Solmukohta 2012 Report

         This was my fifth "Nodal Point" convention, after having missed the conventions in 2010 and 2011 due to my shift in career. 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, which went Thursday through Sunday.


A Week in Finland

A Week in Finland began this year with a welcome party at the heavy metal bar, PRKL Club, and a city tour the following afternoon.

The Elsewhere Experiment

This was labelled as a larp, but I would have called it a workshop. The big idea was to built up semi-fictional techniques to use in larps or in playing real-life as a larp. Here semi-fictional means that there are layers of imagination that you put over what you see, but there are no backstory or purely fictional constructs - only qualities that you imagine about real-world objects and people. For example, one technique uses was:

BLOOMER: generates Seeds from the environment

         Most of it was using bodily or sensory focuses a few at a time as a workshop. Bits of the rhetoric bordered on the lunatic fringe, but the experience was generally fun and interesting. Two highlights for me were practicing the "Machinist" biocept, and discovering the odradek. For the Machinist biocept, everyone went around and manipulated objects in the room for different ways. I started moving furniture to block the door and otherwise channel people moving around - it was amusing to see how we all interacted. The name odradek refers to Kafka's short story, "The Cares of a Family Man." We did much like an acting exercise, finding the odradek within ourselves. The attendees were called "semionaughts" exploring "semiospace", and the techniques were known as "biocepts".

Pub Crawl

In the evening was an organized pub crawl. While not a role-playing game, this was done as a game - with various points given for tasks done, such as singing drinking songs, having a drink with egg in it, and ordering in Finnish (for a non-Finn). The interesting part of this for gamers was seeing signs of gaming culture in bars we passed through. One of the bars we were directed to was directly over a gaming store, and had people playing various games in booths around it - like a group of women playing Magic: The Gathering at the booth across from where we sat. This seemed like a signal that hobby gaming in general was more popular than in the U.S.

         Oh, and also it was fun making fools of ourselves in the pub crawl process.

Finnish Tabletop Day

This was an afternoon of playing Finnish tabletop games. We looked over and discussed a range of Finnish tabletop RPGs, and played in two short games over four hours - Lamentations of the Flame Princess, and Fables of Camelot.

Lamentations of the Flame Princess

Lamentations of the Flame Princess is an English-language game, written by an American living in Finland. It is a popular game of the Old School Renaissance, based on D&D but specifically emulating "weird fantasy". The author, James Ragni, ran us through a scenario from the game - deliberately a non-dungeon-crawl to show the versatility of the game. We had six players doing character creation - which had the common problem of trying to share a small number of handouts and rulebooks among the players who had to frequently reference them. The players included Aira-Katariina, Jason, Leila, myself, and two others (?).

         I chose a cleric, and wound up with leather armor and a polearm, since I couldn't quite afford chainmail. The contrast of this with my typical image of a fantasy cleric inspired me to say that my character was a black-leather-clad, pole-axe-wielding heavy metal priest. Of course, the natural choice for his name was "Judas". I quickly adopted this as my schtick for the game, and it colored a lot of the following game. Aira's character was a belligerent dwarf, while Jason played a contrarian wizard (?) and Leila was a specialist (?).

         The scenario at first seemed to be a mystery in that we found a dead body on the way to an inn. However, what ensued was a lot of clash over greed, ethics, authority, and free will. It turned out that beings were appearing that perfectly duplicated people or animals. We were divided over how to find them, how far to go in keeping them here, and eventually what to do when we identified them. A key ethical issue was that the changelings could be identified because they had a gemstone instead of a heart. Conflicted decisions included:

         In the end, we killed a number of changelings - but kept one that had duplicated Aira's dwarf and one that had duplicated the inn's serving girl. Aira's dwarf and my heavy-metal cleric took the lead in saying that the changelings weren't a problem. We took two of them with us when leaving. Here the system played a part: I was able to detect the changelings by Detect Chaos, which revealed them as highly Chaotic. However, LotFP has only a label of Chaotic, not Evil. Especially since our characters were highly unlawful anyway, we identified with them and didn't think they should be killed.

         During the latter half of the adventure, Jason was convinced that we were missing something - thinking that there should be some sort of solution to the problem. Instead, the GM James afterwards told us that there wasn't such a thing - and that furthermore the changelings would only change shape when it would cause more chaos (and thus wasn't a predictable function).

Fables of Camelot

This is a Finnish-language game by Eero Tuovinen and Sami Koponen that we were introduced to by verbal explanation. (I later discovered there is an English beta draft of the rules.) It was pitched as more of a story game intended for beginners. The main rules feature that came through to me was the pool of common resources. It was game-mastered by author Eero, with five or six players including Leila, Aira-Katariina, Jason, and myself.

         Character creation was quick, consisting of choosing a heraldic animal symbol, and being assigned a random background trait. All knights had a Might rating of 1, and a Fame rating that we later learned was based on how many of the other PC's heraldic animals your animal can eat. Jason and I had picked rabbit and stork, respectively, and had the lowest Fame - while another player who picked dragon had the highest. For name, I originally considered being a foreigner. However, another character rolled the random trait of foreigner and my random trait was that I had a witch for a wife. Thus, I decided I was a proud Welsh pagan who supported Arthur as a moral and tolerant leader.

         The scenario was a fairly straightforward mission. From Camelot, we volunteered to deal with a noble to the North after complaints from a desperate knight whose wife was to be taken by the noble's authority. We stopped along the way to help a boar hunt, then proceeded to deal with the noble and his wife - one Morgan le Fay. The rules were minimalist, but we had a pool of resource dice that we brought with us - representing retinue of Aira's knight, a churchman we brought along, and my witch-wife. Anyone could use these resource dice, but there were social negotiations over who should.

         Still, in this game we all cooperated and focused on succeeding in the mission. We discovered that the king's wife Morgan was indeed a witch, but we did not attack or confront him over that - since after all, my wife was a witch. Basically we found no serious wrongdoing and left without even giving him a reprimand, but we did imply that he should behave and support the priest who we had brought to minister to the Christian locals.

Alice ad Infinitum

Wednesday started with this a semi-freeform game by Johanna MacDonald and Aarni Korpela. It was held at the working small theater that was our base (Teatteri Naamio ja Höyhen), and they had taken down a wall panel to open up the space between the stage and the dressing room. The game was explained only verbally, which took some time. It was divided into three phases: Wonderland, Mirrorland, and Reality - and in each phase we would define our own characters, with the only requirement being that there had to be at least one Alice, and Alice had to be in every scene. The players were: Vilhelmīna, myself, Aliona, Tatiana, David, Alex, Stephane, Leila, and (name forgotten).

         The background concept was that there was a continuous process where one Alice after another entered Wonderland, and those that failed to pass through became characters in the realm, slowly losing their memory of the past existence. We would play through the journey of at least one Alice through the two realms and back to Reality. We each created our own characters and background. The experimental part was playing different versions of the same character in different realities, and playing characters who shifted identity.

         We started by raiding the theater's costume room for outfits. The game needed an Alice - so after a long pause where no one stepped forward, I chose to play Alice for the first phase. We put together costumes that defined our characters, and then introduced ourselves. I was amazed to find that there was a perfect blue Alice-in-Wonderland dress that fit me, though it was tight around the shoulders. There were mirrors set up all around the stage, and each phase began with quiet looking in the mirror.

         I felt under pressure as Alice because I basically framed each scene and involved the other players - since each player had one scene in the phase. It was implied in the scene with Aliona's caterpillar that she took my identity. For the second Mirrorland stage, Aliona and Leila played dual Alices - who had a stronger confrontation with Alex's Red Queen. I played my Alice-turned-caterpillar as a jaded stoner. Some players missed their when we went on to the Reality phase, where Alex played Red-Queen-turned-Alice.

         I liked this, and I thought it did well the experimental bit of playing characters in shifting reality. On the negative side - the introduction could have been tighter with some written material or condensed instructions. Also, there was emphasis on one-on-one scenes with limited role for other players.

The Tribunal

This is a short 12-person larp designed by J. Tuomas Harviainen and winner of the Larpwriter Challenge in 2010. A group of soldiers, in a totalitarian country, wait for their turns to testify before an unjust military tribunal. It has been run many times and organized this time by Suvi Korhonen and Santeri Virtanen. Each soldier had a name and personality based on an animal:

         For some reason, I was expecting something experimental or with a big twist. However, really it was just a set of finely crafted characters in a locked room and a tense situation - leading to a bunch of spontaneous and interesting role-played interaction. I would definitely look at running this some time upcoming in the U.S.


The Conference Itself

Organization and Attendees

Solmukohta 2012 was held at the conference hotel Kuljavanranta, situated by a lake about 30 miles outside Helsinki. They organized buses from downtown. Space was quite limited - there were three people to a room, but only two beds, with one mattress on the floor. Also, this year they allowed more attendees who were housed at another hotel about thirty minute's walk away - either by a snowy path along the lake or longer but easier down the roads.


Thursday Program Items

Opening Ceremonies + The Solmukohta Flu

After a brief introduction with the usual speeches, there was a very large half-hour larp for all the attendees created by JiiTuomas Harviainen. Everyone was given a dual character - first a human character defined in relation to oneself, and also a type of zombie. I played basically a nastier version of myself, and would become a cunning zombie able to speak a few words. It made for some nice crowd scenes and was a fun half-hour. Notably, there were almost no instructions at all for resolution, but the players easily ran with that. People just held doors shut with real strength to hold off zombies - and some players often playfully bit someone on the outside of their clothes to make humans into zombies.

         As a zombie, I tried to use my few words to plead with fellow American Jason to let me in. This was amusing in that it touched on the premise of role-playing versions of ourselves, but ultimately was just a short moment. I also cunningly hid as the NPC soldiers were coming by and shooting all the zombies (and people!) down, then bit a soldier from behind. In all, the larp was a fun icebreaker - quite different from the 2009 opening larp scenario "The School Trip".

Youth-Larp Forum

This was a participatory forum with about twenty people, which was a lot - but the group opted not to split up. It was organized by Sindre Titlestad Westegard. Topics included "Edu-Larp", "Larp for challenged kids", "Design" (merged with "Assessment"), "Funding & Marketing" (merged with "Startup" and "Organization"), "IRL conflict", and "ELIN network" (cf. www.edu-larp.org).

         In general, most of the focus was on edu-larp. Some interesting comments included Alexey Fedoseev's extensive edu-larps in Russia; the idea of having a school in the game to teach the larp rules in-characters (though this has a pitfall that some kids may play characters who don't pay attention in school); the importance that evaluation be explicit/visible to the kids and include time for reflection; and encouraging kids to form their own guilds or other in-game institutions. I remember Josefin had some interesting comments from Sweden, but they're missing from my notes.

Hour of the Rant

A series of rants organized by larp rock star Claus Raasted. I came in on Osher El-Netanany's rambling rant about politics, controversial among some participants over Israeli politics. I missed Jason Morningstar's rant, but saw Lizzie Stark's excellent "write a fucking rulebook" rant that many people took to heart. I liked that it was socially acceptable to rant and that people respected each other even if they disagreed with what was said.


Friday Program Items

Game Based Learning - Østerskov Style

An excellent overview of the background and process of teaching at Østerskov Efterskole - a public boarding school with 80 teenage students (usually 15-16) in Denmark that for the past six years has been teaching entirely through role-playing games. Staff members Helle Zinck, Pernille Rousing, and Morten Tellefsen presented. They divided their educational program into "Holistic Larp" and "Board Games". Most teaching was done through a week-long themed larp that covers many activities and subjects, where students are on-game from breakfast to the end of school at around 15:00. Examples of themes include catch-the-serial-killer, Orient Express, Salem Witch trials, The ten kingdoms, Cruise Ship, and spaceships. The audience played out part of the catch-the-serial-killer larp, playing police cadets who worked on a coded message and solving acid-base problems for the crime scene. Highlights include:

        Plot                                Game Board
          v                                      v
     Experiences                               Point
          v           <---Motivation--->         v
 Open new opportunities                      Advantage
          v                                      v
        Result                                 Winner

                   Kids split roughly 50-50
                Mix this up to share motivation
         Plot----------->Point
                              v
      Opportunity <-------Advantage

Let's Play Together

A presentation by Marinka Copier and Tijn Rams that dissected experiences with Gruga - a parallel universe fantasy larp for kids, teens, and adults. All players would pass through a ritual portal to take them to the other world. Kids could wander at first as "travellers" to the realm (more like themselves), then decide later to join and make native characters for themselves (or monster characters if they were veteran players). There were sandbox theme and plots such as "market day" or "wedding", without planned adventure. However, there was fixed day structure: arrive at 10:30, 11:00 open portal, and so on until 17:00 travel back to the real world. Feedback was essential - adults would step in among kids to give feedback, only if the kids were not giving enough of their own feedback. They noted a particular episode where the Grim Reaper - who could only speak by whispering in someone's ear - drew a bunch of kids aside and recruited them to attack and disrupt the wedding ceremony, drugging all the adult characters.

Playing With Intent

This was a freeform game organized by Emily Care Boss, using a basic sort of toolkit of techniques chosen by the players. In addition to Emily, the players were Nina, Egil, Johanna, Heiko, Alex, Helle, Evan, and John (me). We created a family drama where the daughter in her young twenties is dying of heart disease. The family was torn - both financially and ethically - over obtaining a transplant heart from the black market. We also decided as a group on a set of techniques to use. Our techniques used were: flashback, internal monologue, round-robin scene framing using the props as a focus and a prompt, and Alex brought in montage for the "get the heart" sequence. How it would go was that all the players were listed in order on a blackboard, and each player would pick an item from our collection of props and use it to start a scene. I think we went through the list twice - so 18 scenes (?).

         In general, it was a touching game - supported by all the players and especially by Emily, who helped to set a tone of being both open and emotional in her introduction. My character was the nurse, Agnes (?), who I had originally seen mostly as a foil for Johanna's family doctor. In practice, the nurse faded to the background over the course of the game. I felt she wasn't really doing much with the main storyline - partly because the doctor's love for the daughter never really came to the foreground. Instead, I tried to support other play - including as a bartender who was directed to flirt with the mother, while I added in that the bartender was the undercover cop's contact by flashing an in-character note to Emily. Johanna also jumped in as hired killer Daniel, whom Emily's cop was forced to kill.

         The end was tragic and touching as no heart arrived, and the daughter was brought back out to the family summer home by the lake to spend her last days. I requested an internal monologue for that. Nine players did seem on the edge of too much for a freeform game like this. There was a time when I was waiting outside the hospital room with another character and we were whispering in-character while another scene was happening in the room. I think that violated the idea of there being only one scene, but it also felt like following the characters. The general results were excellent, though, thanks to everyone's contributions.

Summer Lovin' - Tell Me More

This was a six-person freeform game by Anna Westerling, Elin Nilsen and Trine Lise Lindahl. Players gathered in one room and made groups, each with three men and three women. (Players always played their own gender, it seems.) I was in the group run by Anna Westerling. It was a structured game done as a wrapper story of the three men and three women gossiping with each other about the bad sex they had at a music festival - with a narrative structure inspired by the song in Grease. The players and their characters were:

         I think this was the most explicit game I've played, in how physical sex acts were described - albeit with cuts and some distance. To warm up for this, we out-of-character each told a story about bad sex we supposedly had. (Anna said the story could be fictional, but we shouldn't say at the time if it was fictional.) The overall results were intriguing. Though everyone had signed up for this and was quite open, it was definitely a little uncomfortable. The game drew out a fair amount, but it seemed to me that it touched on even more, and there were volumes of things not being said.

         Each couple first had one scene cutting back and forth between the three men and the three women gossiping about their tryst. After that there was a second scene directly between the couple of what really happen. The two sit facing each other knee-to-knee - and you signal that you're describing actions in metagame by holding your partner's hand, then releasing the hands to speak in-character. It was an interesting contrast with Ars Amandi that I'd done a workshop in years back, but hadn't used since. The technique definitely has more distance to it, but that lets some things be expressed better.

         Unfortunately, time was running short when we got to the scenes with Vilhelmīna and me. It was pre-written that our characters' sex would be bad because my character Jacob was drunk and fell asleep. However, in our version we never got to consummating - I fell asleep while Kristina stepped out to get a protection. The follow-up scene was definitely touching, though, as Kristina came up Jacob at a bar weeks later. He was very apologetic and denied being drunk all the time, then tried to ask Kristina out on a real date. She turned him down on that but was willing to mess around with him at the festival - which was intriguing to me though a bit spirit-crushing to Jacob. Vilhelmīna was great to play off of even though our scenes were definitely rushed.

Great Children's LARP without Boffer

This was a talk by Miriam Lundqvist. It was strange to me because I have almost never played boffer larp, including all of my larps with children. Her main take was that depending on boffer skill limited how children could excel in larp. Stated problem include boffer limiting society's view of children's larp, limiting our view of how children want to larp, and that fighting/boffer kills role-playing. It began with a quick 15-minute larp where we played various students in a classroom - my character (Oliver) had just found out that he wasn't going to graduate and was determined to make the principal as upset as he was.

         She described using magical powers (such as invisibility and truth detection) so that all players could be equally powerful. She noted that children really wanted to evolve - i.e. change their characters. One approach was to allow advancement only by increasing a corresponding weakness. Another note was that more concrete options were generally superior. For example, asking players to accuse someone as a traitor went much better if they were given a list of players to mark with an "X".

White Trash Talkshow

This was a comedic larp that I was initially skeptical of because it was set as a live television show - so most of the players were going to be the audience, which sounded like a passive part. However, from the inspiration as a parody of Jerry Springer and Ricki Lake, the audience was extremely involved and people would frequently call out to shout down the stage and sometimes even rush up to fight with guests on-stage.

         I came in late, but it was easy to join in the middle. What came through a lot was some jovial but still pointed takes on middle-American culture - like some audience members shouting out "What would Jesus do?" shortly before launching themselves into a fistfight with someone on the stage. I was inconsistent about my character, but settled on a moralizing loudmouth - who, for example, boo'd at an adulterer played by Sarah and then tried to spit at her as she walked past on her way out.

Duckbowl Tournament

Not a larp, but still an intriguing bit of Solmukohta culture. As described in the program, it was "a rubber duck, nakedness, senseless violence, and a party, combined in a very Finnish way." I think it is sufficient to say that the Finns are crazy, and able to draw in many others into their craziness. Thanks to Timo for organizing, and to all the fellow players - it was a blast!


Saturday Program Items

Game Mechanics vs. Agency and Participation?

This was a talk by Andie Nordgren that I briefly followed. It was interesting, but mainly focused on computer gaming that I have very little background or experience in. One core idea was the contrast of traditional computer game designer's view of "fun" (i.e. entertainment for the player) - as opposed to the larper's view of "agency" (i.e. player control over environment).

Don't Touch or I'll Sue: American Larp as National Metaphor

This was an excellent talk by Lizzie Stark, and was helpful in answering questions. The core content is well covered by her book that I recommend: Leaving Mundania: Inside the Transformative World of Live Action Role-Playing Games as well as her article in this year's Solmukohta book, States of Play. Some interesting parts were different audience members trading experiences with mainstream larp in both America and the Nordic countries.

Prelude

This was an experimental larp about a popular rock band in mid-career, possibly on the verge of breaking up - organized by Lauri Lukka. The key experiment was that characters were defined primarily by their relationship to others. So, for example, for each of the seven characters I had a one-word descriptor of our relationship: Pride, Hope, Disturbance, Fear, Surprise, hate, Superiority. In addition, each character had a one-word Issue - mine was "attention". The players and their characters were:

         The players collectively created the background. We decided our band was a heavy metal band called "Pb" (pronounced "lead") and we were in the middle of a tour promoting our third album. There was some interesting improv as we did technical things like discussing what our set list would be - i.e. arguing over the qualities of fictional song titles - and especially a few scenes were we were playing in concert. It was definitely fun improvising song titles like "Lead Balloon", "Purple", "Brick in the Head", and "Broken Leg". It felt a little silly drumming on a chair with markers while others did air guitar, but it was interesting to try to incorporate this - because as a band, how we played was central to us as a group. We were called on to plan in advance a few cut scenes, where we played other characters: (1) a family in a pub; (2) record label marketing team; (3) music students analyzing the latest album; and (4) fans waiting for the band. I think we only did #2 and #4, though.

         In the end, I liked the mostly-freeform play we did. I thought our cut scenes worked well. In addition, the organizer called on us in the middle of a practice song to cut to a flashback to when the band was first getting together - which was excellent. Kudos to Dirk for the vocals on "Purple" (i.e. shouting in a heavy metal style); and to Josephin for her pregnancy scare. Still, I didn't think the defined relationship words worked very well. Everyone tried to bring in their bits, but it didn't seem to drive play - at least from my perspective.

Social Conflict and Bleed in Role-playing Communities version 2.0

This was a talk by American Sarah Lynn Bowman, author of The Functions of Role-Playing Games: How Participants Create Community, Solve Problems and Explore Identity. I felt a little odd listening to two talks by Americans when I'd come hundreds of miles to Finland, but it was very interesting material. The talk was based on a detailed study of 29 interviews of role-players - including 20 Americans, 4 Swedish, and 5 others. She found that there were commonly reported schisms within communities. These included competition connected to envy or hatred; rules disputes; small group dynamic issues such as incestuous groups or a "diva" player; and lack of out-of-character socialization.

         She brought up other models, such as Turkman's model of group development (Forming, Storming, Norming, and Performing). The especial interest for me, though, was her conclusion that the social conflict mapped well to splits between Gamist, Narrativist, Simulationist, and Immersionist preferences. She referred to as Creative Agendas, but her definitions were closest to the original Threefold Model than Ron Edward's GNS formulation.

         She noted particular problems caused by unwillingness to cater to multiple agendas, and an unwillingness to discuss creative agenda. Still, player-level conflicts could be positive if they are resolved well. She then had a long list of types of social conflicts seen, divided by types, and peppered with examples seen. These are my brief notes:

         Potential solutions for social conflict included: taking time away from the the game; addressing conflict out-of-character through discussion with the other side; soliciting help; requesting GM intervention; removing problem players; out-of-character socializing, such as dinner after the game; talking out negative emotions in debriefs; hugging and/or shaking hands; resolving unfinished plots in meaningful ways; and addressing the needs of the group.

Design Lounge Party

Putting truth to Sarah's words, there was a lot of out-of-character socializing in the Saturday night party, and in general there was tremendous fun.


Sunday Program Items

As it turned out, I didn't make it to any of the few Sunday program items. I did have some interesting talks about larp, and just hanging out with new friends over late breakfast and lots of goodbyes.


Conclusion

As always, an excellent and eye-opening time. I had been away from the Knutepunkt scene since 2009, and it was great coming back. I have been steadily organizing a few small larps a year, but the great innovation and discussions left me energized and feeling full of ideas and especially rants at the state of things.

         I hadn't mentioned it, but the big talk around the convention was about the politically-charged larps "Kapo" and "Just a Little Lovin". A lot of the focus I saw was on educational larp, political larp, and moving into the mainstream. There were definitely interesting innovations and experimentation in many of the larps I played, plus others I heard of. Notably, I was intrigued by Jesper Bruun's tango larp work, designing larps that are played out through dance rather than dialogue. Still, I felt like there was a gap in processing and talking about these. It seemed like discussion was focused on where mainstream and setpiece larps were going rather than synthesizing stuff out of the rich mines of ideas in other larps.

         I take this as a drive to do more theorizing and synthesizing and ranting about role-playing and larp over the next year. Meanwhile, here are various other Solmukohta 2012 reports...

and pictures...

 


John H. Kim <jhkim-at-darkshire-dot-net>
Last modified: Fri May 4 09:08:56 2012