Virtual Raglan Fair 2020

Post-event report

I’ll be blunt: 2020 is taking a bite out of us. We’re all doing everything we can to try to keep some semblance of joy and normality while trying to stave off the exhaustion of doing so. Virtual Raglan was an experiment in trying to capture a little of the atmosphere of the real thing, for those that need it and want it in this way. Here’s what we learned.

Feedback from the post-event survey is quoted througout the report in this style.

Signup

Zoombombing is scary, and the best practices around securing a virtual event haven’t entirely settled down yet. Many events, particularly short ones, use a waiting room. We went with preregistration as an alternative because, for a long lived event flagged well in advance, we could remove a pretty significant ongoing task from the moderators (and an error-prone one at that.) Every attendee had their own unique link to get to the main Zoom room. This in itself is already a disincentive to Zoombombing. If we did have a troublemaker, we were in a position to disable access for that specific attendee, and lock down or manually review further registrations. Happily, we didn’t have to go this far.

“The technology use seemed really smooth with new/inexperienced users helped to find the zoom features with kindness and good humour.”

We decided pretty late in the process to use a second Zoom room for the Foresters sessions. We couldn’t integrate this with the signup at this late stage, and we didn’t want to make the details too openly obvious, so we circulated them on Discord, Facebook and in the main Zoom room immediately before the relevant sessions. This mostly worked, but we had at least one attendee who struggled to connect to the second room.

Tech Prep

We used a sub-account of the main Drachenwald Seneschal Zoom account, a paid option which was set up for two months, and kindly sponsored by Margaret de Mey. This was a very good move. We had the account available well in advance, not clashing with any other Drachenwald events, so we had complete freedom to experiment with the best setup and perform tests. As a society, we have a tendency to minimise cost, but in this case it was money well spent as it led directly to the whole event running very smoothly.

“Apparently, ‘it’ll be alright on the night’ applies to the SCA.”

Experience elsewhere shows that it’s important for session hosts to have some time to test their tech in advance. Rather than schedule a dozen 1:1 sessions, we had a couple of open slots in the week leading up to the event (about 50% of teachers took advantage of these) and an open “campfire” at the beginning of the event which doubled as a low-pressure session for both hosts and attendees to make sure their tech worked. These would probably work just as well with many more teachers.

“A few people’s mics were off/poor quality.”

Promotion & Attendance

Our Zoom licence had a limit of 100 simultaneous users. By the time the event began, we already had over 120 registrations; by the end of the event it was over 150, with many registering specifically to attend Court.

This influenced our promotion of the event. We absolutely could have sought out a much wider audience from new people and from other Kingdoms. This being the first time we’ve tried something like this, though, we decided not to aggressively promote it as much as we could have.

“I have attended classes in seven kingdoms, this was by far the best.”

In the end, we could safely have promoted the classes more - attendance was generally between about 12-25 for each session. Court peaked at 75 simultaneous attendees, and we managed to work out a streaming solution for that.

While more participation from around the Kingdom and other Kingdoms would hae been very welcome, we didn’t anticipate just how accessible the event was to new members.

“Thank you all who organised, ran the classes and their Majesties and Highnesses, it was a great taster for a newbie.”

In retrospect, there is an opportunity here that we underestimated. I’ve often commented that the SCA doesn’t have a great “call to action”; it seems like we ask people to jump from pressing “Like” on Facebook all the way to attending a weekend residential event in costume, with very little in between.

“I’m new to the SCA and - pandemic aside - wouldn’t have been able to travel to Raglan yet. The choice to hold it virtually instead of cancelling was a great way for me to meet more new people, hear stories from previous Raglans, and just have fun with what I attended. It was really well hosted and run - I absolutely enjoyed my first ever Raglan. Thank you!”

It turns out that online events can be a very atmospheric introduction with a much, much lower barrier to entry, and could perhaps serve as a bridge between basic awareness and more involved participation.

Zoom and Discord

It’s been clear for a while now that there is no single platform that all SCA members use. Worse, the situation is getting more fragmented, not less; any choice of platform will have people who either can’t use it or choose not to.

“I get people are on many platforms but some of us choose to limit how many platforms we have on our devices etc. I sort of felt left out because I choose not to be on Discord. I appreciate it being diverse though.”

“I also think it was a brilliant idea to have the Discord server alongside which let things be a bit broader and not just centred on the Zoom sessions which helped at least a little with replicating the feel of Raglan as an experience and a period where you don’t have to be doing scheduled stuff to enjoy the event.”

So any choice here is necessarily a tradeoff. If you stick with one, some people necessarily feel left out; if you use a variety, then people who are unable to participate in all of them will still feel left out! Not to mention that, for a large or lengthy event, people will start to form their own groups in their own media of choice.

While there is some limited ability to try to replicate content between sessions (e.g. we had the ability to stream Court to Discord), there’s no really good way to bring an entire community together across multiple platforms. Speaking personally, my take is that choice of platform is a little like choice of venue for an in-person event. Every venue has tradeoffs. Things like distance, accessibility, and sleeping arrangements all affect who is able or willing to attend any given event, and we manage this by having a variety of events in a variety of places.

“Sense of community, levels of activity, ability to network outside of Zoom with the Discord server.”

“Discord hates me, and I honestly don’t understand it.”

We can approach virtual events in the same way. A prospective virtual event steward may choose their platforms to fit with the atmosphere they are trying to capture, and while there are some very useful lessons we can learn from each other, not every event needs to be a clone of every other.

The photos channel, as well as the photos in Zoom backgrounds, made a big difference to the atmosphere of the event. This is something we’d make a bigger feature in future, such as providing an ongoing slideshow between sessions.

Schedule

My first clue that this event was going to be popular was the response to the call for sessions.

“Some days it felt like there wasn’t enough of a break in between sessions, where some continued straight after each other. This meant I couldn’t get to some sessions I wanted to.”

“In general the relaxed atmosphere - more specifically the scheduling - gaps were good.”

“Maybe 15 minute gaps in the evening schedule.”

The original draft schedule had some beautiful aspects: a single stream, with every session beginning on the hour and at least one hour break between every session.

And then the session offers kept coming! This is a great problem to have, but what do you do about it?

The feedback shows that this is another tradeoff where there’s no clear answer; different event stewards will make different choices based on the style and atmosphere they’re trying to achieve. You can start rejecting sessions; you can make the event longer; or you can pack the schedule more densely, perhaps with parallel sessions.

“Schedule from what I saw was well adhered to, more so than with physical events.”

“A quick discord message reminder to tell me what’s going to happen that I really care about a lot would be awesome.”

For Virtual Raglan, I closed submissions shortly after the “first draft” deadline, and made the schedule a little more dense to accommodate everything I had. Then recruited Amphelise and Yannick as co-stewards.

“The whole format was perfect for an online event. Having consecutive sessions meant you could attend everything.”

“Maybe two classes simultaneously.”

These choices worked pretty well for the atmosphere of a Raglan, where there’s always something to do, but not so much going on that you feel you’re missing out. Again, other event stewards will make different choices depending on the atmosphere they’re after.

In the future, I would build in some time every couple of hours where we don’t have anything scheduled. Particularly for moderators, who are of course all volunteers, it’s good to have time when nothing programmed is happening.

Also:

“Your schedule site was formulated to accommodate time zones, I can’t tell you how much I appreciated that. I got up at 3am my time for the coffee class and didn’t have to stress about getting the time wrong.”

The auto-adjusting schedule page was super popular, but surprised some people who missed that it was adjusting to their timezone. I’ll keep it but make it clearer in future.

Session hosting and moderation

Feedback on having the sessions moderated by someone other than the teacher was universally positive.

“Good classes, and the sessions were well moderated.”

“The format of classes and having dedicated moderators.”

Late evening sessions suffered a bit by the three moderators being very sleepy by the time they started. With more moderators, the bardic circle could well have gone on into the small hours.

Two moderators per session is a realistic minimum, so that the call isn’t left uncovered if one moderator has to deal with a sudden intrusion of real life), over probably at least three “shifts” a day. This gives them a maximum 4-5 hours per person per day Zoom time with frequent breaks.

“Having a Tech/Moderator, and using the Mute All feature liberally.”

“Possibly more muting of people when they were make noise. A few times people just weren’t muting themselves.”

Length

The feedback survey asked whether attendees would like an event like this to be short, the same length, or longer. The results were emphatic: about two-thirds said the same, one-third said longer, and no one asked for it to be shorter.

“I would accept a longer event, ie, there could be lead up classes/activities in the evenings prior to the main weekend event. As travel and event costs are no longer a consideration, neither is time or duration to an extent. However, Zoom exhaustion is a thing, but using the same blend of tech solutions, one could see Discord being used for casual drop in style chats and activities during the buildup, while Zoom is reserved for presentation style delivery at the main event.”

This is another tradeoff that an event steward will decide based on the atmosphere they seek. Virtual Raglan suited a schedule that stretched languidly over multiple days.

“Raglan benefits from several days. I could easily see a 1-2 day format for other events that would normally be over a weekend. I appreciated that I could just roll up for the bit that interested me, rather than having the stress of going to an entire event for just one thing. Very satisfying!”

Foresters

“To be able to participate in a martial tourney without being authorised, the banter, the commentary, the fighting field being an image of the Fountain Court.”

Foresters worked surprisingly well. The quiz was exactly as fun as expected, and the atmosphere there was around the same as you get at Physical Raglan. People liked being able to participate without being a person who does all the disciplines, and found it was very inclusive.

“Interesting set up for combat that works well and allows non armoured fighters to participate.”

The Foresters Armoured Combat and Fencing sessions ran over a bit; it’s a new game, and so tough to balance very well especially when you don’t know how many people might participate.

“Being able to do it online was a new way of doing it (and meant little experience before hand).”

Court

Court deserves a section of its own. It had three times as many attendees as any other session, and seemed to surprise and win over many people with how atmospheric it was, despite being conducted over the internet.

“I could hear the proceedings, and the scrolls were presented on screen so I could finally see them!”

“All the emotions, seeing all the faces.”

“It worked really well versus my expectations. I have attended quite a few classes myself (and taught some) so knew how those worked, but I didn’t know how Court would work and was really very happy to find that it did!”

Court was prepared separately by the Royals and their heralds, with the event team providing technical assistance.

Everyone involved had the running order and scroll images well in advance, which was very helpful and very important - there are quite a lot of moving parts in a session like this and, though not everything went precisely to plan, having a detailed plan meant that it was easy to return to it without it disrupting proceedings or being obvious to the audience. This went a long way toward providing the atmosphere that the awardees deserved.

Wrap-up

Thank you, once more, to everyone who participated in making Virtual Raglan what it was.

We are where we are, and not by choice. But finding ways to continue our hobby at this time is giving us some remarkable opportunities to experiment with different formats and different activities. Some of that is trying to emulate what happens when we’re physcially together, and some of it is trying things we wouldn’t be able (or wouldn’t like) to do in the atmosphere of an in-person event.

What we have with Virtual Raglan is a successful experiment; one that set up to capture a certain atmosphere and, from looking at the feedback, seemed to succeed very well.

While there are likely to be some useful lessons here, it would be a pity to treat it as a playbook. There are an infinite number of creative ways that a steward could choose to run an event, and we’ll get the most satisfying and inclusive results by trying many of them.

Over time, we might start to find exciting ways to participate in our hobby that supplement, not supplant, physical events - and include people who were, until now, not able to join us in the past.

In service,
Sela on behalf of Amphelise and Yannick.