NELCO 2018: Workshops and Foreplay

Back at NELCO 2018, I attended a workshop about workshops. On the schedule, it was titled “Workshops and Foreplay“, though unofficially, I have been referring to it as the “Workshop Workshop.”

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Workshops aren’t as popular in the local theater community as they are in some other communities. This workshop was about addressing the question of what is the definition of a workshop, what are our preconceived notions of them, and what purposes can they serve. Plus a little bit of tongue-in-cheek re-branding. (Hence the “Foreplay” part — maybe they would be more popular locally if we emphasized that they can be fun in and of themselves, rather than work we have to do in order to access fun?) The methods we used to address these topics were borrowed from actual LARP workshops, and part of the process was also discussing why we used the techniques we did. It was all very meta.

Here is the blurb for the topic:

In the last few years, I have played in more and more LARPs that integrate a workshop as a central design feature. Maybe you have questions about what that means. Maybe it just doesn’t sound appealing — the word “work” is right there in the name, after all! Maybe it’s time to rebrand workshops as something more fun, perhaps indicating that it is part of the play that comes at the fore of a LARP…?

Let’s talk about what workshops are, how they are being used, and why you might (or might not) want to have a little foreplay for your next LARP. We can engage in some LARP foreplay and collaborate on some new ways to structure them so that they’re effective and fun.

The order of activities was somewhat unexpected but chosen deliberately to get participants’ thought process going, rather than letting people passively absorb ideas from the facilitator . I’m not sure I remember the exact order of all of the parts, but we started with getting a sense of the population present (“who here has played a LARP with a workshop? Run one? Written one?” etc.) then, rather than moving straight into attempting to define workshops, we went through checklists of assumptions about them (e.g. “I will need to be creative during a workshop” or “this LARP will not have secrets”).

We then ran an exercise where the facilitator read off some statements about workshops, and we lined ourselves up across the room depending on how strongly we agreed or disagreed with the statements. Another exercise included dividing into small groups, and on the count of three, pointing at whomever we thought best fit various statements, such as “most likely to produce the next workshop LARP.” We worked on individual attempts at writing out definitions of a workshop, read one another’s, and considered whether or not to revise our own. We brainstormed lists of topics workshops cover, methods of covering them, and strengths and weaknesses of using workshops.

One of the interesting ideas that was addressed during the Workshop Workshop was the notion that we draw a distinction between rules briefings (and other common pre-event activities, such as introductions and explanations of pre-game logistics) and workshops, but one could easily define and understand all of these things as sub-types of workshops.

The dictionary defines a workshop as “a seminar, discussion group, or the like, that emphasizes exchange of ideas and the demonstration and application of techniques, skills, etc.”

To apply this a more specifically relevant form of the word, my definition of a LARP workshop is a directed, interactive activity that occurs before a LARP (or before at least part of a LARP) for the purpose of facilitating the LARP.

To clarify, directed implies staff is somehow involved, or at least initiates it. So players who initiate contact with one another and work out some stuff between their character, whether it’s a little pre-game roleplay or just chatting about physical boundaries, are not technically engaging in a workshop.

By before the LARP (or before some part of it) I mean a workshop is outside of the typical flow of a LARP. It doesn’t necessarily have to be completely out-of-character (for example a workshop might include doing some improv and creating three short memories for each character) but this would be distinct from a flashback mechanic that runs during the LARP itself.

Every LARP workshop that I’ve attended thus far has taken place before the entire in-game experience of a LARP, but I can easily imagine calling some activities workshops if the LARP is put on pause in the middle to engage in the activities designed to facilitate some element of the LARP that occurs in the later part. (Especially if we’re talking about a campaign LARP, where the LARP gets put on hold for some block of time, usually months, by design, but I can also see a mid-LARP activity in a one-shot being labeled a workshop.)

This does exclude post-LARP stuff (e.g. game wraps, de-rolling and de-briefing exercises, post-game dinners and war stories, etc.), even though they can resemble workshops. I’ve never heard an activity run after a LARP fully concludes be referred to as a workshop; probably because they aren’t facilitating any part of the in-game experience itself, though they are sometimes designed with facilitating some element of the post-LARP experience. (For example, lots of de-briefing exercises are designed to help decrease and/or manage post-LARP bleed.)

One could make the argument that knowing the post-LARP activity is coming up might facilitate some aspects of the LARP experience itself. For example, knowing that I’ll have a post-LARP de-briefing might facilitate a more intensely angry fight scene with another player, because I’m assured we’ll have a chance to talk about it post-game. This feels like enough of a stretch to me that I still wouldn’t press the label of workshops on post-game activities, but I wouldn’t necessarily argue with someone who felt otherwise.)

By interactive, I mean the players must be engaged in the activity on some level beyond passively receiving information from the staff. On this, the Workshop Workshop facilitator and I disagreed — he didn’t think workshops had to be interactive. By his definition, a LARP staffer standing in front of a crowd and reading over the rules could technically be a workshop. By my definition, this wouldn’t be a workshop… until some members of the audience are invited to get up and try out/demonstrate the techniques. (…Maybe. I suppose we might be getting into grayer areas where we start asking questions like, can something be a workshop for some players but not others, and what percentage of the players have to be interacting, rather than passively absorbing, to cross the line from briefing into workshop?)

We also disagreed about one other part of the definition — the facilitator felt it had to be in person to be a workshop, though I can imagine a workshop taking place online prior to a LARP.

I expect there is a lot of disagreement over the exact boundaries of the definition of a workshop; by the definition I’ve written above, handing out name-tags and having players write their character names on them would count as a workshop, though I think most people wouldn’t instinctively categorize that as a workshop.

While I try to look at this sort of thing with a descriptive, rather than a prescriptive, approach (that is I try to work out definitions that reflect popular usage, rather than trying to determine what I think should be the definition), in this case, I don’t think my definition is very useful in one of the more personally relevant contexts for this term: blurbs for LARPs running at Intercon, and similar conventions with overlapping population (such as Consequences, Be-Con, the Bubbles, Festival, etc.), where there are more specific connotations involved. (These connotations likely stem from a tradition of using different labels — such as rules briefing, or tutorial — for common pre-game activities that might be labeled as workshops if they came up in other communities.) The strongest association LARPers at Intercon and similar events have with the term “workshop” is probably generative workshops, where players create or expand on their characters (and possibly other elements of the LARP, such as setting information.)

These common interpretations and assumptions are why I think this Workshop Workshop was a great addition to the NELCO schedule — to start the ideas of what else workshopping can mean percolating in the community, (and also why I often recommend that LARPs that include mention of a workshop in the blurb follow up with a line or two talking about what the purpose of the workshop is, and/or what sort of structure it will have.)

Through the workshop, we came up with a list of strengths/advantages and weaknesses/disadvantages of workshops.

Strengths/Advantages include:

  • Reducing prep time for players and GMs. When content is created through workshops, this can reduce the writing load for staff, and result in less required reading for players. Also, when rules are reviewed and practiced through workshops, players may not have to learn rules in advance, or at least spend less time committing them to memory and/or ensuring they understand them.
  • Extensive workshopping in a design can be friendlier to players who walk in at the door, rather than having LARPs primarily accessible to players who sign up well in advance.
  • Reducing awkwardness/easing players into a LARP. It can be difficult to get into the swing of things with LARPs that start abruptly, especially for newbies. Opening with simple, straightforward ice breakers and improv exercises, or heavily directed scenes, can help players get over feelings of awkwardness or self-consciousness.
  • Reduce confusion around rules that players have only heard described but haven’t practiced, decreasing the need for out-of-game rule clarifications.
  • Create muscle memory for in-game actions (e.g. combat)
  • Gives structure and support for pre-negotiations
  • Individualized customization.  Often increases the likelihood players get to play characters and scenarios they like best, and can increases player sense of ownership and buy-in of experience

Disadvantages/Weaknesses include:

  • Encroaching on play time. If workshops aren’t fun, it can feel like they’re taking away from the enjoyable experience of actually getting to play a LARP. (And even if they are fun, they are often perceived as less fun than in-game experiences.) This is particularly true when the structure of events creates hard limits on LARP time. For example, LARP cons like Intercon strongly encourage running LARPs in four hour time blocks, which often creates something like three and half hours or less of actual LARPing. Dedicating a large chunk of this time to out-of-game activities can make players feel like they’d rather choose another LARP that maximizes in-game play time.
  • Struggles with creative blocks. Workshops dedicated to generating content for LARP (creating or developing characters, setting, or other elements of a LARP) can be very difficult to do on command, and players may feel like they aren’t able to create something they would enjoy playing in the context of a workshop. I know I’ve been in a number of workshops where I was stuck for ideas, and felt like I enjoyed the LARP less than I would have if the writers had just handed me the content in advance.
  • Decentralized control over content. Generative workshops can sometimes produce content that isn’t well suited for the content and structure of the rest of the LARP (or content other players brought in through the workshops.)
  • Reduced buy-in. Though giving players control over content through generative workshops can increase buy-in, lack of content in advance (such as knowing what character you will be playing) can reduce excitement and the amount of effort players put into a LARP in advance. Some players may not bother putting in effort to learn rules and mechanics if they assume it will be fully covered through workshops in advance.
  • A sense of infantalization. This is something I’ve personally struggled with — some workshops, particularly those designed to teach and reinforce very simple mechanics, or emphasize safety, can sometimes feel overbearing or “nannying” to some players.

Some of the issues common to generative workshops can be mitigated through heavier guidance from the designers. For example, simply asking players to come up with a character might result in characters not well suited to the LARP, or very simplistic character. Giving players a basic character to start with, and walking players through specific questions with lists of options to choose from may avoid these issues.

A form of workshop that I haven’t personally seen much of, but I would very much like to see more LARPs use are those that help teach and familiarize players with the customs and etiquette of an unusual setting. I’ve attended a fair number of LARPs with a historical or pseudo-historical fantastical setting, where royalty is not actually treated any differently from anyone else, or Victorian LARPs where strangers of different genders or classes are expected to seek introductions before conversing… but don’t. Sometimes it’s an issue of people not wanting to bother with the inconvenience of slowing things down to tell with etiquette and other unusual social norms, especially in a busy LARP where the world may be at stake, but often it’s simply an issue of not being familiar and comfortable with it. I’d like to see workshops on things like proper forms of address, table manners, proper ways to request a dance (and workshops on teaching historical forms of dance as well!) I think it would be especially worthwhile for longer LARPs, as a way to enhance the sort of immersion that draws people to non-contemporary settings.

I hope the Workshop Workshop will run again at other events, like Forum@Intercon — it’s a fun, interactive way to introduce workshops to LARPers unfamiliar with them, and get everyone to think more about ways to take advantage of their strengths and ways to address their weaknesses.

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About Fair Escape

I've been LARPing for years in all different styles, including both boffer and theater. I love classic LARP but I'm always happy to try something new. I have a sort of "gotta catch 'em all" attitude towards experiencing LARPs. I'm currently serve as a board member of NEIL, a member of proposal com for Intercon, the largest all LARP convention in the US, and as en editor for Game Wrap, a publication about the art and craft of LARP. I was also con chair of Festival of the LARPs 2017, and I'm on staff for NELCO, the first all LARP conference in the US. I'm
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5 Responses to NELCO 2018: Workshops and Foreplay

  1. mnemex says:

    Hmm. Generative workshops, and not warmups? I think I experienced warmup workshops (where you go through some experience intended to get you into a mode that’s supposed to either echo or be a part of the upcoming game) before encountering generative workshop techniques.

    I’d say the three kinds of workshops I’m most used to seeing at a larp are those two and tutorial workshops – where you learn a technique or mechanic that’s intended to be used in the larp (that’s a place where Intercon-style larpers are likely to consider something not-a-workshop that really is; if an ars amandi workshop is a workshop, so is a practice session on, say, a game’s combat mechanic).

  2. mnemex says:

    Also, I love the idea of an in-game ettiquite workshop, to get people used to the mode intended to be used in a game and, as importantly, to get used to one another using such a thing before it’s clear that what you do is in character.

    • Fair Escape says:

      I definitely enjoy in-game versions (not sure I’d call them workshops? but anyway) of things like dance classes An etiquette workshop would probably require some hoop-jumping to explain why its happening in-character (I feel like nearly all of the LARPs I’ve played where it would be relevant to gameplay, the majority of characters would be expected to know it already) but I would definitely sign up for a LARP that included a diegetic etiquette class!

  3. Mo says:

    hey there! Thanks for this — really interesting thoughts.
    I made an attempt a few years ago to categorize and structure workshop activities — would be v interested to hear your thoughts. I think it’s probably a bit out of date now, but maybe a new version would be useful: https://nordiclarp.org/2016/04/20/functional-workshop-structure-method/

    • Fair Escape says:

      Very cool, thank you for sharing! This is an interesting way to list out some stuff that just got sort of lumped under very broad categories here. I agree that having written records of workshop techniques would be really useful for LARP designers.

      I’d never heard of some of those warm up games (like Penguins and Flamingos) — the workshop handbook you linked to looks like a really cool resource! ( https://workshophandbook.wordpress.com/ for anyone curious.)

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