Nordic Larps are Toss

This is a write-up of a talk I gave at Intercon N in March 2014. That was as much performance as content, so this essay may be more boring than intended. If so, sorry. Players are Scum is considerably shorter.

Oh, and whilst I really don’t expect you to read the whole damn thing, please at least skip to the end and read my conclusions before reaching any of your own. Thanks.
(Oh, and there should be a PDF of this somewhere at the foot of this page if that's easier to read. I think it certainly does the footnotes better).

 

. . .

 

Nordic larps are Toss.

I regularly hear otherwise-sound people say “I’m into Nordic larp now” and then proceed to tell me why Nordic larp is the acme of the artform and all other larp styles are old hat and basically worthless. Well they’re wrong. Nordic larps are toss. This essay explains why.

 

 

Nordic larps are Toss. Except, actually, let’s be fair here. Ninety percent[1] of Nordic larps are person A hitting person B with a rubber sword. And there’s nothing wrong with that. When people claim “Nordic larps are the future of larp” what they actually mean is “Nordic style larps are the future of larp.”

So, because names are important, I’m going to henceforth change the title of this essay to:

 

Nordic Style Larps are Toss

This new title doesn’t really trip off the tongue as well, but it’ll have to do.

 

 

But what is a Nordic Style larp, Tony? I hear you ask. Well that’s a great question. Now I could probably make up or find a terrible, straw man definition and just rip it apart. But that wouldn’t be fair. So here’s the definition given on the main page of the Nordic larp Wiki:

 

“Nordic-style larp, or Nordic larp, is a term used to describe a tradition of larp game design that emerged in the Nordic countries. Some aims and ideals typical for this unique gaming scene include immersion, collaboration and artistic vision.”[2]

 

Let’s parse this definition.

First, it’s good to read that “Nordic larp” and “Nordic-style larp” are apparently the same thing, and that presumably every Nord with a rubber sword can just piss off. Second, we learn that Nordic larp comes from the Nordic countries. It’s geographically Nordic. That’s good to know. And, honestly, Nordic is the only thing that Nordic style larp definitively, actually is. Next, however, we learn there are Nordic larp aims and ideals and some of them (“in this unique gaming scene”[3]) are immersion, collaboration and artistic vision.

Okay, so we’ve got a starting point. But here’s the thing:

Immersion is toss. Collaboration is toss and, yes, Artistic vision is toss. I’ll explain why for each of them shortly.

 

 

But these aren’t not the only things about Nordic style larp which make it toss. Here’s my list of other factors (and, yes, I’ll cover each in turn):

 

They fill the Knutepunkt books with pseudo-academic gobbledegook every year

They - and their fanboys - act as if they invented everything

They have manifestos

They make you pee in buckets and put flour in your underwear

They think bleed is good

They think secrets are bad

Nordic style larps are pathetically thin, so they must be bad

They think they’re cutting edge; that they’re better than us

They stole Freeform, the bastards

The Nordic style of game doesn’t appeal to me, so it must be bad

 

I’m sure there are plenty more, but this is enough to be getting on with. Except, ah, no, wait. I forgot one of the big ones:

 

Geographic names for things, like “Nordic larp” are exclusionary and stupid

 

Okay, right, let’s begin.

Except, hmm, actually on re-reading the above list it seems a bit personal, doesn’t it. As if it’s as much an attack on Nordic style larpers as Nordic style larp. And I believe in accuracy, so, okay, I’m going to change the title of this essay again. Henceforth, it’s:

 

Nordic style larps are Toss and Nordic style larpers are Twats

That’s better. Right, where were we? Ah, yes…

 

 


 

The Knutepunkt books are full of pseudo-academic nonsense

There’s an annual Knutepunkt[4] “Art larp” (maybe) conference. I’ve never been. But that’s because (as we’ve already agreed) Nordic style larpers are twats.

 

At this point in the session, the lovely Emily Care Boss (brave enough, especially as a fan of Jeepform, to attend a session with the title “Nordic larps are Toss”) pointed out she’s been to Knutepunkt and, actually, only some Nordic style larpers are twats.

Well I’m always willing to accept the first-hand experience of others, so I agreed to revise the title of my talk (and, hence, now this article) to:

 

Nordic style larps are Toss and Some People act like Twats sometimes

Which was fine, for about five seconds. Then we realised the second part of this is a statement of the bleedin’ obvious and true of all groups[5] and thus I really had to change things (hopefully for good) back to:

 

Nordic style larps are Toss


 

Right, digression over. Where were we? Ah, yes, the nonsense-packed Knutepunkt books. They’re all or mostly available online as very pretty PDFs. Here are a couple of article titles as examples:

“A Semiotic View on Diegesis Construction”

“Larp as Complex Networks: Measurable Quantities of Larp and their Uses”

Well, gosh.

Anyway, as research for my talk I downloaded and went through[6] every Knutepunkt book I could find. And they’ve got some real rubbish pseudo-academic crap in, they really have[7].

 

Except some of the articles are bloody hilarious. Here’s Juhana Pettersson writing in Fuck the Audience in 2003 about a deliberately gonzo World of Darkness game with player-submitted characters he then altered to “fit the game better”:

“I changed a lot of the proposed characters into clones of Lenin, and was dismayed when no one complained.”

And some of the articles are very moving; some are inspirational; some made me really, really want to have played the game they’re describing. And some are extremely thought-provoking. Especially, it seems, the ones by a certain J Tuomas Harviainen. Everything he writes is worth reading. Here he is[8] on nonsense, pseudo-academic stuff in past Knutepunkt books:

“The positive side of this effect is that professionals well versed in the techniques they are using study larps and larping. Unfortunately it also renders their findings practically unusable to most other larp researchers, let alone the layman public. Some well-explained exceptions do of course exist, but even these are more tied to the material handled, not the intent of the researcher. This, in my opinion, is the real key to the current semi-futility of all larp research.

Good stuff, eh?

And, even better, what JT[9] does is read some “new” larp theory and then actually test it by crafting and running a larp using that theory’s rules or ideas - followed up with a standardised questionnaire to the participants.

The man is some kind of God.

 

So, okay, actually I really enjoyed the Knutepunkt books[10]. I recommend everybody download them and take a look. Sure, skip the pseudo-science crap - but to be fair there’s really very little of that in later years.


 

And thus I concede the Knutepunkt books are not Toss. But that’s by the by. Nordic style larps are still Toss, and here again is my big list of reasons why:

 

Immersion is toss

Collaboration is toss

Artistic vision is toss

They claim they invented everything

They have manifestos

They make you pee in buckets and put flour in your underwear

They think bleed is good

They think secrets are bad

They’re too small

They think they’re better than us

They stole Freeform, the bastards

I don’t like them, and

Geographic names are stupid.

 

 


 

Immersion is Toss

Here’s a pretty good definition of immersion:

“Nordic larpers like to feel they’re “really there”. This includes creating a truly convincing illusion of physically being in a medieval village/on a space ship/WWII bunker, playing a character that is very close to your own physical appearance, as well as focusing on getting under the character’s skin to “feel their feelings”. Dreaming in character at night is seen by some Nordic larpers as a sign of an appropriate level of immersion.”

I love that last bit. Imagine the breakfast chat:

“Did you dream in character last night?”

“Er, no?”

“Well you’re not properly immersed then, newbie.”

Now, personally, when a player comes to me and says he’s having trouble getting into character because my hand-scrawled piece of slightly beer-stained paper looks nothing like a twenty-sixth century starship sensor display, then I’m tempted to quote Lawrence Olivier and ask “Have you tried roleplaying, dear boy?”[11]. But I don’t.

Look, this kind of immersive environment is fantastic if you’ve got a handy WWII bunker, a cheap destroyer to hire or a half-million Euro grant from the EU to build a life-size dragon and medieval village.


 

If you haven’t got one of these then your immersive experience risks becoming mundane by necessity. Here’s Johanna Koljonen:

“The ambition to remove all simulation will at its logical extreme create games devoid of all physical and almost all psychological conflict. These are indeed very naturalistic, and often (unless placed in rare genres like situation comedy) very boring, even to immersionists. Actually, one might argue that some of them are not larps at all, rather life, just somebody else’s.”[12]

I note, in passing, there’s a bunch of UK theatre-style sitcom larps[13]. So maybe we do entertaining immersion alright round these parts.

But anyway. Clearly being in character is a good thing. And creating massively ambitious, realistic environments is at least bloody cool. It’s great if you can do it - provided that isn’t at the expense of the larp as a whole. So maybe immersion isn’t toss. It isn’t exclusively Nordic either, but I’ll concede the point and move on to…

 

 


 

Collaboration is toss

Here’s collaboration explained:

“Nordic-style larp is about creating an exciting and emotionally affecting story together, not measuring your strength. There is no winning, and many players intentionally let their characters fail in their objectives to create more interesting stories.”

Round our way, we just call this playing to lose and it’s a widely (if not universally) accepted concept, and something we’ve done for years.

Now it does appear some Nordic larpers don’t think we’re (well, okay, Americans[14]) are capable of collaboration of this kind. Here’s an interesting (but unrepresentative) website comment I happened to stumble across. The English isn’t perfect, but it’s far better than my Swedish:

“Also - competetiveness and gamefication has a strong trend of totally lacking. That means that at Mad About the Boy Game in the US run, when the Americans started to try to win the game with focusing on the guns and controlling the man as a prop, not as a person, and avoided the social realism of inter-character relationships, playing more with the material provided up-front by the GMs(like the element of the last man turning up at the cabins where the women is living), avoiding to create and improvise new content into the game, then it is just barely a Nordic Style Game. It is a Nordic Game played American style, I guess. Which actually is different.”[15]

I hope that’s clear. Apparently Anglo-Americans are so competitive a Nordic style larp might cease to be Nordic style in our hands. But, again, this comment isn’t representative and, as we’ve already agreed, some people act like twats sometimes.

And besides, there’s possibly a bigger point here. Back at the Intercon talk I did a couple of shows-of-hands. The first question was “Who here has played to lose?” 80 to 90 percent of hands went up. The second question was “And who has played to lose whilst in the ‘good guy’ role?” Four or five hands stayed up.

So maybe in our larp culture we expect only the “bad guys” to play to lose. And perhaps the “good guys” sometimes should instead. It made me think, anyway. I mean, wouldn’t it be interesting, and maybe rather cool, to play in a classic “heroes triumph” game where the odds are (as they usually are) stacked against the bad guys and - playing the heroic roles - deliberately lose, turning the story into a tragedy?

All this thinking even made me wonder if there’s actually a fairly profound cultural difference about stories and how stories are expected to resolve between the Anglo-American and Nordic cultures. But then I realised that might be dangerously close to insight, and so stopped.

And where are we? Okay, collaborative isn’t Toss. Or exclusively Nordic. I’ll concede the point and move on to…

 

 


 

Artistic vision is toss

Here’s artistic vision explained:

“Many Nordic games are intended as more than entertainment – they make artistic or even political statements. The goal in these games is to affect the players long term, to perhaps change the way they see themselves or how they act in society. An example of this is the game Just a Little Lovin’, about the AIDS epidemic, that LajvVerkstaden produced last summer.”

Now it does appear that sometimes being perceived as creating “Art” - and maybe getting funding for a larp - is more important than anything else:

En kadu mitään (I Regret Nothing) had it all: an art festival sponsor, its very own radio station and an underground ice hockey stadium. The only thing we forgot to plan for was the game.

     “On the morning of the game, it occurred to us that while we did have all kinds of cool things, we didn’t have a single written character or any idea what the story or setting of the game might be.”[16]

Oh, that made me laugh. But… well… good on ’em. They admitted it publicly after the fact in a humorous manner, and apparently the players had a reasonable time.

And besides, Aaron Vanek and I had the Are larps Art? debate last year at Intercon. Whilst - obviously - I WON[17] with my assertion larp creation is a craft, not Art, I did concede that some larps can sometimes be Art. But not exclusively Nordic ones.

So let’s move on. I’m still safe saying Nordic larps are Toss, because:

They claim they invented everything

They have manifestos

They make you pee in buckets and put flour in your underwear

They think bleed is good

They think secrets are bad

They’re too small

They think they’re better than us

They stole Freeform, the bastards

I don’t like them, and

Geographic names are stupid.

 

 


 

They claim they invented everything

Okay, now this one can be really bloody irritating. Especially when it’s a claim made by an American fanboy of Nordic larping.

You think immersion and 360 degree illusion are new? Then think about the game Lifeboat run by Gordon Olmstead-Dean in 1989. The setting was a lifepod ejected from a wrecked starship and drifting in space.

What did Gordon do? He bought an old RV, dumped some water and random cans of food in there and locked the players in for the weekend. When the toilet backed up in real life, then that’s what had happened in the pod. When they drifted into gravity storms then Gordon drove the RV round to shake it up.

I could go on and on. Apparently “the greatest larp of all time”[18] was Hamlet in 2002. At key moments it had - this is cool - the main characters from the play (NPCs) recite their big soliloquies to all the player characters so they could internalise and know about these even though their characters hadn’t actually heard them. Of course, what I thought was: “This was done in Shakespeare’s Lost Play in the early ‘90s and it was player characters who got to do their own soliloquies to everybody else.”

But, anyway, here’s wise J Tuomas Harviainen:

“Advertise that which was really new - the innovation’s scale, or success, if not the idea itself. Again, I don’t expect anyone to read every native-language forum about past larps, especially not before you organize yours. But the moment when you’re oh-so-guru on a KP stage, telling everyone how awesome your game was, with a cadre of backup singers around you, it’s good to know which things will get you applauded, and which will net you responses of ”fuck off, we did that in ‘98”. By people who did it in ‘98.”[19]

So, okay, not every Nordic larper claims they invented everything. And - thanks to JT - they’ve been told. I’ll cross this one off the list and move to…

 

 

 


 

They have manifestos

Dogma 99, Turku, even The Bristol Manifesto.

But they revisit them, and even symbolically burn them when they agree their time is done. And I wrote a manifesto[20] once. So, okay, maybe manifestos aren’t toss. Besides, here’s J Tuomas again:

The Manifesto Manifesto

 A DECADE AGO , we started writing the larp manifestos. We were young, eager and arrogant as hell. First there was Turku (Pohjola 1999 ), then the Dogma (Fatland et al 1999 ), then a bunch of others. Some of these produced great games, other were blissfully left into oblivion. I do, however, argue that despite hostile reactions by larpers both domestic and far away[21], these statements of intent were necessary. Yes, necessary. And not just that, they were a benefit to the hobby in general.

     The Prejudice Manifesto

§ 1  Every game concept which does not appeal to me is by default badly designed. ”My viewpoint on larp is the only significant one.”

§ 2  Do not dare to try broaden my vision. ”Being the sole significant viewpoint, my idea cannot be wrong, and thus needs no expansion.”

§ 3  My reading of your intent is always correct. ”Do not bother with your explanations or disclaimers, I know all you really want is to change the way I play.”

§ 4  Multiplicity is Weakness. ”There should not be differing kinds of games, nor discussions on such, as they confuse me. And even a grudging acceptance of others, or being the supposedly loyal opposition, is capitulation, and will ruin my fun.”

§ 5  I am great, you suck. “You do not deserve an explanation.”

 — ON BEHALF OF SUPERIOR LARPERS EVERYWHERE, THE MADMAN, THE SNOB & THE MORON

     This is whom we fight. A responsible larpwright’s response to these comments should be “And this is what I will produce – if you don’t find it interesting, do us all a favour and stay out of my game.” Clarity of vision, clarity of art, clarity of player selection.

     No game caters to everyone, no matter how hard we try. Jove knows I have tried.

     And this is why we need the manifestoes: They are signals of design patterns, signs of what we see as important. Or what we once upon a time found important. They tell all that to both us and our potential players. They tell us of discussions and arguments past – and they tell us very clearly of the currents which run below the peaceful co-operative surface of our loose community. They show a facet of the hobby/art/lifestyle which no other part of it – not even our larps themselves – can never truly show.

     Praise the manifesto! The tool of honest larp design! The tool of years gone past – and years to come!

     Codify. Design. Succeed or fail. Examine. Transcend.

     Then repeat.[22]

I mean you just can’t argue with that, can you? Especially the brilliance of “Then repeat”. So manifestos aren’t toss, even if Nordic style larps are. It’s time for…

 

 


 

They make you pee in buckets and put flour in your underwear

Ugh.

But, okay, the game Luminescence was notionally about a “flour therapy” session but actually about the potential use of symbolism in larp. I think. Aaron Vanek explains it better that I ever can, even when he’s drunk[23].

What does this flour represent? What would it mean to me or others if I lay down and made a flour angel? Are there showers available afterwards?

I’m not really sure what those questions mean[24], but I’m kind of pleased somebody is asking them. It made me think there might be ways of going deeper in my games:

Could the mysterious artefact found on a dead craft in deep space be symbolic of a lost and forgotten father?

It’s something to ponder, anyway.

And, well, the bucket thing is about “360-degree” immersion, where “what you see is what you get”. In 2002 an old underground bunker was used as an (oddly enough) underground bunker for the game Hamlet (which was set in the 30s or 40s, but based on the play). The toilet facilities in the bunker (and hence in the game) were buckets[25]. I’m pretty sure my Nordic colleagues have fewer body issues than I have.

360-degree immersion is at least a fantastic ambition[26]. And we might benefit from at least thinking about symbolism in some games.

As for the peeing in buckets and flour in underpants? Well:

They do it so I don’t have to.

So I’ll concede the point and move on.

 

Because we’ve still got plenty left:

They think bleed is good

They think secrets are bad

They’re too small

They think they’re better than us

They stole Freeform, the bastards

I don’t like them, and

Geographic names are stupid.

 

 


 

They think bleed is good

Bleed? What’s that then? Well this is from the 2009 Jeepform dictionary:

Bleed is experienced by a player when her thoughts and feelings are influenced by those of her character, or vice versa. With increasing bleed, the border between player and character becomes more and more transparent. It makes sense to think of the degree of bleed as a measure of how separated different levels of play (actual/inner/meta) are.

So bleed is the crossover between a person’s real life, and real issues, and games.

I don’t really get this. Where’s the fun? But then I’m adventure gamer, so maybe that’s my issue. And, anyway, the Nordic Arthaus larp scene does - mostly - seem to have moved on from Fuck Everybody Up games like Sin-Filled Nights of Bratislava (based on 120 Days of Sodom)[27] and GR[28].

But, okay, I can see the use of bleed as a term, and maybe would want to use it in some games to help people identify more with their characters. So perhaps liking Bleed isn’t toss, even though Nordic style larps obviously still are, given…

 

 


 

They think secrets are bad

I often hear something like this:

“In Nordic larps every player can read every character sheet and you’re not allowed to have any secrets in the game”

And that’s just ridiculous. Stupid. Insanely restrictive. And wrong. Not least because it isn’t true.

The game Carolus Rex was a “360-degree” game set in a spaceship[29], represented in this case by a (real) submarine. About mid-way, the ship’s AI informed the crew they’d docked with some kind of pod and encouraged them to open the main hatch and take a look.

The crew resisted because the players knew (oh, this is probably bleed, isn’t it?) if they opened the hatch they wouldn’t be looking out into deep space, but instead into Gothenburg harbour (and daylight and a bunch of ugly buildings and probably beautiful non-larping Swedes). They couldn’t open the hatch because it would break the 360-degree illusion.

But, eventually, they were persuaded. And they discovered the organisers had constructed a closed “escape pod” mock-up on top of the hatch and filled it with a bunch of uniformed Danish larpers they’d smuggled into town without the players knowing. Awesome.[30] And a great use of secrecy.

Now there is a Nordic larp concept, usually called transparency, used for some games where all the information about a game is public. This may or may not originate in the Dogma 99 Manifesto where “all secrecy is forbidden”. But that’s been symbolically burnt, remember?

And it is at least interesting to think about a game without any secrets. Or maybe about eliminating unnecessary secrets from games[31].

So I can’t make this claim stick, and will have to rely on…

 

 


 

They’re too small

How do you create an acclaimed Nordic-style larp?

     Simple. Take any game at random from one of the “Ten bad larps”[32] books and run it with a straight face and a compulsory debrief.

Almost everybody laughs at that joke. It’s funny because it’s at least partially true. Nordic-style games do have a reputation (occasionally undeserved) for being more Gordon Brown than Boris Johnson[33]. And they do commonly have compulsory pre-game workshops and debriefs. Which is odd to me. I hate debriefs, even (maybe especially) when I’m leading them. Plus, if a game is so potentially damaging it needs a compulsory debrief then it may not be for me.

But I digress. What every Nordic-style game I’ve seen does have in common with Ten Bad larps is that they’re barely there. The amount of actual game material is tiny, and:

 

Four paragraphs and a tarot card[34] do not a weekend-long game make.

 

Except, from all accounts, that apparently they did. And rather a good one, I’m told.

I like long character sheets and multiple plots and interconnected characters. But writing games like this is bloody hard work. Maybe a page of background, a single key concept and a pre-game workshop is the way to go. Perhaps I’m just jealous.

 

And it’s possible Nordic larpers are just better players than we are; prepared to take on a skeletal character and make it their own, rather than email in a hundred picky questions or a whinge like “Only five pages for a weekend-long game, Tony? That isn’t very much at all in this day and age.”[35]

I’ve certainly started to suspect a percentage of the UK Freeforms crowd expects too much nowadays, wanting a fully-formed, instantly-playable game handed to them on a platter and ready to complain when that isn’t the case. I would claim they’ve got this way because the standard of our games is generally extremely high nowadays and expectations have moved in line. Maybe we brought this on ourselves.

So, okay, small can be good. And maybe pre-game workshops - and trusting/encouraging the players to flesh out their own characters - can be a very positive way of creating a deep, interesting, fun game without all that pesky writing. Small may, after all, not be toss.

 

All of this seems to be weakening my overall position somewhat. But don’t worry, I’ve still got the big reasons why Nordic style larps are toss to come:

They think they’re better than us

They stole Freeform, the bastards

I don’t like them, and

Geographic names are stupid.

 

They think they’re better than us

You don’t need to look far to get the impression some people think the Nordic style is larp’s cutting edge. Only as far as the title of this year’s[36] Knutepunkt:

Sharpening the cutting edge

QED. Tony wins the argument. Everybody can stop reading now and go to the bar[37].

I genuinely believe the peak of the larp quality mountain is occupied by big, weekend-long, many-plot, theatre-style[38] larps like King’s Musketeers or 1897: Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee. And I challenge anybody who has actually played either of those games to disagree.

But those games are huge, and stupid amounts of work to write, and were written in the 90s. Games of this size and quality are few and far between.

And maybe that brings us to the crux of this essay (aside, obviously, from demonstrating Nordic style larps are toss). Which is this:

It is obvious, from talking with Nordic larpers and reading the Knutepunkt books, that the Nordic-style larp scene has evolved and changed massively in the last ten years or so. The Intercon / UK Freeform larp scene, on the other hand, really hasn’t changed much at all. This is not good for us.

But I think we are starting to change now, and that a lot of the impetus for that change comes from Nordic style larp, or more precisely people who have decided to take ideas and techniques from Arthaus style larp. People have read things on the internet and thought “I’ll try that” or attended Knutepunkt and come back as evangelists or played some of the available games.

Some of our developments, of course, are parallel evolution without external influence. But maybe only some.

And I promise we’re, mostly, more receptive than we used to be. Here’s J Tuomas:

Or [talk about] making games that somehow just “do not apply”. Which means that, again, your words can’t be trusted, as you are biased. Don’t believe me? Just go read a larp forum. Especially a British one.[39]

So I’ll concede that larp needs a cutting edge and, yes, the Nordic style is very probably it.

If the authors of King’s Musketeers are, collectively, Michael Curtiz[40] then Nordic larp-wrights are very welcome to be Lars von Trier. I’ll settle for aspiring to Joel Schumacher-dom.

 

But just because we’re learning from Nordic-style larps doesn’t stop them being toss, because…

 

 


 

They stole Freeform, the bastards

The world’s first freeform was run by Peter Quinton in Canberra in October 1982. The next was run at Cancon in ’83 and involved nearly a hundred and fifty players. The Australians invented the term freeform. I know this is true, because it was in a bloody Knutepunkt book[41].

In 1989, The Australian Game Group published Morgana Cowling’s The Freeform Book. I bought it and was one of the first people who ran very rules-light, non-boffer larps, called Freeforms in the UK. The group UK Freeforms began as a Yahoo mailing list not long after.

And then, many years later, some Nordic twat comes along and says “here’s a new larp(ish) game style, let’s call it Freeform without bothering to look round to see if other people are using the exact same name for a different style of larp.” The bastard.

And then. AND THEN somebody invents “American Freeform”. Which can just fuck off.[42]

 

But let’s be honest. Freeform is a silly, fairly meaningless name isn’t it? I prefer “theatre-style”, the US description for basically the exact same game style[43] or possibly “parlour-style”.

And I think I know how the term “Freeform” came to be invented in Australia. I bet there was a (paper then, online now) form at a convention which game organisers had to fill in, and one of the questions to answer was “Game system?” It wasn’t D&D, or Traveller, or Runequest was it? So I bet they wrote “Freeform”.

I don’t know this supposition is true. But I do know[44] this is pretty much how the Nordic Freeform larp style (which evolved from tabletop roleplaying) came into being. Parallel evolution.

So I’ll let them off stealing Freeform. And anyway, it’s time to move on to…

 

* * *

 


 

I don’t like them

But here’s J Tuomas Harviainen again:

I have come to expect something between an aggressive knee-jerk statement (starting with a statement containing the word “pretentious”) and the very rare maximum positive “OK, interesting, but not something I’d do myself” from certain very vocal people. Many, but by no means all, of them come from the British larp communities[45]. These reactions appear when they are exposed to either anything relating to larp theory (mostly hostile) or to documentation (mostly indifferent).[46]

So, pass. Whether or not I like something is irrelevant to whether or not it’s any good. Don’t believe me? Just ask your nearest foreign cheese[47].

And (secret admission) I larp. Once, asked why I’d flown several thousand miles to play a game of unknown quality by people I’d never met, the only sensible answer was

“It’s a larp. I play larps.”[48]

And I do. Even Nordic style ones. Even Bloody American Freeforms[49]. I played A Serpent of Ash[50] at Intercon. The game only lasted an hour but was a lovely experience. We hugged. And agreed to go and see The Lego Movie together.

 

But just because I play ‘em, doesn’t mean they’re not Toss. Because…

 

* * *

 


 

Geographic names are stupid

Specifically they’re doubly exclusionary. I’ve heard described a game written by Norwegians and run in Norway as “not Nordic”. And there does seem to be an attitude that non-Nords can’t write Nordic-style larps (which is maybe why we’ve now ended up with American Freeform). Plus don’t forget the guy who claimed Mad About the Boy actually ceased to be Nordic as soon as it was run in the US.

A Nordic larp should be a larp (of any stripe) originating in the Nordic countries. Full stop. Here’s Eric Fatland:

The Nordic arthaus movement transcends national borders (it’s far more common for an arthaus larp to have international participants) and has in the past been associated with the Knutepunkt conferences, though there is an effort to make Knutepunkt more open to “mainstream” (i.e. non-arthaus) larping. Still, quite a lot of the larps referred to in Knutepunkt books and discussions are such arthaus larps – and not necessarily representative of the majority of Nordic larps nor something that most Nordic role-players concern themselves with. There is, however, no absolute separation between “arthaus” and “mainstream”. Most Nordic arthaus larpers also participate actively in the mainstream role-playing of their home countries.[51]

If your amazing, experimental game contains a fantastic concept or symbol or artistic theme then call it “Arthaus larp”. If it’s got a realistic, immersive setting then call it “360-degree larp”. If it’s partly narrated and partly live then call it “Freeform” or “Jeepform”. If it’s primarily educational then how about “Edu-larp”? If it’s a less realistic game in a more abstracted setting (like pretending a hotel suite is a space ship) then maybe “Theater-style larp”[52] or “Parlour larp” work.

 

Now I was ranting a while back to a friend about how stupid geographic names are and she interrupted me to ask:

“What’s the best breakfast, Tony?”

“Why a Full English Breakfast of cour…. Oh.”

So moving away from geographic names is hard. We’re attached to them. Even a little patriotic about them. And our Nordic colleagues know the name is an issue. Here’s Lizzie Stark, who clearly goes to different parties than me:

“And so we’ll leave it there — nobody knows what “Nordic larp” is, but people still use the term all the time. So if you want to use it as a pickup line at your next party, just know that whatever you say, you’ll probably get it wrong in someone’s estimation.”

So, okay, geographic names are stupid. And nobody knows what “Nordic larp” actually means. But everybody knows this, so it doesn’t really make Nordic style larps Toss.

 


 

But Nordic style larps must be toss, because I’ve still got all these arguments left:

The Knutepunkt books are full of pseudo-academic nonsense

Immersion is toss

Collaboration is toss

Artistic vision is toss

They claim they invented everything

They have manifestos

They make you pee in buckets and put flour in your underwear

They think bleed is good

They think secrets are bad

They’re too small

They think they’re better than us

They stole Freeform, the bastards

I don’t like them, and

Geographic names are stupid.

 

Oh.

 

* * *

 


 

Conclusion

Okay, then. Nordic larps (or Nordic style larps) are not toss. They’re interesting, challenging, often cutting edge, maybe Art (but no more so than any other larp style[53]), an efficient way of creating a good game without having to write too much, occasionally heavily funded, well documented, sometimes spectacular and occasionally pure genius.

But nobody knows what “Nordic larp” means, unless it means just “larp from the Nordic countries”.

And, yes, “Nordic larp” sounds cool and foreign and thus exciting to Americans[54]. And, yes, I can get patriotic about Full English Breakfasts, just as perhaps there are people proud of “their” Nordic larp scene.

But if we want to build an international larp community, maybe now is the time to make the effort to move away from the name. If we don’t know what “Nordic larp” is, then it’s because we’re using the term improperly.

Let’s agree - or at least start to argue about - a set of non-geographic name for larp styles which we can all use, wherever we craft and play larps.

I can’t really help with much with that.

 


 

But I can, as J Tuomas asks, resurrect an on old idea, whose time may have come once more:

 

The Toss Manifesto

1. Whenever somebody says “Nordic larp” to me, I shall respond “‘Nordic larp’ means ‘A larp from the Nordic countries’ and nothing more”

2. Whenever somebody says “Nordic style larp” to me, I shall reply “There’s no such thing. Is it a boffer larp? An arthaus larp? A 360-degree larp? A Jeepform? A freeform? A parlour larp? An Edu-larp? Some combination of the above?”

3. If they haven’t hit me yet, I’ll mention the Mixing Desk of Larp[55] and ask where they’d put the sliders for the game they’re describing

4. I shall continue to rant about geographic names being stupid. Especially “American Freeform”

5. If I’m hungry and ordering breakfast in a hotel then I shall ask for sausage, egg, bacon, beans, black pudding, mushrooms and toast, using no other name.

6. I shall remember no larp style is Toss. Or any better than any other. I’m allowed my preferences, but not to denigrate those of others

7. I’m a larper. Therefore I larp. With as many different people in as many styles as possible. Whatever they’re called.
8.
I Heart JT




[1] Approximately. Any statistics quoted in this paper are little more than educated guesswork, although there is some very good analysis in some of the Knutepunkt books and I suspect a truer statement would be “80 percent of Nordic larps are boffer, 15 percent are World of Darkness and 5 percent - maybe - are “Nordic Style”

[2] This definition really is the best I could find and is basically the same as Lizzie Stark gives at www.lizziestark.com. You should, by the way, buy her book Leaving Mundania and read her website (except the sections on “American Freeform” which can just fuck off).

[3] I’m going to concede right now the Nordic countries, in so far as they can ever be lumped together, and their peoples are pretty unique. So if that’s what they mean by “unique gaming scene” then I’m on board. Otherwise, I’d have to ask: Aren’t you just a little bit up yourselves, folks?

[4] Yes, I’m aware the spelling - and entire name when in Finland - changes year by year. But I’m too lazy to look up the variant spellings, okay?

[5] Not infrequently including the group consisting solely of me

[6] Note “went through” rather than “read”. But I at least scanned everything, and did read a lot.

[7] I’m not an academic. But I did, many years ago, get a Masters degree in Sociology and Politics from a Famous University. So I know pseudo-academic crap when I see it. I certainly wrote enough in my day.

[8] In 2004

[9] I hope he doesn’t mind me calling him JT, but I feel we have a special connection

[10] Reading them may have been an error in some ways. My original draft of the talk was rather funnier - and a lot shorter - when I was uninformed

[11] I know. “acting”. To Dustin Hoffman on the set of Marathon Man, for those who care.

[12] From “Why do bad larps happen to good people” (2003)

[13] Generally created at the annual “Peaky” game-writing weekend

[14] I’m British, if that wasn’t clear

[15] I’m not referencing this one. It seems unfair.

[16] The Only Thing We Forgot, 2012 Knutepunkt book

[17] Okay. Score draw.

[18] Lessons from Hamlet, 2004 Knutepunkt book

[19] 2012 Knutepunkt book. I want his babies.

[20] The Paperclip Manifesto

[21] I’m pretty sure he’s thinking of me here

[22] 2010 Knutepunkt book. I’ll do anything for this man.

[23] Claus Raasted’s larp podcast number 53

[24] The last one is pretty clear

[25] I believe the players were allowed out in the breaks between acts to use rather better facilities and sleep

[26] Not, again, necessarily Nordic. In the early 90s a UK group took over Lundy Island, complete with houses, pub and church and ran a week-long, fully immersive game there. One of the players couldn’t sleep, wandered downstairs in the middle of the night, rang a bell he found and five minutes later a uniformed maid wheeled in a pot of tea on a trolley. That’s immersion with style.

[27] But co-written by J Tuomas, so undoubtedly brilliant

[28] Definitely a non-representative game. But still best forgotten.

[29] I like spaceships. And trains. And J Tuomas. Not necessarily in that order

[30] I believe the new arrivals later tried to take over the ship. So maybe the crew should have kept the hatch closed.

[31] I could certainly list a few games which would benefit from a massive cull of contingency envelopes.

[32] 10 bad larps in 100 bad minutes is available on Lulu and well worth a look. But not free.

[33] British politicians. Assume “overly serious”, although dour is a lovely, rather more apt word (and is what made me think of our former Prime Minister).

[34] Mad About the Boy. One day, I swear, I’m going to write a game called Sane About the Girl in which some of the survivors of a global disaster which wiped out all women are gathering to distribute the last remaining supplies of pornography. And a working sex-bot will appear halfway through. But she won’t be naked. That would be exploitative.

[35] Taken directly from an email to me after I’d spent tens of hours adding to an existing weekend-long game. Players are Scum. (But this is still a mantra, okay? Not an opinion).

[36] 2014, in case this document is ever read again.

[37] Except the bar in the Intercon hotel closes around 10.30pm. Can you believe that?

[38] Possible “Parlour style”

[39] You’re not that brilliant. 2011 Knutepunkt book.

[40] Casablanca, by the way, is the Greatest Movie Ever Made

[41] Paul Mason’s 2004 article In Search of Self

[42] Don’t even get me started about “UK Freeform” (the alleged style) as opposed to UK Freeforms (the group). Just don’t.

[43] I would claim the only material difference is we Brits usually drink during games and Americans don’t

[44] Because it was in a Knutepunkt book

[45] I like to imagine he was thinking of me when he wrote this. He’s a dreamboat

[46] The Diegetic Horse You Rode In On. 2013 Knutepunkt book

[47] There are two types of cheese. Lovely English cheeses like Cheddar, Comte, Parmesan or Mozzarella; and nasty foreign cheeses like Brie, Stilton and Stinking Bishop.

[48] Actually, I said “Freeform”. But I’ve moved on

[49] The Climb, by Jason Morningstar. It was okay.

[50] Author: J. Tuomas Harviainen. So no wonder it was great.

[51] Nordic larp crash course. 2005 Knutepunkt book

[52] I’ll concede the spelling to my American brethren, who used it first

[53] Says me

[54] Who brought us the McDonalds “English Muffin”

[55] 2013 Knutepunkt book. Really cool concept.

Ċ
Tony Mitton,
Mar 27, 2014, 3:15 AM
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