Players don’t want to start game when they’re supposed to. Players don’t want to wander into the allotted game space at the very beginning of a session. These two statements are like death and taxes, but if you take the proper measures you can inspire a culture where players expect the game to be on time, are incentivized to be there on time and get a lot more out of their session as a result.
Incentivize starting on time
I put this first because it is the single best way to get players hopping. Give them a reason to be on time. In the past I’ve used two different rewards that helped condition my players to be at the session ready to start at my usual time. If a player shows up before my opening circle began I always granted them an experience point. If they had an explained tardiness and told me in advance (email/phone call/text) I’d cut them some slack, since things like family and work can (justifiably!) get in the way of roleplaying. Secondly, and infrequently, I’d frontload my sessions with interesting story. If players got to game late they would every once in a while miss something cool and usually something beneficial.
Lay out your expectations
If you’ve been reading so far I’m sure you’ve heard me talk about the need for a player/ST contract so that players understand your expectations for them (and vice versa). This is a two way street. A player should never have any doubt about when a game is starting or where a game will be played because their expectation for you is that you’ll give them suitable notice and they should reciprocate by being ready to go when you told them to. Let them know that whatever they’ve seen in other games is irrelevant – in this game you expect your players to be on time, in costume and ready to play.
If you expect your players to start on time you must continually be ready to start your game on time. If a player sees that game start at 7:15 instead of 7:00 even once they are going to internalize that they can show up at 7:15 and not miss anything. Don’t change your start time between sessions, so that there’s never any confusion. This goes for dates as well; if you play every other Friday make sure you play every other Friday, regardless of how many cancellations you get. It is better to cancel a game date outright (in my opinion) than to try and move it.
Start the game anyways
It doesn’t matter how many people are there at the start time, just get the ball rolling. When players wander in to see roleplaying already occurring chances are they are going to try harder to be present at the start next time. You cannot wait for a single, important character whose player just happens to be running late, since it causes consistency problems and permits players’ bad habits. Instead, as a storyteller, come to the session with the expectation that the player is going to be late and have a pre-built justification for why the important character isn’t there. If your session absolutely demands the presence of a single character in order to be effective you are doing it wrong.
Players have an uncanny habit of dragging their feet and not going into game the moment the game starts, and very often have questions that could have easily been answered days and days ago. I understand that often these questions can be important, but more often than not these same players saunter into the game space with ten minutes until opening circle, when they could have come earlier to ensure their question got answered. My answer is to simply not answer their questions once the session has started, almost regardless of how important those answers may be. Usually I’m in the game space before the players are.
This may seem like a pretty obtuse solution, but trust me… once the players realize that it’s not going to happen they find a way to make sure that next time they give themselves plenty of time.
Let your players know that you want your LARP to start on time because it means that there’s going to be more time to enjoy the session. Many of the venues that I’ve seen used have cut off times, and even if you don’t get kicked out of your venue many of your players have jobs that prevent them from becoming nocturnal. The more in game time, the more fun there’s going to be, and when you explain it that way how your players not want to help you out?
Thank your players
I think we all undervalue one of the best forms of positive reinforcement: the acknowledgement. When they do it right, and you’re happy let them know. This may seem like a radical concept to some, but trust me when I say it works. Fortunately it’s also one of the cat-herding techniques that is the easiest to do, and has the best returns out there. If you haven’t tried it yet, even if you’re skeptical, just give it a try. Oh, and don’t let your players catch you calling them cats. They don’t like that for some reason.