The Kingdom of Flourby Juhana Pettersson
The Kingdom of Flourby Juhana Pettersson
The Kingdom of Flour
- Juhana Pettersson
One of the most difficult things about making a live-action game is not knowing what's happening in it. The days when you could just wander around your game off-game are long past, and the remaining options are having a camera in the game area or playing a character yourself. Many GMs like to play bit parts or NPC roles in their own games, but seeing these people squirm when they see their game going in a completely bizarre direction makes me think it might be better not to know anything until the game is over.
On Monday the 16th of February Mike Pohjola and I arranged a larp called Luminescence as a part of the annual progressive roleplaying event Solmukohta's supplementary programming, A Week in Finland, which consists of larps by leading Finnish game organizers, arranged for the benefit of the foreign guests of the event during the week preceding the actual Solmukohta event. The conference tours the Nordic capitals, and the custom of organizing showcase games was pioneered last year in Copenhagen, Denmark.
Incidentally, in the Nordic countries what we mostly do at our conventions is talk about games instead of playing them. The main program of Solmukohta consists of lectures, panel discussions, workshops and social programming, and the great innovation of AWIF was to include actual games as well.
Our schedule was fucked, we had three days to do the actual produing of the game, if you counted the Sunday and the day of the game itself. We had been planning it for a couple of weeks, but I'd been in France, so dealing with practical issues was delayed. I had come to Finland Friday night. In fact, our schedule was so fucked that in the end Mike stalled the players for two hours with immersion exercises and detailed briefing while I and the Solmukohta people helping me worked our asses off to make sure the game space looked like it should, the sound worked and fire hazards were kept to the minimum. As a last-minute ploy, Mike asked everyone to go to the toilet before the game. Fifteen players and one WC took some time.
The first time I saw our players was only after the game, because I had to scurry off the game area as Mike started letting the people in, and I never got a good look at what was happening. Our only window into the game space was a doorway covered in semi-transparent plastic sheeting. Our exciting moments included the time all of the players seemed to sit down the same time and the time one guy seemed to almost straight through the sheeting. Our hero was the tall, thin guy with the white boxers, because he was often close to the doorway and we could distinguish his outline.
The turbo-charged production schedule meant that we didn't have too much time to think about any particular details in the game. some of our best ideas were had the morning of the game.
Luminescence was a three-hour game about a communal music-therapy session for terminal cancer patients. all the characters were people trying to come to terms with the fact that they were going to die soon. They were trying to find strength in each other and from the common experience of a slow death. The game was billed as "The Abstract Live Action Roleplaying Game of Physical Experience".
Our written characters had a lot of stuff about cancer itself. One guy had cancer of the roof of the mouth, made famous by Freud who died of it. If you operate this cancer, you may actually have to remove the stuff between the mouth and the nasal cavity. All kinds of vile things follow. Other favorite cancers included the cancers of the intestine and the prostrate gland. Writing the characters, we tried to have as many possible experiences of cancer as possible, from resignation to rage, from despair to a weird sense of purpose.
One of our central concepts was to make the game experience a principally physical one. Instead of a social experience, this would a an experience of the body. We had some rules strengthening this idea, like the players were told to touch the person they were talking to, if possible. The game space was fitted so that the decor would create a strongly physical and unique experience.
The game area was a basement student party place. We separated a 24 square meter area with the plastic sheeting to act as the space of the game. The only light came from a strong, green spotlight behind one of the plastic-protected doorways, five meters away from the door. The floor was covered with maybe 10 centimeters of flour. It required 800 kilos of the stuff.
Another central idea of the game was to define the flour and the space in general as normal. Thus the zero-content of talking about the flour was eliminated, but the characters and players could still do things with it. We had originally planned to make the entire environment off-game, but that would have made the use of the flour problematic. That way, the characters whould have walked into a normal therapy room, only in the real world it would have been radically different, creating a huge discrepancy between the character's world and the player's world.
The rule of normalization meant that the characters found this weird, green space covered ankle-deep in flour as normal as a hospital waiting room or the office of a psychiatrist. They might comment on some detail, but conversation about the environment would be pointless.
Flour feels insanely good. The genesis of the project was an installation I saw at Palais de Tokyo in Paris in January where the audience was invited to walk in flour barefoot. It's an otherworldly, sensual experience, and the defining feature of our game. When we were setting the game up, pouring the flour to the floor from the sacks I had to fight the urge to strip naked then and there and lose myself wallowing in the flour.
To make sure the players would get the most out of the flour, we asked them to strip to their underwear for the game. The more skin you have, the better you feel the flour. And the less cleaning up you have to do afterwards. Many players reported being quite nervous about being only in your underwear through the game, but apparently their nervousness dissipated once they got to the flour chamber. After sitting in the flour and wallowing a bit, you're coated in white and actually look pretty cool in a bizarre way. You don't feel naked anymore. The game area felt like the beach or the sauna, a place where being semi-naked was natural.
One of the running gags of the production was that while usually content is written into a game, in Luminescence we haul it in twenty-kilo sacks. There were three of us carrying the 800 kilos of flour in from the car. Mike said that unlike normal game planning, where you just sit in front of your computer and write some shit, this really feels like making art, because we're breaking our backs in physical labor.
So what the player did, in practice, through most of the game was sitting around in the flour, talking to each other. They really went to town with the flour, having flourfights, burrowing into it, pouring it onto each other, stuffing it into their mouths and underwear. The players reported that the flour was very versatile as a medium for nonverbal communication and as a tool for all kinds of symbolism. The people stuffing it into their underpants had prostrate cancer.
Perhaps the most poetic thing we heard was from a guy who had been lying down in the flour for a long time. When he got up, the shape of his body was still visible in the flour. He touched it and could feel the body heat dissipating the same time as his touch destroyed the fragile image itself.
The language of the game was English, since we had players from Sweden, Denmark, Norway and Germany. Not from Finland, though, which was a bit confusing. Since most characters spoke the same languages as their players, the game probably had some Swedish etc. language moments as well.
The only real structure in the game was provided by the music and voiceover narrations. The music went from cold minimalist compositions through jarring but soft noise music to Mediterranian, relaxed rhythms. The voiceovers were semi-nonsensical extrapolations on certain themes, meant to be listened without concentration. We had two voices, a gruff, growling male voice and a resigned if preppy female voice with a Canadian accent.
Despite the seemingly abstract and conceited nature of this set-up, the flour and the physical sensation of the flour served to ground the game in a very practical way.
I cut my hair short the night before the game. I'm happy that I did as I watched Mike try to get the flour out of his hair, which is quite long. It had turned into dough in the shower. Our players reported that armpits and private parts best left to the imagination were also doughed up. Mike got rid of the last bits only a couple of days after the game.
There were five of us cleaning the place up afterwards and it took four hours to shovel the flour back into the sacks and haul them back to the car, wipe all surfaces, vacuum the walls and the floors, wash the floors and clean the toilet. Given the short time in which the game was put together and the amount of physical work involved, I can say with confidence that Luminescence happened only through the grace of our friends. We had to come back on Wednesday after the flour in the air had settled down and all the surfaces had to be cleaned again.
Looking back at what we did, I think the best idea we had, even though we didn't realize we had it, was to use the sort of strategy of decor that's been standard in theatre in a larp. Normally, the environment of the larp should look off-game like it looks in-game. Sometimes we have games where we're required to believe that a youth center is in fact the manor of a vampire or that a piece of cardboard is a gun. However, the ideal is still the perfect match of reality and the reality of the game. Your item-card larp is not avant-garde abstract expression, it's lazy, ambitionless filler.
In Luminescence, like almost always in the performing arts, the function of the setting was to create an unique, powerful experience, which necessiated leaving realistic interior decoration behind. The normalization rule made this possible in a larp. In theatre, abstract or weird stage props are not a problem for the actors because they can talk about it beforehand with the director, but in a larp you need a simple, clear rule for the players to use during the game so they don't have to get confused.
The last theatre performance I saw was some time ago, in Moscow, and had a huge, mobile wooden ship with many moving parts, like a gothic Lego construct. It was supposed to be a ship, that was clear enough, but it did go on wheels and was actually used more as a percussion instrument. My mother's circus, Dance Theatre Hurjaruuth's Winter Circus used simple differences of height to suggest that some characters were in space while others were on Earth. Often a simple door is enough to suggest a room and an outside.
These are practical solutions, but you can also go one step further, like we did in Luminescence and have an environment that ties in directly to the themes and experience of the game and isn't supposed to be anything other than what it is. I've seen in performances forests of lightbulbs hanging from the ceiling, voiceovers describing the performance space during the performance itself and shouting bizarre instructions to the performers, fish soup and pancakes served to the audience during the show.
After the game, we had the feeling that we had accidentally opened up a huge repository of theatrical practice, history and strategies to be used in larp. The key to using these kinds of environments in a larp is to make things interactive. I used to think abstract meants that you had a black space where ideas sort of floated ephemerally around. Black turtleneck shirts would also have been mandatory. Mike had had the exact same vision.
What you should have instead is something concrete, something they players can do things with. The flour worked so well because you could do things with it. You could draw a circle around yourself to suggest you wanted privacy, you could approach someone by pouring flour gently onto them. If you want to make a game with similar methodology, you have to come up with something similar, something versatile and interesting. Something that creates an experience, that in some way viscerally supports everything the game is about. Forget symbolism and focus on what the players will do with your elements and how will he feel them.
My last bit of advice is this: Although weirdness for it's own sake often makes your game more interesting, things really work better if there's a point to it. The individual player experience is the best point of departure. Keep it simple, stupid.