Organizer Fatigue: Larp’s canary in the coal mine

Photo: Diriye Amey. Some rights reserved.

Photo: Diriye Amey. Some rights reserved.

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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16 thoughts on “Organizer Fatigue: Larp’s canary in the coal mine

  1. Hi Lizzie,

    Thanks for the awesome article. I am definitely in the “oh dear god please let me not have to organize another larp” camp, though I tend to find myself organizing at least minor events much of the time.

    You might be interested in two articles in the Wyrd Con Companion Book 2014 that deal with larp organizing and group dynamics. J. Tuomas Harviainen’s article on larp leadership styles contrasts the typical American hierarchies with Nordic larp “adhocracies.” Also, Diana Leonard’s and Grayson Arango’s article on the life cycle of larp communities is extremely valuable to this topic. Leaders often have trouble with the “Storming” phase of group development, in which the members of the group test boundaries, but groups can get past that phase with the right approach.

    I also deal with Player-Organizer conflict in my Social Conflict and Bleed paper in the IJRP, briefly mentioning GM strife and burn-out:

    So, yes, you’ve hit a nerve! I think most of us can share stories about organizer fatigue first hand and the issue is of significant importance.

    • Oh yes! I have read a bit of Harviainen’s article and it was very interesting–I am still working my way through the rest of the volume, but look forward to the piece on larp communities.

      And of course, burnout is part of bleed too. It can add to what my local larpers colorfully referred to as the ‘drama llama.’

  2. In the context of the paper, I treat bleed separately from PC/GM dynamics, though certainly they can both occur at the same time. Organizers have power over the boundaries of the game world and the success of the actions of PCs to greater and lesser degrees. PCs try to test those boundaries and sometimes break the world or cause massive conflicts, wearing down the resolve of organizers over rules disputes, “canon,” etc. Alternately, organizers can railroad players or use the game as a power trip, so the problem can go both ways. But, certainly, bleed-related outbursts are common as well when people’s RL emotions are affected by game events.

  3. Some other cures:

    Putting too much weight on yourself: So don’t. If you don’t want to be trying to juggle game creation with game production and logistics, don’t offer the game until its actually written. If you have to commit early but don’t like writing in a last-minute panic, then manage yourself so that you don’t do that. If you want to run a game in August, start writing it the previous November, and set targets and deadlines to manage your workload at an acceptable level. It goes a lot easier if you plan and monitor your performance.

    If you run at cons, a whole lot of logistics disappears from the equation. Alternatively, minions are great. I run in a city 150km from where I live; I get someone else to sort out the venue and the problem disappears.

    Creative exhaustion: try running other people’s games. There’s a world of larps out there on the web (and even more sitting on people’s hard drives unpublished). Sturgeon’s Law applies, but you should be able to find something suitable for your community, or which can be tweaked. This takes the creative load off, potentially introduces new things to your community, and can be a source of inspiration.

  4. “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.”

    I said nearly this exact same thing in a larp discussion with a game designer yesterday. In America, PC isn’t really “Player-Character” but “Paying Customer.”

    Speaking of money: in your research, how did pecuniary benefits influence the burnout? An earlier conversation on larp (funny how the topic of larp comes up at our house parties), one designer who regularly makes weekend larps (once or twice a weekend) said that burnout is there, but because rent and food is paid with PC fees, and homelessness and starvation aren’t viable options, there’s no stopping, no giving up. What ends up happening is the second (or third, or fourth) game run on Any Given Sunday flops.

    Maybe I missed it in your text (I apologize if you already answered this in the post), but are there any differences between organizing larps for profit and break even? If yes, what may they be?

    Thanks for another great post. If I don’t see a reply, it’s because I am way too busy organizing larps and didn’t have time to check back–is it possible to get a “notify me if someone replies to my comment” feature on this site.

    • Hi Aaron,

      I didn’t look at monetary systems and how they impact people–just didn’t have the resources to, so I can’t answer that question, but it’s an interesting one, and someone should find out about it.

      And there’s an RSS for the comments here–


  5. Very recognizable. When it comes to the workload, in Norway we have a semi-official network of people who are willing to step in and help out *as long as the work is defined precisely*. To take an example, during the Larp Nosferatu, I scanned the playerlists and found two from that crew, one wich is a sound/light technician and one who is a brilliant all round handyman (Yay Ståle and Jon!). In addition I brought in a friend of mine who just likes decoration, and I had another friend of mine with that weekend off as a backup driver if anything needed transport from the capital to the forest.
    This system is basically built on goodwill and friendship and requires that people actually step up for each other when not directly involved as creators, but it sure makes life so much more easy when attempting big projects.
    As for the social side, Ive never been directly involved in any of those highpower conflicts that I hear so much about, but the best advice would propably be: Lighten the f up. Its a game, you nake it for fun, the players play if for fun, and unless someone is getting paid actual money, its a shared hobby not a lifedrama.

  6. I love the idea of a semi-official network. Also of defining the work precisely!

  7. What’s all this ‘scene’ business? What is a LARP celebrity? Seriously? Celebrities? Is there a whole world of this stuff I haven’t known about in 15+ years of larping and running games?

    Anyway, this is a good article. I am one of those who is burned out like a match in a bonfire. At the risk of claiming I hated my players, I have to say that for the most part, I hated my players. Too many cancerous asshats, lumps of uselessness that needed everything handed to them, and ungrateful sorts who just complained, gave grudging, if any feedback, then complained about the changes made based on that feedback.

    Eventually I quit after yet another 3 years of running my campaign, and was able to do so only by accepting that my over 13 year-old game may well collapse and die. It’s well on its way to oblivion under current management, and I’m not saving it again.

    If asked if it was worth it, I’d probably say it was until about 2005. I do regret taking over again and should have stayed away.

  8. Hey Lizzie,

    Game design, and running a LARP network, is what I do for a living and I know that without a doubt there are different thresholds and stress levels that I am willing to work with as a paid professional that I would have never survived doing for free in other game networks. I have donated my time on many levels for indi and networked theatrical LARP networks in the past, and the change is drastic in regards to what I am willing to do. What is funny is that between then and now, the demands and requests of the different player bases hasn’t changed. There are some players who feel they are owed 24/7 response regardless of if they are paying or not, and their are some players that treat staffers as friends instead of customer service reps.

    For both free, and pay, positions with LARP organization and STing one of the most important things is setting your guidelines and structure for how (and when) you will handle the game between games. If you don’t set those guidelines you will find yourself getting burnt out quickly.

    There is a lot more to say on the subject, but, it would be much longer than is appropriate for a response box. 🙂

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  10. Great Post and very accurate I might add. I have played for 23 years, of which, I was on my LARP’s plot committee for roughly 10. For 2 of those years, I was the head of plot, after some key founding members stepped down due to burnout. When I took over, my plot team was very new and numbered far too few. I was writing 90% of most of the events, and in time, my creative juices began to dry up. In addition, when you play for so long, you get to a point of knowing all the stats, and all the secrets behind the curtain, that you can no longer play as a PC. As the head of plot, it was impossible to jump sides and PC, and that’s what I began to miss dearly. I stepped down, took some time off, returned to PC and stay on as a plot adjunct/plot consultant.

    Then, in 2012, I moved from NJ to settle in Denver, CO. What I began to miss most was the Alliance style of Larping. Many friends told me to create your own out here! I spent several months meeting with players, folks interested in writing and running plots and the background stories, building the world and player’s guides, race packets, logistics, the tavern, PNPCs to run the guilds, getting donations from players, ran a kickstarter so finances weren’t an issue, and I must say that I am extremely happy with where we are. I am a leatherworker by trade so I find myself in many conventions/faires, where I also try to run a few modules and RP events to promote our game, and we have around 70 people in the database already. We just launched September of 2013. We are having some winter downtime to prevent writer burnout and will be back up in April with full weekend events.
    As for player negativity bringing some folks down, you have to have a thick skin as a GM/Owner/Head of Plot. Sure not every player is going to like every decision/story/response you send their way. WHat I have said over the years is that you have to build plot trust in your player base. When we create the conflict/drama, trust us that you will have ways to overcome and thrive in the game. Without that inherent trust in your plot team, many games have failed to grow their numbers, or just simply failed. The powergamers, stick jocks, and circle sitters all make up most larps, and they’re not always going to be happy or appreciate the same things. Balance and trust are key. When you do get that event report after the weekend, take a deep breath, take it for what it’s worth and find the positive in it. Many players who are very passionate about their game will write from an emotionally passionate place. Let them vent and move on. Any criticism is constructive. You either take it with a grain of salt or you share it with your team because it’s an amazing suggestion for your game. Don’t take things too seriously and remember that IT’S JUST A GAME.

    Thanks for this post!
    Jesse Grabowski
    Alliance Denver

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