The Quick and Dirty of Workshops

(Featured Image by Peculiar Crossroad Production‘s Kathy Amende, of Ericka Skirpan teaching Project Ascenion workshops.) I’m certain an entire book can (and probably has been?) written about workshopping for larp events. Workshops are a time honored tradition in the nordic-styled and freeform scene, but something that is brand new to a lot of North American larpers. In my time doing consent-narrative driven games for competitive-cultured players, I’ve learned a lot about how vital the workshopping process is to helping players not only understand the things they need to play the game, but to make a culture shift into a different kind of gaming. Therefore, one of my Patreons (Hi, Stuart!) recently asked if I’d do a breakdown on the workshop Sam Stone and I wrote for Dammerung. A few others have asked about how to set up workshops over all for North American based larps. Therefore, I’m going to attempt to tackle the quick and dirty necessities of workshops in this blog. I am (despite rumors) not an expert. I don’t think anyone can be. I have to give a big nod to Learn LARP and Maury Brown, who were the first to expose me to workshopping in the North American style. I also think there will be a lot more refining blogs in the future about specific workshop types. But, here goes a good overview of the must-haves and absolute goals of any given workshop in the new North American scene.

The primary goal of workshops should be to give your players the absolutely necessary tools they need to participate fully in your event. For tabletop games, and even more stats-driven larp campaigns, there are heavy rulebooks which players will pour over for in preparation to make a character or run a campaign. Those rulebooks not only give the players the mechanics of the game, but all the fluffy setting they will need to be playing in the same sandbox. In smaller, campaign-driven games, people come in with a culturally habitual expectation that the players all have read these books and are prepared for the game.

In large-format freeform games, this is not always the case. While organizers write design documents, I was just having the conversation with other designers that we find only half the players actually read them going into the game. The game’s advertising material should be enough to set player expectations and know what the genre of the game is, and many players stop there. Even if they have read the design document front to back, they can be quite heavy reading and things will be missed. Lastly, for players making a big shift in cultural styles, simply reading words on a page is rarely enough to actually help them understand this new style in playing. Therefore, the workshops are a way of setting out a common ‘rulebook’ and shared sandbox that ALL your players can experience jointly, actively learn together, and help build their shared play experience before game starts. Consider the workshops just as important as any core rules set to mechanics-based, campaign larping.

Setting Expectations

Many player disappointments come from when their expectations do not match the reality of the game. (If you want to read a great piece about rage-quitting and player expectations, please see Johanna Koljonen‘s blog here.) While players have hopefully read your style and setting guides, the workshop is the first place where you have a concrete area to set expectations for both your game and your community; it also gives you a place to help adjust player expectations if someone has the wrong idea of things going into the event.

Laying down your community standards for how people should treat each other comes first. Ryan Hart explained this excellently when he taught me the ‘board game’ standard for the Sinking Ship community: We have invited you to our table to play a collective game, please behave in a what that we would like to invite you back to our table again. This is also known as the ‘Don’t be an asshole’ rule, and has many variants. However, in games where the setting has problematic elements (historical games with a setting that acknowledges the prejudices of the time, or Viking-inspired games where White Supremacists might use the setting to push their own causes), this is also the time to remind your community that while those elements may exist in the in-character world, they will not be tolerated off-game; and then you can give the players the tools they need to not play into such things in-character.

Miguel Espino workshop photo

Photo by Miguel Espino, pre-workshops at Myrddin Emrys College 2018. Players half in costume, waiting to begin the workshop talks.

Once your community standards are set, organizers should then lay out the genre standards. What kind of game are we playing here and what is vital for players to know about the setting? Workshops are not the time to detail every inspiration, bit of lore, or vital set piece you have built for the event. But this is a time to remind everyone about the overall guidelines of the sandbox in which they are playing. For Project Ascension (2018), this is when we went over the paranoia of the cyberpunk setting, the crowded urban elements, and the desperation to survive. For Dammerung (2018), this was our time to focus on reminding players that while the game was dark-ages culture inspired, we were still telling a fantasy game with fantastical elements. We needed to emphasize that the game was not a re-enactment, but that players should keep their play, costumes, and references in a dark-ages trope style. It also let us speak briefly about the flavor of all the cultures without getting deep into the lore, which we wanted players to create in-game.

The Mechanics and Safety Rules

At this point, your audience is probably already growing slightly restless/bored from being talked at for however long, so I ALWAYS pepper in ‘on your feet practice with the other players’ sections to the mechanics part of the workshop. Not only does it help reinforce highly important safety mechanics, it gets people out of zombie-not-really-listening mode. Pick and choose which mechanics you think you can quickly practice and make certain you always have a way of quickly regaining the attention of your audience, lest the lack of focus make it hard to get the crowd back under control. I prefer the “hands up, mouths shut” method, used in many classrooms worldwide, for re-taking attention.

Every game needs to have SOME mechanics and rules. For freeform games, I find these rules must AT LEAST cover the following things:

  • How a player can disengage from a scene and what other player’s reactions should be (My current favorite is the look-down mechanic, which has been used in many larps including Dammerung and was the brainchild of many designers credited in that linked blog.)
  • What to do in an actual emergency
  • Any safety MUSTS for the game-site (Example: No flames or smoke what-so-ever in Castle Kronborg at Inside Hamlet.)
  • How players are supposed to negotiate scenes both off-game and in-game (I personally love diegetic mechanics which can flow into the story. For Dammerung, it was Sam Stone’s brilliant “Mark My Words” which signaled dramatic escalation in any scene, Inside Hamlet has the Rotten (to escalate) and Pure (to de-escalate) written into their design.)
  • How combat and physical touch are to be handled across the game (this one is a good one to practice with the entire group.)
  • How a player should set boundaries for what they do and do not want in the game
  • How a player gracefully reacts to the the denial of a play offer (“Okay, thank you!” is a generally great response, but often takes some training so players do not seem disappointed when play has been denied.)
  • Content/Trigger warnings for the event
  • Essential staff and/or NPC introductions (This is a good time to include pronouns in people’s introductions as a way of normalizing proper pronoun usage in the community.

I can’t write the rules for each game and so, while I’ve provided a few examples above, the game itself should decide what set of mechanics work best for its design. Then, in workshop, lay those mechanics out clearly, help train the players in how to use them, and move on. The biggest trouble I’ve faced in some games is when we have too MANY safety and negotiation mechanics. Keeping it to 1-2 ways to tap out and 1-2 ways to negotiate scenes seems to be best. The more possible ways of doing it, the more players get choice-paralysis and cease doing it all for fear of doing it wrong. If you give them simple and clear rules to follow while interacting with each other, it makes it easier for the players to conform to those rules during the event. Especially for players coming from other play-cultures, where they are having to learn a totally different style of gaming entirely. Don’t overwhelm them with every negotiation mechanic under the sun, but give them a simple set of tools to learn the trade.

Personal Character Building

For one-shot or brand new games, the players are often nervous about getting into their characters quick enough to fully enjoy the experience. Campaign larpers have months (or years) to learn their character bodies, motivations, and personality. These games usually only have a single weekend. Therefore, it is wise to offer the players some personal character building exercises within the workshop.

There are dozens of theater techniques which can be employed to help players get into the character body. I use many that involve breathing in the new character and out other life concerns. Having the players start walking through the space as themselves and then coaching them through transforming into their character is another good exercise. When coaching this one, start talking the players through the following things: How does your character hold their weight? How do they walk? How do they breathe? Are they fast or slow in space? How do they relate to other people in the space? How do they stand still or sit?

Having your players pay attention to the little details of their characters physicality, and building them from the ground up, often helps feed their character’s frame of mind in the long run. This exercise can be expanded to silently interacting with other people in the space, telegraphing looks between characters or even asking for silent permission to touch in ways the characters might during play.

Inside Hamlet has a lovely piece of their workshop in the second act where the organizer talks the players through what has been happening in the last three months stuck in the castle. While the work for the players is all eternal, they are coached in examining how their characters felt for the first few days stuck together, then weeks, then months. They are talked through the degradation of the castle, supplies, food, and bodies around them. It helps coach players into the more visceral parts of being stuck in a small space for three months and transform their character’s mind sets when only 12 hours have passed off-game.

Lastly, I enjoy the “spectrum” exercises. In the traditional format of these exercises, players move to one or another side of the room according to where their characters stand on a spectrum of possibilities. As of late, I have been having players remain standing in place but putting their hands up according to what side of the spectrum line they are on for that question. It’s not quite so effective as physically moving into groups, but it saves time and has less space requirements. The most popular spectrums to explore, I have found, are the following:

      • Does your character think they are a good or bad person?
      • DO YOU think your character is a good or bad person?
      • Burnt out or fresh?
      • Actually believe in religion?
      • Willing to die for their family? Their faction?
      • Impulsive or methodical?

When talking the players through these exercises, instruct them to look around and see which other players are in their spectrum group. Who are the ‘good’ and ‘evil’ of this game, who are the burnt out veterans vs the fresh faced youngins. It can help encourage the players to build different sort of character relations across their factions when they see who else stands on the far side of the spectrums with them.

Faction and Relationship Building

While I don’t w11ant to say this is the most important part of workshops, because the other sections are also vital, this is often a part of workshops which is rushed or forgotten and (often) it can be what drives the most interesting play for your participants. Once they have been given the tools in all the other areas, use this section of the workshop to give them the tools to have deeply committed character factions and relationships from which passionate, driven play can be built during the game. I find this section of the workshop does not work with more than ten people to a faction (though the ideal is 7-8), because everyone needs a bit of speaking time and quality over quantity is important in relationship building. So, if you need to break your factions down into subfactions for this portion, please do so before beginning.

Elsie Marie

Some big games give players IC name tags to help them learn character names during the workshops.

I like to break this portion up into sections. There is out of character discussion within your faction and then in character improv scenes. For the out of character discussion, encourage your players to first introduce themselves, their pronouns, a brief background on themselves, what they are looking for in their play in the game, and anything to avoid. These introductions should be no more than a few sentences to keep the discussion moving. A good example of generic introduction is: “My name is Ericka Skirpan (She/Her), I work for a magazine and run a blog when I’m not larping. I have come to this game for high tragedy and drama — I hope to die in character before the end of the weekend. I am phobic of winged insects, so please don’t lock me in a room full of butterflies.” Once the introductions and ‘vitals’ (Vital-Things-To-Know-About-Me-As-A-Player) have happened, then move into off-game discussions about interesting relationships they can build in faction. I usually give the players up to five minutes to define the following relationships among themselves (but you can put in any relationship you like):

      • Someone who is your best friend
      • Someone you consider a rival or adversary
      • You saved someone or they saved your life
      • Someone to whom you confessed a DEEP secret and what is that secret

After the out of character discussions are had, then I like to do a few quick improved scenes with the factions as a whole to get them used to roleplaying with each other, speaking in character, and the taste of their group dynamics. Setting up some improvised historical scenes not only means the players don’t have to spend awkward time breaking the ice in character, but it gives their characters memories and history to refer back to during the course of game play. These scenes should take no more than five minutes and often a facilitator will need to help prompt a group to start, or players feel nervous about speaking up on their own. In the past, these are some of the historic faction scene prompts I have used:

      • A scene coming back exhausted from a faction gathering or mission
      • A scene reacting to the most recent deep loss your faction has suffered
      • A holiday celebrated among your faction
      • A violent fight the faction had among themselves
      • Someone from the faction comes back after being missing for several days, what is the reunion like?

Those are just some examples of a whole flood of scene possibilities that can be played out in the workshop. I encourage game designers to pick scenes which are intensely specific to their genre and the sandbox of their game. For Dammerung, Sam and I had the cultural leads write the scene prompts for their faction, so each scene was specifically geared to the style of roleplay and history being enforced in that culture.

Now, there is a reason I called this blog the Quick and Dirty of Workshops. There is so much more that can be done with workshopping. Many games out there are designed with the luxury of extensive workshopping processes or even entire workshop days before a game begins. If that’s the case, then many of the above categories can be expanded, relationships can be built between factions, personal one-on-one blackbox scenes can be played, and much more history can be built. But this piece is meant to be guidelines for games where workshops are still a new thing in the culture. A workshop of this style should go between 2-3 hours and not be TOO rushed, but can be shrunk down to 1.5 hours when necessary. The above elements are all the vital things to cover and how to do them basically for the quickest but most comprehensive workshop possible. If designers are curious, I have included my dirty notes for both the Project Ascension and the Dammerung workshops (Credit to Sam Stone for the assistance in writing Dammerung’s) in the hyperlinks as VERY ROUGH examples. Both those links are messy notes, not meant to be comprehensive guides, and I have adjusted my writing style (and timeline expectations) after both the workshops were done, so I consider them out of date even as of this blog. But they give a good example of what notes a workshop organizer should have on hand going into the process.


2 thoughts on “The Quick and Dirty of Workshops

  1. Alexandre Foisy-Geoffroy says:

    To be honest, workshops are an evolution of character creation sessions, which have existed for decades (at least in Québec).

    What you describe is quite elaborate compared to what many small LARPs did, or still do, but the concept is old.


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