Ropecon 03
gaming in utopia

A pink girl's one-speed bike parked at a game convention, and not locked. This photo sums up Finland and its gaming scene better than any other photo I took.

Ropecon takes place in Dipoli, a non-Euclidean building designed by a famous husband-wife team of architects.

RopeCon (roughly translated: RPGcon) is one of the best gaming cons I've been to in my life. It's the largest hobby game con in Scandinavia and one of the largest in Europe. It's been growing steadily, and it hit a record 3,500 attendees this year (including 100 GMs and other folks that got in free by participating in some way). It is a delightfully vibrant con, representing the broad range of gaming found in Finland. In its sociability, paneling, costuming, and events, RopeCon is more like a US science fiction con than a US gaming con.

Judging by RopeCon, Finland is a gaming utopia. It's the future of gaming that I looked forward to in my younger, more idealistic days. That future did indeed arrive, albeit in Finland instead of in the States. What qualifies Finland as a gaming utopia? The Finns play a healthy range of game types and games. The con had tabletop RPGs, LARPs, minis wargaming, trading card games, and board games, even go. The major global games are popular in Finland, but less well-known (and perhaps equally deserving) games have a bigger presence. I know Ryan Dancey hates that idea, but as the author of some of these less well-known games, I found it refreshing. Gaming in Finland is also treated as more of a regular hobby and less of a subculture. Whether it's cause or effect, there are a lot more women in the scene than in the States.

The organized gaming scene, including RopeCon itself, is all volunteer. Apparently, the Finnish gaming market is too small for publishers to try to organize it and make a profit off of it. So volunteers do it all.

On top of all that, the RopeCon folks know how to treat a guest of honor and how to throw a massive sauna party. Plus, everyone speaks English. If you're an industry pro, there are worse things you could do today than send your CV to the RopeCon folks and beg to be invited as a GoH at the next available opportunity.

There was a ton of costuming at the con. The prevalence of costuming is do largely to the huge success of LARPing, mostly fantasy LARPing. Lots of cloaks and elf ears. Most of the costuming was well-done but casual. For example, you can see more elaborate costumes at RustyCon, which has a fourth as many attendees and fewer costumes per capita than RopeCon. My take is that in the States one might look askance at someone in a costume, but if your costume is really good, then it's OK. In Finland, no one looks askance at casual costumes, and so there's no pressure to be elaborate. Or maybe I'm thinking too much.

There's something about the attendees' light-hearted willingness to dress up that seems to me somehow gentle, refined, refreshing, and utopian, but I can't really put it into words.

The biggest difference between US gaming and Finnish gaming is the large amount of LARPing in Finland. Many, perhaps most, of the tabletop RPGers also LARP. The LARPing can be casual or it can be very high-end, with full costumes and "boffer" weapons. It includes both character roleplaying and physical combat contests.

LARPs are mostly fan-created, with unique rules designed for each LARP. Campaign LARPing is rare; most LARPs are one-time events with pregenerated characters and ad hoc rules. I didn't see any evidence of the Camarilla, for example.

LARPing is recognized by the populace at large in Finland. It's appeared in print cartoons, and there was a TV series about a group of LARPers. The series has been picked up elsewhere in Scandinavia.

LARPing seems to be about 50/50 male/female. Its presence is so big that it significantly boosted the presence of women in the convention as a whole. The apparent equality in numbers, however, was an illusion. The card-gaming and miniatures-gaming areas were very active and almost exclusively male. It's just that those players stayed at their tables (and sometimes slept under them) the whole weekend, and thus the people you saw walking around the con were disproportionately female.

And there are worse ways to spend a weekend than wandering around a con filled with young Scandinavian women in costume.

LARPing seems to have made attending a gaming con into a normal hobby. The folks who showed up looked like regular young people off the streets more than members of a fannish sub-group.

Rabbit costumes in Finland are rather less elaborate than in the States.

Finns have an exaggerated sense of personal space, and some take elaborate measures to prevent bodily contact.

On Friday night, guys with boffer weapons fought for fun, sometimes in big melees. Some fighters were in costume.

On Saturday, RopeCon hosted a boffer tournament. The same guy has won three years in a row, so either he's cheating or there's a fair bit of skill involved.

The card game hall was always crammed. Card gamers are the butt of jokes at RopeCon the way are the butt of jokes at SF cons in the US: they don't have girlfriends, don't use deodorant, and spend the whole con in one room playing games.

A stuffy balrog at the art show. In addition to the stuffy demons, the art show included the same sex-and-violence themes that you see in the States.

One pretty set of photos depicted a topless young woman with white feathers on her back in the suggestion of angel wings. It was modest in that no nipples were visible. But then I saw the last photo in the series, a closeup of her back. Each white feather was tipped with a needle, piercing the woman's skin. That's how the feathers were attached.

Lots of gamers show up at the con with mats and sleeping bags. Some find corners to bed down in for the night, others sleep in rooms that convert from gaming areas to dormitories, and a few made tents of their miniatures tables. Volunteers can use secluded bunk beds. The con has a sauna lodge nearby for the pre-party and the after-party, and they make it available each morning to con-goers who want to get a sauna or a shower.

For some teens, spending the weekend at the con is like going to camp. And like at camp, some amount of "sleeping bag sex" is said to happen.

Here's the beach sauna where "campers" could shower. It's also used for a fun pre-party and an unbelievable after-party.

All weekend, folks who were going to be at the afterparty asked me whether I was going to go in the sauna. It seems that guests from the US haven't been uniformly enthusiastic about it. One guest said, "I don't know if I'd feel comfortable being around a bunch of other men wearing nothing but a towel." To which the response was, "First, there will be women, too. Second, what's this about a towel?" During the sauna party, several accommodating Finns asked me whether I was sure that I was comfortable with women being in the sauna. Yes, thank you, quite sure.

The afterparty was a blast. It's been explained to me that naked female Indian wrestling isn't a normal occurrence at the party. I guess it was just my lucky day.

Here's Martin Ericsson, another GoH. He's preparing like mad for a one-time psychedelic video program that he played at the con. Martin's a LARPer and big Ars Magica fan from Sweden. He may be younger, taller, better looking, more passionate, more artistic, and blacker clad than I, but I beat him 2-1 in naked Indian wrestling. Probably I got the best of him because he was drunk, whereas I am invariably moderate in the consumption of intoxicants.

Antti and Anu guided me around the whole weekend. There were two of them so they could tag-team me and run the good cop-good cop routine.

They gave me a cell phone with their numbers programmed into it to use for the weekend. Have I said yet that I love Finland?

The con set me up in a hotel whose registration desk is also a bar. Now that's customer service.

In Helsinki after the bars close, beautiful drunks wander the streets. You might think that the Helsinki dance floors are crowded with beautiful blondes, but there are plenty of beautiful brunettes there, too.

Here's what passes for graffiti in low-crime Finland. It's part of a mural on the side of a pedestrian underpass. Where are the gang tags, I ask you.


A couple things I didn't get photos of.

This one guy was walking around with no shoes because he had tossed his beloved boots into a makeshift temple as part of an initiatory trip while on mushrooms. Now that's spiritual devotion.

On Friday night, half a dozen conservative Lutherans showed up, stood at the edge of the convention grounds, and sang hymns in an effort to save the souls of those who had given themselves over to roleplaying games. I guess Europe didn't send all its conservative Christians across the Atlantic after all.

September 2003