I’m leading a group of players up Parliament Hill on a sunny Saturday afternoon, wearing a backpack full of Nerf guns, a radio, and a wolf hat. They’re all impressed with the level of organisation given that this is a free event, and one of them seems almost guilty.
It feels a bit harsh to tell her that we used to charge £16 and sell out every time. But on some level, if people aren’t paying you, they don’t trust you. So we run the game, werewolves springing out from behind cover and charging nerf-gun-wielding humans in the woods, and back at the pub I tell the story.
We did that, once, and it almost killed us.
Free games have an amazing ‘we’re all in this together’ vibe. For this run, we’d told people to sew a reversible ‘werewolf hat’ - a beanie with ears on one side, to signal your status. I thought we’d get a few hats and a lot of excuses. Instead, every last player arrived with a hat. Nobody grumbled about scouring the woods for ammo afterwards, and everyone came back to the pub.
Paid events are different. Once you’ve bought your ticket, your responsibility is to yourself, now, to make sure that you get £16 worth of fun. It’s the crew that feel it the strongest; even the slightest thing going wrong would stress me out, because I owed these people, even if they weren’t always acting like it. And, of course, the crew weren’t playing any more. We’d become stage hands.
It didn’t start this way. But like a lot of things in London, Fire Hazard took off suddenly. And with a crew member with visa issues, we needed to grow to the point where we could support a full-time employee. Challenge accepted: if you can’t protect your crew, what the hell are you good for?
But as the prices got higher, the groups got bigger, and the stress got unbelievable, I noticed something - it had stopped being fun. Designing the games was still interesting. Hanging out at the pub with fifty buzzed and grinning players still generated vicarious enjoyment. But running games, and the finance, legals, and logistics of building a company had turned into work. Pints and planning had turned into lunch and ledgers. And we’d become less creative, running the same format over and over, because it was more efficient.
If you give up the vision for some temporary expediency you deserve neither and will lose both. Fire Hazard started with a bunch of friends running around the woods screaming our heads off and having the time of our lives. As soon as we lost sight of that, we were already dead.
So don’t bring a fiver to a Fire Hazard game. Bring yourself, bring your friends, bring a sense of adventure and a willingness to make the game as well as to play it.
That’s payment enough.