Anna Westerling is a 32 year old game designer from Sweden. Westerling has designed and collaborated on role playing games such as En stilla middag med familjen (or A nice evening with the family ), Growing Up and Robin’s Friends. She has produced the larp theory convention Knutepunkt, and the book Nordic Larp which documents northern European live action role playing games. Westerling works at the museum of Science and Technology in Stockholm producing exhibitions, currently curating exhibitions about computer games.
This past November, Anna Westerling organized the first Stockholm Scenario Festival, in Skarpnäck, Stockholm. I took this opportunity to ask Anna about the festival, her relationship with role playing games and her insights into design.
What was your introduction to role playing games, and what has made them such an important part of your life?
I think I was 13 years old, the first time I heard about larp. It was from the geeky guys at school that were doing it, and one of them told me about it. Instantly I knew. This was my thing. It combined some of the things I liked the most: forest, fantasy and theatre. I also wanted to be Polgara in the woods1.
Then it wasn’t all too easy to go to one of those larps, but in the end I succeeded in nagging the boys into bringing me. At the larp it was like a whole new world opened up. I got to know people outside my school, and outside my daily world. That autumn I went to five different larps and I was hooked.
In the beginning it was mostly fantasy larps, but then quite quickly I started to do other types of larp as well. I think one of my first big non-fantasy larps was the submarine larp Carolus Rex that I remember as epic. By chance I also found Sweden’s biggest larp magazine: Fëa Livia. I remember thinking: I want to be editor-in-chief of this. Some years later I was. I ended up working with that magazine for five years. I have always been very driven forward, and searching for new things when it comes to games. Whatever I’ve done with the rest of my life has always been secondary.
I think that games became such a big part of my life for two main reasons. First, I love the core of it. I love to role-play, experience new feelings and tell a story together. Second, I love the community. I love the people in it and I’ve always felt very at home; it’s my family. I love that you are allowed to be weak, make mistakes and mess up. We will all catch each other, talk about it and understand. I feel when hanging out in the role-play community I can see the entire personality of the people around me, and I love that we are all accepted for what we are.
I also think that larp’s entrepreneurial side suited me very well. There were no adults who organized games for us. If something was to happen we needed to make it so. I think this is a good way to learn—to put a lot of responsibility to make things happen on the youngsters themselves—and I hope it doesn’t disappear as larps grow up.
One of your early game designs was A nice evening with the family, a large scale larp, with 150 players taking part over the course of four different full productions of the game. It was designed by you and a large team2, based on seven different Nordic plays and books (including Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, Strindberg’s Miss Julie, and Janssen’s book The Father and the Sea or Moominpappa at Sea). What was the initial inspiration for putting these works together?
Doing the magazine Fëa Livia of course took quite a lot of time, we used to joke about the editing team all being married to the magazine. But I knew that sooner or later I wanted to do my own big game. Then at some point I saw the Danish movie The Celebration. It is about a son that at his father’s 60th birthday party gives a speech about the father raping him and his sister when they were young. This was an intense situation, and I knew I wanted to make a larp that struck this note. It wasn’t necessarily the rape-story specifically, but the reaction of all of the guests. They all laughed, clapped and moved on as if nothing had happened. I find that really interesting. It makes a statement about bourgeoisie culture and keeping up a facade. You smile and say everything is fine, but it really isn’t. One of the reasons I’m drawn to this is probably because I have a bourgeoisie background myself and especially as a teenager I was really frustrated about pretending that all is good.
After finding The Celebration I played in a theatre production of A Doll’s House by Henrik Ibsen and felt that it was about the same thing. The need to look happy, rather than be happy. So I realized the characters from A Doll’s House needed to come to the 60-year-old’s birthday party as guests. I then played in a Strindberg play and thought the same thing: these plays were all dealing with the problems of the bourgeoisie culture.
At this point my financial brain started ticking as well, if I did a larp with plays from different Nordic playwrights I would probably get Nordic funding. I would also get a nice frame for the story of the larp that would appeal to Nordic players. Hence the larp came to contain 7 Nordic plays about the problems of family and the bourgeoisie lifestyle.
What probably helped also was that at this time I was a theatre student, so I know a lot of theatre plays. The idea of bringing in classic plays was also to prove that larp was art.
A challenge in presenting A nice evening was to take pre-existing works and make them playable by a group of participants who may have been unfamiliar with them prior to the game. How did your team approach this?
So how to make these plays into a larp? I had begun to do freeform and jeepform at Swedish conventions around the year 2000. From these I learned that you could create greater magic in a classroom during four hours than you could in a forest during four days. So when I made a larp I wanted it to be tight, and not just float there with people going around “dry-larping”, which is to say, talking about nothing. Hence the plays with very intense stories. I wanted everybody’s experience to touch him or her.
To familiarize the players with the material we had a workshop the night before the actual game. We had divided the players into groups related to the seven plays. Each group had a game-master that lead the work and coached the players’ through the process.
To make sure all seven plays had the same pace in the actual game we had divided the game into three different acts that were about four hours each. The beginnings of each of them were marked with a special event. The theme of the acts went from all is fine, the facade is complete, to the facade starting to break, to letting the demons out in the last act. So in the workshop before the larp the game master and the players divided their specific play into what events that should take place in what act.
For example, in A Doll’s House, directions might have been: “In the first act the character Nora shall be cute to her husband, and make friends again with an old acquaintance.” You didn’t say the lines of the play, just took the essence of a scene and made it happen during the game. This also meant that everyone knew how the larp would end. You could just read the play, and could consequently plan your experience and the characters’ dramatic arc from that. For example, if you know you will end the larp by breaking up with someone you can make sure that you play your relationship sweetly in the beginning so it will mean something when the relationship ends at the end of the larp.
The game was also a 60th birthday party with all the classic elements of a party: a drink on the lawn, a sitting diner, couples dancing etc. What time all these events happened was transparent to the players so they know what would happen. There were no surprises. The game masters also were present in the game at all times and could help the players if need be.
To combine the plays we also made relationships and social circles between the characters of the different plays. They were relatives to the 60-year-old that hosted the party. They were the party-boys, the bank workers, the kitchen workers etc. This was so they knew each other beyond the plays. These groups met on Saturday morning.
A nice evening was the first “black box” larp, which incorporated meta-techniques associated with the Nordic Freeform style of play into a larp. This has become a standard feature of art larps in the Nordic countries now. How did this work?
In the workshop we also did a lot of freeform scenes within the playgroup. For the characters we did scenes from the past, the future and “what if”-scenes. This turned out to be very strong. We also took a break from the whole larp for an hour after dinner, went back to the playgroup and did freeform scenes to boost the players even more for the ending. This break was referred to as the “meta-hour”. If you wanted you could also do meta/freeform-scenes at any time during the larp. We had a black box, which was a simple room, where a game master would help you set up the scene you needed. The black box was also used to portray sex and scenes that happens outside of the fiction.
How did you start designing games?
The freeform scene in Sweden had been going from the 90s and died somewhere around the year 2003. So there were no places to play or write games for. I just had a memory of how things used to be around the year 2000.
But when I did A nice evening in 2007 I wanted to incorporate freeform ideas, and also saw it as necessary considering I had seven predefined stories in the plays that would become a larp. The ones who knew how to work with predefined stories were the freeformers. So I recruited jeep game designer Tobias Wrigstad. He had also by then spent a lot of time at the Danish game convention Fastaval taking inspiration from there as well. I know when he said yes to the project that it was doable. I remember being so happy, just smiling.
Then it took me about two years after A nice evening to realize the greatness of Fastaval and I went there for the first time in 2009, and wrote Growing up for 2010. Since it was my first freeform scenario I was a bit nervous, so I used a story I know very well, Sense and Sensibility. I also always liked it because of the ambiguity of the choice the character Marianne makes in the end. She marries the rich guy as she is supposed to. Is it out of love or is she simply adjusting to society and growing up? In a way I guess you can connect that to A nice evening’s theme of norms and social rules, but it was nothing I thought about. I wanted to create a cute scenario about love with an edge. Game mastering it I’ve seen many beautiful scenes of sadness, love and proposal. Just as a true Austen-scenario should have, it is written in it that you have to kneel when proposing.
Growing Up is another adaptation, this time of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility, but as a Nordic freeform—with a much smaller group of player and a shorter play time. How did you deal with the issues of adapation in this format?
That it was an adaptation again, I didn’t consider, it was just easier for me to use an already written story. And when you have the chance to stand on the shoulders of Jane Austen, why not? Generally I think it is a good idea to use already written material to make role-playing games. The quality of the story is already there.
What I also like with doing a role-playing game of Sense and Sensibility is that I had the ability of raising up the stories that are peripheral in the book. There are some that have quite bad endings for the characters, for example there is a 15-year-old that gets pregnant. Now we actually get to meet her and explore her story.
Game design-wise I worked with the book and divided it into 21 different chapters, each chapter with a clear purpose, for example: “in which Elinor and Edward fall in love”. Then I give some suggestion for what to do in the scenes to achieve this purpose. The game master can then pick what scenes to use. When I run that particular chapter I usually do scenes in the library, in the garden walking, etc. and jumping in time between them. For example: “Cut—to two weeks later in the library when he had read the book she recommended.” Sometimes it takes long for the players to get that feeling of love in the scene, sometimes it goes really quick. You just do scenes until you feel you have found it.
You designed Robin’s Friends, which deals with grief and how hard it is to communicate with friends, and also co-designed Summer Lovin’ about freedom and youth, sex and romance. Are these games close to your own heart and based on your own experiences, or are they inspired by stories you’ve been drawn to for other reasons?
Summer Lovin’ was created by me, Trine Lise Lindahl and Elin Nilsen. We came up with the idea on our way home from Fastaval and I like it because it is so fun and easy. It is about three couples, how each pair has sex at a summer festival and how they talk about it with each other afterwards. None of the couples have uncomplicated sex. We wanted to show that not all sex is Hollywood-sex, but rather that it can be grass in the ass and festival-sex and that is OK. The scenario is super-fun to run and it always gets a bit of a giggly atmosphere when players start talking about this stuff.
When I wrote Robin’s friends I wanted to write something about friendship. I feel sometimes there are a lot of scenarios about families, while as a person living alone, my most important relationships are friendships. I also wanted to write about when you mean well and your inability to communicate make you hurt someone; when you realize that unintentionally you were the bad guy. That came from personal experience, from me arguing with my friends, so I started there, but then my imagination created the actual story. This meant I began designing the characters, which all should have a side of their personality—maybe you could call it a flaw—that made them hurt each other. I created the one who only feels worth from what s/he does, the one who needs to be seen and finally the one who can’t express what s/he feels. Then it was just to create a story where the consequence of those flaws were shown.
Tell us about the Stockholm Scenario Festival. What prompted you to create it?
As I said before the freeform scene had died in Sweden in 2003, so there was none happening. As I began going to Fastaval in 2009, of course the idea came up to bring this back to Sweden as well. I had played so many great scenarios abroad that Swedish larpers and roleplayers would love, but didn’t even know existed. I wanted to bring them home.
Another point was that since A Nice Evening larpers had begun to use the freeform techniques from that larp, referring to them as “meta”. They also experimented with larping in blackboxes and were doing things that were very close to freeform. In Denmark, the freeformers on the other hand begun to do more larplike things, calling it “semi-larp”. I wanted to bring these groups together. Hence we used the name scenarios to include roleplaying freeform games, jeep-games, and also larp and blackbox larps. As you can see there are many names for this.
We also wanted to make scenarios available, both geographically and online. Geographically we put it in Stockholm so it would be easy for people who never heard of this to join us. We also made all the scenarios available online so people could download them after the festival. We therefore told all the writers we wanted their scenarios written down and then put them on the website. Most are in English, and some are in Scandinavian languages, so it is easy to download them here:
We selected the scenarios we thought were the best in the world, but also tried to get a variety. We also wanted to start a local scene of writers so it also required that the writer be at the festival, which of course limited the choice of scenarios. The reason was that we wanted potential writers to interact with the writers at the festival, realize that it wasn’t that hard to write a scenario and do it themselves in the future. In addition to the selected scenarios we wanted new local writers and did a call for rising stars to write scenarios. The selected ones we mentored and helped. In the end we had six new scenarios at the festival.
Why scenarios? What are they, and why is this event showcasing them?
The reason that I work with scenarios is really the same as when I worked with A nice evening. I like the type of scenarios that have a focused and tight story to tell you. These are usually what we call freeform scenarios. Larps generally are freer with several stories going around in the game and it’s more random what your story will look like. In a freeform it is planned and you have a game master that will push your experience to the max. However, there are great larps that have succeeded in combining this. For example the larp Just a little lovin’ did this beautifully by having a strict story frame around the freer areas of the games, thereby giving what happened in the free areas meaning.
Tell us about notable scenarios being run at the Festival, old and new. Have there been some surprises?
The Journey by Fredrik Åkerlind is interesting because it is such a stable scenario that no matter where you play it, it always seems to be a success. I think this is because the design is so stable. As a player you get a pile with 26 papers that each represent a scene and describes how your character sees it. Then you just play out the scenes, and as a game master you tell the players to turn the page when the scene is done. This makes for strong design that stays the same no matter the group.
I would also like to mention scenarios such as Sarabande and White Death. They both worked with communicating through physical expression rather than talking. Both ways of communication are of course important, but sometimes I feel that we get very focused on our mind. We get very academic, and talk a lot, and therefore lose the expressions of our bodies. Hence, I think it is important to experiment with different techniques on how to incorporate other types of communications, and they both do that.
I also like the two-hour scenarios such as Previous Occupants and Summer Lovin’. Previous Occupants is about possessions and ghosts, and Summer Lovin’ is, as I already said, about festival sex. They are easy, straightforward, and easy to use to introduce new people into because of the clear themes and shortness. Easy fun.
Finally I’d like to mention all the great jeep-scenarios that we brought to Sweden. You can find them all on jeepen.org and they are generally great and of high quality.
Speaking of jeep, you are a member of the Jeepform collective, an influential design group that has promoted Nordic freeform, using the meta-techniques you’ve talked about (such as inner monologues and flash-backs during live play) and focused on games with real world psychological and social realist themes (love, grief, elvises, etc.). You’ve brought this up in various ways, but how has Jeepform influenced your work, and what relationship does it have to the Stockholm Scenario Festival?
The jeep is a collective so what the people of it do – that is the jeep. In the case of the festival it was Tobias Wrigstad, Fredrik Åkerlind and me who are all jeepers that were the judges of the synopses of the rising stars. The two of them, plus the jeep Frederik Berg, were also coaches of the rising stars. Tobias Wrigstad was also involved in the creation of the festival. So of course the festival was jeep all the way.
As for me what I do is usually very jeep, and I’m promoting a focus on a tight story to create a great role-play experience so of course I enjoy being in a collective where people do the same. The jeep Tobias Wrigstad is also one of my favorite creative cooperation partners. We have worked together on many occasions, from Knutpunkt, to A nice evening, and now the festival. We argue and we disagree, but we create great things and I always enjoy it. So of course he is a great inspiration to me.
There is some interest in seeing something similar happen on this side of the Atlantic. Do you have any advice for budding scenario or freeform event organizers?
Just do it. One of my inspirations for this festival was visiting Dreamation and the US and seeing the great work that Lizzie Stark does. How she imported a lot of the Nordic scenarios and just made people play them. By doing gaming weekends at home and visiting conventions etc. I thought that if she can start a freeform/jeep-tradition in the US, so can I in Sweden.
But an idea would be to do as we did. Choose some already written great scenarios to start off the tradition with. It can both be from the Nordic tradition and from things written in the States. Choose scenarios you want to promote and for people to take inspiration from. Then you can do a festival of already written scenarios, which simplifies a lot the first time. One of the intentions with making the scenarios of Stockholm Scenario Festival available online was also so people such as you could reach them if you wanted to. I felt people needed to be able to get in touch with more than the jeep-games. So begin small, and then grow from that, and best of luck.
What happens now?
I don’t know. Let’s see. I find that with growing older and my work taking more of my time, it is harder to do games than when I was a student. But of course games are a special part of my life, so let’s see. If nothing else I’ve got a full spring with the Swedish larp convention Prolog, Knutpunkt and finally Fastaval ahead of me.
- A character from the fantasy books the Belgariad by David Eddings. ↩
- A nice Evening with the Family (17-19, 19-21, 21-23, 23-25 august 2007) was created by Anna Westerling (project management, game design, directing, literary compendium) Anders Hultman (project management, game design, directing, economy), Tobias Wrigstad (game design, directing, web), Elsa Helin (game design, directing), Anna-Karin Linder (game design, directing, music), Patrik Balint (game design, logistics) with the help of a team including of Caroline Andersson (logistics), Fredrik Axelzon (directing), Martin Brodén (directing, literary compendium), Torgeir Husby (graphical design), Caroline Holgersson (directing), Olle Jonsson (web), Johanna Koljonen (translation, proof-readling), Alex Kjell (logistics), Daniel Krauklis (directing), Malin Neuman (logistics), Sofia Nordin (proof-reading), Fredrik von Post (logistics), Natalie Sjölund (graphical design), Erik Stormark (logistics), Karin Tidbeck (translation), Elli Åhlvik (logistics), Emma Öhrström (directing) and Joel Östlund (directing). Swedish translation: “En stilla middag med familjen”, Sec, Sweden. Financial supported by Allmäna arvsfonden, Nordic culture fund, Stockholms läns landsting, Sverok Stockholm, Sverok Svealand and Gunvor and Josef Aners foundation. ↩