The Law of Jante in Nordic Role-playing

The Law of Jante in Nordic Role-playing

Outwardly, the Nordic role-playing scene seems like a tolerant, egalitarian place where everyone is welcome. But the truth is that we are so busy being equal, that we fail to see excellence, and are downright fearful of elitism. Our fear of saying out loud that some role-players are better than others fosters secret social structures, where people are included or excluded depending on how well-connected they are.

There’s a taboo in Danish role-playing. On the surface it’s about openness, tolerance, and equality, but in reality I believe it boils down to the infamous Law of Jante, the first paragraph of which says: “You’re not to think you are anything special”.

Back in the days of yore, when I started role-playing, conventions still held competitions about who was the best role-player. As a matter of fact, I once made it to the second round in such a contest. A good role-player was defined as somebody who could not only rack in loads of XP (experience points), but was also capable of doing some degree of acting. It was up to the gamemaster to decide if you lived up to these criteria.

Somehow along the line, these competitions died out. ‘Being a good role-player is not about winning or losing’ became the general approach in the tradition I belonged to – and actually, I had to agree. Once free-form became a norm at conventions, counting XP became meaningless. Role-playing became less about the game, and more about immersion. A good game should be about the individual experience of the player: How the story and the setting moved you, what the chemistry between the players were like, what you took away from the experience.

In addition to this, a lot of role-players came from backgrounds where they had been more or less ostracised or even traumatised for lack of social skills. If being a good role-player was no longer just about counting XP, the competitions could have come very close to popularity contests. We didn’t want that.

The Gamemaster of Doom

In the 1990s, the general consensus was that everyone was welcome. “Everyone can role-play”, is what people were saying. It didn’t matter if you couldn’t act if your life depended on it. Even people whose social skills were so bad that they consistently ruined everyone else’s experience were welcomed. I remember a specific “Gamemaster of Doom”, who was so bad he would just sit there, leafing through papers, without even speaking to his players. It didn’t matter: We had room for the freaks and the outcasts that had nowhere else to go.

If you were really unlucky, that might be her first and last experience with role-playing.
Except for the fact that it quickly became a lie. Because secretly, there was a selection process going on. If you had played with the above mentioned game master, you were not likely to do so again. Why should you? It was not a good experience. No, someone else had to take their turn with him, in the name of tolerance and openness. Sadly, said person would usually be the unknowing outsider, who did not yet have her social network to warn her. If you were really unlucky, that might be her first and last experience with role-playing.

As I got to know more about the other people who played role-playing games, I got better at knowing whom to avoid. But perhaps more importantly, I got to know those people who had a reputation for delivering. At conventions they were gamemasters, writers, and players. At larps, they were organisers or players.

These were people who could take an otherwise mediocre scenario and boost it so thoroughly that it became not just a good experience, but actually unforgettable. They were dynamos in their own right. At conventions, you would amble over to stand next to them, hoping to be put in the same group. At larps you could do even better, if you had the nerve: Why not phone them up beforehand and ask for your character to be a sister, a close friend, or even a lover?

The system of nepotism favoured people who were in the know. People who were already well-connected, and who weren’t afraid of asking for favours. People like me.

The Good and the Bad

The fact of the matter is that some role-players are better than others. When people ask me why I role-play, I usually say: For my own sake. Not for an audience, not to impress anyone. Just for the experience. However, this is not the entire truth. We are each-other’s audience. But more than that: We affect each-other’s experiences in good ways and bad ways. A good role-player knows this, and takes that responsibility seriously.

Some people are bad role-players, and some people are good ones.
Even though we don’t want to be open about it, it is not random: Some people are bad role-players, and some people are good ones. Sometimes the bad ones get lucky and manage to get through a game without ruining anything for everyone else, and sometimes the good ones have a bad day. But the trend is clear. In the name of our all-accepting, egalitarian community, we refrain from saying it out loud. But that doesn’t make it any less true.

Why This Is a Problem

Why should I care? I am one of those people who gets to play with all the best. And yet, it bothers me. It bothers me for several reasons.

Obviously it’s a problem that the opportunity to play with really good role-playing partners does not present itself to you unless you happen to know the right people. Often enough we even wind up scaring potentially interested newbies off by letting them play with lousy co-players. If we want our hobby to be characterised as a closed-off society where you have to fight your way in, then we are doing exactly the right thing. However, that doesn’t serve us very well in the long term.

The other problem is for the bad players themselves. Because we refuse to (publicly) acknowledge the good players, we cannot give the bad players the tools to get better. Simply put: We have not analysed what it means to be a good player, so there are no shortcuts. You have to go on spoiling a lot of people’s games before you see the light – provided you ever will. No-one will even tell you why they only play with you once, they just kind of seem to move on without you.

Solutions, Please!

At present time, I do not have the solutions. However, a good starting point would be to acknowledge the situation. If we were open about who the good players were, it would become much more legitimate for organisers to cast them into particular functions: Why not do the opposite of what we are doing now, and actually make sure that there is at least a few skilled role-players present when running games for newbies?

Similarly, larp organisers who cast solid players who can be counted on for a good delivery in pivotal roles should not be accused of nepotism. They should be applauded for making conscious choices, as they do this to give the rest of the players the best possible experience.

We need to direct our attention towards the good players
First and foremost, we need to direct our attention towards the good players. What is it that they do? Most of them tend to be seasoned role-players, with many years of experience. So it is probably not a question of an innate genetic talent, but rather a thoroughly honed skill set.

Currently there is an undergrowth of bloggers who are working on charting what skills a good role-player possesses. Needless to say, it is a difficult chore. We all play for different reasons, and being a casual gamer, you would look for different qualities than an immersionist or a dramatist would (see ‘The three way model‘ for an introduction of these terms).

Mapping Good Role-playing Skills

However, one trait seems to crop up everywhere: Social skills. As Lizzie Stark puts it: “Larp is a social activity”. The same can be said of all role-playing games that aren’t digital (and some that are). This implies something we already knew, but didn’t want to admit: Maybe not everyone is as welcome as we would like to believe. Maybe the same people who lacked the social skills to get through school unscathed find themselves confronted with their shortcomings once again.

Another Anecdote

Good role-players are the people we should be looking up to
I’m going to end this article with yet another anecdote – but this time a recent one. I was running a game for some teachers who were interested in using role-playing as a tool, but who needed to be shown what it is. I wanted to give them a good experience, so I asked a friend who is an experienced role-player to join them. Within a very short time, his mere presence managed to escalate the game in a way that none of the others would have been capable of doing. It happened in many ways: By way of imitation, but also because he was able to create action that would beget action. His participation lifted the experience for everyone else.

Pretending that ‘everyone can role-play’ is a huge underselling of the skills that good role-players have. If we want to continue making increasingly complex games, we need players that can measure up to the games. That is something we will only get if we are working consciously towards it.

There is a reason why Danes don’t like to mention that some people are better at what they do than others. We come from an egalitarian society, and we don’t like braggarts. But we have to stop equalling skill with status. What is wrong with being a skilful role-player? Absolutely nothing. Being good at something doesn’t make you an arrogant elitist. More likely, it means that you have invested a lot of time in getting good.

Good role-players are the people we should be looking up to. We need to start seeing them as a resource which should be made available. Not as a hidden discourse. As for the bad role-players: We don’t need to put them down, but we do need to show them the way.

Authors

Sanne Harder
'Sanne Harder’ (sometimes credited as Sanne Harder Flamant or S. Benarzi) is a Danish game designer, who has organized and written scenarios since 1994. As part of the Nordic Larp Talks in 2011 she gave a talk titled "Roleplaying as a Teaching Method."
  • Pedro Morell Miranda

    I agree with you that there are some LARPers that are bad. I’m not really a good actor, but I always try to give some fidellity to my characters, so, even if I’m not doing it great, at least I’m not ruining it for the rest of the players. I believe that we have to accept both good and bad LARPers on our games, but I agree with you that the game masters and/or directors have to place them each player where he/she can contribute the most to the game. I actually am playing on event with lot of fighting, and military involved, so bad players are less harmful there, but on a LARP that takes place on a house, with a few people, everybody have to be placed where they will perform the best.

    • Pedro, thanks for commenting 🙂
      Actually, I believe that acting is one very small part of being a good player – perhaps not even the essential part. I’ve recently had the opportunity to work with professional actors. What I found was that they would steal the scene, hog the game, and had no understanding for how to include other players and create more play! You might say that role-playing is a ‘team sport’, to use an analogy.
      Is it acceptable to let organisers place you where you live? In Denmark it happens, but rarely candidly.

      • Pedro Morell Miranda

        It depend on the game. When I’ve played the GM role, I certainly tryied to place the key roles on people I knew were going to perform well. It is almost as choosing NPCs, if your plot have key characters, they need to be chosen carfully.

        By the way, I understand what you say about actors. I was thinking on immersion, where a good acting really help, but you are right, it’s not how you behave, but how your behaviour affects others and improve the experience.

        And about the trend here in Spain, it’s difficult to say. We are not very united, so you can find almost anything (but I have to say that Nordic LARPing is the rarest around here).

  • Pernille Thede Jakobsen

    Bravo!

  • AaronJV

    Excellent article, thank you! I’m going to post it around on some American forums and watch the infernos. 😉

  • Troels Christian Jakobsen

    My comments:
    0. Everyone can role-play, but far from all do it. The Danish mentality of ‘hygge’ and equality is an obstacle, not only because it makes people lie about the hidden conflicts, but especially because conflict-engagement is at the root at what makes a game work.
    1: When I did a massive amount of GM’ing at Danish conventions in the early 90s, I saw it as my role to challenge bad players to become better, and if they did not respond well, my task was to eliminate them as a burden to the game. My greatest thrill as GM was to make an introvert, silent nerd get out of the closet and make an impact on the game.
    2. The skills and talents of a good player. My best games was played in a group of players who were all seasoned GMs and scenario-creators, because they could play with the second consciousness of the totality of the drama, and not only the first and narrow consciousness of the player/character.
    3. If I ignore the Jante-law, as the post seems to beg for, my answer to ‘how do we get conscious about what makes a good player’ would be to hire me to do some courses, based on my insights in acting, directing and dramaturgy. Fundamentally it’s about presence in the moment, the fearless ability to act (as in doing something, as a verbal or physical act) and letting go of your own ego. All things that the art of acting and directing theatre has toiled with a skill-set for the last 2.500 years – which I have further refined with the insights from RPGs into the IRL acting method. I’m at your service 😉 (Upcoming IRL-method workshop in CPH 11-15th of August).
    4.

    • Sanne

      Unfortunately, it seems like your blog post got cut off?

  • Rei

    Good article!

    Yes, I agre with your observation about this problem. I’m not sorry to leave ‘best roleplayer’ behind; making it competitive actively put me off, I would always feel like not winning it meant I was necessarily a terrible roleplayer, and would also get annoyed when I roleplayed my heart out but for a quiet role and the ones who caught the attention of the group would be the ones who got the award.

    When I arrived at my first LARP, very new and scared and confused, far giving me a character away from the central plot, I was given a character who turned out to be the long lost heir to one of the great houses. Lots of things happened *to* me in that game and other people had lots of reasons to want things from me, which made it easier. I was also given a very experienced roleplayer who was playing my guardian/political advisor. It worked very well, and I would recommend it as an approach. I’m also more willing to have a ‘list of experienced roleplayers who are willing to help out’ than ‘here is a list of people we think are good roleplayers’.

    Ways of giving feedback in a none hurtful way would be helpful? One general rule I’ve heard if you have complaints about games is: wait a few days; nobody wants to hear anything when they’re tired and stressed. And of course, constructive suggestions and making sure you also include positives is more helpful than a list of grievances. I’m not exactly great at that myself, having a natural tendency to get passionate and blurt out what I think without thinking, but am working on it!

    Yes, social skills can be learned, like any others, and it would be nice to see help developing those for those of us who have always been socially awkward. It’s easy to feel hurt and defensive at criticisms, but there’s a lot to be said for careful phrasing; I saw one where the GM told us to turn to the person next to us and tell them one thing they had done in the game that you appreciated, and then one thing that you’d like to see them do more of. That worked quite well, and feeling positive and happy about my contributions being acknowledged made it easier to take the second comment with a spirit of ‘this is a thing I should challenge myself to do’ rather than ‘this person is accusing me of being a terrible roleplayer’ 🙂 .

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