Today’s post began as a joint talk between Norwegian designer Tor Kjetil Edland and me at Knutepunkt 2017. This is a narrative writeup of our notes.
What is the player organizer contract?
It’s an agreement between players and organizers. At its simplest, it’s the agreement that the organizer will run a larp and the player will play in it. Often both parties think we know what this means, and therein lies the danger. The player-organizer contract is a site of multiple assumptions on both sides, and the misinterpretation of the contract can cause heartbreak, bad larps, and internet shit storms.
The player organizer contract also depends heavily on play culture and context. It might be quite usual for the larp to provide all food for the participants, for example, in a high-production value Nordic larp, but that is not usual in a weekend boffer campaign in New Jersey. As larp communities become global, what is expected is often not clear.
Metaphors for the Player Organizer Relationship
This relationship can take many forms, even during the course of a single event. And each metaphor suggests certain ways of resolving conflict, or even certain expectations players and organizers have of each other.
- Business/customer “The customer is always right.”
Suggests a transactional relationship where organizer must work professionally and appease player demands quickly. In its unlucky aspect it becomes…
- Hostage Situation “Meet my demands, or else.”
Players may threaten to leave the larp unless an organizer does X, where X might be providing a certain kind of entertainment, or excluding certain people.
- Tour guide/Tourist “To the left you will see a wild cyclops.”
The organizer provides a certain kind of environment in which players can experience a certain kind of fun. If you can’t manifest the larp tiger sighting for whatever reason, there may be problems. Organizers guide players toward certain paths to play.
- Parent/Child “I will show you how to play correctly.”
Organizers provide safe limits for play and show the participants the tools/toys they will be expected to play nicely with during the game.
- Artist/Critic “This larp didn’t have enough bleed for me.”
The organizer provides an aesthetic experience the players will critique on their own terms.
- Teacher/Student “You will learn about Romeo & Juliet from this larp.”
Edu-larp is quite explicitly this.
- Rockstar/Fan “I have always wanted to try one of X’s designs!”
Organizers with an elevated status position catering to legions.
- Co-creators/Equals “Together we will tell the story.”
Probably what most organizers want on some level—players to contribute to the story as a co-creator.
Different understanding of what the player/organizer relationship is at a larp can result in expectations not met, conflict, and disappointment.
The Role of Organizers
These days, we’re expecting a LOT out of organizers. Organizers may have to provide food, lodging, entertainment, stop harassment, and provide safe space from various societal structures. This is quite a lot to be responsible for.
As demands on organizers have become more serious, the risk of organizing a game and the likelihood of screwing something up have increased. This is especially important to note because it means the hurdles to running a larp are becoming higher, which may make it harder for new organizers to break in.
We made a (doubtlessly incomplete) list of the hats organizers may be asked to wear at a larp. Which ones you wear are probably a function of the type of game, expectations of your players, and what you’re willing to provide. One person may wear several hats, and often you need a team. We’ve put an asterisk next to functions we think you must have in order to run a larp:
- *Artist – The auteur who designs the experience.
- The Social Designer
Thinks about how groups will interact.
- The Author
Writes the characters, setting documents, etc.
- The Scenographer
Thinks about the look, feel, and functionality of props and setting.
- The Social Designer
- Player Care
- Scout Troop Leader
Peps people to do the things they need to, like drink water.
- The Roleplaying Coach
Gives advice on where to take a character next.
- *The Therapist
Deals with in and out of game emotional issues.
Makes space for newcomers.
- The Cultural Reprogrammer
Helps people undo the programming of living in a racist, sexist, homophobic, ableist, etc. society.
- Scout Troop Leader
- *The Janitor / the Carpenter
Cleans, builds, and fixes stuff that breaks.
- The Corner Shop
Provides painkillers, tampons, blankets and other necessities to players who forgot them.
- The Timekeeper/Scheduler
Makes sure the larp keeps to its schedule and that everyone is where they need to be.
- The Chef
Cooks or provides food so that players don’t go hungry.
- *The Janitor / the Carpenter
- Social / Event
- The Concierge
Tells everyone what amenities are nearby.
- The Party Organizer
Plans the post-game party and arranges for it to be awesome.
- The Community Manager
Manages community expectations and conflicts before and after game, for example, on social media.
- The Concierge
- The PR person
Communicates information about the larp to players. Builds hype. Might also arrange for media coverage in some games.
- The Public Face
Just like bands have face men, larps also have a public face. This is the person, for good or ill, most associated with organizing the game.
- The PR person
As you can see, there are many different roles organizers might play. And the skillsets that each of the roles require don’t always overlap. Just because a person is good at the artistic stuff doesn’t mean they are also a good therapist, or can build a pavilion with $20 and some lumber.
One thing that may be useful in articulating the player-organizer contract before the game is expressing to players which of these hats members of the team are wearing or are willing to wear.
It’s also worth noting that our ideas about how a game went are very organizer-oriented. Organizers have limited ways of controlling the outcome of a larp—they create the atmosphere and the social tools, but really it’s up to the players. Imagine two people in two different rooms. One has a picture in front of them, and is in radio communication with the other, and is providing instructions on how to paint the thing. Designing a larp is a bit like that.
And yet, the credit for the larp—and also the blame for anything that goes wrong—tend toward the organizer. When the player-organizer contract is not adequately articulated, the unspoken bits tend to revert to the organizer.
When we go to larps, we all bring different baggage with us. Sure, we might be able to weightlessly enter the unique magic circle of the game, but often some of our baggage ends up on the organizer’s table. It might or might not be the organizers’ responsibility to deal with that baggage, but regardless, it often becomes their problem.
Here are a few different types of baggage:
- Likes/dislikes. We like certain kinds of play but not others, which may or may not correspond to the game we’ve signed up for.
- Medical conditions. Sometimes players have medical episodes at games that affect the game play. For example, food allergies, seizures, asthma.
- Mental conditions. For example, PTSD that may manifest at unpredictable times.
- Race, class, gender, sexual orientation. These can produce their own set of sensitivities and blind spots that are complicated to deal with.
- Personal drama. Some people just don’t like each other but still larp together.
- Exhaustion. Players who arrive at a game super-tired from everyday life play differently from those who start out bright-eyed and bushy-tailed.
- Their conceptions of your larp. Players’ ideas about a larp are not always the same as organizers’ ideas. Perhaps someone signed up for your game because they saw it involved vampires, but they missed the part where you said the play style is extremely subtle and that most of game play would consist of sitting in a closet.
It’s smart to ask participants to make you aware of relevant baggage in the sign-up form, but there are many reasons players may fail to do so. For example:
- They weren’t aware this could become an issue at the game.
- People can also be in denial or bad at judging their own limits or capabilities.
Even if you know about potential issues, it may not be clear what your responsibility is as an organizer in dealing with them at your larp.
Ways Organizers Deal with Baggage in Games
Not all of these ways are equally good or recommended, but they are all strategies we’ve seen used:
- Preselection. Say no to players with baggage you don’t want or can’t handle. Can be a good preventative measure, but can also lead people to feel you are being discriminatory.
- Ignore it. Just hope nothing blows up in your game.
- Become a therapist for struggling players. This can work, but it can also be quite time-consuming, and may mean you can’t focus as hard on one of the other organizer hats.
- Unload the problem on players who are bad at saying no. “Can you go talk to X? They are feeling rough…” “Can you stop playing and go buy us 100 squeeze bottles of ketchup?”
If baggage causes a conflict between players you might:
- Side with your friends. Maybe not the ethically best choice but often the reality.
- Side with the most oppressed person.
- Spend a lot of time doing peace negotiations and helping everyone be friends again.
- Boot someone mid-game. Do you have the backing from other players to do so? I.e. will your decision have legitimacy?
The results of handling baggage-related conflict might be:
- Many players in open revolt over how you handled the issue. Potential internet shit storm after the event.
- Issue resolved to everyone’s satisfaction
- Some players are happy, but others are very unhappy
The results for organizers can be:
- Psychic stress
- Organizer burnout, and the feeling that the risk of organizing another game is too high.
- Becoming more selective about who you run events for. For example, private events only.
The above is geared towards thinking through the issue of the gaps in the player/organizer contract. We don’t have hard solutions and strategies yet, but we hope this piece helps open up some discussion. In general, we think that responsibility for the many aspects of a larp often pulverizes organizers, and it’d be great to find ways to distribute some of that responsibility to players.
This probably means continuing to foster positive community norms, developing skillsets for communicating clearly and distributing responsibility, and lowering expectations.
A few strategies:
- Build on existing community norms and resources. For example, reducing the risk of sexual harassment through tips produced by other members of the community.
- Acknowledgement that life is dangerous. Move the baseline for larp communities back from utopia to “slightly better than regular life.”
- Disrupt the idea that the organizer is responsible for everything by giving out responsibilities to players. For example, ask one person in each player group to take responsibility for doing emotional labor, either as a formal part of game structures, or informally.
Tell players what to bring, both physically and metaphorically. “We need you to bring your sense of fun and your willingness to try new things. Also, a set of silverware or you won’t be able to eat.”
- Foster a culture of player responsibility. Community management and community self-policing is also on the community. You want the player community to look out for and include the new people, as well as the new player guide.
- Get rid of “oh, the organizer will take care of that.” Have agreements about when players can take charge of a situation. Of course, they won’t always do it in good ways or ways that are in keeping with your vision. But that is OK.
- Know your limits as an organizer and set player expectations accordingly. Don’t over-promise. You can’t undo a lifetime’s worth of cultural conditioning by saying “don’t be sexist” at the beginning of the workshop, but you can support feminist and trans inclusive space.
- Practice organizer self-care strategies. It should be possible for organizers to deal with issues that came up in game without feeling “this is my fault.”
- The culture of feedback, praise, blame, and credit should go to both players and organizers. Not only the organizers should hear the complaints. Organizers often think they are blamed for more than they are actually blamed for—remember that you are very vulnerable after the game.
One concrete strategy that came up thanks to a very sharp questioner after our talk—maybe having a piece of paper up somewhere during the game where participants can write questions or concerns for organizers anonymously, to increase communication.
Tor Kjetil Edland is a Norwegian larp designer who has designed larps and freeform games such as Mad about the Boy, Just a Little Lovin’, Say a Little Prayer, and KoiKoi. His day job is working with LGBT rights internationally for the Norwegian organisation FRI – The Organisation for Sexual and Gender Diversity.
Lizzie Stark is the author of Leaving Mundania, about larp, edited Larps from the Factory, and #Feminism, both collections of larp scripts. Her journalism and essays have appeared many places, including The Washington Post, Daily Beast, and i09. She also designs games and serves as the main author of this blog. But you probably knew that.
Read more from Knutepunkt 2017 here.
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Useful stuff and good food for thought.
Just to play devils advocate for a moment: whilst I can see the advantages of putting community safety in the hands of the players, I have also seen things get VERY ugly when players are allowed to police themselves. Secret blacklists and public shunning have become the norm in a few of the UKs larger larps where the organisers have deligated to much responsibility to the players.
I’m not in favor of delegating all responsibility for a particular organizer hat to the players. I think that organizers have a crucial responsibility when it comes to, for example, dealing with reports of sexual assault and harassment. This sounds like a failure on the organizers’ part to create a mechanism for reporting abuse and banning broken stairs. This is another element of the player-organizer contract: in a vacuum, the players often find work-arounds to design what you forgot to design.
It’s possible to design some of those vacuums strategically, but something as important as sexual assault should not be one of them.
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