Content Advisory: Statutory rape, sexual abuse, organizer negligence, manipulation
A Finnish man is dragging his luggage behind him as we approach a subway station in Rome. We both have wheeled suitcases with long handles, and while I carry mine down to the station, he drags his along the stairs. Bump, whirrr, bump, whirrr, bump, whirrr, bump…
“Aren’t you worried you’ll break your suitcase?” I ask him.
“No,” T replies, “if it breaks, it was a bad suitcase. I don’t want a bad suitcase.”
Little did I know, during the production of Dragonbane, I would become that suitcase.
The First Meeting
Fifteen years ago, Dragonbane was played in Sweden. I was in the three-person team who begat it all, three years prior. I was the second, and the one responsible for the story, setting, and name of the larp.
The other two were Fýr Romu and T. My first book, the roleplaying book Myrskyn aika (“Age of the Tempest”) was about to be published when T came to the door of my studio apartment in Turku one day with a proposition. I have chosen not to use his full name.
“I am going to make a larp about a mechanical dragon. I want to set it in the world of Myrskyn aika, and I want you as the creative lead on this larp.”
(They might have used the word “main designer,” or “head writer,” but the meaning was the same.)
I knew T from before, us both having taken part in each others’ larps since the mid 90s. He was not a close friend, but I dare say we knew each other quite well. And knowing him, I had my doubts about his leadership style. His earlier big projects, the Wanderer larps, were known for bad management and burnouts.
“Yes. There were problems, but I have learned my lesson,” T told me in his deep voice. His deep, convincing voice.
Then he showed me their plans. A Finnish forestry company has an experimental six-legged logging machine. Like a robotic ant the size of a truck. With the published book giving us a professional status, we would convince them to loan that machine for the larp. Before that, we would recruit Fýr to build an animatronic dragon around it, and we could have it walk around in the larp. The dragon would be able to turn its head, make facial expressions, and even breathe fire. T and Fýr were both interested in pyrotechnics.
We did, indeed, soon recruit Fýr who, like me, was studying in Turku. He had a crooked smile and a ginger ponytail. I believe he would not object to me calling him a mad inventor. I did not know him then, but we are still connected now fifteen years later. I am still not sure if Fýr is younger or older than me.
Myself, I was a young artist and writer struggling with burnout, depression, and tendonitis. I believed larp is an art form and a medium, and wanted to prove this to the world. My professional writing career was just getting started, Myrskyn aika being a major breakthrough since it was published by a proper book publisher and sold in book stores. I was young enough to still be looking for mentors, but experienced enough in the larp scene to be wanted as a mentor by others.
Together, we set to work creating the coolest fantasy larp ever.
Plans and Realities
This was a time when the Nordic larp scene was still in its infancy. We had met foreign larpers at Knudepunkts, and taken part in some of their larps, but this was going to take all that to the next level. We would recruit an international team and create a mega-larp for 1200 players with pre-written characters. And the animatronic dragon.
Now, we did not have the dragon yet. We had our eyes set on a prototype made by Plustech, a Finnish subsidiary of the multinational corporation John Deere which makes tractors and forestry machines. But, T convinced me, once they see our plans, they would be idiots to say no. After all, what a prototype needs most of all is visibility, and that we could promise them. Imagine going to a forestry trade show with a dragon!
We had crazy plans. We would transform fantasy larp forever. We would have players from dozens of countries, making this by far the most international larp at the time. We would create the best larp in the world. Through pyrotechnics, magic would really work! The village would have bespoke wheat fields to reap, which would be sown months in advance. The budget would be one million euros. Every off-game item from cell phones to underwear would be forbidden. We would utilize experimental augmented reality technologies. Our trailer would feature Eddie Murphy and be shown in film theatres.
We quickly started to recruit teams of builders, designers, writers, and producers. T made plans for getting us sponsors and backers, Fýr started drawing blueprints for the dragon, and I went to work on coming up with a concept for the larp.
The recruiting process was a strange one to say the least. People found out they had been recruited when they started receiving messages from an e-mail list they had no idea they were on. Communication and leadership were chaotic, and I probably share some of the blame for that.
My own notes on who is working in what capacity are odd reading now, eighteen years later. We very quickly recruited Christopher Sandberg into the production team since we knew him as the hotshot producer of the Hamlet larp. The next time his name is mentioned in my notes, he is running the writing team together with me. Eventually he replaced me as the creative lead.
Mikko Rautalahti wrote in the Finnish Larppaaja magazine about how unflattering the project seemed from the outside. This rant was published in early 2004 so a long time before the larp actually happened:
This sort of feedback simply made us more determined to prove this could be done.
I had written a Middle-Earth tabletop roleplaying scenario for the Finnish roleplaying magazine Magus (published in 2001 in the magazine’s 50th and last issue). It was about beornings and dragon worshippers journeying into the Grey Mountains to encounter a dragon, and then, perhaps attack it, or bargain with it, or betray the others to it. I had written plenty of history for the dragon worshippers, and even added a note saying the adventure could be turned into a larp.
That became the first seed for the story of Dragonbane. The first brief went like this:
Two ancient peoples have been at war for longer than anyone can remember. It all began with a Dragon, god to some, enemy to others. Now, the dragon worshippers have almost won, and the last remnants of the once proud people have set a call for heroes: Who will slay the dragon?
The last few days have seen the arrival of several chivalric orders, a handful of mysterious sorcerors, and many strange travellers from lands afar. Some are there to contest for the right to slay the dragon, others (like the dragon worshippers) are present to argue against the slaying. And, of course, many people are there just to take advantage of all the foreign dignitaries.
What secrets does each hero carry inside them? What is your dragon? When it comes down to an epic battle of Good and Evil, you must decide what you think is Good. And pray to your gods you got it right.
That is where the project got the name Dragonbane from. (Later on, Christopher and I would try to change the name to the more appropriate Dragontide, but T deemed it too late.)
As the story was developed further, we listened to feedback from different team members, most prominently the country coordinators and the writers. Christopher and I talked endlessly on the phone about how to tackle the different creative issues we would face with having a thousand players from very different larp cultures with no time to get to know each other beforehand. The idea to use Finnish style pre-written multi-page character descriptions was soon scrapped.
The village of the dragon worshippers soon became Cinderhill. But it was not until later when Christopher was the main designer when we switched the approaching adventurers into the dragontamers and the witches. Those two groups, along with the dragon worshippers of Cinderhill, constituted the character mega-factions in the larp.
My plan was that Cinderhill would not be the typical feudal-capitalistic pseudo-medieval village of fantasy larps, but something like a religious cult and a Soviet commune. One of our Estonian team members had grown up in a Soviet commune, and did not see this as a very positive thing, but I tried to convince her Cinderhill would be a utopian version of that.
I, as a published author, was T’s trump card, and he took me to many meetings with sponsors and local authorities to show that he had a professional writer in the team. I would typically pitch the story of the larp to the potential partners, and then on the way home, write a letter we could send to our teams and the existing partners. In fact, much of my early work was writing these press releases instead of designing the larp.
Here’s one such letter, written to invite fantasy larpers into the project:
While larp is a fun hobby everywhere, there’s all the time more and more people saying it doesn’t have to be just fun, it can be an earth-shattering, world-changing miracle. Some larps in Northern Europe have made a stab at this. In the last few years, we’ve had larps like Europa, Panopticorp, inside:outside and Hamlet.
Until now, fantasy has been over-looked by the larp creators who wish to take the medium forward. Fantasy has long been stagnating into a tired collection of Tolkien clichés, but Dragonbane will reinvent fantasy for the 21st century.
We see larp as a medium very close to shamanism, magic and fantasy. With Dragonbane we aim to renew not only fantasy, but larping, as well.
Quite soon after we had announced the project, we were already on the way to Italy to be guests at Lucca Comics & Games Fair. I am still not sure whether we were really guest of honor, or if the local larpers just told us that. The “other” guests of honor included Larry Elmore and Margaret Weis, and we were quite starstruck.
We flew to Rome, T dragged his suitcase to the metro, and we took a train to Pisa, from where we were driven to Lucca. The local mayor cut an actual ribbon at the opening ceremonies of the convention.
We had two talks Friday, one about Nordic larp (which was called larp in Northern Europe back then) and the other one about Dragonbane. Everything we say was translated into Italian so the audience could understand us. We wondered at how these people could larp fluently in English.
In the evening I ran a small larp, I Shall Not Want, which was focused on subdued character immersion at murdered businessman’s wake. For many of the Italian participants this was their first non-fantasy larp, and the first one where the focus was on character immersion.
We did our best to network with the local larpers, and T put me to work writing lots of material for Dragonbane.
One morning at breakfast we noticed Larry Elmore was sitting alone at another table, eating his eggs. We knew him as the biggest fantasy artist of our childhoods, having made the cover of the Dungeons & Dragons red box we grew up with. T wanted to recruit him, I advised against it. Nevertheless, we went to his table, and introduced ourselves. Larry assumed we were random fans. He smiled politely and said hello.
Without blinking an eye, T started an unsolicited pitch on Dragonbane with his very strong Finnish accent. “And we will actually have a real animatronic dragon! Now, do you think that’s pretty cool or what?” Larry kept nodding politely, but it was obvious he did not believe a word we were saying, and wanted to be left alone. T took this as his cue to ask him to create original dragon art for us. Larry said something vague like “Sounds real interesting,” and promised to get back at us. He did not, of course. We were just two European crazies who interrupted his breakfast.
Later on, with a similar pitch, T did manage to attract the Argentinian dragon artist Ciruelo. The art on the poster was made by him.
The Rabbit Hole Method
Christopher Sandberg, a passionate Swedish larp designer and producer, delivered several long game design documents which included everything from the setting to costume design of the individual groups. We discussed the topics day after day, week after week, and finally came up with what we saw as a breakthrough: The Rabbit Hole Method.
The larp would start with the players in their regular clothes, suffering complete amnesia. They would not know who or where they are. Walking around in the woods, they would find clothes that feel much more appropriate, and slowly start to remember that they are, in fact, a dragon worshipper from the village of Cinderhill, or a witch, or a dragontamer. They would change into their real clothes, i.e. the costume. They would remember their new name, and find friends and family that they know quite well but they are also meeting for the first time.
This would take a few hours, and then they would arrive at the village or some other group location, where they would already be in character, and dream-like go about their business making paper or fetching water or starting fires. And then the larp would go on like a regular larp.
The Rabbit Hole would solve so many issues, mainly the players not knowing each other beforehand, and being able to play in their own languages as well as whatever English they can muster. Nowadays we would have workshops instead of trying to solve these issues in-game.
Unbeknownst to me at the time, Rabbit Hole is also a metaphor for taking hallucinogenic drugs. Some people did pick this up, and it again was a blow on the public image of the project.
We felt this was an ingenious solution. But our Danish country coordinator who had promised us fifty Danish teenagers said this was way too experimental for them. The kids liked to beat orcs in the woods, not take part in strange ritual dramas. (I am sure many of those former kids are running full-blown ritual drama larps now.)
Christopher and I felt we could convince the Danish teenagers, or forget about them. But T was worried about our player base. This was a thousand-person larp. We must have those teenagers! So, the Rabbit Hole was scratched, and we started to look for a more traditional approach.
We still did not have a location for the larp, but we did not want it to be in Finland. The neighboring countries Estonia and Sweden seemed good options.
The team got in contact with Estonian larpers and a location scouting team left Finland on a ferry.
T brought along his legendary Humvee which was known as “The Finnish Bar” in many Knutepunkts since he held unofficial parties there with lots of booze. I never went, but knowing he was later incarcerated for sex crimes, it is hard to know how much grooming happened at those parties.
Nevertheless, the car came in handy driving to the Soomaa national park in south-western Estonia. Sometimes we would cross bridges that were only barely able to carry the car’s weight, and all the passengers would have to get out and walk.
Local larpers took us to explore Soomaa on boats. It is a vast area of bogs, forests, and meandering rivers, where Estonian freedom fighters and bandits used to hide. The area that on the map had seemed suitable, proved to be completely impossible. It was a virtual jungle, and in the summer would be full of rapid animals and violent boars.
The evening was reserved for workshops. The production people including T and Mikko Pervilä held their own meeting in one part of the house we were using, while I talked with some of the writers. Fýr ran a third meeting for the Estonians who were present, and their job was to come up with a name for the dragon. I had no idea such a key element of the fiction was being crowdsourced, and when later that evening I was told she is called “Beautiful Death,” I simply thanked them for the input. This, obviously, got them quite irate, having just spent hours coming up with a good name. (And it was good.)
I went to visit the production meeting and I discovered a very drunk T angrily explaining to Mikko Pervilä about how he does not understand the project like T himself does. And Mikko, exasperatedly trying to get some point across. The Estonians probably did not get a very good impression of us.
The next day T took me to meet the director of the National Park. He was polite and interested, and promised to stay in touch. (He did.) He also suggested a different location, parts of which were on privately owned land, and could be built on.
The new location was idyllic, you almost expected to find a hobbit village somewhere. The area was mostly plains or dried swamp, with small forested areas providing contrast. A beautiful river ran slowly through the plains, providing an interesting in-game obstacle for anyone needing to cross it. There was a ruined farm house with just the chimney remaining, and a wild orchard in the yard. Berry bushes and apple trees had started to spread in the nearby lands.
We figured we could build our village right on the outskirts of the national park. T envisioned a grand main hall for the village that he could then use as his personal summer cabin after the larp. “And I’m sure some envious larpers will twist that around to sound like I’m only using free labor to build myself a huge cabin! But after a project as huge as this, I think I’m entitled to something for myself.” Another possibility would have been to testament the cabin to the whole team or to one of the organizations behind the larp, but these were not mentioned.
For some reason, there was no room in the Humvee for me on the way back, so I had to take a series of Soviet-era buses to get to Tallinn and the ferry. This gave me time to do some of the writing tasks T had given me, including writing a letter about the successful Estonian scouting trip for our team and sponsors. Typing on a laptop in a bouncing bus, hands hunched like a vulture’s feet, was not good for my tendonitis.
The bus-ride turned out to be a blessing in disguise, as I later found out T’s Humvee had broken down on the country road he had been driving. I was not there, but I remembered his comments about the suitcase in Italy. “It broke down, so it was a bad car. I don’t want a bad car.”
Still struggling with stress, depression and the wrists, I was starting to suspect, if I would break down, too, before all this was over.
After we had publicly announced that we had chosen Soomaa as the location, the Estonian authorities did, indeed, contact us again. They said we absolutely cannot use the National Park since many of the things we have planned are directly against the rules of the park and the laws governing it.
T and I were both quite angry and disappointed at the Estonians. If someone had made sure of this a few months earlier, we would have saved hundreds of hours of labor, by skipping the whole trip. In retrospect, it was us, the main organizers, who should have made sure of that.
Many of the bigger project meetings took place at T’s home in the countryside between Turku and Helsinki. There were also several other people there, some from T’s larp organization, some his friends, others just people hanging around. Or maybe they were all involved in Dragonbane. I discovered Fýr was now employed by T’s company.
The workshop weekends included meetings and commonly prepared meals, but also lots of extracurricular activities, including clearing the garden of dried shrubs. I did not take part in that. I was also a teetotaler at the time, so I could not fully participate in the other program which mostly consisted of drinking games in the sauna, drinking games in the pool, and drinking games wrapped in towels.
There were always teenaged girls around, and these older men wanted to get them drunk. I did not know the girls, maybe they were involved with one of them, maybe they were just working on the project, maybe something more sinister was happening. It was hard to tell, and knowing what I now know, I should have spoken out more clearly. Today, I would characterize the atmosphere as toxic.
We writers did have actual productive meetings, though, although sometimes they felt more like seance sessions, with us trying to decipher what Christopher was saying over a long-distance phone call on speakerphone.
The rumors and the strange mood and the “use them until they break” style of management obviously led to many, many people burning out, quitting or just quietly disappearing. This meant we had to constantly find new people to take on those positions. People kept coming and going. Christopher as creative lead was replaced by others before the project was over.
For Solmukohta 2004, Juhana Pettersson and I designed the art larp Luminescence, produced by Mikko Pervilä. It is known as “the flour larp,” since we had a room filled with 750 kilos of wheat flour. Plenty has been written of that larp in other articles, but cleaning up after the larp was quite a hassle.
T wanted me to be in some Dragonbane meeting, while I was expected to be cleaning the room. “No problem,” he said, and ordered two teenaged volunteers to go clean the flour room while I took part in the meeting. Needless to say, the volunteers simply left the project, and I later got an angry call from the janitor.
At a later stage in the project, a larper woman I was dating told me T had asked her to join Dragonbane‘s music team. Having seen what was going on at those project workshops, I did not feel them to be a safe environment for someone I cared about. (Again, I should have worked harder to protect also those I did not know.) I asked her not to participate in the project, and she got mad at me at first, but then agreed.
Since we were constantly struggling to recruit new people, and I as one of the key organizers had just worked against that goal, I finally started realizing I could not be involved in Dragonbane much longer.
Everything Goes Wrong
I was sitting in the audience at an ice hockey stadium listening to a pyramid scheme recruiting event. T was convinced we should have them as our financing partners, and had sent myself, and some of the production people to take part in the event, and then later on try to meet some of the key people in their dressing rooms.
The whole thing was obviously a scam. Obvious to me, but others in our team were not as skeptical.
We managed to get an audience with one of the speakers, and explain our case. Dragonbane could be officially branded by the pyramid scheme, and they would get lots of publicity for their business. They promised to think about this.
When Mikko Pervilä heard about this, he said he would quit immediately, if Dragonbane went through with this. So, the cooperation was cancelled. I am grateful to Mikko for that. (He later quit anyway.)
We had long since forgotten about getting Eddie Murphy for the trailer. Then we found out we would not get the Plustech forestry machine, either. How could we have Dragonbane the great dragon larp if we have no dragon?
The project went through constant changes. The location was switched from Estonia to Sweden, the targeted player number was cut and cut again from 1200 to 400. Fýr’s dragon building crew were hard at work making plans on a new kind of dragon built on top of a truck, but without Plustech, they could not keep up with the schedule.
Christopher and I realized there was no way for the larp to happen in 2005, and managed after long, painful debates to convince T to postpone it by a year. He opposed the change because once he promises to do something, he does it. But, we told him, his promise could not be kept in 2005, but it could be kept in 2006.
Around that time, T decided he had to change his leadership style. This is how he comments on the topic in the documentation book Dragonbane: The Legacy:
“As the project progressed, it became increasingly evident to all participants that the only viable decision making model was a military style one. The more idealistic version proposed early in the game just did not produce results and in a project of this size and with this little time it is not a good alternative. There are reasons why corporations and businesses do not operate on committee or democracy basis.
A smaller, less international project could have succeeded with less dictatorial management, but with Dragonbane the more authoritative style should have been adopted even earlier. In hindsight, it is easy to see that the year we lacked could have been saved by choosing army style project management from day one.”
I wanted out. I was very stressed and felt I would soon break like the suitcase and the car and so many other people in the team before me. But explaining this to a person who does not take no for an answer was not easy.
I told T I needed to do some paying work since Dragonbane was taking up all my time. “How much do you need?” he asked. He proposed I come work for him. Having seen how Fýr was already in a position of T having economic power over him, and now with militaristic style, this was not what I wanted to hear.
In the end I just had to tell him I could not work in the project under any circumstances. “Fine,” he said. “I hope you won’t turn against us and start badmouthing us.” I promised I would not. And I have not written or spoken about my experiences publicly, until now.
After that I became a broken object, someone T did not want around.
The Larp Happened
A year later the larp was actually about to happen in the forests of Bumfuck, Sweden. (Actually Älvdalen in Dalarna County.) I could not take part in the larp as my mandatory civilian service would start immediately after and if I was late, I would be punished. Travel to and from Älvdalen took so long I could not risk it, but I wanted to be there at the start.
I had read online about how the players who had arrived early had met angry organizers and been forced to work on building the village. The dragon’s neck had broken and it was being repaired at a vocational institute in Finland. Nothing was ready, and there was not enough food for the involuntary volunteers.
Fundin, a Dragontamer player from Sweden had this to say:
When I arrived, the mood among the organizers in “The Bootcamp” was, indeed, hostile. At the time I thought it was because I was seen as a traitor, having quit the project. Now I have found out the mood was hostile towards everyone so it could have simply been lack of sleep. That ten people who should have been there to help were repairing the dragon had taken its toll.
It was clear everything was badly organized and there were not enough people to do everything that had to be done. And not enough cars to get people from the Bootcamp to the larp village to build it. On the other hand, there were a huge number of incredibly beautiful props, fabrics, and such.
I did odd jobs. I cooked a hearty vegetarian meal for the people at the Bootcamp. I remember T being very happy that I took carnivores into account, not realizing the sauce was soy grit instead of minced meat. I helped dye scrolls with strong tea. I helped the players build the village. I held the opening brief for the players in the witch group.
The players and volunteers I met were exhausted and almost delirious. One of them, Tonja Goldblatt, looked at me, unbelieving, when I arrived at the village. They had not eaten or rested properly, and had to work in the poorly organized work camp. When I had wanted Cinderhill to resemble a Soviet commune, this was not what I had in mind. It was certainly no utopia.
Tonja later wrote:
I wasn’t part of any main organizing team, but I ended up working my ass off for this project and I burned out. It was no small feat and it did manage amazing things, but Dragonbane broke me for years. For years it was really hard for me to talk about the whole project because of the bitterness. It was my first international larp and turned me away from Nordic Larping for years.
I only caught rumors of the larp itself from the Bootcamp, and then I had to leave. As I was ready to depart, the dragon arrived. They had driven it to a ferry, sailed it to Sweden, and driven it from the ferry to Älvdalen. Its neck was still broken, but it could move.
At the last moment T decided to replace the person who had prepared to play the voice of the dragon. He replaced him with himself. Even though the fancy software could turn everyone’s voice into the dragon’s voice, it could not change his very recognizable accent.
For the longest time I was ashamed of the project. I assumed almost everyone had a really bad time. And sure, many people did. Many burnt out. But for others this was every bit the magical experience we had set out to create. Friendships were forged and sense of wonder essential to fantasy created lasting memories.
In the book Nordic Larp, Johanna Koljonen’s and Tiinaliisa T’s article on the larp starts with these atmospheric words:
I heard the dragon give out a heart-rending shriek. The sky exploded, and pillars of fire shot up behind the temple. The Dragon died – and at that moment it became truly real. The odd angle of the head looked like the twisted position of one who has expired in pain. And its skin, when I rushed in, wailing, towards it, felt slightly warm to the touch.
In the same book, an anonymous Cinderhillian player comments:
We indeed had a working village! When we bakers found out we had bread and cheese, but nothing to slice the cheese with, one of the village smiths made us a perfectly good cheese-slicing tool!
Charles Bo Nielsen recently reminisced on the group Larpers BFF:
I would like too add that as someone who was 18 at that larp, it was an amazing experience, first major international larp for me. So heavily coloured from that perspective.
There were some really interesting things about the larp. It was insanely ambitious, especially for the times, it had a really really big budget, due to being heavily funded, beyond the player tickets of 130 euroes, which back in 2006 was considered quite the sum for going to a larp.
From my point of view it ended up really grumbling under its own hype, the organizers ended up promising everything and certainly not delivering everything.
In Denmark spinoff larps were run, continuing the story of the dragontamers.
The village that was built was robbed soon after the larp, and then left in the woods to decay. Later on, the local municipality burned it down.
Essi Santala, who worked with Fýr on the dragon, wrote: “I would not be who I am today without Dragonbane. I know it was a devastating project for some people but for me it meant major friendships, togetherness, overcoming obstacles and a sense of awe over what we accomplished over the course of the project. I spent two years part of Dragonbane. It was awesome. Was it a good larp? The question, to me, is irrelevant.”
I would still stay in contact with Christopher, and a year after Dragonbane we would found a company together. Fýr is studying filmmaking in Prague. Mikko has produced many other big events including Solmukohtas.
In 2015, T was sentenced to two years and eight months in prison for statutory rape and sexual abuse, and he quit the larp scene.
It is bittersweet to think back on Dragonbane now. Thanks to those who worked for and took part in our visions. Apologies to those that were hurt or broken. I hope young organizers and designers of today are more aware of toxic environments and what to do about them.
I would invite everyone who has memories or questions of Dragonbane to discuss the topic further with me and others.
Cover photo: Much of the crew after the larp. © 2006 Dragonbane Team.