Sleeping Areas, Off-Game Areas, and the Black/White Ribbon Metatechnique

Sleeping Areas, Off-Game Areas, and the Black/White Ribbon Metatechnique

In this article, I will present the black/white ribbon metatechnique, created by myself for the re-run of Libertines (2020). Put very simply, this technique is used to signal if you want play in your sleeping area or not, and can be changed according to your current wishes. Before presenting this technique in full, however, it is necessary to present the background, and to create a tool for discussing different kinds of sleeping area design choices. Therefore, I will start by introducing the mixing desk of sleeping areas, and will discuss the pros and cons of having a separate off-game room, before arriving on the design of Libertines, and the black/white ribbon technique itself.

The Sleeping Area

When it comes to the place where you sleep (usually a bedroom, dorm or tent), there are a few different approaches a larp can have. I first set out doing a list of different categories of sleeping areas, but soon realized that it was rather a question of different sliders, akin to those of the mixing desk of larp.[1]Jaakko Stenroos, Martin Eckhoff Andersen, and Martin Nielsen (2016). The Mixing Desk of Larp: History and Current State of a Design Theory. Analog Game Studies. Accessible at: http://analoggamestudies.org/2016/11/the-mixing-desk-of-larp-history-and-current-state-of-a-design-theory/ The mixing desk of sleeping areas instead has the following sliders:

  • Aesthetic: This about how the sleeping area looks. If it is 360°, everything in the sleeping area looks as it would within the reality of the game. If it is off-game, it does not correspond to the reality of the game at all. If the slider is somewhere in the middle, that is comparable to a medieval larp where sleeping bags are allowed if hidden under blankets.
  • Playability: Whether you are meant to be playing your characters in the sleeping area or not. Some larps have very intense play in the sleeping areas; marital arguments, sex scenes or interactions with servants. At other larps, play should be dialed down or completely avoided, for example in dorms where you risk waking people up.
  • Availability: This slider refers to who is allowed to enter the sleeping area. When the slider is at max, anyone can come into the sleeping area, without an invitation, at any time. This can be interesting for example in games where there are secrets between the characters, or when invasions of privacy are part of the experience. When the slider is at its lowest, only the occupant(s) of that sleeping area may enter. If the slider is in the middle, people might be allowed to enter if invited, or if they have a close relationship with the occupant(s). These rules of course stand in relationship to the diegetic rules of the larp, but are not necessarily the same. For example, in a Regency game it is of course unthinkable that a young woman receive visitors in her bedroom, other than family and close friends. That is the diegetic rule. The non-diegetic rules can still allow for anyone to barge into her room, and face the in-game consequences.
  • Sleep: At some larps, it is a part of the design that you cannot rest easy, and have no guarantee of getting a full night’s sleep. At other larps, you want your participants well rested. When the slider is at max, having people woken up during the night is allowed, perhaps even an important part of the design. When the slider is at its lowest, it is not allowed to wake people up, and noise should not be made anywhere close to the sleeping area.
  • Sharing: Who you share a sleeping area with makes a lot of difference to the game. If you for example have been assigned to a room together with your character’s spouse, then there is a lot of potential for play. If you share a sleeping area with off-game friends that have no strong relation to your character, then you might be less inclined to be actively in-character while in the sleeping area.
  • Safety: This slider concerns how safe your character should be able to feel in the sleeping area. In many ways, this slider correlates to many of the other sliders. If, for example, anyone can enter your room at any time, and if you might be woken up during the night, then the sleeping area will not be a safe space for your character. And if you are sharing your room with someone your character has a negative relationship with in-game, that creates unsafety for your character as well.
The mixing desk of sleeping areas (diagram, Julia Greip)

The mixing desk of sleeping areas (diagram, Julia Greip)

An example of a game with most of the sliders relatively high is Baphomet. The rooms are overall in-game, playable areas, which are shared with your character’s partner. While social conventions on whose room you may enter are in place during the beginning, these crumble away during the game, and entering anyone’s room becomes feasible. The only slider that is relatively low is that of sleep, as off-game sleep deprivation is not part of the design, and loud craziness after midnight is discouraged. Overall, there is great potential for the characters to feel unsafe in their rooms, especially if their relationship to their partners turns sour during the larp.

Examples of larps that have all sliders on minimum are of course those where the players do not sleep in-game, as is the case with Inside Hamlet and the Androids larps. This solution is suitable if the characters would sleep in conditions that are unfeasible for the players, or if the venue of the larp does not have places to sleep. It also works well if during the night there is an act break where a longer time period passes in-game.

When it is not clearly stated what settings a larp has on this mixing desk, one of three things will happen. People will decide amongst themselves for each sleeping area, they will try to guess what is appropriate, or they will decide themselves based on their own preferences. That people decide themselves is preferable here, and generally works well as long as they are in agreement, and if there is no need or interest for players to enter the sleeping areas of others. If people guess, things might also work out fine, provided they come from similar larping cultures. There is, however, a risk that the sliders end up somewhere in the middle, and that the settings are not optimal for the experience that the larpwright intended. Finally, if people just go with their own preferences, there is great risk of frustration between larpers, especially if they come from different larping cultures. For example, I’ve shared a room where I anticipated intense, pressure-cooker play and complete immersion, but my roommate felt that it was a place to rest and check their phone. 

The Off-Game Room

As part of creating safe larps, many larps provide an off-game area, where the players are welcome to go during the game. Sometimes the room is staffed, so that there is always someone available to provide support for larpers. This can be either because they feel unsafe out of character, or because they’ve experienced intense play that they need to process with someone. Other times, the off-game rooms are unstaffed. They then serve mainly as a place to either go by yourself to get a breather, or with a co-player to talk things through.

Although there are benefits of having an off-game room open to participants, there are also some potential risks and problems with it:

  • Staffing: The most obvious and practical problem with having a staffed off-game room is of course that you will need staff enough to do so. Larps that do not have a big budget or hordes of willing helpers will have a hard time doing so.
  • Reproducing negativity: Sometimes, off-game rooms become places where the participants ventilate about things that do not work well with the larp design. Sometimes, it is a good thing to be able to vent your frustrations and then go back to trying to have an enjoyable experience. However, there is also a risk of a negative feedback loop, where the participants feed each other’s negative view of the game. This risks leading to a lessened readiness to try to make the game an enjoyable experience. There is also a higher risk that the participants do not turn to an organizer to share their concerns (particularly if the area is unstaffed), so that the flaws in the game can be remedied.
  • The fragility of the magic circle: It’s fun to laugh and chat with your friends off-game, especially since they are usually people you do not see that often. During outdoor larps in uncomfortable weather, it is also nice to be warm, dry, and perhaps have a snack. This means that even though you might enjoy the game, it is sometimes hard to tear yourself away from an inviting off-game room. And the longer you stay, the longer it takes to get back into the intensity of the feelings within the game. Having the chance to chat and laugh about the game is a way to release tension – tension that is often an important part of the game.

However, intense games where there are no off-game areas whatsoever, and where sleeping berths are not off-limits, can get a bit too intense. Some larpers have no problem with this level of intensity, and even prefer it. Others might need a place where they can feel safe and know that they will not be bothered for a while.

The Black and White Ribbons

During the first two runs of Libertines, in 2019, we had no off-game room. Instead, we had the space outside the front door as an off-game area. This was both due to the reasons listed above, and that the venue did not have any indoor space that we deemed appropriate. By having a space that was not overly comfortable and inviting, we hoped to limit off-game time to necessary calibrations. The players were also free to enter each other’s rooms uninvited. This rule was in place to allow for oppression and threatening behavior, to create a sensation of having nowhere that was completely safe. It also meant that the rooms were in-game at all times, and not spaces for being out of character.

A bedroom scene at Fairweather Manor (photo, Karel Křemel)

A bedroom scene at Fairweather Manor (photo, Karel Křemel)

Overall, this worked well. However, a few participants expressed that they would have liked a space that felt safe; a place to rest or calm down. A few others expressed that they would have liked more people to come uninvited into their room, to feel even more unsafe. Since we had no way to indicate who wanted what, however, the oppressors often played it safe and did not barge into rooms unnecessarily.

For the second two runs of Libertines, played 2020, this was one of the main changes I wanted to make. I wanted a system where people could signal both when they did not want to be disturbed, and when they welcomed people barging in. I was inspired by the common practice of putting a sock on a door handle when you do not want someone to enter (usually because you’re having sex). Instead of socks, I thought colored ribbons suitable. At first, I thought green and red most appropriate, since the colors are strongly connected to “yes” and “no”. Then, however, I realized that color-blindness is often linked to these exact colors, and that they are harder to make out in a dark corridor. Therefore, I ended up on choosing black and white ribbons instead.

The ribbons were non-diegetic, and so were only visible to the players, not the characters. Each room had a black and a white ribbon available, and the players put them on the outside door handles depending on their needs. Their meanings were the following:

  • White ribbon: Please enter! This was used when an interesting scene was happening in the room, that would become more interesting by someone walking in on it. It was also used when you wanted someone to come in and interact with you.
  • Black ribbon: Don’t enter! This was used when someone needed to take a break and rest. Only roommates were allowed to enter the room at this time, but would do so quietly.
  • No ribbon: Neutral. This was neither an invitation or a dismissal. People were still allowed to come into your room, but would usually not do so unless they had a reason to do so.

It is very important to note that the black ribbon was not for wanting to chat off-game in your room – this was still discouraged, and off-game conversations were relegated to the off-game area outside the house. There were two reasons for this. Firstly, we wanted to avoid the effects of the off-game room mentioned above. The second was that the walls of the venue are relatively thin, and people somehow usually talk a bit louder when they go off-game and relax. Allowing people to be off-game in their rooms would simply be audible outside the room, with a high risk of breaking immersion for their neighbors. However, we did allow and encourage a quick check-in in a hushed voice if your roommate had put up a black ribbon. This way, if someone was not feeling okay and needed to talk to the organizers, it had a greater chance of coming to our attention.

The effect of the ribbons, in essence, is giving the players the power over some of the sliders on the mixing desk of sleeping areas. While the Aesthetics and Sharing sliders remain the same throughout the game, the ribbons offer control over the Playability, Availability, Sleep, and Safety sliders. The white ribbon sets these sliders to maximum, the black sets them to minimum, and leaving the door handle with no ribbon sets the sliders to medium.

Overall, the ribbon system worked really well: all the participants who answered the evaluation form after the larp liked it. There were comments of both black and white ribbons being used with their intended effect, and especially of scenes being enhanced by the effects of the white ribbon. The only negative comments received were that when it was dark in the corridors, it was sometimes harder to see the ribbons. This can be avoided by using wider ribbons (ours were only about 1 cm wide) and not skimping on the length, allowing for a big bow tie.

One critique I did not find, but that could happen at some point, is the problem of disagreeing with your roommate’s use of ribbons. If they want the white ribbon up at most times, but you would prefer having no ribbon up or even want lots of breaks with the black ribbon up, that could be a small source of tension. In Libertines, it probably contributed that there were only two people in each bedroom. Furthermore, most of the characters shared a room with their spouse, and those who were unmarried shared a room with someone whom they had a lot of play with. If the rooms were shared by several people, who did not have a lot of play together, this system would not have worked as well.

By having this system in place, it seemed as if the players grew both more courageous, and also felt safer. Knowing that there was always a simple way to get some alone time, it was easier to lean into the cruel and oppressive aspects of the game, and be more courageous as a player. Similarly, having ways to dial things up and invite play into your room, made it easier creating the narrative arc you wanted, and give interesting play to your co-players. I recommend it for larps where you want intense play and oppression to happen in the sleeping areas, but also want the players to be able to use the sleeping areas as a safe-haven from time to time.

Ludography

Atropos Studios and Julia Greip, Libertines (Rødby, Denmark: Atropos Studios, April 22–28, 2019 and Jan 27–Feb 2, 2020)

Bjarke Pedersen and Linda Udby, Baphomet (Participation Design Agency)

Bjarke Pedersen, Johanna Koljonen and Martin Ericsson, Inside Hamlet (Participation Design Agency)

Simon Svensson, Do Androids Dream? (Ariadne’s Red Thread)

Atropos Studios, Where Androids Die (Atropos Studios)

Atropos Studios, When Androids Pray (Atropos Studios)

Cover photo: A black ribbon in use (photo, Julia Greip).

References   [ + ]

1.Jaakko Stenroos, Martin Eckhoff Andersen, and Martin Nielsen (2016). The Mixing Desk of Larp: History and Current State of a Design Theory. Analog Game Studies. Accessible at: http://analoggamestudies.org/2016/11/the-mixing-desk-of-larp-history-and-current-state-of-a-design-theory/

Authors

Julia Greip
Julia Greip (b. 1992) is a Swedish larper, writer, designer and organizer (known for example as one of the organizers of Libertines). She has a passion and eye for dissecting and re-constructing social norms and communication, and a fascination with the subtle magic of archetypes. She has a B.A. in behavioral sciences, and has written academically about larp. She shares reflections on larp and other relevant subjects on the blog Flickers: https://flickers-blog.blogspot.com
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