OK this post is about one of my hobbies, games, and more specifically live action roleplaying games and Freeforms. I’ll return to my usual subjects soon I expect, though my blog is always a bit of a hodge podge of whatever is interesting me today. If you are interested enough to read on, I must say I’m not really going to explain Freeforms and LARPS except to briefly say they are games in which you normally take on a character and try and solve a plot or scheme your way to a mystery, while dressing up and acting with other players, There is a very useful page here if you want to learn more.
The UK freeforms scene maintains an active mailing list community, and there is also an annual dedicated convention called Consequences in November (which I heartily recommend) where many games of this type are run, though they also occur at other UK RPG conventions. Freeform seems to have arisen out of tabletop roleplaying games in various countries and at various times, and the history of the genre is both complex and contentious, but the UK Freeforms community have determined a particular style and tone of game, though with cross-pollination with US based freeforms *where the form is often called Theatre Style Gaming).
Today however I’m going to talk a little about Scandinavian LARP, which has evolved its own distinctive styles and emphases. I’m in the unhappy position of knowing almost nothing about “Nordic LARP” despite being a Dane living in England – almost all of my life has been in the UK, so I really can claim no special knowledge, and absolutely zero practical experience. Luckily my Danish name and occasional mutterings about Scandinavia obviously gave long time LARP writer Nathan Hook the wrong idea, and he invited me to a very small event to explore Scandinavian LARP ideas in Bristol a few weeks back. It was a very exclusive event – on the day I was able to attend, there were only four of us present, including Nathan!
I have only played two of Nathan’s games before – a short and excellent little scenario called “And Not To Yield…” he ran at Grand Tribunal the Ars Magica Convention many years back now, which I enjoyed immensely, and an earlier Ars Magica Tribunal based game in Bristol which I think it only fair to say I did not, sometime around the turn of the Millennium. I took a lot more form the game I did not enjoy as much though: mainly my conviction that Tribunals are very dull settings for Ars Magica adventures, and that in turn led to me experimenting after a couple of tries at running Tribunal based freeforms (basically big meetings of wizards) in doing something different, which I finally managed effectively with my “Puck’s Dell” freeform.
I don’t know Nathan well, despite the fact we only live fifty miles apart, but I did buy and read through his first book on Psychodramatic roleplay, The Green Book. I was actually quite surprised by it: whereas “And Not To Yield” is for as I recall seven characters and a GM (referee), most of the scenarios in The Green Book are I think best suited to 2-4 players. I normally write freeforms which feature between 15 and 30 characters, though I have written a few for ten or less players over the years, and modern classics of the genre like Sword Day and The Linfarn Run have shown small freeforms can be extremely exciting, engaging and immersive. My earliest LARPS (1985-2000) were not freeforms, they took place over a weekend with a whole county often used, a dozen or more locations and up to 24 non-player characters and were Cthulhu Live style games, which drew heavily on RPG motifs – they only had 5 or 6 players, and while Fest style larping nowadays often seems to involve a thousand people in a field, I am now personally exploring writing my first Freeform for 30 – 40 players (more on that later).
So I have played a wide variety of LARPS (never been to a Fest Larp like Maelstrom or Empire though). I play almost entirely freeforms nowadays, and know little about what is happening in the UK scene outside of freeforming – though there is a handy calendar here.
I actually know almost nothing about Nordic Larp, apart from the fact it is very diverse as well. Years ago I read the Turku Manifesto, a document that emerged from Finnish larp/rpg – and almost everyone I knew who read it was outraged by it. This actually made me smile – I am as some of you will know a great admirer of Marinetti’s Futurist Manifesto, and the whole point of an artistic manifesto is to make a bold hyperbolic statement and spark controversy, discussion and reaction. Turku did this, but by the early 2000’s rumours were emerging of sex, drugs, mechanical dragons and girl-whipping dwarf-baiting orgies of Bacchanalian debauchery being spawned in Scandinavia with incredible budgets and incredible pretension in the name of Art and LARP. I have no idea if any of that was actually true, but it sounded like I should return home and take a look!
Unfortunately in my current situation I am about as likely to make it back to Denmark any time soon as I am to the moon; for more than a decade now I have planned to go and see Knudepunkt (or Solmukohta, Knutepunkt, Knutpunkt, depending on which country it is held in that year) and become debauched, depraved and … sorry, explore new perspectives in LARP. I was vaguely aware as I say that Nathan Hook regularly attended for the last decade or more the Scandinavian con, but I don’t actually know Nathan all that well, and I would need some money to make it. So every year it has been put off, and maybe one day I will go. My morbid fear of flying meaning I insist on taking the Harwich to Esbjerg ferry will not help either – DFDS, no matter how much I love it, is not cheap.
Knudepunkt is a very large Scandinavian freeform/rpg event that has been pushing boundaries, exploring game theory and having all kinds of fun events run at it since I believe 1997. It’s important enough to have its own Wikipedia article, something Consequences probably should have, and the impressive list of books and publications there will tell you far more about Nordic LARP than someone as ignorant as me ever can. There is also the splendid sounding Fastaval, about which I know even less!
Back to Bristol
Let’s return to the main plot. So a few weeks ago I had a quick trip to Bristol, to learn more about freeforms influenced by one particular form (some might say “brand” of Nordic LARP) that Nathan is interested in: the Jeepform. I am not Jeep — I know nobody in the Jeep, and I make no claim to have more than a very cursory idea of what the Jeepform is, gleaned from reading the webpages.
I noticed when Nathan talked about the people involved that day he did not identify any of us, so I won’t either. (This was not because of utter depravity – in that respect alone I was disappointed!) Suffice to say there was Nathan, I, and two more charming folks, one chap and one lady, both of whom had far far more experience than I of these things and who had attended Nordic Larp events. I get the impression Nordic Larp is more youthful than most English Larp, and less an umiddle aged & middle class pursuit than it is here in the Freeforms community. That may be an unfair judgement of both communities though, and certainly there are exceptions all over. The uK Freeforms community have all sorts from diverse backgrounds, but our manners are quintessentially English I feel, and our outlook rather conservative with a small ‘c’. I was a bit worried I might be drugged, emotionally scarred and forced to sit through the Freeform equivalent of Derek Jarman’s Blue
One of the things that concerned me was the concept of “bleed”.
Sure art should effect one, be transforming, invoke epiphanies, challenge values, and radically shift ones perspectives. It is why I find art uncomfortable but stimulating. I like to be challenged. I am however aware that I can be negatively effected by things, and upset, and that a movie or play can effect me for days: so I was really not sure about “bleed”. Surely of the boundaries between me and my character were blurred, and game entered life, then I was not playing a character, but being me? In the UK tradition good character roleplaying is often defined as being a completely seperate persona to your normal character, and the idea of letting the to carry over – anyway I may be misunderstanding bleed. Go look at the definition.
Also Nathan and I have both professionally been involved in working in therapy/counselling type settings (as practitioners, not clients) and I had a vision of something between Encounter or Rogerian therapy and Performing Arts Workshops – Psychodrama meets Art. I had strong reservations, because the UK emphasis is on a game as fun, not a game as art or psychodrama.
Maybe because I’m crap at it (more on this in a while) none of this really came up at all. On arrival I listened to the others discuss the influence and scope of the Jeepform as one type of Nordic Larp for a while, and they made me in my utter ignorance very welcome. I mentally resolved one day to seek out the Jeep, and learn more. (As I say, I had read the We Go By Jeep site – I think my sole criteria other than an accident of Nationality for my invitation to Bristol by Nathan!)
Now for a quick summary of some of the things I learned. I had recently run a game with multiple players playing the same protagonist at different life stages – that seems to be a similar approach to some of what we did. Traditional ownership of characters was discarded, and in the first game we played the various discrete scenes saw me play the main protagonist (and everyone else play him too) and his Father, his ex-Wife’s solicitor, his mate down the pub, a Cafe owner, and a number of other roles.
There were no character sheets, and only the main protagonist who we all helped define was established before the game started, and that by us each contributing one theme — “wannabe musician”, “wants to be though wealthier than he is”, “lone parent”, and “social life based on online communities” were the defining traits we came up with. All other characters were improvised on the spot, invented as needed for play as we went in a fairly fluid dynamic.
The scenario, Black Dog, is about depression, which Nathan understands in terms of loss of self-identity. We each played Tony in three scenes (there was no GM), and played other people in his life in the other 9 scenes. Each scene was a snapshot of something assaulting his sense of identity, and challenging one of the above traits. We negotiated what they would be about before playing the scene out: there was far more “Out of Character” time than I am used to in a normal Freeform, where a unity of time & space is normal and a game proceeds in roughly real time, chronologically, and in usually only a single location or a few locations represented by one room. We were able to move backwards and forward in time, to explore the emotional impact of a particular scene, or how something came about. Tony could give voice to internal monologues so the others could see what he was thinking. In practice I think the events depicted took place in a short period of only a couple of years, and they were, perhaps unfortunately screamingly funny at times, despite involving bereavement, loss of custody over his child, breakdown of his relationship, criminal charges, loss of his home, public humiliation and career collapse.
I say unfortunately because a response like this according to Nathan, where we found black humour in awful situations I see all too often in real life here, in the lives of my friends and community, is a very English (and perhaps US response). I don’t want to get in to stereotypical jokes about gloomy Scandinavians (if you want that see my earlier blog post on why ABBA was a goth band), Lars Von Trier, Ingmar Bergman or Lukas Moodysson – I am above such things – but I did suggest that perhaps us Brits, the English at least, use black humour as a defence mechanism. (See British TV Comedy for countless examples over the decades) Making light of the awful prevents the horrible emotional scarring we might otherwise endure, so we put a brave face on it and develop a Blitz spirit of the blackest humour? Sure, we might not engage in the way Nathan thought others might, but one must have a heart of stone to sit through all this tragedy without laughing! (And from my father and the other Danes I know, I think they would find it just as funny as any Brit). Besides, laughter is a very real emotional reaction to it all.
So what did I think of the game? Very simple mechanic used to set up the scenes, enjoyable, and quite probable to act as a Trigger for all sorts of emotional catharsis or a truly horrible time. I really enjoyed this, one of the finest games I have played, but I can see it being the stuff of some players nightmares. With people you know well and trust, in a relaxed mood, it may be safer – for me playing it far from home in a fairly anxious state (I had just left a friend seriously ill in hospital) with 2 complete strangers and the sinister Mr Hook made it all the more fun. I missed the second day when they played a game about Genetic Illnesses – perhaps just as well as that might have effected me more at that point – but Black Dog, which is in The Green Book 1 is a superb introduction to a very different style of freeform. It did not change me as a person at all as far as I can see, except to open me up to new possibilities in Freeform, and how the Jeep approach can liberate us as authors to share the creative process and engage players in a different way.
My biggest complaint about Black Dog was it felt less like a game and more like a psychodrama improve workshop in places – yet actually no, it also felt like a game. To work, all the players have to throw away comfort, inhibitions and go for it I suspect – but I may be wrong. I don’t know yet!
The second scenario Crossed Roads was far more “game like”. Again we defined our roles – a young lady who had to make three difficult life decisions, and her three advisers, one of whom offered her advice based upon following her dreams and spiritual/aesthetic/artistic values, one sensible/pragmatic/prosaic values (the most disturbing line spoken by another player in the game was “aborting your baby is the pragmatic & sensible option” I think, but a lot of this stuff was hard hitting) and the other player, who happened to be me in this scenario, had to offer advice based on the best for the lady. All the advisers had limited knowledge of the likely results of the decisions results in terms future outcomes which were assigned by cards.
The catch was she did not know which adviser was which (nor did we, the roles were assigned secretly) and had to make decisions based upon how we roleplayed out the scenes. The first scene (should she go to stage school or stay at home and get a job in a bank) defined the whole set up, and introduced various characters who while they did not appear were frequently referred to, like the unfortunate Aunt Doris). We say the protagonist leaving home at 18, pregnant in her mid-20’s, and deciding if to send her teenage son to stage school many years later. Ignoring my sensible advice, and indeed at times refusing to really tell me what the decision she faced actually was, but skirting around it in the way all children do when parental guidance is utterly unwelcome, her life was an unmitigated disaster, and superb dramatic performances by the lady and chap from London made this an immensely pleasurable and memorable game. It was absolutely first rate, and I would strongly recommend it to anyone, if they feel they can handle it.
We all have triggers that can deeply upset us, and you are I think it is supposed best to play through them and stay in character if they arise – I don’t know for sure, ask Nathan, or read the Green books, or look at the website of other Larp writers – but seriously, these games see designed to actually invoke these things that in other larps you might discretely write on the casting form you wish to avoid as themes at all costs. OK, it’s not GR — I’m not going to discuss that game here, because of the kind of attention it will provoke, so please discuss it elsewhere if you want to – but both Black Dogs and Crossed Roads have the potential to I think explode and maybe damage some – which is after all a kind of psychodynamic exploration – I seem to recall from an old Jefferson Airplane recording someone saying “there is not such thing as a bad trip”, and yeah, that may be the logic here. Dunno. I can’t imagine anyone who was there playing these games actually having an awful time, but they should not be tagged “Trigger Warning”, but “Trigger Invite”. It’s not a matter of maturity, or being bad ass to play these – because the risks of emotional upset are insidious, and possibly unavoidable, and could apply to anyone. I’m a deeply (over)sensitive person and I had a blast, but who knows? I can theoretically see that playing “Fat Man Down” or similar COULD upset me badly, though I doubt it. Who knows? And besides, I might need to or want to be upset, deeply challenged and torn apart emotionally. That might be my idea of a good game. I don’t actually know yet!
OK, so I have probably made all this sound very risky. Far from it. Everything was negotiated out of character before scenes I think, and yet they still surprised me. The games we played were a bit darker than most UK Freeforms I guess, but the mechanisms used in storytelling, some of the ideas and mechanics, and the general ethos would certainly be worth adapting and exploring. I’m not actually a very radical and artistic kind of guy, far from it I’m a pretty staid academic, but I can see huge potential in experimenting with these new larp forms. They are certainly “darker” in a different way to the often to my mind juvenile horror/vampire tropes we do see in larps here a bit: I know form working on it for yeas that psychological horror is hard to evoke in a game. Real world issues arise in these games, and I don’t know ultimately how far my exploration will go – a week before I went to Bristol I was voicing my grave reservations about trying Jeep inspired larp to Charlie Paull at GamesExpo, and I’m glad to be able to report I was very wrong, had a wonderful time, met a couple of fine new people and learned a huge amount: but still I tend to be cautious!
This November I am off to Consequences where I am running a large freeform called Something Wicked, assuming anyone signs up for it. It’s not in anyway influenced at the moment by the Jeep inspired or Nordic Larp games, but I will discuss it briefly at the end of this piece.
I have noticed with interest that What Happened in Blackpool by Mo Holkar, Heidi Kaye, Cat Tobin, Alli Mawhinney, Traci Whitehead , all first rate UK Freeforms stalwarts and freeform authors is running, and this sounds very much in the style of the games I have been discussing and experimenting with here recently since my Bristol trip —
This is a character based game in which all the plot and action will come out of the first part of the session in which the game is set up. No pre-casting, no casting questionnaires, no advanced reading. The game will be generated using a guided workshop.
I’m really hoping to get to play in it in November. It does seem to me that there has been an explosion of interest in the last few months in various forms of Nordic Larp in the UK: I have watched the scene rather warily and read lots of theory over the years, but now many more people seem to be embracing the possibilities, and I am sure UK Freeforms will provide a very safe way to explore what is best in these games in a British context. I’ll wait and see what develops! It’s about 5 years since I played “To Yield…” in which Nathan introduced me to what I now realise were influences of Nordic Larp, but it has taken me this long to feel I can offer ideas myself which draw from these games without automatically making myself seem to be trying to foist avant garde risqué material (not really my style) on players.
Still this year I am going for something rather more traditional – Something Wicked. Something Wicked was inspired by a Cthulhu freeform I played in last year at Consequences, and which got me thinking about what I did and did not enjoy about it. This has been carefully crafted since last November, and I’m really looking forward to when the Consequences website goes live and I can see if it gets enough players or not. Some ideas I have had to drop: one was the use of signature scents and perfumes or colognes for different characters, which has been ruled out because of the risk of triggering asthma, and Hugh and I have to carefully think through how to use theatrical minimalism for effective set dressing, yet still gibe the feel of a funfair. I have to work out out if I can find a way to make candyfloss there, and toffee apples etc too. Can I use real flowers? I think fake ones will have to suffice, but flower girls need flowers!
The actual pitch is here —
Something Wicked; A Gothic Melodrama set in Old London Town
|Something Wicked is a game about Mythic London – the London of Victorian, Edwardian and Georgian popular imagination.The funfair is filled with seductive secrets, painful passions and secret vices, along with a strange cast derived from the folklore of London. This is a world of Spring Heeled Jack, where Sweeney Todd runs the pie stand and Jonathan Wild has not let a trip to Tyburn end his thief taking career.This is the London that stirs as the sun sets in dusty attics, sending the beetles scurrying as strange denizens emerge from houses long left locked and apparently un-tenanted. This is a game about why the nightingale sings in Berkeley Square, and why the pearly queen and king must do the Lambeth Walk, and why the ravens never leave the Tower…
Everyone loves the Fair! There goes nice dashing Harry Flashman with his medical friend Watson — and there goes Carnacki, the famous ghost finder, talking to the famous courtesan Ouida! Wait — what was that strange shadow that scuttled after them? And what is that haunting melody the fairground music keeps returning to, surely not “Cousin Theresa and the Big Borzoi?” You will ask Clovis Sangril, once he has stopped arguing politics with Emmeline Pankhurst. Oh look, is that actually the Prince of Wales, walking out with a common flower-seller? You can be your ‘at it is!
Costume for any period from 1780-1914 and you won’t be out of place. This is London as seen through the Strawberry Gothic, so as bright coloured as the musical Oliver! or My Fair Lady!
The game is designed to be fast, sending you whirling, cascading, groping a dance through the fairground where encounters with beguiling strangers offer both strange rewards and exquisite dangers: where stories become truths, and where we all face the scalding blast of scented temptations of the city of dreadful delight as amoral stars gaze scornfully on our brief pleasures…
|Author(s):||Chris Jensen Romer|
|Game EMail:||chrisjensenromer AT hotmail DOT com|
|Lead GM:||Christian Jensen Romer|
|Game System:||designed for game|
|Information for Players:||Character sheets are 4-7 pages maximum, and mainly 2-3.We encourage players to frock to excess, and ignore actual historical exactitude to make bold statements. Strawberry Gothic mixes the Chivalric Middle Ages and Medieval Gothic with the Victorian. In our game add a dash of polka dot, bright colours and Baroque/dayglo punk and you have the correct sensibility.
Despite the strong emphasis on Sin and Virtue, all illicit liaisons are merely hinted at – no physical contact allowed in the game. Not in front of the servants, ma’am! However corsetry and lace, ribbon and boots,perfectly acceptable for either gender!
There will be no use of strobe lights or other known epilepsy hazards, though I do plan to use extensively coloured lights for theatrical minimalism. Background music will fade in and out at certain points, but briefly, to prevent causing hearing issues, and for actual plot reasons. I am happy to produce audio versions of character sheets, large print versions and with adequate notice and where possible translations for those not-comfortable with English, though the translations may be laughably bad given my poor language skills.
If you have questions do feel free to drop me a line or a comment!
All the best