Thanks to First Person Entertainment (creators of Doomsday), and along with awesome Americans Jeramy Merritt, A. George, Emily Care Boss, and Sarah Miles, and awesome Norwegians Trine Lise Lindahl, Margrete Raaum, and Tor Kjetil Edland, I helped bring a Nordic larp to Connecticut at the beginning of October.
In addition to organizing, I also played the game, filling in for a player who went home sick. Both roles – that of player and organizer – shaped my experience of the game. And here are a few thoughts:
BACKGROUND ON THE GAME
The Mad About the Boy larp took place in a dystopian future, three years after all the men on earth (well, the people with Y chromosomes) died. We played the game with an all-women cast, organized into trios.
The trios were applying to be part of an artificial insemination pilot program run by the US government, an experiment to decide who would have access to sperm from the sperm banks.
In the first act of the game, a Committee of four people appointed by the government evaluates each trio for motherhood. In the second act of the game, the last man on earth comes crashing into the program, and the women must decide what to do with him.
If you want to read more about the plot of the game, check out the sign-up page. You can also find out more about this Nordic larp thing, and how it differs from other sorts of larp here.
Part of the challenge for the organizers was to present the Nordic style of roleplay to a US audience of mixed experience and to condense what is usually a three or four-day experience into about two days — Friday night through Sunday afternoon.
In keeping with this style of larp, we spent the first part of the game workshopping, helping players understand the setting, develop their characters, and get to know the mechanics. At the end of the game, we held a formal debrief where people talked about their game experiences.
THE EMOTION OF LOSS
The guided meditation on the loss of men was the most powerful part of the pre-game workshop for me. We lay on the ground and imagined – as ourselves – where we would be on a usual Wednesday morning when all the men started dying, what we would do and where we would go.
From reading other player commentary, I think this felt powerfully intense and powerfully sad for most of us. I imagined watching men die in the coffee shop where I do most of my writing, then walking to Rutgers, where my husband works as a scientist in a mostly male office. I imagined opening the door to his research pod and seeing him and his colleagues – our friends – dead on the floor of that windowless room.
I had to open my eyes at certain points to dial down the intensity.
And yet, for me, this visualization provided my best in-game experiences. The physical memory of sorrow came out whenever men were discussed. When I met the nuclear family triad, which included Thomas, a trans man, he casually asked me if I’d had siblings. “Yes,” I said. “I used to have a younger brother…” and then I stopped, choked with tears.
The moment surprised me – the tears were involuntary, a reaction of the character, not of mine, making the moment as thrilling as it was sad. Although I didn’t talk about my younger brother in game – his existence recounted in a brief line in my back story, his loss made the disaster personal to my character – it felt unbearably sad to imagine, not just that he was gone, but that the quality of his mischievousness and energy had vanished from the world. Later in the evening, the group would recount stories about this at the party. It was not the last time I choked up in character.
That moment, small and unexpected, was among the most powerful of the game for me, and it felt so private and intimate that it took me days to talk about it.
The moment colored my game, making clear to me that in addition to being a game about women and their relationships, Mad About the Boy is also a game about loss. Later, after the last man entered, I could only stare into the fire. Another character, Christine, who had an unrequited crush on mine asked me, “You look so sad. Why are you sad?” No matter what we did, he was going to die before his time. So I kept quiet.
THE FRIENDLY LESBIANS NEXT DOOR
My trio, the lovers, represented a polyamorous triad of women in a love relationship reinforced by business ties. Alex ran a club on the lower east side, where Jo tended bar and sang, and Vicky, my character, worked as an electrician.
My trio had a certain amount of romantic instability written into it, and my co-players and I talked about playing on that and decided we would. Although we’d agreed on this method of play, in practice, we didn’t end up pursuing it. Instead, we quickly became the friendly stable lesbians next door, and at one point the Committee even told us we were models for the new order – they felt children with parents who loved each other romantically would be better off –and asked our characters, in game, to mentor another group.
Naturally, since we ran a nightclub together, we decided to liven up the depressing environment on the three-year anniversary of the disaster by organizing a party after dinner. One character hosted, and people got up and told fond memories of the things men used to do. Of course one of the artists, a prima donna actress, did a burlesque dance featuring a flag stolen from her conservative cabin-mates.
Afterward, we danced to hits like “It’s Raining Men.” The dance floor provided some interesting roleplay as characters taught each other to dance, while others played out flirtation, jealousy, and romance.
Introducing the Conservatives
The Norwegian larpwrights wrote the game to take place in Norway. But Norway is culturally different from America, and a post-apocalyptic Norway is different from a post-apocalyptic America. For example, Norway is pretty small and it seems reasonable to assume it’d have similar borders after the apocalypse, but would the US survive as one big country? The US team updated the libretto to better fit our cultural setting – the Professionals probably wouldn’t have a fishing fleet, for example – a construction company fit better. But in general, we tried not to change relationship dynamics within individual trios, or between different trios. (Original libretto is available here.)
We had more players than in either of the original Norwegian runs, so we persuaded the larpwrights to write three new characters, a set of conservative women from New Bedford, Pennsylvania.
The conservative trio, as it turned out, proved to be a lightning rod for thought-provoking play. Out of game, our player base skewed liberal and had some preconceptions about the characters in the trio that created fascinating play.
The Committee’s Contentious Decision
On Saturday night, the Committee gathered everyone together to let us know that the Muslims and the Conservatives would be getting babies. Before the announcement and with rumors that the Muslims would get a baby but the Conservatives wouldn’t, one of the Muslims pled with the Committee to overlook their own bias and give a baby to the Conservatives.
The Conservatives received a baby because the Committee had realized that it was discriminating against the conservatives on unfair ideological grounds. Interesting, since the Committee had searched for a reason to disqualify the Conservatives, that their apparent liberal perspective caused them, in-game, to recognize their own bias and apply a corrective lens.
Later, the Conservative and the Muslim trios bonded over feeling ostracized because of their religion – people had responded to them with pre-set expectations. It was interesting to me that this feeling of ostracism should have affected the two groups that our cultural narrative often pits against one another. And fascinating that this experience, combined with both trios’ respect for religion in general, should have made them friendly with one another.
The Committee’s realization of its own liberal bias against the Conservatives was in itself interesting (though later it came out that they felt that higher ups in the government had mandated a baby for the conservatives) – and it served as a metaphor for the rest of us.
Liberal Assumptions About Conservatives
After the game, the members of the Conservatives talked about how they’d been treated by the other players. As a member of the Lovers, I’d had little interaction with them, but of course, when we met, I felt I could see disapproval of our romantic arrangement on their faces. And we made sure to roleplay our relationship in front of them. Apparently, we weren’t the only trio to do so – even undemonstrative trios not linked by romantic relationships roleplayed the physicality of their relationships through Ars Amandi in front of the conservatives, even if their trios weren’t particularly physical otherwise.
During the debrief, a particularly telling moment for me was talking to one of the conservatives’ players and hearing that she had felt positively inclined toward the Lovers, accepting our arrangement as a necessity, of sorts, in the all-lady post-apocalypse. That created fascinating guilt in me – I had made the assumption that they’d be prejudiced against us, but in fact, the prejudice worked in the other direction. I know I’m not the only one who had this realization.
So that was surprising and unexpected – recognizing that liberal assumptions about conservatives are as damaging as assumptions that run the other way.
AMERICAN VALUES AT PLAY
How the Meta-techniques Translated
We took a bunch of Americans of varying levels of game experience, ranging from experienced larpers to total noobs, and exposed them to Nordic larp. So, did the form of the game make them into Nordic larpers, or did it reveal a quintessentially American style of play?
The answer, as with so many complex questions, is a little of both.
In addition to the Nordic pre-game workshops, the game also employed meta-techniques, ways of breaking the narrative to heighten the drama. (Read more about the mechanics used here.)
If I had to pick a winner out of all of the techniques we tried out, it’d be the black box, a room with lighting and sound that exists out of place and time at the larp. You could go there to play possible or actual pasts and futures, or dreams and fantasies. For example, my trio had a teenage friend who came to our club and performed standup. We started wondering what her conservative grandma would think about her act, so we went and found her trio and asked them to play out our imagined scene for us.
In general, the workshop and black box helped people play in an emotionally intense way, I think, mainly by providing context for in-game action that deepened emotion. Game mechanics influence game play by structuring interactions between the characters. Give them lock pick skills and they will pick locks; give them a black box, and they will play backstory, creating emotional context. The black box in particular also seemed to encourage collaborative play, as players often set black box scenes for each other.
So I feel that we came halfway to the communal play that seems emblematic of Nordic larp, at least from the descriptions I’ve seen and read. Since this form of larp was new to most of us, it was hard to negotiate meta-gaming, the practice of talking out of game to your scene partners about what direction the game might take. Particularly since that aspect of Nordic larp seems at odds with the idea of total immersion, that you’re in game as much as humanly possible. And yet, for me at least, taking time out for black box scenes enhanced my experience quite a lot. And feeling encouraged to talk to my trio partners about how comfortable each of us were with physical contact, for example, helped make me feel safer in terms of roleplay.
I think that workshopping, and the black box are techniques that could easily be exported to many other sorts of US larp.
Unused technique: The Bathroom Wall
I also learned about a meta technique that we did not use from the Norwegians, inelegantly dubbed “the bathroom wall.” Sometimes, in Norway, people take photos of their characters, print them out and stick them on the bathroom wall, where people are often nominally in game anyway. You can write out of game messages to other people on the photos – “ask me about my father” or “my charm bracelet is not what it seems” or whatever. Then, if I have a lull in my game, I can check the wall, and find something else to play on, seeking out that player and asking her about her father, or bringing up the topic of fathers in general. My possibly erroneous sense is that this technique first appeared in medieval fantasy games. It seems like an exportable technique that I’m dying to see used somewhere, by someone.]
US Equality: Everyone Gets a Baby!
The first act of the game had very little visible surface action – we waited to be evaluated by the Committee, and got to know the other applicants. For me, at least, still waters ran deep, as the saying goes, and I felt very emotionally engaged in the game and involved in relationships, both with members of our own trio, and in terms of our relationship, as a group, to the rest of the groups present.
I’ve talked about how the core US value of equality affects larp in other places, and I saw this core ideal affecting the game here too. The Committee, the in-game government representatives, decided on Sunday morning that every trio would get a baby, a decision that ensured that each trio was treated equally on the surface, a decision that circumvented the Committee’s own potential personal preferences, and suggested that the right to reproduce is a fundamental human right. They clearly arrived at this decision after considerable debate. I think it says something intriguing, both in and out of game, about cultural values of equality and the much-touted equal playing field. My trio couldn’t believe that the Artists – an ad hoc group of ladies who wanted to film every minute of the kid’s life from birth until death – made the cut.
As a plot twist, however, this decision ramped down the delicious conflict that had simmered since the previous night’s announcement that the Muslim and Conservative trios would receive babies. And since we were all getting babies, it also altered our relationship to the last man, who rushed in shortly afterward – no trio now required him as a resource for sperm. And I think that helped many of the characters see him as human first.
What’s Our Default Behavior?
In the Norwegian runs of the game, the last man’s appearance kicked off a town hall meeting about his fate.
In the US run, it kicked off concerns of security. As medical staff got the last man comfortable, the Committee took charge, immediately exiling prospective birth mothers to another location to keep them safe from potential disease, and sending the armed outside to guard against the band of women that might be following him. When the last man refused to deal with the Committee, a new band of leadership quickly emerged and decided to get him off the premises, ending the game.
As I watched this dynamic unfold, it reminded me of power and status dynamics I’ve seen unfold in other games. The weekend plot hook appears. Some people take charge and send other people away. Then scheming happens and there’s a surprise ending.
Something about the appearance of the last man read as “weekend plot.” And as a group of American gamers, I think we fell into a familiar pattern. Our hive mind went, “Oh! A problem! We’ll solve the shit out of this.” And solve it we did, in under three hours.
During the debrief, it came out that several different sets of trios had different individual plans to get the last man out and away. Some people wanted the play to continue on longer – the party spiriting away Isak had plans to open the play back up to involve more of the players.
I felt comfortable ending the game where it ended – we told the players upfront that once it seemed like we’d made a decision about what to do with the last man, they’d play the music that ended the game. With so many plans and intrigues at play, I felt that the individual plan carried out wasn’t important – it was enough that one of the fragmented plans succeeded. Many people had the same idea – to spirit away the last man to an undisclosed location. Though only one of these particular plans came to fruition, it felt like the group objective had been achieved. That we resorted to plotting and planning and hierarchy seemed like a thematic resolution to our group dynamic, if not to the plot point itself, and to me, establishing that order felt like enough of an ending.
I don’t want to privilege one style of play over another here – I felt the end of our game was a perfectly valid and interesting end, and though it was unsatisfying to some of the participants, then that dissatisfaction is part of the bleed, perhaps. I found it interesting because it revealed our inclination or our willingness to accept hierarchy so long as no great wrong was done. I know my trio, gun-less though we were, would have leapt up to defend Isak’s humanity if we thought it had been under real threat from the government.
We did some formal debriefing – meeting in various sizes of groups over a couple hours to talk about what aspect of our characters we’d take home with us, and what aspect we’d leave behind, our most meaningful moments, etc. We talked about what real-world dynamics we saw in the game, and how we might bring the things learned in this space back out to the real world. We also gave everyone debrief buddies – designated partners to talk over the game experience with.
During the debrief, Trine, one of the original Norwegian writers, told people something like, “You think we’re being excessively conscious of your feelings now, but we know from experience that you’ll feel differently in a few days.”
People were surprised how much their emotional involvement continued.
The day after the larp ended, the group’s floodgates opened, with people writing in to ask if they were the only people still emotionally affected by the game. There was a flurry of activity on the email list, and I had many personal exchanges with other players.
For me, I had a double larp-hangover. As a player, I was sorting through the emotional experience of play. As an organizer, I had to deal with feedback through that lens of emotion, and through the fog of a cold I had caught. For more than a week, I felt emotionally raw, unable to accept kind words about the game as praise, and unable to accept critique – even reasoned critique – without a disproportionate emotional reaction.
From the email list, I also have the sense that the game created a community that will yield future collaborations. I, for one, can’t wait to see what happens.
Considering that this is one of the first such game run in the US, and that the organizers had a whole slew of things to translate from a Nordic audience to an American one, I think the game went pretty smoothly. Of course, nothing’s perfect, and we could have done a better job with a few things — communicating with the player of the last man, including an opt-out mechanism towards the end of the Ars Amandi workshop, and meeting a few more times in our organizer group. Other people may have had different views of the experience, but all things considering, I’m satisfied with how the game turned out and the response from the players has been largely positive.
But you don’t have to take my word for it…
Others Write About Mad About the Boy
I’ll link more here as they appear…and there’s some official documentation in the works too!