Thursday, January 22, 2009


"There's nothing like a good war"

We are firm believers in the motivational power of a proper War. By "proper", we mean one with all the cake and trimmings - early rumblings, exchanges of well-phrased but insulting and unacceptable ultimata, heraldic confrontations in Court, rampant war preparations, and so on.

If you ring those bells for long enough, and widely enough, the actual conflict on the field, while still brief in the whole scheme of things, acquires far more import and interest. And interesting things attract attention and attendance and effort, and even encourage people to travel.

Better yet, all the preparations, which can go on for a year or more, provide grist for any number of A&S or martial projects - workshops to make heraldic stuff or warband arms, singing practices (new war songs!), War Balls, War Feasts, fundraisers for new kit - you name it.

Obviously, therefore, our early plans included a jolly good war. Prior to stepping up, we'd already begun arranging an intra-Crescent Isles War which we hoped would boost both our and our neighbour's main events - basically a three-way rumble between ourselves, Darton and Ildhafn, with one home and two away events for each groups over the course of a year. We dearly wanted to get more of our folk travelling and supporting our neighbouring groups, because we thought it would be good for all concerned (we certainly benefit enormously from those from other groups who travel to CF).

This neighbourhood war project was confirmed with the the leadership of our neighbouring groups at our first CF. But, in the end, it stumbled in mid-flight and didn't really achieve our objectives. The main reason was political (and most unexpected); it will be dealt with in a later post. The other reason was that at the same CF, King Stephen proposed a different war to the CI groups, and this was taken up with relish.

Basically, King Stephen asked that we collectively seek to declare war on one of the Australian groups, with the aim of fighting it out just over a year later, at Festival 2006. His main intention, we believe, was to raise the profile of our groups, being new to the Kingdom, and also to provide the many related of a proper war that I listed above.

So the war leaders - myself, H.E. Inigo of Ildhafn and Lady Francesa, Darton's Seneschal, pondered with whom to pick a fight. As luck would have it, we made the perfect choice in first approaching Arnfinr, Baron of Ynys Fawr, proposing that we fight a war over our conflicting claims to primacy in stewardship over the Great White Southern Land (or, as he termed it, the "barren frozen wastelands of Antarctica").

Arnfinr was quick to respond, more belligerent than a very belligerent thing, and also did us a great service by widening the scrap to include claims to the Crescent Isles proper and to its seas (this was slightly helpful later on when certain aspects of the war became politicised - see a later post).

So by our first Baronial Anniversary, we had a wholly unacceptable ultimatum from Arnfinr to promulgate, followed by a call to arms - including an injunction to "beat your ploughshares into swords". And we went to Festival with a more-in-sorrow-than-in-anger ultimatum of our own for Festival's Closing Court, which Arnfinr responded to in like fashion. Everything was set for a stirring confrontation the following year.

You'll find more details on katherine's site.

On the back of this, we built several things:

  • a "Champion's Oath" for the defence of the Barony, which our Champions were required to take and which any authorised member of the populace may volunteer to take, complete with putting their mark on a scroll. This allowed a repeated bit of theatre along the lines of calling up the militia, though it has not been overly relied on for local skirmishes (we need to balance numbers too often at CF).

  • a novel event - the Southron Gaard Siege Engine Challenge. This was an attempt to introduce another option for war-fighting in the Barony, providing an outlet for those who do not fight heavy and do not want to scamper about with bow and arrows. With six months notice, we had three siege engines built (plus some smaller devices like an excellent three-main perrier), and drew in visitors from outside including the B&B of Politarchopolis and Baron Fulk from Cluain - all keen siege enthusiasts. Downtrack, the effect was less than I'd hoped - the practice of siegecraft in the whole Kingdom has reduced and we've not been able to field crews for our siege engines in battle at CF, though they are often wheeled out for demonstrations there. As with other combat areas, getting new people armoured has been the main obstacle - a lot of kit for a once-a-year thing, at best.

  • preparations to attend Festival 2006 "as" a Barony -- though logistics meant we could not fund our own separate encampment. However, attendance from the CI doubled from an average of 8-10 to 20 for that event; we took a batch of baronial tabards to help the indentity (and we even won the heraldic tourney as a result; in fact CI groups and individuals won a bunch of things...)

  • a bulk armour buy to help equip as many new combatants as possible; this certainly helped, but it is interesting how much equipment (and its cost) is still seen as a limiting factor, years later.

  • a Festival banner project which katherine launched to create large silk banners for the three main CI groups, Kingdom and for Rowany, our hosts at Festival. Since then, the skills and equipment thus gained have fostered a huge increase in the amount of heraldry and colour on display at our major events. For travellers, it also helps that silk is highly transportable.

  • a patriotic song commissioned from Master Crispin Sexi (see "Long May She Stand" in the Southron Gaard Song List). Designed to be sung by many, including those wearing helms and marching about, and works well.

  • justification for more Musters though, curiously, I don't recall an uptick in anything like war practices at the time.

Meanwhile, King Stephen's intended benefits were playing out as well. The visibility of the CI groups and people within the Kingdom certainly went up significantly. Canterbury Faire -- partly on the back of unrelentingly good reviews from Yolande -- drew increasingly large numbers across the Straits of Lochac (aka the Tasman). And in the background, diplomacy among the Baronages and with smaller groups were creating coalitions of convenience, all set for a decent conflict at Festival.

By the time the event rolled around, we'd managed to embarrass Arnfinr by signing up much of the Kingdom for our cause, including some groups led by his former flatmates. The overbalance was largely unintentional, and caused him some distress - we accepted some spontaneous offers at CF 06 when, in fairness to Arnfinr, we should have said "no thanks, we're probably sorted". Fortunately, as is common in Lochac's wars and presumably elsewhere, some rebalancing was done at the event. That tweaking of numbers undermines the whole point of diplomacy of course, but beats a day of "200 defeats 50, again", which rapidly gets old and uninteresting.

So battles were fought and victory was declared and the lands of the Crescent Isles groups were deemed safe from future depredations from Ynys Fawr. As part of the peace settlement, we acquired a new citizen, Master Hrolf, Admiral of the Southern Seas. And along the way, SG's primacy as stewards of the GWSL was accepted. For now.

In short:

  • Net benefit to all concerned: enormous
  • Net cost: trivial, apart from some surprising political angles we had not expected

Find the right foe, and do it!

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Getting Acquainted

"Our personal Strategic Plan"

So we were invested as B&B and, for the balance of Canterbury Faire, felt very buoyed up by both the goodwill and the desire for simple fun which we'd hoped for. CF is a good event to step up at!

Our primary aim as the Faire ended was to capitalise on that goodwill and on the usual post-CF psychological bounce before it all wore off, and use it to set in motion (or re-emphasise) several long-term strategies. These were:
  • greater transparency - people are more willing to get involved and help to run things if they aren't feeling uncertain of processes or protocol, and don't have to ask every five minutes what's supposed to be going on.
  • more public profile and recruiting - if people are feeling good, they are more inclined to bring their friends along, or to make newcomers feel welcome. Therefore the timing was perfect for a recruiting campaign, and, if it was successful, the mere fact of recruits would have its own positive effects.
  • modelling a generally lighter, more open and trusting approach at Council - towards officers, event stewards etc. -- but without ignoring the details that need to happen (generally, trying to deal with those under the radar if they seemed in danger of being neglected, rather than allowing someone to be hauled over the coals after the fact. In other words, lots of gentle email questions or reminders).
  • at the same time, improving recognition of the principle of Council oversight of CF in particular, i.e. making it clearer that it's a core event with steward-inspired enhancements, not an event that should be re-invented from whole cloth by each stewarding team. The main way to achieve this was improving institutional memory via the website, especially the CF subsite, booking process and annual review document.
  • more forward planning - the Barony had seemed for a while to be working month-to-month (or, at most, quarter-to-quarter), but real world factors like site availability plus any desire to properly handle larger-scale events like Crown, both required a longer planning horizon. Even before we stepped up we found ourselves in conference with the Seneschal and the CF Site Manager, who wanted a firm pencil-booking for the site the following year. These days they want it two years ahead!
The first, transparency goal was one we'd already started pursuing as Baronial Webwrights -- the job was katherine's initially but I took it up for 2-3 years thereafter. It is an ongoing process including areas like officer job descriptions, up-to-date group policies and guidelines, local traditions and relics, monthly minutes and newsletter, order of precedence (an absolutely ESSENTIAL refererence for a Baronage, especially for getting names right), publicity materials, inventory and library lists, recommended venue lists, resources for newcomers, combatants, stewards, and A&S practitioners, ....

The more we could document -- if accurate and adequately up to date -- the easier it was for new folk, stewards or officers to take up their roles, with fewer unexpected surprises and also something to refer back to when questions or discussion arose.
[There's a danger there of information or traditions getting ossified, but the Barony will just have to cross that bridge.]

On our step-up, we deliberately extended the transparency principle to the B&B role, publishing several documents designed to de-mystify both the role and ourselves - the Court webpage, our personal Credo, Court positions (job descriptions) and "Bartholomew and katherine 101".

You'll find them linked in the right hand column - they are too long to reproduce here.

Doing the research and thinking for those documents was excellent homework, by the way. We've had relatively little feedback on them from the populace over the years, but we're pretty confident they have been read. WE certainly find the Credo useful to refer back to now and again, and wouldn't change a word.

We held a Court meeting as soon as we could after CF -- there was no chance beforehand, talk about a running start! As mentioned in an earlier post, only our Chamberlain and Herald had any previous Court experience at all -- including ourselves. This may have been refreshing for the populace, but risky for us!

We tried to choose Court members who projected a friendly and outgoing image and, as you'd expect, have tended to favour relative newcomers in subsequent appointments. We deliberately set fixed terms for Court members, so as to de-politicise any changes needed, encourage us to keep getting new folk involved, and to make the roles less daunting than an indefinite term would be. Apart from odd occasions where we found it hard to find new members, this has worked, and has meant that Court has not closed around us as a kind of clique or pseudo-household.

Around that time we also established the first of many small or short-term mailing lists (court, champions, singing, siege, trailer, fort, financial committee...) to help manage subgroups and subprojects. This was typically in areas which were hard or inefficient to do in person, and which would impinge too much on the main mailing lists if done there.

We found such lists indispensable. They perhaps gave us more influence over some areas than would otherwise have been the case, and that's not necessarily healthy. But you won't hear us complaining, because it meant many details got discussed and/or sorted quickly and quietly, without the formality or delay of waiting for a Council meeting, or the unfocused spiraling often found in a group-wide mailing list discussion once you get to details.

Some lists had clearly defined membership, e.g. Baronial Champions, Financial Committee, Barony/Canton/College Seneschals. Others were opt-in for anyone who was interested and this was clearly stated when they were set up. All had a specific purpose and/or life, and not one has been even close to being a "kitchen Cabinet".

Our lack of an established SCA household was a very helpful factor in dealing and being seen to deal even-handedly with folk from across the Barony. This is not a new idea, but I strongly reinforce the recommendation that Baronages who have their own household must work extra hard to consult often and conspicuously across their whole Barony, to avoid forming the impression of a narrow power base. The latter is fatal to both morale and good governance.

That doesn't mean you must divorce your household and friends (an idea which has its own major downsides if taken too far), but be very very clear to everyone that you're looking at the whole Barony, all the time -- never just one corner of it.

With the then-Seneschal, Mistress Roheisa, we used the post-CF bounce to launch three concepts:
  • Musters -- a casual, semi-regular, publicly-sited tournament-plus-A&S event designed to bring the Barony together and also give it some public visibility. The first, which I ran and promoted widely, was held in late February. Muster was a key term, note, not a "bash"; we wanted to emphasise more than just fighting.
  • Stuff Night -- a relaxed monthly workshop at a neutral venue incorporating just about any Baronial project that happened to be in the works, plus occasional A&S workshops, plus whatever projects people wanted to bring work on themselves in good company. As this evolved, both dance and rapier groups started attending to do their own thing, creating an excellent vibe, and ensuring that it gained critical mass to feel busy.
  • Quarter Days - the concept of four formal "Court" events a year (would that they were all!) anchoring the Baronial calendar. Deliberately excluding CF, which we see as a Crescent Isles or even Kingdom-focused event, our Quarter Days were Baronial Anniversary in March/April, Yule in June, Spring Tourney or similar event in September, and Christmas Revel or a larger event in November/December. These are the events where people expect to see Baronial Awards and such happen, and also (bless 'em) the Peerless Kitchen pies... The aim wasn't to rigidly define what a Quarter Day had to be, but just to loosely define when those key Courts might occur. For example, we tie calls for recommendations to that cycle.

A key facet of our launch plan was the first Baronial Anniversary, held in March that year. This was extremely ambitious, in that we were using the Feast to launch or reinforce several distinct initiatives:
  • recruiting - we encouraged lots of people to invite their friends, and personally invited several old-timers who hadn't been seen for a while - also the introduction cards mentioned below
  • encouraging more intermixing and personal acquaintances in the Barony - mainly via the "reverse OP" grand procession at the start of the Feast, so people were at least reminded of the names of some of their colleagues!
  • war plans (see next post)
  • educating people via a relics procession about several existing traditions and relics -- in the process tacitly showing that we were strong supporters of the Barony's history and accomplishments
  • using the best models of some traditions to make some new ones, including the transferable Caidan Shield for new fighters
Our first (and to date almost only) significant local contretemps was caused by some logistical preparations required for that BA. Roheisa had proposed creating Baronial introduction cards which people could keep in their wallets and hand out when the SCA came up in casual conversation. We supported this idea avidly and saw BA as an ideal, early large-scale event at which to distribute them to as many people as possible.

The design was done and approved and a general costing known but Council (at a meeting we couldn't attend, being away) asked to see samples and costings of the cardboard to be used at their next meeting, before giving a final go-ahead.

We came back to this decision, which would have meant the cards couldn't be produced until after BA. So we made a case for quick action to the brand-new Financial Committee (set up under auspices of the brand-new SCANZ). They approved.

The cards were made and distributed to excellent effect (we've since done reprints and kept the BA convention going, and they have almost certainly contributed to the doubling in the Barony's participants in the past three years). But we received some quite strong criticism from at least three people from different parts of the Barony who felt we should not be starting our tenure by being seen to override Council's wishes.

We thought they had a point, and said so. I also explained as carefully as I could why it had mattered so much and what procedure had been followed, which mollified at least one objector.

But I also think that this occurrence marked a signal turning point in Council's previous tendencies to engage in minutiae (yep, the stapler thing again). Never since has there been much objection to the concept of giving someone responsibility and a budget for a task and just letting them run with it. And it's much more clearly understood now than it was then, that the Financial Committee and/or Seneschal have both the authority -- and the occasional need -- to get things done in a hurry, if we are to take excellent opportunities or avoid problems like lost venues.

One good outcome was that this incident quickly led to a clear set of guidelines being defined and published for the Financial Committee (see I think that greatly helped to prevent problems in this area since then. Mind you, I'd rather see slightly more and clearer financial (and FC) reporting than we've had recently -- the only reason it hasn't become too much of an issue is that the Barony has very healthy finances, and most of its expenditures are unremarkable.

So BA happened and went off very well. Then katherine and I rapidly packed our bags and went off to our first-ever event outside the Barony. This was Rowany Festival 2005 where, having received a Royal command to do so, we declared war. More on that next time.

FWIW, I view the listening, thinking, writing and unfolding of various plans that we undertook in those first three months -- from the time our selection was announced until BA -- as absolutely critical to much of the success we feel the Barony has enjoyed since.

Not every idea has equal merit, and perhaps not all of them succeeded as well as we think they did. In fact, each of the aims and activities above might seem relatively unexceptional in isolation. But we do feel the sum of them helped build on the initial boost we got from stepping up, and fostered in the longer term an atmosphere that helped the Barony grow and prosper.

Knowing that the talent was never lacking (though energy might be :-), we'd focused on the climate.

Thursday, December 20, 2007


"Let your heart do the talking."

Our step-up occured on day three of a five-day event. Our predecessors had their well-planned and naturally-tearful final Court on day two, then everyone had a day to recover. We had an enjoyable and helpful picnic with Their Majesties a few hours ahead of time but, on the whole, a tad more interaction before the event would have been handy (we had tried to arrange this but failed; our successors should have better luck).

The ceremony itself was unexceptional, following Lochac's normal prescriptions. We didn't muff our lines and I dropped the coronet only once. [Note to Royals at invest events: for goodness' sake, the minute the coronets are surrendered to you, invite the incoming B&B to a private place to try them on - preferably with Someone Capable in attendance in case they (the coronets, that is) need some clever adjustments or padding!]

Then our plans went into action. Naturally, we started by appointing our Court, and this quite inadvertently led to a shiny new Baronial motto.

Katherine had prepared court tokens with towers on them, and as she tied each one on to a new Court member's arm, she mentioned that the token carried upon it "the Tower of Southron Gaard, long may she stand!". By the time she'd done this three times, the populace were joining in on the "Long May She Stand", and it's stuck ever since. Instant tradition (and inevitably, we've heard the current Lochac Herald applying it to Lochac recently, and claiming that it dates back to times of yore in the old Principality. Good one :-)

Formalities completed, one of our first acts was deliberately a bit of pure fun. Katherine got up and loudly declared to Their Majesties that we had an "adulterine" house -- in that our home has crenellations on it which require a Royal licence, and we had no such licence. Their Majesties declared themselves happy to help but I regret to say that, many reigns later, our manor still remains adulterine. Paperwork can be slow in the Current Middle Ages...

We had two serious set-pieces for our First Court. One was katherine's gift to the Barony of eight copies of a Southron Gaard Songbook she compiled. Singing has long been dear to our hearts, and we have fond memories of times past when every event setup, breakdown or bunch of kitchen chores seemed to be accompanied by spontaneous singing. So the song-books were an attempt to encourage a return to those days*, and also provided katherine with the opportunity to deliver the line: "...while we do not expect you all to sing with the same voice, yet we would hear you sing in harmony"....

* Welcome to the laws of unintended consequences: as it happens, the songbooks HAVE seen some use, but the marked and welcome singing revival in SG since that time has focused on more elaborate songs and skills for a good few, rather than the more general uptake which we'd originally aimed at. Oh, and: no matter what facilities you may provide as a group, there is little you can do to make stewards want -- or at least reliably remember -- to deploy them :-)

The second serious element in our First Court was Bartholomew's First Spell, reproduced below. This is probably the most blatant piece of in-game social engineering we have attempted in our role. It was dreamed up at 3am (naturally), honed and rehearsed to distraction, and delivered standing rather than from the throne, for maximum effect. I was as nervous as hell about it, but it was an utterly sincere attempt to define what really matters to us and to our populace -- and why -- in a way that might be remembered and applied.

I don't think it did any harm, and the limited feedback I've had suggests the opposite. Wouldn't be everyone's cup of tea though.

Bartholomew's First Spell

I have heard it said of other Barons that their best attribute was that they didn't talk much. From the very start, let there be no misunderstanding: I am not that kind of Baron!

Many Stewards and others past and present have created and nurtured this wondrous event of Canterbury Faire. Thanks to their great efforts, we are privileged to have among us a large number of visitors from outside the Barony. In bidding you right welcome, I must also ask your indulgence for a moment, while I address specifically the populace of Southron Gaard.

For me, the present year is 1170. For nigh on four generations now, the scholars and translators at Toledo - Jews, Moslems and Christians working in concert - have been bringing to us from the Arabic the works of the Ancient Greeks, which had long been thought lost to us.

One of those sages from long ago taught us that the past is a closed book, at best something we can celebrate, or from which we can take guidance. And the future is unknown, unwritten, able to be influenced only by our thoughts and actions in the present. We have only the present, this perpetual shining moment in which to tell each other our stories, to celebrate and learn from our past, and to shape our future.

In this present, as Bartholomew Baskin, Baron of Southron Gaard, in the Crescent Isles of the Kingdom of Lochac in the Knowne Worlde, I know my job: it is to work magic. Accordingly, here is my first spell.

Close your eyes...

In your own past - for some of you over twenty years ago, for others this very weekend - there was a time when you went to your very first event. And perhaps at that event, or perhaps at your second, or your third, an angel gently took your heart, and wrote upon it a love of some of the things that we do in this special world.

It may be a love of martial prowess, of chivalry, of creativity, of pomp and pageantry, of research and discovery, of novelty, of service, of song or dance, of companionship and sharing among the very best kind of friends.

It is still written on your heart, or you would not be here today. Look for it.

Some of you are smiling.

... Open your eyes.

A great man, a great leader, once called upon the "better angels of our nature". Compassion, goodwill, tolerance, enthusiasm and all other good things. These better angels are what you were looking at.

They drive us, they help us avoid and resolve conflicts, they make all things possible which should not be possible. They create miracles. And so, together, in this world, we can work magic of a kind upon one another.

Let these angels be your perpetual shining present, and let them, and only them, shape our Barony's future.

And if you should encounter a newcomer who is wide-eyed and perhaps stands a little amazed at our world, or if you should happen upon a gentle who has not been with us for some time and who has lost sight of their own angel, please sit down patiently with them, and talk with them.

And when you do so, remember this: Let your heart do the talking.

Friday, October 19, 2007

First steps (pre-invest)

"After this, the rest should be easy"

We had just over three weeks notice between the announcement of our selection as B&B at Twelfth Night, and our investiture at Canterbury Faire. For one of those weeks, we were out of town.

In that time we had to attend to the predictable practicalities of new garb and ceremony and handover and appointing a Court. But we chiefly focused on the many planning and communication issues related to the nature and style of Baronage we wanted to present. We wanted to hit the ground running.

The first thing we did, starting the moment our selection was announced, was to put out a general offer to meet with anyone in the Barony -- our place or theirs -- in the limited days we had available before CF. Some folk took up the general offer and we made a point of specifically chasing down many others - in the end we covered about 45 people, which was a good proportion of the active populace.

We had three key aims in those meetings:

1. To listen, and thus demonstrate to everyone that we would always see listening to them as a key part of our role, no matter who they were

2. To hear what specific concerns and ideas they had to offer about the Barony

3. To try and motivate them (or allow them to motivate themselves) to get more involved in things than they had been, and to have fun doing it

We also corresponded with key folk in neighbouring groups, including our soon-to-be cousins of Ildhafn (more on the fruits of that later).

One opportunity we missed was a strategic Baronial Planning Meeting which had been organised by the other couple who had stood for the Baronial role. Unfortunately the mid-January meeting coincided with our week away, but it was well attended by a range of folk from across the Barony.

When we obtained a record of the discussion a few months later, it became clear that it had helped prepare the ground for the face-to-face meetings we held, in that it got people thinking hard about what they wanted for the Barony and about their own involvement in it. It was also clear that, although sources of contention certainly still existed, people were trying hard to communicate and to reach common ground on the things that really mattered to the Barony.

We quickly evolved one overtly political catch-cry which we used in the course of our meetings, and for at least a year thereafter - "Permission to Play". We used it to convey as simply as possible that we expected the Barony to be an enjoyable, friendly place where new ideas and initiatives would be welcomed rather than spurned. There was nothing ceremonial or in-game about it -- it was strictly our short-hand for the mundane culture change we wanted to encourage.

This was supported by some mundane documents that I'll reference in a later post. These introduced us as human beings, and outlined our approach to the B&B role.

The whole exercise was all about increasing transparency and helping people realise that we were not going to let the passions and problems of the past dictate the Barony's future or our approach to it. Sort of a Year Zero effect, but without a Pol Pot...

All the meetings were a huge investment of time, and sometimes a bit scary too, but we came away with a great many ideas and much in the way of positive vibes. We remain absolutely convinced that there could have been no better way to launch ourselves into this role, and to lay the groundwork for the happy and productive period which the Barony appears to have enjoyed since then.

Appointing a Court took a lot of our time too. We invited people from many walks of the Barony, but invariably our prime focus was on a cheerful, friendly demeanour. Every invitation was made in person, and time had to be allowed for them to consider the matter, including reading and digesting the "Court positions" document which we'd prepared.

We were incredibly fortunate in that Condesa Catalina agreed to be our Chamberlain - her Royal experience and pleasant and conscientious nature made our Court's first year much easier than it would otherwise have been. That was particularly important as neither of us had any experience of Court and neither did the rest of our Court members, so it was a steep learning curve.

And then there were the Court tokens, liaison with Their Majesties and our predecessors, finding out and planning for whatever Baronage items we'd be bringing back from the Faire, and getting suitable step-up garb organised (thanks on my account to two wonderful ladies in SG), ... on top of all the normal preparations we'd do for the Faire. Not to mention the several in-game initiatives we planned to launch there! (more on them next post)

Somewhere in there, our business started learning to do without us (somewhat), as did our three children.

So by the time CF and our investiture rolled around, we were ready -- or else! -- but in need of rather a lot of sleep.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

State of Play

"The SCA in New Zealand is dead."

In order to talk about much of what we planned and did, it helps to know why we did it. Thus, a short history lesson. All groups go through cycles, so bits of this could really be about any group if you catch it at a particular moment.

Southron Gaard had a very tough two years in 2002 and 2003. That period isn't often mentioned now but, when it is, it's frequently termed "The Time of Troubles". It fitted many of the classic patterns of a civil war -- a breakdown in civil society, families and friendships split, normal governance greatly undermined and the smallest disagreements blowing up out of all proportion. Hard-working, well-intentioned people got hurt all over the place.

The main causes of contention were completely comprehensible. SG and the other Crescent Isles groups had grown up under a benevolent Kingdom -- we liked them and they us -- and were now being offered the opportunity to join to a brand-new, closer, younger one. No matter how pragmatically sensible that move might seem to some, or how strongly the ties to Caid were felt by others, there's no way the decision would be either easy or unanimous, whichever way it went.

Because of that, the debate and decision process had to be preternaturally smooth to avoid some kind of blow-up. Alas, it was far from that.

To make things worse locally, interleaved through the same period there arose some governance issues concerning our then-College, which had been running strongly for nearly a dozen years. I could write a book on how the ensuing fracas appeared to an outsider but, in the interests of brevity I'll summarise it somewhat fairly as "personalities".

The College wasn't broken at the start, far from it. But it ended up deader than a dodo, and took a fair hole out of the Barony in the process.

Naturally attendance, energy levels and enthusiasm declined steadily during these two years. At first, people stopped wanting to bring new friends to events. Eventually, many stopped coming themselves.

One memory which katherine and I have from that period is of two long-standing members who sat on our sofa at different times and declared that "the SCA in New Zealand is dead". They believed it.

We felt otherwise. All groups go through up and down cycles and we knew that SG itself had been through at least two major ones in the previous two decades. We had a lot of respect for those who had husbanded the group through those times because -- no matter what side of the historical arguments they took -- the group today would not be here without them.

So we kept playing, in much the same explicitly non-political way we'd always played, and did our best to stay on good terms with everyone.

[Why is it these days that so little weight is given to the fine art of rubbing along well with others? Are we each so wedded to our prime place in the world and the modern rules of assertiveness that good grace must needs always give way to discord? Is there never any time or room to consider the views, or motivations of others, and to give them due regard? Does the loudest and least accommodating always get to win? Am I getting old and daft?]

We thought then and still think that, if we'd been politically active during the Time of Troubles -- or had deliberately become so in order to try and help out -- we would have ended up in the middle of the strife, rather than being able to help resolve anything. Some things are just too hard.

Imagine how it felt for our predecessors in the middle of all this. Unlike everybody else in the group, B&Bs basically have to attend all events, and Council as well. They feel obliged to do a whole lot of other things too, which get harder and harder when there are steadily fewer people willing to help, to respond, or even to be involved.

So, as Southron Gaard hollowed out around them, the symbols of the Barony were increasingly powerless to do anything about it -- except wait, make the transition to a new Kingdom, and reach for whatever touchstones showed there was still life and hope.

The key touchstone was Canterbury Faire. No matter what else happens in Southron Gaard, we, collectively, have always been GOOD at hosting CF, and burying our differences for the duration.

Perhaps this is because of a sense of host responsibility, or perhaps the influx of visitors - who themselves help run a lot of the event - gives us a fresher, wider perspective. Whatever the reason, there's little doubt that CF has always been a generally enjoyable event, even in the worst times. As "the best we can do" goes, CF in any given year is a damned fine high point to have.

And so time passed. Each month was a little easier than the last, but the Barony was still at a low ebb, and felt very divided. Lots of people had stopped playing -- many of them "for good" as they saw it. Every single activity the Barony had - fighting, craft, heraldry, seamsters, stewarding - was reduced to a few stalwarts who were comfortable with each other, and felt willing to make the effort to keep that area going.

Council was hard yakker, because Council was where opposing factions from the earlier disputes were forced together. The good news, though, is that it wasn't monolithic.

Three times during 2004, we were quietly asked if we'd be interested in taking on the B&B role when our predecessors decided to step down. These questions came from right across the Barony.

And in response to that, we decided there were really only three questions that mattered:
  1. Could the Barony stand us?
  2. Could we stand the Barony?
  3. Could we achieve anything useful?

The first should be obvious to anybody who knows us a bit. We're not half-hearted people. If you're going to get sick of us, you're going to get VERY sick of us. We were eventually persuaded that we'd get by.

The second question was actually the hardest, and is perhaps the most contentious bit of this long essay. I've alluded to our long-standing lack of engagement in the Barony's politics. We'd been to maybe two or three Councils in 15 years and, for a very long time, never ran an event as the primary event steward. There was a reason for that.

Please turn on your bias filter now.

Katherine and I each have extensive experience of small groups and societies. And to us, the Southron Gaard way of getting things done -- even when it was a Shire -- was always really demotivating. There was a Council, and Officers, and Corpora, and local rules and guidelines. And if you wanted to do something interesting, you just had to jump through the hoops.

Except the hoops were hard to find at the best of times, and turned out to be largely fictituous once you found them -- when something needed to get done, they could be conveniently ignored. Actually, I've seen this elsewhere in the SCA, so shouldn't suggest it is purely a Southron Gaard invention; SG just happened to be particularly good at it.

And sometimes the disparity between the amount of hoop-jumping and the value of the result could be enormous (do. not. mention. staplers.).

Of course, those are common small-group problems. What intensified them for Southron Gaard was an atmosphere that (we felt) so pervaded Council that those who attended it regularly during those 15 years probably didn't even notice it. Essentially, it was "we're in charge, who are you?" But it also included "you are raising a different point of view, and disagreement is Wrong. And dangerous".

For a very long time -- possibly since it was first formed, the group seemed to have great difficulty with gracefully handling opposing viewpoints. Perhaps that grew out of a few major schisms in its early years. Or perhaps it explains those schisms. Whatever the cycle of cause and effect, from where we were sitting, the culture that SG's Council seemed to promote was remarkably de-motivating. Quite the opposite of "cheerful engagement".

Bearing in mind the way that misconceptions can be easily formed and maintained, you can imagine that we probably had a couple of fairly early experiences of that sort of thing, and then just gave up and assumed it was continuing. There's some truth in that, but we had plenty of confirming evidence as the years went by -- and the intensity of the strife during the Time of Troubles is a pretty obvious marker. This group's management style was not user-friendly.

(I've heard comments now and then that ascribe this general problem to specific individuals or sub-groups. That hasn't been our experience. Some of the most puzzling criticisms I've heard over the years have been directed at people from various parts of the Barony who, for the most part, I place in the "cheerfully engaged" category. The Council culture pre-dated most of them, and seemed to have a life of its own).

So, in considering whether we could be B&B, we were really thinking about whether we wanted to interact with the group at a political level. Which meant considering whether we could either survive that kind of atmosphere for any length of time (nope), or could perhaps succeed in completely changing it.

On the plus side was one simple but crucial fact - even more crucial when you get to it after reading all the above, so please read it slowly:

When this group gets its act together, it's magic. It has stellar people in terms of skills, accomplishments, vision, reliability, inspirational qualities, experience, determination -- all the good things that can make an SCA group really shine. The only trick is to give those virtues an outing as often as possible, and leave the baggage at home - or bury it for good.

That huge plus made us feel well motivated. The real question came down to whether we could achieve anything useful - score some successes and, particularly, help improve the management culture without losing any more of the support and energy the Barony had left.

Obviously we decided it was worth a go. Two factors tipped the balance for us:

The first was that -- all appearances to the contrary -- we'd been thinking about this issue for a helluva long time, and felt that we properly understood the group's problems and had a rough idea of how to solve them.

We also felt, strongly, that the solutions could only be applied as B&B, rather than in any other role. Quite frankly, it was bound up in the sense of the power and influence (for the good of course :-) that we felt the role would let us deploy, and equally the sense of powerLESSness we would have felt trying to do it any other way.

The second factor, just as important, was the strong sense we got that the Barony was ready to turn a corner: that a number of people who had played before did want to play again, or more actively, and just needed the right excuse. That even those who had kept things going through the hardest times, and hence were now pretty tired - still wanted to see the group recover, and thrive.

There was immense goodwill waiting to be tapped. It seemed to need change as a trigger, so our predecessors didn't have the option of using it the way a new B&B could. And I guess it wasn't available to just anyone. But I can imagine candidates other than us who could have recognised this goodwill and been boosted by it the way we were.

So we agreed to stand, knowing that there was an excellent chance we would get the nod. Our objectives if we succeeded were:

a) To improve the management and social culture of the group to be far more welcoming, relaxed, transparent and user-friendly -- and far more tolerant of differences, therefore more resilient when they arise

b) To maximise successes and minimise problems for a very long period ("good news and no stuff-ups") -- without being too overbearing about it -- until the group was robust enough to wear normal problems with ease

c) To grow the group with both old hands, returnees and new blood -- LOTS of new blood. Which in turn meant encouraging an atmosphere where people wanted to bring newcomers along, and newcomers felt right at home once they turned up.

In other words, to make it all more FUN, dammit!

As I recall, we were pretty clear with people about what we wanted to achieve if appointed, though not necessarily the details of how we'd go about it.

And that was good, because a lot of the ideas that drove our actions didn't properly form until we really started listening to people, and that couldn't really begin until after our succession was decided and announced.

Monday, June 11, 2007

What is this Role Anyway?

"All responsibility, no power"

The B&B fiction is that you have all power in the Barony, save only the King and Queen if they are present. The mundane fact is that you have almost no power at all. The truth is that you should be able to exercise that no-power almost as potently as if it was real power, provided you aren't caught doing it too often.

An SCA Baronage has got to be the hardest role in the Society. Being King and Queen is more expensive and -- for six months -- is certainly more exhausting. The problems and pitfalls are also bigger, on the whole. But in six months (well eight, counting from Crown Tourney), it's over. You can go and be a good Count, or Duchess, and set aside most of your concerns - or at least the temptation to try and address most of them.

A B&B has no such out. Sure, we can retire gracefully after just two or three years, or abruptly in emergencies by appointing a Vicar. But short or interrupted tenures have their own consequences for the Barony, so most of us will aim for the "about four years" that is now the norm in Lochac.

And the role itself? Total immersion in the needs of the Barony -- both its ceremonial "in-game" life, and also at a mundane, organisational level (the latter is unavoidable, no matter how much you're told it's just about wearing the hats, speaking well and looking pretty).

More than anyone else, you feel responsible if things are not going right. More than anyone else, you'll act or nudge to do something about it. More than anyone else, you'll be wondering about this event steward, or that workshop, or the Royal visit, or that schedule, or an email that got no answer, and thinking about the consequences. And you'll also be thinking about the people behind it all, all the time.

The closest real-life analogy may be the social-pastoral role undertaken by priests and vicars in some communities, or by a rural school headmaster. A Parish or School Council may have officers in charge of the minutiae, but the priest or headmaster will be doing the worrying, and an awful lot of the behind-the-scenes strategic thinking and work.

Overstated? Possibly. Not every B&B has to take the responsibility quite as seriously or quite as wholeheartedly as I've suggested. But in my experience, most do. They feel pleased as punch when things seem to be working, and worried when they are not.

So, the role is ceremony, and PR, and governance, and recognition, and looking good, and pastoral care, and getting the banners and heraldic displays up, and inspiration, and setting a good example -- and also spotting cracks and seeing they get filled before they become chasms.

And your AIM? I mean, what are we doing all this for? In short, I believe the key aim is to get as many as possible of your populace cheerfully engaged in the enterprise and diverse activities which make up the SCA.

That is best done by being cheerfully engaged yourself, and actively encouraging others to adopt that mode. Defuse or step around the bunfights. When something contentious arises anyway, think and work hard to find the most constructive way to address it, the one that doesn't leave casualties in its wake (if possible).

There's a corollary here: when you find yourself in a state where you're unable to deal constructively, or be cheerfully engaged, and it doesn't pass relatively quickly -- then it's definitely time to pass on the hats. SCA groups are good for many things, but I'm certain that one thing they cannot do well is fix a broken Baron or Baroness.

In terms of tactics, I believe that the role is more than anything else about communication. Written, verbal, at events and at Council, and between times.

Now katherine and I are not the best SCA communicators we know; we're well matched by some of our Baronial or Royal peers. But, by golly, we are perhaps the most inveterate communicators you'll ever find. If you haven't learned something from us that you needed to, either you weren't paying attention (low boredom threshold?) or it involved a truly obscure question that you didn't actually ask.

If communications are going well in a Barony -- and not just to and from the B&B -- then the Barony itself is likely to be healthy and successful. And if things are a bit tetchy or uncertain in some quarters, it helps a great deal if the B&B will fearlessly communicate with all and sundry, and their dog. (If you're not scrupulously even-handed from the very beginning of your tenure, this is going to be difficult).

I believe most of the serious fractures in the SCA come from absence of understanding. And usually -- not always -- that arises from a lack of communication, growth of suspicion, followed by inaccurate assumptions of malignity, then full-blown tribalism.

Cut it all off at its roots and tell people what is going on! Or ask them -- either can work to save no end of bother, if done cheerfully and calmly and early in the piece.

One of the reasons a B&B serves for a relatively long time is that, in that time, they can build and use a vast store of human-level information about who can do what, when, and how, both inside and outside the Barony. So when things need doing, they know who to recommend, or to gently tap. They also get a feel for when people are nearing burn-out, or have bitten off more than they can chew, or are getting bored.

A newcomer to the Society or Barony could not do this well. Someone taking an office for just a year or two would have trouble. By two years -- during which time most of the offices (if not Officers) of the Barony have changed, a clear picture is starting to emerge, and can be put to good use thereafter.

I'd like to reassure potential B&Bs that the reputed "marriage counsellor" aspect of the role has been a little overstated. You do tend to hear news of marriage or relationship doings rather earlier than most (especially if you have a reputation for keeping such matters strictly to yourselves). But we've seen little sign that a B&B is the first set of shoulders people seek to lean on when they have mundane problems.

That's not to say you won't have your share of concerns felt on behalf of members of your populace. But, in our experience, the extent to which you get involved is largely up to you, unless it involves someone in your direct social group.

On the other hand, you do feel like Mum and Dad (or, at least, friendly Aunt and Uncle) to the whole Barony. That's no bad thing -- if the group feels like an extended family -- even a bad family at times -- there are far more tools at your disposal than if it just feels like a once-a-week sports club.

If anyone has read this far and noticed that Court and ceremonies and titles and pretty regalia rated barely a mention -- well spotted. It's not that they don't matter -- they are often the sharp end of a large chunk of your efforts. But it's like building a house - most of the time goes on getting the site prep., foundations and framing right -- only then can you add the picture windows and ornaments.

That's my personal overview of the role. In future posts I'll try and clarify some of the above with real-life examples. The next few posts will be somewhat linear/historical in nature, because the way we began our tenure has had such a profound effect on how we see and do it. But later on, I'll be able to get a bit more general in my topics.

Oh, and I forgot the most important bit.

Being B&B has got to be the best fun you can have without breaking the law. Or we wouldn't still be doing it.

Let's start again, shall we?

"It's quite safe, nobody will read it"

Right, well, if you've read the darker piece below (almost too dark to be termed satire), you may have had your taste whetted for more chapters on How to Be a Good Baron.

So I intend to try and oblige, only in a matter-of-fact rather than satirical vein. This is mainly because I love transparency, because I believe it helps people do things better - myself included.

My primary audience is my Baronial cousins, present and future -- including our eventual successors. Plus anyone else who'd like to know a bit more about what things look like from the inside of this ridiculously demanding role.

I don't know if this experiment has been tried elsewhere - when we did our research before stepping up, katherine and I found precious few resources around the Known Worlde besides Hrolf's and Madelaine's general guide for B&Bs. It's very good, but doesn't go nearly far enough.

This exercise will badly lack context unless I include a lot of my perspective on Southron Gaard and its recent history. Thus, when you read, keep these things in mind:

1) While I have what I think is a fairly balanced view of events and personalities, you'll still have to apply whatever bias filters you think are necessary. Don't be offended if you were involved in something and have a significantly different picture from mine. That's just plain normal in my book. Comment away here, or in your own blog.

2) Naturally, other Baronies have other needs and other sets of circumstances. Though there are common cycles and problems, the particular solutions and tactics that have pre-occupied us so much can't be guaranteed to be optimal or even necessary elsewhere. To us, they just seemed like the best ideas available for the circumstances applying at the time. Your mileage may vary.

3) If you form the impression that katherine and I have been willing to go to great lengths to make things go a certain way -- and then to take some credit for it here -- you're at least partly right (we've had a LOT of help). In our view, we have left precious little to chance so far in our tenure, because SG needed and deserved a period where it simply scored successes, with few downsides or setbacks. And the Barony also needed its culture shifted so more people were able to learn more easily how things work. As time has gone on, SG has become more resilient and capable. That should continue. Hence, for the rest of our tenure, less from us, more from everyone else.

4) If you can't figure out whether it's me or katherine speaking, it's me. But there's precious little we haven't talked about, endlessly, when it comes to this role, so you'll find I's and we's scattered with gay abandon. None are the Royal we, just more pertaining to the role as a shared one.

Ok, enough caveats. Next time, some meat.

Friday, October 27, 2006

Some ill-spent hours in Black October

How to be a good Baron

Chapter Nine: Sample Correspondence

Dear Messalina,
I've received your request that I mount an appeal to the Crown about the people whose status was withheld.

However, because your email contained a number of words starting with the letter A, and because I have difficulty reading such words, I won't be acting on it, sorry.
It's not your fault, I'm just too busy to work through such emails, no matter how valid they might be. It's not as if I haven't mentioned my problem with the letter A before. And I'm sure other people have told you.

Better luck next time.

Dear Elvira,
Unfortunately, your email contained some overly emotional content. Therefore, even though it wasn't aimed at me, I will not be responding.

Dear Wallace,
Sorry to hear the Herald is indifferent to your draft rewrite of submission rules.

I'll tell you what. Wait until a new Herald is appointed who is willing to listen, and then I'll give you my unreserved moral support.

That's what I'm here for, after all.

Dear Roden,
I don't really understand why you don't agree with my position. But that's ok -- since you're not a Baronial officer, I don't have to listen to you.

By the way, several of the words in your email were mis-spelled. Don't you know it bothers me to get emails like that, because they take longer to figure out? Please, be a good chap and respect my sensitivities and rather limited time.

Dear Nathaniel,
Your email came as HTML text, with no plaintext. To read it, I'd have to change two settings on my mail reader.

Therefore I didn't read it.

Dear Ceila,
Although you're clearly very bothered by your problem, I'm just too busy with other matters to respond this week. So is everyone else who could help. Maybe next week.

I think it's a little unfair that you haven't realised this and backed off already. So please stop emailing me about it. Can't you see I've got more important things to do?

Dear Ivan,
Please don't ask me that again. I report only to Their Majesties.

Dear Ceila,
Look, don't you realise that writing to Master Gerrard about this is just going to annoy him? He hates getting long emails, and it's not as if he has much time in any case.

He holds down an important job, and lots of people write to him in his SCA role, so I don't see why you think he should pay any attention to you. You're not one of his deputies, and he has many more important things to do.

I find it surprising that you should bother to write when you already knew that. Even more annoying that he's gotten me involved too. *I* didn't ask to be involved and, as you know full well, I'm incredibly busy right now.

No, don't ask me to comment on the justice or otherwise of your case. As already noted, I don't have time at the moment.

Dear Yoran,
I got your phone message. Unfortunately, I have trouble with phone calls. Please write or email instead.

Dear Barnabas,
So what if it is in Corpora? We have processes here, and we follow them. If you want to jump on a bandwagon, go ahead.

Dear Jane,
If you want me to consider your request for a Baronial presence at your event, ask the Court Vizier. I stated clearly back in March that all requests must go through her.

Frankly, I'm surprised you thought it appropriate to write to me, and hope you will see that, by doing so, you are undermining the Vizier's position.

In the SCA, there is a "chain of command". Our Court has always had a Vizier and, under the chain of command, she's the one to talk to, even though she cannot make a decision about which events to attend.

So, even though the event form says "I have received confirmation from the B&B that a Court will be held at this event", please try not to break the chain of command again, ok?

Hello again Jane,
Your email was overlong. And just because you are logical, reasonable and cite documentation and precedent to support your position, that doesn't make you right.

I AM the Baron, after all.