Last spring in Knutepunkt Jana Jevická and Tomáš Kopeček held a presentation about the history of larp in the Czech Republic. Rather surprisingly they started their history lesson during the First Republic (1918-1939), long before Dave Arneson and Gary Gygax commodified role-playing activity into Dungeons & Dragons, generally considered to be the starting point of role-playing games. I have interviewed Kopeček to learn more about the subject. The Czech case is interesting as it shows how games that look like larps, pervasive games or even pervasive larps can evolve not just from role-playing games or theater, but from the scout movement.
The following is an edited version of what Kopeček told me. It is rather long, the longest piece we have published here in the blog, but even so this just scratches the surface (there might be a blog entry on the Czech scout movement in the works). I truly wish that a more comprehensive look at this history will be written for an international audience. Otherwise I am forced to start learning Czech…
Roots in the Scout Movement
An important figure in this story is Jaroslav Foglar (1907-1999), who is famous in Czech as an author of books for young people. Foglar was active in the scout movement, and was directly inspired by the books of E.T. Seton. Foglar’s own books are fiction, but they depict youths and scouts – and the games they play. The first relevant book is from 1936 and is called Přístav volá (something like Harbour Calling). In the same year Foglar started the youth journal Mladý hlasatel which focuses on active teens. The next year he started Čtenářské kluby (Eng. Readers’ Clubs); independent children’s groups playing games and learning on their own without direct adult leadership.
Though Foglar’s books are mainly a mix of fact and fiction, he also wrote some methodological publications. In fiction he frequently uses descriptions of real-world games used in his scout environment. (Apparently there is also a book called something along the lines of Games of Jaroslav Foglar written after his death, but that – as with the rest of his works – is only available in Czech.)
Two series of books were especially important for early Czech larp. The first is a series about readers’ club Rychlé šípy (Eng. Fast arrows) which tells the story of a very large urban game in Prague. In it one quarter of Prague creates a very special social/game structure. All the children who participate wear yellow pins as a markers that they are part of the (gaming) community, each street has its leader, and all streets are lead by Big Vont. The community of kids has an oral history and plays games (the community was created after a death in one of the ‘children’s war’ in the area). When a community leader turns eighteen, he becomes an adult and has to leave the community. Before this he organizes a game/ritual where he selects a successor.
The books are completely fantastical. Though some characters were inspired by Foglar’s acquaintances, the story is completely fictional with flying bicycles and everything. The stories strongly emphasize morale, sometimes in a naïve way. Rychlé šípy are Foglar’s ideal young people with very high moral standards. A central point is that children can function in self-organized groups that need not be gangs, but scout-like teams. In the idealized world of the books these clubs organizing sport activities like football city league and urban games with many participants.
The three books, Záhada hlavolamu (Mystery of Conundrum, 1940), Stínadla se bouří (Stínadla riots, 1947/1971) and Tajemství Velkého Vonta (The Secret of Big Vont, 1986) are very well known in Czech and the first book has been adapted into a television series and a film. These books have been a central source of inspiration for many Czech (well, Czechoslovakian) games by children until 1989.
The other important book by Foglar are about a week to a month long games in nature. These “camp games” are something that Czech role-players directly connect to current Czech larping. Children’s camps were driven by strong storylines. Every segment of activity during camp was flavored by an overall story. In the 1930’s it was with minimal role-play; it was only a structure of the games, and a setting. This is where Seton’s influence is particularly visible, though without the emphasis on Native American culture. In Czech, the themes could set the action in almost any context.
For example in 1987 there was a scout camp that had an overarching story based on R. L. Stevenson’s Treasure Island. The children were divided into teams, which would be awarded points for solving of each phase. A phase was typically kicked off with a theatrical scene. Once the kids had been introduced to a part of the story they were thrown into the middle of the scene – which would then be an adaptation of some normal scout activity (such as shooting airguns at a paper target) to this story context. Typically there were one to three phases during day. Each phase is a closed sub-story – attack of the pirates, preparing for the journey, the journey itself. Most activities in camp are connected to the story somehow. Role-playing is not required or encouraged.
Foglar was not a theorist. He created a lot of games, but wrote almost nothing about their design. We have descriptions in his books – and for some of them we have also some rules. He did not consider these games special. Just prior his death Foglar published a book called Etapové hry (Eng. Phase Games, 1997) with Miloš Zapletal.
20 years before Dragons of Autumn Twilight
In 1959 Jaroslav Velinský organized a game. Today this game would be recognized as a larp, though the term did not exist back then. Velinský was doing games in Foglar’s tradition: This one was based on a decision that it is unfair to make a game with few organizers for many participants. This was the experiment where a number of organizers (mostly NPCs) were doing a game for a single player.
And so there was swordfighting with masked men at devastated cemeteries, the dead spoke from their graves, invocation circles were drawn, crucifix candles lit by themselves at midnight, monsters were attacking the player in abandoned temples (that there were a lot of in those days) while organs played and mysterious nuns were raised from death after having been fed to wolves. (From J. Velinský: Jak jsem si psal v Garthu zápisky (s Leonorou), Eng. How I was writing my notes in Garth (with Leonora), published in scifi magazine Ikarie 7/1995)
Based on the game Velinský wrote a book called Zápisky z Garthu (eng. Notes from Garth, 1969). It is a story about a famous singer in the future. He meets his femme fatale, leaves the world of show business and settles down in some fictional Nordic country. Near the city Garth builds copy of a historical lighthouse and moves in there. There he witnesses rapid global warming – the world will die in three days.
The book had a very limited print run. It is more of a collector’s item, a game artifact. It is an account of what happened in the game, so there are no meta accounts of how the play took place. In a way it can be compared to D&D campaign-based books, such as Dragons of Autumn Twilight, where you sometimes notice some features of RPG play.
Many similar games are described in the history book of some groups, but there are no academic publication documenting these older games. According to Czech historians of the scout movement the only way to find out how it really was is through these chronicles – and memories of participants and organizers. There are some publications that discuss the reasoning, ideology, psychology and value of these activities, but none that cover game design.
As an interesting side note, Velinský wrote a fourth book to Foglar’s trilogy. Foglar had left some minor issues unresolved, so Velinský wrote Poslední tajemství Jana T. (Last secret of John T., 2003) to wrap up the story.
The Czech Chronicler of Games
Another person of interest is Miloš Zapletal (born 1930), who has written more then 30 books about games (in Czech). He also was a leader of scouts. His writing covers everything from historical games through tabletop gaming to methodological books about educating children via games. His most important work is the four part Velká encyklopedie her (Big Encyclopaedia of Games, 1985-1988). Together these tomes amount to 2400 pages.
Closest relatives to larps are in the first part of encyclopaedia (Games in Nature) are the so-called scenario games (which are very similar to what Foglar called phase games). These games are direct successors of Foglar’s camp games. The book provides a few thorough recipes for such games – all the needed preparations, settings, flavor texts, etc are listed there. The reader can stage such game without bigger problems. One of the games is a two or three weeks long game about adventurers somewhere in the jungle trying to find treasure, another is about Czechoslovakian guerrillas in the Second World War, and a third one is based on Jack London’s books. These games don’t demand role-playing, but in some places it is encouraged.
The fourth book (Games in the City and Village) briefly covers an urban game that is not dissimilar to some pervasive games.
That concludes our history lesson today. If anyone has information about if Zapletal’s books have been translated, please leave a note in the comments. In fact, if there are any sources on this stuff in English, I’d love to see them. And thanks again to Tomáš Kopeček, who has been tirelessly answering my questions about the subject.
Edit: Edited for readability.