Running Effective Roleplay Workshops

Judge conferences often include some form of roleplay scenarios, where actors pretend to be players in a tournament who have had some situation that requires a judge's attention, and judges can practice handling those situations as they would in a real tournament. Sometimes this is a mock tournamentDid you know real judges use these too?, sometimes it's an investigations workshop, a card-counting workshop, or just a general-purpose judge calls workshop.

These are some of the most challenging types of presentation to run. Lately, conference organizers and presenters are increasingly offering workshops and mock tournaments. THis is great! These sorts of workshops can be extremely beneficial to judges who need experience handling challenging situations, and I'm glad they're happening more frequently. I wanted to compile a list of common issues and things to keep in mind for this type of workshop, and provide an easily-accessible resource for judges thinking about running something like this.

Goals

What is the point of roleplay workshops? Why run them over a more traditional presentation? Because of the difference between theory and practice. It's easy for a judge to watch a presentation on handling an aggressive player and say "oh yeah, I can do that". It's another thing entirely to actually put that learning into practice. Workshops give people a chance to practice live skills in a context where there's not chance of a mistake damaging an actual tournament.

In order for this to work, they need to actually be realistic. If a scenario asks a judge to deal with a belligerent player, but that player is acting "belligerent" by cracking meta-jokes that everyone around them is laughing at, that's pretty much completely useless as practice for an actual angry player at a real event.There is of course also value in having some "fun" scenarios, and they can be a good community-building tool. It's ok to have a casual scenario for people to laugh at at the beginning or end of the workshop. Just make it clear beforehand that it's different and people shouldn't treat the serious scenarios in the same way.

Similarly, a common issue with less experienced judges is that they'll freeze when encountering a situation they don't know how to handle. Often they'll just stare at the players like a deer in headlights, saying nothing. Sometimes they'll apologize and say "uh, I don't know what to do here". If this happens in a real tournament, that's not going to work out well for them. The players are going to get very frustrated, and that judge may not be hired again. Judges don't have to know everything, but they do have to know what to do in those situations- be it looking for answers online, asking another judge for help, or muddling through and doing the best they can with the information they have. A workshop gives judges like this a safe space in which to have this experience and a chance to learn how to deal with it without actually upsetting real players. But if the moment the judge is having trouble a spectator steps in to tell them the answer, their chance to practice overcoming their panic response is gone.

So workshops should endeavor to be as realistic as possible, such that the lessons that are learned in the workshop are applicable to real events as well. Nobody should be speaking out of character while the scenario is ongoing unless necessary. When it is necessary, that person should be explicit that some statement is out of character, and then make it clear when the scenario is resuming.

The more things the participants have to present aren't the case, the harder it is to remain immersed in the scenario, and the more likely there is to be confusion. Give the players real decks, sleeves, deckboxes, lifepads, etc. If for whatever reason you can't do that, be extremely clear up front about what the participants need to ignore. If a player in a workshop is playing unsleeved and one of their cards is scuffed, is the judge supposed to penalize them for Marked Cards, or assume that's out of character and ignore it? If a judge is investigating a player for Cheating and needs to know who is currently winning, how are they supposed to do that without life pads? Put the proper amount of preparation into your scenarios such that they contain all the potentially-relevant information, and don't confuse participants by making them remember which things are or aren't a part of the scenario. It's not that hard to supply a complete game state; just play through a game yourself and cause the issue partway through.

It's also a good idea to mix up the type of scenarios you're presenting. In real life, the chance that a player in your judge call is Cheating might be around 1%, so you need a decent amount of evidence before you can be confident they're Cheating. But if you're in a workshop focusing on investigation scenarios, you'll know that there's closer to a 50% chance that a given scenario includes Cheating. This shift in your prior will affect the optimal way to approach the scenario, and results in a difference between the workshop and real life. You can instruct judges to pretend they don't know there's a higher likelihood of Cheating, but they're unlikely to be able to do that perfectly.

You have the same problem with other types of scenarios. Workshop scenarios tend to be more complicated than real-life calls, so judges will spend extra time looking for anything they could have missed; time that would not be well-spent in a real tournament. This is again a deviation away from reality, lowering the usefulness of the practice gained.

Often in a real judge call, the judge will have to figure out what exactly went wrong. The players might present it as a rules question, when actually an infraction has occurred. The players might ask for a simple fix to a mistake, when actually a player was Cheating. The players might start out with a polite disagreement, and then escalate into unsporting behavior. Telling the judge in advance what "type" of scenario this is going to be removes their chance to practice figuring out what actually needs to be addressed.

In general, modifying the distribution of likely scenarios away from what it would be in a real tournament gives away information to the participants that they shouldn't have access to, and incentivizes them to act differently from how they would in a real tournament. Fight this by simply making your distribution more typical. Include a mix of scenarios; some rules/policy questions, some communication disagreements, some Cheaters, some unhappy players. Don't overcomplicate every scenario; some of them should be very simple, and if a judge wastes 10 minutes digging around for additional issues, they can be given useful feedback about how to tell whether a situation should be investigated further.

The two guiding principles for good workshop design are realism and relevance. Strive to maximize both, and it will probably be a good workshop.

Preparation

Set up expectations about feedback and social dynamics. Newer judges are going to be having their mistakes observed and criticized by several of their peers/elders, which can easily make them nervous, not want to take the scenario, or make mistakes they wouldn't have made in a real judge call. Having the spectators be silent and otherwise maintaining the realism of the scenario can help the participant relax and focus on the situation at hand. Also important is to make it clear that everyone makes mistakes, it's to be expected, and nothing to be ashamed of. Nobody should ever laugh at a judge who did something poorly. You want to create an environment where people feel safe committing mistakes and talking about those mistakes in front of other judges, because they know they're not going to be shamed or punished for having done so.

Different scenarios are going to be best for different judges. Choose appropriate ones. Don't use Comp REL scenarios if your participants aren't familiar with Comp REL.Seriously. This is one of the most common mistakes I see made by inexperienced workshop organizers. They say something like "so I notice this audience is mostly L1s with no training in Comp REL, but we're going to do Comp REL scenarios anyway". Then, completely predictably, those L1s have no idea what to do and it's an embarrassment for everybody involved. This can even result in L1s learning to apply Regular REL fixes at Comp or Comp REL fixes at Regular, damaging future events as well. Don't test people on knowledge that you already know has no relevance to them. It's unfair to them and is not at all educational. Don't do anything too complicated if your participants are new L1s. Don't be afraid to have more experienced judges take some scenarios; they can still learn a lot, and they can be an example to the rest of the audience. If you know that one of your participants is working on improving at a certain area of policy, you can tailor a scenario to meet their needs.

Aim for a mix of difficulty levels. If all the judges horribly fail all of your scenarios, they're too hard. If everyone passes them with flying colors, they're too easy.

Don't include unrealistically difficult details that judge has to catch in order to succeed. "Oh yeah I was marking my sleeves in invisible ink and wearing UV-sensitive glasses, you should have thought to check for that". No, just no. Scenarios should be things that actually happen at events with a realistic frequency. That corner case that's come up once in 25 years and never again does not count. If the scenario is teaching the judge to ask questions that you wouldn't want them asking in a real game, it's a bad scenario. If the scenario is your chance to show off your cleverness as a writer, it's a bad scenario.

Give the participants all the information they'll need to know in advance. Tell them what type of tournament this is, what round it is, the player's records, etc. If there's anything they're supposed to ignoresuch as proxies for cards you don't own., make those expectations clear. If you want the participation of someone else in the scenario, such as a spectator calling for a judge, explain what they're going to need to do. All of this should be done before the scenario has begun. If you find yourself having to interrupt the scenario to clarify something, make a note of what you forgot, and avoid doing that next time.

Have a pre-planned gesture for someone going out of character, such as touching two fingers to their forehead. This helps avoid ambiguity and make sure it's clear what actions are in or out of character. It also provides an incentive for people to stay in character, since they'd have to explicitly do something weird in order to break out.

Participating

Don't interrupt the scenario to make out of character jokes. Don't laugh at things you find funny unless that's an intentional part of the scenario. Don't leave character without a good reason. All of these things are actively disruptive to the workshop. If you're a spectator, remain silent and observe only. (You'll have a chance to comment once the scenario is over.)

If you're a judge, speak to the players as you would speak to real players; not friends who are pretending to be players. Don't ask the players for help. Don't tell the players you don't know what to do. You're the judge, you're in charge of the situation, so handle it.

If you're a player, act like a real player would in that situation. Don't volunteer information that a player wouldn't normally volunteer. Don't act intentionally obtuse or try to hide information that a player wouldn't normally try to hide. If the judge is talking to a spectator away from the table and forgot to ask you to pause your match, don't do so unless you think a real player would do that. Your job is to neither help nor hinder the judge who's taking the call; your job is to act out the scenario as normally as possible.

If the judge asks to talk to you away from the table, do that. Stand up, take a few steps back from the table, and talk there, where the spectators can still hear you. Your opponent will just pretend to not have heard the conversation.This is a slight immersion break, but a pretty easy one for participants to ignore, and it's necessary in order for the spectators to know what's going on. Don't say something like "I'll remain seated, we'll just pretend we're away from the table". This breaks immersion much more strongly. Judges will frequently forget that they're supposed to be away from the table and start talking to the opponent. This makes it unclear which players have access to what information, makes it harder for players to tell how they're supposed to be acting, and overall just damages the realism of the scenario for no real benefit.

If someone steps out of character when they're not supposed to, a good way to handle that is to ignore it. Treat them as though they're still in character, and respond as your character would to that. If you're a player and the judge asks you for help, act confused as to why they're asking you, or get annoyed at the judge's helplessness, or whatever other reaction a player might have to being asked such a strange question from a judge.

Don't get hung up on having to stick to an exact script. Don't force the scenario to go to a certain pre-planned ending. If the judge proactively addresses a problem you were expecting to arise, don't force the problem to happen anyway; just let the judge do a good job. If you had some additional complication planned and the judge is doing exceptionally poorly, maybe skip that complication. The whole point of a workshop is to give the judge agency and see what decisions they make. So be flexible. Once the scenario has been created, your job is to let it evolve naturally, not railroad it into going the exact way you wanted it to go.Don't go nuts with this. Improvisation can go poorly, and there's a reason we try to plan things out in advance. You want to be flexible, but don't go completely off the rails. Good improvisation in a scenario is about reacting to things that you didn't expect, not adding in more complications just for the fun of it.

Wrapping up

After the scenario is over, have a debrief with everyone. Ask the judge what they thought about the scenario; did they make any mistakes? What were they taking into account? Ask the spectators whether they have any feedback or questions. Give a summary of what the ideal way to handle the situation would have been, and what the actual judge did well vs. poorly.

Don't skip the debrief because you're low on time and want to get through the rest of your scenarios; what does that accomplish? The whole point of having scenarios in the first place is to educate people on better ways to take judge calls, and that's not going to happen if there's no discussion about it. (If people just want scenarios, they can get those in real tournaments.) If you're skipping feedback in order to get through more of your prepared scenarios, it's likely because you're prioritizing your personal desire to show off the scenarios you crafted over the needs of the participants. Don't do that. Better to have a few highly educational scenarios than to have a lot of useless ones.

Again, try to avoid embarrassing the judges. This does not mean you need to avoid talking about their mistakes. It does mean that you should do so in a way that's respectful and likely to make them want to participate again. Maybe start off by sharing a situation where you made a similar mistake, and frame the feedback as what you learned from it. Never be condescending or make fun of them for their mistake.

During the discussion, avoid giving people feedback about information they couldn't have had access to. For example, don't say "this player was cheating, you should have disqualified them" or "there was a known card on the bottom of the library from a mulligan both players forgot about"; we can't read minds and we have no way to know those things. This can feel unfair to the judge and can lead to hindsight bias when considering their actions. Rather you want to talk about the evidence they had available to them and what decisions they should have made based on that evidence. For example "It didn't look like there was much advantage to be gained from the player forgetting to draw a card. It would have been a good idea to ask the opponent for confirmation, but unless they noticed something you didn't, it seems correct to not disqualify the player based on this evidence".

Lastly, ask people for feedback. These sorts of roleplay workshops can be really difficult to get right, and even experienced organizers will make mistakes. Ask people to tell you about their experience in the workshop, what they learned, and what they think could have gone better. Try to hear from people in all 3 positions: player, judge, and spectator, as they'll each have had their own goals and perspectives.

If you prefer this sort of content in video form, Tobias Vyseri ran a conference presentation on some of this content here. For a deeper dive into the logistics of running a mock tournament, Eliana Rabinowitz is one of the pioneers of mock tournaments and investigations workshops, and she has an article on that here. Lastly, there's a Discord server for conference staff here. It's a great place for anyone planning on hosting a workshop or mock tournament to ask questions and get feedback on your event structure, scenario design, etc.

Thanks to Matteo Callegari, Antonio Zanutto, Mark Mason, Tobias Vyseri, Falinere Starr, and Travis Lauro for proofreading and feedback. Any errors are my own.