The Cowardice of Your Convictions

by Warren Tusk

It is much, much easier to be virtuous in a roleplaying game than in real life.

It’s appealing, too, especially in a live-action scenario. Tabletop GMs are often advised to plan for their PCs acting like psychopathic monsters, but in LARPing—some kinds of theater LARPing, anyway, within certain gaming communities1—it’s far more common to encounter the exact opposite. Players often drift towards portraying their characters as saints, or at least eliding their characters’ moral failings.

There are some obvious, predictable reasons for this tendency to take hold. LARPing is a high-powered imaginative technology that produces a strong visceral identification between player and character, and most people much prefer feeling like a good person to feeling like a bad person. What’s more, the flurry of real-time social interactions triggers the usual suite of basic human social impulses (I want these people to like and trust me, I don’t want to upset anyone, etc.), which pushes inexorably towards niceness and decency. All of this is exacerbated by the fact that, in LARPs, niceness and decency are usually the tactically-optimal choices for most characters. When gameplay mostly boils down to “convince people to care about you and help you,” it helps a lot to be sympathetic and appealing and cooperative.

Whatever the reasons, this pull towards moral excellence on the part of PCs reliably manifests in a number of separate-but-related ways:

PCs are not selfish with their time or resources. In a LARP, just like in real life, offering someone a helping hand produces warm emotional fuzzies and the possibility of strategically-beneficial alliances. Unlike in real life, this comes at no real cost, because “going out of your way to help” tends not to be genuinely taxing in any way, and is likely to be more fun and interesting than not. Who could be surprised that the average PC sees helpfulness as a pretty good deal? The situation is even more pronounced with mechanical game resources, such as money and items. These don’t actually have any use at all outside the game, but within the game they often unlock exciting plots and outcomes, and so there’s lots of incentive not to hoard them in the name of self-interest.

PCs love to cooperate and negotiate. Expect to see ancient foes somehow managing to get over their differences, or abiding disagreements of principle being hashed out amicably and reasonably. Cutting deals with your enemies or rivals is usually a risky tactic…but LARPs reward fun high-risk tactics, because the consequences of failure aren’t real (and tend not to be very dire even in game terms). Finding a win-win solution or even a best-available-compromise feels much more like an accomplishment than being obstinate or bellicose, and provides more in the way of rewarding interpersonal interactions. This particular phenomenon has a way of feeding on itself, because when you have some sense that your counterparty is likely to be open to cooperation, that alone is enough to make cooperation a better option.

PCs will not be bound by prejudice or nasty-seeming ideology. If your characters are supposed to be sexist, or orc-hating, or dismissive of robot personhood, or inclined to burn witches at the stake—well, chances are that they just won’t be. And if they are, it will probably prove remarkably easy for the forces of enlightenment and tolerance to pull them away from their opinions. Casual broad-brush statements made in public documents (e.g., “this is a sexist setting where most people are very sexist”) are often ineffective. Specific PCs with especial reasons to be prejudiced (e.g., the Witchfinder-General or the leader of the We Hate Orcs Party) are likely to give it more of a sincere try, but regardless, they usually have a way of looking for excuses to drop their nastiness at an early opportunity. Even the very most stubborn ones often end up as lone angry voices crying in the wilderness, without any power to make other PCs listen or to influence the game world in accordance with their prejudice.

All of this makes perfect sense, psychologically and strategically. In our society, bigots are treated as especially contemptible, and no one much enjoys the feeling of identifying with them. Players are likely to have some out-of-character discomfort with the idea of presenting a bigoted demeanor to other players with only the thin veil of “roleplay license” as social protection. And, above all else, being a bigot is a losing proposition in most LARPs. LARP authors tend to be egalitarian types, these days, and their works reflect it. Within any given game world, the bigots are very likely to be just plain wrong; probably the orcs aren’t really always-chaotic-evil, the robots aren’t really mindless slaves, and the women aren’t really hysterical and unfit for men’s work. Investing in bigotry requires sinking precious time and effort into being unhelpfully wrong. Furthermore, since every PC represents a valuable concatenation of resources (time, social influence, mechanical widgets, etc.), the in-character bigots who write off some PCs as not being valued allies are likely to be behind from the get-go in terms of achieving their goals.

PCs are resistant to vice and temptation. In real life, people constantly do things that are bad ideas, because they’re lazy or greedy or irritable or lustful. This is less true in LARPs. Being lazy is not much of an issue when your goal is to have active social fun, and when most possible things you can do are pretty easy; greed fails to be compelling when the prizes being dangled are fakeries that will vanish within hours; LARPers, unlike their characters, often have trouble channeling the sort of long-standing pervasive dislike of one another that leads to reflexive destructive antagonism; and as for lust, well, it’s easy to see why in-character seduction doesn’t work as well as real-life seduction. Against all these much-weakened forces is pitted rationality, which is much stronger in LARPs than in real life, because LARPs are often simple systems where it’s not hard to figure out what the objective best ideas actually are. So it’s not a shock that PCs tend to home in on good plans and to sidestep the personal moral pitfalls that might serve as obstacles.

None of these things is inherently a problem. LARPing is all about getting to play out the fictional roles that you find appealing, and if many players find it appealing to take on the role of a good person, that’s not a crime. Quite the reverse. It probably says something more-or-less encouraging about human nature.

But in many circumstances, these tendencies can play hell with a LARP’s narrative fabric, rendering it less engaging and less artistically worthwhile as an experience. In the worst cases, they can totally subvert the story that the author was trying to tell, and render everything cheap- and silly-feeling for the PCs as a whole.

In the most general sense, the narratives of theater-style LARPs are usually all about character conflicts, and most conflicts are ultimately driven by someone being less than totally virtuous. PCs who steer hard towards cooperation, and away from difficult tensions, are often making their own experiences more boring; PCs who are resolutely good to everyone are often taking away other people’s reasons to struggle with them, and thereby smothering the drama.

And in a much more narrow-bore sense, there are a lot of gripping narratives that rely directly on central characters being bad in particular ways. There’s real value in telling stories about sin (and perhaps redemption), stories about spiraling hatred and antagonism (and perhaps the ways they can be overcome), stories about prejudice and cruelty (and perhaps how they can be defeated), stories about communities treating their members badly (and perhaps learning to do better)…but all of these stories rely on their characters playing their parts. PCs who are sufficiently determined to be nice can make all those stories impossible to tell through the medium of LARP.

Fortunately, as a game author, you’ve got access to a wide variety of tools that you can use to pull your PCs away from over-virtuousness and towards the negative character traits that you want them to have.

Resist the temptation to make your game into a morality play. This is a big high-concept umbrella idea, with a lot of concrete actionable subcomponents—and, in a moment, I’ll be talking about those subcomponents individually—but it’s worth taking a moment to think about this abstractly.

We all have our own ideas about what is right and good and just. Those ideas matter to us. So it is very tempting, in writing a LARP, to set things up so that rightness and goodness and justice are rewarded while wickedness is punished. And if that’s really the story that you want to tell, go ahead. But you should be aware that you’ll be playing directly into, and amplifying, your PCs’ natural inclinations…and you’ll be encouraging them to short-circuit the conflicts and dramas that would otherwise be making their stories interesting.

LARP authors, particularly newbie LARP authors with big epic ideas, are often drawn to structures that produce optimal outcomes when the PCs are cooperative and decent (and less-optimal outcomes when the PCs engage in vice or struggle with each other). Those same authors tend to be disappointed when their games resolve in easy hug-fests, or when their players don’t seem to be grappling with the serious problems and tensions that were written into the text.

PCs are usually pretty good at figuring out, and pursuing, the structural incentives provided to them by the game. If you want them to do something—like “engage with the darkness within themselves” or “fight with one another”—reward them for doing that thing, not the opposite. This is especially true when they have a built-in preference for doing the “wrong thing,” as they do here. You don’t have to encourage PCs to be good and nice; they’ll do that on their own. You may have to encourage them to do anything else.

Put your PCs in zero-sum competitions. Offer narratively important prizes, make it clear that those prizes can’t be shared, and set your characters to fighting for them. When PCs realize that they actually can’t get what they want by cooperating, they’re much less likely to cooperate. As a bonus, they’ll probably develop more in-character hostility once they realize that other people are directly standing in the way of their goals.

I’ve seen this technique used to great effect in many political games. It’s easy to create a scenario where only one person can win a particular office, or where PCs are clashing over diametrically opposed policy options. But you don’t actually need politics to make it work; you just need any situation where there aren’t enough goodies to go around.

The trick is making sure that the competition really is zero-sum. When given the opportunity, PCs will often find clever ways to sidestep their conflicts: supporting compromise candidates or compromise policies that will give everyone what he wants, trying to use the MacGuffin for multiple purposes simultaneously, and so on. If you want the struggle to be real, you have to be explicit that this kind of thing won’t work.

Historical example: I once wrote a LARP called The Song and the Sunrise about a magic martial arts tournament where the winner’s prize was a genie-style wish—“whatever your heart desires”—on the theory that such a valuable thing would spur the PCs to true kung-fu-movie heights of competitiveness. In the first run of the game, however, the competition instead resolved into the winner saying “I wish for everyone here to get his own heart’s desire.” This made some sense from an in-character perspective, but it absolutely crippled the narrative. The difference between victory and defeat was rendered meaningless, and the action ended with a long, boring “town hall meeting” in which the PCs talked about how to use their wishes for the best overall good.2 In future runs, the wish mechanic had to be substantially restricted, in order to make it truly zero-sum.

Offer explicit rewards for betrayal, vice, and other antisocial behaviors. This is the most direct technique. In many contexts it’s hard to engineer a way to use it, but when you can, it’s extremely powerful; LARPers love cooperating, but they love receiving game-relevant toys even more, and they’ll descend into all sorts of darkness if you dangle the right bait.

The generalized version of this is: if you have some “bad thing” that you want a PC to do or to think seriously about doing, take a moment to ask yourself, “how can I make this thing seem more appealing from a player’s-eye perspective?”

Contingency envelopes probably provide the simplest and most widely-applicable technology here. If a PC starts the game with an envelope labeled Open this when you sell out your friend, or Open this when you’ve yelled at someone in front of others…well, he’s going to be curious what’s inside, and that curiosity will push him towards the relevant badness. That goes double if he has any real reason to believe that the envelope is likely to contain rewards (game resources, a new power, etc).

There are lots of other options, depending on your game structure. Have an NPC offering concrete rewards in exchange for harm done to fellow PCs (bribes for snitching, etc.). Provide mechanical bonuses for indulging in vice (drugs that boost combat power, etc.). The possibilities are endless.

Historical example: My greatest success with this technique was in a LARP called Neon Genesis Revolution, a fangame crossover between two anime series called Neon Genesis Evangelion and Revolutionary Girl Utena. The central mechanic of this game was a stat called Self-Worth, which was used to win duels and to complete other plot-relevant actions, and which went up and down according to a set of triggers that were unique to each PC. So it was trivial to give the slimier and more villainous PCs triggers like “gain 2 Self-Worth whenever you break someone’s heart.”3 One otherwise-good-hearted character was supposed to be an alcoholic, so we gave her the ability to get rid of a dangerous negative status effect by getting drunk and making a self-destructive decision.4 These systems were kind of blunt in the ways that they manipulated the players, but they resulted in some incredibly intense roleplay, and the PCs sure did engage with the darker aspects of their personalities.

Offer Faustian pacts that actually work as advertised, and that aren’t cripplingly expensive. This technique is a particularly noteworthy instantiation of the previous one. Giving LARPers the chance to make deals with the devil (or some narratively devil-like entity) is a very clear way of providing game-relevant incentives for bad behavior; in my experience, when executed correctly, it does a really good job of getting PCs to think hard about their priorities and to do questionable things that make for interesting stories.

Very often, though, the power of the Faustian pact is neutered by the author’s desire to make it a really bad idea. PCs aren’t stupid or self-destructive; they usually won’t sell away their souls, or their most important values, for minor advantages. And “is this pact actually a good deal for me?” is a much less interesting question than “are the costs of this pact morally acceptable?”

As a rule, when PCs sell out to the devil, they should get something pretty good for it—and the costs to them should mostly come in the form of making them feel like bad people, rather than direct negative consequences. The temptation should be a real and meaningful one, with benefits that aren’t inherently self-defeating. The morality-play version of the Faust story just doesn’t provide anything very useful to most LARPs.

Use text to emphasize negative PC attitudes and traits. It’s easy for PCs to ignore themes and issues that are mentioned only in passing, or that are discussed in a boring way. It’s much harder for them to ignore lengthy passages of gut-punching prose. If you want a PC to be bad, or to contemplate badness, use all your skill as a writer to tell him about it. Don’t just toss off a sentence saying that a character has anti-orc sentiments—write a paragraph luridly describing the depths of his passion, and then another paragraph explaining all the psychological places where that passion comes from. Don’t just tell Character A that he has an irrational hatred for Character B—blast him with such a powerful description of the sentiment that he will feel it.

Writers of all stripes often receive advice that amounts to “be as concise and efficient as possible,” and there are good reasons for that, but there are some purposes for which that advice is almost entirely wrong. This is one of them. If you want to push PCs in directions that they wouldn’t ordinarily go, you have to pull them hard into the narrative, and that requires verbiage. Unless you’re a Hemingway, bald no-frills descriptions aren’t going to cut it.

Give your bad guys genuine power. Many LARPs are supposed to feature big multipolar social struggles between right and wrong, and those LARPs often devolve into situations where a couple of designated “bad guys” are grimly hanging onto their bad guy opinions while everyone else ignores or steamrolls them. There’s a simple fix for that: allow the bad guys to punish other people for having non-bad-guy opinions. (Or, if you want to be slightly less hardcore, allow them to reward other people for having bad guy opinions.) This is especially important if the “bad guy” position is supposed to be the social default.

Let your inquisitors actually perform inquisitions, with consequences that the other PCs will rightly fear. Give your villains the ability to make or break other people’s key goals. This makes it hard to be a good guy; you actually have to be willing to accept negative consequences for your ideals. Which makes for a much more compelling story than “we were nice because there didn’t seem to be any real reason not to be.”

This works especially well with powerful NPCs, who aren’t limited by the usual PC considerations of “trying to win,” and who are generally much more willing to be arbitrarily unreasonable. A scary, authoritative NPC driven by a negative ideology can do a lot to pull PCs into doing things they wouldn’t otherwise do.

Historical example: The Dance and the Dawn is set in a fairy-tale court that’s supposed to be a scary place filled with heartbreak and intrigue. Unfortunately, the basic mechanical structure of the game encourages the PCs to cooperate intensively, because their goals are all perfectly compatible. This problem is largely kept under control by an NPC called the Queen of Ice, who has almost total power over everyone, and who is actively interested in causing the PCs to be terrible to each other. Those who live up to her cruel ideals, through backbiting and intrigue, get prizes from her that make it much easier for them to get what they want; those who are determined to play nice have to put up with her putting lots of obstacles in their paths.5 This usually results in at least some people deciding to be mean, which makes the game world feel a lot more like it’s supposed to feel.

Provide real evidence in support of bad opinions or ideologies. The designated bad guys are often stuck in the position of defending beliefs that are clearly, unilaterally 100% wrong. This is a good way for an author to make a statement about how no one should be a bad guy, but it’s a terrible way to evoke drama (and it tends to make the bad guy players involved very sad). If the bad guys are ever allowed to be right—even “right for the wrong reasons”—it can make the dynamic much more complicated, and give a serious shock to PCs who were expecting their default moral-narrative assumptions to be confirmed.

Maybe, this time, the poor orc refugees really are scheming to kill all the humans. Maybe, this time, tolerating that oppressed minority religion really will result in the demon god getting summoned into the world. The PCs will be stunned, and the obvious-seeming moral narrative will become substantially more fraught and worthwhile.

I tend to like this technique on philosophical grounds as well as dramatic grounds. It’s easy to defend nice-sounding principles if they never ever lead to anything bad. It’s much more meaningful to make your PCs defend those principles, or else abandon them, when the costs are meaningful. And, in real life, the people filling the “good guy role”—whatever you think that means—sometimes turn out to be wrong, or to do horrible things. That should not be less true in the narratives of LARPs.

Use your best players well. There are a few precious LARPers who are reliably capable of engaging fully with the worst aspects of their characters. Sometimes they can even be identified through casting questionnaires (although surveys tend to generate false positives on this front). If you have access to any of these wonderful players, stick them with the PCs that will make the best use of their talents—the PCs who are most damaged, narratively, when they veer towards plaster-sainthood.

Know when to give up. There are some ways in which you just can’t make PCs be bad, and so there are some stories that you basically can’t tell through the medium of theater LARP. Unless you have a brilliant new idea, it’s probably best just to steer clear of these rather than letting your game shatter on the rocks of emergent PC morality.

The most infamous of these is the standard-model “gay plot.” LARP stories about about entrenched anti-homosexual prejudice in society will pretty much always fail, because PCs really don’t want to be prejudiced against gay people, and it’s basically impossible to give them any good reason why they should be. So you end up with “anti-homosexual prejudice” that isn’t actually entrenched at all, and before long everyone becomes enlightened and basks in the warm comforting glow of tolerance.

Things play out similarly with other social-justice-type issues (racism, sexism, etc.) where your PCs will have been drilled on a single morally-correct outlook and will be very uncomfortable expressing or embodying anything else. You can get around this to some extent by using fantasy or science-fictional elements to distance the PCs from the real-world version of the issue—LARPers are happier to discriminate against demons than against goblins, and happier to discriminate against goblins than against humans with different-colored skin—but even the “distanced” version of such a trope is likely to run into enormous psychological resistance.

Whatever story you want to tell, ask yourself, “can I truly see my players being willing to take on their proper parts in this story?” If you can’t, try something else.

But, of course, LARPing is a collaborative art form. The task of letting a game tell a brilliant story does not rest with the authors alone. In many ways, a game must stand or fall on the strength of its players.

I’d like to end this with an exhortation to anyone who plans to LARP in the foreseeable future: the next time you take on a PC role, let yourself be bad.

In fact…do more than that. Before the game, actively think about the ways in which your character is a flawed person. Decide on one cowardly, prejudiced, or unethical thing that he’s likely to do if given the chance. Come up with a moral test that, if he finds himself faced with it, he is likely to fail.

Later on, when you think about the narrative you spun for yourself in that LARP, you’ll be glad you did.

Warren Tusk has been writing LARPs for ten years, and his games have been featured at conventions, theaters, and private events around the world. Some of his work is commercially available through Paracelsus Games.

  1. Here I refer primarily to the so-called “theater LARPing” tradition of the American Northeast; the Harvard-derived community first and foremost, but also communities that grew out of Brandeis and Smith and RPI, and to some extent the somewhat broader and more heterogenous group that collects at Intercon. 

  2. The Song and the Sunrise by Warren Tusk, Matt Granoff, and Weiyi Guo. Produced by Warren Tusk. Harvard-Radcliffe Science Fiction Association, Cambridge, MA. March 9, 2007. Production of live-action roleplaying game. 

  3. Tusk, Warren and Ada Palmer. Neon Genesis Revolution. “Character Sheet—Touga Kiryuu.” 13. 2009. Live-action roleplaying game. 

  4. Tusk, Warren and Ada Palmer. Neon Genesis Revolution. “Character Sheet—Misato Katsuragi.” 8. 2009. Live-action roleplaying game. 

  5. Tusk, Warren. The Dance and the Dawn. “Character Sheet—The Queen and the Duke.” 2006. Live-action roleplaying game.