Roleplaying Game Movie Night #21: Gravity Falls

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.

Gravity Falls is an American cartoon series, sort of like Twin Peaks for kids. Dungeons, Dungeons and More Dungeons, episode 13 of season two, features roleplaying and larp. It’s a dismal exercise in hoary stereotyping and the self-hatred typical of a lot of American geek media.

There’s a joke based on the “Lightning bolt! Lightning bolt!” video. The game becomes real, as it always does. Roleplaying games are complicated and ridiculous, but normal folks should humor roleplayers so as not to be assholes. The end credits feature an extra scene of larper bashing, as if the makers of this episode suddenly thought: “Wait! There’s not enough stupid cliche here! We need more.”

A summary goes something like this: A kid receives a game analogous to D&D. He plays it with an older scientist dude. The game becomes real. Non-geeks have to compete in the game, and naturally win. Everyone watches a non-geeky tv show in a picture of family harmony. PS: Larpers are losers.

Roleplaying Game Movie Night #20: German Larp Documentaries

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.

Two recent, feature-length German larp documetaries both focus on the biggest larp in the world, ConQuest, and even feature some of the same people. Uta Bodenstein’s Die Herren der Spiele is from 2012, and Andreas Geiger’s Wochenendkrieger from 2013.

If Die Herren der Spiele has one thing going for it, the footage from the mass combat scenes is very cool. I know from experience that shooting larp is not always easy, but this time, the camera is right there in the middle of the battle.

Otherwise, the documentary is a portrait of different larpers. One is a pharmacist, another a school teacher. They’re quite articulate and good at explaining what they do and why, but the material is a little humdrum, as if it had been important to convey that larpers are just people too.

Wochenendkrieger doesn’t have Die Herren der Spiele’s kinetic action scenes, but otherwise it benefits from a more interesting artistic vision. Its take on the subject is more nuanced and the use of images more creative. An elderly local resident from the village where ConQuest takes place sounds proud of the larp and the inside look into the logistics of running a game on this scale is fascinating.

Among the revelations of the movie is a gay man who sculpted elf ears that sell 50,000 pairs annually all over Europe. He explained that when it was time to go out and meet guys, he favored a butch skinhead aesthetic.

Non-Digital: The Horror of Other People

I’ve been running a game based on Vampire: the Masquerade these past few years, and when I started it, I realized I had to adapt it quite a lot to make it work for me.

I’ve run three versions of my campaign Verikartta, and characters from each game have visited the others. All are set in London, but approach the vampire society from different angles. In Verikartta A, the characters were made into vampires by important high-society vampires. In B, they were illegal vampires created in random and chaotic circumstances by criminals and losers. C, still running, is the Sabbat game, and distinctly different from the other two.

Lately, I’ve been doing something I probably should have done a decade ago, which is to read Vampire: the Requiem. It’s been interesting to see how they modified the game and compare it to what I have done.

Every supporting character gets a slide. As for the pictures, stolen off the internet, I plead private use.

In Verikartta, every supporting character gets a slide. As for the pictures, stolen off the internet, I plead private use.

Some changes are identical: In Requiem, they’ve injected the world with mystery, so instead of ancient vampires with superior knowledge of the world, we have ancient but delusional monsters who can’t separate their fantasies from real memories. Masquerade’s overarching explanations have been replaced by local mythologies.

One of the more crippling features of Masquerade is the static nature of its vampire societies, especially if you play a young vampire. In Requiem, age is not necessarily power and it’s possible for young vampires to do important things. Masquerade’s Eternal Vampire World Government has been replaced by various local situations.

Reading the book also makes it obvious to me that the Requiem and the Masquerade are very specific vampire roleplaying games, with their own themes and approaches. In Requiem, the idea of “a game of personal horror” has been brought to the fore even more strongly than in the Masquerade, and the anti-social, miserable horror of being a vampire is heightened. The inner conflicts core to the game are rigidly controlled by game mechanics, even more so than in the previous game.

My version grew sort of organically, partly designed and partly improvised, but reading this book makes me think I diverged more than I realized, especially on the core themes.

For big group events, I make a slide with the faces and names of all supporting characters present so players can know at a glance who's there.

For big group scenes, I make a slide with the faces and names of all supporting characters present so players can know at a glance who’s there.

In my version, it’s not really a “storytelling game of personal horror” at all. There’s horror to be sure, and I’m struggling to describe how it works. Maybe the “game of communal horror”? In the sense that the horrors of the world mostly make themselves manifest in the way the supernatural communities work, and how that affects individuals. All vampires play games, and the characters have to play too unless they want to be overrun. Issues of social class govern interactions both inside vampire society, and between vampires and other supernatural creatures.

When I started the game, I decided to chuck the personality rules such as Nature, Demeanor, Humanity, Virtues, the Beast, etc. out the window. Being a vampire is essentially really cool in a simple, physical sense. Requiem makes being a vampire seem like a real struggle, and I ran games like that when I originally played Vampire in the Nineties. This time, I wanted to see what would happen if being a vampire was essentially a wonderful, privileged state, especially if you let go of your morals. Almost everyone around you already has.

Pikseliparatiisi: Kyberpunkin ihana optimismi

Pelaan paraikaa äskettäin ilmestynyttä Shadowrun Returns: Hong Kong -peliä. Sen kyberpunk-maailmassa jättimäiset korporaatiot hallitsevat maailmaa. Heillä on omat armeijat, linnoituksen kaltaiset pääkonttorit ja loputtomat työntekijöiden armeijat.

Pelin maailma on dystooppista retrofuturismia, joka osoittaa että eilispäivän pessimistit uskoivat sittenkin liikaa yritysten kykyyn jäsennellä yhteiskuntaa.

Shadowrun on alkujaan vuonna 1989 julkaistu suomeksikin käännetty roolipeli. Sen ideana on yhdistää kaksi genrefiktion perinteistä lajityyppiä, kyberpunk ja fantasia. Haltiat ja kääpiöt hakkeroivat tiensä lohikäärmeiden hallitsemien megakorporaatioiden sisäisiin verkkoihin.

Shadowrun Returns: Hong Kong is an old-school isometric game.

Shadowrun Returns: Hong Kong on klassiseen tyyliin kuvattu ylhäältä.

Kyberpunkin kultaiset vuodet olivat 80-luvulla ja 90-luvun alussa. Se sijoittui lähitulevaisuuteen, ja vanheni kun maailma ajoi ohitse. Monet kyberpunkin kliseistä ovat nyt arkipäivää, mutta lajityyppi oli niin kiinni omassa ajassaan ettei se voinut kehittyä. Jos kyberpunkista ottaa pois kasari-meiningin, se on jo jotain muuta.

Tällä hetkellä videopelien maailmassa kyberpunkin puolesta liputtaa kaksi pelisarjaa. Ensimmäinen, Deus Ex, on lähtenyt post-kyberpunk-linjalle, jossa aiheet ovat tuttuja mutta tyyli on nykyaikaistettu. Uusissa Deus Ex -peleissä on kyberkäsiä ja lajityypille ominaista internationalismia, mutta käsitys internetistä ja sen ongelmista on tätä päivää, ei vuodelta 1989.

Toinen on Shadowrun-roolipelin pohjalta tehty Shadowrun Returns -sarja. Hong Kong on sarjan kolmas peli.

Erikoista kyllä, pelin maailmaa ei ole nykyaikaistettu ollenkaan. Se on aggressiivisen retrofuturistinen. Kaikki noudattaa vuoden 1989 näkemystä tulevaisuudesta. Haltiat ja örkit ovat koristeita, sillä maailmankuvan ytimessä on edelleen lajityypin perinteinen korporaattianarkia.

Shadowrun julkaisiin suomeksi 90-luvun alun roolipelijulkaisubuumin aikana.

Shadowrun julkaisiin suomeksi 90-luvun alun roolipelijulkaisubuumin aikana.

Maailma jäsentyy suuryritysten ympärille. Ne tapaavat keskittyä laiteteknologiaan, ja esimerkiksi Hong Kongia hallitsee yritysten edustajista koostuva neuvosto. Yrityksen työntekijänä oleminen vastaa kansalaisuutta. Ottaessaan monia valtion tehtäviä omakseen yritys alkaa kantaa vastuuta.

Nykypäivän yrityskuva vaikuttaa hyvin erilaiselta. Talvivaaran kaltaisen firman toimintamalliin kuuluu valtio, joka lopulta maksaa ympäristökatastrofin kustannukset. Brändikeskeiset firmat kuten Nike yrittävät ulkoistaa kaiken mahdollisen. Valtavat työntekijöiden armeijat eivät asu McDonald’s-monoliitissa, vaan ovat ripoteltuina Foxconnin, franchise-yrittäjien ja muiden alihankkijoiden keskuuteen.

Kyberpunkissa yritykset ylläpitävät rakenteita omaan laskuunsa. Tosielämässä ne hyödyntävät rakenteita tai niiden tarvetta tehdäkseen rahaa.

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.

dragon union

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.

mead mayhem

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.

temple of greed

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: Larping in the Middle of a Demonstration

Our venue for Baltic Warriors Copenhagen was the square in front of the parliament building, Christiansborg. Photo: Juhana Pettersson

Our venue for Baltic Warriors Copenhagen was the square in front of the parliament building, Christiansborg. Photo: Juhana Pettersson

Some people do larps in highly controlled environments such as the “Black Box”, a featureless room with lights that can act as the abstract stage for any larp scene. In these games, the players can enjoy freedom from the distractions of the world and the organizers have maximum control over what happens in the game space.

Last Saturday, we did the fifth game in this summer’s Baltic Warriors series of eco larps in Copenhagen in conditions that are pretty much the opposite of that. Our game was held at the square in front of Denmark’s parliament building Christiansborg. Sharing the square with us was a demonstration against the war in Iraq, and a counter-demonstration that was also against the war but with a different political analysis.

In the photo above, you can see the anarchist counter-demonstrators.

Participants in the middle of the game. Photo: Juhana Pettersson

Participants in the middle of the game. Photo: Juhana Pettersson

As in every Baltic Warriors game, the characters were lobbyists, activists and politicians debating an issue related to the dead zones in the Baltic Sea caused by eutrophication. Every game has been about politics, but this time the politics was a little more tangible than usual, given the non-fictional political action going on all around us.

In each Baltic Warriors game, we have a local producer or producers helping us make the game. This time, we worked with the Danish company Rollespilsakademiet, and they had the necessary logistical resources to build us the tents, the benches and the tables that defined our play area.

This time, we had an unusually high number of dog participants. Photo: Juhana Pettersson

As an organizer, doing a larp in this kind of environment means that you have to make peace with the fact that anything can happen. We had wildly different estimates about the size of the demonstrations. Some said there’s be thousands of people, while others had lower numbers. We were afraid that a big demonstration would swamp us, and if a demonstration went bad, there would be further safety issues.

The way it happened, the demonstration was of a manageable size, so none of our worst-case scenarios were realized. There were no obvious cops. A lot of people stopped by to see what we were doing (or to steal our coffee). For a political game, this is of course a good thing, but it also meant that this game wasn’t about fragile intimacies.

This is what happens when you leave your guard posts unattended. Photo: Juhana Pettersson

This is what happens when you leave your guard posts unattended. Photo: Juhana Pettersson

Doing an aggressively public larp like this raises many interesting questions that can be explored further. What are the ethics of sharing a public space with another political event? Can this be used deliberately, as a central part of the larp design? What kind of new social spaces can be incorporated into a larp experience?

Our larp design was merely adapted to the venue we had, but perhaps in the future, we’ll see interesting new works that make these questions the thrust of the game.

Pikseliparatiisi: Kohti Gamescomia

Olen tänään lentämässä Kölniin ottamaan osaa Gamescom-pelimessuille. Käymme tekemässä Tilt-tv-ohjelmaa varten haastatteluja erilaisista pelintekijöistä.

Videopelikokemus rajoittuu usein ihmisen ja ruudun väliseksi vuorovaikutukseksi. Vaikka peli olisi sosiaalinen, toimii välittäjänä tietokone tai konsoli. Pelaaminen ei vaadi jalkautumista sohvaa kauemmaksi, ja maailman rajoina ovat olohuoneeni rajat. Pelien ihmeet ovat virtuaalisia, kuvitteellisia.

Talouskysymykset ja ilmiöiden rakentaminen ovat pelikeskusteluissa keskeisessä roolissa. Suomalaisista peleistä kuten Angry Birds tai Clash of Clans kirjoitetaan usein juuri taloustarinoita, ja isot pelit kuten Call of Dutyt tai Assassin’s Creedit pyrkivät olemaan maailmanlaajuisia mediajättiläisiä.

Tyypillisiä Gamescomissa liian kauan olleita kävijöitä. Kuva vuodelta 2012.

Tyypillisiä Gamescomissa liian kauan olleita kävijöitä. Kuva vuodelta 2012.

Tämä monumentalismi ei kuitenkaan yleensä ole osa varsinaista pelikokemusta. Jos pelaan Angry Birdsiä metrossa, on vaikea tuntea elimellistä yhteyttä siihen kuinka Suomen peliala pelastaa pienen maamme talouden. Kotona Assassin’s Creed on vain Assassin’s Creed, ei valtava media-ameeba, josta pulpahtelee ties mitä spin-offeja tasaisin väliajoin.

Kaikki tämä kuitenkin muuttuu, kun menee Gamescom-pelimessuille. Olen käynyt niillä jo monena vuonna työn takia, ja joka kerta kokemusta on voinut luonnehtia samoin. Kun messuilta lähtee, tuntuu kuin poistuisi armeijan ammuntaradalta, jossa testataan raskasta tykistöä.

Koelnmesse-messuhalli on suunnilleen suomalaisen pikkukaupungin kokoinen valtava kompleksi. Jos haluaa kävellä Gamescom-messut päästä päähän, täytyy varata 20-30 minuuttia aikaa, ihmismäärästä riippuen. Messuhallit ovat täynnä omakotitalon kokoisia mainospömpeleitä, jotka hehkuttavat milloin mitäkin suurellista julkaisua.

Varsinaisten messuhallien lomassa kulkeva yhdyskäytävä. Kuva vuodelta 2012.

Varsinaisten messuhallien lomassa kulkeva yhdyskäytävä. Kuva vuodelta 2012.

Kaikki tämä kuitenkin kalpenee Gamescomin perussoundin äärellä. Se on tasainen, kaikkialle tunkeva bassojylinä. Jokaisessa pelissä on jyrmeä basso, ja kaikki näytteilleasettajat haluavat että heidän bassonsa kuuluu parhaiten. Kun sisällä on ollut pari tuntia, tuntuu kuin joku olisi tasaisen rauhallisesti puristellut aivoja kunnes ne eivät enää kykene muodostamaan mitään koherentteja mielikuvia.

Gamescomin perusolemus on brutaali. Yksinkertainen viesti välitetään totalitaarisella enemmän-on-enemmän metodilla: Mitä tahansa muuta pelit ovatkin, niin ainakin ne ovat isoja.

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.

apocalypse world

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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


(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.


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