Intercon M Post-Con Report Part V: Ars Amandi Workshop

Excluding the very brief segment of the Combat/Conflict or Narrative? panel I caught, the Ars Amandi workshop, run by Lizzie Stark (author of Leaving Mundania) was the last event I attended at Intercon M’s Pre-Con.

Ars Amandi (meaning “art of love”) is “a Nordic mechanic for simulating romance or sex in larp” created by Emma Wieslander. It involves players touching one another’s hands, arms, whatever is within the permissible zone, to communicate emotions. The workshop has run at past Pre-Con, and I heard it was a very interesting experience, so I made sure to catch it this year.

The workshop opened with Lizzie giving a brief talk about what Ars Amandi is and how it came to be. I know panels are designed to be interactive dialogs, but I really appreciated the fact that Lizzie brought something she prepared in advance to read. (I thought a few panels might have benefited from a bit more prep work like this.) The content of her introduction can be found on her blog. Definitely worth a read, but I will summarize it with the points I found most interesting and informative below.

  •  3 reasons to include love and sex in LARPs: it represents the real world that we live in, it widens the number of playable plotlines, it provides for an intense experience, because love is as intense as violence.
  • A line quoted from Ars Amandi creator Emma Wieslander, “I think it’s quite sad that many players should have a greater expectancy of their character getting killed than fucked.”
  • Why love (and sex) get downplayed in LARP: it feels riskier, since love is something we experience in real life and could potentially cause bleed (character emotions and player emotions affecting one another), but violence is something we typically don’t experience in real life. In the US, we fear litigation (we’re afraid of what might happen if we allow touching in LARPs) and we lack the mechanics for love in LARPs (especially the physical action side of it.)
  • Some Nordic techniques for managing potential issues: workshops before LARPs, debriefs after LARPs, use of safewords (“go” to indicate you’re ok with more intensity, “break” to indicate you don’t want the intensity to go any higher, and “cut” to indicate you’d like to stop and back off.)
  • Some other methods that have been used: WYSIWIG (“what you see is what you get”) meaning whatever the players do, the characters do, dry humping to replicate sex, talking through sex- i.e. the player describes the character’s actions, symbolic methods (massages, feeding one another fruit, brushing one another’s hair, dancing the tango.)
  • – Ars Amandi was created so that players could have a mechanic that doesn’t pre-script active or passive roles in sex, it’s gender neutral, it maintains a certain level of comfort for the players because there are limited permitted touch zones, and it’s pretty flexible in that it can represent different kinds of physical interaction, whether it’s tender or rough or nervous or confident or passionate or passionless. It represents the intimacy of the act without being too uncomfortable for players.

One reason I was particularly interested to see what this mechanic would be like is because every time I’ve encountered sex in a theater LARP, it’s been somewhat awkward. Particularly because it was mechanically significant whether or not the characters had engaged in sex, but there were never directions for how to indicate it was taking place. In one LARP, there was a mechanical benefit for the object of my character’s affections to have sex. (And it had a mechanical effect on my character, too, though I didn’t know it at the time.) The GMs told us we could use a corner of the room to represent his bedroom (which was, out of game, in full view of the rest of the LARP.) So we went over to the corner, made romantic small talk, then looked at one another awkwardly and said something like… “so… I guess… we’re doing it now?” We laughed about it and made some awkward humorous gestures for a few seconds… it very much broke immersion, though the other LARPer was a good sport about it.

A similar thing happened when I played Slash! (You can read a description of my experience in that LARP here.) Slash! is a comical LARP mocking bad erotic fan fiction. The characters are all taken from popular fandoms (Harry Potter, Star Trek, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer) and while there are some puzzles to solve and such, the primary mechanic is basically to have as much silly sex as possible, and each encounter raises your sexual prowess score. (Slash! falls into my group of LARPs that I actively avoid describing when someone who has never heard of LARPing wants to know what it’s like.) The first encounter I had as Lt. Uhura (with Draco Malfoy, I believe) involved a lot of terrible innuendo, followed by an awkward silence, followed by “so… did we just… uh? … Yeah, ok.”

A third LARP involved opening a contingency envelope when my character had sex with another (essentially… we were aliens so it’s hard know precisely what happened.) While it was slightly awkward the moment before, when we both held up our envelopes and opened them, it was fairly clear what we were doing in-character. We sort of hid out of sight for a couple minutes, then disheveled our clothing a bit — we mis-buttoned his top and I took a few jewels out of my hair and stuck them in his. That was probably the smoothest version I’ve experienced to date.

I think it would have been a lot smoother if we didn’t need to step out of character to agree on what had happened. I know some LARPs include some sort of symbolic physical action (one LARP has players exchanging colored beads, for example). Ars Amandi offers the potential to do that and also have the action that represents sex be somewhat intimate but not too uncomfortable. Technically, as it was created, it doesn’t have to represent sex — it can represent any form of affection, (such as love between a mother and daughter) though if it isn’t use explicitly as sex, that takes awake the advantage I was looking for. Namely, the ability for both players to know exactly what happened without having to explicitly say it out of character. I think if I ever used Ars Amandi as a mechanic in a LARP, I might say, “in this LARP, it implies sex.”

After the talk, we had a short break, then came back for the workshop itself. Lizzie opened by telling us that when two women tried Ars Amandi, it sometimes became very light, almost silly, and when two men tried it, it often almost became not unlike a mild wrestling match. I know that this workshop typically runs at generic geek conventions, but Intercon is all LARP and the attendees all LARPers, and I suspected that those who were willing to try out Ars Amandi were among the open-minded of our community. I didn’t think that was likely to happen in our workshop. And as far as I saw, I was right.

We started out by making two circles, and inner one facing out and an outer one facing in, and we partnered up, each inner circle person with an outer circle person. Lizzie played some instrumental music, which I think was very smart of her- we didn’t talk during the exercises, and a deafening silence would likely have been awkward. When we began, the upper boundary was the wrist (in other words, only our hands were touching.) The first few times we tried Ars Amandi, we did it with closed eyes, and each pair had an active person and a passive person. We alternated which partner was which- first, the inner circle was passive and the outer circle active, then the inner circle active and the outer circle passive, and so on. The active person was instructed merely to explore their partners hands. We did this for a few minutes, and then we’d stop, the outer circle would rotate, and we’d start again with new partners.

After a few turns, Lizzie switched things up. Instead of active and passive, each partner could be as active or passive as they wanted. At some point, we expanded the zone of permissible touch the elbows. We also opened our eyes at some point. We tried a few different moods and themes- for example, we tried using Ars Amandi to express urgency, and to act as two people sharing their first kiss, as two people flirting in a bar, and as a couple in a marriage of 40 years. At some point, between exercises, we closed our eyes and voted on whether or not to expand the allowed zone of touch again. I think we must have gotten a mix of yeas and nays, because we decided up to half way up the upper arm would be the new allowed zone of touch. (I abstained.) Ars Amandi as it was created includes the whole arm, shoulders, across the sternum, neck, and upper back. (This workshops never went that far.) We were also encouraged to alter our breathing as we felt comfortable.

After the exercises, we sat around in a circle and shared some impressions. I had a few thoughts I considered sharing, but found myself feeling too self-conscious to speak up.

I liked the way the workshop eased people into things- starting with eyes closed, hands only, and one person passive, one person active made it a lot easier. Even though we were stroking one another’s palms and fingers, it was possible to engage in the activity in a fairly clinical fashion so long as our eyes remained closed. Which I did, at first, because that made me feel less self-conscious. I recall, the first time I took an active role, my mental process was very analytical. I was trying to keep my hand movements reasonably affectionate (and that right there tells you I was thinking too hard about it at first,) but internally I was thinking “ok, well, this person isn’t wearing a ring, and they have fairly short nails…” And when I was passive, I was thinking a lot about my own hands, and what my partners might be concluding about them. I was terribly embarrassed by my rough skin (my hands get very dry in the winter, and I was really wishing I’d had the time to put on hand lotion). I also wear a little silver band on my left ring finger (when I’m not in costume, that is), which has on many occasion lead people to either assume or ask if I’m married. I supposed my Ars Amandi partners might draw the same conclusion.

When we expanded the touch zone up to the elbows, I became very aware of the fact that I was one of the only participants who was wearing long sleeves. I don’t know if I actually thought they would add an extra layer of distance between me and my partners. I think it added an extra variable- maybe other people were wondering if this one person didn’t want the skin of her arms to be touched? and some people touched my arms underneath the sleeves, which could easily be translated as more intimate than touching another person’s arms without sleeves. So in a certain way, with Ars Amandi, sleeves could be extra boundaries, or they could provide more opportunities for ways to express intimacy.

Adding eye contact made a huge difference. When we opened our eyes, I found myself having to consciously tell myself not to look at just my partner’s hands and mine. It was impossible for it to still feel at all clinical with open eyes; direct eye contact made it much more personal and intimate. Being able to see meant the focus was less on what it felt like to touch and be touched, and more on the actual person I was interacting with.

When we tried out different emotions and scenarios, I found Ars Amandi to be remarkably flexible and expressive. Each of the suggestions (urgency, first kiss, flirting in a bar, and a 40 year marriage) seemed straightforward, but as we were actually incorporating them into our actions, I realized that we might be interpreting the suggestion differently, and that it showed in how we were behaving. For example, did “first kiss” mean for whatever characters we might be representing, as a couple? Or first kiss for both of us, ever? Did flirting in a bar mean we’d already expressed interest in one another and now were enjoying one another’s company, or that we were still attempting to pick one another up in a bar? Eye contact, facial expressions, body posture, and manner of breath all factored in to the interpretations as much as hand movements did.

For most of the various exercises, people stood with their feet stationary, facing one another, though towards the end we were told that we could move around one another if we chose. The only partner who moved their feet with me was my partner for the very last exercise, in which we were trying to convey the relationship of 40 year marriage. He had been to multiple Ars Amandi workshops in the past. I suspect he was probably more comfortable with it than anyone else participating, though Lizzie did say that us Interconners took to Ars Amandi relatively well.

I think this last exercise was also the one where I had my biggest failure in communication.  I was attempting to convey a question with non-verbal cues- “after 40 years, do you still find me attractive?” When we briefly discussed the exercise afterwards, I was under the impression I hadn’t quite succeeded in transmitting the question, though we did both read comfort, trust, and stability in one another.

I could definitely see incorporating Ars Amandi into a theater LARP- it was abstract enough to make it comfortable for strangers to engage in, but also affectionate and intimate enough to reflect the emotions between characters. And it was versatile enough to allow players to express their characters’ thoughts and state of mind.  And with a bit of tweaking, could be used to convey in-game information about a situation without requiring players to step out of character and clarify whether or not their characters had sex.

The big thing that I see as a potential hindrance to using Ars Amandi more in the local theater community is that, as Lizzie said, it probably requires a fairly substantial workshop before a LARP to ensure that players will be able to feel comfortable using it. The various techniques the workshop employed that helped familiarize me with it- starting with eyes closed, one person passive and one active, starting with a very limited zone of touch, etc. took some time to be effective, and most theater LARPs run with a limited time budget. Adding around 45 minutes in order to make one mechanic plausible may not be well received. Maybe at some Dia de Los Sobres type event, with two theater LARPs running in one day, where an Ars Amandi workshop prepped people for both LARPs, it could work. It’s definitely worth experimenting with.

And I think that concludes my series of Intercon Post-Con reports.

About Fair Escape

I've been LARPing for years, in all different styles. I love trying out all different styles and genres and formats. I have a sort of "gotta catch 'em all" attitude towards experiencing LARPs. I'm currently serving as a board member of NEIL, and a member of bid com for the British convention Consequences. I was also the coordinator of Festival of the LARPs in 2017, and I'm on staff for NELCO, the first all LARP conference in the US. I've also served as an editor for Game Wrap, NEIL's publication about the art and craft of LARP, and served on Intercon staff in various roles over the years.
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17 Responses to Intercon M Post-Con Report Part V: Ars Amandi Workshop

  1. Brian R. says:

    I tend to think Lizzie Stark places far too much emphasis on litigiousness as an overriding factor in US larp culture. I’m sure liability issues have certain effects, but the whole thing gets a little overplayed and some of the conclusions seem like a bit of a jump. I remain unconvinced that litigiousness has much to do with why love gets downplayed in larp (if it even does get downplayed, and that’s not just a sampling error on her part).

    This is one of those cases where the Intercon format subtly effects the type of stories that we’re able to tell, which is interesting to think about. Intercon 4 hr slots have trained us to think of 4 hrs as what a “substantial” game is, and the regularity of the slots means that holding a 5 hr event becomes difficult. The result is that Intercon seems to subtly discourage any workshopping at all. You’d either have to span two slots (unpopular), cut into peoples lunch (logistically difficult) or have the actual roleplaying a good deal shorter than people are used to.

    • Fair Escape says:

      All good points- I do think the litigiousness of our culture in the US gets overstated sometimes (though I do think it plays a larger factor in terms of safety standards).

      You’re right that Intercon’s 4 hour slot has had a huge impact on LARPs in our community, and it’s kind of a shame. I think a lot of LARPs could really benefit from GMs taking a step back and deciding if they’re actually 4 hour LARPs, or were assumed to be 4 hours (or being forced to fit 4 hours) because that’s the standard people have come to expect. And I don’t know how people would respond to signing up for an even that was billed as 45 minutes of a workshop before the 2 or 3 hours of actual LARP. (Which itself would be cut down somewhat by set up, rules briefing and game wrap.) Which is why I suspect it would be better introduced through an event like Dia de Los Sobres or a standalone theater event.

  2. Nathan Hook says:

    The need for workshopping disappears once players are familiar with the technique. You don’t need to reteach it every larp if the players have used it before. It’s just a challenge to get to the point where people are generally familiar with it and confident using it.

    • Fair Escape says:

      I agree! I think getting it to the point where it wouldn’t need a workshop because players could be expected to be familiar with it would be difficult, especially because in theater LARPing around here, every LARP has its own unique rule sets. But a lot of boffer LARPing around here definitely operates on identical (or near identical) rules sets for many LARPs, and I think that does boffer LARPing a lot of good.

  3. Simon James Pettitt says:

    An interesting read for one who comes from a nordic country, but hasn’t tried Ars Armandi yet. And I agree a workshop that eases you into it is still relevant, even in the nordic countries. Of course some communities don’t need to anymore, but over here the problem is, for me at least, it feels like too many take for granted, that we all know what Ars Armandi is. Also a workshop would be relevant to show your participants what form and interpretation of Ars Armandi you will be using, (is it allways sex or?).

    On another note, it’s interesting to hear about the structural limitations this Intercon has on the Larps. At the Danish con Fastaval we used to have some similar rules: all games had to take 6 hours and had to be for 6 players and so on. But not many years back it was decided that the content of the individual game should decide the frames not some structural rules. That made programming much more complicated, but at the same time led to some very varied games, (from 2 to 7 hours, and 3 to many participants).

    • Fair Escape says:

      We actually don’t have any rules at Intercon for how long a LARP can take. (I’ve played a few 1, 2, and 8 hour LARPs at Intercon.) But because we mostly have 4 hour LARPs, it’s most convenient to run a LARP that is 4 hours- it fits in most easily with everyone’s schedules.

      It’s very much a self-perpetuating cycle, and honestly, I think it would help the convention a lot to have more people deliberately run LARPs that aren’t 4 hours, in order to create more flexibility in writing and running LARPs.

      Thank you so much for commenting! It’s really interesting to hear about other LARP communities. I didn’t realize Ars Armandi was that commonly known among Nordic LARPers.

  4. Ivan Zalac says:

    An interesting read 🙂 Some differences I noted from your description and the workshop I did:

    I didn’t bring the printed prep, though I mostly talked about the same things in the introduction.
    The workshop I ran had lots of people comfortable with high intensity of the technique.
    The touches we explored were: a teasing touch, an urgent touch, a rhythmical touch.
    After everyone was comfortable with hands, instead of voting how far everyone will go, we immediately opened up the full range, with the double-tap safe gesture when one reaches his maximum tolerable intensity, and that every participant had to use at least once… Most people actually declined to use it, or they used it at the countdown when the scene was ending.
    For the end, we played a short series of scenarios in this order: young couples, couples in a relationship for a long time, couples before breaking up, switch partners + one night stand, return to original partners + make-up sex.

    How many people did you have and how much time did your workshop take?

    • Fair Escape says:

      Damn, I totally forgot I wanted to mention that there was an Ars Armandi workshop going on in Croatia the same weekend, I thought that was such a cool coincidence. I like the idea of making everyone use the double tap even if they didn’t need it, because it seems like it would really help with people who felt any pressure not to use it. I also like the scenarios you guys plaed out- the idea of breaking up, switching, then switching back to make up is a clever idea.

      We had around 20 people, I think. The event was scheduled for 2 hours, though we did have a break after the talk, and I think we might have gone slightly over. I’m not sure how long the actual workshop (minus the talk and break) took, but I want to say around an hour?

      • Ivan Zalac says:

        Our lasted a little bit longer (the actual workshop) with 10 people, but I think our talk part was shorter than yours (we started a bit late, something that’s quite common over here). As the organizer I felt I could use the extra time for more effect.
        I have to mention that I also didn’t see catfights or wrestling matches.
        I liked your “40 years marriage” experience. I might include that in the next workshop I’ll run 🙂

  5. Ajit G. says:

    Hey there! I was your last partner, the one for the 40 year marriage. I thought you were great!

    Here is the strange thing: I didn’t notice either the ring or the long sleeves. I did think you were a touch nervous, but perhaps no more so than most first-timers to Ars Amandi. You were a great partner and I felt we conveyed many of the things you touched on–trust, safety, enduring love, etc.

    I DID miss the question you asked: “Do you still find me attractive?” That is *awesome* and I wish I had caught onto it. It’s a powerful question and a very appropriate one in that situation.

    I agree with the uncertainty whether it is an issue of American litigiousness that might cause problems for things like Ars Amandi in the U.S. I’ve never heard of a case of a law suit with regards to larping in the U.S. despite knowing of some wonky and outrageous stuff that has happened in the community. Rather, I think it is cultural limitations, expectations or programming; the U.S. community, at the moment, seems uncomfortable with that level of intimacy, physicality, sexuality and intensity in its larp/role-play. Which is strange, because I find Americans (by and large) more open and emotionally receptive than Nordics (in my limited exposure to them). The Nordics I’ve spoken to have also admitted this; there is dissonance in their behavior with regards to interpersonal relationships and what they are comfortable in games.

    I do think workshopping for Ars Amandi is required. To make that happen at Intercon, the easiest way to handle it might be to have everyone who signs up for a game that uses Ars Amandi go to a pre-con workshop. If you don’t attend the pre-con workshop on Ars Amandi, you can’t play an Ars Amandi larp at Intercon. That may be the most effective way to deal with the 4 hour limitation. In all likelihood, any game using Ars Amandi will still have a brief workshop at the beginning and a debrief at the end (which is a requirement for Jeepform games), but those games are designed to handle that and despite an abridged playing time, I find that the intensity of my experiences in them more than make up for any lack of actual role-play time.

    In any case, if you’re on Google+ at all, look me up. A few of us in the freeform/arty-larp scene are there, discussing role-play and gaming in general with others in the indie storytelling scene. I wrote some of my own thoughts on Intercon as well. It’d be great to keep in contact with you:

    • Fair Escape says:

      It’s entirely surprising but I guess somehow reassuring to know that not everyone noticed the sleeves.

      I like your suggestion- I could see running a LARP and saying “if you sign up and haven’t tried Ars Armandi before, please attend the workshop” as a potential option (though still not ideal.)

      Thanks for commenting!

  6. Tim Lasko says:

    Found your blog! \o/

    Anyway, close to 50% of the LARPs at Intercon M this year were something other than 4 hours long, which I think is the highest percentage in a while. Granted, Sunday morning was always fairly flexible and Friday evening to a lesser extent but Saturday is starting to break that mold, too, now that we’re slowly moving away from the fixed periods imposed by meals in the Con Suite and encouragement, here and there, for writers to break out of the four-hour mold. I see the schedule becoming less fixed as time goes on. (Of course, I was tearing my hair out trying to get the survey fixed up because one could have been in eight LARPs that weekend.) One real challenge is the setup and turnaround time for each LARP. Many writers have stepped up to the challenge of getting their rooms ready in an hour (or less) in magnificent ways but that’s more of a limiting factor right now, IMO.

    I have to do some more reading about the Ars Armandi techniques. “I think it’s quite sad that many players should have a greater expectancy of their character getting killed than fucked,” is an fun line but I’m not sure that the solution is creating a new scheme for defining “good touch.” That could be only because when I started LARPing, it was largely with the same group of friends for many years and I ended up being fortunate in detecting boundaries.

  7. Philip Kelley says:

    A few comments on everyone else’s comments.

    Lizie was targeting the talk to be 15 minutes, but discussion ran it to maybe 30. 5 to 10 minutes break before the hands-on session, and ended 5 minutes short of the two-hour mark (room was scheduled for another event then).

    I agree that having even just an abbreviated workshop would be good, if not necessary. It’s not just being familiar with the system, it’s also about being familiar/comfortable with your fellow players. Perhaps a two-part workshop, the first half for “basic training”, the second half for player meet-and-great? Strong romantic stories can produce bleed out [actions/emotions in character carry over or lead to real world actions/emotions] and all the real-life complications that that can lead to. Workshopping before and debriefing after, talking things over as players of a game, can help players cope with such situations. (These were key points raised in the “Social Conflict and Bleed” panel.)

    While American larp organizers (and/or site hosts) appear overly concerned about litigation, they have been trained to be so. Yes, most players [I’m iffy on the term “larper”] aren’t going to worry about the odd bump or bruise, and probably no major lawsuit has ever happened… but everyone’s heard stories about malpractice suits, boiling-hot coffee spilled on a lap in a drive-through, and similar stuff, and we are consistently bombarded with pre-emptive anti-litigation messages (“This jar of peanuts was processed on machinery that processes peanuts”). It’s enough to make anyone think “well, I really don’t want it to happen to me, so I better make sure. (Me, I agree with Shakespeare, but that ain’t going to happen.)

    The Intercon 4 hour slot is indeed not required, but it is the de-facto standard. Consider: if a game runs “long” and overlaps all the games in the next time slot, that’s one less game you get to play. (And if the games are a jigsaw of start and end times, it could be perceived as playing one game when you could be playing in three! …this ignores the quantity vs. quality argument, which would largely be based on player perceptions and thus be very subjective. Where was I? Oh yes…) But, on the flip side, it’s a long game, and good long games trump good short games in my book–more time to play and/or develop the character. Of course, the downside of a bad long game is pretty costly…

    • Fair Escape says:

      Excellent point regarding our culture. Some of those wacky law suit stories are true. (And every restaurant now has signs that say “please alert us if anyone in your party has a peanut allergy.) How much this stuff factors into any one person’s conscious or subconscious decision making is very hard to say.

      The momentum behind 4 hours for a LARP is pretty strong, and when one LARP extends beyond that, it’s understandable that people feel that is has to be worth giving up two slots to play. But if the entire schedule were more staggered, I think we would look at it very differently, and it wouldn’t feel like you were sacrificing more time for one LARP. I mean, I like to fill my schedule to the brim, but if the schedule were more staggered, I might find myself with more half hours or hour breaks between LARPs (which would be great- so many LARPs this year ran late even though they ran back to back… and then I still had to costume…) but I might still feel like I had maxed out my schedule.

  8. John Kim says:

    Cool! Thanks for a detailed description and analysis. I’m an American and did a workshop in the method at Knutepunkt in 2005, but I haven’t used it in a game yet. I do feel like there is a hurdle for using it in American larp culture, and I’d agree that there are factors besides litigation, though litigation is a concern. (Then again, my impression is that it isn’t common in Nordic larping, either.)

    • Fair Escape says:

      That sounds awesome, I’d love to attend Knutepunkt sometime. I’m curious to see how this sort of thing is different in different communities, like England or New Zealand, or different parts of the US. (And if you have a description of the experience somewhere, I’d love a link!)

  9. Pingback: Two LARP Discussions | FairEscape

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