In this article I will examine how the horror larp Post Mortem (Nordström & Eriksson 2006-2013) integrates cell phone use into the game design. It details in a step-by-step way how the campaign uses cellphones, from very basic uses to unexpected and new ways to integrate cellphone usage on many levels of game design. This article was written for the 2014 Knutepunkt book The Cutting Edge of Nordic Larp. The full version of the book is available online here.
Let’s talk about knives. In my family knives are a matter of family honor. We keep them sharp. Really, really sharp. Every time you use a knife’s edge, it dulls a little. It only dulls a bit, but over time, a knife’s edge wears down completely I spent a lot of time sharpening knives. It’s quiet work. Nothing flashy. Nothing innovative. Just sliding the blade over the whetstone, over and over again.
So, let’s talk about larp, about the quiet work the sharpens the cutting edge. Not the flashy stuff, not the innovative stuff, but the quiet and careful work that keeps the edge sharp.
When you look at a larp as participant it can be hard to see all this quiet and careful work work. You look at the game and see the complex end product, not all the small steps leading up to it.
Post Mortem is a horror larp campaign that been running for eight years. It is organized by Emmelie Nordström and Amanda Eriksson for Midälvariket. It tells the story of Post Mortem, a secret occult organization that investigates and handles supernatural threats. Each autumn the larp runs pervasively for about two months. The game format includes, three weekend larps, weekly events run as mini-larps, ARG elements and different formats of role play as play by text and tabletop play. The campaigns rules are simple, we show respect towards non-participants and we use safe words if needed.
How does this relate to sharpening knives?
Post Mortem uses and abuses whatever tool it can get its hands on to tell the story. Larping, tabletop roleplaying, freeform, phone calls, text messages, chat, video conference, in character forum discussions, books, audio recordings, artwork – you name it. Introduce a tool and the campaign will probably grab it and make use of it. No all of the tools are used at once. What formats and tool are used varies between events. Some larps are played out in public and strive for a 360° illusion, others are blackbox larps played in a local theater. Different meta-techniques are stolen, hacked, or invented to suit the theme of each event.
But one tool the campaign make a lot of use of during nearly all events and all types of play is cellphones. They are available, easy to use and is a tool all players already are familiar with.
Yet in a larp context cellphones tend to be an under utilized tools. I will look at what can be learned from how Post Mortem step by step sharpened it’s methods for cell phone use from very basic approach to a more complex and varied use.
Cell phones as a resource
Some uses for cell phones at larps are probably familiar: before a game, participants use their phones to get things ready, and after the game use them again to coordinate cleanup. During the game cell phones form a part of the game’s safety infrastructure by being available in case someone needs to make an emergency call.
Often the use of phones ends here. Cell phones are seldom used as active a part of the game’s design even in contemporary settings. Especially in horror larps, isolation and lack of information is often used to build tension. Cell phones represent both a connection with the outside world and an opportunity to share or find information. So at many horror larps, as in many horror movies, things are often set up so that cellphones don’t work.
In contrast, Post Mortem’s approach is to maximize cellphone use and see how it can be integrated into the game’s design. Post Mortem do this this by using basic cellphone functions everyone is familiar with, and do it without compromising ability to terrify players.
How to make phones scary
While isolation is scary, having someone you care about call you for help can be scary as well – especially if they are hyperventilating and sobbing on the phone. If the phone call doesn’t provide a solution to the emergency, it is just as likely to trigger fear and isolation. When you can’t help the person on the other side of the line, both parties are likely to feel more desperate and helpless. The option to communicate can also provide a player with a more active way to express their character’s fears in play.
For example, after my Post Mortem character was attacked I learned how I could use a phone call can add to the fear. I was injured, confused and traumatized. I managed to call a friend to warn her about what was happening. The person I called happened to be a three hour drive away from me, so while the scene was emotional and intense, she was unable to actually help me. The only thing she could do was to talk to me to try keep me from passing out before someone could find me. It was beautiful scene, and gave us a way to explore the feelings of vulnerability and shock that occurred after the danger had passed.
As for the information aspect: While horror is about fear of the unknown, an overflow of information can be just as disorienting and scary as no information at all. If you not sure what is true, don’t know how things fit together, and you have no idea what going on but only a thousand scary clues that you can’t resolve, then you will be scared shitless despite your abundance of information. The only thing you know for sure is that there is much you do not know. When you have a bunch of scared players calling each other on the phone, you have an overload of confusing and scary information.
The most-effective example of how unsettling an overload of information can be came when we had to split up to cover three different locations at once. When things started happening, the person acting as communication central got swamped because everyone tried to call her at once. That communication breakdown compounded into a second breakdown because each group started calling each other directly instead of following established protocol. In turn, this is made it hard for communication central to get information out to the right group.Things quickly descended into chaos where everyone had to rely on confused second- and third-hand information information and paranoia. By combining a high stress situation with a need for communication the organizers managed to create a situation where stress, miscommunication and paranoia spread among the players. Free, accessible communication does not necessarily provide any solution to stressful situations, it can also provide more opportunities for things to go wrong.
So, Post Mortem used cellphones to create horror, but didn’t stop there. Phones were used for a lot of other purposes as well.<
Extending the illusion
Post Mortem is set in an occult version of our modern world, so the most obvious thing is to use cellphones the normal way: calling people, texting, accessing stuff on the internet, taking photographs and recording sounds – both in and out of character.
This might seem insignificant, but it is not. At some larps, the game “ends” at the edges of the game area. You can’t uphold the illusion that there is an outside world beyond the bubble where you play the game. If you able call someone outside that bubble, it helps you extend that illusion.
At one point in the campaign a character took a head injury and things weren’t looking good. The characters realized they needed to call a doctor. It was empowering to be able to make that decision to call a doctor and then actually make the panicky phone call to an organizer (after notifying them by an out of character text). It made the situation feel so much more real that other players feared that the player had actually called a real emergency services line.
Being able to do that, knowing that the organizers expected and welcomed that sort of play, gave us a chance to react more naturally to what was going on. This was true both with regard to our inward emotions and the kinds of actions we could take. It also gave us the opportunity to face new ethical dilemmas. For example: would we call for help, even if it meant putting the ambulance driver and the integrity of the mission at risk?
We also used our phones to document the investigations. This turned out to be useful, not just for the character but for the game design as well. For example, photographic clues made it easier to inform other players what was found and it also made it a lot easier to research the stuff we found – like looking up the mystic symbols drawn in blood.
Our documentation also became a tool for the organizers. They could mess with the documentation and manipulate it. In this year’s campaign, one of the fictional elements used was that a owl would hunt a character in their last week of life. The organizers used photo-manipulation on photograph taken with a cell phone to include an owl sitting in a tree in the background.
We also used phones to record and play sounds, for example, we interrogated a witness and recorded the resulting interview with unexpectedly great results on one occasion. One of the players managed to record the whispering voices heard in a haunted house using her phone. The organizers were not aware the recording and been made. So, when the organizers suddenly heard the whispers again, coming from the wrong direction and after turning off the sound system, they nearly had a heart attack!
Out of character communication
There is always a need for out of character communication. Be if for practical reasons, like running out of toilet paper, planning for plot, or to obtain emotional support; cellphones were used for all of these purposes. They were used to tell a fellow player that you needed to have someone to sit down with, relax and debrief. Phones were used to alert the organizer that some element of the plot wasn’t working, or that larp was running out of toilet paper, or any number of other things.
Things happen all around us all the time
The opportunity to call and text people also had other effects. The campaign ran 24/7 for about two months. There were 22 players, and two organizers. Cell phones were essential to give everyone the intended pervasive experience that the larp was happening all the time, all around them.
During the bigger events there were always players that were unable to attend for out of character reasons. Often the absent player had the opportunity to participate by phone in some way. Characters would call them up for emotional support or ask them to research some clue we found on site. The absent player would in turn call or text the organizers for the information their character was researching and then the player could call back in character with the information they had found. This also worked the other way around. The absent player could suddenly get a message from the organizer with information about something that was happen to their character. This would give the absent player a reason to call the players at the event for help.
It facilitated 24/7 play in other ways as well. Sitting at work you could play out small scenes with your fellow players over text messages. Pieces of micro fiction going back and forth between players created moments of your character’s everyday life.
Super powers and bad feelings
Many elements of the game’s occult theme were helped by cellphone meta-techniques. As we were using our phones a lot in character to call and text other characters, cellphone meta-techniques could be used without disrupting the illusion for other characters.
For example, a character had a supernatural “spider sense” (that is,she had the ability to sense approaching danger), so when danger was approaching the organizers sent her a text message containing a number between one and five. One was a vague sense that something was generally wrong and five meant something going as wrong it could. The player that had the spider sense could then act on the information she got via the text message.
Another example was a character that was a mind reader. The way his telepathy was described was as though everyone around him were speaking their thoughts aloud, all the time. If your character was feeling or thinking about anything particular you thought the mind reader might pay attention to, you could send him a text message about it. Sweet and simple.
The organizers could also use text messages for different forms of shadow play and to give direction over the phone. Impulses, visions, dreams or just a push to get the plot moving, all of it just a short text away.
Limits of the tool
Phones are useful, but like any tool, they have their limitations. For example, even if text messages are useful for many things they are not truly instant. You need to find a moment to both read and write messages during the flow of the game. In a non-contemporary setting this is even more of an issue. A seer character at a fantasy larp can seek and be given visions over text message, but the players might want to keep the phone hidden most of the time and not check it as often.
Another concern is that unless you get a separate phone number for the larp, then in-character calls could intrude on your everyday life and you could get out of character calls during a game. Because everyone was aware of the problem of in character calls coming at a bad time, they accepted that players may just turn down such calls. In the case out of character phone calls intruding, the Post Mortem setting provides an alibi. Because we played members secret organisation, when an OOC call intruded players could always treat the call as if it were coming from a friend or family member that wasn’t part of the organisation to “maintain secrecy.”
So even if a tool has limitations you can work with the limitation. Sharpen the tool a little more, and you come up with an improvement that makes it less of a limitation and improves play at the same time.
Phones are like knives
Let’s get back to the knife’s point. This article was suppose to be about knives right, not phones? Except in this case a phone is a knife. Bit by bit push the phone game design element a little bit further. Make it a little bit sharper, until is as sharp as can be.
None of the individual steps are very flashy or innovative, even if the end product was. Each step was just a small improvement.
Using phones for in character communications is something many contemporary larps already do. Integrating it a bit further into the design helped extend the illusion that the game was going on beyond the game area. The intense phone contact between players both between and during events created a strong atmosphere that things were happening all around us, all the time. Documenting clues with out phones came naturally, and so did organizers manipulating those clues in turn.
Using phones for OOC communication isn’t exactly rocket science, but a campaign with a lot of phone use made the out of character communication flow more smoothly.
When you have a lot of phone use both in and out of character, using the phones for meta-techniques seem more natural. Soon you realize how useful cell phones are for everything from shadow play, giving character super powers, to pacing and directing the plot.
None of the steps taken were flashy or revolutionary. Merely sharpening the tool of Post Mortem’s framework for cellphone use resulted in its growing into something quite impressive.
In the end that is what makes the difference between a blunt object that barely deserves to be called a knife and something sharp enough for neurosurgery. I have no doubt Post Mortem will keep on sharpening the tool further and come up with all sorts of smart ways to use smartphone functions in the game design.
Elin’s knife sharpening guide for larps
Take a game design element.
Sharpen it just a little.
Repeat and keep on repeating.
That’s it. That is what it takes to sharpen the cutting edge. You sit down with the metaphorical whetstone, let the blade slide over it and lift it just a little bit shaper. Nothing flashy. Just careful quiet work. Just small improvements. But they add up over time. In campaigns you can track the improvements over time, but it is just as true for one shots. Any game design element can be improved. How you use the game area, how you write the plot, body language use, workshops, rules, character design, anything. You just just have to make it a little bit shaper.
The important thing for me is that improvement is about the small steps. That is why it helps to be reminded they are important and spending time on them is invaluable. Small improvements add up.