These notes concern the running of SCA events; they cover some basic concepts, refer to others, and dive into some details that have caused event attendees to think (see <http://www.sca.org> for more information about the SCA in general). They focus on event organization in the Barony of Carolingia (Boston area) in the East Kingdom (Northeast US & Eastern Canada region) -- so folks from other SCA areas are likely to find some differences in how things work where they are, but will also probably find some generally useful principles. They were originally compiled for a class given at the Carolingian Novice Schola event in September 2005, and were updated in November 2010.
Credit is due to Lady Derhilde (Davey Synder) for impulsing me to make these notes available on the web, and for digging up where Tibor's autocratting notes are archived.
In the SCA, the culmination of all our research and practice comes in what is called an "event" -- a tournament, feast, ball, or other festival during which we attempt to reach for those magic moments of Being Back Then. But SCA events don't just miraculously occur. They have to be organized and run, and the people who perform those tasks -- historically titled "autocrats" -- are not all-powerful sorcerors or superheroes with mystical powers.
In Carolingia, you do not have to hold SCA awards of any sort, or to have prior autocratting experience, or to be a member of any particular group of people, in order to autocrat an event. What you do need is an idea of what kind of event you would like to run. Carolingia has been around for a goodly while, so many people have already run events here. That does not mean that they get first crack at running events, or that they are better at it than you; rather, it means that they can give you suggestions and assistance to make your event better.
The first thing to do if you're considering proposing an event is:
Basic information on what goes into running events can be found in numerous places. Among other non-official sources:The Autocrat's Handbook, self-published by House Skold (my copy is 2nd edition, 1985), is somewhat outdated and hard to find, but includes many basic ideas and some useful worksheets. A somewhat newer manual is "How To Autocrat in Carolingia", by Baron Tibor of Rock Valley, which may be found at <http://web.archive.org/web/20070811214043/http:/www.schuldy.org/howtoautocrat.html> -- this document is reasonably comprehensive, and though several years old is still mostly applicable. You may also find some of the commentary in the "Florilegium" of His Lordship Stefan li Rous at <http://www.florilegium.org>, under the "Planning SCA Events" category, of at least intellectual interest. Carolingia also includes many people who have acted as autocrats, and can give educated opinions on how, and how not, to do things.
As to offical sources, the Seneschal of Carolingia has a checklist of things to remember to do and people to remember to talk to, along with a few forms that each autocrat needs to fill out at various times over the course of planning and running his/her event. The East Kingdom website, where event information should be submitted for publication on the website and in "Pikestaff", provides a form on which some information is required, some optional, implying what you absolutely have to deal with.
If you have taken that big step and volunteered to run an event, lots of SCA people, both Carolingians and those from elsewhere, will usually be delighted to help you -- if you ask them to. It doesn't hurt to make general announcements that you need assistance, but it's better to specify what kinds of assistance you need, and best of all to ask specific people to do specific tasks, rather than just announcing that help is needed. This is a matter of psychology: it's not that people don't want to help, it's just that it's very easy for them to hear a general announcement without acting, while it's much harder for them to refuse a reasonable request made by you personally to them.
You can't do all the work for your event alone -- don't try. In fact, you can delegate nearly everything -- but as the autocrat, you're responsible for having it happen. Figure out what needs to be done and ask specific other people to help with various tasks. Make a schedule of when things need to occur in order for the event to proceed (e.g., the kitchen staff have to cook the feast before it can be eaten), and have your helpers commit to being on time to do their parts of the work. Remember to arrange for set-up before the event starts, and for clean-up after it ends.
All but the smallest events can use a hierarchy -- sub-autocrats, senior staff, or heads of departments (call them what you like), each of whom is in charge of part of making the event happen. Common sub-autocrat jobs include Head Cook, Head of Set-up, and Head of Clean-up. If you need such officers, appoint them, come to an agreement with them as to what their jobs entail, and let them implement the details; don't micro-manage them, but do touch base regularly, to check for progress, readiness, and any problems that might have arisen.
Another sub-autocrat job to consider having is an Activities Coordinator -- someone who checks that every planned activity has an assigned location and all the resources it needs to run properly.
If you're planning a complex event, take enough time beforehand to organize it sensibly. Don't try to do everything at the last moment; instead, work out in advance a plan with steps to be accomplished over time, and try to stick to that schedule. For an event of this nature, it can help to hold periodic meetings with your senior staff to make sure everyone is coordinating.
Try to arrange that during the event, you have no responsibilities other than as autocrat. If you've made good arrangements in advance, you will then be able to spend the day simply wandering from one part of the event to another, checking on how things are going, and dealing with the unexpected if it occurs.
Most events have some point or another at which unskilled labor would be useful -- e.g. to move from daytime to feast set-up, or to finish cleaning up the kitchen. These are prime times to make announcements asking for help, if you don't already have enough people committed to doing the work. Remember that some of your attendees probably weren't sure they'd be able to get to your event, so they didn't volunteer in advance to provide assistance; many such people, having managed to attend your event after all, would like to help somehow, and asking publicly for help will give them that opportunity.
[As of 2005] In recent years, Carolingian events have tended to cluster, with several spaced closely together and then long periods with none. This arrangement tends to wear people out. When you propose your event, consider whether it has to occur during the time period that you suggest -- could it be moved 2 months, or 4 months, without damaging the theme?
Before your event, set up a schedule of activities that will occur there. Publish that schedule. Remember that as wonderful as your event is planned to be, some people will only be able to attend for part of the time; make it easy for them to pick the period including the activities they especially prefer.
Leave time to spare. Don't schedule activities for every minute of your event; people will want some time to just hang around together. Leave time for internal reset (e.g. if the feast follows a play in the same room, leave time for that room to be rearranged from chairs facing a stage to chairs around tables). And leave time for accidents -- a few 15 or 20-minute periods included in your schedule can serve as buffers to expand into when earlier activities run on beyond their expected lengths, without forcing your schedule completely out of whack.
Once your schedule is published, try to stick to it. Most especially, don't hold activities before they are scheduled to occur. If you do, people may arrive at your event expecting to be just in time for their preferred activity, and will be very disappointed to learn it's already over.
As soon as you have a site committed for a date for your event, use the "Add a New Event" form on the East Kingdom website to submit that information to the kingdom's event calendar. DO NOT WAIT until you have the full set of event information; waiting may cause other nearby SCA groups to think that that date has no conflicts and therefore would be good for their events. Instead, announce your date as soon as possible, and then go back afterwards to finish the event announcement.
About event start times: Some people will appear at the earliest time you publicly announce for your event, even if that time is supposed to be the beginning of set-up and you won't be ready for general attendees yet. Therefore, include in your announcement the time that attendees will be allowed in, and privately tell your set-up staff the earlier time for them to show up.
Make sure road signs ("This way to SCA event") are posted by the time that the site is supposed to officially open. Delegate this task to someone who can get up early, or who can maybe even set up the signs the night before. Remember to arrange for someone to pick up the signs after the event. Also, be aware that some towns prohibit the posting of such signs; the event site staff may be able to tell you whether their town works this way, or you can ask at the town hall.
You may know the way to the event blindfolded, but most other people won't. Well before the event (at least a month and a half beforehand, to get the information into the event month's issue of "Pikestaff"), write up a set of travel directions. Assume that people have some access to road maps, but include directions from major routes, mileage between turns, street names, and easily seen landmarks; if there's any chance people will arrive after dark, go out and check whether the landmarks can be seen at night. Then hand the directions to someone else to test, before you publish them; you may find that you missed something obvious, because you're so used to it.
Make sure your directions include not only where (and where not) to park, but also where people may stop to drop off riders or gear near the gate, if the parking is at all distant.
The more information you make available to attendees, the more fun they'll have. Create a map of the site -- even if it's small and simple -- with useful locations like bathrooms and changing rooms noted. Post a schedule of events, not just at the gate but also in changing rooms and other plausible locations; this is especially important if your event includes classes. If you have many classes, a grid of all classes, along with class summaries, organized by time/date, helps people choose which of several offerings to take part in. Include all this information in a event program sheet or booklet which is handed to attendees at the gate. Consider setting up a website dedicated to your event including this information, and mention that website in your event announcement; many people will check such a website ahead of time.
Don't surprise people. If activities at your event require advance preparation or signup, or if you're planning to do something in a different manner from how it's usually done, let them know ahead of time; including this information in the event announcement is ideal.
Don't ever rely on your memory about what happens with the money involved in your event. Write down everything immediately, and keep all receipts safely until you turn them in with your financial report. If possible, keep a special sheet of paper or notebook at the gate, and note there any refunds made, cash taken out of the cashbox for last-minutes supplies, etc.
The SCA, Inc. presently requires that if a site fee is charged for an event, all adult attendees who are not paid members of the SCA, Inc. must be charged an extra $5 Non-Member Surcharge. Many people feel the NMS is an unwarranted burden on people who are active in the SCA but aren't paid members, that it's fiscally unnecessary to the SCA corporation, and thus is morally repugnant. Don't assume that you must charge a site fee and thus must invoke the NMS; Carolingia has a pretty good record of free events (those without set site fees) turning a modest profit through donations. Discuss this with the Seneschal and the Chancellor of the Exchequer before deciding what to do about it.
Don't sit on reservation checks; your event attendees are waiting for them to be deposited. Some autocrats prefer to hold checks until the event actually occurs -- so that refunds can be made to people who reserved but didn't come by simply returning their checks to them -- but other than that, turn checks over to the Chancellor of the Exchequer as soon as possible.
Your financial report on the event must be finished within one month after the event ends; your general event report is due at the second Great Council meeting after your event. You may be exhausted by the end of your event, and you may have backlogs in other activities to catch up with, but don't let them cause you to put off compiling your financial report. The sooner you deal with the figures, the better you'll remember how everything worked, and the easier it will be to figure out problems.
Take notes not only about your chosen site -- its layout, restrictions, etc. -- but also about any other site you seriously consider. Carolingia has an online Site Book in the Members-only section of its website; this replaces a succession of notebooks about various sites (each of which got lost), but doesn't yet include a great deal of data. Use your notes to create site reports in this database for any new sites you look at, and to update any relevant site reports that already exist. This will allow future autocrats to have an easier time finding suitable sites for their events.
Can you use the dumpsters or other on-site trash disposal facilities? Remember to check with the site before assuming that you can.
Try to arrange for a buffer zone between the outside, modern world and the part of the site where the event occurs. This is especially important if your event is the sort in which the entire event tries to conform to a single point in the SCA period -- e.g., an inn in Calais in 1593. If you can arrange to have the gate and the changing rooms on one side of a dividing line and the actual event on the other, attendees will be better able to focus on staying in persona.
Are there enough seats for your expected attendance, in the various places where people are likely to want to sit? If not, announce in advance that people should bring chairs. Most people can arrange to do so, and will be much happier if they don't have to perch awkwardly or even stand up, when with a little warning they could have sat comfortably.
Tell people ahead of time what kinds of meals -- if any -- will be available at your event. If people expect a dayboard but there is none, they'll be cranky; if you announce that no dayboard will be available, they'll know to bring their own lunches.
A filling feast with one course is better than a feast that drags on through course and gap after course and gap with no end in sight. More courses and more dishes do not necessarily mean a better feast; instead, they may induce feasters to fill up on the early courses and then have no room for the later ones. Also, a complex feast can take longer to start being served than a simple one -- which means the feasters get hungry waiting around for any food at all to arrive. And a long feast is simply tiring and after a while boring; keep the feast length within bounds and have some other activity for people to move on to afterwards.
Don't serve too much food -- either portions too large or too many dishes. The SCA exists in the modern world, and we don't have beggars at the door who will accept our food scraps as largesse. You can try to give untouched food away to food pantries and such, but that takes a lot of pre-arrangement. Rather, work with your cook to arrive at a menu that will fill people up without making them feel they're going to burst, and that won't leave lots of extra, uneaten food wasted. Don't feel that you have to make a large feast so that people will have the option of signing up for the feast at the event. Instead, announce a cut-off date for reserving for the feast -- a week ahead is usually considered adequate -- and have your cook make enough food for only a few more people than have made reservations by that deadline.
Even with careful menu planning, you will probably have a modest amount of leftovers. Figure out ahead of time what to do with these -- will you, or the kitchen staff, take them home yourselves? Will they be offered to attendees free? Will they be sold in some manner? Have zip-lock bags or other suitable containers available in which to carry the leftovers away.
It's all very well to have a feast cooked, but you also need to arrange to have the food transported from the kitchen to the feasters. If there is food served, someone needs to act as Head Server, and that person should be chosen before the event. The Head Cook usually does not arrange for serving -- check with him/her rather than making a rash assumption.
If the food is presented as a buffet, someone has to get the food from the kitchen to the buffet tables, spread it out attractively, replenish it as the meal proceeds, and clean up the tables afterwards. If the serving theory is for each table to appoint one of its feasters as its server, a Head Server is still needed to keep the serving organized. If a special corps of servers will be used, the Head Server must recruit them ahead of time. In all cases, the Head Server must coordinate with the cooks about who will put the food on platters and garnish it, what dishes are being served in what order, when pauses are planned between courses, and how to handle unexpected pauses when cooking emergencies occur. If entertainment is planned to occur during the feast, the Head Server should help coordinate when that happens, so that people don't get hungry and food doesn't get cold while waiting for some entertainer to finish.
An alternative to serving finger foods on a buffet is to have roving servers carry them around on trays.
If the feast is outdoors, or in a separate building from the kitchen, make sure that the way between them is sufficiently lit to permit the servers to carry the food without tripping.
If you use the baronial tablecloths, remember that you are responsible for having them washed before they're returned to the Steward.
Table assignments: Some autocrats like to post a diagram of how the feast hall will be arranged, and have feasters sign up ahead of time for where they will sit. If you choose to do this, you must know ahead of time how the tables will be arranged (don't make assumptions about how the tables will fit together or how much room people's chairs will need, try it out in an advance site visit), have an accurate diagram drawn before the event, have that diagram posted somewhere prominent -- like the event gate -- by the time the site officially opens, remind people throughout the event to sign up, and then during feast set-up move the diagram to the feast hall for people to consult. All this may be much more work than simply letting people figure out where to sit after the feast tables have been set up.
Whether to distribute commemorative tokens for your event is a matter of taste, resources, and time. Some people love getting these little doodads and keep a collection which reminds them of the events they have attended. Other people think they're useless and a waste of time and effort on the part of the event staff. I lean toward the latter opinion. There are very few events -- the Pennsic War and the Marketplace at Birka are the ones I'm familiar with -- at which event tokens are actually used to check whether people have paid the site fee and thus should be allowed to re-enter the site. I have heard of a single event at which tokens were checked to determine whether people had paid for the feast. If tokens won't serve these or similar functions, I would prefer that the event staff instead put their energy into creating a useful program booklet, or decorating the site.
You, as autocrat, are the nearly final authority on what happens at your event. If the Baronial Seneschal decides that your event is causing actual danger or bringing the SCA into disrepute, s/he can remove you and either appoint someone else to take over for you or cancel the event -- but that's about the only control on your authority, beyond modern law and SCA corporate and East Kingdom regulations concerning events. You can, and in many cases should, ask baronial officers, kingdom officers, the royalty, etc. for advice concerning how to arrange parts of your event that will affect them -- but you don't have to take their advice if you think it will make your event worse. It's desirable to cooperate with such people if you can, but if you can't, don't be afraid to stand your ground (politely, of course), and explain that you can't do things they way they would like. Your duty as autocrat is not to make these specific people happy, but to run a fun event overall.
Wear comfortable clothing, but something that looks reasonably nice, so that when you make public announcements you have an elegant presence. If there's any kind of court or public ceremony, you may well be expected to say something to the populace, even just thanking them for attending.