(CN Note: mention of IC sexual assault, violence, and death.)
Some discussions came up at the last NERO BANE event regarding what it means to be in-character and restraints on in-character actions, and on the drive home I remembered this article about the harm done by the concept of IC vs. OOC as a measure of worth. I think it aligns fairly well with my perspective, and has a lot of good conversation fodder. I’m going to expand on my thoughts on it in this post
After years of gaming, including in games that attempted to enforce very strict rules about IC vs. OOC motivations, that made emotional bleed a taboo subject, that had no rules regarding consenting to stories or scenes, I realized that the environment I had come from was the cause of a lot of grief. The habits I picked up there had negatively affected players in those games and later ones. I disregarded their out of character feelings and even what made a good story, because I had learned that “in-character” actions were always justified.
In this environment, if something happened according to the rules and didn’t involve demonstrable out of character bias or motivation (which was always a subjective measure and nigh impossible to prove), it was acceptable. A lot of hurt feelings about lost characters, premature story endings, bullying, nerdball, and everything else that comes from encouraging selfishness in LARPs would instead be channeled into finding the smallest rules violation. If there was a violation of the rules, then all the hurt had to be about that, not about how a player really wanted the dead character to finish an arc, or solve a plot, or just how that they wanted to keep playing them. It both encouraged rules lawyering along with stifling conversations about what the actual problem was
This theory of LARPing involves a near-complete divorcing of the character from the self. The player must turn their creation loose in the game with no expectations and give IC reactions to everything. Some pre-planning is acceptable, but one must never expect it.
Because of the lack of consent rules and the taboo nature of communication, it meant the only way to have control over one’s experience of the game as a player was to amass as much IC power as possible. Nerdball was a strategy that became necessary.
Don’t want a character to be raped? Better make it so no one can touch the character, physically or politically or both.
I wish I was joking about that last one, but it still happens in games without active consent rules or content bans on sexual assault (Note: I am very happy about NERO’s content ban on this topic). Even less extreme situations involving such things as public humiliation, yelling in someone’s face, and having to endure bullying or hazing in other games can only be moderated in character, not out of character. In some very toxic games, the same applies out of character, too- a player must have the ability to threaten someone IC to prevent them from targeting you OOC.
Over time, and after playing a lot of better games, I came to the realization that the entirety of the above theory of IC and OOC is a harmful pile of nonsense that gets in the way of having fun, whether the game is explicitly competitive or collaborative.
Instead, I realized that my LARP character is my responsibility, and other people are responsible for theirs, too. I started facing down all the antisocial, not-fun things I had done as part of that culture and the ways I could do better in the future. I have not unpacked it all, but I am working on it.
LARP Characters as Tools for OOC Gratification
I have come to the conclusion that all LARP characters are tools. They are tools that we create from scratch or refine from a template to do what we want them to do, to give us the experience we want, to fulfill our entirely out of game desires about what it means to have a good time at a LARP.
Sometimes, the concept will flow very naturally, a progression of ideas that we as players have picked up from years of gaming, reading, research, and cultural exposure. Very often, characters that don’t flow easily are hard for us to play because they don’t feel natural, so our very choice of character is determined by our out of game opinions, experience, and knowledge. Even if we’re making an evil character, that villain is informed by our perspective. We would assign an irredeemable villain deeds that we see as irredeemable, and don’t cross those lines for villains when we want them to seem conflicted.
Building a character can also function as a thought experiment, broadening our horizons and making us see ourselves or the world differently. That’s one of the joys of LARP for me, to be honest- to feel something new or understand something in a new way. Playing a character who was thoughtful, kind, and patient to a fault helped me hone my social skills. Playing a different character who had little control over her own emotions helped me learn to articulate and express my own
As these characters are our creations and it was our choice to play them in a specific game, we are always, always responsible for our character’s choices. Our decision to take an action in-character is our own and the consequences on the fun of other players are likewise something we must engage with.
This doesn’t mean that a character being evil, mean, or otherwise opposed to another is bad play- far from it! Conflict and struggle is a constant feature in many LARPs. Providing that is one of the primary activities of the plot team, for example. They design characters and monsters that may be disgusting, abhorrent, immoral, or otherwise unpleasant in addition to helpful NPCs. The intent of the characters, though, is to create fun for the players and be enjoyable for staff to play.
There is another factor in this, however. The more antagonistic a character is, be they PC or NPC, the more responsibility the player or staff member has to run the character in a way that is enjoyable for others. There’s a good description of how this works in the Oath of the Antagonist, along with good advice about playing these characters. However, even if the player is only incorporating some antagonism, secrecy, or some working cross-purposes to the general consensus, it still applies with respect to those actions.
Why do I call out these actions in particular? Because it’s very, very easy to take advantage of others in a primarily PvE game in ways that make the game more frustrating. Many people don’t enjoy implementing complex failsafes and constantly checking their drinks for poison and controlling the flow of plot information to prevent sabotage. In particular, that last one is specifically likely to make the game harder to engage with for new players, which has a long-term detrimental effect on the player population and the game as a whole.
So if I decide to take advantage of the trust of other players, I have to consider whether my fun is more important than the frustration caused both to existing players and to future players who have to deal with the procedures put in place to prevent someone from doing what I did again.
If Someone Doesn’t Want You To Hurt Their Character, That’s Your Problem, Not Theirs
This was something that was shared with me during the Convention of Thorns mechanics briefings:
“If you jump someone with five other elder vampires in a dark corridor on the top floor, and they decide to survive the fight, that’s your fault. You should have made the murder more fun, more relevant to their story, made a pitch that had them enthusiastic about dying right then and there.
The argument ‘if people have to consent, they’ll never let me do the things that I want’ is an argument founded on the idea that my right to swing my fist does not, in fact, end where someone else’s face begins. If the only way I can do the things I want is by making the game less fun for others, I should take a good, hard look at what I want out of game, whether it is appropriate for this game, and why I think I should be able to get it while making other people upset. That it is “in-character” for my character is irrelevant- I decided to play this game with this play style, I decided what was in-character for this character, and I decided that this action was the way forward.
It is not the responsibility of players to act as targets and victims for others. I have seen far too many games where players, usually the newest players, are expected to act as punching bags for others. Most of them leave, often after only an event or two of this treatment. They leave until the game dies because it cannot retain players or attract new ones. It follows then that absolving myself of responsibility for my in-character actions is a shortcut to making sure I have to find a new LARP, either because the current one has been run into the ground or because no one wants to RP with me anymore.
Enforcing Setting and Expectations
But without in-character consequences enforced entirely in-character, how will we enforce setting? This is a question I’ve gotten in the past when I suggested consent rules in games.
Different games do have different settings, genres, and expectations. There is nothing inherently wrong with running a Vampire: the Masquerade PvP murderfest where OOC plotting skill is paramount and characters drop like flies, or a combat-oriented fantasy boffer game where fitness and boffer skills determine the outcome, or a wholly collaborative game about interpersonal relationships and dying set in the 1980’s LGBTQ+ community (if that sounds interesting, check out the game Just A Little Lovin’), but it is important to make the nature of the game clear so that what is appropriate or inappropriate to the setting is clear
If someone goes to the average vampire game and insists on being perfectly heroic, and doesn’t seem to understand why they’re getting so much pushback in-character, this might not be the game for them. In many games I have been in, this would be resolved by attacking their character to ‘teach’ them what the game was about, but in retrospect that is possibly the worst first step to take. Since the problem is out of character expectations, those need to be clarified first. Sure, the player is acting “in-character”, but if it is the result of a misunderstanding of the nature of the game, that needs to be clarified with the player first.
On the other side, a player who makes a concept that is genre-inappropriate or too grimdark for a game needs to have this brought up out of character. The root issue is not the in-character actions that the inappropriate character takes, but instead the player’s misunderstandings of the boundaries of this game in particular. Though the player’s actions are “in-character” for them, they are not appropriate to the game. This, I believe, is a good illustration of the fundamental idea that “in-character” is not inherently good or above reproach.
In both of these cases, there are gray area concepts that push the edges of what a game would consider appropriate but aren’t obviously out of line. Most vampire games, for example, are skeptical of completely villainous sociopath characters even though a lot of vampire characters are morally gray, self-justifying monsters who acquire increasingly self-destructive and toxic personality disorders as they get older. We’ve all seen the reverse, too, the person who plays a lawful good (or lawful neutral) character that is so hard-line about laws and so inflexible that it makes it hard for them to interact positively with other players.
These boundary-pushing characters, like antagonists, need to be played with self-awareness and an understanding of what the character brings to the game. How can the player use this character as a foil? How can they create good scenes?
I have found that a lot of frustration in games is based in people have warring expectations of what a game even is. That isn’t something that is solved by pitting Grimdark Antihero against Shiny Adventurer in character to determine the atmosphere of the town- that is something that is solved by figuring out what the game actually is supposed to be. Maybe that means talking to staff, maybe to each other, maybe even putting it up for general player discussion if there is a question. Maybe the game is actually about that conflict, and it should proceed, but in all likelihood, one or both characters might need some tweaks instead because neither one was really correct about what the game was about.
Incidentally, the more genres, tones, degrees of intensity, and variance a LARP contains, the harder it will be to have players be on the same page about what the LARP means and the less likely it will be that everyone is working from the same expectations. In a long-running game, I think some variety and variance is good, but players and staff should have an idea about what the game is.
Regarding abuse of consent-based systems, there is also a factor that shows up in purely consent-based games: that if I act like an asshole and never take hits or expect everyone else to bow to what I want, eventually no one takes my hits, either, and the problem corrects itself. This is less good that someone talking to me out of character about it, but hey, it mitigates the harm I would otherwise do.
The Difference Between “Doing Something Bad” and “A Bad Thing Happened”.
After talking about being considerate for over four pages, I’m going to address the elephant in the room: our RP will eventually always make someone have a bad time, if only by accident. Sometimes it is a question of expectations, where I do something that seems very expected and normal and someone does not like it at all, and sometimes just thoughtlessness- I acted without thinking about them, either because I didn’t realize my actions would affect them or because I didn’t remember a fact about them or their character that meant my actions hamstrung their RP or forced them in a direction they didn’t like.
It’s important to remember that their hurt doesn’t necessarily mean I’m a bad person. It does mean, like when I accidentally bump someone in public, that I should apologize and help them clean up the contents of their bag that they just spilled, even if I didn’t mean to. Likewise, consider first that if someone seems to have hurt you that they probably just bumped into you. Bring it to their attention if you need help cleaning up your stuff, or bring it to the attention of a helpful staff member or player representative.
However, sometimes people will do shitty stuff on purpose, but how to deal with that is an (incredibly long) article for another day. Remember that you always have a right to ask for space, and that asking for space doesn’t mean the other person is a bad person. It will give you some time and breathing room to assess the situation. If they don’t respect your ‘no’, then they are waving a red flag and I would recommend asking staff for help.
Because of the way that in-character-ness is constructed by the players and staff as a tool to enjoy the game, it is counterproductive to treat a character as a discrete entity whose actions can only be judged on the sole standard of whether they are internally consistent.
I can easily create an internally consistent character who makes everyone else miserable. It’s not hard. There aren’t explicitly rules against many things that would make people miserable at a game. Being a good LARPer is, as we all know, about so much more than rules.
The best time to assess if your character will be fun for others is when you make it. The second best time is now. It’s also not something that you need to do once- it is ongoing. Games and cultures change and evolve. In NERO, for example, a character can exist for decades in many chapters with many people across a continent. Checking in, tweaking, writing character development, and inventing new subplots are all tools to keep a character relevant and fun for you and for others.
No one can tell you what is in-character for your character except you, but that means no one but you is responsible for those decisions.