My so-called larp: learning to love in a world without men

nordic larp lead

It’s a little after eight in the morning, and I’m getting ready to become a mother. I woke up only vaguely in character — I imagined a soldier would have the discipline to get up with the alarm, then justified my need for sleep as a pragmatic maximization of resources. An hour or two later, I’m completely immersed. When the three women I spent last night playing poker with agree to form a family unit with me and raise two daughters, one of them welcomes me as the Lieutenant. “You don’t have to keep saying that,” I tell her. I’m almost crying. “You can call me Sharon.” Sharon, who served in Afghanistan before helping run the fertility program that could help the human race continue, has existed for less than 24 hours, but she’s developed friends, political leanings, and a complicated relationship with the disaster that — three years ago — killed off every man on earth. Then the door opens, and we realize that not every man is dead.

In America, it’s stereotyped as a kind of joke: ask someone about larping, and they’ll describe costumed trolls and wizards knocking each other around with foam weapons

The scenario is from Mad About the Boy, an all-female Nordic larp or live-action role-playing game. Generally speaking, larps move the events of role-playing games like Dungeons & Dragons or Vampire: The Masquerade from the tabletop to campgrounds or hotels, with varying amounts of realism. In America, it’s stereotyped as a kind of joke: ask someone about larping, and they’ll describe costumed trolls and wizards knocking each other around with foam weapons (called boffers) or chanting spells in costume. Nordic larp, however, is more like being in a play. Developed in Norway, Denmark, and other Scandinavian countries, it’s focused on immersion and character development, dispensing with many of the gamelike elements of larping in favor of something reminiscent of theater improv. Its players are thrown into character for hours to days, and while there’s no script, they’re given scenarios that are meant to be taken seriously — from living out World War II as a civilian to experiencing the rise of AIDS in New York in the ‘80s. Now, with Mad About the Boy, it’s in the US for the first time.

Mad About the Boy immediately dispensed with what little I knew about larps. There were no character stats or win conditions, only a loose plot outline. The roughly forty characters — written by the larp’s creators and handed out beforehand — had a clear goal: they were participating in a government-backed fertility program, hoping to be selected to bear or raise the first generation of children after the Event. But whether they succeeded was ultimately less important than the quality of the resulting scenes.

While it’s often placed in opposition to rules-focused American games, Nordic larp isn’t the only system that draws more from acting than gaming. Loose groups from the theater community run improv-style games in the US, and jeepform — which also originated in Scandinavia — involves a shorter series of scenes that may be played out multiple times for the most satisfying conclusion. These styles, however, are still distinctly niche in the larp community. Outside Tolkien-influenced fantasy games and World of Darkness games like Vampire: The Masquerade, popular larps still tend to be action-oriented, based on user-created characters, and pulpy.

For me, they were also much easier to find. Traditional larps are often long-running, with readily available rule books. Liability issues have made it difficult to bring Nordic larp to the US — Mad About the Boy’s organizers expressed concerns over running it in a country with patchy health insurance and an over-active litigation system — but even overseas, documentation is spotty. The basic elements of a Nordic larp, like its characters and world, are contained in its libretto, which theoretically means it could be recreated by just about anyone. In practice, only a few larps have their librettos distributed, and the ones that do tend to be shorter games. “People haven’t thought of it,” says Margrete Raaum, another MAtB writer.

Name: Sharon Occupation: Army Liason to the US Congress

With no way to win, the biggest goal is developing your own character while teasing out interesting moments with other people

Mad About the Boy was inspired by Y: The Last Man, a long-running Vertigo comic about the lone survivor of a plague that kills anything with an XY chromosome. Beyond the basic premise, though, the two don’t share much. While fairly self-aware, Y: The Last Man spent most of its run focused on a single man in a world full of women. The writers of Mad About the Boy, by contrast, envisioned the game as a space for women to interact without being overshadowed. “We didn’t want [the Last Man] to be the focus of the story,” co-creator Tor Kjetil Edland told me. As a result, the man shows up only halfway through the game, and the first major part of the story is devoted entirely to the lives of the women. In this run and the initial one, only people who identified as women could participate (with the exception of the Last Man); a third version accepted men but asked them to dress in drag.

Given how much of the game involved figuring out a world without men, it was impossible to separate MAtB from gender relations. As I prepared for the larp, it became clearer than ever just how few real-world luminaries — or even more minor functionaries — were women, and of the many scenarios I ran through, it was hard to say which was more discouraging. If it were the result of systemic discrimination or unbalanced gender roles, did that mean the only way we could imagine something different was by erasing all the men? If it weren’t, did that mean my gender was somehow deficient?

Many of the other larps I found were didactic in some way, from Panopticorp — a satirical critique of corporations and identity — to Dublin2, which called attention to the plight of refugees. At first, I’d imagined this kind of issues-focused slant might put me off, making the game too heavy-handed. Some of the descriptions in Mad About the Boy did little to dissuade me. In a novel or movie, I probably wouldn’t have thought twice about them. But when everything about a character is condensed into a page or two of description, backstory can come across more harshly and polemically than usual. One of my in-game colleagues was described as a “radical state feminist,” another trio as a group of political conservatives of various stripes. Everyone had an archetype and a tarot card drawn in the style of a (Dave McKean cover): my character was dubbed the “skilled protector.”

I am not a veteran of the military, the larp community, or the world of acting, so I tried to relate to my character through a combination of fiction and gossip with friends. The problem was that, taken as a fictional character, Sharon was a bit on the pulpy side. While she hadn’t existed in Y: The Last Man, her backstory seemed to come straight from a Nineties Vertigo comic, complete with a scene in which she burns her father’s body on a pyre.

By the time I’d started the larp, though, I’d reconsidered. My co-larpers had expertly looked through their sections of libretto and picked out the parts that fit, discarding or rationalizing anything superfluous and drawing from their own experiences. There’s no audience in Nordic larp, per se, and with no way to win, the biggest goal is developing your own character while teasing out interesting moments with other people. Sometimes, that means asking someone about their history in a sort of laser-focused small talk. Alternately, there are bits of world-building, collaboratively improvising a story about survivors raising goats in Brooklyn or airlifting women out of Afghanistan. They’re not necessarily so different from what you’d get in ordinary improv, but there’s an added layer of complexity involved: instead of just building a collective fiction, you want to get both yourself and anyone around you in a shared world that will serve you for the rest of the game.

Going into the game, we’d known the basics about the world. As in Y: The Last Man, everyone with an XY chromosome had died for unclear reasons; unlike the comic, animals hadn’t been affected. Hillary Clinton had become president, and the US had maintained some semblance of a federal government. As the game progressed, our consensual reality expanded. Life had gone on, but it wasn’t easy, and things like communication technologies had atrophied. In the comic series, Yorick spent half his time fighting ninjas and evading mad scientists. When you’re actually living a character, you have to think about the little things, like what to do with the men’s restrooms at the campsite.

It also contradicts some of the assumptions of fiction with lived experience. Before Y: The Last Man, feminist authors explored a world without men, but some assumed that without the corrupting influences of patriarchy and testosterone, peace would reign. Give it a few hundred years and anything’s possible, but Mad About the Boy made it obvious just how much ideological divisions can tear people apart. Conversely, it also put to rest a stereotype favored by male authors: when the Last Man showed up, no one jumped into his arms. A few people flirted. Others were shocked or pitied him, and a tiny contingent pushed to execute him. Plenty of us were just annoyed.

There’s a third kind of interaction that’s far more personally unnerving: actually building in-game relationships. I hadn’t met a single member of the larp beforehand, and I barely had time to learn their real names before we all took on our characters. During the game, it worked fine — in some cases, it was almost alarming how quickly I seemed to get to know people. Dialog is sharpened and directed, with players creating small rivalries and connections to draw characters together — or push them apart. I was fully in character for less than 24 hours, but the manufactured crisis of the larp made for full, often tumultuous relationships.

Name: Julie
Occupation: Gynecologist

Name: Isak Occupation: Hunter, survivor on the run

Over the course of the game, I reconnected with an old friend, betrayed her trust, and gained it again during a crisis. I forged a close but suspicious bond with a fellow practitioner of realpolitik: she was a member of a survivalist group critical of government policy; I was a career soldier who worried the US was failing. I wanted her respect, and every time the game’s events put a wall between us, I tried to overcome it. But when the game ended, it all disappeared. She wasn’t a well-armed anarcho-syndicalist, and I wasn’t a disillusioned officer. Where did that leave us? When we said something to each other, how did we bridge the gap between who we really were and who we’d just pretended to be?

Being in a larp gave me the strange experience of being both closer to and further from the people I participated in it with. We’d gone through an incredibly intense experience together, and it had given us a wealth of shared experiences. Unfortunately, those experiences were tied to people who no longer existed. Talking about them was somewhere between discussing the characters in a movie and how I’d reacted to something in a video game.

Not every interaction, of course, was positive. Recognizing this, Nordic larp has put structures in place to separate player and character and defuse potential anger or resentment — something that’s not standard practice in other larp systems. Before Mad About the Boy, you’re asked to consider how both you and your character might respond to the end of men; afterwards, we broke into progressively smaller groups and talked through what we’d done. By the time it’s over, your characters still exist, but you’ve built up a layer of separation that helps you get back to the rest of your life.

Which isn’t to say the transition was always easy. Playing in an all-female world had catapulted me to the top of the sociological food chain, and leaving it made me hyper-aware of what I was losing. My character was armed, government-backed, young, and white, and her casual agnosticism didn’t put her in the binds that some Christian or Muslim characters faced. For the first time in my life, I had absolutely nothing to prove. If I failed at something, I didn’t have to worry that it was because of some innate gender-based deficiency, or that it would reflect poorly on half the population. And when the game had ended, being around several dozen women — many of whom worked in tech, gaming, and journalism — made me realize just how few I lived and worked with in my day-to-day life.

No matter how interesting the premise of a given Nordic larp, it will raise two questions. Firstly, why not just play it as a rule-based larp or RPG? And, following that: why not turn it into theater? Most larp already walks a fine line between play and acting, and Nordic shares enough traits with standard improv that it’s easy to wonder why participants don’t just limit it to one area and invite an audience. According to Mad About the Boy’s organizers, though, the participant-spectators of Nordic larp can get an experience that’s impossible outside the medium. “When you’re watching a theater play, you can be empathic to what’s going on... kind of put yourself in their place,” says Lindahl. “But it’s totally different when you are there and you’re actually feeling the feelings, not just understanding them.”

Lizzie Stark, the journalist and larper who helped bring Mad About the Boy to the US, also sees it as a kind of art where you’re required to create, not just consume. In something like theater, she says, you’ll probably have a pretty good experience and identify with the characters as long as the actors are good. “But in larp, there’s this extra level of anxiety: getting that emotional gut punch depends on how well you’re able to immerse into a character.”

Players have a much larger role than spectators in bringing fiction to life, but the authors still have to choose how much control they’re willing to give up. Kapo, a well-known Danish larp that simulated brutal conditions inside a prison camp, was almost entirely linear. Players could have virtually no effect on the game’s events, which were designed to drive home their powerlessness. “You will die or prey on those weaker than you, ultimately forcing you to choose between yourself and your loved ones,” reads the larp’s description. “There will be no revolutions during the game.”

The game ended with a convoluted quadruple-cross and a lot of brandished prop guns

Other larps build a more open-ended world. The White War, a larp about military occupation, is one; Mad About the Boy is another: it has a few scripted events, but the outcomes have been vastly different over its three runs. In one Norwegian run, the Last Man’s arrival was met with tea and blankets. In our version, the game ended with a convoluted quadruple-cross and a lot of brandished prop guns — although, while our organizers feared Americans might be trigger-happy, none were actually fired. The forty of us were given a place to live and people to be; what we did with that was up to us.

Giving players this control tends to lead to unexpected results. “I don’t think I’ve ever organized a larp where at one point I haven’t said the following words: He did what? She did what?” Raaum says. In one of her larps, the World War II-based 1942, a group of soldiers was meant to execute a prisoner, but the plan was derailed. “They were meant to feel what it was like to look her in the eye and shoot her.” Their commander, however, “wanted to spare his soldiers their feelings, so he did it himself. That’s bullshit,” she adds.

In some cases, though, this turns out well, even if it started with a failure on the organizers’ part. Finnish war larp Valokaari was meant to feel cramped and filled with interpersonal conflict, but due to a misunderstanding, participants decided to play it as a hyper-realistic military enactment. “The characters who we expected to get on each others’ nerves never did,” the organizers wrote in larp anthology States of Play, “because most of them spent all their time either patrolling, eating or sleeping.” At the end, the players considered the game a success, even if the game hadn’t worked out remotely how the organizers intended.

Social pressure and the rare intervention are the only real things stopping you from changing the story.

On a more mundane level, it’s sometimes hard even to get everyone in the same genre. If you go to a movie expecting Drive Angry and end up with Drive, there’s not a lot you can do besides complain. In more gamelike role-playing, you can refuse to play along with the tone of the story, but you’re still constrained by the explicit rules: it’s difficult to play an action hero if you can die from a single infected wound. Once a Nordic larp starts, social pressure and the rare intervention are the only real things stopping you from changing the story.

Our run of Mad About the Boy seemed to take place in two genres. The first day was a somber, meditative drama, as characters attempted to rebuild their lives, coming to grips with personal problems while struggling to hide anything that could make them seem unfit to raise a child. On the second day, this all went out the window, as we found both a man and an external threat — he said he was being pursued by armed women who had taken him captive. It was certainly cathartic, but it would ultimately leave me unsettled, caught between straightforward action and more ambiguous drama. Minutes after my character decided to embrace parenthood after years of career- and survival-focused solitude, she had drawn a gun and was searching the campground for the approaching women. The fear and uncertainty of joining a family, I thought, would have to wait: here was something I could do.

As I escorted a group of women out of the main building to a cabin (they’d be safer from attackers there, and we didn’t know what diseases the Last Man might have been exposed to), one of my new family members reached for my hand. For days afterward, I would regret not staying with her. I think I had started to love her just a little. But I turned away, unable to break from the immediacy of making a plan, solving a problem. By the time I saw her again, we were no longer potential lovers or co-parents. We were just another two people who’d spent the weekend being someone else.

Photo of the event courtesty Liz Rywelski.

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