Ars Amandi: The Post-Coital Review

On Saturday at METATOPIA six brave souls — two men and four women — tried out Ars Amandi, a Nordic game mechanic for simulating romance and sex in a larp. I think it went pretty well.

The Mechanic

In a nutshell, Ars Amandi allows players to touch permitted zones (arms, shoulders, sternum, upper back, neck below the ears) using permitted bodyparts (hands, arms, neck). Experienced practitioners say it’s all about the eye contact, and the rhythmic breathing, which allow couples to dial the intensity up and down.

I based my workshop on the detailed account that Swedish mechanic creator Emma Wieslander sent me. The workshop operated a bit like a dance class, with participants swapping partners after short sessions. I functioned as the square-dance caller, telling people where to go and what types of touch or emotion to explore during each segment. While they explored, I watched and kept neutral music on in the background.

The Workshop

At first, we limited ourselves to just the hands, and the pairs rotated until everyone had “met” each other. Folks tried out active and passive roles with their eyes closed, then with eyes open. The permitted zone expanded from hand to elbow. Then, instead of taking on active or passive roles, couples mutually explored each other’s hands and forearms.

During this first leg of the workshop, the participants laughed and talked with one another, across couples, almost incessantly. All the chatter helped them diffuse the tension in the room, but it also helped them ignore the intimacy of touching someone else’s hands. At first, their touching was tentative and very unsexy — they simply tried to touch every different part of their partners’ hands. But by the end of this first phase, they were touching each other with more liquid strokes, and were experimenting with different hand positions. Still, the chatter was protecting them from really going for it emotionally.

During the second phase of the workshop, they graduated to the shoulder. We had discussed the clavicle and neck as a zone of touch, but not everyone was comfortable with that, so we stopped at the shoulders. I forbid talking and enforced it, with the almighty power of the “shh.” For the first few rounds, there were still some nervous giggles, but the air in the room subtly changed, becoming more charged. They tried moving around each other, touching their partners’ arms from behind. They tried breathing more sexually. At first, everyone tried out the novelties incessantly — lots of eye contact, lots of heavy breathing, lots of walking around each other, arms folding together and apart like some swing-dance move. Very quickly, everyone backed off of the new additions, using them more as a garnish to the lovemaking than as its substance. Later, they mentioned how far a very small amount of eye contact goes toward increasing the intimacy.

As the workshop progressed, the sessions between partners lengthened, and we tried playing scenarios — storybook romantic love, oppositional and angry love, a one-night stand, the casual sexual opportunities of a long-term relationship. By this point, each of the participants seemed to have developed a signature style, a method of playing Ars Amandi unique to themelves. The dynamics between different couples differed quite widely, even when I didn’t give them anything specific to play — I saw innocent flirtations and intense, fraught bedroom scenes. Some pairs touched each other with slow tenderness, some almost danced together, others seemed both exploratory and ashamed at time. Beautiful love scenes unfolded.

The Response

Afterward, we all sat down and talked about the mechanic and its possibilities. Here are some of the observations that came out of that discussion:

  • All of the participants felt surprised at how intense the mechanic felt — no one had been prepared for that — and everyone mentioned how exhausted they were after these two and a half hours. People were also surprised that the technique felt so “hot.” A couple folks said they’d be bringing it home to their significant others.
  • As a group, they said they really enjoyed this technique and asked when it might be used in a larp and how this technique might play out in a five-hour convention larp setting. Sadly, I didn’t know the answer to either of these questions. I figure you’d have to require workshop attendance before a game, and I didn’t know whether convention-goers would be willing to give up two slots of time (one for the workshop, one for the larp).In terms of running an Ars Amandi larp, I’m no game designer, but I’d borrow and run someone else’s shorter scenario, if such a thing existed. However, most of the Scandinavian Ars Amandi larps I’ve heard about lasted a couple days and had really complicated staging unsuited to a short convention game. So, Nordic people: are there shorter Ars Amandi games out there?
  • We had some lively discussion about costuming possibilities — velour opera gloves (kinky!) — staging possibilities — wouldn’t chopping celery in the kitchen make for a great, handsy set-up? — and made lots of jokes about everyone being arm sluts now.
  • The participants felt that as the workshop became more intense, everyone got better at enforcing their own limits, typically in a non-verbal fashion. People said things like, “you showed me how you wanted to be touched,” and “you could tell when someone wasn’t comfortable with a specific move.”
  • While the workshop proceeded without interruptions, during the debrief, a couple people tried to walk through our room, despite the signs I’d put up. This led to some interesting discussion — one participant said that she wouldn’t have cared if someone watched the workshop, but that now, in this moment, while talking about her emotions, she especially didn’t want an outsider in there. Several people echoed her feeling, testament, I think, to the power of this mechanic.
  • Some interesting discussion about whether an Ars Amandi game could have a “non-combat” equivalent. Many stateside boffer games, for example, allow players, either by choice or by necessity (in the case of children) to wear a non-combat headband. If you’re wearing the headband, that tells other people not to hit you with boffers. Instead they call their damage from a distance. Would this work in an Ars Amandi game?
  • Ars Amandi ettiquette. A couple people thought it would be fun to write up a little sheet advising hand-lotion, getting the grit out of your fingernails, and gum. At least one of the ladies sighed longingly after another’s manicure. If only she’d known it was going to be so intense, she said, she’d have done the same.
  • General improvements: I could make the workshop better by limiting talking earlier on, introducing a safe word or a specific motion that people could use to ask their partners to back off, just as a fail safe. I could also have done a better job of letting people know when they were about to change partners — several people (very politely) complained that my abrupt cuts had resulted in coitus interruptus. I needed like a one-minute warning method, or a “3-2-1, stop.” Also, a more formal warm-up game might have helped diffuse some of that initial chatter.

Not enough Ars Amandi in your life? Tune in on Wednesday for an interview with Emma Wieslander, creator of the technique.

Thanks to the folks at METATOPIA, Double Exposure’s new awesome game design convention, for making space for this. Rob Donoghue has a really nice description of what the rest of the convention was like.

13 thoughts on “Ars Amandi: The Post-Coital Review

  1. Great write up of a mechanic I’d like to explore in a larp.
    Some questions and comments: were there same-gender sexual encounters? Did anyone talk about the possibility of playing a homosexual or bisexual character character knowing ars armandi was the mechanic?

    As to short ars armandi games: I look at the technique as a mechanic for sex/intimacy in any larp of any length. For example, Enigma live games developed a technique (I think it was Mike Tice) years ago for sex that meant linking pinkie fingers (and holding above the head). That was the “act”, the eye contact and/or talk was the role playing. It was a nice mechanic, because anyone who saw that knew that they saw two people having sex. In ars armandi, is is possible that rubbing someone’s arm is just rubbing someone’s arm (still intimate, but not actual physical intimacy), or does it represent having sex in a way that one of the characters could get pregnant?

    Anyway, I would look to apply ars armandi to any existing (short) larp, rather than look for a specific larp that uses that technique. This is another issue: love, sex, intimacy and relationships are rarely the basis for larps in America. Our larps reflect our violence over love culture (IMHO).

    I would say that ars armandi is a technique to get familiar with, as you have done for six folks here, and that can then be used in any ol’ larp of any content, just let the players know that it is being used. It’s like being trained to use ranged weapons in a fantasy larp.

    As to the non-com version of ars armandi. I think using a colored band somewhere on the person would indicate to what level they are accepting of the technique, say, around the neck or in the hair means all designated body parts are OK. Around the elbow, and forearms and hands are the only open parts. Wristbands = only hands are open. Or wearing no band means no touch, though I haven’t found any larper that isn’t willing to at least link their pinkie finger to a stranger. There might be some out there, but hopefully they can be identified beforehand and special considerations given (maybe a bright red “no touch at all” ring?)

    As to people walking into your area: yes, that’s a big pet peeve for me. When I run deep, intense larps, I do my level best to keep everyone else out, and I usually don’t run them unless I have the ability to do as such to the area.

    Great piece, thanks for posting.

  2. As one of the participants in this workshop, many thanks to Lizzie for presenting. It has had me thinking and analyzing psychological traits of many of the campaign characters I play, LARP and tabletop, looking down avenues that I hadn’t thought to explore.

  3. Dering — thanks for the kind words, and for participating!

    Aaron — Great questions — you raise a lot of interesting queries in your comment. Here are some thoughts(and those who know the technique better than I do, feel free to chime in):

    - yes, there were same gender sexual encounters, and I saw quite a few beautiful scenes played in that context. Although we did talk about how the participants felt about this (generally positive), the topic of bisexual/homosexual characters didn’t come up. It’s definitely an interesting possibility of the mechanic, though.

    - one strength of the technique is its flexibility. You could certainly use it to enhance a more traditional larp, but I think it’d be more interesting to try it out as a core mechanic.

    - Ars Amandi has been used to represent sex symbolically (two elves touch arms and declare it represents sex) and diegetically, as it was in Between Heaven and Sea, the larp for which this mechanic was created, in which the primary erogenous zones for characters were the arms, not the genitals. In terms of what casual arm-touches actually mean, I’m guessing this isn’t such a big issue in practice. I can tell you that after the workshop people were looking at hands and arms differently. I would think that accidental brushes would take on extra meaning, because everyone is paying so much attention to hands and neck. Sort of in the same way that guy at the bar who “accidentally” bumps your rack is viewed with suspicion, so too would casual arm-touchers be.

    - In terms of “non-combat” (non-armbat?) usage: from what I saw at the workshop, this technique requires/fosters emotional intimacy. I think the participants have to decide together how far they are willing to go. On a technical level, I like the idea of the armbands, but I think that that specificity of restriction goes against the aim of the mechanic. Ars Amandi is about safely feeling out those emotional boundaries; it creates a different kind of emotional intimacy than other larps I’ve been a part of, for example. The folks in my workshop were very good at showing their partners how far was too far without armband. (I have no idea if this is a feature of the mechanic, the group I had, or both.) Because there is this whole emotional thing going on, I’d be hesitant to jump into a game that used this mechanic without a workshop first to get everyone acquainted with each other and to set the tone for what is/isn’t acceptable.

    - I think you’re right: we rarely play love/sex here, but I think we should! There are a whole range of stories waiting to be told. To me, this is an argument for running a game that features Ars Amandi as the core mechanic.

    - It is like boffers for sex, but it is also different. If someone screws up and hits you hard with a boffer, your knee hurts bad. If someone screws up with Ars Amandi…I don’t know what happens, but the pain is probably not going to be physical. And those emotional wounds aren’t as easily healed, so I think it’s worth being cautious.

  4. Just FYI: I just read the description of “Between Heaven and Sea” in the Nordic LARP book. I feel like crying when I read about those larps, because we seem to be so focused on fantasy boffer campaigns here in SoCal. I still enjoy and support the fantasy larps but I wish we would experiment more.

    Anyway…what I like best about ars armandi is that it seems to be a mechanic created for a specific larp, and they work beautifully together. I am used to developing the concept/genre/theme/content of the larp first, and then deriving the rules and mechanics from that original idea. In other words, I think ars armandi came out of the idea of the larp first (I could be wrong).

    But I would love to design a larp specifically for ars armandi (or play one designed by another).

    And I agree, the emotional toll from larp can be much heavier than the physical one.

    Another interesting question would be for the significant others of the ars armandi players: do they feel like their real life sig-o cheated on them? Does the sig-o feel like they were cheating on their partner in real life? What was it, the touching, the role playing of sexuality, or, what I think may be the most powerful component of this, the eye contact.

    Yes, at least a brief workshop on the ars armandi method with the players of the larp would be critical. Between Heaven & Sea had three pre-larp workshops.

    Tangent: I miss the pre-larp workshops. We used to do them out of necessity at Enigma, because the internet was in its earliest stages. To quickly and accurately disseminate information, we would meet at the regular club meeting every Monday at UCLA. If a larp was taking place that weekend, we’d often go over it and talk about it at the meeting. Now, players get a facebook invite or email with links to rules and lore. I am going to play a weekend larp coming up with people I have never met before. I know I will have to break character to find out if it’s OK to touch another player, for example. I really miss meeting the other players ahead of time as real people, discussing what we like or don’t, etc., before we get in the arena.

    I think there should be a pre-larp workshop revival. ;-)
    Disclosure: my wife and I are cooking up a deep, self-referential meta-larp in a larp called “Sunken Places” for next year, and the pre-larp workshop is interesting me more than the larp itself…but that’s also because the larp itself is in my wife’s head, not mine.

    Great stuff, Lizzie, keep it up!

  5. I like what you’re saying about how the mechanic defines the game — give players lock pick skills, and they expect to pick locks. Give them boffers, and they expect to kill things. Give them Ars Amandi and they’ll expect to fall in love.

    Plenty of other Nordic larps have used Ars Amandi, occasionally modding it out to suit the game’s purpose, I think. There’s an essay on Delirium in Nordic Larp, for example, which also used the technique. I’m sure there are a couple more in there. I know the recent prison game Kapo also used the mechanic, but in a sometimes more violent context (or so it seems from the participant forum thread).

    On the significant-other front, I’d be interested in learning more too. I have heard some stories about people breaking up/getting divorced after intense games that used this mechanic. It’s a little hard to unpack that — is this a result of Ars Amandi’s emotional intensity? Or the fact that Nordic art larp in general seems to limn emotional boundaries?

    Maybe one of the things that gives the mechanic this power is the agency players feel; you “tell” your partner what your boundaries are with your hands, and so you are emotionally responsible for going that far. In a boffer larp, you don’t “tell” your dueling partner that you’d prefer not to be hit in the arm — the rules have already dictated that. I suppose this is what the sometimes-used Nordic-style safe words (break, cut) and anti-safe words (go!) are for too.

    I think workshops are great for one-shots, because they help build complexity; in campaign games you get to do this slowly, over years. Also, I am terrible at remembering rules — unless I’m really taught them beforehand, I feel awkward about calling skills, for example, so I won’t call them. Social awkwardness! Sucks!

  6. Hi,

    I was at Metatopia, and had hoped to get a chance to participate in this, or at least meet you, neither of which I achieved. Sounds like this went quite well, and did just the things that had made me want to get there.

    I’m looking forward to the interview with Emma, and hearing more about this. I’m in Colorado most of the time, but I hope that there’s another chance for me to try this in the future.

    –Kit

    • Hi Kit, thanks for the kind words — I wish I’d gotten a chance to mingle more. Unfortunately, I ninja-ed in to Metatopia and then broke out after my workshop, since it was my birthday and I had houseguests. It looks like I missed out on a lot of cool stuff. :(

      Maybe we’ll meet at Dreamation or DEXCON? I’d love to run this again, if there’s interest.

  7. Just a last comment, sorry. Lizzie said: “I like what you’re saying about how the mechanic defines the game — give players lock pick skills, and they expect to pick locks. Give them boffers, and they expect to kill things. Give them Ars Amandi and they’ll expect to fall in love.”

    For me, it’s more like “I want to run the ‘Spirited Away’ larp, based on the Academy Award® winning animated movie of the same name. Due to the content of the larp–Japanese animation and spirituality–I make mechanics based on Taoist and Buddhist traditions.” (which is what I did for the Spirited Away larp).

    My larp history with Enigma was that we always reinvented the wheel for each single shot larp. It was a pain in the ass, but what I learned was that the mechanics of the larp need to fit seamlessly with the content and genre of the larp (or should). Another example: for the Harry Potter larp, which took place at Hogwarts, the players would learn spells in classes; in-game classes with NPC instructors. It was a game about learning, so in game we taught them in-game useful spells/skills.

    Ars Armandi is in this category to me: a specific mechanic for specific larps. I wouldn’t use it in anything (like a western gunslinging larp), but it could be the perfect mechanic for the larps that do use it.

    And in general, I like it when designers look at their mechanics that way, i.e., designing content first and then mechanics to follow.

    Shameless plug: I am writing my Solmukohta essay right now, about the larp STEEDS that I ran, which is the first time I came up with the mechanics and system first, and the content was secondary. It didn’t work out as well as I had hoped, though there is something there.

    In general, I think the content/genre/style of the larp is of primary import, the mechanics and “how do you do x” is of secondary import.

    • Aaron — no need to apologize. I’m enjoying our back and forth here.

      I get what you’re saying. I agree that you choose the mechanics to fit the story you want to tell. But I think it could also work in the other way. It’s similar to writing a short story — form and content are inexorably entwined and mutually shape one another. To me, the mechanics and content go hand in hand — they’re yin and yang, with one determining the other in obvious and subtle ways.

      And I think this is different in a one-shot versus a campaign. Part of what happens in a campaign is world-building, and to me AA seems like it could enhance the world. The more successful one-shots operate more like short stories, focusing on one conflict in particular. There’s also a difference between telling a plotty story (lets’s save the world!) versus an internal conflict (I need to get over my father’s death). Sure, there is a place for plot in a more emotional story and there’s a place for emotions in an epic plotline, but the focus of each of these stories tells you something about the mechanics you’d want.

      If you want to tell a story about love, or with romance as one of its main themes, AA seems like it’d be a good choice. It’s also a fungible technique — you can restrict the zone of touch down to the hands if you want, for example. To me this is sort of how it’s like boffers; there are a TON of games out there that use them, but rules and etiquette differ from game to game, as each designer torques the mechanic to her purposes. And it gets at the emotions around the activity like boffers do as well. Just as swinging an axe can make a player feel enraged or exhilarated, as real combat might, so too does touching someone else’s arms feel intimate, in the way sex might. It’s not the only technique for playing love out there, nor should it be, but it does tap into one of the major currents of human emotion, and that means it potentially applies to a very wide range of stories.

  8. Hi everyone,

    Loving this article and the dialogue so far (no pun intended).

    I agree wholeheartedly with the following statements. Aaron: “Just FYI: I just read the description of “Between Heaven and Sea” in the Nordic LARP book. I feel like crying when I read about those larps, because we seem to be so focused on fantasy boffer campaigns here in SoCal. I still enjoy and support the fantasy larps but I wish we would experiment more.”

    and Lizzie: “I like what you’re saying about how the mechanic defines the game — give players lock pick skills, and they expect to pick locks. Give them boffers, and they expect to kill things. Give them Ars Amandi and they’ll expect to fall in love.”

    and Aaron: “Tangent: I miss the pre-larp workshops… I am going to play a weekend larp coming up with people I have never met before. I know I will have to break character to find out if it’s OK to touch another player, for example. I really miss meeting the other players ahead of time as real people, discussing what we like or don’t, etc., before we get in the arena.”

    Word.

    If I were to attend a pre-larp workshop and devote an afternoon to learning Ars Armandi for an intensive Larp, I would probably feel frustrated if I did not get to at least try out the mechanic at that game. This frustration ties into those rules-based expectations Lizzie mentioned. I don’t play boffer Larps, but I assume if I went to a boffer practice and then was denied a fight at the actual game session, I might feel a similar frustration. Of course, I exclude hybrid Larps here like Dying Kingdoms, where the “theatrical” immersion is high enough that boffer combat need not be the focus of the game.

    At any rate, I certainly agree that we need more pre-game workshops in America, either to learn mechanics, make costuming/weapons, practice, or simply acquaint people with each other. I’m currently studying in-group conflict in role-playing communities and much of these altercations arise out of confusion between IC and OOC motives. OOC socialization helps strengthen the magic circle and increase trust between players. It also helps diffuse the build-up of negative in-game emotions that may carry over into OOC interactions (what I’m calling “negative bleed,” though that term is contested).I think that the more intense the experience in-game — violence and sexuality being primary here, but even more “mild” forms of dominance/submission relationships count — the more workshopping is needed, safe words implemented, channels of communication opened between players, etc.

    On the subject of violence being somehow more comfortable to portray than sexuality in American culture, I think our Puritanical roots are showing as a society. I also think, though, the goals of enacting violence vs. sex in a Larp may be different. While violence against another PC could be experienced as intimate, generally the motivation is to somehow “win” or “best” the other individual. In a supposedly non-zero sum game (e.g. no “winners,” per se), the fact that mechanics exist to resolve conflict suggest that yes, there are winners and losers in Larps, if just for that one particular challenge. Again, that experience may be experienced as intimate as well — a grueling rock-paper-scissors combat in a Vampire game against your rival after months of machinating, for example, with eye contact the entire time, might feel extremely intimate, as strange as that sounds when outside of the immersion of the game. However, intimacy is (arguably) not the primary goal of such a scene; the scene is intended to resolve a long-standing conflict or prove who “wins” ultimately.

    On the flip side, in-game sexual scenes can certainly feature violence/dominance/power, which we might consider a “win” condition for characters on either end, depending on what arouses them/their characters. I’d love to study the Kapo example in more detail with this context in mind. On the whole, though, the mechanic is meant, I think, to produce an intimate experience rather than a win condition per se. Intimacy in Larps often seems to be a side-effect rather than a goal, at least in many of the games I’ve played. Some might even consider it an “unfortunate” side effect, which I think is rather sad. For me, the “point” of role-playing is exploring the myriad of human experiences. How can one truly feel invested in a character if they’ve never experienced intimacy IC? How can I consider a character developed if he/she has nothing they care about and, therefore, nothing to lose other than experience points or material possessions?

    Perhaps these thoughts belong in another discussion, but what fascinates me about Ars Armandi is that it provides a method for creating real, visceral, intimate experiences while still maintaining the physical boundaries we consider so necessary for our society to function. It stimulates the emotional thrill of a sexual experience — be it consensual, kind, rough, etc. — and probably releases similar hormones, just as enacting violence with foam swords probably stimulates the brain in similar ways as real violence. These effects increase the immersive potential of the game. And I love immersion :)

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