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Household Name

The Nordic Scene

by Mike Pohjola
Jul 02,2004

 

The Nordic Scene

When first presenting "Myrskyn aika" to the media, I often explained how the roleplaying market is dominated by American and American-style roleplaying games. How even Finnish roleplaying games follow the American style of focusing on action and achievement. But this, I proclaimed, this roleplaying book is different! It is the first torch-bearer of the Nordic tradition of roleplaying that focuses on immersion and emotions.

This was, of course, partially the kind of no holds barred propaganda speech one is supposed to feed the media with. But even more it reflected, and still reflects, my feelings about the differences between the American and Nordic gaming scenes.

Adventures of the North

Myrskyn aika is the "first" product of the Nordic roleplaying scene only if you limit "product" in a very specific way. Probably the first roleplaying game published, definitely not the first work of art to gain wide-spread recognition. The difference is that the earlier works were almost always larps, not books. Live art, not written.

Nordic larpdom is the scene that gave birth to this book, and probably will to many others. I'd say there are three major elements that have made this scene what it is today. One is the Knutepunkts, the other massive amounts of roleplaying theory, and the third several high-profile high-brow high-quality larps.

Juhana has done a good job describing the Knutepunkts, or Solmukohtas, so I won't dwell on those. They are conventions, conferences, parties, galas, and international hotspots of what is happening. They are the shit.

Instead, I will write a bit on the actual larps, the theory, and how they reflect on Myrskyn aika. Obviously, the local experimental tabletop roleplaying tradition has also affected on my view on roleplaying, but it is, at least for me, a later development. Also, larps are bigger, so the ideas have spread faster.

Art Larp

You may have heard us Nordics namedropping larps like Europa, Ground Zero, .laitos, Hamlet, Panopticorp, inside:outside, Luminescence and Mellan Himmel och Hav. They are generally considered art larps. There are others, but these are games I can speak about with first-hand experience.

Some people, when they hear the word "art" immediately assume it is something boring. If it's art, it can't be fun. And I myself have often asked people to do things for artistic reasons rather than for entertainment reasons. However, in none of these games have I been bored. I'm often bored in clichic fantasy larps with quests and missions, but not in any one of these.

I'll do this chronologically. 1997 I ran .laitos, a game set in a high school in a totalitarian future. Social sci-fi focusing not on technology (which had seemingly regressed to a 1980s level), but on the system of oppression, combined with teenager drama. The tagline was "Disillusioned teachers pouring falsified information on uninterested students." The fact that the school felt very much like a real school, while still being totally outlandish was very illumating for many. And it was very illuminating for me. It proved to me that larps can go beyond genre and pure entertainment, and they can sometimes get a message through better than any other medium.

Ground Zero (by Jami Jokinen and Jori Virtanen) was next, in 1998 in Finland. You've probably heard about this. 1962, the Cuban Missile Crisis, couple of suburban families closed in a bomb shelter for 24 hours. With nothing to do but wait, and then BOOM! Possibly the most intense twenty-four hours in any participant's life. No supernatural elements, nothing genreish, just reality with an A-bomb.

Europa (by Eirik Fatland) was played in 2001. The first international (played in Norway with Swedes and Finns playing) "art larp" that I participated in. Five days where the players were the refugees from the Nordic wars in a refugee camp in Eastern Europe. Bureaucracy, bad food, nationalism. Five very low-key days that really hammered their message down. Before this I had not really believed in larps this long. But to my surprise, by the end of the second day, my mid-term memory was full of only Europa, meaning when my mind wandered, it wandered only within the larp. (Obviously, there were no breaks, no off-game rooms, no rules mechanics, nothing but the refugee camp.)

inside:outside (by Eirik Fatland and myself, 2001-2002) was ran over ten times during the course of a year. Twice in a roleplaying convention in Sweden, twice in Knudepunkt in Sweden, twice in Ropecon in Finland, a couple of times for larpers in Norway... and twice in Kunsternes Hus in Oslo, the Norwegian Museum of Contemporary Art. Maybe everybody else was already aware of it by then, but for me it underlined the fact that roleplaying games can become an accepted form of culture.

Hamlet (by Martin Ericsson and Christopher Sandberg, 2002, Sweden) made this lesson even more obvious. it was, as you can guess, an adaptation of Shakespeare's play, but much more brilliant than any larp adaptation before or since. They pushed forward the medium of larp with many ingeniuos inventions, like having "monologues," where one player would be the center of attention and the others would be the audience experiencing the inner monologue of their character. Or act breaks, where weeks of in-game time would pass, and the themes and the mood of the game would completely change. Hamlet also further underlined larp being an accepted form of culture by being produced by the Swedish Riksteater in co-operation with the game research organization Interactive Institute.

Juhana already talked about Panopticorp (Irene Tanke, 2003, Norway) and Luminescence (Juhana Pettersson and me, 2004, Finland), so that just leaves Mellan Himmel och Hav (Emma Weislander, 2003, Sweden).

Mellan Himmel och Hav was again produced with Riksteater, this time on their grand stage in a giant desert planet colony tent complex. The larp was about positive feelings and deconstructing gender. The society was not divided into genders based on sex but on an equally artificial division to evening people and morning people. New pronouns were introduced and the dress code hid the sex of the participants.

Of these games, Luminescence, and Mellan Himmel och Hav actually took place after Myrskyn aika was published, but I feel they are an important part of the scene, anyway, and have been largely influenced by the same things Myrskyn aika has.

Theory Sluts

It seems that there are two major scenes for roleplaying theory. One is the Nordic scene, and the other the Forge scene. There is, of course, much overlap between the two, but most of the direct theory influence for Myrskyn aika has come from the former.

Roleplaying as a medium for which table-top and live-action are only two subcategories is something I feel very strongly about. I've not seen any other published RPG that tries to incorporate this in its game design, which is why I feel it's a fruit of the Nordic roleplaying tradition.

Definition of roleplaying often includes character immersion, especially if you ask someone in the Nordic scene. One of the most known advocates of this was my own Manifesto of the Turku School, although I've since rehashed many of the ideas for the later article Autonomous Identities, published in Beyond Role and Play.

This focus on immersion is perhaps the biggest difference from the American (and American style) roleplaying games out there. The rules, the instructions, the world, the ready-made characters, are all intended to assist in immersion, not to balance character classes (like in gamist roleplaying games), help storytelling (like in dramatist roleplaying games) or calculate mechanics (like in simulationist roleplaying games). But help immersion, focus on the emotions and the backgrounds and the motives of the characters. Like in any other medium. Emotional realism, I call it.

Now, without having followed and participated in the vivid debates, I probably wouldn't have thought of subjects like these. Some I might've, some I might not have. Without theory to show us the way, the practice will stagnate and stay the same decade after decade.

Myrskyn aika is probably not as much a great piece of art as inside:outside or Luminescence were, but it sure has gained wider popularity and recognition.

I hope the Nordic roleplaying scene will continue to produced such fine larps, and that many people will take on the torch of writing roleplaying books in the Nordic tradition. And considering all the American style roleplaying games made and played in Europe, there's no reason why a Nordic style roleplaying game shouldn't be written and published in the United States.

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