Ritual and context

I’ve been quiet for a few days, because I was busily off at the Fourth Street Fantasy Convention (I had a fabulous time and I am already looking forward to next year: many excellent conversations with interesting people about books and thoughts and the world in general.) It’s also sparked some thoughts about some things I really want to change in my life, and more on that in the coming days.

Today, though, a short post on something I was discussing else-net. One of the panels I was at this weekend was about the issue of message in a story: is it a good idea to be deliberately push buttons in your readers to make a point?

Emma Bull (one of the panelists, and one of my favorite authors to boot) made a comment I’ve been thinking about ever since: that all stories have your assumptions about how the world works. This comes through in the story, no matter what else you do.

This got me thinking. Ritual is, in many ways, a story.

Rituals are also stories, in their own way. Not in the sense they always have a plot, mind you – but in the sense that they have a context they exist in (what’s in their world), that stuff happens (there is a change between the beginning state and the end state of some kind), and that the successful ones have some kind of desireable emotional effect (because otherwise, we would eventually find them boring and never do them again.)

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Father’s Day

I have very mixed feelings about Father’s Day, for the very simple reason that it is logistically tricky to celebrate a father who has been dead for more than half your life. Especially if one is bound into the Hallmark holiday sort of model.

Not impossible, of course, and as I am a Pagan whose path includes a certain degree of ancestral honoring, certainly something I do include. Just not on random Sundays in June.

It does make me think, though. My father died when I was just over 15. We knew it was coming – the good thing about a terminal cancer diagnosis is that at least you have time to prepare. Long before the last moments of high school, or of college, I had long experience with a series of ‘last moments’ with my father.

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Historic community

I spent Tuesday evening at a retirement party.

I currently work in the library at an independent school, one that’s been around for over a hundred years. The party was for two teachers (in different departments) who met and married early in their careers at the school – who have both taught here for well over 30 years. They are core to the school, and it’s going to be a very different place next year.

It was an excellent party – good food, and laughter, and people who’d retired in previous years coming back, and stories, and good humor. It also made me think.

We talk in the Pagan community about community elders: the people we look up to, the people who help us frame the conversations in and around and about our lives, the people who offer thoughts and wisdom and advice – but who don’t push their answers on the person asking.

It was clear, at this party, how many incredibly intelligent, capable, wonderful teachers looked up to these two, in so many ways. I work with really amazing people (it’s one of the main reasons I’ve stayed with the job so long), and when they all think someone else is amazing? You pay attention. Close attention.

One teacher told a story of when she was department head, of asking one of these teachers (a former head of that department) for help on how to figure out a staffing issue. She came up with plan after plan, and would go and ask for advice, and get back the answer “You’ll figure it out.” After a number of revisions, she came up with a really good plan, one that solved all the problems, and tried again – to get a smile, and a “I knew you’d get here!”.

It’s teaching without being patronising. It’s guiding, but treating your colleagues like the mature, capable, competent, intelligent adults that they are, and standing back and seeing how they solve things, not how you’d solve things. It’s being a resource, without doing all the work for someone else. It’s sharing the cool stuff, without competition or fear of losing your own value. These are people who *know* they’re good teachers, who know how many lives they’ve touched – but who also know they can always improve, and who were, up until the very end of the semester, both looking for new ways to teach material, to engage their students, to share their wisdom and knowledge.

That was part of it.

The other part is about community. Both children of these teachers were there, and they spoke about what it was like growing up as part of the community, having many of the teachers in the room as family friends. And from that came stories that I’d known but not quite pieced together.

These are teachers who are very careful about how they spend their time. They invested incredible time outside the classroom in grading, designing assignments, or creating new courses. They spend their time thoughtfully: they’d rather travel to an interesting place, or see a specific, chosen film, than have the TV on or watch whatever the summer blockbuster is. They read in a way that awes and amazes an extremely literate and well-read community. They’ve been active in their community – in politics, in community service, in service to the school – in all sorts of ways.

But they’ve also done a host of other things. One teacher there spoke of how she’d worried when her husband began working at the same campus – what would it be like to work with your spouse? These two retiring teachers invited them both over for dinner, not just once, but regularly, to talk about how it worked for them and what mattered. They’ve done similar things for other teachers at various times in their lives: reached out in small and quiet ways on a personal level – and been quite active in discussions about school structure and administration on a more public one.

These are all things I’ve been thinking about. How do I spend my time? Where do I spend it? Are there places I could spend less time? How would I improve that? What would make my life qualitatively *better*? How can I make my community better? How can I do the equivalent of those kinds of dinners? What would happen in our Pagan community if more people did small things like that? I don’t have any immediate answers – but I do have some ideas for the summer that I want to try out.

Application processes

As some of you might know, I’m also a casual World of Warcraft player (I play on Hellscream, and like playing priests. Hypatia – Disc/Holy – is almost level 62, and Thalassa – Shadow – is 32 right now).

I read posts on the WoWInsider site regularly (they’re a good fit for my interests), and my attention got caught by a comment on this post.

First: should anyone find this post via my referencing the WoWInsider link

Hi! Part of why I’m a (very) casual WoW player is that most of my spare time and energy goes to my religious life, specifically something close enough to Wicca for most people’s purposes. I’m in the process of forming my own ritual group after several years of training and work in another group, and this blog is about a lot of that process. Feel free to ask questions: I’ll answer anything that’s not outright insulting or abusive.

That said, almost everything I do gets funneled back into the religious work somehow – especially group dynamics and interaction concepts, which are a major interest of mine.

A quick guide for non-online gamers
Many of these games have guilds (or some similar term) that are formed for all sorts of reasons – social interaction, but also to take on larger challenges in the game world. In World of Warcraft, a significant amount of endgame content requires at least 25-40 characters to do, thus at least that many individual people.

I’m in a small, informal guild of longtime friends (it’s my chance to spend social time with friends from the East Coast), but almost all of them are associated with a larger raiding guild that plays endgame content regularly. I don’t have time for that, but I happily putter around the edges and do things when they have time, and chat, and so on.

Back to that post…
The comment that particularly caught me was Rational’s comment (the first one) where he/she says: “Sadly, guilds are tiny. They can’t afford to have someone vet new recruits.”

Which made me go “Hmm.” Because, after all, your average coven is not large (far smaller than your average raiding guild), and this is something that most covens do as a matter of practice (and, in fact, can’t afford *not* to do). I wanted to explore it the parallels a bit. What do I see?

1.) You need to know you have enough in common.

Not everyone is going to fit into every guild. And not everyone will be a fit for every coven. Finding out some things early helps a lot in wear and tear on *everyone* involved (applicant and existing group members alike.)

  • Do you want to do the same things?
  • Are you available at the same times?
  • Do you have compatible approaches to getting things done and communicating?
  • Do you have enough goals in common?

There are obviously many variations – a guild, for example, is going to care a lot more about whether a particular person fits a specific in-game need than a coven is likely to. (And be more willing, probably, to take a chance on someone who fills a major need.) But the basic questions? Still really useful.

2.) You need some kind of process.

It can be elaborate, but it doesn’t have to be. A lot of guilds use a simple online questionnaire, followed by a face to face interview and a trial period. My first experience with something like this was applying to Harper Hall on PernMUSH way back when (1995), which used pretty much exactly that method. (More on that below.)

In many cases where the cost if someone doesn’t work out is not huge, this is a perfectly workable system. You can give someone an initial (often limited) membership, and as they demonstrate they’re reliable and competent, they get more responsibility/access/resources (very common in gaming situations).

Covens tend to be far more involved processes, because the costs are much higher if you get it wrong. If you’re inviting people to your home, you want to make sure that they’re not going to abuse that or become stalkers or anything like that. But even then, it’s not all that hard for one or two people to be the ‘front’ people for the process, and bring others into it only once they’ve weeded out people who are obviously unsuitable.

Most important part of the process? Know what you’re looking for. The more specific you are about what you’re seeking, the more important your process design is. If you’re fairly flexible, you can generally weed out the people who’d be a dismal fit with a few simple questions, try everyone else out, and go from there.

3.) Your front person or people need to enjoy what they’re doing.

I get a huge kick out of reading initial contacts/applications. I have for years. I’m fascinated by what people share about themselves, how they phrase it, and how they approach the questions that a group asks.

It’s much better to have someone like me doing the initial read through (assuming they’re competent) than someone who hates doing it: someone who thinks it’s a necessary evil that gets in the way of the stuff they would rather be doing will procrastinate, grumble, and otherwise drag their feet eventually (and burn out) and that’s no good for anyone.

4.) Your initial contact person has to have a good idea what their job is.

Is it their job to weed out certain things? Be really clear what those things are. Is spelling a big deal for the whole group, or just a pet issue of the gatekeeper?

Be clear what the next step is. In some groups, the initial contact point just passes everything (except the truly misguided apps) along. In others, they do several more steps – checking to see if requirements are met, or even an initial interview to make sure the applicant and group are on the same page, before passing along someone as a serious possibility.

5.) Backups are your friend.

If you’re dealing with a lot of applications, or there’s a chance your gatekeeper may disappear (even for the best of reasons), it’s good to have a backup. Again, limit your failure mode. In online settings, this usually means the officers (or guild leader, or whoever) also having access, even if they rarely or never use it.

(In coven situations, this is much less of an issue: if someone is that seriously out of contact, you generally know where they live and what’s going on, and so on.)

6.) Finding the right process makes everything easier.

It’s easy to over-engineer it: to make it very complex or have lots of steps, or add bells and whistles. (I have temptations this way myself.) The problem is, it doesn’t always improve things.

My solution is to look at the process, and ask myself: “What am I looking for with this question?”. Not “What should their answer be.” but “What am I trying to learn.” – they’re two different things. Figuring out your best questions for what you really want can save your time, your applicant’s time, and everyone’s energy.

Let’s compare a couple of variations. If I want to know what someone’s goals are for their time with a group, I can ask that in several ways.

If I ask

What are you looking for in a group/guild/whatever right now?

I’ll probably get a list of goals or desires or intentions. This may be all I need, and if the rest of the application is short and simple, this may be fine. But what happens if I ask something different? If I ask:

After reading our website/info, what makes you particularly interested in us at this time?

Most people will answer that with something about their goals – but you also will quickly weed out anyone who hasn’t actually looked at the information you’ve already provided. In a longer more complex application, this can be a great way to combine questions, and it’s also a great way to sort things out if you’ve had a recent history of people not reading provided info (and that’s particularly important to you.) There are other ways to get at this kind of information, too.

7.) Consider length and commitment.

I tend to think that the initial questionnaire should take 10-60 minutes to fill out (depending on how tightly you want to filter your applicants). Much shorter than 10 minutes, and people won’t take it seriously or will do it on a lark (which wastes the time of the people who respond.) Too long, and most people won’t bother, even people who might be a good fit.

I think most game/fun/hobby related forms should take most people 10-30 minutes to fill out initially. (Not including background/informational reading, etc.) On the other hand, I’m aiming for the initial coven questions to take about an hour. One of the things I’m deliberately sorting for is people who are sure enough we might be a fit that they’re willing to spend that time. That said, it might need adjustments down the road…

8.) Refine the process:

Once you’ve had a few people go through the process, see what works. If you point 50 people at the application, and only one submits it, you’re probably doing something wonky somewhere – maybe the page is glitched, or it’s way too long, or it’s unreadable, or something else. Look at it closely yourself. *Do* it yourself, for that matter: it can give you a good sense of how long it takes.

Also, as you get applicants over time, look and see how the patterns shift. Some patterns may change as the surrounding environment shifts and changes. Others may mean that you want to adapt your process. If you find that you weed out a lot of people on your first person-to-person chat, maybe you want to do that first, and then have them submit an application for everyone else to review.

Some examples:

I’m still working out the details for my shiny new coven application – but I know it’s going to be a pretty detailed process, and it needs a lot of fine-tuning.

Why? Because we’re talking about a small group (probably no more than 8-10 people total) who will be meeting in people’s homes for significant amounts of time and doing emotionally intimate work together. Any one person we take potentially bars other people in future, so we want to make sure that we find the right fit. Also, any changes in the group affect the whole group significantly.

On the other end of the spectrum is something like what I did on PernMUSH (a text-based role-playing game set in Anne McCaffrey’s Pern universe). When I took over as Masterharper, we’d been getting a bunch of really lousy applications from people. (Lousy how? Badly written, showing little understanding of the game world, with assumptions that would limit or mess with other people’s enjoyment, etc.)

Often, the people who did bad applications disappeared 2 weeks later, having taken up a lot of time and energy (from their interviewer and the masters discussing the application) with no real benefit for anyone. That leads to burnout.

The revised version worked like this: we started with a 5 question application in email. This showed us:

  • Whether they could read the background information we provided in multiple forms.
  • Whether they follow basic directions/instructions.
  • Whether they were familiar with the game world and setting, or could work around what they didn’t yet know.
  • Whether they paid some attention to the application (we wouldn’t rule someone out for a couple of typos, but constant spelling issues or incomprehensible writing are a big deal on a text-based game.)
  • Whether they cared enough about this particular goal to spend a little bit of time (maybe an hour for most people) on an application: an hour is a tiny percentage of the amount of time they’d spend with us as a player.

Once they submitted that (and assuming it wasn’t totally impossible), they’d also have an in-game, in-character interview, so we could see how they role-played and fit in with existing events in the game spaces.

What did we ask? Again, we were open to a wide number of play styles, types of focus, and interests, but focused on a particular goal in the game (a particular profession, more or less), and a specific in-game community. So we asked questions that would help us figure out whether someone would fit with that.

We were willing to push the time demands for the application a little higher because knowing the setting and enjoying working with words were important aspects of long-term fun (both for them, and for the people playing with them.) Also – while I’m still pretty pleased with these, or I wouldn’t be referencing them, I wouldn’t approach it in quite the same way now (10 years down the road, with far more group experience.)

1) Please tell us something about your character’s background. (Example: Who is your character, where is s/he from, what does s/he want from life, and why)

Goal of the question: Character background is the overt question, but we also wanted to know if they could give us a rounded idea of their character without being asked each and every detail. (Do they need to have their hand held all the way, in other words.)

In Warcraft, I might ask something like “How is your character currently specced, and why?”. In a Pagan group setting, I might ask “Tell me about your religious path to this point.” or even, basically. “What’s your background so far?”

2) Why does your character want to be a Harper? What IC skills and interests does s/he bring to the Hall.

Goal: To weed out the people who said “I’m just curious.” or “I’ve done everything else, why not Harper?”. Sometimes those people worked out – but we’d had a whole run of applications where they hadn’t. Asking people to put in a little thought about what their character’s goals and motivations were solved the problem tidily. In a guild setting, this might be similar to ”

In Warcraft, you might ask “What interests you about [focus of guild].” Or in Pagan settings, “Why this group?” or “Why are you seeking training right now?” or “What do you want from your path in the near future?”

3) In your opinion, what role does Harper Hall play, both in Pernese society and within PernMush as a game?

Goal: To see how comfortable they were with the game setting, and whether they could discuss it briefly. If someone couldn’t answer this one, we’d want to do a lot more talking with them before accepting them.

In Warcraft terms, this is similar to “What does your class/spec do well?” and “How do you feel about doing that?” In Pagan settings, questions like “What have you read?” or “How do you define Pagan/Wiccan/witch/etc.” often get at the same kinds of questions.

4) Do you have IC ties to anywhere on the game? Is your character involved in a romantic relationship? (Weyrmating, engaged, etc)

Goal: Are there any in-character relationships we need to adjust for/work around/might cause some issues for in-game reasons?

This one has less application in Warcraft, but variants apply in my religious life – if someone’s romantic partner doesn’t approve of their study, that can get hairy.

5) Do you have a regular online schedule? About how much time do you expect to be on as this character?

Goal: Basic logistics. And pretty self-explanatory: if someone can’t work on the same schedule as the group, you’re going to have problems. (Broadly applicable, too!)

Also, how much time is this person willing to commit to this? Does that mesh with their goals? With the group’s requirements? (You will likely need to play this by ear in places: someone may say what they think you want to hear, only to struggle with showing up that often once the honeymoon phase is over.)

6) What OOC knowledge might you bring to the game and the Hall? (For example: Have you read the Harper Hall trilogy? Do you play a musical instrument or sing RL? Are you familiar with the PernMush news and +info files? Are you familiar with the Harper information in particular?)

Goal: To find out if there’s any other non-game-specific knowledge that might benefit our shared fun. There’s also a certain amount of work involved with running any group: if someone has interests that’d make that easier, I like knowing early on. Again, not required for membership, but it often meant we could phrase explanations in a clearer way, or let them run with some idea more easily after a brief discussion.

This type of question is less relevant in something like Warcraft (where you’re pretty centered on the game action together) but you could ask about what sites they use for information, or something similar. Shared hobbies/interests/familiarity can make a difference in coven life (though it depends heavily on the group.)


As you can probably see, once you actually get the system set up, it’s relatively easy to maintain it and adjust it quickly – but you need to invest a little time up front. My experience, though, is that once you do that, it really *is* very easy to keep up. You get instant rewards in both how quickly you can review applications – and, often, in the quality of applications you get in the first place.

You don’t need to be stuffy or toss an application for every minor thing – but how they answer questions or approach an application can tell you a lot about their overall approach to learning new things, interacting with people they don’t know well, or how they pursue goals that matter to them.