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No Good

Feel the Love: Solmukohta 2004

by Juhana Pettersson
May 14,2004


Feel the Love: Solmukohta 2004

- Juhana Pettersson

You know you're dehydrated when you get drunk by drinking water. Saturday night, I started feeling dizzy in the sauna after only something like twenty minutes even though the temperature was too low to be any good. Seventy bloody degrees C. I realized I'd been drinking beer, coffee and vodka since Thursday, which also explained why I didn't seem to be able to get drunk even after I tried. If you have only alcohol in your stomach, it's absorbed into the body at a much weaker rate than if there's plenty of water along with it.

If you want to drink someone under the table, drink only vodka and nothing else, and you'll be fine as long as you remember to puke at the end of the day. My brother, the one who lives in Moscow, tells me this is the secret of the Russian people's prodigious capacity for alcohol consumption. Also the secret of a lot of destroyed livers. So I went and drank a lot of water. And the alcohol started being absorbed at an accelerated rate and suddenly I was drunk as a skunk. Other than that, a surprisingly sober convention. I think it was because the organizing was very good and you didn't have to drink to dull the pain like in Stockholm two years ago.

The convention was Solmukohta, the annual Nordic roleplaying event heavily focused on game theory and innovation. Quite small by Finnish standards, it only has something like 250 visitors, but they're the people who count. Held in February, from the 19th until the 22nd in Helsinki. It rotates in the Nordic capitals, so two years ago we had Stockholm, then Copenhagen, and next year Oslo. Norway is a country that makes London seem reasonably priced, so we're tightening our belts in anticipation of ten euro pizzas. Although there's been small games held during the events themselves, actual larps have always been a secondary pursuit during the Solmukohta conventions. Last year, the Danes pioneered arranging a tight package of games during the week prior to the event itself so that foreign guests could arrive early to sample the best the host country had to offer. The Danes called it A Week in Denmark, so this year in Helsinki there was A Week in Finland, AWIF for short, featuring games by leading Finnish larp organizers.

Personally, the best part of my Solmukohta experience didn't actually have anything to do with it. I was in Finland only for the duration of the event, so my first meeting with my publisher had to be on Friday morning, a forty minutes bus drive away from the convention. It's never much fun to head for the bus stop while everyone else is heading for fun, but I shouldn't complain. I got my contract, I'm writing a roleplaying book and it will be published by Like, the big independent publisher in Finland. Copyright remains with me, I get royalties the same as a novelist and it will go to the big bookstores.

Of course, what we must do now is unionize. After my book is ready and published, there's two Finnish RPG authors published by an actual Finnish publishing house, those two being Mike Pohjola and I. Other than that, we have Mikki Rautalahti, who's written for a number of White Wolf books, among them Victorian Age Vampire, and Ville "Burger" Vuorela, responsible for the most successful self-published Finnish RPG, Praedor, and the recent recipient of an arts grant. Thanks to him, I'm now writing applications left and right. I can form a union with Mike, and we can start excluding the others in a desperate, elitist bid. Try to get into larps and game events free. Bring our union muscle to bear on the publishers and get more money. That sort of thing. Pay dues and then pay them back to ourselves in the form of unemployment benefits. After we have four members, we have enough mass to splinter into two rival unions.

Cow Tongues

My Solmukohta experience started properly on Sunday, after AWIF had been going on for a couple of days already. Mikki woke me up in the morning by calling and asking me to play an NPC character in his larp Exposure. I'd have to show up sometime before six and it'd take something like four hours. I was in the throes of producing my own game, which was on Monday and in theory I had no time to waste, so I said yes.

It took ten minutes for Mikki to brief us (we were a five-man Finnish secret police SWAT team), give us nice-looking replica guns and take us to the door of the game area. Just as he was about to explain something, a player opened the door, about to walk out, and we had to go in-game and commence the raid. There's no off-game outside medical emergencies in games like these, so there was no choice. Everything happened so fast it took me a moment to get the proper "Get on the fucking floor right now!" -attitude.

From Exposure I learned that cow's tongues make great props for vile alien parasite slugs and you really shouldn't set your gun down near slug-infested corpses, even if they seem dead. At least it wasn't my mistake, and the game got a lot more interesting as a bullet-riddled corpse and a man with no muscles (literally) managed to kill our entire SWAT team, picking us off one by one. I got to spend 45 minutes lying on the floor as a dead man, but that was nothing compared to the guy who we killed when we initially stormed the place. He played dead for three hours.

The clich goes that the hardcore Finnish immersion game entails suffering alone in your basement, so perhaps it was fitting that most of the games organized under AWIF were held in a basement. In the very same basement, no less. My last column, Kingdom of Flour, dealt with Luminescence, the game I organized with Mike Pohjola on Monday. Other interesting games included the Cheapest Show, by Henri Hakkarainen and Pagan Love by J. Tuomas Harviainen, but I didn't have time to actually play in them, so I'll leave talking about them to others. I arrived in Helsinki only Friday night, and had to run immediately to the AWIF opening party to convince the head organizer, Mikko Pervil, to support, and more importantly produce Luminescence, which at that point was only a couple of days away. He said yes to my pitch, and then threw the contents of his beer at my jacket. Acceptable losses, as they say.

Dragonbane, the Myrskyn aika larp directed (designed? I can't say written because he's the head of a huge team of writers) by Mike Pohjola and produced by Timo Multamki is starting to look huge. I don't mean huge in any other than concrete terms. Huge in terms of player numbers. Budget. Perhaps even ambition, although we'll have to see about that. It's going to feature an insane amount of players and some pretty impressive pyrotechnics. Because of Dragonbane, I learned you could make explosives from a plastic bag and a bit of flour. It seems that impressive pyrotechnics can be made much more low-tech than I thought. I think we'll be arrested if we try to cross a border with the stuff we used to make Luminescence, although I haven't heard of anyone who'd hijacked a plane like this. The fertilizer bomb is a classic, but the flour bomb has yet to make it's debut. Perhaps this is the real reason the Brits put those holes in the bottoms of their plastic bags. They say it's because they don't want children to suffocate, an explanation I scoffed at until I recently almost suffocated this way during the production of my new circus performance Bouffe c'que j'te donne. Should've heeded my mother's warnings.

The plan is to make the fantasy larp to end all fantasy larps, with over a thousand players, an actual, fire-breathing dragon and modern, Nordic-style production values and immersive play. Can't fault the project for a lack of hubris. The Dragonbane writer meetings look more like an auditorium full of people Mike is lecturing than a bunch of writers metting around cold coffee and yesterday's donuts.

It's going to be an international game, with both writers and players from all the Nordic countries and beyond. The last rumor has it that it's going to be played in Estonia, perhaps because it's much cheaper to do it there than in Finland (although my view of Finland as an expensive country is dealt a severe blow evey time I get a utility bill here in France; the water alone seems to cost something like twenty times as much as it does in Finland, where it's practically free).

You Can't Over-Intellectualize

The Solmukohta program consisted mostly of panel discussions, lectures, workshops and other thinking man's pursuits related to roleplaying. As often happens in these events, I somehow didn't manage to attend almost anything, despite the fact that my schedule was clear. Perhaps it's not so bad, since the convention also produced a book containing all the important stuff, so I could read it at my leisure, later, without the lure of good conversation, trashy music at the dancefloor and the underperforming sauna.

One of the few presentations I actually managed to see was Jaakko Stenros and Henri 'Hakkis' Hakkarainen's history of the academic study of roleplaying. As Hakkis was reading aloud from American publications to an audience reaction of hysterical laughter, I wondered how would I be able to talk about this here without insulting most of my readership. Then again, roleplaying studies are in such a sorry shape all over the world, perhaps the Americans should be happy they at least have a couple of books about the subject. It's more than can be said of most places in the world.

And those books were really quite hilarious. You can imagine the results when a serious academician starts to decipher the function of the Ripper Jack sidebars of Cyberpunk 2020.

I wonder how some people actually manage to see the presentations, because I really tried and still saw only perhaps half of Jaakko and Hakkis's show, five minutes of a presentation on reality accompanied by a video projector slide show which would have been really nice three in the morning, stoned, munching on a pizza, but not so good sober, and the entertainment number Speculative RPGs. Someone said you have to make a choice between the social program at night and the presentations during the day, but can't have both.

Syksy Rsnen's panel discussion Speculative Roleplaying Games has been a classic feature of Finnish roleplaying conventions, and Solmukohta saw the first international edition. Having fresh people from different roleplaying cultures worked incredibly well. The panel discussion features experts talking about rare or little known games, past, present or future. This time the highlights included "I have never drunk as much piss in a game as I did in this one," "Obviously people who live in Vladivostok know how to travel; how else would have they gotten that far away?" and the Swedish girl who talked about revenge on her childhood tormentors by conning them into a larp in which they were dumped into the ocean to swim with too little oxygen in their tanks in pursuit of baby seals on the verge of sexual awakening. Perhaps related to this, later in the evening Syksy was quoted as saying that even baby seals deserved to be kicked if they voted Republican.

The lasting legacy of Solmukohta 2004 is the book published just prior to the event, Beyond Role and Play - tools, toys and theory for harnessing the imagination, edited by Jaakko Stenros and Markus Montola. It collects some of the most interesting new thinking about roleplaying, charting questions from the history of roleplaying to what is roleplaying, from constructive new tools to normative attacks on current games. It's writers hail from seven different countries including the United States.

Some of the more interesting articles include Emma Wieslander's contributions Rules of Engagement, about how to simulate sex in larps, and Positive Power Drama, about making meaningful games with essentially positive emotional content, Paul Mason's review of Anglo-American roleplaying theory called In Search of Self, Mika Loponen and Markus Montola's A Semiotic View on Diegesis Construction, Satu Heli's Role-Playing: A Narrative Experience and a Mindset, the two best academic articles in the book and the best entry-point article for the beginner, Johanna Koljonen's article about the Swedish larp Hamlet, called "I Could a Tale Unfold Whose Lightest Word Would Harrow up thy Soul". Out of modesty I'll leave out my own contribution, Battle Against Primitivism, an attack on the idea of roleplaying games as a storytelling medium. It would have been better had I read this book before contributing to it, because it's full of pro-story stuff and I believe in knowing my enemy.

Positive emotions seem to be the new thing now. In Beyond Role and Play, we have Wieslander's immensely practical guidelines for the eternal problems of how to make happiness interesting and how to simulate sex satisfactorily, and in the U.S. we have Chad Underkoffler's excellent and highly progressive game Dead Inside, possibly the best American RPG I've ever encountered. Players report that darkness crept in even in Wieslander and her team's magnum opus (and possibly the game I've plugged the most in this column despite not even playing in it) Mellan himmel och hav, and Dead Inside builds on the foundation laid by the classical angst games of White Wolf, so perhaps there's still some way to go.

We Win

Perhaps the most interesting part of Solmukohta was the media game. This was the first roleplaying event in Finland with a really professional, aggressive press policy, complete with press releases ready to be cut-and-pasted into newspaper articles, media handlers always on call, press conferences with young men in smart suits explaining things with powerpoint slides and no elf costumes anywhere in sight. The event got to the evening news on Sunday, and the anchor even said that although roleplaying used to mean big fantasy larps, it has since progressed to become a real artform.

Solmukohta keeps getting more and more international every year. This time we had at least Finns, Danes, Swedes, Norwegians, Germans, French, Americans, Estonians, Russians and Italians. This has required some discussion on the character of the event, and right now the mood is that although every gamer is welcomed with open arms, this is an event about the Nordic style of roleplay. In the closing ceremonies a French guy living in Los Angeles ran to the stage and took the mike to invite everyone to the Solmukohta 2050 in Paris.

This year, since the convention was held at a hotel, we couldn't drink our own alcohol anywhere except at the room parties. This was one of the few downsides of the hotel solution, since it subdued the Nordic co-operation, which is traditionally lubricated by alcohol. Alcohol is expensive in Finland, so the hotel bar, although not expensive by Finnish standards, didn't feel so reasonable compared to the French, Belgian and German one euro beers. A good way to do your one good deed for the day is to help your drunken friends into their beds if you're still sober (or standing) at the end of the night.

After the convention, I found myself in the bizarre situation of having a whole bottle of vodka left over, something you'd think would never happen at an international roleplaying convention.

The Solmukohta website: http://www.ropecon.fi/solmukohta

If you wish to buy the Solmukohta book, Beyond Role and Play - tools, toys and theory for harnessing the imagination, edited by Jaakko Stenros and Markus Montola, email montola(at)iki.fi.

Get Dead Inside here: http://www.atomicsockmonkey.com

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