(So, yes, I’m so far behind on this blog now that it’s not even funny any more. But! Maybe writing about Fastaval, which has only just now happened, will inspire me to catch up a bit.)
What is Fastaval?
It’s a games convention that takes place in Denmark, every year over the Easter long weekend. It has a strand relating to boardgames, and a strand relating to ‘scenarios’ – these can be anything from tabletop RPG via freeform to chamber larp. They tend to be rules-very-light, and use metatechniques to build narrative etc. This area of game design has been very influential on chamber- and blackbox larp over the last decade or so.
I went along to Fastaval in 2016, but for some reason I don’t seem to have written about that on here. Anyway, it was great! And I went again this year, and that was also great!
I had written a scenario called Trauma Ward, which I think of as a chamber larp even though the players don’t actually move around during it. It’s about four men who are in hospital recovering from major surgery, and while they are immobile in bed, they start to talk to each other. (I’ll put it up on my website shortly. More details here.
Trauma Ward got run three times over the course of the convention, by myself, Johannes Oppermann, and Janne Räsänen – many thanks to them! – and also thanks to Muriel Algayres and Bjarke Kronborg, who were in line to GM further runs had there been enough players. It sounded like all three runs went pretty well, and the players that I spoke to seemed to have enjoyed the experience and got something out of it. So that’s good!
Other stuff that I ran
As well as Trauma Ward, I ran two other scenarios:
The Black Pill
By Tayler Stokes. The Black Pill is about incels – four young men, in Florida, who progress through increasing anger towards radicalization and the need for ‘restorative violence’. Painstakingly researched and pulling no punches as to its subjects’ beliefs, fantasies, and habits, this is about as extreme and grim an experience as I have ever been engaged with. I really admire the players for taking part wholeheartedly and without holding back. And Tayler for writing it! Afterwards we had a long and rather depressing discussion about the subject, and then needed several large drinks.
By Jon Cole and Kelley Vanda. The Abortionists looks at the lives and practice of three women who perform illegal abortions in Chicago in 1972. This one is also a powerful experience, but positive and life-affirming – about sisterhood, awakening, confronting the tension between one’s beliefs and one’s way of life – there’s a lot of good stuff to think about. And it’s nicely structured to mix the physicality of the subject matter – the necessary embodiment of the abortion work – with discussion of the principles driving the workers.
Stuff that I played in
And then I also played in four things:
Ghostbusters by Gaslight
By Muriel Algayres. I had been meant to run this, but a combination of player numbers and my voice not working meant that I wasn’t able to. Fortunately that didn’t stop me playing it later in the convention. Ghostbusters by Gaslight is pretty much what it says – the premise of the Ghostbusters films, relocated to a steampunky Victorian London. It plays out pretty much as a storygame, with a mix of talky scenes (larped) and action scenes (played out with a simple narrative-card system). Nice character relationships and development of personal story arcs, all in a knowing tribute to the classic Hollywood three-act structure. Lots of fun!
By Thor Fejerskov Jensen and Marie Oscilowski. Queen Bees looks at schoolgirl rivalries in the traditional American high-school setting – bitchiness and one-liners, oneupmanship, parties, proms, and trips to the mall. This was a lot of fun, but for me it didn’t quite fire as a play experience. Partly I think because at the start we were each playing three different characters, switching between them in a succession of very short scenes. These gradually got whittled down to one character each for the closing scenes, but to me it felt like no character got enough spotlight time to become really interesting. Still a very enjoyable experience, though!
To the Bitter End
By Bjarke Pedersen and Lizzie Stark. To the Bitter End is a two-player card game about the establishment, and breakup, of a romantic partner relationship. You and the other player play through a sequence of scenes, with suggested behaviour prompted by action cards. I found it an interesting design – it really showed how quickly we can build a ‘relationship’ that feels very powerful and precious, and that it really hurts to lose. There is an obvious comparison to be made with 183 Days, also a two-player card game about the establishment and breakup of a romantic partner relationship… the games are similar in many ways, although where 183 Days focuses on one particular storyline, To the Bitter End is a bit more general-purpose and allows the exploration of different relationship dynamics.
In the Shadow of the Forest
By Rasmus Troelsen. In the Shadow of the Forest is a coming-of-age story, about four young men in the summer between leaving school and starting college. Tests of friendship, drama, tough choices – it’s a straightforward and familiar kind of structure, playing out conversations in pairs and as a group, or with NPCs. What I really liked about this scenario was the atmosphere: the descriptions of the small town and its surroundings felt astonishingly lifelike and evocative. It was a light and warm feelgood experience, and a lovely note to end the convention on.
Fastaval is an interesting event, from a UK viewpoint – we don’t have anything like it (and I suspect that no-one outside Denmark really does). It’s a convention for several hundred people, run on a volunteer basis, every year since 1986 — and every participant is a volunteer, and makes some sort of contribution to the community effort. The organizing committee (‘The Bunker’) is large, and refreshed on a kind of rotational basis – so the structure and details are able to evolve in response to needs, while retaining the overall flavour and feel. And it lasts for five days, which is a quite intense experience. My first time, I hadn’t quite appreciated this, and I went at the gaming and socializing quite hard – with the result that I got completely exhausted. This time around, I paced myself a lot better!
From a game design point of view, what’s impressive is the tremendous spirit of encouragement of creative novelty. Successful designs, structure, techniques etc are rewarded with acclaim (and with actual awards, in a Oscars-like ceremony on the last evening). A lot of the story tools invented for Fastaval scenarios have come through into larp, helping to move it forward from simple linear narratives to the complex storybuilding experiences that we see today.
For more details, it’s well worth taking a few minutes to read this article. It may make you eager to take part!