Posted by: Stenros | October 30, 2009

Spotlight: Phase Games in Czech

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…

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Boffer battle from the 1940’s. A page from Rychlé šípy comic.

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.)

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Rychlé šípy was originally published as a comic.

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.

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Big Vont in the 1969 series.

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.

JaroslavFoglar

Jaroslav Foglar (1907-1999)

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

c4Another 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.

c5Closest 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.

***

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Tomáš Kopeček lecturing about "LARPs in the Heart of Europe" in Knutepunkt 2009.

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.

Earlier guest bloggers: Illuminatum on harmfulness of pervasive larp, Steve Payette on accessibility, David Fono on Come Out and Play 2009, Neil Dansey on apophenia, and Bjarke Pedersen on Chernobyl.

Edit: Edited for readability.


Responses

  1. Can’t find Zapletal on Oxford OLIS, except in Slovak, so he almost certainly hasn’t been published in English in the UK. That’s a starting point, at least.

    Thank you for making this stuff available.

  2. At last, thank you for researching and typing, Stenros. And, Kopeček, thanks for bringing this gem to our attention.

  3. I never thought I’d be reading about the Czech scout movement. This is fascinating stuff, like finding a hidden underwater cave full of… well, Czech larp history.

  4. I would like to point you to some part of the “czech larp history” – or better czech game-education history that Foglar and Zapletal are mainly part of.

    Miloš Zapletal games have been part of the experiential education environment that has been important in czech youngster and young adult education.

    Prázdninová škola Lipnice http://www.psl.cz/ (web is unfortunately only in czech) have been preparing such events and courses for young adults and adults from 1977 – on these courses you could by roleplaying learn more about the society or yourself.

    Games were designed and prepared with intention that participants will learn by game experience and on various topics – e.g. morale, finiteness of life, complexity and interconnection of all lifeforms, personal responsibilities, freedom of choice, life and technology, creativity, etc.

    Example of games played

    Name: Day of Trifids
    Libreto: There has been some nuclear event, a huge number of people are blind though some can still see. But there are trifids – walking flora, that can kill. Players have to get out from a bunker to safe place (island) in groups with one of them able to see others blindfolded. Have to stay in silence to avoid trifids. Outdoor. 2 hours.
    Topics: responsibility, dependence, blindness experience

    Name: Get the money and than get out
    Libreto: 1st part – All the players that agree that will play a game which is unknown to them and is for money have to agree on amount of money each will put to the game (fee is same for all and have to mean for them something – e.g. you can buy a dinner for 2 for it). Players who doesnt want to participate for that amount (or for any reason) have to leave the room before 2nd part begins.
    2nd part – true is revealed – all fees are put together and the total goes to one player only. On that player all the players must have agree on including player himself. Player must keep the money and used them for himself personaly (no charity, gifts etc.). There is a time limit 1hour to reach agreement – if agreement is not reached money goes to people preparing the game (and they will used it for their own personal purposes). All the group process is let to a group – no interfering from gamemasters.
    Topics: self worth, diplomacy, negotiation, arguing

    PSL (as well as some other groups like Instruktoři Brno, Hnutí brontosaurus) were islands of positive deviation in Czechoslovakian pedagogy during cold war era.

    One of theoretic publications by Czech authors is available in English – Outdoor and Experiential Learning
    An Holistic and Creative Approach to Programme Design
    Outdoor and Experiential Learning, Gower, 2004, ISBN: 978-0-566-08628-1,
    by Andy Martin, Dan Franc and Daniela Zounková

  5. Thank you so much for the info, Břeťa. I need to look up that book. It is ridiculously expensive (90 euros for 200 pages!), but maybe I can find it in a library. :)

    http://www.amazon.de/Outdoor-Experiential-Learning-Holistic-Programme/dp/056608628X/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1257357172&sr=8-1

  6. Interesting article. Speaking about Foglar and larp, maybe you will be interested in massive “larp battle” depicted in 40 years old TV series :)

  7. Cool, Dodiq! And epic!

    Is it a larp battle? hm. A battle game at least.

  8. You are right.
    Its not actually a LARP – there is no Role Playing.
    Its a battle about some dispute (i can remember well) between some sort of “boy gangs” (they are connected with Prague city areas).

    But it is played game – i.e. with well defined rules.


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