Solmukohta 2008 Report

         This was my third "Nodal Point" convention, having been to Norway in 2005 and Sweden in 2006, but missing Denmark in 2007. As is tradition for the convention series, there was a week of socializing, drinking, and larping before the convention ("A Week In Finland") -- followed by mostly panel discussions and workshops at the convention itself. There was also a book published of essays, and I got in an entry this year.


A Week in Finland

Modern Day Modesty

         My Monday larp was organized by Santtu Määttänen. It was an abstract larp where none of the characters actually talked to each other. Instead, we lay in a darkened neutral room, and talked about why we were considering suicide. We heard the others only out-of-character. The mood was set in part by a soundtrack as well as the neutral environment. As an experiment, I was happy to try it -- especially since it was relatively short. However, the lack of character interaction would be a major issue for me if it went any longer or if there were several like it.

The Scarlet Railway

         My Tuesday larp was organized by Andrea Castellani. It was an immersive larp where the characters were refugees from Bosnia in 1992. It had 3 hours of preparation, then 2 hours of the central scene set on a train between camps in Italy, followed by discussion. Over three hours, we first read up on the general background, then were assigned characters, and played out five scenes from our years together prior to the train trip. The memories played out were mostly positive, but our written character backgrounds had the horrible war crimes we experienced during the recent occupation of our village by Serbian forces. I played Roman, a Catholic priest and uncle to the family. After playing out the memories indoors, we prepared and moved outside to play out the train ride. As part of preparation, Andrea attached bandages over the eyes of one of the players, whose character was a teenager who had been blinded by the Serbian troops. During play, we had a problem of occasional loud construction noise by the balcony we were playing in that made conversation difficult. Other than that, play went quite smoothly.

         I though the character interactions in the train ride worked quite well. We had plenty to talk about, both about our past and our future in the camps. I did feel some qualms that by playing a game about war crimes we were doing a disservice to the victims. However, the background was thoroughly researched and treated with great respect. I appreciated the preparation, which gave a deeper context of life and the roots of the conflicts.

War Council

         My Wednesday larp was organized by Martine Svanevik and Marthe Glad. About 18 players were representatives of the four member fictional meta-nations of the "Southern Alliance" in a future world war. We sat around a big conference table in a classroom and discussed our plans for continuing a desperate war, where one of the points for debate was reducing the draft age from 16 to 14. We random took characters, defined briefly with a nation, a position, and a characteristic quote (mine was "What has been seen cannot be unseen"). At the start, we established background out-of-character of the conflict over Madagascar by voting on strategic decisions over it. Then we entered play.

         In play, we debated many points of strategy and tactics around the table. Underying that, though, people were struggling with their beliefs about the war. Our main background was the tactical situation around Madagascar, with little about the causes or bigger picture of the war. As a result, players had very different internal pictures about what the war was about in the bigger picture. It was interesting to see, indirectly, how players thought to themselves about the war. It worked pretty smoothly in that players would improvise, and accept facts that others stated. However, I could see in our different reactions that we had quite imagined the larger war quite differently. This was distracting from the play, but it was interesting to reflect out-of-character on how different people imagined differently. I would put this also as interesting experimentally.

Prayers on the Porcelain Alter

         This (aka "The Hangover Larp") was my Thursday larp, organized by J. Tuomas Harviainen. It was a short immersive larp (roughly 2 hours including a half hour of preparation). All of the characters were acting students who woke up with the worst hangover of their lives, not quite able to remember all the events of the night before -- the joke being, of course, that many of the players would have hangovers from the frequent drinking of the larp crowd. The characters had colors for their names as a mnemonic. The organizer explained as rules that we had the power to freely assert facts by saying "meta" before any statement. However, I never heard this used during the game.

         I played "Purple" -- a quiet character, which is always a tricky issue in role-playing. It worked fairly well, though, in practice. The main action of the larp was not really a mystery where we worked out what happened. Rather, it was us being mean to each other in the course of working out what happened.


The Conference Itself

Organization and Attendees

         Solmukohta 2008 was held at the conference hotel Kuljavanranta just 30 miles outside Helsinki. They organized buses from downtown. Compared to 2005 in Norway and 2006 in Sweden, my thoughts on the overall structure were:

  1. It was a day shorter, Friday to Sunday rather than Thursday to Sunday. Since Friday and Sunday were both half-days with packing out and packing in, this was really one full day versus two full days -- which made it feel very short to me.
  2. The accomodations were more comfortable than my prior experiences, being a nice hotel as opposed to a spread-out group of cabins in 2005 and 2006. However, there were drawbacks. We were generally three to a room with only two beds and a mattress. More importantly, my two roommates and I only had two key cards, which meant hassles over getting into the room. The event areas were still spread out, but they were connected by indoor hallways. This was more comfortable, but it meant people couldn't see each other as well wandering around.
  3. The attendees were more internationally diverse than two years ago in Sweden. With around 250 people total, there were big blocks of guys from Germany and Israel, a scattering of people from Eastern Europeans, along with four Americans. Also, probably not coincidentally, the average attendee was a little older, with more men. I had estimated a little over one-third women at Knutpunkt 2006 (fifty-something out of 147), while it seemed under a third this time.

Program Items

Educational Role-playing

         This was a panel talk and discussion on educational role-playing. The first topic of discussion was the newly-formed Danish public school which explicitly organized its program around role-playing, Østerskov Efterskole. Malik Hyltoft, one of the organizers of the school, talked about its curriculum and techniques. What stood out to me was how students would often not show any signs of going deeply into character beyond their costume, but still engaged more deeply with the material based on their role.

         Matthijs Holter also spoke about his use of role-playing in classrooms, using techniques from tabletop games. His students had a character sheet made using ultra-simplified rules, and a key use of the role-playing was motivational -- especially givig experience points (XP) for solving problems. After that, many others spoke about their own examples of educational role-playing, such as a game to learn about refugee camps in a children's scouting program, and an extended game among schoolkids to learn about the politics around the forming of modern Israel.

Larp in Latvia

         Agnese Dzervite & Diana Kazina gave a lecture on the larp scene in Latvia, including pictures and short video trailers made to advertise certain larps. They estimated there were 200-300 active larpers in Latvia, from a population of around 2 million. Games at first started with Russian speakers in 1997, who founded "Club Dragon" that continues to run three larps per year. The first larps in Latvian started in 2003, who are generally younger. There have been only a few mixed language larps. One used the language barrier in game, with humans speaking Latvian, dwarves speaking Russian, and elves speaking English.

         The games were generally in the fantasy or post-apocalyptic genres. While they spoke of their efforts as primitive in some respects, they were able to get excellent locations for play -- especially on former military bases. They would advertise for larps on the Internet, including the videos trailers shown.

         I was intrigued at how the general fantasy / sci-fi culture and gaming culture had transfered into Eastern Europe.

Translating the 3 Way Model

         Troels Barkholt lead a discussion on the Three Way Model, which I was naturally interested in. I came into this somewhat late, but I was involved as people broke into groups to suggest different ways to split up larp style into three groups. Suggestions included

Having written up the Threefold Model at its start, it was interesting to see it being discussed eleven years later.

         There were no strong conclusions -- just the idea that there is still some power in it, and some pointing out of problems.

Listening Dramatics

         This was a workshop run by Anna-Karin Linder on picking up especially non-verbal cues from other players. We went through some exercises of walking around while watching for signals from other players. One exercise was to walk around and silently pick one person as your protector and another as your enemy -- and to walk so that your protector was between you and your enemy. We then tried to walk around so that as a group, only three people were walking at the once. Whenever one person stopped, the others would notice and someone would start walking.

         After that, there were a series of eye contact exercises. The first was to have two rows of chairs facing each other, with everyone sitting in them, except for the odd person out who was trying to get a seat. We made agreements by eye contact with a person in the opposite row, then quickly switched seats without the person in the middle catching us. Another was to walk around and establish a "relationship" with another person by eye contact, then by silent agreement high-five them and move on. This was then complicated by having a jealous other who would try to prevent such relationships, thus including watching for other people's eye contact.

         From that it progressed to more expressive mini-scenarios that included talking. We split into a group of judges who were forced to view a set of prisoners before they were executed. This was still interesting, but I don't think it worked quite as well as part of the workshop progression. (Though one problem was that we had a lot more people than the workshop was originally intended for.)

Tango for Two

         This was an intriguing workshop and mini-larp organized by Tor Kjetil Edland and Even Tomte -- where there were two players for each character. One player was the conscious mind of the character, while the other was the subconscious impulses. The subconscious player could give suggestions to the conscious mind, and during certain periods (when the lights were dimmed and tango music played), the conscious had to follow the subconscious' instructions. As we worked it out, the subconscious players would also sometimes interact with each other directly -- presumably representing subconscious cues between characters. However, the subconscious were invisible to other conscious players.

         We paired up and went through a few exercises. A key point was in using physical pointing, directing, and pushing to influence the conscious player in addition to talking. We drew some random traits out of a hat for our characters, including two goals with regards to other characters. The situation was that we were business partners, where a large company had hired a smaller company to do sexual harrassment awareness training for its employees. We had some token costuming to associate the subconscious with the conscious, where each wore an identical hat or scarf. The subconscious players also marked their faces with black greasepaint.

         The game itself was quite chaotic, as one could guess since there were five subconscious' all whispering and pushing at once while the conscious players were trying to have a regular conversation. But it was very interesting, and made me ponder about ways to work a mystic or otherwise thematic subconscious into a larp.

Metatechnique Toolbox

         A lecture and discussion lead by Anna-Karin Linder, concerning different metagame techniques. This drew especially from techniques used in the larp, "A Nice Evening With the Family". These included:

These and others got some discussion, but mostly this was a grab-bag of different techniques and reports of their use rather than in-depth discussion of any one topic.

Larp Management

         Anna Westerling lead a very large workshop on larp management, where we broke into groups of 6-8 and planned out a hypothetical larp, and discussed other ideas. I found there to be a bit of culture shock, as some of the Scandanavian folks at the table discussed applying for grants and getting a massive budget for even a moderate-sized larp - as well as having a complicated web of official positions among the organizers. To myself as an American, and to Diana as a Latvian, this was utterly alien to our experience of larps -- which were for us something thrown together by a few friends. Still, it was interesting to see, and we had some fun planning out our hypothetical horror larp -- "Bottom of the Food Chain".

Larp in Eastern Europe

         This was a Sunday morning panel, with people speaking on larping in Russia, Latvia, Croatia, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary. I was pretty tired through this one, but there was a lot of description. As in most places, the dominant larp genre seemed to be outdoor fantasy larps influenced by Tolkien and D&D, where players create their own characters and costumes. There is occasional overlap with the living history or reenactment crowd.

         I missed the description of Russian larps, and I had already heard about the larp scene in Latvia (see above). Croatia fantasy and sci-fi fans concentrated in the central city of Zagreb, and the larpers and tabletop role-players overlapped heavily. There it seems common for characters to be transfered from one game to another. Czechoslovakia's role-playing was also D&D influenced. Hungary evidently had a boom of tabletop RPGs in the 1990s, followed by a religious backlash against the games as satanic. At present, there were perhaps 400 to 500 medieval fantasy larpers, 100 to 200 World of Darkness larpers, and 20 or so organizer teams.


Conclusion

         Overall, the content seemed to have less of a weighty, experimental feel. Some of the big topics had a "retro" feel to them -- meaning taking after fantasy larps using boffer weapons, or influenced by tabletop games from past decades. These included the discussion of larp in Eastern Europe and Russia, which don't have as much of the experimental scene. It also included larps for younger players used in education. At the book release party for "Playground Worlds", some people described its collection of essays as celebrating an earlier ideal of "play". There was even a lecture on the memory of Gary Gygax.

         Still, larps were clearly more popular and accepted within Scandanavia than elsewhere -- emphasized by projects like the massive Dragonbane larp and the Danish public school, Østerskov Efterskole. If they want larp to grow, there are probably some lessons to be taken from Scandanavia -- including both their traditional and experimental larp scenes.

         An overview of the books can be found at nordicscene.org.

 


John H. Kim <jhkim-at-darkshire-dot-net>
Last modified: Fri Jan 22 11:16:48 2010