Antagonists. The fulcrum of conflict in a story; the person, group, institution or concept that brings the player characters (PCs) from just existing to actually doing something. This thing can be well defined, personified, and even made to be sympathetic. It can also be ambiguous, obscure, meant to be interpreted by each player/character differently to suit the themes and direction of each PC’s individual story. There are many different ways to approach creating conflict in your stories, and to help flesh out defining those conflicts I’m going to talk about a few different antagonists (and why I think they work in LARP) in a series of blogs.
I’m going to start with the world as an antagonist!
This one is probably my personal favorite; it presents the conflict not as something to be defeated or destroyed, but as hardships that one simply must endure as part of living in the setting. Overcoming this antagonist is about looking within for strength and resolve to persevere, being clever or resourceful when meeting specific dangers that the World introduces, and each character being personally changed in an individualized way as a result of the adversity encountered.
These stories can at their best (and worst) feel like disaster movies where characters are helpless in the greater scheme of what is going on, but can affect meaningful changes on the small scale and learn to cope and connect with the others who they bond with during a crisis. Some examples of stories where the world/setting is the central source of conflict are The Road, Cast Away, World War Z, and (most) disaster movies.
This antagonist can also be a secondary force that the characters interact with; in the post-apocalyptic LARP Dystopia Rising, the harshness and unforgiving nature of the zombie-mutant-raider-infested wasteland is a backdrop by which other types of antagonists can be painted. Your aristocratic bureaucracy (a system as an antagonist) that is totally out of touch with day-to-day suffering stands in a stark and purposeful contrast to the setting. The desperate, brutal attacks by a cannibalistic gang of nomads are given context if you know that the world struggles on the regular to provide adequate nourishment to its population.
Overall, this is my favorite source of conflict when I write because it is player character focused; the characters do not compete with another personality or personalities from a major NPC (and/or compete with each other for face time with those NPCs) - instead they are encouraged or even forced to interact with each other. There is no negotiating with a wild inferno that threatens to burn your homes; characters must negotiate with and rely upon each other instead.
However, this type of conflict can come with a lot of hard feelings if not properly implemented. Players can feel frustrated when they realize that their enemy cannot be wholly destroyed or eliminated by conventional means, and helpless knowing that the threat is not one that will ever be truly “stopped” as it is an act of nature and may occur again and again (seasonally, or on some other timeline). Even successfully administering to a threat can feel anticlimactic because players might feel that their efforts ultimately did not have a large enough impact or did not change enough to be meaningful. Even more damaging, the encouragement to rely upon other characters may incite infighting or deadlocked decision making if players are not adequately coached through their options when responding to a threat.
For some players it may simply be a matter of taste: being a big damn hero and slaying Igor the Warlord is more satisfying than coming up with a food rationing plan for making it through a famine. For others, though, standing as part of a fire-bucket brigade with their neighbors makes them feel like they’re a part of their world and invested in its survival, moreso than fighting a goblin minion of a boss monster in battle that someone else claims sole victory for slaying.
Ultimately, most LARP campaigns benefit from a multitude of antagonists; not only to keep things fresh and interesting, but also to make sure that every player has a story where they will feel involved and important. The world as an antagonist may serve well as either the backdrop to a larger campaign (where it can periodically inform or contextualize), with a starring cameo every now and again. For one-shot LARPs and games however, where the plot may benefit from being either existential or laser-focused, the world can be an inspiring point of conflict for your players to rage against, and the tale of their survival (or demise) is one that will reverberate in the hearts of many. The tale of survival is deeply embedded in the human spirit, and how we succeed or fail in this eternal conflict can create quite the story.
Players can feel unempowered or helpless, which can create out of character (OOC) conflict when some individuals come to games to engage in power fantasies (not necessarily a bad thing) or otherwise rankle at the idea of being “railroaded”.
possible fix: Give characters specific things within the context of the story that they CAN fix, perhaps they can build better shelters, learn how to safely stockpile medicine or other perishables, or help an affected NPC group who will later reward helpful PCs.
Broad scope can be difficult to measure; the story can lose context and impact if it is too lightly implemented, but risks being heavy-handed and suffocating if too pervasive.
possible fix: Make sure that the effects of the conflict are enough that every character can feel it or seek it out, but allow there to be spaces for characters (and their players) to breathe and relax, remember that even in media there are moments where the story has pauses for the audience - use that mindset here, as well.
At the end of the day, nothing is ultimately accomplished other than player survival (if that); it can feel anticlimactic and unsatisfying to not be able to affect what players may interpret as a long term or meaningful change on the environment, sacrificing just for survival rather than for a tangible goal.
possible fix: Coach players (perhaps through NPC commentary, or in pregame/postgame debriefs) through the importance of simply surviving and asking characters about their survival stories. Help players construct narratives where they are heroic, important, and necessary even if there is no personified evil that was defeated.
If players are not adequately prepared, in-character (IC) infighting may hamstring decision making and the event suffers a social breakdown. While interesting social commentary, this does not exactly make for a fulfilling game for the participants.
possible fix: Make it clear OOC what your expectations are to all (or as many as possible) players so that they know what they can affect and change and what is “out of bounds” - perhaps the characters cannot neutralize the radioactive chemical leak, but give them options (and be open to their suggestions) on how the characters can destroy/remove/address the issue.
Players can choose their level of engagement and emotional investment, calibrating how “jaded” their character’s view can be to create appropriate distance between themselves and the plotline.
Can engage every “type” of player organically as each character must interact within the world and thus different subplots/mods/quests can ping everyone from social roleplayer to heavy combat for meaningful input and assistance in resolving a crisis.
With proper staging and execution, does not create personal culpability on any group or person (the function of the world was not triggered by any specific failures of player characters), encourages a “community” response that can foster a more collaborative rather than combative energy between characters.
Thematic; a way to enforce and highlight important aspects of the setting and general “vibe” of the game without exposition - players instead learn about the world and adapt to its challenges organically and with direct contextual experiences (rather than ideas pulled from source materials).
Thanks for reading,