, and in his more philosophical moments he’s very much on safe ground.

There’s one very interesting detail in the book. The route of Nicoll’s team goes through the South Pole and they stop at the American Amundsen-Scott station. They aren’t much impressed with it, and Nicoll mentions that the staff offhandedly says they’re using their scientific equipment to spy on the Chinese nuclear program by detecting the emissions that travel through the planet.

I’ve never read about this anywhere else, but it flies in the face of so much high-minded Antarctic rhetoric that I would very much like to know more.

Research Blog Antarctica #152 – Shackleton’s Journey

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Children’s book: William Grill: Shackleton’s Journey (2014, Flying Eye Books)

Ernest Shackleton’s failed attempt at crossing the Antarctic continent is one of the most famous stories of early Antarctic exploration. His ship was crushed by ice, and he and his crew had to travel vast distances over ice and then on lifeboats to reach safety.

The children’s book Shackleton’s Journey tell the story with beautiful, evocative illustrations. The book is defined by style and grace, and detail that’s fun to peruse. A highlight is a list of names of dogs taken on the expedition.

The book presents the whole expedition as a dangerous journey undertaken by a bunch of hardy chaps. It’s a straight narrative of a story that in other hands, including Shackleton’s own, has acquired spiritual, transformative qualities enforced by the horrifying privation the men experienced on the ice.

Still, the book is a triumph. It’s practically designed to be explored together with a parent and a child, looking at all the things that characterized the Antarctic travel of that era.

2015 in works that made me feel something

In retrospect, one of the best things about being fifteen or sixteen was the way you’d see a movie and your mind would be blown by the sheer awesomeness of it all. You hadn’t seen so many things, so everything appeared new. It was wonderful to experience all these ideas and aesthetics for the first time. I still remember when I saw movies like Lost Highway or Tetsuo II: the Body Hammer at Elokuva-arkisto as a high-school student, and how it felt to emerge onto the street after the movie, full of slack-jawed wonder.

Sometimes it feels like these powerful experiences are a thing of the past, that nowadays intellectual appreciation and being entertained are the best we can hope for.

I went through some of the movies I’d seen and games I’d played in 2015, and I was happy to be reminded of plenty of things that put the lie to that feeling of never seeing anything new.

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Videogame: Zombi (Ubisoft Montpellier)

ZombiU was one of Wii U’s launch games, originally published in 2012 and republished on the Xbox One this fall as Zombi. In technical terms, it’s a pretty rough game, but there’s something in the atmosphere that suddenly makes the tired zombie genre feel relevant again. Zombi is a difficult, uncompromising game where a single mistake can result in a death as a victim of a zombie swarm. Every time you die, you continue with a new character, and at the end, you only get a single try to get to safety. If you fail, you die and the game ends. I failed.

I wrote a review for Tilt, available here in Finnish.

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Videogame: Soma (Frictional Games)

The premise of the Swedish game Soma is very traditional: You’re an average dude who finds himself stranded in a ruined underwater research base. You have to solve simple puzzles and avoid monsters to proceed. The real genius of the game is in its progression of revelations that slowly but steadily increase the existential horror of what’s happening. The action is very concrete, but the questions are philosophical: What’s a human? What does it mean to be an individual? Who am I?

I reviewed the game for Tilt and also selected it as Tilt’s Game of the Year. The review is here in Finnish.

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Movie: Beyond the Hills (Cristian Mungiu)

Beyond the Hills is a Romanian film from 2012, directed by Cristian Mungiu. Its a based-on-a-true-story movie about a small religious community struggling to deal with Alina, a troubled girl who follows her childhood friend there. Considering that this is a story featuring an excorcism, lesbian lovers and brutal convent life, everything is handled with a keen eye to everyday detail and psychological complexity. Alina’s story doesn’t end well, but she’s too good a character to simply fall into the role of a victim. She demands something more than that.

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Movie: The World’s End (Edgar Wright)

The World’s End is a science fiction movie from 2013, but the scifi stuff is almost incidental. It’s really the story of Gary King, who wants to gather together all of his old friends to do a pub crawl like they used to when they were young. All of the friends have moved on in their lives, but Gary hasn’t. Watching this movie felt like one long moment of recognition: I know this guy and I know what he represents. The real kicker comes in the end, where all of Gary’s fantasies come true. Ostensibly, the movie ends on a high note, but the implications of the ending are pretty harsh to contemplate.

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Movie: What We Do in the Shadows (Jemaine Clement & Taika Waititi)

I played and organized a lot of Vampire: the Masquerade larp in my teens and early twenties. What We Do in the Shadows (2012) is a fake documentary about vampires living in New Zealand, and it’s a very funny movie. However, it also manages to depict something that’s very, very true when it comes to Vampire larp, whether intentionally or not. It captures the way those larps used to be at the turn on the millennium, goofy and cool at the same time.

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Movie: Mad Max: Fury Road (George Miller)

The Hollywood media machine seems designed to mold the entertaintment products we consume into bland goo. Seeing the new Mad Max movie Fury Road was a bracing experience: It’s a big-budget action movie but it also has a singular vision. It has power. It has a sense of transgression that makes us feel alive.

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The Duke of Burgundy (Peter Strickland)

The Duke of Burgundy (2014) is a movie about two women playing sadomasochistic games. It has a solid claim on being the best BDSM movie of all time. It looks gorgeous, but most of all, it captures the small dynamics and details of fantasy and reality, desire and everyday life, very well. Its characters are driven by desire and necessity in a way that avoids simple judgements and pointless moral homilies.

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He ovat paenneet (J.-P. Valkeapää)

He ovat paenneet is a Finnish movie about two teenagers who decide to run away. One of them works at a home for delinquents, the other is confined there. Somehow, the movie goes from traditional Finnish kitchen sink realism into subjective fantasy in a way that accurately captures the power and horror of being young. It’s also gorgeously shot, with a jarring style that eschews the more conventional style of most Finnish cinema.

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Dance: Kleine Monster (Jenni Kivelä)

I’ve been a lapsed fan of Jenni Kivelä’s performances: I’ve always liked them, but it’s been years since I saw one. Early this year, I saw an ad for Kleine Monster and remembered how much I liked her work, so I went to see it. And it was very good. It’s a performance about grotesque women, made from the inside: The characters may be monsters, but so are we all.

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Larp: The Zeigarnik Effect (Brody Condon)

I played a lot of larp in 2015, but the most interesting and personally affecting was Brody Condon’s The Zeigarnik Effect. Based on Gestalt therapy, the larp was one part of a work that also included a video art piece that used material shot during the larp. From a technical point of view, the larp was very interesting because of its minimal characters and setting, its present-based interaction and workshopped sense of a very tight ensemble. It’s been one of the larps that I can say changed me.

I wrote more about it here.

Concert: K-X-P

I was at the music festival Flow, and a friend told me I should go to see K-X-P. I knew nothing about the band, but the recommendation was solid. It was the best gig I saw the whole year. The ritual aesthetics and the relentless wall of sound created a transcendental experience. The band is fine on YouTube or listened from the album, but the music really comes to its own through the sheer power of live amplification.

eduskunta-ryhmäteatteri-foto-ilkka-saastamoinen-672x372Eduskunta III (Susanna Kuparinen)

Politically, this has been a miserable year. Racism is on the rise, fascist ideas are normalized and austerity politics drive us deeper into despair, seemingly for no reason at all. Eduskunta III, a play about the Finnish parliament directed by Susanna Kuparinen, is a funny broadside aimed at the rot afflicting all of us. It’s alienating to sit at home and read depressing news, but by the same token, it feels great to laugh at the terrible things going on with hundreds of other people in the theatre.

Non-Digital: The Visionary Worldbuilding of 2nd Edition AD&D

I started roleplaying with the Finnish edition of Dungeons & Dragons, and graduated to playing Advanced Dungeons & Dragons 2nd Edition as soon as I learned enough English to read the books.

While there’s been good and interesting stuff done in the 3rd, 4th and 5th editions of the game, for me the one true D&D will always be the 2nd edition. Not because of the rules, but because of the world.

TSR published a number of campaign settings in which the game could be played. Forgotten Realms, Dragonlance, Dark Sun, Birthright, and so on. However, they were not content with just creating different fantasy worlds. They also created a unified superstructure into which all those worlds fit.

A thief hiding from a beholder in an asteroid belt. A typical scenario in the world of 2nd Edition AD&D.

A thief hiding from a beholder in an asteroid belt. A typical scenario in the world of 2nd Edition AD&D.

Crystal Spheres

In addition to the normal campaign settings published for AD&D 2nd Edition, TSR published two “meta-settings”. The first was Spelljammer, and the second Planescape.

Spelljammer is D&D in space. It presents a universe where solar systems are held in vast crystal spheres floating in a combustible substance called Phlogiston. Ships (I mean wooden sailing ships) could be fitted with a magical device called “The Spelljamming Helm” and used to travel to other planets as well as between the crystal spheres.

Best of all, all the normal campaign worlds were seen as parts of this overarching vision: You could fly your spaceship from the world of Forgotten Realms to the world of Dragonlance.

From this perspective, all the worlds of D&D were in fact the same world, sort of like the Marvel Universe of D&D. From the perspective of an individual campaign, it didn’t matter too much, but for a D&D geek like me, it was heady stuff.

A simplified diagram explaining the organization of the planes. This came with the Planescape Campaign Setting box.

A simplified diagram explaining the organization of the planes. This came with the Planescape Campaign Setting box.

Infinity

Other planes of existence had been a part of D&D from a pretty early stage, but they didn’t really come into their own until the introduction of Planescape. Like Spelljammer, Planescape connected existing worlds, this time through a structure of infinite planes composed of various moral or physical ideas.

The planar cosmology was pretty complicated. The crystal spheres composed a Prime Material Plane, which contained normal worlds. It was connected to the Inner Planes through the Ethereal Plane and the Outer Planes through the Astral Plane. The Inner Planes were organized around elemental ideas: fire, water, earth, air, life and death, as well as connecting planes, such as radiance or ash. The Outer Planes were moral, with Lawful Evil Baator and the Chaotic Neutral Limbo. The Outer Planes naturally had sublevels, which were also infinite.

In the center of the Outer Planes stood an infinitely tall mountain, and on top of the mountain floated the donut-shaped Sigil, City of Doors.

So by this point you could safely say that the world of D&D had grown pretty complicated.

A small smaple of the books you have to read to understand the world of 2nd Edition AD&D.

A small sample of the books you have to read to understand the world of 2nd Edition AD&D.

Back to Earth

In the Wizards of the Coast versions of D&D there’s been a clear shift away from all this towards a more grounded vision of the game. Published books have been more about stuff you can use in a normal fantasy campaign. Other planes of existence have been stunted and sheared into something like a spice or a topping you can use to flavor a game. They’re no longer the place where it all happens.

I understand why. All that stuff was crazy complicated, and appealed mostly to hardcore fans, at least if the sales numbers for Spelljammer and Planescape are anything to go by. The world had floated far beyond anything resembling the basic fantasy roots of D&D.

Still, I’ve never lost my love for the various infinities of the planes. When I first read Planescape, I thought it was the coolest thing ever published. Now, years later, I still appreciate the worldbuilding vision the designers of the 2nd edition had, where every place, from the Asteroid Belt to the City of Brass on the Plane of Fire, was a possible place of adventure.

Non-Digital: Old School Fringe

One of my pet themes recently has been how ideas in tabletop roleplaying spread, or fail to reach anyone outside a small, limited scene. Some movements have been quite successful at reaching wider audiences. The American Story Games scene is one of these, and the Danish Fastaval scene another.

A third one is the OSR, or Old School Revolution scene. Based on going back to the ideas presented in the very first roleplaying games published by Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson, OSR games have benefited from a lively stream of published material. You can get into it by reading book and booklets.

Finland is home to the OSR powerhouse Lamentations of the Flame Princess, but it’s not the only game in town. So to speak.

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Dragon Union is the English translation of the Finnish publication Lohikäärmeliitto. It, and a couple of other Finnish-made English-language OSR things are available from D-oom Products.

It’s a set of rules to be used on top of the classic OSR base games derived from the original D&D. It keeps the traditional set-up of the GM, the fantasy milieu and the combat rules, but adds what seems like Story Games DNA by changing the function of the character classes. These determine the story and the events to a greater degree, and create a system for managing the flow of combat. A class such as “Fighter” has not only abilities, but a function in terms of roleplaying group dynamics.

Some of the ideas are quite nifty, especially for games that use traditional concepts such as character classes and experience levels. As a bonus, the booklet has a fun fanzine feel, something it shares with the other D-oom Products publications.

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The particular copy of Mead & Mayhen I have is a test print made by the publisher, something the collector in me greatly approves. It’s basically a big table for creating an eventful bar fight.

One of the things I like in OSR is the reckless energy you get when everything is lethal and bizarre story complications can arise through random chance. Mead & Mayhem delivers on that theme.

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Temple of Greed is a dungeon adventure built entirely around traps, puzzles and the concept of greed. A relevant subject in the times we live in. The adventure is supplemented by a variant on the cleric character class that looks like what would happen if Ayn Rand started designing roleplaying games. I mean that in a nice way.

I have never played many OSR games myself, but publishing stuff is key to making people aware of what you’re doing and why. That’s why I appreciate the fringe these booklets represent.

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.

Research Blog Antarctica #137 – Arktos

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Non-fiction: Joscelyn Godwin: Arktos: The Polar Myth in Science, Symbolism and Nazi Survival (Adventures Unlimited Press, 1996)

Arktos is a book about the idea of poles and polar regions in occultism. It goes through things like Nazi occult ideas related to the poles and the history of the concept of the polar shift. Sometimes its deep in the territory of Madam Blavatsky, and at other times it references Dungeons & Dragons.

From an Antarctic perspective, the book is quite unconcerned with the factual existence of the continent. It’s more of a history of ideas and concepts, written by a kind of half-believer.

For much of the book, Godwin’s own position on the subject matter is hard to pin down. He notes how the spritual nature of some of the Nazi officials destroys the idea that engaging with spiritual ideas necessarily leads to enlightenment and kindness. He criticizes many of his occult sources for being mentally unbalanced or otherwise unreliable.

At the end of the book, he attempts to position himself in the middle ground between two extreme positions: Science and the materialism of scientists, and the revelations of the individuals he terms “illuminates”. We need to listen to both to acquire a true understanding of the nature of phenomena such as polar shift!

Non-Digital: Murder in Helsinki

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(Photo from Tonnin stiflat by Tuomas Puikkonen)

Tonnin stiflat is a Finnish larp campaign played in Helsinki in 2014. Consisting of three games, it was organized by the veteran city game designers Niina Niskanen and Simo Järvelä.

The setting is Helsinki in the year 1927, and the subject matter crime, prohibition, working class life and the violent legacy of the civil war. The characters were bootleggers and policemen, struggling artists and their sybaritic patrons.

Niskanen and Järvelä have edited and published a documentation book about the larps in English. It’s downloadable here, for free, and definitely worth a look.

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(Photo from Tonnin stiflat by Tuomas Puikkonen)

The book is especially welcome as Finnish larp has traditionally been something of a poor cousin in the milieu of Nordic larp. There have been interesting games aplenty, but documentation has been scarce and Nordic attention usually limited to the games that Finnish writers have pushed the hardest, like Ground Zero.

City games played in an open urban environment have traditionally been a Finnish strong suit, and Niskanen and Järvelä are masters of this form. It’s especially nice to see this type of game documented in book form and in English, as the games that tend to receive this treatment are usually one-weekend affair played in a closed environment, such as Kapo and Mad About the Boy.

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(Photo from Tonnin stiflat by Tuomas Puikkonen)

Tonnin stiflat (the title is an expression for very expensive shoes in the traditional Helsinki slang) benefits greatly from the fact that it’s been documented by the Finnish larp photographer Tuomas Puikkonen. His photos are all over the book, and you can see the full set here.

There are many good larp photographers in the Nordic countries, but Puikkonen distinguishes himself by his ability to be in the moment and capture the subjective feeling of the player.

The only real complaint that I have for this book is that it’s so short. I could’ve read more about this stuff.

Research Blog Antarctica #136 – Blood and Ice

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Novel: Robert Masello: Blood and Ice (Bantam, 2009)

In one sense, Blood and Ice is a great Antarctic book. It’s clearly well researched, full of traditional modern Antarctic detail. Reading this, it feels like the author has gone through all the same books I have.

It’s the story of nature photographer Michael Wilde, who goes on assignment to an American base on Antarctica. While there, he discovers a slab of ice in which two British vampires have been preserved since the Crimean War. Indeed, Victorian England and Crimea are almost as important for the book as Antarctica.

Despite the vampire theme, the book proceeds in a very staid, detail-oriented fashion. The two lovers thawed from ice, the soldier Sinclair and the nurse Eleanor, are people, not monsters. The book’s idea of vampirism is almost like a medical condition, as befits its essentially rational worldview.

Despite its research and subject matter, there’s something in Blood and Ice that just fails to click. Near the end, the story is crumpled into less than the sum of its parts. The characters have been drawn according to the most rote, cliched understanding of humanity as seen in American popular entertainment.

Non-Digital: What Gets Included in Roleplaying History?

I have in my hands something that’s probably destined to become one of the most obscure Finnish roleplaying books ever published. To be honest, it’s not even really a book, but a 24 page printed booklet. It’s called Manhattan 2010, and contains almost no information about its circumstances of publication, except for a foreword credited:

Helsingissä 21.11.2014

Jonas Mustonen

Jukka Hämäläinen

From social media, I’ve gathered that the booklet is only available directly from the authors, and the print run is in the low tens.

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Manhattan 2010 raises interesting questions about what is the history of roleplaying games. The original Manhattan 2010 was a childhood roleplaying game in which the authors participated. It was based on the classic Finnish translation of the Dungeons & Dragons red box, and featured an Escape From New York -style setting.

The booklet is an attempt to capture this childhood game, based on vague recollections, into a published work. According to the foreword: “The supplement called Manhattan 2010 has been compiled according to the best of our ability based on what we can remember.”

The history of tabletop roleplaying has traditionally been a history of publishing. We know of Gary Gygax and Vampire: the Masquerade. We know of published game books and the designers who wrote them. What gets lost in the shuffle tends to be the actual gaming experiences of the people who play these games.

Roleplaying is a co-creative medium, and this means that virtually no roleplaying game can be played without some creative input from the participants. My personal experience has been that the published book is more of a starting point for the participants’ own creativity. Looking only at published games ignores the actual circumstances of roleplaying.

The reasons for why tabletop roleplaying history is skewed this way is obvious. It’s much easier to write about published works than about the hundreds of thousands or millions of people who use those works to make their own games, and possibly never write about them anywhere. Writing a “People’s History of Roleplaying Games” would be a daunting task.

Nevertheless, Manhattan 2010 represents a small, personal attempt to do just that. It’s not a childhood concept polished for mass consumption, but a ragged little thing with all the weird edges still intact.

My favorite part is the description of cops: “This game doesn’t have orcs, but these guys are the closest equivalent if we’re looking for needlessly violent people who won’t listen to any explanations.”

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?

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.