It’s a common story. A certain person loves larp so much that they involve themselves in every aspect of putting a larp on; they organize, run, and write larps, sometimes filling all three roles for the same game (especially in certain American circles); they support the community by playing in many games; they do support for the larps of their friends, cooking food, organizing props, and cleaning up after. Maybe they even run a convention.
At some point they break—maybe they realize they haven’t made time for their families in a few years, maybe they are tired of player negativity, maybe they are simply exhausted by all this running around. And so, they quit, at least temporarily.
My friends, this is organizer fatigue, it’s that sinking feeling in the pit of your stomach when someone asks you to write an article or come rig that last set of lights for the black box, or just show up at all. It’s when you organize a larp and think, “thank god I don’t have to do that again for six more months, or maybe ever.” It’s when you read that last G+ comment that says you’re fascist and love oppressing people who aren’t in your social circle, and you think, “why am I putting myself through this hate? I could be reading a book.”
Organizer fatigue spans scenes and countries. When I asked my social media stream about the topic, the response surprised me. I heard from organizers on the California, New England, and Mid Atlantic scenes, as well as from organizers in England, Norway, Sweden, and Finland–about ten in total. I heard from people who worked on boffer campaigns, theater style games, and on Nordic larp. Almost no one wanted their names in this post, for fear it would drive away players and prove embarrassing. Clearly, I’d hit on a nerve.
Unsurprisingly, organizers from different scenes had different ideas about what caused fatigue, but at core, most of the causes boil down to community dynamics. I began to suspect that a high rate of organizer fatigue might be the canary in the coal mine for larp communities, signifying underlying problems.
So let’s explore the causes, the effects, and the cures.
Causes of Organizer Fatigue
Cause: too many responsibilities, too few people to bear them.
On the New England theater scene, it’s common for the designer, organizer, set designer, stage manager, and producer to be the same person or the same group of two to three people, which means that “organizing a larp is a lot more work than it looks like from the player side,” according to one seasoned designer, let’s call them A, who pointed out that in addition to design, organizers handle things as diverse as booking a venue, juggling props, occasionally flaky co-GMs, in addition to managing set-up, breakdown, and food and sometimes insurance and safety checks as well as casting and design. “All of that is invisible to the player,” they said.
That all this responsibility can fall on one person is exhausting. As organizer A put it:
“I’m tired. Tired of scrambling to find last minute replacement players when I should be focused on creating the game. Tired of having to do runtime checks to make sure that people aren’t being left out and that vital information is being shared. Tired of designing a 60 player game and then, upon writing the characters, discovering that I really have 50 characters and ten half-characters. Tired of not being able to talk about this in public for fear of people saying that I’m blaming the players for my problems or that I hate my player base. I don’t. I love my player base; they are creative and dramatic and bring things I’ve written to life in ways I could never have imagined. They are wonderful. But running a larp is so, so frustrating. And the reward is immense and also infinitesimal at the same time.”
Cause: Negativity from the community; creative exhaustion.
In England, I heard from Graham Walmsley, one of the few people who said he’d be cool with appearing by name in this piece. Graham organized a series of one-shot larps in 2002 or so, but then burned out and began working on tabletop games.
The immediate reason he stopped making larps “was that I started getting less positive reactions from my games. But also, the games started to feel like work. Before, I’d been doing silly things I enjoyed (a Paranoia/Cthulhu crossover larp, a big stupid werewolf thing); now, I was starting to think about mechanics and what worked and what didn’t. I was less creative, less fully of silly ideas. (To this day, I value being silly in games.)”
Many organizers told me that player and community negativity played a role in their own fatigue. And in some ways having too few organizers can fuel negativity. If a handful of people feel pressure to churn out games for the community, then they can end up focusing on quantity over quality–creative exhaustion can lead to worse games that garner more negativity.
Cause: Players don’t care about my game, only about their status within the scene.
Organizer B, also from the New England scene, has felt fatigue when the scene takes them “back to the pointless scenester politics of high school, rather than to the creative space of the larp medium.” Basically, B doesn’t like it when people only show up to a larp if a scene celebrity will be there as a player or organizer, and cut out if the celeb doesn’t make an appearance. In other words, B gets tired when scene politics trump the creative effort of players and organizers.
Cause: Good friends can end up enemies if the organizing group doesn’t work right.
When I spoke to Norwegian and Swedish organizers, their burnout was more about the inner politics of the game team. One Swedish organizer cited “conflicts within the organizer group” as part of why they ended up fatigued. A Norwegian organizer told me, “the essence of it was that our team of organizers was really dysfunctional. We were four organizers with very different work styles, and we never really figured out how to deal with that. Also, there was some sex intrigues within the organizers’ team.”
Sex intrigues: making things more complicated and drama-filled since…um…35,000 BCE.
Cause: Real life interferes.
And then, of course, many people spoke to me about real-life interfering with larp. Organizing an event and dealing with school, breakups, marriages, babies, job changes, and so on made making larps more difficult. More frustrating, I suspect, is the way other members of the community or organizing team don’t always respect these real life priorities.
Effects of Organizer Fatigue
Organizer fatigue has its good points and its bad points. Here’s my fast take on both.
Organizer fatigue is good.
When prominent people retire from a scene temporarily, it can make room for new organizers to do stuff, sort of like how after a forest fire, a whole bunch of new trees and shrubbery have room to grow. Organizer fatigue can make room for new designers and organizers to hone their skills.
Organizer fatigue is bad.
When experienced people get alienated from a scene, their institutional knowledge is lost, and that’s not good for larp as a hobby. New organizers can learn a lot from experienced organizers and don’t have to re-figure out how to run a workshop, for example, or how to mitigate level inflation in campaigns.
Also, if a community isn’t very functional, organizer fatigue can kill it. If only three people are running games on your scene—a sign of a scene in trouble, I think—then when they retire, there may not be any more games and the scene dies.
Cures for Organizer Fatigue
While the cures for fatigue for any one designer will likely include bed rest and a judicious application of whiskey, I think that a high rate of organizer fatigue is simply the symptom of a bigger problem, namely of a community that has some dysfunctional elements. With that in mind, let’s go back through the list of causes and think about how to eliminate them.
Putting too much weight on one or two people
As the saying goes, “Many hands make light work.” In a healthy community, people help each other out, and responsibilities are distributed so no one person reaches the breaking point.
I think social engineering is the main way to remedy this cause. Rather than organize something all by yourself, enlist friends and new folks. Creating roles with minor responsibility can help teach new organizers about the process of designing and running a larp. Consider separating the roles of design, logistics, producing, game mastering, and scenography, if appropriate.
By the same token, we’ve got to get away from this martyr mentality—organizers should value their own well-being and ask for help when things get hard. But starting out with a team rather than trying to do it all themselves–unless you’re working on a very small game–is probably a good start.
Recruiting and supporting new organizers is essential to a healthy community. Organizer A came from a scene that didn’t support new GMs and had a norm of harsh criticism of newbies. As A put it, thanks to organizer fatigue “What the local community has lost is the local community. […] One of the things that larp communities NEED to do is grow their player base and also grow their organizer base. The Boston community is doing a very good job of supporting its players and organizers and constantly looking for new ones. They are a growing and healthy community. The DC community actively campaigned against growing the player base and didn’t try to create or support new GM teams. Now the big teams are all in retirement or they run things up in Boston. We have no local larp scene any more.”
A robust, healthy community has many designers and organizers who support each other. When many people are running cool things, everyone wins, and in running fewer things, organizers are more able to focus on quality over quantity, thus avoiding creative fatigue.
Negativity from the community
Feedback, both good and bad, helps designers grow, so long as it is constructive. Constructive feedback comes from a place of love and wanting to help make the game even better.
I think many larp communities have trouble giving constructive feedback. In my mind, constructive feedback is stuff delivered directly and often privately (in just the player group or in an email) to the organizers and written in a tone that conveys respect for the game and the effort of the designer. It’s not passive-aggressive whining on social media, often from people who have not even attended the game.
The culture of feedback affects whether organizers and designers want to continue organizing and designing—and it often has broader ripples. A culture of negativity and hating on games and their organizers can have a chilling effect on newbies who are thinking of writing their own games. I can’t tell you how many times people have told me, “I was going to design a game about X, but then I saw how organizer Q got treated, and I don’t want to be in their shoes.” This always makes me very sad.
Even if you hated a game, remember that it is often dear to the organizers, who spent hundreds of hours creating something, typically for no other reason than the satisfaction of entertaining other people. Critique it like you’d critique your sister’s parenting style: with careful words and a loving motivation.
When you play a game, give constructive feedback; if you organize a game, take a breath and accept constructive feedback. Don’t feed the culture of negativity.
I think that some of the negativity that arises around game critique in the US comes from our idea that everything is a customer/business relationship. In larp, that’s mostly not true–it’s a community effort on the part of the designers and the players. As players, we think we can demand things because we paid an entry fee to help our GM cover props, as organizers, we feel like we have a responsibility to please everyone. Neither is true! You can disrupt these expectations by building community through things like pre-game workshops.
I also like a rule of politeness I heard many Danish larpers obey for big multi-day events: don’t criticize a game until you’re off the game premises. I think that’s a nice way of respecting the effort of the game creators.
Scene status dynamics can make things suck and take focus away from the game.
Not sure I have a cure for this one, y’all. Small scene politics can be the pits, and certainly the issue is thorny. But as community members, we all have some sway over the atmosphere in our groups. Show up to games that interest you—and if there aren’t games that interest you, make games that do, and be patient. At core, larp is a do-ocracy—if you make effort as a player or organizer, people will respect you and show up to your events, but it takes some time.
Don’t give status to people who suck.
Most of all, be supportive of each other—collaborate on projects together, show up to other games, and generally be the kind, decent people I know you are.
Organizing a game can make you hate your friends.
Instructions on how to make a functional organizing group is beyond the scope of this post. But I have a couple quick suggestions, culled from my experiences organizing over the past few years and from discussions with other organizers.
For starters, your friends are not necessarily the best people to make a game with. Maybe pick some people you respect and want to get to know better instead. You can think of it a little as a professional interaction—it’s far better to turn down your bestie Bob, who is a great guy but can’t show up to a meeting on time to save his life—and to align yourself with Susie, who is a little type A for your tastes but who you know will have all of the props in their places at go time. Sure, Bob’s feelings might be a bit hurt, but not as hurt as they’ll be two hours before the game when you scream at him because he forgot to assemble that giant pile of foam rocks for the climactic scene. If you end up hating Susie, well, no biggie, but if you end up liking her you’ve gained a new friend.
Try to avoid people who thrive on drama and blow tiny things up into big issues, and people who always need to have their way.
Other things that can help are having meetings, sizing your staff to the size of the game, fitting your expectations to the scope of your budget and site, and divvying up responsibilities clearly at the outset.
Real life interferes.
No cure for this one—real life does interfere and it always will. Being there for my niece’s birth is way more important than some game. But if you have a robust community, it’s not such a problem. Sure, I’m down for the count, but Eloise can fill in for me in a pinch!
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