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No Good

Learning from RPGs

by Juhana Pettersson
Nov 17,2003


Learning from RPGs

- Juhana Pettersson

It has been a while since my last column. I moved to Lille, France, to study at an art film / new media school called le Fresnoy, and the logistics of moving from Helsinki to Lille and the subsequent settling in and starting work meant that I couldn't find the time to write. Now things have calmed down and I should be able to get back to the usual monthly rate, although there will probably be some irregularity.

Traveling is always good if you want to have perspective, and this combined with the relative lack of opportunity in Finland made me believe it would be a good idea to study in another country. It's not all good, of course. Not a lot of opportunities for roleplaying, since I don't speak French (although I'm learning; the people here aren't too keen on speaking English. Sometimes it's even been necessary to speak with a really heavy Finnish accent to get better service as people mistake me for a Brit or an American) and I'm pessimistic about finding good players. Being surrounded by French people is not the only cultural shift I'm going through, because thanks to the school, I'm suddenly surrounded by all these fine arts people, none of whom have ever played in an RPG.

My view of the life of the American youth is overwhelmingly dominated by the hegemonic view of the High School provided by American media. I have no idea how much is truthful and how much is just genre convention. The impression I have from all those teen movies, television serieses like Buffy: the Vampire Slayer and the new Marvel fashion of publishing a torrent of high school -related superhero comics is that cliques (jocks, nerds, cheerleaders, etc.) are quite important, especially in terms of identity. For example, the idea of being proud of being a nerd seems very weird to me, because in Finland and in the Finnish high school environment these kind of issues of being a part of some particular group are quite fluid. There is no need for me to start identifying with the tenets of a particular subculture, even if socially I'm obviously a part of that subculture. I have never identified myself primarily as a roleplayer, a geek, a sci-fi nerd or anything like that, even though had I been a character in a teen movie that's exactly what I would have been.

Nevertheless, living and working here in Lille, I seem to have not one, but two cultural backgrounds making me distinctive in this particular multicultural environment. The first is nationality, of course. I'm the first Finnish person in the school ever, and probably also the first to be from any of the Nordic countries. I have never felt very patriotic about my country or identified myself as explicitly Finnish while I lived in Finland. I'm still not very patriotic, but I certainly feel extremely Finnish. It manifests most of all in small cultural differences, like how politeness works or what do you use to wash the dishes. How do you use alcohol and other drugs. What kind of music is popular at parties (all this Latin music is killing me). I suspect the relief is so sharp precisely because Finland and France are not too different. Had I moved to India or the U.S. (education in the U.S. turned out to be not an option because I'm not from a wealthy family and India didn't seem as good an idea as France, although I did apply to a film school in Pune) I think the cultural differences would have been so great that this kind of constant comparing would be pointless.

Culture no. 2 is the general roleplaying background, with all the tangential references it entails from Star Trek to the X-Men. Because RPGs, and larps especially are such an easy way to meet people, all of the people I knew from something other than work or politics I knew from the roleplaying circles. I never really participated in student life in Helsinki, although living here, things are very different. I live in a house with two fellow students and one ex-student (who's also the only French person in the house) 200 meters from the school in the suburbs of Lille. I see the same people home, school and in the parties.

Sometimes, the effects of this are quite subtle. I'm from an atheist family. Thus I only came really into contact with Christianity when I was in the third or fourth grade in school and started to be more curious about what exactly is going on at all those religious education classes that I was not attending. Finland is a much more secular state than the U.S. and you don't run into God every time you handle money or see the President speak. Around the same time, I also got into superhero comics, and I think Charles Xavier has had a greater impact on my moral education than Jesus. He certainly seemed more plausible.

Student Life

Roleplaying is apparently not a popular conduit to an education in the culture industry. As every roleplayer probably knows, exporting the hobby/art is not easy. The amount of prejudice you encounter, especially in the U.S. and the U.K. is quite big. Mike Pohjola's elegant if defeatist solution to this problem was to call his larp inside:outside an indrama, and can the RPG talk altogether. It worked, at least as far as non-roleplayers were concerned, although there was a lot of derision from other roleplayers. I have often been tempted to take this approach, but it does seem a bit cowardly.

Having genuinely interested new, inexperienced players join an existing campaign has worked. Recruiting players, in effect trying to create interest where there is none, has never worked for me. Living here in France, I have trouble understanding when people are sincere and when they're just polite, because the cultural conventions regarding politeness are different here than in Finland. This has made me superparanoid about recruiting players for possible one-shot games, because I want motivated people, not somebody who suddenly develops a cold conveniently to miss the game or has to leave early to do his laundry. I don't want to put people in the position where they have to volunteer to play out of some weird, French sense of what is proper.

When I talk about RPGs to fellow students, there is a pronounced discrepancy in how they respond. People who have heard about RPGs react very negatively, but people who haven't tend to react quite positively. Perhaps to this audience, the spin I give to the hobby/art is better than the one given by D&D. Thanks to the image problem D&D and through it all roleplaying has in the U.S., U.K. and Canada, my Canadian roommate had a knee-jerk dismissive reaction to essentially the same sales pitch that was received relatively favourably by people from Chile or India who weren't burdened by preconceptions.

The only audiences with which I have been really successful have been people in the culture industry who have been looking for something new. Still, if I have a choice between someone who is a roleplayer and someone who has never played before, I choose the one who has never played. I've found that deprogramming established roleplayers out of their preconceived notions of experience points and monster-killing is more difficult than teaching completely green players to play the way you like.

The greatest thing roleplaying has given me is the attitude that I must know everything about everything. When you're a GM, and to a lesser extent when you're a player, the more you know the better you can perform. With fantasy RPGs, if you've read a lot of fantasy, you make better games. If you know about how life was in the middle ages, what's the difference between a halberd and a pole-axe and what are the roots of the archetypal fantasy concepts, you fare better still. In a modern game, education is even more important. Let's say the characters end up in Tadzjikistan. Who here even knows where Tadzjikistan is, much less about what the airports look like or how do you hail a cab, often the first things the characters have to deal with?

I learned quite young that if I want to do a good game, I have to read everything I can about my subject, and the more I know about any subject, the better I can improvise in surprising situations. For me, this has been extremely useful in real life, because the more you know, the more you understand how things work. All data is to be filed away for future use. In terms of art, this means that although personally, I'm most interested in video, film, modern dance and cirque nouveau, I try to see all kinds of things, from crappy amateur theatres in the Finnish countryside to obscure little architectural museums in London. I'm still shocked every time I hear someone say they don't need to know about geography or are not interested in politics.

Life Lessons

My traditional answer to the question "What I have learned from roleplaying games?" has always been "To lie and cheat". To be fair, I think my experiences in the state school system and later working for the government commuting my military service (obligatory in Finland for men, optional for women) also played a part.

Still, it's not only a joke. I think the education you get playing RPGs is really quite good in these subjects. Especially Vampire larps, with the emphasis on intrigue and backstabbing help you to spout bullshit at a moment's notice as necessary. The thing I really appreciate with Vampire are the various lie detection magic powers which meant that you were always safer speaking the truth, and lying by distortion, omission and exaggeration, something that holds true in the real world as well. As with any other skills, lying improves with practice, and RPGs are a good environment for that. Indeed, I've noticed that most games actively support and promote it, because it's what you get when you have drama, conflicting interests, emotions running high, plots within plots and so on.

I used to think that a bad liar is one who's lies are unconvincing, but after observing non-roleplayers lie, I noticed to my surprise that many people have a more fundamental problem with lying. It doesn't come naturally. They have to think. It's clear they don't believe what they're saying themselves. They change their stories and become flustered when caught. I think it's just the lack of practice.

One would think that RPGs would be a quite useful tool for teaching. From exercises designed to make kids in elementary school understand morality (I've heard the one about different people, scientist, soldier, mother, etc. in a lifeboat is used in the U.S. as well) to simulations of job interviews, there are already RPG-like elements in use in the teaching techniques we have today. I've even heard a story, possibly apocryphal, about how NASA astronauts play D&D because it promotes teamwork and cooperative skills.

Writing games for a large Vampire larp campaign with a team of eight other people didn't result in any good games, but did teach me a lot about how to work in a team, about picking your battles, when to compromise and when not, how to get things done your way, and most importantly, the power of volunteering. Because in the end, the one who does the work gets to decide how it's done. These are things that are useful in everyday life in almost any kind of work.

Creative Work

My first, and for a long time only form of creative expression was roleplaying games. I have been playing since I was eleven years old, a year give or take. By contrast, I made my first short film only at high school, the same time I first started writing more seriously. I originally started GMing because I was thrown out of my first gaming group. Later on, most of the people in that group ended up in my group. serious branching out has happened only during the last few years as I became disillusioned with what the University of Helsinki had to offer and decided to make my living in the culture industry. Sadly, it's not possible to make a living doing RPGs in Finland. Larps have a commercial future, but tabletop is a different matter. I suspect the only way a small market like the one we have can support full-time RPG authors is with a government subsidy, and I suspect that even if that's going to happen, I'll be a middle-aged man by then.

When I was in high school, I thought I would become a great Finnish novelist. I don't have the discipline to work by myself the way a novelist and a writer has to, so I've been aiming towards more cooperative fields. Besides, working with performers, direction and things like that benefit much more from the practical experience I have from years of GMing than writing, which I think has little to do with the forms of expression found in roleplaying. When I directed my first shorts, I found authority was not a problem even when I was completely clueless, and I think for that, I had RPGs to thank for.

The GM's craft is built on authority. You can't be a good GM if you don't learn to create and maintain that authority. Once you have it, it's easy to relax, distribute power, encourage your players to be challenging and creative, because you know you'll always be on top. This is useful experience, and not just with directing work.

This school is my first real break. The way it works here is that the school hosts regular lectures and movie presentations, but the main focus is on the big student projects, one for each year. We get roughly 8,000 - 10,000 euros (which corresponds to similar figures in dollars) as budget each, in addition to the considerable resources of the school itself in terms of performance space, equipment and expertise, to play with. Most students use the resources to make short films. I'm going to do a circus/video performance. Others do installations.

(I sometimes wonder why don't people from the U.S. come to France or Finland to be educated. It's just so much cheaper than in the U.S. since there's usually only a nominal registration fee, the quality of the institutions is very competitive and it's always good for you to live a portion of your life in another country. Especially in cheaper places, like here in Lille, you could live very nicely with the cost of the tuition of your average American cinema school. Maybe not so cheap in Finland. If you really want to live like a White God, I recommend Russia. The quality of the state education system is still good, and the film school in Moscow, VGIK, is something that has to be seen to be believed. The glory days of the late nineties are over, but the dollar still goes far.)

At the start every student was asked to make a presentation of his or her work, explain his background and talk about what's he going to do at le Fresnoy. Many of the presentations were quite serious and straight, and a lot of the work was really interesting (although not all, of course). I didn't have anything special to show, but I had thought that it would have been really funny in this serious, high art environment to attribute my artistic awakening to D&D. Besides, it's true, although I wouldn't use an expression like "artistic awakening" were I serious. Unfortunately I was very nervous and forgot it, so they had to make do with my story about trying to work in writing porn.

The student body is very international, especially in my year. Actual French people are in the minority among all the Brazilians, Argentineans, Israelis, Canadians, Taiwanese and Byelorussians. No British people, no Americans. I don't know why. Both nationalities are represented in high profile among our guest artists and lecturers. The general level is quite good, and it's nice to have something to fall back on. At the same time, it does feel weird when we have people who have done a lot of photography, people who have done work in video for ten years, others who've experimented with sound, and me, with my knowledge of how to run a really mean campaign game, plus just enough experience with video that I don't embarrass myself. Except on my very first day when I failed to recognize a non-linear editing system, despite it being the only kind of an edit I can use. The one I have is just a little bit less fancy.

Sometimes the things I can trace back to RPGs are very simple. I'm good at beginnings but sucky at endings. Doing RPGs, I have consciously tried to learn to plan things so that they can evolve into any number of directions. The experience I have of how to move things along is based on predicting the principal characters and relying on factors that are not dependent on them. This is not very useful when I'm writing a script, and because of it I always have the first scene, and the further we go, the harder and hazier it becomes. In a game, that part is not up to me. Because of this, nowadays I never start with the story, but instead work out the themes, characters and other issues and slap some suitable narrative structure on it when everything else is done.

Actually, were I a true avant-garde roleplaying firebrand, I think I'd be writing about what other, older art forms can do for roleplaying and not the other way around. It's an uphill battle, though, and I don't want to be one of those guys who die in poverty only to be remembered long after they're dead as pioneers of the form. Especially as only the really lucky ones get remembered, the others just die poor and that's that.

In one of his speeches at Ropecon, Martin Ericsson extolled the audience to be proud of themselves as people who roleplay, to recognize the validity of things they have experienced in games and understand that all those experiences have become part of them the same as everything else that has happened in their lives. Living in a foreign country, trying to do creative work in a medium that's new to me I'm more conscious of these things than ever. It's all good.

As an extra that has nothing to do with the subject of this column, I'll give you the link (http://www.hut.fi/~jstenros/mhoh.html) to Jaakko Stenros's review of the excellent Swedish larp Mella Himmel och Hav, by Ars Amandi (Emma Wieslander and Katarina Bjrk), with Tova Gerge, Holger Jacobson, Anna-Karin Linder, Leo Nordwall, Susanne Grslund, Karin Tidbeck and Tobias Wrigstad, music by Henrik Summanen, scenography by Anna Dulata, stage management by Sara Folke, lights by Emma Wieslander and Benedikte Lindstrm, specially designed food by Jonah Elfdahl). You'll have to scroll down a bit to get to it.

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