No one could begin to describe the cumulative suspense and ultimate horror.
That was how H.P. Lovecraft described the short story The Great God Pan, written by Arthur Machen in 1890. Along with the art film Antichrist (Von Trier, 2009), that story was the inspiration behind the larp Pan. It is a horror larp. Not in the sense of vampires, zombies or tentacles, but psychological horror exploring the themes of identity and nature.
The premise for the event is a modern day weekend retreat for four or five couples undergoing relationship counselling, led by an “eclectic” therapist couple mixing bad therapy techniques with “folk wisdom” occult methods. The therapy gradually gets out of hand as everyone present falls under the influence of Pan, releasing their hidden desires and inner nature.
Pan is played under a strict confidentiality agreement. What happens in Pan is kept private among those present. This piece focuses on the design of Pan, not on what may have happened in play. We do not allow photos during play, with the only exception being posed character portraits early on. Physical interactions are one facet of Pan, but only a part of a much bigger whole, so it would be a mistake to excessively dwell on that part.
Productions of Pan
The original authors Bjarke Pedersen and Linda Udby organised Pan twice in January 2013 in Denmark; for mostly Danish players. Seventy-five people tried to book to play it, which demonstrates the interest in events of this nature. They organised a further run in November 2014 in Norway. Working with the Finnish larp organiser Kielo Maria Blomqvist, I organised the first international rerun to take place in April 2014. Our eight players came from three different countries.
We organised a second run in a 19th century folly castle in the UK in November 2014. I organised a further rerun with Dutch organisers Miriam Dik-Knoppert and Nina Elzinga in the Netherlands in January 2015. This text primarily refers to my presentations.
It should be noted that Pan is also intended to be the first of a trilogy of thematically linked larps, but we are here dealing only with Pan itself.
Briefing: Defining the Characters
Players were encouraged but not required to book with a friend to play an in-game couple attending therapy. This ensured players were comfortable together and better able to portray a couple, with confidence to play with and against each other. Playing with a real life partner was not recommended, given the relationship therapy context. Alternatively, players attending “alone” could be matched up by the organisers. We had a mix of single and double bookings in all of my runs.
The characters were pre-written from the previous runs, but only a single page long. They were all mundane modern people, but each of the characters were modelled on one of the Gods of Olympus. Players were asked to read both their own character and that of their in-game partner.
Players were encouraged to expand on their characters together and research the deity on which each of them was based. In addition players were invited to role-play for a few hours together as their character couple before coming to the larp, e.g. have dinner together one evening. The therapist characters played by the organisers were written in the same way.
The pre-game workshop included a hot seat exercise, where players in turn answered questions as their character for three minutes. This increases the level of transparency for other players, without needing a lot of pre-game reading. It also helps players consider their character’s views on different topics.
Casting the players to pre-written characters was a deliberate strategy by the original writers to give the players a stronger alibi. The players know they and others were playing a role they had not chosen (despite actually deciding most of the details themselves), and so had the confidence to act because it wasn’t their choice.
The player could decide whether to play as “thin” close-to-home characters or play them very differently from themselves. Being based on mythic figures they tended to be strong archetypal characters, slightly hyper-real.
In our international runs, characters also took on the nationality of their player. Though the larp was played in English, this meant background cultural details and topical news could be referenced, and a player could slip into their native language without breaking character.
Therapy: Deepening the Characters
I didn’t play the original runs, but was fascinated by Pan. I had previously played Level 5 which Bjarke Pedersen had also been involved in organising, a larp about bad 1970s group therapy.
What I brought to the international rerun was expanding the therapy content from the limited (and google-translated) notes available. Unlike the original authors I have a real background in academic psychology and additionally had studied counselling theory.
For the event I researched and developed a set of bad therapy techniques. Some of the techniques were based on real methods for individual therapy wrongly expanded into relationship therapy. Some were two incompatible methods mashed together. Some were actually intended to be diagnostic tools rather than therapy. To this toxic mix I added some guided meditation adapted from my experience of mindfulness training and hypnosis.
For example, the first therapy session was based on the twenty statements diagnostic test (devised by Kukn and McPartland, 1954): the participant completes twenty written “I am…” statements about themselves, then the list is analysed to see whether the focus is on physical descriptors, social roles, personality traits or existential statements.
I “adapted” this by having therapy clients complete a second sheet of “My partner is…” statements, and then publicly compared how each person saw themselves with how their partner saw them; for example, someone might define themselves by their personality, whilst their partner defines them by their physical features.
This brings into focus tensions within each relationship. Other therapy sessions were based on humanistic counselling and psychodrama badly combined, mindfulness and NLP mixed together, the Five languages of L ove questionnaire, and verbally guided meditation. Most sessions were conducted with the whole group together, but we also included private sessions with tarot readings and inkblot tests.
The early therapy techniques served to deepen the characters. In some ways, they are not so different from a character creation activity or pre-game workshop – only done in-game, rather than off -game.
In terms of pacing, the larp started quite tightly structured, with the organiser character therapists guiding timetabled activities. This gradually became looser and more open, both in therapy content and when the possession elements began. This “tight-to-loose” structure first created a well developed situation, then trusted and empowered the player characters to act freely within it.
Possession: Dissolving the Characters
Pan uses two meta-techniques to represent the supernatural elements of possession. One was a necklace that entered play at certain points. When wearing it, the wearer focuses immediately on their own satisfaction, regardless of how inappropriate it is. Others perceive the wearer as the most charismatic person in the room, and forget about other worries when around them. Within an hour, the wearer has to pass the necklace onto someone else, so that it passes around the group. Players later described the experience of wearing this necklace as complete freedom. They had an absolute (and physically embodied) alibi to freely act on what they desired, and everyone else would follow their lead.
This mechanic also means each player gets their turn in the limelight, and everyone gets to experience their particular style of mad desire.
From an organiser perspective, it can be quite terrifying once the necklace enters play. You realise that the player character with the necklace has complete authority to direct the larp as they see fit, and you don’t have any control over the larp any more.
The second technique was a series of glasses, one for each character. Progressively during the larp beads were added to the glass, indicating Pan’s influence growing stronger. Initially this manifested as fits (In English, ‘Pan’ is the word root of ‘panic attack’) of being elated and acting on instinct. As the number of beads increase, the fits become more common, the flow through the characters actions.
At higher levels, characters stopped feeling guilty for what they had done, and stopped trying to justify or rationalise their behaviour afterwards. Their superego/’higher self’ faded away until they lived only to follow the pipes of Pan. From an organiser perspective, this technique offered a limited way to guide the general pacing of the larp, without actually directing what happens.
In addition, we used meta-music from a speaker during the supernatural parts of the larp, to influence the mood indirectly. The song list included a piece with the words from Crowley’s Hymn to Pan as the lyrics.
Together these meta-techniques enable players to think ‘I have to act on my desires. That’s what the social agreement says. I’m just following orders.’ It removes any feeling of social anxiety from acting in an unusual fashion.
However, the player wearing the necklace and the players idolising them still have complete control in what direction and how strongly they choose to act. No one actually tells the players what they should or shouldn’t do.
The possession meta-techniques gradually dissolve away the identity of the character, revealing their inner nature. The horror comes not from external monsters, but from being confronted by the true nature of yourself and your lover, the primal urge for selfish pleasure. That might be called the Id, or Great Cthulhu sleeping in the depths of the metaphorical sea of the unconscious, or Pan, great god of nature, both the natural world and human nature.
Academics speak of the ‘magic circle’, the notion that play occurs in a sacred space set apart from the everyday world where different social rules apply. Whether that is the boxing ring or the black box, the magic circle gives players the freedom to act in foolish, dangerous and normally inappropriate ways. This is true of Pan as it is in larp generally. The necklace and the beads together are a second embodied magic circle within the magic circle of the larp itself; freedom to give in to one’s desires and the power to lead all others present in the great dance to the tune of Pan.
As people, we wear social masks all the time; the mask we wear at work is different to the mask we wear around our family. In larp, we create a new additional mask to wear in the role of our character. The question remains what is revealed when the character is dissolved by the shining light of Pan? Perhaps it is the true self of the character. Perhaps the character is only a mask, and what is revealed is the true self of the player. Perhaps that is a false dichotomy.
Perhaps no one could begin to describe the cumulative suspense and ultimate horror of the secret mystery that burns at the heart of all life, that which the poets veil in the name of the Great God Pan.
Io Pan! Io Pan! Io Pan!
Credits: Original writers Bjarke Pedersen and Linda Udby. Translation and additional content by Nathan Hook. Further organising by Kielo Maria Blomqvist and Miriam Dik-Knoppert.
Date: January 2013 (two adjacent runs in the same location), April 2014, November 2014 (two separate runs), January 2015
Location: Holiday homes in Denmark, Norway, UK and the Netherlands. An empty farmhouse in Finland.
Length: Approx. 36 hours playtime, plus 2 hours pre-game workshops and 30 mins post-game workshops
Players: 10 players for one run in Denmark and the Norway run, 8 players for the other runs.
Budget: From €240 (Finnish run) upwards.
Participation Fee: €105 (Danish runs), €30 (Finnish run), €250 or €140 (Norwegian run), €195 (UK run), €120 (Netherlands run)
Game Mechanics: status meta- items, meta-music, escalate-ward physical interactions
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 haunted victorian castle/folly Yannon Towers (Post-game, Nathan Hook). Other photos by Nathan Hook and players.