What is an Antagonist?
A protagonist and his or her story can only be as intellectually fascinating and emotionally compelling as the forces of antagonism make them.
– Robert McKee, Story: Substance, Structure, Style and the Principles of Screenwriting
Antagonists are not just villains.
An antagonist is any character which is defined by their opposition to characters, or by creating obstacles and pressures for other characters. They can even be allies, but they exist to push a character’s limits or challenge their assumptions. They create growth and story.
The best antagonists are not limited in the physical or political conflict they create. They create conflicts in the minds of others – moral challenges and inner choices. They are the fuel of another’s character story engine. The challenge they present is meant to taken on and result in a better story.
LARP’s Unique Player Antagonists
The traditional role of the antagonist relies on the existence of clear protagonists on a journey for the antagonist to complicate and oppose. The antagonist can be a guidepost for the story, with other characters growing in relation to them. The antagonist can still develop as a character, but they do not grow with the same visible force and focus as the protagonist.
But in LARP, there is no clear single story. There is no camera following about one particular group around. There are often dozens if not hundreds of players involved in a LARP game.
So, every player might be someone’s antagonist, even though they are pursuing their own arc and story. True, a gamemaster might set up a major plot with an explicit NPC antagonist by which all players must struggle against. But there is another type of antagonist in LARP – the player antagonist, the character designed and destined to be a provocative force in a game.
Player antagonists are extremely controversial, and some argue they shouldn’t exist because of the strife they can cause. But I think this is because we have not thought much since high school English about what an antagonist is; and how to deal with the difficulties of antagonism in LARP. Antagonists require various traits that for them to work well, and those traits require a great deal of trust and respect from the other players to work right.
What are these traits? Antagonists go after weaknesses. Antagonists have power over other characters, often by ignoring or undermining the protagonist’s strengths, or even using their strengths against them. Antagonists are provocative, and can seriously alter the nature of another player’s game, sometimes by surprise.
But without consent or communication, players can rightfully grow to resent the player antagonist. When you find your game experience changing, your character’s weaknesses under assault and your strengths being undermined, it can make for a very bad time very quickly if you do not understand why; or you did not consent to or want this type of play.
Even in competitive game, antagonists need to play within boundaries, with the trust and consent of the players involved. They need to realize that as an antagonist, they have limits on their actions and they need the trust of the players. And players need to realize and appreciate the role the antagonist is trying to play.
And most of all, the player antagonist needs to operate with humility. They need to play with others in mind, something everyone should do but them most of all. And they should realize that they should be there to make the fun better for others, and they can no longer be the center of the story.
The LARP Antagonist’s Oath
I have chosen to play an antagonist, which means I am no longer the center of the story. I have chosen to play a role that touches the stories of others instead of focusing on my own.
I exist to challenge and change others. I exist to make others grow and understand more about their characters.
I will be given power over the experience of others. I will use this power to heighten tension and enrich their story, not to destroy or limit their play. I will always think where my actions will leave others and their game.
I will learn the weaknesses of other characters. I will use them to move the story forward not to destroy their game.
I will inflict suffering or turmoil on other characters. It will never be for its own sake, but to reveal the virtue and inner nature of those characters.
I will understand out-of-character consent from others is paramount. It is far more important than in-character justifications or my in-character motivations.
I will be at games to create stories others can enjoy. I am not there to impose consequences, punish behavior or fix the creativity of others. If my character must be less competent or insightful than I am to make this happen, then I will steer my characters to make the necessary reasonable mistakes.
I will not choose the arc for the protagonists, or police player behavior. I will not use my role to decide how others should behave, or what the right way to play their characters are; but I will learn what I can do to make the arc they choose more powerful and poignant.
I will always speak with other players, before and after play. I will do so to understand how to be the fuel for their character’s journey.
I will change the experiences of others, so I must do so with respect and courtesy. I will strive to make those experiences memorable and enjoyable. I must do so mindful of the effect I have.
I will listen to the players and the gamerunners. I will respect their opinions, and give them the space and time to tell me them.
I will not accept being told I am a bad person for playing an antagonist. But I will listen to negative feedback so long as it is provided with courtesy, openness and restraint.
I will expect the players, runners and staff of a game to be as mindful of my feelings and labor as they are of others. I am a player, too. My feelings and friendships in the group are important.
I will realize that my character is less important than the happiness of the person I am playing with. My ego attached to my character is never worth depriving another person of a good day.
I will always remember the people are always more important than the game. Always.
If you read through all of this going, “Ha, see! The other players should appreciate the favor I am doing them!”….
You aren’t always welcome to be an antagonist, either in a character’s story or any particular game. If they do not appreciate what you are doing, that’s a failure on your part, not theirs.
While there will always be people who take things personally and bleed, you have to own the consequences of your role-play more than others by choosing the antagonist character, including how popular and well-received it is. It is your job to be open about your intents, communicate with other players and act in a way that enhances the game for the good of others; and not to do so at anyone else’s expense.
If that’s not what is going on, the failure is solely on you.
Cover Image: Evil Smile by Andrew Dobos. License CC BY 2.0, https://www.flickr.com/photos/dobosandrew/17749742052