This article was written in 2016 and does not reflect some of the difficulties and lessons of the 2017 Peaky Midwest workshop.
The Peaky Midwest LARP writing workshop is a yearly workshop that helps new writers tackle creating LARPs and motivates experienced writers to put together small games for the community to enjoy. We have learned a lot about writing LARPs and about teaching people to write LARPs since the first event in 2012.
I have been the primary organizer of the Peaky Midwest LARP writing workshop since 2014. Here are some of the challenges the workshop has faced and the lessons I’ve learned.
Peaky Midwest is a weekend workshop that is run once a year in the spring or early summer. On Friday evening we gather at the site, have dinner, brainstorm ideas for games, and break into groups of three to five people. Each group works on a different game over the rest of the weekend. The groups have a few hours on Friday night to spend brainstorming the beginning of their game design and characters before everyone retires to sleep. On Saturday we do the bulk of the game writing. Most teams are finished with a playable draft by midnight. On Sunday we playtest our games in two hour slots.
Peaky Midwest grew out of the tradition of the Peaky LARP writing workshop in the UK. The majority of the writers at Peaky Midwest are from the Chicago community centered around Fete Fatale Productions and there is a good deal of cross pollination with the Intercon community around Boston. Because we are teaching through mentorship, most of the games we write are similar to small, secrets-and-powers style LARPs (often light on the “powers” part) from those communities. There is a more detailed attempt to describe our common game style expectations on the Peaky Midwest website.
We encourage both new and experienced writers to try new things that they are excited about, regardless of how they push our boundaries and expectations. This has led to some fascinating games that stray away from the traditional secrets-and-powers tropes and into new and experimental (at least for us!) territory.
For the last few years we have used online pre-registration, starting about six months before the workshop. This helped us to gauge interest and plan spaces, supplies, and menus. It also gave us a way to make sure that our contact information for attendees remains current. Peaky Midwest sends email receipts when people pre-register so that there is no confusion about whether or not their submission went through.
The workshop charges a small fee to writers in order to provide both physical writing materials and catered meals throughout the weekend.
Writing materials include easel pads and stands, Post-it notes, painter’s tape for hanging stuff on walls, washable colored markers, and printer paper. Not every group uses all these supplies, but every group uses at least some of them. As organizers we can buy supplies cheaply in bulk, store extras between workshops, and ensure that there is enough for everyone who pre-registers. We also make sure that writers are using materials like washable markers and painter’s tape that won’t inadvertently damage the space our hosts have so kindly let us use.
We collect information about attendees’ dietary needs during pre-registration and plan a menu to give everyone tasty options. This can be a challenge, since we have faced feeding people who need vegetarian, vegan, gluten-free, low-carb, and diabetic-friendly food all in the same year, as well as needing to juggle a number of specific food allergies to things like beans or red dye. Despite these complications, it has been worth it to go the extra mile in planning for everyone. Having good things each attendee can enjoy has been a big morale booster and has given writers more time to focus on writing. Getting and eating food takes up less time and you can still have useful breaks from writing to refuel. Serving batches of fresh baked cookies in the evenings was a particular crowd pleaser for relatively minor cost and effort.
Our 2016 cook cut back on the cooking workload at the workshop a good deal by pre-preparing and freezing many foods that freeze well like soup, spaghetti sauce, and cookie dough. We also received donations of homemade, frozen cookie dough from several other attendees. Our cook cut costs by shopping for many bulk ingredients at inexpensive or bulk stores like Aldi’s and Costco. He noted that having a dishwasher available was extremely helpful, as serving so many people quickly dirties serving dishes and flatware, even if you are using disposables for people to eat off of.
We have held the workshop in increasingly large private homes as our pool of attending writers has grown. Having enough space to gather everyone in one room for brainstorming on Friday night and giving each writing group relatively sound separated working areas has worked well. We find that we need enough space to have chairs for everyone during the brainstorming session, with a little extra for a facilitator and an easel pad for notes. More space than that is helpful and makes brainstorming feel less cramped, but isn’t necessary. While groups are working on their games on Friday and Saturday a lot of discussion goes on inside each group, and having spaces that give some sound separation for writing groups makes it much easier to focus on the game you are creating. For games that have secrets, separate spaces also limit unintentional leaks of secret game information to potential playtesters.
We find it helpful to have enough space to run two separate playtests at a time on Sunday while still giving people who aren’t involved in playtesting somewhere to rest. Since 2014, we have had enough writing teams that we need to run some concurrent playtests to make sure that all the groups get a chance to test their games. Most writers are exhausted by Sunday afternoon and those who aren’t actively playtesting need time and space to decompress and relax.
Before the Friday night brainstorming session, we talk some about expectations, scheduling, communication, and team structure. All of these are suggestions, but it helps to give writers a place to start when planning how they tackle their games and deal with other team members. More experienced writers usually have a better idea of how they are comfortable deviating from the suggestions.
We have specific policies about how intellectual property developed at Peaky Midwest is handled. These both allow writers to retain their rights to their IP and ensure that writers can individually work on a game after the workshop is over. They also ensure that games won’t be published with author names attached unless the authors can review what is going to be published. The exact details of the rules we laid out are less important than the fact that we have rules and we communicate them to all the attendees before we start brainstorming ideas on Friday so they know what is expected.
During brainstorming, we have great success starting with a few minutes of silent writing so that all writers have a chance to contribute some ideas before we open the floor. This also means that shyer writers do not need to speak up in front of everyone; they just have to hand over some Post-it notes with ideas.
It has also worked well to take several short breaks after we have an initial board of brainstormed game ideas to let everyone mingle and talk about what appeals to them. This allows people to consider the ideas and find out if others are interested in working on similar things. It allows writers to communicate with their potential teammates one-on-one rather than in front of a whole room full of eyes turned towards just them.
We encourage all attendees to bring laptops to work on. Because different teams choose different file sharing strategies, it is helpful to have full featured laptops available for each writer. We further ask attendees to bring laptops to share with others if pre-registration answers suggest they will be needed.
We encourage attendees to bring printers if they can. Having multiple printers that can be easily accessed by a common wired standard like USB makes printing game materials on Saturday evening much easier and faster. The last thing tired writers want to do is sit around waiting in a queue for a single printer late on Saturday night. We also encourage writers to configure and test their printers beforehand, so they will have minimal setup struggles at the workshop.
The teaching aspect of the workshop is handled through active mentorship. We try to make sure that each team has at least half experienced writers and they are expected to help and guide less experienced members of their team. This has generally worked well for us, and our pool of experienced writers has grown over the years.
Our budget has historically covered the food that we are going to feed our attendees, but not any money to pay a cook to make that food a reality. This means that we’ve relied on a volunteer cook. Unfortunately, feeding twenty to thirty people for an entire weekend requires a great deal of work. It is basically a full-time job, leaving a cook no time to work on writing a LARP. Because of this, we have had a difficult time finding someone willing to take that (somewhat intense) job. So far we have been able to find people to step in and fill the role, but several of them did it out of necessity or as a favor to the organizers. We would very much prefer to have someone doing the cooking who actively wants to take this role at the workshop.
Because most of the tools available to share files and collaborate on writing require internet access, we find that the workshop needs high quality wifi access which can stand the load of our many participants. Most writers will have at least two connected devices (a laptop and a smartphone) and some may have several more than that. Consumer grade hardware is sufficient for small workshops, but could be overloaded with twenty to thirty people. We used Ubiquiti hardware the last two years, and even with multiple access points, the quality wasn’t quite what we wanted. Hopefully we will be able to tune the wireless coverage at the site to improve internet access during future events.
We have learned through hard experience that forming writing groups is difficult. We want everyone to be working on something they are excited about with people they are excited to write with. There are many places where group formation can go poorly and we have found a good number of those unintentionally over the years.
We found that groups of six are too big for the workshop format. Six writers have a much more difficult time communicating well and staying on the same page. Often one or two members of the group will feel neglected and ignored and will lose enthusiasm for working on the project. This happens even when some members of a group are “part-time” writers due to illness or other responsibilities. We now recommend that groups remain in the range of three to five writers, with a preference for four or five.
It is very easy to fail to spread experienced writers around evenly. We have had at least one team where there was only one experienced writer and three new writers. No one realized the imbalance until after all of the teams were all formed and it was too late to correct it. This put way too much pressure on the one experienced writer to handle all the mentoring in that team alone. We now encourage experienced writers to monitor the experience levels of the groups as we’re trying to form the writing teams. This has worked somewhat better than the other strategies we tried in the past, but there is probably an even better solution that we have yet to find.
We have had problems at every single workshop forming the last of the teams. In several cases we let teams leave the brainstorming area as they formed. Since most of the writers were gone by the time we got to the last group, we couldn’t shuffle people around to make the last team out of people with shared ideas and desires. On the other hand, keeping teams that have formed in the brainstorming area risks them becoming extremely bored and not paying attention to further groups or beginning to discuss the game they want to make and distracting everyone. There is probably a better way to manage moving people around as we agree on the ideas we want to pursue and it will take some more experimentation to find it.
We didn’t previously make strong recommendations about the number of players our writers should try to make their games for, but over the years it has become clear that games with more than ten players are difficult to find enough playtesters to fill. There is also a huge amount of work needed to get so many characters fully written by Sunday, and this can lead to much greater time pressures on the team writing them. In the future we intend to more strongly encourage people to keep their game size to ten or fewer player characters. If they want to have more than ten characters, it would probably be a better idea to plan on writing any characters over ten at some point after the workshop.
We have found that having a dedicated person to schedule the playtests is the only way to fit all the games into the time and people that we have available on Sunday. Invariably some attendees will need to arrive late or leave early on Sunday, so there are limits on when they can be in or be running playtests. Before 2016 we struggled to make all the playtests happen, and often one of the games simply didn’t get tested on Sunday.
In 2016, our cook went around late on Saturday and got information on all the games. He asked about things like when people were arriving and leaving, who was on each writing team, how many GMs their game needed to run, and if there was a specific gender balance of player roles. He took all this information and spent several hours arranging all the pieces to come up with a schedule of playtests for the next day that would allow us to field enough playtesters in each slot.
We still had some difficulty arranging for the needed playtesters at the required times, but we managed to playtest all of the games. We are hopeful that in future years we can attract more playtesters who are not also writers in order to make this task easier. It is clear however that even with more playtesters, we will need someone to spend an hour or two on Saturday night to schedule everything.
We have occasionally had difficulties getting feedback about our failures from our attendees. Many people feel that it would be unkind to be openly critical of the workshop and this can make it difficult to learn where we are doing poorly. In the future we are planning to make a greater effort to offer attendees anonymous surveys after the event so that they will hopefully feel more comfortable telling us what did not work for them.
One of the purposes of the workshop is to create games that other LARPers can run or play. We have been somewhat successful in this, in that many of the games written at Peaky Midwest have been run in Chicago events, in San Jose, or in the Boston area at Intercon. However, most of our games are still not publically available online.
It takes a lot of work to polish a game from the point where an author can easily run it to the point where a stranger can easily run it. In general, we estimate that preparing a game for publication will take about twice as much work as the team did at the workshop, hopefully spread out over a much longer time so it is less stressful. In the future we are hoping to encourage more of our authors to polish their games for publication, so we can add them to our web store and use any profits to fund future Peaky Midwest workshops. We are also working on publication recommendations to help our authors more easily polish their games to a high standard.
The following is advice that we have given to writers attending the workshop. Some of it is specific to the workshop format and some is general advice for LARP writing. It is included here in the hopes that it will be helpful to other organizers and writers.
Be kind to your teammates. We are all friends here, so please treat each other as friends and do your best to listen to each other. Tell your teammates the things you are excited to build, but try to accept that not everyone will be as excited about them as you. You will be able to find common ground that works for all of you. When your teammates say no, even if they say it gently, take it as a no. You can always take the game in different directions after the workshop if you still disagree about what excites you in the design.
Set limits on the content and behavior you plan to include in your game. Talk to your teammates about what you are comfortable with creating and listen to what they say about what they want to create. If you agree on a limit, stick to it.
Have a team leader who helps to keep you on task and organized. It is way easier to manage the workload of writing a game if you have someone watching the big picture and managing time. A good team leader is not a dictator, but rather someone who helps the team members to work together efficiently and communicate clearly with each other. A good leader listens far more than they talk and does their best to make sure all team members are heard.
Have a team caregiver who makes sure everyone is taking care of their physical needs. It’s easy to be so focused on getting a game done that you fail to do things like eat or stretch when you need to. A team caregiver helps to keep that from becoming a crisis by watching the other members of the team and reminding them to take better care of themselves.
Plan to take time to rest and to sleep. Agree on when you are going to stop working each evening and then do that, no matter what state your game is in. Most people write much better and much faster when they’re rested.
Keep an eye on the big picture schedule (this is a good task for the team leader). We recommend sketching out your game design and characters on Friday and sleeping on those ideas. Often sleeping will bring up new connections and ideas that make your game stronger. On Saturday morning, finish the majority of the large scale planning and design so you can get down to writing the game materials over the rest of Saturday. If you get your game printed out and ready to go on Saturday night, Sunday is much less stressful.
Get the game to a minimal playtestable format first. Especially if you are writing a large game, get your game to the absolute minimum needed for playtesting before you make it nice. It’s better to playtest character sheets made up of a list of bullet points than it is to have some of your sheets filled with beautiful prose and others totally empty on Sunday morning.
Playtesters will be understanding and the playtest is short. Playtesters know that you’ve only had a day and a half to get this game ready and they’re going to be understanding of flaws and holes in your game. The playtest slots are only two hours and that includes all the out-of-game discussions like the introduction and game wrap. You really only need to deliver an hour to an hour and a half of in-game time, so don’t stress out if your game feels a little thin on content.
Peaky Midwest has faced many challenges and we have done our best to learn from our failures. We will continue to learn, grow, and evolve, building a better workshop as we go. Hopefully this article will help others avoid the same pitfalls we’ve found and encourage them to organize workshops of their own to help writers realize their ideas and give us all more great LARPs to play.