Review: Beyond Role and Play

- tools, toys and theory for harnessing the imagination
Editors: Markus Montola og Jaakko Stenros

Review by Matthjis Holter (English translation by Erling Rognli)

         There's a lot to say about this. I don't really know where to start, or which conclusions I will eventually draw. So let's see what it'll be!

         Well. "Beyond Role and Play" is the second Knutepunkt-book, as far as I know. Knutepunkt being the annual festival for larpers from all over Scandinavia. The host city changes every year, and the name is translated to the local language; this year the land was Finland and the festival was called Solmukohta '04.

         People with ideas meet at these festivals. These are larp-organisers, many of them also avid tabletop gamers (or ex-tabletop gamers), who've been thinking about their hobby, and who want to share the results. It's in no way an exaggeration to claim that this is somewhat of an elite within nordic roleplaying theory.

         Now they've begun publishing books. The last book, from Knudepunkt '03 (right, that would be in Denmark), was struggling a bit with its form. The articles went in multiple directions, both in terms of topic and presentation. It kind of left you with a feeling of sitting in a room with people yelling as loudly as possible, hoping to be heard for once. Many people all had lots of things to say; not all of it came across equally well.

         Has BR&P done better? Well, there really is no simple answer to that. The book is deadly serious; most of the contributors seem to be dedicated to keeping an academically stringent style, and to building a theoretical framework for the analysis of roleplaying. Sketches of different models are put forth in some number, and there is quite a bit of name-dropping and use of theories that seem to be of varying relevance.

         Clearly, roleplaying theory is groping its way out of the darkness. However: Where should it be headed? Some try starting with definitions and categories - what is larp, what is tabletop, what is narrativism, what is etc. Others offer models attempting to explain what happens when we play roleplaying games. The most viable approach appears to be the application of existing theory to explain and analyse roleplaying. And if you ask my opinion, theories from the fields of theatre or literature doesn't work as well as does forms of cultural analysis drawn from the fields of sociology and anthropology.

         Roleplaying is about humans interacting, creating something shared. The dynamics between those people, the understanding of borders between different parts of reality, social contracts, acceptance and sharing of authority - this is what works. For me. And I am also so in love with theories showing the connection between roleplaying and ritual as social phenomena. It's just very... sexy stuff.

         BR&P as a whole is impossible to categorise. The style -- small type, boring academic layout, emphasis on references and literature etc -- it's obviously meant to give a no-nonsense impression; that this is high level theory. I've got nothing against roleplaying theory as such; I can even like it a lot, in particular if I drink enough coffee. Still, I maintain the opinion that this is not something that can exist on its own. What I mean is: Roleplaying is cool in itself; roleplaying theories need to add something to roleplaying. Even if it's only a new vibe, a new way of looking at it, new eyes. On the other hand, sitting around comparing theories, making new ones on the basis of old ones, as a pure intellectual exersise - to me this is comparable with sitting in your room in your parents house making a new combat system for Rolemaster. Sure, you can make systems like that (theory or combat systems), but they matter little to the world at large, they don't create much enjoyment in actual play, and sadly enough they're often forced on the Common Crowd by the fanatics who've put them together.

         Now, don't take this as a general rejection of roleplaying theory! Not at all. And not at all as a rejection of BR&P. 'Cause there's more.

         The book is also adorned with several descriptions of larps. And here we're talking stuff that glows! Reading about Hamlet, Panopticon, and Mellan Himmel och Hav in particular -- never before have I wanted this much to go larping. Seeing what ideas these organisers have dared attempt to -- and succeed in -- realizing is incredibly inspiring. It gives you something to look up to and a standard to aim for. People who are serious about their art; that's a good thing!

         I am tempted to present an overview of the contents of the book, with a short description of each article. I won't though. It would simply be a lot of my opinions and possibly misrepresentations of the ideas presented by the various authors. I will pull out a list of recommendations, though, in something like an order of priority, my personal favorite first:

         So. Where am I headed? Well, when it concerns this book, it's pretty simple: Parts of it I like, parts of it I dislike; lots of it seems to be written primarily to position the author within the elite. The same thing happens everywhere if you put a bunch of active boys in a room: Everyone attempts to come across in the best way possible, some start bickering about silly issues to find out who's the boss, and after a while, the hierarchy is established. Along the road lots of smart things get said, and some pretty embarrasing ones. Those who are there simply to talk about stuff they like are usually overheard in the beginning, but they get through eventually, and powerfully so. The ones who are just out to show off how smart they are - well, listening to them is simply boring.

         This is the case in BR&P too; you can easily tell those parts that are presentations of something of actual worth from those that are essentially intellectual masturbation. A rule of the thumb: If someone talks about smart ideas that others came up with, chances are good that the ideas really are smart. When someone presents their own ideas, and use a lot of pages to do so, chances are....not so good.

         I probably sound pretty full of contempt at this point. If people use my time to tell me about boring things with no relevance to my reality,'s like when I worked at "Dreamlands" [Gaming store in Oslo that went out of business something like 8 years ago.] and had to listen to people telling me about their fighters with 18/00 strength. I don't want to hear that. Give me real ideas, stuff I can use, things that can stand up to inspection. Then I'm in.

         Okey, Matthijs, that's enough with the grumbling. I've got to finish off with a few positive words, and fortunately they are not hard to find.

         I'm glad this book was published. I've been very much inspired by some of the articles, and I've gotten my eyes opened towards larp as a form of expression. I've been given new thoughts, reminded of old ones, and reading it gave me a great vibe. I feel like making a revolution or two. The book is good, alright. When it's good, that is.


John H. Kim <jhkim-at-darkshire-dot-net>
Last modified: Mon Nov 29 11:12:37 2004