Thursday, February 10, 2011

The Genesis and Anatomy of Running an Event - Part 1: The Backgrounder

As a Meetup, Raleigh Tabletop RPGs (RTR) has cleared large 9 events and are looking at more in the future. These have gone from the wildly successful to just enough for a table.

At each I've asked myself, "what made this event successful?" or "why did this event not live up to expectation?". Sometimes I even ask myself "why do I do this?", but that question is only asked when I stress myself out. The good news, is that all these events have been a positive learning experience for me. I think I'm the better GM for it, and I'd like to share why.

I also want to share with anyone looking at doing their own event, the ins and outs, what makes success how I see it, and what makes not-so-success. Also, I'll share what works and what was cast to the wayside.

What do we define as an "event"?
As a Meetup group, RTR is pretty busy. We cater to private games and gathering gamers together socially. In short, we provide places and reasons for gamers to network. Occasionally, RTR goes a bit bigger in order to net more gamers and put an interesting spin on the games we play. These larger gaming gatherings are our "events". We usually set a theme, and everyone who is interested in playing volunteers to host a game and RTR gathers the players. We hope that in the process, we bring more gamers together to sample each others handiwork and gaming skills. A proud moment is when gamers find the games and gamers they like to share a table with.

Why do I do this?
Apart for being one of those questions I ask when I stress, there always has been an answer for it. I've never been one to run big things, although I am a stickler for group cohesion and morale. Although I've been a gamer for a bit over 30 years, I've also enjoyed other hobbies, namely military reenacting. As a reenactor, you can either participate in events that are 1 to 8 hours away, or you can create your own mojo locally. I've seen where a well organized event can energize a reeacting group's desire to do more events, engage its members and bring in new people. I've since wondered the same about a gaming group. Would holding local gaming events help dormant players come out? I thought - "you don't know until you do it!" - which has since become my personal motto.

Less is more
The biggest fact I've learned is that gamers like new and shiny. That's not a bad thing, it's rather good for the game publishing industry. They also like things they can plan to go to and savor the new and shiny. This is where I learned that less is more. When RTR scheduled and hosted its first event, Dark Carnival (which was a World of Darkness themed event) in 2010, it was mildly successful in terms of players who showed. Everyone who showed really enjoyed it, and for its size, was the best rated event that RTR has hosted. There was a spark that made it special, and set the pace for the next event three months later, The Age of New Wonders.

Aside from some minor venue problems, The Age of New Wonders was another hit. This is where I experienced a little bit of hubris. I had the idea of going from quarterly events to bi-monthly. I took in ideas from the membership. Soon, I was backed and stacked with an event every month from July to October. Many people voted on these ideas and I had dreams of larger and larger gatherings. Or so I thought.

The Space Opera event happened in July and wasn't as big as we hoped. It attracted about 20 gamers, whereas the Age of New Wonders attracted 28. I was shocked - everyone liked sci-fi - that I couldn't attract more people. I had giveaways and freebies even! I wrote it off as the fault of the season - summer. The next month was Arabian Nights, swords and sorcery was sure to attract. Again same result, 20 gamers. I was beginning to feel that a fatigue of sorts was setting in with everyone who showed up. September was Talk Like A Pirate Day, and despite the enthuastic response when it was a mere idea in the months past, all we could do is a table on which we played a board game and an RPG. We topped out at 6 people, and was the low point to the event season. CthulhuFest, which we thought would have a great return, was downgraded to a single session with 14 gamers showing up, but I saw something good here. The next event was a bit of a comeback with Zombie Apocalypse with 19 players showing up.

At the end of Zombie Apocalypse, the organizers all were beat. We determined that we were cutting back to quarterly events and there was some suggestions of cutting back even further to twice a year. My dreams of recruiting more members seemed to be an unrealistic dream. I looked back at the year and surmised that things started unraveling when we decided to change horses in midstream and upped the number of events on the calendar. Too much becomes common and stops being shiny. I was killing the golden goose.

When the 2010 season was heading into the home stretch, we had already laid some plans for the 2011 season in the form of Dark Carnival 2011. I had asked Melissa, another organizer to head this event since she was also heading up the World of Darkness Special Interst Group (better known as the WoD SIG), and allow it to become a WoD SIG sponsored event. Melissa had some different ideas about how to work events, and slowly built up interest in Dark Carnival by means of organizational meetings, WoD SIG meets and postings on her blog. Response was good.

The main fear for Dark Carnival was the fact it was a month separated from the Zombie Apocalypse event and that the old spectre of "gamer fatigue" would come up again. At this point, we had to think like true marketers. World of Darkness players make up a sizeable portion of the Meetup, and RSVPs were OK around the beginning of the holidays. Melissa started marketing specifically to the World of Darkness players, letting Meetup cover the general population. RSVPs picked up a bit, but seemed that RSVPs stalled in the final weeks. In the final week or so, with Melissa's permission, I personally appealed to the WoD players to attend. This was a great decision, for it convinced some members who were either new or who were lurking to come in and play. RSVPs picked up and we were able to deliver a quality event that attacted 28 people - 10 more than the previous Dark Carnival. The spark seems to be back.

The slow build worked, so we determined to apply it to the next event, the Game Master's Fair. We're also looking at the summer event by advertising at this event by doing a preview game and advertising it heavily.

Next: The Anatomy of an Event