What Do We Do When We Play? contained a number of short articles giving personal perspectives on play situations. These are gathered here.
Ask Questions Later
I was raised on parlor larps where non-diegetic calibration is frowned upon. And despite running freeform games for years, I occasionally still find myself fighting the (unhelpful and sometimes harmful) instinct to always “do what your character would do.” Such happened recently at a two-day international larp.
During the first night of the event, through reasons that were no one’s fault, I found myself feeling isolated from the game and my fellow players. I knew I had to make a drastic change in my story. I wanted the change to be true to me and good for the game, so I asked myself two important questions: 1) what kind of play at this larp looked the most fun to me? and 2) what could make a positive impact on the game? In this case, I’d been enjoying watching the blackmailers and criminals conduct business, and there was a clear and growing demand for a drug dealer who could access what drugs remained.
I approached both the organizers and the person whose character controlled the drugs, and told them about my concerns with my game. They not only supplied me with access to the drugs, they worked with me to create a story for this change. My character, as written, believed completely in the rule of law, but by ignoring that fact, I was able to vastly improve my experience.
What I discovered was that sometimes, the change has to come first, and then the narrative reason for the change. So now, when players at our own events find themselves disconnected or isolated, we ask them the two questions I asked myself that day, and we help them find the answers. So far, it’s worked every time.
“Wait, I’m not ready!“
“This doesn’t look right.“
“Oh no, it’s not working…“
I often catch myself wanting to get it ’just right’: just a little more of this, just a bit less of that. The risk: hyperfocusing on details rather than granting things the freedom to develop as they will.
Playing Raine — a rebel character who didn’t give a fuck — helped me be more relaxed about this. Instead of checking on and chasing after all the things that could be happening, it allowed me to simply lie down on a lawn outside. If plot comes my way: great! If not: great, I can also just enjoy being present in character!
Let’s face it: that cool plot waiting around the corner doesn’t depend on anything but YOU being there to take part in it. Nobody but yourself judges, expects or maybe even knows what you had in mind for whatever you’re worrying about! Mostly it will neither impact your ability to larp, nor what makes this larp memorable for yourself and others.
Consider turning it into an advantage. I wore a fake tattoo carrying a lot of meaning for my character and was frustrated when it wore off faster than expected. But I realized that this could provide a great opportunity for play: why not let Raine’s fading tattoo symbolize her receding ability to remember her most joyful memory? Suddenly she had a new goal and more play-to-struggle material: admitting her drug addiction to herself and others, and finding a way to quit.
Larp is all about giving ourselves permission to play. Let’s re-discover and celebrate the liberty of not having to fear bad consequences of something not working out as planned!
Don’t let your perfectionism tell you otherwise — sometimes it’s refreshing not to give a fuck.
Two years ago I crossplayed for the first time. I had never larped a man before, and I was nervous about it. For three days straight, I would put on a binder and sideburns and pretend to be Samuel Skala, Prefect of House Durentius. Would anyone take me seriously?
I needn’t have worried. The larp went amazingly well as far as crossplaying was concerned. It didn’t matter if the binder couldn’t quite hide my breasts, or if I was too short or too feminine. I was treated as a male, and the experience blew my mind. I didn’t have to claim space; I was given it. People listened to me. I was taken more seriously than I had been as the Headmistress at previous runs of the same larp.
When I gushed about this experience to male friends afterwards, they seemed bemused, and at times amused as well. I suppose they couldn’t quite understand what a big deal it was, and my excitement about it might have seemed overblown. They couldn’t relate.
But it was a big deal. At first I thought: I need to do this again! I need to do this a lot! But as the initial excitement faded, I decided not to let the satisfaction of being treated as a male be my only takeaway from the experience, as fantastic as it had been.
I haven’t crossplayed since. I’ve learned to claim space in new and different ways, and in moments of uncertainty during larps I have sometimes asked myself, “What would Sam Skala do?” Surprisingly often, it works. It’s not the same, of course, and it’s much harder when not playing a male character, but using what I learned crossplaying to be given space as a non-male character can be just as satisfying.
I played Bunker 101 twice. Some context: halfway through the game, a character does something that (while in good faith, done to save his seriously ill companion) puts the entire community at risk. The Bunker is too small and resources are too scarce for a prison. The only way to protect the community from criminals is exile; effectively a death sentence.
The first time I played, I felt the duty to protect the community: the fragile balance that separated us from extinction depended on the isolation of potential dangers and the person responsible had to be thrown out.
The second time, I was this man’s colleague and friend: I knew his desperation and anguish. He had to be protected and understood, not punished! Was life in a society without mercy or compassion worth it? If that was the cost of survival, I preferred extinction.
The problem was that I wasn’t playing games. Both times I was sincerely, painfully convinced of my arguments. Both times I cried, frustrated and hurt, and struggled to make my voice heard, defending opposite positions.
Thinking back, I still cannot decide which position was valid.
Coldly, out of character, I evaluate the two points of view to find a definitive answer, but I see the reasons and the shortcomings of both, and cannot choose. Both times I perceived my opponents as misguided and foolish — once because they were blinded by sentimentality, once because they were cold and cruel.
Through empathy people can be driven to dangerous actions, which elicit instinctive and irrational responses. However, cold calculations that do not recognize human suffering are just as dangerous, leading to cruelty that justifies itself with higher values, careless of what is left behind.
I still cannot find a balance between these two positions, but I will always be grateful to this larp for putting me on this road paved with doubts, which leads me every day to be more aware of the choices I make.
Larping the Language Barrier
In Ennen vedenpaisumusta (“Before the Flood”, 2019) my character Viktoria was a recent Russian immigrant to Finland. I’m a native Finnish speaker but wanted to somehow demonstrate that Viktoria wasn’t. We discussed language issues within our small character group of Russian immigrants. We definitely did not want to be offensive, so we decided to avoid fake accents and concentrate on what kind of mistakes or hypercorrect forms a non-native speaker with a Slavic language as their mother tongue would make in Finnish. I tried to think about non-native Finnish speakers that I know, and a co-player consulted their linguist friends and shared some tips with us. At the beginning of the game we asked other players to play up our character’s lack of fluency.
This all combined made it possible to find Viktoria’s language. Playing with others that also spoke this way reinforced the patterns. Our characters were highly educated, so it was also natural to sometimes use English or other foreign words instead of common Finnish ones. Just occasionally stopping to think about a word had a great effect and gave other characters the chance to fill in missing words or to correct my character.
Language was an effective tool in in-character relationships. Friendly characters were helping out and encouraging my character to speak. When Viktoria encountered Finnish officials, the language barrier made me feel the same helplessness and desire for validation that my character was feeling — after all, she was not stupid even if she didn’t speak perfectly. I also often dropped the broken Finnish when speaking to Russian contacts to point out that it was easier to talk to them, although we didn’t explicitly agree on simulating Russian this way.
Overcoming Larp Shyness
My initial return to boffer larps was a boring and frustrating experience. I did not know anyone, felt that I had been left out of the main plot and was constantly worried about ruining play for others.
I value larps as secure spaces for bold behavior experimentation where consequences are interesting but not real. I am an impulsive player who likes to jump into tense situations and escalate quickly, but I also care a lot about others and do not want to dominate scenes. I felt utterly powerless as I did not know how to use my improv skills and consent techniques in this setting.
I did not give up. I asked for suggestions from veteran players and started planning. I wanted attention regularly but not exclusively. I was defining goals and searching for types of interaction which are exciting but not limiting to others, etc. I wanted to hack the traditional experience.
Thus a decadent poet character was born. This way I could easily get my quick attention fix by reciting witty or naughty verses I had memorized. By playing a drunkard I could be uninhibited, unpredictable but harmless. Ah, those mood swings! I was sobbing in the corner after dancing on a table. I was pitiful, overly honest, mushy, funny, childish or wise at times.
Heavy in-game drinking enabled me to escape situations by collapsing, and letting others help or exploit me (both are great!). I was dragged up and down, robbed and saved, fooled out of money, etc. Enacted blackouts also allowed me to start any conversation over and over again (a soft, diegetic repeat technique!).
This well-prepared role was a useful excuse to be over the top but not dominating. A memorable experience for every participant!
Show, Don’t Tell
You have crawled into the skin of your character and become my sister, officer Hali Okuma. I am reporter Oriel Cook. We are onboard ESS Odysseus and the world has ended. Throughout the larp we try and ultimately fail to find shelter in each other.
Our characters have been out of touch for several years, ever since they fell out over differences of opinion. In their every interaction there is bitterness and doubt mixed with love and implicit trust. We let ourselves be drawn together and then push each other away, again and again, with increasingly small gestures.
There is an easy familiarity in the way you talk to me, interlaced with uncertainty. We share secrets; we invite each other to understand and misunderstand. We create play out of half-finished sentences, hesitant pauses and interruptions. Shared laughter turns sour with a single wrong word. The downturned corners of your mouth tell me your character disapproves, so does a huff, the way you cross your arms and look away. But simply by coming to sit by my bed you communicate there is still love. When I improvise a “remember when…”, you say you do, and just like that shared history is born and becomes meaningful. Later a single glance tells me Okuma is worried for her little brother. Later still a memento tossed at me says: this is the end.
I have known this before, but you have shown me again how powerful and beautiful it can be to communicate not with full explanations and grand gestures but with things so small and fleeting they can be easily missed.
You don’t tell me who Hali Okuma is. You show me and trust me to understand.
Talking to Strangers
I usually try to avoid joining ongoing campaigns. I’ve often felt that it’s harder to get involved in ongoing stories when joining halfway. Last year, contrary to my usual modus operandi, I joined a campaign retelling The Three Musketeers in steampunk.
I had the pleasure to play Agnes, a young beggar who was called a saint by the people of Paris. When I received the character sheet she had several connections, most of whom were upper class characters with full agendas, which showed at the game. Although all her connections acknowledged Agnes’s presence, there was little to actually play on besides the formal introductions. Very soon, I started to feel bored. I felt my character was lacking plot hooks that would properly draw me into the story.
Agnes had a few dominant characteristics. Carefulness and standoffishness were the major ones, the result of a childhood on the streets of Paris. But she also cared deeply about the people around her. I decided to amplify that aspect and started approaching characters who were alone and in distress. I decided to disregard some of the distance she was written with in favour of my own fun.
Observing the other player groups, picking up on discussions and fights and then approaching the to me unknown characters afterwards when they were alone brought me just what I needed. In vulnerable moments most of them actually wanted to talk to the innocent-looking stranger who was offering a shoulder and a smile. Many of them entrusted Agnes with their secrets, giving me plenty of plot hooks to continue with.
Disregarding the characteristic that got in my way while playing brought me a story that I’ll gladly return to. After all, I definitely want to figure out if she actually makes it to become an official church-acknowledged saint.
The Larp I Won and the Larp I Lost
Once upon a time, I won a larp. I played a cooperative game without a win state, yet I came home claiming I won, and even the larpwright agreed with me. Why? Because my character, against all my expectations, achieved all she could have possibly hoped for. A closer bond with her one surviving relative, an explanation of her past, two friends where first she had none, and even two suitors to round things off. It was awesome. This larp is among my favourite games ever.
Once upon a time, I lost a larp. I wasn’t playing to lose, per se. The game was a beautiful symbiosis of characters enhancing each other’s stories. Still, at the afterparty, I was quite adamant I lost the larp, and the organisers seemed to agree. Why? Because my character lost everything he thought he had. His certainties, his hopes and dreams, his family bonds, and the love of his life, all gone in an instant because of his own actions but despite his every intention. It was awful. This larp is among my favourite games ever.
Both of these games were two-day one-shots, a format I had found difficult because it offers less time than longer-running series to achieve the immersion that I want and need from a larp; the experience of becoming someone else and seeing the world from another perspective. Winning and losing, in all their intensity, were a shortcut to immersion, showing in clear, exhilarated or desperate outlines what a character wanted or needed, how they were wired. Large emotions and life-changing events, I found, are a story hack. They’re a form of shorthand, a window to a character’s essence.
And that essence is my ultimate participation trophy.
The Mum, the Boss, and the Nymph
I have always used larps as a way to learn about myself, to explore possibilities for who I can be. 25 years of larping has made me who I am today, I think. In 1996 I decided to maxi-mize three of my personal features and build three different characters around them: With the Mother, from the example above, I wanted to be the kindest, most caring version of Hanne. I asked for a character who was a mother in the Nordic fairytale larp Vintereventyr (The Fairytale of Winter), and they gave me a pre-scripted one with eight kids! The youngest was my own real-life son, eight years old. So of course the bleed was enormous when HE was the chosen one. He even wanted to leave with them. I am sure I cried two buckets full during the larp, for all the things that happened to my kids!
The next one I wanted to play was the myth “Hanne Grasmo” — I already wrote for an erotic magazine then — and as purely sexual as possible. The designers of the philosophical fantasy larp Løgnens Rike (The Kingdom of Lies) had a long inter-creative process together with each and every player, and together we made the nymphtroll Ediiitha. I even had sexual magic to seduce the humans together with my two nymph-friends. All through the larp’s seven days I only whispered or climaxed. The most fierce and explorative one was maybe in full day-light, outside the village inn, when I orgasmed three times riding my staff. The villagers thought some weird magic was going on!
I also wanted to play strong and bad. In my career and organisational life I have often been in a manager position. So I chose the dystopian sci fi-larp Kybergenesis for this. I just stated I wanted to play one of the administrators, and I made my pre-scripted character come to life with the strongest and worst sides of my role as “leader”. Just once I went out of character to check if I had treated someone too bad: I cut a scene where a young worker had spent two hours in a stand-up cell, and was then interrogated, to ask if he was okay. After all, he was shivering all over. It was my fault: I forced him to have sex with me and placed a condom in his pocket. Since sex was forbidden for the worker class, I tipped the Police Force and they caught him hard. Then the young man met me, The Ultimate Leader, as the Judge in court.
So who was she, Hanne Grasmo, after this self-explorative year of larp? I found all the characters spoke truth to me. The Mother, the Nymph-troll, and the Boss are aspects of me I both fear and cherish. I learned I could be even more shamelessly heartful, horny, and bossy. I think I still have self-confidence to be more of me because of those three characters. On the other hand, the interactivity and embodiment of larping taught me how my powers can affect others very negatively, and make them avoid or even hate me.
The most important lesson, which I have striven for since, is to play as close to home as I can. Then may larp characters have transformative powers.
For On Location (2019), I was cast as The Diva. By establishing her status through pre-game calibration, I made sure the threshold for others’ emotions towards her was somewhere between “respectful pity” and “scared shitless”. However, it was very important to me not let the character become a caricature and slip into antagonist NPC territory.
I didn’t make her lose her cool over every little thing. She had a temper, yes, but more like a ticking time bomb with a hidden countdown than an active landmine. For example, when another actress showed up wearing the matching skirt to my top, the diva didn’t have any reason to be angry about such a petty thing. My character remained calm and we had fun with it, which had a surprising element to it because it played with the established expectations towards my character. Because I didn’t push the other character away, we had several lovely interactions throughout the day and created play for others around the fact that we wore matching clothes.
In general, gracefully walking the established baseline will make every deviation from it all the more impactful. The Diva’s extreme was explored at a point in the larp where all characters were on edge after having been in this house for several weeks. She was annoyed at another character and ultimately had him cowering in a corner after slapping him. This short scene helped cement a fearful respect and it gave many others a topic to discuss.
When playing an antagonist, you don’t have to play at extremes the whole time. Often it can be enough to just establish that the extremes within a character and their status exist, and let the tensions simmer.
You Make Me Brave
On the other side of the curtain, a nightmare world awaits.
My heart is pounding, but not out of fear. I feel eager, excited, exhilarated. I glance at my watch, tighten my grip on the prayer beads. I look at my teammates with a reassuring smile and step through the curtain. I am admiral Radford Luke, the Master of the School of the Endless Journey. I am a Dreamwalker and as I step into the dream, I am not afraid.
Which is a little unfortunate. This is a horror larp, and as a player I expected to be frightened. I wanted to feel fear in a safe and supportive environment. I wanted to experience that adrenaline rush, and after the larp ends, I find myself a little disappointed that I have not.
Strong immersion into a character’s mindset, I have just confirmed, can override my own deep-seated inclinations. A fearless character can make me brave for the duration of the larp. A calm character can soothe my often hyper-active mind. A character with a healthy appetite can help me eat. The same is also true in reverse. In the next part of the campaign I experimented by inflicting Radford with some neurological problems. By the end of the larp I was genuinely stuttering and feeling weak.
I can make this “immersion override” work for me. I can take on challenging characters and trust that I will be able to handle whatever my character can, or I can give my characters traits that will make the larp a little easier for myself.
And the next time I immerse myself into Radford’s mind, I can rectify my previous disappointment. I will give him a fear, and then we can both be frightened together.