Terror and Warmth

Terror and Warmth

We step into the ritual chamber wearing our ceremonial robes, the hoods on our heads. We’re at a beautiful estate in the Danish countryside, secluded enough to feel the outside world only as a distant concern. The larp is Baphomet (2015-) and I participated in it in 2019. It details the fall of a vintage era Hermetic cult as they connect with the dark gods Pan and Baphomet.

As the ritual goes on, we huddle in the middle of the room, backs to each other, facing the walls. A High Templar circles us and intones the ritual while we hum a low, collective sound that feels bigger and deeper than any individual.

The experience goes beyond the typical boundaries between fiction and reality that superficially define larp. The outwards-facing huddle is a simple formation but it means that my back is physically against other players. I feel the sound vibrate in their bodies. Someone shorter than me is in front and their voice is indistinguishable from mine.

Our collective hum changes. There are vibrations, emotions, dissonances and shrieks. It feels like an auditory summation of the larp’s emotional state at that point. There are moments of terror and warmth. It’s a profoundly positive experience of togetherness but the larp’s horror themes shine through and fear makes itself manifest.

The seemingly contradictory experiences of human connection and inner darkness are present at the same time, not as a contradiction but as complementary elements. This is a common theme in a family of larps of which Baphomet is one.

Others in the same genre are Pan, House of Craving, Inside Hamlet, Libertines, Conscience, and End of the Line. They are defined by an aesthetic of sordid indulgence, dark emotional content, and playground-style design creating opportunities for participants to sin creatively.

several people in 20's clothing posing outside a manor

Baphomet Run 2. Photo by Bjarke Pedersen.

Communities of Sin

As is typical of larp, these games create small temporary communities, microcosms in which the participants enable each other to experience the thrills and terrors that draw them in. In my personal experience, the communities of play especially in the smaller larps such as Baphomet and House of Craving (2019) are unusually warm, supportive and positive.

Indeed, so much so that participants joke about not wanting to go back to the real world and its hierarchies, anxieties and daily oppressions. While the larp’s fictional landscape is full of degradation and injustice, the off-game community is humble, constructive, and ready to listen.

Of course, no larp experience is homogenous across its player space. There are surely other player experiences as well, especially in the bigger of the larps mentioned. Still, when I’ve left for the airport after the larp, the positivity of the play community has been a topic of conversation with other players in a way that differs from most of my other larp experiences.

After one of these larps, I lamented with another male player the fact that the easy physical closeness between men would slowly fade in the outside world. It would become more awkward to hug as the repressions of society wore away at us.

This experience of closeness and community doesn’t happen by accident. Larps all about characters doing terrible things to each other function best when the workshops are geared to build trust and intimacy. When the players feel safe and comfortable they can go to emotional extremes that would otherwise be inaccessible to them.

Two people on the verge of kissing

House of Craving (2019). Photo by Bjarke Pedersen.

When I think about other types of larps that have featured a similarly close, warm community experience, they’ve tended to be small games which have workshops with similar goals. One such is the Brody Condon larp The Zeigarnik Effect (2015) in Norway. We played characters undergoing gestalt therapy and the workshops were needed to get us accustomed to the game’s unusual mode of communication and interaction.

Because of the positive nature of the overall emotional experience of these larps I’ve started to wonder whether they’re horror larps at all. The one I worked on, the Vampire: the Masquerade larp End of the Line (2016-), was explicitly conceived as a horror-themed playground designed to enable each participant in a dynamic, personal way. The aesthetic was from horror but the actual experience was made so you’d get to do fun things you can’t do otherwise.

Designed for Transgression

There are a few design choices that make this sort of larp possible. They tend to be typical of Nordic larp design in general but are often implemented in specific ways to enable the players to transgress in a fun and safe way.

Workshopping together to build intimacy, trust and a shared sense of the social space is crucial. The players have to feel that the play community of the larp supports them and is open to their ideas. They have to feel free to express themselves and take creative risks. This is achieved with workshop exercises that build trust and intimacy. In some larps, player selection also plays a part.

Safety or calibration mechanics that allow the player to stop or adjust play on the fly also play an important part. The presence of such mechanics makes it possible for participants to feel like they can trust their fellow players and the play situation.

These mechanics can be used for many different reasons, not all of them dramatic. When they work well, they allow the player to navigate around issues that make transgressive content difficult for them to access, whatever those issues might be.

Two people behind a third person with their hands on that person's shoulders

House of Craving (2019). Photo by Bjarke Pedersen.

While not present in all the larps mentioned in this article, transparency is great for enabling the players. In Inside Hamlet, Pan, Baphomet, and House of Craving, every player can read all characters if they so choose in the preparation for the larp. For some players this makes it easier for them to instigate transgressive game content with other players. They know from their reading that the other player’s character is just as fucked up as their own.

All together, these design choices work best when they give the player the tools to take responsibility for their own larp experience. A player who feels enabled and in control can more easily engage in play where the character is in the opposite situation.

Cruelty is Fun

There’s an overlap in themes, techniques and player base between these larps and BDSM culture. They allow us to enjoy feelings, sensations and emotions that are taboo in normal conversation and polite society. Things that are ordinarily considered wrong, debased, or evil become playful, fulfilling, and fun when enacted within a consensual, supportive context.

BDSM often features role-play and I don’t think that’s categorically different from larp with erotic or sexual themes. Rather, there’s a sliding scale of different designed experiences from an abstracted larp experience to a fuck session with a light sheen of fiction.

One example of a thing that’s bad in real life but often fun in play is cruelty. In the right context and with the right people, cruelty can be tremendously sexy.

Everyday life has limited opportunities to enjoy cruelty in an ethical way because it tends to require a victim. In larp and BDSM the victims are there consensually and they can enjoy the thrill of being subjected to cruelty, safe in the knowledge that they control their own play and can exit it as needed. In this way, being the victim of cruelty can become a fulfilling, profound experience. For a player of a masochistic or submissive bent, all the more so.

The design of these larps supports the playing of cruelty in much the same way the culture around BDSM scenes supports it. Safety mechanisms and workshopping provide a framework in which taboo impulses can be explored. Character writing and other design elements provides alibi for being cruel. However, personal experience suggests that the most dynamic scenes of cruelty in a larp are expressions of player creativity and energy enabled by the design but not necessarily originating in it.

Two people in corsets, lounging on a couch

Members of the Voltemand noble family at Inside Hamlet. Photo by Marie Herløvsen.

In Baphomet, there was a scene where another character threw me to the ground and kicked me in the balls. Following the rules of the game, the hits and kicks connected only lightly and I play acted to make them seem real. I fell to the ground, groaned, moaned, whimpered. I remember the scene very well because there was a release of energy, a spontaneous burst of power animating those present. Even for someone like me, who’s not masochistic by nature, it was a fun larp scene to be in because of the intensity and release of emotion.

The over the top spectacle and transgressiveness of cruelty makes it interesting and dynamic even when it doesn’t satisfy a personal kink.

Sex

Did I ever tell you about that time I was fucking my dead wife’s sister while moaning my wife’s name in her ear? It was funny because my son was there too. I remember him drawling: “Go Dad!”

There was also a ghost who was touching his crotch through his pants but that was normal in House of Craving.

Sex is a huge component of these larps. Sometimes there’s so much fucking that players complain of it becoming boring. It’s larp sex of course but the playstyle is physical. You might not actually engage in genital penetration but you’ll probably end up kissing people, groping them, getting groped, caressing, touching.

It’s amazing how quickly this sort of sexual interaction becomes normalized. Once everyone has collectively adjusted their perception of what’s normal you find yourself casually grinding with people as easily as you ordinarily shake hands. The way we’re socialized, sexual and flirtatious contact always matters. It always means something. Except after a morning’s larp workshop, it suddenly doesn’t.

Although this has the effect of banalizing sexual interactions, it also makes it possible to reach new types of sexually inflected play that would otherwise be out of reach. It also feels liberating: It’s fun to be part of a community that has temporarily decided to let go of standards of sexual behavior.

A person in a white dress with stockings and ballerina slippers holding a cigarette

A courtier at Inside Hamlet. Photo by Marie Herløvsen.

Of course, the role of sex in your experience depends on the specific larp and how you choose to play it. In Inside Hamlet (2015-), about the last days of the degenerate court of King Claudius, I played a judgmental priest. I participated in many sex scenes but my role was to denounce the sinners for their moral turpitude. Other times, like in House of Craving, sex becomes such a basic element of the larp’s landscape that you won’t even remember all the fucks you participated in.

House of Craving is about a family who gets together to remember the dead mother and wife. The malevolent house starts to affect them, ghosts guide them, and finally they fall into an everlasting state of mutually destructive degeneration. As the characters’ sense of reality collapses, so does the need for the larp’s fiction to be coherent. The higher truths of the emotional journey take precedence.

I have never participated in so many debased larp scenes as I did in that game but it felt quite straightforward when it was happening. The workshops had glued us into a cohesive social unit and we could brutalize each other with casual ease. The play was intense, so much that I took frequent breaks in the off-game area to gather my wits. Often someone else was there too and we enthused together about how great the experience was.

The approach to sex in the design of these larps is coy despite the graphic nature of the stories they generate. It’s all about the tease, not the actual act of fucking for real. You don’t have sex, you dryhump. From the purpose of larp dynamics this works much better as sexual flirtation drives action but sexual fulfillment doesn’t. The character may be sexually satisfied but the player isn’t and that keeps the player in motion.

People in a manor house eating food off of a person laying on the table

House of Craving (2019). Photo by Bjarke Pedersen.

Prey

Baphomet and Pan (2013, 2014, 2020) feature a signature piece of larp design: the necklace mechanic. The way it works is that a player who wears either the Pan or Baphomet necklace is that god. Other characters will worship their god, falling on their knees in manic adoration. They do everything the god says.

You can wear a necklace for a maximum of half an hour after which you should pass it onto another player. This way, the necklaces travel the larp, organically causing chaos.

Wearing the necklace is a power trip. It’s fun to be worshiped. There’s more to the experience, however. As a larper, you’re very well aware that the god has to provide content for their followers. It’s fun to tell people what to do but it uses up material pretty fast. There was a moment when I was standing in the middle of a room with perhaps ten people kneeling all around me, waiting expectantly. I drew a complete blank. Couldn’t think of a single thing for them to do.

Suddenly I heard one of the players vocalizing like you do in that situation, just speaking whatever seems kind of appropriate. They said: “We want to eat you.”

Blessed inspiration! Feeling great relief, I proclaimed: “Eat my flesh!”

The others thronged at my feet and started biting my flesh, especially my arms since they were exposed. Not very hard, but hard enough to leave a mark. Still, it was a small price to pay for being spared the terror of failing to provide playable larp material for the expectant crowd.

Three people in white with pink necklaces lounging on a chair

House of Craving (2019). Photo by Bjarke Pedersen.

Most players pass on the necklace much faster than the 30 minute limit. I don’t think I ever had it for longer than fifteen minutes. That’s just enough time to do one scene.

The necklace is a wonderful symbol for how these larps work because it shows the fun of both sides of the power equation: the experience of wielding power and of being subjected to power. When players play these scenes, they support each other’s experiences. Neither the god nor the worshippers can experience that role without the other.

There’s a distinct difference in the power equation in terms of how many people there are in a scene. When I have the necklace and I’m surrounded by ten other people, ostensibly I have the power. However, their expectations as players place great demands on me, effectively constraining how much I can use my game-granted authority. In contrast, when the scene is small, it’s much easier to start choreographing other people. In a smaller scene, I can safely assume that there’s enough to do for the other players, giving me freedom to think about what’s fun for me. Perhaps because of this, my best necklace scenes were small.

When we made End of the Line, we focused on the basic vampire theme of predator and prey. In the design, we strove to make as many of the characters as possible into both. Depending on the circumstances you could hunt other characters and be hunted in turn.

A person feeding of another's neck in a room covered in graffiti

End of the Line (Finland, 2016). Photo by Tuomas Puikkonen.

The thrill of being hunted is an essential part of the experience, indeed possibly even more integral as that of being the hunter. You can zoom out from this assertion to a wider characteristic of larp design: Often in larp, villains, enemies, and oppressors are used as supporting characters to generate play. The player characters are the victimized whose experience is subject to a lot of design thought. Against this background, the design in End of the Line was an attempt to systematize this dynamic while also giving the hunter an autonomous play experience that didn’t feel like playing a supporting character.

After the larp, one player compared the design to primal play found in BDSM culture, where predator and prey-dynamics similarly provide a foundation for the fun.

Pure Experience

In many of these larps, especially in Baphomet and House of Craving, the design foregrounds immediate emotional experience and interaction to an extreme degree. As Baphomet comes to a close, the lights are dimmed. This makes it harder to see who has the necklace and who doesn’t. The social dynamics of the game have been running for two days and the participants have fused into a collective madness where elements like character or story become increasingly meaningless compared to the immediacy of the interactive moment.

In these last moments, we don’t need the game design crutches of the necklace or the fictional frame. We are free floating active agents with full agency to let the impulses created by the larp’s social dynamics dribble out. We don’t play as individuals but as a collective.

A person holding another person down while another watches on, with a fourth person staring at the camera

House of Craving (2019). Photo by Bjarke Pedersen.

As the larp ends, we gather in the ritual room. The atmosphere is hysterical, people falling to pieces all over the place. Yet as a player it doesn’t feel dangerous at all. Quite the opposite: It feels like a place where you can safely allow the expressions of the experience to flow through you.

Huddling together, making the ritual hum, feeling it in our bodies, feeling our breath, voice, collective spirit start to tear as the gods Baphomet and Pan manifest. As players we know how this moment goes. We know the meaning of these choices on a game design level. We are mentally prepared to deal with the chaos even as it pulls at us from every direction.

The larp has two endings, the Pan ending and the Baphomet ending. As a player you can choose which god to follow depending on the themes of your game experience. I followed Pan in a horde of people running to the mansion’s spa area, tearing our clothes off as we went, plunging into the pool.

We’d had instructions that we should submerge ourselves in silence, without speaking or making a sound, and as we rose from the water we would be out of the game.

This didn’t happen. Instead as all the followers of Pan were standing in the water we started screaming. I have no idea who started it but suddenly the sound was swelling from inside us in an impersonal collective furor, a meaningless, inhuman wall of noise echoing from the walls of the pool chamber. As we became exhausted by the sound we went underwater and out of the fiction.

A person in jewels staring at a skull

Inside Hamlet. Photo by Marie Herløvsen.

War Stories

The larp Inside Hamlet had a rule that after the game you were allowed to talk about your own experience but you shouldn’t talk about what other people were doing. It was okay to say: “I crawled and licked another player’s boots,” but not: “Gustav crawled and licked Annie’s boots.”

The purpose of this rule is to enable people to play freely with kinky, dark, and extreme subjects without getting outed with non-players who might not understand the context. It’s a community safety mechanism making it easier for players to relax.

This rule and other similar ones has left us with the result that these larps are often talked about in an euphemistic manner, eliding many of the more outré things that happen in them. Players talk about them face-to-face or in small, closed online groups.

When it’s only one larp, it doesn’t matter too much, but it’s become a hallmark of the genre. From the outside they’re decidedly opaque, which is especially obvious if you’ve gone to them and witnessed the discrepancy between the reality and the discourse. This is why I chose to write this essay: I wanted to make an attempt at mapping the emotional landscape of these experiences in an open manner without undue coyness.

Some of the larps mentioned in this essay, especially the bigger ones, feature complex, nuanced narrative elements. Conscience (2018-) modeled its storyworld on that of the TV series Westworld, and our End of the Line used a well-known role-playing game as its basis. Inside Hamlet is based on a famous play.

A person looking at poetry near the corpse of a person with flowers on them

Ophelia’s Funeral at Inside Hamlet. Photo by Bret Lehne.

You can play each of those larps without engaging with the kind of sordid activities celebrated in this essay. Because of the breadth of their design, they can support many different kinds of playstyles.

This is why I think that while the tendencies of this genre are present in each of those games, they reach their fulfillment in Baphomet and House of Craving. In a sense, these two are not larps of the mind at all. They function on a more primitive, submerged emotional level where the nuances of the fiction don’t matter nearly as much as the emotional landscape of a beautiful larp scene.

Those moments of emotion are why I’ve played so many of these larps. Those and the warmth of their temporary, fleeting communities.

Cover photo: A Stormguard and a Companion at Inside Hamlet. Photo by Bret Lehne.

This article will be published in the upcoming companion book Book of Magic and is published here with permission. Please cite this text as:

Pettersson, Juhana. “Terror and Warmth.” In Book of Magic, edited by Kari Kvittingen Djukastein, Marcus Irgens, Nadja Lipsyc, and Lars Kristian Løveng Sunde. Oslo, Norway: Knutepunkt, 2021. (In press).

Authors

Juhana Pettersson (b. 1980) is a Finnish novelist and designer of larps and roleplaying games. His best known larps are End of the Line, Halat hisar, Luminescence, and Parliament of Shadows.
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