Keeping Volunteers Alive

Keeping Volunteers Alive

Organising larps is a multi-disciplinary exercise at best. At its worst, you need a witch’s cauldron of different skill sets, and being negligent in one area can mean that no matter how much you shine elsewhere, you still have a failed larp on your hands. A large part of my larp work consists of managing somewhat large (25+) teams of people, most of them volunteers. Doing that for big larp productions like College of Wizardry (Nielsen, Dembinski and Raasted et al., 2014) and Convention of Thorns (Raasted, et al., 2016) has given me some insights that may come in handy for others.

Pretend It’s a Video Game

If you think of your helpers/volunteers/team as being human versions of The Sims characters, then you’ll have an easier time managing them. Each of them comes equipped with a number of “status bars” that you need to be aware of. They have to be fed, housed and instructed, if you’re to get anything useful out of them—no matter if they’re at your larp to play the hostile orc army appearing out of nowhere, helping with getting the location ready, or doing cleanup.

It doesn’t matter much whether you call them helpers, minions, team members or something else. It matters how you treat them, though. To aid you in your larp organising, I’ve compiled a list of tips, structured into three chapters. And while I use these strategies when working with larpers, it’s just as easy to apply this sort of checklist elsewhere.

And with all that in place, let’s jump right in!

Health Points

Health Points represent the physical side of things. If this was a video game, these would be the different status bars that could be boosted using physical remedies. If your helpers are low on health points, it’s very hard to make them do anything (at all).

  • Water. It may seem like a simple thing, but if your helpers don’t have easy access to water, they will suffer. If you’re using an outdoor location, it’s extra critical.
  • Food. People need to eat. Food should be plentiful, nutritious and if possible account for dietary needs and wishes. Both meals and snacks are important.
  • Accommodation. Without a place to sleep, it’s hard to be a hero. Taking care of this can be tricky, since you have to deal with things like snoring, privacy and the general psychological makeup of your helpers.
  • Temperature. I’ve worked on a film project in Abu Dhabi, and I nearly melted. I’ve also frozen my ass off during late Autumn larps in non-heated castles. You need to make sure that either you or your helpers are taking care of making the temperature bearable.
  • Toilets. What goes in must come out, and access to sanitation is vital. One toilet for 50 helpers is not good, and if you’re feeding them well, it’s even worse!
  • Physical safety. To work, we need to be safe—and to feel safe. If you’re doing something in an environment that’s less than friendly to humans, it’s even more important. Enthusiasts will often take risks to make things work. Do your best to make sure that they don’t have to!

Mana Points

Mana Points represent the mental state of your helpers. This is slightly harder to quantify, but nonetheless very important. It’s the things that make your well-fed, well-rested work crew put in that extra effort that is necessary to make an event run smoothly.

  • Vision. “The how begins with the why” is a popular phrase. It’s also at least somewhat true. Helpers who know what’s going on and why it’s important are more likely to actually make that vision come true.
  • Motivation. There are many different ways to motivate people, and I’ll not go into details here, but if you don’t manage to motivate your helpers, they’ll slowly degenerate into slow, unhappy shades of themselves. Okay, not that bad, but still bad.
  • Morale. Akin to motivation, but different from it, morale matters when things get tough. When something goes wrong, and you need to ask people to stay an hour extra to dig a ditch or clean toilets, morale is critical. It’s the difference between “Okay, if I absolutely must” and “Yes, let’s do it!”
  • Free time. This is something that I find is often undervalued in projects: the clear communication of when there’s free time, and how it can be used. Are there spaces for resting? Opportunity to hang out with others during free time? Knowing how things work when you’re not working is important.
  • Solidarity. Most of us know that some tasks require heavy lifting while others require less obvious forms of labour. Even so, it can feel very demotivating to see someone watching cat videos on YouTube, while you’re putting the finishing touches on a prop, regardless of whether or not the other person has worked hard earlier. Providing a good feeling of solidarity in the workforce is a key component to creating team spirit.
  • Emotional safety. If we’re stressed and overloaded—or even feeling unsafe and unwelcome, we’re not concentrating on the task at hand. Everyone in your team should feel included and accepted, and creating a culture that supports this is very important—especially when working with diverse teams of strangers.

Equipment

Last, but definitely not least, comes the hardware; the things you need to make your highly motivated and cared for helpers actually do the work they’re here for. Inadequate hardware is the most common mistake I’ve come across, and is not just about tools, but also related things.

  • Workspace. Once you’ve gotten someone who can build a dragon, they need a place to build it in, or it’s not going to happen. Having appropriate amounts of space for the work that needs to be done is a necessary component to making things happen.
  • Tools. It may be possible to build a wooden house without hammers and nails, but it’s certainly easier if you have the proper equipment at hand. This can be small things like scissors and pens, or it can be expensive power tools or technical equipment. Often, it’s possible to come up with ad hoc solutions but having the right tools is preferable.
  • Working gear. If you’re working on a construction site, hard hats are often mandatory. If it’s pitch black, lights are pretty much a must. This seems self-evident, but is a place where I’ve seen too many failures.
  • Transportation. Perhaps one of the most overlooked factors when doing projects in locations that are off the beaten path (and yes, castles in Poland fit this category). Just telling people to show up on location doesn’t work that well if your location isn’t easily reachable. Transport solutions take time, and often need to be customised.
  • Physical safety. This is not only about the more obvious aspects of safety, but also about the more tricky ones. Asking if there’s a first aid kit is simple. Remembering that women need lights in toilet spaces because periods are a thing should be simple, but has proven not to be.
  • Emotional safety. Is there a sanctuary to retreat to if you need one? Are there people you can trust who can help you deal with trouble? Larps are often as high-intensity behind the scenes as on stage, and it’s valuable to know if someone is there to make sure that your mental health is taken into consideration.

Final Words

This article could easily have been longer, more detailed or more focused on explaining the whys and the hows. Having been a helper at many larps, and being a helper coordinator for larps as part of my professional life, I will be grateful if you can provide everything on this checklist. Time, money and reality often get in the way for that, but it’s a worthy goal, I think. The reason I have chosen to go the video game route is that I’ve discovered two things while working with helpers (and as a helper myself):

  • People are not resources. People have resources, but forgetting to treat them like individual people is not only morally problematic, but also bad for your project.
  • People still have similar needs, and once you learn how to think systemically about some of those needs (as you do with The Sims characters) you get better at managing your helper teams.

In the end, larps come alive because of the players, but the work done before, during and after larps by organisers and their helpers make the play experience possible in the first place. If handled right, being a helper for a larp can be a very fulfilling experience.

So let’s do our best to get the basics right!

Ludography

  • Nielsen, Charles Bo, Dracan Dembinski and Claus Raasted et al. College of Wizardry. Poland: Liveform (PL) and Rollespillsfabrikken (DK), 2014-.
  • Raasted, Claus et al., Convention of Thorns. Poland: White Wolf Publishing and Dziobak Larp Studios, 2016.

This article was initially published in Once Upon a Nordic Larp… Twenty Years of Playing Stories published as a journal for Knutepunkt 2017 and edited by Martine Svanevik, Linn Carin Andreassen, Simon Brind, Elin Nilsen, and Grethe Sofie Bulterud Strand.

Cover photo: Volunteers at College of Wizardry 8.

Authors

Agata Świstak
Feminist, leader, larp organiser. By day, I work as a volunteer coordinator, facilitating blockbuster events like College of Wizardry and Larp Design Conference at Polish castles. I focus on building co-creative community, where everyone can participate and learn how to make larps by doing. I run workshop and lectures devoted to practical side of organising (logistic, coordination, prototyping), have short affairs with game design and strive to do as much globetrotting larping as I can!
Claus Raasted
Claus Raasted probably didn't coin the term "larp tourism", but is certainly doing his best to popularize it. He's a part of Dziobak Larp Studios, an organiser group that creates blockbuster larps, that bring people from all over the world to play in them.
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