Hinterland: Design for Real Knives and Misery

Hinterland: Design for Real Knives and Misery

Hinterland was a Swedish post-apocalyptic larp about refugees and disease. It was language-neutral, in effect meaning that people did their best to switch to whichever language was most inclusive for the players present in any given scene. What follows is my personal take as a player on some aspects of its design, and in particular on the way it used real weapons and real physical misery.

The raiders have left, taking most of our scavenged food and blankets with them. Now a group is checking everyone for Rosen (“The Rose”, the deadly infectious disease spreading among the refugees). I’m slowly removing my stinking shirt and jacket when I see it, the tell-tale symptom: a bleeding rash on my stomach. God, please, no…

Physical Misery

Refugees sleep in an abandoned house (play, Sebastian Utbult).Hinterland was pretty hardcore. In it, players took on the roles of exhausted refugees in a post-nuclear war, plague-ridden Sweden for 48 hours. They could not bring any food with them, and organizers provided very little. Even this was partly taken from them by NPC raiders, along with most of their blankets (temperatures dropped to about 5°C at night). Characters then fought over what was left, stealing anything unguarded.

Organizers encouraged those who felt that digging for one meal a day and shivering in their dirty rags wasn’t hardcore enough to “play to lose harder,” for example by finding an excuse to sleep in a leaky barn instead of staying in the main house. As a result, many players were actually cold, hungry and tired.

This was of course the whole point, as I perceive that one of Hinterland’s aims was to make participants experience the life of a refugee for two days. This facet of the larp was akin to agendas of other games, such as Last Will (where you can play a slave) or Just a Little Lovin’ (where you can play a gay person). Even though the organizers more or less explicitly stated their objective (in particular during the debrief discussion topics), one didn’t have to engage in political discussion around the larp to enjoy it. Personally though, I found it a pretty cool and effective way of getting the point across.

Players milling around after the game (post-game, Sebastian Utbult).But back to the misery! So how do you get people to play along so far into hardcore-land? The trick, I feel, is the presence of a safety net: if at any time, a player felt they had had enough (too cold, hungry, stressed), they could just head off to a designated off-game area for a meal and warm bed. Apart from a few caffeine-addicts, no one actually made use of this possibility on the run I attended (the larp was played twice). But knowing it was there made many of us feel safe when “playing to lose our food” or stealing someone’s blanket.

The system is not foolproof, of course. Just like safety words, all sorts of things can still go wrong. But I personally found the safety-net approach to hardcore misery to be simple and effective. Not only did people agree to get pushed into something closer – if naturally not equivalent – to what a refugee might experience, but it also created an improved framework for dramatic play. Things which are powerful topics for conflictual scenes, but are in many larps not to be messed with (especially not all at the same time), were fair game here, knowing yourself and the other player had this safety net to fall back on: getting thrown out of the only warm place to sleep, hiding a can of rice while others are hungry, etc.

As I stumble towards the barn, coughing blood, I notice the sign planted in the middle of the road. On the torn-off plank, the moonlight reveals crude letters hastily drawn in charcoal: ROSEN. All I can do is stand there and stare at it, shivering in my dirty blanket.

So, No Boffer Weapons, Huh?

A sign warning about Rosen (The Rose), the plague killing off  the refugees (play, Sebastian Utbult).Most weapons used by the characters were knives or tools, such as old pitchforks for example. Real, sharp ones, that is, not the boffer versions. This made for a very immersive experience; after all, nothing looks more like a rusty blade or a metal club than the actual thing.

Of course, this meant that anything beyond threats was almost impossible, for safety reasons. Armed fighting needed to be very carefully planned, and even then, it was limited to things like “a deadly stab in the back.” This, in turn, meant that weapons in Hinterland were more a way to control or influence people and situations than actual fighting tools, thus serving the larp’s narrativist agenda. It might seem surprising, but when properly workshopped, real knives mean more drama.

It’s been some time since I’ve traded our last scraps of food for painkillers. People are leaving, saying goodbye, while someone strokes my hair. Dying bodies lie crumpled on the ground. Enya, how I wish you were here… I’m floating away…

Conclusion

Having a safety net allows players to “go harder”. This can be interesting for its own sake. It’s also a smart design move for larps that rely on getting participants out of their comfort zone to make a political point. Hinterland is a prime example of this, making people experience some of the hardships faced by refugees.

The other main design lesson for me here was the use of real weapons. While initially surprising, it’s a great way of shifting a larp’s focus from actual fighting to drama; with the added bonus of looking good.

Workshop to let go of character (post-game, Sebastian Utbult).

Hinterland

Credits: Main designers and producers were Olle Nyman, Sebastian Utbult & Erik Stormark, for Berättelsefrämjandet. Co-produced by Karin Edman & Simon Svensson, with the help of Andreas Sigfridsson, Helen Stark and Ida Eberg.
Date: May 8–10, 2015 & May 22–24, 2015
Location: Private land (abandoned 19th century farm) near Kopparberg, Sweden
Length: 40 hours of play, 3–4 hours of workshop (per run)
Players: 83 (max 50 per run) + NPCs
Budget: ~€7,000 (Proceeds were donated to Ingen människa är illegal/No One is Illegal)
Participation Fee: €50–€250 (depending on income), €80 for a standard ticket
Game Mechanics: Honor System, playing to lose, safewords, pre-larp workshop, act structure, blank-firing firearms & blank weapons, meta-techniques (opt in).
Website: http://beratta.org/hinterland

Cover photo: Bandits raid the refugee camp (play, Sebastian Utbult).

Authors

JC
Half-French and half-Dutch, I'm a larp-theory enthusiast and avid international larper. When not doing that, I can be found playing either sports or metal (check out my band Red Mourning!).
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