During my recent Nordic trip, I finally made it to Sweden, the last Nordic country I had to check-off my list.
I visited the Stockholm Scenario Festival, a brand-new convention that brought classic and new freeform games and blackbox larp to the Stockholm community. With perhaps 200 participants and numerous games, the convention felt small by US standards, but with intimate size comes cosiness. In contrast to Grenselandet, which I’d visited the weekend before, the SSF lasted three days and packed them full of games.
This convention is definitely a festival in the model of Fastaval, with an emphasis on games about serious topics, from adult bullying to cancer to love and relationships and so on, with a few lighter scenarios sprinkled in for contrast.
In addition, designers wrote six brand-new scenarios for the convention and received mentoring as they went about their creative process.
But the very coolest thing is that head organizer Anna Westerling required most of the scenarios–both old and new–in written form. This means that THERE IS A WHOLE NEW BASKET OF GAMES AVAILABLE FOR FREE DOWNLOAD AT THE SSF SITE, IN ENGLISH! Simply click on the scenario in question and download away.
Black Box Larps v. Freeform Games
Did you know that black box larps are totally a thing? I have just become aware of them in the last year or so, and I played my first official black box game here in Stockholm (more on that later). Someone has probably defined such games better than I’m about to, but here’s my take: black box larps take place in a black box theater space, a dark room that has the capacity to be rigged with lighting. They seem to involve elements that are traditional aspects of theater–symbolic props or furniture, lights that help set the mood and that game masters can use to control elements of the production, mood music and other sounds, etc.
In short, black box games strongly use elements of theater, even though there is no audience. The one I played was evocative and poetic rather than realist, but I don’t think that’s necessarily a facet of the genre.
Freeform games, in contrast, utilize a game master that has strong control over a scenario by setting scenes and giving directorial input to players by whispering inner thoughts to them, calling for monologues, telling players to play scenes over and over again, or physically manipulating them to enhance mood, by pressing down on someone’s shoulders or directing their gaze, for example. Freeform scenarios typically include a number of scenes set by the game designer, that the players play their way through.
Freeform games are about story sequence; black box games are about using theater techniques to set atmosphere and enhance play. I’m sure the categories aren’t as discrete as I’ve made them sound, but you get the idea.
What I Did
I ran a bunch of classic jeepform scenarios–Previous Occupants, Doubt, and Summer Lovin’—all things I’d run and played before, sometimes with a few extra time limitations or additional players. I also ran my own game, The Curse. And I played in the excellent scenario The White Death. More on this later.
GMing for Nordic Players
The Nordic roleplaying scenes come with very high expectations for quality, in terms of writing, playing, and GMing. I don’t know if it’s something to do with the more communal culture there or what, but I’d say the pressure to be “good”–whatever that means–is fairly high and this both enhances the quality of game experiences, since if I’m nervous about something I prepare more, and shakes my confidence.
I find it hard to GM for Nordic players. Firstly, when they play with me they’ve got to speak in English, which isn’t their first language. They always do a great job, but it can make the scenes a bit slower, as people mentally translate lines in their head, or occasionally, search for the right word.
There’s also a layer of player culture between us. I am used to GMing for Americans, who tend to play fast and hard, cutting to the chase quickly and obeying GM suggestions immediately. They often need to be pushed to go toward the interesting, psychologically intense material. I feel like I don’t have a grip on the boundaries of play culture for Nordicans–I don’t know what their “normal” is. It tends to be, I’d say, more emotionally intense? They are not at all afraid to touch each other or really really seduce one another, so scenes that might involve either of these activities escalate quickly. They have different expectations about immersion and are used to GMs using inner monologue techniques in slightly different ways. Monologues need to sounds more poetic for Nordic players, I think, and they expect the GM to do atmospheric stuff supporting and enhancing their emotional paths (maybe) compared to Americans, who expect the GM to push them to the place they want to go but are too afraid to enter. Nordic players also tend to do just what the scenario writer says, and seem to have a slightly harder time inventing (or maybe just vocalizing) ideas for new scenes. Americans tend to invent new material easily and have a tendency to test the boundaries of scenarios in ways that can break them.
If you do a great job or a mediocre job in America, people praise you afterwards, and if they have critique, give it much later in compliment sandwich format. Whether you do a great or a mediocre job in Nordica, people will give you constructive criticism in plain language immediately after. So there’s a validation gap too.
So anyway. Running games for Nordicans makes me anxious, because there are high expectations and I always feel I’m doing it wrong.
Danish People and Swedish People
Both in Norway and here in Sweden, it was fun to hang out with Danish people. Normally, at places like Fastaval in Denmark, the foreigners develop a special bond as the outsiders together. But since I keep going to Denmark, I’m always developing this bond with Norwegians, Swedes and Finns. It was fun to see some of the Danish crew relaxed, without many obligations, and ready to be trolled.
The Danes, of course, delight in pushing boundaries and are all over all the crying and bullying scenarios, so it was fun to come up with ideas that might actually offend Danish roleplayers. Incest games? Why no. Their scenario tradition has casual surprise incest and rape aplenty. One night, though, they told me the secret weakness of Danish roleplayers: genuine compliments. Or else they were just trolling me for praise.
One cool thing I did at the SSF was get to chit-chat with a larger variety of Swedes than I’ve seen on the Knutepunkt scene. I talked game design with several bad-ass creators and learned a bit about the history of larp in Sweden. And of course, I got to experience the famous Swedish feminism. Rock on!
White Death by Nina Runa Essendrop and Simon Steen Hansen
The highlight of my experience was playing White Death, a short black box larp about a group of pioneers who goes up into the mountains to make a new life for themselves, and end up dying during the winter.
The game does not use any language, rather it’s played out poetically with a minimum of props and set. As players, we would all portray two characters, a human and a white one. The humans inhabited a lit portion of the stage and the white ones inhabited the dark. White ones might be angels or spirits of the snow or something else entirely. Over the course of the game, all the humans would gradually die off and become white ones.
We started out by moving around the space in different ways, trying out hard movements, sudden movements, light movements, heavy movements, etc. Then we gradually combined several of these movements until we were moving like the humans, who move hard, heavy, sudden and violent. The white ones moved lightly and fluidly, and…with one or two more adjectives. That done, we began character creation.
Our human characters all received a physical restriction that would govern how we moved. Mine was that my head had to loll to one side, but never rested in the middle, and my fingers had to be pointing at the ground. Another person had that their hands and gaze had to follow each other. Some people had magnets between their hands and head, or moved like marionettes, and so on.
We practice moving like humans (hard, heavy, sudden, violent, etc) with our new restrictions. Then we got slips of paper that defined our relationship to the group. For example, my character thought she was better than people who were taller than she was. One guy wanted to be cared for my someone with smaller feet than his, and so on.
We milled to find an enemy and a friend and defined those relationships a bit through play. Sounds would be allowed during the game, but absolutely no language, sign language, or gibberish mimicking language.
The game had two halves. In the first half, we would experience being human, occupying the human side of the stage. Gradually, during the first half, the game masters would introduce three sets of props in a spotlight on the dark side of the stage. They were: white balloons that represented dreams, cups of sugar representing sustenance and survival, and white paper representing faith. We could play with the props as we chose.
During the second half of the game, storms would arrive, cued by the sounds of bells and then whirring wind. There would be four storms. During the first storm, some of us would transform ourselves into white ones. The white ones can always see the humans, but the humans can only see the white ones during the storms. During the storms, the white ones could reach across, pull humans across the boundary, and transform them. This consisted of closing the human’s eyes, and helping them move their arms to remove physical restrictions, and putting a white ribbon around their necks.
The white ones had some props to play with too–sheets, and bubble stuff that they could blow over to the human side if they wished.
The game had a variety of music playing the rest of the time–a series of songs. The workshop lasted about two hours, followed by about a one to one-and-a-half hour game. The rest of the time–half an hour to an hour–was spent on breaks and debrief.
I was surprised at how far physical interaction got us in terms of defining our characters. It did, indeed, feel quite oppressive to be a human.
The props were pretty cool. Balloons blown up to various sizes were variously easy or difficult to pop. And if your wrists have a pretend dowel between them, well they might be hard to hold on to. The sugar immediately went all over everything, having a nice gritty surface that made you feel sticky once the sugar melted on your skin. I didn’t really want to get sugar all over myself, since I hadn’t brought a change of clothes, so that affected how I interacted with it, but many people writhed around on the ground, tried to lick it off the balloons, sprinkled it in the air, and so on. I swear I’m still finding sugar in my bra three days later. The paper was fun because it could be ripped and combined and fluttered and stolen, and put in the sugar cups along with the balloons representing our broken dreams.
At one point, when the music was pretty harsh, and I was standing over someone else who was writhing around in sugar and making incoherent shrieking noises, I looked around a bit at the chaos around me and thought “Whoa. This is some truly Nordic shit.”
As we became white ones, the light props on the dark side of the room–where we billowed the sheets up and down, blew bubbles, hugged each other and giggled while dancing, provided a nice contrast.
In terms of my own play experience, I felt mixed. The game and its mechanics are truly fascinating and thought-provoking and say a lot about what you can do with minimal stripped-down tools. The design of the whole experience was pretty ace. But during the debrief, I couldn’t help but think that I don’t know how to make the most of an experience like this. Other people talked about their stories, how they’d established relationships with other people during the game and had real story arcs. That didn’t happen for me, exactly. I had some interesting moments with various players, but I was mostly contorting in the sugar-covered dark thinking about how out of the box this seemed to me. I sometimes find it hard to make my own fun in a game, to make my own story, and this game was so far outside of what I’m used to that it was doubly difficult. Still, that’s not the game’s fault, it’s mine, and I know I’ll be mulling over the possibilities the design opened up to me for a long long time.
Fascinating games and good people. As I told Petter Karlsson, I love the idea of having a classic scenario track at a convention where I can play the awesome games of yesteryear that I missed the first time around. Maybe just a few more opportunities for chatting over beer next time around? Since this festival is only in its first year, there are plenty of times to make adjustments. Would definitely larp it again.