Knutpunkt 2006 Report

         I went from California to Sweden at the end of April to Knutpunkt 2006, which was my second Nodal Point convention. This is an international convention, founded in 1997, which rotates between four Nordic countries. The name is always "Nodal Point" in the local language. Thus there was Knudepunkt 2003 in Denmark, Solmukohta 2004 in Finland, Knutepunkt 2005 in Norway, and now Knutpunkt 2006 in Sweden. First, an adaptation of my Threefold Model FAQ was published in the Knudepunkt 2003 book ( "As Larp Grows Up"). The next year, I wrote an original article for the Solmukohta 2004 book ( "Beyond Role and Play"). Then last year, I finally went out to attend Knutepunkt 2005 in Norway, and wrote a "Knutepunkt 2005 Report".

         As with last year, I was the only American and thus had a certain celebrity status. I got a lot of questions about American larp, which made me rather self-conscious because I am really not a larp expert. I've played in around two dozen or so larps, but the only ones I've organized have been small, short events of less than a dozen people.

         To get more of a visual feel for what it was like, I have a page of Knutpunkt 2006 Pictures which I took (along with a few other people took of me).


Overview

         Compared to the prior year, this was a more laidback convention. What I especially missed was a parallel to the "Week In Norway", where I got to play in organized larps with a bunch of people in the days leading up to the convention. Particularly for me as more of an outsider, it was very important to play games with people as examples of what they are talking about.

         I did play in four mini-larps during the course of the convention, though. I would love to someday do a full-form, multi-day, immersive Scandanavian larp. On the other hand, it's not like I can afford to fly out to Europe all the time so I'll leave it later. I am encouraged by Elge Larsson, who is I think now 60 and quite active in the larp scene. So I'm not rushing anything, but I tentatively plan to make it to Denmark for Knudepunkt 2007.


"The Gas Station Larp" (Unscheduled Mini-Larp)

Friday 7PM, Morten Tellefsen

         Friday night there was a larp organized, called Limbo, but somehow I didn't find out about it. Instead I played in an impromptu mini-larp directed by Morten Tellefsen with the help of Danni Rune. The five players were myself, Thomas Henriksen, Elias Helfer, Maiju Ruusunen, and Hannamari Saarenpää.

         This was a short introduction to larp which Morten had run many times before, which he called the "Gas Station Larp". We decided on this when Morten, Danni, Hannamari, and I were talking after dinner. I was eager to play some sort of larp because I don't otherwise have a chance to play with Scandanavians. Hannamari had actually never played in a larp, having come to Knutpunkt originally intending to just be an observer, but was convinced to join. (As a note on context, I felt there was a degree of hitting on Hannamari here, but no one objected.) We recruited Elias, Thomas, and Mayu, and then went to one of the cabins -- which was mostly empty at that point. Morten had an idea, having apparently run this larp setup dozens of times before. He and Danni cast the parts, then took each of the five players aside individually to give us our background, and suggested we not discuss it until we were all briefed.

Spoiler Warning! Plot details are included below in off-white text. You can highlight it to see.

         I was cast as Frank, a successful businessman married to Sophie (played by Hannamari). His best friend was a psychiatrist named James (played by Thomas). They were going out on a picnic, accompanied by James' ex-addict patient ??? (played by Elias). There were several secrets here. James had confided in Frank that his patient was dying, but ??? didn't know and shouldn't. Unknown to Frank, Sophie had been having an affair with James and was now pregnant. Maiju was the gas station attendant whom we would be thrown together with.

         So the larp began with us pulling into a gas station, wanting to go into the mart to pick up some items we had forgotten to pack. Shortly after we entered, though, two masked gunmen (played by Morten and Danni) entered to rob the place and ended up taking us hostage. They locked us in a storeroom, and heatedly debated what to do with us outside. They then said that they would kill all but one of us, and that we should decide the one person who was to live.

         Over the next twenty minutes, they continued to push this. First (Mayu's character) was taken out, but was shot dead -- they claimed by accident. Inside we debated, and Sophie told me that she was pregnant. They took me out next, and I tried to buy them off with my money, but they instead took Elias' character out and tried to force me to shoot him. I stalled, then while they were distracted Elias tried to fight one of them for the gun but was shot dead. They then dragged James out, and again tried to make me shoot him or they said they'd kill us all. James tried to bait me into shooting him, and as Frank I realized he was sacrificing himself, but I went along with it and shot him. It ended very romantically, though, as they then took Sophie out and put a gun between us. I considered shooting myself, but Sophie told me "Don't touch it" -- and so instead I crawled over and hugged her as the gunman counted down the time we had left. Morten then had his gunman hear approaching police sirens, though, and they ran off without shooting us.

         Overall, it was certainly successful. It was purely freeform and fairly immersive, but also turned out to have a fairly compelling story (at least from my point of view). However, it did have characters drop out early, making it less compelling for those players. I had three main thoughts. One is that doing some briefing as a group would speed things along. I've experienced serial one-on-one briefings before, and it sucks up a huge amount of time. Another is a note on physical action. Elias at one point tried a physical action against Danni's character, which failed by implicit negotiation (i.e. Danni not giving in). Danni could have let it succeed instead, and that would have severely changed how it played out. Third, it was a fairly linear scenario where Morten's and Danni's characters always had the power. It was designed as a quick-play game for people with no knowledge of larp, so there is some sense of wanting to depend less on the players. Still, it's interesting to contrast with some things we experimented with later in Collective Larp Organizing (see below).


"Dirty Dancing Class" (Unscheduled Workshop)

Friday After Midnight, Anna-Karin Linder

         After the mini-larp, I danced some at the main hall. Finally I turned in, only to find that there was a workshop on "Dirty Dancing" in the foyer of my cabin, The Church. I had heard about this, but it was later than I thought. Really it was quite late to be playing music and dancing in the foyer, but I at least was game. There were 13 participants, I think 6 women and 7 men.

         It went a bit like one might expect. We stood in a circle and first tried out various moves on our own under instruction. Then we moved to partner dancing, which did indeed involve a lot of contact. The partners were mixed regularly and non-gendered. Anna-Karin explained at this, "Well, we're all queer here." -- which raised a few eyebrows but was let pass. I read the workshop as having a feminist and queer undertone that emphasized sexuality and getting in touch with one's body.


"Identity is Our Enemy" (Lecture)

Saturday 10AM, Mike Pohjola

         I missed the starting part of this, but came in on the discussion section. The description in the program of the event was:

In last year's discussion we found out why reality is our enemy, a dangerous illusion that is created by the powerful forces of our society. Join us now to talk about identities, roles, characters, and how an assumed objective identity is our enemy.
In discussion, we covered some very interesting points about how our role-played lives relate to our life outside of games. The undertone of Mike Pohjola's talk was over revolutionary potential of games -- i.e. how games can change larger society, perhaps by undermining the normal rules of identity. There was a partially opposed line of thought that role-playing had distinct boundaries, but things learned in the experience were carried over into outside life. During discussion, I brought up the idea of the ritual space of the game in which the character exists (with nods to Chris Lehrich) and the historical parallel of Carnival, where normal life is inverted and people take on new roles. There was general agreement that the alternate roles can simply reinforce outside social norms (i.e. pretending to be a revolutionary may distract from real revolutionary work).


"Invisible Rules of Role-playing" (Lecture)

Saturday 11AM, Markus Montola

         This was a more abstract theory talk, which was the start of a paper which attempted to define the process of role-playing more completely. The three key points were:

  1. Role-playing is an interactive process of defining and re-defining the state, properties and contents of an imaginary game world.
  2. The power to define the game world is allocated to participants of the game. The participants recognize the existence of this power hierarchy.
  3. Player-participants define game world through personified character constructs, conforming to the state, properties and contents of the game world.
According to his proposal,all gaming according to the rules above is role-playing. All activities lacking one of those is not. Afterwards, he examined some of the implications for role-playing -- including the multiple diageses of different players, which Markus discussed in his article for the 2004 book "As Larp Grows Up". There were a few illustrations of this, including some done using clips from "Knights of the Dinner Table", but I think the talk needed more clear illustrations of what the somewhat dry going through of definitions implied. At times, we could see the focus of the underlying academic work, which was aimed at non-gaming peers. There was some nice discussion afterwards, but I don't have good notes on it.


"New Developments in American Role-playing" (Lecture)

Saturday 12PM, John Kim

         This is a short lecture which I gave. There was not an extended discussion, but rather an extended Q&A session afterwards. So I first wanted to give a historical framework for this, grossly characterizing developments in role-playing decade by decade.

There was some questions regarding indie narrational games, and I cited two key differences. First was distributed game-master functions (i.e. narration and background), citing GM-less games like Polaris. Second was thematic mechanics, which I illustrated with My Life With Master's character stats for "Self-Loathing", "Weariness", and "Love".

         I then spent a while describing Shifting Forest Storyworks' Parlor Larp series. I had brought seven or eight samples, and sold them afterwards for a nominal price. There were a lot of questions about these, which I tried to cover. The key points to note about Parlor Larps as I covered them were:

         This was received with a fair degree of interest. There were also many other questions about American larps -- which I answered with many grains of salt, since I have limited experience in larp. For example, apparently many Scandanavian larps run across several days -- being in character from going to sleep and waking up. I have never heard of that being done in an American larp, but that doesn't mean that it isn't done. There were also questions about larp organization. What I knew about were mainly NERO and NERO West for fantasy larps, and the Camarilla for World of Darkness larps.


"Your Body -- A Forgotten Tool" (Workshop)

Saturday 2PM, Anna-Karin Linder

         This was a workshop on body movement. The point was that within everyday life as well as role-playing, only a limited set of motions and physical interactions take place (i.e. common gestures, pacing, and so forth). However, particularly given larps not set in the modern or historical world, there are vastly more possibilities within larp. The workshop was getting participants to open up range of expression, and in my mind seemed most like modern dance exercises. I had done related dance-like exercises in acting classes, so it is not unprecedented. This workshop was very interesting to me, as it involved a lot of interaction and trust.

         As a side note, there was a striking culture clash visible during this event. In the adjacent room at the same time, there was another workshop entitled "Male Workshop; or The Art of Intimidation". At the time, we just heard loud unison screaming from the other room. I learned later that they were putting each person in the center of a circle and having everyone scream at them. Then they got more physical: punching on the arm, and some one-handed boxing with boxing gloves. Afterwards Angela and Eric showed me nasty bruises on their arm from this. At the time, someone came running through our body workshop going towards the kitchen holding his face. I later noticed that there were little drops of blood marking his path.

         The contrast of this with the touchy-feely, learn-about-your-body atmosphere of our workshop was striking. There were several of the feminist crowd who went to the male workshop (i.e. the more butchy types) -- but I think the culture center of the male workshop was more gender-essentialist.

         Anyway, the body workshop was very interesting as we got to interact in a great many non-standard, non-verbal ways. Many of the exercises were about putting weight on other people: holding them up and lifting them. I was the second tallest person in the group, and I felt a bit lumbering and ungainly -- but when properly braced, smaller people can and did pick me up which was enlightening. Later we tried picking up cards which had abstract contrasts that we tried to express in pairs -- like "Franzy" vs. "Despair" and others. It didn't completely connect up to role-playing per se, but there was discussion of how to do so later (see below).


"Saviors and Devourers" (Lecture)

Saturday 4PM, Claus Raasted

         I missed this talk, but I regret it. One of the phenomenons of Scandanavian larp has been the explosion of popularity of outdoor fantasy larps among Danish youth. There was a talk which cited some of the statistics of this at the Knutepunkt 2005, but that didn't explain what the kids were really like and what attracted them to the scene. So I was interested but missed it.


"Dragonbane Storytelling" (Lecture)

Saturday 8PM, Niki Bergman

         For those who haven't heard, Dragonbane is possibly one of the most technically ambitious larps ever attempted, scheduled for (August 2006?). It will have over 500 participants from many countries, all with strict requirements for period dress and equipment. It has a village constructed solely for the event, and most notably a giant mechanical dragon. It doesn't seem to have a plotted story, and discussion focused on immersive aspects of life in the setting. The situation is that there is a village which worships the dragon which lives nearby. There are a group of wandering warriors known as the "Dragon-tamers" who have recently killed another dragon in the area. Lastly, there are a semi-nomadic band of witches camped nearby.

         This was a lecture which gave an overview of the larp, maps of the area, diagrams of the dragon and buildings, and photos of the area. Unfortunately, a lot of the time was occupied by technical questions about how the larp will work: i.e. how will food and drink work. I was more interested in ideas behind the larp organization, like why they made the choices they did, and what sort of action they expected.


"Snow White" (Mini-larp)

Saturday 10PM

         Saturday night, I ran one of the Parlor Larps for a group of players there. The choice was "Snow White" -- a dark adaptation based on the original fairy tale, written by J Li. The players were:

We had one character missing -- Snow White's old Nurse Gisel -- since Tova Gerge had expressed some interest in playing but had to drop out. This was not really a playtest of the scenario as written. We cast the characters and started to discuss the mechanics, but as things were getting late and several of the players had objections, we dropped use of the conflict mechanics. So we played out the scenario with the characters as written, but largely "systemless" play.

         I will avoid spoilers of any secrets within the game, but the shocker from the initial background is that Snow White is age 12 and about to be married to the 18-year-old Prince. It takes an over-the-top view of rough medieval life -- 12-year-old Snow White was woken from her sleep by being bedded by the Prince. The larp is set after Snow White and the Prince have returned to the castle, and the Prince is preparing to execute the Queen prior to their wedding. His chosen method is to bind hot irons to her feet to dance until she falls down dead.

         The larp went fairly well. Everyone was interested by the characters and situation, and the situation was eventually resolved that the Prince let the Queen go free. There were some troublesome points. The dwarf Kione was beloved by Snow White, but rejected by the others as a freak in the background. With no physical conflicts and widely rejected in social ones, Kristoffer as Kione was a bit left out. Second, there was a deadlock of sorts between Elias as Naresh (who argued for the Queen) and Morten as the Prince (who set himself up as judge of the Queen). They had arguments, but without the mechanics for social conflict, disagreements could only be resolved by a player giving in to a degree. In some cases players work amicably through this, but in this case I think there was frustration over their conflict.


"Experiences of Collective Gaming" (Lecture/Discussion)

         This was a roundtable discussion which began with several people recounting their own experiences with collective larp organizing. Martine Svanevik had written an article and run a workshop/mini-larp on this topic the previous year at Knutepunkt 2005. At KP06, several people reported back on their experiences with it. Martine of course had experiences -- but so did J. Tuomas Harviainen and (I think) Ole Marcus Mærøe. Both of it had come to the method somewhat skeptical, particularly of the political overtones of the original article. There was fairly wide agreement that it did not create a flat power structure -- i.e. there was still a hierarchy of power within the game. However, Ole's and J. Tuomas' findings were highly positive that participation deepened the players' investment in the game. Basically, it didn't achieve a flat power and it didn't necessarily objectively improve the quality of the creation. However, elements which players had contributed to were more powerful to them personally.

         There was also a lot of brainstorming about how to make the idea work for larger groups of players, and more elaborate backgrounds. Martine presented some ideas which she had been using to plan "Konstantinopel", which was a sci-fi/western genre larp. Anyone could participate and freely add to the background once they pay a deposit towards the cost of the larp. Background would be added by posting to a web-based forum: Konstantinopel on laivforum.net.


"Collectively-Organized Mini-larps" (Mini-larps)

         After the Collective Gaming discussion, most of the participants there (about 15) played in two brief mini-larps, which were experiments in ideas from both that discussion as well as the Body workshop. The first was called "Angels" -- where everyone played angels in a theology that angels worked towards the ideal of Balance. For life there must be death, for good there must be evil, and so forth. We improvised most of the theology, and a key part of it was incorporating odd movements into the angels' alien body language. We spent a bit walking around and getting into character. We had a movement and five words or so, with one person directing the exercises to draw us into character and interact. I liked the body language stuff, but to me, the social interactions too often were improvised arguments over what we as angels had to do to fulfill our duty. I thought it would be more interesting to say we had free choices, and thus disagree over what we individually want to do. Arguments of one improvised theology versus another seemed fairly meaningless to me.

         The second was called "Friends", which worked pretty well. Everyone were playing a group of friends who had broken apart for ten years, and were all meeting up again for lunch ten years later. We split into two rows, and I think picked one person whom we had loved -- and one person whom we had done something awful to. So most players had four connections: person you loved, person who loved you, person you had done something awful to, person who had done something awful to you. There were a lot of potential ways we could set up how to make the connections, and I recall not being entirely satisfied with the method though I can't remember the details. We then and ate lunch and chatted in character. Play worked pretty well for most people. I played an insurance salesman who had screwed over his business partner, who lacked direction in his life, and who was uncomfortable with his beloved uncle (played by Johan Jonsson) whom he now thought was gay. In play I ended up not interacting much with either my uncle or my former business partner, because, well, it was uncomfortable. Instead, I talked to other people about their problems and talked around my own.

         I think it's an interesting question of larp design to a degree. To some people, the point of setting up something like having screwed over your business partner would be to have confrontation and resolution of your crimes. That's a sort of simple dramatic view. Instead, for most of this mini-larp, that was background to how I talked to others about their problems.


"Roles, Identity and Personal Myth" (Lecture/Discussion)

Sunday 2PM, Lecture by Emma Wieslander

         This was a lecture by Emma Wieslander followed by a roundtable discussion. She began by defining three constructs: Role, Identity, and Myth. Role is a social function -- such as worker, parent, cook, neighbor, or participant. Identity is a role internalized and used to create meaning -- such as parent, larper, or working class hero. She cites three definitions for Myth: (1) narrative structure/saga, (2) untruth/fiction, or (3) an overall controlling image. As a side note, I think a major issue with using the word myth is the connotation definition #2, since she would later use myth to describe belief in anything, whether true, false or disputed. So "Personal Myth" is a broad concept of the context of belief from which you speak. She gave examples of the Japanese cult Aum Shinrikyo -- with an Identity of a spiritual brotherhood of saved believers, but whose myth was specifically of the coming apocalypse.

         Coming back to a role-playing context, she suggested that most have avoided dealing with myth in larping because it is seen as dangerous and possibly reinforcing critics of role-playing. Organizationally, the key point is that players need to be involved in the creation of myth for their characters. She suggested several techniques for this:

Her perspective is of fairly large larps between diverse strangers, and emphasized a larger amount of organizer control. Her larps had a strong message from the organizers which she wanted to convey. In discussing techniques, she also mentioned other techniques she did not recommend per se: including pre-game mini-larps and less structured player-to-player interactions.

         Several events were discussed in this, including the October 2003 event "Mellan Himmel Och Hav" and the summer 2005 event "Moira". She also mentioned an upcoming larp, "Between Steel and Glass", which would be run over two weekends in the late summer and fall of 2007.

         The discussion afterwards probed first of all into the contrast of real-life beliefs and constructed beliefs in a larp. There was also further discussion of technique. One of her criticisms of standard larp approach was that it took a long time to truly get into character -- she felt more than a day. However, her workshop techniques meant spending a potentially equivalent amount of time pre-game. A key difference is that the workshop is closely overseen and controlled, while development within the game is more chaotic.


"A Bird's Eye Perspective" (Mini-Larp)

         This was undoubtably the strangest concept for a larp which I had ever come across. Entitled "Bird on a Wire", the rough idea is to play out birds interpreting what they think humans are doing. More completely, though, this is playing out the telepathic dreams of birds who listen to telephone conversations through their feet. Maybe it's simpler to explain this way: we have some human characters set up -- a divorced woman on a farm with a child and two lovers. Each turn, two players improvise a phone conversation she has with one of her relations. While the conversation happens, there are a row of bird players between the two human players. They squawk and ponder what they're hearing. After the two humans hang up, the bird players then go into a dream sequence where they act out what they think the humans were just talking about.

         This was a sort of extension of the "Jeep Form" style of play, which I had tried out in Knutepunkt 2005 in their game "The Upgrade". The former game shared only a few elements (i.e. the scene shifting), and was much more comprehensible.

         This was actually published as a short article in a newsletter, but the authors' hadn't actually playtested it. The players here were myself, Tobias Wrigstad, Olle Jonsson, Frederik Olsen, and Thorbiörn Fritzon. It was amusing and intriguing in concept, but it didn't really work. Partly, it was just so silly that we couldn't sustain it -- and also it was so strange we didn't really see eye-to-eye on what we were doing. After explaining the concept, we only played for fifteen minutes or so before wrapping up.


"Filmshow: System Danmarc / Vreden" (Film Presentation)

         This presented two short films documenting recent larps. The first was "System Danmarc" which was a near-future dystopian larp run in downtown Copenhagen in October 2005. The second was "VREDEN", a WWII larp and living history project run in 2004, which followed the journey of a group of Russian soldiers in 1944 from their homes to their graves by the front line at Narva in Estonia.

         Both of these were extremely elaborate productions with extensive budgets -- which is what the films showcased. Neither featured as much interviews with players of the games, so I didn't come away with a strong impression of how well they played. However, a friend had played in Vreden and it seemed to lean more towards historical re-creation and less towards role-play.


Final Thoughts

         The remainder of the convention didn't have any more lectures or workshops. There was a formal-ish dinner and costume party which most everyone attended, with dancing and silliness afterwards. Then people split off to separate parties and discussions. There is a certain amount of whimsy, but also seriousness to this. One of the odd moments from that night was when I was naked in the sauna with ten other men and one woman, when we were all discussing balancing encouraging diversity (and especially letting in students and younger folk) in Knutpunk while still keeping out people who aren't serious about larp. Too many people were starting to talk at once, and I felt the urge to raise my hand to speak (which we did at many of the discussion groups), but didn't because it felt too silly to do while naked in a sauna.

         I also interviewed briefly with J. Tuomas Harviainen, who was doing an academic paper on the experience of larping/role-playing and had done quite a number of interviews. He was a bit cagey on the details, but roughly he said there was a strong commonality in the description of immersive experience across a number of sub-communities.

         I left there with a lot of half-formed ideas. There was more of an immersionist tendency to my conversations this year compared to last year -- which probably has more to do with meeting a different cross-section of people than with a change in the center of the community. One common trope seemed to be making an open environment for play with a political bent, like System Danmarc. Still, the registration had a number of books for sale. They had the Knutpunkt books, a magazine on "Radical Role-playing", as well as the Swedish larp magazine Fëa. They also had several White Wolf larp books, Joseph Campbell's "Hero of a Thousand Faces" and Orson Scott Card's "How to Write Science Fiction & Fantasy". Lastly, they had two thematic card games: "Once Upon a Time" and "Gloom".

         To anyone who hasn't been here, I'd caution against any idea that there is a unified "Scandanavian role-playing scene". The people who come here play in different languages and often have very different backgrounds. This was viscerally driven home for me this time when I was doing something like interpretive dance in the "Your Body" workshop, while on the other side of the wall people were screaming and hitting each other in the "Male Workshop".

 


John H. Kim <jhkim-at-darkshire-dot-net>
Last modified: Thu Jun 15 07:32:48 2006