You can always tell which Americans have been to Scandinavian roleplaying conventions, because they have the look in their eyes of having dropped acid or shot heroin. That’s a little how Scandinavia feels to me – like a vivid waking hallucination, perhaps because Nordic gaming conventions are an exercise in sleep deprivation. This year, I alleviated that a bit by arriving a day early, which gave me an extra 24 hours to adjust to the time zone, before committing to a serious regimen of partying and watching the sun come up. And then there are the games, thought-provoking entries into experiences you might not otherwise encounter. I’m obviously hooked on Nordican games, and last week, I had my new fix at the Danish convention Fastaval.
For those who aren’t familiar, Fastaval features juried selection of about 30 freeform games, which are then entered into an Oscars-style competition called the Ottos, where participants have a shot at winning a coveted golden penguin. Although the convention also features larps and board games – the latter of which earned its own awards this year – it’s mostly about the freeform scenarios. Freeform scenarios are short (2-4 hours) roleplaying games for between two and ten un-costumed players, featuring a strong GM who cuts together scenes, sort of like the director in a movie, and uses the tools selected by the scenario writer to push the characters.
This year I had a scenario in the running called The Curse, a short game about hereditary breast cancer and relationships, and I’m pleased to say it received an Otto nod for best writing. I have a few tweaks I’d like to make based on the feedback I received, but then I’ll post it up soon.
Fastaval takes place in a school rented out for the occasion, and all the participants pitch in with a work shift to help out the staff who spend the convention making things awesome for everybody. It also means that unlike conventions in the states, there are no non-gaming outsiders around. In addition to running a boatload of games, the convention is set up for socializing. Inside the venue there is a participant-run café that sells food and cocktails, and sometimes has performers, both burlesque and guitar-and-singer style. It’s a great place to hang out and have a chat, and it’s populated with an older crowd. The bar is just down the hall, stays open much later, and has a beer, shots, and death metal vibe. The Danes definitely believe in alcohol as a social lubricant, and the drinking age is younger here, though there is a separate booze-free lounge provided for the youth.
In addition, there’s a TV crew running around shooting little amusing sketches about the convention and its culture that get edited into an episode shown each night in the bar at 4am. If you think you can’t stay up that late, you’re wrong.
The Dirtbusters, a pervasive larp about fighting the forces of chaos (read: cleaning) runs alongside the convention and provides much-needed cleanup services. They have their own culture, and rumor has it, a beer-and-porn laden command center somewhere on the premises. They provide a vital service to the convention, and seem to be in the midst of an important cultural transition – in recent years, as women have become more vocal on this scene, there has been some tension around issues of sexism and Dirtbuster culture. While the situation hasn’t entirely resolved itself, most of the chatter I heard suggested that things have been improving at a fast clip.
At the same time, the convention consists of only about 25 percent women – far less than other conventions I’ve been to – and you can see those demographics (or sometimes more skewed ones) reflected in the organizing committee, who ends up writing scenarios, the Otto awards etc. As a woman, I sometimes found it intimidating to talk to the other writers and participants, for example – watching ten tall dudes who all know each other well standing in a circle having an important-sounding discussion in another language – made me hesitant to approach. At the same time, the women I’ve met at Fastaval have been highly highly awesome, so it seems like it’d be in everyone’s interest to increase their numbers. One thing I learned from running the all-women larp Mad About the Boy is that often women don’t feel comfortable taking space, but rather need to be invited in. Having women in a space also often “proves” that it’s safe for other women. I wonder if Fastaval could benefit from a “get women gaming” initiative of some sort.
International participants felt particularly welcome this year, with a host of nods to our presence — the usual games in English, typically with a few locals mixed in for flavor; subtitles for the awesome Otto Channel TV series; and translators available during the award ceremonies. In addition, most people speak pretty kick-ass English, even when tired or inebriated.
The crowd represents an interesting mixture of the usual gamers, present at every convention I’ve been to in any country – black t-shirts, long hair, relaxed attitude – and then folks sporting some pretty serious style. Of course, go anywhere and you’ll find women with sharply honed senses of style, but here there are many men working a specific look – certainly many more than I am used to. Yes, Fastaval, I am complimenting the outfits of many of your dudes. Here are some things that appear to be “in”: waxed moustaches, bowties, ties of any sort, blazers, interesting hair (long, short, dyed), suspenders, squarish glasses, monochromatic anything, newsboy caps, pocket squares, lots of facial piercings. And of course beards. Always beards.
This year, I learned a lot about the Otto awards, both through doing, since I wrote a scenario, and by way of research – I spent quite a bit of time talking to former judges about how they do their thing, since there’s some interest stateside in getting up our own competition, and we like to do our homework. Here are the most surprising things I learned:
- There are no hard guidelines on which scenarios are able to be submitted to each year’s Fastaval. In general, they want new scenarios, and good ones. What does “new” mean, you might ask — like, written in the last year? Or not played at other conventions? what about edge cases? The answer is unclear, perhaps by design. Two folks who organize the convention use their discretion in picking scenarios.
- The committee of six judges agrees on all nominations and winners unanimously. As you can imagine, this means a lot of long meetings and therefore, presumably, arguing. People sometimes refer to this as the “judges’ larp.” I’ve heard that it sometimes turns into its own sleep deprivation competition, as judges passionate about certain scenarios out-argue and out-last their fellows into the night.
- The judges spend most of their time reading scenarios, as opposed to playing them. This supposedly gives an edge to scenarios that are well-written.
- In addition to reading scenarios, the judges look at feedback forms written by players and GMs. The questionnaires, handed out after every run, feature questions like, “how did your group function?” “what was the best thing about the scenario?” “What could have been improved?” “What do you want to tell the writer?” and so on, along with a numeric score. Finally, each judge spends some time hanging out in the café and bar and so on, listening to people talk about their game experiences. Interestingly, the judges are also assigned a couple of authors to talk to informally during the convention. I found this very low-key and nice.
- The Otto categories include things like Best Characters, Best Story, Best Scenario, Best Mechanics, Best Presentation (writing), and so on. Rather, the committee interprets these each year. When a judge retires, someone with a similar perspective to that judge is invited to fill in.
- In addition, a separate committee awards an honorary Otto to a person who has contributed a lot to the scene. And of course, there’s an audience prize too.
As a writer, it’s pretty cool to have the scenario you labored over read with such care and attention to detail. It’s a little scary of course (is there anything worth doing that isn’t?), but typically writers write because they’d like to be carefully read. I’m looking forward to the feedback that the committee offers.
Fastaval supports scenario writers. I understand that for folks local to Denmark, there are weekend retreats and scenario workshops designed to nurture both experienced and new writers. Although writers are spread out across Denmark, I believe there are activities in a few different cities to help folks connect, play test, and get feedback on their writing.
In addition, there’s the option of a sparring partner, which is also available to international participants. Sparring partners help improve your scenario by offering pointed feedback and challenging design ideals. Often, they seem to specialize in something particular. I wanted special help with play testing, since I was new to scenario writing, but my sparring partner ended up reading a truly sick number of drafts, discussing structure and format with me, and working as a general sounding board for new ideas. Super super helpful.
The culture at this convention – or perhaps it is a facet of Danes in general? – has a marked absence of bullshit. Feedback is direct and honest, and there wasn’t the veneer of fake praise and excessive politeness over everything that so often marks gatherings of writers. I found this in turns refreshing, exciting, and intimidating.
I played two scenarios and ran two scenarios this year. My best experience was running Dulce Et Decorum, a tabletop game about the trenches of WWI, written by my sparring partner Troels Ken Pedersen. Since the game ran long, I had a fun time cutting viciously and controlling the spotlight of the scenario. And from the feedback sheets I collected at the end of the scenario, the players enjoyed themselves too, which is the whole point.
I wish I’d played more scenarios this year, or perhaps played them in a different order. The convention starts on Wednesday, with most play wrapped up by Sunday morning. Stateside, the best stuff usually runs on Fri/Sat night of conventions, so that’s what I signed up for, but here, it seems the opposite is true. Conventional wisdom among participants suggests that the best stuff happens on Wednesday night, and Thursday and Friday during the day, mainly because as the convention wears on and the parties stretch out into the night participants and GMs alike become more fatigued and hung over as the convention progresses.
Recently, renowned Swedish person (and bad-ass GM/designer) Anna Westerling visited the US, and we all ran freeform games for Americans. She observed that Americans tend to follow directions really well and quickly — if the point of this scene is for A to flirt with B, then they get right in there and make it happen quickly. This can make cutting easier, and often means that emotions for players escalate rather quickly.
With her observation in mind, I found the Nordic players fascinating. Their style of play seems more subtle to me; rather than cutting to the chase many of them approach the point of the scene sideways rather than head on, and they layer tension slowly and often rather quietly. This approach has advantages, of course — it’s more realistic, and often the conflicts created felt quite intriguing. Not better or worse; just different.
This makes me wonder having both sorts of players in the same game would make things mismatched or perfectly matched. I’d imagine that the Nordic way of playing would add richness and detail, where the American style of play drives the plot forward and raises the stakes. I’ll be watching future games carefully to see how it works out in practice.
Some of my best Fastaval fun took place in the café, talking design and American culture with guest of honor and new freeform convert Vincent Baker, and chatting with other designers and folks I feel I’m starting to know now that I’ve been to a few international conventions.
I also happened to stay in a pretty pimping hotel room with an international crew. In addition to two small rooms for sleeping, we had a large common area decorated with animal skulls and preserved deer heads, a set of elaborate golden couches, and a long baroque dining room table. The room opened out onto a little terrace with a view up a wooded hill, perfect for watching the sun rise.
THE FASTAVAL CHALLENGE
Need some Fastaval, but live outside Nordica? Many of the scenarios are available in English at the Alexandria project. I know that my local scene would love to see many more sets of GM instructions translated into English, and so I offer this incentive: if you translate your scenario, my GM crew, Sex & Bullets, will make sure that it runs at least once at a con or private gaming event.
(Caveats: we can’t play some topics here, though, and we’ll be the final arbiters of what those are. When in doubt, ask! firstname.lastname@example.org We’d love both traditional sad-sack scenarios as well as ones that are a bit lighter and more fun. And we can only promise for scenarios with 1-15 participants and a minimum of set/costuming)