Lumberjack Academy: Bringing out the trusty, old chainsaw

I am preparing to run a workshop in writing roleplaying games, larp in particular. The workshop is based on the principles of the “Chainsaw Manifesto,” an idea that originated with Ole Sørensen, was named by me, and is fostered by both of us under the aegis of our association, Eidolon. I named the workshop “Skovhuggerskole,” or “Lumberjack Academy” (the English title is far better than the Danish), because the aim is to train the participants in the use of the Chainsaw.

“What on earth is the Chainsaw Manifesto?” I hear you cry. Well, I’m glad you asked!

The basis for the Chainsaw is, that the expectations that we have to larps (and to tabletop games, for that matter) in the Danish community have grown into the sky. Now, some of the established gamemakers spend countless hours of their life living up to these expectations and pushing the bar ever further. They create games with better settings, better characters, more players, more well thought-out mechanics. Others give up, give in, turn to administration, or to living a life outside of rpg. This would not be a problem – if new forces were ready to take their places.

Problem is, they’re not. There is a drought of new game writers and organisers. And no wonder – the big expectations that the consumers (because a group of rpg-consumers has certainly appeared) and the other game creators have, shade the fresh, young saplings that should be the big boys of tomorrows scene.

And what do you do with old, rotten trees shading the young plants you want to see grow into big and healthy trees? That’s right, you bring out the trusty old chainsaw and cut them down to size.

And so, the Chainsaw is about allowing young, inexperienced gamemakers to make small, simple games that may not revolutionize the genre, but are fun and easy to both make and play.

For this reason, we set a number of conditions for a Chainsaw larp (some of them would be applicable to tabletop games – but we are focusing on Convention larps, since this is the home field for Eidolon). All of these can of course be broken, if the game requires it.

The requirements are:

  • A game must be playable in one (1) standard classroom of a Danish municipal school. Societies in Denmark can borrow schools for free, which is why the term is worded like this. Besides, classrooms are fairly generic rooms, usually a wide rectangle without carpets, and loads of chairs and tables that can be used or pushed against the wall.
  • All the props of a game must fit in a bag that can be brought on the bus on the way to the location. This requirement has a number of reasons. First of all, the typical Chainsaw-game will be run at a convention by a gamemaster without a car – and therefore will be taking the bus to the convention. Secondly, this is a good way of preventing prop fetischism. One of the trends we wanted to combat was the tendency to spend lots and lots of time on preparing and setting up props, thus taking time away from preparing the actual play. We realize that props can enhance a game – but props also complicate matters for the gamemaster, which we explicitly wanted to avoid. Besides, rather a good game with bad props than the other way around. The third reason for this is, that we want this game to be cheap to run and cheap to participate in – the expectation go up with the price.
  • Any part of the players’ costume that you cannot expect them to find in their own wardrobe must be part of your props. Again: simplicity and cost. Many gamemakers become entranced with fancy costumes – but we’re roleplayers, our trade is fantasy. Sure, putting the soldier in a full military uniform is way cooler – but just put him in green trousers and a neutral t-shirt, maybe with a cap or some boots and, hey presto, Bob’s your uncle! We need to be reminded that we are actually sitting on hoards of hidden treasure, just waiting to be used. Take a look in your wardrobe – think how many costumes you could make with what you have there!
  • There should be a minimal amount of text involved. If there are written characters, they should be no more than a paragraph or two. Verbal characters are fine. One of the big stumbling blocks to making games is writing it down. I know this myself: you know your game is good – but once you see it on paper, it seems insignificant, frail, like it will never run. Besides, writing takes time, and can remove the momentum from the process. Besides, lacking writing skills should not prevent you from using you talent for gamemaking.
  • There shall be no critique of the game. This one, Ole and I disagree a bit on. Ole is (or at least used to be) very categorical: No critique, no evaluation! I tend to think that there should always be constructive critiscism. We do agree on the basic idea, however: that one of the important things about the Chainsaw is that it should be legal to make bad games, full of beginners mistakes, and that there is nothing more hindering for you desire to continue improving your creative skills than being told that the thing you toiled to make is rubbish. And, let’s face it, some people, often people who do not themselves create, seem to think it is their God given duty to point out every flaw and every imperfection. This requirement means they can’t. That’s the idea, at least.

These are, as far as I remember, the basic requirement of the Chainsaw Manifesto. There may be a limit on the number of players, as well, but I can’t remember what it was. Besides, it most likely comes naturally with the restrictions on space and props.

So, what do you think? Are we dead wrong? Have we missed the point? Or would you like to take the Chainsaw out for a spin…?

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5 responses to this post.

  1. Hej Elias,

    Godt at se, at du har fået en blog op og køre. Først og fremmest ser din blog fin ud i Firefox, men IE giver et sært indtryk. Afsnittet med punkter sidder skævt og ulæseligt.

    About the criticism/evaluation I think it is a disadvantage not to have some sort of feedback. You often need it to improve your scenarios. There are many ways this can be done, and in general I like the approach that Fastaval use, since the evaluation is thorough and yet it inspires you to do better, because it is a sincere criticism, not some rant from a frustrated player. However this approach requires not just a a written product, but also a jury to do the heavy lifting.

    This brings me to my second point. I’m aware of the high expectations, when it comes to the written scenario – for me the problem is mainly the layouting of the text, which has very little interest for me – but there is a benefit in writing down the material, and that is, that the scenarios can be played again and again, and that you create a tradition of scenarios to work from. As long as the material is not written down and kept, you’ll end up reinventing even the most basic elements of the scenario. So I suggest that you encourage people to take notes and compile their experiences. Texts can be written in a very minimastic style as simple guides.

    Reply

  2. Posted by Simon James Pettitt on May 13, 2009 at 5:35 pm

    Brilliant absolutely brilliant
    I like your starting point, the fact that things should be more simple, and this is a very concrete way of doing it.
    I think that I’ll start to try and follow this (I’m tired of dragging around 16 blue overalls.)
    And you can still do great games with the rules you have mentioned here.
    But how about saying this instead of criticism: “constructive evaluation yes, criticism no.” sp you are allowed to say things as long as they can improve the game?
    No someone will still just use the loophole to be negative. How about: “criticism no. feedback – if the author asks for it”?
    Well I don’t know, because, I can see what you’re trying to do, and agree with it. But at the same time, I wouldn’t want to miss out on a lot of the feedback I get, as I use it to improve my next scenario.
    What you could do, is create rules for how to give feedback. Make some system about it; maybe use some of the techniques they use at The Danish School of Journalism?

    Reply

  3. Posted by eliashelfer on May 14, 2009 at 12:09 am

    Hej Morten – tak for besøget. Jeg har prøvet at åbne bloggen i IE, men på min computer ser den altså fin ud.

    Regarding criticism: I tend to agree with you that you need criticism to improve. However, you also need encouragement to continue. The trick is to strike a proper balance between the two – because improvement that isn’t used is as bad as continuing without improving. But, as I write, I approve of constructive criticism. The problem is, if you haven’t got some sort of moderator, evaluation of a game very easily devolves into faultfinding, just as the person receiving critique easily gets defensive – and both will negate the outcome for the person.

    As for writing things down, I also agree with you – in theory, at least. But the chainsaw is about making larpwrighting as simple as possible. And one stumbling block is writing things down – both because it takes time, and because it takes practice to write a scenrario, so that others can repeat it (in this private forum, I’ll confess I think many Fastaval games have much room for improvement in this department). And writing minimnalistic guides possibly takes even more practice – at least, that would be my assessment.
    Having said that, writing down the game is certainly allowed, if the fancy strikes you. The requirement is just as much against long characters and masses of handouts. You should certainly take notes so you can set up the game again at a later date. But lacking writing skills should not be what prevents a brilliant larpwright from making good games.

    Simon, I think the way DJH/DSJ does things is good, and worthy of striving for. But, as I stated above, doing that requires someone enforcing the rules. At the School, the students learn to do this themselves – but with a general assembly of random people, you get them mixed in with the faultfinders and the people who just like the sound of their own voice. It is to spare the larpwright from these we want to limit criticism.

    Reply

  4. Hej Elias,

    Hmm, sært. Som sagt så opfører min IE sig sært omkring dine punktopstillinger, men min fox har ingen vanskeligheder.

    I agree with you, that it is important to find the right balance, when it comes to criticism, and as such I don’t see a problem in using some sort of moderator. For some forums/situations it can be a benefit, as the moderator can also point out how to do a proper criticism. One approach is to let the larpwright decide himselv, wether or not he wants criticism.

    And writing minimalistic can be a bit of challenge, but writing it as a guide can be fairly simple. I use rulebooks from boardgames as inspiration. Pick the rules text from games such Carcasonne – it is brief, to the point and easy to use as a working model. It was used a basis for the instruction-manual in Memoratoriet.

    Reply

  5. Posted by eliashelfer on May 15, 2009 at 10:25 am

    I haven’t read Memoratoriet, though I’d very much like to. I guess I can see your point about writing it like a rulebook – cutting all the fluff and all the colour, leaving the Game Organizers and the players to fill it out. And, let’s face it, that’s what’s going to happen anyway. That is one of the magical things about larp diegesis: you can tell people: “you are in a(n) (intelligence agency/ bakery/ bar/ palace out of 1001 nights), and they will put themselves in that place. As long as you can operate in generics, you can write the game very briefly, and the game is still perfectly playable. The difficulty arises when you want something more specific.
    Of course, the question is, when do you want something so specific? In a tabletop game you’ll want it to help the group envision your world, and “prime” their diegesis – but in a larp, you’ll want to leave more of that to the Game Organizers and their set-up of the game (of course, Memoratoriet got rid of that issue by having a very specific and easily repeatable setup for the game (paper on all walls)).

    Reply

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