Dogma 99 – preface to the Italian edition

I’d like to use this opportunity to dispel a common misunderstanding, and reveal a well-kept secret, both regarding a certain manifesto published in Oslo on the 3rd of December, 1999.
Dogma 99
The misunderstanding first: that the Dogma 99 Vow Of Chastity should be a statement about how all larps – and especially those designed by the signatories – should be made, everywhere, in perpetuity.

It was not. How could it be? I vividly recollect the enthusiasm we felt when working on it: the sense that we were moving into uncharted territory, exciting places where no larper had been before. A “manifesto” about live role-playing? What a crazy idea! A definition – and design principles that were deducted, axiomatically, from it? Unheard of! A commitment to design larps without any of the traditional tools and practices? Can the result even be called “role-playing”? We knew we were on untrodden ground, and we trod loudly but carefully – committing ourselves to design only a single larp each based on the Vow. After that, we would see what we had learned, and hopefully find some newer and cooler design principles to follow.

The secret is that the manifesto was initially local in nature – addressed to the Norwegian and especially Oslo scenes. The English “international edition” was made only after bootleg translations started appearing, and we wanted to clarify some points from the original, Norwegian, text – differentiating our short-term and long-term goals. The short-term goals were identified as the “programme”, while the long-term goals were set out in the last chapter – “the Future”, a call-to-arms directed at like-minded larpers globally. Thanks to the e-mails we had begun receiving – from Sweden, Denmark, and from a Finn called Mike with some ideas of his own – we knew they were there. But our original target was a different one.

If you want a description of a typical Oslo-area larp of the mid-1990s, simply take the Vow of Chastity and set out to break every single vow as egregiously as possible: Have main characters (played by your friends) and fund the larp by recruiting lots of players (not your friends) for the secondary characters. Veil this in secrecy, so nobody pre-larp will be able to see whether they have a main or supporting character. Surprise players as often as you can, for example by sending in a tribe of werewolves in the middle of a “strictly historical” larp about a late iron age family. And finally – scoff at all critique that does not come from the friends who played the main characters. It’s Just A Game, and anyone trying to discuss it is guilty of poor sportsmanship and Taking Things Too Seriously.

This poisonous complex of practices and attitudes (called “conventional larp” in the manifesto) could have been attacked in many ways. Our weapons of choice were theory, and bombast – fighting ideas, rather than their well-intentioned adherents – and committing ourselves to larpmaking practice to ensure that the result would be both verifiable and constructive. We were not alone: the first edition, indeed, was uncredited – the product of some nebulous “Dogma 99 collective” – at first identified with the signatories. Only with the international edition did Lars and myself admit we had done most of the writing.

The Dogma larps
There have been quite a few Dogma larps, far more than those documented on the antiquated website, and many more Dogma-influenced larps, based on the more sensible ideas in the Vow but not all 10 points. Roughly, the pure Dogma larps have sought four approaches to the riddle posed by mutually exclusive Vows:
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1. Extreme improvisation: design minimally, and let the players figure out the rest in play. Hammerås and Malviks “13 at the table” is the best example of this solution, and that game inspired many similar Dogma-compliant games. They have in common that they set up a situation for players (high school re-union, office meeting etc), and use the familiarity of the situation to allow for free yet coherent role-playing.

2. Pervasive and hard-core larping: larping in public places rather than fictional ones, to avoid the need for representation, and/or accepting risk to the players body, to avoid the need for game mechanics. Munch et als “The White Road” (about hobos wandering the roads of Denmark) and Andrea Castellani’s first run of “The Scarlet Railroad” (low-key drama amongst refugees in a train, on a train) exemplify this category.

3. Abstraction – discoupling the larp from realtiy so much that talk of “representation” and “simulation” become irrelevant, e.g. Grasmo and Hammerås’ “Black Out”, where characters are thoughts in the mind of an amnesiac woman.

4. Societal framing – defining the larp’s setting and norms in such a way that interesting play will emerge without organizers tinkering with individual characters and back stories. My own Dogma contributions, “Europa” (refugees from Nordic wars at a Central European camp) and “The Little Kyrthanilarp” (a romantic gypsy fantasy), are examples of this approach.

A decade has passed since Dogma first hit the unsuspecting web. Others must speculate on how much, or how little, influence the different manifestos have had on shaping today’s larp scenes. I can only note, approvingly, that the utopian visions on the manifesto’s final page now read as a matter-of-fact description of larp in an increasing number of countries. And for those who react to the Vow of Chasitity with surprise – how can such a larp be possible? – the vow still stands as a rabbit-hole of creative challenge, daring you to walk through.

This is the English text of my preface to the Italian translation of the manifesto Dogma 99 – a programme for the liberation of larp. The Italian translation was published in Larp Graffiti, 2010, edited by Andrea Castellani – online edition

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