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No Good

Ropecon 2004: We're All Adults Now

by Juhana Pettersson
Dec 02,2004


Ropecon 2004: We're All Adults Now

- Juhana Pettersson

I was watching a panel discussion about politics in roleplaying and the politics of roleplaying with an American friend called Brett. The panel was hosted by Mike Pohjola and featured all the guests of honor, Eric Wujcik, Emma Wieslander and John Kovalic, and Syksy Rasanen, who was there as a sort of local expert. Brett said that the fun part for him with the panel was following the expressions of the American roleplaying people, Eric and John as they come to realize that here people seem to take roleplaying seriously on a whole another level, the same process Brett himself had gone through when he first visited the Knudepunkt in Denmark a year ago. Seriously enough to consider them a useful form of political expression, enough to be worried about the political content of the games they play.

It was the last day of Ropecon 2004, the biggest independent roleplaying event in northern Europe, with an audience in excess of 3500 people. It was held in Espoo, a suburb of Helsinki, from the 23rd to the 25th of July. In Finland, people come to roleplaying conventions to play, but also to talk about gaming. In addition to the guest of honor presentations, there's a wide range of lectures, panel discussions and workshops ranging from subjects like Islamic culture in larps to an introduction to models describing roleplaying styles, from Positive Power Drama to pregnancy.

The official theme of this year's Ropecon speech program was realism, but it really should have been politics. The presence of both Wieslander and Wujcik ensured that polical themes in games and the politics of gaming never slipped far beneath the surface. And of course, there was the panel about politics in roleplaying. The high point was when someone lamented the lack of direct engagement in political roleplaying, about preaching to the converted, when Wieslander suddenly came up with an anecdote about how she had actually participated in the organizing of a larp where Israelis played Palestinians and the other way around, and they had to interact. I think everyone was confused by the idea of someone actually doing it instead of talking about it.

In general, this year's convention was pretty good, with a lot of small success. The program was interesting and attendance matched last year's even though the con was a month earlier than usual, in the middle of the summer vacation season.

Foreign Dignitaries

The profile of the Nordic guest of honor has increased steadily. The first was Eirik Fatland two years ago, who was treated more like a friend of Mike Pohjola's than an actual GoH on part of the organizers. The second was Martin Ericsson last year. Perhaps because of the phenomenal media success of Ericsson (he was interviewed in the culture section of the biggest daily newspaper in Finland), this year's Nordic larp guru, Emma Wieslander was on an equal footing with Eric Wujcik. Both obviously one step down from Kovalic.

Emma Wieslander's main game credit is the Swedish experimental larp Mellan himmel och hav, which has the honor of being the single most plugged game in this column. In addition to the guest of honor speeches and workshops, the organizers hoisted an additional duty on her, that of talking to the media. Someone summed up the strategy like this: The American guests of honor are there to keep the con goers happy. The Nordic guest of honor is the one who's job is to talk to the outsiders and make Ropecon and roleplaying in general seem like the new from of art expression it is in the eyes of the media.

Wieslander also works teaching media strategies to various NGOs, so it's no surprize she did a bang-up job.

She's also the first female guest of honor in the history of Ropecon. Come on, America! Surely there's an accomplished woman somewhere in the roleplaying industry in the U.S.! Preferably someone other than Margaret Weis.

I don't particularly like John Kovalic's work, and have found Dork Tower depressingly content-free and, well, not very funny. Because of this, I was not very happy to see him featured as the main guest of honor this year, and even entertained myself by coming up with nasty things I could say about him in this column. My favorite was the Master of Mediocrity.

Last year with Jonathan Tweet I had been in a very similar situation. Tweet turned out to be an honest, self-deprecating guy, and I found it hard to criticize him about anything after he had already made all the shots himself. With Kovalic, the situation's pretty much the same, except that he also turned out to be pretty entertaining. Certainly more entertaining than any of his work I have ever seen. This is pretty annoying.

Eric Wujcik on the other hand seemed to be the hardest working guest of honor ever. In addition to the presentations and panels he also ran games demonstrating some of the stuff he talked about. I didn't see all of his stuff because I was otherwise engaged (in this case, this is not an euphenism for being at the bar, although that's where these cons are often spent), but he did talk about the field of games in general, and the idea that while computer games get all the attention, money and babes, roleplaying games can contribute ideas. Anecdotal evidence suggests that a lot of people in the computer game industry are roleplayers, and roleplaying has certainly had a tremendous influence on computer gaming.

Another point made by Wujcik was that roleplayers should make their own games instead of playing published ones. His way of approaching the issue was very American; he said that if you play a published game, you're effectively creating intellectual property for someone else, but if you play your own game, everything you create belongs to you and only you, and is therefore marketable.

Me, I think that people should play their own games for creative reasons, but turning your favorite campaign into a Hollywood movie is certainly easier if no-one else has a finger in the copyright pie. In another piece of the program, Jaakko Stenros interviewed Mike Pohjola on the subject of one year of Myrskyn aika, Mike's roleplaying game book. In the interview, they found that most roleplaying is essentially fanfiction, since it's based on the published works of someone else, usually a published game system. If the game has an element of eroticism, it's not only fanfiction but slash.

Actually, maybe Wujcik talked about writing and publishing game books based on someone else's property, vs. your own, but I think the basic point holds in every case. There might be some way to go before we see that Hollywood blockbuster, but Mike Pohjola's Myrskyn aika was already based on his long-standing fantasy larp campaign, and would have been impossible if that campaign had been based on someone else's property. I'm under the impression that both Forgotten Realms and Eberron started the same way.

We talked with Wujcik some more at the Monday afterparty, and another interesting point was that he had not made Amber diceless because of some theoretical principle, but because it fit the original work the game was based on, Zelaszny's books. Because nothing in those books happens by chance, chance should have no role in the game either. Hence, no dice. Of course, he didn't actually say this in the book, causing a lot of roleplayers to misunderstand the point. Not partcularly unusual, though, since sadly explaining the design principles of a game in the game itself is something that's rarely done. It's something I'd like to see in every roleplaying book.

In retrospect, the revolutionary nature of a diceless game seems weird, but I'm just old enough to remember when the game originally came out and the controversy it created. I mean, roleplaying without dice? Surely you're jesting! Then again, I also have memories of a time when roleplaying without at least six different kind of dice seemed preposterous and unfulfilling. We've come a long way.

Part of the Picture

Emma finally explained to me the idea of the type of sauna found in central Europe and the U.S. It was Saturday night and we were sitting in the Ropecon sauna and I was complaining (again) about the lack of proper saunas in France. Emma explained that you have to approach these saunas in a new way, as warm rooms where you go to relax. Maybe even read a paper. Put your legs up and take it easy.

This makes a lot of sense. It certainly explains the bizarre insistence on wearing a towel or a swimming suit. It explains the sauna-related pornography which had long confused me. In the saunas I'm familiar with, it's too hot to fuck, or to exert yourself in any way. I think Justin Achilli remains the only guest of honor to refuse the Ropecon sauna.

Considering that I didn't sign up for anything before I came to the con, I ended up with a surprising amount of work. I was filling in as the handler for one of the guests of honor, Emma, as the regular handler was doing his speaking engagements and on the bus to the con on Friday I was drafted to the jury of the costume competition by a friend who had the task of organizing the whole thing. The competition works so that the jury members walk around the convention, taking pictures of possible candidates, convene to make a decision based on the photos and then call the winners so that they know to come to receive their prizes in the Saturday gala.

Chaos was the rule in this competition. People in the jury came and went as we deputized friends and lost people who had to go and do panels or other program (or just stop and talk with friends while the rest of us ploughed on). Incredibly enough, a couple of hours before the not-a-gala where the awards the granted, and despite a lot of procedural confusion, we managed to find enough people to have some choice. Still, I don't think it would have been possible to be less professional about it than we were. A nice job though, just going around at random, finding people to give them awards.

One of the things I really despise at roleplaying events is the military fans, the people who feel necessary to dress in army uniform and wave big, fake but very authentic guns about. Nothing quite makes the relaxed con atmosphere like running suddenly into a group of these individuals, doing their best force march and FBI SWAT moves through a crowd. This reached an all time low a couple of years ago, in a Knudepunkt in Stockholm, where they had guys dressed like a SWAT team, in actual, real-life Israeli army surplus kevlar, doing their ninja moves and checking the sleeping rooms with very powerful flashlights once per hour. I remember quite well the pleasant feeling of waking up in the middle of the night to find a bright light pointed at my face by a couple of military looking silhouettes in the doorway.

This year at Ropecon, nothing so retarded. Still, the space dedicated to selling seemed to be half full of stands hawking replica guns and other weapons and the gala had the fashion show part with military types parading around to the tune of Rammstein.

It seems that interest in roleplaying theory is spreading. Past couple of years, only a couple of people I know have been making theory presentations at Ropecon, but this year we had some new faces. A couple of guys went through all the permutations of the Three-way, -fold, Fourfold, etc. taxonomies of gaming (most recently at the Forge) in a lot of detail, certainly enough to convince me that my prejudice that this particular subset of roleplaying theory was crushingly tedious was correct. People have been hammering away at this stuff for twenty years now, and the argument's still essentially about the same stuff. It feels like reading a blow by blow account of First World War trench warfare.

There's been some discussion over the idea of inviting Gary Gygax as a guest of honor in the future. He's the first, after all, and it'd be nice to see him while he's still alive. On the other hand, he hasn't exactly moved with the times. Perhaps those of us who want to play with the master before he croaks just have to go on a pilgrimage to Lake Wisconsin. Or perhaps it would be cheaper to pool our money and fly him to Finland to a special Gary-con. The original plan was to title this column "An Appeal to Gary Gygax," but then I came to my senses.

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