Season 2 Prop in House of the Dragon is Bound to Make Viewers Squirm

Season 2 Prop in House of the Dragon is Bound to Make Viewers Squirm

Season 2 Prop in House of the Dragon is Bound to Make Viewers Squirm

When I was in middle school, my brother swiped the wire hangers from my closet. They went missing from the rest of the house too. Every night after calculus homework, he worked away at one gorgeous, obsessive task: knocking together suit after suit of chain mail armor. One night the hammering stopped and he made a rare appearance. Could our mom sew him a tabard with a cowl? She could and she did. With that under his arm, he and two friends made their way to a nearby avocado grove. I wasn’t allowed to follow, but I’d guess they suited up, bashed at each other with swords, and said things in British accents. Today you might call that Larp, short for “live-action role-play,” a term widely used to describe hours spent in a fantasy world. Back then you called it weird.

Weird didn’t faze my brother. Being a closeted gay kid, I envied his attitude. While I spent my teenage years dodging bullies, he found a way to mentally ditch them entirely. I didn’t think about his chain mail gambit until two years ago. It was that first brutal, boring pandemic winter. Almost everyone I knew was ready to drop not only their jobs and apartments but—if possible—reality itself. The Larp scene had exploded in the decades since my brother’s DIY adventures, as I discovered one night while doomscrolling. Without much trouble, you could have a high-end experience of whacking some poor guy dressed as an orc. But that swords and wizards stuff had never been my exact flavor of geek.

I caught wind of a different scene, though—that of Nordic Larps. These underground games, played mostly in northern Europe, took players on thinky head trips. You could spend several days in The Secret History, the 1992 novel about murderous kids at a small New England college. Or hang out in an alternate reality where women held all the social power, or attend a Fourth of July barbecue at a Polish reimagining of an Ohio trailer park. I was already traveling to Denmark for a family trip in the fall of 2021. As luck would have it, one of the buzziest Nordic Larps coming out of the pandemic—called The Future Is Straight—would take place not more than an hour away.

The team behind the game—Karete Jacobsen Meland, Tor Kjetil Edland, and Anna Emilie Groth—were veteran designers. The website was sleek. I booked my ticket on an impulse, and my character sheets arrived a few months later. They contained four pages of backstory on a teenager named “Ferret,” the guy I would play, including his relationships with other players in the game and the world we would inhabit.

When the time came, I packed some T-shirts and a pair of jeans. No need for chain mail; where I was going, they told the men to dress in blue and the women in red. I flew to Denmark and made my way to a retreat center deep in the woods. For four days, I would go by a different name, make some new friends, and very possibly get my psyche ripped up by the roots.

“Hello,” says Andreas, holding out a handwritten poem. “I believe I am to be your lover?” He seems nice—broad-shouldered, shy smile. The 23-year-old is an ex-cop, working part-time as a firefighter a few hours away. We’re on the Djursland peninsula of Jutland. The retreat center is surrounded on three sides by old-growth forest and, beyond that, the Kattegat Sea. The fourth side gives out onto rye fields and the occasional farmhouse copied right from a tin of butter cookies. The buildings are owned by a Copenhagen teachers union, but for this week the walls are plastered with images of bland straight couples. Soon it will go by its Larp name, the Centre for Action. A flag hoisted over the quad reads, “Helping you become natural.”

We’re going to pretend this is a gay conversion therapy camp. Conversion camps are places that pressure young queer people into denying their sexuality, and years of work have gone into making this place feel authentic. But as I’ve just discovered, a lot of the setup in a Larp falls to players. The game starts in 20 minutes, and I’m realizing I’m nowhere near ready.

Andreas is here to help me flesh out my relationship with his character, North. North is a poet, I’ve had a rough home life, and our characters have shared a first, stolen kiss. Beyond that information in the character sheets, I haven’t thought up any details to help make Ferret come alive. I tell Andreas what I’ve read, which is that Ferret is overeager and hopes the therapy will work. But the way Andreas talks about North, it’s clear he’s gone much deeper. Not only did he pen the love poems, he also brought a slick blue sweater that he’d knitted himself.

Andreas grew up immersed in Larp, as did many Danes of his generation. He went to Østerskov Efterskole, the first government-sponsored school in the world where Larping is central to just about every class. Most of his experience was in traditional Larp, filled with elves, quests, and combat with blunted weapons—“boffers.” Fantasy and boffer play is what nearly everyone imagines when they think of Larp.

But in the 1990s, an offshoot of that kind of play took root in Finland and Scandinavia. Some Nordic players began to wonder why they couldn’t abandon the long shadow of Dungeons & Dragons and hop into worlds by, say, Ingmar Bergman or Lars von Trier. Freewheeling experiments in genre followed. One defining Finnish Larp from 1998, Ground Zero, was set in the thick of the Cold War and unfolded in a basement mocked up to look like an Oklahoma bomb shelter. No elaborate costumes. No weapons except the nuclear warheads falling outside. The game, which cost about $200 to produce, let players experience the end of the world.

The Nordic Larp scene began to quietly germinate, favoring games with collaborative storytelling around intense human experiences: a tiny Norwegian village under German occupation, a failing hippie commune in the 1970s. The scene attracted new players, among them academics and those with an itch for unusual experiences. The events also brought distinct challenges, including the possibility of real emotional harm. To work out issues of how to keep players safe and push the limits of the form, the community gathers at Knutepunkt, an annual meeting that is as much hardcore game jam as academic conference.

Nordic Larp now has decades of history, but seems to barely register outside its close-knit circles. Even Andreas, raised on boffer play, only recently got into it. He tells me he’s a little nervous about playing our love affair “because I’ve never done a romantic Larp.” I’m nervous, too, because he appears as straight as a gastropub.

We’re called into the starting event. The assembly hall has the pine beams and calm brightness I always associate with Scandinavian public buildings. About 30 “rehabbers” stand around awkwardly, all dressed in red or blue, before taking seats. In front stand the five people who prepared for weeks to be camp leaders. One of the creators, Groth, gives a brief pep talk, then someone plays a James Blake ballad. As soon as the music ends, the big reality switch is supposed to flip.

I’ve braced myself, but it feels like nothing. An earnest guy in a sad brown jacket steps up. “Just … a few announcements before lunch, people. Today marks your fourth week at the camp, and some of you show genuine promise in fighting your sickness.” The camp director’s speech is unremarkable, except for the fact that seconds ago this person was a Helsinki-based stand-up comedian, full of an impish joy that is now gone.

Conversion therapy camps are probably banal in real life too. That doesn’t diminish the harm they do, a fact not one of us is blind to. The World Medical Association, a body representing the national physician groups of more than 100 countries, has called them “a serious threat to … health and human life.” The camps lead to a sixfold increase in rates of depression and eight times the rate of suicide in the people who go through them.

Despite that, all of us have somehow made the choice to shell out $295 for a ticket, meals inclusive, to be here.

“Man, she gives me the creeps.” That’s Hawk, one of my roommates. We’ve finished our first “classes” and are walking back across the quad. Our last lecture laid out the argument against homosexuality based on science, or at least what passed for science around the 1960s. The ideas should have been laughable, but they got such a persuasive, intellectual glow-up that I half worried the script might fall into the wrong hands.

The lecture mostly crawled around our minds, though, because of the woman who delivered it. Ms. Walker, the staff psychologist, gave off an aura of genuine menace. She had a way of punctuating cold analysis with notes of disarming affection. Only a few hours into the game, everyone already feared her approach, with her polyester suit and her black, side-parted bob stiff as a military helmet.

“It’s like Walker wants to crack open your brain and look inside,” Hawk says.

“I’m grateful for her information! Don’t we all want to live healthy lives?” This comes out of my mouth, and I am instantly mortified.

Playacting is no joke, and I am discovering how terrible I am at it. Conversations are the worst—I do and don’t want to look into a person’s face, because if they’re as uncertain as I am, the whole boat of reality teeters. I stare at the ground. “Walker is leading my therapy group,” I say. That’s where I’m headed next.

“You poor guy!” This comment comes from a group of women sitting nearby. Sleeping arrangements and most classes are sex-segregated, a curious approach to fighting same-sex attraction but, like most of the game, pulled from the organizers’ research. The women’s class, one of them tells us, involved reading lesbian pornography. “When something was exciting,” she says, “we had to stick our finger with a tack.”

I slink off to my therapy session. When I arrive, Walker waves her eight students to a couple of well-worn sofas. She sits in a cane chair and, one by one, leads students through a hypnotic riff on psychoanalysis. Deep into the hour she starts grilling River, a young woman, pushing her to remember the “iceberg” of damage that made her a lesbian. River is stubborn, but her voice grows noticeably smaller and more frail as the interrogation wears on and every phrase gets turned over in dung-beetle claws for its sapphic overtones.

Walker’s spell on players is so complete that I forget for a moment that we’re playing a game. I break away and look at the other couch. Andreas is there, now all North. We make eye contact and smile. The psychologist’s attention snaps our way like a searchlight.

“Ferret, now your progress,” she says. I squirm. Walker asks, “Have you felt same-sex attraction today?”

In my ludicrous teacher’s pet voice, I have Ferret say, “This camp has been very helpful. I am optimistic your methods will help me become 100 percent straight!”

Ever since the start of the Larp, my words have felt wrong, and these are no different. I seem dopey, even to me. What had been so enthralling about the therapy, I realize, was that the other players hardly seemed to be acting at all. They opened themselves to Walker, and the distance between them and their characters went gauze-thin. Now, as my hammy words hang in the air, a silence stretches out. The black helmet of Walker’s bob doesn’t move. People shift in their seats. Without breaking eye contact, she asks the room: “Does anyone believe a word he is saying?”

“I don’t believe him,” River says, a betrayal I didn’t expect. “He is faking. Faking everything.” Nods ripple around the group.

I feel as if I’ve somehow broken the game. Genuine panic rises and I feel my outsider status acutely, flashing back to my poor choice of an in-flight movie, Midsommar—a horror story about Americans who mess with the locals in rural Scandinavia and pay in blood.

Walker sighs. “We need a firm intervention.” She drags out a stool, and I’m told to sit on it. The other players stare me down, and I begin to sweat uncomfortably. “All of you, tell Ferret your honest thoughts—and hold nothing back.” The Larpers don’t need much coaxing: Ferret, you’re too loud. You’re a fake. The pile-on feels like a Maoist struggle session. You’re not fooling any of us, they say. Walker eggs on the ones who hold back. I’m suddenly unsure whether they’re calling out my character, or me. You’re wearing a mask. That phrase keeps coming up. Drop the mask. We cannot help you until you’re honest with us.

The class ends, and the other students file out. I gather up my notebook, my head a mix of self-loathing and confusion. It’s a weird callout: Drop the mask. Who on earth would drop their mask in a place like this?

Walker says she’ll keep an eye on me, and I respond in a voice I don’t second-guess at all. For the first time, I feel like Ferret.

As I emerge it’s already dark, almost lights-out. From under the eaves of the dorm I see North/Andreas. He waves me over. Together we sneak off campus, and he leads me through thickets of dense scrub and overgrown ivy. “She let you have it today,” he says over his shoulder.

“You let me have it too.” I was annoyed he hadn’t defended me.

“Maybe I’ll let you have it,” he says, and I can hear the smirk. Ferret’s a virgin, but I can’t bring myself to blush. The path continues on through beech trees ringed by stinging nettles. Bright red mushrooms dot the forest floor, coy and dangerous. At last Andreas leads us into a small clearing.

When he’s sure we can’t be seen, he hangs up his flashlight on a rowan tree and turns to me. We both know something will happen, but I wait for him to take the lead. He gives a little speech, rehearsed but very sweet. His words freeze in the early autumn air. He takes one of my hands in his.

Sex in a Larp isn’t real. In this Larp, they taught us a meta-technique, a progression of movements to stand in for sex. Andreas places his fingers in mine, then after a minute we move our hands slowly up the sensitive skin of each other’s forearms. When the moment feels right, we’re supposed to pivot around and stand back-to-back, spine pressed to spine. In the workshop it had seemed hokey, but here, under a moon that’s nearly full, my heart stupidly beats. Through his ribs, I can feel that maybe it’s the same for Andreas.

The first time I fell in love, it was with a guy a lot like North: handsome, a poet, full of himself. In the closet, any little beam of light feels like a supernova. I remember the months of agony broken by a kind word or a handshake that lingered for a sordid second.

The final phase of the meta-technique has players face one another. To represent the fireworks, they exchange phrases, saying things they want and things they fear, making the moment “lovely and sad,” according to the workshop. We don’t get that far, because North breaks away.

That’s enough, he tells me. Stop.

I stop. After Walker’s grilling, the closeness of another person had been a real comfort, but now I pull my jacket around me. North is a torrent of words. I’m seeing a girl, he says. You and I, we experimented a little. It’s as far as things will go. No hard feelings. Never again.

Ferret would have been pulverized with guilt and shame, this I know. I’m both in this place and witnessing my own first time, in the parking lot of a train station with a guy I never saw again. It’s a marvel, I think, that queer teens survive their fumblings at romance in places that reject them.

In a minute I’m alone again, watching the beam from North’s flashlight bounce back toward the campus. I stay in the forest. Then I do the mental equivalent of pulling on my clothes and head back to my room, where the lights are already out.

It’s a sleepless night, in part because Denmark is a hyper-caffeinated place. My brain won’t settle. I replay the episodes in therapy and in the forest, alternating between thinking about my game and Ferret’s life. My heart, out of nowhere, is unbearably heavy. Around 3 am I get up and grab my phone from the “off-game” cubbyhole to write an email.

A few hours later, we’re all out on the soccer pitch, getting a posture lesson. A cute blond guy, maybe 30 in real life, is having the swish scolded out of him. People laugh. For the liberal Danes, who decriminalized gay sex in the 1930s and recognized same-sex unions before the fall of the Berlin Wall, this entire setup probably feels ridiculous. Technically, therapy like this is legal in Denmark—a topic of debate and one reason the Larp received a regional government grant.

A counselor taps my shoulder and says Walker has planned a special private lesson. I follow him to her office, a dark cave off the central auditorium. On the couch are a man and a woman that I recognize. The game has a few actors on standby to play a mother and a father as needed. The woman wears a floral dress, and the man has a rumpled mustache and a corduroy jacket.

Walker brings me in with a brisk nod of the head. “We won’t get anywhere in your recovery until we’ve sorted out your home life, will we Ferret?” Ferret had arrived at camp covered in bruises from his father, the sheets said. The actor looks at me with a stony expression, and Walker has me sit down next to him. She starts her Freudian patter about developmental stages. The actor-parents bristle, insisting they did nothing to deserve an unnatural son. It’s strange to have them all performing for me, this open wound of a moment lived by so many kids. I find that when the father actor barks, I flinch. Toward the end, he claps a hand on my shoulder. A rage bubbles up in me. I don’t know what to do with it.

Walker releases me and I head outside to the next exercise. The camp director is under the flagpole, addressing a group of men, the sun dancing on his bald spot. “You’re all afraid of manliness,” he says. “You’re afraid of your own testosterone. Today we fix that.”

We’re told to face off with a partner. Mine is Stefan, an affable Dane who came to the Larp with his wife. Stefan’s

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