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Lessons from Knutepunkt 2013

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.

One of the views over the majestic frozen lake at the venue.

One of the views over the majes­tic frozen lake at the venue.

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.

Some small larps were also played during the conference.

Some small larps were also played dur­ing the con­fer­ence.

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.

The program at Knutepunkt offered talks, workshops, panels and small games. Audience participation was preferred, even at the talks.

The pro­gram at Knutepunkt offered talks, work­shops, pan­els and small games. Audi­ence par­tic­i­pa­tion was pre­ferred, even at the talks.

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.

The gamer

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.

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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.

The executive

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.

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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.

Opening ceremony of the party on Saturday evening.

Open­ing cer­e­mo­ny of the par­ty on Sat­ur­day evening.

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 opening ceremony on Thursday.

The open­ing cer­e­mo­ny on Thurs­day.

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.

The ending ceremony on Sunday.

The end­ing cer­e­mo­ny on Sun­day.

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:

Foot­notes:

  1. 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. []
  2. 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. []
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