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Before We Begin - some (UK-centric) thoughts on how to do pre-game in "Nordic" larps - Her Most Regal Majesty, the Queen of Snark
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Before We Begin - some (UK-centric) thoughts on how to do pre-game in "Nordic" larps
by Sesquipedality (sesquipedality@gmail.com)

This is a short piece intended to address some difficulties I've had playing Nordic style larps recently. It's not intended to be critical of those writing and running this type of game, who are doing an excellent job. Rather it's intended to be a way of starting a discussion on the one part of this style of game that for me, and a few others I've discussed this with, isn't really working yet.

Here is the thing. People come to games to play games. An hour sat in pre-game is an hour that is not playing a game. (Some people actually do find workshopping a game background an enjoyable part of the process, but for me at least, I want to spend at least three times as long playing the game as I did creating the setting.) A Nordic game will often involve generating characters and setting, so is already going to be longer than a traditional briefing, which means it's super important to keep it lean and focused.

There's a bit of a tendency to over explain things in these briefings. I think it comes from nervousness, and the idea that Nordic is different from what people may have experienced before. The thing is, it's really not all that different, particularly given the way UK games tend to take Nordic influences rather than being a full on wholesale adoption of the style.

In a traditional larp no one includes in the briefing that you will be physically embodying your character. It's obvious. So in a Nordic game, try not to explain at length the obvious stuff. What's obvious is probably more than a game runner might expect, particularly when dealing with a crowd of experienced freeformers. If its obvious to the person running the game, it will probably be obvious to those playing too.

Hearing the Nordic Larp 101 every time such a game is played is simply not necessary for most or all of the players. And the players are smart, they can figure this out as they play, taking cues from the more experienced players if they have to. They can also ask questions, so if a game runner is clear that the players while in a group or individually throughout the game can ask questions, there is absolutely no need to explain the basics in more than a couple of sentences.

Safety systems do often require greater emphasis in the Nordic style, because such games frequently deal with serious themes that could be upsetting. They are important, but they are designed to be simple and easy to use, which means that a demonstration is probably unnecessary. If you cannot summarise each call/action in your safety system in two sentences, it is probably too complex to serve its purpose and should be rethought. For example, "the door is always open" (you can leave the game at any time without needing to give a reason) is a safety system, and I absolutely just explained it in one sentence. If a game runner spends a lot of time explaining these systems, players will start to worry that they are expected not to enjoy the game, which is clearly far from the point.

If using veils (topics that for what ever reason the players do not want to be a part of the game) this needs careful handling. Players will generally be uncomfortable about saying if there is something they don't want in the game, and different players will find different methods easier. Allow players to email veils in advance if you can, and advertise ahead of game that players will be allowed to declare subjects veiled if they wish, so that they can think about what they might like to exclude. A list of suggested veils can be helpful, but again risks giving the generally false impression that the game is entirely full of awfulness.

In pre-game, veils are best done by writing them down, and I recommend asking those who have no veils to write "I do not have any veils to request" on the paper, so that no-one knows who is requesting veils. Remember accessibility - it may also be worth letting players know that they can tell you their veils privately, if there might be any difficulty with writing.

Demonstrations in general are another thing that are best kept to a minimum. Sometimes a mechanic will genuinely be such that players need to see it done at least once before they understand how to do it, but most things are self explanatory.

Practising mechanics is dull and usually even less necessary. I'll single out practising pulled blows here as something I'd really rather never do in a larp again. Pretend to hit someone but don't touch them is not a difficult concept. (There is, however, a school of thought that says practising safety systems makes people comfortable and familiar enough to use them in game, and for this reason game runners might want to practice those regardless.)

Many games have a number of stages, and mechanics that come into play at each stage. There is a temptation to explain the whole lot up front. This slows things down, and people generally cannot take in all of the mechanics at once. The game runner will inevitably need to explain them again at the time that they happen. I have two tips for dealing with this. Hand out a 1 to 2 side rules summary that the players can read before the game and/or refer to when necessary. This will allow the brief to be kept short. Don't explain more than is necessary before the time it's needed. Invariably it will be explained again at the time it's needed anyway.

Perhaps the most controversial thing I'm going talk about is workshopping. There are two types of workshop. Generally people enjoy brainstorming characters and backgrounds, but it's the game runner's job to make sure this stays focused, because the point is to get to the game. It's a delicate skill that probably requires someone wiser than I to offer fuller advice than that on.

The second type of workshopping is improv and trust exercises. These are intended to avoid players having to come at a game cold and to build relationships between the players. The thing is, your game will probably do that better than the exercises would.

I am likely now straying more info the realm of personal preference than I have in the rear of this article. And I should say that I was a dirty thesp long before I was a roleplayer, and I hated warm up exercises even then. However, I think it's a wider cultural thing than that.

Players will often feel silly and embarrassed doing these kind of exercises. This is probably not the frame of mind a game runner will want them to start the game in. There are those that believe these type of exercises do encourage greater buy in to the game, but if not having a cold open is important to your game, it might be better to run small short background scenes (with the players broken into small groups in necessary) as a way to build rapport instead. This has the added bonus of combining ice breaking and world building.

So to summarise, here are my tips for running a Nordic game brief.

  1. Pacing is important. People are there to play the game not the briefing so the goal is to keep it as brief and snappy as it possibly can be.

  2. Trust the players. For everything in the briefing, consider whether it really needs explaining, or whether players will already know or be able to work it out

  3. Safely mechanics are important, but don't overemphasise or overexplain them. It sends the wrong message to your players.

  4. If your game needs it, then give your players plenty of notice to think about things they don't want in the game ("veils"). Make sure they can let you know about any veils they might like in the game without having to announce them to other players. Provide multiple methods of giving you veils where possible to make it as easy as possible for people to let you know.

  5. Demonstrate mechanics where necessary, but remember that they are probably the least interesting part of the game. Really think hard before getting players to practice mechanics for this reason.

  6. Ground exercises to build player bonds or set mood in your world building where possible. Players will enjoy them more, and the game may be richer as a result.

  7. Workshopping can drag, and it's important to keep up momentum in this part of the pre-game, although care must be taken not to railroad the players.

  8. Rather than explain everything, make sure that players have the opportunity to ask questions about what they aren't sure on both collectively during the brief and individually before and during the game

Again, I am enormously grateful to those bringing Nordic style larp to the UK. It adds to the richness of the hobby, and has produced some amazing games. I hope that this has been a constructive exploration of how to do that even better than it already is being done, but it's really only one person's opinion, so feel free to pick and choose anything that I've covered that seems useful according to taste.

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2 comments or Leave a comment
akcipitrokulo From: akcipitrokulo Date: December 7th, 2016 01:40 pm (UTC) (Link)

Stupid facebook

Still here occasionally... want to keep in touch!
sesquipedality From: sesquipedality Date: December 7th, 2016 01:57 pm (UTC) (Link)

Re: Stupid facebook

This will be harder now, but we can but try.
2 comments or Leave a comment