2017 Knutepunkt Book

The 2017 Knutepunkt book, Once Upon a Nordic Larp… Twenty Years of Playing Stories, has been released. There’s a table of contents here, or you can download it from the Nordic larp wiki.

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Hamlet, Vampires and the Italian Alps (Juhana Pettersson): or “What does it mean to experience a story in a larp?” Petersson looks at three different larps: Inside Hamlet, which uses fate play to reproduce Shakespeare’s story; Convention of Thorns, which leaves narrative control in the hands of the players; and Black Friday, where the players uncover hidden narrative. In each, the story of the individual characters differs from the “story” of the larp as told by the organisers, though normally it is the latter which ends up dominating in post-larp discussion. There’s no real conclusions to the opening question, but it is great for illustrating how “narrative” actually works in practice in different design environments. And I think it leaves a question for designers: whose story are you actually telling?

Ludo-narrative Dissonance and Harmony in Larps (Hélène Henry): No, this isn’t about what happens when hardcore gamists meet culture gamers when playing Vampire. Instead it spends 7 pages and a lot of academic verbage from computer game theory to tell us what Ron Edwards told us tabletoppers over a decade ago: system matters. In larps that means not just that the mechanics should be matched to the tone and theme and narratives of the game (e.g. don’t include crunchy combat or a sex mechanic in a Wodehouse game), but also the narrative design and metatechniques. This is of course hard - bad mechanics are easy; elegant, thematic mechanics take time and thought and a lot of care to get right. In one sense the article is wasted as it is stating the (previously stated) obvious. OTOH it has good examples and a useful checklist of design considerations at the end.

Sing in Me, Muse, and Through Me Tell the Story… (Harry Harrold): An overview of feedback on Profound Decisions’ Odyssey campaign, aimed at answering whether it met its design goals. I always like reading about Odyssey, and it sounds like it succeeded and did some really cool stuff.

History, Herstory and Theirstory: For Thought (Mo Holkar): A look at some of the issues arising in historical larps - primarily, that history is usually written by rich white men and so ignores all sorts of stories. Designers should look at other sources (if only because they’re a great source of plots) and think about whose version of history they want to present.

Telling Character Stories (Monika Weißenfels) and Making Heroes (John Shockley) are a pair of articles on character creation methods in Germany and the UK respectively. They both cover similar ground and are most interesting for what they reveal about the larp cultures of the two countries. The German style sounds weird, with its idea that you play the same character in multiple simultaneous campaigns (so, in kiwi larp terms: I make a character which I play at Teonn, Crucible, Embers, and maybe 33AR or Musketeers if its not too violent to their setting), but its possible precisely because the characters don’t matter to the plot (which is kindof suck IMHO). The UK article makes a similar point: their large larps and GM-plots are designed without any reference to the characters, like an 80’s D&D module. In both, its because paying attention to backstory to generate personal plot is too much damn work over a certain game size, and because of an ethos that what matters is what a character does “on the field”, not how cool they say they are in their player’s headcanon.

The UK article also some extremely amusing comments about pre-generated characters and (UK) “freeforms”, and how they suppose they’re probably larps but its a bit blurred. I think its a sign of how culturally isolated the various strands of UK larp are from each other that they barely know of each other and barely consider each other to be part of the same hobby. There’s a strong contrast here with NZ where we’re not hung up over terminology, people play whatever floats their boat, and (according to larpcensus) a clear majority of NZ larpers play both sorts of games.

Moment-based Story Design (Ian Thomas): based on an earlier article here, about building your larp design around cool moments that will lead to “war stories”: the rain of insects and creepy-crawlies, the war-rhino coming out of the smoke, the girl throwing her baby out the window then jumping after it. The author runs stunt, prop- and SFX-heavy larps (they did God Rest Ye Merry), and the technique is most obviously useable with those tools. But horrific realisation is something that can be a memorable moment too, and is potentially something that can be designed for in hidden-narrative games.

Will to Live (Rob Williams): describes a nifty and stealable mechanic from the UK post-apocalyptic larp Forsaken, aimed at giving characters reasons to cooperate in a harsh post-apocalyptic setting, increasing character survivability, and driving plot. Could be stolen for all sorts of things.

Larp Tourism (Claus Raasted): A quick overview of the effects of blockbuster “tourist” larps on the international larp community. Raasted thinks larp tourism is inevitable as larpers get older and richer (and therefore more able to travel to coool larps elsewhere). He also thinks that the accessibility to non-larpers of the current crop of blockbusters makes them excellent recruitment tools and that they will therefore be good for the overall hobby. And its hard to argue with that. If we want to market larp in New Zealand, coming up with an accessible, low-entry barrier, high-fidelity larp with broad appeal might be the way to do it.

Tell Us a Story (Ian Andrews): An earlier article asked “whose story are you actually telling in your larp?” Andrews - one of the designers of the UK fest larp Odyssey - argues that the GMs shouldn’t really be telling anything. Rather, its the players who tell the stories. The GM’s job is basicly to give them a framework to enable them to do that - a facilitator rather than a tyrant. This doesn’t mean that the larp doesn’t have a narrative or over-arching plot - there should be stuff going on in the world to give the players something to interact with. But the purpose of the larp’s narrative is to let the players create their own stories, and it needs to serve that interest. The purpose of a battle is so they can make choices, be heroes or cowards, live or die, celebrate or grieve. The actual outcome is less important than the fact that it presents opportunities for the players. There’s also some comments on how stories need to have endings, and players should probably be looking out for them, otherwise they’ll just… hang around (like Supernatural after season 5?).

There’s a response from Simon Brind, who recaps in text his larp Design Conference talk (which I summarised here).

On Ripping Off and Selling Out (Eirik Fatland): Nordic larp has become popular and accessible in recent years by ripping off Hollywood IP (BSG, Harry Potter, Downton Abbey) to produce “blockbuster” larps with wide appeal. Eirik Fatland thinks this is a Bad Thing, because they’re unoriginal - unlike the original horrificly depressing Nordic larps which no-one wants to play. In the end, he declares a fatwa against them, saying that he will no longer attend or reference these larps. At which point everyone else goes “yay, one less person competing for tickets!”

Its a fabulous rant and it’ll be interesting to see what effect it has. Several articles in the KP book have expressed disquiet about Knutepunkt being “too big” and wanting to return to the “good old days” before Nordic larp became so popular and interesting to the rest of the world, and this taps into the same vibe. Will Nordic larp retreat from the world and go back to sneering at fun? I guess we’ll find out next year…

Tensions Between Transmedia Fandom and Live-Action Role-Play (Evan Torner) Eirik Fatland’s article opposing “blockbuster” larps made me think of this one again, which seems to be part of a similar anti-blockbuster backlash. Torner recognises that fan larps based on popular existing settings (e.g. Harry Potter and BSG) make larp vastly more accessible, by freeing players from the extra work of having to carry around the larp-specific “story bible” in their heads (or rather, they usually already have it, because of the pervasiveness of these settings). But it also results in potential problems where the larp content clashes with (or invites clashes) with setting canon, and with player disappointment as their shipping expectations turn out not to happen in play.

What’s interesting is that Torner gives examples of these very problems occuring in non-fan larps, with players creating “canon” from early runs of large, multi-run games like College of Wizardry or New World Magischola. So its not necessarily a problem of using popular settings, so much as running a larp which participates in or creates a wider setting, combined with the players’ natural desire to nail down fixed points in that setting to inform their play, pre-play, or re-play in the next episode (both CoW and NWM now have multiple “continuums” or stealth campaigns where the events of past games are referenced, so its not as if the designers aren’t complicit in this).

(Interestingly, we don’t have any of these sorts of problems in NZ runs of the “Kestrel saga”. Though that may be because the GM has tried to keep those playing core roles together, ensuring different canon-streams).

Torner’s preferred solutions are to both reject franchise settings, and to fight player attempts to canonise events of past runs by basicly forbidding them as inimical to “good design” and to the designer’s vision. I’m not sure how well that will work in practice, and it seems to be yet another brick in Nordic larp’s attempts to wall itself off from popularity this year.