“Hat ein einziges [Werk] seinen Zweck erreicht? Haben sie das Rad aufhalten können, das unaufhaltsam stürzend seinem Abgrund entgegeneilt?”
–– Heinrich von Kleist

When we finish a book, exit a movie theater, let the record needle hit the center label, we might ask ourselves: What did this experience mean? Am I moved? Did the work of art “do its job,” so to speak? Did I “get my money’s worth?”

Regardless of the capitalist-consumer ideologies underpinning these questions, I find them fair and valid in some cases. Our time on this Earth is precious, and we must process what we have done with it.

Photo by Åke Nolemo, JaLL 2013

Photo by Åke Nolemo, JaLL 2013

So I say with utmost seriousness that Just a Little Lovin’ (JaLL), a five-day live-action role-playing (larp) event about AIDS and cancer in early 1980s New York communities, counts as one of the best aesthetic experiences I have ever had in my life.

The content was meaningful and moving, the form elegant and carefully conceived. In a time of mediocre, mass-produced entertainment, we occasionally encounter such gems as Mad Max: Fury Road (2015) or China Mièville’s The Scar (2002) that deploy well-worn tropes in new and spectacular configurations which can still reach beyond our media-disciplined masks of irony. As a product, JaLL certainly ranks among them. But as a larp, JaLL also has the capacity to exceed them. Finding the words to describe that excess has been the task of the past 2 weeks after the game. Annika Waern offered a few after her experience 3 years ago:

“The level of rich and complex storytelling that went on in JALL was amazing. Almost all players have stories similar to mine, or even more powerful. The characters became rich and complex, far from any stereotypes, even though most of us had spent rather little time preparing them prior to the larp. Our relationships were equally complex and varied, ranging from uncomplicated or conflicted friendships, over the loving jealousy between myself and my former boyfriends true love, to intense passion.”
–– Annika Waern (2012)

When writing reflection pieces, we may feel  that they do not take a specific position, but simply neutrally “self-express.” But this is a comforting lie we tell ourselves to get the words out. Our testimonies always have a telos. We write with purpose. I am placing my purpose on the table, out here in the open. My words below contend that JaLL – a work that has now been produced 4 times across 3 different countries – is a game of exceptional quality design, that it created a character arc for me that mirrored socially realistic decision trees and emotions, and that this arc became what it became thanks to a persistent dialog with the other players and characters, which the design forced upon us. The result was a conversion from an artificial community into an actual community, the kind that so many movies and other media promise us and also frequently fail to convincingly deliver. The game was designed for care and justice. I will start with my design remarks, then move into my particular character’s story (yes, I will be telling you extensively about my character), and conclude with discussion of the important feedback loop between the event, player, character and actual events beyond the mere diegesis of the larp. This will be a long, possibly unforgiving read. You were warned.

JaLL’s Design

Here is the vision statement for JaLL:

  • All participants will experience the three main themes of the larp; desire, friendship & fear of death.
  • The organisers shall make the participants feel safe enough to step outside their comfort zone, both as larpers and as human beings
  • The larp will be of high and professional quality both practically and artistically

By “design,” I mean two different equally important elements: scenario design and production design. The former refers to the written scenario work done by Tor Kjetil Edland and Hanne Grasmo, the latter to the real-world, logistical implementation by Flemming H. Jacobsen, Anna Emilie Groth, Helene Willer Pilronen, Petter Karlson, Rasmus Teilmann, Sarah Cederstrand, Alex Uth, Jakob Ponsgaard, Naya Marie Nord, Nicolai Steffensen and so forth. Neither really functions independently of the other: workshops and character orientation content can only be done if time and space allow for it, players can only play if they’re fed, the decorations and configuration of the site make sense when they fit with the July 4th “feel” in the design documents, etc. And JaLL is a well-oiled machine in part precisely because its mechanisms work so well in tandem with each other.

The JaLL scenario design is widely known, and borders on being completely transparent. The players take on the roles of attendees of three consecutive July 4th parties held in Saratoga, NY in 1982, 1983, and 1984 — NYC gay marketing magnate Mr. T’s guests, the guests of his lesbian secretary Pen, and the Saratoga Friendship Pact, a hippy community of cancer survivors. This motley crue must then face together three nights of partying and mutual pleasure… each followed by a Lottery of Death the next morning, a meta-scene that determines who is infected by or dies of the incoming pandemic known as AIDS. Tears are shed in abundance at the characters’ collective funerals, and the support networks within the gay community re-shape themselves around fighting the disease. We all know from history that this would mark the burial of the 60s utopias and a whole generation of leftist gay performers and activists who might have otherwise helped repel the toxic advances of Reaganism.

The production design in the Denmark run actively supported the scenario design. A full day of workshops and warm-ups helped the group of strangers adjust to the culture shock of the 80s and pretend to be longtime friends. Sound design was carefully attended to in each space: the discotheque, the dining room, the black boxes, the funeral field. Fourth of July decorations could be left up between acts, their gawdy candor testifying to us that this summer camp in Denmark was, in fact, the ever-patriotic United States. Pepper’s Diner, catered by larpers in character, worked around the clock to keep the dinners fresh and distinct across each year and the dietary needs of the players quietly addressed. The dance party every night was an actual dance party, with character attractions otherwise replacing player attractions on the dancefloor.

Several aspects of the design have been (and should be) mentioned as exemplary. Actual sex and drugs were forbidden during the larp, meaning that players had to own responsibility for every action their character took. Breakfast at Pepper’s Diner was sometimes an awkward affair. Every character was embedded within a core, intimate group and a broader social group, along with a network of potentially non-superficial relations. In play, a player-character who had a drama-filled core group could then lean on her/his social group for stability or vice versa, whilst drawing out new emergent connections from the party itself. This permitted us to form clear social goals for the party – “I’d like to get to know Reginald better!” “If Beverley brings up my past affair, I’ll bring up hers.” – while also affording us a safe space.

Structured, ritualistic events and black boxes helped maintain a sense of player agency. Every night of the party, one could count on the raising of the flag, the drag show, the dancing, the green drink at midnight that may intensify or reverse character behavior, the awkward late-night heart-to-hearts. Though anything could happen within it, such structure permitted players to plan their evenings and react to subtle changes over time accordingly. If players wanted to reinforce or explore certain elements of their characters’ stories, they could wave a feather and invite others to a “black box,” rooms outside of the diegesis that permitted one to play out the past or one’s fantasies. Players were invited to read all the characters before the larp if they wanted, permitting vital information to be communicated even before the absolutely transparent player workshops began. In end effect, one had no excuse to sit around and look bored, despite a general lack of intrigue, mystery investigation and violence – staples of most larps.

The gestalt effect of the game’s design promoted player agency, risk-taking, and mutual care. We produced an approximation of the 1980s with all kinds of anachronisms, and that was OK. Players could steer their plotline the way they wished, but always in dialog with the other players as co-creators. The physical safety of the game let players take emotional risks, which then came back to haunt them at the character funerals. The constant stream of information between players and characters led to an environment in which everyone could take care of both player AND character without fear of in-game consequences. After all, we were playing to lose… and then be uplifted. Let me use my character’s story as one example of the above.

 

Tony, Day 1

Tony, 1982. Still rocking the disco.

The Ballad of Gay Tony … the DJ

Originally an organizer character in the first three runs of the game, Tony was my top pick among the characters on offer for this run of JaLL. I do DJ work on the side, and know generally how to move crowds with music. This would offer me a chance to finally reckon with the music of the 1970s and 80s — to get to know how that historical transition from disco to Duran Duran. I wanted a character who could draw on my natural tension between playing what the crowd wants and my personal, fairly esoteric taste.

As a character, Tony both fit me like a glove and posed me a number of challenges. The character rewarded me for deep study of the gay New York and popular music scenes, having me download and listen to over 300 tracks from ABBA to Yazoo. My own knowledge and appreciation of music for its own sake could be sated. The character’s challenges came in the form of his personality and social being.

Tony was designed as a melancholic introvert, something I generally don’t play, who also is supportive of others but not emotionally communicative – he likes to pretend everything is cool when it really isn’t. It’s fairly straightforward for me to play a character who lies to himself, but ultimately such characters are sometimes of limited utility in reaching out and providing others play opportunities. I’m used to telegraphing my thoughts and intentions far and wide, so that other larpers can hatch their plots and act on the information they’ve been given. As far as his social being was concerned, Tony starts the game as a gay man in an open relationship with a younger gay man, Francis, and his sexual history with the others  at Mr. T’s party runs fairly deep. Though I’m bi, I have been in a monogamous heterosexual relationship for 13 years and thus had to come to terms with being in an open relationship that was at least meaningful as we both went off and hit on men. My lack of interest in a jealousy plot around said relationship actually became a major driver of Tony’s narrative, as you’ll read below. Finally, Tony’s longstanding presence in the club scene meant that he consumed a serious amount of drugs, also something not in my own lifestyle, which caught up with him as the 1970s faded into the cold, hard 1980s.

The music is weaving
Haunting notes, pizzicato strings
The rhythm is calling
Alone in the night as the daylight brings
A cool empty silence
The warmth of your hand and cold gray sky
It fades to the distance

– Ultravox, Vienna

Who is Tony? Born in 1950 in Manhattan and raised in the Village by liberal parents who worked at NYU, Tony experiences a fairly cushy upbringing, such that his coming out at 16 is seen as “no big deal.” He finds himself watching from down the street as the Stonewall protests took place, and becomes accustomed to playing the Velvet Underground and Jimmy Hendrix everyone was requesting at the emerging gay bar scene. In 1971, Can’s Tago Mago hits the shelves and Tony is now obsessed with crazy European avant-garde music, experimental electronic soundscapes, and Krautrock. After some time spent shooting heroin while listening to outrageous music, he cleans up a bit and plunges some gathered funds into his record collection. By 1975, he owns his own store, Tony’s Records, on Bleecker St.: pop hits in the front room, bizarre and psychedelic imports in the back room. Pepper’s Diner, another gay-run establishment, is located just down the street and is his favorite dive to grab an omelette and meet interesting men. During this extroverted period, he befriends Daniel, one of many lost new gay arrivals to the City, and shows him the scene. They are best buddies briefly until Daniel meets and starts dating Larry, another local. The relationship does not seem healthy by Tony’s standards, but Daniel abandons Tony as a friend instead of listening to him. Around the same time, Tony finds Artie, a flirty idealist who turns out to be not the best of boyfriends but is the greatest of close friends. Hook-ups within the gay club and nascent drag ball scene describes Tony’s sex life through the 1970s.

In 1978, Tony begins filling in as a weeknight DJ at the hottest nightclub in New York: Studio 54. All the drugs, money, attention and cock he wants are suddenly there for him, and he certainly takes advantage of it. New gigs spring up for him, from small-time basement clubs to hip parties held by Mr. T. This employment (thanks to club promoter Sorrento). These gigs boost the ego of an otherwise sullen, gay record peddler, and he gets increasingly ambitious in his sets and purchases for the record store. His risks are rewarded. Business booms. So does the drag ball scene, and it is there where he meets the energetic Francis, a modern dancer from a rough background and aspiring queen. After Francis loses his mother to heroin in 1980, her death propels him into Tony’s arms. Tony is unused to keeping a long-term partner, but his undeniable empathy for Francis pushes him to commit to him as part of a supportive, open relationship. Francis in turn brings Tony into the fold as a volunteer counselor for gay youth at a local shelter, which means talking to teenagers about suicide prevention and finding gay-friendly places in New York to live and work. Daniel, who reappears in Tony’s life as part of the drag troupe Club Diamond in which Francis sang, helps get them an apartment together in Soho across the hall from him (as well as the dancer Reginald and the misfit Trevor). Success seems to reign in Tony’s romantic, artistic and commercial lives. Life is good.

1982: Mr. T invites Tony to DJ his July 4th party in Saratoga, NY. Tony, Francis and Artie had attended the previous year’s party and remember it as an orgiastic event with lots of drugs and hook-ups. They are definitely up for it again, even though there were a bunch of Saratoga cancer-survivor hippies also in attendance. Nevertheless, the Studio 54 crew gets right to business at the start of the game by doing coke on the cabin’s tables and setting up an awesome disco party. After hanging out at dinner with the band Urban Renaissance (containing Tony’s crush for the first night, Rain) Tony and Francis go on a “date” to the tantric workshop, a hippy affair which leaves them unimpressed but mutually amused. They have to part ways early in the evening to do their respective jobs: Francis preparing the drag queens and Tony readying the stage for the queens and the party afterward… while also doing coke with the writers Eli and Jerrod, among other things.

The evening’s performances include music from Mary Lou, a singer-songwriter, a striptease by the go-go dancer Chain, and a poetry reading by Abner, a pretentious professor who had been dating Eli, one of Tony’s old flames. Urban Renaissance take the stage and rev up the party for Tony, who then brings on all the Studio 54 classics. During this initial phase of dancing, Francis comes up to Tony to ask for permission to sleep with the neighbor Reginald, who just rocks the evening with his interpretation of Irene Cara’s “Flashdance.” Tony gives them his blessing, and they disappear. At midnight, the party collectively imbibes green drink, a weird herbal concoction that (mechanically) forces JaLL players to intensify or reverse their play. Francis comes to Tony with guilty feelings after his hook-up with Reginald: he may have inadvertently damaged Jerrod and Reginald’s supposedly monogamous relationship. Tony spends the rest of the evening keeping the party stoked and introducing other party-goers to coke. At one point, he asks for a piece of paper from Abner to use for snorting, and Abner gives him a poem… which Tony gladly uses. Nevertheless, along with Tony’s debauchery comes the suspicion that disco is dying, that these days will not last. Melancholy sets in.

Music playlist for 1982:

• Earth, Wind & Fire – “Let’s Groove”

• Sister Sledge – “He’s the Greatest Dancer”

• Gloria Gaynor – “I Will Survive”

• Sylvester – “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)”

• Musique – “In the Bush”

• Shalamar – “Right in the Socket”

• Man 2 Man – “Male Stripper”

• Miquel Brown – “So Many Men So Little Time”

• Modern Talking – “Brother Louie”

• Donna Summer – “I Feel Love”

• Yellow Magic Orchestra – “Rydeen”

[DRAG SHOW AND PERFORMANCES]

• Donna Summer – “Bad Girls”

• C.J. & Co. – “Devil’s Gun”

• Vicki Sue Robinson – “Turn the Beat Around”

• Blondie – “Call Me”

• Donna Summer – “Love to Love You Baby (Giorgio Moroder Mix)”

• Yazoo – “Goodbye 70’s”

• Prince & the Revolution – “Erotic City”

• The Pointer Sisters – “He’s So Shy”

• Madonna – “Borderline”

The next morning, Tony is up with several of the monied gay men, Bruce and Artie among them, gossiping. They reach the conclusion that most of the relationships they had known of the previous night had dissolved or were severely on the rocks. Breakfast see Artie, Francis and Tony recruiting potential volunteer counselors for the shelter, including Chain and a quiet young guy named Ike, whom he also interviews for a potential job at his record store. Then he sits listening to his more experimental records in the empty disco with a rotating cast of other listeners: the spiritual Joani, the gay father Lester, the art photographer Micky.

The Lottery of Death hits on schedule after breakfast. It gives many a brush with the afterlife, and takes two of us — Max and Sinclair — away. Tears begin to flow already, even though we as players barely know each other. It all seems so very unfair.

Between July 1982 and July 1983, more knowledge of the “gay cancer” that took our friends’ lives becomes available and the volunteer counselors, Tony included, become the de facto people disseminating it. AIDS is now known as a CDC-recognized epidemic that doesn’t just affect gay people. Yet few in the community respond rationally to this information, which makes for intense awkwardness. Tony abruptly turns from counseling 16 year-olds away from suicide to conducting full-blown youth HIV prevention seminars, a process which slowly takes its psychic toll on Tony. It pains him to watch the adult New York gay community not listen to the latest medical data as the teenagers did.

In the fall of 1982, two crackheads mug Tony within a block of his store. They only take $20 and rough him up a bit, so Tony never tells anyone about it. But the city that had given him so much suddenly assumes a darker look. Tony’s style changes to suit it: black leather, studded gloves. His taste in music also shifts: Italodisco replaces disco, British new wave and synth rock putting the 1970s to rest.

Tony 1984

Tony keeps the party going. Now in leather.

1983: Tony, Francis and Artie come to Mr. T’s party as the HIV crusaders, armed with data on how the disease spreads and whom it kills. No one wants to talk about it, however, and arguments quickly erupt. Much of Francis and Tony’s social interactions revolve around how busy they’ve been this year and how much they still have to do to keep afloat. But old habits die hard, and Tony is soon back to snorting lines, popping amphetamines, and trying to forget his troubles.

Club Diamond has a bigger line-up this year, also with more complicated acts. During the show, Tony fumbles a bit on account of having done too many drugs and being under high pressure from all sides. Many of the acts bring down the mood, such that Urban Renaissance has a tough time sustaining the party –Tony later gets chewed out by Urban Renaissance’s manager for permitting such downer acts. Tony, Daniel, and Francis abscond to a lounge to engage in a post-drag show threesome. This sexual retreat turns out to be the high point of Tony’s story arc – a moment of reprieve with two handsome men about whom he cares deeply. Due to Tony’s DJ responsibilities, such a moment had to be carefully pre-planned and pre-arranged, but when it happens, time seems to stand still and the intimacy shared makes a lasting impression. It is a good thing that he’s enjoyed a moment of quiet, however, because the party itself has become very tense in the meantime.  Intense arguments flare up on the patio outside the discotheque, and Mr. T testily demands that Tony get back behind the decks and get the music flowing again. Tony complies, though adding a touch of darker music (Coil, Soft Cell, Depeche Mode) to reflect the overall mood. After the party’s participants imbibe the green drink after midnight, Francis tells Tony with rapture to play whatever music he wants, which takes him to New Order and The Smiths, as well as to stripping off his mesh shirt (as “Topless Tony”) and tearing up the dancefloor with Soft Cell’s “Sex Dwarf.” Studio 54 bartender Enrique hands him a pile of uppers, and he switches to disco again. A particularly moving moment is aging disco star Leon’s reprise of his only hit single “I Was Made For Dancing,” in which the singer collapses in despair two-thirds of the way through the performance and Tony has to prop him up.

Music Playlist for 1983

• Klapo – “Mister Game”

• Giorgio Moroder – “Chase”

• Michael Jackson – “Smooth Criminal”

• Salt N Pepa – “Push It”

• Afrika Bambaataa – “Planet Rock”

• Silly – “Mont Klamott”

• Ultravox – “The Voice”

• Fleetwood Mac – “Go Your Own Way”

• David Bowie – “Suffragette City”

• Tangerine Dream – “Phaedra”

• Duran Duran – “Hungry Like the Wolf”

• Freeez – “Pop Goes My Love”

• Sylvester – “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)”

• Chaka Khan – “I’m Every Woman”

[DRAG SHOW AND PERFORMANCES]

• DDR TV – “Aktuelle Kamera=Titel”

• Coil – “Clap”

• Devo – “Whip It”

• Michael Jackson – “Beat It”

• A Flock of Seagulls – “I Ran (So Far Away)”

• Prince – “When Doves Cry”

• Jessica Williams – “Queen of Fools”

• Mr. Flagio – “Take a Chance”

• Frida – “I Know There’s Something Going On”

• Patti Smith – “Gloria”

• The Smiths – “Handsome Devil”

• Soft Cell – “Tainted Love”

• Yazoo – “Don’t Go”

• Talk Talk – “Talk Talk”

• Adam & the Ants – “Whip In My Valise”

• The Cure – “Lovesong”

[GREEN DRINK]

• Joy Division – “She Lost Control”

• Man 2 Man – “All Men Are Beasts”

• Gary Numan – “Metal”

• Duran Duran – “Save a Prayer”

• Dead or Alive – “You Spin Me Round (Like a Record)”

• Depeche Mode – “Master and Servant”

• Soft Cell – “Sex Dwarf”

• New Order – “Blue Monday”

• The Flirts – “Danger”

• Leif Garrett – “I Was Made for Dancing”

• Donna Summer – “Hot Stuff”

• Musique – “Keep On Jumpin'”

• The Weathergirls – “It’s Raining Men”

• Madonna – “Like a Virgin”

• Gloria Gaynor – “I Will Survive”

• The Village People – “Y.M.C.A.”

• Duran Duran – “Girls on Film”

• Marvin Gaye – “Sexual Healing”

• Donna Summer – “Last Dance”

• Bauhaus – “She’s in Parties”

The next morning, Tony awakes, still high and out of sorts. Fortunately, the drag queen Marcus is ready with a joint and a kind word, and Francis, Artie, Ike, and Chain are there to keep pulling counselors into the fold, though it’s an intense, uphill battle. To loosen everyone up, Artie, Francis and Tony make public plans for an awesome party trip to San Francisco. Hope crawls its way back into the room, a bit.

During the second Lottery of Death, Francis’s name is called, and Tony tears up and can’t stop bawling for the next 20 minutes. Thankfully, Francis is spared Death’s cruel scythe (meanwhile: Reginald, Rain, Barbara and Lawrence are not). Tony suddenly feels hollow inside. I realize that something must have come between Tony and the others in San Francisco. As a player uninterested in a jealousy plotline who also wanted Francis to explore a budding relationship with Daniel, I steered Tony into the nascent drug addiction hell he was already headed. What better way to shield one from the psychic pressures of dealing with the AIDS crisis?

Tony’s 1983-84 is the hardest year of his life. The caseload at the volunteer clinic becomes insane. Studio 54 is still a hip spot, but its days are numbered. The record store presents its usual hurdles. The San Francisco trip turns into a nightmare – Tony reconnects with an old acquaintance heroin dealer at a party, a transaction happens, the pain vanishes, and Tony is nearly comatose on the plane ride home. Francis, whose mother was taken from him by heroin, is dumbstruck. Within the next week in November, Tony leaves his old life and responsibilities behind in favor of glorious heroin: he closes up the shop, squirrels away the records he likes, and vanishes from the lives of everyone around him. What happens over the next 6 months is fairly hazy, but predictable. He puts his remaining things in a storage unit under a pseudonym, takes up residence in a basement with 3 other men, and they spend their days shooting up and making sure everyone’s fed and not dead. Needles are shared, and frequently. Tony hits rock bottom in a drug-fueled vision of his own creation, a dark city under the waves called Black Atlantis ruled by African slaves who jumped overboard en route to America. There he moves slowly, compressed by great weight, listening to distant music through the wall of water.

The day when Tony swims up from Black Atlantis is when one of his fellow addicts sent out to get food doesn’t make it back, instead dying in a Burger King. Tony receives a vision from Black Atlantis releasing him from its bondage, and promptly moves into his storage unit with his records and starts the detox and rehab process. Part of Tony’s rehab process is apparently to scrawl cryptic poetry with his shaky hands.

Unsure of re-approaching Francis out of fear of traumatizing him, he instead turns to Sorrento and his contacts at Studio 54 for work. Sorrento obliges him, and Tony is back to spinning disco hits on weeknights, although now clean of drugs and totally dependent on the DJ gigs and occasional incognito bussing of tables at Pepper’s Diner to keep himself afloat. In exchange, Sorrento has his ex-flight attendant sister Ellie apprentice under Tony, so she can learn the trade of DJing. He complies, since he is thinking of exiting Studio 54 for Club Diamond anyway, assuming he and Francis would be able to patch things up. Ellie is a proper “fag hag” in the nicest sense of that derogatory term: a straight woman who adores hanging out with gay men like Tony, and an enthusiastic protégé. To pad the Studio 54’s meager earnings, both Tony and Ellie are dealing coke and amphetamines despite Reagan’s “War on Drugs,” made all the more ironic now that Tony doesn’t do them anymore. Somehow word gets to Tony that Mr. T would like for him to do the July 4th party again, and he finds the necessary garb and records among his remaining belongings to throw a proper party. But before he heads up with the Sorrentos to Saratoga, NY, Tony reconnects with Artie and goes with him to get an HIV test.

Tony sits in a darkened waiting room surrounded by other nervous people, his hand in Artie’s. The wait is excruciating. The risk factors are damning: unprotected sex with many different male partners over the last 15 years, and recent sharing of needles with fellow heroin addicts. The verdict: Tony is HIV-positive. 2 days later, Mr. T’s 1984 party begins.

Tony and Ellie

Tony and Ellie

Tony shows up to the party with his DJ assistant Ellie, already full of trepidation about seeing people whom he abandoned for drugs during the past year. Immediately, Daniel and others seize him and ask him how he’s been. Tony is evasive, but assures those in the know that he’s on his methadone and ready to put the past behind him. And hey! he’s still at Studio 54, right? Everything is as it should be. He takes Ellie aside and talks about how they will deal drugs to their potential customers, and to make sure to ask for some kind of payment later (earlier, the drugs were always free). Meanwhile, he pulls out his little black notebook every now during this awkward first hour and jots down a few unrhymed lines of poetry from “Black Atlantis.” Embarrassed at the introvert he’s become, he leaves them around the party for others to find, and disavows their creation.

Black Atlantis

A Black Atlantis poem that Tony wrote and placed somewhere.

With awful secrets bubbling up inside of him, Tony finally takes aside Ellie and Chantelle, the Hi-NRG singer, and spills the beans. He tells them he is HIV positive, that this might be his last party, because next year he would be dead. They immediately comfort him and give him some advice: make this night a night to remember AND take care to do some drugs, but just not downers like heroin. Then Ellie and Tony snorted some coke, and Tony got his groove back. Still avoiding Francis (while sharing longing glances with him across the room many times), he also tells Artie about the situation, which means that word travels fast about Tony’s condition. Suddenly, he feels the embrace of a community that he didn’t even know he had envelop him.

The drag queen (and other) performances in the 1984 party are both fantastic and compelling. Everything from a Sappho poem to a lesbian fisting demonstration to a group sing-along to “(Sing If You’re) Glad to Be Gay” and “I Will Survive.” A guest Claire reads a statement about HIV and Tony follows up by asking the crowd to safely get laid, in a way coming out about his own HIV condition. As Francis (“Lady Francesca”) gets up to perform, Tony interprets his address to “his love” (now Daniel) as meant for him and starts to sulk. The dancing that erupts after the Urban Renaissance concert is intense and heartfelt. Everyone out on the dancefloor wants to be there, and stays there. Sorrento and the other Studio 54 associates do their job to keep the party rolling.

After the green drink is imbibed, Tony cautiously approaches Francis and then breaks down sobbing in his and Artie’s arms. “Can you help me find a place to sleep?” he asks without a hint of dignity. “I live in a storage unit and I barely make enough to eat.” Artie and Francis embrace their estranged friend in his sorry state, and encourage him to keep up the good DJing. He and Ellie do some more coke, and then Tony throws down a set to remember from the various records he brought with him. Bruce tears down the house with his singing to Queen’s “Don’t Stop Me Now.” At one point, Tony approaches the mic and sings along with Shannon’s “Let the Music Play.” Anyone will give Tony a hug, anyone who needs to cry or celebrate with him, does so.

Music Playlist for 1984 (Reconstructed from Memory – Sorry!)

• Casco Presents BWH – “Livin Up”

• Michael Zager Band – “Let’s All Chant”

• Bananarama – “Venus”

• Madness – “Our House”

• Queen – “I Want to Break Free”

• Creedence Clearwater Revival – “Have You Ever Seen the Rain”

• Bananarama – “Cruel Summer”

[GREEN DRINK BREAK]

• Cerrone – “Supernature”

• Laura Branigan – “Self Control”

• Miami Sound Machine – “Dr. Beat”

• Deniece Williams – “Let’s Hear it For the Boy”

• Shannon – “Let the Music Play”

• Pat Benatar – “Love is a Battlefield”

• Cyndi Lauper – “Girls Just Want to Have Fun”

• Madonna – “Everybody”

• Diana Ross – “I’m Coming Out”

• Nena – “99 Luftballons”

• Rocky Horror Picture Show – “Time Warp”

• Queen – “The Show Must Go On”

• Patti Smith – “Summer Cannibals”

• Fleetwood Mac – “Go Your Own Way”

• Shannon – “Give Me Tonight”

• Amii Stewart – “Knock on Wood”

• Sister Sledge – “We Are Family”

• Genesis – “The Brazilian”

• ABBA – “Thank You For The Music”

• Tangerine Dream – “Speed”

• Teenage Jesus and the Jerks – “Red Alert”

• Negativland – “Track 10” from Negativland

The final five tracks of the night, well after 1 am, contain their own story. Tony announces the last track, and then shocks the party with an entirely instrumental piece by Genesis: “The Brazilian.” Shaking from a night of mixing coke with methadone, green drink and his fear of dying a lonely death, Tony walks onto the dancefloor and begins a sort of gyrating vogue dance. At a climactic point in the song, he is suddenly overwhelmed by the moment and collapses in tears. But Daniel is there to catch him and lift him up, hoisting him aloft and giving him strength to pull himself together. This moment was likely the closest I’ve ever come as a player to experiencing something “transcendental” in larp, and the song will never be the same for me again.

Ever the party master, Sorrento addresses Tony: “Come on – you can’t just end the night with an instrumental song! Try ‘Thank You for the Music’ by ABBA.” Tony obliges him. The gathered company almost immediately links arms, sways back in forth in a circle and sings the melody in unison. The magic continues, as if we had become a collected bundle of raw nerves ready to be moved at the slightest prompt. Intimacy and fear of death fade into the kind of collectivity so many musicals and dramas seek to emulate, yet fail to achieve.

Once the song ends in a round of applause, Tony sends away the crowd with three avant-garde tracks representing his personal taste. Micky, with whom he had listened to similar tracks on a prior morning, comes to sit on the couch with Tony and bask in the sonic pleasures of Tangerine Dream, Teenage Jesus and the Jerks, and Negativland. Eventually, Ellie sees the HIV-diagnosed DJ overindulging himself, and orders him to bed. He obliges her too: lifting the record needle, stopping the decks, cutting the power, packing up his records, and walking out the door, briefcase in hand.

The next morning, Tony is his usual social self and gets to go through his usual routine: picking up cans, gossiping with Bruce and Artie, eating the delicious breakfast from Pepper’s Diner, talking to Ellie about the art of DJing, and getting some more words to Francis and Daniel, listening to his music in solitude before attracting Chantelle over to him and having a moving heart-to-heart conversation. Having made his peace with both losing his friends and death itself, Tony sits down with Ellie and Sorrento and waits for the Lottery of Death. Hank, Enrique, Leon, Evelyn, and Ike are taken, Tony and all the others are spared, though many, many partygoers bear the lethal sentence of the HIV virus. Tears flow all around, and we close the curtain on the game itself as Dusty Springfield’s “Just a Little Lovin'” plays in the background.

A Feedback Loop to Die For

Why go through the thousands of words to tell you Tony’s first-person experience of the game’s events? Above, I wrote that the game helped me create

“a character arc for me that mirrored socially realistic decision trees and emotions, and that this arc became what it became thanks to a persistent dialog with the other players and characters, which the design forced upon us.”

I’d like to talk about these socially realistic decision trees and emotions and the persistent dialog among the participants. The decisions trees and emotions emerged from the very well-written characters, whose lives resemble those of people you might know and who are integrated with each other in such a way as to provide ample story options for the players. Usually, one found oneself between a drama-filled sub-group and a comforting other sub-group, and one could reliably go to each to experience those particular emotions. For Tony, his friends Artie and Francis were his safe haven, and Studio 54 was full of drug addicts and party-heads. Ritual and repetition within JaLL form an important foundation stone for player immersion, as argued by Sarah Lynne Bowman. But so does the predictability that such repetition brings. The players could anticipate future decisions, and play their characters accordingly, without shutting out options for emergent play (i.e., Francis and Reginald’s tryst, Tony’s crazy heroin binge) that lets one be surprised. Getting HIV in the game, for example, was a gift that changed all the decision trees in the third Act for the better – suddenly, I felt like I was experiencing the denouement from a 1980s melodrama or romantic comedy in my own flesh. Suddenly, I felt human and alive.

The persistent dialog among the players formed a feedback loop that cemented the players, characters and whole larp collective into a cohesive unit. Between acts, players could talk to each other about where their character was headed and the possibilities for action. Meta-level negotiation was encouraged, which also meant that one knew that as a character, one was being supported by the players around her/him. Especially in the third Act with the theme of “Friendship,” the player support and the character support began to merge, the intimacies of the earlier acts fading away into a jouissance of togetherness and raging against the dying of the light. Constant negotiations and dialog produced the feeling at the end that we all had known each other for a very long time, that we could probably accomplish great things together beyond this larp… if only we didn’t all have to go to work on Monday morning.

Aesthetic experiences can seep into our lives and change us in unexpected ways. For many people, this may take the form of Beethoven’s 7th Symphony or hearing the Thug Life album for the first time or seeing Inside Out (2015) and feeling understood. For me, JaLL and its participants have become a part of me, a fake Saratoga whose propositions produced real feelings, real community and real ideas.

Thanks for coming with me on this journey.

Metropolis

Players enact the city of Metropolis during the Intercon 2011 run of my eponymous American freeform game.

Quiet waves of change have rippled through the role-playing community. On Monday of this week, Lizzie Stark posted an introduction to American freeform on her blog, an entry that codified design practices we’ve been using here in the States since at least the middle of the 00s. As one of the numerous designers whose work she listed, I am both honored and humbled by having my work mentioned in a public forum. My own blog post here is intended to continue that discussion, leading into my thoughts on the development and current state of what we’d like to call “American freeform.”

American freeform games are hybrid tabletop/larp creations that share the following set-up: 3-12 players in a 4-hour-or-less game act out scenes related to a single, compelling situation, having transparent access to much or all of the plotline information and altering the flow of the game using meta-techniques. The game format prioritizes emergent properties of a given scenario over someone knowing more-or-less what’s going to happen in advance. In addition to the games that Lizzie mentioned, one might add Marc Majcher’s game poems or Luke Crane’s InheritanceThere are probably plenty of such games floating out there in the North American scene, but rarely do they get collected together and examined seriously in terms of their commonalities.

What do I already have invested in this hybrid format? Those who know me may have heard me talk of a book-length collection of freeform games that specifically treat topoi of German cinema. Films that have already received the freeform treatment from me include: Metropolis (1927)Run Lola Run (1998), the cinema of Uwe Boll and Silent Star (1960) / In the Dust of the Stars (1976), with future games planned for Marriage in the Shadows (1947), Three Good Friends (1931), Hard to be a God (1990), and (2011). Such mature, odd games were only conceivable as of late, due to inspiration from the unique Nordic larp forms that have evolved over the past fifteen years through venues such as Fastaval and Knutepunkt, carried across the Atlantic by figures such as Tobias Wrigstad and Emily Care Boss. In addition, I have co-developed several “parlor sandbox” games BloodNet and The City of Fire & Coin, which emphasize player agency (working in concert with others) and gamemasters’ improvisation abilities. These freeforms I have developed owe much to indie tabletop games, such that some portions of them involve not-insignificant levels of pencil and paper action. But one might also say that American freeform elements in my design emerged from a critical eye toward current practices in live-action role-playing in the United States.

My expectations for freeform games have significantly changed over the years. In effect, I have subconsciously desired the mechanical/narrative fluidity from indie tabletop RPGs such as Fiasco1,001 Nights, or Shock in the larps that I joined. But compared with either the indie tabletop RPG experience or the Danish freeform experience, most American larps weren’t really delivering the goods. (Negativity alert: if you want to dodge my rant, skip to the end of the paragraph) Instead what I typically got for my long hours assembling my costume and “getting into character” were these awkward intrigue parties where players were sizing up each other to do rock-paper-scissors or play some card from their game-specific deck of fun. In such larps, the gamemasters were the Great Concealers of Plot, such that it was hard for me to get cues as to how to behave or what direction to push other players. What I really wanted were genre (i.e., ship crew, fantasy, steampunk) larps, comedic larps and serious/dramatic larps that gave the players the tools they needed to make the most out of the experience, rather than larps that had you read a 10-page backstory for a character who will then flounder around in an unpleasant social void for a Saturday night. By contrast, the Danish freeform larps I had played were all about playing your character to the hilt in a tightly constrained scenario, but with few rules that genuinely propelled the action along. American freeform, simply put, satisfies my demands as both a designer and consumer of larp-y games.

The American freeform community no longer wishes to be treated as the exception, but to be taken seriously. In my years as a writer for the Danish convention Fastaval, I received feedback that pointed out how much I was doing something relatively outside of the bounds of their expectation. See, for example, this Danish evaluation of The Posthuman’s Progress:

The game is a daring adaption that insists on a radical decomposition of the traditional gamemaster and as a result is highly collaborative. The game design is somewhat influenced by North American gaming culture – using an analytical approach to explicate the necessary game-elements – and somewhat by a Scandinavian approach to game design – insisting on the possibility for the participants to intuitively find common ground through play.

What I could have used here was a primer on the American freeform tradition that would let the judges know how to see my work. What Lizzie has done is given voice to our in-between-ness, so that we will in the future receive evaluations that accept what we’re doing as part of a certain culture, rather than as some continuously rolling role-playing “experiment.”

American freeform is European-style freeform with American-style indie game mechanics. The word “American” is there to orient ourselves toward the international freeform scene, rather than colonize/exclude certain scenes that are within or outside our borders. The word “freeform” is there to say that these games are hybrids between tabletop and larp, such that we steal from both formats with equal aplomb. We want narratively rich games that let us rise up from the table and use our bodies to communicate things our voices and paper cannot. We want to welcome gamers of all backgrounds and identities to explore themselves and their emotions in a safe and supportive space. At the same time, we do not want to uncritically import the baggage of older larp traditions into our format, with their emphasis on player scheming and gamemaster-centric plotlines, though we do acknowledge our fundamental debt to these traditions. At the core of our game design lies the active emotional experience of the player, and the mechanics we design place the player experience at the very center of the game.

We have seen our fair share of criticism. There have been some long-term disputes in the online RPG community about what freeform is and how we should employ the term. Naturally, these debates were primarily about according proper credit to certain individuals for their artistic contributions and about the annoying properties of labels like “American freeform” or labels in general. There has also been a reactionary strain in discussions among larpers that this format has existed for a long time, and that they have already been generating games like this for decades. To these points, I would like to say that American freeform constitutes an inclusive community that neither stops at the borders of America nor seeks to co-opt other play cultures. Lizzie simply put words together to describe what characteristics a certain set of games share. Nevertheless, American freeform is in some respects definitely a set of a few individuals, mostly located in the American Northeast, and they appear from the outside to have a kind of hipster/scenester aesthetic. Do such attributes make the movement a worthy subject of attack? I don’t think so. I would like to remind the movement’s critics of the significant presence of women among our ranks. The typical American freeform creator is female, which makes me (perhaps unfairly) suspect patriarchal impulses behind some of the “controversy” we’ve experienced. There is a mass of gamers that would like to control what we create and play, and its designs are conservative and status quo. American freeform attempts to push beyond the status quo without sacrificing the player on the altar of our creation. Finally, the supposed monopoly on innovation that older larp communities presumably possess has not appreciably shifted the American larp culture into the space that American freeform games now occupy. The average U.S. larp still employs drawn-out combat mechanics, has no mechanical exploration of human intimacy, uses player/GM secrets as the primary narrative engine, and holds task resolution to be the focus of its rules. Little experimental larps here and there do not. a movement. make. What I’d really appreciate is if our critics were to actually play at least one of the American freeform games in question, rather than dismiss a whole format out of hand because they don’t “play that kind of game.” Trolls and jerks follow the road of dismissal; constructive critics do not.

Where are we headed? Well, looking at Lizzie’s list, American freeform currently appears to have its hands full adapting indie tabletop games to semi-live play. We’re concerned not only with expanding the scope of genre larps, but also with making space for larps to express the unconventional. Nevertheless, as awareness of the meta-techniques and philosophy of the American freeform movement spreads, we imagine we’ll see effects in not only established U.S. larps like One World By Night or Dystopia Rising but also across the Atlantic in Europe, where we now will be seen as coming from a distinct tradition. The point of the movement has always been to design and play more games, and not to waste time navel-gazing about what our collective goal might be. But I do fantasize of the day when I can walk into any larp in the States and see our holistic design ideals at work. Maybe that’s what American freeform is about for me.

So don’t be shy – play one of the games on Lizzie’s list, and let us know what you think!