The first stop on my crazy Nordic tour was Fastaval, a convention devoted to board-gaming, larps, and freeform games. What are freeform games, you ask? No one knows for sure. They are sort of like tabletop games, except you sometimes get up and act out scenes rather than simply narrating them. And on the whole, they seem to have more serious themes than traditional tabletop. Freeform is sort of a “I know it when I see it” thing.
The freeform games played at Fastaval are all-new, which is incredibly cool — a bit like going to an indie film festival. Game designers write scenarios and submit them to a couple people who select the scenarios that will run and provide feedback to writers. Contrary to how things usually work at the Stateside conventions I’ve been to, Fastaval has a tradition of allowing (nay, encouraging in semi-mandatory fashion) non-designers to run scenarios. So if I write a really cool game, the materials have to be clear enough that Emily can run it successfully. This is a pretty clever way to ensure that games are re-runnable, compact, and exportable. After participants play a game, they are asked to complete a feedback questionnaire, that goes to the selection committee.
At the end of the con, and after an intense run of meetings, the committee selects winners in categories from innovative game mechanics to best game materials, and presents them with a golden penguin (an “Otto”) on the last night of the convention.
I’m still not sure quite how Fastaval gets organized — there is a bewildering number of volunteers, committees, and responsibilities. This Fastaval took place in Hobro, a lovely little town out in the Danish countryside, at a school. Folks were responsible for registration, food production, cleaning, and even for the three small venues — a kiosk serving snacks, a bar serving beer and shots, and a swanky cafe offering cocktails and tapas that had live acoustic guitar on at least one night.
In addition, everyone who attended the convention is required to do service for a couple hours, handing out food, washing dishes, serving as the fire marshall, GMing, etc. This created a sense of community among the participants — you simply don’t dirty things in the same way once you’ve been on clean-up duty — and also provided a way for disparate participants to meet each other. It meant that we all co-owned the convention together and felt the shared responsibility to help out.
Call me superficial, but the beards really impressed me. In the main cafeteria hall, not long after I arrived, I spotted two dudes in black shirts with the most amazing, full, slightly pointed puffball beards; they were the platonic ideal of beards, the kind of thing put in children’s books to teach kids the very word for beard, so perfect that I couldn’t believe they were real. I turned to one of my roommates and said, “Is it just me, or are there two guys over there wearing false beards?” To which she responded, “they’re not fake.” Thus began my beard-tourism.
Demographic-wise, everyone was white, because, you know, Denmark. However, a real contingent of young people were in attendance, which was tremendously heartening to see, and a good strategy to keep any roleplaying community robust — luring in new blood is key. The rest of the participants were the usual mixture of hardened geeks, hipsters, and normal folks. Nationality-wise, most of the participants were Danish, but there was a substantial subset of foreigners — six Americans, plus some Swedes, Norwegians, and Finnish folks — who found each other for lively discussion each evening.
I heard a lot of discussion on how to promote interaction between young and old crowds — a discussion that US gamers should pick up too! — with many folks throwing compliments to Dancing with the Clans, a larp that took place every evening with amazing results.
Dancing With the Clans
This game was a mashup of Soul Train and White Wolf. Different vampire clans competed to earn specific disco dance moves, songs, and supremacy over certain areas of the building. Each evening, players and spectators gathered for an intra-generational danceoff in the lounge. Awesome. Awesome. Awesome. I’d love to see something similar — vampires with a twist of irony plus public booty-shaking — in the states.
The bar area — a low-ceilinged concrete-floored room spread with wooden tables and benches — seemed set up for a frat-style experience. It served beer and catered to a younger crowd. Metal music and pop hits played, with spontaneous dance parties breaking out most evenings. In addition, the Fastaval organizers created a couple very short TV episodes about the convention in Danish, which played at irregular intervals throughout the week.
The cafe had a more sophisticated vibe. The space was more cramped, and decorated like a 1920s speakeasy, with servers in crisp black outfits and aprons. Old books and typewriters were scattered over the tables, and at one end of the room, a stage lit with red lights stood, host to acoustic guitar shows, book presentations (including my own reading, one afternoon), and even a hilarious dude-burlesque show. The crowd in the bar felt older, the music — jazz and acoustic versions of Motown hits — played at a lower volume, and conversation was the rule of the day. It was a great place to meet people and debrief after a game.
It’s really hard to sleep when one is having so much fun, and so I only made it to three games:
Summer Lovin’ by Anna Westerling, Elin Nilsen, and Trine Lise Lindahl
A game about hooking up at a music convention. The scenario cuts between the men and women discussing what happened last night, and then playing out the romantic scenes once both sides have been heard.
It was the most explicit scenario I’ve played, but it generated really interesting conversation in the bar later about boundaries, how we talk about sex, and why there aren’t more scenarios written about awesome ladies.
Drought by Tim Slum troupe Nielsen and Oliver Nøglebæk
A game about a collection of misfits living in the Australian outback during the Victorian period during a drought.
Although the mechanics for this game could use some work, I loved the way that it focused on setting as a way of heightening tension between the characters — the place really served as another character in the scenario.
Let the World Burn by Peter Fallesen
A scenario about going on an existential journey to find a lost loved one. I’d never played anything like this, and the setup reminded me of some more experimental novels I’ve read, in particular Heartbreak Hotel by Gabrielle Burton, one of my favorites. The group journeyed down a bridge to the past, for example, which was both literal — we walked across a bridge — as well as metaphorical — we played scenes from the past as we progressed down it. In addition to regular characters, several members of our group played the abstractions of love and destruction.
And at the end, I got that good art-experience feeling, where I’m confused about which specific emotions I’m enduring, but have the sense that I’ve experienced something powerful and thought-provoking.
The Internationals and Bad-Ass Roleplay
I had a delightful time meeting and renewing my connection with some movers and shakers on the US roleplay scene here, from Aaron Vanek to Emily Care Boss, Epidiah Ravachol and Sarah Bowman. For the most part, the convention was international-friendly, although some stuff — certain game materials, the TV episodes, the award ceremony — wasn’t translated into English. And while most Danes speak English very well (certainly a hell of a lot better than I speak Danish), at times it was hard to interact with folk without having to whip out that jerk phrase “English please.”
The games I attended collected a whole bunch of people, then designated one run to be “international,” i.e. in English. Later, in the bar, some of the Danes told me that they prefer to be in on the international run of games for a couple reasons:
- people who travel internationally to come to roleplay conventions tend to be committed to playing hard and thus make good co-players
- Nordic people who are confident enough in their roleplay skills to pull it off in their second language tend to be good players
- Nordic people who think they are awesome roleplayers have some of their high-falootin’ over-actin’ tendencies removed by the difficulty of playing in another language, leading to more realistic, less showboaty acting in games.
Or maybe that’s just Danish flattery.
Tons of fun, innovative, well-organized, and with many interesting scenarios and people. Highly recommended.
PS. Wish I had photos to share with you, but well, I’m a mediocre photographer who fails to whip out her camera.
PPS. Know of other Fastaval-related round-ups? I’d love to read them, so post ’em in the comments.
Stay tuned tomorrow, when I list off a couple things that American convention organizers should steal…erm…I mean “reappropriate” from conventions like Fastaval!