Mare Incognitum – Trapped in the Ice

Mare Incognitum – Trapped in the Ice

The Fate of the M/S Lyckan

Our story took place aboard the M/S Lyckan, a former German navy freighter with a horrific history of atrocities. A research expedition to Kirkenes in Norway had unearthed a strange statuette, which was brought on board during M/S Lyckan’s last journey out of Kirkenes for the winter. Aboard were the expedition, the crew and captain, a group of workers, a doctor and nurse, a group of dilettantes and adventurers and a few others.

Mare Incognitum was a larp set in Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos, aboard the decommissioned destroyer HMS Småland. We wanted to create a claustrophobic horror larp that relied more on atmosphere and “slow pressure” than shock and jump scares; more on subtle, personal horror than on monsters and gore. We chose, unconventionally, to do a 1950’s Lovecraft larp rather than the classic 1920’s setting, both because it fit the actual ship better, but also to be able to use the Second World War as a tapestry for much of the background, something we think worked out very well.

We realized early on that we were going to have to do multiple runs of the larp in order to be able to finance it properly, and we decided on doing three runs of the larp for 26 players each game. Wise from the experiences of our last Mythos larp Terra Incognita we tried our best to have a fifty-fifty ratio of women to men, and to let chance dictate who got the spots for the larp (with a few exceptions).

This strategy proved to be successful, both in terms of equal representation and in terms of players we didn’t personally know – you can get comfortable as an organizer and mostly cast people already known to you. Most of the final participants were from Sweden, but we also had participants from Denmark, Norway, Finland, Estonia, Great Britain, the US and Spain.

We also tried to have at least 20 percent beginners at the larp. However, quite a few of the beginners dropped out before the larp, so the 20 percent was not fully realized.

A member of the crew taking a break from the hard work with the engine. (Play, Jonas Aronsson)

Creating a Horror Story

The location, the ship, made many decisions about the story for us, which is how we like to work – do something within a set of limitations. It was going to be claustrophobic and dark, and the players were going to be cut off from the outside world; all great components for creating horror. We first decided on the basic outline of the story: first some normality onboard the ship, followed by the ship getting stuck in the ice, then taking away comforts like lights and food, a slow escalation of weirdness, clues, handouts and events leading up to a crescendo in which the players are confronted with their doom.

It was quite a challenge writing twenty-seven interesting, multifaceted characters and fitting them all together in the story, making sure to give all the players both agency and internal logic. It was important to us that we created characters that would be fun to play even if we completely removed the horror and supernatural elements. We had utilized skjebner (fate-play) before, and for Mare Incognitum we gave all the characters several fates and triggers (“if x happens, do this/react in this way”) in order to create hooks for the players nudging towards insanity or to create potential for scenes or conflict. Once we had assigned players to the characters we tweaked those characters who were not Swedes (different background texts).

Characters were divided into groups; an expedition of scientists, a group of workers, a group of dilettantes and adventurers and their servants, etc. A big help here was a drawing board, where you could connect the different characters and how they related to each other in order to visualize possible plots, twists and subgroups.

As we said earlier, we used the Second World War as a background for many of the characters, and the war itself was used as an underlying subplot; the ship had previously been the stage of some atrocities during the war, and many documents, letters and signs produced for the larp and spread around the ship contained info on this backstory which we think added another layer of horror underneath the Mythos horror.
This also offered us the opportunity to treat the ship itself as a character in the drama and the ship’s history was lent physical form as shadows from the past via odd messages on the radio but also as actual Shadows (NPCs giving suggestions or insights to the players, but being invisible to the characters).

Passengers boarding the ship. (Play, Jonas Aronsson)

Producing Horror

Early on, we decided to aim for a creeping, slow horror rather than “in-your-face” jump-scares. As is the key to most Mythos horror, the horror is ancient, does not care at all about humanity, and is more or less impossible to understand – and there can be no defeating the horror, only a short respite.

The key things that made this larp were, we think, the ship itself (i.e “the stage”), the handouts (handwritten diaries, letters, photos, documents, etc) that gave background and increased the sense of horror onboard, the characters (pre-written and designed for drama, conflict and a slow descent into madness) and a combination of creative NPCs and on-the-spot game-mastering.

The sound system used onboard greatly helped in creating mood and atmosphere. Having great players also helped a lot.
Creating horror, we believe, is a very delicate and sensitive thing.

Pace it too slow or too fast and you burn out the players or destroy the narrative, show too much of the horror and you risk it losing it’s power. Give the players too much to do – like reading handouts and completing tasks – and they can become too focused on doing and not feeling.

But on the other hand, if you give the players too little to do the sense of “developing” story or of getting anywhere might be lost and the players may become tired or bored.

Our larp had its fair share of pacing issues (which we tried correcting during subsequent runs), and as an organizer you have a hard time gauging what the players are feeling or currently doing, and you might panic, thinking the players are bored, and start doing things that screws up what might be an excellent atmosphere for the players.

We had a radio room, where the players diegetically could speak to other ships in the area as well as the coast guard, and we think it worked out better than we had imagined.

At first it functioned as a source of information and safety for the players (there was always an “external party” they could talk to), but as the game progressed the voices on the radio increased the feeling of isolation and the problematic situation the passengers were now in – coastal stations reporting that the storm was gaining in intensity, ships reporting that they could not reach them to help, etc.

Players in the radio room could also experience semi-meta gameplay; strange voices from the past, weird monster sounds, voices speaking to them from beyond the grave etc, which worked really well – especially so since the room was rigged with a night vision camera so we could identify players and simultaneously read up on their back-stories as we spoke to them.

A crew member putting their feet up. (Play, Jonas Aronsson)

Lessons Learned

Gender Roles and Equality

We put some effort into making sure all the characters for the larp were as gender neutral as possible. Any character should be playable by anyone without any (or very little) modification. We were also very strict in keeping the ratio 50/50 between (self-identified) males and females. We realize that we need to actively work more to create a game with actual equality in regards to gender, and this is something we’ll have to keep discussing and working on.

Tech

Tech never works flawlessly. It will break, or you’ll have great problems getting it to work right. Always plan for that if you intend to have a tech-enhanced larp. Keep an “analog” option for your players. Also make sure tech is dead simple to understand, then dumb it down even further. Test the tech in extreme conditions. Try everything beforehand, multiple times, to find the glitches. Our sound system gave us extreme headaches until we managed to get it working right.

Railroading

We railroaded the end too much, which felt weird and out of place. This is bad design. Try to avoid that unless you have a kick-ass ending that you feel works no matter what state the players are in.

New Blood

Bring in new players, and people you’ve never worked with before. Don’t be afraid. You might just be amazed (like when the new blood don the wellingtons, and take on the monumental task of cleaning out the poop floating all over the kitchen). Make sure you have a great team of NPCs and functionaries to back you up when you get tired or busy.

Don’t Be Afraid to Break the Diegesis

We are somewhat stuck in the 360 design model, and we were sometimes hesitant to break the diegesis in order to spook players or use meta techniques to further the game, but once we did it was universally well received and really worked out well. We need to stop being afraid of breaking the 360 illusion.

Information

Keeping players up to date is very hard, even if you just choose one single channel for that information (email for instance). Do NOT rely on Facebook at all, but also keep in mind that players will miss emails and will not read all your text. Be very, very clear in writing, and repeat everything that is important several times.

The Verdict

In the end we’re happy to have created the larp together with the kick ass participants and our excellent crew, to have run three fairly different runs. The participants humble us with relevant feedback, making us wanting to continue, and also letting others learn from our mistakes (and successes). It was a great larp for most, but it could have been better, and we’ll work on that until next time!

Mare Incognitum

Credits: Olle Nyman, Sara Pertmann, Sebastian Utbult, Andreas Sjöberg and Simon Svensson. Crewed by 15 additional NPCs and deckhands.
Date: November 28-30, 2014
Location: HMS Småland, Gothenburg, Sweden
Length: 10 hours
Players: 78 (26 per run)
Budget: ~€6,500
Participation Fee: €65 – €110 (depending on income)
Game Mechanics Diegetic Game Mastering, Honour System, Slow take- off, Slow Landing, Soundtrack, Pre- written characters,Shadows, Narrative Voice-Over, Playing to lose, Brems, Kutt, Pre-larp Workshop
Website: http://iäiä.se/

This article was initially published in The Nordic Larp Yearbook 2014 which was edited by Charles Bo Nielsen & Claus Raasted, published by Rollespilsakademiet and released as part of documentation for the Knudepunkt 2015 conference.

Cover photo: The organizers have an in-game radio conversation with the stranded travellers. (Play, Jonas Aronsson). Other photos by Jonas Aronsson.

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