In honor of the release of Bill White’s and my co-edited volume with McFarland, Immersive Gameplay: Essays on Role-Playing and Participatory Media, I am conducting interviews with some of my talented and erudite contributors.

The third interview is with role-playing designer, librarian and scholar JTuomas Harviainen. He co-authored the article in the volume “Role-Playing Communities, Cultures of Play and the Discourse of Immersion” with Bill White and Emily Care Boss. Harviainen contributes a significant body of Nordic larp scholarship that points to a fundamentally different play/design philosophy regarding “immersion” from the Anglo-American definition.

Here are my follow-up questions:

Evan Torner – You are defending your doctorate in Information Sciences in the fall. What is the focal point of your research?

J. Tuomas Harviainen – My dissertation, within the discipline of Information Studies and Interactive Media, deals with the information-systemic properties of physically perfomed role-playing in its various forms (larp, BDSM and so forth). The core idea is that, by adopting the social contract of play, people create temporary spaces in which access to information is significantly altered. I claim that by looking at the information-environmental properties of those temporary social systems, we can understand a lot more about both play experiences and the way social contracts affect our information seeking and distribution in everyday life.

ET – What is an example of the kind of information-seeking that happens in role-playing games that would then be directly applicable to everyday life?

JTH – All sorts of information needs appear during role-play, and people respond to those accordingly. Most of the time, the behavior is very similar to mundane life, regardless of the context in which one is acting. The most interesting thing for me, however, is that the artificial constraints of the games show us just how much of an impact the social expectations we have on how we seek information. If, for example, one plays in a game where certain actions are forbidden within the fiction (say, envisioning democracy as a viable concept, in a Medieval game), we can get an inkling how such limits affect people in real life. As Bernard Suits put it, games are about artificial limitations. Many of those, in many games, concern information acquisition and use.

ET – How do rituals, information systems and game systems intersect?

JTH – On many grounds, which is what led me to my current line of research. The adoption of temporary rulesets, limitations and boundaries, the change of social identities, and the act-as-if with things one cannot really perceive, these are very common in both games and rituals. I do not claim that they are all information systemic things, but I do parts of them can be very well analyzed from an information studies perspective. The ritual-game connection in particular has been noted by many earlier researchers, but I dare claim that it has not been properly examined until very recently. Games being highly ritualistic social systems, it is actually hard not to see a connection, yet scholars and designers both have been quite happy to just rely on a quick nod towards Johan Huizinga and Victor Turner, plus a set of black-box thinking where ritualistic games are expected to provide ritual-like results, without going into the actual mechanics of why and how.

ET – As a researcher and game designer, you have on occasion used games you’ve designed to test your hypotheses. What are the advantages of this “scientific” approach, and how might more game designers adopt it?
JTH –The idea is that in such games, it is possible to combine the idea of a laboratory experiment with the playful, unpredictable nature of games. I know it’s imprecise, but a lot of human communication actually involves such creative chaos. Because people like the game, they run it for others, and that way I get a convenient data build-up which helps me analyze the results. The great thing about laboratory-larps especially is that it’s possible to insert some artificial parameters into the fiction, in order to test the effects of those parameters in a chosen setting. For example, it’s quite easy to experiment on gender role expectations by making a game that plays on those expectations – or where they are defined as totally absent, or altered, by the game’s setting. That’s something rather hard to accomplish through means other than role-playing. I’ve also noticed that this research application of design has made me analyze my games much more thoroughly, and significantly improved the quality of my games. For that reason alone, I’d suggest others try it out, even if they are not interested in experimentation for the sake of research.

ET – What key role-playing scholarship are game studies scholars not reading, but should?

JTH – My two pet peeves are game scholars’ focus on digital gaming and the way they tend to read just their own field’s research. The former has lead to a kind of tunnel vision, where people publish brilliant stuff on, say, immersion in digital games, but talk about it as if that description were descriptive on all sorts of game immersion, while their concepts would not actually hold water in a larp or tabletop role-playing context at all. And vice versa. So people really should look beyond the confines of their chosen platform.

The second thing that does not get sufficiently read is original works. Too often, game scholars just quote from quotations or excerpts, leading to a build-up of bias. The recent discussion on the differences between what Huizinga actually meant with the “magic circle” and the way that concept was appropriated to game studies is a good example. If one reads Juul’s or Salen & Zimmerman’s descriptions of Wittgenstein or Suits, one gets a distorted picture of what they actually said – and then very likely propagates that false impression. So I think reading the actual base references should be mandatory for any serious researcher of games of any type.

ET – Do you know what concept might replace “immersion” within the next decade as it is exhausted within the discourse? With what term would you replace it, if you could?

JTH – I doubt “immersion” will be replaced, despite being very problematic. I would, however, like to examine it from many more perspectives, and to add new clarifications and potential ideas to the current discussion. For example, presence research, traditionally conducted in the context of telepresence or virtual environments, offers a lot of useful concepts that game scholars have thus far, in my opinion, neglected to take into proper account – especially on the question of immersion vs. spatiality and the sense of place. (As a great starting point, I’d recommend this article: Turner, P. & Turner, S. (2006). Place, sense of place, and presence. Presence, 15(2), 204-217.)

J. Tuomas Harviainen is a Finnish library chief information specialist, game studies researcher and designer, who specializes in live-action role-playing. His mini-larps have been run in at least 14 countries, used as training tools in schools and universities, and been translated into seven languages. He is finishing a doctoral dissertation at the University of Tampere, Finland, on role-playing games as information systems, and is an editor at the International Journal of Role-Playing.

Evan Torner is a Ph.D. candidate in German and film studies at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. He is finishing his dissertation on representations of race and the global South in East German genre cinema. As co-editor of Immersive Gameplay: Essays on Role-Playing and Participatory Media, he has also written on modernist film, German science-fiction literature and live-action role-playing, and is the official translator of the Filmmuseum Potsdam’s permanent exhibit “The Dream Factory: 100 Years of Babelsberg.”

In honor of the release of Bill White’s and my co-edited volume with McFarland, Immersive Gameplay: Essays on Role-Playing and Participatory Media, I am conducting interviews with some of my talented and erudite contributors.

The second interview is with role-playing designer and theorist Emily Care Boss. She co-authored the article in the volume “Role-Playing Communities, Cultures of Play and the Discourse of Immersion” with Bill White and J. Tuomas Harviainen. In the article, she helps provide a breakthrough analysis of Nordic and American interpretations of role-playing immersion, contrasting emotionally resonant and creative play/design philosophies and advocating for a bottom-up definition of immersion, based on communities’ play experiences.

Here are my follow-up questions:

Evan Torner – You are often cited for your 2008 article “Key Concepts in Forge Theory,” which does an excellent job of summarizing key debates within the American independent role-playing games scene between 1998 and 2005. It’s one of the most cited articles in the Nodal Point book series. Did you think your article would make that huge of an impact? How has the theory shifted (in your opinion) since you wrote the article?

Emily Care Boss – Thank you! That article was a labor of love. How well it was received took me by surprise. It came about as an attempt at a cultural exchange between the US independent game design community and the nordic game community where it was published. In the previous year I had visited Europe for the first time as a Guest of Honor at Ropecon, the largest game convention in Finland. The Forge was well established as an online forum where serious discussion about role-playing occurred, but the discussion happening there was viewed by outsiders variously as arcane, elite and impenetrable.

At Ropecon, I was viewed as an ambassador for the Forge (figuratively speaking), so I tried to do my best and speak well for the community. I found bafflement was a general response. Some of the games had already become successful, Primetime Adventures by Matt Wilson was translated into Finnish as well as My Life with Master by Paul Czege, but the commitment of learning the ideas that had come from the Forge community was too high a barrier for most. And the ideas that were known were also hotly contested or outright rejected.

Ironically, during my stay I was converted to being a proponent of the Nordic tradition of role play known as jeepform or jeep. Jeep is a live style of play (different from larp) that emphasizes hard hitting emotional stories and simple rules that help heighten tension. It was such an exciting new approach to play that I came home to my fellow Forge and indie game compatriots talking of nothing but jeep. It was a nice reversal of my experience in Europe: those who played learned and understood what jeep entailed (and loved it or ran screaming), but others confronted only with the website and it’s principles gave a blank stare.

All this hit home that while there were ground-breaking innovations and analysis happening on both sides of the Atlantic, there was very little of this making it over the ocean. The need for dialog seemed pressing. Opportunity knocked when I heard that the Nodal Point convention, a larp oriented event hosted by four of the Nordic countries in turn (Finland, Sweden, Norway and Denmark) had a book associated with it that was soliciting submissions. When one of the editors, Markus Montola, mentioned that it would be a helpful thing to have a brief overview of Forge theory from a participant that sealed the deal for me. The fact that in that volume, Playground Worlds, a jeepform founder, Tobias Wrigstad was presenting an introduction to Jeep, was icing on the cake. The cultural exchange would be complete.

Shortly after that time, I was able to return to northern Europe and attend Fastaval, an avant-garde Danish game convention and Nodal Point, or Knutepunkt as it was known in Norway where it was held that year. Much more conversation had occurred during the intervening years, many other people crossed the Atlantic to attend events and share ideas, and the article had been in circulation. The difference was palpable. General exposure and understanding was near universal. One Knutepunkt participant referred to Forge theory as a “settled” body of work, not controversial in the slightest. And the best moment for me was when two Danes I met at Fastaval explained to me central tenets of the theory. I am glad to have been part of making what was once a yawning gulf of theory seem like the merest gap, easily overcome and understood.

ET – As a game designer, how do you perceive the conversations in academic game and media studies?

ECB – Currently much of the time and energy of academia seems centered on digital game play. That makes sense, that is where the money is, and also digital media are penetrating markets that tabletop role-playing historically has not been able to touch. Casual gamers, non-self-identifying-gamers. Most people now at least know what Angry Birds is, or have tried it a time or two. The applications of games are being seen. Discussion of gamification makes it a strong marketing tool, and games as a way to change people and change the world is a message that is getting attention. What seems missing is analysis both of the literary and narrative structure of games with fiction, and deeper understandings of how the rules of a game shape and interact with the emotions, choices, motivations and actions of participants. The idea of reward cycles is well understood and worked to death. But the dynamics of communication, expectation-setting, levels of identity and emotional experience triggered and explored by narrative based play are all things that have much more room to be explored.

There is also a deep divide between different communities of play and the various analytical cultures. Players need not be troubled by theory when they enjoy a game, but it would make sense for designers to be aware not only of the discussion and analysis going amongst their colleagues, but also of what’s going on in other related fields. Just as the divide between the Nordic and the independent gaming communities is being bridged, better communication between academics and designers seems necessary.

ET – What recent games have you played that you think will create huge ripples in the way we think about, design and play games?

ECB – Microscope, by Ben Robbins. This is a game that takes many standard assumptions of a role-playing game (participation primarily via the use of an ongoing character, the presence of a Game Master or facilitator, chronological fiction, solitary world creation) and stands them on their head. In the game, the players share the creation of an over-arching storyline of an epic nature. Some examples are the rise and fall of an empire, the mythic beginnings of human culture, or a bloodthirsty war between interstellar species. Using an egalitarian, round-robin structure, the players create eras and specific events that create a timeline. Scenes are played out within events, in a fashion much like that found in any role-playing game. But the scenes’ purposes are to clarify and define the specifics of the overall sweep of events by answering a specific question about the event, rather than for the purposes of developing the characters or gaining mechanical advantage. It’s a unique storytelling engine that sweeps away blinders of limits we enforce on the medium, which, I hope, will help us better realize the full potential of this form. There is so much more we could be doing. Microscope is a great start.

ET – Given your famous aversion to the term “immersion,” do you think our title “Immersive Gameplay” does participatory media and role-playing games justice? Why or why not?

ECB – As I have the pleasure of still saying after all of these years, immersion is a broad, broad term that encompasses so many facets of the experience of role-playing that further refinement and further definition and re-definition are always needed. So here we are with our endeavor taking another look at ways people can immerse, feel, experience, revolt from, subsume, identify, over-identify and reframe their view of the world through play.

Looking at participatory media, immersion is a hallmark. Not unique to role-playing and first-person narrative forms like the video game, but certainly it establishes the engagement of the immersive experience in a unique way. By asking the players to make freeform choices that determine the direction of the narrative based on taking the role of a character within the narrative itself. The restrictions of a video game are blown wide open in tabletop and live-action role-playing. (Nearly) the full realm of human choice, negotiation and adjudication are available. There is no other narrative form that allows this. And whether you are looking at the word “immersive” from the point of view of it being the holy grail of gaming experience (i.e., having a full body/mind/spirit experience of “being” the role) or merely taking the stance of the narrative person you’ve been issued to portray, this is the touchstone of role-playing gameplay. Certainly it is not the full complement of what could be done (as the game Microscope so clearly shows) but it takes from the linear path of acting, and adds the sculpting of events that is writing, making a gorgeous new field of expression that is role-play.

Emily Care Boss is a writer, game designer and forester living in western Massachusetts and has independently published games since 2005. Her game Under My Skin won the Player’s Choice Otto award at Fastaval in Denmark. She has been published in Playground Worlds and Push: Volume 1 New Thinking About Role-playing. Her games can be found at Black & Green Games.

Evan Torner is a Ph.D. candidate in German and film studies at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. He is finishing his dissertation on representations of race and the global South in East German genre cinema. As co-editor of Immersive Gameplay: Essays on Role-Playing and Participatory Media, he has also written on modernist film, German science-fiction literature and live-action role-playing, and is the official translator of the Filmmuseum Potsdam’s permanent exhibit “The Dream Factory: 100 Years of Babelsberg.”

In honor of the release of Bill White’s and my co-edited volume with McFarland, Immersive Gameplay: Essays on Role-Playing and Participatory Media, I am conducting interviews with some of my talented and erudite contributors.

The first interview is with role-playing game and media scholar Sarah Lynne Bowman. Her article in the volume “Jungian Theory and Immersion in Role-Playing Games” explores mainstream games such as Dungeons and Dragons and World of Darkness as means of individuating Jungian archetypes and Campbellian heroic journeys. She contends that the explanatory power of Jungian archetypes may be used to debunk the “escapist” moniker stamped on so many game-related activities.

Here are my follow-up questions:

Evan Torner – When people are playing characters, sometimes they argue that they are channeling something outside of themselves, or that their character has its own autonomous existence. How would you describe and explain that?

Sarah Lynne Bowman – This question remains the most mysterious and, in some ways, unanswerable in any sort of solid, satisfactory way. Mystics have claimed to “channel” the voices of deities for millennia; the Bible is said to contain revelation given to the prophets directly from God. New age correlations include “channelers” such as Esther Hicks a.k.a. Abraham, Barbara Marciniak, Neal Donald Walsch, along with many others. On the decidedly fictional end of things, authors sometimes report the strange experience of their characters “taking on a life of their own.” Songwriter Tori Amos considers herself a vessel through which the songs, which are independent entities, communicate their messages. Role-players also report the strange experience of passively watching as the character “takes over,” particularly in deeply immersive experiences.

Of course, as scholars, we must always question the subjective nature of these reports, hence placing the word “channel” in quotes. Is the character truly channeled from somewhere else or was it present in the psyche the entire time, simply repressed? Is creativity some sort of vehicle for “channeling,” a natural function of the mind? Or does creativity open up a pathway to age-old archetypes and past-life experiences, as channelers such as Abraham claim?

Again, these questions remain ultimately unknowable, just as the nature of the divine — if it exists — is unknowable to our limited, mortal consciousness. However, the mysteriousness of our existence and our creativity inspires me to learn more and find parallels between role-playing and other phenomena. I find it fascinating that so many accounts exist describing the subjective experience of “channeling” an entity or a story; these accounts are also reminiscent of shamanic experiences in tribal cultures, where a religious official “becomes” the spirit of an animal or god in order to combat societal illnesses. Mike Pohjola recently connected shamanism with role-playing in his 2012 Nordic Larp Talk “How to Become a God” and J. Tuomas Harviainen has written on larp as ritual, so I am not the only one making connections between role-playing and ritual experiences.

The way Jung would describe the phenomenon of channeling ties into some of the theoretical principles explained in my article. We engage with our creativity through a process Jung calls active imagination, which allows us to delve into unconscious areas of our minds. Embedded within each of us through our genetic code is deep, symbolic material that bubbles up when we dream and make art. Much of this material is personal in nature, though Jung believed that some of the most potent symbols are universal, which he called archetypes. In his own personal imaginative journeys as documented in The Red Book, he would often encounter “entities,” such as Philemon and Salome. Having no real scientific explanation for these “dialogues,” he tried to explain them in a psychoanalytic manner. Therefore, Jung presents us with terminology and a model for understanding “channeling” that does not negate the power of mystical experiences, but rather tries to contextualize them in a more modern, universal, psychological language. By modern, of course, I refer to early twentieth century modernist thought, the roots of which inform so much of our current research, though we may not often learn the sources of these original premises.

ETYour recent book The Functions of Role-Playing Games deals with the many ways that role-playing culture is put to use, and how its participants engage with it. How does this piece about Carl Jung fit into that earlier research?

SLB – In Chapter 6 of my book, I describe how humans engage in childhood pretend play in a variety of ways, including creating imaginary friends and worlds. While not all children engage in these activities, pretend play does seem an instinctive and, perhaps, evolutionary evolved behavior. I then describe various theories to explain the adoption of multiple personalities in adulthood, including dissociative theory and psychosynthesis. Historically speaking, Jung worked under Pierre Janet, a pioneer in early psychological research and the originator of the term “dissociation.” While Sigmund Freud believed in a divided psyche that consisted purely of the undefined impulses of the id, ego, and superego, psychologists such as Janet, Jung, and Assagioli also believed that our minds contain multiple egos that sometimes battle for control within us. While this concept may seem extreme, most people can relate to the experience of having to perform multiple “personas” depending on the demands of our social roles at given times, as Erving Goffman explains. These personas are generally defined in terms of one’s social role — i.e. teacher, lover, daughter, etc. Jung also believed in the persona, but thought we harbor much deeper, more complex structures of personality that may wish to express themselves.

In terms of identity, dissociation is the process by which we “shift” from one of these personalities to the other. We may not be conscious of this shift; indeed, if we were conscious every time we adapted our personality to a given context, we would probably drive ourselves mad. Even people with so-called Dissociative Identity Disorder, who display extreme shifts in personality as the result of trauma, do not always perceive these transitions without outside assistance. Erik Erikson believed that individuals experience identity confusion in their youth and must establish a stable sense of ego identity in order to function in society. If we consider that each of us are inherently fragmented in terms of personality — some in more extreme ways than other — this sense of ego identity can never become a unified, monolithic thing. Instead, proponents of psychosynthesis and dissociative theory prefer to use the term Integrator to describe the ego. The Integrator learns to manage these various facets of personality and creates bridges between them, ultimately helping to merge them. In a role-playing context, the players  themselves can be viewed as the Integrators monitoring the efforts of each character from a somewhat detached state. The Integrator can always come into the forefront when necessary, pushing the character back into latency, a process that we colloquially refer to as “shifting out of character.”

In the book, I further describe the concept of archetypes and explain how they manifest in the races and classes of Dungeons & Dragons. The most common archetypal structure we see in role-playing games is the enactment of the hero’s journey, to use Joseph Campbell’s model: the call to adventure, the help of the mentor, entering the “belly of the whale,” the confrontation with the monster, the triumphant return to society. This structure is embedded within the format of the Dungeons & Dragons rule books and modules. The whole process of “leveling a character” is a mechanical representation of a hero taking on multiple hero’s journeys over and over again. That being said, Jung and Campbell both believed that the monster in these stories represents the darker aspects of the self that the hero needs to confront, conquer, and integrate. In that respect, we can move beyond the fantastical elements of these roots of role-playing games; fantasy becomes a metaphor for reality. Any sort of inner or external conflict becomes the monster that needs slaying, which is why psychologist Nathan Hook suggests in the Knutpunkt 2010 book, Playing Reality, that all role-players undergo their own personal hero’s journey, regardless of the genre. Similarly, other participants in my studies have insisted that each player is a “hero in their own story.”

In Jungian terms, these conflicts that we need to address narratively stem from the “Shadow” — the aspects of ourselves that we need to repress and deny in order to establish our sense of identity. Since much of the content of role-playing games arises from the participants rather than some external “author” such as the game master, this concept of the Shadow becomes more intriguing. Why do people play “evil” characters? Why do certain conflicts evolve between characters in terms of, say, relationship dynamics? Jeepform games in the Nordic tradition particularly play with Shadow aspects of the unconscious, such as inappropriate sexual fantasies, bullying, and infidelity. Jeepform games encourage you to “play close to home” so, necessarily, parts of your repressed psyche are encouraged to come to the foreground. The Shadow concept explains why people “enjoy” playing games such as Vampire: the Masquerade or even the Nordic Larp Kapo, which are both designed — in their radically different ways — to draw out the darker aspects of human nature in order to experience and examine them.

Even with a structured character that is uniformly distinct from one’s self-concept, any long stretch of immersion will begin to tap into deeper aspects of one’s own consciousness by necessity. The Nords have a term called the “Hollow Man,” where the character is too thinly defined and the player must insert parts of their own self into the story. I believe we always explore deeper parts of our personal psyche when we create characters, to greater and lesser degrees. I also think that we tap into essential, archetypal material, which explains how we are able to play characters with which we have no prior experience. I will never know what it means to be a queen, a magician, a goddess, or an immortal. I will never have those experiences in life, yet I have played them in games. One can always claim that media representations allow us to mimic what we have seen previously through these characters. However, if you consider that even in tribal cultures with little-to-no media exposure, individuals claim to channel these supernatural entities in ritual, that answer becomes less satisfying. A structuralist explanation posits that such expressions must be inherent to human culture in some way. A depth psychology explanation posits that such expressions arise from our collective unconscious, a part of our genetic linguistic inheritance.

ET – As a fellow film studies scholar, I am often asked about how my studies of “analog” role-playing games tie into contemporary questions of media studies? What does a film studies scholar learn about film from looking at role-playing games and gaming in general?

SLB – Well, first, I think that the “analog” nature of role-playing games is merely a formal and rather misleading distinction. While a game such as Dungeons & Dragons may be played in-person and in a small group, the original text is definitely a mass media product that has enjoyed widespread cultural influence. That product influenced the development of video games as we know them, as many of the earliest video games were attempts to recreate D&D dungeons. In addition, that product also spawned one of the most successful video games of all time; millions of gamers play World of Warcraft every day, the structure of which tightly follows the adventuring and leveling format of Dungeons & Dragons. For more on this topic, see Michael Tresca’s The Evolution of Fantasy Role-playing GamesJust as a film might be viewed by only one or a few people at a time, a role-playing game may be played in a small group. The mode of play enactment does not negate the mass media nature of the game product itself.

In addition, any reception scholar will tell you that fan behavior is subcultural in nature and, therefore, a worthy subject to investigate in terms of cultural studies. Many role-players initially find entry into these games through other generic fandom, including fantasy, science fiction, westerns, or even more “arty”/indie styles. As an ethnographer, I ask people to explain the inspiration behind their character creation. Many participants describe that the genre of the games themselves are based in existing media or that they as players have drawn inspiration from existing characters or themes from other media texts, a direct example of Henry Jenkins’ textual poaching. Instead of writing fan fiction, these players embody fan fiction. The co-creative, spontaneous nature of these games allows expressions of fandom to escape their original context and evolve into something far more eclectic and, in many cases, personal.

Just as film, television, and new media had to fight to validate their relative forms in terms of academic credibility, so, too, does role-playing studies and game studies in general. We are currently seeing a strong push in academia to consider games a serious and worthy object of study and the burgeoning field of role-playing studies is part of this wave, even if the game format is not always digital in nature.

ET – I hear you’re working on a new project about how social tension and conflict create larp culture. Can you tell me a little more about it?

SLB – Though my primary interest remains focused upon the internal, psychological processes that players undergo, the social elements cannot and should not go ignored. Aaron Vanek published an opinion piece in the 2011 Knudepunkt Talk book entitled “The Non-United Larp States of America.” In this article, Vanek claims that in America, we face a near-constant fracturing in our larp communities, where groups splinter and/or refuse to communicate and support one another. Because of this problem, larp as a practice suffers in terms of continuing player base and innovation. His paper represents a sort of call to arms to Americans to put aside differences and collaborate in order for larp to flourish. As a player involved in similar conflicts in my own larp communities, I felt personally motivated to investigate this hypothesis further. I wanted to see if these problems pertain to regional conflicts or happen in many larp communities. I was particularly interested to see if such conflicts emerge within the Nordic larp community, which appears so cohesive from an American perspective. I conducted approximately 30 semi-structured interviews with participants from various places in the U.S. and Scandinavia in order to investigate this question.

I found that splintering seems to occur everywhere, at least as was reported by my small participant base. According to Stephen Balzac, group psychologist and originator of the MIT Assassins Guild, these schisms in communities emerge as a natural evolution of group dynamics. Just as children test the boundaries of parental authority as toddlers and adolescents, according to Tuckman’s Model, individuals test leadership and group cohesion once they reach a certain level of investment in a particular activity. Some groups manage to weather this “Storming” period, leading to an even greater level of trust and productivity. However, many groups face dissolution or regression to an earlier, less collaborative state. Leaders — in this case, game masters or organizers — face particular challenges in this regard. Many game organizers do not have any formal training or experience in a leadership capacity. Even trained leaders may feel taken for granted or personally attacked, leading to clashes or “burning out.”

I also discovered several others problem areas contributing to conflict in role-playing communities. Intimate relationships predictably increase the level of emotional intensity in gaming groups, both in-character and out-of-game, which can lead to problems. The game master vs. player power dynamic can lead to abuses on both ends. Creative agenda differences and clashes within the play culture also contribute to strife. Most interestingly, perhaps, I studies incidents of “bleed,” a term more common in the Nordic community than in America, although many American participants intuitively understood the concept. Bleed is a difficult phenomenon to describe; in the past, theorists such as Markus Montola have defined it solely in terms of emotions. However, I decided to ask participants if they could recall incidents when their emotions, thoughts, relationships, or physical state outside of the game affected events within the game and visa versa, using Montola’s terms “bleed-in” and “bleed-out.” Difficulties with group dynamics may evolve in any organization, as Balzac suggests, but role-playing games add an extra level of complexity in the form of the narrative; not only do we have existing relationships and psychological states outside of the game, but we have other layers of relationships within the game world. This “layering of roles” creates a more complex tapestry of human interaction than is present in most other groups.

This concept of “bleed” helps us describe these experiences in neutral terms, as opposed to the all-too-prevalent and equally unhelpful accusation, “That player simply cannot separate fantasy from reality!” I believe that all players have the ability to separate fantasy from reality when entering the “magic circle” of play. As I mentioned before, we do not fully “become” the character for long periods of time; the player is almost always present and acts as a sort of Integrator when the character is allowed to “take the wheel.” Players sometimes describe the bizarre experience of complete identification with the character, but these moments do not last for long. However, these incidents can feel incredibly profound and cause confusion when we try to make sense of them later. If we can establish and articulate useful terminology such as “bleed,” we can help players to process these experiences in a more fruitful way. Sometimes, bleed experiences represent the most instructive and important parts of the role-playing experience. We should honor these moments and support our fellow players, rather than derogating or ousting individuals who experience negative emotions as a result of bleed.

Sarah Lynne Bowman received her Ph.D. from the University of Texas at Dallas in 2008. She is an adjunct professor at Ashford University and Richland College. She published The Functions of Role-Playing Games: How Participants Create Community, Solve Problems and Explore Identity with McFarland (2010). Her research focuses upon understanding social conflict within role-playing communities and applying Jungian theory to character enactment and narrative creation.

Evan Torner is a Ph.D. candidate in German and film studies at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. He is finishing his dissertation on representations of race and the global South in East German genre cinema. As co-editor of Immersive Gameplay: Essays on Role-Playing and Participatory Media, he has also written on modernist film, German science-fiction literature and live-action role-playing, and is the official translator of the Filmmuseum Potsdam’s permanent exhibit “The Dream Factory: 100 Years of Babelsberg.”

Role-playing games have been covered unfavorably in the media for most of their 38 years of existence.

See Exhibit A:

And Exhibit B:

Tosh.0 Meets Larp

I mean, even Ethan Gilsdorf and Patton Oswalt as self-proclaimed gamer geeks are awfully self-deprecating when talking about live-action and tabletop role-playing games.

We in the RPG hobby have what you might call an image problem.

Enter journalist Lizzie Stark.

She’s young, bright and holds advanced degrees from Tufts, Emerson and Columbia.

Rather than making loads of assumptions about role-playing as a hobby, she instead intensively researched and interviewed various larp groups around the United States and (later) in Europe to create a complex portrait of the individuals involved.

For example, here’s Lizzie reading about how 9/11 had a direct impact on New York larpers.

This form of dignified presentation matters, especially when it’s coming from neither the camps of fandom nor the halls of the cynical media machines.

Now she’s got a whole non-fiction book full of this kind of material.

Image problem provisionally solved.

Finally, one of the most maligned of contemporary art forms – live action role-playing – gets the high-powered, literary treatment it deserves.

I’m buying my copy at my friendly local gaming store Modern Myths when Lizzie comes to give a book talk on May 12th.

The question is: where and when are you getting YOUR copy?


This enormous blog post is dedicated to my entire trip to Finland via Stockholm from April 6-April 17, 2012. The post functions as a therapeutic information dump of the major threads from my journey. It interweaves academic, personal, theoretical and actual details of my trip. Don’t expect great truths, but do expect my impressions and subjective biases!

For the sake of reader convenience and sanity, I have at least organized it into several distinct sections:

Trip There

RPIG – Tampere

Nordic Larp Talks – Helsinki

Solmukohta – Kiljavanranta

Return Trip

Final Remarks

Note: Compare these with reports about the events by Rafael Bienia, Jukka Särkijärvi, Matthijs Holter, Annika Waern, and Lizzie Stark.


Trip There

On Easter Sunday, I ate my last homemade meal for a while and Kat then drove me to the Hartford airport so I could embark on my journey. Kissing her goodbye was hard. This whole trip had wound up a bittersweet plan to some degree, for Kat wanted to come with me and be a part of it all, but her presentation at another (very interesting) conference prevented her from doing so. I had a lot riding on this trip in terms of personal finance, time and energy investments, so my expectations remained high. This lengthy post gives evidence to the effect that those expectations were met.

The flight took me to Newark, also known as Hell on Earth for Vegetarians (where I ate a yogurt), and then to Stockholm, or Purgatory.

Hours of Sleep Caught on the Plane: 2

Stockholm Arlanda airport has, for reasons central to the Swedish tourist economy, consigned travelers to 8-12 hour layovers so one can convert one’s wealth into kroner and spend it on Swedish goods/services. The airport itself bears many architectural similarities to Düsseldorf Airport, my usual point of entry to Germany. Planes land on the tarmac, and passengers are whisked by bus over to the terminal, which is peppered with the usual overpriced cafés and duty free shops. The airport’s main feature is the SkyCity (see above), a mall that opens up like an IKEA beachfront over the tarmac. One can sit (or sleep) in the comfy chairs and enjoy the sun, or plug in one’s laptop and work on one’s dissertation. Due to the Swedish conspiracy to get tourists to spend money on their soil, I was given a 12-hour layover to Tampere. I chose to use this time to work off my jet lag in the airport’s plethora of non-spaces; after all, I did have to give a presentation on Tuesday morning, and my dissertation chapter is due at the end of this semester. The work done during this airport stay would be the last real work I would manage to complete for the next 6 days.

Finally, Stockholm relinquished me and I wound up on the snowy streets of Tampere, Finland with its imposing statues of men holding fish and the like. There, I met up with my first trip roommates – Nathan Hook and Sarah Lynne Bowman – at the Omena Hotel. “Omena” means “apple” in Finnish, but what it really ought to mean is “labyrinthine network of doors,” because that’s what the staffless hotel offers you. One enters a number on a keypad 4 times at different airlock style entrances in order to prevent anyone from having ready access to your room (including you) as well as anyone from being actually hired to serve you as a consumer. It was completely sci-fi, but in a weird, no-frills, retro sorta way. My arrival at the Omena delivered the wonderful news that Metropolis, a larp based on Fritz Lang’s eponymous 1927 film, had received a Nomination for Best Technical Innovation at the Danish role-playing convention Fastaval. Fastaval, the Danish convention which I reviewed here and Lizzie reviewed here, is one of the best forums for role-playing in the world and an extremely competitive environment for larp scenario writers. It was truly an honor to receive a plaque with the scenario’s achievement written out in full. Nathan and Sarah, as well as Aaron Vanek, Lizzie Stark, Emily Care Boss, and Epidiah Ravachol, had all taken part in its splendor this year, a fact that I thoroughly envied. Despite my total lack of sleep, we stayed up discussing Fastaval and rehearsing/critiquing our academic presentations for the morning. We knew that in Europe, especially in Finland, it would be a tough academic seminar. But no anxiety took hold: the moment my head eventually hit the pillow, I had gone into desperate sleep mode.

Hours of Sleep: 5.5

RPIG Tampere

The Role-playing in Games Seminar (RPIG) constituted the academic portion of my trip.

A group of far-flung scholars assembled in a room off Pinni A at the University of Tampere and game studies rock star Frans Mäyrä (Finland) gave us the opening welcome. Since the seminar was intended to thoroughly interrogate working papers on role-playing-related topics, it functioned under a unique presentation structure. Panelists submitted working papers to the entire group ahead of time for all to read. These 5,000 word-max. essays were then interpreted in light of a panelist’s 10-minute presentation to the gathered crowd of 50 people. Finally, the two commentators J. Tuomas Harviainen (Finland) and Torill Mortensen (Sweden / Denmark) provided feedback before turning the discussion over to the group for 20 minutes. This meant that no paper was spared a thorough critique, and panelists had to nevertheless pare their main point down to its base elements in order to remain on-time.

So as to keep track of these rolling arguments and the intense discussions afterward, I wound up Tweeting about the whole two days under the hashtag #rpig. It provided a secondary, sometimes humorous discussion to supplement the main discussion.

On to the first day of panels:

• Marjukka Lampo (Finland) – An Ecological Approach to Gaming Processes in Larps

A paper conducted as a kind of acting exercise, Lampo proposes a framework of micro-interactions that add up to an ecological picture of a larp. Phenomenology of human interaction in game studies is always good when done well, as here. Lampo also published with me in the Think Larp academic book last year, so I know her theatrical angle on larp performance well.

• Jaakko Stenros (Finland) – Between Game Facilitation & Performance: Interactive Actors and NPCs in Larps

Stenros essentially argues for a typology of NPCs (Prop, Interactor, Proactor, Gamemaster), as well as for the point that NPCs are also essentially players as well – his evidence are the games Conspiracy for Good and Sanningen om Marikka. Inter-immersion as a social practice becomes more important for the role-playing experience than donning a role. I posited an economic distinction in the case of the U.S.: NPCs don’t pay (or as much) as PCs do.

Me, presenting at RPIG - Photo by Rafael Bienia

• Evan Torner (USA) (me, in case you were wondering) – Empty Bodies and Time in Tabletop RPG Combat

A thought experiment and discourse analysis leveled against an old foe of mine – the procedural time thievery involved with rolling to hit and damage in fights. I received useful feedback on how to reduce my book-level argument to article length. Ambition is part of my game; also, animated PowerPoint slides.

• Nathan Hook (UK) – Social Psychology Ethnographic Study of “Immersion” among Larpers.

Hook found the annoying word that never goes away – “immersion” – turning up among participants of a study that did not use the term as an explicit variable, and wondered if there was some inductive definition of the term to be gleaned. Harviainen pointed out that his participants were too well-schooled in role-playing theory to begin with…

• Laura Flöter (Germany) – The Avatar’s Life of Its Own

Flöter used art and aesthetic theory to explore the “life” conferred onto an avatar or role after a player has made one (as in: the avatar can now make autonomous decisions). It may have contributed the nice German word “Eigenleben” to game studies discourse.

• Sarah Lynne Bowman (USA) – Social Conflict and Bleed in Role-playing Communities

Bowman constructed a typology of all the ways that diegetic politics among characters can affect out-of-game relations and vice versa. The resultant schisms from such “bleed” often have cascading, larger effects on larp cultures in the USA. Basically, we have to get over issues of emotional overinvestment in the hobby and in the characters.

• Angelina Ilieva (Bulgaria) – Cultural Labor, Memory and Concepts in Larp Discourses

Ilieva follows up on her previous socio-linguistic cultural studies work to analyze the role Bulgarian folk fantasy plays in constructing the fiction role-players work to produce. I’m interested to read more.

• Rafael Bienia (Germany / Netherlands) – Role-players Creating Networks

Another ambitious piece, Bienia’s project proposal seeks to apply actor-network theory to the spread of certain role-playing processes. Focusing on just larp, tabletop or MMORPG may strip this otherwise massive undertaking into an accessible dissertation.

• David Jara (Germany / Chile) – Framing Strategies in RPGs

The paratext piece. Jara brilliantly demonstrates how artwork, sidebars and other paratexts frame key expectations about RPG texts. We just have to place this research in dialog with Forge theory, which looks at the game rules and design against tests of systemic and stylistic coherence, and we’ve got an important argument here.

Following the seminar on Day One were two other events for me. One was an unintentionally intense discussion between Karl Bergström (Sweden) and Pekko Koskinen (Finland), Lauri Lukka (Finland), Michal Mochocki (Poland) and myself about neoliberal principles governing our economy. Bergström (who later apologized for “trolling me,” as well as generously gave me a copy of his dissertation) wondered why a merit-based, survival-of-the-fittest economy was problematic, whereas the rest of us likened finance to a broken game system gone wild that steals money from most people. Many of my out-of-seminar conversations, come to think of it, turned toward advanced political thought about hte U.S., Europe and the rest of the world. The second event was an Open House at the Game Research Lab in the University of Tampere. There, we saw all their console systems and collection of other video game paraphernelia. Meanwhile, I spent substantial effort proselytizing about the U.S. independent role-playing game scene to Josef (Czech Republic) and Richard (UK). We wound up in a bar afterward, where I got into two different discussions about the U.S. scene – one with Carl David Habbe, and another with Jiituomas, Anastasia Seregina, Nathan and many others. I seem to recall using lewd metaphors to describe certain aspects…

Hours of Sleep: 6.5

Day 2 of the panels:

• Alexey Fedoseev (Russia) – RPGs as Educational Technology

A look at activity theory in keeping students engaged with complex topics through larp. Fedoseev showed us some example history lessons played out in costume, and traced his tradition back to educational philsophers like Lev Vygotsky and his heirs.

• Michal Mochocki (Poland) – How Edu-Larps Work for Subject-Matter Knowledge

My summary: we need a larp textbook to teach with. I agree.

• Eliane Bettochi, Carlos Klimick, Rian Oliviera Rezende (Brazil) – Incorporeal Project

The presentation concerned a joint design project that let Brazilian students design their own role-playing game books. Absolutely in dialog with the indie publishing movement in the states. We should be getting project cooperations (I’m looking at you, Cary Collett).

• Lars Konzack (Denmark) – How RPGs Are Presented in Public Libraries

Konzack looked at collections of tabletop RPGs in Danish libraries, as well as his Wunderkammer-Gesamtkunstwerk model of interpreting RPG presentation. Still wandering what one had to do with the other…

• Ashley Brown (UK / US) – Threesomes, Waterfalls and Healing Spells

Brown’s interpretation of kinky MMORPG erotic play (which tends to happen near waterfalls and sometimes involves sadomasochistic play requiring healing potions) gave us many more insights into how today’s cybersex is conducted. This was by and large the most entertaining paper.

• Richard Gough (UK) – Information Acquisition for the RPG

Gough looked at information acquisition and knowledge management schemas in use during role-playing activities, with many charts and models showing how it works. Suddenly the medium seems more complicated than I could imagine.

• Petri Lankoski (Finland / Sweden) – Role-playing in Single Player Video Games

After a seminar that complicated concepts behind RPGs, we suddenly found Lankoski’s method to be somewhat reductive, with “role-playing” as just one experimental variable among many, causing doubt and controversy among the seminar participants about what data could be gleaned from the study.

Overall, there were several patterns that emerged. The professors were more heavily critiqued than the graduate students, and major questions about methodology, discipline and framework for looking at RPGs were raised. Yet the sheer quality and quantity of questions raised was promising. I feel as though we’re on the cusp of a rapidly expanding scholar base and interest on a global level in diverse role-playing scenes from around the world. Everyone talked of an experience akin to having their brain detonated by the seminar, so I can only say it was its own kind of success.

Nordic Larp Talks – Helsinki

Five of us – Nathan, Sarah, Carl David, Jiituomas and I – piled into Jiituomas’ admittedly smallish vehicle on a 2-hour road trip to Helsinki. This prompted the surreal experience of conversing about my Metropolis larp as well as new directions in role-playing scholarship while balancing my suitcase over my legs so that they would not be crushed by the weight of my clothes. Our motley crew pulled in next to Karl Ludvig Engel’s famous cathedral in downtown Helsinki and then walked down past the train station in Helsinki to PRKL, a bar named with 4 consonants that form a dirty Finnish word when the vowels are pronounced. The basement of this heavy-metal bar would be the site of the Nordic Larp Talks, TED-style talks delivered about concepts and trends in larp by smart people. Knowing full well I would view them later online, I used the opportunity to mingle with Jaakko and his psychologist partner, Carl David, and especially Anastasia, who is studying games in relation to her business degree. Once all the Americans had assembled in the basement of the bar – Sarah Bowman and Harrison Greene, Emily Care Boss and Epidiah Ravachol, Jason Morningstar and Autumn Winters, John H. Kim, Aaron Vanek, Lizzie Stark, Ashley Brown and myself – I suddenly got this tingly feeling, like we were part of this deep-rooted community that crossed oceans, ideologies, and national boundaries. In a basement surrounded by broken Jaegermeister bottles and death-metal logos, everyone could geek out knowledgeably about RPGs. Emily, Eppy, Lizzie and I were to room at Markus Montola’s place afterwards and we kept making as if we were going to leave (we were tired). But instead, we kept finding ourselves either meeting people or getting more drinks or… you get the idea. Rather than exhausted, we all felt giddy and as if we were at some kind of alumni sleepover.

Well, it certainly wasn’t all bells and roses at this point. The dark underbelly of the whole experience had become apparent by Wednesday: disease. See, Fastaval in Denmark the prior weekend was also a lot of late nights, people in tight sleeping quarters (i.e. a school gym floor), semi-bad food and worse hygiene. The so-called “Fasta-Flu” was born in this cozy environment and, with indifferent malice, ripped its way through the ranks of Danes, Finns and Americans alike. Then about 50 of them indelicately transported it through their coughing and sneezing over to Finland so as to spread it in similar conditions. That night in Helsinki, I sensed the rumbling thunderclouds of the storm of plague to come, which would directly affect the Solmukohta experience of many (Lizzie, Eppy, Jason and Harrison, to name a few).

Hours of Sleep: 9

Solmukohta – Kiljavanranta

There is a way to capture the spirit of Solmukohta in a single description. On Friday night, Emma Wieslander stands before a hall packed full of some of the greatest minds in game and larp design in the world. The topic of her lecture? “Gender for Dummies.” In cool, methodical fashion, Wieslander explained the sub-categories of sex, gender & sexuality, writing down key concepts such as “intersexed” with a big green marker. The rapt audience, a mixture of well-dressed and slovenly dressed European geeks, are not only taking notes, but they’re responding to the points she raises as they come up. And they’re doing this while knocking back glasses of beer and port wine in the lecture hall all the while.

Welcome to Solmukohta/Knutepunkt/Knudepunkt/Knutpunkt, an annual combination of global larp convention, drinking party, pop academic convocation, alumni reunion and adult sleepover. Like it or not, its ideas have technically shifted larp practices around the world, and its extensive transnational communities are so tightly knit that its members wager considerable time and money in order to find their way back to the convention’s (many) embraces.

So our journey as a group continued. Many from the RPIG seminar were also to take part in Solmukohta, and all the larpers bound for the convention boarded packed buses outside Kiasma, the Helsinki art museum. Story Gamers from our forum – including Raffaele Manzo (Italy) and Alex Fradera (UK) – all found the rest of us and we reached critical mass as we boarded the buses. Heck, I only stopped talking about indie tabletop games when Autumn Winters – bless her soul – asked me about East German cinema. 45 minutes of me jawing her ear off later, we found ourselves in the remote sport lodge/school of Kiljavanranta. Located on a semi-frozen lake out in the Finnish wilderness, the boarding school came with classrooms, auditorium, gymnasium, sauna, pool, cafeteria and bar. There was also free Wi-Fi “available” in the lobby, but I employ quotation marks due to the bandwidth required by the sheer load of iPads, smartphones and laptops that overwhelmed any chance of the Internet being a useful tool for some of us. This really would be a retreat! Hotel rooms were dorm style and held 3 souls apiece. Part of the suspense factor behind our arrival at the hotel meant finding out who were to be our roommates for the week. Fortunately, I was rooming with Jason and Autumn, whose awesomeness could be presupposed. Everyone geared up for the opening ceremonies in the middle of endless chatter and reunion hugs.

Day 1:

Opening ceremonies commenced, and they were short and sweet. There’s a panic number that the organizers might not answer after midnight. Condoms and painkillers are free at the info desk for those who would need them. And then suddenly they were over and we were all handed characters for the “Solmukohta Plague,” the first larp of the convention. One appreciates the irony of the horde zombie larp’s title. People began to run for the doors, the starting zombies stumbling after them. Our characters were simple, but at least persisted after we were inevitably turned into zombies – caring humans would become caring zombies, leader humans would become leader zombies and so forth. I was eaten by Oliver in the Bleed Lounge after we humans had ineffectively barricaded it with chairs and tables. Then I wandered around groaning until we were shot to death by the con organizers in a dramatic display of fiat. And so it began…

Note: When I say the word “chat” in the below descriptions, it means I remember it being a long discussion. There were many more short discussions than I can list here. I guess you’ll have to ask me about them.

• Nordic Larp 101 – Reps from each of the Nordic countries presented the state of the scene in their respective country. Fact: every larp scene is aging and coping with the avant-garde/mainstream divide. Sweden’s post-apocalyptic scene is on the rise, next to its long Vampire tradition. Norway has a lot of money for youth larp, but those usually have to be fantasy larps. Also nobody north of Trondheim does larp for any reason. Finland uses primarily pre-defined characters, and larp is a mostly female activity. They’re trying experiments with the “new weird” genre fiction (a la China Miéville). Denmark usualy sees people write their own character in pre-game workshops and has a very diverse scene otherwise. Somewhat informative overall, though nowhere near as informative as…

• The Hour of the Rant – Hosted by Claus Raasted, the Nordic larp rockstar. Here’s the gist of all the rants, which were delivered to a packed auditorium.

-J. Tuomas Harviainen – “Read more academic work and write more games based on it!”

-Andras Perna (sp?) – “Build your own damn national larp organizations!”

-Alex from Germany – “Nudity improves larps!”

-Jason Morningstar – “Play more damn games!”

-Johanna McDonald – “Players should be allowed to say ‘cut’ in an intense scene!”

-Osher El-Netanany – “Grow the fucking up, Knutepunkt!” (Note that Osher’s contribution lasted something like 5x longer than anyone else’s, and contained PowerPoints full of photos of poo)

-Annika Waern – “Larps have to question social norms, not reinforce them!”

-Jørn Slemdal –“5 best things about larp: drinking, fighting, burning, shouting, frightening people… and fucking, which falls under drinking!”

-Frederik Berg Østergaard – “Safe words won’t prevent damage that’s already been done!”

-Emma Wieslander – “Cultivate more trust so men can play women and homosexuals, etc.”

-Lizzie Stark – “Write a damn rule book already!”

• Playground Party – A celebration of the re-release of Playground magazine. Champagne and conversation with Karolina, a Mexican computer scientist who attended the Tampere seminar, about activism in gaming.

• Also…

… a long chat with Pixie, an organizer of Fastaval, about the future of the convention and potential scenarios to write for next year

… a long chat with Trine Lindahl and a Finnish larper whose name I’ve forgotten about the Larp Factory in Oslo and its larp-a-month design.

I was in bed by 3:30, up by 8:45.

Hours of Sleep: 5.25

Day 2

• Playing with Intent – Emily Care Boss and Matthijs Holter’s game draft provides a framework for using different freeform techniques to tell a collective story. Nine players larped a Nordic tragedy about a family that resorts to plundering the angsty family treasures to get an illegally donated heart for their dying daughter. Well, it doesn’t work out, so the daughter commits suicide in the family lake. An awe-inspiring and emotional run of the game with even skeptical players won over in the end.

• A Matter of Time – A silly parlor larp by Martina Ryssel about a time traveler convocation going horribly wrong. Martina’s scenario has so much German history that it may be worthy of a German Studies paper on my part….

• Gender for Dummies – See the intro of this section

• Kapo Documentary – Documentation of a prison-camp larp made in Denmark last year. Obviously the larp was more emotionally powerful than the documentation, which lacked focus beyond a few in-game shots and post-game interviews.

• Also…

… chat with Jaakko and Jiituomas about the quality of game scholarship at the Tampere seminar.

… chat with Charles from Fastaval who ran Metropolis twice on my behalf. He and I talked about the cultural translation problems of the game, especially the transposition of Nordic larp techniques into rules that then the Danes have to follow…

… several rounds of vodka with the Russians (without any side effects)

… chat with the Germans, especially Myriel, Carl David, Alex and Katherina about relationships and about German films.

In bed at 4:00, up at 8:45 — this night is what gave me a cold, btw.

Hours of Sleep: 4.75

Note: At this point, I should mention the few-holds-barred grabbing/touching/kissing among participants of Solmukohta, as the level of “comfort” here with each other surpasses both European as well as all gamer events I’ve ever been to. During the day, lots of hugging and grabbing. After midnight, rampant make-out sessions and people headed for dark corners. My objective as a married man sans spouse was always to not get caught in the crossfire…

Day 3:

• Beyond the GM – Emily Care Boss (presenting) and Jason Morningstar (present) gave an overview of GM-less tabletop systems, and then ran demos of Polaris, Microscope, and Fiasco, with which I helped. The article in the Solmukohta book is good enough that you should just read it.

• Trance Mask Workshop – Hoo boy. An exhausting workshop with Alex Fradera demonstrating the mask technique developed by the improv master Johnstone. Basically, you clear your mind of expectations, put on a mask with staring, creepy eyes and only the lower mouth showing, look in a mirror and then make a disturbing-yet-appropriate noise that then turns into the Urstoff of your character. I liked it so much that I did a demo for others later that evening and watched videos of other trance mask practitioners. My favorite was a slobbering rage mask that one of the workshop presenters (Juhanni) donned which made him essentially wreck the room.

• Trash – Anders Karls ran us through a 1-hour introspective larp in which we all played pieces of trash. The room was covered in trash bags, we had to put them on ourselves and then pretend we were things like banana peels and scratched CDs. My character was a piece of pocket fuzz, and I wound up sticking to the lonely glove. Not too serious, but not too silly either.

• Design Party – Everyone put on their fanciest get-up, and socialized like mad fiends. I talked with…

…Aaron about H.P. Lovecraft films.

…Raffaele about the Italian RPG publishing industry

…Erik Nesby and Alex Fradera about the state of the world

…Markus, Eibo and Emily about traditions at Solmukohta

…Bjarke Pedersen about Brody Condon and Level 5

…Eirik Fatland about his mid-level larp theory he’s developing

…and many more.

… plus dancing to much Daft Punk. Too much Daft Punk.

In bed: 3:45, up at 8:45

Hours of Sleep: 5

Day 4:

• Playing with Intent Redux: This time with Alex, Emily and Matthijs. We played out a scenario of sailors making bad deals with flying fish. Very productive discussions about what to do with the game poured out of us all. Heck, they could have a published game on their hands before they know it.
• … lunchtime chat with Annika Waern and John H. Kim, one on the use of fiction in video gameplay and the other about procedural deathspirals in combat.

And then most of us, sick and limping, said our inadequate goodbyes after such an amazing weekend and got on the buses to the airport or Helsinki respectively. I wound up going to Helsinki and lo! was suddenly staying at Markus’ place one more night with two charming Slovakians: Dominika Kovacova (who’s studying Scandinavian languages in Brno) and her mother Sava. Dominika took me on a substantial tour of downtown Helsinki before we then met up with the rest of the larpers in Cantina West for our final goodbyes. We then got back to the apartment so I could get some work done and call Kat.

Hours of Sleep: 9

Return Trip

Markus and his fiancée Sanna, my wonderful hosts, met me the next day at a hippie establishment called Zucchini and then had coffee with me before I took a train to Tampere and a plane to Stockholm. I spent the night in a comfy airport chair in Stockholm this time, deciding against a hotel room on account of the price ($180) for one night. Apparently, the rest of the airport agreed with this. When I woke at 4 a.m. to go to the bathroom, most of the chairs in the SkyCity had travelers’ bodies lying on them. I see no more fitting a portrait of today’s class divide than a half-empty hotel and hordes of tired travelers sleeping just outside its entrance.

Hours of Sleep: 4 (with many interruptions)

Before I reach my final remarks, the point about the sleep must be reiterated. Over the course of 9 days, I got about 51 hours of sleep, or about 5.66 hours per night. Though I survived the sleep deprivation quite well, the depressed immune systems were quite visible throughout the ranks of the Solmukohta attendees. Some of the Americans were taken out for days at a time. But the compelling intensity of every talk, every conversation, every game made many of us thirsty for more, regardless of our bodies’ feeble demands. It was a period of time no one wanted to see end, but which ended all the same, with a promise of Knutepunkt in Norway in 2013…

Final Remarks

My week in Finland proved, using Nietzsche’s formulations from The Birth of Tragedy, to be both Appolonian and Dionysian in character, an absolute indulgence that may have performed important work on both my academic and artistic souls. “Appolonian” in this context refers to the possession of robust, healthy, “rational” qualities, while “Dionysian” refers to the debauchery and art we engage in so as to provide fertilizing manure for the very introspection required to interrogate the society in which we live. Creative labor demands a cycle of feverish anxiety and even physical sickness in order for its practitioner to emerge once again into the ranks of the so-called “happy and healthy.” To forget this cycle is to slowly dismantle the apparatus of human creation. The twin conferences almost playfully churned through these creative cycles, spinning from high intellectual game theory debate to globalization ennui, from carefully conceived interdisciplinary lectures to vodka rounds with Russian role-players, from delicate cultural negotiations to in-game raw emotional manipulations. From theory to gameplay to drinking to camaraderie and back again, over and over again.

While in the alienating Stockholm Arlanda airport, I found in Nicolas Bourriaud’s The Radicant a deep longing for artistic nomadism and cultural translation to be the new guides for an emergent aesthetic of exodus. Specifically, he observes the torn shreds of universalist, progressive grand theories (i.e. modernism, postmodernism, Marxism, democracy) that given way to the construction of “archipelagos” (Bourriaud 185). These voluntary island groups – social networks, if you will – form the basis on which an altermodernity can develop. They create their own spheres of knowledge, customs and practices both in dialog with and against the grain of the sociocultural practices encouraged by globalizing megacorporations, the faceless tyrants of our era. As these corporations and their political lackeys lock away and proceed to otherwise waste the natural resources of the future, archipelagos of the coming generation such as Solmukohta may indeed prove at least the emotional and institutional proof that another world is possible, that resources could be allocated differently, that we could dream differently too. For there could be a place among the closely knit larp networks where new dreams can take shape.

Thank you to all you people who made my trip possible. There are too many.

Fiasco in New Crobuzon

July 30, 2011

This is a playset for Jason Morningstar’s Fiasco generated by me (Evan Torner) and my wife Kat Jones for Origins 2011.  It’s all presented rather crudely, but then again I’m a busy man.  Enjoy!

(Download as a no-frills .pdf here.)


Secret lovers make out furtively in the shadow of The Ribs, while sordid drug deals that could bring the City to its knees take place in the hovel behind them.  A bitter-faced cactacae cocks his rivebow in a back alley before rampaging against the militiamen who killed his comrade in cold blood.  That smell emanating from Salacus Fields has been there a week, and rumors have begun to spread about its terrifying origin.  Better find a way to keep your head down, though that only works so long…

Fiasco in New Crobuzon is set in China Miéville’s fictional city-state of New Crobuzon, an urban fantasy setting inspired both by Victorian London and Cairo.

WARNING: This playset contains a lot of book-related jargon.  Read (at least one of) the books and then relish in this transmedia experience!


Perdido Street Station, The Scar, Iron Council


1. Obligation
1)    Guardian/dependent
2)    Employer/employee
3)    Owes the other their life
4)    Debt/creditor
5)    Bizarre contract
6)    Fear

2. Fellowship
1)    Members of the New Quill party
2)    Share a common enemy
3)    Drink in the same pub.
4)    Mutual intellectual pursuits
5)    Current leader/wannabe leader
6)    Wolf in sheep’s clothing

3. Romance
1)    Secret lovers
2)    Friends with benefits
3)    One-sided Obsession
4)    Lover/beloved
5)    Polyamory
6)    Unhealthy attachment

4. Crime
1)    Drug addict/pusher
2)    Petty thieves
3)    Black market dealings
4)    Prostitute/client
5)    Assassin/target
6)    Remade

5. Magic
1)    Master/Construct
2)    Bound by Tesh magic
3)    Rival thaumaturges
4)    Vampire/thrall
5)    Servants of extra-dimensional creature
6)    Teacher/apprentice

6. Community & Culture
1)     Radicals and Rebels
2)    Same race (see Races chart)
3)    Militia Members
4)    Outcasts
5)    Government Officials
6)    Handlingers (see Races chart)


1. Brock Marsh / Ludmead
1)     A laboratory of pilfered equipment
2)     An abandoned office in the university’s science administration wing
3)     Under the boughs of the common
4)     A forgotten cellar in a temple to a minor deity
5)     The slippery floor of a punishment factory
6)     The Dying Child, your run-of-the-mill pub

2. Bonetown / Mog Hill
1)     In the shadow of the Ribs
2)     An abandoned-seeming lot
3)     A neglected thieves’ hideout, covered in sticky tar
4)     Under The Spike, in its labyrinthine catacombs
5)     A militia pod on its way to The Spike
6)     Beneath the stretched skin of a shanty town tent

3. Kinken / Glasshouse
1)     The Plaza of Statues, in front of a palm tree made of khepri spit
2)     A khepri art exchange center
3)     A broodma’s lair, filled with decaying vegetation
4)     A shop run by a family of hotchi
5)     Half a house, next to the Glasshouse dome
6)     Yashur Plaza, at the entrance to the Glasshouse

4. Echomire / Badside / Dog Fenn
1)     On the banks of the failed docks, stinking with malarial filth
2)     An underground slaughterhouse with secret rooms
3)     A plank walkway, slung between houses
4)     A tunnel dug into the Undercity catacombs
5)     The carcass of Grand Calibre Bridge
6)     An unfinished room in an indifferent concrete structure

5. Salacus Fields / Sobek Croix
1)     A little booth at the Clock and Cockerel
2)     A crowded stall at the Aspic Bazaar
3)     A cab waiting along an iron fence in Sobek Croix
4)     At one of the Flexible Puppeteers’ subversive street shows
5)     A Palgolak reading room
6)     The Palace of Love, at Mr. Bombadrezil’s Unique and Wonderful Fair

6. The Crow
1)     The unkempt garden in the Mandragora Wing of Perdido Street Station
2)     The exact geographical center of New Crobuzon
3)     A heavily armed militia checkpoint
4)     The top of a long-deserted turret in Perdido Street Station
5)     On the tracks of the Verso Line
6)     Brothel of Remade whores, hidden near Brock Marsh


1. To discover the truth…
1)     … about that awful smell wafting from Dog Fenn
2)    … about my mysterious birthmark
3)     … about the local legend
4)     … about my family’s murder
5)     … about the Construct Council
6)     … about the latest street drug

2. To escape…
1)     … logic and time
2)     … via passage on a ship to Nova Esperium, where they don’t ask questions
3)     … the endless conspiracy that surrounds you
4)     … the stigma of my Remade body
5)     … your suffocating parents
6)     … your mounting debts

3. To lay with…
1)     … a scandalously different xenian
2)     … anyone who will shelter you this night
3)     … Infel Mendel, one of the mayor’s closest confidants
4)     … three people at once
5)     … your true love
6)     … your best friend’s true love

To obtain…
1)     … a map to the Fractured Land.
2)     … unchecked political power over the slums
3)     … the sliver of dignity you once possessed.
4)     … permission to study at the university
5)     … the Shintacost Prize for Best Artwork
6)     … a pig for tonight’s meal.

To get revenge …
1)     … for your murdered comrade.
2)     … for yourself, having been exploited by the system far too long.
3)     … on your disbanded rebel group
4)     … on the Thousand Voices of Suroch
5)     … your fourteen-year old ward
6)     … your pregnant sister

To inspire…
1)     … a citywide strike
2)     … a close friend to a life of crime
3)     … an up-and-coming scientist
4)     … an expensive exodus to locate Jabber’s resting place
5)     … a poet to record your legacy
6)     … fear in the higher echelons of New Crobuzon


1)     A summons from the Militia
2)     A slake-moth larva
3)     The attention of The Weaver
4)     A forgotten colourbomb, decaying but still live
5)     A map leading to the secret lair of Jack Half-a-Prayer
6)     A grindylow artifact

1)     A corpse of a vodyanoi neighbor
2)     Dreamshit
3)     A ticket to the Glad’ Circus
4)     A remade prostitute
5)     An unlabeled bottle of curious liquid
6)     The pickled head of a murdered magistrate

1)     A monk of the Hidden and Lost
2)     A half finished sculpture of Mr. Motley
3)     A xenian lover
4)     A musical instrument from the Ghosthead Empire
5)     Dispatch from the rogue floating city Armada
6)     A steamy letter from Mayor Rudgutter

1)     A box of colourberries
2)     A shopping list annotated in a secret code
3)     A locket from your long lost mother
4)     A scientific notebook
5)     A diary written by a High Cromlech noble
6)     An old print of a young hootch

1)      A skeleton key to the dwellings of Badside
2)      Easily concealable two-shot Derringer
3)      An aerostat
4)      A khepri stingbox
5)      A working printing press
6)      A wyrman messenger

1)     Knowledge of golemetric creation
2)     A dagger that cuts through reality
3)     A sentient construct
4)     A possibility sword found at a pawn shop
5)     A stolen Remaker’s library
6)     A yag servant

Now that our Big Picture is

How the Cold War didn’t end in 1989.

Let’s choose some Bookends (where the history begins and ends):

Our history begins in 1945, after the fall of the Nazis.

And since I’m going all out for an alternative history, let’s end it in the future, say, 2045, after the mutual collapse of the USA and USSR.

Oh, and I have to assign “moods” to the book-ends – light or dark – which are symbolized by light and dark circles (0 or •)

Since it’s the Cold War, I’m going to say the fall of the Nazis gave birth to something arguably MORE rotten, and so I’m making 1945 a dark time (•).  2045, on the other hand, will be a point of hope (o).

Last night, I played a game of Ben Robbins’ excellent RPG Microscope, in which you play out epic histories with your friends.  I liked it so much, that – inspired by our recent RPG Solitaire contest – I’m going to play a game by myself, on my blog, for 10 minutes a day.

Consider it a writing exercise during all my frantic writing projects.

Microscope allows you to generate full-fledged historical dramas that leap back and forward in time, drawing you further and further into an immersive world.

To start, one needs to come up with a Big Picture for the history and world.  Now, it doesn’t have to be anything complicated, so I’m going to K.I.S.S.:

How the Cold War didn’t end in 1989.

Next Post: Bookends (where the history begins and ends)

Botkin says:

“Sadly, Figurative Destruction did not make the RPG Solitaire Challenge contest deadline, due to the author’s dissertation research and past-due book chapter for an edited volume. Please do not despair: the game will continue its development journey after the contest hype.”

Evan says:

“Thanks for participating in the RPG Solitaire Challenge. I look forward to reading your work!”

Here’s the first part of the event flow which, as I see it, is pretty much the game.  I’m seeing the system as a cross between the Sampats’ Mist-Robed Gate (for flashy ass-kicking abilities with similar game functions), Rob Bohl’s Misspent Youth (for the set scene structure and resisting authority shtick) and Vincent Baker’s Apocalypse World (for the clearly laid-out set of guidelines for hard choices).

[Hi folks! I’m the playtester in brackets. Playtesting, playtesting – 1, 2, 3…]

What You Need:

The Character Roster Sheet (or some graph paper made to look like one)
The Event Matrix Sheet (or some graph paper made to look like one)
13 action figures/dolls you feel attached to

Bag with some mixed 20 red/white poker chips in it (optional)
Computer with table- or spreadsheet-making program (optional)
Digital camera or laptop camera (optional)
Digital audio recording device (optional)

[The Roster Sheets and Event Matrices will be posted later in the week, when all the optional items will be discussed as well.  For now, let’s hit the gameflow.]

The Game

  • The Pre-Game
  • The March Ritual
  • The Past
  • Resisting the Adversary
  • Ruling Badly
  • Intrigue and Wariness
  • The March Ritual, Redux
  • Battling and Flashbacks
  • The Final Battle
  • Epilogue

The Pre-Game:

You play the Manipulator, the person whose hands skillfully maneuver the figures and who meddles judiciously in the plot.  The Manipulator is the sole decider and the main audience, so it only seems appropriate that they also get to determine the Outcome of things.  To play the game as the Manipulator, you need only perform the steps in the order described:

• Array all the materials listed above in a comfortable space that won’t be disturbed for several hours.

[I have chosen an under-used office in my parents’ house in Iowa.]

• Put on some dramatic music if it gets you in the mood. Preferably Wagner, but the possibilities are plentiful.

[I chose Adorno, actually. ‘Cause I don’t have any Wagner. Curious, indeed!]

• Select two action figures to which you feel strongly attached. These are the Protagonist figures.

Dirk de Silver


[I have selected Mantor from Sectaurs (renamed as Dirk de Silver — a dashing name!) and Fugitoid from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (renamed as Botkin — has a bit of a robot-y sound and the -kin suffix recalls familial signifiers).  Both are relatively obscure but prominent in my imagination.]

• Abandon in your mind everything you know about the figure.  The only thing you know about them is based on the physical appearance of the figure itself. Digitally photograph them for your own records. You know nothing about them now, but soon you will know more.


The March Ritual:

We cannot go on without dramatically establishing the stakes of what’s going on.  Besides – most of the best modern stories start somewhere in the middle before going to the beginning.

• Place the selected protagonist figures on either side of the Character Roster in front of you.  Imagine that they are staring across a vast battlefield at each other, draped in dramatic military finery and looking grim but determined.  There armies are arrayed before them, but we cannot quite see who makes up its membership. Yet.

[Okay, so I’m liking the contrast between a silver-clad warrior and a gold robot.  It’s a cheap shot, but I’m picturing Dirk with a flowing purple robe to match his purple eyes standing on a precipice overlooking a battered mechanical palace.  Botkin meanwhile looks calmly from the balcony of the palace up at Dirk. I have an idea that Dirk’s forces will come pouring down into the canyon on horseback, whereas Botkin’s will be robotic and swarm out of the palace.]

• Stare into one of the figure’s eyes, bringing it closer to your face. This indicates to you to flashback to the Past.

[Given that his eyes at least have pupils, I do this to Botkin. See reenactment below.]

The author shares a moment with the figure. And its eyes.

The Past:

Now it’s time to think about the life of the two Protagonists before the Manipulator’s decisions inevitably forced them against each other.  Back in the days when they had a common enemy; when there was… the Adversary.

• Answer the following three questions for each protagonist and jot it down as shorthand notes under their names:  where and what is their Base of Operations? Why do their peers respect them?  What would they kill to protect?

[Alright: character generation time!  Dirk’s got long legs (though is without mount), so I decide to make him a kind of dashing free-booting cavalryman from some old aristocracy.  His Base is the Galloping Palace, a scarcely understood bio-magical contraption that’s effectively a mansion with legs.  Running with this line of thinking, I put down under Respect “He’s a superb rider, spokesman and strategist.”

For Kill to Protect, I put “His family lineage.”  A proper supernatural insect noble, right? Okay: onto Botkin. I can already sense the tension between the magic and the robot technology angles of this choice, so I’m going to put Botkin in the Adversary’s Mechanical Palace… as one of its robot servants.  Under Respect, I put “Downloaded Skills,” kind of like in The Matrix, and for Kill to Protect I put “His tender connection with the other robots.” So both Dirk and Botkin are in many ways both fiercely familial.  Sounds like a Romeo and Juliet story already!]

• Create an Adversary by choosing another action figure from your available supplies, preferably one whom you find intimidating or creepy.  This will become the Adversary.  Give it a name.

The Vanished King

[Hmmm… so many creepy looking figures in my collection!  I select the Blue Ghostling from the Super Naturals, because I really like the cloak/hologram fashion combo; reminds me of a perfectly Deleuzian body without organs. I name him The Vanished King, because he has no distinct shape under his cloak.]

• Answer the following two questions:  how does the Adversary keep others in line? What dark plan is he/she ready to unleash?

[The Vanished King calls forth lots of ideas for prospective abilities.  I decide that he has Possession as a means of Keeping Others in Line — he can inhabit the bodies of others and subsequently may be always watching within the boundaries of his empire. For his Dark Plan, I chose that he wants to plant copies of himself in the minds of many of his subjects, and has developed technology to help him accomplish this, since magic cannot.]

• And now select three additional figures from the initial pile.  These will be the Adversary’s minions, and can embody either legions of similar-looking figures or just a single, fearsome foe.  Each figure can be treated like an Ally, except they don’t automatically get a Resist stat.  That means each minion has a Weapon and a MegaMove, which you can decide on the spot or wait until a good idea comes along.  You have the option of selecting an action figure to represent a standard goon for the Adversary. These have no stats, and are mere fodder for the main characters to work through.

[Here’s a fun part: choosing Flunkies! I grab Spikor from Masters of the Universe and rename him Spinox, the Enforcer (Weapon: Stunning Prod, Mega Move: Pointed Embrace)].  I assume he’s the muscle of the Vanished King’s dystopian kingdom, breaking in doors and striking terror on the populace.  The other two are Sinuet, the Mind-Controller (Weapon: Hypnotic Eye, MegaMove: Psychic Evisceration — Bug-Eye from the Real Ghostbusters), and Botcruel, the Technologist (Weapon: Crushing Grip, MegaMove: Vaporpulse — Cruel from Robo Force).  Sinuet produces auto-consent and a waiting supply of informers, whereas Botcruel is the chief overseer of the mechanisms in the Vanished King’s palace (including Botkin).  Finally, I want the goons to be this faceless Grizzlor from She-Ra, ’cause he looks insane without a face.]





Stay tuned! To Be Continued…