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I’ve been meaning to write about my birthday party, which happened a few weeks ago at this point. The theme was “Come as you aren’t,” a brilliant idea that was originally suggested by my friend Mike on this blog. It took me almost a year and a half to implement the idea, but it was completely worth the wait.

I dressed up as a hipster Jedi princess:

With my shiny lightsaber that makes cool noises!

With my shiny lightsaber that makes cool noises!

We also had some unusually smartly dressed people, a belly dancer, another Jedi complete with Hawaiian shirt (yes!), and a whole host of other oddments of apparel. It was a fun spice to add to an evening of celebration.

And here's me with Petyr Baelish for good measure.

And here’s me with Petyr Baelish for good measure.

I have a confession to make: the obligatory singing after the cake candles have been lit usually makes me somewhat uncomfortable. I always do it anyway at my birthday parties because I tend to get attached to traditions, even ones that cause me slight awkwardness. But it’s hard to be the center of attention when I’m not DOING anything. I don’t usually know where to look or what to do with myself. I kind of wish I could sing along.

But this year, the moment of singing was the most memorable and the most touching. I didn’t feel awkward. Instead I felt surrounded by the love and support of my friends who had gathered in my overly hot apartment to celebrate the fact that I exist and that we get to know each other. I felt caught up in a strangely physical experience made of singing and proximity and affection, like I was receiving a hug from all my friends, even those who couldn’t make it.

I’ve written about creating a chosen family of friends before, and this has been my most tangible experience of this. I used to be so afraid that having such a family was impossible, that the only way of receiving this support was through blood relatives and significant others. I’d comb the internet looking for people talking about chosen families, and I’d come up relatively empty-handed. Why was nobody talking about this? I didn’t know, but I held close the few examples I knew about. I needed the hope.

So when I say that I have never felt as loved and as safe as I did at my recent birthday party, I say it both to thank those of you who have touched my life so significantly and to pass that hope along to those of you who need it right now. Creating a chosen family of friends IS possible. Whatever your situation–if you don’t have much or any family in your life right now, if you are single, if you’ve moved to a new place, if you’ve been through a lot–none of this consigns you to a life of being alone and unconnected.

And of course it’s not just the birthday party. Regular readers of the blog may have noticed I’ve been having a tough time this last month and a half. But one of the things that has made it much easier than it otherwise would have been is the friends who have been reaching out to me. This time has been an inadvertent pressure test, and it has left me with the strong realization that yes, my life really is different now. I am different, and the relationships I have in my life are different, and these changes are a source of strength and solace.

And when it comes down to it, good friends will take you as you are, even when you come as someone different than you used to be.

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I am happy to report that I did in fact host my party this past weekend, and in spite of a flurry of winter flus and colds, I had plenty of fabulous and creative people in attendance. Challenge met.

I have a great interest in experimenting with social gatherings (otherwise known as parties) and creating different social experiences for people. I’ve been most intrigued by designing parties that encourage mingling, meeting new people, and getting to know slight acquaintances better (as opposed to sticking within already established friend groups and/or the people you came to the party with) and parties that cultivate creativity. (I’m also interested in the idea of fostering deeper connections between people, but I haven’t experimented much with that yet.)

The Albion experiment:

Some months ago I read about Emily Short’s San Tilapian Studies, a “narrative entertainment” for 30-40 players, and I instantly wanted to try it. Check out her post for a detailed description, but in summary, there are three different color stickers, and each person gets two stickers of the same color. One color is an item, one color is a descriptor, and one color is a function. The goal of the game is to put together three stickers, one of each color, into an awesome item (or in the case my game, a magical artifact). Then you put the stickers in a book and add drawings and/or text about it.

I used the rule mechanics almost exactly as stated in the blog post, with one exception: I changed the part about one sticker being a vile forgery, so people could match up both their stickers if desired. I re-themed the game to be high fantasy and titled it “Reclaiming Albion.” The story went that we were all native Albion scholars researching our magical heritage, which had been stamped out centuries before when an evil empire had conquered Albion.

Map of Albion, drawn by Wendy Shaffer.

Map of Albion, drawn by Wendy Shaffer.

Results and Observations:

I waited an hour after the stated party start time to launch the game; I wanted a critical mass of people present to give more possible match options. Time from the launch of the game until it finished was about three hours, with another half hour for sharing, although most people were not playing for the majority of that time.

After I handed out the stickers, there were a couple of really fast matches, mostly between significant others and tight friend groups. I was a little worried that the game would be over extremely quickly, but after that initial burst, players began to be more picky with their matches and explore options before deciding. The matches also became more difficult with less stickers in play, requiring more exploration. People began to mingle outside of their immediate circles. Did everybody do this? No. But it did give more opportunities for people to approach each other and get to know each other while working together, which was really cool to watch.

Perhaps because my party was smaller (~20 players), there were a couple two-sticker matches that couldn’t find a third sticker that was a good fit. In those cases, I waited a while to make sure a match wouldn’t materialize, and then provided a third sticker that would complete the artifact in a fun way.

Amazing folded art by Steve Young.

Amazing folded art by Steve Young.

Lessons Learned:

1. While this party was certainly more flexible than a standard mystery party, it still mattered that players were present at or near the start time of the game because later on, there were less stickers in circulation. I’d emphasize arriving early-ish in the invitation next time. That being said, for people who didn’t care about playing, arriving later was fine because there was more socializing happening then anyway.

2. I received a few suggestions of changes in implementation that could be interesting to try. One was to hand out four stickers at the beginning of the game instead of two, although I’m not certain about this one, as it would increase the options so hugely at the beginning. Perhaps another way to achieve something similar would be to have two rounds. The other suggestion was to make an explicit rule to encourage more mingling: for example, that everyone is only allowed to collaborate with each person once or that no collaborating is allowed with anyone you came to the party with. I tend to like to have as few rules as possible, but the results of either of these rules would be interesting to observe.

2. I provided paper to glue into the book to avoid a bottleneck of people wanting to draw/write/etc. and having to wait for the book. However, many people wanted to wait for the book anyway. I think perhaps if I had provided fancier paper, people would have been more excited to use it. (That being said, people began to use the paper once they realized how long a wait it was.)

3. I provided many different colors of ballpoint pen, as well as black gel pens and markers. I thought I’d gone way overboard, but people loved having a big selection. Next time I’d be tempted to provide an even larger variety of supplies.

4. At the end of the evening, several players were very eager to share their work and see other people’s work. I don’t know why I didn’t expect this! We sat around in a circle for storytime, when I showed all the illustrations and read the artifacts and text out loud. It was quite entertaining, and it allowed people to share their experiences from the evening.

5. I didn’t realize the book would be as amazing as it is. People took the opportunity to be creative and ran with it. Included with the stickers were: many drawings of artifacts; a map of Albion and surrounding areas, complete with broken seal; short stories; a limerick; and magical recipes concealed in a specially folded paper. It made me realize how excited people can get when presented with the chance to be creative together. (This shouldn’t come as a surprise since kids are the same way, but I see it in practice less frequently with adults.) I think having the atmosphere be fairly low pressure helped minimize feelings of self-consciousness as well. (Contrast this with indie RPGs that require improv, which provide very creative experiences but are too stressful for some people.)

All in all, a fun and successful party! And I made enough stickers that I could do another one. I think that re-theming the party could also keep it fresh enough for several parties with many of the same guests. (Or maybe I just think that because I’d love to do a science fiction theme.)

I have a weakness for Faberge eggs, so imagine my delight at this drawing by Nick Duguid.

I have a weakness for Faberge eggs, so imagine my delight at this drawing by Nick Duguid.

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When I talked about being on the panels at ConFusion, I mentioned I had another challenge coming up. And now it’s almost here.

The challenge: hosting my own party.

What’s the big deal, you might be asking. My local friends in particular know that I’ve thrown many parties. I’ve even thrown custom-written mystery parties, in addition to all kinds of theme parties and barbecues. I arrange board game gatherings on a regular basis. I convince people it would be fun to dress up to go see the James Bond movie. Event planning is something I’ve had some experience doing.

But when it comes to parties, I never host by myself. I have, in fact, never thrown a party of greater than six or seven people without a co-host. I discovered the amazing reassurance of having a co-host fairly early on, when it turned out a good friend’s birthday was three days after mine. It was only natural that we’d throw a birthday party together. And from there, a tradition was born. Since then, I’ve always found a co-host with whom to collaborate.

But that changes now. I’m hosting a party this weekend. By myself. I’ve been trying to keep it on the small side because of space constraints, but it’s definitely a party. And a themed “narrative entertainment” party, at that.

My biggest fear about hosting a party is always that no one will show up. That’s why having a co-host is so great–you’re guaranteed their presence, at the very least, plus they’ll be inviting all their friends too. It was a great way for me to get experience throwing parties. However, at this point I am 99% certain this fear is ridiculous and completely unfounded in reality. So by throwing a party, I’ll be putting that last one percent to rest.

I recently read an article about a study showing that when you’re experiencing performance anxiety, it’s better to get excited than it is to try to calm down. This makes complete sense to me because it’s helpful to have somewhere to put that nervous energy. I think back to the times I’ve been the most nervous, and in general it was for events that I was not excited about. Auditions mostly, which for me are just not as thrilling as performances.

Happily for me, I’m very excited about this party, which means whenever I start to feel nervous, I think about that excitement instead. I really like experimenting with parties that are a little different from the standard barbecue or “Apples to Apples” type affair, and trying new ideas to see what works in a party atmosphere and what doesn’t. This time I’m using a party game mechanic I’ve never tried before, and it was really fun to do the creative prep work for the game. I’ve had stickers custom printed, a friend has agreed to take photographs, and if all goes according to plan, by the end of the party there should be a physical book with records of my guests’ creative fancies. I expect it to be a memorable evening.

The teaser I've given my party guests...

The teaser I’ve given my party guests…

I’ll report back here next week to tell you how it went!

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