Why ‘Nordic Larp’ Is Confusing

Sometimes terminology is just confusing. One of the questions I’m most often asked during panels or at conventions is, “What is Nordic larp?”

It’s hard to answer this question because the term “Nordic larp,” and what it represents still seems up for debate among the Nordic larpers themselves. While this is an exciting sign of the robustness of the community, it’s also frustrating for those of us who live elsewhere. For us, ‘Nordic larp’ isn’t a storied living tradition, it’s a vocabulary term — people here just want to know the basics so we can talk about Nordic larp at cocktail parties without embarrassing ourselves, our friends, and all of Nordica in the abstract.

Here are a few ways the term is used:

-“Nordic larp” sounds like it refers to all larp that happens anywhere in the Nordic countries. If the Nordic scene is anything like the US scene — composed of many disparate groups of larpers doing their own thing, and often unaware of each other — then this designation is simply geographic. I’m guessing that there are probably some larger similarities, but that there isn’t a set of characteristics that applies across the board. (But hey, I’m not an expert, so what do I know?) It’s unclear whether this makes the term useful or not, since it lumps in big fantasy games with artsy fartsy ventures. Do they really both have stuff in common?

-Nordic Larp is also a delightful coffee table book that you must all run out and buy right now. In the book, Finnish editors Jaakko Stenros and Markus Montola assembled a collection of essays and photographs documenting some important and interesting games of the last 15 years. The book tackles stuff from large medieval summer larps, to the most existential of experiences. The book, and the larps in the book, also define the term in some way. Stenros and Montola are aware that this may be problematic, and authored a paper explaining their process, and some of the dilemmas they faced along the way.

-Many people use “Nordic larp” as shorthand for “art larp that comes out of the Knutepunkt tradition.” Knutepunkt is an art larp convention that rotates its way around the Nordic capitals, changing its name to the local language depending on where it’s hosted. (So it’s called Knutepunkt, Knutpunkt, Knudepunkt, and Somukohta — confusing!) These games seem to have a core set of aesthetic principles. My sense is that since art larpers comprise only a fraction of their national — Norwegian, Swedish, Danish, Finnish — scenes, they banded together across borders and raised a flag, calling their games Nordic. So “Nordic larp” is constructed, perhaps, in opposition to “Danish larp,” “Finnish larp,” etc.

On this reading, the term “Nordic larp” narrowly applies to a school of design and play and as such, it’s quite useful. On the other hand, since “Nordic” sounds like a geographic area, the slippage between a concrete design school and a geographical area is problematic. Some people in the US interpret this definition as, “The Nordic people are trying to say that they have a monopoly on cool art larp!” That may not be the intention, but it can come across that way. I’ve also heard that some people who do more mainstream larp in various Nordic countries interpret the term as, “The arty larpers are suppressing narratives about my lovely boffer game by making ‘Nordic’ synonymous with ‘arty.'”

And so we’ll leave it there — nobody knows what “Nordic larp” is, but people still use the term all the time. So if you want to use it as a pickup line at your next party, just know that whatever you say, you’ll probably get it wrong in someone’s estimation.

Until you come to consensus through whatever byzantine coalition-building process you use, my dear Nordic larpers, we Americans will just persist in calling any game that originates in your territory ‘jeepform,’ even though that term has a specific and narrow meaning. Why? The jeepers mounted an early campaign that clearly defined their play style and marketed it so successfully that in America it’s now synonymous with any game — larp, freeform, tabletop — that originates in your homeland. If you’d like it to be otherwise, then you’ve got to put some clear definitions out on the internet, like yesterday.

Further reading:

The Swedish Larp Workshop’s Definition
Thread on the term at the Nordic larp forum
Johanna Koljonen’s Nordic Larp Talk Intro to Nordic Larp
Why We Play, Petter Karlsson’s introduction to Nordic larp
Nordic larp for Noobs, my attempt to help US players of the (Nordic?) larp Mad About the Boy
Roads & Kingdoms article on Nordic larp

17 thoughts on “Why ‘Nordic Larp’ Is Confusing

  1. No! No! Not Jeepform! That’s something completely different! 🙂

    But seriously, I think Teresa Axner is right when she says that Nordic larp actually describes the sort of larps that go on in the geograhical area of Nordica. I think it is espescially the strong focus on immersion and 360 degree illusion that sets us apart from larp in other places, in addition to the focus on the collective effort to contribute to the common story of the game as a whole.

    When we use metatechniques and workshopmethods, the goal of most of them is to go further into the character, immersion is still the goal. But through the years we have gotten to a place where immersion, the 360 degree illusion and the story focus is more balanced in general. And for individual larps we are more conscious about which of the three we tip the scale in favour of, than what we were ten-fifteen years ago.

    Jeepform tips the scale too far in the direction of common story for most Nordic larpers to recognize it as a larp. It is freeform, and that’s something else.

  2. Ånd to clear some of the confusion (or possibly create more) Jeepform is just Swedish-Danish freeform with a brand. It’s a term created to make this particular writer’s collective’s works stand out when you google them.

    Jeepform is awesome and no doubt the Jeepers pushed both freeform and larp in new directions in their heydays as a collective.

  3. Trine, can a larp made in America, by Americans, for Americans (to start) be a Nordic larp? Is the geographic region a requirement? If so, maybe we Yankees need a term for our artsy-fartsy larps.

    Maybe “Fart larps?”

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  5. Aaron: Sure, you can do a nordic larp (unless we settle for “nordic” as a strict geographic prefix), and we can do (what we think of as) american larp. For me “nordic” signifies a move from gameism, and a focus on immersion, 360 realism and storytelling.

    I can’t say I know much about the different larp cultures in north america, but the kind of stuff you see in Darcon (for example, like I said, I don’t know much about larp culture over there) is absolute nonos to nordic larp style. Did that clear anything up?

  6. Great post and good note by Trine. 😉

    And, I disagree with this sentence ” Knutepunkt is an art larp convention”.
    Knutepunkt is larp conference where the nordic larp scene was brought together. It is in someways the cradle of nordic art larps and essential to to many in that sence. But Knutepunkt is also about the larps and larpers that does not consider their larps as art larps.

    • A few other people have disagreed with that line too. It may be a place for people to meet, and certainly there are plenty of panels on non-art larp stuff, like larp in different places. Maybe I’m not going to the right panels, but to me, the main thrust of the convention is art-larp, and certainly it has produced this robust arty tradition.

      Maybe this would be a good exercise: if you had to explain Knutepunkt in five words, how would you do it?

      (Also, Elge, I love the idea of hilarious experimenting.)

  7. Very good post, Lizzie!
    And i think Trine and Sebastian nailed it very well when they summarised Nordic larp as immersion, 360 degrees realism (which also translates to 24/7 enacting), and storytelling. Thus, Aaron, it is totally possible to make an American Nordic larp!

    Also, I think one reason for seeing artsy larps as coming from the Knutepunkt tradition is that KP always had a strong theoretical side, which led to hilarious experimenting.

  8. Great post about freeform, but there still seems to be some confusion out there. I met more than one person at Mad About the Boy who told me this would be their first Jeepform game…

    What freeform is? Basically everything you write about Jeepform applies to freeform. Some of the metatechniques might be specifically jeepish, but new metatechniques are formed all the time. There is a notion (and I think it was the jeepers that verbalized this back in 2006 or something) that the important thing is that the methods and techniques you use are the ones that fit this particular game, and not something you just use because that’s what you’ve always done, or what the system dictates. This has always been done in the larp scene, but the pace of invention and borrowing increased when a lot of us were introduced to freeform through the larp/freeform/theatre-larp A nice evening with the family.

    I do understand that some non-Nordic larpers are a bit confused about the differences between freeform and larp, and I guess this is because they don’t really know what is typical for a Nordic larp. I will try to explain, using the three parametres I listed as typical for Nordic larp, immersion, 360 degree illusion and collective story.

    Let’s do 360 first. In a freeform game there are no costumes, props or location that is rigged to look like the setting you’re playing in, so that differs from most larps. On the other hand, you actually play out your actions physically with your body, so that differs from the tabletop games. In stead of just talking about props, like in tabletops, you use things to represent them, so a pen that happens to lie around can become a bouqet of flowers, a knife and a phone during the same game. In a regular larp the pen would be a pen, a pen and a pen. Or hidden because it didn’t fit with the setting of the game 🙂

    When it comes to immersion, the level of immersion is in many ways the meassure of wether or not it was a good larp for many people. The goal is to become the character as much as possible, feeling their feelings, thinking their thoughts. Ten-fifteen years ago it was even more so, but still today a lot of the people who play the more freeforminspired larps can review a larp in terms of “Well, I didn’t really immerse in my character, but it was still a good game”. As someone wrote, dreaming in character is considered an appropriate level of immersion. When your brain starts creating false memories all on it’s own, it’s considered hard core, but enviable.

    In tabletop games the level of immersion seems to be differing a lot between different groups. As I am not a tabletoper myself, having played less than ten sessions ever, I have a bit of a hard time explaining this. But it seems to me like there is still an emphasis on immersing in your own specific character and the game master plays whatever Non Player Characters are needed.

    In a freeform game, the focus is usually more on immersing in the collective story than in the individual characters. Often you switch characters, or there is one or two main characters and the rest of the players play the different characters that is needed to tell the story.

    This is also why freeform differs a lot from Nordic larp, even if Nordic larp has a strong focus on all the players telling a collective story, this is off course harder to achieve with 20,50 or 200 players than with 3-8 which is the usual size of a freeform game.

    One of the ways the freeform games can actually fullfill this goal of the collective story being in focus is that they usually operate with a strong gamemaster who’s cutting scenes, replaying them, instructing the players etc. In contrast to this most Nordic larps have quite passive gamemasters. The gamemasters work is primarily to make the foundation for the larp, but when it starts they often take complete background, or if they are more active they send in some plotinformation every once in a while, usually through a staging of some kind.

    One thing that the freeform games and the Nordic larps have in common, though, is that they are usually one shots, meaning that the full story is told within that one game. There are some campaigns, but some of them are more larps set in the same universe, than the same story told over many larps. One can compare this to movies and TV series. Most larps and freeform games are like movies, but some movies get sequals. Campaign larping is more like a TV serie. This contributes to the focus on the collective story over personal character development.

    And now I have to go to bed…

  9. Brilliant and fascinating Trine — a great description. This needs to go somewhere more prominent than the comments on my site. (Nordic Larp Wiki, perhaps?)

    Somewhere there needs to be a page on the differences between freeform and larp. While working on LM, I spent SO MANY HOURS trying to figure this stuff out, and I wish I’d had this to refer to.

  10. Knudepunkt has a strong non-artsy larper population as well. It’s just that we don’t have so many discussion panels as the artsy people do; most of the non-artsy stuff is usually connected to “LARP in Czech Republic/ Germany/Latvia/xxxx” kind of presentations and huge dinner table conversations. And the sauna area as well. We must also remember that KP community was very much involved in Dragonbane and that was not artsy at all. We could use some more of international high scale high budget insanity like that.

    And yeah, I’ve been around KP’s since 2004 and I really am not an artsy gamer. Sadly, I will miss the opportunity to promote my non artsy projects this years since the ticket price made me die little inside 😉

  11. Currently I think that “Nordic larp” is mostly practical to be viewed as a tradition. The works that have influenced people who go to Knutepunkt, the works discussed at Knutepunkt, and the works inspired by the discourses around Knutepunkt would probably sit at the core of this tradition. It is perhaps easier to understand the blob by looking at the migration of influences, the social structure, the social situations in which the works emerge, as well as the people involved, than by trying to limit it by geography or common features. Yes, most Nordic larps are played in the Nordic countries, but not all. Not all larps played in the Nordic larps are “Nordic larp style larps”. And yes, there are some features that are common to in the tradition (say, touching is allowed, political content is valued) and production related similarities also exist (grants are sometimes involved, larps are not run as businesses). However, building a strict *definition* of the Nordis larp based on these features would be difficult even if no new Nordic larps were ever to be created – and downright impossible with a living tradition.

  12. Very interesting discussion.

    I can tell you that grasping at a definition and a term to describe what’s currently often referred to as ‘Nordic’ isn’t just a struggle for people approaching that tradition from abroad / outside. I’ve been a part of the scene for 20 years and witnessed the ‘Nordic’-style tradition take shape, mainly through the lens of the Fastaval convention but also through other Nordic-style roleplays set up in Denmark. I’ve even worked extensively with roleplay as a teaching tool and thus had to get under the skin of a lot of roleplaying theory in the process, however…

    ..even so having relocated to the Netherlands, and having started to look for roleplaying opportunities here, I’m now coming short in how to describe and define my experiences and preferences precisely enough to be able to find like-minded. Part of that comes from my lacking ability to peg the definition, but it also comes from it being very different from, and perhaps outside the scope of, the mainstream roleplayers I run into, making me feel that I might as well try to explain it in Chinese (or worse yet, in a Nordic language!). It’s very much the case of the overall activity of roleplaying being made up of so many subgroups which are amazingly unaware of each other.

  13. Just to confuse things further (sorry, Trine and Lizzie), the term ‘freeform’ is used quite differently here in the UK. It means what in the US is called theatre-style larp, ie. the sort of thing that happens at Intercon, with (usually) pregen characters and an emphasis on complex plot. Generally short games with a small number of players, and often experimental. UK freeforms in this tradition were initially as strongly influenced by murder mystery party games as they were by boffer larps.

  14. I believe a Nordic larp is a larp that comes out of the Knudepunkt tradition. It is a larp that takes part in the discussion and progression of methods and theories generated by the Knudepunkt conference and the larps themselves.

    You cannot make a Nordic larp without having som understanding of the history and progression of the larps made in this tradition the last 20+ years. This goes for the larpwrights and also to some degree the players. Where the larp is made is not really important.

    And as Lizzis says: Buy the Nordic Larp book!

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