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PoRtaL VI - a visit to the Bulgarian larp community

Yesterday I returned from PoRtaL VI, and it was amazing.

In case you're unfamiliar with PoRtaL, it's been the regional larp conference for the past few years. First one was organized in Zagreb, Croatia, and until this one it's been switching between Zagreb and Budapest, Hungary until this year, as our larping communities made a majority there. The Hungarian participation has been sorely missed lately (seriously, we miss you guys). So far the Bulgarian larp community maintained a small, but constant presence during PoRtaL conventions, and this year's PoRtaL VI was something new, as it was held in Plovdiv, Bulgaria.

Four people from Croatia went there - myself, and members of Terrible Creations team, Matija, Siro and Vatra sat in a car and made a 12 hour road trip through Serbia, and into Bulgaria (or to be accurate, 3 of us went into the car - Vatra went by plane some time later, but returned with us). We reached Plovdiv on Thursday evening, hitting some bars and going to sleep afterwards - the convention would start on Friday. Apart from us guys from Croatia, other non-local guests were Zofia from Poland, Christos from Greece, Dhionis from Albania, Yaraslau from Belarus, and Daniel from Israel.

Compared to previous PoRtaL conventions, this one was heavily focused on panels, discussions, and exposing the Bulgarian larp community to the playstyles we're doing elsewhere. This made the entire feel of the convention different from what I usually had on PoRtaL - as this time I was less of a student and more of a lecturer.

In a way, I felt severely underqualified for that task, and tense about it. I mean, I know my stuff - however, Bulgaria is famous for making largest fantasy larps in southeastern Europe, heavily oriented towards physical challenges and play-to-win style. It's a completely different scenario from Croatia, where fantasy larp is barely represented in the overall larp scene nowadays, and even during its strongest days it was never organized in a similar way as it is in Bulgaria. So for me, the main trouble was - how do I approach this community? How do I present my stuff in a way which could be relateable, or at least understandable to them?

The organizers at the opening talk and the first discussion about biochemistry in larp

Thankfully, we were not going first. Meeting Ilina, one of the organizers, as soon as we reached Plovdiv, followed by the night of hanging out in the bar allowed us to socialize with people and talk to them about larp informally. Friday morning we arrived to the convention and the opening talk by George Vlaykov made sure we were not going first...

This was followed by Plovdiv Watch, a treasure hunting city game inspired by Sergei Lukyanenko’s "Watch" series. The introduction revealed a game of rather light role-play, and very rigid rules which were to be followed strictly (but left some potential unanswered questions). Two teams were trying to find some stuff in the city, and it was extremely balanced based on team compositions and the distances we were to cover.

What followed next was not what I expected. When we were running comparable games in Croatia, they were chill experiences of people socializing while walking around the city, having a good time, and taking some public transport between distant points.

Run uphill, get an item next to ancient Roman ruins.
The run up the next hill.
Here, it was a long distance running race. Uphill, in snow, both ways (seriously). I have no trouble running long distance - and I say this clutching my half-marathon finisher medal - but I struggled to keep up with two girls from my half of the team, who picked me up after I was feared by Christos after the first few blocks of the race. I consoled myself with the fact I had their combined age and weight, but it was still a humbling experience. The city is known as the city of the seven hills, and the name was also taken by the local larp clan. I assure you - the name is completely justified.

Both teams ended up finding the same amount of items - one which would decide our fate was probably taken by some civilian. The other team did better in the secondary objective, which was photographing certain dogs and cats you'd see on street. We had a showdown at the end of the larp, next to the convention entrance.

This experience, and listening to the Bulgarian larpers' war stories, helped me form a context for Bulgarian larps in my mind. Their clans function as local sport clubs, gathering the local larp community, and they have regular training sessions which prepare them for big larps. Just like sport clubs train to prepare for tournaments. Their big larps are very physical events, where their clans aka teams compete against each other in various ways, including some which are hinted by quests and other activities. Their concept of larp safety doesn't seem to include much mechanics or meta techniques to handle it - but it includes training, which is mostly focused on the physical aspect - as the larps themselves, not going deeply into relationships or internal roleplay.

I might be wrong, or this might be incomplete, but it was the image formed in my mind after talking to the locals, and seeing them interact with each other in a very similar way sports team members often do. I decided to approach my presentations and larps with this in mind.

The next item was a Terrible Creations workshop about making a larp in one hour. I ended up in a very diverse group, and we made an interesting larp - which, unfortunately, we didn't get to try out (or to try out others' ideas) as there was simply no time to do that.

On our way to Tau Ceti, on Friday
After that it was chamber larp time. Terrible Creations made a rerun of their Famiglia Bonifacio: The Evening Before, while I ran a premiere of my family drama in space - Arrival at Tau Ceti, which I playtested two weeks earlier and adjusted since. Both events were a big success, and everyone who was at the convention at that time played one of them.

Also, we'll always have Friday. Let's make every day a Friday. If you don't understand, it's ok since this is one of those "you had to be there" things.

Last item on Friday was a bar visit, but somehow we ended up split between two different bars...

Saturday was a day with a lot of panels, and I was one of the panelists in quite a few of those, talking about Croatian larp, some of my past, current and future projects, PR, and love, romance and relationships in larp.

Apart from those, there was a panel about the conflict, two academic presentations, and a drama panel. The full program could be seen here, some things were rescheduled but it was that in general.


Saturday night, two chamber larps were scheduled - Love is Blue and Star Wars: Endor, both produced by Terrible Creations. However since the demand was huge, we also reran our larps from the night before. All four at the same time. That has to be a record for PoRtaL.

We hit a bar later, and this night we all found ourselves in the same one.

Sunday was a day for the Craft Action Panel in the morning. We had to say our goodbyes then - I took the Monday off as well, but some people could not, so we couldn't stay till the convention ended as we all shared a car.

We hugged and said our goodbyes, tears in our eyes, making sure we let everyone knows how much it was appreciated and how we'll miss them. Also, making one last attempt to share our bacteria and viruses with each other. So now I'm writing this with a sore throat and a runny nose. And yes, it was worth it. On our way back, we stopped for a dinner and a chat with Erlin, a larper from Belgrade, and his soon-to-be-wife. And then we made our way home...

Dinner in Belgrade
Overall, reflecting back to this weekend - it was a great experience. There were some logistical issues (with the hostel and convention schedule), but everything turned alright, handled and sorted out by the hard work and enthusiasm of the organizers, who never failed to smile, and made us feel really welcome. We showed our playstyles, focus and techniques, and we were made a part of the local community's energy, enthusiasm, camaraderie and friendship, as they led us around, partied with us and tied red and white martenitsa ribbons around our wrists - a local March custom.

Were we a changing force in the local community - time has yet to show it. Personally, I'd like if more people showed up - both from Bulgaria and the international larp community. However, I think we established a good dialogue, making people aware of how we do some stuff, and realizing the same about them. That's a good start, at least. And yes, the thing about Friday became a con thing.

Yesterday I returned from PoRtaL VI, and it was amazing.

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