Con-hate, part 1 of 2by Juhana Pettersson
Con-hate, part 1 of 2by Juhana Pettersson
Con-hate, part 1 of 2
- Juhana Pettersson
Guess where I am?
I'm surrounded by dorky-looking people who look as if they have escaped from the mental ward for superheroes in Marshall Law. A lot of short, stocky guys in really bad suits with canes. Plump teenage girls in amateur corsets. Elf ears all around. Is that the third Raistlin I've seen today? A short guy dressed as a commissar from Warhammer 40,000, gas mask and all. Chain-mail bikini on a fleshy woman. Everybody's got a pose and an attitude. The air is reeking from all the unwashed bodies of the collectible card game players. A horrible of bankruptcy of personal dignity all around.
I'm at a roleplaying game convention.
Finland is the land of conventions. For some reason, Finnish hobbyists always flock to whatever gathering organized for them, in huge numbers, wholly disproportionate to our population of five million. Ropecon is the yearly role- playing game convention, largest in Scandinavia, with this year setting a new record of 3,000 participants, organized this year 26th - 28th of July.
The guests of honor were Justin Achilli, the Vampire guy, and Eirik Fatland, a Norwegian larp theoretician and co-author of the highly influential Dogme '99 manifesto. He is also co-author of the acclaimed inside:outside -game, along with Mike Pohjola. Inside:outside was also produced to Ropecon, and has the singular honor of being something of a death blow to the debate whether roleplaying games may be art.
The most popular, and practical, definition of art that also has academic credibility is that everything presented in an art context is art. This means that Duchamp's Fountain is transformed into art when it's moved from the men's lavatory to the art museum. This also means that inside:outside, originally commissioned by Kunstnernes Hus, the museum of modern art in Oslo, is art. Since it's also a larp, by extension any larp may be art.
Or rather, at the bare minimum, any larp presented as art is art.
Books for children
I've criticized a number of White Wolf's games and products often and publicly, with the rancor of someone who's played them way too much. As an example, my review of Kindred of the East may be found here at RPG.net. However, after seeing Justin Achilli's speeches as the guest of honor in Ropecon, I have had to revise my stand. Not because of Achilli, but because of the audience.
- Mister Achilli, in my copy of the Book of Nod, on page 33, there is a
sentence that stops in the middle. What have you say about this?
And this goes on and on. These are actual examples, by the way. Among other highlights was a guy who complained about the Guide to Sabbat which has all these cool bloodlines, like the Harbringer of Skulls, but the Storyteller is advised not to let the player to play them. A friend of mine exploded and asked who the fuck is going to stop you? The guy replied haughtily that all the Harbringers are over 400 years old. How do you make a believable 400 year old vampire with the 15 freebie points allotted to starting characters, eh?
Achilli was clearly aware of the audience he talked to. His second speech was called The Themes of Vampire. It consisted of him explaining the hard parts of Vampire: the Masquerade, apparently on the probably correct assumption that the audience would not have understood the stuff on first reading.
I realized that this is the audience these games are marketed to. This obviously also reflects on the products themselves. I recently read through D&D3 Player's Handbook, in which everything is explained clearly, with abundant examples and no big words. Enough repetition that even the most dense 10-year old understands. For a while I was in turns annoyed and confused, until I understood that the folks at WotC had finally understood that Gary Gygax English is not going to help them market this stuff to the kids who make a huge part of the audience.
This also means that saying Kindred of the East is half-witted is like saying Pokemon is childish. Of course it is, and that how it was meant to be. After all, it's marketed to people who think Dork Tower is witty.
So no more White Wolf critique from me.
Fashion & Self-hate
Last year's con-trend was described by a friend as Gothique, and consisted of teenage girls doing their best to appear as elegant and gothic as possible. Year before that was the SM year, with a lot of teenage girls dressed in more or less unflattering skimpy PVC costumes, apparently because they were too young to attend a real SM party. Somewhat surprisingly, this years trend was young guys who had found presentable bodies for themselves (perhaps all that boffer sword training is finally paying off) and were wearing black wifebeaters.
The other big trend this year was cat-like anime ears. Apparently there was an anime ear workshop, and I was told that almost the entire workshop materials budget was squandered on it. As the program director Mika Loponen explained, "Why not? Why waste it on anything intelligent when it's obvious it would be lost on these people?"
My personal Ropecon-experience culminated in Saturday, midnight. I had just left the auditorium after participating as a panelist in Syksy Raesaenen's Speculative RPGs -panel, where the idea is that each panelist has to make up a plausible game on the fly based on a title provided by Syksy at the start of the panel. A lot of the fun comes from watching the people in the audience who are there for the first time, and think the games are real.
I had employed the time-tested technique of repetition-as-humor in a tired effort to make fun of White Wolf's approach to the world outside of America, in direct violation of my newfound principles. After that, I wandered around the con-area for a while, until I came up to the con rave, set in a separate room so as not to disturb the rest of the happening. It was sort of sad. The music was reasonably good techno, and they had lights and all, but still. It was set in a role-playing convention, and there's no way to lose that stigma.
I was standing at the door, looking inside, dejected, when I suddenly received a text message. It was from my mother. She told me that she was at Koneisto (trans: Machinery), a Finnish techno-music festival featuring, among others, Ken Ishii and the Orb, with 35,000 people. She asked if I wanted to come, and said that she could get me in for free.
After quickly persuading a friend to drive me over (Koneisto was a ten minutes drive away from Ropecon), I was left standing at the gates of the Cable Factory, where the festival was held. Young, beautiful people were milling around and one could feel the bassline in the concrete. It felt like heaven after the dankness of Ropecon. I remember taking a moment to savor the knowledge that I knew for a fact that every Vampire larper with their leather coats and white faces was at Ropecon, and thus not here.
The thing that most stood out was this: At Koneisto, people had spent hours in front of a mirror to look good. To have their make-up made just so, to have their clothes match, agonizing over whether to wear a mini-skirt that showed off their legs or pants that made for easier dancing. At Ropecon, people had spent hours in front of the mirror and ended up looking like complete dorks. Even setting aside the people who dressed like Raistlin or whatever on purpose, there remain the people who actually try to look good, and, for the most part, fail abjectly. The truism that roleplayers usually start as unpopular kids at school banding together to play at being heroes and conquering Gygaxian buxom blondes or the tavern wenches and lasses of Greenwood never felt so vindicated.
This is a stupid business we're in. I find it hard to fault "mundanes" who have a negative image of rpgs and the people who play them. Indeed, I'm starting to find merit in ditching the term "role-playing game" completely and start afresh with Mike Pohjola's "indrama," which Mike recently defined as "roleplaying that's presented as art," so I can talk to non-roleplayers without being associated to D&D. But more on that in part 2 (of 2) of this column, Con-hate: Theory, in which we sample the fruits of the Academic Friday and do a general review of Nordic RPG theory.