I went to Knutepunkt 2005 as an oddity -- I was coming from California all the way out to Norway. I had been aware of the Scandanavian larp scene for about three years, since my Threefold Model FAQ was adapted for the scene (and was published in the Knudepunkt 2003 book ("As Larp Grows Up"). I had been an author for last year's convention book ("Beyond Role and Play"). However, I had never actually met any of the people face to face or played in a Scandanavian larp.
To get more of a visual feel for what it was like, I have a page of Knutepunkt 2005 Pictures which I took (along with a few other people took of me).
I attended two larps during the "Week in Norway", and attended about a dozen events plus three mini-larps during Knutepunkt itself. I had loads of fun from my time there, and met a lot of great people, and had my horizons expanded about role-playing. Now, naturally the question I was most commonly asked was how Scandanavian larp differed from American larps. Now, obviously I felt underqualified to talk about larps in general in a country of 293 million people. I have played and game-mastered hundreds of tabletop games, but I have played in probably no more than 12 or 15 larps. I have never organized a larp except for small murder mystery games such as "The Business of Murder". I am familiar with the popular outdoor boffer-weapon larp scene via friends, but I have never actually played in one. Nevertheless, since most people have far less cross-experience between Scandanavian and American larping, I'll put in my observations on the differences.
One definite conclusion was that larps are more mainstream in the Scandanavian countries than in the U.S. At KP05, there were teachers talking about using larps in education, a priest who did larping with his youth groups, and academics who were publishing articles about larp. From estimates of the number of larpers, people just do role-playing more, as opposed to the scene in the U.S. which Claus Raasted crudely (but accurately) described as being more "freaks and geeks".
Now, this isn't to say that Scandanavian larps aren't geeky. They are in many ways similar to American larps -- i.e. they commonly involve running around in the woods with foam swords and Tolkienesque names -- with a secondary mode of urban vampires and other creatures of darkness. The mini-larps were not so hugely different from my American experience that they weren't recognizable as the same thing, in general. Role-playing in Scandanavia has many of the same stereotypes as in the U.S., but they seem to be less of a social barrier.
Some other scattered thoughts on the comparison:
Bear in mind that these are not definite conclusions or anything. They are just my thoughts upon reflection. Overall, I had a wonderful time at Knutepunkt 2005, and I most assuredly will be back in Scandanavia for future events (probably Knutpunkt 2006). Now, on with the specifics of the report...
My first larp in Norway was "Night Fever", organized by Aksel Westlund and Martine Svanevik. According to the introduction, the point of the larp was "to create over-the-top characters, bizarre scenes and play with clichés." It was humorous and over-the-top, and the organizers discouraged "deep, psychologically intense character portrayals." The setting was a New Year's Eve party set at Zeke's Bar and Grill, where a variety of bizarre supernatural characters hang out, including zombies, demons, ghosts, and more. There was to be no system -- no characters could have powers that could not be resolved by simple negotiation, and combat was simply avoided.
Based on the introduction, I decided to play Viv Savage, a rock star who was made into a vampire but turned out to be so mind-numbingly dull that his vampiric sire ditched him. He hadn't actually realized that he was a vampire yet despite years of drinking blood. The name was taken from the film This Is Spinal Tap, which was certainly an inspiration. For a larp of this sort, I figure an extroverted character with few inhibitions would be good.
As it was being prepared, I had the impression of it seeming more like a themed costume party than the larps I was familiar with. The work was on costuming, setting up the costumes, DJed music, and party decorations. However, these were real role-players. The game began with all the players gathering around by the dance floor, and making out-of-character introductions. Aksel explained that there was a clock displayed, and the rule was that the game would end strictly at midnight on the clock. This was rather unusual to me -- I don't think I've ever seen that done before. By having a strict cutoff time, players were expected to pace themselves with that ending in mind. There were no arranged events which formed a central plot.
The game started rather slow to my feeling. Without an initial impetus, everyone was just chatting without much direction. After maybe a half-hour, some lines began to draw out. Playing the failed rock star, I hit on many of girls and drank with some of the guys. I hung out with the evil henchman and hippie, while arguing with Selena the half-way-toppled angel and Johannes Christ. The interesting thing to me was seeing small interactions get built on and expanded out more into plots. To mention a few events during the larp:
Overall, there were I think 21 people involved in the larp. I ended up interacting with slightly under half of them. What happened in the other half I don't know -- I spoke only a handful of lines with the others. In the tables below, characters I interacted with are on the left, while characters I generally didn't are on the right.
While the larp was not per se collectively organized, what I got out of it was insight into what Markus Montola would call a nearly totally chaotic larp. Structures formed out of the chaos, and had some effect, and the process of that was interesting to see.
Second was "The Weakest Link" -- organized at the last minute by Arild Balog, who apparently was replacing someone else who dropped out. Unfortunately, I felt that it really showed, and the game suffered as a result of it. The location was mildly appropriate: a conference room at some business building in downtown Oslo (which I heard was related to some game company). The game was very slow in starting as there were no written character write-ups. Instead, the players waited out in the hall and were called in one at a time to have their character described individually. This took quite a while.
The characters were all job applicants to the Tadashi Software corporation, which had a major branch somewhere in Scandanavia. So the larp consisted of their several hour collective interview process, where the eight applicants were broken into two teams and each given a project. My character was Emerett Neilson, a member of the Jesus Crusaders. He was described as "happy as a lark, annoying, and always smiling -- but not too bright." The other players on my team were Mike Pohjola, Sofia Nordin, and Maiju Ruusunen. Mike was played a geek obsessed with video games and martial arts movies, notably The Matrix. Sofia and Maiju had less over-the-top characters.
We had a couple different tasks, but the main one was to as a team come up with a creative design plan for a next-generation operating system using Tadashi's artificial intelligence technology. We were then supposed to present as a team on it, then at the end report individually on our teammates. Within my team, this became a clash between Emerett's spiritually-inspired ideas and Mike Pohjola's character's Matrix-inspired ideas. There were two or three "stress tests" when the interviewer suddenly blared incredibly annoying noises at us and asked us to write out arbitrary tasks in a short time (i.e. write the ten commandments, a poem, or lists of particular things).
The opposing team had Juhana Pettersson, Sampo Koistinen, and two others -- one of whom dropped out shortly into the game. Two of that team (Juhanna and someone else) were "ringers" -- Tadashi employees who were there to mess up the other applicants. After one player left, that meant two ringers to only one real applicant, which sounded pretty nonsensical although I couldn't follow much of what happened.
Ultimately, I found this larp rather boring. I made the best of it, but the forum was one where no one knew each other, everyone was on civilized behavior and trying to look professional, and no one had a huge amount on the line. It also brings to mind Markus Montola's scale of chaos in a larp, where this was extremely integrative larp -- where everything that happened was part of a pattern set by the organizer.
I went to four talks on Thursday, although some of them I was only there for part of the time.
Thursday evening I participated in a mini-larp called Club Felis, organized by Ada Fredelius, Anna-Karin Lindner, and Martin Brodén. It was a modern fantasy larp of a sort where everyone was playing cats who were out at a nightclub ("Club Felis") where they drank milk, chatted, and attended the "Cat of the Year" contest. I arrived rather late, since the start time was moved up from what was on the written schedule. So the large circle of players were just finishing up introductions as I walked into it and was handed my character. What I got was a short piece of paper with an illustration of an elegant long-haired cat, and a superimposed picture of a glamorous blonde woman's head in the corner. The description was as follows:
Whatever Lola wants
And little cat
Little Lola wants you
Why would anyone want to hear a shabby stray cat, when I'm around
There were maybe twenty or so people involved in the larp. I missed the initial introductions and suggestions, which I think included some pointers on catlike physical behavior. Each player got a brief character sheet, a tail, and some makeup for nose, whiskers, and eyes. We went through several role-playing exercises after that. The organizers indicated a line diagonally across the room, and asked several agree/disagree questions. We would stand on a spot on the line indicating how our character felt about that question.
I immediately got into this character and played her out as the sweet, polite, passive-aggressive, backstabbing tart. I think I was inspired from having recently watched George Cukor's The Women (1939). During the course of the evening, there was a talent contest. For my part, I did a fair rendition of "Memories" from Andrew Lloyd Weber's "Cats". (I have a good singing voice even if I couldn't quite remember the lyrics.) Another memorable moment for me was when, during someone else's performance, I "accidentally" spilled my cup of milk all over the floor. This not only diverted attention from the stage, but also Missy had to clean it up. (This was ever so slightly line-pushing, as it was a real mess and Missy's player Anna-Karin as organizer probably felt some obligation on to clean it up.) There was also a fair bit of drug use (catnip), and near the end I plotted with Missy's supplier to give her an overdose -- not to kill her, mind, just to have her make a scene and threaten her job.
Several people classified this in the category of "cozy" larp -- meaning one where the emphasis is on socializing and perhaps flirting rather than on dramatic action. There was a lot of idle chatting and rubbing up against each other. However, I'm not entirely comfortable with that distinction. To my mind, it was clear that the play itself had some dramatic meaning. Several people commented about how Lola was memorable -- both for her song and her characterization. As I see it, by my characterization of Lola and through her actions, I was making a statement about certain types of feminine behavior.
Anyhow, my thanks to the organizers Ada Fredelius (who played owner George), Anna-Karin Lindner (who played singer Missy), and Martin Brodén (?). Also to fine fellow players too numerous to mention but including David Olsson ("Butler"), Helge Lund Kolstad ("Caligula", I think), and Sofia Nordin.
On Friday, after some drama exercises in the morning, I joined a mini-larp / freeform game organized by Tobias Wrigstad and Olle Jonsson. Interestingly, Tobias characterized this more as tabletop, whereas I saw it more as larp. Actually, I found that it more resembled improvisational theater games than either traditional larp or tabletop play. The game was called "The Upgrade!" We played contestants in a mock reality TV series where (for money) several couples were set up with romantic dates with someone else's partner -- and then at the end asked whether they want to "Stay" or "Upgrade."
We began by reading a 3-page introduction to the concept, along with a 1-page in-character pamphlet about the show. At any given point during the game, there was a defined television screen showing a particular thing. So some characters were "on-screen", and the other players were all in a group off-screen. At any point, someone who is off-screen could jump in either by declaring a cut to another scene, or by walking in as some character. Also, they had two cardboard props marked "Close-Up" -- which players off-screen could use to indicate where the camera was going in for a close-up.
It turned out that we had five men and five women. This being a mainstream show and no one pushing for cross-gender play, we paired up to represent the original couples who were going to go on the show. So with one partner, we worked out characters and background. I played Arne, domestic husband of Suzanne (Sofia Nordin). We agreed on things like how they had met in business school and both had corporate jobs, but he wanted kids and she didn't. At the last minute in this, I decided that he was closeted gay. We then took turns playing the initial interviews -- two players would be their characters, while another two players would play the interviewers for the show who were deciding whether this was a suitable couple. At the end of the interview, the interviewers became their own characters and another pair of players jumped in as the interviewers.
We then went through a lot of scenes this way. There were roughly three categories of scene: Flashbacks, Present (i.e. during the filming of the show), and Possible Futures. Add into this a few scenes of the producers of the show, and a few scenes of people who were watching the show on TV. Any action which couldn't be played out would be handled off-screen, and would be resolved by instead putting on-screen people who were commenting on it.
We went for only like 2 or 3 hours at first, but then agreed to meet later in the evening to continue it. Eight of the ten original players made it -- again an even split, though we had to retroactively edit a bit for the couples to make sense again.
In the show, Arne matched up with Simone (Anna Westerling). Other characters included the money-grubbing "bad" couple Josie (Tova Gerge) and Tommy (Markus Montola); both of whom picked on Johan Söderberg's timid character. A few highlights: Josie and Johan's PC were offered incentives to bungee jump together, which she pressured him into trying. I introduced a flashback scene to him in grade school where I was the bully behind him on the high dive platform. Later, there was a volleyball game amongst the men. Tommy spiked a volleyball into Johan's characters private parts. Kudos to other players including Kristoffer Lindh (who wasn't there for the second half -- the abusive spouse of Simone, I think) and Stina Almered (the unscrupulous red-haired beauty contest winner, as I recall). I had my moments as Arne slowly came out. I liked my line as I was interviewed after the volleyball game: "I don't like to think of this as winners and losers. All of these guys looked great... played great, and I think that's what counts." Eventually I had a scene where Simone and I had drunk ourselves into a stupor (aided by a few real shots of alcohol Anna and I did). We each were complaining about our spouses. I was constantly falling against her but wasn't making advances at all (which was a bit upsetting to her, I think). Some fun dialogue there, and we decided that she slept with him.
One of the odd scenes was when Olle pitched a future scene for Arne in which he made it clear that Arne was in an AIDS ward as a friend came to visit him. I gave an impassioned speech by Arne explaining that it was better to have truth than be living my life as a lie, with some more stuff about identity and all. It was an oddly serious choice, to my mind. I wasn't entirely clear when among the group people realized that Arne was gay, but that was when it was completely explicit.
Eventually it came to the point of the final contestant's vote: "Stay" or "Upgrade!" Arne and Suzanne both stayed with each other, as did one other couple. The other two couples both decided to "upgrade", making everything an amicable split. Overall, the setup was a great device for coming up with scenes, and all of the players were excellent. There were a few times when the cutting back and forth became hopelessly confused, and I had no idea what exactly was onscreen or why. The device of there being a screen/camera worked, but many times the camera could not possibly be a camera of the show (i.e. flashback to a contestant's childhood). Still, it being comedy, such things were easily overlooked.
This was a talk and mini-larp concerning having a larp with a more communistic approach to organizing. Martine Svanevik was leading discussion, but we played a mini-larp which was intentionally set up by the group. It was organized in about 35 minutes, and played for a little over an hour. However, it had a fair amount of depth for that. Martine gave her experiences setting up a collective larp, noting especially the benefit of having a clear cutoff time which is the end of the larp. That allows all the players to structure their time and be in place for the end.
In setting up our larp, we quickly discussed two or three possibilities, then voted to determine one. After three rounds of suggestions and I believe three votes, we settled on doing children in the scouts who were lost in the woods after having tried to ditch their scoutmaster and find their way to town. Then we simply went around in a circle and each person came up with a character, sometimes asking others for connections. The players and characters were:
We then broke up into I think two groups of five to determine more about background, and to come up with a set of secrets which we had. We split by age: so the five players of older kids planned together, and the five players of younger kids (including me) planned together. This was distinctly noticeable in play as the characters interacted very much within those groups. With a bit more time, it might have been better to break up two or three different ways. (i.e. Maybe boys and girls next, for example).
The actual play was pretty fun, particularly given the extremely quick and impromptu nature of the organizing. As the bratty younger brother of Jay, I did a lot of sulking. I was instrumental in starting a fire, and at one point walked off from the group in a fit and Jay had to go find me. I was mad at Peter for being mean. We each came up with secrets, I think. I don't actually remember what my original secret was, but after a bit of fighting and saying nasty things about Sarah, it came to me that I (Johnny) had a crush on her and was jealous of Peter -- since Sarah has a very blatant crush on Peter. There were a few moments which made me wonder about rules and lines. For example, when I/Johnny got mad when someone else put out the fire and I ended up throwing snow in Martine/Helen's face. Thinking back, I wonder if this seemed at all line-touching to Martine or if it was my more inhibited American larp instincts.
This was a very brief mini-larp which I ran, as an example of American larp techniques. It was a prewritten larp published by Shifting Forest Storyworks. The larp was an adaptation of Hamlet, and was set shortly before Hamlet's departure for England. The departure from the play was that there is a farewell party for Hamlet, and Laertes stalks into it -- intent on finding out the truth about the death of his father Polonius.
Unfortunately, it was cut severely short because I was called on to be on hand for preparations for the EuroLarp song contest later that evening. (Which in retrospect I don't really regret, but was very annoying at the time.) But I got back and we quickly put things together. The players and characters were:
I should mention that I have never actually organized a larp before. I played for my part the servant who was fetching things, offering snacks and drinks. (I had some chocolate which I was handing out, which I think helped the players going after a long day.) The biggest hurdle by far was the system. The players really weren't used to having even what for me was a relatively simple mechanical system, and many of them were pretty skeptical of doing so. But especially since this is one of the big American differences, I thought it was important to keep, and we gave it a try.
Watching it from the outside, it was a little difficult for me to tell how well it worked. People found it interesting and were forgiving based on the terrible circumstances it was run under. On the other hand, I don't suspect it's going to be causing any revolutions in the Nordic larp scene.
Well, it should come as no surprise that the Scandanavian larpers seem more immersively-oriented than the American crowd. Certainly there are essentially systemless larps without any major external conflict or central dramatic action -- like Night Fever or Club Felis. I know that to some American players, that sounds dull or even insulting, but I think it is a cultural divide.
I also conclude that the Threefold Model is holding up fairly well since its formulation seven or eight years ago. It will become obselete, I think, from currently developing theory -- but I think it is easy to overestimate how quickly new theory is adopted. The Threefold remains just a vocabulary of phenomenological categories, not a manifesto or psychological model. Interestingly, Emma Wieslander expressed a different theoretical triangle of larp styles between three vertices:
I also had a lot of interesting talk about relation of the character to the player -- which had a fair amount of importance. I overheard with some horror a male player explaining to a female player about the nature of roles. He demonstrated with four cups: me, you, my character, your character. Relations in-game go between characters, not players, and in particular it is folly for a player to fall in love with someone else's character. It sounds sensible, but I totally disagree and I feel it is an excuse of behavior of a sort.
To my mind, a character is always a part of me. Quite clearly, anything expressed by the character is somewhere in me -- it has no way of leaving. I will play characters who are violent or evil, but if they have any life to them then they are based on my own negative feelings. I also have had plenty of experience with in-game flirting. Nearly all of my girlfriends have been girls that I have role-played with. I think it is important to at least admit that there is flow between real life and the game. Some people tend to condemn that as borderline insanity, but I think it is natural and happens all the time.
All of these thoughts really should go in more focused essays, but I thought I would include them hear as the results of my reflections on my first Knutepunkt.