2020

Quick look back at 2019:

Not quite as much as we wanted – would have liked to do more with Hannigans, but time got away from us.

This year, more Crucible, more Hannigans, and I want to get Pentagram back into more serious development, having had some more tech ideas.

While I’m here, and following on from my posts of mid-2019, this write up of LARP costs for a high end LARP is very interesting, and makes the clear point that viewed on a cost-per-hour basis, LARP is very, very cheap, and probably undercharging.

LARP Economics: Real Event Costs

After writing that wrap up of the Hannigan’s costs, I thought we might talk about the elephant in this particular room. As I laid them out, the various costs for Hannigan’s ran to a total of £712.45.

But what none of these costs mention is the organiser time. So let’s make a token stab at that, shall we? Obviously, this is self-interested, and maybe even a little self-praising, but I really am tired of listening to people express scepticism of LARP prices that clearly don’t factor that in, like having the kind of fun that relies so heavily on other people’s labour being given away for free was a reasonable thing to expect. Sometimes, it’s couched as “I can’t afford more than that”, and I sympathise with that, but equally often it’s couched as “but what about the other costs of participation” as if the fact that the players want to spend extra money on costume and what have you, also obliges the organisers and crew to throw in their time for free.

(And sure, the organisers are probably having fun doing it too, but still: we pay writers and musicians and all other creative workers, even though they’re having fun, too. Badly, maybe, but we don’t actively resist the idea that they should be paid something for their time and effort, like we seem to in LARP.)

Still let’s try and keep our costs down. My day rate for tech work is higher than average (on grounds of experience), and honestly, I have no idea what my colleague in event running would charge out as an event organiser, but she’s bloody good and definitely deserves more than market rate. Still, for the purposes of this thought-experiment, we’ll assume UK average day rates (even though we live in London, and should charge out at London rates) for coding and event organising as our baseline.

So, coding day rate: £370. Event organising day rate is a bit harder to find, but I can find a few roles offering £250 per day which feels reasonable. Let’s factor those into our costs, shall we? What does that do to our costs?

Coding: the total time spent on the Badgers and Jam tech stack so far runs to about 20 days. Let’s allocate just 10% of that to this event, shall we? (Because it can and will be used for other events.) . So that’s another £740.

Event organising: This covers the production of any and all documents, venue wrangling, planning meetings, event runtime, post event admin etc etc. And again, let’s be generous here. This was a second run of the same event, so we’ll only factor down the time that was specifically for this event. Across two people, I would estimate there were 4 person-days of work here, in planning and writing and wrangling. (If you were to factor in the costs of planning and document production from the previous iteration, I would expect that to be about 8-9 days total, but since it was designed to be multi-run, I think it’s fair to skip them). So that’s 4 days, or another £1000.

That brings our running total for price to £1000+£740+£712.45=£2,452.45. 31 tickets makes that £79.12 a ticket to break even.

That all seems wildly expensive, though. 80 quid per ticket for a 6 hour game is a lot of money.

How about, then we try the experiment of paying the organisers just London Living Wage (£10.55 per hour at time of writing) for their time outside of the game, but we also add the same pay rate for the crew, and 6 hours each for the crew.

That mean the organiser time runs to: £506.40.
And crew time runs to: £316.50
For a total of: £822.90. Let’s be generous and round that up to £823.

So our with our initial £712.45, that’s a total event cost of £1535.45 at these lower rates, putting break-even on ticket price at just shy of £50 per ticket.

You know what? 6 hours of theatre in London would probably run you that. While I don’t think we could actually successfully charge that for a 6 hour game at the moment, I don’t think it’s a bad or unfair price to work slowly towards. (Secret Cinema, as a reasonably mass-market model roughly analogous to LARP charge significantly more, for a much less personal, and slightly shorter experience. Other live events companies I’ve worked with certainly charge in that ballpark per-hour.)

And for what it’s worth: for all LARP has other factors – it’s participatory, players have their own kit and props costs etc, I think that argument is offset by the fact that what I’ve outlined is at-cost (at-low-cost) numbers, not profit-making. It’s theoretically just enough to ensure that organisers and crew can live like normal humans while they facilitate the LARP happening.

It also occurs to me that there’s another imperfect-but-close analogy that might apply, too – the live music experience. The audience is a key part of that, and many people wouldn’t go if it wasn’t, because it’d be the 99% same as staying home and listening to the record at an uncomfortably loud volume. What we pay for in a live gig experience is unquestionably partly the crowd/communal feeling. No-one suggests that their gig tickets should be cheaper because the audience might have to factor in travel or accommodation, or buying merchandise, or because the gig wouldn’t be the same without the audience, do they?

Yes, this post is a bit self aggrandising. But at the same time: I love running LARP. I do an OK job of it, I think. I’d love to do more of it (and I’d love other event runners to be able to do more of it), so I could get better at it. But I literally cannot afford to do more than a certain amount, because I am obligated to do it for free, and I don’t imagine I’m alone in that. The only way I can see to change that is for LARPers to start having this conversation about how much our hobby really costs.

LARP Economics: Event Costs

I’ve seen a couple of people talk about running their first event recently, and ask for feedback about ticket prices. As much as I appreciate that different people can afford different things, and everyone has their own limits, I was horrified to see that when some of those people talked about running a weekend long event for 40-50 people, with sub-£100 ticket prices, people responded saying “oh, I’m not sure about those costs, that would make it a maybe for me”. While I do 100% sympathise with those who are budget constrained, and I’m not suggesting they’re talking about anything that their own budgets, I am a little tired of of watching LARP runners slash their budgets to the bone, because it’s a super risky thing for them to do, and I don’t think it helps the hobby.

Having just done run #2 of Hannigan’s: Graduation Night, I thought it might be interesting to break down how that worked out for us, in case anyone else is thinking of similar. At the outset, I’m going to say: this is one of the simplest LARP events it is possible to run. Non-combat, with small number of players in one room for 6-8 hours, timed so people could eat before and after, and not need to eat during, with a cash bar as “catering”. We were/are a cheap-and-easy event by design. One room, in an already-insured venue. A doddle compared to a weekend in a field or other more complex venue.

Oh, and before getting into this: we still lost money. Do not make our mistakes.

So, income: we sold 31 tickets at £20 quid each, for a budget of £620.

Expenses:

  • Venue £500.
  • Props: £70
  • Tech budget: £20
  • Crew: £50
  • Payment processing fees/refund costs etc: £72.45

Net result: £92.45 loss.

So, let’s break those down, and explain what went wrong:

Venue
Our initial venue budget was £400. Only after quite a few tickets had been bought did the venue contact us to tell us they’d misread our times (we double-checked, they were definitely correct in the emails we’d sent) and they wanted rather more money – more than we could have afforded. After the initial panic, we eventually were able to keep them to just a £100 price hike, in exchange for less run time than we wanted. We compressed things a bit to make them fit, resulting in a shorter event than we might have wanted, but I don’t think it suffered overly.
Lessons Learned: Honestly, not sure. I’d like to say “have your costs fully locked before you put tickets on sale”, but this time round, we thought we did. I suppose “factor in a 20% contingency to your pricing” would have done the job, but again, we actually thought we had a (small) contingency fund factored in.

Props
There’s nothing really controversial here. Except this: our real costs there are about £60 more. We have £40 quid set down against a future event, for some props we had custom made that we intend to re-use, and we re-used about £20 quid’s worth of stuff we had from a previous event. If this was 100% stand alone, costs would have been higher. And our props were cheap – no major creature budget costume or makeup costs.

Crew
Badgers and Jam pays the crew (not the 2 game runners, just the 5 NPC crew) – there’s a whole other blog post in “Paying the crew and LARP Economics”, so I’ll leave that there for now. It’s a token honorarium at the moment, because if we went with what we’d like to do, and paid London Living Wage, then our costs for the event would have more or less doubled, so we’re just doing that for now. Still, this should have been rather higher, because the crew catering ran to “some dried fruit and nuts in the crew area for emergency snacking”, and that’s not great.
Lessons learned: factor in higher crew costs to allow for better crew catering as well as the honorarium.

Tech Budget
Another uncontroversial one. Factored in and ran to-budget for the event.

Payment Processing Fees
Another slightly unusual one. Badgers and Jam have a mostly-functional event booking system that will let people use their credit/debit cards to pay online, and that we can issue refunds through and so on.

There’s a bunch of reasons for this, chief among which is that we want to ensure that our players are confident of their legal protections and consumer rights. Bank transfers (of the sort most LARP systems seem to prefer) and even Paypal (who are not a bank, and not regulated as such) remove a lot of those – it’s basically impossible for a consumer who has made a bank transfer to claim that money back if they don’t get what they paid for. But if we were to vanish with the money, or go suddenly bust and fail to put the event on, people who had bought tickets from us would have the benefit of fraud protection.

However, it means we are charged fees to process the payments, and those fees are still taken even if we refund the payment. So we lose a percentage of every ticket, and we lose more than double on refunds.
Lessons Learned: These fees run to about 50% more than we expected. We’ll factor that in next time.

Overall: If we hadn’t had the venue problem, we’d have just broken even. Not terrible. I think next time, assuming everything else remained exactly the same, unless we can 100% lock in a cheaper venue before running, (and probably even if we could) we’d want to add £5 to the ticket costs – I don’t think there’s a big psychological purchase difference between £20 and £25 quid, and if nothing else went wrong, it would even give us a (small) crew catering budget.

2019: Rules

Most of five years back, I wrote a post about rules, and what I thought they were for. I think I broadly stand by a lot of that, but I’m currently deep in 1st-draft rules-writing mode for Crucible, and a friend gently mocked me on Farcebook the other day, in a post contrasting the fact that I was spending the afternoon writing LARP rules, while another group of friends were designing backstory for the same game, and sort of going “rules? *shrug* . Sure, if we have to, I guess…”. This was and is funny to us all.

And if I had a less-obessessive brain, that’d be the end of it. But in my head, I started interrogating the basis for the joke, which is (broadly) the common idea in LARP circles that “rules based play” and “feelings/story based play” are opposing styles. To be clear: I don’t think my mate believes this, any more than I think that my friends who were doing character design don’t care about the rules I’m writing – it was a joke, and I took it that way. But the stereotypes exist and so my brain took me somewhere else, because I have a Stupid Brain. And it left me wanting to write about why I’m doing this mad thing, and what I think rules are for again.

Most importantly: Rules are for fun. They exist to generate fun game. Different game systems and different gaming groups need them to different extents, but the goal of them is to provide fun. In a perfect world, it should be as fun and rewarding to use the rules as it is to drop to one’s knees weeping over the IC corpse of a friend. That’s a tall order, I admit, but it still ought to be a game-enhancing experience to use them.

Rules exist to create feelings. I start most of my game design by answering the question “how do I want the people playing this game to feel?”. And then I make sure that my rules speak to that, as often as possible.

Rules exist to define the boundaries of the possible play. In a LARP system without mechanics for violence, it is not possible for a character to solve their problems by fighting another character. It’s one of the things I love most about the system for Hannigans: Graduation night. The rules will let the characters do the most absurd, cinematic, over the top, reality warping things, but they cannot seriously physically harm one another – because to do so would be break the university-life part of out setting. (I don’t know about you, but I don’t remember physical violence beyond one or two minor fistfights being a part of my student days.)

But, and I think this part is interesting: you can’t define that boundary as easily in a truly free-form rules-less setting. Well, of course you can, but the minute you have, you’ve added rules to your play, and it’s literally just a difference in scale. And if someone is saying “well, when we say ‘we don’t like rules’, we just mean we don’t like to deal with maths because that isn’t fun for us”, then that just means they need a different rules system with less numbers. And that’s OK.

But often the counterpoint to “we don’t like maths rules” is often the idea that they’re OK with “social” rules. And sometimes those are explicit – “At this free-form, we all agree that we won’t have our characters murder one another, because that’s not what this game is about” is a very reasonable explicit rule, but sometimes, there are implicit assumptions about play styles that are, effectively, unwritten rules.

“I don’t like gaming with X because they don’t enjoying playing to lose” or “Y hogs the spotlight”. And those might be very fair critiques of X and Y but still – if it’s implicit in the social contract surrounding the game playing to lose (or not spotlight-hogging) is an important part of everyone having fun at the game, then it’s lazy game design not to acknowledge it as a rule, explain where the boundaries for it are, and to make it equally clear to everyone what the group’s expectations of play are. And, if you’re smart enough, you find a way to design rules that work to ensure that if they’re followed, the kind of fun everyone is after follows naturally.

What rules are not for (in my view), and the thing that gives rise to this rules-based-fun vs story-based-fun idea, is to be a mastery challenge in and of themselves. There’s a perception that complicated rules means that the maths nerds and rules lawyers will be able to “master” them, and thereby thwart the play of the less rules-interested. And it’s not without some truth – we’ve all been to games where the sucking charisma void in the room says something like “I have charm 5 and status ‘Really Great’ so you’ve got to behave as if you admire me now”, and it can break the sense of the “reality” of the game that some gamers want.

But all those problems with social rules vs maths rules and system mastery vs immersive play don’t indicate a problem with the basic concept of rules, they just indicate mismatches between a styles of play and sets of rules. I think it’s disingenuous for anyone to say that they don’t like rules, or that rules don’t matter. Everyone likes different kinds of rules, just like everyone likes different kinds of stories. And they matter, because the shape the stories we tell, and the feelings those generate. And, for my money, if they’re well designed, they take an active part in that shaping – they take players to places they might not go themselves, and support them in going there.

To put a final stake in the heart of the idea that “rules based play” and “feelings based play” are opposed: on Saturday, I took delivery of Star Crossed – literally a set of rules for a game about feelings. I recommend it to you all.

And on that note, I return to my ongoing efforts to develop a rules-set that works for Vampire the Requiem in LARP that provides “fun” and “feelings” with a minimum of “maths” and ensures the game still feels like Vampire: the Requiem. About which more another time.

2019 Games

Yeah, we went awfully quiet here, didn’t we? 2018 was a busy year, or something. So, yes, new LARPs to be run in 2019.

  • Hannigan’s Academy: Graduation Night – A re-run of our 2017 game, to serve a prologue to more games in this series. May.
  • Hannigan’s Academy: Untitled Halloween Special – A one-off horror LARP, set in the Hannigan’s Universe. October/November time.
  • Crucible – A monthly Vampire LARP, set on a council estate in London. Starts late spring/early summer.

At the moment, work is mostly going into the coding and writing required to support these various games. Websites, booking, and more specific dates in due course.

Week #4

This week:

  • Blog post about the basic design principles of Pentagram
  • Edits on the E&D policy, need to get it out for a second feedback round before setting it in stone.
  • More work on the Leviathan ticketing system it’s now possibly to buy tickets for multiple people, and then assign them to others, by email address. Appropriate emails are sent as a result.
  • Initial investigations into 3D printing. Yes, this translates as “Alasdair bought and played with a new toy, without much success”, but the reason to buy this toy was make widgets for LARP, so it counts.

It’d be really good to get a UI/UX designer involved with codename Leviathan, because right now, it’s a terrible bodge job.

Pentagram: Design In Public #1

Pentagram is currently planned to be the first serial-form LARP designed from the ground up as a Badgers and Jam game, and I’m hoping a certain amount of thinking in public will be useful both in designing the game, and to players when deciding if they want to play. I’m not going to put massive amount of setting or plot information into these posts at the momement, but rather use them to articulate thoughts on the design-space of the LARP.

A brief summary of the current plans, then. Pentagram is intended to run every other month for a game size of between 40 and 60 people, for 8 hours, something like 2-10pm, in a venue TBD. The setting is a Lovecraftian post-apocalypse, but the game is not intended to be a horror game.

The fact that we’re still venue TBD (and will likely be so for a while yet, there’s a lot of basic building blocks to put in place before we’re ready to do that – I don’t want to book and commit to dates until more of the key prep is done) places limits on the design thinking that can be done, but at the same time, there’s stuff than should be done before the space is booked, so that the space can be booked that fits most of the goals.

So, questions that need to be answered. I haven’t expressly talked about most of these with my co-designers yet, but I will be doing that at our next meeting, and right now, I just want to feel out my answers to them by writing.

  • What feeling do we want most players to have after an average session?
  • What is the theme of the game?
  • What style of game is this intended to be?
Feeling

That first question is the most important – creating a LARP experience is about creating feelings in people. Obviously, not everyone is going to come away feeling the same after every event, and every event should feel different, but I should be able to identify a default, a baseline, as an aim.

“Tired-but-accomplished” seems like a fair answer. I want people to feel like they’ve done something challenging, something that had a cost, and I want them to feel, on some level, good about what they’ve done. “Tired” might mean physically, mentally or emotionally, and “accomplishment” will vary from person to person, but I want people to feel like they’ve used up resources to do a thing they wanted or needed to do. (Those feelings might be IC or OOC, but that’s the general final emotional tone Pentagram is aiming at.)

I think what excites me most about having that answer is the focus is provides. Despite honestly never having consciously considered it before now, there are obviously loads of reasons why the setting and design we’ve done so far will play well into that – it’s what we’ve been designing towards without really articulating it like that. Having done that now, it’ll help provide focus to the rest of the design.

Theme

This one, I have considered and talked about. The key theme is about individuals as part of wider societies. Not Individial vs. Society. “Part of” is the key phrase. I’ll want us to come up with a minor theme or two as well, but the key one needs to be reflected across the whole design.

Style

I am expressly aiming to build a hybrid game here. I want an element of the scale of fest games, in that they can facilitate multiple different modes of play coupled with the social/emotional focus of “parlour” games, and some of the formal experiments of “nordic” larp. I would also like the moon to park itself atop this stick, if that’s not too much trouble.

One of the things I am keenest to try and do is investigate replicating the physical action elements of fest LARP (on a smaller scale) without a component of simulated violence.

It’s not that I don’t intend there to be violence, but I want to to be coded as something other than “problem solving”. The violent elements of most LARP tend to have a tone of “heroic action” (even if the people doing the acting are, by sane standards, bad guys) – that is, succeeding in violence is an act accomplishment. I do not like that message.

Armistice: Lessons Learned

If I had to rank the order of the Badgers and Jam games in terms of success, Armistice would come in second, I think. A long way from being faultless, but also in a lot of respects, the most ambitious game to date.

Uptime System

The system was designed as a halfway house between negotiated play and rules-based, that was outcomes based rather than actions based.

The outcomes based design idea clearly worked, but in hindsight, going harder for negotiated play would have worked better – most times the rules based elements were invoked lead to confusion, and the clear sense that things didn’t hang together correctly. The negotiated elements were new to most players in the system, but seemed to work well, and I think provide a base to work from. I’m keen to try a negotiation-within-boundaries system as a next attempt to to combine a rules-based and a negotiation-based approach.

The wide breadth of powers available within the system worked, for all many of them were never taken – it added to the desired sense that this was a system in which someone could play anything.

Downtime System

The economy didn’t work as hoped. The occasions it was disrupted were super-effective, but the overall idea the economy was trying to communicate didn’t connect. Next time, I’ll be more willing to make larger adjustments, sooner.

Narrative

This was something I found interesting – several players flagged that they never really knew “what the game was about”. I’ve always been able to describe it as “finding out what soldiers do when the war ends” or “soldiers in an uneasy peace at the end of a war”. But many players were looking for a more narrative answer than that, and the designed-in lack of one was less satisfying for that.

Another experiment was in having the PCs define the terms of the social contract by which the characters operated – the first sessions of the game were, effectively, them hammering out a peace treaty. The general consensus was that they did it too well, and hamstrung themselves when it came to generating conflict later. There’s a reason most systems impose a social code, and leave it full of holes for people to wrangle over.

NPC design was generally praised – they were found to be fun, dramatic, and engaging, without overpowering (except in the obviously designed ways), which was nice, although as with all things, it would not have hurt for me to be more explicit about what certain NPCs were “for” (in the sense that they were “for” anything). No-one had any strong objections to the fact that certain (clearly marked) NPCs operated on a different rules set (geared around the idea that they were group antagonists), as long as they felt those rules were clear.

I’m sure there was more, but this lot represents the macro-scale of my key takeaways of what went right and wrong, and if anyone who played has further feedback, I’d love to hear it.

Week #3

The week:

  • More work on the ticket booking system. LARP ticket booking is annoyingly complex when it comes with pre-event activity that multiple people may need to undertake.
  • Final wash-up from Armistice. Really need to get the notes from that written up.
  • Early conversations about some manufacturing for props for a LARP later in the year.
  • Scheduling for a few months more LARP. Looks like the first official Badgers and Jam game will be a run of The Great After Party in July.

Things may get a little spotty over the next couple of weeks, as I’m starting a new full-time job, and have a reasonable amount of freelance work to do as well, so Badgers and Jam time will be limited, and will probably continue to focus on the coding side of things.

Week #2

This week in Badgers and Jam

  • Wrote up the meeting notes from Pentagram planning session #3
  • Added massively improved user and game management tools to the company master system (now codenamed Leviathan).
  • Implemented some key notifications in Leviathan, and worked on the ticket purchase system.
  • Wrote up some company principles.
  • Blog post on unfocused thoughts on narrative as a system in itself.
  • Informal meeting on another LARP project, which is well-formed but without public-facing name, coming in November.