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CZECH CHAMBER LARP THROUGH THE YEARS (PART 1)

Last year, a team of authors published a Czech collection of chamber larp scenarios called Check Larps. I wrote the introduction, focused on the specific features of the Czech approach to this format, and in the process, I realized that it would be interesting to look back on the history of Czech chamber larps in general. I was interested in looking at major shared features and intersections in their development, as well as important milestones. After all, there was a time when chamber larp was one of the main drivers of innovation in Czech larp and would often massively determine the shape of larp as a medium in the Czech Republic overall.

I will start my story in 2004 – in a moment. If I am to truly delve under the surface of history, I first need to make a short introduction of how we got to that point. I will not go into too much detail about the predecessors of larps in Czechia (others have already done that for me), so I’ll just mention the basics: Larp became a thing in the Czech Republic soon after the fall of the Iron Curtain, around the beginning of the 1990s.

At first, this mostly meant battle-larps or DnD party-style fantasy games, both outdoors and in urban environments, with participants going through sets of clearly given quests. Around the end of the 1990s, the first open world sandboxes appeared – larps which gave their players quite a lot of freedom in deciding what to do or not to do. This meant quite a mindset shift: It suddenly wasn’t enough to wait until the adventure and plot found the player; players had to look for it actively.

The first years of the new millennium saw a rise in political games and intrigue. This was especially salient in urban larps, where it was somewhat influenced by the prevalence of the World of Darkness setting, but outdoorsy sandbox larps were influenced as well. Production value and maintaining an all-around illusion of the larp world also became more and more important. And, perhaps in contrast to political larps where the point was to climb as high as possible in the game’s hierarchy, some authors decided to make their larps less gamist and focus on narrative experience.

As you’ll soon see, this trend went hand in hand with the birth of chamber larp – a format that markedly broadened the genre spectrum of Czech larp and made experience design much more conscious and deliberate than ever before.

The Czech Way

I will just add one more caveat related to the specific features of Czech chamber larp, in order to make sure international readers have the chance to be on the same page. Until the first chamber larps were created, there were basically no larps in the Czech scene that would have multiple re-runs. On the other hand, chamber larps were almost always designed to be rerunnable and some of them had over a hundred runs.

Since its very beginnings, chamber larps were always seen as works that belonged to their authors and that would be run almost exclusively by these authors. Publishing notes, content, and methodology to allow others to run them was extremely rare. Cases where authors would intentionally pass their larp to other larp runners were just as unusual.

A typical Czech chamber larp is non-transparent in its design. Roles are pre-written by the authors and do not change between runs, which allows the authors to control how the story developed. In the beginning of the game, participants have no idea about the goals and motives of other characters or future story developments, which allows them to play with secrets and surprise. The game runner generally does not participate in the game – at most they help the plot progress through non-diegetic (announcing new chapters of the story structure etc.) or diegetic entries (short-term entries into the game as an NPC).

EXPLORING THE FORMAT (2004-2006)

Chamber larp is just like any other kind of larp: we generally understand the label in similar ways, but any strict delimitation will always be imperfect. For example, if we look at the definition used by the Czech Larp Database, we can see that chamber larps are “larps that are generally played in one or two rooms, take up to eight hours and have up to 20 participants”. Needless to say, there are chamber larps that break one or more of these rules. But most importantly… wouldn’t this definition also fit to the Mafia / Werewolfparty game? Or educational games, like Humanus by the Czech Lipnice Summer School?1 And even if we stick to larp in terms of the authors’ intention, I don’t doubt that someone could find an old-school sandbox from way back in the day that would fit these parameters.

To be a bit more specific, we could add another condition: pre-written characters and plots. That symbolized a real milestone. In the first years of the new millennium, it was not at all common for an organizer to prepare the characters for their players. Let’s set aside questions such as how long the character needs to be or whether all the games we’ll mention really adhere to this tradition without any controversy. We simply need a starting point for our purposes. That doesn’t mean a perfectly accurate definition, but rather a point where this set of conventions started being formed and established. What we’re talking about is influence – the epicentre that ripples started spreading from. For us, this point in time will be 2004.

At that time, the organizer group Veselý Kopeček, formed by Tomáš Kopeček and Jindřich Stejskal translated Fire at Midnight, a murder mystery larp, and modified it for the Czech community. Its story was connected to the popular RPG Vampire the Masquerade, since its target audience was the community around urban larps organized by Court of Moravia (CoM), a Czech larp association based in Brno. A year later, the same pair of authors came up with their own sequel, and the Veselý Kopeček group also produced another mystery larp Překvapivý podezřelý (The Unexpected Suspect) written by Lukáš Veselý.

Pandora IX, 2007. Author: Tomáš Kopeček

All of these had several runs and in 2006, small-scale larps were already getting created in several places in Czechia and Slovakia – even though finding any connection or causality between them is difficult. VUML, a Southern Bohemian larp group, wrote a larp adaptation of a Czech mystical musical Tajemství (Secret). In Brno, a larp group called LED even ran their Bunkr Eugenika (Eugenics Bunker) in a real underground bunker. What both these games had in common was treading the line between larp and Experiential Education and the characters were quite minimalist, if there even were any. A Slovak group, Osobné Kakavo Production, organized a 12-player larp Gebäude 9 in 2006. It was set during the Nazi occupation of Slovakia and while it took place in a specific building by the Danube, an equal part of it was spent outdoors. There were also almost as many organizers and NPCs as players – which was in fact common with early chamber larps at this time.

Most importantly, in 2006, the abovementioned Court of Moravia took over the mantle of pioneers of the genre: first they created the fantasy larp Cela (The Cell) and soon after also Rodinná oslava (A Family Celebration). Cela could in fact easily serve as a case study to list the most common pitfalls that appeared in many chamber larps in the following years:

  1. Create an environment the characters cannot escape (prison, shelter from an external threat, locked doors, etc.).
  2. Revolve the plot around a murder mystery. If possible, add interrogations.
  3. You need several pages of information for everyone; most of them useless. The players should get it all at the beginning. No worries about giving it to them gradually.
  4. Add special skills. If no skills, at least have skill numbers for attack that people have to compare.
    The point here is not to mock Cela; just to illustrate that in the beginning, we all kept copying one another and reinventing the wheel.

PICKING UP SPEED (2006-2007)

In the fall of 2006, the
M6 manifesto was published, outlining the basic features of the chamber larp era. Its points include a mention of pre-defined roles, and a shift of the main focus from outdoors action to roleplaying and story (co-)creation. To illustrate what role-playing looked at the time (though naturally not always): the most interesting parts of the manifesto show that at this time, organizers do not automatically expect that the player and the character are two separate entities and that the character has their own goals, motivations, and attributes.
The first generation of Court of Moravia’s games show quite nicely how attention gradually shifted to playing and immersing in one’s role. The lion’s share of the credit for this definitely goes to Jana Hřebecká, who came into Court of Moravia without much knowledge of vampire larps, but with experience from her studies at JAMU (Janáček Academy of Music and Performing Arts Brno). She was one of the main drivers behind the kitchen sink drama that was Rodinná oslava. Its story revolves mainly around airing one family’s dirty laundry at a multi-generational celebration. This emphasis on dramatic relationships and ambiguous characters was also typical for CoM’s later games, often in combination with a specific genre. Looking back, it seems as if the group of authors centred around Petr Pouchlý decided to make one game for everyone: “Do you want a tough Tarantino-style flick? Play Kořist (Loot). Prefer a modern political drama? Ok, here you go: Sestup (Descent). Or something more mystical? Well, then you want Seance. A decadent conversational Victorian larp? We can offer Klub sebevrahů (Suicide Club)…” This genre diversification gave chamber larp the kick it needed to find its place in the sun.

Chamber larps were played in very diverse, often improvised settings. Komorní Lipník 2010, Author: Regina Konířová

The main driving force of CoM was its desire to make chamber larp into a reasonable alternative to spending the night in the theatre or the cinema. Naturally, that meant opening the format up to the broader public, outside of the larp scene. I still remember how at some point in 2009, I was on the tram and saw colourful ads for the Larpvíkend chamber larp festival, promising a strong, “cinematic experience”. The first Larpvíkend had taken place three years earlier.

Court of Moravia’s transition from urban vampire larps to chamber larp helped stabilize the format. There was more production value, though it all still had to fit in one box, as well as a general “take and play” approach. Every player got a basic costume. Character sheets were divided right before the larp started. The larps generally took place in one room, and while organizers tried to seek out venues at least generally similar to the setting (a bomb shelter to represent a submarine cabin), it was extremely common to play in classrooms and clubhouses.

The wheels were truly in motion. Thanks to the Larpvíkend festivals, we can probably talk about a ripple effect starting somewhere around this point. The Veselý Kopeček group escalated their efforts and created a fairly authentic space station simulation, including a computer interface – Pandora IX. At the same time, new larp groups took to the stage: No Happyend Team from Northern Moravia, and Prague groups such as Mad Fairy with their Tak zpíval Listopad (Thus, November sang) and Lorem Ipsum with Bunkr (Bunker), which had quite a lot of reruns.

IT’S ALIVE! (2008-2010)

The time had come. The chamber larp mania struck Prague with full force. Prague by Night, an association of older organizers, rolled up their sleeves and added their own pieces to the puzzle. Mention-worthy works include Petra Lukačovičová’s slow and atmospheric adaptation of O’Neill’s angsty dysfunctional family drama Cesta dlouhým dnem do noci (A Long Day’s Journey Into Night) and the ambitious Derniéra (Closing Night) set in a theatre company, played both on the stage and behind the scenes. In Derniéra, David Maleček created something that remains unique in the Czech scene to this day, by mixing the medium of larp with theatre, its older sibling.

In 2008, Prague started its own chamber larp festival tradition with the Prague Larpvíkend, organized by Prague by Night. Gradually, more and more young organizers joined in and made their first larps. That was no accident: Prague by Night had intentionally decided to launch a young talent incubator by organizing a larpwriting course for people around 18 in the local Youth Centre. The course participants’ debut was the above-mentioned Bunkr and while its story was not exactly stellar (but anyone could probably say that about their first larp), it opened the floodgates for a slew of other games by other young Prague by Night members. An example of their work would be the melancholic fanfic-y adaptation M*A*S*H by Radek Morávek and Zdeňka Vojtíková.

In the meantime, Court of Moravia continued in their crusade for promoting chamber larp in public. Their Larpvíkend festivals in Brno would occasionally be visited by journalists, and while that probably won’t wow you now, back in the day, it seemed like an incredible feat. Around this time, they also started the tradition of inviting international authors to come run their larps – which might be a good point for a slightly more in-depth analysis.

In 2007, the people around CoM and Veselý Kopeček started attending Knudepunkt, which at that time had overwhelmingly Nordic participants. The appearance of larp creators from Central Europe was therefore a bit of a sensation at first. Most importantly, Knudepunkts helped CoM establish a useful network of contacts. The 6th Brno Larpvíkend saw its first guests from Poland and Hungary and in the following years, international larps became a regular occurrence (T. Wrigstad, F. Berg etc.). Czech authors also started to adapt and translate international larps, such as A Midsummer Night’s Dream or Club Felis.

Klub Felis, Komorní Třebíč Festival 2010, Author: Veronika Kuběnská

Court of Moravia’s later works followed the previous trend of creating a diverse portfolio – though sometimes at the cost of discovering dead ends. For example, their conversational larp Versus Bůh (Versus God), inspired by the film 12 Angry Men, had no pre-written characters. At the beginning, players would choose one aspect of their character from a pre-written set and in the following rounds, they would add more attributes on a “first come first served” basis. This sometimes gave rise to extremely bizarre combinations. Their wild concept of a gamist supervillain larp, Zlouni (Bad Guys), which revolved around solving puzzles and riddles more than role-playing, was not much of a hit either.

On the other hand, their Hollywood-style rom-com Star was quite the success. If I’m not mistaken, it was also the first larp to feature the Ars Amandi mechanism for simulating intimate contact. In the following years, larps where couples snuggled each other’s arms in dark corners started cropping up at every corner, which just goes to show that everybody was copying everybody else at that time.

THE SLOVAK WILDSTYLE AND THE REGIONS

When I talked about “international larps”, I intentionally avoided mentioning Slovakia. But Slovak creators are important, because for a short time, they became a major innovation drive for the Czech scene. The Slovak larp group ERA first piqued the Czech community’s interests with their larp Subkultúra (Subculture). Its run in Nitra was attended by members of Court of Moravia, who then invited ERA to run their (still fairly conventional) mystery chamber larp Bytovka (Tenement) in Brno. Later, in 2009, Lujza Kotryová, Aleš Svoboda, and Tomáš Kozlík also came to the 6th Brno Larpvíkend with their two larps inspired by the Nordic jeepform, Minulosť s.r.o. (Past inc.) and Dva svety (Two Worlds). The reason I’m mentioning them is that these runs were extremely influential, and the Czech scene was soon flooded by larps with scripted scenes.

Czechoslovak Jeep

I’ll now go off on a bit of a tangent to explain how exactly this came to be. In the spring of 2010, I ran my surrealist jeep drama Lunapark život (Carnival Life) for the first time, at a festival in Třebíč. This raised the awareness about this new type of larp in the Czech scene. But at the same time, it also confused the terminology a bit.

The Nordic jeepform is a relatively free and extremely transparent form, which does not use scripted scenes or work with non-transparency and secrets at all. The ERA authors were aware of that, but they also believed (and I think they were correct) that the Czech audience would not accept a larp like that. What the Slovak authors did like, however, was that jeepform was narratively oriented, allowed for cuts and scene jumps, and intentionally used symbolism in working with the space and props (after all, at that time larps were often played in classrooms and random underground spaces).

In any case, around this time, this category of larps was labelled “jeep”, later specified at least a little bit more as “Czechoslovak jeep”.2 Since Dva svety, Lunapark Život and Zbyněk Štajer’s extremely popular Sen o múze (Dream of a Muse) all had quite a lot of runs, Czechoslovak jeep became a very widespread format for many years. I would just note that while both Dva svety and Lunapark were fairly loosely structured games, quite open to interpretation, later Czechoslovak jeeps went down the path of a high level of scripting and abandoning the symbolic scenography. I’d say the absolute pinnacle of this development was probably the high production (almost theatrically scripted) larp El día de Santiago.

Slovakia and the others

Now, let’s go back to Slovakia. ERA were not the only ones massively inspired by Nordic larp. In 2009, the Bratislava group Nový pohľad (New Outlook) was established. They were so ahead of their time that they openly declared they “saw larp as a full-fledged interactive medium”. Unheard of! More importantly, Tomáš Dulka and Andrej Tokarčík were making games that intentionally challenged the conventional mould of Czech design (even though design in itself was not a particularly common term in relation to larps). For example, the existential larp Cez mŕtvoly (Over Dead Bodies) had no pre-written story, only a set Kafkaesque theme of persecution. In Otcova rola (Father’s Role), the key character of the father transforms into an archetypal “shadow” in the second part of the game and influences the decisions of the central protagonist, the son. Nový pohľad’s larps were always a sort of provocation, which, after all, would not always get a warm welcome.3

At this time, chamber larp was spreading incredibly fast. This was naturally helped by festivals. I’ve mentioned three of them so far, but there were several others, including new regional ones. Its organizers wrote several chamber larps and later disappeared from the scene. In the meantime, the Buchtík brothers entered the chamber larp scene with their police procedural Odznak (Badge), which made its mark by combining a gamist investigation plot with the dense atmosphere of a corrupt cop drama.

The last thing worth mentioning might be that in 2009, Court of Moravia tried to make two truly high production larps in the hopes of a commercial success. In both cases, we’re talking about quite borderline cases of “chamber” larps. Noir did only have 5 players, but it included travelling in a limo around different locations in Brno, while Oka nezamhouříš (You Won’t Close Your Eyes) was a site-specific horror experience built around the venue of an abandoned mill. Both larps aimed outside of the larp community, but they failed to find an audience willing to pay a market price for them.

Chamber Larp Crisis

To conclude this part, I should just add something to summarize what the chamber larps of this era were really like and what conditions influenced them. Czech players who played any of the above-mentioned larps (or any unmentioned ones from the same period) in recent years generally noticed that they have a very outdated feel. In most cases, they lacked any sort of design structure leading to gradual escalation. Typically, players would have to make whatever they started with last them the whole game. At best, they might get a few story-building hints from a letter or a voice over the radio. These larps would already use (more or less inventive) mechanics, but did not have much in the way of holistic experience design.

But even that slowly started to shift. In 2008, the first Odraz larp conference took place and the larpy.cz website started filling with (mostly international) theory and larp reviews. At the third Odraz, Pavel Gotthard for example talked (and published an article) about dramatic structure and tension triggers in chamber larp.

Star, Larpvíkend V. (2008), Author: Radovan Vlk

Since a lot of new organizers jumped onto the rolling bandwagon, there was suddenly a huge number of debuts, which rarely astonished with their quality. But the immense hunger for new games meant we all devoured even these first works with gratitude. After all, at this time it was generally still possible for one person to manage to play all of the new games in a given year. Later on, that possibility vanished, never to return. The genre spectrum became much more diverse, although generally speaking, we could say that it was relatively dominated by fantasy, sci-fi and kitchen sink dramas.

Last but not least, chamber larps became more dynamic. There were fewer conversational games focused on huddling over a candle, even though it was still very common to build a larp around making the players decide who is guilty, who will go outside, or who they’re going to kill.

Looking back, I feel that the acting in moments of crisis was much more dramatic and seemed more over the top than in the later years. For example, it was fairly common that at the end of a larp, a player would grab a gun and start shouting that they’d kill themselves or somebody else. Later on, similar displays became less common – though that was caused in equal measure by the fact that players learned to be a bit more subtle in their role-playing and by design progress (there were fewer plots revolving around having one gun in the room). A lot of the chamber larps of this generation were only run a few times before they disappeared into the void. Only a few better, resistant pieces remained, and many were later reworked. After all, at this time, testing larps was not particularly common.

Finally, when talking about this period, we must mention Tomáš Kopeček’s provocative article, Komorová krize (Chamber Crisis) from the beginning of 2009, which asked the question “Is the chamber format dead?” When looking at the roughly 30 games that had been created by then, it seems a bit ridiculous that this was even on the table at the time. However, the main point of the article was somewhat justified.

At that time, the author mainly criticized the fact that chamber larps mostly meant “parlour larps”, focused on conversation, and that they worked with a much lower level of player participation: the player became a passive consumer of content without having any responsibility over co-creating the story. He argued that organizers simply mechanically copied the format as a template that seemed simple and undemanding in terms of preparation, instead of first deciding what type of larp they wanted to make and what goals they wanted it to achieve. The author believed that a reflection like that must precede any creative decisions on the style, genre, and format.

While the article is quite vague in its definition of player participation, many of its points seem to be true in retrospect. CoM, which had a hegemonic role in the community and a massive influence, intentionally made larps that were easily accessible, since its agenda was centred around making larp a part of the mainstream culture. Most new organizers, then, were generally enthusiasts without much experience, who often simply mechanically copied existing know-how. As a slight overstatement: every larp had some less significant characters that could be omitted if not enough players signed up; violence was resolved by comparing attack numbers; and erotic play was dealt with by using Ars Amandi. All that seems a little funny from the point of view of the current Czech community.

The game-changer was Rocker, which came in 2010. From today’s perspective, its major contribution was not any amazing design or that it had “scandalous” content; it was mainly that the author, Lujza Kotryová, set all templates aside and gave the larp what she believed it needed: a party feeling, real alcohol, and the first design that used realistic portrayals of erotic content. And she did that in a way that accomplished the goals of the larp (portraying a wild rock band party).

Rocker will be the end of this part of my reflection. In the next part, I’ll look at the golden years of Czech chamber larps and on the reasons why this chapter of Czech larp later subsided. Don’t be mistaken, though! While chamber larps have become scarcer today, many new Czech small-scale works are still worth playing and have interesting, fresh design approaches.

On that note, I’ll just summarize some chamber larp collections that have been published so far:

Translated by Iva Vávrová. Iva is a translator, larp organizer, and activist. She wrote Valley of Shadow, an experimental dance larp, and translated and helped run international larps, such as Legion: Siberian Story and De la Bête.

About the author: Petr Kuběnský is a game designer, author of several larps and larp theoretician. He is dedicated to czech larp history and collects all stories of larp fathers to his new book.

  1. Humanus was a lightly structured production, which edwith a group of characters, sheltering in a bunker after a nuclear incident, who had to deal with a variety of issues (what to do with a survivor from the outside who wants to get in the bunker, what to do when one of the characters has an infectious disease, and so on).
  2. For more details on the differences, see Kamil Buchtík’s http://www.larp.cz/?q=cs/clanek/5882/jeep-vs-ceskoslovensky-jeep (in Czech)
  3. This just confirms what I mentioned in relation to ERA: Most of the Nový pohľad larps were similar in form to the Nordic jeepform, which generally felt too abstract and insufficiently immersive to Czech and Slovak players.

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