Odysseus A Retrospective (2019)

Odysseus A Retrospective (2019)

Content Advisory: This article may contain plot spoilers for the larp Odysseus.

This is a slightly tweaked version of the original post I put on Facebook on Sunday July 21, 2019, regarding my thoughts on the second run of the Finnish larp, Odysseus, that ran over July 4-6 2019 in Helsinki.

“It’s not enough to survive, one has to be worthy of survival”.

Commander Adama, Battlestar Galactica

This article discusses my experience of participating in the 2019 run of the Finnish larp Odysseus, which was organized by Laura Kröger, Sanna Hautala and Antti Kumpulainen (backed up by a huge crew). This was my first time at a larp of this nature (I’ve been playing and running larp’s since the early 1990s) but I should also mention I had lost my love of larp by this point due to some extremely negative experiences so it was with some trepidation I would eventually go to this game with a view to it being my swansong. I didn’t really know what to expect or how I should play it. 

TL;DR, I had an amazing time at the very best larp I’ve ever been to.

What was Odysseus?

I’d been looking for a large European “mega-larp” (for lack of a better term) for a while but if I was going to spend roughly £500+ on a game, I wanted it to be something that was in my sphere of interest.  A good friend of mine who had previously gone to Lotka-Volterra, sent me the link for this one and it seemed to tick all of the boxes that I was looking for. As I think the team behind Odysseus freely admitted, the game background was very much Battlestar Galactica with the serial numbers filed off. The background to the game was that a colony of humans who left Earth hundreds of years ago were wiped out in a surprise attack by sentient machines (so very much the beginning of Battlestar Galactica). The game was set in the immediate aftermath of that attack. We were on the ECS Odysseus, one of the last surviving battleships of the colonies. As players we would be playing members of the crew of that ship, as well as survivors who had been picked up either before the game started or would be as the game progressed.

mess hall of the space ship build in i Finnish school

Photo by James Bloodworth


The game was cast from pre-written characters, which meant that instead of writing up your own character’s backstory and fitting it in with the game universe, you filled out a questionnaire as to your preference of play styles and then the GM’s “cast” you into a role they thought lined up with your answers. The questions were such as how much you enjoy a certain play style, if you like having secrets, if you like romance plots, etc. For example, I remember one question asking which of the character groups I was interested in; I put down either Engineer, Scientist, or Bridge Officer.

Seemingly at odds with my wishes, I was cast as a Marine, a soldier. Between laser tag and larp, I have played an awful lot of military-type roles over the years and had been hoping for something different. It seemed I wasn’t alone in being unhappy with my given character and we were offered an alternative; we could put in for a swap and see what happened, and I very nearly did. In the end, however, I thought playing another soldier-type character after doing it so many times would actually be an aid to my roleplay as I would be going into relatively unfamiliar larp territory and having some idea how to play in a military manner might be beneficial.

We got the main character briefs in May 2019 and by that stage there was a touch of anxiety creeping in about the game in itself, to the degree that I put off properly reading it for a couple of weeks. I think what was bothering me was the fact that I was flying to another country to play a game with people I had never met before. It had been a while since I’d done anything like that and I guess it was the fear of the unknown getting to me. When I finally did open and read it, it all seemed relatively straightforward and nicely written, a rounded character with a few nuances I was fairly confident I would be able to pull off. I was able to condense key items into roughly half a page of bullet points. The only document I would need to refer to during the game was the universe timeline and that was mainly for dates.

I would be playing Kerrie Ray, Petty Officer 2nd Class, Alpha team Marine, ESS Odysseus. He was an orphan who had defied his adoptive parents’ wishes by enlisting in the Marine Corps as they had wanted him to be a doctor. He was training to be a combat medic as a nod to this. When I read the character, his true parentage was a mystery.

Making contact with the players of other characters mentioned in my character briefing was encouraged and I did my best to do just that. Some were mysterious (as I would learn before their briefing). I can’t thank our team leader enough for setting up an Alpha team Facebook chat group; that helped a lot with getting the team bonding.Truth be told I was incredibly happy at how well and quickly the team did bond once the game got going; it really did feel like we’d been serving together for months, both our team and the rest of the crew. I arrived in Helsinki the day before the game started. As you could stop by at the game site the night before the game, it was how we got our first glimpses into what only a few weeks ago had been a junior high school. Thursday brought a day of workshops where we figured out where we would be sleeping, got a more extensive tour of the “ship”, and an introduction to some of the tech/equipment we would be using. In addition we went through some off game rules of the game, the ideals behind it, etc. I was quite taken by the “play to lift” (Vejdemo 2018) and “empty chair” concepts, and I was also inspired to incorporate them into my own larps.

space ship hallway in blue lighting

Photo by James Bloodworth

The game

Time In happened at around 18:00 on Thursday with the playing of the national anthem of the colonies (a specially commissioned piece by Hannu Sinerva and Helena Haaparanta) and when that finished, the larp started. A core element of the game to those who were part of the ship’s crew, was the shift system, divided into Solar and Lunar. Solar shift was 04:00 to 12:00 and then 16:00 to 20:00 and Lunar the inverse. Alpha team was on Solar and Beta on Lunar. You were encouraged to be mindful of your own welfare and to sleep/eat when you were meant to, and also to keep hydrated. The shift system meant that at least half of the ship’s crew would be awake at any one time although realistically it was more than that. I estimate that over the 48 hours duration of the larp I slept for maybe 5-6, if that. My team was roughly similar but the thing was (as I think we commented at one stage) we didn’t feel tired, probably due to the adrenaline (and copious amounts of coffee). Food was served around the clock and there was always lots of it.  

One issue that arose was that nearly all of the officer stations were duplicated between shifts with a couple of exceptions, one of them being the chief of security (who was also in charge of the marines). At one stage he had been on his feet for so long that we finally got him to take a couple of hours rest in the brig (comfiest bed in the whole ship) where we could try and make sure he wasn’t disturbed. I’d have put in a nominated second and tried to ensure there was some kind of handover between shifts. As it was, agreed tasks got lost between shifts – like I said to him at one stage, “Next time you want us to arrest a senator, just leave a post-it on one of the monitors!”

As the marine team we had several duties to perform when on our shift:

  • Watch the security room and look for and investigate suspicious activity on the cameras
  • Guard the brig and ensure prisoner security/comfort
  • Patrol the ship
  • Defend the ship in case of any incursion (like that was never going to happen!)
  • Participate in Away Missions as required
secure air lock door

Photo by James Bloodworth

That last part was one of the highlights of the game for me. As a marine team we got to go in the shuttle (a minibus where all the windows were blacked out) to somewhere in the Finnish woods looking for ancient beacons (these would take the form of locked metal boxes that the science team back on the ship would open and decipher). It was hoped that these would eventually lead us back to Earth. These ground missions were definitely something I was familiar with in terms of larp as I’ve run around a lot of woods in my time! On the missions we had one trooper with a custom vest/helmet with a GoPro camera mounted on the front so a live feed could be transmitted back to the Bridge. In addition, the feed was also shown on the huge projector screen in the mess hall back on the ship so everyone else could see what we were doing. This would turn out to be a double edged sword on our first mission.

Our first mission was to track down one of the aforementioned ancient beacons. We managed to find it, but to get to it we had to scale a loose shale hill in the rain, on which it was being guarded by some local inhabitants. My character wasn’t sure who they were, criminals, lost colonists, etc. Ultimately, whoever they were didn’t matter to us. They were overtly belligerent, they had something we needed and they were heavily armed. One of our team (Leone) had been attempting to flank their left side, which she did beautifully, but as she popped up ready to fire, the battery powered Nerf gun she was carrying failed. It started to spin up and then died, resulting in her being taken hostage.  

Speaking of NERF, I wouldn’t have advocated using Laser-Tag indoors (although with the recent data refinements this might work now). Outdoors however, NERF-darts were being tossed in the wind so you needed to practically get to point blank, and the battery powered guns failed at more than one critical moment. Using something like Laser-Tag would have made that combat much more intense, but I can appreciate why we had what we had.

Looking back it was never going to end diplomatically as once we all got to the top and were trying to negotiate with them, they then started to make ever more outrageous demands in exchange for the beacon they had found that we wanted. Their primary demand seemed to be for food and medical supplies, so I said I had both. As I slowly opened my belt pouch with my gun lowered; their leader shouted something and opened fire, meaning that we then had to start shooting or engage them in hand to hand combat. Hunter (the team leader) would then be shown on live feed dispatching the fallen. Not a great look, and I was worried that would come back to haunt us so I gathered the team afterwards and made sure we had our stories straight in case it did. Ultimately nothing did happen and there were no consequences from this incident, was this a missed chance?  Potentially, I’ve done court martials in larps before and they can be very intense for those involved, but there probably wouldn’t have been time within the game to allow for it.

This encounter was perhaps the first hint that the larp was built as a railroad scenario; we had to get the beacon to find out where to go next in order to progress, and this is something that would be repeated. The ship would jump, the duty marines would undertake a mission to retrieve the beacon, the science team would then decode it.  

Both Alpha and Beta teams would engage in various land missions throughout the course of the larp. Sometimes they were short (where we just went to a cargo container/bunker) other times we would need to go out in anti-radiation gear and go for a long march in the Finnish forest. As alluded to earlier, going on missions into a forest is something I’ve done a lot of, so I was completely comfortable with this part of the game. It’s always thrilling and immersive walking through the trees, weapon in hand, trying to look in all directions for any potential threat.

surveilance screens

Photo by James Bloodworth

Of course shipboard duties and land missions as a marine was only half of the game. I also had my actual character background to explore and resolve as well. Ultimately, through the course of the game when I wasn’t on duty, I would discover I was a Royal Bastard who had potentially the best claim to the currently empty throne. I told my best friend who then introduced me to her senator sister, who immediately suggested an alliance, then marriage, and then babies all in the space of about 15 minutes.

The marriage proposal came at the end of a whole series of revelations about my character which came as one hit after another to the extent I went off and hid in the engine room for a while (laying down next to a Jump Drive Reactor is surprisingly soothing). It also led to a state of decision paralysis which I’ve experienced a few times at larps. Now, to my mind this is where my character is presented with a choice but is hesitant to proceed in one direction or the other as the player is worried about the ramifications to other players. Basically, I was out of character worried that if I accepted the proposal I might be breaking someone else’s game. I have to thank a friend for his advice as he came over at one stage to check how things were going and after I told him what had happened, he gave me some advice in the form of three words: “Embrace the chaos”. I did.

In short, I got married, tried to assume my throne, only to have my claim (temporarily) thrown out. It felt just like the episode of Game of Thrones where Ned Stark was clutching Robert Baraetheon’s last will and testament only to have it thrown in his face by Cersei Lannister, an incredibly tense scene, well played by all involved. I’ve mentioned before how play-to-lift was emphasized during the initial workshops and this scene is one of my favorite moments, even though my character came out the other side broken. There was an intensity I’ve only encountered a few times, helped by the great costumes, the scenography and proppage and the previously mentioned sound and light effects, it’s times like this you really become the character in the situation.

That senate meeting, coupled with a few other things, meant that the character was at a low ebb when the red alert sounded followed by the announcement we were being boarded. I did what any marine would do: I shook myself down and got ready for combat. Getting to the armory there were no protective vests left, so I picked up a second gun and went looking for the enemy machines. We knew they were coming, but we had no idea where. For one of the few times during the game I reverted back to being me for a second and wondered: if I was doing this (I’ve both staged and helped to stage similar attacks in the past), where would I launch my attack? 

Part of the transformation from the school to the spaceship involved blocking off thoroughfares and creating false walls. I think I figured it out a few seconds before I saw the red lights on the mesh grill on the ceiling. They were going to come from a corner of the mess hall. I dashed over there and stood ready on the staircase facing it, shouting at the civilians to get back. The false door opened and out they came. Now I had two Nerf guns, a springer and a battery powered. Typically the battery powered Nerf gun jammed on the second or third shot so I was left with the springer which I then used to dispatch one of the mechanical monstrosities, but I was peppered with their shots and fell dramatically to the floor.

The attack was repulsed and I then got dragged to med-bay and hauled onto the diagnostic table, where I was laying in the warm (fake) blood of the previous patient. The doctors got me patched up and I got moved onto a normal bed as there were a lot of customers that day.

white table with a medical scanner

Photo by James Bloodworth

It was quite hard to die in the game unless you wanted to and then you would talk to the GMs, who would organize it for you. Maybe that had been in the back of my mind when going to fight the machines, maybe I was volunteering to get shot, to go down in a blaze of glory. I did consider killing the character at that stage and it was still something I was considering.

I closed my eyes for a moment and then I heard a voice say, “I thought I told you not to die”. I looked up into the eyes of my new wife, and explained how I thought that my dying would have solved a few problems for people, including her. Whilst seeing my point of view she argued I would be much more use alive.

Re-invigorated I sat up and whilst talking to a doctor I saw Lee Savage (a fellow marine on Beta Team) laying on one of the beds. I asked how she was doing, and the doctor just shook his head. As I looked back, they were covering her body in a sheet and taking her away on a stretcher. Part of my character brief had been to break up Leone and Lee (who I thought had been stringing Leone along on false pretenses) and I had achieved this relatively early on. So when Lee died and they then found an engagement ring in her pocket, it just hit me like an emotional slice of lemon, wrapped around an atomic powered freight train. I have cried before at larps, but not for a while and not with this much power. I solidly lost it for a good few minutes.

I was trying to clean myself up when Abrankowitz (security chief and in charge of the Marines) came in and told me he needed all hands. The sleeve of my jacket was still wet from all the tears but I picked myself up, walked into security, grabbed a gun and asked where the situation was.

The finale

A long time ago I gave a presentation about larp on how as a writer/GM I structured my games, and one of the things I touched upon was that I considered a larp to often have a three-act structure (not unlike a lot of films) with each part as important as the other, the three parts I mean are: 

  • The Setup (everything before the larp)
  • The Chase (The larp)
  • The Pay Off (The ending of the larp)

Players can have a great game but a rubbish ending and vice versa and how the game ends can color your memories of the game as a whole.

The game came to an end when an attempt at a diplomatic solution with the machines failed and a suicide mission was launched which took out the machine primary “nerve centre” with a large nuke, followed by one last jump. As players we had committed genocide in the name of self defence against another sentient species, albeit one that was trying to exterminate us first. 

I know some players have taken issue with how we survived (e.g., Bergstresser 2022). Apparently there were three potential endings we could have achieved but all were mostly variations on a theme. I know some players aren’t happy that it seems diplomacy never had a chance, and I have seen Odysseus referred to as a “railroad larp”, meaning that we could take any number of decisions on the journey but we were always going to get to the same destination. There was some variance but it was always going to boil down to a decision no-one was going to want to make. 

I’m genuinely torn on this. As a character, I was completely happy with the decision to wipe the machines out, as they’d tried to kill me and everyone else earlier in the day and wipe out our civilization. As a GM and writer of larps, I’m really very torn. I like giving my players choices, forcing them to debate the moral quandary over their actions before they have to make a decision. I’ve read some of the Facebook comments from the GM team about how the game was always driving us to make this ultimate choice. It seems there was no winning here, just degrees of losing. In effect, no “happy ending”. In a lot of ways this is completely in line with the Battlestar Galactica (2003) TV series that this game was inspired by.  

I’ve since learned that the ending was apparently premature and we should have had a little longer to try and resolve any outstanding plot lines. For me though, personally speaking, this was a good place to end. I loved my last scene where I found myself unexpectedly with my “wife” and whilst I would have liked to try and resolve my royal plot line more it felt like it was still wide open should there ever be any opportunity to take that forward in the future.

laboratory in stainless steel

Photo by James Bloodworth

Post game

After the game we broke down into small groups for a character debrief with a GM where we talked about both the positive and negative aspects of our characters and how we related to them. Once this was complete we then broke into our larger profession groups (for me this was the rest of the Marines and security team) and we then discussed aspects of each other’s characters that we had liked and respected.

This depth of retrospection so soon after a game was a first for me but it led to an overwhelming positive feeling that I’ve rarely experienced before, to the extent that we were one of the last groups to finish this exercise as we all had so much to say. We then had the after party (although alcohol free as we were still on school grounds) and it was great to finally talk to people as opposed to their characters.


I had heard this game referred to as a “Clockwork larp”, roughly translating as multiple individual parts, moving independently on a loop to drive the larger machine forward. This is probably as good a description as I could give. I never thought 360 degree immersion was possible in a larp, let alone in a sci-fi setting, but the level of immersion was just astounding.

So many different facets from set construction, make up, sound, lighting, all worked together in a synchronicity I’ve only ever seen in professional productions costing much more than this did. The project management on this was incredible but it felt flawless; if this was clockwork larp, then it was supported by a clockwork crew.

The technical achievements were many and varied: 

  • A functional Bridge set (with view screens, controls, maps, etc.
  • Laptops liberally sprinkled around the ship with access to a news/mail system so you could send other characters messages
  • Engine room systems based on a NASA software framework
  • Integrated lighting, you knew when it was Yellow/Red/Jump alert
  • RFID tags on the walls and on the props that could be scanned by smartphones running a custom app with which you could do tasks
  • The aforementioned helmet cam that went on the away missions
  • The soundscape that changed in different areas of the ship and through jumps
huge metal turbine

Photo by James Bloodworth

As a friend said to me, any one of these systems would have been noteworthy in a game, but to have all of them integrated in the way that they were is still an achievement I’m in awe of. There was the occasional glitch but it all worked! I work in IT professionally, and know how much tech they must have had to drive all of this and then some. 

Then there was the crew, roughly the same number as the players (over 100) and yet always where they needed to be, when they needed to be, with absolute precision. I’ve often equated running a larp with being akin to keeping plates spinning on sticks, but over 100 players were effectively and efficiently herded and I have problems doing that with 20 players.

They also had a 24 hour safety team and a time-out room where you could go if the game was getting too much for you. There was so much emotion in the game: we had tears and laughter, joy and pain, comedy and drama, we ran the full spectrum. The intensity of the collaboration between players was something I’ve rarely encountered but hope to again.

What did Odysseus mean to me?

A new love of larp, which was something I thought I’d lost.

New friendships made with people I hope to see/larp with again in the future.

A new appreciation for the Finnish/Nordic style of larp. I’ve read a lot about it but this was probably my first proper exposure. In particular the concept of “Play to Lift” (Vejdemo 2018) and “empty chair” (this is where at any gathering you make sure there is at least one empty chair so a newcomer can join in).

A drive to try another larp, maybe on a pirate ship, maybe a magic school, maybe something else, but I want to do more on this scale.

Final thoughts

Odysseus was bold in vision and execution and (for me) delivered on every single one of its promises and then some. I was changing into my outdoor boots before an away mission and one of the GM’s asked me how the game was going and I responded; “This isn’t a game, it’s a f****** experience” and I still hold to that.

We didn’t play Odysseus, we lived it.

So thanks for reading, if indeed, you still are.

the auther with the people he played closely together with

Marine Alpha Team, ESS Odysseus. Photographer unknown.

Odysseus 2019

Name of the larp: Odysseus
Dates: Run 1 (Finnish), June 27-30 2019, run 2 (English) July 4-7 2019, run 3 (English) July 9-12 2019
Location: Helsinki, Finland
Organizers: Laura Kröger, Sanna Hautala and Antti Kumpulainen (backed up by a huge crew)
Price: €200-€300 (some characters also had additional costume rental €20-€40)
Website: https://www.odysseuslarp.com/ 


Bergstresser, Chris. 2022. “The Ethics of Storytelling — Chris Bergstresser.” Nordic Larp Talks. YouTube, Sept. 11.

“Odysseus Theme (2019)” (theme music/national anthem for the larp). 2019. Soundcloud. Composed by Hannu Niemi & Helena Haaparanta, lyrics by Hannu Niemi & Mia Makkonen, vocals by Helena Haaparanta: https://soundcloud.com/hannusinerva/odysseus-theme 

Vejdemo, Susanne. 2018. “Play to Lift, not Just to Lose.” In Shuffling the Deck: The Knutepunkt 2018 Color Printed Companion, edited by Annika Waern and Johannes Axner, 143-146. Pittsburgh, PA: Carnegie Mellon University: ETC Press.

Cover photo: Picture of the larp scenography, the Bridge. Photo by James Bloodworth.


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James Bloodworth (b. 1972) has been larping since 1990 and writing/running his own games since 1996. His larps are primarily Sci-Fi in nature taking inspiration from multiple sources and genres. He also builds larp props as he believes technology can enhance the larp experience (but not at the cost of the story). He is very interested in the design of both rules and practical mechanics that can both shape and enhance the LARP experience. He wrote a column for LARP magazine in the 90s and has also done presentations on various larp related topics. He has only recently started to experience what Nordic larp can offer but is interested in learning more. By day he works with two other people and a dog creating IT solutions.