Nordic Larp for Noobs

In light of the upcoming all-women run of the Nordic larp Mad About the Boy (October 5-8, Orange, CT, register here), here’s a primer on Nordic larp and its ilk for Americans new to the style of play.

What is Nordic larp?

It’s a style of larp created by gamers from the countries of Denmark, Norway, Finland, and Sweden. But it’s not the mainstream of larp in those countries either. It might help if you think of “Nordic larp” as meaning something more like “Nordic-style art larp.”

Watch Johanna Koljonen’s excellent introduction to Nordic larp here.

While Nordic larp is only a loose school of design, most games feature one or more of the following qualities/aims:

  • Immersion. Although there’s a lot of academic debate around this word, basically, it means the feeling you get when roleplay flows naturally and you really, truly feel like your character. Creating immersion is one of the aims of Nordic larp.
  • 360 illusion. The game scenography strives for realism. So a bouquet of flowers is represented by a bouquet of flowers, and not a card with “flowers” written on it, and so on. Part of the idea is that pretending a card is really a bouquet of flowers on it takes one out of the game world and inhibits immersion. Read more about 360 illusion on the Nordic Larp Wiki.
  • Few mechanics. A long ruleset for Nordic games is ten pages. Most games have far fewer rules. The basic idea is to introduce mechanics only when strictly necessary, only when the character and the player should experience things differently (as in, for example, combat). Mostly, the rule, tempered by common sense, is: if you can do it in real life, you can do it in game. Part of the idea behind this is that lots of rules can interfere with immersion — if I have to whip out my character card to use my lockpick skill on the door in front of me, than I’ve been yanked out of the world of the game. Sometimes, mechanics include metatechniques — ways of breaking the flow of narrative to heighten the drama.  Metatechniques include stuff like character monologues, or playing possible futures or pasts in a designated blackbox area.
  • Artistic vision. Many Nordic larps have artistic aims, whether that means helping players explore particular emotions, both positive and negative, or getting across a political point, or just experimenting with the form for sake of experiment. There have been games about refugee camps, prisons, AIDS, cancer, homelessness, gender relations and so on.

How is Nordic larp different from US larps I’ve played?

Of course, that depends on which US larps you’ve played. There’s been some exploration of this question over on the Mad About the Boy Facebook group, but here are a few things a US-larper might find different:

  • Nordic games emphasize collaboration over competition. As Norwegian larper Erlend Eidsem Hansen put it, “It’s more like singing in a choir than doing sports.” Larper Johanna MacDonald explained how this idea affects the game to the Mad About the Boy Facebook group:

The way it affects larping is basically this: we love to (sometimes) play to lose. The question is not necessarily whether my character will come out of this situation well, but what would make the most interesting story, and not just for me, but for others. Within this there’s room for all kinds of styles. I for one am still kind of the player who will avoid getting my character into trouble, but I *love* playing with larpers who help me find it. A scene where your character loses something important, loses status, is disappointed, has to own up to a mistake, or any of those other social horrors can be the best scene of the game sometimes.

  • Plot is internal and emphasizes character growth. In contrast, in many American larps, plot is often external and goal-oriented rather. In much American larp, plot is something to solve, with characters fighting goblins, figuring out how to launch the spaceship, or gathering objects for an occult ritual. Often, the game is set up so players can choose which plot points they would like to participate in, and each episode or “module” ends when the goal is achieved.

Nordic larp takes a different view of plot, and emphasizes character arc and emotion — the main plot is often something like “we are flawed humans struggling against ourselves and our society to find happiness.” As their main goal for the duration of the larp, characters might seek to find love, survive, give birth, or overcome personal failings, and consequently, game masters interject non-player characters into the game very very rarely. As Mad About the Boy player Morgan Jarl put it:

A character is in Nordic larp not a set of stats or skills, it is a personage with a background and goals, based in a web of relationships. The play is mainly for emotional experience and/or storytelling. It is to try to recreate a community of people much like an improvised film without the cameras (360 illusion), where everything is played for your own sake.

It may help to think of Nordic larp less as a game, and more as an improvised theatrical experience.

  • Secrecy is not important. Because many US games rely on external plot, and are more about the thrill of what happens, secrecy is often a major part of the game. If a certain spell will unlock a portal into another world, spreading that knowledge might rob other players of the joy of discovery. But since Nordic larp is more about character development and internal plotlines, secrecy isn’t necessary. If my character has issues with infertility, better to shout it from the rooftops before the game — you might find a way to help push that issue for me in one of our scenes together.
  • Metagaming encouraged. Stateside, we usually consider metagaming a bad thing. If I see where the GM hid that sword of awesome out of game and use my out-of-game knowledge, then I’ve deprived other players of their chance to nab it. In Nordic larp, since the plot focuses on character development, and there are few mechanics, meta-interactions are encouraged.Instead of leaving the outcome of a brawl up to our stats, we might step out of game and talk about whether it would make a better story for me to lose. Or if we are going to play a love scene, we might talk about whether we will play it awkward or tender, and whether you are comfortable with me putting my arm around you, or whether we prefer physical distance. By the same token, if you know what my character’s buttons are ahead of time, you can push them and help me develop my character further and quicker.
  • Emotional intensity. American larp often focuses on escapism and entertainment — and these are absolutely worthy goals — while Nordic larp often goes for intense emotion. Nordic theorists often talk about “bleed” — what happens when player and character emotions get mixed up. Many Nordic games intentionally produce bleed — if I am infertile in real life and play an infertile character in game, my personal emotions might bleed into my roleplay, and lessons that my character learns may stay with me. Players have some control over bleed — if I’m feeling really raw about my infertility, I might decide I don’t want to play an infertile character, or I might decide to focus my game play away from that theme. And then too, I might try to play on it and use a…
  • Safewords. Many Nordic games use the safewords of “brake” and “cut.” During a scene of emotional intensity, players can say “brake,” which tells scene partners “this level of intensity is cool but please don’t push it” or “cut” which stops game play and allows the players to walk away.
  • Continuous immersion. In US games, players frequently go in and out of character with handsignals — often a closed fist atop the head. But since Nordic larp has immersive aims, going out of game for minor clarifications is frowned on. If you don’t know the answer, just make it up. Frequently, there is an off-game area where players can go when they need a break, before stepping back into the action. Often, you’re expected to eat, breathe, and sleep your character.
  • Workshops and debriefs. Usually, but not always, Nordic larps are one-shots rather than campaigns, often bracketed by workshops and debriefs, which are considered part of the game experience. Pre-game workshops help participants get to know each other, and may introduce game mechanics, let players help create the game world, and include acting exercises designed to facilitate character development. Post-game debriefs help everyone leave their characters behind, provide a venue for organizer feedback, and help players talk about emotionally difficult experiences and things that were or could have been problematic.

That’s the basics, but I’m by no means an expert. Further reading/watching suggestions:

Nordic Larp
Nordic Larp Wiki
Nordic Larp Talks
Why We Play, Petter Karlsson’s introduction
Roads & Kingdoms article on Nordic larp
The last couple chapters of Leaving Mundania
Chat about Nordic larp with Bookslut

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31 thoughts on “Nordic Larp for Noobs

  1. Pingback: LARP – Cultural differences « Dr Laura Mitchell

  2. Interesting article and a good and simple explanation of the different terms. Cool :)

    …have you had any feedback so far? Other comments on a board or the like? It’s always interesting to see other people’s reactions to new/different stuff than what they’re used to :)

  3. Very interesting- I hear a lot about this style of LARP but still have trouble picturing it in my head. I guess it’s like all LARP that way- you kind of have to be there to truly get it!
    You say players are discouraged from going in and out of character, and that mechanics that break immersion are discouraged, but also that players actively use metagaming and step in an out of character to discuss what would make the best story, or where their comfort zones are. It sounds like one of the key differences are the reasons why people tend to step out of character.

    • Adina: I think you’ve hit the nail on the head about the difference, and that’s a nice way of putting it. To get a sense of what a game like this looks like, you might check out this short documentary on the Nordic larp Delirium. And of course, if you’re free and interested, I’d love for you to be part of the US Mad About the Boy run this fall!

      Jonas: Thanks for the kind words. The feedback has been largely positive, with some Americans commenting that their personal game experiences have stuff in common with what I’ve listed as Nordic traits above.

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  10. I read this a few times before playing Mad About the Boy, and reading it now- post game- I see that so so so many concepts and techniques you describe above were completely lost on my noobian eyes.

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  20. FYI, we have been running Nordic larps in the US (CT and CA) since the early 1990s.

    100% Immersion, 360° illusion, bare-bones mechanics and artistic vision.

    In fact, I’m a bit stunned that 10 pages of rules would be described as “few mechanics”. Our current mechanics include exactly 8 simple rules that fit on a business card.

    It’s a shame that most US larps have continued to become more complicated and less immersive.

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