Building the ensemble for Totem through co-deisign oriented pre-larp workshops was vital for the game to work. The design of the larp is rather simple and there is little written material. Basically, apart from the run-time gamemastering (where the organizers play the roles of ritual leaders), everything is co-designed with the players with the simple vantage point from the experience design.
It is important to say that workshops are mandatory for all players. If you do not participate at the workshops, you can’t play the larp. The simple reason is that you learn how to play the larp at the workshops, not by reading the website or related material…those things are only to make you interested in playing and giving you an impression of what the larp is all about.
Totem was preceded by a half a year of collaborative preparatory work of players and organizers. Three weekend workshops were staged. The first working with and the central aspects of the larp (bodylanguage, loving, hierarchy), the second with relations in the two groups and the third one was mostly used for small-talk about the game and making costumes. The methods used were inspired partly by experiences as participants in other larps (especially Mellan himmel och hav), partly built on the game organizer crew’s previous work in System Danmarc and partly by Forum Theatre.
A central part of the workshops was creating a safe environment for the participants to work and play in, in order to prepare the players for the demanding larp. Work was carried out on creating positive group dynamics and empowering and including the participants in the creative process. Both body language and spoken language were worked on, as the idea was to hamper the use of speech without reverting to “caveman language”. Thus, it was decided that only the present could be addressed in speech, as the ability to think hypothetically was lost.
Every player should basically spend the game finding their position in the given cultural hierachy, which would in most cases result in some sort of tragedy. Perhaps you ended up at the bottom of the hierarchy, perhaps the love of your life ended up as someone else’s mate. Perhaps you fought your way to the top just to find it rather lonely and a heavy burden. But find your place you would, and whatever your could remember of what had happened during your rite of passage, your knew you would pass on to your children one day when it was time for you to exit the tribal life you had just entered.
The tragedy theme enabled high resolution play by creating a strong boundary for diegetic actions. It helped make it very simple to interpret and make sense of interaction in the game. It became a common safety net for decisions about where the story should go as a whole that made it easy to create meaning in individual game situations, but it was a light enough guidance not to disrupt these interactions with too many off-game considerations.
When the relationships in the game feel real, the game world feels real. You have the ability to pull the action in the game from the clunky levels of kings and politics, down into the very subtle shifts and processes in the group. (Nordgren 2008)
Body language was practiced by creating still pictures (drawing on impro exercises) of potential in-game situations. The participants worked with correcting postures, and with the expressions of the physical image they wanted to project and thus created a collective understanding of how they wanted body language to work in the larp. The players also developed their characters and the relationships of these through a series of exercises. The focus of the workshops was on group interaction rather than character background, focusing almost solely on the group and its relationship.
The themes of the two first workshop weekends
Day 1: Introducton and Body-being
– Presenting the vision of the larp and the program for the workshop(s).
– Working with bodylanguage.
Day 2: Culture
– Introducing loss of culture
– Introducing the coming of age theme.
– Rehearsing diegetic rules.
Day 3: Tribe and individuals
– Development of characters .
– Development of relationships, status hierarchies and so on.
Day 4: Preparations
– Playing scenes to develop the feel of the larp.
– Testing conflict situations, friendship situations and so on through image theatre.
– Working with frozen moments to rehearse particular scenes.