Hinterland was set a few years in the future: a future in which war has destroyed much of society and the infrastructure of modern civilization. Millions of Swedes now live in overcrowded refugee camps scattered around the countryside, at the mercy of ad-hoc crisis authorities, whose resources are stretched way too thin. Life in the camps is harsh and many die of disease, malnutrition, or violence. But there is nowhere else to go.
The real disaster is yet to come, however. A few years into the crisis, a new disease starts spreading. The overpopulated camps and their malnourished inhabitants have no chance. Over the course of six months, almost the entire population of Sweden has succumbed to the disease, whether in camps or elsewhere. Hinterland was about a group of refugees from such a camp, who have fled in panic as the disease burned through the population. With nothing but the clothes on their bodies, and weakened by years of malnutrition, abuse, and trauma, they have marched off into the wilderness, hoping to get away from the disease.
We designed Hinterland to challenge the basic comforts most of us are used to at larps. We wanted the game to be physically challenging and really uncomfortable, and we told the players to bring as little as possible, even removing a few items from players before the larp. We actively encouraged players to steal things, even items like sleeping gear or food. The idea was to make the players feel like they didn’t have any resources at all, and to force them into scavenging from the start. The game area was an old farm in the middle of nowhere, where we had hidden items that they could make use of: things like food stashes, blankets, and tools.
To reach the farm, which was unknown to the players before the larp, they had to walk a few kilometers down a country road. That was how the larp started: a gruelling walk on empty bellies.
Our idea was to have the players scrounge around the farm once they reached it, and to have them ration or divvy up the resources. They also had to figure out whether they could build or improve the farm for an extended stay, or if they should just take what they could use and move on. Would players hoard or hide resources, or would they pool them together to give everyone a chance to survive? Would they fight over food? Would the characters that thought of themselves as “good” act in a selfish way, and vice versa? Would they act as a collective or would they divide into groups? What would happen to the traumatized refugees once they found relative security, a hot meal, and time to process their experiences? And what would happen once one of them started showing symptoms of disease?
During the larp, we had a few NPC scenes. One was an unexpected visit by a group of thugs who rolled in with guns and dogs and stole anything lying around, including food and blankets. The idea was for the players to feel a bit better about their situation once they had found some food and other items, only to have it brutally taken away from them again. Another NPC scene was when two visitors from a farm a few miles away came by to check in on the former inhabitants of the farm, who were now dead from the same disease running rampant in the camps. The larp ended with a group from the remnants of the local authority arriving to perform quarantine duties (at which point many players ran off into the woods).
Character creation was left up to the players, in a process where they would answer around twenty specific questions about their character’s life before, during, and after the war. The questions were designed to streamline the character creation process and to get the participants thinking about the same issues, while leaving out things that weren’t relevant to the story to be told. “Where were you when the war came?” “What kind of person were you before the war?” “Have you done anything to survive that you are not proud of?” Players then asked to have their character reviewed and accepted. Players could request coaching if they felt they needed input or direction. In some cases, organisers did not approve of a suggested character. In these cases, players got an assigned coach to help them build a more suitable character.
Players were also required to create a few background relationships, shared memories, and a skjebne or fate, for their character. All of this was available through an online system, and players could read each other’s approved characters and build internal relationships. Players were encouraged to let their character design be completely transparent, but they could choose to keep some parts of their background accessible only to themselves and to the organizers. Some players choose this option for a few details of their characters. All fates were by design fully transparent, so as to increase the likelihood of them coming true.
Hinterland was light on rules. We decided not to have any boffer weapons, instead using a combination of blank-firing guns – of which there was only one available to the larpers, with a total of two rounds of ammunition – and blunt weapons, such as rocks, hammers, etc. Weapons were used to pre-determine the outcome of a confrontation, similar to the Monitor Celestra rule of “the one with a gun controls the situation,” with our take being “the one with the largest rock controls the situation.”
As for violence, we wanted to avoid pointless fighting for its own sake, and instead made violence have consequences. We also suggested and workshopped a system in which fighting was mostly about postures, escalating to a point where someone backs down, or brawls on the ground. Furthermore, players were made aware that their characters were weak from malnutrition and lack of sleep, and hence would not be able to take a beating. Our game was loosely divided into acts, where any violence used got increasingly more dangerous as the larp progressed. You could choose to die whenever you wanted to, but you were not allowed to kill other players until the last act.
As the disease was a major plot element – “Am I infected?” “Is anyone else and how do we treat them?” – we devised a system in which a group of randomly selected players were picked from a list and flagged as “infected.” All the players received a small ziploc bag containing a pill – or three pills, at the second run – to take during the larp. If the pill contained salt, you started manifesting the disease, at which point you could go to the lavatory and apply red powder makeup to your armpits or chest, which symbolized the red rashes you got from the disease. This technique gave a lot of players a sense of dread when taking the pill, and for many who were infected, the taste of salt felt like a physical blow.
Because of things overlooked at the first run, we decided to let a few players from the first run play run two as well, with the off-game responsibility to “hack” or push players out of situations where we thought the game might get stuck. For example, players could hack instances where they saw a power dynamic or consensus in the game that killed off avenues of play to explore. An example was when everyone agreed on the most sane and rational solution early on and stuck to it, in a way that didn’t feel like decisions made by people who had been subjected to years of misery, were cold, exhausted, hungry, and afraid.
We have always been interested in “end of the world” scenarios, but also contemporary politics. Far-right and anti-immigrant ideologies are on the rise in Sweden, and we wanted to counter that in some way. One way in which we know we could attempt this was to have people experience just a tiny sliver of the life of a refugee for a short while. We didn’t believe that our larp would be anything close to the horrors that refugees encounter, but we hoped that giving players a tiny taste of the situation experienced right now by millions of people out there would give a better understanding of the hardships that war, and fleeing from war, can entail. We also wanted to make something that was “hardcore” in areas that usually go unchallenged at larps: like personal property, comfort, and basic stuff like food and sleeping quarters. And, finally, an aim of this project was to donate the proceeds of the larp to a Swedish organisation that helps refugees already rejected by the system: the paperless or underground refugees that are sometimes called “illegal.” This was our intent from the start, and something we were open about. In the end we managed to raise around €2,000 for that cause; an amount that we are very happy with.
Credits: Sebastian Utbult, Olle Nyman, Erik Stormark, with the help of Karin Edman, Simon Svensson, Ida Eberg, Andreas Sigfridsson and others.
Date: May 8–10 & May 22–24, 2015.
Location: Rifallet, Sweden
Duration: Around 40 hours, plus workshop.
Participants: 40–45 per run (two runs total).
Participation Fee: €50–€250 depending on income.
Game Mechanics: Blunt weapons (representative), “phys-larping” violence, optional meta scene room, escalation/ de-escalation techniques, disease system, playing to lose, act structure.
Cover photo: Refugees on the move (play, Sebastian Utbult). Other photos by Sebastian Utbult & Olle Nyman.