Did We Wake?

Did We Wake?

I have not yet met the woman who is a crab.

drrr. drrr. drrr.

Awakening to a smartphone, dumbly vibrating.

Below me, in that murky swamp from which I (the one who thinks) am emerging, there are silhouettes of moments, echoes of emotion, the kind of shadows that colours cast. A boat? A canoe? A sailing ship? Yes. But. A dream.

I fumble, sluggishly desperate, for the pad and pencil that I know to be there, somewhere, on the nightstand.
The weird thing about dreams is that they live only in the brain’s short-term memory, which expires after roughly 10 minutes. If you don’t capture them, they’re gone. Sailing down the creek beneath the schoolway concrete bridge. My hand finds the pad but loses the pencil, nervous system still booting up. The pencil dinks onto the floor. Rolls. Someone is with me on the boat, rowing. Someone significant. I search for the pencil with my hands under the bed, find it, grab it, bring it to the pad.

The organisers of the larp Before We Wake (Denmark 2015) will not give us pre-written characters of any kind. We know only that the larp will be “surreal”, that it will be played on a black box stage, and that there will be workshops in advance. The only thing we can do to prepare ourselves as players, is to record our dreams. The woman who is a crab lunges for me, strange reflections in her obsidian claw… no. Not yet! With the pencil finally in a hand that does not shake, I write:

  • The creek by the school at Greverud, except it is a river.
  • We are paddling down it.
  • Large mountains on either side, wilderness. Boulders amongst the trees.
  • I am exploring together with …

The other person on the boat is someone I knew in childhood. But who? Already, the dream is … sinking … The creek under the concrete bridge is, in reality, barely wide enough for a toy boat. I crossed it every day, on my way to school. It leads to the swampy area by the garden-supply store. Yet in the dream, me and… Christian, my closest friend? No. And suddenly, I know: Me and Asgeir. My brother, 3 years my junior.[1]I have a younger brother in reality as well as in dreams, but his name is not Asgeir. Apart from that, the stories I have shared in this article are as true as memory permits.

  • I am exploring together with Asgeir.

Where are we heading? Did we arrive there? Echoes fade. Silhouettes soften. Shadows disintegrate. An impression of calm ocean? strings of light beneath the beaches? the distant sound of storm-waves breaking towards boulders (not yet!) The harder I attempt to grab the memories, the more thoroughly they slip away.

I let the pen drop.

Irrevocably, the dream has gone.


Is it possible to understand a larp without distance?

Larps are complex, intense affairs. A great tangle of new and old relationships, creativity, creation, emotional affect and intellectual growth co-occurring. A community comes into existence for a brief while to create something trivial, entertaining, that can also, possibly, be moving and meaningful. Playing a larp is immediate and intense. Understanding a larp, however, requires the unravelling of all those threads. Which you can only do, properly, if you played it yourself, if you yourself became a thread to untangle, thereby losing all claims to objectivity.

Untangling takes time. The more ambitious the larp, the more complex its tangle of experiences, the more time will be required.

So I find myself, in 2023, reflecting on Before We Wake, a larp played in 2015, a larp which refused to let go, which insisted on being untangled, not just for the mystery it left behind (more on that later), but for how it managed to be, simultaneously, a textbook example of “live roleplaying”, and utterly unlike any other larp ever played.

This is what it looked like

Københavns musikteater.

A room. Industrial-scale. Many metres from floor to ceiling, many more metres between the walls. All painted black. Large, empty, regions of black floor. But also clusters of props of unclear function and meaning – pipes interwoven with threads, stairs to nowhere, platforms that are not stages. Above and to the sides: stage lights, loudspeakers, projectors.

Before We Wake 2015. Photo: Mathias Kromman Rode

Before We Wake 2015. Photo: Mathias Kromman Rode

It smelled of chalk. Of old house, summer sweat, and smoke machine.

There was always sound. Sometimes a discrete melodious ambient, sometimes sirens wailing and wars being fought.

Things changed. Gradually. Organisers moved things around, weaving together pieces of scenography with white thread. The room’s state at larp’s end was entirely different from its state at the beginning.

And (of course) there were people. Hippie-like, cult-member-like, in similar flowing white clothes, perfect canvases for the stage lights or video projectors.

Imagine being there. Seeing them. Seeing us: we behave in ways that people do not usually behave, even at larps. One sits, head in hands, crying, while the person next to them giggles and blows soap bubbles. Three people, back to back, arms locked together, make the same strange humming repetitive noise. Someone in the corner is plausibly pretending to vomit. A dancer impersonates a bird. Each person, or group of people, entirely in their own social worlds, pretending that the others are not there. Except when they want them to be.

There is a tremendous freedom in this room – the freedom to not care that your tears might ruin the mood, that your childish giggles might lead people to think worse of you. An alibi even more powerful than that usually granted by larp. But an alibi for strangeness, and vulnerability.

Here is one of the things that happened

As I walk through the forest, lost, I find the woman. Bound between two dead trees.

Excuse me! Can you help me?

Sure! I respond, What seems to be the problem?

Well, as you can see, I am a crab.

And so she is. Her enormous claws are bound with rubber bands, but I still take a step back, out of fear.

Please, she begs, please, please don’t go away. I won’t hurt you. I promise! This is very new to me. I’ve never been a crab before. I just need a little bit of help.

OK, I say, cautiously, stepping forward.

Please untie me!

OK, I say, again, cautiously – very cautiously, removing the rubber band from her left claw.

The claw clacks loudly, centimetres from my neck. I take three steps back. She is attacking me, with her free claw. But the other claw is still bound to the tree.

Sorry! I didn’t mean to hurt you! She pleads, as her claw continues to grab for me. Please untie me!

Absolutely not! You’re attacking me!

I’ll stop. I promise! This is just very new to me.

And as tears flow from her crab-eyes, as she pleads for someone to please help, as her free claw stabs at me again, I walk away.

The dreamer, imagining

At the workshop before the larp, we trained to perform the three different roles available to us in play: the dreamer, the envoy, and the weaver. We could alternate between these roles as we wished. At the second run of the larp, the run I attended, the Envoy (a kind of director-of-dreams) did not see much use. The two other roles, however, did. The Woman Who Was a Crab was a player in the dreamer role. So, in that scene, was I.

The dreamer was a person, dreaming. But which person? Was I to pretend I was Eirik, dreaming, or merely a human who dreams? This was left ambiguous. We were instructed to use the dreams from our own diaries as source material, but also permitted to improvise, and encouraged to join in the dreams of others. Other players would not necessarily know whether we were making stuff up on the fly, or revealing our most profound hopes and anxieties.

At some point during the second act, with no particular thing to do, I notice a large empty space on the floor. In my mind I make it the river under the schoolway bridge, the river that leads past the garden-supply store and towards unknown shores. I sit down / I climb into the canoe on the floor and start paddling. Imagining the oar. Imagining the presence of Asgeir, my brother.

Except. Another player, also in the dreamer role, sits down next to me, and begins paddling with me. Was he simply reacting to my play, joining in to reinforce it, or did my co-player have a boat-dream of his own? Asgeir is here, now, next to me, paddling, downriver, through the rapids, into wilderness, between ancient boulders.

Who was I in his dream – stranger, colleague, father, wife? I do not know, and it did not matter. While we pretended that our characters coexisted in the same reality, the same fictive world or diegesis in larp theoryspeak, we likely had different mental and emotional images of that reality.

This is true of all roleplaying. Players of Dungeons & Dragons form different mental images of the orcs and dragons their characters fight, different ideas of what it means to fight them. The role of Dungeon Master and the copious rules of the game help establish shared truths about the diegesis when they are needed, but the remaining truths are left to the individual interpretations and imaginations of players. This is also true of larp, even of larps that aspire to the 360° illusion (where everything that you see, touch, smell, hear, feel is entirely in-game; see Koljonen 2007), as that illusion is never perfect. Players must still imagine that their bodies are the bodies of characters, that the aeroplane is not there, and that the characters have memories from lives that the players have not lived. And where we must imagine, we will imagine differently. All diegeses, to paraphrase Markus Montola (2003), are subjective. Imagining is a core player skill. Without it roleplaying is not possible.

Before We Wake, brilliantly, made a virtue of that which to most larps is a necessary evil. Each player experienced their own dream, pursued their own dream-goals, using their imaginations to paint entirely different realities onto the same scaffolding of scenography and player actions. Thereby the larp allowed us 25 players to engage in hundreds of mini-larps, overlapping with each other in space and time like some surreal four-dimensional Venn diagram. You did not need to understand this to play the larp. Playing, itself, was enough.

The weaver

The third role available to us players, the weaver, was a nonverbal creature of the dreamworld, a force of nature. Two or more players could make a weaver by finding a shared rhythm, humming or drumming or chanting, and a shared movement, and going with that flow, creating impulses for other players to follow.

Before We Wake 2015. Photo: Karin Pedersen

Before We Wake 2015. Photo: Karin Pedersen

The weavers I played in arose organically: two players interacting, discovering a pattern to our interaction, and emphasising that pattern until we were a weaver. To play a weaver, I recall, was pleasant, trance-like, reminiscent of drum-circles and unstructured ritual improv. To meet a weaver, however, could be terrifying.

After a long journey, past the garden-supply store and great mountains, we come at last to the mouth of the dark river. Before us: an ocean in twilight, the silhouettes of islands drawn by the sun’s last rays, strings of light beneath the beaches. Uninhabited, undiscovered, begging to be explored.

At this point two additional players have joined the boat, sitting behind me and Asgeir’s player. I interpret, imagine, them as childhood friends, who had been on board since the beginning, though I would later call one of them “the Chef” and forget him. Three other players have formed a weaver, and as we paddle they approach us, making windy sounds, wave sounds, moving their arms as if to illustrate an ocean, with increasing intensity.

Abruptly, a cold gale hits our boat. Dark clouds from the east, quickly sliding across the sky. Asgeir reacts. Paddles with fear, and vigour, hoping to escape the storm. I join him. My oar-strokes are strong, exhausting. Sprays of sweat and salt water.

The weaver is gesturing, violently, from floor to ceiling. And then. And then. My co-player throws himself to the left. A great wave washes across the boat, taking Asgeir with it. I panic. Shout his name. Asgeir! Asgeir! But he does not hear me. The waves are impossibly tall, our voices in the gale are impossibly small. I throw a rope into the ocean. Grab this! I shout / I whisper. I can see him. Trying to swim. Another great wave hits, and when it has passed, he is gone.

The co-player who portrayed Asgeir has let his character drown and moved on to another dream. The weaver, having achieved catharsis at the peak of their Aristotelian arc, calms down, disbands, the three players seeking out new dreams to participate in.

Wreckage drifting in calm waters, stars reflected in the deep. I stand there, alone. A real person in the midst of an imagined ocean. Dealing with the death of my brother.

Of butterflies and REM sleep

Your dream home. A dream come true. These “dreams” are things that are good, but perhaps unattainable. Real dreams are not like that. They may be happy, indulgent, erotic, beautiful, but also terrifying, awkward, guilt-ridden, anxious or just plain strange. Dreams bleed. You can awake from them devastated at an imagined loss, terrified at a hallucinated monster, emotions so strong that no amount of repeating “it was only a dream!” will remove them entirely.

The Chef died because we forgot him. He had been with us, on the canoe, paddling. But no-one looked at him, all my attention went to my brother. And so the Chef died. Someone explains that “If you forget someone, they can die”. It made perfect sense. It meant I now carried with me the guilt of two deaths.

Neuroscientists have plenty of explanations for the strange sensations of dreams – neurons firing at random, REM sleep as the trash-removal function of the mind. But just as the discovery of oxytocin (“the love hormone”) has not saved any marriages or given us better love poetry, the neuroscience of sleep is surprisingly useless when we wonder why dreams feel the way they do, or why a given dream resonates so strongly with us.

The mourners congregate, the pall-bearers lift the body. The minister intones the eulogy. We play a funeral that is (of course) 15 different funerals, for 15 different people, 15 diegeses overlapping. But in my diegesis, we are burying the Chef, and I am guilty of his murder-by-forgetfulness. One of the mourners is my brother. Asgeir is alive! I notice with deeply felt relief and gratitude. But he has become enormous – a mountain-sized person in the distant ocean. All is well with him, but we can never meet again.

The Chef, too, isn’t actually dead. He just needed a hug. In the midst of his funeral, the Messiah appears and resurrects him. She cheerily tells us that she is a new Messiah, she only found out this morning, and asks us to please be patient with her as she figures out how to messiah properly.

“Was I a man dreaming he was a butterfly,” the sage Zhuangzi asked following a particularly vivid dream, “or am I now a butterfly dreaming that it is a man?” In 2300 years, no philosopher has been able to conclusively answer Zhuangzi’s question.

To play at Before We Wake, to bring our dreams out of sleep and the subconscious and into shared play, was to enter into that ambiguity. To be unsure of whether one was larping a dream, or dreaming a larp. All larps invite this kind of doubt, but many larp cultures treat it as something undesirable. To risk losing oneself? To mess up one’s grip on reality? Never! Here too, Before We Wake made a virtue out of an inherent fault line in the larp medium.

For: if this reality is a dream, then all possible realities might be there when we truly wake. And even if it is not so, then acting as if it is may allow us to see our reality as changeable, improvable, open to creativity. Strings of light beneath distant shores, numinous with meaning.

50 shades of ultraviolet

There can be no doubt that Before We Wake was a significant achievement – a bold idea, beautifully executed, pushing the boundaries of what roleplaying can be. The peak, perhaps, of the Nordic avant-garde larp movement.

50 players. 50 different larps. 50 different meanings and evaluations. In my circle of contact, the players with the least experience as roleplayers were the ones who were the most adept at enjoying Before We Wake. The larp lacked characters, coherent narratives, and causality. What would my character do?, we experienced larpers ask when stuck, what does the genre suggest? what is the logical thing here? To which this particular larp replied: There is no character! No genre! The most logical thing to do is one that doesn’t make sense!

As the organisers, beginning the larp, told us to pretend to be asleep, I was attacked by pre-larp anxiety, and desperately deployed my meditation practice to ward it off. Have I prepared well enough? Breathe in. Does my costume suck? Breathe ouut. Will I be able to meet their expectations? Breeeaaatheeee iiiinnnn. This never works. Except, it did. I managed to find that place of calm and slow breathing where thoughts and anxieties could just float by. I later wrote in my notebook:

I have woken into the dream as a small child awakens into the world, awed by existence, captivated even by the wriggling of fingers. I lean against a tree. A web is woven above me. I watch the web materialising. I play with the strips of cloth, blowing at them. I, too, have a piece of white cloth. My white cloth is taken away by the wind, and I follow it, knocking on the trunks of trees to hear whether it is in there. Sometimes I can hear it reply, but before I can grab it, it is blown away again, laughing.

The “wind” in this scene was, I think, another player. My notes from the larp are not entirely coherent. But I recall the feelings evoked from this larp; child-like wonder, the weight of adult responsibility, saudade, relief. The strangeness and vulnerability of us sharing dreams. And the mystery.


The end, of the larp and of this untangling, is another awakening. An awakening into “the real world”, and an awakening into the mental twilight between the end of roleplay and the beginning of debriefs, where I can sit writing down my memories of the larp, free from the tyranny of consensus.

I have spent roughly 10 minutes writing about the boat, and the storm, and the funeral. I have written about the woman who was a crab. But there were many more moments I had wanted to capture. A door, thunder, the people lost in the forest … clouds.

Echoes fade. Silhouettes soften. Shadows disintegrate. Strangely, I can feel these things, but no longer see them clearly. Gunshot wounds in the flesh of trees. A wise man perched below the spider’s peak. The small thing, beneath your foot… The harder I attempt to grab the memories, the more thoroughly they slip away.

I let the pen drop.

Irrevocably, the larp has gone.

Before We Wake

CREDITS: Jesper Heebøll Arbjørn, Kirstine Hedda Fich, Kristoffer Thurøe, Mathias Kromann Rode, Nina Runa Essendrop, Peter Schønnemann Andreasen, Sanne Harder and a team of 8 technicians and helpers.
DATE: August 5–8, 2015
LOCATION: Københavns Musikteater, Copenhagen, Denmark
DURATION: 6 hours + 1 day of pre-larp
PARTICIPANTS: 2 runs, each with 25 participants


Markus Montola (2003): Role-Playing as Interactive Construction of Subjective Diegeses. In As Larp Grows Up – Theory and Methods in Larp (pp. 82–89), edited by Morten Gade, Line Thorup and Mikkel Sander, http://www.laivforum.dk/kp03_book/

Johanna Koljonen (2007): Eye-Witness to the Illusion. An Essay on the Impossibility of 360° Role-Playing. In Lifelike (pp. 175–187), edited by Jesper Donnis, Line Thorup and Morten Gade. Projektgruppen KP07, Copenhagen 2007.

Kristoffer Thurøe (2016): Before We Wake: Weaving with the Fabric of Dreams in The Nordic Larp Yearbook 2015, edited by Charles Bo Nielsen, Claus Raasted and Erik Sonne Georg, Rollespillsakademiet 2016.

Further Reading

Ole Peder Giæver (2015): “The Night Shift.” by Ole Peder Giæver 2015, https://snarglebarf.wordpress.com/2015/08/18/the-night-shift/

Thais Munk (2015): “Before We Wake: About dreams, a damn wise silverback gorilla and blackbox larp as a media.” by Thais Munk 2015

This article has been reprinted with permission from the Solmukohta 2024 book. Please cite as:

Fatland, Eirik. 2024. “Did We Wake?” In Liminal Encounters: Evolving Discourse in Nordic and Nordic Inspired Larp, edited by Kaisa Kangas, Jonne Arjoranta, and Ruska Kevätkoski. Helsinki, Finland: Ropecon ry.

Cover photo: Before We Wake 2015. Photo: Karin Pedersen

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1I have a younger brother in reality as well as in dreams, but his name is not Asgeir. Apart from that, the stories I have shared in this article are as true as memory permits.


Eirik Fatland is a larpwright, theorist, and founding member of the Nordic larp movement. He is known as a designer of dark, ambitious larps with political themes (Europa, Inside:Outside, and PanoptiCorp), strongly narrative and occasionally comedic larps (Moiras Vev, Marcellos Kjeller), and as a speaker and educator specializing in matters of larp design. He is in possession of a Norwegian passport, a Master of Arts degree from the University of Art and Design Helsinki, and a job in financial services.