lauantai 5. maaliskuuta 2016

Two 1918s

Taking things off to tangent - but relevant to my interest - this time it won't be about textiles or some other living history thing, but larping. And only in English, since Finns know English anyway and I hope this to reach a wider audience. Also because don't want to write this twice. :p 

One war, two countries, two games

I had the good luck to be able to participate as a player in two wonderful games that closely mirror each other in general setting and set in the same year in-game time, but were very different by structure and theme. The first game was the Finnish game Viena 1918 (post-game reflections from organizer in Finnish), set in Western part of Russia where various groups competed for control of a small Carelian village; the second was the Czech game Legion: Siberian Story, set in Eastern end of Russia in 1918 where a small group of Legionnaires and other people were trying to get home. I'm not even going to go into the parallels of two small, newly independent nations here: in Viena my character was from St. Petersburg and didn't have that much of a goat in the game with Finland's independence, other than resisting the current White rule and their meddling in Russian Carelia. And as for Legion, I really can't say I have enough in-depth knowledge about that period of Czech history, and for my character it mattered more to get her family back home than where the capitol was.

Wider view

As a player I'm fairly inexperienced. As an organizer... well, in 2009 I jumped straight into the deep end of making historical games. For a long time figured that my interest in history was limited to roughly medieval period and preceding times. For a long time I had no interest for female roles within a strictly delineated and constricting eras and societies, and it was the enabling chaos of the wartime and the red "trouser guard" which finally encouraged me to sign up for Viena. It was the first game set in nearly present history where I played, and the first nonfantasy where I played a female character for longer than half an hour. (After that there have been more. I think I might want to swing the other way soon.)

The Finnish larp scene is quite unusual in that the player base has clearly more female-identified persons than male-identified. According to Larp Census, it's roughly 49 to 44 %. The rest are nonbinary (including myself) or didn't want to tell. In historical games this is even more heavily skewed towards women, and the people who write historical games take this into account early on - both in selection of the setting in which there would reasonably be a heavily female demographic in the game, and in giving those characters agency and interesting plots while creating a window to what might have been.

Viena followed the typical 2/3rds F to 1/3rd M distribution of character gender, and the war and historically known existence of Red women's guard allowed to make a more varied spread of social roles, to the shock of the Carelian women and the deep, deep disgust of the White tribal warriors. Legion on the other hand is written for Czech players, and the majority of the characters were male, although there too the egalitarian principles of the Legion gave possibility to include few woman soldiers, in addition to the nurses, other auxiliaries and the civilians.

Similarities and differences

In both games war played a heavy part - how else could it have been. The inter- and intra-faction conflicts were brought to head in both games multiple times. In Viena the goal of the organizers was to make the whole thing farcical for the outside viewer, with both Red and White factions repeatedly hauling their own flags up the villagers' flagpole and such. The humorous elements of trying to figure out the English canned foods, and Carelian radist translitterizing English radio communications about herrings were something that were totally missing from Legion, which was a very straight up tragedy in human scale. Add in the 25-kilometer march on snowy mountain roads, and Legion was altogether a different beast on emotional and physical levels.

As game format of "characters and plots come from the organizers, things are fairly scripted" Legion was surprisingly familiar. The workshops before the game were also really familiar, and the safety was well taken care of. The networks of plots and relationships were complex and interesting and gave almost too much to play, given that most of the time we were on the move and oftentimes the character you'd have wanted to talk to was somewhere on the other end of the 54-plus-organizer-characters file.

Making players sing has long been a tradition in Greywolves-brand of historical games, and I've often helped to translate and adjust songs into Finnish. For Legion we learned the thankfully simple song Ach synku synku - I don't know if they have more songs in Czech runs, but this was just the perfect song for the game both thematically and well, being possible to learn for non-Czechs. (My first encounter with Czech songs was Ktož jsú boží bojovníci.) Personally I find singing to be very emotional activity and one that brings the culture to life in all new levels, and it was great to be on familiar ground on this also.

The biggest differences apart from the basic mood and necessity-dictated character distribution seemed to stem from the structure of the game. In Carelia, we were moving in a fairly large area mostly independently, although there were some GMs keeping tabs on us, and well-marked paths. The action mostly focused around the village, the antagonists were the other players, and the travel was mostly between camps and scouting. In Siberia, we were moving towards a goal along a pre-set route. The action happened during the breaks by the wonderful and smoothly organized friendly or antagonistic NPC teams, and talking happened all the time - even when the officers tried to get people walking in a single file. In Carelia the game's location was two very muddy kilometers away from the closest place to get by car. In Siberia, we were most of the time not very far from forest roads, and even the footpaths were wide enough for three to walk side by side.

Viena followed the typical Finnish method where people pay relatively little for the game itself but take care of their own props. The only props from the organizers were the arm bands and the weapons - mostly deactivated bolt action rifles. Legion had a much higher cost, but supplied pretty much everything necessary from clothes to blank firing weapons. It was even possible to rent good, thick blankets from the organizers instead of the "just ask around in the player group" method of Finnish loan props. Given that the majority of people were foreigners arriving by plane, it was just as good and I gladly paid the little extra.

Parallel to this, Viena was a single shot game, and it's unlikely there will be a rerun - in Finnish scene the organizers tend to move to the next interesting thing, or try a different angle, and reruns are fairly rare. Also, most games may be under a club's nominal flag and get a bit of funding, website infra and prop loans, but they are more personal and group projects. Contrarily Legion recently had its tenth run by the club Rolling, done mostly by the same organizer group, and eight of the runs have been arranged in the same location. And it shows. Despite the smoothness of the "well-oiled larp machine" of Viena's organization, there are still always some inevitable burrs that come up in a game of 50 players let loose on the countryside, especially if the game location is, as said, two kilometers from closest place to unload the cars and it happens to rain a week straight before the game. In Legion the organizers clearly had experience of this particular location, and how to best use it. The only bigger hitch I'd complain about in the first international run of Legion was the late arrival to the offgame location, which meant everything was delayed, including the start of the game.


On purely personal level the characters I played were both fun, and very different - that was good. For Viena I wished for, and got, a soldier role. I played one of the few competent soldiers, a former member of the 1st Russian Women's Battalion of Death. I had a great time being pissed off at our mildly incompetent (although properly SR) leader, and it was all great. But the role wasn't that different from myself - it had been fun, but I hadn't been someone else.

In Legion I wished for physically active role with no backstabbing or heavy plotting, or focus on romance. I was initially offered the women soldiers, and an third woman, but actually got a really cool and strong-willed (but so, so young) nurse character. She was fun to play, and the contact players were awesome. And I did feel I had been someone else, but after the game I felt there had been several blind spots in my immersion I hadn't noticed, or that I didn't have sufficient meta-level observation going on to tell me what would have been a good thing to do. (Something to work on, then!)

Even so the thing that hit me most in Legion - and keeps hitting me, a month after the game - was the general mood. Not just as something I experienced in character, but something I observed and soaked in as a player. The losses and pains and burdens that everyone carried and kept going, or not. And I want more of that, so yeah, when the autumn rolls around I'm definitely keeping an eye on the website and waiting for more international runs.

Going forward

As an organizer who intends to return to organizing after the break, Legion gives some food for thought. There are definitely some things to take home, particularly the blank firing guns - and I didn't even get to use one in-game. It's fun to be shot at when there's actual shots. The meta level mechanics of determining whether you get wounded would improve gunfights, especially chaotic ones where you really can't see who's shooting at you.

As for the reruns, that's not really a big thing in Finland. Only a few games are designed to be played several times. A good number of those are designed to be replayed 2-4 times within a weekend or two, not year after year. Many of the good game locations have had several games organized there, which helps to give familiar environment, but may also be a source of "oh, this scout cabin again" overfamiliarity. But if it's intentional, would that help? And would there be enough organizers who want to do the same thing over and over again, since it's usually the "ooh shinymuddy new interesting thing, let's do this next year" that drives the game design in the historical games faction of the scene that I know. And on purely economical side, Finnish games - since they are one-shots - are typically budgeted to break even, in a culture where participation fees are quite low, so the heavy initial investment to loan props and "hopefully break even after X games" approach would take a really brave leap into financial risk. So I don't imagine seeing a shift to games organized exactly like Legion any time soon - but the rerun potential is certainly something I'd like to see more.

And now I'm slightly annoyed about not going to Solmukohta and getting to talk about this but hey, there's always next year, hopefully.

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