This is my official evaluation of Just A Little Lovin’. I also made more of a review for outsiders in danish and next is my story, so I’m going to assume you were there. If you weren’t and want to know more, then please comment with your questions or mail me directly at rivoclavis (at) gmail (dot) com. But this is for my co-players and the wonderful organizers: Thoughts on the game and play of the roles and my own part in it as a player and as Sterling. Please comment or ask questions as well.

Just A Little Lovin’ was by far the most intense experience of my roleplaying career, the sheer level of emotion and involvement is unmatched. I came a bit late to this sort of roleplaying, I haven’t been to many games like this as I never caught the bleed or jeep bugs. But still, I’ve been around a bit, just not this far out.

Signup and pregame

When I first heard of the game at Knudepunkt I really wanted to go, Monica Traxl had been filling my ears with the wonders of Mad About The Boy and I knew I had to go to Norway for a game. Plus it sounded like the big pan-scandinavian larp of the year. Unfortunately I had no money, so when I finally got my hands on spending money, I signed up in a heartbeat. It was a bit harrowing to be on the waiting list, not knowing my summer plans and I was all giddy when I got the OK mail from TK.

Signup was scary, prioritizing my play and character type. I went for a focus on love, because that is something I hadn’t yet explored in my previous games and I am always trying to expand my repertoire. If I’d thought it through I would have limited myself to a gay character, since it would have been easier to handle this kind of play with a hard difference from my own offgame sexual preference, but I’m happy now that I had to jump in the deep end. Still I liked how much you were forced to think about what kind of character and play you wanted, I’m used to much shorter and shallower questionaires.

Communication from the organizers was confusing at first. I don’t know what is assumed as standard in other countries, but I had wonderful help from Monica in deciphering the messages. Mostly it was about figuring out what level of work was needed in developing character background and costume and how much to plan ahead with the other players.

Character

I always have a lot of fun getting from written character to playable role. The written character was a bit oddly balanced in the background story and the five traits, but the relationship texts was for me the core to work from. I want to deliver the most interesting and dramatic relationships to those I play with, so that came to the forefront. The written Sterling seemed like a very consistent character, just not an entirely good dramatis personae. The problem was for me that the character was written as an introverted and timid type,* it felt too limiting on my play, so I changed that up quite a bit and made myself a new and more interesting personal issue as I neared the game. Shopping for costume and researching background knowledge was a lot of fun, instead of making stuff up I could actually use historical basis and that opened up new questions to answer about Sterling, questions that gave depth. It is a lot harder to do that in a purely fictional setting.

Workshop and player relations

I didn’t have a chance to go to either of the two official workshops, just the improvised danish second-hand one. It was nice to meet others and hear their views on the game, it took away a lot of my fears. Especially about the meta and sexual techniques, plus the hot seat rounds added a lot to the roles. I was pretty settled in the character when I came to the workshop, but it still helped.

Emailing with my close relationships was hard, where do you start? I’ve been wondering if you can set it up in some mandatory way from the organizers, but it’s probably something you have to be strong about as a player. In my core group we were all quite busy in the time up to the larp and didn’t manage to get a strong connection. It helped a lot though, to be able to facebook-stalk and get a picture of the player before the character. If I had to change one thing about my experience I would have insisted on more contact, probably via video chat or phone call.

Travels and arrivals

We had a lot of fun going from Copenhagen to Oslo on the ferry, nearly all the danish players went together. We did rounds of hotseat in the cabins and a couple of us tried out the characters at the discoteque. This was a natural habitat for Sterling and I really found my body language there, plus some practice in wearing sunglasses at night.

It was good to arrive a day early to the site and meet everyone. I really like the setup spirit, where we’re all working on the same goal. Also to catch my two romantic relationships and talk a lot more. A little thing that gave me a lot was setting up the sound systems, of course it would be Sterling’s thing for the event. Always nice to have a practical connection with the setting.

Briefings, downtime and debriefings

The briefings and workshopping on site were somewhat confusing, it felt like the organizers were overwhelmed by time, practical stuff and the players enthusiasm. But I liked the introduction excercises, it was nice to be forced to put words to some of the fears and hopes for the game and to get comfortable with physical contact among the players.

I’ve tried a game with a similar downtime structure once before and I really like it, it gives a chance to breathe and collect energy for the next act and check up on where the other players are and are going. It was good to have workshop content, something that the other game lacked, but I think everyone would have wished for more time to talk with each other. The free time just before game was too short for anything except rushing into costume and cleaning up the rooms. And the time set aside in the workshop part felt rushed and too short. Still we got a wonderful chance to make it feel like a year had passed and to create coherent stories for ourselves.

If there was too little time for the negotiations, there was nowhere near enough for properly debriefing. It was okay after act two, but the end of game debriefing was way too short for such an intense experience. I understand the need for cleanup and a party, but please make sure the players are forced to take time to talk it out afterwards and get their own faces back on. The party was weird, it was hard to see how far people were out of their roles and it’s really not the right place to get grounded again. Instead of sending people off as soon as they were done cleaning, make us sit out of the way and talk or something similar. I felt there was time for it, instead of sitting in Olso waiting to go to the party.

Meta techniques

I never got to use the feathers myself, no sex for me either. It wasn’t a big deal and I can only blame myself. I did do a couple of blackbox scenes, a first for me. It really is a wonderful tool, the montage of hiv-test results was a truly gruesome thing, TK was a wonderfully horrid doctor. I think it’s hard to set up a blackbox scene if you haven’t been in the mindset before. I hope to be able to take the initiative next time I get the chance at a larp and think up some ideas. Likewise with Cut and Brake, didn’t get used, but as Bjarke tells, they are there as an alibi to feel safe going further. I’d love to hear other players experiences with those bits I didn’t get to play with myself.

I went offgame a couple of times during the play, it was good not to feel ashamed for doing it. Especially after poor Johan had his seizure I needed to sort out what was character, situation and my own feelings. And I ended the nights of act two and three with Monica in the offgame area, talking about how our movies were going. It was a good tool to put some perspective on the thing, thank you Hanne.

The death lottery and funerary ceremonies were an emotional punch in the gut. The opening dialogue and funerals over the sea were quite beautiful, those poor angels or who they might have been. When the names were called, you just hoped it wasn’t one of your own people. But then you heard the cries and realized that someones life was just crushed. In the end I was just thinking over and over again “Stop, please, no more names, no more lives, please stop.”
At the funeral the first morning I was hammered with bleed and flashbacks to funerals of dead friends, it was so hard to get back to just playing a game. In a way it was easier when my own name was called, I entered a bubble and stopped thinking. Atleast until we entered the blackbox and read the names in the coffins, I was okay with lying down myself and just felt sorry for poor Sterling, but when Beatrice, my other love, lay down in the next one over it became all about her. When the lids were placed I didn’t give a damn about myself, just don’t take her! And again the horrid realization that someone else had to die because we didn’t. I’d like to know how the names in the coffins and who got the lid put on were decided, was it GM fiat or another random lottery? At any rate the lottery was random, but it did create some uncanny patterns: When first Kohana, then Sterling was called, it made perfect sense that Beatrice would be next.

For me these things happened in some sort of liminal space between character and player, it was too much and too abstract to deal with as just the character without opportunity to play. Cruel, ugly and beautiful rituals. They were handled with the gravity and taste needed, by TK and Hanne.

Structure

Each of the three acts really had it’s own theme, not just in name. The first feels like the weakest, but it was really a solid baseline. To escalate you need to start with a strong foundation and we got just that. Plus we all needed to get a feel for our relationships and the other characters in the game. We had time to establish what the traditions were and how the groups interacted.

The second act was chaotic and almost too dramatic in the moment. The fear and pressure really sparked off some ugly things, everything drowned in drama and conflict. I have a hard time getting a feel for what went on, everything was falling apart too fast. Afterwards I had a hard time seeing how the game might pick itself up again for act three, it just seemed so broken and as if all the interesting drama was played out.

Getting infected put everything upside down for act three. I don’t know where it might have gone without that, but it completely set the tone for my act. The players were tired from the dramatic play and the characters were tired from all the death and fear, it put a dampener on further drama. But the sheer awfulness of the whole situation made everyone try to be the best they could be. I’ve never seen this degree of positive play and mutual support in any roleplaying game, and it worked beautifully.

Acts one and two were confused and incoherent things, but act three tied them together in a wonderful story arc.

The morning breakfasts were somewhat slow and hard to be in character at, but a nice slow denoument to each act and fun to gossip at or just look at people being people.

Story

I won’t tell my story here, that’s the next post: Sterling’s Story. Suffice to say it was gripping, wonderful and bittersweet. Just what I had hoped for. I didn’t need to seek out or create drama, it just came naturally. Very little time without content, except for the first evening where I had to round up people to get the disco started. I had a lot of little interactions with people that felt genuine and meaningful even if they didn’t relate directly to the main stories. My story stayed in my core group all through the game and it had a different tone in each act, even if it stayed pretty much true to the drama designed into the characters. I know that they were written with an aim of a big breakup, but that just made it feel all the stronger for staying true to each other. The most important of my scenes were all underplayed on my part and it is a testament to the skills of my fellow players that they became so strong.

There is a forum thread for character epilogues, which I am staying far away from, I will neither post or read. I never liked doing epilogues for roleplaying, even when the game is written for it. I love open ended stories, the kind that makes you think and dream on. For me a game is like that, it’s only what happens in the actual play that is real. Besides, the whole third act was an extended goodbye for Sterling. I tried to give him the best send off I could. Not everything was resolved, but enough to give some hope. He might have died after or lived a long time, either is beautiful.

The players

I knew very few of the players before the game, even the danish participants. For me it’s always stronger to play with new people, you accept everything as character, there’s no obvious player level. It was rough with the close relationships though, as said above, I would have liked more time to get to know the players. Still, I managed to use it constructively in the game: The awkwardness really worked well in the disconnect between Sterling and his wife Chantelle and getting to know each other during the game made the last act one with a feeling of new/renewed connection. Overall I felt very comfortable with everyone at the game, it was a safe space to explore some powerful issues. It was a bit tricky to keep track of everyone’s names and places at first, but my character and the game setup made it a pretty forgivable offense. However it quickly felt like a whole bunch of old friends that you really cared for.

Genderbending

I probably had one of the most hetero-normative characters. Heterosexual and married, I had the option of “omnicurious”, but I didn’t feel the need to use it. I loved how comfortable everyone seemed at playing various new or extreme sexual orientations, it seemed quite natural to me though I never explored it indepth. If I get to play this or a similar game again, I’ll probably insist on playing that side of the game.

The girls playing boys (playing girls) were amazing. It was super easy to relate to the gender of the character and not the player. Two examples: Dancing with Daniel the first night, that beautiful woman was really a man. Also, Sam and Max played by Miriam and Johanna, both were very masculine, but Sam was obviously a woman and Max was one of the guys. I wish everyone could see how easy it is to cross those cultural boundaries and free the games from limiting reality.
At one point at the afterparty I tried to see if I could tell the real people’s sexual orientation and decided not to care, it’s all just people and roles.

Post-larp and bleed

Thanks to Tobias and Pernille’s workshop on de-fucking at Knudepunkt** I felt quite prepared for exiting the game, but damn it was sticky. The emotions had been so powerful and pervasive that I couldn’t face going home for real and I had to run off to be with people in Stockholm to keep sane. It was a wonderful trip and a nice way to wear myself out. I’ve also listened to the Dusty Springfield album I bought after the game a dozen times or more since the game to reverse the pavlovian reflex. I think a better landing right after the game might have helped, but it takes a lot of work to get over this sort of thing. It’s not unique to roleplaying, I can get similar things from movies, plays and books, it’s just a hell of a lot stronger when you were there with all of your body and soul. I think having such a clear story arc that I could close in the game itself made it a lot easier to leave behind, I quickly put Sterling in a box labelled “My beautiful friend from the eighties.” It’s good to think of the character in the third person after a game, get some distance and perspective.

The issue

I won’t claim to have any idea of how it must have been in the real world, but I have a better understanding and more respect for the horros of the AIDS epidemic. What really stayed with me was that everything Hanne and Emma told from the real world is so much more abominable than anything this game created. Roleplaying really gets the lesson under your skin, there’s no thing like it for teaching hard truths in a safe way. I’m also a lot more clear on sexual politics and how the little things you do can make a big difference for people, it’s something worth fighting for.

Conclusion

It was a truly powerful experience on so many levels. An amazing combination of story, relationships and setting that really worked for me. There were little things that could have been different or better, but most of it was drowned in the engagement and talents of the players around me. I’d like to thank everyone involved in creating this crazy, gruesome and engaging experience. This is what roleplaying is supposed to be like. Thank you.

*) I have a blogpost here (in danish) on the problems of introverted characters. I must say that my fears came to nothing in this game, through my co-players and the changes I made to Sterling.

**) Read their article about it in the latest Playground Magazine, go do it!

Reklamer