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This thing of ours

foundationstoneREVIEW:

The Foundation Stone of Nordic Larp
Knutpunkt 2014

Edited by Eleanor Saitta, Marie Holm-Andersen & Jon Back

(318 pages)

The annual larp conference Knutepunkt (alternating between four of the Nordic countries) has a tradition of putting out one to several anthologies with larp-related essays. This year, there are two books. Both are available for free download here.

Imagonem has previously reviewed The Cutting Edge of Nordic Larp: Chewing on the Cutting Edge.

The Foundation Stone is meant to serve as a primer to the “Nordic Larp discourse”. It has some new essays commissioned especially for the book, but mostly consists of papers, articles and essays from previous Knutepunkt anthologies.

The papers selected from previous Knutebooks represent “games from the perspective of the player and theorist”. That means papers written especially with the larp designer in mind have been consciously left out. Larps used for educational purposes are also not covered. That probably makes the book less practical and hands-on than some might have hoped for (I’ll let you know that a certain well-known Nordic larp theorist and designer is currently working on a book specifically on larp design, though).

HAMLET (2002). (Photo: Bengt Liljeros)

HAMLET (2002). (Photo: Bengt Liljeros)

The Foundation is a good primer if you’re interested in larp (or even roleplaying in general) considered as a form of expression with artistic potential. It’s probably also of value if you’re into role playing theory or game research. It gives you an overview of discussions that have taken place, terminology in current use, and presents a smattering of interesting, often avant-garde, projects.

Some of the texts are quite high-flying and abstract, and don’t shy away from using complicated terminology and namedropping more-and-less obscure philosophers and academics. Some are more straightforward reads.

The copy-editing seems much better than in the “Cutting Edge” anthology, at least to my untrained eyes. Some essays have photos, most don’t (I think this is a consequence of what they looked like in the original anthologies). The layout is clean and functional.

If you want to approach these texts, I suggest doing so at your own leisurely pace, rather than reading as fast as you can in order to write a review no one really asked you for (well, except Anders, bless his heart) just in time for Knutpunkt.

Disclaimer: I’m acquainted with many of the authors, and consider quite a few of them friends. I’ve played some of the games mentioned in the book, and have dipped my toe and various other appendages in this scene for years. So I’m not really much in the way of an objective, neutral source.

TOTEM (2007). (Photo: Rasmus Høgdall)

TOTEM (2007). (Photo: Rasmus Høgdall)

Here’s a walkthrough guide to the book, where I go through the essays one by one. I hope this will prove useful in finding your way to the essays that’ll interest you the most:

The first part of the book is a presentation of some selected “Nordic Larp Talks”. These are short (between 10 minutes and half an hour), TED-talk-style video presentations on various larp-related topics. The PDF has both QR codes you can scan with your cellphone and links to the videos on YouTube. I haven’t seen all of these, but the Nordic Larp talks I’ve attended have been both good and entertaining. I suggest you see if you find a topic that interests you and go have a look. All of the videos are presented at nordiclarptalks.org.

Then there are three essays on “The Nordic Larp Community”.

Andie Nordgren has an essay titled “A Community Shaped by Participation”, where she talks about how the Nordic social and political context has shaped the community, and argues that you have to take part in order to actually understand how larp (and this particular larp tradition) works. She concludes that the tools, skills and perspectives you gain by larping and organizing larps are also applicable beyond larp itself. “I personally hope this book can be a way for larp to meet practitioners from other fields with a wish to shape reality – to trade tools, methods and visions for possible futures – real and fictional.” This sentiment is quite typical of the Nordic Larp mentality/discourse, and may be seen as a somewhat radical notion. Especially if you’re in the “roleplaying games are only a form of entertainment/hobby” camp. And it goes beyond mere talk and theorizing: quite a few participants in the Nordic scene make a living doing educational larps for schools and organizations, several larps with a political message/intent (usually of the left-wing variety) have been run, some have experimented, or continue to live in, relationships on the side of “heteronormative” practices, and (in the same vein) some use the tools/mindset of larp (and various political theories) to challenge base assumptions of identity, gender and so on.

DRAGONBANE (2006). There was a dragon. It didn't breathe fire. (Photo: Janne Björklund / Kuvateko.com)

DRAGONBANE (2006). There was a dragon. It didn’t breathe fire. (Photo: Janne Björklund / Kuvateko.com)

An Introduction to the Nordic Player Culture (Helene Willer Piironen & Kristoffer Thurøe)
Tries to explain some core concepts typical of many larps in the “Nordic tradition”, like immersion (to a certain extent “forgetting yourself” during play), “bleed” (when your thoughts and feelings are influenced by those of your character, or vice versa), “playing to loose” (setting your character up for failure), transparency of design, co-creation of setting and character, and so-called “meta-techniques”. The essay admits that not all of this is readily accessible to a newcomer in the form of essays or guides on what constitutes “good play” in this particular tradition. It also suggests that the best way of learning to play Nordic larps is to, well, play them, and invites the reader to come do so. The authors don’t necessarily mean that you can’t have use of the Nordic canon of theory, practice and methods outside of the Nordic countries, although they give an example of how it can be hard to transfer the player culture to an environment where the players have trained themselves to think of gaming in a different way. “We still believe that the best way to get the full picture is to come and play our games with us. We would love that.” That might be beyond the time and means of many readers, though (and Nordica is kind of expensive). Personally, I believe that there’s plenty you can learn, adapt and take home to spice up your local tradition in both this book and other parts of the voluminous output of Nordic Larp over the years.

Knutepunkt — A Love Story (Margrete Raaum)
Since 1997, Knutepunkt has been the social and theoretical hub of the Nordic larp community. This essay shares some of the convention’s history and peculiarities. “Even if we come from an expressive cultural tradition by Nordic standards, the weirdness of the Knutepunkt crowd is ridiculous — at least during the Knutepunkt weekend. There are no mundane people. It’s like an energetic porcupine.” The essay is short and enthusiastic, and probably a good primer if this is your first year at Knutepunkt or if you’re considering going sometime.

The next part of the book is titled “Essays from the Nordic Larp Discourse”, and consists of a choice collection of essays from 13 years of Knutepunkt anthologies. All the essays have short, new introductions written especially for this book.

(Photo: Dragonbane project)

(Photo: Dragonbane project)

Play to Love – Reading Victor Turner’s “Liminal to Liminoid, in Play, Flow, and Ritual; An Essay in Comparative Symbology” (Martin Ericsson)
Ok. Well. We’re off to a start with a real easy and accessible text. Real tabloid stuff (I’m being sarcastic). Ericsson has a look at larp through the lens of something called “performance theory” with which I’m personally not familiar (it seems to spill over into something akin to anthropology?) and the ritual drama of ancient societies: “(…) it seems clear that current larp-practices share more traits with dramatic ritual than with any other form of human behaviour.” This seems to be meant used not only as a tool for (pseudo?)academic analysis of a fun pastime, but rather a radical mission statement of using larp to change yourself and the world. “The ideal player must become a Liminaut – a free explorer of the threshold realm – and abandon all illusions of being an individual defined by the fetters of her mundane prison of self. The equation is as simple as it is potent: to truly play one must be truly free.” For someone who has a cursory interest in Chaos Magic, social rituals considered as games for both subjugation and liberation, identity and stuff like that (me, for instance) it’s kind of inspirational and feels like a throwback to my early twenties. Maybe I was onto something then I may have forgotten. You also get to read fun words like “ethologically” and “quadrilogical”, which I personally didn’t bother to look up.

Temporary Utopias – The Political Reality of Fiction (Tova Gerge)
The essay looks at the Swedish larp Mellan himmel och hav (Between Heaven and Sea) from 2004, a sci-fi story about an alternate society inspired by the works of Ursula K. Leguin and feminist identity theory. It initially claims to use “the larp (…) to look at how themes and dramatic structures correspond with political focus.” I’m not really sure what that means, or whether the text accomplishes it. It does however give a sketch, an impression, of what sounds like a very interesting game by describing some of its structure, scenography and methods. The larp played around with social structures and the concept of gender. Gerge states that many players were deeply affected, both during and after the game. She touches upon a similar theme as Ericsson in the previous text: “Role-players are slowly deconstructing the wall between reality and game”. To me, it would have been interesting to hear more about this aspect of the game, not only what happened during actual play, but also what kind of social and emotional impact it had in the time after. Maybe those stories would be too personal to tell, maybe it was beyond the scope of the essay, or maybe the time wasn’t right only a year after the game.

AmerikA (2000).

AmerikA (2000). (Photo: Britta Bergersen)

Lessons from Hamlet (Johanna Koljonen)
“The last three acts of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet were reproduced as a three-day larp in Stockholm in 2002.” Kind of a meandering essay reflecting on a larp experience in hindsight, a larp considered “important” in the “Nordic Larp discourse” (like most of the larps mentioned in this book, probably). It gives you a certain impression of what it was like as an experience and how it was organized, both logistically and with regards to rules and written material. The essay also says something about what Koljonen has later called the ideal of the “360° illusion” in many Nordic larps. It’s a personal, subjective essay, and (to me) also a testimony to the difficulty of communicating why and how a larp experience felt/was important.

High Resolution Larping (Andie Nordgren)
Introduces the term «high resolution gaming», using the game Totem (2007) as an example. Totem had a tribal setting, where one of the main focuses of play seems to have been the character’s positioning in the tribal status hierarchy. Nordgren gives an introduction to both the game and some of the methods used; workshops and various symbolic ways of representing aggression and conflict, sex and relationships. She emphasizes the interaction of the characters, and the preparatory work for enabling the interaction, as a key to creating the detailed, subtle play experience she characterizes as “high resolution”.

KAPO (2011): It's all fun and games in Denmark.

KAPO (2011): It’s all fun and games in Denmark. (Photo: Peter Munthe-Kaas)

Without using the word, Nordgren also touches upon the concept of “bleed”: “It could be argued that when we have access to increasingly subtle diegetic communication, the things communicated in a game could spill over into our lives outside of the game, making it harder to uphold a sharp boundary between ourselves and the characters we play.”

Eye-Witness to the Illusion – An Essay on the Impossibility of 360° Role-Playing (Johanna Koljonen)
Presenting the concept and ideal of the “360° illusion” in larping. Basically I take it to mean something like “what-you-see-is-what-you-get” 1:1 environments, where the player’s surroundings; houses, furniture, decorations and so on all exist in the game setting. The title implies that such games are “impossible”, as there will always be some non-diegetic elements present. The essay itself is more forgiving, however, and open to this approach as one possible way to go when designing games – with both benefits and drawbacks. The essay also touches on various other topics, like visualization, the symbolic and physical borders delineating the gaming space, different approaches to role-playing and immersion, and more.

Social Reality in Roleplaying Games (Markus Montola)
This is a new essay, commissioned especially for the book. It gives a brief introduction to a framework for discussing and analyzing pervasive games and roleplaying the author presents in more detail in his doctoral dissertation.

Montola bases his framework on something called “social constructionism”, developed by the philosopher John R. Searle. Basically, reality is viewed as consisting of two layers, the social reality (immaterial things) and the brute reality (material things). The rest of the framework follows from this model.

MAD ABOUT THE BOY (2010). (Photo: Li Xin)

MAD ABOUT THE BOY (2010).

I found it a highly interesting and worthwhile read. It deals with fairly abstract topics, but does so in a clearly written and accessible way.

I also find the text to have some deeper philosophical implications about the social world(s) we live in and, check it out, help create. These implications are both fun, empowering and somewhat scary to think about.

Consider this:

“The Monitor Celestra is a good larp to use to illustrate this framework, as it was set in the somewhat well known universe of Battlestar Galactica. In that game I had the status of being Major Darlington of the Colonial Fleet. That status was based on the same kind of social mechanics that assign the status of legal tender to a piece of paper and make Barack Obama the President of the United States.”

Ok. So the position of being the most powerful man on the planet is a social construct? Something possible only by way of consensus, because it’s agreed upon as fact? (obviously supported by quite a lot of very “brute facts” indeed, heavy weaponry for instance). What does this tell us about smaller social games we play in “real life”? About roles we assign to ourselves and others? If this is true, what can it be used for?

I’ll leave it at that. This book, and article, is “only” about role playing games. Which is just a fun and innocent pastime. Right?

THE WHITE ROAD (2006)

THE WHITE ROAD (2006)

Autonomous Identities – Immersion as a Tool for Exploring, Empowering and Emancipating Identities (Mike Pohjola)
Immersion, again. I found the introductory paragraphs to be somewhat tedious, referring to a bunch of models and manifestos I’m only superficially acquainted with (e.g. The “Turku Manifesto”, presented later in the book). The first part of the essay I found a little boring. It shows some ways of describing roleplaying games, even giving a definition. In this day and age, I’m happy to just nod and wink: yes, that’s a possible way of looking at it. The good stuff is hidden towards the end, where the author gets into stuff like the anarchist concept of “Temporary Autonomous Zones”, and suggests that the tools of larp can be used to create “Temporate Autonomous Identities”, always available to the player, which can help you both “game” and “mold” reality. This echoes suggestions and sentiments we’ve seen in earlier essays (both Nordgren’s and Ericsson’s, at the very least), and the stuff I mentioned in the previous paragraph about the philosophical implications of certain ways of looking at role playing games. It also makes me wish I was around in the scene when these discussions where hip, to find some like-minded peeps, instead of sitting around in my basement doing Phil Hine-inspired wank magic and dreaming of “Ego destruction” and similar concepts. I feel old and static. Yeah, well. Some dream the revolution, some go do it. Others just go mad (for real).

SUBCOMMANDANTE MARCOS. Illustration: Gabriel Widing.

SUBCOMMANDANTE MARCOS. Illustration: Gabriel Widing.

My Name is Jimbo the Orc (Ulrik Lehrskov)
A blissfully simply worded essay at this point. Starts off by relating an anecdote of the “annoying-dude-telling-me-about-his-character”-variety, briefly skimming through the topic of “story attribution” and looks at how this can be used to analyze and re-tell larp experiences. Rounds off with describing a game of just such attribution, which actually sounds like a lot of fun. Not anything earth-shattering, but kind of a nice breather after all that has gone before.

Rules of Engagement (Emma Wieslander)
Considers the topic of simulating sensuous/sexual encounters, asks why there hasn’t been more focus on creating a framework for dealing with these topics in larp, and describes  one such method (the so-called Ars Amandi technique of hand-stroking). One of the more practically oriented essays in the collection.

The Nuts and Bolts of Jeepform (Tobias Wrigstad)
A nice introduction to the peculiar brand of Swedish-Danish (well, actually Nordic, at this point) freeform games known as Jeepform. It has informed some of the meta-techniques currently in vogue in Nordic Larp and “Blackbox style” larping (I think, at least, influences here seem a bit criss-cross and all over the place), and a lot of the key players are active in both scenes. So it seems a natural inclusion in the book. Jeepform is kind of like larp-influenced tabletop (no costumes, few props), using inspiration from improvisational theatre, psychodrama and whatever else they can get their hands on in order to tell high-impact stories (usually using some kind of director). The freeform tradition hasn’t been particularly strong in Norwegian tabletop roleplaying (I’m from Norway), and I sometimes feel we missed the boat in the mid-90’s (I’m an avid table top role-player in addition to doing the occasional larp). Fortunately a lot of these experiments, methods, games, and theories have been written down and shared online. Never too late, I guess.

The Positive Negative Experience in Extreme Role-Playing (Markus Montola)
Montola again. The PhD dude. I like Montola. Here he goes head-to-head with the “games are just for fun” camp, by exploring “gratifying but “negative” play experiences elicited by two freeform role-playing games.” The author looks at two games from the Jeepform collective (see previous paragraph), namely Gang Rape (which, as the name suggests, deals with rape) and The Journey. The author has interviewed designers and players, and participated in one of the games (The Journey, which is based on the post-apocalyptic novel “The Road”). It’s a serious study, by a serious author, on a serious subject. Highly recommended reading.

The Golden Rule of Larp (Simo Järvelä)
An essay about ethical considerations in larps, informed consent and player safety. Especially in light of the fashion (that may or may not be somewhat out of vogue currently?) for “hardcore games” and “extreme gaming experiences” like those mentioned in the previous paragraph, this is a highly interesting discussion. The article is well-written and clearly communicated. For the first time with one of these pieces, I actually feel it ends a bit abruptly (barely touching on the topics of safe-words and debriefs, for instance).

The Book of KAPO – (Claus Raasted (editor))
This is a curious addition to the book. I think it’s meant to be a sample of larp documentation, namely from the Danish larp “Kapo” (2011), but it doesn’t really tell you all that much. There’s a powerful, short, introductory text, and three vaguely unpleasant photos. I think the editors could have easily expanded this section somewhat.

Excavating AmerikA (Eirik Fatland)
In 2009, Fatland decided to dig up and have a closer look at AmerikA, a larp organized eight years previously in the Norwegian capital Oslo. A ton of junk was gathered on one of the city’s main squares, and a larp with a “magical realistic” setting took place there, with onlookers and visitors. The author asks why it had been “forgotten” in the Nordic Larp discourse, but also sets out to bring it back to memory. This is a very thoughtful and insightful essay that gives an impression both of what the larp was like, including positives and negatives, frustrations and revelations, but also what it meant as art. Recommended reading!

Walking the White Road – A Trip into the Hobo Dream (Bjarke Pedersen & Lars Munck)
I really, really like this article. It’s a simple story about a simple larp using simple methods to deliver powerful impact. It also touches upon stuff like pervasive gaming (bringing your game out into the real world), alcohol in larp, and the dilemma of “cultural appropriation” touched upon in an essay in the other Knutebook anthology this year. Basically, six players set out to do a short larp inspired by a very peculiar Danish subculture I didn’t know existed, “The Road Knight” hobos. They use the real world as their setting, and interact with people who are not part of the larp while remaining in character. They use the framework of one of the manifestos at the end of this book in their design. This, to me, works as a beautifully concrete way of doing and living some of the things that are hinted at and theorized about in other parts of the book. Supposedly, the game had some profound impacts on many of the players as well. Thanks for sharing, as they say.

24 Hours in a Bomb Shelter – Player, Character and Immersion in Ground Zero (Heidi Hopeametsä)
Immersion, flow, the magic circle, debriefs, larp as art… the paper considers all these subjects, using the Finnish game “Ground Zero” as example. It’s well-written, clearly stated, but at this point in the book feels somewhat superfluous. If you (like me) read the book from start to finish, most of these topics seem to have been covered already. I think I’d have placed the article (which is a summary of a Master thesis) earlier in the anthology or dropped it altogether.

Post Panopticon (Gabriel Widing)
Starts off with a refreshingly honest and self-deprecating foreword (basically stating that the author was quite young when the text was written and that his references to heavy theory were “a bit dubious, as I honestly didn’t have much clue about what I was writing about”). Widing maintains that the basic analysis of the larp “Panopticorp”, is still valid though. It’s been a while since I read this text, even longer since I played the larp. I think the text is less interesting than the larp was, but it gives some good hints and pointers.

The Dragon Was the Least of It – Dragonbane and Larp as Ephemera and Ruin (Johanna Koljonen)
This essay revisits the international fantasy larp Dragonbane (2006), a somewhat megalomaniac half-million euro production held in Sweden. Featuring a 26 meter long animatronic dragon weighing several tonnes. The essay touches upon the ephemeral nature of larps, the difficulty of larp documentation, and returns to the previously mentioned ideal of the 360 degree illusion. It also demonstrates, like Fatland’s text on AmerikA, that it can be interesting to discuss, document and reconsider games that were initially considered somewhat flawed. It’s should prove a very interesting read for any larper or larp organizer, I think. Especially one’s considering undertaking projects of such a magnitude. I found the writing to be evocative and clear, and that it was easier to follow the author’s train of thought than what was the case with her previous two essays in this book.

Mad about the Boy (Tor Kjetil Edland, Trine Lise Lindahl, Margrete Raaum)
This text is quite different from the previous ones. It’s a “larpscript”, describing the general setup of a re-runnable larp, Mad about the Boy. It includes some notes on each act the designers envision, pre-game workshop and so-called “meta-techniques” utilized. More details and complete characters can be found on the larp’s webpages http://madabouttheboy.laiv.org. In a way, it echoes the essay on Jeepform presented previously in the book. The Jeepers also have a tradition of writing down their game scripts/scenarios so that they can be run by others. But up until Mad about the Boy, I believe this has been less common in Nordic Larp. The “meta-technique” concept itself also reminds me of some of the techniques mentioned in the Jeepform essay. The larp is about a world were all men have died. The characters are gathered as part of a government-sponsored insemination program. Then a real man appears. It’s inspired by the comic Y: The last man.

Prosopopeia — Playing on the Edge of Reality (Markus Montola & Staffan Jonsson)
We return to pervasive larping, this time not on the country roads of Denmark, but a larger-scale production covering an entire Swedish city. The article describes what sounds like a very interesting and ambitious project, where a whole city is used as the gaming area, and the borders of the so-called “magic circle” are intentionally blurred. By choice, the article does not cover the ethical implications of designing such games, such as outsider’s reactions to the game in progress. I’m reminded of Grant Morrison’s essay “Pop Magic”, where he describes an exercise in creating a “magical mindset” by reading meaning into everything, and looking for meaningful coincidences. This kind of game seems ideal for achieving such altered states of mind (and maybe for triggering psychosis if you’re vulnerable to that kind of thing or haven’t gotten enough sleep over a sufficient amount of days).

Collective Realities – Thoughts on Politics, Ontology, and Role-Playing (Gabriel Widing)
Young Widing is back, five years older. This time he delivers a much more intelligible essay (along with the contemporary, more humble, foreword of someone eight years older than the author was). It echoes sentiments from earlier essays in the book: what if we can use this thing we’re doing – larp – to actually change reality? What would that look like? What could we be? There’s some critique of “consensus reality”, the capitalist system, idealization of the Zapatistas of Mexico (wonder what’s happened to them during the horrible Mexican Drug War that broke out the year this essay was written?) I’m reminded of what little I know of situationist theory.

Larp and Aesthetic Responsibility – When Just a Little Lovin’ Became an Art Debate (Tova Gerge)
This text is an excellent choice for the last essay of the book. It considers the brief debate about the larp Just a Little Lovin’ in the Swedish tabloid Expressen, that occurred before the game was actually held. Just a Little Lovin’ is a larp about the Aids epidemic in New York in the early ‘80s. The game’s critics perceived it as a kind of “Aids exoticism”, the organizers publicly defended it. It was an interesting debate, where our somewhat marginal hobby/artform/medium/whatever was suddenly criticized as “real art” (exactly what the Nordic Larp scene has been claiming that it is for years, if you’ve been paying attention). But seemingly the wrong kind of art for treating certain topics. Anyway. Go read Gerge. She took part in the debate and makes a much more nuanced and informed presentation and discussion than I’m able to right now. Yet again, this also touches on the challenges surrounding “cultural appropriation” in the other Knutebook I reviewed.

The Dogma 99 Manifesto (Eirik Fatland and Lars Wingård)
A manifesto encouraging game designers to consider larps as a viable artform, and detailing a “Vow of Chastity”, sort of a recipe or set of restrictions for creating one form of larps. I think it’s mainly included in the collection for historical reasons. It’s referenced in previous essays and is an important part of the “Nordic Larp discourse”. Still, it’s a surprisingly good read, 15 years after the fact. I feel like a lot of the goals the authors envision actually came true, at least in the Nordic scene. New methods and genres, indeed. I suspect it could also still have the potential to serve as inspiration in other gaming cultures.

The Manifesto of the Turku School (Mike Pohjola)
Another manifesto. Again, historical reasons. Again, maybe it will still have the power to provoke and inspire, as the author writes in the freshly written introductory foreword. It’s also heavily cited in a lot of the “Nordic discourse”, so I guess it’s useful to make it available in this kind of context. “Roleplaying is seen as art”, “focusing on immersion and society simulation”. It’s also highly normative, alludes to a revolutionary movement of “Turkuist roleplayers” and is written as sort of a pastiche of the Communist Manifesto. I found that kind of amusing, anyhow.

The Turkuists obviously also had a “vow of chastity”:

“10. As a player I shall strive not to gain fame or glory, but to act out the character as well as possible according to the guidance given to me by the game master. Even if this means I have to spend the entire game alone in a closet without anyone ever finding out.”

Sorry, Pohjola: I think Nordic Larp is out of the closet for good.

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  1. […] of essays that were particular highlights of previous Knutepunkt books. Here’s a review https://imagonem.org/2014/03/31/this-thing-of-ours/ of the book that may give you an initial impression and guide you through the […]

  2. […] out, and a collection of essays that were particular highlights of previous Knutepunkt books. (Here’s a review of the book that may give you an initial impression and guide you through the […]

  3. […] The Knutpunkt Books Games! All sorts of different ones: The Cutting Edge of Nordic Larp Imagonen: This thing of ours […]

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