A Party Can Be Designed, Not Just Thrown

A Party Can Be Designed, Not Just Thrown

Coming out of pandemic mode after twelve months in isolation is no small thing. Surely, we aren’t the only ones who have been fantasizing about (while simultaneously being terrified of) grand fetes in historic mansions with commedia dell’arte performances and bubble machines.

But if we’ve learned one thing from our decades of participation design, it’s that the human psyche doesn’t have a simple on/off switch for anything — we need transitional spaces to move out of extreme situations, like say, a worldwide pandemic. Easing the transition from isolation to small events and hopefully someday to bigger ones is something participation design can help you think through.

In other words, good parties can be designed, not just thrown. As vaccines have become available, so have our hopes of once again meeting in small groups in person. And yet, all that time without social contact has changed many of us, leaving us with wonders about how it will feel to gather: Will small talk be awkward? What’s the best way to acknowledge loss? What if I freak out a little mid-gathering?

While we aren’t qualified to answer safety questions like “how big is it safe for my party to be?” we can absolutely give some ideas on how to handle the social angle of things. Here is what we are thinking about as we start to ponder a return to social life.

The Three Commandments of Post-Covid Parties

Health First

Don’t gather unless it’s safe to do so. Understand the risks of gathering in small groups by checking national and local guidelines before hosting a gathering. (As of the time of writing, the US’s CDC says that it’s safe for vaccinated folks to meet each other in small unmasked and indoor groups). But the infection landscape changes fast, so stay up to date. Ask your guests whether they are vaccinated and be transparent about the guest list. You may have friends who cannot have the vaccine, and accommodating them is also an issue for which you must refer to the experts.

Health first also means that you, the host, should take care of your own mental health. You might find yourself tempted to go stressfully elaborate. Try to resist this impulse. Take it easy and find the option that is most fun for you.

Finally, regardless of official guidelines, if you remain anxious or uncertain about gathering, give it some time.

Photo, Jason Morningstar

Photo, Jason Morningstar

Start Small

In general, the more intense the experience, the longer the return to normality takes. Many of us have been locked down for 12 months! So, go slow while returning to regular social life. Start with small, short gatherings. We suggest limiting to five or six participants tops, assuming that’s OK in your locality, and keeping it to two hours or less.

Keeping it small reduces logistics (and thus headaches for you). It also prevents folks from getting overwhelmed with a sudden social marathon, and primes you for when it’s safe to scale up to bigger groups.

Set Boundaries

Boundaries can take many forms, from physical boundaries (we only hang outside), to social ones (masks on, please). It may seem obvious, but whatever you do, we recommend a start time and hard ending time at which the party closes. We suggest a starting point of two to three hours — long enough for meaningful conversation, but short enough that you won’t get too socially exhausted. Having a set duration for your event helps reduce social pressure on hosts and guests. You may wish to set other boundaries like “don’t come unless you’re vaccinated,” or even “we don’t talk about my cat.”

Your Goals

Knowing what you want to achieve helps you get half of the way to a great gathering.

Design elements to consider:

  • Who is it most important for me to see in person? Who is it safe for me to see in person?
  • Am I emotionally ready for this?
  • What would my group most enjoy?

Although progress has been made against the pandemic, things still feel tentative. It’s easy to believe that the restrictions could come back at any moment. So think about who it’s most important to see in person, everyone’s risk factors, and everyone’s vaccination status. In other words, health first, and make your gathering count.

Take a beat to consider what your own boundaries might be. Are you ready to have people in your yard? Your house? Eating and drinking together? Do you end up socially exhausted an hour into a Zoom call? This will help you set up the terms of the event.

Lastly, know your guests. Don’t bring a knife to a gun fight, and don’t whip out a complicated board game for a friend who just wants to talk extensively about their Warhammer 40K army (or, on second thought, maybe that’s not such a bad idea). As we always talk about while we’re designing games, what are the verbs of the situation — the things you will be doing. Will it be “sitting and talking,” “watching a movie,” “making friendship bracelets,” or something else?

Photo, Jason Morningstar

Photo, Jason Morningstar

Designable Surfaces

Our friend Johanna Koljonen refers to “designable surfaces” when talking about games, and that terminology feels particularly relevant here. A designable surface is any part of the experience that can be designed, and that list is much longer than we usually think it is. Here are some of the problems — meaning surfaces we can design on or around — that we anticipate with post-COVID parties:

2020 Was a Hell of a Drug

Last year brought a worldwide pandemic, police killings of people of color, protests, armed sedition, a tumultuous election, wildfires, widespread unemployment, and general chaos. Your friends may have experienced everything from the death of loved ones to job loss. They might want to talk about it. They also might not want to! There’s no real way to know how your friends will react.

Design elements to consider:

  • Should I include a physical memorial?
  • Should I offer a memorial activity?
  • Should I build in a quiet space?


Memorials and associated rituals exist to help us process confusing and difficult experiences, and we’ve all had a few of those recently. It’s worth considering including some ritual in your party to acknowledge, recognize, and memorialize. Sometimes silence is the worst possible response to death and trauma. Your guests may be craving the chance to articulate their feelings about 2020, and perhaps move past them in a meaningful way. Of course they may also want to forget it and get drunk instead, and only you know where to strike that balance. Tread carefully, because a less-than-thoughtful memorial is going to absolutely wreck your party as surely as a thoughtful and heartfelt memorial will elevate it.

If you decide to include some memorial, you basically have two options. The first is some casual opt-in experience. This could be a “remembrance corner” with candles to light, a memorial book, a simple guided meditation or similar focused individual or small group activities. You could also arrange for guests to arrive with a memory and leave with a wish.

One of our favorite rituals is artist Yoko Ono’s Wish Tree, which asks participants to write down a wish and attach it to a tree that already carries the many wishes of others. It is simple, powerful, and can be deeply meaningful to see your own desires subsumed in a flurry of others.

The second is a more structured memorial for the entire group. This has the potential to get very intense, so approach it with caution and the full consent of your guests. Let them know well in advance that you plan on a formal memorial, and what it will entail. Once you have the enthusiastic consent of your guests, you can leverage the power of a group in solidarity. Share stories, sing, make noise to shake off the bad old times, or even set something on fire together. If you choose this approach, consider letting it start your party — end the ritual on a celebratory note that energizes your guests and sets the tone for the rest of the evening.

What Is Small Talk, Even?

A lot of folks avoided physical, in-person groups like the literal plague for the last 18 months. Getting used to being around other humans is going to take some time. Small talk isn’t going to be easy. In fact, a lot of people (hi fellow introverts) may find it more exhausting than usual.

Photo, Jason Morningstar

Photo, Jason Morningstar

Design elements to consider:

  • What is the right theme and dress code for my party?
  • Should I include structured activities, and, if so, what?
  • What’s the optimal length for my party and how do I gracefully enforce it?

Themes offer party-starved guests the opportunity to anticipate the event, by asking them to think about outfits or potluck food that fits with the hosts’ vision. Choosing an obscure holiday to celebrate — or inventing one — is a good bet. A theme that includes outfits can help get folks out of their heads and into party mode. Change the outsides to change the insides! Keep it simple and broad enough to accommodate the most theatrical diva and the guy who can just get it together enough to show up. The most reliable party theme of all time is “wear a hat.” But if your friends adore costuming, feel free to go hard with a pirate party, an eighties prom party, or something else ambitious and delightful and sure to generate lots of photos. Whatever the theme, make sure you keep a few extra bits around to offer a guest who doesn’t prepare.

Structured activities are very effective at dissolving social awkwardness. A schedule, some advance warning, and an opt-in attitude can also lower the pressure for your anxious friends. You might want some passive-but-pervasive elements, like a movie or sporting event, as comforting background noise. An engaging and perhaps immersive activity that is easy to just observe or, if necessary, step away from, can be great. Party games, dancing, or karaoke all fit the bill. Host a tasting of something — traditionals are wine or cheese, but you could also do chocolate, water, or pizza. Finally, if you know your friends would welcome it, consider more formal activities. This could be a structured experience like a larp, a rave, making a craft or art object as a group, or doing some public service work.

Things can only go so far off the rails in two hours. If you sharply limit the duration of the party, you are lowering the pressure for yourself and your guests. It may seem counterintuitive, but a clearly communicated and concise timeframe will improve… well, everything. When your guests know they need to be out by eleven, they will use the available time to everyone’s best advantage.

We Don’t Know How To Act

It’s been a long time since most of us have been physically close to other people. Is it OK to hug? To take our masks off? Boundaries are unclear and not knowing can make us insecure, anxious, or even at risk. Over and over again, we have heard that it’s not a good idea to hang out outside of your bubble or pod, if we are able to avoid it. Getting together in cross-pod groups will likely provoke some anxiety.

Design elements to consider:

  • How do I keep my guests informed and set their expectations?
  • How do I help my guests behave the way I want them to?
  • Where can I bake in kindness and inclusivity?

Tell your guests what will happen, what is expected of them, and what can be expected of you. Then tell them again, because they will forget. Stating “we will follow CDC guidelines, which you can read about here” is never a bad move — see commandment one. Ask them about their uncertainties and fears and share your own. Talk about your plan for reducing the spread of COVID with the group beforehand, so folks aren’t surprised with it when they get to your place.

The single most effective way to engineer social behavior is through modeling. Your guests will naturally look to you for cues on what is appropriate and what is out of bounds, and you can leverage that. Design your event in a way that allows you to model good, safe, appropriate behavior. Have a plan for reinforcing it and gently correcting your friends who didn’t read the email — or who have forgotten how to behave. Offer hand sanitizer, discuss what the mask etiquette will be, particularly if you are in a group of mixed masked and unmasked folks, and default to the preferences of the most anxious person.

You may have guests who find themselves anxious or uncertain, and it’s a good idea to plan for that. A shared activity that is individual, like, say, adult coloring books, may help to reduce anxiety. So will communicating in advance.

Photo, Jason Morningstar

Photo, Jason Morningstar

Enthusiasm, and Why It Is Bad

What we all want and what is safe and sane are not necessarily well-aligned. Resist temptation. Yes, you want to see all your friends. Yes, your heart races at the thought of a grand, elaborate event where dozens mingle and laugh in their best pirate costumes before descending into sweaty debauchery. No, this is not the first party you should have post-COVID.

Design elements to consider:

  • What is just right for my party, and what is too much?
  • How can I design this to meet my own needs?
  • What can I learn to make my next gathering even better?

The right size for your party is right there in the second commandment — small. That’s a relative term, of course, but a good rule of thumb is to make it more intimate than you want to.

Putting your own needs first ensures that you will have fun and also allows you to obey the third commandment by setting boundaries. Be selfish. Make sure to design a party that will be a pleasure for you to attend. Delegate details to trusted friends. Don’t stress about cleaning. Be kind and patient with yourself.

Considering this a test run for future festivities and collecting informal data on what works and what doesn’t may seem excessively dorky, but it’s another way to lower the pressure and embrace the unexpected. It will also make your next party better, and we all want that.

Cover photo: by Jason Morningstar

Content editing: Elina Gouliou

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Lizzie Stark is a US-based author, game designer, and playable theater creator. Her prize-winning game design and facilitation work has been shown at festivals such as Indiecade, E3, Stockholm Fringe Festival, Future of Storytelling, and Fastaval and includes collaborations with a variety of cultural institutions, including the Peabody Essex Museum and the Kennedy Center. She's best-known for her book Leaving Mundania, about the world of larp in the US and beyond.
Jason Morningstar is a game designer and co-founder of Bully Pulpit Games LLC. His designs, including Grey Ranks, Night Witches, and Fiasco, have garnered both popular and critical acclaim, earning him a Best Scenario Otto (with Lizzie Stark), two Diana Jones Awards for Excellence in Gaming, and numerous Indie RPG Awards, including Indie RPG of the Year. Jason has also been instrumental in popularizing Jeepform and other Nordic-style approaches to live action play in North America.