Non-Digital: Itras by – the Menagerie

The Menagerie is a supplement for the Norwegian roleplaying game Itras by, created by Ole Peder Giæver and Martin Bull Gudmundsen. However, if you’re familiar with roleplaying game supplements, this is definitely something else. As befits the surreal nature of Itras by, the Menagerie calls into question the very meaning of expanding on a published roleplaying game.

I have a lot of love for Itras by. A highly literate yet light roleplaying game set in the dreamlike city its named after, the original core book played with mood and prose, guidance and suggestions much more than banal game mechanics.

In 2009, I acted as the publisher for the Finnish translation of the game, under the title Itran kaupunki. A key motivation for me to have the game translated was so I could read it myself. It hadn’t appeared in English yet and I didn’t read Norwegian. It proved well worth the effort!

The Menagerie is a feast of contributions from a large variety of different designers, writers and illustrators, all coming together to offer their own take on Itras by. In addition to being material you can use to run games, it’s also a masterclass in game design, peeling back the layers of decision-making that go into making any particular choice.

Perhaps the clearest example of this is Jason Morningstar’s article Itras by Without Itras by. In it, he goes through the deck of cards the game uses as a tool for inspiration and resolution of events. He demonstrates how it can be used in other contexts and what kind of effects different modifications create.

It’s also a wonderfully heterogenous book. Roleplaying communities have an unfortunate tendency to devolve into depressing little cliques who all hate each other, but the Menagerie boasts contributions from a highly disparate group of people, both geographically and in terms of design style. There are Norwegians and Poles, Americans and New Zealanders, Storygames alumni and OSR aficionados.

The book even includes complete games based on Itras by. An example is Grimasques by Banana Chan, a freeform game demonstrating that good design and focus on a single element of the Itras by world can produce something very clearly defined even in this surreal environment.

For me, two of the most affecting chapters in the book came at the very end. Martin Bull Gudmundsen has a beautiful personal essay reflecting on his own background, Asperger’s syndrome and the particular nature of surreal game design. He also wrote a short fictional text together with Itras by co-designer Ole Peder Giæver as an allegory about making a game like this, a suitable ending to a book full of strange wonders.

Kuparihärkä on tullut painosta!

Meitsin kolmas romaani Kuparihärkä on tullut painosta! Aina hieno fiilis kyllä kun kirja muuttuu fyysiseksi esineeksi.
Julkkarit on Toverissa ensi viikolla, 4.10. Kaikki paikalle vaan! Aikaistin aloitusta kuudesta puoli kuuteen jotta voi tulla luontevasti suoraan töistä.
 
Ohjelma on kevyttä, puhun kirjasta ja myös trilogian edellisen osan Tuhannen viillon kuoleman pohjalta äskettäin pelatusta larpista.

Non-Digital: Analog Game Studies vol. 2

I’ve read the second of the Analog Game Studies books in my quest to catch up on the series. You can check out the book here or read the articles here.

After the introductory first book, this second volume is where the series really gets going. It feels like in addition to being collections of articles about non-digital games, the series also engages in trying to define what “analog games” means. Reading this book, the divide into digital and analog games feels arbitrary, yet also necessary to carve out space for all the types of games that often get excluded from discussions of games.

The book starts strong with veteran boardgame designer Bruno Faidutti’s essay Postclonial Catan. In it, he subjects European-style boardgames to a postcolonial analysis, writing from his own perspective as a designer of Eurogames. To me, the interest of the essay lies in not just the analysis, but also on the design perspective on why Eurogames seem so full of national stereotypes, often cringeworthy.

In other articles, reading Anglo-American writers about Eurogames is strange because it reveals such deep cultural fissures. For example, there’s a critique of Eurogames like Settlers of Catan in that they avoid violence as a subject matter. This creates a false representation of history because when you remove violence from colonialism, for example, and reduce it to nothing but trade, you whitewash historical crimes.

This critique is obviously totally sensible! Yet the rule against war and combat is ingrained in me from my own childhood, from how my mother and father and the worldview I learned at home. The idea that family games should be violence-free is something that makes sense to me on a gut level. It feels shocking to read it being talked about so casually, as if it was just some weird European quirk.

Closer to my home field of roleplaying games and larp, there’s the article Out of the Dungeons: Representations of Queer Sexuality in RPG Source Books by Jaakko Stenros and Tanja Sihvonen. I’d seen it years ago at Ropecon in presentation form, but it was interesting to read it properly. Queer sexualities have been dealt with in roleplaying games in a messy, often weird way, and I remember some of the specific examples from my own roleplaying history.

The idea of roleplaying or larping with an audience has kept recurring in different contexts through the years, from art galleries who wanted art larp to be audience friendly to the modern phenomenon of roleplaying as a YouTube spectacle. There’s three excellent articles in the book which expand on this in ways that make me think our previous conceptions of the subject have been simplistic. These articles show that if you really want to do this, roleplay with an audience, there’s a whole art to it.

The articles are Moyra Turkington’s A Look Back From the Future: Play and Performance in Biosphere 2013, Sarah Lynne Bowman’s Connecting Stage Acting, Role-Playing and Improvisation and Lisa Quoresimo’s Joy and Meaning in Theater Games. What I especially like about them is the basis in actual experiences with this kind of work.

This is another great collection, well worth your time. The only real issue with it is that the articles were originally posted online, and a few contain references to illustrations or other features not included in the book.

Non-Digital: Slowquest and Roleplaying Game Culture

I was at the Helsinki Comics Festival recently, lured in by the promise of roleplaying game related indie stuff. The Australian illustrator Bodie Hartley was there with a series of little booklets published under the title Slowquest. They’re interesting because while they are not roleplaying games, they are most definitely roleplaying game culture.

My first roleplaying game was the red box edition of Dungeons & Dragons. I grew up steeped in roleplaying game culture and it has informed my practice as a designer. As a child, I read scifi and fantasy, went to cons and shook my head at the Satanic panic.

However, the actual toolbox of roleplaying games, the design concepts that make up the artform, don’t have to be connected to this culture. You can make and play roleplaying games even if you have never heard of Legolas or Shadowrun. I’ve seen this in practice on the larp side of things working with Palestinian designers, because the history of larp in Palestine comes from an NGO background rather than as an artifact of local geek culture.

My first book about roleplaying games, Roolipelimanifesti in 2005, was in some ways a reaction against the way I felt roleplaying game culture limited the design space of roleplaying games. In retrospect, it’s almost like teenage rebellion, a statement of identity against the stifling omnipresence of dragons and other genre elements.

In the years since 2005, I’ve made my peace with the culture around roleplaying games. This is good because now I can enjoy Slowquest, which is great! The main attraction are the two quest books The Goblin Guard and Meet the Wizard, choose your own adventure -style stories in which you navigate simple and funny adventure scenarios. They are simple and charming, like emanations from the collective subconscious consisting of all the cultural artifacts populating the world of roleplaying games.

Other booklets include the monster descriptions for the Swamp Goblin, the Mushrump and the Sentient Ooze. Another favorite is the booklet Some Wizards Volume I, a collection of wizards.

Non-Digital: Our History

Me standing under a portrait of myself and those of other Finnish roleplayers. Photo: Jaakko Stenros

The Finnish Museum of Games opened a new exhibit on the history of tabletop roleplaying games in Finland yesterday. It’s wonderful stuff and I expected the feelings of nostalgia revisiting all these old things brought me. But the real surprise was in how much there was I’d never heard of before. The exhibit takes an extremely comprehensive, diligent approach to its subject, and because of this even a veteran roleplayer who lived through the era will find something new.

Verald is the only Swedish-language roleplaying game published in Finland. I’d never heard of it before seeing it at the exhibit.

From a personal perspective, it felt strange to see parts of my own history move behind the glass of a museum exhibit. Sometimes literally, as I was startled to find a character brief I’d written for another player years ago on display. It was from the tabletop campaign Tähti by Mike Pohjola, later published as a book.

Other times, the maps drawn by hand on graph paper were not from my campaigns, but they could well have been. They’re from people who started playing as kids, often American fantasy roleplaying games translated into Finnish. It’s funny to imagine what those kids would have said if told that in a few decades, their squiggles would be museum-worthy.

Many of these relics are from people who would become game designers themselves, including James Edward Raggi IV of Lamentations of the Flame Princess fame who’s old home campaign maps are now on display.

Among the exhibited roleplaying game magazines, the most amazing find was the Floppy Magazine from 1987.

This list of “killed things” starts with “1 old person”.

Designer Mike Pohjola decided to be the first to break in the table at the center of the exhibit room by spontaneously conjuring up a Myrskyn sankarit game.

From a wider perspective, the exhibit is part of an interesting process where as we grow older, we become more conscious of our own history. We want to preserve it and make it understood. It’s wonderful that the exhibit is not only about the history of games as publications, but makes a serious effort to include the actual experiences of people playing roleplaying games.

This is especially important in Finland because the emergent play culture didn’t always reflect the cultures that produced the games we started with. A young kid in Helsinki or Kouvola automatically played D&D with different assumptions than the American designers who made it.

Non-Digital: Analog Game Studies vol. 1

I’ve worked a lot on tabletop games this year because of my involvement with Vampire: the Masquerade 5th Edition, and I developed a yearning for the kind of design writing about tabletop games that we have for larp in the form of the Knutepunkt books.

As sometimes happens, it turns out this already existed, and had for some time. I found the first two Analog Game Studies collections at Gencon, and just finished reading the first one, published in 2016. It collects the articles originally published online in the journal in 2014.

This is good stuff, and I’m happy to know that there’s already a few years worth more out for me to read!

From the perspective of a reader like me who’s interested in roleplaying game design, the highlights from vol. 1 are Jason Morningstar’s article Visual Design as Metaphor: The Evolution of a Character Sheet and Evan Torner’s Uncertainty in Analog Role-Playing Games.

Morningstar’s article takes a classic design question of the character sheet and goes through his own process in developing one for the game Night Witches. Torner writes about uncertainty from many different perspectives, using published games as examples. I especially liked the consideration of uncertainty created by other players, as that’s a design space close to my heart.

Other interesting articles include Nathan Altice’s The Playing Card Platform and Sarah Lynne Bowman and Evan Torner’s Post-Larp Depression. Both felt like the kind of baseline articles about a given subject that can now be referenced in a thousand articles in the future.

The last article in the book is Lizzie Stark’s The Curse of Writing Autobiographical Games, in which she writes about designing a game called The Curse. The subject is deeply personal and the essay is a wonderful, clear example of how difficult subject matter becomes design.

Research Blog Antarctica #166 – Kohteena Etelämanner

Discussion panel: University of Helsinki: Kohteena Etelämanner (Focus on Antarctica), 2018

Kohteena Etelämanner (Focus on Antarctica) is a public discussion held by the University of Helsinki on 27.8.2018. It’s also available as a video recording on the university website. In the discussion, three Finnish scientists who have worked at the Finnish Aboa base on Antarctica.

The scientists talk about their experiences on Antarctica as well as their geologic research. It’s a good discussion, well worth your time if you speak Finnish and are interested in the Finnish Antarctic mission. Amazingly cogent and relevant audience discussion as well.

I watched this on the livestream, and it was funny to see so many people I know personally in the audience.

Research Blog Antarctica #165 – Ernest Shackleton Loves Me

Musical: Lisa Peterson: Ernest Shackleton Loves Me (U.S.A. 2017)

Ernest Shackleton Loves Me is a New York musical about a Brooklyn single mother and Ernest Shackleton’s Transantarctic journey. I didn’t see it live; a recording appeared on YLE Areena, where it will be for two more weeks.

In the story, Kat makes a video for an online dating site only to be replied to by Ernest Shackleton who’s in the middle of his disastrous Antarctic journey. His story takes up much of the musical, but our perspective is firmly rooted with Kat. The decision to include a modern perspective is interesting because it makes the whole musical not about Shackleton per se, but rather about our relationship to his legend.

We don’t see a real explorer but rather an exaggerated character who’s tale of heroism inspires us in the modern day. I recommend watching it live or as a recording because the show is simple, effective and affecting.

Research Blog Antarctica #164 – The Winter Over

Fiction: Matthew Iden: The Winter Over (Thomas & Mercer, 2017)

At first glance, The Winter Over by Matthew Iden falls into the familiar category of Antarctic thrillers where manly men face the travails of human weakness and the unforgiving environment. And indeed, superficially the book seems to have some of the characters and plot elements typical of those stories.

Its protagonist is mechanical engineer Cass Jennings who’s assigned to the fictional Shackleton South Pole Research Facility for the nine month isolation of the Antarctic winter. Soon life at the Facility starts to go wrong as hostile, malicious forces try to use it for their own purposes.

Yet this is not a macho story. By the end, its clear that the creative vision is something else altogether, something more humane and warm than is typical of these novels.

Working on Vampire 5th Edition (also: Nazis)

I spent this spring working on the 5th edition of Vampire: the Masquerade. The first releases on the 5th edition line are the Corebook and the Camarilla and Anarch books. I’m the lead writer on the Anarch book but I also contributed to the two others.

It’s been a strange experience to be part of this because along with Werewolf: the Apocalypse, Vampire is the roleplaying game that really showed me what the medium was capable of when I was a teenager in the Nineties who had only played Dungeons & Dragons and Rolemaster. I most definitely had a Vampire phase in high school and some of my closest friends are people I originally met in Vampire larps. As we got older, we started to understand politics and now we can meet in a game or a demonstration protesting Finland’s inhuman, rightwing immigration policies.

I’ve been a fan of Vampire since childhood, so working on the new edition has definitely been a joy. The vampire metaphor is very versatile, and you can use it in many interesting ways. Despite the fact that I’ve lived with Vampire for 25+ years, there are still new things to do with it.

My involvement with the new Swedish incarnation of White Wolf (Paradox Entertainment acquired White Wolf from the MMO maker CCP in 2015) started with the Vampire larp End of the Line. It was designed by me, Bjarke Pedersen and Martin Ericsson and produced by Mikko Pervilä and Jose Jacome. The goal of the larp was simple: Put the vampire back in Vampire. Set in an illegal techno club and eventually replayed in New Orleans and Berlin, it ended up having a Diana Jones nomination.

I went on to work on two other official Vampire larps, Enlightenment in Blood in Berlin and Parliament of Shadows in Brussels. In Parliament of Shadows (created with Maria Pettersson and Bjarke Pedersen), we made an urban larp about vampiric political influence partially played inside the actual, real European Parliament, with two MEPs participating as themselves. When they started making the plans for the 5th edition, White Wolf wanted to bring the game closer to contemporary political issues, but I’d like to think they didn’t expect it to go quite this close to real politics!

An in-game situation in Parliament of Shadows, played inside the European Parliament. (Photo: Tuomas Puikkonen)

At the beginning of August, I’ll go to Gencon in the U.S. It’s always been a dream of mine to go there and going as a writer on Vampire feels pretty great!

For tabletop roleplaying games, my native scene is the one in Finland where I live. I try to follow the American discussion as well, but it’s difficult to do as an outsider. As a game designer from a small European country, it feels like being an exchange student at high school, trying to figure out all the social dynamics and hierarchies.

Sometimes it can be quite shocking. Here’s a blog post claiming that White Wolf has a clandestine agenda of secretly trying to court a Nazi audience. I’ve never worked on a high profile project like this before, so perhaps it’s part of moving to the big leagues. Still, I can’t help but be affected by this sort of thing.

Finland is experiencing the rise of the far right the same as most other European countries, as well as the U.S. Two years ago, a Nazi killed a man in broad daylight in front of the Helsinki railway station. There’s been attacks with knives and tear gas. A Finnish Nazi tortured a disabled man to death in Sweden. Far right nutjobs regularly target my immediate family because of their public political views. That’s a terrifying thing because although you think that they’re probably all talk, what if something still happens? These people live in the same country, the same city as me. I have been a committed anti-Nazi all my life, and that position has only grown stronger as I’ve aged and felt the effects of this organized hate on my family.

As a freelancer working on Vampire 5th Edition, I know enough of the internal workings of the company to be aware that I’m not an outlier. The folks at White Wolf are opposed to Nazis. As should everyone! White Wolf officially commented on the Nazi issue here and I can say as someone with an inside view that no plan to market this game to Nazis exists or has ever existed. The idea is insane, preposterous and deeply offensive.

Today, I woke up to friends sending me messages asking: “Juhana, have you started working with Nazis?” What amazes me is that the article confidently claims that White Wolf’s marketing plan is to sell to Nazis, and then fails to back this up in any substantial way. You can see this for yourself, it’s right here.

The internet is full of weird stuff, folks. You don’t have to believe all of it.

Roleplaying Game Movie Night #28: Hot Girls Wanted – Turned On

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.

One of the protagonists of the Hot Girls Wanted – Turned On episode “Take Me Private”.

In episode five of the documentary series Hot Girls Wanted – Turned On, there’s a scene where a roleplayer introduces his regular camgirl of four years to his roleplaying game group. It’s an amazing scene, and the episode builds up the process leading to it so naturally that it feels inevitable. Tom has been Alice’s regular, and pays for her to fly to meet him in Australia. He feels like they have a relationship even though Alice is married. He wants her to meet his friends.

The episode is surprisingly human, and everyone in it feels like someone I could know personally. The nuances of the roleplaying group have been observed gently but sharply, and the same goes for the inevitable disappointments of taking the virtual into reality.