In theater-style larp, the process of telling the story provides a big chunk of the fun. The opportunity to be an interesting character, follow their journey, pursue their goals, and use their capabilities is all provided by the unfolding story as a major part of the player experience. And though there are many ways to tell a compelling story, it’s a longstanding aphorism that you can’t have drama without conflict. Conflict provides a struggle which adds dimension and interest to the pursuit of goals, as well as creates the investment in the proceedings that accompanies things which only come hard-won. One of the most obvious tactics for creating that conflict within the story comes from the inclusion of villain characters—antagonist PCs with goals and motives designed to drive them to act in opposition to other characters in the game.
Unfortunately, designing a villain PC to serve this vital narrative function is much trickier than it may at first appear. Some of the purpose the character is designed to serve may be at odds with the goals of the larp play experience. Villains, by definition, need to stand in conflict with the views and desires of other characters so they can clash. If they are true villains, instead of merely antagonists, they represent some presence of “evil” that ought to be borne out in their attitudes and actions. Because of these demands, villains present particular challenges to ensuring that they are enjoyable to play. It comes down to balancing the needs of the player versus the needs of the game, and it can be hard to make sure that the villain role does both. This article will first examine what difficulties the inclusion of a villain character can pose to the balance of storytelling and play experience, addressing the issues of narrative demand, player satisfaction, and effect on the larger game. Then strategies a writer can employ will be discussed, in order to make best use of villain PCs while avoiding these problems.
The first step is to understand the challenges involved in achieving that end. The villain character is often conceived of in relation to the resolution the writer had in mind for the important conflicts. Generally players (and writers) tend to believe that the “good guys” of the story ought to come out on top, which can lead to the hope that the heroes will “succeed” and the villains will “fail” by the end of the game. In theater-style larp, we don’t like to emphasize “winning” and “losing” too heavily, as it creates a somewhat false metric of success for playing a game. It’s much more preferable that players tell a compelling story and have an enjoyable time, independent of whether they are any sort of objective “victor.” At the same time, another tenet of creating drama is that characters ought to want something, so having goals to achieve creates investment and drive to act. The prospect of attaining whatever goals have been set down as important to a character can provide player satisfaction. In such a case, where the writer is ultimately hoping that the “hero” characters will achieve goals in opposition to those of the more “villainous” characters, this means that, one way or another, the villain PCs are set up for failure.
This is not automatically a bad thing, given the lack of emphasis on success as a measure of the story or experience. But it can have consequences to player autonomy, both in perception and in reality. When a character is set up to be unable to really achieve their goals, it can make the player feel like nothing they do matters. This can be discouraging, and lead them to feeling like there is no reason to make an effort or take action. Players generally like to have agency unless specifically prepared ahead of time. In games that are not explicitly on rails, villain players may feel like they are handicapped so that the so-called “desirable” endings can occur. And of course, this is only if the player is aware that they’re intended to fail. If they aren’t aware, and learn of their impossible situation after the game, it often creates disappointment after the fact, a dissatisfaction with the time and effort invested during play.
Additionally, just the knowledge that a player is supposed to act in a particular way in order to make the game work—in this case, pushing the conflict—risks compromising their freedom of choice. They can feel pressured to make choices they don’t want to make to ensure the function of the game overall. Depending on the expectations the player had going in, that can be met with resistance and frustration.
Many players may not want to play villains because they don’t want the experience of being despised or persecuted by the rest of the cast. Due to the tendency to favor the good guys over the bad, there tend to be many more heroes than villains in any given larp. Being the one of the rare villains in a game can be a lonely experience, particularly when everyone around you is motivated to thwart you. It can also compromise execution of the antagonist role, causing excessive caution in the player for fear of retribution from opposing players. Anything that leaves a player isolated as well as inactive is a problem, considering both the purpose of villain roles, and that interacting with others is a major interest of theater-style role players.
Being too unique in the game is not the only reason villains risk isolation. The nature of the hero-villain opposition means that the villain is likely to be set upon and neutralized the moment they are identified as such. This is where the phenomenon of the “lynch mob” comes from, a group of usually protagonist characters ganging up to confront their common antagonist and overwhelm them with their number. In Breaking Light Productions’ Alice, a gothic reinterpretation of Alice in Wonderland, the primary antagonist has been so dangerous and so universally opposed that other PCs have found it necessary to converge on him in this manner in all six of its runs. (Roberts) Given that villains already face so much opposition to their efforts, this represents the extremity of the situation.
Next, villainy usually requires very active players. If villain PCs are included in the game, a common role they play is “problem creator,” someone whose actions make challenges for other players to respond to. With their status as an evil or negative presence, they bring negative circumstances into play, which characters of a more positive bent will naturally counter. The clashing of these two opposing impulses achieves our end goal of creating conflict. But in this framework, the villain must be very proactive, coming up with schemes and putting them into effect with less, or entirely without, in-game prompting. This requires a high level of creativity, energy, and effort on the player’s part. Many find this to be too excessively demanding to be enjoyable, particularly if they prefer a play style that is more reactive to other events.
A final major concern is finding players who are willing to be as wicked as the villain is written to be. Many larpers simply don’t want to be or do the sort of things being a villain entails—immoral deeds, obstructing other characters, espousing repellent ideas. And what if your villain is truly repugnant, such as a racist or a rapist? If you have such characters in your game, casting them can be near impossible, when some people find even the simple idea of being in conflict with others to be unbearable.
All this can mean that it can be very challenging to design a villain that will both serve your story without being prohibitively difficult to cast. But I’m old-fashioned—I believe very strongly that drama is conflict, such that you can’t have drama otherwise. That conflict has to come from somewhere. But you may ask, why use villain PCs in order to provide it? I would argue because it provides richness to the narrative.
A larp writer intends for the players to become invested in their characters, so they more fully involve themselves in the larp. The most compelling characters are rarely simple, and one of the most fascinating dimensions of human complexity can be moral. Furthermore, if every role were too similar, the game would become bland, losing the specificity that true individuality creates. Characters feel more human when they are as unique as real people actually are. But although each PC may be the hero of their own story, in a larp’s complicated web of desires pursued by diverse personalities, they don’t need to be Snidely Whiplash to serve as the villain in someone else’s. It is simply the natural consequence of creating an array of varied and complex roles that they will sometimes want things that other characters do not. When there can be no drama without conflict, it is well worth the effort to find a way to make that conflict playable if it means more interesting characters, narrative, and gameplay. So, in order to deal with their challenges and make use of their advantages, villains should be designed and cast in such a way as to allow the player to enjoy that job of pushing the conflict. This requires taking the problems mentioned above into account in order to work around them.
The place to begin is by ensuring the character has the right degree of capability to act. It may help to make certain a villain player has some agency, or at least the feeling of having it. This may seem dangerous if you are invested in the heroes coming out triumphant in the end. But the villain’s ability to present some kind of serious threat heightens the tension and raises the stakes of the entire story. If there is nothing for the heroes to overcome, the victory does not feel satisfying. So it can be helpful to ensure the antagonist character has the resources, abilities, and knowledge to actually make a real challenge to others. Even if you stack the deck against them, and make it very difficult indeed for them to win, when the villain player knows they have these things at their disposal, it makes them feel more able to affect things. Finding this balance tends to be better for the game overall, not only to improve the experience for the villain players.
Even further, I would advocate for never making it absolutely impossible for the opposition to come out on top in the end. If a player is clever and creative enough, the game ought to be set up so that their cleverness is rewarded. It encourages future efforts toward maximum brilliance and boldness from players, which always results in more interesting games. It also helps heads off the villain feeling as though their actions cannot have a meaningful effect on play. In the debut run of The Prince Comes of Age, a high fantasy comedy of manners, one of the primary antagonists found that by telling elaborate lies and making up powers she did not possess, she could manipulate her unsuspecting targets without detection. (The Prince Comes of Age by Jonathan Kindness et al) There was nothing specifically in the design of the game intending for this, but permitting it made the character more effective and allowed the player greater enjoyment. This positive feedback on their creative efforts from the game gave the player the feeling that their actions matters and they had a sufficient level of agency.
This of course raises the question of what exactly that correct agency level is. In the hero-versus-villain competition, there is a risk of a villain’s success making the game less enjoyable for other players. If you are concerned with whether or not villains’ victory will make for an inappropriate ending to the narrative, you can manage the win conditions for the character’s achieving of their goals. It is possible to make it so that characters’ goals are not completely mutually exclusive, so no one’s victory necessarily means someone else’s total defeat. The potential problem, however, is that in lowering the barrier to success, it can neutralize the conflict, which defeats the purpose of including villains in the first place. But if the writer balances the achieving of oppositional goals with personal ones that no other actor is particularly trying to prevent, there can be a chance to snatch at least some meaningful, satisfying victory even if overall the character is meant for defeat. Perhaps your wicked schemer will not succeed in wresting away the throne from the rightful heir, but if they can have an engaging romance plot, or explore their relationship with their estranged sibling, it may still feel like time well spent. The key, in this case, is providing an array of objectives of varying size, contentiousness, and difficulty to achieve.
There is the danger that in allowing a villain to triumph means loss and disappointment for what may amount to the lion’s share of the cast. Villains and evil characters in general tend to be outliers in a given game, with most PCs either being actively protagonistic or at least not working against the interests of anyone else. So when that minority achieves something at the expense of their opponents, you are likely to have made a pleasant experience for a small number of players at the expense of the majority. In that case, a balancing measure can take the form of how the villain’s victory expresses in gameplay. Often it serves as a nice compromise to allow the villain the chance to achieve their ends, but make it so that the consequences thereof trigger after the period of play is over. In such a case, the GMs can declare that the villain’s success did come to pass, but not until after the point in the story at which play has ended. This can soften the negative consequences by making them less immediate. In The Dying of the Light, a two-hour high weirdness Iron GM game from The Melpomenauts, it is possible for certain antagonists to bring about an event that would conclusively end the narratives of all other characters. (Benderskaya et al) But if the conditions for this are met, the players continue on until the conclusion of the game as normal, and are informed later that the villain’s event would later come to pass. The villain got to achieve their goal, but the other PCs didn’t feel particularly defeated by it, as it didn’t actually affect their experience of play.
Another way to combat the agency issue in villainy is to ensure that there is a team of PC allies for them to work with. As mentioned before, antagonists tend to be vastly outnumbered by protagonists in most games. By ensuring there are at least a few other like-minded, sympathetic, or at least symbiotic individuals in the cast along with them, these characters will have more strength in numbers. Additionally, this is a good way to prevent them from becoming too isolated. Their team members can be characters with whom they can be honest and collaborative, and are actively interested in interacting with them. With at least one or two others designed to be on their side, they have both the power of group cooperation behind them as well as a built-in source of positive intercourse.
If the concern is the villain being too easily overwhelmed and having no one to engage with, a useful design choice can be to make it so that it is not immediately obvious to other PCs that the character even is a villain. Secret antagonists can be much more playable than apparent ones, as they do not invite immediate opposition to their actions. Other players will be much more open to talking to and even confiding in them, heading off the issue of having no positive in-game connections. This provides a little more leeway to maneuver towards their goals, because their actions are not automatically scrutinized for evil intent. All this gives the character the sense of having a fighting chance, and a play experience more like the other PCs. As such, many writers take it for granted that villains must be secret at the top of game, though it is certainly possible for antagonists to be set up clearly from the start. In that case, however, it may be necessary for the villainy to be less extreme or not so explicitly evil, so as to not face immediate opposition from the rest of the game. The difficult cousin character in the family reunion game probably has a better chance of being a functional open villain than the high fantasy evil wizard scheming to murder the king. A good rule of thumb is the more you can foresee the character being killed or imprisoned as a consequence for his actions, the better off they’re likely to be working in secret.
Many of these strategies encourage the writer to take advantage of the shorter-term form, at least for truly evil characters. It is much easier to design workable, actively malicious villains in a game with a briefer period of play, specifically the two-, four-, or six-hour game, and certainly no longer than a weekend. It doesn’t make diegetic sense in most cases for heroic characters to tolerate the presence of villains for long, particularly when they’re actively working towards negative ends. And the more a villain does, the more difficult it is to remain undetected. When the villain is at last discovered, they will probably not stay alive or free very long against all the other characters who oppose them. The villain player will not be able to fully participate after this happens, removing them from the game. Early removal can be tolerable in a short game, but if a player goes in with the expectation of many sessions of play as a villain, they are likely to be disappointed. If a writer desires to include active, malevolent villains, a short-form game is a much better option to make than a longer-term or serialized one.
It is also possible to include antagonists that are oppositional, but not necessarily in a way that is intensely malevolent. Technically, the definitions of “protagonist” and “antagonist” do not map precisely to “hero” and “villain.” A protagonist is simply the narrative figure attempting to work towards a goal, while an antagonist is the narrative figure opposing their actions. These terms do not have an inherent moral dimension; it’s only that we usually tend to make our characters who make positive efforts our protagonists, and those who make negative ones our antagonists. If you use antagonists to provide conflict rather than truly evil characters, it not only widens the range of players interested in portraying them, it can also lead to fascinating character dimensions that are a little less black and white than the basic hero-villain dichotomy.
However, often when you choose to soften these PCs, it helps to have an additional source of conflict from elsewhere in the game to make sure there is still a sufficient level of struggle. Many games, particularly those intended to run over a longer term, make most of the problems facing the PCs come from something external, such as an in-game circumstance or the actions of an NPC. This has the advantage of allowing the GM the control to keep the conflict level as high as desired while circumventing any aversion to pushing it on the players’ part. It is also a good way to get the presence of truly evil villainy in the game. If someone wants to include a terrible monster figure, or a figure of one of the special kinds of evil that players often feel uncomfortable embodying, it may be most workable to have it take the form of an NPC. The Stand is a cowboy game set in the American west before the Civil War, and racism is a presence in an effort to incorporate some sense of historical realism. But given that players consistently have an aversion to consciously behaving or speaking in a racist manner, the most virulent bigot is an NPC villain whose actions have an effect on the PCs’ journeys in-game. (Roberts) It allows the theme to be expressed without making players behave in a manner they don’t find fun.
All of this is what a writer can do to manage the workings of a villain character in the design process. But the last line of defense, and sometimes the most effective, is getting the right player in the role. Setting expectations correctly may be the single most effective way to ensure you get a player base that will have a good time. You need a way to choose which people are the best possibilities for the needs of your particular villain role. It’s easy to include a question, or multiple questions, on the casting form about it. “How do you feel about playing a villain?” “How do you feel about having the game stacked against you?” “How do you feel about acting in service to the plot?” While they are certainly less common, there are definitely people who actively enjoy the challenges of villainy. And securing the player’s complicity beforehand is always beneficial; in fact, even letting them know things beforehand has the tendency to make people much more open to possibilities than they might be if you sprung it on them. And of course, you can drop the veil a little bit and directly obtain buy-in from your villain player. Make it explicit that you are looking for someone who is willing to actively push the conflict and then go out in a blaze of glory in the service of telling a good story. Because telling good narrative can require certain managed choices, many players who value the narrative in particular are happy to make those choices to tell the most interesting tale.
After all, telling an engaging story through larp is a major source of the fun of the game. Managing the conflict level is a necessity to ensure that a story is told in a compelling way that entices the players to emotionally invest. The inclusion of villain PCs can be a narratively strong choice to achieve that end, though it can be fraught with challenges. But with a little careful consideration, at both the design and the running levels, they can be well worth the effort with the dimension they bring to your larp cast and to the game at large.
Benderskaya, Liliya, Kat Davis, Joshua Rachlin, and Tory Root. The Dying of the Light. 2013. Live action role play game.
The Prince Comes of Age by Jonathan Kindness, Matthew Kamm, and Bernie Gabin. Produced by Happier Far Games. Festival of the Larps, Waltham, MA. 2011. Production of live action role play game.
Roberts, Phoebe. Alice. 2007. Live action role play game.
Roberts, Phoebe. The Stand. 2011. Live action role play game.
Phoebe Roberts is an MFA-trained playwright and screenwriter who has been larping since 2007—and playing more than her share of villains! In that time, she has turned her love of storytelling to the writing of twelve live action games, solo and in teams. She is also on the editorial staff for Game Wrap Magazine. Her writing for larp and for other dramatic forms can be found on her website, www.phoeberoberts.com.