Adapted from the text "Totem - Bodylanguage, Tribalism and High Definition Larping" by Peter Munthe-Kaas originally published in Nordic Larp, edited by Jaakko Stenros and Markus Montola (2010, Fëa Livia)
Date: July 18th to 22nd 2007
Location: Burnt down farmyard near Randers, Denmark
Length: 54 hours
Number of players: 28
Budget: 45.000 DKR
Participation fee: 1000 DKR, 2000 DKR with costume
Bodylanguage, Tribalism and High Definition Larping
Må was painted the first time by her love from last summer. It became a last fleeting memory of what had been, and a sort of good-bye ritual for the two…When Må woke up on the second day at the ritual site, somewhat late, she knew that it was now allowed for her and the other females in the tribe to take mates…Ulv, the alpha female has taken three mates, and since there are only seven men in the tribe and four women all in all, Må quickly realizes that if she wants to keep her position as second in command she needs two mates for herself. One she took out of love, the other one for pure status reasons. (Andie Nordgren 2008)
Totem was an experimental post-apocalyptical larp about tribes. The participants experienced life in a society without civilization, a tribal culture where taboos and rituals dominated life. Play focused around a rite of passage where body language, status and hierarchy, producing a very intense experience for the participants.
Totem was a tragedy, a story about mankind forgetting its culture. But it was also a story of personal tragedy for the participants who, in this extremely hierarchic society, had to see former lovers taken as mates by others, or personally ending up at the bottom of the hierarchy. As the game centred on a liminal ritual where the young become adults and the old adults leave the tribe, everybody had the burden of knowing that they one day, when they themselves were ending adult life, they would pass on the fragments they remembered from the rituals to the children of the tribe.
The post-apocalyptic setting was only used to emphasize the premise of Totem; that the process of civilization had reverted and was now at the last stages of degeneration. The participants would enact two tribes who had travelled far to gather on their sacred ritual grounds, where the young from each tribe would enter adulthood through a rite of passage.
We have come far from beyond the point of no return and even though human kind is not threatened with extinction, the things that made us human are disappearing. Consciousness, soul or free will, whatever it is that made us different from beasts, is almost gone. […]
We want to create a story about a degenerating culture. Human kind got further than we could have ever dreamt of, but the tide of progress turned and civilization started to degenerate. In this future people again live in nomadic tribes without written language or significant remnants of the lost civilization. Instinct takes over where there are no longer rules or explanations. Meaning and depth is redundant, words are forgotten and songs are hummed instead… (Totem website)
Arts for Loving and Building Hierarchy
Totem was preceded by a half a year of collaborative preparatory work of players and organizers. Three weekend workshops were staged. The first working with and the central aspects of the larp (bodylanguage, loving, hierarchy), the second with relations in the two groups and the third one was mostly used for small-talk about the game and making costumes. The methods used were inspired partly by experiences as participants in other larps (especially Mellan himmel och hav), partly built on the game organizer crew’s previous work in System Danmarc and partly inspired by Forum Theatre.
A central part of the workshops was creating a safe environment for the participants to work and play in, in order to prepare the players for the demanding larp. Work was carried out on creating positive group dynamics and empowering and including the participants in the creative process. Both body language and spoken language were worked on, as the idea was to hamper the use of speech without reverting to “caveman language”. Thus, it was decided that only the present could be addressed in speech, as the ability to think hypothetically was lost. Body language was practiced by creating still pictures (drawing on impro exercises) of potential in-game situations. The participants worked with correcting postures, and with the expressions of the physical image they wanted to project and thus created a collective understanding of how they wanted body language to work in the larp.
The workshops also worked very well in introducing and playing around with the diegetic tools of the larp. We borrowed the Ars Amandi method for amorous simulation from Mellan himmel och hav, and created Ars Ordo for resolving conflicts without using violence by using eye-contact.
The cultures were developed from A4 presentations to something that the players had an intuitive sense of, rather that a set of rules and norms. The workshops and the big effort made to work with cultures and matching of expectations had a central role in making the larp as succesfull as it was. (male player, post larp)
The larp was played at an old burnt down farm, which did not fit perfectly for the post-apocalyptic story. In the end having the liberty to do pretty much anything there for as long as it took, free access to large sleeping facilities nearby – and the general good energy of the place – won over. Thus, some compromises were made in exchange for comfort and ease.
The ritual grounds were divided into spaces with different functions and atmospheres. Eating and cooking was done by a common fireplace constructed so that there was room for everyone. It also had numerous invitations for status conflicts in the form of seats placed at different levels and with different possibilities to overlook the area. Sleeping was arranged in a nearby shed on straw with leather covers. A few areas were also set aside for play and competition, such as the climbing tree, where the participants could challenge each other in physical feats or just have fun and play.
Some parts of the setting were reserved for the ritual, the main story of the larp. The sweat lodge was used to cleanse the young and ready them for the adult life; the bonfire, where the participants would symbolically burn their youth away and begin adult life, and a field where the participants would find small rocks with holes in them, which they would make into necklaces symbolizing their adulthood. A participant mentioned after the larp that the necklace would bounce against her chest every time she was climbing and playing, thus reminding her of her new status as adult.
Coming of Age
At the center of Totem was the story about coming of age. The young from two tribes had been sent to the distant ritual grounds, where they would shed the easy life of children and take on the responsibility of adults through a series of rituals. One tribe was defined as matriarchal and the other as patriarchal, partly to create interesting dynamics in the form of a culture clash, partly to ensure female participants did not get stuck in traditional or submissive gender roles. The main game element of totem was that every participant had to find their place in the hierarchy of their tribe.
The larp was driven by planned rituals, competitions and moral dilemmas led by elders of the tribes (game masters). They were carriers of culture and tradition, leading the young into adulthood. In the beginning of the larp the elders played a central role, but as the larp proceeded their influence diminished, until the participants were left with the full burden of adult life.
The first day of the larp was oriented towards introductions of the area and the cultural traditions, common and different, of the tribes. The participants were cleansed in a sweat lodge, where they also went through a spiritual dream journey to find their totem animals and names (prepared in one of the workshops). During this day the young also learned to mix the sacred colours, which the tribes used in body painting, symbolizing adulthood and the right to mate. Constant painting and repainting of each others’ bodies was a central activity during the rest of the larp.
The second day evolved around the exploration of the possibilities, burdens and responsibilities of adulthood. Every initiate crafted a symbol of youth, which was burned at the end of the day. They received necklaces as a symbol of their adulthood, while the elders died socially, symbolized by the donning of masks. From this moment on, the initiates could fight, love and mate as adults.
The last day was about the tribal life, mating and stigmatizing. The higher status members of the dominating genders chose partners, and conflicts arose as people had to leave their tribes for a new and different existence in another. One member of each tribe was declared unwanted for mating and traded to the other tribe and one Ka and one Nappa was declared "non", never to become adult. The day ended with a big feast after which the characters had to decide on how to end the physical lives of the elders. The matrialcal KaNappa tripe sent one elder lovingly away and killed one in anger. the patriarchal BoSotto tripe empowerd the new alpha by proving his worth in battle against the first and strangled the other with respect. After an ending ritual, the two new tribes left the ritual grounds, to return to their homes as adults.
The larp focused on playing with status and hierarchy in the group. Between rituals this took the form of games, competitions and other power struggles carried out with Ars Ordo. These status fights were only carried out within genders, never between them.
In Ars Ordo, social status is tested through masculine staring contests, which escalate until one party gives up. The challenge starts with casual everyday eye contact: In most cases, one party yields quietly early on by lowering her gaze before the contest gathers more witnesses. If neither contestant looks down, the contest escalates. The contestants move towards each other, starting to draw an audience. The contest then escalates into growling, snarling and trying to look as big as possible. As the whole tribe is watching at this point, the social investment on the contest is much larger than in the beginning. If the contest still remains unsettled, the witnesses start to take sides, shaking the entire hierarchy of the tribe.
The beauty of Ars Ordo is in that one party invariably yields, and the losing side of the contest feels the loss very personally: After all, this kind of a masculine contest is always also a nondiegetic contest between players.
I looked at Tyr and he looked back. At first I looked away, but looked angry so I looked at him again. We gained eye contact and stared at each other for a long, long time, and I think people noticed. Then he stood up, and I jumped down from the tree I was sitting in and stood before him. We stood there for a long time. Then he raised his arms and I followed…then I started to snarl and he shouted, we growled and snarled for a long time, while we held each others heads…but I was the first Nappa, I was Ulvs first mate. So I had to win.
We shouted and walked around each other, while holding on to the other, while we shouted and pushed each other. It went on for a long time. Then the Ka started to stand up…fist Ild placed herself behind Tyr and I got angry and shouted even louder. Then Må placed herself behind me, then Lo and then Eg. Then he started to give up. First he stopped shouting, then he collapsed and suddenly he was sitting on the ground howling and hitting the ground.
I turned around while the Ka sat down. I looked down at him and I growled at him. I stood above him. Then I snorted and snarled while I walked around him. He still howled submissively. I took a hold of him to get him up. To get him to stop. He was still second Nappa, but he did not want to. I wheezed at him “stop behaving like a non”. I picked him up, took hold of his arm, nodded at him and let go. Then I climbed the tree and stood up, snorted and then sat again. (Male player, post larp evaluation)
The body-painting was also a central part of the hierarchy in the larp. As painting oneself was a taboo, the amount of attention given to your paintings was a visual status symbol. Also, the dominant gender established ownership by painting their sign on their mates.
These two elements, in addition to several other aspects, made Totem a very real experience, a tangible and visceral experience for the participants constantly aware of each others’ actions as part of the status game. Andie Nordgren (2008) has named this detailed interaction as high resolution larping. She argues that the building a strong ensemble through diegetic rules and workshops enabled a lot of high resolution interaction, as the participants received both a framework and tools to maneuver in the larp.
When the relationships in the game feel real, the game world feels real. You have the ability to pull the action in the game from the clunky levels of kings and politics, down into the very subtle shifts and processes in the group. (Nordgren 2008)
Beyond the Rite of Passage
The wall dividing the participant from the character in Totem was very thin and thus many participants were very personally affected by the experience. Right after ending the larp we worked a lot with debriefing, to allow the players to resume their everyday identities in a calm and safe fashion.
I wish I could explain it to outsiders, but I doubt that they will ever understand. They have missed so much and therefore you [Totem] will always have a special place in my heart. We have experienced this with and against each other. We have built up and teared down, but first of all we have done it together. (female player post-game)
It was very hard to let go of the Totem. It has been wonderful to achieve some distance to it. I am now thinking that it was a positive experience. I have no doubt that it was the craziest experience in a hundred years. I did not know that a larp could hit me this hard. It was a brutal experience. (female player post-game)
In the context of Danish larp, Totem was a bold experiment in exploring how far you can push your participants physically and mentally. The notion of workshops as a central tool of communication and planning of larps has also spread and one of the most significant outputs from the larp is a workshop handbook (workshophåndbogen) describing the thoughts and tools behind the workshops in a simple and practical way.
Nordgren, Andie (2008): High Resolution Larping: Enabling Subtlety at Totem and Beyond. In Montola, Markus & Stenros, Jaakko (eds.): Playground worlds. Ropecon ry.
Andreasen, Peter; Høgdall, Rasmus; Kromann, Mathias; Munthe-Kaas, Peter; Thurøe, Kristoffer (2009) Workshophåndbogen.