Wednesday, 31 May 2017

The Price of LARP

Periodically discussion of the cost of LARP comes up. Recently I've heard it mentioned in relation to new comers to the hobby being suprised at the cost of a ticket to a weekend fest event and in relation to an event with a £220 ticket. 

Often this surprise comes from people who are less familiar with event organisation and who may not be aware of what their ticket money is going on. It can also be confusing because LARP doesn't always run to the same "economy of scale" as many other things - that is, bigger doesn't always mean cheaper. 
Rather than talk about exactly what costs a LARP organiser may face I've approached it from another angle, looking at what I would expect as a player with different price LARPs. This reflects some of the outgoings and behind the scenes costs of organising the event but can be a little a little easier to grasp since we are dealing with the finished product. 
I haven't included things like the cost of water and electricity, websites or other advertising, or basic printing as that is often folded in to other areas of the game like venue hire or infrastructure unless otherwise specified. 

Keep in mind that very few things are zero cost. It might seem as if getting uniforms for your NPCs is zero cost if you already own them from a previous game, but they did have to be initially purchased and so isn't always comparable to somebody starting off without the same basics. The experienced LARPer or organiser might have a few things in storage that they can pull out to keep costs down but it is rare to have everything you need and inevitably, money is going to have to be spent.

The £0 game
LARP can be run for £0 ticket cost. All you need for LARP is a bit of a setting, some character, and some players willing to RP at one another. These LARPs usually aren’t advertised and are really games and ideas run between groups of friends. They are generally fairly informal and probably don’t run over night due to accommodation needs. You can run a £0 LARP if you use publically available land or run in your own home. Food is not provided. Costume, props are either not considered necessary either because the setting is modern/suited to the environment or because people are happy and able to just imagine. Alternatively you may expect players to provide their own costume and props or have a ready stock of costume and props available, but this supposes that money has been spent previously.

The £5 game
Many university LARPs run for £5 a go and may be what people are thinking of when they cite this low price point. It usually means that you are using a low cost venue (i.e. a student union room or free hire room of a pub) or are making use of public outdoor space such as a woodland or park. In the case of a university LARP the set dressing and props can vary between basic and “quite good actually” but props, costume and set dressing have usually accumulated over time rather than being bought specifically for an event with the exception of one or two items. The £5 ticket cost usually covers consumables like printed items and any small props or costume items. Usually food isn’t provided and these events usually only last a few hours at a time.  When not supported by an already existing university society set dressing and prop availability may be more limited.
You could also run at this cost if you wanted to run as for the £0 game but have people chip in for food, or to be able to pay for one or two special prop items.

The£10-20 game. 
These games usually run for around half a day. Most of the ticket cost is going toward either a suitable venue plus some props OR food for players plus some props. You may find overnight games on this budget but the facilities are likely to be pretty basic and it is likely to be self catering. They may be larger games with player numbers in the 35+ category. If only one of food or venue is provided I would expect to see slightly more complex set dressing and props or for the venue to be a little more tailored to the game setting.

Ornithocracy - photo by Tom Garnet. one day games and a setting that worked well with a more basic venue.

The £20 - £40 game.
Normally at this point production values are getting a little higher. You may get a hired venue and some catering, especially at the top end of this price bracket and you would likely start to see a few specially made or bought props for the event and some attempts at set dressing. Generally these are going to be one day events as many would struggle to hire a venue with sleeping accommodation (or tent pitches) and provide catering and props in  this price bracket, though it is possible. An overnight event is likely to be the more basic sort of scout camp or camping only. Events backed by existing societies may be able to provide a little more in this price range due to having a store of existing costume and props that can help fill in the gaps between more specific items. The food may be basic, but should be tasty, expect buffet style meals.

The £40 – £70 game 
This is quite a big category but once we are charging over £40 a ticket there starts to be a lot more options for variation available to us from what type of site or venue to how it looks and what is provided for the players. There is no one thing I would expect a game in this category to look like but there are certain thing I would hope for and I would want these or the absence made clear at the time of booking.
This price group is likely to be made up of overnight or weekend games. It becomes feasible to book a venue with some sort of overnight accommodation or camping space with this budget. Most likely this is going to be for the sole use of the game, though in actuality this doesn’t always pan out due to public rights of way or “misunderstandings” with the site owners about what exactly sole use entails. This allows for a much more involved type of game and people might start to talk about “immersion” more here. (Immersion is definitely possible at the lower price point but it becomes easier when you can be choosier about your sites.)

 For smaller events with fewer than 75 players, I would be expecting some sort of catering though, for a weekend, that is going to be tight and may only be basic, especially at the lower end of the budget. Some self catering options are likely to be available. I would expect that, even if the venue or site doesn’t look quite as you would expect for the in game world for there to be some attempt at set dressing and/or a good level of props and monster/NPC costume sufficient to create a particular feel. Exactly how the money is spent is going to vary a lot depending on genre and setting details. For example, you may just have to accept and “hand wave” the fact that all your high status regency characters sleep in bunk rooms and eat in a shared dining space at canteen style tables but that’s ok or explained by the plot because you also have an actual dragon NPC as well as some highly terrifying and realistic xenomorphs to deal with.

Lager games or “fest style” games may not provide catering for their players but they have to pay for a larger site to support the number of players, may be having to pay extra for a generator, water access and waste disposal or even having to hire in amenities such as toilet blocks. Fest style games usually have a larger infrastructure which grows alongside the number of players and a larger crew who will also need access to the same amenities as players. Many fest systems have also invested in large props, costume and weapons for NPCs/monsters and possibly some larger semi-permanent structures or marquee style tents, in order to help create the game world and also house the larger quantity of items that are needed to run the game.

You occasionally find one day events in this price category but they are usually more “high end and may make use of specialist or exclusive locations that are particularly suited to the setting as well as high quality props or NPC costume and catering.

Split Worlds Ball photo by Tom Garnet, a short game may cost more if a special venue is used.

The £70 to £100 game
These are often much like the games described above but for larger numbers of players; larger venues with sleeping for 75+ people are often more expensive and in shorter supply. In this category, you also find games which are looking for more specific venues – while you can and will see events in scout camps in this price bracket, you will also often see events being held in manor houses and castles. This allows for creating a richer game environment. You are likely to also see higher production value – that is a consistently higher level of set dressing, props and NPC costume. These are usually weekend long fully catered events and you may expect the catering to be more tailored to the occasion.

You may find camping or scout camp style venues in this price point but you are likely to find a higher number of players (thus requiring paying for a larger site plus extra costs for amenities and a larger crew) and/or a higher quality of props, set dressing or NPC costume.

£100-200 games. 
This is a big flexible category and it largely comes down to how good and setting appropriate are the props, venue, costume and dressing and how big is the player base. It is not unusual to start seeing smaller games here – with player numbers bellow 20. The ability to provide a quality setting, with suitable accommodation for a small number of players often pushes the individual ticket price up. It can actually be difficult to find a site for use that accommodates a small number of people and has communal indoor and or outdoor spaces available for sole use without paying larger amounts, or accepting that you will be paying for beds that are not filled.
Indoor sleeping and good or thematically appropriate catering is almost certain at these events and deviations from this are usually for IC reasons. In some cases players may expect to be issued with costume or individual prop items.

Incarceration, Photo by Oliver Facey. Sometimes an immersive setting doesn't mean OC comfort.

£200+ games
Quality is everything here and again we are usually, but not always talking about smaller numbers of players. Whether a large or small game you can expect a fairly high quality of set dressing, props and of course plot to match – though this would be relative for the type of game. For example a high-end fest game may still be camping but you may be camping in organiser provided setting suitable tents or you may expect a very well kitted out dedicated monster crew with their own setting appropriate vehicles. A smaller game may have comfortable sleeping or less luxurious but thematically appropriate accommodation that still meets players OC needs well.  Unique and customised venues may appear here too – a specifically built or refurbished battleship for example or a carefully reconstructed medieval guild hall with all the trappings.

Of course there is a lot of variability in all these categories and the specifics will vary with the game and what is suitable for the players and the setting. £100 may buy you a comfortable bunk in a pretty manor house or it may provide you with a rough pallet in a disused warehouse made to look like the interior of a space station. The cost of a LARP ticket is ultimately paying for three things: setting accuracy, player facilities, and catering. Player facilities can expand to include admin and support crew for larger games as well as food while setting accuracy is everything from the type of building and site to the costume NPCs wear.

the "GOD" tent at Empire photo by Paul Wilder. The bigger the event, the bigger the support crew needed
Budgeting any LARP is a case of balancing these three needs with the money available, the game you want to run and how attractive it all is to your players.  Of course a game is nothing without good plot and writing to say nothing of the players. Price never guarantees a good game or good writing, though you would hope that the higher ticket events can provide a good experience. It is absolutely possible though, with the right group of people and a good setting and plot that you can have a great LARPings experience for free. That isn’t to say that spending money on props and setting is a bad thing, and many people enjoy being able to physically interact with their game world. There is no right and wrong or perfect budget for a LARP. Imagination only is not inherently superior or inferior to creating bespoke settings and many players enjoy the opportunity to play with both styles of LARPing.

Ideally we would like games to be accessible to everybody, not just in terms of disability access, but in terms of financial access too. However, we live in a world where things cost money and that means that the more we want to physically add to a game the more the organisers have to pay and this cost is inevitably reflected in the ticket price. There are few organisers that run LARP games professionally and take a wage and the vast majority of labour, from writing to running around, is undertaken by unpaid volunteers. Of those that do take a wage or make a profit this reflects the amounts of time and effort that is put in to running their games and profit is usually reinvested in the games for future improvements. It’s difficult to begrudge somebody who is spending hours working every day on a project to want to be recompensed for it. There are many who would like to see some sort of recompense built in to LARP pricing in order to value the work done by organisers and staff, yet at the same time we know that that would make the hobby unfeasible for many players on financial grounds. 

It is sad when there are games which sound fabulous that we have to pass on because they cost to much, but we should remember that that upper limit varies a lot and there are some people that £35 for a day’s event is out of their reach. There is no way we can draw a line that says “this is the upper limit of what people should pay for a LARP”. What we can do is continue to run the games we want to play and to continue to have a grassroots style game community which offers a range of different genres, styles and prices of games that people can choose from. We can also make sure that we don’t think of cheaper games as inferior, both as players and as organisers. There are dozens of games out there in the lower price bands that have been successful and satisfied people’s desire for good roleplay. This means that even if you can’t afford the four day immersive space station LARP with bespoke uniforms, you know you are still able to enjoy quality games that are never lesser and are merely different. 

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