Ah, the pre-larp workshop! It’s the linchpin of many a larp I’ve enjoyed. The pre-larp workshop is a place where participants get to know each other, learn about the game, and develop their characters, so that instead of spending the first hour of a game warming up, you can be right there in your alter-ego’s skin.
It is great for attracting newbies–if they want to, they can leave after trying out the workshop–but in my experience they mostly don’t, because the workshop has reassured them that they’re going to do fine and the group will support them.
Plus, workshops are FUN!
I think the technique is also murderously opaque to people who haven’t been to a pre-larp workshop before. I’m no expert–I’ve run a couple pre-game workshops, largely designed by other people, and written one of my own. But I’ve noticed that most well-designed workshops have a few things in common, and take a particular angle toward the game.
So here’s what I know about what I believe is one of the most steal-able techniques from the Nordic larp scene.
What workshops do
Workshops have many functions. The largest, macro-function, I think, is to develop the players into a community, a collective that will be able to make good scenes for one another. Underneath that, workshops also teach about the techniques of the game and underscore its themes, communicate the play-style, and help players develop their characters and the relationships among the characters.
There are three basic ways to communicate with your players: through lecturing to them, through short exercises in big or small groups, and through demonstrations.
Most importantly, though, each element in the workshop is trying to do something particular, and fits the game’s scope, design, themes, and player base.
How to design a basic workshop
Below, I’ve listed the seven potential parts of pre-larp workshops, as I see them. You’ll probably want to mix and match some of these according to what you are trying to do in the larp, and how much time you have. Few workshops contain all of these. At a minimum, I’d include the practical stuff, the safety talk, and an icebreaker.
You also might put these together in a slightly different order. It can be good to mention the safety stuff more than once, for example, or to practice it if your group is unfamiliar. People have limited attention spans, so you might want to organize the workshop so that they’re not just listening to you talk for an hour–break it up with some exercises or small group work.
A note on workshop length and organizer jobs:
Many of the pre-larp workshops I’ve attended last as long as the game itself. Two hours of workshop, two and a half hours of game, and half an hour of debrief is a usual ratio. I’ve also been to great games that had a half-hour of workshop/prep and three or four hours of play. Some of the bigger Nordic larps have several days of workshop and then, the following weekend, several days of play. Experiment with the ratio and see what you like best. I find that for a 4-6 hour slot, about an hour and a half or two hours of workshop is more than sufficient–any more than that and it’ll seem to drag.
It’s a very good idea to make a list of the exercises you plan for a workshop, and about the amount of time you’d like them to last for.
As organizers, your job may be to design the workshop, or simply to run it as written. Either way, you’ll probably be talking a fair amount, so it can be good for voices and collaboration to spread that out among a few organizers. Other important jobs include watching the clock like a hawk, answering questions, and trying out some of the exercises ahead of time so that you can explain them properly.
1. Practical stuff
Helping the rest of the workshop run smoothly.
- Awkward mingling
- How to get quiet
- Pee breaks
If you have time, let people mingle awkwardly for half an hour or so before the workshop starts. Eventually, they’ll start introducing themselves to each other; a little hangout time before the game can help bond the group. This can also be a good time to distribute character sheets or other materials needed during the larp or workshop.
If you have a large group, it’s good to start out by teaching your players how to get quiet. When the organizer raises a hand, you raise your hand and get quiet too.
You’ll want to include some practical stuff at the beginning of the workshop. Usually, it’s a good idea to give people a timeline of how the rest of the day is going to go. Something like “we’ll be workshopping for about two hours, and then we’ll have a half hour break, and then we’ll play for about two hours followed by a short debrief and cleanup.”
You should also remember to leave breaks for people to drink water, pee, have a smoke, etc. If it’s a long workshop, you might need to break for food. I have forgotten this before, and let me tell you, players who need to pee badly do not workshop well.
Leave time for questions. People will have them.
2. Safety rules
Helping people look out for each other, making players feel comfortable leaving their comfort zone if they so choose.
- cut and brake
- physical violence and triggering topics
- site-specifics like that loose floorboard
Always leave time to at least explain (and maybe try out) safety rules. The basic safety rules for larps are “brake” and “cut.” If a player says “brake,” this means their co-players will maintain, but not intensify a scene, and give that player a chance to play themselves out of the situation. If a player says “cut” all play around them stops until the player who called “cut” is made comfortable again. If the player who called “cut” wants to talk about it, fine, but do not push them, as the reason why they cut may be quite personal. Players also have a responsibility to cut on behalf of other players, if someone seems like they are in trouble, or if there is an accidental physical injury, for example. Do you want people to find you if someone cuts? If so, tell them now.
I think it’s important to emphasize to the players that playing a game is not more important than their personal well-being, and that you’d much rather they cut then continue to play if they are in a bad place. Depending on the topics your game covers and how familiar your player base is with playing with these themes, this chat might include discussion of the difference between good-uncomfortable–pushing boundaries to make you grow–and bad-uncomfortable–pushing boundaries in a way that is not productive or is actively harmful. Talking about potentially problematic content ahead of time is generally a good idea.
You can read more about cut and brake from Norwegian designer Eirik Fatland. You can also see a video demonstration/explanation of “cut” and “brake” here.
You might also have safety rules related to physical violence if that is included in the game.You might want to discuss triggering topics that may come up during the game to make sure players are aware of them.
Perhaps you have an off-game area for people who need a break. If so, show it off!
Your site might have safety issues, like that one patch of rocks on site that everyone will trip over in the dark, or bears. Always warn people about bears.
3. Ice-breakers/Group bonding
Getting the players to trust each other, so they’ll feel comfortable looking silly later.
- say names
- do something silly
I think ice-breakers are important. You might go around the circle and have everyone say their names and how they came to be here, for example. This can also help you identify how many new larpers you have, which can help you pitch the rest of your talk accordingly. For small games of twelve or fewer players, the name thing is absolutely essential, because otherwise it seems weird that you haven’t done it.
A short physical exercise gets people used to doing odd things in front of strangers, and bonds the group in doing something silly together. For big games, I usually do a couple, for smaller games, one is enough. If you are going to have physical contact in this larp–if people will be playing out romantic or familial relationships, for example, this is a good opportunity to break the touch barrier. Have your players shake hands with everyone else in the room, for example, in 60 seconds, 30 seconds, and 15 seconds. Or have each person, in a continuous train, shake hands with the circle and introduce themselves.
There are loads of ice-breakers out there. For example, here’s a bus stop exercise, or a theater machine. Or penguins and pelicans. Penguins waddle in tiny steps with arms by their sides. Pelicans take big marching steps and flap their wings. They also eat penguin brains. When a pelican touches a penguin on the head, the penguin transforms into a pelican. Play until there are no more penguins.
Another of my favorites is a game called “switch.” Make the same number of slips of paper as people, divided into three or four categories, like Ninjas, Cowboys, Robots, Zombies, etc. Hand them out to the players and have them run around swapping papers with each other while saying “switch switch switch switch.” Clap your hands, have them open the papers and act like whatever is on the slip. Like groups have to find each other. You can do this a few times.
A few rounds of the hokey-pokey, or “Head, shoulders, knees and toes” works too. And of course, these are only a few ideas. You could do trust falls! Or that absurd party game where people do a relay race passing donuts on straws! Feel free to make up your own.
4. Explaining the Game
Help the players understand what’s about to happen.
- game themes
- game structure
- play style
- walk-through of game space
- explanation of game mechanics
It’s essential to let the players know about the first three items above so that they all play together, that is, so they all play the same story. If I think this is a realistic tragedy and Sue thinks it’s a farce, that’s a problem. So explain what the game is about, both in a plot sense–“this is a murder-mystery drama set in 1920s England among the elite” and in a thematic sense, “this larp is about regret and the choices we wished we’d made.” You should describe the larp’s structure, including how it begins and ends.
All of this influences play style, but it’s good to talk about that explicitly too. How should I pace my character arc? Should players be trying to get ahead in the game? Or is this larp more suited to playing to lose, that is, to playing flawed people who will probably fail? Is this a farce where I should be playing big and hilarious, or a quiet relationship drama with a more realistic bent?
It’s often wise to remind players that when in doubt, they should make good scenes for other people.
You’ll also want to let the players know about the layout of the game space–if it’s very large, you should walk them around to the different areas. And finally, you may want to explain/demonstrate any game mechanics, if you are not workshopping them later.
5. Underscoring the themes of the game
Getting players understand the themes of the game and its relevance to their own lives.
- explaining the themes of the game
- have players talk about their own experience
- put them in the right mindset
Not all larps use workshop activities to develop the themes of the game, but many games do. If this game is about bullying or relationship foibles, or alcoholism, or birthdays or bad sex etc., you can ask players to bring some of their own experiences into the game.
One way to do this is to have an open conversation, mediated by an organizer, during which the players talk about this stuff briefly. You can “make a round,” that is, ask each player to talk in turn, or do it more informally. Usually, though, if these players are creating something all together, it’s important that everyone talk. Sometimes, if you make a round it can be helpful to give players the option of lying, so long as they do not say they are lying. If people don’t have experience with X, sometimes it can be helpful to talk about X as an absence rather than a presence.
A less chatty version of this can be to write a guided meditation that the players think through as themselves, not their characters. If the game is about high school, as in Play the Cards, ask players to imagine a typical high school day. Sometimes people respond strongly to guided meditation–it can be helpful to tell folks that if things get too intense, they can open their eyes and sit up if they need to. Or you can give them the option of doing this in character as well.
Other ways to reinforce the themes of the game might be to give the players some pre-game reading, or to ask them to come up with and play short scenes from their experiences with the topic at hand.
Again: there are lots of ways to do this, and what you do/whether you do this at all will all depend on the game.
6. Develop the characters
Help the players learn about their characters, and about their place in the overall social structure within this larp.
- work the characters mentally
- work the characters physically
- work with factions
- work with relationships
- work with the larger group
I won’t cover character/faction creation or casting here; though it is possible to create characters through workshopping, I haven’t done much of that and I think how you do it depends heavily on other elements of the game design, making general advice tricky. For exercises related to character/faction creation–or for additional exercises related to workshops in general–I heartily recommend the Workshop Handbook blog.
Working with characters
You can help your players deepen their characters by getting them to talk with one another. One useful technique is the “hot seat” technique, where you split players into small groups, say 2-3, and they present their characters to one another. One person sits in the “hot seat.” The others fire simple and complex questions at them “what is your favorite color?” “How is your relationship with your father?” and the hot-seat character answers for a pre-determined period of time (1-3 minutes). You could ask players to come up with three adjectives describing their character, and ask them to present those in small groups, or to draw a picture of their character, or imagine an important scene from their characters’ pasts and present those in small groups.
On a physical level, if you have time, you can workshop how this character moves. Ask players to walk around the room as themselves, for example, then to shift the body part that leads their motion to different locations in the body (the pelvis, the shoulders, the head, etc.), and then to find what their character leads with. You can ask them to practice making lots of eye contact, and little eye contact, and then to do so as their character. If someone in your group is familiar with theater workshops, that is an easy way to get ideas.
My favorite exercise comes from a workshop I attended run by folks from the Court of Moravia at Knutepunkt 2013. Ask players to start out walking as their character slightly, then do a crescendo from 1 to 10, where they increase the characterization as they walk accordingly. By 10, they’ll be wildly exaggerating their walk, so when you ask the players to dial it back to a 5 or a 7, that’s about how their character might move during the larp.
In-game questionnaires can also work, if the game is suitable.
Working with factions
Many games organize the players into affinity groups or “factions.” Maybe it’s groups of friends, maybe it’s business interests, or maybe it’s people who all play tennis on Sunday. If you have factions, you can split players up accordingly, and ask them to figure out what the faction does normally, or who rules the roost or thinks they do, how they know each other, where they hang out, and so on. This has the added advantage of getting the players familiar with faces they will need to know in game. If you like, you can also use this opportunity to help people learn character names.
Working with relationships
If characters have pre-written relationships to other characters, it’s a good idea to give those pairs or groups a few minutes to chat and talk about what those relationships are like and how they might play them. Encourage people to talk about their comfort zones here too, especially when working with romantic relationships. If everyone in the game is in a romantic relationship, you might want to workshop this more formally, with some specific exercises.
If players don’t have pre-written relationships in their character sheets, you can also have them mingle around the room, yell stop, and gather in groups of two to gain a negative relationship. Then let the players figure out why that relationship is negative. You can do the same for positive relationships or other sorts of relationships–lots of possibilities here.
In a smaller group, you can also use a relationship building tool like the Ball of Yarn. The first player takes the loose end of the ball, and throws it to someone else in the circle and states a relationship, like “we’re sisters.” The person who catches it, if they wish, can further define it (“I was mommy’s favorite and you’ve always been jealous of that”) or simply pass it to another person. This makes it really clear who is not looped in. Don’t do a round two until everyone has at least one relationship, and watch the time–this game is pretty fun and people often want to play for a long time. At the end, go around the circle and have each person repeat their relationships to set them in your mind.
Work with the larger group
It can be helpful to work with all the characters at once. One favorite technique is status lines, where the characters make a line from highest to lowest. The lines you make will depend on the game, of course. For my new artists’ colony game, I make people line up by age, by who has been at the colony the longest, by actual level of fame, and by self-perceived level of fame, and by how well they’re liked in the colony for example. The lines you choose should be relevant to the theme of your game.
Another idea comes from Play the Cards, a game about teenagers and status that is on my mind since I played it recently. During the workshop, we also made “constellations,” where everyone put their hand on the shoulder of the person they were secretly or openly in love with. This technique seems pretty adaptable.
And of course, there many more techniques out there, waiting to be discovered.
7. Practice mechanics or elements of play that might be hard or are particularly important
A lot of larp isn’t intuitive or goes against our intuitions to be nice low-key people. Help your larpers break out of their shell.
- Try to figure out what will confuse your players ahead of time, or what is really important to get right during play. Then demo it for the group, or have them practice.
This requires knowing your player base a bit and trying to guess what might be hard for them. If you are using a monologue technique, and the players are all super familiar with monologue techniques–where a character delivers their interior thoughts for the players, but not the characters to hear, often set off by a fist-bump, or pinging a glass, or opening and then closing a monologue box in the air–you might not need to workshop it.
On the other hand, if you’re working with a group that has no idea what you’re talking about, it’d be a good idea to use a scene to demo it, and then to have them practice.
By the same token, most people like to be nice. But perfect characters make for a boring larp, so it can be a good idea to get people used to being jerks (if the game calls for people to be jerks). If this is a game about bullying, get your players to try (lightly!) bullying each other’s characters in sample scenes. Otherwise, you might have a great larp plot that never gets off the ground. This can also be a good way of encouraging people to play to lose, as they get some practice at screwing up.
Likewise, if there’s a particular dynamic that is essential to the game–status play or being able to yell really loudly or following the orders of the faction leader–then it may be helpful to do a few exercises that help players practice this dynamic.
Sample Workshop Schedules
A sample schedule for a game about unlikely friendships across football teams that I just imagined, might be:
– (Awkward mingling: 15 minutes)
– Organizers introduce themselves, timeline, and quiet (5 minutes)
– Brief explanation about game structure (5 minutes)
– Cut and break explanation (2 minutes)
– Players introduce themselves and hand-shaking game (5 minutes)
– Penguins and pelicans (5 minutes)
– Hot seat (10 minutes)
– Characters talk to people they’ve got relationships with (10 minutes)
– Work the teams: Name-game (7 minutes)
– Teams talk about how they met and status within the group (12 minutes)
– Questions? (2 minutes)
– Pee break (7 minutes)
– Game lingo–sports lingo for larpers (3 minutes)
– Introduce “who’s got the ball” metatechnique (5 minutes)
– Practice “who’s got the ball” with partners (5 minutes)
– Repeat game structure and cut and brake (5 minutes)
– Last questions (2 minutes)
– Break before game (30 minutes)
Final thoughts and tips
A good workshop is fitted to the game design, its theme, and your players.
I’ve outlined the basic sorts of things you might think about above, but there is no hard-and-fast rule. Some games don’t need long workshops (or some would argue, any workshops at all), but I think most games can benefit from even a very short one–just something that lets me meet my co-players as people, talk to the people my character has relationships with, or make some new relationships if I need them, or get my worries on the table.
Unless you’re running a really intense multi-day thing, you probably won’t need all of the above. Select a few exercises based on what you most want to emphasize about the game, and what you think the players most need, and leave the rest on the cutting room floor.
Of course, there are many ways to run a pre-larp workshop. My ideas probably come from the handful of games I’ve played with them, and are thus somewhat limited. For more advice, see the Workshop Handbook blog, and the Larps from the Factory video section, which contains video demos of many exercises and techniques.
Got different ideas? Got questions? Post them in the comments.