I've been meaning to write this piece for three years now, since I first read through the full set of (then published) books on Nordic larp. It's nice to finally have something I can point folks to when I introduce them for what has been to me a community that has really changed my world. Finally, I just want to say that in writing this, I've gone back and read not just everything here but a lot of the rest of the canon while trying to decide what to include, and I'm amazed all over again at the depth, creativity, and rigor of the work that's been done over the past 17 years, and both pleased and humbled to play even a small part in the discourse.
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© 2021 Eleanor Saitta.
An update: This document ended up being the draft for what is now The Foundation Stone of Nordic Larp, one of the two 2014 Knutpunkt books, and a much better version of this document that includes almost (although not quite, due to length reasons) everything here, plus some additional stuff comissioned specifically for the book. Feel free to read on, of course, but I really do recommend the book instead.
Coming to terms with a new field with a significant body of work written about it is always time consuming, and the Nordic larp community is no exception, with 19 books about the community written over the past 13 years, plus six at-least-irregular magazines (two entirely or partially available in English), numerous forums, and 29 TED-style talks. Here, I'm going to present an entirely biased guide to what material I'd suggest you watch and read to get an understanding of the medium and some degree of awareness of both the history of the community and practice and the current issues and questions it's facing. I'm concentrating on the parts that I find interesting, and as with any list like this, I'm sure some folks in the community would have made other choices. I've included one of my pieces from the books in this list; the other (on the use of time in games) is here if you're interested.
If you're coming to this without any background at all, Nordic larp is the tradition of live-action roleplaying (it used to be an acronym, but it's a noun in its own right now). It differs from traditional larp in other places by taking its stories much more seriously, and spending more time telling stories that emphasize naturalistic emotion. Nordic larp, as talked about here, refers to a specific community. While there's no fully agreed upon definition, this community doesn't include all larps in the Nordic countries — there are plenty of light-hearted fantasy games that have fairly little to do with what this community. See Jaakko's talk What does “Nordic Larp” Mean? to understand this better.
If you're new to Nordic larp, I'd encourage you to start with the set of videos below before you dive into the essays, as they'll do a pretty good job of orienting you. If you're really not a video person, just watch the first one, Introduction to Nordic Larp and then dive straight into the top dozen essays below.
The following pieces are a selection of talks from the annual Nordic Larp Talks, a set of TED-style talks that precede the annual Knutepunkt Nordic larp theory conference, plus a few bonus trailers from specific Nordic games.
Swedish TV host and larper for some 17 years Johanna Koljonen introduces and contextualizes larp. The perfect place to start if you don't know anything about the medium.
Larp designer Peter Munthe-Kaas talks about the political larp experiment System Danmarc, where a 42 container village was built in the middle of downtown Copenhagen.
Larp designer Emma Weislander talks about Mellan Himmel och Hav, a groundbreaking game that played on gender roles and communalism in an Ursula Le Guin-inspired SF world.
Andie Nordgren talks about Totem, a high-realism SF tragedy, and the larger concept of what she calls “high resolution” larps.
Larp academics Markus Montola and Jaakko Stenros explain how games can be understood as escaping, exposing, exploring or imposing a certain world view, speaking about a number of milestone games in the community and the relationship between larp and other traditions.
Johanna Koljonen on larps as painting with rules, the relationship between games and art, and how larps create meaning.
Larp designer Peter Schønnemann Andreasen on the game Delerium, a game about the experience of mental delusion, revolution, and love. Specifically, he speaks about the techniques used to fabricate the experience of madness and how that relates to authority.
Larp designer Eirik Fatland on larp and war, and how games can teach us about things we never want to experience, in both good and bad ways.
Performing artist, comedian, and larp designer Johanna MacDonald talks about the relationship between larp and performance and the aesthetics of doing.
Jaakko Stenros talks about what the Nordic community is, what the term means, and who gets to define it.
System Danmarc (see above) was a political game run in a container city in downtown Copenhagen. This trailer was used in the promotional material before the game; the footage does not represent actual play.
Kapo was a game about the concentration camp experience run in Copenhagen.  This trailer was used in the promotional material before the game.
The Monitor Celestra was a Battlestar Galactica themed game run in Gothenburg on a decommissioned cold war Swedish destroyer.  This trailer was used in the promotional material before the game.
There's nothing quite like a controversial statement to start off a section like this, so I'll say that these are the dozen essays that you absolutely must have read to understand the scene coming in as an outsider. Really, that's nonsense, because what you actually need to do is go play some Nordic games, but these essays will introduce you to the discourse on Nordic games better than (IMHO) most others.Nordic larp is a tradition and a discourse on the Nordic-style games. Indeed, the definition of a Nordic larp proposed by larp academic Jaakko Stenros during the 2013 Nordic Larp Talks is:
A larp that is influenced by the Nordic Larp tradition and that contributes to the ongoing Nordic Larp Discourse.
That discourse is defined by a tradition of openness and participation. The Nordic larp community has become what it is in part because it has documented what it has done over time and actively invited others in. Indeed, we've been known to go beyond that, chasing theories down dark alleys and hitting them over the head before dragging them home. Over time, the community has had a number of conversations, all of which have left their mark and many of which are still ongoing:
The beginning of the larp discourse was the Age of Manifestos, around 1999, where larp designers wrote (in variously bombastic tones) what the “one true way” to build a game was. Many of these still echo in games today, and they're important historical documents, but a bad place to start; see the section at the bottom.
One of the next issues to occupy the community was the notion of immersion into a character. Many pieces in the top dozen touch on this, but Mike Pohjola's Autonomous Identities focuses on it directly.
Pervasive games, or games that are played throughout a city, were a specific fashion for some years and still represent a sub-genre of sorts. The section specifically on pervasive games lists a few papers of specific interest here, and the game The White Road in the More Big Games section is related example.
As the community welcomed more new people and got older, it became clear that if the discourse was to continue, games needed to start being documented properly and documentation for older, important games needed to be preserved or constructed. I've elided the papers related to this as they're less interesting for outsiders, but it's still a topic of discussion for practitioners of this ephemeral art.
The notion of bleed, or when the player's emotions affect the character (bleed in) or the character's emotions affect the player (bleed out) became a specific thread of conversation for some time; this is covered in paper eleven, Markus Montola's The Positive Negative Experience in Extreme Roleplaying, one of two academic papers in this set but still very worth reading.
Games that address queer issues or gender form almost a specific sub-genre within the community. Specific games mentioned here that fall into this category include Mellan Himmel och Hav, Mad About the Boy, and Just a Little Lovin'.
The larp community and many of the games within it are explicitly political in nature. While politics are obvious and inherent in many of the papers and games here, a supplemental section is also included with a set of papers speaking about issues translating games to a US context, issues around artistic responsibility in larp, and an extremely worthwhile international issue of the journal of the group Interacting Arts from 2006, of particular interest to anyone looking to use games for political ends or at the intersection of larp and radical politics.
There are a number of near cousins to larp, including “freeform” and “jeepform” games. I've included one paper here defining the jeepform genre, but the borders are hardly cut and dry, the communities almost entirely combined, and the genres themselves still changing with time. As especially jeepform games have become more popular, it has affected the games run within the larp community, which have begun to use more metatechniques and have gotten slightly shorted (although this last may also reflect real-world constraints on many larpers who now have families, etc.).
Larp in general and Nordic larp in particular is a safe activity, but the Nordic community works on pushing boundaries; Nordic larp has been described as “social extreme sports”, and there's an ongoing discussion on both limits and techniques for providing for player safety and care. Sadly, while references to this are included in some of the more recent books, there has yet to be a good set of documents that can be pointed to here; the conversation is still evolving.
Because there are more games that might be considered part of (a) canon than there's room for in this first section, a second section with more descriptions follows. For even more games, see about finding a copy of the Nordic Larp book, and see the Nordic Larp Wiki. Among other things, the wiki has information about many other pieces I haven't included here, forums, and links to the annual conferences, which I highly recommend you attend if you find this material interesting.
With that (lengthy) introduction out of the way and with no further ado, the essays:
Role and Play (2004) pp 209-217
by Tova Gerge
In the one of the most important pieces written on the game Mellan Himmel och Hav, theorist and artist Tova Gerge discusses the game, it's effect on players, and the relationship between larps and dramatic structure.
Role and Play (2004) pp 191-201
by Johanna Koljonen
Johanna Koljonen recounts the successes and complexities of the game Hamlet, speaking about some of the metatechniques and structures used in the game, some of the events and in-game safety, and the relationship between characters, text, and game.
Worlds (2008) pp 91-101
by Andie Nordgren
Andie Nordgren talks about realness and depth of experience, the affordances of games and groups, scope, the Ars Ordo metatechnique for bringing physical conflict into the social space of the game, and closes with some early discussion of what is now called bleed.
the Universe, and Everything (2009) pp 223-254
by Eirik Fatland
AmerikA was a massive and political game run in public in the center of Oslo, as an explicitly political game, an autonomist dystopian utopia. Eirik talks about the structure and production of the game and it's place in history.
(2007) pp 175-187
by Johanna Koljonen
Johanna talks about the conflicts between the quest for complete visual and prop realism can conflict with the production and inner experience of character, about the structures of borders and gateways used to construct experience, and in the use of strategic metatechniques and interventions to punctuate the border of the fiction, creating a stronger overall impression.
(2007) pp 159-163
by Ulrik Lehrskov
Ulrik talks about subjectivity and what it means to tell a story in the first-person present plural.
Worlds (2008) pp 33-52
by Johanna Koljonen
Johanna talks about one of the most ambitious fantasy games, Dragonbane, and the problems of both collective organizing and collective memory in games. She closes with a brief discussion on the necessity of documentation.
Role and Play (2004) pp 81-96
by Mike Pohjola
Mike Pohjola speaks about immersion and its different theories in what was one of the current issues in the larp community at the time. Immersion is of course still a part of the larp toolkit, but it's place is now well understood.
Role and Play (2004) pp 181-186
by Emma Wieslander
Emma Weislander talks about the metatechnique for love making Ars Amandi, introduced in the game Mellan Himmel och Hav.
Worlds (2008) pp 125-138
by Tobias Wrigstad
Larp designer Tobias Wrigstad discusses jeepform, a hybrid form that evolved out of both larp and the Swedish table-top tradition, where tight, focused games are played with heavy use of metatechniques to tell emotional stories that tend to focus on the small aspects of life. He covers a few of the specific features that jepform play tends to include.
by Markus Montola
While this is an academic paper, it's quite readable and useful for folks within the community as a reference point on the concept of bleed, although it focuses on bleed of negative emotions and bleed out from the character to the player. Trigger warning: this paper contains references to a number of games, created for experimental effect, which some readers may find very disturbing.
by Markus Montola
This PhD thesis covers in formal depth a large number of concepts that have become very important within the discourse, from what “play”, “games”, and “rules” are to the magic circle and the subjective understanding the player has of a game, known as diegesis. While this thesis is significantly more dense than most of the pieces here (I'm hoping a more lay-friendly version is coming of some of this material, hint hint Markus), chapter 2 may be very productive for readers wishing to understand larps theoretically. Not all of the structures here are in common use in the discourse yet.
As games are the currency of Nordic larp discourse, if you're seriously interested in the medium, it's worth understanding a range of what's been done before; it makes the conversation easier to follow too. In addition to what's listed below, see the Nordic Larp book and the Nordic Larp Wiki.
(2011) pp 72-91
by Jesper Heebøll-Christensen, Kristoffer Thurøe & Peter Munthe-Kaas
Delerium is a game that's fascinating both in terms of how it pushed players into the story and in terms of its place in the Great Player Safety debates, which have sadly had fairly little written about them yet. This piece, focused on story elements and metatechniques, is mostly documentary.
Role and Play (2004) pp 203-208
by Gabriel Widing
Gabriel Widing talks about the use of language to change power structures in the satirical advertising drama Panopticorp. Panopticorp was re-run in 2013 in Denmark.
(2011) pp 92-107
by Tor Kjetil Edland, Trine Lise Lindahl & Margerete Raaum
Mad about the Boy, which has now been re-run a number of times; it's the story of a community of women after an unspecified disaster has killed off all of the men, as they come together in trios to determine who will get to have children. Here, the designers talk about the inspiration, fiction, and structure of the game, and some of the techniques used. I played in the US run of this game; my paper on it is listed in the politics section.
Theoretical Borders (2013) pp 81-91
by Hanne Grasmo & Tor Kjetil Edland
Just a Little Lovin' has become an enormously popular game, one that has been very affecting for many of its players and has been re-run several times. In this essay, the designers talk about the perspective they used in the design of the game. Unfortunately, this piece doesn't convey the depth of the experience of playing the game, and I'm not aware of any more documentary pieces by participants.
Worlds (2008) pp 102-109
by Bjarke Pedersen & Lars Munck
The White Road saw six players spend three days as Danish road knights, walking 40km down a road to the sea to scatter the ashes of a dear friend. The game used the Dogma '99 larp manifesto vows (see below) and was created entirely collectively. While technically a pervasive game, it's interesting in part because the level of interaction both between characters and (potentially) with the outside world was much higher. Also notable was the use of alcohol as a game tool.
Worlds (2008) pp 187-198
by Heidi Hopeametsä
Ground Zero, which has now been played four times, is one of the prototypical games many people use to talk about the evolution of the medium. Here Heidi Hopeametsä talks both about the game and the concepts of the magic circle, immersion, the different frames of character, player, and person, and the “positive negative” experience.
edited by Claus Raasted
Kapo was a game about the experience of being in a concentration camp, set in modern Denmark. It featured an impressive scenography and became a very intense experience for many of the players. This book, the first of its kind, records the experiences of many of the players directly, along with a large number of in-game photographs. It's fascinating both as a document and in terms of what it reports on, but readers should be warned that the game descriptions may be traumatic — I have a hard time reading more than a dozen pages at a time.
edited by Casper Gronemann & Claus Raasted
Like the Book of Kapo above, this records player experiences and organizer thoughts from the running of a game, Den Hvide Krig or The White War, this one about the experience of a village in occupation and of the occupying army. The game was run in part as a political experiment by an organizing team that included both someone who had served in the Danish army in Iraq and anti-war activists. It attempted to portray a complex political situation in a neutral manner, using fantasy as a way to give players sufficient distance to approach the subject directly.
As is clear from the above, politics and political games are at the core of much of the Nordic larp scene. The pieces in this section deal directly with politics as such, whether the political interactions between larp and different cultures (primarily in the context of the attempting to run Nordic games in an American context, although this material is relevant for any non-Nordic, less heavily collective society), but also and more importantly about the notion of using larp to do active political work.
by Magnus Alm, Erlend Eidsem Hansen, Martin Ericsson, Eirik Fatland, Tova Gerge, Hanne Grasmo, Holger Jakobsson, Mike Pohjola, & Johan Söderberg, edited by Gabriel Widing
The Swedish larp collective Interacting Arts published a zine for a number of years. During this time, they published two “international issues” in English; this is the second of the two and concentrates on the intersection between larp and radical politics. It talks about everything from the political structure of the larp scene itself through the use of larps as a political tool and inspirations from the Zapatista. If you're interested in larp in a political context, this is one of the most important documents in this collection.
Note: The official download site for this seems to be 404'd. If that gets fixed, let me know and I'll take down my temporary mirror.
of Play: Nordic Larp Around the World (2012) pp 129-134
by Emma Wieslander
Here, larp designer Emma Wieslander talks about her notion of “positive power drama”, first explored in the game Mellan Himmel och Hav ten years previously. Here, she talks about larps as a way to change social norms, including a discussion of tools to make larps more effective for this, starting with the structure of the story.
of Play: Nordic Larp Around the World (2012) pp 170-175
by Lizzie Stark
Here, author and larper Lizzie Stark talks about the American larp scene, why it didn't evolve in the same direction as the Nordic scene, where the difference comes from politically, and what that means for games.
Physical Borders (2013) pp 72-82
by Eleanor Saitta
I talk about the US run of the game Mad About the Boy and the differences between the US and Nordic communities, with some notes on what will be required to bring Nordic games outside the Nordic countries.
of Play: Nordic Larp Around the World (2012) pp 42-47
by Tova Gerge
Artist and theorist Tova Gerge talks about the public debate that happened in the Swedish press around the game Just a Little Lovin' and how it relates to the aesthetic responsibilities of larp designers when making games about serious subjects.
Pervasive games, games that are played throughout a city and that may last for weeks or months of variable-intensity play, formed a specific thread of interest within the community for a number of years. While they are still run, they formed a more intense focus for some time.
Play, Art (2006) pp 85-99
by Markus Montola & Staffan Jonsson
Here, Montola and Jonsson discuss the genre of pervasive larps, talking about structures like run-time game mastering, indexical propping, and the social, physical, and temporal expansion of game play.
(2007) pp 121-128
by Staffan Jonsson, Markus Montola, Jaakko Stenros & E. Boss
This paper talks about the design strategies used in the game Prosopeia Bardo 2: Momentum, the sequel to the game described in the previous piece.
(2007) pp 131-145
by Jaakko Stenros, Markus Montola & Annika Waern
This piece deconstructs the social interaction structure of the game Momentum, from both practical game design and more theoretical perspectives.
the Universe, and Everything (2009) pp 197-222
by Markus Montola, Jaakko Stenros & Annika Waern
Building on their experience designing a number of pervasive games, in this piece the authors present a set of practical strategies for the design of pervasive larps that occur throughout a city.
(2011) pp 54-70
by Jaakko Stenros & Markus Montola
Conspiracy for Good was a game sitting halfway between an Augmented Reality Game and a pervasive larp, with a significant budget. It represents an interesting milestone, in scale if nothing else, but also in terms of what is now generally called transmedia gaming.
This section will be mostly of only historical interest, but its import in the development of the community justifies its place on this page.
Larp Grows Up (2003) pp 12-19
by Petter Bøckman with comments by Morten Gade &l Line Thorup
This model is old enough that it originated on Usenet; it's a core set of concepts for the community, although now old enough as to be largely invisible in the discourse.
Larp Grows Up (2003) pp 20-31
by Eirik Fatland & Lars Wingård with comments by Morten Gade & Line Thorup
A fairly influential set of rules, all of which are broken many times successfully but which have still had some influence. Ancient history, but interesting for understanding the evolution of the community.
Larp Grows Up (2003) pp 32-43
by Mike Pohjola with comments by Morten Gade & Line Thorup
The canonical example of the Age of Manifestos, Mike Pohjola's stake in the sand around immersion and How Things Should Be Done. Again, ancient history, but interesting for understanding the evolution of the community.