About the drop-outs: a guest post by Sally Poppenbeck

I’ve seen larp organisers bemoan their drop outs before, but never such a lovely piece about that and the implications. Sally is a UK larp organiser, so some of the terminology here is UK-specific, but I suspect the generalities might apply more widely. All these words are hers.

Something I’ve been noticing, to a moderately painful extent lately, has been the shift to LRPers being massively massively flakey. It’s been a huge feature of the post COVID landscape, epically beyond the norms of the pre-COVID era.

Before COVID, I expected a 5-10% drop out rate. These days, I assume a 25% drop out rate, and that’s if I’m lucky. That’s a 25% drop out rate from people who care enough to fill in an EoI (Expression of Interest) form and explicitly state they are showing. If you’re talking about the gap between people who kind of state interest online or join a FB event, it’s higher.

I’ve seen other games cancel due to it and the games I have run (with the weird exception of one Empire player event) have had a massive initial expression of interest take up and then major drop out rate; the apparently insanely popular Goblin Ball with 1000 EoI forms ran in the end below capacity because it turns out that over 700 of those people didn’t really mean it.

And I think I get why there has been this shift in the landscape. I’d guess:

1) COVID taught us to not soldier on, and that, in fact, it is morally dubious to push yourself onwards when you’re not feeling well.

After all, most of us have had to cancel things we really wanted to do on a last minute basis because of COVID – for example, the euro LRP I was wildly keen on, but tested positive the week beforehand after an Empire LRP breakout – and I think that’s sort of broken the taboo around flakiness. Pre COVID I would not have bailed on a pre-cast, high budget game unless I was literally dead. But once you’ve cancelled on something you really want to do because you have some very mild cold symptoms, I think that breaks a kind of mental barrier. Certainly, following on from my Knight Song cancellation, I felt more able to cancel Legion when my car broke down and I couldn’t really afford it. Which, sure, was probably the sensible call (instead of sticking it all on a credit card and figuring it out later) but it was probably not super helpful for the Legion game runners, and I know my bailing last minute for Knight Song was a total pain, even if it couldn’t be helped.

I sort of acknowledge that this shift is probably here to stay, and maybe we should always have been taking care of ourselves better. But I do think that the way we run LRPs needs to change to take account of this; I suspect primarily in making deposits non-refundable, and demanding full and non refundable payment of balance earlier and more ruthlessly, because otherwise LRP running simply ceases to be financially viable for anyone who can’t afford to sink potentially hundreds or thousands of their own money into refunds. I think maybe more free last minute tickets or exploring the idea of understudy tickets is also the future here. And, sadly, I do think smaller independent LRPs will suffer in general from this.

2) I think COVID broke the link between ‘planning a thing’ and ‘doing a thing’ and we’ve not recovered from this. We spent two years learning that signing up to a game, or a holiday, or even a trip to the hairdresser meant *nothing* and I think it created a new attitude of ‘the act of expressing interest or planning for a thing is a hobby in its own right and then doing the thing is a totally separate hobby which may or may not happen’ and whilst I am not immune to this lure, I think the notion that signing up for LRPs on a speculative basis and then deciding later if you can make it or not is an awful thing and needs to stop.

Seriously. I know why people do it. I really do. I have a horrible feeling I’ve done it, especially in the dark COVID days when everything was being cancelled anyway and no one really believed an event would actually *run* but it’s genuinely a very bad habit which, when practiced widely, fucks up everything.

I am hoping that this phenomenon will begin to fade after this year. 2022, after all, was the first year in which we weren’t in Lockdown for chunks of it, and were recalibrating and figuring out how this ‘actually going places’ thing worked, and overcommitting and cancelling and fucking up as we learned, anew, what our time and energy levels really were these days.

3) I do worry a bit that COVID stress is being replaced by Cost of Living stress. I feel, personally, as if I’m in a constant state of shock at how I’m being paid more than I’ve ever been paid in my life and am still constantly mildly money panicked as the cost of everything goes up. My grocery bill seems to have increased by over 50%, petrol is a bitch, and that’s before we get onto electricity bills. I fear that many people are in a state of financial anxiety and LRP is the thing it’s easiest to cut when an unexpected bill hits (unexpected car/boiler/plumbing bill is the reason behind 75% of my LRP cancellations in the last 5 years). And I’m not sure that this can be solved until the world gets better.

LRP economics are, at the moment, a bit fucked. The cost of running LRP is going up, significantly. The willingness of LRPers to pay for LRP is going down. I am not entirely sure where we go with this, other than it leads into my last point.

4) I think COVID and CoL crisis and a lot of culture wars horror out there has created, in alt and gaming communities, a lot of mental and emotional fragility. I don’t know that anyone came out of COVID saner than when they went in. God knows, I came out of Lockdown with significantly higher levels of depression/anxiety/trauma symptoms than I went in with. And we, as a community, have mostly responded to that with an awareness that we need to be kind to each other, which is a very good thing. But I think there’s been an unintentional side effect to this, which is that being kind to players who flake – reassuring them that’s it’s better to be safe than sorry with their health or being generous with refunds because they can’t afford to just lose the cost of a game or being super flexible with when they pay because we all know times are hard – is actually putting a giant weight on event runners to soak up costs, or lost time and emotional energy, or re-work games on the fly, and smile and say nothing when it’s actually really shit.

I don’t know. I also want to be clear that I’m coming at this both as an event runner who runs a lot of stuff, and also as a player who has flaked on three games in the last 18 months (once due to a massive plumbing crisis, once due to my car blowing up and needing to buy a new one, and once due to COVID) and I KNOW things happen. I KNOW there will always be drop outs and clashes and I KNOW it’s difficult. But also, I know that event runners are struggling more and more with the realities of this world and how to cope with it and it makes me fretful for the future of our hobby.

I really don’t want LRP to be a hobby where there are the three big fest LRPs, plus Fools & Heroes, and maybe a couple of well off LRPers who can afford to soak the risk of a £1000 loss by holding a party in a castle. It’s not a good thing.

Also, much support and solidarity to every LRP runner out there staring down the barrel of the cancellations gun. You are not alone. We are all shitting ourselves over this stuff together. Let’s hold hands in the metaphorical latrine. And if I’ve been one of your flaky players, I’m really sorry.

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