French larp: le GN français [X-Con]

Photo: Le Bal des Victimes, association Clepsydre, 2018. Photographer: Magali Babaud.


Summary: This article is the transcription of a presentation made in X-Con, a Finnish convention for larp designers, on October 27th, 2018. It is a work in progress about classifying and documenting French larp, mainly destined to form an exploitable basis for later research and researchers. X-Con summary: “Everybody has heard of Nordic Larp, and even though the local traditions in the Nordic countries differ from their famous relative, the communication between Nordic players, designers and researchers is dense enough to provide a steady flow of mutual influence in the Nordic and international scenes. Compared to that, French larp appears as largely unknown outside of French-speaking countries, despite several peculiarities that distinguish the French larp scenes from other European scenes, including their most notorious neighbour, Germany. Based on the speaker’s fieldwork as an anthropologist in training in France and Finland and on their experience as a French larper and occasional designer, Axelle will attempt to provide a global and critical review on French larp in a manner that could feel culturally relevant to Finnish larpers.”

Résumé : Cet article est la transcription d’une présentation faite à X-Con, une convention de larp designers finlandais, le 27 octobre 2018. Il expose un travail en cours qui vise à documenter et répertorier le GN français, notamment afin de fournir une base exploitable à de futures chercheuses.


For filmed presentation and questions, visit the X-Con Facebook page (about 2:11 for my presentation). For the slides, see here.

N.B.: Please note that Belgian or Swiss traditions, for example, aren’t included.


When I first came to Finland on June 1st of this year, I was immediately greeted on Laura Kröger’s larp Pyhävuoren perilliset, that many of you have played or heard about. For an anxious, first-time expat 36 hours from home, this was actually somewhat of a relief, because it felt like home… Indeed, I found out on this very first day that… [SLIDE2] Larpers gonna larp.

Not everything was similar, of course: and I marveled at a lot of things. First, the make-up! When I woke up on the morning of the larp and stepped into the main room, I was surprised to see about a third of the players already there, paintbrush in hand, working on elaborate looks with make up, contact lenses, and heavy wigs – to the point that I wondered how could people actually recognize each other from one larp to another: and, since indeed, most of the participants knew only a bunch of people in the larp, it is entirely possible that they would have played ten games together with too good a make up.

That too was a bit of a puzzle for me, and to be fair, has been ever since: the larp was an all-star session, with players from the six previous sessions attending, and yet, acquaintances were scarce among players. I come from Toulouse, a city in the South-West of France with roughly the same number of inhabitants as Helsinki, and if I go larping, even though I have only been larping some four years, I will likely know half the participants, and when I’m a ten-year larper, three quarter.

And indeed, most of the people there seemed to have ten to twenty years of larping behind them, and had reportedly started larping in their teenage years. Two questions arose from this. First, it seemed that, compared to France, larpers in Finland started playing a few years younger – small wonder I suppose when the youngest person I’ve seen on a larp here was a few months old, and the youngest player, only a few years old. Indeed, most larps in France don’t allow underage players, or at least players under 16, for safety and insurance reasons (the generous presence of alcohol on most traditional larps is probably accountable for something there) but also “just because” – except for a handful of youth summer camps, kids’ larps aren’t common at all and underage participants aren’t generally mixed with adult players. Second, I wondered: where are the newbies? And I’ve wondered a long time – actually, if you got any answers for that, please hit me up afterwards (NDLR; one of the questions, asked by Eevi, confirmed the difficulty to recruit new larpers, and asked for methods employed in French larp – I could only answer for my tiny subscene and community in Toulouse)

These are obviously just surface differences, observable at first sight: before digging into whatever French larp may be, however, I’d like to give a few dates and numbers to give an idea of the importance of larp in France. Indeed, despite it being a confidential activity, not very well perceived by the public and still bearing a lot of stigma from the moral panic (Laycock, 2015; Caïra, 2007), larp in France gathers quite a lot of people pooled up into many geographical and genre scenes.

Dates and numbers: measurements of French larp [SLIDE3]

There are accounts of larps being played in France from the early or mid-1980s. The term “jeu de rôle grandeur nature” (live-action role-playing game) or simply “Grandeur Nature” (now abbreviated GN) appeared early in the development of larps in France: a written use of the term “Grandeur Nature” is found at least in the second issue of the fanzine Chimère, in 1985. At this point, however, the concurrent term “Semi-réel” (semi-real) is also in use: nowadays, it has remained only to talk about hybrid games which make use of tabletop RPG rules.

According to FédéGN1, the French federation of larp (there is one!), there are about 800 larp associations in France in 2018 (209 of which are FédéGN members), while 7500 individuals purchased a larp insurance, either for a year (2500) or for singular events (5000), in 2018 alone. Considering that three quarters of associations aren’t members of FédéGN and therefore use different insurances, the number of active larpers is probably higher – although these numbers give a pretty good indication of the number of people involving in the activity. Compared to Finnish larp scenes, however, where it seems pretty common to play more than five larps a year, the majority (70%) of the players participate in one to five larps a year, likely around two or three. The number of players in each larp is most commonly between 50 and 100, and the average duration is a whole week-end: however, as we’ll see when we try to find our way through the different genres of larp, many more formats exist. Additionally, we can note that new players are frequently found, with the vast majority of larps counting more that 10% of new players. Last but not least, CoCoLarp (Collaborative Community for Larp), a comprehensive larp calendar fueled by the community, records 289 larps over a one-year period of time (from June 2017 to June 2018) in France, 215 of which lasted two days or more – and that’s only part of the picture.

If I were to make a health check of French larp, I’d say it’s overall doing pretty well.

But what is it doing, anyway? [SLIDE4]

(Yeah that’s my title) In order to make this presentation, I decided to follow the saying “unity is strength”, and to ask the community what they thought French larp was. Foolish of me! As you may have already guessed by the pretty astonishing numbers I just gave you, this is no easy task: and indeed, I may have been wiser to plan it an advance, but let’s face it – I didn’t. I can only now provide you with provisional results, but be sure that a lengthy paper will be made available as soon as possible to describe French larp in a more extensive and reliable manner.

First of all, then, a piece of methodology – and it’s perfectly okay for you to forget that now, it will all be detailed in our upcoming paper with the actual data. In order to document the current state of French larp, I decided to ask free-text answers on social media, taking advantage of the intricate larp network to get quick and detailed answers and allowing for respectful contradiction and debate. I isolated five genres of larp, about which I asked a number of questions which aimed at uncovering common representations of different larp traditions and scenes, while also relying on practical, more quantifiable elements. Many contributed to it, and with the help of other larpers I was able to obtain documentation for larp scenes and genres I haven’t been a part of: in a piece of a week, the five categories had turned into thirteen, not counting para-larp activities such as the very active trollball scene, airsoft, narrative escape games and serious larps.

I then proceeded to code the free-text data into numbers, identifying similarities and translating them into 1-to-5 scales representing thematic or structural dichotomies. The scales were detailed and sorted out by similarity, into five broader categories.

First, the format addressed practical issues such as duration, number of participants and fee, but also attempted to coin how wide the scene was (I classified genres as niche, mainstream or commercial), and how common it was for such larps to be run several times: indeed, although in Finland – if I’m not mistaken –, it is common for games to be run many times, it is only the case in France for a handful of larp genres, and the traditional, one-week-end larps are, as we will see, never run twice with the same scenario.

Second, the emphasis scales tried to determine if the different genres encouraged atmosphere over adventure, character over group, mystery over action, mental over physical, and finally, how they encouraged or discouraged the porosity (or bleed) between the player and the character; it also measured the expected level of aesthetic immersion and universe plausibility, i.e. how important is it for the diegetic world, the world in which the narration takes place, to be believable.

[SLIDE 5] Third, structure discriminated between larps with fragmented or homogeneous timelines (many larps, in France, are split into acts, scenes, or otherwise time irregularities) and spaces (black boxes, for example, allow for different places to be represented in a single adaptable game space), in-game or off-game resolution (it is not uncommon, for example, to pre-larp workshop the issue of a particular plot, or to work it out through role-play letters exchanged between two sessions of a campaign larp), and identified how much the game masters interfered during the game.

Fourth – I’m getting there, I promise –, the rules: is there minimal or extensive simulation, is the game more collaborative or competitive, are there workshops and, last but not least, is emotional safety handled at all – because yes, the notion of emotional safety has only started spreading in French larp for the past three years, and the majority of games still don’t even have a notion of safeword, due to deeply rooted preconceptions that larps are “just fun”, and than a hint of seriousness in dealing with people’s individualities and feelings would somewhat spoil the amusement. Now, in this moment you are probably staring in awe, feeling like you’ve traveled ten years into the past: honestly, I feel like that all the time and it’s clearly one of the reasons why I ended up here instead – but eh, I promise there’s still good stuff coming, we’re just having a little bit of trouble phasing in the modern larp scenes with the older ones, or, as we call them, “GN à papa” (which roughly translates as “larp of me’dad”).

Now, the fifth category is, I think, the one that’ll catch your interest most: the characters! In this category, we wondered who writes them (the players, the GM, or both in collaboration), what is the content of the character sheets (is it more quantitative, focused on skills, function, class, etc., or more qualitative, with a strong personal story and psychological depth), and how detailed are they, as well as the methods for casting players and their agency, as characters, to impact the narrative.

Indeed, there is a strong tradition of organizer-as-author in France, with the games only being run by the people who wrote them (with few exceptions), and a pretty mainstream conception that the game master (often singled out as the “main” organizer) is entitled to the last word of a story. The organization of a larp is generally very centralized, with a small team of people operating plot and character writing, logistics, communication, and propping alike – and it is often a bloody mess –: as a consequence, expectations on players’ commitment are lower than they appear to be in Finland, and the relationship and character building are left to the GMs, while the players mostly concern themselves with costuming, decor, and naturally, hyping up. Also as a consequence of low division of labor, larp associations in France often lack “professionalism” – as is only fair, as apart from one limited liability corporation and one debuting cooperative society, as far as I know French larp is volunteer work –, with rarely any communication outside of Facebook and mail, poorly organized advertising, and overall a quite ancient use of technology. In fact, if I were to blame French larp for one thing, it would be the constant reinvention of the wheel: the lack of communication between larp organizers, notably written communication but also events like X-Con which allow for sharing and spreading knowledge, causes every larp organization to basically start from zero every time. Initiatives to centralize information and make it available have been attempted many times, but have failed to reach the greater number of organizers.

Back to the topic: the typology! I will now quickly introduce you to the attempt that I made at making sense of an extremely varied and dispersed tradition, by means of a silly visualization I produced after spending twelve hours in a row staring at an abstruse table wondering why did I even start. [SLIDE6] (Please note that the labels on the trees are 1) now outdated 2) in English or in French alternatively with no consistency whatsoever, welcome to my brain)

French larp_ le GN français_SLIDE6

The tree structure is intended to suggest parentage between genres. You can already see, on the right, the big tree of Nordic larp and its French offspring, another big tree on the left representing the most traditional forms of larp in France and in the middle, a little tree corresponding to smaller, yet typical, larp traditions. I’ll introduce each bough in a few keywords, then move to the interesting part: introducing some of my favorite larps.

On the “traditional” larp tree, the one growing from the usual influences (wargames, TRPG, pop culture…), we can see

  • “Traditional” games, characterized by a duration of a week-end and a number of players comprised between 30 and 100. They focus on adventure, action, and competition.

  • “Meridional” games, a more “new school” version of traditional larps which places a greater emphasis on the character and make use of tools borrowed from Romanesque and Nordic larp (I’ll explain Romanesque in a moment). The appellation “Meridional”, by opposition to “Nordic”, follows an ironic suggestion made by Olivier Chiandoux in an article on the French website electro-GN describing the hybridization of traditional French larp with a Nordic toolbox.

  • “Mass-larps”, very long and massive games (more than 1000 players, about 5 days), competitive, with characters defined primarily by quantitative features.

  • “Wargames”, smaller mass-larps focused on row battles and physical confrontation (probably similar to the boffer scene here, of which I know very little about).

  • “Pressure” larps, such as horror larps, characterized by a high porosity between player and character (fueled by fear and adrenaline) and strong aesthetic and physical immersion.

  • “Ongoing games”, which started in the 90s with the very popular Vampire: The Maquerade, are games played over the course of a year or several months, punctuated with different sessions and in-game transmedia communication between players.

Only Pressure larps can ordinarily be rerun, although sequels are common for most of them.

On the “French Nordic” tree, we find

  • “Nordic”-ish games, which in France are characterized by a high player/character porosity (sustained by extremely short characters, given on the spot and workshopped) and universe plausibility, the care for emotional safety, the use of workshops and often fragmented in-game time and space. Importantly, aesthetic immersion is deemed irrelevant.

  • “Experimental” games are pretty similar, with a greater emphasis on character writing and more freedom regarding the themes.

Both are easily rerunnable, and communicate with some of the genres from the third tree, where we can find popular genres, such as

  • “Huis-clos”, approximatively chamber larps, which are one of the most common entrance point for new larpers. They are short (a few hours), unexpensive (often free, or around 10 euros tops) and accessible to debuting players, with a variety of themes and games. It is difficult to describe them precisely, as this is a hybrid category, mostly defined by its low access cost.

  • “Romanesque”! This very French genre of larp, named after the word “roman” (novel), was described by Muriel Algayres on nordiclarp.org as “games that are constructed as rich, narrative experiences, with pre-written characters whose rich backstory and psychology are the driving forces of the larp.”. In her paper, Muriel notes that it echoes the Finnish tradition of history-inspired larps: placing drama and intricate plots at the core of the game, with characters’ backgrounds a dozen pages long, they indeed resemble a certain part of the Finnish larp scene. They also increasingly borrow workshops and safety mechanics from Nordic larp.

  • “Institution” larps can stem from both Romanesque and Traditional, and describe larps placed in the context of a school, prison, asylum, or other institution. They are longer than Romanesque (usually a week-end or more, while the latter lasts one day on average), with a higher focus on mystery and adventure.

  • “Slice of Life” larps – my favorite – emphasize highly plausible stories and settings, with rich, ordinary characters, and a great player agency in the pursuit of their character’s mundane life. They encourage slow-gaming and deep immersion within the character, with an emphasis on relationships, similar as French cinema. They are often transparent, very realistic games.

That’s all folks! Let’s now take a more practical look at some French larps.

Examples

El hombre en la Sierra, 100 Balles et un Mars

El Hombre en la Sierra is a dystopian larp set in the universe of Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle, a science-fiction novel in which the Nazis won World War II and the world is now split between the Nazi and the Japanese empires. It takes place in the 60s, on the eve of a probable Third War, in a Latin America struggling with internal conflict and the heavy presence of both superpowers. It was designed and run by Willy and Manu with the association 100 Balles et un Mars in a community house in Bordeaux: for this, visual immersion was obviously not the main aspect of the larp. However, the designers produced over eighty pages of game material, drawing from the original novel, history, and dystopian twists to extensively describe the economy, political situations and power struggles in South and Central America. The tone of the game marked the hybrid character of this genre of larp, at the intersection between traditional games made for entertainment and more serious traditions of play: indeed, the larp explicitly associated a questioning of fascism and far-right ideologies, which they described with a high level of accuracy in order to provide a deeper understanding of our real-life political and social enemies, with more gamist and “fun” mechanisms of spying and supernatural elements. In order to be able to balance those contradictory elements, they carefully crafted each character according to what the player wanted or didn’t want to play, and made themselves available during the game for any off-game issue, despite running out of time in the organization and being late with some in-game elements. They also emphasized that everyone should be empowered to take a break in the intrigue or the game whenever they felt like they needed to step away from it: for all that, it was in my opinion an extremely safe and comforting larping environment, and one that represents the positive direction taken by French larp.

Documents and information in French on the forum of 100 Balles et un Mars.

Shadow Island, by Sébastien Duverger Nédellec

Shadow Island, a game written in 2014 by Sébastien Duverger Nédellec, is a whole different kind of larp, although it does possess at least one similarity: as the previous one, it is adapted from a world born in literature – the horrific universe of H. P. Lovecraft. No need to look for grand supernatural demonstration in this larp, however: it is explicit that this is, to its core, a family drama, and a dark one. Every character has a grim, deep backstory of their own: fifteen to twenty pages is what it takes to create elaborate, relatable characters for the players to involve with.

In 1927, a strange family assembles on the inhospitable island on which the defunct father, twenty years prior, decided to move in order to pursue some secret obsession. Tonight is the fifteenth anniversary of his death, and for the first time in years, William, the second son who had left the island on the day of his father’s death, is here. The game lasts between six and eight hours, with about an hour of workshops: the heavy, solemn ambiance runs from the first of the workshops to the end of the game. Silence plays a strong role: the game starts at dinner, and the family eats wordlessly – drowned by the deafening sound of thunder and the sea in a fury, which follows the characters everywhere during the game. At the beginning, a piano music loops for what feels like an endless time, and we are not allowed to say a word – the second Gnossienne, by Erik Satie. For me, the game was such a strong experience – I confess to having experienced my first and only true bleed out during Shadow Island – that when I heard the first notes of it played by Missy in an episode of Doctor Who, I was immediately thrown off my feet and had to take a long break to understand where did this music come from and why did it make such a strong impression on me.

The game is available in French on murder-party.org. Further reading by Baptiste Cazes on Electro-GN.

Entretien avec un tueur, by Julien Jouando

Entretien avec un tueur (Interview with a killer) is a two-player game created by Julien Jouando in 2016. It stages a meeting between Gabrielle Léocor, a clinical psychologist, and Emile Orla, a serial killer who admitted to be guilty of the murder of fifteen young women, whose bodies were all found in a cave in central France. Emile was declared legally irresponsible and placed in a specialized institution: Gabrielle had a hard time obtaining clearance to meet him, but now she’s here. And she has questions.

The game lasts about one hour and a half, including the workshops, in which some elements of the initial situation which were left at the appreciation of players (what is the operating mode of the murders, what is known about it in the press, etc.) are sorted out, and more intimate questions about the characters answered in silence by the players (for themselves). The characters are partially written by the players themselves ahead of the game, which forces the player to have a real, however unsettling, understanding of their characters. During the game, the killer is physically constrained by an (unattached) straitjacket: if he wants to drink, the psychologist must give him water herself in one of the two small, plastic goblets disposed between them. In the session I played, the game was set in a very tiny room, about the size of a small walking closet, with bare white walls and nothing in it but a table narrow enough for the killer to be able to reach the psychologist if he briskly got up – at least this is how I viewed it at the time.

Two-player larps are not uncommon in France, whether short, like this one, or longer, like Presence, a larp about long-distance relationships I recently wrote in English language (it has likely not been played yet). In most cases, the GM is either missing, or only here during workshops and debriefing. Entretien avec un tueur was played more than thirty times. The scenario is available in French on murder-party.org.

Les derniers jours du monde, by Lille Clairence and Vincent Choupaut

Les derniers jours du monde(The last days of the world) is a game run by Lille Clairence and Vincent Choupaut in September 2017. In a contemporary setting only altered by the announcement of the unavoidable collision with a gigantic celestial body, eight friends meet at one of their grandmother’s home to spend the last week of the world together, surrounded with books and the inescapable knowledge of their approaching death. Les derniers jours is a slow, transparent game, composed of three acts, “Denial”, “Depression”, and “Acceptance”. The first two acts are played in the evening, after a series of workshops dedicated to building relationships between the characters, practicing safety mechanics, and empowering players to read out loud excerpts of the books that their characters have broughtto the other players. In between the first acts, five days have passed: more workshops, individual and collective, determine the course of events. The third act, “Acceptance”, is played in the morning, after an in-game night’s sleep: as sun rises, the characters stare at the sky in an eerie calm, contemplating the last dawn of humanity.

This is easily one of my favorite larps: the immersive setting (an old house in a small town in the South of France) and intimate format foster character immersion, further sustained by the absence of meta-elements (no simulation or rules other than the players’ limits, which were workshopped beforehand and reinforced with a safeword for optimum safety and trust). The use of books as a medium to deepen the character’s psychology and to create contact with the other characters in game is also, in my opinion, a very clever design element.

Further reading (in French) on my blog: Avec la lenteur frénétique de l’inéluctable : ethnographie des derniers jours du monde.

Conclusion

In the limited time that was allocated for me today, I tried to present you with a quite diverse, although very subjective, vision of what larp is like in France: I realize, however, that it can be difficult to relate to it on the basis of a quick presentation. In my impression of having experienced both French and Finnish scenes for a short time, there is no real difference in the way that people play: if I was able to follow, with my camera in hands, a game played in a language I didn’t speak on the very first day that I arrived here, it is partly because the body language, expressions, and tangible insecurities of the players were similar to what I was accustomed to – it did feel like home.

On the contrary, there are great differences in the way the players prepare for the larps, and for this, I must warn you – if you play in France, which is, at the time, difficult without speaking French (but I’m working on it, as well as other French Nordic larpers), you should be aware that your personal expectations regarding aesthetic immersion and prepping might be higher that those of the other players. Indeed, the expected commitment from players seems lower in France than in Finland: notably, contacting other players ahead of the game to discuss the relationships, if quite common, is not as widely spread. It is, actually, not rare to arrive on a larp and spend two hours looking for your childhood friend, not recognizing them in the crowd… The game masters are the ones in charge, and are often trusted for the whole of the plots, relationships, and qualitative content. Furthermore, for many French larpers, aesthetic immersion, notably visual immersion, is just bonus: if the Romanesque scene counts many immersive games with beautiful castles, it is an exception, and one that is frequently condemned as elitist and bourgeois – most players would rather play in a dirty classroom for free than having to charge for a classy venue, and as it seems, their immersion is not perturbed so much by the lack of visual basis, as many French are very intense larpers and don’t need more than a good enough pretext to throw themselves eagerly in a game. Probably for the same reason – or just because French people seem to not make up nearly as much or as well as Finnish people –, elaborate make-ups are quite rare, and people with great costumes and makeover make no more than a handful of a larp’s audience, albeit met with admiration.

For those of you who like rich, psychologically convincing characters, however, I would advise to immediately jump in: there are, in my opinion, many extremely talented larp designers in France, and the quality of the writing, if nothing else, is undeniable. French larp is mostly still tinkering around, but I cannot keep myself from feeling a little fondness at that fact, as it sustains a – sometimes clumsy – friendliness and accessibility for unexperienced players. (Although this low access cost, I must admit, is highly dependent on the scene – regional or by genre – you play in, and there are many issues and missing stairs yet to be accounted for) Indeed, the larping community, or rather, maybe, the people who larp, is also, as in Finland, very welcoming and prone to take newcomers under its wings: not everything is perfect, but I still think French larp, in its hopelessly scattered diversity, offers a lot of creative and surprising play experiences – for better or worse.

1The informations presented here can partly be found on FédéGN website’s « Ressources et publications« , but some, such as the number of insurances sold this year, where given to me on my demand. They will be available at the end of the year 2018 in FédéGN’s activity report.

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