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No Good

Martin Says You're Beautiful and Intelligent

by Juhana Pettersson
Sep 10,2003

 

Martin Says You're Beautiful and Intelligent

- Juhana Pettersson

My high school specialized in performing arts. It was a very popular high school, with uncommonly rigorous admittance procedures and a whiff of elitism about it. In theory, everyone had an equal chance of being accepted. Coincidence, then, that half the students were the progeny of well-known artists, actors, composers, directors. Every morning, we were gathered to the auditorium to see a fifteen-minute student performance. They ranged from short gigs by student bands to plays to sixties-style happenings. Some even created controversy in the school, like the one where a curtain of black plastic had been drawn in front of the stage. Holes were cut in the plastic at strategic locations, and the performance consisted of breasts and penises being thrust into the holes, into the view of the audience and jiggled.

High school memories were very much on my mind when I visited this year's Ropecon. It's the annual roleplaying convention in northern Europe. It's held in Helsinki, this time 8th - 10th of August. Attendance broke all earlier records as 3500 people visited the con during the weekend. For the last few years, the con had been in a bit of a rut, but now the bad spell was broken. One of the new innovations was an event which was marketed as a gala but was actually my high school all over again. I was overcome by nostalgia. The great masses washed into the big hall, sitting down on the floor in front of the stage, and the program had that same quality of talented, teenage amateurs in action. A real stage, live music and lights: the production values barely rescued the earnest performances from being embarassing.

Gathering the poor, huddled roleplaying masses into a single hall on Saturday night, at the peak of the convention, listening to the two MCs recounting some of the greatest, funniest or embarassing moments of con history between short musicals, dance numbers or larp fashion shows created a very welcome feeling of communality. It was one of those things you didn't realize was missing until it was introduced.

The "gala" concluded with a song and dance number featuring approx. 10 dancers with a complex choreography. It wasn't a humor number. Since humor is easy and cheap, I'd say this is a positive development. Unsurprisingly, sex sells and a fashion show number where a bevy of thin, young alternachicks paraded in skimpy PVC costumes to an industrial beat proved to be very popular with the crowd.

Sweet Sell-out

The three guests of honor this year were Jonathan Tweet, Martin Ericsson and Ramon Laan. Tweet is the man behind such classics as Ars Magica and Over the Edge, and has also been the lead designer of D&D3. Martin Ericsson is the king of Swedish larp. Laan is a miniatures guru.

I doubt American roleplaying can produce another example of a successful sell-out as brilliant and lcear as the career of Jonathan Tweet. He started out making the most cutting edge, innovatine games of his time, games which are still among the best in publication. Now he's the man behind D&D3, making a living off the lowest common denominator. On the other hand, he makes a living out of it, something you can't do with Over the Edge. I was going to be nastier, but he went on to write such nice things about Ropecon at his website and I don't have the heart anymore.

His honesty was very refreshing. A great many people in the audience were itching to have a go at him, but his bluntness made follow-up questions hard to formulate. He was asked to explain the apparent racism of the concept of an evil race like the orcs in D&D3. He replied that they had considered having villains based on profession (slaver, bandit, etc.) rather than race, but had decided against it because it would be too complicated. It's easier to sort enemies by race. He was accused of selling out and he said he'd sold out. He was asked why didn't he try to create artistically relevant games like Over the Edge anymore, and he said that he was very comfortable with his position at Wizards of the Coast.

Another of his triumphs was explaining the logic behind the design policy decisions behind D&D3 so clearly and concisely, that if you decided to disagree, yours would be an informed decision. It was nice to have somebody come out and say that D&D3 is a game of violent munchkin power fantasy. That it's about hacking and slashing and building your character into an invincible killing machine. To make things simple, combat had been streamlined and unnecessary concessions to realism removed. Tweet argued that simple, fast combat is fun. Slow, exact number crunching combat is not.

He was accused of formenting the D20 system which has been homogenizing gaming culture for a couple of years now. He defended it by pointing to the explosion in games put out by small, independent publishers. An obvious question about why rules were needed at all arose. Tweet's view was that rules systems are necessary to keep the game running smoothly since there would be some guarantee of "fair play" for young players who have a strong competitive urge and little maturity.

Audience reactions at Tweet's presentation were surprizing. All stupidity records were broken last year when Justin Achilli was a guest of honor at Ropecon. He invited the audience to ask questions during his presentation, a terrible, terrible mistake. People challenged him to explain typos in the Book of Nod and wanted to know how you could create a 400-year old Harbinger of Skulls with only 15 freebie points. I expected Tweet's audience of D&D3 fans to exceed even these levels of idiocy. Instead, something quite bizarre happened. The audience was smart. Good questions. Even the rules questions weren't as stupid as those asked of Achilli, not by a long shot.

Obviously, we were thrown into disarray as our prejudices failed to connect with reality. Many theories emerged, but no satisfactory explanation was put forward. My theory was that Vampire geeks were less shy, and thus more prone to open their mouths when they really shouldn't. One theory was that Tweet's frank and intelligent manner, which set him clearly apart from most game designer guests of honor I've seen, made stupid people feel inadequate and afraid to take the center stage. Somebody even said that D&D3 fans might be smarter than Vampire fans, but I wouldn't want to give such a claim any credence.

Drugs and Sex Make Us Cool

Someone (possibly me) said that Finland is a nation of larp critics. Artistically relevant or ambitious games are not made in Finland, but cynical elitists abound. There's some light at the end of the tunnel in the form of Mike Pohjola's Myrskyn aika -roleplaying game, since that will hopefully teach the next generation of gamers to make artistically relevant, rules-light, intelligent games. If it's going to have any effect, it'll be ten years from now when all the teens who started with Myrskyn aika instead of evolutionary throwbacks like D&D3 will be adults and capable of realizing their potential by making good larps and traditional rpgs. There's nothing in Finland that would compare to games like PanoptiCorp, Europa and Amerika in Norway or Mellan Himmel och Hav, Carolus Rex, Knappnlshuvudet and Hamlet in Sweden. Martin Ericsson was one of the people behind the last three games, usually in the capacity of a head organizer.

Hearing Ericsson talk was quite extraordinary. Larp organizers usually sound like game designers at their best and engineers at their worst. Ericsson talked like a visionary. He talked about his work like an artist. He spoke in terms of personal vision, what he wanted to say and what sort of game experience he was after. He was also very inspirational. I'm not aware if he knew it, but when he told his audience that they were all beautiful and intelligent, he was making a severe break with tradition. A blatant hostility towards the audience has long been the mainstay in the con panel discussions and other events organized by our roleplaying elite.

Perhaps the most famous example of this was at a presentation held by Mike Pohjola a couple of years back where he asked the audience to stand up and participate in stretching exercises. When they did so, he called them mindless sheep. I've held a panel discussion about sex in games where the idea was to try to fool the audience into believing that everybody was fucking all the time in larps and traditional games. We talked extensively about how to do safe sex in period games (condoms made of intestines) and about the morality of fucking people in-character if you were in a relationship (not cheating at all; it was my character, not me). We talked about our experiences with funding games by selling porn films made by GMs videotaping in-game sex scenes occurring in larps. I'd even arranged a girl to suddenly attack me from the audience with accusations of luring her to my games only to fuck her, of cheating her by writing torrid love relationships between my character and the characters of jailbait, female players and even impregnating her. The security people had to carry her off before we could resume. Some people realized it was a hoax, some even started participating, but others bought it hook line and sinker.

The idea of embracing the audience instead of fucking with their minds was fresh and effective.

In the first of his two guest of honor speeches, Ericsson talked about his own games, his creative techniques, inspiration and theories. He was a part of a larger creative team in Knappnlshuvudet (1999), where a group of contemporary Swedes spend four days at one of those "Find yourself", "Turn your life around" centers. One of the gimmicks in this game were the invisible guardian angels, monochrome figures who moved about the game area, subtly influencing the lives of the people inside. The players could see the people around them, but the characters couldn't. The angels were able to whisper subconscious suggestions, block movement, but largely remained peripheral to the action. An example of blocking movement would be standing in a doorway.

Carolus Rex (1999) was a steampunk / space opera game where an actual Russian submarine which stood for a spaceship. The game also featured sophisticated computer systems which allowed the characters to control the ship and be in contact with the outside world. Since the submarine was a hermetic environment, the GMs had to install security cameras to see what was happening inside. Carolus Rex implemented many of Ericsson's favorite techniques, like the enclosed space which you can't leave and introducing a large number of surprize characters late into the game, in this case people recued from a rival Danish spaceship.

Ericsson's most famous game is Hamlet, a game set in the fictive thirties within the last three acts of the play. One of the special features here was the use of monologues, where at key points of the game, characters recited relevant soliloquies from the play. These recitations represented the internal monologue of each character present, creating a unifying device for the game as a whole. During these times the game action was briefly paused. Another feature was Ericsson's Hamlet rules. During the first day, no combat was lethal. Fights are either postponed or end inconclusively. During the second day, intrigue is the name of the game. You're supposed to back-stab, poison, double-cross. On the third day, every fight ends in the tragic death of at least one of the participants. The idea was that the rules followed the themes of each day/scene.

In the second presentation, he talked about the uncharted territories, the politics of larping and his creative process from a more personal perspective. Titled Below, the presentation walked a thin line between inspiring and sheer egotism. As a backdrop, he had a slideshow of images from his laptop, pictures from his games, of himself, maps and other random stuff. He alternated between speaking himself and playing recordings of his own voice mixed together with music. The recordings where hypnotic in the sense that they kept you listening, but the downside was that you didn't really catch much of it. Still, it was exactly what we needed..

Among the more sensational ideas in this presentation was the use of drugs, especially psychoactive drugs to enhance the larp experience. Ericsson's creative theory says that in a larp, you must use every sense, every surface to communicate the game. When the player walks in, he must smell, taste, touch, see and hear the GM-controlled environment. Music and sound effects, antique furniture, gourmet food and champange, perfumes. I would imagine that if you created a larp where you're supposed to use drugs, it would have to be built on different principles altogether than a traditional game. On a practical level, its easier and more convincing to play a drunk if you're somewhat tipsy yourself, but I suspect what Ericsson had in mind was something more radical.

In larps violence has to be simulated, because nobody wants to get hurt. There are different levels of what is acceptable; in Finland, actual steel swords are sometimes used in larps in conjuction with heavy armor, and the Swedes have the famous two week rule (every injury sustained in a larp should heal in two weeks), but in general, violence = bad. Sex is another story. Ericsson talked about how sex works best in a game if its simulated by sex and not backrubs, making out, or something along those lines. In the interests of a total experience, you have to fuck for real. The larp Hamlet was designed to allow the players total freedom in their play. The game featured an agreement between the players and the GMs that specific events in the game would not be discussed with people who weren't there, to eliminate rumors and hearsay. This way, you wouldn't get in trouble with your girlfriend if your character fucked his girlfriend in the game. Ericsson dropped strong hints that sex was had in the game, for real.

A couple of days after Ropecon, the only national Finnish newspaper, Helsingin Sanomat, ran a large article by Jussi Ahlroth in the culture section with the headline "Is roleplaying a new artform?" It was the first time I have seen a good article about roleplaying in a mainstream newspaper. From public relations perspective, it was a raging success. There's nothing like recognition by the main media organ of the local power elite to give you a feeling of respectability. I suppose an American equivalent would be an article in the New York Times. Here are some quotes, translated into English:

"For the most advanced Nordic game creators LARPing is a form of interactive immersive art. It is a tool for exploring one's own identity and world views, simply through being someone else..."

"Behind the Nordic LARPing miracle is probably the scene's independence. Here the traditional roleplayers read from the gaming periodicals that people are LARPing out there in the world. Then they started creating these LARPs themselves, creating their own ideas. Later they would realize that a completely new style of gaming had been born."

"Amateur theatre people and filmmakers have been participating in the Nordic LARPing community from the beginning. Among others, the makers of the Swedish film Jalla Jalla!, the brothers Josef Fares (the director) and Fares Fares (an actor). A subsidiary for Danish Lars von Trier's Zentropa Film company, Zentropa Interaction, is perhaps the worlds most successful LARPing company in the world."

They had interviewed Ericsson, and he talked a bit about Hamlet, his most famous game, and his creative tactics as a larpwright. He was also quoted as saying "LARP is not entertainment, not art, not craft, not architecture but all this. The closest analogy is, I think, alchemy, where they take ordinary things [substances] and transform them through a spiritual process into something different and higher [divine]." Suddenly the traditional relationship between the hobby/art and the media was reversed. The newspaper had published a very good article about the hobby, and reactionary elements in the Finnish roleplaying community cried wolf. For a moment some of us feared they might actually send a letter to the editor about the subject, and thankfully they didn't. Their main problem was the mention of alchemism, since that could be used by anti-roleplaying elements to breathe new life to the old accusations of Satanism.

"For an open visionary like Ericsson LARP becomes more than an art form. It is a new form of spirituality for the secularized youth."

Boring Killer Clowns

Finnish roleplaying conventions differ greatly from American ones. While American conventions are mainly forums for people to play, Finnish conventions feature lectures, panel discussions, dance classes, boffer sword tournaments and art comptetitions, in addition to the games. There is a historical reason for this. Ten years ago, when the first Ropecon was being created, the organizers had only a faint idea what a roleplaying convention should look like. However, many of them also interacted with sci-fi fan circles, and the largest Finnish sci-fi con, Finncon, had been operating for years. The first Ropecon was not modelled on other roleplaing conventions but instead on Finncon, which in turn had copied its format from sci-fi cons in the U.K. and the U.S.

I found the time to play in two tabletop games at the con. I used to have a principle that every con, I'd try to play in the weirdest-looking con game I could find, and if that failed, go for nostalgia and play in a WoD game. Last year, and maybe the year before that I had been too lazy to do so. This year I decided that nothing would keep me from gaming. Only this time I didn't use my old criteria, instead targeting the first games which looked even mildly interesting.

I haven't used rules in serious games for some time now, and most of the games in which I play are rules-free as well. Personally, my transition to a rules-free style was such an easy one that I didn't fully realize what was happening until it was over. At some point, I noticed that I hadn't used a single rule in three sessions, and decided to ditch them altogether. Because of this, I had retained a somewhat nostalgic attitude towards rules systems. These games sure cured me of that.

The first game wasn't so bad. We were a group of Soviet soldiers at the battle of Stalingrad. We got a secret mission to go to a house between the lines and retrieve a German officer. We spent over an hour creating characters at the start of the game, and what we had after that was a paper full of numbers for each players. Rudimentary personalities only appeared during the game as the players potrayed the stereotypical roles they had (grunt, commissar, driver). That first hour was basically wasted. The game used the D&D3 Modern system. I found it bland, and although it appeals to the munchkin in me, it adds nothing to the game.

Finally, the game was on. There were some initial embarssing moments when we drove through a forest in the winter, the GM blissfully oblivious to the fact that Stalingrad is in the middle of steppe. I didn't comment on it during the game, as I thought that would have been impolite. We tried formulating a strategy, but the GM wisely outmaneuvered us. In my experience, smart tactical playing is very effective if you want to win these scenarios, but it's also rather boring. In any case, I was surprised to find that in addition to lacking real PCs, the game also lacked real NPCs. After some combat against German soldiers and werewolves, we killed the man we should have been retrieving, witnessed some remnants of insane experiments and went home. There was no NPC interaction and almost no roleplaying.

Apparently, the game was based on published material which tried to have a war horror thing going for it. Sadly, war and horror is not a very effective combination. One would think that soldiers who have lived through the Hell of Stalingrad would be able to deal with a couple of Nazi werewolves and dissected bodies better than someone who hasn't had his hands full of the intestines of his friends on a daily basis. My first reaction at seeing the mad Nazi scientist lab was to experience ideological affirmation as yet another piece of anti-German propaganda my character was suffused with proved to be fact.

The second game followed the exact same formula. Our characters were hired to rescue some villagers kidnapped by bandits. After a bit of travelling down a road, we stumbled upon an abandoned amusement park. We went in and found the supernatural element, in this case killer clowns. Those among us trying to survive and play smart had no trouble. I had deliberately chosen a character with whom I wouldn't have to play smart and got myself killed, along with another character who had been unwise enough to choose me as his pal.

Pre-created characters, but the stereotypes we had weren't as evocative as those in the previous game, so there was even less roleplaying. Most of the game, in terms of time at least 80 %, consisted of number crunching. But as the game was Deadlands: Hell on Earth, at least the system was one of the best I've come across.

Based on these two games, I formulated a theory about what is the function of rules in roleplaying games. The accepted wisdom is that they help the GM in simulating the world and resolving actions, introducing random elements. My experience didn't support such a view. Instead, it seemed that the function of the rules is to camouflage the total lack of content in the game. The rules keep us artificially occupied so that we wouldn't notice the fact that there isn't anything to keep us interested. The killers clowns might have been cool had something been done with them, but instead they just attacked us. The same with the werewolves. The clowns especially were annoying because after the first one you could see them a mile away.

Here's a challenge to con scenario makers: Create a scenario where the most sensible solution isn't to walk away at the first sign of trouble. That would have been the smart thing to do in something like two thirds of all one-shots and mini-campaigns I've ever played in.


Ropecon: http://www.ropecon.fi/

Jonathan Tweet says sweet things about Finnish gaming culture and his experience at Ropecon: http://www. jonathantweet.com/jotconropecon03.html

Markus Montola writes about the State of Larp in Finland 2003: http://www.hut.fi/~ mmontola/larp2003.html

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