The history of the Danish roleplaying tradition

Here is my attempt to write up my impression of "the Danish Roleplaying Tradition".

It is not easy to define what the Danish Roleplaying Tradition is. Other than the fact that there is a community of people centered around the yearly game convention Fastaval that identify itself as belonging to that tradition. Each year, 15-25 scenarios are developed and presented at the game convention. Designed to be played only by reading the text, usually read in advance by a game master. The classical format is 5 or 6 players, one game master and 4-6 hours.

Other game conventions exist (e.g. Viking-Con), and scenarios are written also for these, but one thing makes Fastaval stand out: The Otto competition. Initiated in the early nineties as a pastiche over the Oscar awards, it rewards the submitted entries in different categories. The categories currently are: Best Scenario, Best Story, Best Mechanics, Best Characters, Best Presentation, The Audience Award, and the Jury Special Price. The Otto committee is composed by 4-6 volunteers from the community, usually previous contributors.

Due to the competition and due to the tradition to have people volunteer to run a game from the written text alone, there is much focus on presentation and communication of how to run the game.

The Danish roleplaying game conventions began in the early eighties. The first Fastaval was in 1986 and the first Viking Con was in 1982.

Phase 1: The age of systems
Up until around 1990, events at the game convention would be called e.g. the AD&D scenario and the Call scenario, being written for Advanced Dungeons and Dragons and Call of Cthulhu. Player characters would be defined by filling in the player characters sheets for these games and the scenario would be a mystery in the classic investigation & action genre.

Phase 2: Everything went basic - the coming of characters
At some point, player characters would get a back story and some predetermined relations with the other player characters. The stats for the characters would fade in the background, being stated more for flavor than for function. Scenarios would state at first that the system was “basic roleplaying” (1992), then they would claim to be “systemless” (1993).

Conflicts were roleplayed (i.e. player vs. player discussion) or determined by GM fiat.

Phase 3: Intrigues everywhere
Different genres would then evolve. A very popular one were intrigue games, where some or all of the session is played out with the players moving around in character and talking with each other and secretly with one or more game masters. The first of these appeared around 1994.

Semi-live would show up as an important technique, where scenes are set usually by the game master and acted out in characters by the players, but without costumes, and with a clear defined scene start and scene end. Sometimes symbolic props will be used (swords, guns, etc.).

Storytelling roleplaying (fortællerollespil) was another genre to appear (around 1997). Sometimes without a game master, games of this kind would present detailed characters with a predefined background and provide with a framing story in which the characters would tell stories about the past.

Extras roleplaying (bipersonrollespil) arrived around 2002. The scenario would focus on a tight story where all or all but one of the players would play extras. This works well for comedy with a very strict setup of scenes, and for drama focused on one central character.

The last genre to be mentioned here is the ensemble drama, where each player has multiple characters, playing out a story in the style of Magnolia or Short Cuts.

Phase 4: The rebirth of systems
Around 2003, the indie wave started being noticed in Denmark, gaining followers among e.g. people, who liked that they were allowed to roll dice and play a game again, rather than striving for character immersion and a strong game master to control the story. Up until that point, it was a strong opinion that rules and mechanics got in the way of pure play. You’d never talk about the game during the game – if you had to break out of character, you would break the illusion and ruin the game.

The Forge put focus on the narrative and the drama rather than simulation and physics. But also allowed this to be explicit in the game rather than something that the game master secretly did behind the curtain.

Scenarios were submitted that suddenly used cards and dice for distributing authority over the story differently between the participants.

Also, the jävla avant-garde Swedes would show up and present Jeepform as yet another style of play.

Comments

  • Seven scenarios that mark history

    Laaste døre [Locked Doors], Thomas Munkholt, 1994
    The first intrigue scenario. In a Kafkaic universe, a group of characters struggle to obey the system while keeping their personal integrity.

    Jisei, Kristoffer Apollo, 1997
    The first storytelling scenario. Four characters are meditating in a tee house before the samurai among them is going to perform seppuku. They retell the past, prompted by a game master, while looking into each other’s eyes.

    Arken [The Ark], Alex Uth, 1997
    Broke many of the unwritten rules of the time. Starting out with the six characters as gods in a fantasy world, they travel to another world to fight off the threat to their world only to find themselves trapped in the mind and body of a schizophrenic in a mental institution.

    Vågenat [The Wake], Jacob Schmidt-Madsen, 1998
    A story telling game, claiming the death of roleplaying. Each of the four players take on narrative powers representing the gaming styles of that time. Together they tell the story of the woman who is lying dead before them. Without game master, the session is driven by envelopes within envelopes that each reveal the rules for the next part of the game.

    Bondemænd og Biavlere [Farmers and Beekeepers], Frederik Berg Østergaard, 2002
    The first scenario in the extras tradition. A comedy that retells the days of the seventies when hippies moved to the country side and met the rural Denmark.

    A Day in the Life, Mikkel Bækgaard, 2005
    An ensemble story, where each of the four players portray three characters whose stories interweave throughout a single day in London, from early morning to late night. A game master sets the scenes and control the flow of the story. Drama and emotion are ensured by the tight setup of the predefined characters – however in each session, different conflicts turn out as the main focus.

    Det halve kongerige [The Half Kingdom], Tobias Demiduk Bindslet, 2005
    A prince is preparing himself to become the new king as his father lies on his deathbed. He travels the country in the company of the Queen, the Jester, the Wizard and the King, learning about the past and the country and ultimately defines the truth by retelling what has happened as he steps up to become king. The prince asks questions about the past to the other four who replies in turn by setting a scene that reveals the answer.
  • Thanks for doing this, Frederik. A couple of questions:

    Are any of these available in English? I know Mikkel Bækgaard had some components of A Day In The Life in English, but maybe not the whole game. Has your success prompted anyone to begin translation projects?

    What's the next big thing? What's going to be cutting edge at Fastaval this year, building on the tradition?
  • I really liked Felicias Fortælling - in fact, I didn't realize at the time how good it was. Perhaps because it seemed to flow so easily. Easily ranks among my best play experiences.
  • Yeah, this was really great input. I have read a lot of Danish games, (not really played one, though) but it was really nice to see this history in compact form.

    I should have been born a Dane.
  • "Vågenat [The Wake], Jacob Schmidt-Madsen, 1998
    A story telling game, claiming the death of roleplaying. Each of the four players take on narrative powers representing the gaming styles of that time. Together they tell the story of the woman who is lying dead before them. Without game master, the session is driven by envelopes within envelopes that each reveal the rules for the next part of the game."

    Wow. In 98. I remember LinCon... some year (like 2004, perhaps) when Frispel had their famous (for me) workshop on getting rid of the GM. They presented techniques similar to this. Their first really successful game along these lines came this year.
  • Interesting stuff. It's quite similar to the stages of French roleplaying though the French seemed to skip stage 3 and go straight to 4.
  • edited March 2009
    Frederick, this is great stuff. What do Danes play when they're not at conventions? Does anybody run these scenarios in non-convention environments? Do Danes do the house-con / mini-con thing that has become big among indie gamers in the US (inspired by predecessors like local AmberCons, I guess)? Has anybody tried to sell scenarios commercially or is it mostly a hobby environment where everything is shared relatively freely? Are most things distributed electronically or are there print versions? Does anybody bother with nice layout or are scenarios typically written in MSWord?
  • Posted By: svenI should have been born a Dane.
    *I* should have been born a Dane. Maybe Frederick and I are distant cousins. :)

    How popular were the White Wolf games in Denmark in the 90s? Did they have an influence on Phase 3 games? This period of 1994 - 2003 seems to coincide with the rise and decline of the Vampire LARP scene here in the U.S.
  • @Jason:
    The only scenarios available in English are Lady & Otto by Frederik Berg Østergaard - and then the Jeepforms and Montsegur 1244. The Norwegians and Swedes seem to have a head start on that. Translation projects have not been initiated on an organised level - but this year, a number of entries at Fastaval are multilangual.

    The newest style variation is the multiple gms setup: Two players play opposite poles that they try to push the story towards. There is still one master gm and then three players that portray the central characters.

    The general outlook this year is very diverse. With games from Norway, Sweden, Italy, UK and USA blending in with a rich selection of Danish games, I can't really point out a trend. One scenario even has a dungeon.

    @Jonathan:
    Non convention play is either one shots, running a scenario from a convention, or a more traditional campaign. People seem to like systems for campaigns, but not for one shots. A lot of people play DnD, but somehow it rarely manages to show up in the convention programme. I personally throw a few mini cons each year, inviting friends for a gaming weekend in my summer house. A few scenarios have been available commercially, but mostly they are available free for download from e.g. R'lyeh or Alexandria. Many scenarios have an astonishing layout, quite a number of people enjoy this work (perhaps even only writing a scenario to show off their layouting skills? :-) ). Brian Rasmussen has written a series on this on his blog.

    @Tim:
    World of Darkness gained its followers in DK - though I was not one of them, so I may have understated the influence. A number of Vampire, Wraith and Werewolf scenarios have been written, sometimes using only the setting, not the system. There were definately some years where we saw a lot of people with white and black make up :-)
  • Posted By: Frederik J. Jensen@Jason:
    The only scenarios available in English are Lady & Otto by Frederik Berg Østergaard - and then the Jeepforms and Montsegur 1244. The Norwegians and Swedes seem to have a head start on that. Translation projects have not been initiated on an organised level - but this year, a number of entries at Fastaval are multilangual.
    And I think this has to do with that the Danish scene is so strong in itself. we have a couple of groups in Sweden, (notably the Jeepsters, although they cant be seen as a Swedish group these days, since they have branched out) but there is very little communication between groups. "Novel" techniques are being rediscovered all the time, we fully lack the complete knowledge of our past, which the Dansih freeform scene obviously has. There are a couple of huge collections of Dnaish games on the net (luckily I can read them, even if it goes a bit slow). In Swedish we know have the Jeep guys, but everything else is in peoples harddrives.
    Posted By: Frederik J. Jensen
    @Tim:
    World of Darkness gained its followers in DK - though I was not one of them, so I may have understated the influence. A number of Vampire, Wraith and Werewolf scenarios have been written, sometimes using only the setting, not the system. There were definately some years where we saw a lot of people with white and black make up :-)
    In the traditional histiography of the Nordic "freeer" forms Vampire is usually listed as a huge influence and rightfully so, but I think that it might have been more important for the larp scene. I know for certain that many of the more influential art-haus larp-wrights started with WOD-larps.
  • Another huge influence in the early days that I completely forgotten: The Fastawood model by Ask Agger. Taking the Hollywood model for action movies and applying it to scenarios were actually an important step in having a more reflected approach to scenario design. You had to have a hook, escalation and turning points, a point of no return, leading to the climax followed by a denoument. This was introduced around 1993-4 and used in workshops.
  • The "Fastawood" model was introduced by Troels Chr Jacobsen at a scenario workshop in 1992, as far as I remember. I used it for most of my scenarios through the 90s.
  • @Frederik: Great summary of Danish styles (and thanks for listing my work as a historical influence :-). It's a funny coincidence, I've been thinking about writing an article about the Danish styles and their development for the past couple of weeks. I'll get back to it after Fastaval - I think there are a few more styles (or substyles) worth mentioning, and I'll try to add something about the whys and hows to the whats (for the uninitiated: Fastaval is just over a week away as of this writing).

    @Jason: I would say that the major trend at this year's Fastaval is fusion. Merging the styles and techniques of the Danish tradition with outside influences such as stricter rules-based mechanics or jeepform techniques. In fact, I think this has been the defining trend for a couple of years now - Danish scenario writers have looked at the indie wave with interest but not forgotten their own tradition, and so they have a whole bunch of tools available, and the challenge lies in picking the right tools for your idea and mixing them in the right way. I think the Fastaval scenarios will show that the results are getting better and better (I'm president of the Otto jury this year, so I've read the lot).

    @Jonathan: The convention scenarios are certainly played outside conventions. I know several groups with a long-running tradition of playing the best convention scenarios at home. The two sites Frederik referred to, R'lyeh and Alexandria, have a huge stake in this since they've made a whole lot of scenarios available for free.
Sign In or Register to comment.