The Totem experience

Må was painted the first time by her love from last summer. It became a last fleeting memory of what had been, and a sort of good-bye ritual for the two…

When Må woke up on the second day at the ritual site, somewhat late, she knew that it was now allowed for her and the other females in the tribe to take mates…

Ulv, the alpha female has taken three mates, and since there are only seven men in the tribe and four women all in all, Må quickly realized that if she wants to keep her position as second in command she needed two mates for herself. One she took out of love, the other one for pure status reasons.
(Andie Nordgren 2008)

Totem is an experimental post-apocalyptical larp about two tribes who have travelled far to gather on their sacred ritual grounds, where the young from each tribe will enter adulthood through a rite of passage. The participants will experience life in a society without civilization, a tribal culture where taboos and rituals dominates life. Play is focused around a rite of passage where body language, status and hierarchy seek to produce a very intense experience for the participants.

Totem is a tragedy, a story about mankind forgetting its culture. But it is also a story of personal tragedy for the participants who, in this extremely hierarchic society, have to see former lovers taken as mates by others, or personally ending up at the bottom of the hierarchy. The game centres on a liminal ritual where the young become adults and the old adults leave the tribe. Everybody has the burden of knowing that they one day, when they themselves are ending adult life, will pass on the fragments they remember from the rituals to the young members of the tribe.

The larp is driven by planned rituals, competitions and moral dilemmas led by elders of the tribes (game masters). As game masters you are the carriers of culture and tradition, leading the young into adulthood. In the beginning of the larp the elders plays a central role, but as the larp proceeds their influence diminished, until the participants are left with the full burden of adult life.

Experience design

The experience of totem can roughly be divided into three central elements.

Degenerating culture
The premise of totem is that culture is degenerating. The post-apocalyptic setting is used to emphasize this premise in Totem; that the process of civilization has reverted and is now at the last stages of degeneration.

We have come far from beyond the point of no return and even though human kind is not threatened with extinction, the things that made us human are disappearing. Consciousness, soul or free will, whatever it is that made us different from beasts, is almost gone. […]

We want to create a story about a degenerating culture. Human kind got further than we could have ever dreamt of, but the tide of progress turned and civilization started to degenerate. In this future people again live in nomadic tribes without written language or significant remnants of the lost civilization.

Instinct takes over where there are no longer rules or explanations. Meaning and depth is redundant, words are forgotten and songs are hummed instead… (original Totem website)

This is not a story about the rebirth of civilization. It is a story about chances lost and a soon to be over adventure. There is to be no new inventions, no new tales, and above all no revolution in the game.

Coming of age
At the center of Totem is a story about coming of age. The young from two tribes has been sent to the distant ritual grounds, where they will shed the easy life of children and take on the responsibility of adults through a series of rituals. A main game element of totem is that every participant has to find their place in the hierarchy of their tribe.

Totem emphasizes status as an important game dynamic around which the story revolves and focuses on playing with status and hierarchy in the group. Between the central rituals this should be done through games, competitions and other power struggles carried out with Ars Ordo (see meta techniques and high resolution). These status fights should only be carried out within genders, never between them.


Design philosophy

High resolution
High resolution is all about the detail and quality of interaction in the larp. Not in the setting, or in the props and character backgrounds, but the detail of the communication between characters. We want to create a gameworld and an idea about what the game is going to be, which enables subtlety across a wide spectrum of possible in-game interactions. It is about where we think the threshold is, and where we draw the line between what we choose to interpret as in-game or off-game communication.

In a close knit tribe there is really only one thing to care about – where your character stands in relation to the other members of the tribe. There is no need for ever introducing yourself to someone outside it, so the labels, titles, backgrounds and professions we often use to give strangers some hint as to how they should behave around us are useless. The sometimes very tangible flow of status and connections between tribe members is the only thing that has any meaning, and this is your entire universe.

Further reading on High resolution larping can be found in: Nordgren, Andie (2008): High Resolution Larping: Enabling Subtlety at Totem and Beyond. In Montola, Markus & Stenros, Jaakko (eds.): Playground worlds. Ropecon ry.

Ensemble play
Ensemble play is another important aspect in the design philosophy of Totem. Through building a close and safe group of participants, the potential for strong scenes and intensity in the larp increases. By allowing the players to co-design the larp through pre-larp workshops, the participants get a large amount of ownership for the story and have a better understanding of the larp they are going to play.

Ensemble play is also a way of increasing the potential for high resolution interaction since it can take players to a common understanding of where game boundaries are that is built during workshops rather than based on current trends in the gaming culture at hand.