72. The jump from volunteer larp to pro larp – and challenges it brings

Since 2002, I’ve made my living doing larps. For schools. For companies. For churches. We’ve done larps for art institutions, larps for banks and larps for bachelor parties. We’ve done small larps and we’ve done big larps.

Sometimes the goal has been to educated. Sometimes to entertaint. But with very few exceptions, we’ve done larps aimed at a non-larp audience. And it’s been great.

In my free time, I’ve organised larps for larpers. Big, summer larps with 400 people. Small, innovative affairs with 15 participants. And everything in between. I’ve done cyberpunk, fantasy, pirates and Russian alternate history.

All these projects have had one thing in common. People have gotten paid because of those projects, but just not us. We’ve rented toilets, printed books, ordered catering and bought costumes. But all the “larp” stuff – character writing, game design, etc. – was done by volunteers.

Most larps are done this way. And that’s great. Volunteer projects provide some amazing opportunities – both for those who do them and those who participate in them. Prices are (comparetively) low, there’s a ton of freedom, and saying that there’s room for experimentation is somewhere between a truth and a gross understatement.

That was the background.

Now fast forward to three years ago

In April 2014, I met Dracan Dembinski, and our drunken 4 am conversation turned into a project. That project was College of Wizardry, which was run for the first time in November 2014. It was a volunteer project, aimed at larpers, and though it was quite mad, it was still “business as usual”.

Due to the massive, global media coverage that CoW got, we started dreaming. CoW2+3 were announced in December 2014, and sold out immediately. We planned a scouting trip to other Polish locations for January. Maybe there were more projects at castles in our future.

On that trip, in January 2015, we visited not only Zamek Moszna (now home of Fairweather Manor) and Zamek Ksiaz (where Convention of Thorns is held). We also scouted four nazi bunkers, an experimental medieval village and Palac Krobielowice (today the site of the Larp Design Conference).

The most important thing that happened wasn’t scouting, though. It was hiring. Because after many talks and brainstorms, we laid a wild plan. We’d try to actually make money on larps for larpers, and we’d open up a division of Rollespilsakademiet (the larp company that Anders Berner and I co-own) in Poland.

To cut a long story short, it’s now March 2017, and not only is the Polish Division a reality, it’s since been renamed, due to having members from Canada, Germany, and Romania as well. You may have heard of it as Dziobak Larp Studios.

We now produce a score of high-end larps in several countries, and have mad ambitions. A lot has changed since that first College of Wizardry, and I’m going to do my best to walk you through those changes. It might be relevant to others dreaming about taking the jump from volunteer to pro, after all.

Availability demands full time hires

When we first started talking about all this in January 2015, our location boss Boruta was the first Polish larper we considered hiring. At the time, he worked as a psychologist and had gotten permission to take two weeks of vacation to do CoW2+3 in April 2015.

However, it would be an isssue if he wanted more time off. The more time off, the bigger the issue. It wasn’t even a matter of money. Employees that aren’t working just aren’t that useful, even if you’re not paying them.

So with Boruta, we faced a choice. Either we’d keep the number of projects low (2–3 pr year, maybe) or we’d have to hire him full time. Now, if we hired him full time, he’d have tons of time for doing other stuff as well, which was good. On the negative side, we didn’t have projects to “fill out” that capacity, and we needed to pay him year-round no matter what.

In Hollywood, when you land a project, you gear up and start hiring people. One reason this works is that there are always competent people available. They might not be exactly the people you’d prefer, but they’re there.

In the larp industry, it’s not like that. If I didn’t hire Boruta, he wouldn’t be busy freelancing on a different project. He’d be busy working in a completely different job.

We did end up hiring him, and he’s been our Location Boss every since. He wasn’t alone, though. We also brought on Dracan (the original Creative Lead on CoW). He would function as a creator, designer, sales person and graphic designer.

For Dracan, it was less of a all-or-nothing situation. He was working as a graphic designer at the time, and also doing things for his family’s business, but he had flexibilty Boruta hadn’t. Still, he was thrilled at the chance to become a professional larp organiser, and we were thrilled to have him.

Now, due to a variety of reasons it also made sense that we got ourselves an office in the Polish city of Katowice. It was huge, and meant that four people would be living in one part of it (including Dracan, Boruta and Boruta’s wife Linka, plus the mysterious Quartis, who I hadn’t yet met), while the other part was office space.

Now, we had an office, two full-time employees and a team of volunteers to support them. All was good.

The avalanche starts

After CoW2+3, we had to make more decisions, though. Our Scenography Lead and Volunteer Coordinator, Swistak, had to either start getting paid or get a job somewhere else. We brought her on board. And Linka, who had been part of the team from the very beginning as well, also stood at a crossroads. She too, joined the team.

At this point we knew we were doing three more CoWs in November 2015. CoW would no longer be in the Harry Potter universe – after agreement with Warner Bros – but it would continue happening, and we were also doing the Downton Abbey inspired Fairweather Manor.

The Polish team now comprised four people, and in Denmark, Charles and I (both working for the Danish part of the company) spent most of our time doing work related to the Polish larps. It was mad, but it was also a LOT of fun.

To make it even more complicated, the whole organisational structure was pretty complicated. The larps were run by a triple cooperation involving the non-profits Rollespilsfabrikken (DK), Liveform (PL) and the company Rollespilsakademiet. The company hired people. The organisation rented the castle. It was anything but simple.

In November 2015, we faced more choices. Wicher, our Support Wizard and core team member, was looking at going pro as a game designer together with his friend Tukaj. They’d already sold a big project to a Polish teambuilding company hungry for more, and if we didn’t snatch them up, they’d be gone.

Our stalwart film crew, Maciek and Nadina, also needed to decide on what to do with their future. They were brought onboard as well, because the Polish adventure had definitely taught us the value of documentation. And last, but not least, our Tavern Boss and all-round helper Iryt had joined the team, since he was basically living at the office anyway.

At this point we were eleven people working full time on the Polish adventure. It was crazy. We’d also hired Stefan, who was based in Tanzania, with the intent of bringing CoW to German players. So what had been strictly volunteer a year before was now twelve people getting paid. Some of them (especially Charles and I) were getting paid rather badly, and our numbers were red, not black, but we were trying.

Putting it into perspective

Here, it makes sense to pause a moment and look at some of the underlying mechanics at play.

If you do one big project pr year, it’s doable on a volunteer basis. Some people sink a lot of time into it, while others are mainly present for the week or so of intense action just around the event itself. This works, and has been done many times over by many people.

Similarly, it’s reasonably easy to get help. Character writers will pitch in, artists will create illustrations and coordination is at a tolerable level. Prices can be kept low, and with an experienced team, miracles can happen. There are many awesome larps happening today that work like this.

Doing two sizeable projects a year also falls within the realm of the doable. It’s harder for people to find the time, and some resourceful individuals get worn a bit thin, but it still happens. Sometimes, roles vary, because while it might be interesting writing twenty characters for a big production, the same person might not want to do it twice. Routine is not motivational.

This goes even more so for repeat projects. Doing the first College of Wizardry was fantastic. Doing the second and third was an adventure. But if we’d done three more on a complete volunteer basis, I think we’d have started seeing CoW burnouts. Campaigns have a tendency to suck organisers dry, and reruns are no better. Perhaps they’re even worse.

Still, the central thing is that when you don’t do too many projects, it’s still possible to get a lot of stuff done con amore – for the love of it. But when going that step further, things start to happen.

In 2015, we ran five CoW larps, one Fairweather Manor and one College of Wizardry spinoff for Danish kids. Seven castle events total.

Let’s imagine that we had done that on a 100% volunteer basis.

It’s just not doable

In April, we were two weeks on location. That was doable, and we had many people who joined us for both weeks. But in November, we lived in castles for a whole month. It was mad. It was also impossible for most people to take a month out of their calendar and spend it with us.

We’re not even talking motivation or economy here. We’re just talking about being able to take a month out of whatever schedule you might have, to go and live the sweet castle life. Now, remember, we didn’t do a month. We did a month, two weeks in April and a week in October.

To most, it stops right then and there. And that’s just time on location. That’s not counting the insane amount of hours it took to get the events off the ground.

Now, let’s talk money a bit, because money matters.

Let’s imagine that we’d been able to get all our key people to push the pause button on their daily jobs and run larps for seven weeks. That’s seven weeks where they’re not getting paid. It takes a very solid private economy to afford that, and unless we want only the well-to-do to be able to organise larps, not paying them won’t do.

So now we have introduced seven weeks of freelancer pay for core team members into the equation. That money has to come from somewhere. For us, it meant raising prices, since we weren’t getting grant money. We got some grant money for a side project, which helped a lot, but not for the actual running of the larps.

The snowball grows in size

Now, when some people start getting paid, others take deep, hard looks into the mirror and decide if they want to keep on volunteering. That’s only fair, and pretty unavoidable, when you’re transparent inside your team.

This meant that there were those, who hadn’t been paid before, who now would like to get paid for their work. Maybe not in money (yet), but in free tickets to events. Though cheaper than payment in cash, these “free tickets” also cost something.

Prices go up again.

Add to that the “job positions” created by scaling up. For the first CoW, Charles and I handled most of our social media. With four events running at the same time, there was suddenly a lot more to be done! Now, in 2017, with more than ten events going on, taking care of social media is a full-time job.

The same is true of every single aspect of running things. Swistak, who once did both scenography, volunteers and a lot of logistics work, now has to deal with hundreds of volunteers each year, and has no time for scenography any more. We’ve now gotten so much stuff (and it travels between castles!) that we need a full time Storage Boss.

Every time a new person is added to the team, the money needs to come from somewhere.

And it doesn’t end there. Not by a long shot.

Where I was once the project leader for all our projects, there are now several project leaders, who manage a cluster of events each. Where CoW1 sold out in 48 hours after one post on my personal facebook wall, we now have an actual marketing team.

Administration used to be a small thing. Now it’s huge. And where Maciek and Nadina once managed to both film and edit and smile at the same time, they now need to pull in freelancers.

And suddenly it’s gone crazy

I’ve already gone into way too much detail, but the core message is this:

When you grow, you need to have a full time person on each and every key aspect of the organising process; either to do the task or to coordinate the freelancers and volunteers who do. Edin started as a volunteer writer, became a paid freelancer, then a full time writer, and is now in charge of coordinating other writers. He even has an extra full time writer (Jamie) on his staff, due to the sheer amount of writing we do.

We still don’t have people on all positions. We’re still lacking a Storage Boss, for example, and I look forward to the day when I don’t have to do administration, and can dedicate myself fully to the things I excel at (pun intended).

Our team is now quite big (over twenty people, if you count the other divisions of the company), and that means that we are a production house of no small capacity. We need to feed the beast with projects, though, because all those mouths need feeding every month.

We’re not yet running a sustainable larp-to-larp business. And we’re far from running one where we get paid reasonable amounts. I hope we’ll get there, but the road is rough and rocky. Getting to where we are has required some huge leaps, and the only reason we’ve managed that is due to a combination of courage, stupidity and madness.

And I don’t regret a thing. The wonders that taking this leap of madness has brought with it are many. Wild opportunities. Broadened horizons. New friends. Adventures that only a few years ago would have seemed like crazy talk. But it hasn’t come cheaply.

Economically, we’re not in a good place, but we’ve at least now come to a place where we can see the light at the end of the tunnel. If we manage to stay alive, one day we’ll be out in that light and it will be glorious. And I hope that in some years, when I look back, these will be the transformative years, and not the disaster ones.

I also hope that others will learn from our experiences, and when they take the jump from volunteer to pro, they’ll do it smarter, better and with less risk involved.

And I look forward to the day, when blogging about larp is something I don’t just do for the heck of it, but is a major part of my job. If only because it means that by then I’ll be doing less administration, layout, web design and other stuff I’m mediocre at!

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