Fortune & Felicity: When Larp Grows Up

Fortune & Felicity: When Larp Grows Up

I wish you could have been at Primrose.

It is spring. Tonight there is a ball on. The women have gone back to the parlors to change out of their day dresses and into their extravagant silk gowns. A pair of soldiers are loitering outside the clock tower, discussing race horses, and paying little mind to the rather exquisite sunset in the background.

As the young ladies emerge on the porches, the soldiers click their heels together and emit simultaneous “Ah!”s of admiration.

And these virginal rose buds of spring certainly are a sight for sore eyes: Long, gloved fingers wrapped about their father’s arms. Faces half hidden behind the shades of the bonnets. Silk slippered feet on the gravel path. In the evocative words of the poet, “She walks in beauty, like the night.”

And off they all go — to dance the night away at the ballroom. Surely tonight they will meet that certain someone.

I wish you could have been there. My description does not do it justice.

The author in costume for Fortune & Felicity. Photo by Sanne Harder.

Fortune & Felicity was a larp held at the beautiful spa village of Medevi Brunn in Sweden. The larp lasted from May 25-28, 2017. It was based on the works of classic writer Jane Austen and set somewhere around 1810. The idea was to create a Nordic larp with a 360 degree illusion setting and strong plot lines that were inspired by Jane Austen’s literary works.

It’s been over a week since I got back from Fortune & Felicity and the dust is finally settling.

I’m sure we can agree that there are different kinds of larp experiences: There are the plain awful ones, where you have no chemistry with the other players and you never manage to connect with either the narrative or your character. You wind up feeling like the other players are having all the fun.

There are the OK ones and there are the good, but not that memorable experiences. Those will be part of your future reference sheet when you meet other larpers, but they are not exactly mind-altering.

Finally, there are the mind-blowing experiences that leave you euphoric for weeks on end. My experience with Fortune & Felicity was one of the latter. So asking me to write anything objective is rather a tall order. I think of this article as more of an attempt to order my thoughts, hopefully making some valuable deductions and recommendations for organizers and players to consider.

Pushing the Boundaries for Larp

Ten years ago, a larp like Fortune & Felicity would have been pretty much unthinkable. The sheer level of ambition would have seemed unrealistic. However, since then, we have seen Nordic larps play out at castles, submarines, and similarly ambitious settings, which would previously have seemed to be one-off experiences negotiated by organizers with special connections and budgets. Larpers are maturing and with student loans now payed off and full-time jobs, we are able to afford more expensive settings.

In addition to that, “chamber larping” has bridged the previous gap between intricately designed freeform games and the hitherto more brute force designs of larps.While the later years have offered the kind of settings that dreams are made of, Fortune & Felicity is one of the first larps of its size to draw upon the kind of metatechniques that you otherwise mostly encounter at a Blackbox festival. These are techniques that enable players to tell stories that are more intricate than the usual straightforward chronological ones that larpers are used to. I would like to summarize some of the metatechniques the larpwrights of Fortune & Felicity utilized.

Dramatic Monologue Poetry

a woman with a fan looking outside a doorway

Photo by Kalle Lantz & Frida Selvén.

Fortune & Felicity was a very subtle game. Usually, larping is about broadcasting your intentions as loudly as possible so that other players can pick up on them. But in this larp, everything had to be read as a subtext. This posed a challenge for the players; if the lady I am trying to impress is hiding her face behind her fan, does it mean that she is embarrassed or does it mean that she does not want people to see her blush with delight?

In order to help players interpret each other’s intentions correctly, the larpwrights gave us a metatechnique that I have dubbed dramatic monologue poetry. The tool was incredibly simple, yet very effective. At any point in the larp, it was considered comme il faut to recite poetry. The poem could be learned by heart or it could be read aloud from a book. Poems were also distributed at poetry workshops. After reading a few lines of the poem, the reader would start revealing the character’s internal dialogue, thus giving the audience an insight into character motivation and intentions.

This metatechnique worked extremely well. Specifically, I had the opportunity to recite a poem by Shakespeare in front of my fiancée’s family. Since his family were neither as rich nor as accomplished as the one my character came from, I took the opportunity to give them my opinion in full. The stiff smiles on the players’ faces were priceless!

Amusingly, one of the players picked up on the insult and confirmed my character’s opinion by acting exactly according to my prejudices. This created great play for us both.In other words, the technique was an excellent solution for helping players to read between the lines.

Subtle Courting

Before the larp, all players were instructed thoroughly in how to behave when in the company of the other sex. No touching except between family members. No being alone unless if you were engaged. And no eye contact.

So how does one flirt under those circumstances?

For the ladies, the answer was simple: you do not. But basically you could assume that if a gentleman was giving you attention, it was because you had caught his interest. There were three sure signs that a gentleman was serious about courting you; if you were receiving flowers, found yourself witnessing poetry readings, or got asked to dance repeatedly, then a proposal was probably afoot.

However, as in Jane Austen’s books, there were gentlemen out there who did not play by the rules. Those gentlemen would lead you astray just for sport!

One of the lead designers, Anna Westerling, discussing the intersections between freeform and larp at the Nordic Larp Talks 2014.

The Fortune Teller

At Fortune & Felicity, there was a fortune teller. The fortune teller was in fact a team of talented game masters who took interested players off to a Blackbox room to play alternative scenes.

The Blackbox larp is the direct opposite of the 360 degree illusion larp. There is no setting other than the blackness of the room and usually participants are dressed in neutral clothing. Blackbox larps have no physical restrictions. You can play achronological sequences. The scene can take place on a space station, during the Jurassic times, or anywhere else your imagination might take you — much like with any pen and paper RPG. In that sense, it is a hybrid form of role-playing.

At Fortune & Felicity, the blackbox was used to elaborate character relationships. Personally, I played out several scenes with my fiancée that showed us much of our future. Among other things, I found out that if I were to go ahead and marry my true love, we would most likely end up rather impoverished. Obviously, this knowledge added much to my “present day” play.

Blackbox defies physical space and time — and therefore makes it possible to garnish the larp with the kind of literary tricks that we usually only encounter in books and films.

The Art of Mansplaining

In Fortune & Felicity, the responsibility of carrying on a conversation lay with the gentlemen. This major obstacle was not really a metatechnique, but it still deserves mentioning because it was a very elegant way of emphasizing the gender disparity of that time.

Some gentlemen found it difficult, while others enjoyed taking the lead. As someone who was playing a women, I found it somewhat frustrating, but only in the sense that it helped me imagine what life would have been like for my gender in 1810.

Luckily, the game masters offered the women a possible out: when conversation got too boring, the woman could signal to the player of the male character by mentioning her journey to Primrose. “Oh, the roads are rather muddy this time of year,” for example. I used this trick a few times, but generally found that the male characters around me were quite apt at carrying on an interesting conversation!

Ladies and gentlemen in amused conversation

Photo by Kalle Lantz & Frida Selvén

Based on Established Literature

All the stories in Fortune & Felicity were directly inspired by Jane Austen’s works. The most visible way in which the writers had incorporated this inspiration was in the character descriptions and relationships.

The larp had pre-written characters. The characters were long enough for people with knowledge of Austen’s works to recognize them as characters from her books, but short enough that the players could easily build on the written material and make them their own.

For me, it was immediately clear that my character was inspired by Miss Marianne Dashwood from the novel Sense and Sensibility. She is a somewhat melodramatic and rather naïve girl, who falls deeply in love with one of the more memorable Austen villains, Mr. John Willoughby. At first, I actually found the task of portraying her a bit daunting, but after having watched Ang Lee’s film from 1995, I found that I could draw on actress Kate Winslet’s brilliant performance. Having her version of Marianne in the back of my head, I felt like there was a richness of inspiration I could access that I have seldom experienced otherwise.

Although many of the participants knew Jane Austen’s works, other did not. I believe being a fan of Jane Austen added to the experience, but I do not have the impression that not having these references subtracted anything from the game. I love how classically Austenesque the different plots played out, but on the other hand, they could certainly stand alone too.

Lines of dancing characters in Regency attire.

Photo by Anders Hultman.

Setting the Bar High

Sunday morning in Primrose. The young couples are gathering outside the village church. They are waiting to declare their engagements in front of the congregation. As the doors open, they file inside in pairs — clasping each other’s hands and sharing shy sidewards glances. The parents and the rivals sitting in the pews bear witness as the vicar proclaims the engagements.

And then, abruptly, the larp comes to an end. Anna and Anders in their pristine Regency outfits reap their accolades. We clap and clap. For the game masters, for the live band. For each other, even.

I return to the 21st century. Shell shocked. Elated. The way you feel when you have had one of those really strong larp experiences.

But also deeply grateful to be home. To be me, and not Miss Marianne. Quite frankly, Miss Marianne would never even dream of a life such as mine. It would have been beyond her otherwise vivid imagination.

My hope for the future of the larp scene is to see more ambitious scenarios like Fortune & Felicity, where organizers and larpwrights become more aware of developing game design that supports the content and theme of the larp. Like previous vessels of fiction have done it, I hope that larp has a future where we can explore not just genres, but also more advanced forms of storytelling.

For now, we’ve only just begun.

A man lifting a woman up as if dancing in a forest

Photo by Kalle Lantz & Frida Selvén.

Fortune & Felicity

Production and design: Anna Westerling & Anders Hultman

Design: Jennie Borgström, Susanne Gräslund, Elsa Helin, Anders Hultman, Frida Karlsson Lindgren, Gustav Nilsson, Martin Rother-Schirren, Anna Westerling & Joel Grimm with Jeppe Bergmann Hamming & Maria Bergmann Hamming.

Characters:

Overall design: Jennie Borgström, Sabina Sonning and Anna Westerling

Clubs: Rosalind Göthberg & Mimmi Lundkvist

Hearts: Jeppe Bergmann Hamming & Maria Bergmann Hammingg

Diamonds: Ylva Berry, Jennie Borgström & Jacob Ordeberg

Spades: Susanne Gräslund & Daniel Linder Krauklis

Game Masters:  Alex K Uth, Anders Hultman, Anna Westerling, Arvid Björklund, Elin Gissén, Elina Andersson, Elsa Helin, Frida Karlsson Lindgren, Frida Selvén, Gustav Nilsson, Jakob Jacob Ordeberg, Jennie Borgström, Joel Grimm, Kalle Lantz, Lizzie Stark, Martin Rother-Schirren, Mimmi Lundkvist, Peter Edgar & Ylva Berry

Orchestra: Elsa Helin, Henrik Summanen, Niclas Hell & Susanne Gräslund

Soundtrack composed by: Henrik Summanen

Trailer: Sara Fritzon

Costume: Anders Hultman & Mikaela Lindh

Photo: Kalle Lantz & Frida Selvén

Design and illustration: Anna Westerling, Janetta Nyberg & Lotta Westholm

PR: Mia Häggström & Anna Westerling

Editing: Lizzie Stark, Jason Morningstar & Sarah Lynne Bowman

Cover photo: Photo by Kalle Lantz & Frida Selvén. Photo has been cropped.

Authors

Sanne Harder
'Sanne Harder’ (sometimes credited as Sanne Harder Flamant or S. Benarzi) is a Danish game designer, who has organized and written scenarios since 1994. As part of the Nordic Larp Talks in 2011 she gave a talk titled "Roleplaying as a Teaching Method."
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