Hey, larpwriters!

I notice we’re getting a few hits from The Larpwriter Challenge. In case you’re here looking for inspirational games, I suggest taking a look at the following posts:

The Winner of the Role-Playing Poem Competition – here you’ll find three “role-playing poems”, also called “fifteen-minute larps”. Some are pretty experimental – check out “Housebreaker”, for instance.

The Father – a game about patricide. Fun stuff!

Catherine – a game about care. Simple, and potentially very touching.

HolmCon & R.I.S.K.: Trends in Norwegian game design

At this year’s HolmCon (the sixth in a row, my, we’re getting old, time flies etc), there was too much to do. Everyone felt like they missed out on some great stuff, because there were too many cool new games.

Okay, let me repeat that. Too many cool new games. Produced locally.

It used to be that a new Norwegian game would cause quite a stir in Norwegian gaming circles. Even if you’d never played Muu, and it wasn’t in the shops, and it wasn’t your sort of game at all, you’d have heard about it, because it was… well, Norwegian. But now? I can’t even remember the titles of all the new games being presented at this year’s HolmCon. And that’s just crazy, because I’m obsessive about these things.

Luckily, the internet is my friend. Here are the games:

Kjærlighet i volvenes tid (love in the time of the shamaness). A game by Jason Morningstar and myself (Matthijs), based on the Archipelago rules. A shakespearean setup of rivalry, love, lust and magic in Viking times.

Alexandriavariasjoner (Alexandria variations). Based on Jon Bings famous books from the seventies about the library spaceship Alexandria. The designer Anders Nygaard didn’t make it because of illness, but interesting bits have been leaked on the internet.

Lykke (happiness). Tomas Mørkrid decided to explore the more positive sides of life in this game, through long and short scenes from the entire lives of everyday people. Death is a possible ending – but a positive one, apparently.

L’Esprit d’escaliér (spirit of the staircase). All about the “I should have said…” phenomenon – on the way down the stairs after an encounter, you come up with the perfect retort. By fresh designer Aleksander Rødner.

Drømmernes Selskab (The Society of Dreamers). A game full of ritual and dreams, exploring the nature of the mnemosites – creatures living in people’s dreams, and sometimes outside them. A red wine hippie structured freeform game by yours truly.

Morgenfri (morning free – a word play on “sorgenfri”, sorrow-free). A traditional fantasy RPG with an extensive setting, by Maja Kvendseth, a self-proclaimed traditionalist and anti-freeformer who likes to run impro workshops for freeform hippies.

Jegerne (the hunters). What White Wolf’s “The Hunter” should have been like. Presentation and playtest of this new design by Erlend Bruer and Lasse Lundin resulted in an extensive feedback session.

Livet, døden, havet og kjærligheten (life, death, the ocean and love). Possibly the strangest new game, which sadly didn’t get played, I think: These four contestants meet for a race, and the players are sports commentators rooting for their favorite… and betting their reproductory organs. By Martin Bull Gudmundsen.

In addition, there were several scenarios in various stages of freeforminess: D’Aubainnes By, using Itras By rules for Over the Edge; Døden er bedre enn Baronen, about the horrible (and real) Baron von Ungern-Sternberg; Pølsekonspirasjon, or sausage conspiracy, involving real sausages and T-shirts (which are banned at HolmCon); and Jakten på tidsmaskinen, inspired by the “Invisibles” comics.

And, finally, the R.I.S.K. games. Of the 15 new games this year, I believe five were played at HolmCon, and all of them were discussed – briefly or at length. The winner will be announced tomorrow.

So, what trends can we see in Norwegian game design?

  • No dice. Right now, it doesn’t seem like most people are using dice much; even hardcore traditionalists are experimenting with freeform, card interpretation and the like. There are a few exceptions, of course (Morgenfri and some of the RISK games), but in general, freeform is the rule.
  • GM decides or GM-less. In games designed to be run by others, we often end up going GM-less. I think probably half of this year’s designs go in that direction. Freeform GM’ed games being run at HolmCon tended towards the “GM decides everything” style – the GM selects techniques, owns the scenario (although he/she usually solicits and uses player input), sets the situation, resolves the climax.
  • Pick a theme, any theme. This is an anti-trend: It’s hard to see any connecting theme for the various settings being written and run. Some are absurdist, some silly, some social realist, some supernatural, some based on literary references. What we’re not currently seeing is ground-breaking new settings – there’s little real world building, and what little there is seems rooted in well-known fantasy tropes (albeit modified to fit the authors’ tastes).
  • Play, don’t publish. Ask this year’s designers whether they’re planning to publish, and they say “I hope so, maybe, when it’s finished”. There’s no rush to get things out there – they want to play, replay, discuss, hone, polish. After this year’s HolmCon, there’s extensive redesign and rewriting going on.
  • Refining personal vision. Some designers seem to have decided to stick with what they know, and do it better. They’re experimenting within their paradigm – there are enough techniques in their toolkit that they don’t need to acquire new ones right now. The focus is on finding the ones that fit.
  • We don’t all have to like the same thing. A common comment in this year’s R.I.S.K. is “probably an interesting game, and it looks like it might work, but it isn’t really my thing”. Whether it’s because a game is too traditional, or too hippie-feely-story-gamey, or too personal, or too Hollywood violent, people are getting used to seeing beyond their own ideas of what a game has to be, and looking at the games that are actually there.
  • We’re influencing each other. Your game uses my mechanisms. Your way of playing affects how I (re)design my game. We’re swimming in a sea of each other’s ideas right now, and it’s getting very hard to remember exactly who came up with what when. We’re not stealing like ravens – we’re more like kids sitting at a big table sending each other crayons to draw with. “Hey, I want that shiny gold one!” “Pass the black, please?”

If you have any questions about the games, or anything in the article – or if you just want to say something – please feel free to comment!

Åmericån Style

One of the express purposes of this blog is to bring the Norwegian style(s) of play and game design to the English-speaking world. That makes it doubly fun and satisfying to read about other game designers taking their inspiration from our designs! And the best thing is when that inspiration comes back as fuel for us to improve our designs – or make new ones.

Jason Morningstar just released his free game “Last Train Out of Warsaw”, which uses the Archipelago II rules. It’s fun – I played it just last night with a bunch of friends. And it’s inspiring! I want to make lots of new games using his method of using my method (which was, of course, inspired by a lot of other people’s methods).

Thanks to Jason for making this game, and publishing it as a free download!

Stealing like ravens

It has been said that plagiarism is the sincerest form of flattery. And, like any creative scene, the Norwegian game design scene is full of… people who are inspired by each other.

In a recent design contest, I wrote a game in three parts, where the third part was strongly inspired by Tomas Mørkrid’s unpublished game “Flukt”. To be fair (to myself), the rest of my game is very different from Tomas’, so in context my ending has a different meaning – but still: It fit so well I just had to use it.

Magnus Jakobsson’s game “Until We Sink” has inspired several other games. Ole Peder Giæver and myself wrote the football game “Until We Score” as a birthday present for a friend; Tomas wrote “Livets Høst” based on some of the same techniques; and many other recent Norwegian games use similar methods. Even my grim Holocaust game “We All Had Names” uses a scene-ending technique from Magnus’ game.

Then again, who knows where Magnus’ inspiration came from? It was written after playtesting a completely different game, which doesn’t use the same techniques. The ideas seem to come from one of his own earlier, abandoned designs, “Den glemte dalen”*. (A wonderful working process for a designer is to create lots of stuff, and then steal whatever works to build better designs afterwards).

Back when I was designing “Draug”, and Ole Peder and Martin were designing “Itras By”, we were a bit worried for a while that since we were playtesting each others’ games and pitching ideas, we might end up having our brilliant designs stolen by the other party. What if I came up with something great for “Draug”, and they published my ideas in their game – before I could publish mine? We talked about it, and quickly reached the agreement “fuck it, let’s steal from each other, good luck to whoever publishes first”**. I think that little talk was an important step for our part of the Norwegian design community – we’re very open-source, and share our ideas and games freely. “Itras By” incorporates elements from many different writers, and continues to do so on the Itras By wiki.

And this blog right here gives all our ideas away for free, to anyone who wants to use them.

Steal our ideas. Steal like ravens.

* Some similar thoughts went into my own “Will the Emperor Fall?”, around the same time as “Den glemte dalen”. There’s an old thread on it over at the Forge. The thread is an interesting read; it shows some differences between the style we were trying to develop back then (“we just talk, and whatever has been narrated is true in the fiction”), and the Forge paradigm (“use a point system to reward people for correct behavior”).

** I searched through my old mail, and the exact quote is: “Vi kom fram til at vi får stjele idéer som ravner fra hverandre, og måtte den best skrevne utgivelse vinne” – “We arrived at the conclusion that we’ll just steal like ravens from each others’ ideas, and may the best-written publication win”. That’s kind of scary. I wrote the title of this blog post before re-reading that four-year-old message.

Amar – echoes from the past

Kingdom of Amar

In 1987, the first commercial Norwegian-made RPG was published. It was written in English, and called “MEGA”. Mega was fun, rules-heavy and focused on realism. Due to some misadventures in business the game never reached a bigger market, and it’s fairly obscure even in Norway.

But apparently, in 2002, the authors wrote down a simplified set of rules – sort of a “Basic MEGA” system – and called it Amar. That system can be found on Geir Isene’s ::artweb pages, as a free download. It’s a labor of love, and it looks really nice!

Winner of the Role-Playing Poem Competition

This was just posted over at Story Games by Erling Rognli, one of the judges!

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RESULTS

Adjudicating the Role-playing Poem Challenge proved to be a challenging task in itself. There are many entries, most of which are very good poems, and the jury did not agree completely at first. Some entries are simply solid pieces of work, although not quite original enough to warrant a Firkløver. Others are extremely innovative, but seem somewhat lacking in playability and fun-factor. We have, as instructed, based our judgements on the requirements of fun, originality and adherence to form.

We have interpreted fun and playability in a wide sense. Interesting, emotionally evocative, thought-provoking, beautiful, and personally challenging are all herein treated as synonyms of fun. In judging playability we have had a particular eye for strong, simple method, clear instructions and realistic timing. Some poems, we believe, stretch out certain moments of interaction beyond what will prove to be fun in actual play.

Originality has been an important deciding factor. We have looked for new method, innovative presentation and striking concepts. Innovative use of well-known method also counts as originality in our view.

Adherence to form is necessarily the criterion most open to interpretation, as the form is recently developed and its boundaries are still being explored. As we see it, the here-and-now experience of moods, situations and relationships lies at the heart of role-playing poems. Too strong focus on developing narrative is usually a weakness of design, in our view, because the limited time-frame constrains the development of the story too much. In role-playing poems, narrative usually works best when it serves the experiential aspect of the poem, rather than being an end in itself. Tight, focused design with a specific (although not necessarily describable) experience in mind is another core quality of role-playing poems, as we see it.

We have selected a winner, and two runners-up. Many more deserve mention; those not among the top three may rest assured that the margins were rather small. The quality is generally very high, and we hope many of these excellent poems see a lot of play.

First runner up:

THE BELIEVERS by Chris Bennett
This poem is an excellent example of using narrative to support experience. In form it lies closer to traditional verbal role-playing than many other role-playing poems, while maintaining a very tight focus. It employs the same soft, suggestive direction of play that has proven highly effective in M. Jakobssons “Until we sink”. The ending is pointed and touching. A solid design all in all, that scores a lot on fun and playability.

Second runner up:

BOREDOM by Lasse Lundin
This poem is drily funny right from the start (“choose the most boring person to read the rules. This is boring.”), while building up its mood at the same time. It employs a strong, simple method (taking turns in suggesting an activity) which supports the main experiential goal of being bored together. It scores a lot on playability and adherence to form. It is not original enough, however, to win.

Winner of the Firkløver bar:

HOUSEBREAKER by Jackson Tegu
A poem that both adheres very well to the form as well as expanding it in a new direction. The poem masterfully balances originality with playability. The use of prose to explain the game works very well. The use of synchronised timing and a phone call maintains a vital measure of interaction, and represents a new design tool that may see further use. The clever use of frantic searching helps maintain the desired state of mind. Most importantly, this poem gives the players a wonderful opportunity to interact with their own everyday lives, and to relate to it from a new angle. Housebreaker is a prime example of role-playing poetry, and a deserving winner among many other excellent poems.

Nordic Scene

Andie Nordgren has started up a blog with the ambitious name “Nordic Scene”. While we can always debate what the word “scene” means, whether there is a Nordic scene or just a bunch of people doing stuff, what the scene’s about, who’s in it, whether there is an “in” or “out” etc etc etc, I’m getting really tired of those debates, so I’m just going to be pragmatic and say WAHEY! Cool site! The Nordic Scene is mostly about larp, but it seems the occasional tabletop-related post may pop up as well – and anyway, the Finns don’t seem to care too much about the distinction between forms, so what the hell.

Check it out here!

The cons and their effect on our games

There are a few yearly cons in Norway. The biggest one, the Oslo-based Arcon, has an attendance of around 400 people a year. Together with Bergen’s RegnCon and Trondheim’s HexCon it forms a trinity of tradition-heavy cons that have been arranged for more than two decades.

I think it’s fair to say that most scenarios in Norway would never have been written down in legible form if it wasn’t for these cons. Many scenarios, and – in later years – games, are written especially for the cons. That means they’re one of the major drives for recording and disseminating our gaming culture. Still, there is – as yet – no central collection of con scenarios, although such a collection has been discussed for years.

Having a deadline and an audience are the two things that seem to help people create games. However, the con audience can be a fickle one; some people go to cons with an expressed intention of trying new games, others complain that the cons are being taken over by weird new stuff. Last year’s “Spill Nå!” initiative, where several game designers pledged to write games for all three cons, was a mixed success: The first batch of games was produced, but audience reception was luke-warm and follow-up from designers and con staff was at times nonexistent.

For older gamers, the big cons are often more of a hangout place to catch up with each other than a place to play games. Designers talk about new ideas over a beer, play each others’ new designs, and speculate in how the general public will react to their new inventions. And in the informal atmosphere of the con pub, new acquaintances are made – an invaluable networking arena.

On the other end of the scale, the tiny HolmCon (which is announced on rollespill.net) has proved a fertile breeding and testing ground for new games. Taking place just a few weeks or months after the R.I.S.K. competition, the con has seen the first real playtest of many of the R.I.S.K. games, some of which have spawned new ideas and spinoffs tested at the same con.

If we didn’t have the cons, we’d be fucked.

Pictures

Arcon

HolmCon

The R.I.S.K. competition

Magnus Jakobsson, author of

Many of the games on this blog are the result of the yearly R.I.S.K. competition, arranged by Michael Sollien. The format is very simple: Write a new role-playing game in one week.

The R.I.S.K. competition has resulted in the greatest surge in Norwegian game design ever. About a dozen new games appear each year, and the designers are often first-timers. (As a matter of fact, no published RPG author has so far won the competition). In 2006 some of the winning entries were published in magazine format.

The competition is open to everyone, and is announced yearly on the Norwegian RPG forum rollespill.net.

Links

Imagonem article in Norwegian, with pictures

Wikipedia entry in Norwegian

Michael Sollien, R.I.S.K. boss

Role-playing poems

Tomas HV Mørkrid

A “role-playing poem” is a very short game, where the idea is to investigate a mood or scene or something else of limited scope. The reason I created this genre is that ordinary role-playing games tend to shun certain moods or scenes. This is done by good reason, usually. A lot of ordinary moods and scenes of a human life is not suited for a ordinary role-playing game. Still I believe that many of these moods may be interesting to sniff at, and have created “role-playing poems” to facilitate that.

The game “Stoke-Birmingham 0-0” is an excellent example of how the poetic idea of these games may be promoted. My very first play session with this game created 15 minutes of pure magic; a sore and anxious mood with surprising depth. The players all experienced that their head got heavier and their backs more bent during the game. The lack of energy in the characters dominated the players and their interaction. It made for a strong experience.

“Role-playing poems” are very simple to create. A set-up for 15 minutes of play is all you need. The very first time I wrote such a poem, I immediately wrote two more. One day after posting the idea on the web, three more designers had made their first “poems”. The simplicity of it makes it ideal for both novice and experienced gamesmith. Try it out! For the novice it is a great experience to actually finish a full game design, and to see players enjoy it! For the old fox it is a great oportunity to experience with all and everything you know about games design.

And yes; I am a published poet too, so the idea did not come out of thin air.

Yours sincerely, Tomas HV Mørkrid