Posts Tagged ‘writing’

Fictioval: For the safety of the state

11. September, 2012:

The five men in the room sit silently, unsure how to approach what they have just seen on the television. Finally, one of them – the leader – assumes his role of leadership. Luckily, that allows him to also use the leaders prerogative of delegation:

“So, gentlemen. Your analysis of the situation, if you please.”

The other look at each other. Then one of them clears his throat.

“Well, sir. I would say that the People’s Republic of Denmark has fallen to the pressure of its capitalist foes.”

“Ah. Indeed. And how does this affect our situation?”

“Well, the People have not always been supportive of our mission to protect the glorious People’s Republic. Without the benevolent guidance of the Party, they might decide to take action against us.”

As one, their eyes flew to the door to the next room. Over it was a sign.


In the fall of  2012, as the communist rule of the People’s Republic of Denmark falls, five men sit in the centre of the Ministry of State Security. As the protesters amass outside the Ministry, they try to rid themselves of the evidence of five decades of cruelty, committed  in pursuit of a “greater cause.” But none of them have survived their service of the country without scars on their souls. And as they start tearing apart the archives, they once more face the memories of what they have done for the safety of the state-

This idea originated as a scenario about agents in the Stasi of the GDR in the last hours before they were stormed by an angry mob who wanted to see the archives of the oppressive secretive police. But first of all, I feel like Stasi has been treated quite thoroughly – secondly, I doubt many players could actually imagine life in East Germany before the fall of the Wall. Instead, I figured this would work quite well as an alternate history story, where Denmark became part of an East Bloc that fell far later than it did. This would mean that the players would be reimagining their own childhoods as it would have been under a communist rule, like the one in GDR.

I imagine the scenario as falling in five parts, corresponding to the stages of the Kübler-Ross model of coping with the realization of your own death:

  • Denial: The agents try to belittle the importance of the revolution, arguing that they can cull the rebellion, or that there will still be a need for them in a new regime. Flashbacks will be to scenes of successful missions the team has undertaken.
  • Anger: The agents try to find someone to blame – the Party, the Politicians, the Damned Capitalist, but in the end, mostly each other. Flashbacks are to scenes of cowardly or traitorous activity they have engaged in.
  • Bargaining: The agents start to realise the seriousness of the situation, and start trying to come up with ways of getting out of the mess they’re in. They start destroying records. Flashbacks to missions that they did not feel comfortable with, and missions where they tried to show mercy.
  • Depression: Everything seems hopeless. The archives are massive, and every file condemns them as much as the next. A mob of revolutionaries has assembled outside. Flashbacks to scenes of failures, and scenes that show the futility of their whole project.
  • Acceptance: The Agents realise that they have lost. Some flee, some stay to welcome the masses who flow in and start going through the files. A final flashback to the proud day the five were first assembled as a team.

That’s the outline for the scenario. Characters should be presented as personnel files/ surveillance reports on the persons with grades from universities and reports on the dealings of their families. This might be a bit big, but I like the idea of leafing through a file on your character, trying to build an idea of who he is. The idea is also to not have a definitive answer to who each person is, but to allow the player to assemble his own version. I dislike long characters, but what I dislike most is a long character that you need to memorize – a long character where you are supposed to leaf through, just skimming each page is far more acceptable.

I actually like this idea. For one thing, I have a very clear idea of what goes in here. It is also a very different story than Antihero – rather than a comedy, this is a tragedy, which is something I wasn’t sure whether I could do.

The flashback scenes could be left to the players to decide, but I kinda like the idea of making it be casefiles as well, presenting them with a short summary of the scene, and then opening it up to reveal more about that scene.


Fictioval: The Great Old Ones must DIE!

What is the main problem with H.P. Lovecraft’s fiction? All of his protagonists are such weaklings! Only pasty academic nancy boys flee at the sight of great, ugly critters like Cthulhu or Yog-Sothoth. Real heroes FIGHT! Real heroes KILL! Real heroes kick those nasty critters so hard, they won’t WANT to come back for untold eons, for fear that the heroes are still around to kick them some more.

Eat cultists for breakfast. Kill all thousand young, and then go deal with mummy goat. Make a R’lyeh special seafood pizza – the one with anchovies, extra cheese and Cthulhu! Call Hastur names – then go give Azathoth a rude awakening.
In this scenario we fix what has been wrong with all Cthulhu roleplaying ever: we get rid of all the boring investigation. Instead, you get to kill countless puny minions, then have an EPIC boss fight against some of the most badass enemies you could possibly imagine. We stock up on big guns and other powerful weaponry, find some great rides and then we go blow up stuff. Why is Cthulhu stories always about madness? Let’s talk more about GORE!

The above is my take on a grindnight scenario preview. The idea is to take three or so of the meanest baddies from the collective works of the Cthulhu mythos, glue them together with a trail of weak minions for the heroes to eradicate, and power it all with a system that emphasizes cinematic action over realism. I’m thinking that it should be set in a futuristic kind of setting with loads of high-tech weaponry and gizmos, allowing people to fire tiny nukes into Cthulhu’s gob, and other crazy things. All in all, this seems to swing well with grindnight’s theme of gore, badassery and slight political incorrectness (or less slight, as the case might be). It is not my favorite FictioVal preview, but I could definitely see the scenario work. It does, however, need a proper system to order the fighting so it is at the same time epic and neither too lethal nor too easy. The system should further the narration of the battle more than the tactical play – though some tactics might be nice in order to make the boss fights seem more awesome.

Wanted: Partner in crime

Fastaval now less than a week away. I am chief of the Info this year which means I have plenty to do answering emails, organizing and packing my own stuff (I’m leaving Monday to go set up for the con). With all this on my mind, there is one more thing I can’t help thinking about: whether I should write a scenario for Fastaval next year.

On one hand, I would really like to. I am thoroughly engrained in the organising side of Fastaval’s twin crews of the organisers and the creatives. But I feel that I should belong as much to the creative side of things, something my experience writing both my contribution to the Empire 40k and Antihero has underlined. On the other hand, I don’t think the way Antihero was created is the best way. Antihero was written in a sense of: “Oh, shoot – deadline’s around the corner!” Writing it was also in many ways a lonely process, as I am not currently in an environment where I often run into other role players, let alone people with an interest in scenario writing. That will, hopefully, change before the next scenario writing season comes around in earnest, but it has still helped me come to one important conclusion:

I want a co-writer.

I want to write my next scenario with somebody. Both as a measure to help the writing process along – I find it easier to do that kind of thing if I’m obligated to someone other than myself – and as a way to help me develop my understanding and style of roleplaying. In other words, I want someone who knows something about roleplaying and scenarios. Not neccesarily a veteran (though it could be), but someone with a perspective that complements my own – alike enough that we can agree on a vision, different enough that we will bring something different to the process. I want someone who wants me to challenge them as much as I want to be challenged by them.

So, what do I want to write? Good question. I guess I would like to write something different than both Under My Hive and Antihero. I might want to write a more classic kind of scenario. Both UMH and Antihero have been indie-like storytelling games with the GM in a very pulled-back, mediating kind of role. While that is the kind of game I often like to play, I also like many other kinds of game – like the more classic scenario with a strong GM and a story for the players to go through. I might like to try something along those lines. Maybe a scenario with very loose constraints and a lot of player interactivitiy. It might also be a GM-less thing. I haven’t played a lot of GM-less stuff, but both UMH and Antihero have had very weak GMs, and for Antihero, I considered whether the GM was actually necessary (there is actually a version provided in the scenario in which the GM plays a main character). So why not try to take the plunge, and do without a GM?

Another kind of scenario could be the retro scenario. It seems that dungeon revival is the hot retro fashion these days at Fastaval, with scenarios like Dungeon, Lydia’s Funeral and Kristian Bach Petersen’s Reservoir Elves, Magician: Impossible and Apocalypse Drow in the lead. Maybe it’s time to be avant-garde retro and make a bloodsucker revival that can show today’s kids that you don’t have to glimmer to sparkle. White Wolf just came out with the Vampire: the Masquerade 20th anniversary edition, and this year’s “Whole Con” is Dancing with the Clans, a game of Camarilla Disco. How about “Fear and Loathing in Lasombra” or some similar ironic nostalgia about the hottest games of the late ’90ies? I have a feeling that there is a Vampire/chick-flick crossover just waiting to happen – “Legally Brujah”?

I have also been doing a few “Fictioval” scenario previews that might be turned into actual scenarios. Like Kthulhu Kindergarden (kiddie investigators in an Arkham daycare facility). Or how about Love in the time of Chess, a sad game of chess prodigies using chess as a mechanic?

Continuing on the retro from before, it seems that half the blogging community has fond memories of Planescape. Maybe it would be an idea to bring Sigil to Fastaval. Giving the setting an indie motor and sending the players off to some corner of the Planes.

What to do?

So, if you might be interested in a partnership for next Fastaval, don’t be a stranger! Write me an email, or approach me at Fastaval, and let’s see if we can come up with an idea we can both agree on. It could be some of what I’ve mentioned above, some of what I have mentioned earlier on this blog, one of your ideas – or something we come up with together!

Antihero: Supporting characters as main character antitheses

A while ago, I wrote about my thoughts on the main characters of my antihero scenario. But what I really wanted, was to follow it up with this post, which explains my thoughts for some of the important secondary characters in the game. And at the end, I’d really like your thoughts.

Now, the Antihero scenario has a main character – the Hero – and four secondary characters: the Sidekick, the Elder, the Villain and the Coveted. The main conflicts of the game build on these five, and each player will control one of them. But these are not the only characters. And this brings me to an idea that I want to incorporate into my scenario: that each main or secondary character has a supporting character who is his antithesis.

Lemme explain what I mean with antithesis. An antithesis

” is a counter-proposition and denotes a direct contrast to the original proposition.” [link]

Thus, the antithesis character is one who is a counter-proposition to a main/secondary character, and who by doing so makes that character more sharply defined.

For instance, the Coveted is not impressed with the hero’s appearance, and will not bend to his will. This makes him interested, and he must strive to win her. Her antithesis is a village girl, who falls head over heels for the hero, and is blinded by his flashing smile and his heroic exterior. Similarly, the Sidekick is not fooled by the hero’s appearance – he helped create it. He is old and cynical. His antithesis is a young boy, who looks up to him and wants to be him when he grows up. His heart would be crushed if he knew the truth about the Hero – and I predict it will be crushed when the hero’s bluff is called at some point during the scenario.

Now, the question is how to use these characters. Should a character control his antithesis himself, allowing him to sketch his own counter-proposition? Should it be controlled by the characters opponent (on the two axes I talked about last time), allowing him to help define the opponents position, and cause a bit of trouble for him? Should it be controlled by someone on the other axis? Or the GM, maybe? Maybe you’d want joint ownership – or maybe just a common pool of all of them, so that anyone can use any character?

I should note that “control” does not mean  “play.” Control is all about who has the right to define and use that character. Whose character-sheet is he on? That person might ask someone else to play him, but even then, they have final say in the matter.

I think I tend towards having joint ownership between the two people on the axis. The problem with that is that you can risk a fight over the characters – or can you? Is that even a problem? Maybe communal ownership would be better, allowing anyone to use them – with the risk that no one will.

I’m also debating whether to give the Hero one. He could have a failing local guy who thought he could be a hero, and who’s intimidated by the hero. On the other hand, he’s likely to get loads of screen time anyway – he doesn’t need help.

What do you think? What will work? Do you have experience with this kind of thing?

[Antihero] The Main Characters

I am slowly starting to write my scenario, currently named Antihero, which will be featured at next year’s Fastaval. It is very much a scenario which will revolve around the characters, and they are probably the part of the game I’ve gotten the furthest with.

There will be five characters. One of them is the clear central character, while the others represent poles around him. All of the pole characters want something with the central character – the (anti)hero, and that wish is in someway opposed to what at least one character wants with him. So, the five characters in short:

The (anti)hero: the protagonist of the story. A con man, who makes people believe in him, uses these trusting people, then leaves before they call his bluff. That is not to say he isn’t a capable character, nor that he is all evil – he probably does good things for many villages. But mostly, he does it to help himself. However, there is a part of him that longs for something more. A part of him that wants to settle down, to gain a true life, instead of living a comfortable lie.

Two of the pole characters represent the outer struggle, and two of them represent the inner struggle that the hero faces. So, first I will present the outer struggle, then the inner.

The Village Elder: On one side of the outer struggle is the Elder of the village. At the beginning of the scenario, he enlists the hero to help defend the village against the plans of the Villain. That is not to say that the Elder is a saint, quite the opposite: he is manipulative, a coward, and he wants everyone to dance to his pipe. He is a very conservative person, wanting the status quo to be maintained.

The Villain: Opposite the Elder is the Villain. The villain wants to do something to the village, making life difficult for the villagers. Please note that it is not simply a matter of wanting to destroy the village. In fact, I think it is important to make it so that is it possible for the villain’s plan to be at least partially achieved, while still counting as a victory for good. The Villain represents a dynamic force, a force for change, but also an arrogant force, who wants to change the world according to his whim.

And thus, the outer struggle is the struggle for the fate of the village. The probable outcome is probably that status quo is not upheld, but that the villain does not achieve his plan either.

Then, the inner struggle:

The Sidekick: Every hero must have his sidekick, every Don Quixote much have his Sancho Panza. Also in this tale. The Sidekick is manservant, manager, squire, spy and spin-doctor, all in one. He cooks for the Hero, looks after him and his equipment and runs his errands. At the same time, he’s in on the scam, and he finds out who’s not convinced, and tries to make sure they ARE convinced – or at least that they don’t say their suspicions out loud. He tries to make the Hero stay with the same lifestyle they’ve been living together, and to make him stay the same.

The Coveted: Just as Don Quixote has Sancho Panza, he’s got his Dulcinea: the girl he pines for, and the girl he wants to commit heroic acts for. The girl, of course, is hard to please: She alone in the city is not charmed by the Hero’s antics, and is not charmed by his advances. He will have to win her over, somehow, and the only way to do that seems to be to (gulp) reform. He’d better shape up… thus, she is a force for inner change, challenging him to either become a hero, or to admit that he is none. Of course, she also needs to change: she needs to accept that there might be room for a man in her heart after all.

She’s to a large extent inspired by the woman here, the first four minutes of which display my idea of the Hero’s first approach, and of her initial attitude to him. She’s also inspired by the character Bean from Rango, the film that inspired the scenario in the first place.

And thus, the inner struggle is, in many ways, the real struggle of the game, though it needs the outer struggle as its battleground: can the Hero find a true life for himself, or will he forever live a lie?

These are the main players. Next time, I’ll write something about the main secondary characters – cause each main character will be matched by a secondary character that will act as their mirror. Also, I am planning to give the whole thing a framework that will give the GM a) something to do and b) a way to prod the players in a direction if needed.


Give me your ideas…

So, I have been asked by Morten Greis to write two articles for this year’s Fastaval GM compendium – a booklet of articles with tips for GM’s and thoughts on the noble art of GM’ing. In previous years, a host of illustrious Fastaval people have contributed to the different editions of this tome of knowledge, and it is not without a degree of humility I have agreed to write these articles – I do not feel like I have any particular experience that makes me more suited to write these articles than a lot of other people. On the other hand, I do have some thoughts on these matters, and I’ll be damned if I’m not going to share them with everyone who wants to listen.

The two subjects Morten suggested are:

  • How does one read a scenario as preparation for being a GM?
  • How does one GM a group of young, inexperienced players?

I think Morten decided to ask me about the first one after reading some of my reviews for the Reading Group – all of my studies have involved textual analysis, so I guess I ought to be proficient at that kind of things by now.

The second comes from my involvement with “ungdomsskolen” in two different cities in Denmark, teaching roleplaying to kids, something I have done for no less than eight years (my god, is it really that long?).

Anyway, I will post some of my own immediate thoughts later. For now, I’d like to hear from you: how do you go about reading a scenario you are going to run? And what are your favourite tips on how to handle a group of young players? Or, for that matter, which facets of these topics would you like my/an answer to?

The obligatory post-Fastaval post

Everybody and their aunt seems to have made a post of their thoughts about what happened at Fastaval. Having been busy, I haven’t gotten around to it, till now.

The Empire 40k

This year marked my début as scenario-author, on a contribution for the anthology “The Empire 40k”: “Under My Hive.” So, I decided that this year’s GMing choice would be the anthology. It ran Thursday and Saturday at 9 o’clock (brrr!) and knowing that I have a tendency to get to bed later and later during a Fastaval, I chose to run it Thursday. As it turned out, I was one of two of the authors to run it that morning, and so, Kristo asked me to run the start-up for it that morning. I was more than a little surprised when I realised we’d be starting no less than 10 groups that morning (And, as I recall, we missed less than a handful of players).

I’d chosen to run The Interrogation, Space Hulk: Her Dark Beauty, and Under My Hive. In the end, I ran the first two (more on that later).

My group of players consisted of one author, and three young players. Two of the youngsters seemed like very decent players; the third had a tendency to dominate, and wasn’t the greatest player. In particular, I made the mistake of giving him exactly the character he wanted in The Interrogation: the violent one. I felt myself avoiding him, because he kept on leading the game on to a very bloody path, when the depravity of the Interrogation can take so many forms. I didn’t feel we really attained what had attracted me in The Interrogation; that multifaceted story of fall.

Space Hulk went much more according to what I had hoped. We whispered and screamed, the players died in spades, and only won when the second to last player gave his life to help the last one escape with the Power Armour. Epic!

Paradoxically, while I enjoyed Space Hulk far more than The Interrogation, My players (who had all wanted to play the Interrogation, and were more ambivalent about the other two) had enjoyed The Interrogation more. This might have had something to do with the fact that I was measuring my experiences against the written texts.

And, by the end of the day, I hadn’t played my own scenario. I had chosen not to play it based on a number of very valid arguments, but part of it was, that I simply didn’t believe that what I’d written was playable.

Come Saturday, the, to my knowledge, only session of the game ran, led by Kristo and including one of my friends as player. And so it was that I was suddenly assaulted by an enthusiastic player, who assaulted me with a “I didn’t know you’d written anything,” and continuing to tell me how great their session had been. Later, Kristo came to tell me who well it had worked, and finally, the judges sought me out to tell me that they thought I’d really hit the “short story” form, and that they’d really enjoyed reading my scenario. Well, what do you know. I was pleasantly surprised, and have vowed to get around to running it myself.

I guess it’s kind of silly to write a scenario for Fastaval without running it yourself, but I’d signed up to do it about a year ago, and when the deadline rolled around, I barely had time to complete it in time.

Ah, well. At least, now I know it’s not an insurmountable task to write a scenario. Next time, I’ll write one in “feature length.”


After taking a nap Thursday afternoon, I was ready for Salvation Thursday evening. I got in a really strong group, with Troels Rohde Hansen as GM. Troels had been a playtester under Simon (the author), and that helped a lot – he knew how it was supposed to go.

Salvation is very much a sandbox. But it is a sandbox that shows you a clear direction. And it worked splendidly. I got a character of a type I wouldn’t normally go for – which resulted in me grunting my way through most of the evening as the antisocial, rugged character of the bunch. It was so much fun. The scenario is about a gang of wild west bank robbers, each of which is somehow broken in the head. And, oh boy, did we do depravity. It got an Otto for best roles, and it had really deserved it. The characters were perfect for sparking some of the most meaningful acts of cruelty I’ve seen in a role-playing game.


We had a pretty good team in the Info this year. A couple of old veterans had returned, and we scooped up three new recruits, but apart from that, it was mostly a bunch of old friends. The highlight of our convention was clearly our strike on Saturday. Usually, the Dirtbusters strike, giving the Bunker a number of demands which usually include at least one thing that we’re supposed to provide. This year, we decided to do a sympathy strike, not answering questions for a couple of hours.

Apart from that, a couple of very unappealing things came our way. First of all, somehow the game evaluation sheets had not been printed, and we had to deal with a lot of confused an annoyed people who couldn’t get an evaluation form, and couldn’t get a straight answer as to when they’d be there.

This year, as well as last year, I had the honour of being responsible for awarding the Golden Plunger. The Golden Plunger is the Info’s award for the participant who’ve made the greatest contribution to Fastaval. Some years, someone will have done something spectacular and noticeable, like when Daniel Benjamin Clausen ferried drunk people to bed when it suddenly started to snow in the middle of the night. But this year, the field consisted of a number of hard workers, who all qualified by having done a great job over the course of the con or, in one instance, over the cause of several Fastavals.

Hell/Heavenly Monday

When one is part of the organising team of Fastaval, the cleanup is always viewed with a certain anxiety. Last year, Hell Monday turned into Troublesome Tuesday. So this year, the school had given us a deadline at 4 o’clock. Which, along with a considerable effort on Sunday, must have been responsible for the relatively unproblematic day we had. The school was closed at 4 o’clock, with only a bit of transport left to do.

It wasn’t perfect, though. I was awoken by my mattress exploding at 8.30, and so, me and another Infonaut woke the organisers up gently and quietly. And I’m glad we did, because ten minutes later, two Dirtbusters came screaming into the room and started shouting orders, then leaving. When I went to the kitchen, shortly before nine, they were somewhat confused, and didn’t know what was expected of them. And, worst of all, no one was there in the kitchen to move people along and get them started on the cleanup. We have to work on that for next year.

Apart from that, I didn’t like the Sunday. Sunday wasn’t. There was a bit of roleplaying in the morning, then cleaning in the afternoon, then waiting for the banquet. Come on! We can do better than that! It must be possible to make a Sunday that doesn’t feel like the whole thing has ended. It certainly didn’t used to feel like that.

Next time…

is going to be grand! We have a great general, who has already started – and he’s started with the thing that most failed this time: the location. Between him and the amazing scenario crew, next year is sure to be something to look forward to.

Oh, and if you want to be part of it, come to the evaluation and startup meeting this weekend in Aarhus.

Review Summer: What is the purpose of a review?

Over the next few weeks, I will take you around to many of the murky corners of reviews. But before we embark, there is something we need to establish first: where are we going? When we are writing reviews, what are we trying to achieve? A review that is good at being a review does what? In other words, what is the purpose of a review?

A famous (in critic circles) Danish critic called Poul Borum wrote thus (my translation):

The purpose of a review is to annoy the author, and to prevent the reader from buying bad books

This carries an ounce of truth, even if it is an exaggeration. The first insight is this: a review is not written to please the author. Not that it should be a goal to insult the author – but the critic’s audience is not the author. It’s just as much the art consumer, the art community, the people who just read the paper in question. Besides, again in Mr. Borum’s words:

Every time you praise a bad book, you slight a good author

This quote I’ll return to

The second insight is this: the review should definitely tell you something about the quality of the reviewed object. This seems intuitive: if we read a review, we feel cheated or confused if we are left with no idea about the merits and demerits of the work reviewed.

Qualifying Qualities

So the review has something to do with qualities. Fair enough – but this spawns the next question: what kind of quality are we talking about? You could easily imagine someone saying: “It’s a masterpiece!” “Well, did you enjoy it?” “No, I really struggled to sit through it.” On the other hand, you might also hear someone say “Wow, that was a blast!” “Was it good?” “No – it’s a piece of stereotypical trash.”

It would seem we are dealing with at least two kinds of quality here: one has to do with the enjoyment someone derives from a text, the other some other kind of quality.

The shrewd reader will already have gathered what I’m getting at: I’m actually trying to sneak in a distinguishing between narrow “art,” and other “popular” fiction. And yes, that is the point I’m trying to make: that something can take it’s audience by storm, and still not be good, and something can be reviled by everyone, and still have something that redeems it from immediately going to the wastebin in the sky.

Not that these two types of quality are mutually exclusive – the best works do both. In fact, when reviewing, I believe you ought to separate them into two different considerations: What are the artistic qualities of this, and how enjoyable is it – or rather, who would enjoy it?

The third spice

But that’s not enough. Many people will not be considering watching the film/reading the book (though, if you post a review online, it’s far more likely that someone will come via Google exactly to find out if they should invest in this object or not). If you want these people to read till the end, and to feel your text was worth the time, you must provide them with something else.

Now, this is where we come back the two kinds of quality we were talking about above. Just as a film or a book can be enjoyable or not, so can your review. And if it is enjoyable enough, people will read it, even if they have no interest in what you’re actually reviewing. I watches all of the Zero Punktuation reviews, even if most of the games are some I’d probably never even consider trying.

And just as there can be something in a work of art that makes it worth getting through, your review can have something extra that makes it worth reading for it’s own sake. This could be a certain insight into the medium you are reviewing, or sharp, well formulated opinions that provoke people into rethinking their own opinions.

In short

All in all, I believe that the purpose of a review can be summarised in three points (neat, ain’t it?):

  • A review should guide the reader when he chooses whether to spend his precious time and money on something. In other words, the reviewer should consider what kind of consumer would benefit from this product, and maybe tell him what situation it would be appropriate for.
  • A review should fuel a debate about art. It should outline how the object fits within it’s genre, how it relates to the society around it, and what the state of that art form is today.
  • A review should be an experience to read. It can be hilarious, it can be a small poem in its own right, or it can just be well written and pleasant to read.

That’s not saying that all good reviews do all of these things. Zero Punctuation is notoriously bad at consumer guidance: he is so sarcastic and so critical, it can often be hard to tell if he likes a game or not. But he more than makes up in entertainment. Besides, if you listen closely, you can actually hear his passion and his strong opinions about where he wants video games to go. And two out of three? That’s not too bad.

Have I forgotten something? Am I just plain wrong? Then, by all means, tell me so.

Review Summer

It seems I have neglected this blog a bit over the last few weeks. Well, many things have happened, and I have been busy. And I will be more busy in the weeks to come, doing all sorts of strange and interesting things.

But despair not! I will not leave you all hanging. Instead, I am going to give you a series of posts about reviews, and how to write them.

I was taught how to write reviews in a class on cultural journalism when I studied Comparative Literature. Then, as part of my MA in Journalism, I had a class in “Analytical Journalism,” which included reviews, but I ended up teaching that part. Also, I was asked to come back the year after to repeat the lecture I gave.

What I will write in this series is a rephrasing of what I said in those lectures. I’m going to divide it into several bite sized chunks, and I may follow it up with a few reviews of reviews. The first posts are going to lay out the genre as I see it, then later, I’ll give you some pieces of good advice for when you start writing your own reviews.

Of course, I should say that this is my take on reviews. There may be other opinions about what makes a good review. If you disagree with me, please tell me so – I would very much like a bit of debate about reviewing.

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…?