A bunch of stuff happened to me at Knutepunkt 2013, dear readers, but most of that would doubtless bore you. So I’ve sifted my experiences through the fine mesh of “the coolest, most interesting stuff,” and come up with this greatest-hits compilation, plus, you know, some scenery.
Since I’ve described the convention in lots of other places, this time around, I’m sticking to the content.
Scenography and Ritual
The site for the convention — cabins on the bank of a freaking giant frozen lake, was beautiful. And true to the rumors I’d heard, the Norwegian hosts were big on scenography and ritual.
Destroying Personal Limitations…WITH FIRE
On the bus ride to the convention, we all received tickets for the opening ceremony. The ticket instructions asked us to write something that prevented us from crossing borders on the back. I wrote “fear.” Then came a hilarious and spot-on Twin Peaks parody set in the red room, which represents the spiritual world in the TV show. Watch the video here.
At the end of the opening, we deposited all our tickets into a golden egg held by the log lady. During the Saturday night ritual — which involved drums, chanting, high priestesses of larp, and a giant paper mache phoenix, someone placed the egg into the bird. During the closing ceremony, they put the bird on the edge of the giant frozen lake and set it on FIRE, thereby burning all our boundaries.
Of course, during the opening ceremonies, and per Twin Peaks lore, one of the players informed the audience that “the owls are not what they seem.” Obviously, the organizers had littered the campground with stuffed owls in trees, in roof beams, etc.
An embarrassment of riches this year — I couldn’t show up to lots of good stuff because it was scheduled across my own program items, or other stuff I wanted to go to. A great problem to have. Here’s what I learned.
Blackbox Larp: Totally Its Own Medium
When many larpers hear “black box,” they think of the metatechnique of black boxing. Metatechniques deliberately break the flow of narrative in a larp to heighten the drama. The black box metatechnique provides players with a room with controllable lighting and sound that allows them to play scenes outside of the linear narrative of the larp — scenes from the past, the future, the possible future, dreams, etc. During a larp, if I reference that one time that I choked during my lecture to the adventurer’s club, I can grab some people, go to the black box, and play it out one or more times.
At Kristoffer Thurøe’s talk on black box larp, he redefined the term. In recent years, he explained, the black box larp has emerged as its own separate form. A black box larp takes place in a black box theater or similar room. Although at the upper end, games in black boxes can last several days with players sleeping and eating on set, more commonly they last for less than a day. For organizers, black boxes have the advantage of permitting total control over the setting of the game. This means you can use cool theater stuff to make the experience better for people. Stuff like:
- Lights. Different colors of lighting can set the mood. You can also spotlight certain areas but not others, which creates intriguing opportunities for play. Lights can simulate stuff like campfires, or the grace of god, or metaphorical space, etc. If the players sleep on site, you can also control how long the “days” last for.
- Sound. Add crackling noises to that campfire light, and you’ve added to the setting. You can also play sounds that influence the mood. A low-level grating noise during a tense scene might enhance the atmosphere, for example. Or record pre-interviews with your players about their earlier experiences with love and then pipe them into scene at strategic moments to make them feel quite mad, as in the game Delirium, about love in a mental institution.
- Scene jumps. Much like in a freeform game, in a black box, it’s possible to jump forward and backward in time by setting scenes.
Getting Physical as a Player
I went to two great workshops on larp and physicality. The first revolved around physically embodying a character, run by Jana Pouchlá and someone else whose name I failed to catch (bad reporter! help me peanut gallery!), but who are the awesome folks over at the professional Czech larp group Court of Moravia. Here’s some of the stuff we did:
Interacting with just the eyes.
Make eye contact with a partner, walk up to them. Get close. Raise up on your toes and then down. Break eye contact. Find a new partner. We did this several times, with different levels of eye contact and different emotions crackling between us. Super-intimate, and cool to see how much one can communicate using only the eyes.
Interact with simple gestures.
We split into pairs, and our crack workshop organizers provided us with four simple gestures and responses that we could use to tell a story:
- Person A strokes person B’s cheek. Person B returns the gesture.
- A puts one hand on B’s shoulder. B uses their opposite hand to remove it.
- A puts both hands on B’s shoulders. B moves their arms between and up to break A’s grip.
- A puts both hands on B’s shoulders and slides them down to hold hands. A and B lean away from each other, and then come back to center.
Note: anyone could take the role of initiator at any time during this exercise.
Using these four gestures, but keeping our faces neutral, we practiced telling little relationship narratives. It’s possible to fling off someone’s arm, for example, or to remove it slowly and sensually. A cool exercise.
Walking As Your Character
We envisioned a character and established two default postures — relaxed and open, and closed and anxious. Then we practiced walking as our characters, and our fearless organizers advised us to crescendo. In other words, at count 1 we were normal people at number 10 we were outlandish cartoon exaggerations of our characters. We walked around, and the organizers counted. Then we tried walking as our characters again. It was different and better.
Getting Physical as a GM
I also went to Morgan Jarl’s excellent workshop on GMing in black box games, and much of what he said is applicable to GMing freeform as well. Some of the tactics he described were familiar to me, for example, getting the quiet character to monologue, or drawing focus to a conversation during scenes with two plus conversations happening by freezing half of the players, etc. But he added a few tools to my toolbox, namely noise and physicality. You can use the noises of finger tapping, scratching, stamping, snapping by players’ ears, etc. to add to their distraction, tense-ness, etc. Cool!
By the same token, it’s also possible to touch players during scenes to heighten the drama. For example, if a character feels depressed, the GM might physically represent this sorrow by pressing down on the player’s shoulders. If a character’s in love, a GM could lift them slightly by the armpits. If a character is supposed to be in love with X but is talking to Y, the GM can direct the player’s gaze by simply turning their head lightly. Another interesting technique I’d like to try.
Swedish Shocker on US Play Style
I was part of a program item on the US run of Mad About the Boy, along with one of the Norwegian writers, one of the Swedish players, and one of the American players. Coolest thing I learned? Well, the Swedish player talked about how frustrated she’d been during the larp because she’d tried to provoke characters and it seemed like no one responded. She’d wanted the public drama, and the US players didn’t give it to her, so she wondered whether the game had truly engaged them. After the larp, during the epic email debrief, she’d been shocked by the depth of emotion. To me, this revealed something about the US play style.
As Sarah Bowman (larp academic and US player of Mad About the Boy) pointed out, much US larp relies on secrecy, and so perhaps we’re used to playing close to the vest. By the same token, public emotion isn’t something that’s considered cool here — remember that one time Hillary Clinton got teary eyed on the campaign trail? or consider how much flack John Boehner takes for crying in public — so perhaps there is a cultural prohibition against visible public emotion. Perhaps, emotion here is private. And finally, Americans are pretty polite — the cultural standard for critique is something like a) share five compliments, b) insert gently phrased critique, and c) close with a general compliment. In other words, if you’re trying to provoke US players, the response to it might come inserted in the middle of a bunch of compliments.
Check out the free documentation book for the US run of Mad About the Boy, edited by Sarah Lynne Bowman and produced by Rollespils Akademiet!
Larpscripts and Mistakes
Along with Trine Lise Lindahl and Elin Nilsen, I’m co-editing a book of Norwegian larp scripts this year, so we ran a short workshop on writing game instructions. Some day, the hand out will be available on the ‘net. The book project will also have a partner website with video of some of the the techniques, including workshops and metatechniques.
And on the Mistakes I’ve Made panel, I said a few words about stuff we could have done better for the US run of Mad About the Boy, like inter-organizer communication, leaving food near an open door accessible to raccoons, internet drama and more. Other speakers included Anna Westerling, Martin Ericsson, and Mike Pohjola.
This year, the rants — short speeches ranting on topics as diverse as “screw larp misery” and “let’s use toilet brushes to break immersion — were excellent. Last year, I delivered a rant “write a damn rulebook,” inspired by my fruitless search for simple definitions that could help me understand the scene. This year, a quartet of women subverted my request for a damn rulebook by writing a “f***ing rulebook” and presenting it at the rants. You can download its hilariousness here.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Rantgate 2013, in which some dudes gave a rant about not viewing them as sex objects (a reasonable request) but unfortunately included a Powerpoint with photos and names of women they’d slept with. Some of the women had been asked if this was cool, and some hadn’t. The rant-givers had clearly not done this to make anyone feel bad — rather, they thought of Knutepunkt as a space so safe and equal that even jokes like this would be cool — but then again, intent isn’t everything. So then everyone talked about it and group dynamics and slut shaming, and so on for much of the rest of Knutepunkt. Plus there was a poster war! The rant-givers apologized publicly on more than one occasion. More on Rantgate 2013 in a later post…maybe. If the flayed horse corpse hasn’t bored us all to death by then. (Update: some oblique thoughts on Internet debates spurred by the response to the rants here.)
One weird thing I learned in Norway: it’s hard to tell what time it is based on the sun, because that far North it doesn’t seem to pass into the center of the sky! It feels like 10am/2pm all day every day! Is this why Nordica can seem crazy at times? Space…er…sun madness?
Danish Design Braintrust
Here’s a cool thing that happened to me in the lavo, a giant conical tent that I presume is part of traditional Norwegian culture, where you could sit around a central fire and drink canned beer, or eat snacks. A group of expert Danish designers put their heads together and offered advice on a larp about racism that my US team is working on. Best part of the chat? They pointed out the endemic challenge of working with racism as a subject matter — part of racism is ostracism, so you need 50 people to ostracize 15. That means that it’s really hard to give all players the same experience, which is more of a Nordic game design goal than a US one. Hmmm. Lots of great and thought-provoking ideas.
How to Troll Nordicans
There are lots of great ways to execute this sacred American duty, which is not at all a jerkform game. Here are a few I found particularly effective:
- Talk about how social democracy, socialism, Marxism, and fascism are totally the same thing!
- Remind your peers about how America is, not just a really awesome country, but the BEST country in the world. Extract compliments about the US from your peers. (Actual play report: “It’s pretty great that you don’t execute your albinos.”)
- Learn how to say, “I am an American spy. Give me liquor now. Thank you,” in a local language.
- Americans learn to give compliments before most of us can talk. Nordicans have this whole super-modest thing happening. Extravagant compliments work. I found them particularly effective on a specific Finn.
I’m Pretend Finnish
It’s no secret that I’m Nordicophile. I love the social fray of the Danish conventions I’ve been to, and the openness and individuality on the Norwegian scene. Perhaps it’s not fair to judge, since I haven’t fully immersed myself in the Swedish scene yet — looking forward to next year, Sweden! — but in the Nordic thunderdome, I think I’d use my chainsaw of justice to back team Finland. Weird hair? Yes please. Linguistically distinct (read: weird) language with no word for ‘please’? Yes please. Addition of weird licorice flavor to random comestibles such as vodka? Um, I guess it’s part of the package. (Translation: I spent much of my Knutepunkt with Finnish people, talking theory, and participating in the secret Finnish sunshine unicorn rainbow ritual they’ve been hiding from you all these years.)
Looking forward to next year…maybe.
Other Takes on Knutepunkt 2013
My post on my extended stay in Norway
My post on A Week in Norway, the run-up to Knutepunkt
Swedish game scholar Annika Waern’s post
French larper Thomas Be’s subjective recap, part 1, part 2, part 3
Norwegian designer Ole Peder Giæver’s recap
German larper Stefan Deutsch’s take
Norwegian larper Secretmoose’s take
US larper Shoshana Kessock’s take
A Russian larper’s take (in Russian)
Italian larper Raffaele Manzo’s take (in Italian)
Peep Eleanor Saitta’s Knutepunkt 2013 collection on Flickr.
Photos from Eugenia
Johannes Axner’s photos from day 1, day 2, day 3, day 4
And feel free to post links to other photo sets/blog posts I’ve missed in the comments.
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My pictures are on Flickr too!
Interesting comments about mad about the boy. That difference in play styles could also be understood as the swede being a narrativist/dramatist (trying to create immediate external drama for the sake of it) and the american players playing a more immersionist / introspective game. (I suspect self-selection bias attracted that kind of play)
The opening ceremony is on youtube now, maybe switch the link with this one?
Links accomplished, y’all!
The Google translate informs me that “Säihkyturpa!” means “Säihkyturpa!” in English.
I assume this means that I’ll know how to tap dance by the day’s end.
Säihkyturpa is the name of the Finnish sunshine rainbow unicorn. It translates as shiny and a word for the mouth of an animal. Hope this helps.
Juhana: I am so delighted that you’ve taught me the secret Finnish password. Thank you.
This. Is. Säihkyturpa!
Totally out of the (otherwise great) KP context, a thought on the larp about racism: Are you familiar with Jane Elliott and her Blue Eyes/Brown Eyes exercise which dates back to the 60s? If not, look it up, get the video. Amazing stuff that has a lot in common with modern larping – and she managed to make people feel ostracized in groups with a 50/50 split or so.
On the reserved play of US larpers at MatB: I have only played the Norwegian run. But the description sounds a lot like a style of play I have seen in other larp groups, including ones in Norway and Sweden, where the combination of secrecy and competitive play have been common design choices. But I did not see this kind of reserved play with the USadian first-time larpers at the Swedish larp Monitor Celestra, where “playing to loose” was encouraged. So I think it is likely that the reserved play style came from prior experience with competitive diplomatic/puzzle-solving larps rather than any difference between real-world cultures or the players creative agendas.
In terms of design, I’d say MatB is designed for collaborative, high-resolution dramatist play. That is: it is most enjoyable if you explore the themes through a faithul rendering of your character’s psychology, relationships, emotions and opinions in such a way that it forms a coherent narrative of personal and societal change. The dramaturgy provides plenty of tools for this, especially the “black box” room where you can fill out the blanks of your story by roleplaying scenes from the past, or externalize key choices by having others portray the competing voices in your head.
Eirik, you made me think thoughts.
Re: Celestra you’ve brought up another issue that we talked about in the panel, namely about how groups enforce play culture. My theory is that Nordic larp has a contextual component that depends on the community. It’s a bit like vaccinating a group of people — if enough people have been vaccinated (inculcated into the Nordic play style), you develop a herd immunity and can carry a few people (noobs) from the outside. It’s an interesting question of how to foster Nordic play in the absence of a bunch of Nordic larpers.
One of the fascinating and problematic elements of running MAB in the US was trying to create Nordic style play with people who mostly hadn’t played Nordic larps before. About half our players had never larped before at all, and about half were seasoned players from the indie tabletop/trad larp scene. In the year before the game, we’d promoted freeform on our local scene, and used this as a training ground for new players, because those games do communicate a fair amount about Nordic style — playing to lose, bleed, playing for others, etc. — in a focused small-group setting. We also emphasized playing to lose and a few other aspects of Nordic larp in the game materials.
I think that overall, the larp was a success — players had intense lasting experiences — but that as a group we weren’t playing the way Nordic player might have. I don’t know that this is good/bad necessarily, it’s just different. It’s a little hard to pinpoint exactly why things came out the way they did, because we were trying an awful lot of new things at once: workshops, metatechniques, a play style without a traditional NPC-driven main plot, a game about gender, an all-women player base, etc etc.
I’d also say that I’ve seen the reverse in play style when it comes to freeform style play — in a freeform setting, with structured scenes, American players often bring immediate, high-level drama in short order. I think this is because US players have this rules-bound tradition so we’re good at following direction. If I tell two players to get into a scene and flirt, they’ll do it. Maybe there’s something about giving people more freedom in a longer game? Anyway. It deserves some more thought.
Kristoffer: Yes! I’m totally familiar with the blue eyes/brown eyes thing, and it’s given us food for thought. I think the challenge for us is that we want to create complex ostracism among several groups of people. The original idea for the game was to talk about the subtleties of racism, and how it operates differently on different racial groups. We’re still working on scoping down our ideas into something playable.
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Ah, I see. Making a game about subtle racism is a worthy challenge, and something I would like to play. No idea how to do it, though – except it might be easier to handle if you let it be about discrimination in a broader sense and not only racism. That would give you more buttons to push, so to speak.
The light thing is kind of crazy making! Waking up at 4 am convinced it’s 9-10 after feeling like you’ve gone to bed at a “reasonable” hour that turned out to be 1-2 makes one a little loopy, especially when immersing around the clock.
FWIW, I found the Swedes felt very Canadian-like: pretty polite, socially conscious and fairly modest, but with a heightened sense of intimacy and touch.