Helsinki in the 1920’s: urbanization, the admiring gaze towards Europe; jazz and lipstick, daring women entering the public sphere; a country divided by the bitter civil war in 1918; prohibition and the tsunami of illegal alcohol and booze-related crimes. The perfect setting for a larp, and as Niina had published two novels set in the same milieu a reasonable amount of research was already done.
Helsinki as a city and a state of mind was a central theme in Tonnin stiflat (Thousand Mark Shoes). Therefore we decided to make the most of it and play in the streets. Helsinki has, of course, changed in 100 years, but especially in the city center plenty of old architecture, cafés, restaurants and parks still remain or have the same atmosphere as in the twenties. The omnipresent modernity cannot be avoided, though, so we focused the game to areas with the most suitable architecture and atmosphere. However, playing in Tonnin stiflat certainly demanded selective attention and active disregarding of a lot of surrounding anachronisms.
One of the main stories was, of course, bootlegging. Two leagues competed over clients and deals, and the plot thickened in the first game as the other boss was arrested and her right hand woman accidentally shot by a police officer.
This was pre-planned to create a power vacuum for other characters to fill. The arrest and the death also launched several smaller plots.
The civil war fought soon after the declaration of independence from Russia has effects even now, let alone only ten years later. Consequently, politics were present also in Tonnin stiflat and many characters had conflicts dating back to the civil war.
The stain of communism sat hard on the defeated – those who survived prison camps, diseases and hunger. The communist workers in Tonnin stiflat were hard working, sick and poor, but strong in their ideology. Their actions crossed with the security police, which resulted in one of the most violent scenes in the game.
The twenties can also be seen as a stage for art, obliquities and the decadent. Paris, for a few characters, glittered as a paradise full of drugs, luxury, art and love. This kind of life also had its reverse side of addiction, abuse, venereal disease and general not-being-in-the-paradise, a constant longing for something better. The young painter gave herself to her godfather’s use in exchange for money and art education, and sat finally by his bed when syphilis devoured him into painful death. The conservative teacher struggled with hopeless love and a death in his past, and the only escape was suicide.
Murder is part of the noir genre, and where there is murder, there is revenge. As death in larp easily becomes a short term curiosity and is soon forgotten, every death in the game was initiated or authorised by us. An apothecary found dead, triggered the detective’s game, and the death of the bootlegger caused her sweetheart and friends to seek revenge. Both cases were solved in their own way in the last game.
The 18 characters were written iteratively in collaboration. After the casting, the core concepts of the characters were written into full characters by us, and after the pregame workshop and players’ own additions and changes, the final version of the character was written. The players had a big responsibility in fleshing out their character and in specifying relations to other characters. In-depth personal histories etc. were also up to the players to develop, while we focused on the functional core of the character.
The players were chosen from the roughly 70 registrants. The casting was made on the basis of mainly two things: player’s enrolment info including her (or his) wishes and capabilities, and our aim to avoid conservative gender stereotypes.
The core character concepts were gender neutral, and players could also choose their character’s sex. Our principle – and our only explicit anachronism – was that gender should not limit the characters’ actions or possibilities in any way. To name a few, the cynical private detective was female and the luxury-yearning prostitute male, the heroic bootlegger was male but as smuggling bosses we had powerful queens, not kings. In the end, we were quite happy with the casting as players’ wishes and our vision aligned nicely.
It was also possible to enroll as supporting cast. The supporting cast of roughly 40 was the most central and multifaceted tool used in the game. Their task was to create preplanned scenes, enliven character histories, bring in new plots, surprises and information, be found dead or die in the hands of the characters, perform music and dance, etc. A supporting role could last the whole season and develop in different ways, or it could be a ten-minute scene with only one player in it. The supporting cast were instructed carefully for each scene they appeared in so they knew their purpose and the aim of the scene. They acted as instructed or improvised to the desired direction.
The design in Tonnin stiflat aimed towards high precision experience design. The idea was to provide individually tailored experience for each player. This required a different set of tools than e.g. larps relying on brute force designed sandbox or 360-illusion. The small number of players enabled us to do precision work that would not have been possible in a larger larp without significant increase in resources.
The central design goal of S tifl at was high resolution social interaction between dramatically interesting yet realistically portrayed characters. For this we wanted a strong emphasis on power structures and relations between characters. It was essential that all plots and storylines would somehow concretely materialize during the game-play. The characters were forced to make choices that had consequences inside the game, and those choices would ultimately form a unique story arc for each character and climax in the third episode.
Most of the design tools used were tools that increase control over the larp. However it was of utmost importance that they were utilized in a manner that does not sacrifice what we consider the essence of roleplaying – immersion, action in character, high definition social interaction between characters and meaningful decision making that has consequences in the larp. Indeed, by increasing control and stepping away from purely open sandbox playing, we aimed at enabling those features and providing solid structures to support them.
Tonnin stiflat utilized a selected set of tools to enable gameplay that elicits the type of player experience we were after. Our toolset included pre-game workshopping, iterative character creation, supporting cast, pre-planned scenes, meta instructions, custom debriefing methods, reporting and multi directional feedback, etc. Preplanned and scheduled scenes were one of the defining design features of Stiflat.
In their written briefs before the game the players had a schedule for the game and typically from two to five different pre-planned scenes. The scenes varied significantly in duration, the amount preparations and supporting cast involved, and the degree of fateplay involved. These were designed in order to guide the storylines, dramatic structures and geographic locations of the players so that all players would have game that is meaningful, full but not too full – of action, where their wishes are fulfilled, and that would provide maximum support for character interaction and dynamics.
We also tried to schedule sufficient time for free flowing playing so that the prescheduled scenes would not dominate the larp entirely and that the players wouldn’t feel that they have no agency in the game.
Different types of meta instructions were also used in directing the players to act in a desired manner, to explicate interaction possibilities, and to enable interimmersion and the support of other players’ character concepts. These were always given well in advance so that the required steering would feel more natural. All characters had a weakness and a strength that was known to all players (“X is willing to do anything for money and luxury”, or “It is very easy to open up and discuss private matters with Y”). Also from episode to episode, we had varying meta instructions to direct the play and encourage certain interactions (e.g. “Accuse X of apothecary’s murder”, “Pay attention to Y’s mood”, “Recount how tough it is to be a private detective to the bartender”). We designed all meta instructions to activate, enable, and drive things forward instead of disabling or blocking anything.
Looking back at Tonnin stiflat: Season One, we can say that we succeeded in what we set out to achieve. Not everything went 100% as planned and there is always room to improve, but overall we are very satisfied. We managed to share our vision with players, and players took it as their own and played in a terrific ensemble.
We are especially happy that the character interaction was as nuanced, immersive, powerful, and multi-faceted as we hoped it would be. We managed to build structures that gave meaning to different twists in the story and to the decisions characters had to make.
Also most storylines manifested as concrete action in the game, and they were brought to conclusion at the end of the season. All this was made possible by the smooth collaboration between all participants.
In retrospect, three games in three months was too tight schedule. The original idea was to design all three games before the start of the season, but it was soon clear that if we wanted players to contribute and decide what their characters do between the games, we can’t really design beyond the first game that much.
We also somewhat failed at communicating what is useful and actionable input regarding character’s actions and plans between the games. Yet, especially in the second game where we had the most input from the players, we ended up putting up too much content in the game and in result too little time for free play was left.
Among lessons learned are also how it is nearly impossible to arrange “coincidences” in street larp with any degree of certainty, how violence tends to escalate to rather extreme despite all efforts to the contrary, and how having both players and supporting cast can backfire when utilizing team spirit enhancing techniques.
Now that season one is finished, we are left with the option to stop here or to continue in one way or another. All the main storylines are finished, so whatever season two will be about, it will be something new and different.
Tonnin stiflat: Season One
Credits: Niina Niskanen (setting, background materials, characters, storylines, drama and interaction design, workshops, props), Simo Järvelä (characters, storylines, drama and interaction design, game mechanics, workshops, props), Tuomas Puikkonen (photography)
Date: 16 August, 11 October & 22 November, 2014
Location: Helsinki, Finland
Length: 8-9 hours each
Players: 16 players, and 40 supporting cast
Participation Fee: €50 per game
Game Mechanics: Supporting cast, meta instructions, preplanned scenes, workshops
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: Police officer Mujunen pays for her mistake (Play, Tuomas Puikkonen). Other photos by Tuomas Puikkonen.