Convention Report RopeCon 2005

Convention Report RopeCon 2005 By Greg Stafford

RopeCon, Finland
July 19 to July 28, 2005

RopeCon (i.e.- Role Playing Convention) is Finland’s pre-eminent game convention.

I was invited to RopeCon last year, but could not go because I had just taken that teaching job in Mexico. But they asked again this year, and I was happy to accept and go. All that I knew about it, really, I got from John Kovalic’s blog about his visit. Saunas and naked seamen wrestling? Count me in! When I heard my buddy Bill Bridges was also GoH, I was even happier.

Bill Bridges

I took BART to the airport and checked in. Then I went to the In’tl restaurant and bought some sushi to take on board. I boarded, squeezed into the seat and checked the equipment. KLM has sophisticated entertainment stuff! Personal view screens and forty or fifty choices in movies, start’n stop when you want! Music and stuff of course, butI never listen to that when I’ve got something to read. (title, read in the trip. Great and funny lite reading). Also the latest copy of Economist, New Yorker and ForteanTimes.

Great tech, until the guy put his seat down, and the screen became unreadable. Well,not totally because if I put my seat all the way down and then scrunched down in the seat I could see the screen. And the woman behind me asked if I could move the seat up, and I said no. God it was cramped! I politely asked the steward if there was away to see the screen, hoping that he could ask the guy in front of slightly tilt up his chair (he wasn’t sleeping!)

Well, it’s a ten hour flight to Amsterdam to change planes, so he squirmed aroundabout as much as I did. Seat up, seat down. So I did see Big Fish again. My wife and I’d just been discussing this, and after seeing it again I still liked it a lot (B is my grade) and I still thought it should not have the last scene in it at all (Suzanne dropped it a whole grade, from an A to a B, because of those last minutes!) And I read the entire book Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim, by David Sedaris. Parts were just laugh out loud quality, others kinda sad. But a perfect airplane book.

Transferred in Amsterdam, but it was no better on the new plane. What was better was that it only lasted a few more hours.

Landed in Helsinki, got my bag and walked on to Finnish soil. There awaited Anu, the”short and red-haired” woman who had been emailing me as liaison; and Antti, another of the “handlers” as Bill called them, or “keeper” as I did. They chuckled at it politely because, by the time we said it, we’d spent enough time to know they’d get the joke. Jukka, the third of them, was at the hotel with Bill.

I was really flattered and pleased with the services that these friendly people provided. They were happy to chauffeur us around town, take us to fine meals and explain whatever we wanted to know. Their guidance made a convention trip into areally enjoyable quick tour of Helsinki to get a huge dose of Finland at once. I really do thank Anu, Antti and Jukka for their great care and service. They changed it from a “place event” (i.e.- “I saw Helsinki”) to a “people event” (“My Finnish friends said …”)

Anu, Antti and Jukka

Bill and I got there the same day (Wed, July 20), him a couple of hours earlier. Over the next eight days we pretty much did everything together except convention activities and a few times when I fell out to take a nap instead of walk around somemore.

A note on English. Everyone I met in Finland spoke English. Everyone: the waitresses,the cab driver, the retail store clerks. As Antti aid, “Of course we have a choice tospeak only Finnish or speak to other people.” This is the same I have heard fromSwedes. So yes, it is easy to understand why they spoke English. But everyone spokeit well too. And almost all the time signs, menus and so on were in English as well.

We started off with the museum. Nothing better to establish the foundation than looking at the oldest human artifacts found in the land there. Old stone age tools and so on. Went right on through to the iron age, the medieval period (part of Sweden)where they never had any real castles made, as we think of medieval castles;Russian Period, as part of the Russian Empire; the Liberation in 1818, the Winter War where little Finland kicked soviet Russia’s butt in the Winter War (Finns are understandably VERY big on pride of that, and references to it are everywhere.) Great museum.

Wow, a country that is younger than the US! And, so unlike the US, an ethnic entity that has a national consciousness (tribal, perhaps?). This sense of social awareness is not the same from where I come from, and it’s always a pleasure and insight to experience it elsewhere. Why? Because I think everyone has this kind of a tribal consciousness and responds to it. It seems like if you don’t be aware of it then you become a puppet of it, and so everyone in the US dances to some stringed uberhand but doesn’t acknowledge it. We say “We’re Americans” but the ubermeaning of that isn’t apparent to us. So manipulators of the local culture/tribal identification, plays that hand for us even while we pretend it does not exist because “We’re all Americans.”

Well, Finns are Finns, know it, and are proud of it. I love to see that. And they deserve to be proud. Kicked Russian butt!

The cities I saw, Helsinki and Espoo, were incredibly clean, modern and affluent. These two, plus a third, are the major metropolis of the country. Collectively they have 1/5 of the country’s population, about 1,000,000 people. Yes, the entire country has about 5,000,000 people. My “northern Bay Area” which includes San Franciso, Oakland, Berkeley and my dear Albany; has about that. But Finland has more area, including some virgin forest (I was told). We didn’t get to see or experience that.

Then we went to an art museum, enjoying the sightseeing of this pretty, modern city. Bill was beelining us to see the paintings of the classic Kalavala painter. There were some of the originals painting there, others being absent on tour. Now, I’d had seen these a hundred times in books. These are the classic pictures of the Kalavala, the great Finnish mythic epic.

But in person, standing in front of them, they are different. It happened when I saw the Mona Lisa for real, and here again when I saw these several paintings. I am always a bit surprised at this phenomenon. I’ve seen these. But when I see the actual one I am struck by it to such an extent that I feel why it is an icon-it creates a standard for artistic impact (“Did it make me feel the way I did when I saw the Mona Lisa?”)

For starters, these pictures are huge, seem like six feet tall counting the frame, way bigger than any reproduction possible, and so they have more detail visible than you have ever seen. But the whiteness of Aino’s skin never comes out, the mocking look on her face…

And of course we continued to see parts of these paintings all around the city. National icon.

At the end of one of the historical museums were toys in a display, and among them were some Magic The Gathering cards in display.

We had planned for those days to be for overcoming the jet lag period. Interestingly, this time I didn’t have the narcoleptic like spells in the mornings of the convention. Instead I went to sleep right upon getting to bed, then woke up for a period. A couple of hours. At first I fretted and found stuff to worry about but after a couple of days I just got up and studied my Spanish since I was missing six days of class before my final. My choice had been to trade off a game convention in Finland for a week of class? No choice, of course. Bye bye Spanish!!

The day before the convention my handler took me to a coffee shop to meet the Finnish club, Kalikos. I knew some of them by name through email and publications, but not most of them of course. This is a Finnish Glorantha (RQ/HQ) club that also does the publication. I ran into my first experience with hearing names here. Finnish is not even an IndoEuropean language, and it doesn’t sound anything like English. So when people said their names, sometimes I didn’t even recognize them unless they wrote it down, or told me who they are (“I’m the guy with the comic,” for instance.)

So we spoke all afternoon about Glorantha, HeroQuest and RuneQuest and had a great time. The handlers showed up and fretted for a bit and offered to get me out of there. But we stayed late, ended up going to a restaurant called Maya (but no, not even trying to be Mexican).

RopeCon started next day. It’s held in this huge, mildly labyrinthine convention center. Crammed with people. The convention had about 3000 paid attendees, I later learned. My general impression was that the crowd was younger and had more women than the US conventions. And they were more often in costume, but mainly for the LARPs they were doing. Larps are MUCH bigger there than here. And since the convention is not commercial-driven, but player-driven, it has events that the people want to play, and these are often larps.

Oh yea, lots of Goths. I’d checked over the general population and it seemed to have the usual count of punks, Goths and older folk with hair or tattoos. At the opening ceremony I looked over the audience and like three-quarters of everyone was dressed in black. They called me up on stage where I said something not stupid, then Bill then the third GoH, Claus.

Claus Raasted was the other GoH, a gent from Denmark. For his gaming credentials, he is a big name in larping in Denmark (and the Nordic countries in general) thanks to his long history in it and work in it. He now teaches larping to kids and is paid for it by the Danish government. Who does not want a job teaching kids to play these games?

But there is more. Claus is also a famous guy from a Danish reality TV show. I forget the real name, but as he describes it it’s the Teach Nerds to Play Soccer show. The directors took a bunch of non-athletes (and one specific request was to have a role-player among them) and teach them to play football (the world’s most popular sport), or as the US calls it, soccer. They learned to play, did the whole body building thing (“I just run up the stairs now when I see them.”) and for national TV played this team and that team. The first one was the leading national high school girl team or such, and the TV guys lost 7-0. In the season finale they played the same team and lost 1-0, a fantastic improvement and great accomplishment.

Claus is also famous because in one segment the team was being taken to this camp where they were supposed to get in touch with their primal masculinity, and so Claus led them off the bus fully naked. And since the show is shot WAY ahead of time, this segment became part of the opening segment, so every week Denmark got to see Claus walking full frontal naked out of the bus on national TV. Now, full frontal nudity is everyday on Danish TV, so this isn’t as big a thing as it might be here in Puritan US, but rather famous-making nonetheless. Our go-GoH.

I liked Claus from the first couple sentences, and within a few more was joking with him and I loved his dry and casual humor. “Please,” I said, “Do not feed me straight lines like that.” And he kept on, God love him.

I had been asked to give an Opening speech, of two hours, and I shared my history in the RPG industry and so on. Told a couple of funny stories. (“But that’s not what they are on TV!” Ha ha ha. Or “The only part I liked was the ‘Scary Noises at Night Random Roll Table.” But you know, you gotta be there…)

I was on another panel that was basically “All You Wanted To Now About Games You Didn’t Know About.” The panel member gets the name of a game, has to explain what it was about and then field questions from other panelists and the audience about it. (“So in the larp they were actually bound?”) My game was Atop the Scorpion and I blathered. I figured the point was to entertain the crowd, and get some laughs, which I did with my straight lines (“Well, I didn’t quite get genera then.”) more than with my cleverness (“It was a giant pistol like HG Wells that shot six shots to the moon.”) I just kept heaping bs on bs. Afterwards Syksy the moderator of the panel, said, “You know, I forgot to tell you that your game was supposed to be plausible. But you can be sure I won’t forget again!”

Next day I ran a HQ game for 5 Kalikos guys. The idea was to play it, and then they would take it out and Narrate it for others. It was 100% impromptu.

We talked and decided they’d play members of a Dara Happan Association going to Darjiin to establish their tax rights to the territory, replacing the previous failed Lunar party that had lost the rights. They had to build a bridge that had been destroyed, and though they had some information, it was not much. These guys had played together before, and quickly sorted themselves into a party of The Sons of Raiba trading mission

Dehazar (Simo Levanto) – merchant of Lokarnos, Take the Blame at 15
Gordarius (Samppa Mäkelä) – head of the household, Disapprove 5W
Ariash Damask (Olli Kantola) – keeper of the sandals
Dararius (Topi Pitkänen) – devotee of Raiba the Bridge Builder Doreios
Antigonos (Ville Korpela) – captain of the guard
Buserlassar (Eetu Mäkelä) – Buseri scribe, household astrologist

Having no objective yet other than to entertain, we played for a while to get everyone used to their characters and the situation. They debarked in the city, talked to locals and got the general impression of this outback, run down place. Eventually they met the efficient and loyal mayor, and learned of the rebel Átapaz. There was some conflict as they scouted around and great roleplaying, where the worst opponent was the bridge crossing spirit. They decided they had to go on a HeroQuest to magically prepare to build the road in the face of rebel resistance. They did, with general success. Then they went off on the HQ as I desperately tried to remember the rules and key points. They did too, of course, and it was a fun little segment, uncomplicated and with consequences. Fortunately, they were mostly positive.

They mustered their resources and marched off to build the bridge. Enemies surrendered without a fight, but the engineer decided he had to sacrifice himself to get it built (as the crevice spirit demanded). He fumbled his self-sacrifice roll, but since it was already 6 hours rather than making something else occur as a result of this I just described his long, slow and horrible death. The guy with “Take Responsibility for Others Actions” became the priest of this crossing and pledged to make an annual human sacrifice (“Yea, of course criminals will do.”)

I had a great time. Maybe they have something on their site too. Next morning I talked to a small crowd Kalikos guys about Gloranthan things.

They were running this gigantic game of Dragon Pass. There was a board like four feet by four feet, and every couple hours they would have new volunteers sit down and learn about the tactical situations. Then the players would decide where to move their troops, write orders down, hand them in and go away. Over the next two hours the move was analyzed and as the results were determined the pin-on unit counters were moved, with big arrows showing their movement. It looked like a military map as the day passed. It was quite interesting and fun to watch.

I had another panel on Sunday morning that was mostly about game design, but the leader was Satu Helio, who decided that the theme would also be of romance and myth, and we’d all present a game we just made up on these themes. We had about a day to think about this subject. Surprise panel. So Ville Vuorela (Finnish game designer, gave me a copy of his Praedor) explained his Casanova game set in a pseudo-Venice-but-more-fun place. I threw out a design with a character sheet with just five skills based on five chakras powers used as ways to interact with the lover. Bill talked about a mythic game of animal marriage. All really great stuff.

Then I had my last speech and I talked about the meaning of mythology as I understand it, and what it has to do with roleplaying. It was impromptu, though of course I’ve talked about this stuff before. I’m trying to work out some of the parts of my in-process book The Wall that is a Horse. And people asked questions and I chatted and answered them. These are smart people who seemed to understand what I had said, though many had not heard it before.

And a closing ceremony. Afterwards the MC said, “All the guests say the same thing at the end,” laughing. Well, of course.

Afterwards was dinner at Šsšlik, a Russian style restaurant. We were the first to arrive, Bill and me and Antti and his wife, Päivi. The place was a series of rooms of various sizes. The rooms had carpets on the wall, Samovars everywhere, waitresses dressed like members of a high school band. But with a bit more braid. Jeez, they had bear on the menu, but I passed it up for duck instead. Oh yea, and some Finnish beer because I didn’t like the Russian bitterness so much. An astonishing menu. Best cheesecake I’d ever had. Päivi horrified us with such facts as that Finnish verbs can have up to 250 conjugated forms.

We had some time after the convention, as Bill and I had requested, so we could see something else of the place. So on Monday we spent the day relaxing. We visited Hviträss, an architectural site where some of Finland’s most famous guys had lived. A nice superhouse on a lake from before MacMansions.

Monday evening was the after-party for the volunteer staff. Including the sauna. Now, I’d read John’s experience, and frankly, I’m from a different time and so the idea of being in a room sweating with a couple dozen men and women wasn’t as foreign to me. Nor to Bill. I looked forward to a sauna, in fact, as being a quintessential Finnish experience. Apparently a number of foreigners had not joined into this national pastime. But heck, I’d not gone all the way to Finland to pass up the most Finnish thing!

A huge barbecue was roasting all kinds of food and kegs of beer were to be drunk. We did, all was wonderful. When people would see my empty cup they’d offer to refill it, and frankly, after three days on my feet and too little sleep, I accepted. This is what the after-con party is for. I didn’t know most of these folk nor had seen them in the con, but they were the ones who got it done so I’d planned to just be there and not bother them. But they were quite friendly. For instance, at one moment we were talking with some of them and the young man said, “You haven’t tried Finnish licorice? Let’s see, ten minutes until the store closes. I can get there if I run.” And flash, he was off, and back in ten minutes with three bags of licorice to for Bill and I to try (my favorite was the salty one…)

At one point these beginning college students asked, rather mischievously, “Is it time for the sauna yet?” As I said, apparently many foreigners shun this. Not me! It was time to sauna! They said they’d show us the ropes, and off we went. No ropes, really, at all. Just undress here and stack your clothes, shower in the next room, and take a seat in the third one. Bunches of people there, enjoying the sauna. Big enough for maybe 60 people or so. Sit in the hot, steamy room as long as possible. Then, when hot enough, wrap a towel and walk through the party to the dock and out to the water (a branch of the Finnish Gulf) and jump in. Swim around and talk in that warm summer night where the sky is still light at midnight. (“Damn! It is!”) Then, back into the sauna and start over again. The seawater was not salty, but brackish. Only 3% salt, not the “normal” 7%.

Then the cry went up. “Naked seamen wrestling now! Come on out!”

So of course we all go. I watch several rounds, especially as Claus wins and loses and always gets a laugh out of the crowd. It’s hand to hand wrestling, where your right feet are side to side, and if you move your feet you lose. The actual several-year champ made a wonderful show of coming out and beating Claus so the floor could be cleared and the women could prove themselves. Then the men again, and at one point the crowd is calling for foreign blood and so I am pushed forward.

They asked if I was sure, since I’d so previously said I would not do it because my joints and ligaments aren’t all joined like when I was their age. But yea, of course I was up to this! Cheers. Damn, I love those folk. They poured vegetable oil on us wrestlers as a special effect (I guess, um, uh…)

I insisted on opposing someone I could beat, like a small girl or someone (laughter), and so they pushed forward Claus (bigger laughter). A bit of WWF theatrics all around, and we set to. We struggled for a second and then Claus threw himself backward into the bushes. I won! I was laughing as hard as everyone. Another opponent though! Forgive me, but in the adrenaline of the moment I forget his name, but damn if I didn’t throw him too! I think he was actually trying though. Maybe. A tiny bit. Har har, cheers and so on.

Then out comes The Champ, Jukka the Organizer. Man, this guy is short, buff and well balanced even after drinking the required amount of beer for one of the two convention organizers that year. And he threw me in about one millionth of a second and nicely enough so I didn’t have to fall and hurt myself. Great cheers, everyone loved the theater.

Later then a similar sequence occurred with Bill. The set up opponent, who nicely loses, and then out steps Jukka again. And goes hand to hand with Bill. And to the absolute astonishment of EVERYONE watching Bill throws him! Yea, he falls to the ground. (Afterwards Bill told me, “I did tai chi you know, and I could hold him, but I couldn’t move him. But it was the oil that made him slip.” Yea, right. Oil, or maybe A Hero Point! J)

Well, the champ and the crowd chanted for two out of three. And the champ beat Bill twice in a row. Bill did a GREAT job though. Enough so that the next day he realized his arm hurt from it.

So, that done, back into the sauna. No, wait, gotta first wash off the oil that we all got dumped on us. Into the sea and scrub with salt water and sand. It did come off too. Back into the sauna. Sea. Sauna.

“Have you seen the sauna on the right? The wood one? Come on.”

It is much smaller than the other, benches for maybe fifteen people or less. As predicted the steam was softer. I did the bad thing and threw the entire bucket onto the rocks, but sat there with everyone else and so they all told me about the saying that the guy who throws the water has to remain inside, just because people did what I just did and then skipped out. But I didn’t skip out so that was OK.

Them, after the beer ran out, we went to a party where the chief organizers were winding down. Great folks, sure wish my photos came out instead of like this. But they were Tunch, Sanli, Jiivonen, Heiccu, Mniksu, Ville, Janka, Anu and Petri.

Next day, 8 hours of shopping. Not me, but Bill had family obligations and so on, and so around the city we went. It was a great tour outside of the general downtown area, and by the end I had bought like 40 euros of canned reindeer and moose meat, and one little can for 40 more of bear meat. And I had a hunk of smoked reindeer meat that I thought might get through customs because it was shrink-wrapped. I mean, vacuum-packed.

Next day, our last, we went to this park where they have moved a passel of old buildings from across the land to one place for public viewing. These are the actual buildings from across the centuries of Finnish history with appropriate contents and so on. There’s a LOT of buildings, and the larger ones have a guide there to explain whatever level of detail you want to know.

The farm of the client farmers just rang my bell so loud, and I took a lot of pics and looked at lots of stuff, and questioned the guides about all kinds of things. When I need to have a Sartarite stead without a longhouse I will use this place. I did say, “These guys had a lot of stuff! They must have been well off!” But Antti and Jukko said, “No, they were clients.”

How about this Lapp hut? Said to prevent robbery from the wolverines.

How about these swing sets! A kind a normal one here, and how about this ferris wheel one! (“Wow,” says Suzanne, “You CAN go over the top!”)

And since that tour I have begun a story about the Lunar ladder inspector.

After another reindeer meat lunch we go to walk the island fortress in Helsinki Bay. We just get onto the ferry when it takes off, and it’s a half our or so out here.

Well, I am beat frankly, but it’s too early to go home and we want to squeeze everything into our last day. Somewhere-maybe when we were talking about the artillery and Antti’s experience with it in the navy-I got my second wind and my feet stopped hurting. It was a beautiful sight of the island-filled harbor approaches from the point of the defenses. We got back just in time to get the ferry again, ate and returned to the hotel full of dinner and a chronoportation through Finnish history.

I packed and went to bed, tired and sleepy. Lay down, and stayed awake. I had been having trouble sleeping the whole time anyway. After two days of that I just got up and studied my Spanish (“Let’s see, seven days until my final…” um. “Tengo siete diezes antes mi examina.”)

My plane trip home: read how I didn’t fit above, but understand that this time I felt even MORE was more cramped. Because I am an optimist I believe the guy in front of me had a tinge of conscious at dinner when I asked him to tilt up his seat. He said it was the woman in front of him who had her chair put back. I said, “Ask her to sit up. Pass it on.” He tilted up for me. I didn’t see him ask the woman in front of him to do the same, though. Nice guy. But he kept it up long enough to see Sahara this time and half of Miss Congeniality 2.

And I read the entire of Not Before Sundown, by Johanna Sinisalo, too. This was, I was told, an award wining and popular piece of current Finnish fantasy writing, and so I bought it. Interesting and good airplane fare, but I didn’t think it was great or revolutionary. A guy takes home a troll, and goes from there on.

Review Score: Well, I read the whole thing.

Big bummer coming into the country though. All the reindeer and moose meat was confiscated! It is illegal to bring even canned mean of ruminants in. “Can’t risk Mad Cow,” they said.

“I’m not feeding it to cows,” I say.

Doesn’t matter.

“It’s free-range,” I say.

Doesn’t matter.

Well, there goes me serving my favorite Finnish meal to my family and friends. Well, almost. To the agent’s surprise, bear meat is not restructed and so I got that tiny little can in. (Now only if I can find lingon berries!)

Well, finally got home and began adjusting.

And for the record the Spanish test was easy.