Badass Larp Talk #24: What You Pay to Play

It’s an often overlooked game design factor, but truly one of the most important things a larp runner needs to decide on are what the barriers of entry to their game will be like. Or to put it another way, what sort of limits and requirements will they impose on their player base in the name of the game? For the purposes of this post, I’m assuming the game is at least semi-public – entirely private, invitation-only games are a different sort of entity entirely.

What follows is a list of some of the most common barriers of entry that a larp runner should consider when putting a new game together, or which might be worth occasionally re-examining as part of an ongoing game. It’s important to note that there are no “right” answers here, simply decisions and how they potentially impact a game. It’s a series of trade-offs, and ultimately the only correct answers are the ones that allow the game runner to create the experience they

For example, if a game runner wants to have a weekend larp event with $150 tickets that also requires extensive costuming, total immersion roleplay, and significant downtime preparation beforehand, that’s not necessarily “elitist” or “exclusionary” – it’s simply her prerogative for crafting the sort of game she wants. She’s accepting that with those barriers in place she’s going to have a small, dedicated player group in return for delivering an incredibly immersive and detailed experience.

By the same token, a game runner who hosts free bi-weekly games with minimal costuming and roleplay requirements isn’t necessarily creating a “weaker” game – he might simply not be interested in turning people away and just want to run a game for a big, rotating cast. If that’s the experience he’s shooting for, then great!

With that in mind, here are the barriers any larp runner should consider

Money: Sticker Shock 
The most obvious barrier to entry is direct cost. A free game potentially attracts anyone who’s even a little curious about what game might be like, while a game that costs $80 or more per session is likely to cut out a lot of low-income players – many high school and college students, as well as fixed income or minimum wage earners – which definitely changes your player base. While the upside of having an expensive game is that it naturally also tends to attract players with more disposable income, which in turn often leads to higher costuming, prop, and makeup standards for the player base, as players who can afford a more expensive session tend to have the money to splash out on fancy gear as well.

The downside to a high cost barrier, of course, is that it simply rules out a lot of the larp demographic right off the bat, and may also force out existing players who suffer a financial setback later on.  On the other hand, free or low-cost games cast a wide net, which can be a blessing or a curse depending on the local player base.

Time: It’s Money Too
Another barrier of entry is time investment, both in terms of session frequency, session length, and any downtime needs as well. A game that’s played for a few hours one night every other month and requires minimal downtime participation is a lot more accessible to working parents and busy professionals, for example, while a monthly game that requires a full weekend (like many boffer larps) and/or has extensive downtime roleplay demands is going to naturally cater to students, couples without children, and other players with more free time on their hands. Games that demand a lot of time investment, whether at session or in downtime or both, do tend to encourage in-depth roleplaying and backstory creation if only due to the sheer amount of time players spend playing and developing their characters. By contrast, a lower barrier makes it easier for players to stay involved at all levels of involvement.

The downside, of course, is that players who can’t invest so much time either feel left out o the important action, or are actually relegated to second-class characters simply because they cannot follow every forum discussion or Facebook post. In an age when even modest larps spawn multiple Facebook groups, private messaging threads, and official forum posts to follow, this barrier should not to be underestimated!

Costuming: You Must Be This Rad to Ride this Ride
Time and money are both important barriers to consider, but another very important one is the costuming barrier. (To save space, for the purposes of this article “costuming” is being defined as the overall use of costumes, makeup, and props to portray a character.) This is not necessarily linked to the ticket price of a game, though it certainly can be, as even games with “cheap” tickets become considerably less affordable if the costume barrier is set high. On its own, though, it’s what standards a player is expected to uphold in terms of appearing to be part of the game world on just a purely visual level. A high standard helps create an incredibly immersive experience for everyone, and can be crucial for creating an intense roleplaying environment and keeping people in character. By contrast, a low barrier encourages new and casual players, as well as requires far less setup and prep to make players ready to start0.

Costuming standards are an extremely sensitive barrier in the larp world, however, as there’s often a thin line between expecting players to meet certain standards and having garb Nazis shaming players for not being up to snuff. Few things drive off new and potential players than feeling like they’re being mocked or excluded just because they don’t have the coolest costume on site, and even veteran players can get into destructive “cooler than thou” cycles over what is “acceptable” costuming.

No matter where the barrier is set here, game runners should watch carefully for signs of costume policing, garb shaming, or makeup snobbery and stamp them out whenever possible. If a player isn’t meeting the game’s requirements, mocking them never helps – but offering advice and assistance just might earn a dedicated player for years to come.

Roleplaying: Who Do You Think You Are?
How important is it for players to stay in character? How seriously is roleplaying to be taken? How immersive is the experience going to be? Simple questions, but deceptively challenging ones. Most games have a rule about staying in character, of course, aside from perhaps a designated out of character zone or to (briefly) address rules or safety concerns. That’s the absolute minimum barrier, though, and most games unofficially add levels to this requirement over time – not just discouraging players dropping character, but actively expecting them to roleplay in certain ways such as playing to fail, taking defeat seriously, respecting in-game authorities, etc. A high barrier insists on serious, in-depth roleplaying, while a low one doesn’t mind if players are a bit more casual or their characters less fully-realized.

Games with a high standard for roleplaying expectations can be as intimidating as they are engaging, however, and if they don’t take care to offer advice and assistance to players who aren’t used to such acting requirements they’re bound to turn away a lot of potential players who simply don’t feel good enough to play. By the same token, a game with a low standard can be frustrating for players who enjoy more in-depth roleplay if they feel too many other characters just aren’t “serious” or that their scenes are constantly interrupted with out of game chatter.

Lore: There Will Be A Test
Another less commonly considered barrier of entry is what might be called a “lore requirement” – how much in-game knowledge you expect players to have in order to function properly and roleplay in the game world. Games with a high lore barrier tend to have complex world histories and years of accumulated play experiences that reward players with immersive environments and in-depth environments for engaging with their stories, while games with a low lore barrier are much more welcoming to new and casual players, requiring far less explanation and setup for players to get up and running. Consider how much world lore you need to absorb to properly play a highly political Game of Thrones larp, for example, versus how much you need to play neophyte mortal vampire hunters in a World of Darkness game.

The downside to a low lore requirement is that it can feel a little too “episodic” at times – if the game doesn’t acquire much history and backstory as it goes it can seem like a sitcom where everything resets between stories. On the other hand, games with a high lore barrier can be seriously intimidating, like trying to start in the middle of the fourth book in a nine book cycle or picking up a comic series with forty years of continuity references behind it.

Moving the Bar
Last but not certainly not least, changing existing barriers is subject worth mentioning is changing barriers down the line, because if it’s not handled right it can lead to serious player discontent. Raising a barrier presents the most obvious problems, of course – if a game’s ticket price jumps from $35 to $65 there’s likely to be a lot of anger and dismay, for example. Even if players understand the necessity of an increase, it may not prevent some players from needing to drop out due to lack of funds. Likewise, if elf players are used to just wearing ear tips to signal their species, telling them that they now need to do full wigs, face paint, and French accents is likely to call up a storm of complaints.

Lowering barriers may not seem like quite as much of a problem, but it carries difficulties of its own, especially if the existing player base feels like the game is being “watered down” or that their investment in the game is being devalued. After all, if playing an elder vampire used to require writing a 10 page backstory, and now it requires a single page, the players who went through that effort are going to be justifiably upset – and may take it out on newer players who didn’t have a say in the change.

When raising or lowering a barrier, there are a few things that can be done to make the process easier on everyone. The first is to be as upfront and transparent about the change as possible – let players know what is happening and why, and be ready to answer questions and address concerns. The second is to give players lead time when making a change – while this isn’t always possible, the more time in advance the players have to process the change, the less likely it is to upset them or even cause them to leave the game.

Lastly, it’s usually worth considering compensating players who met the original barrier, especially if it’s now being lowered. Going back to the elder vampire example, giving players of existing elders who wrote the 10 page backstories some perks or advantages is certainly fair, and a good way to show that their effort was appreciated even as the new standard is being implemented. Even a small gesture can go a long way to mollifying players, which is worth it to keep the game going and fun for everyone.

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Badass LARP Talk is a semi-regular advice series for gamers who enjoy being other people as a hobby. Like what you read? Click on the BLT or Badass LARP Talk tag on this entry to find others in the series, follow me on Twitter @WriterPete, or subscribe to the blog for future updates! 

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One response

  1. I think barriers can be tricky because they also overlap with diversity issues. People likely to have less money: disabled people, people from a lower class background, people from groups that suffer a disadvantage in the workplace. There’s a bunch of other easy to overlook accessability issues too – how easy is it to read your setting with a text reader? Will there be a fast acess toilet? Will your strict requirement to enforce historical norms for immersion make your game unwelcoming to LGBT players? Will difficulties for parents disproportionately effect women more than men? Have I enforced a costume requirement which is harder to meet for some ethnicities or body types? Which can mean that while absolutely someone can choose to write their game how they want, the consequence may well be less diversity and (accidentally) less friendly to minority groups. I can see how that might come across as elitist or exclusionary, despite good intentions.

    September 23, 2016 at 1:42 pm

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