43. There isn’t more money for larp organisers just because you pay more

Larps come in many forms and sizes. Some are short affairs lasting a few hours. Some go on for almost a week. Some cost little money, while the most expensive (that I know of) cost around 500€ or so. But just because something costs more money doesn’t mean the organisers have more money to play around with. And that’s a neglected fact.

There are several Danish fantasy larp campaigns that run once a month and cost around 7€ to participate in. Some have 30 players, while some have 200+ players. Obviously, the bigger larps have more money to spend, but what is it spent on?

  • Very little is usually spent on location, since most Danish larp campaigns take place in government owned forests, that are free to use.
  • Food is rarely included (though it happens), so that’s not a cost either.
  • One-day events don’t really require toilet facilities, so there’s no money spent on what comes out of people.

However, they of course use money on a lot of things. Props for plotlines, costumes for NPC characters, money for logistics and administration (if you use a computer for check-in, it’s nice if that computer is paid for, etc.), marketing, etc. But the point is that the HARD costs — the unavoidable ones — are pretty low. This gives the organisers of this kind of larp campaign a lot of freedom on how to spend their (sometimes very small) budgets.

There may not be a lot of money here, but there’s a lot of freedom.

I’ve run a ton of different larps, and some of those I helped run for a long time, were weekend-length larps with a price tag of roughly 30–50€. Some of these took place at schools, some in outdoor locations, but most followed the same formula; we fed the players and gave them a place to shit, and sometimes we also provided them with a place to sleep.

The costs for those larps often went into:

  • Food! A big part of the cost was the food, that people ate.
  • Sleeping/Shitting. Rented toilets, paying for schools and having people sleeping in classrooms, or such like. Weekends require these things.

Apart from that, we of course used money on costumes, SFX, props, administration, transport, etc. Often a lot more than for the one-day campaigns, because we used more stuff. When I was part of the crew that ran the one-day campaign Nordlenets Saga (back in 2002–2003), all I had to bring each game was my own costume, weapon and armour. When we did weekend-length larps in the DEF era (’95 -’00) we carted large amounts of propping, costuming and random loot to the location via cars.

The overall effect here is “More money, less freedom”.

These days, I mainly do big, international larps known as “blockbuster larps”. College of Wizardry, Fairweather Manor, Convention of Thorns, etc. For these, we charge a lot more money (~400–500€), but we also use the money on some expensive stuff:

  • Castles aren’t cheap to rent, even in Poland! Food for 150+ people also costs money.
  • Props, costumes, etc. are generally of a high leve, and we spend a lot here. The student handbooks for Czocha are 560 pages of leather-bound madness, and that’s not free.
  • Our transport costs are excessive. Several of our team fly from different countries to be there, we have busses and vans, and everything is BIG. It’s not the logistics nightmare that German megalarps must be, but it’s still a lot of stuff that needs to be moved around.
  • We even spend a little money on promotion. We have a full-time documentation crew, that works full time on larp videos and pictures. Plus, we hire freelancers, buy a little advertising from time to time, and spend time talking with the press, running social media accounts, etc.
  • Salaries. Since we’re not 100% volunteer-based, but have a core crew that gets paid to do larps, that money comes from our budget. And while it’s not a lot, paid hours quickly add up.

In general, we have a lot more money to play around with than most larp organisers do. However, we also have some pretty ridiculous costs, and some of our costs aren’t linked to the specific larp. Salaries need to be paid whether there’s a larp or not, for instance, and that’s tricky. In the end, we have little money to play around with, but a lot to use — if that makes sense.

Big expenses mean a big production. But more freedom? I’m actually not sure, since many of our expenses are already locked down.

The weirdest larp budget I ever put together was for the larp Vaterland (2009). We had around 100 players, who paid about 140€ each, and we also got some support money from the local government near the larp location, since we brought interesting culture to the area. I think our total budget was around 18.000€ or so, which was great, since it was a plug-and-play larp, where participants received full costume.

The ironic part was that one of the things most participants felt ok with paying for — the costumes — were things that cost us very little, since the organisation already had them from earlier. While the things that DID cost us money were invisible expenses (like the summerhouse that housed all our NPCs and organisers, which was 7 km from the game location).

In the end, we ended up throwing money at a lot of things, but many of them weren’t really apparent to the players, who mostly saw expensive-seeming things that didn’t cost us directly.

But invisible costs are one thing. Another factor is the strange, unspoken rules on what’s ok to charge money for, and what’s not. Because some things are more “legitimate” than others.

  • Location and food costs are ALWAYS ok to charge money for. If you don’t have open budgets, you can charge extra for them, if they’re nice.
  • Practical stuff is also considered almost universally ok. Toilet paper, cleaning supplies (or actual cleaning staff), wood for building, etc.
  • Transport for organisers/team is something I’ve rarely gotten crap for spending money on. Everyone seems to get that it’s a cost.
  • Organiser/team meetings is harder, but not impossible. A lot of people will understand that the pizza and beer that appear on the project bookkeeping sheets is well spent. Some won’t.
  • Presentation is a tricky one. Most larpers will respect it if you’ve paid a web designer, a graphics artist or a layouter to do work for you, but if you have the skills yourself and charge money for them, then there can be hell to pay.
  • Propmaking works the same way. Few people will resent you as an organiser if you used 4.000€ on a dragon skull (which is the going rate, I’ve heard). If you took 4.000€ from the budget to pay yourself and your team, some of the same people will be cry out for your blood.
  • Writing is an interesting thing in this context. Paying people to write characters has usually been well-received, but paying to write web site texts? That’s different, in a lot of people’s minds.
  • Game Design. Let’s not get into a fight about what it means. Let me just make it clear that it’s crazily undervalued by most larpers, and if you say “Yeah, I got 4.000€ from this project as a game designer” most of them will consider you a villain of ill repute. And a rich bastard, as well.
  • Project Management is a skill that’s worth a lot in the real world, but when you’re a larp organiser, it feels like dirty laundry you’re trying to throw at someone. Even more than designing larps, organising a team that does it, is an unpaid task. Of course you can pay someone to do it, but since it doesn’t have a “product” (unlike writing, propmaking, etc), there’ll be a lot of people who won’t like it.
  • Weird stuff is easy. If no one understands what it is, it’s probably VERY expensive. Insurance (especially in the US). Fire safety personnel. Accounting. EXPENSIVE! ;-)

The tricky thing isn’t that things cost money, and that it’s sometimes unclear what costs and what doesn’t. No, the tricky thing is much more insidious. The REALLY tricky thing is that if you raise the quality of one thing (never mind the cost) people expect the quality of other things to rise as well. And if you raise the price, people expect EVERYTHING to be better.

So a 100€ larp that use 50€ on location and food has 50€ left over.

A 400€ larp that uses 350€ on location and food also has 50€ left over.

But since the 400€ larp is four times as expensive, a lot of players will expect “four times better” when it comes to all the non-food and non-location costs. They’ll expect a better web site, better documentation, better costumes, better game design, better written material, better game mechanics, and so on and so forth. And there’s still just 50€/player to make all that happen for.

And Cthulhu forbid if anyone launched a 1.000€ larp with a 950€ location/food expense. Then most players would probably expect a full-time costumer service team, handsewn costumes delivered to spec and Johnny Depp to conduct the workshops. ;-)

And THAT’s where it really gets nasty.

That’s the mentality we have to change, if we want real sustainability.

Director at The College of Extraordinary Experiences, Coach at McKinsey & Founding Partner at The Global Institute For Thought Leadership. Author of 31 books.

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