Recently I traveled to Norway. Not because they still had snow there, but because Knutepunkt 2013 was in the land of lakes, fjords and good fish. Knutepunkt is an event that is hosted every year in a different Nordic country and serves as a get-together for the Nordic larp scene, full of talks, workshops, discussions and meeting people. To show what has been made in the field last year, and to discuss what should be next.
This Knutepunkt was all about “crossing borders”, both in terms of countries and design scenes. About reaching out and sharing the knowledge. So I went to see what Knutepunkt could teach me, you, and everyone out there. I will summarize it for all of you, from larpers to art lovers, from game designers to executives. Read your personalized takeaway from Knutepunkt 2013 below.
About Nordic larp
For those of you not familiar with the term larp, it describes a genre of roleplaying games where players enact their character and actions in the physical space rather than telling other players what they are doing or using metaphors like dice or a digitally controlled avatar to do so. In a way players ‘become’ the character they role-play, because of the physical nature of most games and elements that improve immersion like costumes, scenery or entire in-game venues. This very short explanation generalizes the diversity of the genre a bit, so if you’d like to know more, Wikipedia would be a good place to start for a more thorough description.
The term Nordic larp is then used to describe the larp scene present in Denmark, Norway, Sweden and Finland, which has grown most notably in diversity over the past 20 years when compared to other larp scenes due to the active documentation of and discourse around the games made in these countries. This has resulted in a more varied scene in terms of the types of games being hosted in those countries1, some of which aim to create artistic games focusing heavily on dramatic interaction and meaningful experiences rather than making “just” a fun game. This in turn has widened the potential uses of larps in these countries, where they are now not only made for entertainment but also for education, social experiments, expressing artistic or political messages and much more. As such the Nordic larp scene is widely known as one of the most advanced larp scenes in terms of game design practice, documentation and research.
With the introduction out of the way, lets move on to my takeaways.
The non-Nordic larper
So you enjoy the occasional hitting of orcs with weaponized latex or maybe you might even be interested in some intensely dramatic games. There’s lots to be learned for all! First off, start by using these two words: game designer and larp writer. Because if we want to widen our expertise and improve our games, lets first properly recognize the people who make them. Once we’ve done that, let’s start thinking about and discussing the design of our games; document them, share them, improve upon them. I’m not saying our larps are necessarily inferior to Nordic larps, I’m saying that there is a lot to be won if we start actively thinking about the design of our games.
Many larp scenes out here often have a few solid formats copied over various events for years, with little to no variation at all. There are a lot of different types of games that we could make and host. There are lots of improvements to be made upon our existing formats if we look at our events as game designers rather than organizers. Think of encounter design, finding different approaches of presenting the plot to players, managing role-play standards in a community, creating costumes and other presentation methods, just to name a few of the things we can improve together. I’m calling upon fellow larp designers to be conscious of what it is we are creating and discuss the choices we make doing so.
And why do we make improving games so hard for ourselves? Why do we have to go to other events to know what they are experimenting with? Just writing a 500-word article saying ‘we hosted a larp in which we did A and it resulted in B’ can help push the scene forward. Only then can we reach out to other fields, become more than ‘those nerds with elf-ears in a forest’ to the outside world and showcase the hidden gems our scene may have. Because a bunch of photographs and heroic campfire stories are cool for those that actually visited the larp, but they keep the many people not included in that group groping in the dark.
The game designer
Role-play in games is more than a bunch of guys playing Dungeons & Dragons. As a matter of fact, as a game designer, roleplaying could be a valuable asset in your toolkit. Let players enact the character or role they take on in your game and reward them for doing so.2 To make them part of your game in such a way increases their immersion and allows you to tell the story of the game in a fashion that is more closely tied to the gameplay. This does not mean you have to necessarily make your game facilitate roleplaying for the the full 100%. Rather, use it as a tool when applicable. Design the function and place of the player in the narrative more actively, most notably in relation to other players, and give them freedom to role-play as much as your game can support.
Learn from the Scandinavians and use character design to tell your story, create a conflict or script an event. Character design is often one of the main aspects of creating a Nordic larp. Many of these larps facilitate the major part of their story or events through player-to-player interaction manipulated via the characters they are playing. With some insight, much of this is transferable to a lot of other game genres. Whether you assign players a character at the start of the game or slowly lead them on the path of becoming the character you have planned for them, players will be delighted to be such a strong part of the story. Forget handing the players information through non-player characters, activate a player by giving him special info before or during the game. Make them an active part of the events in your game instead of having them listen to (or read) monologue after monologue. Allow players to fill in key aspects of your story and they will become part of it and share it. And last but not least, always remember that the narrative of your game is what the player experiences, not what he reads or hears. And roleplaying is experiencing.
What’s in it for you as a player of games, whatever the kind? Well, Knutepunkt’s mission to encourage clear discourse around the design of larps and to permeate borders of other design scenes with the obtained knowledge makes that these well-designed forms of roleplaying may be used in many more types of games soon. And why is roleplaying such a good thing for you, the player? Well, first of all, it increases your influence as a player in the game and on its content. Games that are designed to enable and reward roleplaying give the players more freedom in choosing their actions, and a stronger effect of those actions. It enables the player to become part of the game and even provide an experience for other players. Because, lets face it, you’ve always wanted to be the protagonist or antagonist in stories. There is something very satisfying about becoming part of another person’s experience, about having your actions live on in legend.
Secondly, Nordic larps are often the canvas for a far wider array of characters than most game scenes are used to. Don’t just play the hero who slays the dragon or the soldier who wins the war over and over again. Play the drug addict, the mother in a family of 8, the doctor on a federation starship, anything really. Discover new types of characters, different views on life, new experiences. Nordic larp has proven to excel at providing players with unlikely heroes and unusual experiences. Here’s to hoping game designers pick up on this.
Remember the last time your company hired some agency to give your employees a training with live actors? Good chance it wasn’t quite as effective as you’d hoped it would be. Next time, why not try to work with game designers that have learned from Knutepunkt? In the Nordic countries, larps are used for education, training, cultural engagement, or even as a tool for development. Last Knutepunkt, Norwegian minister of development Heikki Holmås even visited to give his thoughts on the matter.
Nordic larp techniques can be used to create a safe game environment for people to try out different approaches, rise above their usual thought patterns, or get out of their regular role and experience matters from another angle. Where normal trainings struggle to get people to move out of their comfort zone and actually start experimenting and learning, games provide players with permission and encouragement to do so. Roleplaying workshops before the game even starts, tried and tested strategies of design and profound knowledge of how groups of people function do the rest. And it’s just as much fun as it is beneficial.
The theatre designer
Theatre, I know you. I know how you struggle to engage with new audiences. How you work to break the fourth wall wide open and get your audience to participate in your plays. I’ve made my fair share of interactive theatre myself. I know how most people are scared to really participate. I know how hard it can be to make meaningful theatre while allowing the audience to have influence. Engaging your audience however is a bright and fascinating future for the performing arts, if done right.
When I hear about some of the Nordic larps, they strongly remind me of how professional actors do roleplaying and improvisational scenes to train their acting or create material. Those larps get players to act like they never knew they could, to engage with the play that is presented.
So next time you try to tear down that fourth wall, remember to do it like they do it at Knutepunkt: give your players characters to enact. Build a safe environment and an illusory mask for them to hide behind and they will do almost anything. Engaging with the unknown as yourself is scary and you will feel looked upon. Engaging with it as a character someone told you to be is a lot less frightening. Send them on their way with a briefing beforehand, a workshop, or smart design of the play itself. No matter how you do it, give them their mask and they will take part in your adventure.
The art lover
There is something like community art, and then there is Nordic larp. Live up to any role. Experience any artistic message. Be part of the artwork itself. At Knutepunkt they show how art can be made through role-play, and how role-play can be art in itself. It’s all about setting the frameworks for a group of people to be let loose in. To experience different societies, imagined stories. Sure, an artist can show you how he would imagine a world without capitalism. Or he can let you live it. Every piece is here and now, always unique and unrepeatable, co-created and lived by its primary audience. They are still quite rare, but if you ever come across a Nordic-inspired art larp, dive in!
The designer who already does all of this
Then why don’t we know? The last message of Knutepunkt is to share. Document for yourself and others. Become better in designing as a community. The Nordic larp hasn’t evolved this far by pure chance. It’s done so because of the community behind it, getting together to discuss design, tackle recent issues, reflect on what has been made and become wiser. And that is a message that can be given as an advice to any new scene out there: Get together. Establish a discourse. Share cool projects. Make even more awesome projects.
And for me?
Knutepunkt has been a big inspiration. I have met awesome people from various countries, and learned much from the Nordic way of designing larps. It wasn’t all new material, but hearing about things you have been dealing with or thinking about from others in a clear and organized fashion helps the thought process a great deal. Plans I had for alternative larps in the Netherlands have gotten a boost and I may very well create a new game myself sooner or later.
As you can read in some of the lessons above, especially the community aspect of Knutepunkt has got me thinking. It may be time to set up a clear platform to talk about the design of larps in the Netherlands specifically. Maybe we should even expand this philosophy to other (new) fields of design. The future will tell which of these thoughts are turned into plans and where we may get with this. I know for certain though that I will be using my obtained Nordic knowledge in the designs of games to come, both larps and other genres. Because as I’ve illustrated above, the uses are plenty.
For those of you eager to find out more, take a look at this years Nordic Larp Talks, an event hosted prior to Knutepunkt yet closely linked to it in terms of subject matter and speakers.
Photos courtesy of and made by:
- I’m not suggesting these types of games don’t exist outside of the Nordic countries, but they are more common and accepted in the Nordic scene. [↩]
- Note that the most popular use of the term roleplaying in (video) games nowadays doesn’t actually mean playing a role anymore, but refers to the availability of character customization and growth in the game. Roleplaying in this article instead refers to the original meaning of the term, being the enactment of a role or character by the player, much like in classic tabletop roleplaying games like Dungeons & Dragons. [↩]