Larp Culture in Norway

I spent an epic four weeks in Scandinavia this April. Fastaval, a freeform gaming convention in Denmark, was my first stop. Then I hopped to Oslo to hang out with friends for a few weeks until Knutepunkt, the Nordic larp convention that rotates its way around the capitals of the Nordic countries, changing its name according to the local language.

I mingled with many wonderful people during my tenure and learned a lot about larp culture in Norway from them. Here are a few of the things I enjoyed before the convention even started:

Larper’s Beer

Although the city of Oslo is small by American standards — about half a million people — it has a robust larp scene, easily composed of — and I’m estimating here — more than 100 very active players and organizers, as well as some old hats who pop up at parties. Every Wednesday, this rag tag group meets at an Indian restaurant in central Oslo to talk over old projects, new projects, larp and more. I had the pleasure of showing up twice. The first time around, perhaps 20 people showed up, and the second time we had only 10 or so. I understand that attendance was a bit low because so many people had sequestered themselves in pre-Knutepunkt committee meetings.

The Norwegians worked so very very hard to plan Knutepunkt, y’all.

Itras By

I had the pleasure of playing this rocking RPG with one of its two creators,  Ole Peder Giæver (the other creator is Martin Gudmunsen), in the GM seat. Itras By takes place in a surreal city that looks rather 1920s/1930s. It’s home to talking apes, people whose faces froze when the wind changed, prophetic opium, and more oddities. Things in the city center can be quite normal at times, but as one ventures further out, things become increasingly surreal.

The game is quite mechanics-light, and focuses around collaborative storytelling. The core mechanic is two sets of cards. Resolution cards have text that begins “Yes, but” or “No, and” and inspire the player to create how things went right or wrong for the character. Chance cards introduce new elements into scenes and are often drawn by players who are not in the current scene, who then have the opportunity to introduce random elements, such as monologues, or cut scenes. Not a lot of game mechanics, and the ones that exist are focused around improv and storytelling? Yes, please.

Aside from the creativity of the setting — most of the game book is dedicated to describing it — and the improv rules that make for good collaborative play, I like that Itras By is a forgiving game for players. Since the setting is surreal, we could improvise fish with long sexy lady legs attached to them, back-door clinics that perform leg-ectomies, and so on, without fear that we’d be breaking the game. I found that liberating.

You can find out more about Itras By, including reviews, a surreal video trailer, and places to buy over at the Itras By website.

Stocking Larps

I met some stocking larpers at the Wednesday beers. From what I gathered (and please correct me if I’m wrong, oh peanut gallery), stocking larps are games set in particular historical periods, and for which historical accuracy in dress is somewhat important. The genre includes stuff like Civil War era larps about slavery, Jane Austen games, French revolution games, and WWII games. These aren’t reenactments, but larps with a strong historical basis. My understanding is that the stocking larp scene has been dominated by women organizers and players.

Ritual and Scenography

Apparently, Norwegian larp is known for using improvised rituals — more on this later in my post on A Week in Norway and on the actual Knutepunkt — and realistic scenography. While touring Oslo with various larpers, I heard stories of dark rituals performed in public parks for game, and earlier Norwegian Knutepunkts where everyone arrived in a train station to find that the organizers had painted it prettily. I heard tales of doorways to Knutepunkt made into eight-foot-tall velvet vaginas, and rituals that featured sentences such as, “Behold! The cow of larp!”

Starting a Scene Through Social Engineering

Like many Nordicans, the Norwegians love them some social engineering, which is the practice of setting up environments to facilitate a desired social result. An example of social engineering originating at the last Danish Knudepunkt is the open chair rule, in which groups of people sitting and talking must have an empty chair in their circle, signifying that anyone is welcome to come join. The idea is that this will create group inclusion, and I have to say it’s pretty effective.

Back to the Norwegians though. The Oslo larp scene has a lot of people interested in helping create new scenes in far-away places such as Palestine and Belarus. They’ve been very active both in helping produce larps in other countries — including the US run of Mad About the Boy — and in organizing places where new people can learn to make larps, through this year’s Larpwriter Exchange Academy (more on this in a later post), and through the Larpwriter Summer School. They’ve also been at the forefront of making and disseminating larp scripts, which make Nordic larp re-runnable all over the world, and are a boon to small, hungry scenes like the one in the US.

Here in the US, there’s a group of people interested in fostering a Nordic larp/freeform style scene, so naturally I asked some of the organizers of these different ventures for tips. Here’s the best one I received: To make a robust scene, you want many different groups to feel they have the initiative to do cool stuff, because that’s what keeps the scene vibrant.

So how to do this? Lots of different ways. Let’s say that on this new scene there is one established organizing group, called X, full of people who know each other. X can straight up encourage other people to form a new group Y, which is good for the scene, since when there is an X and a Y, newcomers might feel more ennabled to make Z (and P and…). If people aren’t ready to form Y yet, though, X can help things along by inviting new people into X. Perhaps after running a few games under the umbrella of X (and thus gaining some of its cred), the new folks will feel comfortable enough to depart and make Y. Alternately, the members of X can absorb everyone into X, stick around for a while to help the new people learn, and then depart to make a new group, Q.

Did that make any sense?

I found a new favorite game, learned about the Norwegian larp scene, and even discovered something about social engineering in Oslo before Knutepunkt even approached. Oh yes. And did I mention that plenty of this knowledge came from the fabled Awesome Nordic Ladies (TM)?

6 thoughts on “Larp Culture in Norway

  1. Hi, and thanks for the writeup. Its interesting to hear your perspectives on our little scene up north. And thanks for the Itras By-shoutout, I had a lot of fun, fish-with-legs and all.

    One thing about the text that left me curious is what you mean by “social engineering”. I know we talked a little bit about this, but could you try to define it more precisely?

    I guess I tend to read “social manipulation” (with its negative connotations), but don’t really think that’s what you mean.

    Is it “The Game”-like machinations to achieve one’s intentions, or merely a matter of social skills/awareness?

    I guess I was also a bit surprised to have this identified as a particular aspect of Norwegian (gaming) culture, as I guess our own stereotype is that we are somewhat introverted and socially inept. 😉

    • I’d say that social engineering is something that is shared by many Nordic play cultures — certainly Norway isn’t the only place I’ve heard about it. It’s just that my interest in the topic coincided with this trip, so I mostly learned from Norwegians, as opposed to Danes or Swedes or Finns.

      I’m not sure exactly what I mean by “social engineering.” It’s a topic I’m still learning about. My sense is that it’s a neutral tool, and like all tools, it can be used for good or ill. I’ve mostly seen it used for good. I think there’s a natural human tendency to revert to core groups, and that sometimes a little furniture rearranging can help us overcome our demons. Poor social engineering is often the result of not thinking about it, perhaps, while good social engineering takes concerted effort and good social antennae.

  2. Pingback: A Week in Norway Larping » Lizzie Stark

  3. Great write up Lizzie, thank you.

    If you don’t mind me tooting the Itras By horn, I will be running it for the first time at MaxiCon in a few weeks (a semi-private gathering of people associated with Enigma, UCLA’s sf/gaming club), but I am also running it at Wyrd Con IV. I love the book, and can’t wait to see what develops. Just reading it sparked a lot of ideas and thoughts in my mind, and I’m already collecting a musical playlist and artwork for the runs.

    I am going to be a bastard and comment on the “social engineering” concept. This is just my interpretation of what Lizzie wrote, combined with what little I’ve read about Nordic larps and experienced with them.


    I think the “social engineering” Lizzie is talking about is related to the “impose” aspect of larping that is talked about in the big Nordic Larp book: “Sometimes exploring and exposing are not enough and the players want to leave a mark in the social fabric surrounding the game. They want to question hegemonic truths, engage in a dialogue or just shock people out of their routines.” (p. 26)

    That’s what I think of, anyway.

    • Yes! Itras By is awesome!

      And on the social engineering front — I think you’re right, Aaron, that social engineering is part of the “impose” agenda that some Nordic larps have, but to me it also feels like it’s only one path to achieving that goal. But of course, that all depends on what I mean when I say “social engineering” and I haven’t formulated a clear definition yet, I suppose. If other folks have ideas, I’d love to hear them.