Some years ago, at Fastaval in Århus, Denmark, I had one of the most splendid, if brief, roleplaying experiences in my life, in a mixed company of Danes, Swedes, and Finns, who partially in my honor and partially because English was the only language they had in common, chose to play with me in a language I found comprehensible. The game we played was The Upgrade; and it's a source of some little frustration that, reading over the materials they've used to present it to the world, my main emotion is a sense of dissatisfaction that the prose itself does not impart a clear notion of the pleasure to be gained by experiencing this remarkable ouevre. In part, perhaps, this is because it is translated from the Swedish (and for those who read it, a version in the original tongue is also available via the link above); but in part, it is also because some things that can be experienced in play are impossible to express in the more mundane form of the words used to describe their rules. Not always, to be sure; in reading, say, My Life With Master, you obtain a sense of the genius that likes within; but in the case of The Upgrade, surely, you do indeed need to play the game to understand what it has to offer.
To give a little background: Just as Germany is today where our most creative and vital boardgame design takes place, Scandinavia is, along with the Anglophone indie RPG community, the place where the most creative and interesting non-digital roleplaying games are created. In Scandinavia, LARPs last for weeks, with serious costuming and thousands of participants, and are sponsored by major corporations; companies stage them for corporate training purpose as well. National roleplaying conventions are not devoted to the commercial products of for-profit RPG publishers, but instead reward original scenarios written and run by individual creators specifically for the convention. Roleplaying is viewed as a form of improvisational theater (which, at its base, it truly is) largely divorced from its commercial roots; and even national media is friendly to the notion that roleplaying is healthful for children and teenagers, an artform in its own right, and a meritorious cultural expression. If Japan is the Promised Land for console gamers, and Germany for boardgamers, then so is Scandinavia for roleplayers.
The creators bill The Upgrade as "jeepform;" what a jeepform may be, I cannot say, although clearly it has nothing to do with the automotive products deriving from WWII American infantry vehicles. It is, I believe, a subset of what Australian LARPers know as a "freeform:" a form of live-action roleplaying that transpires in a smaller space, and with a more limited number of people, than most of the games we know as LARPs.
The Upgrade is best played with a cast of players of between 8 and 12, with an equal gender balance. (When I played, there were a surfeit of males, but I volunteered to play a woman -- the goatee perhaps gets in the way of suspension of disbelief, to be sure.) The rules recommend two gamemasters, who serve as the directors of the "show," and that worked well.
The backstory is that the players are participants in a reality TV show called (naturally) "The Upgrade." The conceit is that all participants are part of real-world couples, whether married or not; but that, in the course of the show, each participant is matched with someone else from a different couple, and that after the end of several weekly episodes, each participant must choose whether to stay with his or her original mate, or "upgrade" to the person with whom he or she has been matched during the series. A typically degrading scenario for reality TV, to be sure, and something one can easily imagine happening in the real world (at least, if the repulsive things our media magnates choose to present to us on the tube can be characterized as "the real world"). Naturally, one half of a "real world" couple might choose to "upgrade" while another might not; hijinks (tears, lawsuits, murders, and other televisable events) logically ensue.
From a roleplaying perspective, this is a double challenge: First, you must imagine that you are in a stable relationship with one other player; and then, you must imagine this artificial, TV-imposed relationship with another person.
The Upgrade keeps the pace of the game moving rapidly by imagining that most of what the players "do" in the game are snippets that the directors (that is, the gamemasters) choose to present to the public during a "recap" at the end of the season; thus, either GM can freeze action at any time, cut to another scene or a later moment, and so on.
But The Upgrade is not content to torture players with incentives for betrayal and adultery alone; it divides the "stage" into three areas. The central area, where most action transpires is "the present" (usually meaning "what's appearing on TV"), the left is "the past," and the right is "the possible future." At any time, any player (or GM) can call a halt to the action occurring in "the present", and then perform (hauling in other players as necessary) some action that happened in the past, or some action that might happen in "the future." In these skits, you do not play "your character"; instead, other players do so, taking "your" role.
I will illustrate. As the female of an "upgrade" couple (meaning that my actual longtime partner is somewhere else), I am in the sauna with my upgrade partner. These are Scandinavians, of course, and the sauna is a common cultural practice. Meaning we are naked, sweating copiously, in 160 degree heat -- a temperature at which pork is thoroughly cooked. A somewhat heated discussion has resulted in my partner becoming physically aroused. (In reality, of course, we are sitting in chairs facing the other players and GMs, who constitute "the audience," and are merely playing our parts.)
One of the gamemasters stands up and proposes an action in "the future;" rather than taking my or my partner's roles, he simply plays himself (a director of this reality TV show), in the trailer the next day, watching the rushes, and howling with laughter with the other gamemaster, about what a mess we made in the sauna and how difficult it was to clean it up.
You understand, a sauna consists of a closed room, typically with a wood stove, on top of which are situated many rocks; from time to time, one of the baskers will fling a dipperfull of water on the rocks, to permeate the air with steam. The clear implication is that some, ah, fluid hit the rocks -- something other than water. And cleaning the residue was a challenge.
The GMs go away, and my partner and I are left to play out the scene. There is, to be sure, an obvious way to go here. But perhaps to my discredit, I'm not inclined to give a hand-job to my partner, even in this imaginary context. I say to my discredit, because my partner is in reality a very charming, but quite gay, Finnish gentlemen, and while I'm man enough to happily volunteer to take a female role in a roleplaying context, and he is playing a heterosexual male to my heterosexual female here, well, multiple levels of meaning do devolve back to the ur-level at times, and I'm not man enough to risk misinterpretation in this somewhat complex situation. Perhaps foolishly; that might have been an interesting way to go. Luckily, my character has previously been established as quite shy, and there does seem an out: my character's disquiet gets the better of her, and I vomit piteously into the stones. Quite a mess to clean up to be sure, and if you've never been in a sauna, I'd still like you to imagine the miasma steaming off those stones as a result. Yurk. But good television, no doubt.
In other words: In this game, you do not have complete control over the characterization of your character; any other player can, at any time, mischievously introduce complications to it, either in the form of "past experiences" or in the form of "potential future outcomes" that you are then expected to incorporate in your own evocation of the character.
The Upgrade is a scenario for what can be an undeniably hilarious experience -- and perhaps one deeply, and potentially uncomfortably, revealing abut your players.
More, it is a game that casts in stark, and revealing, contrast both the conventionally "simulationist" roleplaying games that permeate the commercial realm of tabletop RPGs, and also the "narrativist" RPGs that prevail in the indie RPG movement. Conventional RPGs -- whether of the console, MMO, or tabletop variety -- are essentially min-maxing, quasi-boardgame experiences in which the main goal is gaining the old XP and leveling up. Narrativist RPGs are essentially about trying to tell coherent stories. The Upgrade is something different: coherent stories be damned, and character advancement with it. The "story," if it be termed such, is about as coherent as most of what you see on reality TV, which is to say, not at all.
What you do get out of The Upgrade is true roleplaying, that is, the playing of roles. You are set a role initially, and placed in an awkward position from which you must improvise -- and if, at any moment, you fail to entertain your fellow participants sufficiently, they are empowered to throw you for a loop, to introduce some additional appalling element that you must gamely integrate into your character, and improvise from. It's a game for the quick on their feet, one that demands wild and sometimes scary leaps of imagination -- and that is not for the faint of heart, but which, at least sometimes, can produce what RedEl, in these pages, and referring to another game, called "the most fun you can have with your clothes on."
To be sure, the usual caveats apply: Any non-digital RPG requires good gamemasters. And for a game of this type, you also need a group of players who are willing to throw themselves into improvisation, and risk embarrassment. But what, after all, is roleplaying for?