Alleged Entertainment

Creating Passionate Players

“I played in your last game, and when I saw that signups were open for this one, I just had to get in.”
It’s every LARP writer’s dream, right? The moment when you can get an answer like that on your casting questionnaire.
There are some LARP groups that people get absolutely fanatical about. Today, I’d like to share a few thoughts on how those groups got to be that way.


When people think of your LARP group, what’s the first thing that comes to mind? This, more than anything else, will drive players to (or away from) your events.
I recently attended a game run by Foam Brain Games. While there, I heard quite a lot of talk from the regular players about the Foam Brain style of GMing. Foam Brain has a reputation for a very detached, even-handed style of GMing, which is to say that they’re primarily interested in what is best for the game as opposed to what makes individual players the happiest. This is a tradeoff that everyone must make at some point. The negative side is that players can feel like the GMs don’t care about them (even if that’s not actually true). The positive side is that it results in very fair and smooth-running games.
So, when players, knowing this, sign up for a Foam Brain production, they are signing up forconsistency of experience. They know that the GMs might not hold their hand through the game, or go out of their way to help them accomplish their goals, but they will get exactly what they were promised when they signed up. In other words, they trust the Foam Brain team to deliver.
Having this kind of reputation has several benefits: obviously, this can help drive people to your games. But, counter-intuitively, it can also help drive people away from your games – and that’s a good thing! When there are specific things people can say about the sort of experience one can expect from you, that helps players self-select into the right games for them. Obviously, no one style of event running is best for everyone, so just as it’s important to get people to sign up, it’s just as important to make sure they are the right people.


OK, so you’ve figured out what it is you’re all about, as a GM team. Great! Now how do you get the message out about it?
Well, hold on there, cowboy. Are you sure that’s what you want to do? Let’s do a thought experiment: imagine, if you will, the following LARP groups.
  • Group A claims to be all about player freedom and choice. As promised, they allow players to carry through their creative ideas and make unexpected decisions.
  • Group B claims to be all about player freedom and choice. During the game, however, they constantly railroad players and don’t let them make their own decisions.
  • Group C claims nothing upfront. During the game, they allow players freedom and refrains from sticking their nose into players’ choices.
Sure, we’d all love to be Group A. But what if it turned out you were Group B instead? As bad as it is to have no reputation, it’s much worse to have a reputation as someone who doesn’t follow their own promises. And, counter-intuitively, Group C can actually be the best group to be. They underpromise and overdeliver.
They also build a reputation based on their actions rather than their words. Mike Young ofInteractivities Ink famously said that “LARP is sold by word of mouth,” and truer words have never been spoken. Talk is cheap, but it’s a lot harder to fake actually delivering a great game experience to your players.
(By the way, I don’t mean to imply by anything I say above that player freedom and choice is the paramount virtue of great GMs. In my opinion, it’s not, and can actually be detrimental in some games. More about that below, and it’s also a topic I plan to expand on in a future post.)


At some level, this is all about setting the right expectations. If players come in expecting a certain type of experience, and you give them exactly that, they’ll leave happy with you. In the worst case, they will think “gee, I didn’t like that as much as I thought I would” – but that’s no reflection on you, and chances are they’ll be happy to play another game of yours (as long as it doesn’t seem like it will be bad for them in the same ways, and if it will, then you don’t want them to play it anyway!).
That means that if your game is not for everybody, you need to say why upfront. It’s perfectly okay for a game not to appeal to every player, just as long as it is very clear to players who it’s targeted at.
For example, our blurb for The Last Seder ends with a big scary note about how the game is essentially one big railroad job. We learned this lesson the hard way: a player walked away from our first run of the game very unhappy about how he didn’t get to make any choices that would affect the game in meaningful ways. Does that mean it’s a bad game for everyone? Of course not – it just means that we didn’t adequately communicate what our players should expect from us. By doing so, we failed in our job as GMs.
(Full disclosure: I edited the Last Seder page right before making this blog post. We actually have included that paragraph in all our blurbs at conventions since that first run, but I hadn’t updated the page on to reflect it. Not having that had there was, as well, a failure in communication. Mea culpa.)

Sidebar: When Things Go Wrong At The Last Minute

Your car breaks down on the way to the game. Your staff comes down with swine flu. You realize you left all the character packets 300 miles away.
These things happen, and there’s often nothing you can do about them. So what’s a well-meaning, hard-working GM to do?
Well, first of all, you’ve got to try your hardest to get it done somehow. If it’s at all feasible to get the event done anyway, and you’ve got people there waiting for you to do it, it behooves you to give themsomething for their efforts. Even if it’s not the game you promised. Players are often willing to work with you in situations like this – if you just let them know what’s up, they can often pull together and make the game work anyway.
What if it’s actually not feasible to get anything done? Then apologize gracefully and sincerely, and try to never do that again. As the old aphorism goes, people won’t blame you for being human… unless you make a habit of it.

There Is More Than One Way To Do It

So, to summarize: Nat’s prescription for creating a passionate base of players is to underpromise, set appropriate expectations, and deliver on them as consistently as possible.
Am I saying that’s the only way to get players excited about your games? No, of course not. There is no one right recipe, and I certainly would never presume to have the secret of success in LARP. But I do personally strive to do all these things. I don’t always succeed, but it’s nice to be able to dream the impossible dream. And this one really isn’t so impossible.

Comments imported from DISQUS

Chad, on 10/05/2009 at 11:08 AM
Scotty on Star Trek always knew exactly how long it would take him to fix something. Then he'd double or triple that time and give an estimate. OR simply say 'It canna' be done!'. Then when he did it, he looked like a miracle worker.

Underpromise, and overdeliver. And never, ever, ever, promise something unless you are sure you can deliver. Promises made are expectations set.

And as you so well point out, every piece of text you send, from the blurb, to the casting questionnaire, to the character hints and sheets, as well as any explicit followup emails, are a chance to have a conversation with the players, and to manage expectations. If your game is silly, don't clothe it in seriousness. If your game is angsty, say so. If your game explores societal taboos, be clear. If your game tends towards the freeform spectrum, or towards the interactive scripted spectrum, don't shy from saying so. If it is experimental, if it is new, if it is tried and true, let prospectives know. Some people think that doing so gives away secrets, but to them I say 1) Not so. Taking the time to think about your blurb and your questionnaires is just as important as thinking about your settings or your plots. A little care will communicate without revealing. 2) What are secrets for, except to be spilled? So what if your blurb foreshadows and leads people to the big reveal? Secrets that never come out are dead plotlines.

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