In my day job I work in sales for a SaaS-based tech company. Why is this relevant? The SaaS business model depends on recurring subscriptions to your product in order to be prosperous… there is a low cost to start using your product, and a low cost to leave it. Does this sound familiar to you? That’s because LARPs operate in exactly the same way.
In SaaS-speak Churn is defined as the percentage measurement of attrition over a 12 month period, or in plain, LARP related, speak it’s the percentage of money (attendance) you lose over a 12 month time from customers (players) opting out of your service (quitting your LARP). It should go without saying that the best LARPs retain their players for an extended period of time, but what is relevant how exactly can we, as storytellers, create an environment where player churn is minimized?
Make your game the best in town
Nothing will keep players playing in your chronicle better than offering them the best product out there. The fact that at any time your players can leave for greener pastures is incentive for you to bring your ‘A’ game every single night. Even when you are the best in town there will always be other worthy competitors who want a piece of your market share (I’m sorry, that’s my sales-ese leaking through), so continue to add value to your product, giving players more to engage with and more reasons to come back. Never be satisfied, because as good as your game might be, it can be better.
Engage your players
Your principal role as storyteller is to ensure that players are facilitated into your world and once there are engaged by the elements of your game (other characters (including storyteller characters), city history, active plots and downtimes). The more points of connectivity that a player has the more they are going to have to do at sessions. Study the metrics of how your players individually interact with your chronicle, and make adjustments when you see certain players under-attached.
Make it easy to play your game. The less friction required to create a character, attend sessions, interact with mechanics, submit downtimes and access chronicle history the more likely that players will keep coming back. The machine should be so well-oiled that players don’t even see it, they just show up, role play, enjoy themselves and repeat.
When players create bonds with other players your LARP becomes their principle engine of socialization. It becomes the common talking point and the driving force that gets everyone out of their apartments on a Saturday night. Obviously we can’t force friendships on players, but what we can do is enable opportunities for them to interact out of character. For new chronicles character creation parties are a big deal. They bring players together, let you pontificate about what your game is about and lets them collaborate during character creation (which you should incentivize, by the way) so that when the game happens there is a maximum number of connections between characters. Once a game is under way costuming events can give players a chance to work together towards improving the joint aesthetic of a game’s characters. You can even be sneaky, and force players into a tighter than normal area before a game begins so that they can’t segregate themselves as much into their standard cliques. The single best means of bringing players together, though, is Afters. Once a game is done encourage your players to go to a restaurant or pub and decompress after the game. If you give them the mechanism to interact after every session you will create new bonds between people and stronger bonds to your chronicle.
Make decisions out in the open. Broadcast them. Explain them. Ensure that your decisions are rational, because they will come under scrutiny, but when you tell your players exactly what is going on you inspire trust. You also want transparently manage your players’ expectations. Players should know what to expect when they begin playing your LARP, and those expectation expectations should remain similar (progressing in a logical, gradual direction) until the point that chronicle ends, so that no one is surprised. Lastly, don’t hesitate to tell players who want to play your game that you don’t think your game is right for them if you don’t think your game is right for them.
If a storyteller isn’t paying attention they can be afflicted by the Tyranny of the Eloquent. When players get the feeling that some players are being treated more equal than others you get a very quiet resentment. Create systems by which all players are put on the same footing and no one can earn more storyteller time because of a personal relationship.
Keep an open door
Players need to gripe about the games they are in. You don’t ask the sun why it rises in the morning, so don’t question that no matter how good a job you do there will be things players aren’t satisfied with. Instead, create an open environment where players can express the little things to you. The easiest way to do that is to ask your players, nicely, and then thank them. Alternatively you can make them read this. So long as players have the expectation that not every little thing they want is possible – sometimes it comes down to your vision for a chronicle, or robbing Paul to pay Peter, or it’s sooo minute it can’t be a priority for you – you’re going to get valuable information. Leave the door open to criticism, and let them do it the right way and you’d be surprised what information you’ll get back.
This isn’t rocket science… when a player misses a game with an unexplained absence that should raise a tiny alarm bell. If players consistently show up late, leave early or spend measurable periods of time during game out of game your players are telling you something. When a player shows these signs of disinterest they already have one foot dangling away from your game. This may be a good time to approach your player and ask them what’s up, or to remind them that their contribution to your chronicle is both important and appreciated.
Despite your best efforts players are going to leave your game. Life is too complicated to not have a curveball thrown at one of your players so that they can no longer continue. With that being said, you need to know why every single player that leaves your LARP leaves your LARP… and not just the surface reasons (“I got busy” “it wasn’t working out”), I mean the real reasons. Once a player has made the decision to leave your game there’s a good chance that they are unlikely to return, but that means there also a much greater chance of getting the “straight goods” about what is and isn’t working in your game. I’d even suggest you offer to buy a player that has left a cup of coffee, because if one player is acting on an impulse to leave, who knows how many other players are on the fence about the same issue?
That’s it… just care about your players and their experience. If you can do that you should have no trouble running a kick ass game that retains players. If you don’t care and it’s a trend (and not just a bad night/week) you need to look in a mirror and seriously consider whether or not running your game is worth it. By the time you’ve stopped caring you’ve already burnt out and probably just didn’t realize it yet. Finish your story gracefully and end your game on the highest point possible, because if you try to push past it you’re only going to affect the players negatively and damage your legacy.