[This article is also available in Spanish, at: http://vivologia.es/interpretando-a-un-personaje-dominante/
Thank you to Vivologia for translating it!]
Playing a dominant character comes with its own set of challenges. Dominant characters come in different forms: authority figures (benevolent or not), antagonists, or outright villains. However, each of these figures presents the same challenges: establishing and displaying dominance in a credible manner, managing interactions with dominated characters, and balancing character domination with respect for player agency.
Roleplaying dominance can discomfit some players who feel they don’t belong in these roles, whether for physical or personality reasons or simply a lack of experience. Another perceived obstacle is that playing with status requires buy-in from fellow players. These factors have led to a widespread belief that playing dominant characters is overwhelming and difficult.
Contrary to this, we believe playing dominant is essentially performative and achievable through a series of techniques. We’ll provide you with practical tips to this end, on three topics:
- Understanding your character’s function; and how you can calibrate for the part and structure your personal narrative
- How to play on physical dominance when you can’t rely on an imposing physique to do the work for you
- Tips and challenges for dominant play
The Function of the Dominant Character
Dominant characters have a variety of roles and functions that determine how they fit into a larp, and you should start by looking at your character in that light. The character can be a leader, an antagonist, or an oppressor, and they might be bringing the group together or providing dramatic conflict. Understanding where your character fits and what they need to do can support both pre-game calibration with other participants and character adjustments you might need to play. Ask the following questions and try to understand where your role fits on these scales:
Active ↔ Disengaged
Leadership: Is the character supposed to exercise authority, distribute tasks, take decisions, and make plans, or do they just occupy a privileged position where they are not expected to take an active role in decision-making? Are they part of enforcing the system or do they just benefit from it?
Brilliant ↔ Inefficient
Efficiency: Is the character good at using their power to achieve their goals, or have they ended up with power they don’t use well, like an officer placed in a position of command due to rank or family connections?
Benevolent ↔ Sadistic
Oppression: How does the character exercise their power in a dominant position? Do they only exercise power when confronted or pushed, will they try to intimidate or command others, or will they abuse their power for personal gain or just out of cruelty?
Legitimate ↔ Usurper
Legitimacy: For obvious dramatic reasons, a dominant character may face a challenge in some form or another. This question is important to examine closely, as it may determine the arc of your larp. A character who faces too much opposition might end up alienated from the rest of society.
Status quo ↔ Downfall
Trajectory: A character’s relationship with their own authority defines a lot about them. Are they trying to hold on to power? Are they trying to gain more power? Are they heading towards downfall? Do they suffer from power fatigue? This aspect of course is fluid, and prone to evolving over the course of the game in response to other players. However, considering potential narrative arcs in advance helps to calibrate and steer the game in the desired direction.
Once you understand these elements, you can figure out where you need to calibrate with other players:
- How much will you need them to “play up” your character’s status?
- How much delegation of tasks or power will the players of subordinate or submissive characters expect from you?
- How much gamemastering does the dominant position entail and how can you make sure your needs for this function are met (ask the organizers)?
- Is the character at risk of being isolated or alienated in ways that you don’t want to play out, and if so, which characters could work as a safety net for them?
- Is there any aspect of the character that feels hard to play and that needs extra support or adjustment?
- How will you display the emotions of your character? Do they have a public facade that they only abandon in more private settings? Will they try to keep face at all times? What could make them break?
There are several things you should track when looking at the function of your role and during calibration. First, you will want to avoid situations where other players do not seem willing to “play up” the character’s status, and if you don’t feel like you’ll be well-enough supported, you should request more “play to lift” to support your character, both from organizers and other participants. Second, dominant characters in leadership positions in particular run a risk of needing to perform runtime gamemaster functions. Try to anticipate these requirements and ask for support from the actual gamemasters as needed. Third, you need to understand how the dominant position will impact your character’s relationships with others, so you can steer toward interactions that will work. Finally, you should try to anticipate where the character’s narrative arc may go and specific challenges they may face, as you’ll need to direct your play more than in a less-dominant role.
The Physicality of Dominance
Dominant characters have power. Power, socially, almost always shows in the body. Self-assured people who feel power over those they’re in a social situation with take up more space. Physicality in larp is a useful tool. It conveys information non-verbally about who your character is, it signals how you would like to be played up, and it’s the basis for all emotionally-nuanced play. If you are playing on dominance, you are relying on other players to confer status on you or on your ability to wring respect out of them.
One of the main challenges in dominant play is tailoring it to bodies not commonly perceived as powerful. Younger, non-male, or smaller players may find it more difficult to convey something that will be read as the physical gravitas of a dominant figure. Even in larps where participants are not supposed to play to your real-life body, it can be difficult for players to eliminate the impact of unconscious bias on how they react. A useful tactic to work around this can be modeling your presentation on an example of a fictional character in a position of dominance analogous to what you will play, and also explicitly telling your co-players about what you’re doing to get the picture in their heads too. Good examples, depending on genre, might include Lyanna Mormont (from Game of Thrones) and Susan Calvin (from Asimov’s short stories).
Some suggestions on how to convey dominance in your character’s physicality:
- Dress to impress. Make sure your costume stands out with visible accessories. Think crowns, tiaras, capes or billowing cloaks — elements that set you apart from everyone else or make you feel powerful.
- Physical demeanor. Stand straight, shoulders back, head high. If you can’t look people straight in the eye, look at the point between their eyebrows. Do not smile just because of social conventions or out of politeness.
- Placement. Place yourself in the center of the room, on the best seat. Surround yourself with your entourage. Do not make way for others. Keep others at a distance if you want to emphasize your superiority, or get right up in their personal space if you want to emphasize your ability to affect them.
- Voice and language. Use a loud, projecting voice when you speak in public. Alternatively, speak quietly and force people to lean toward you, or have an underling speak in your place. Make pronouncements and do not waver in public.
- Touch. The way we touch each other conveys a huge amount of status information and will affect both you and your co-players emotionally. Be careful about calibration and consent, and then look at how you can physically demonstrate dominance by how you touch your co-players.
- Reaction. If you think your character is likely to be challenged during the game, plan your emotional reactions in advance to give the impression of unquestioning authority, regardless of what you’re feeling as a player.
- Practice. If these tips do not come naturally to your body, practice in front of your mirror or with friends. Decide on a few gestures or expressions that you can base your performance on. This is significant if your body type is not conventionally read as dominant or you are not routinely rewarded.
Rules of Interaction
As a dominant character, some of the action in the larp will revolve around your character’s power and how they use it. This can include delegating tasks, social hosting duties, conflict management, bullying or hazing, and enforcement of rules, whether they’re pre-existing or just your whims. Looking at the rules that will structure your interaction with others can also be a good way to establish your character.
Here are a few things to think about around how you engage with others as an authority figure:
- Start things. Don’t hesitate to generate conflict when it’s useful for you, or simply to initiate play — you have all the cards.
- If you’re acting as a leader, delegate as much as you can, but remember to make the tasks playable.
- Take breaks and rest; being dominant can be exhausting (especially since players in dominant roles need to devote more mental space to emotional safety and care in handling conflicts, emotionally charged or violent scenes).
- Wear a watch — you’re more likely to need to set the pacing of play in a dominant role.
- Again, prepare in advance. For example, if you know you need to deliver a certain scene, it may help to have brainstormed some ideas for it.
There are some unique challenges for dominant characters:
- Managing adrenaline levels and “villain fatigue”. Playing an outright villain, or even an antagonist can be draining. If you have a lot of victim players to interact with who are all be interested in similar abuse stories, it can also be quite repetitive. It can often be lonely at the top — social exclusion and conflict play can take a lot out of you, emotionally. Self-care and rest is important when playing dominant. Consider making sure you have a positive ally playing close to you for emotional support. If possible, also have someone you share power with so you can tag each other in and share responsibility.
- Work with your victims to share the burden of arranging scenes.See Playing an Engaging Victim by Katrine Wind and Karijn van der Heij in What Do We Do When We Play? Inside the fiction, the dominant character may be initiating a scene, but (especially on a meta-level) it doesn’t have to work this way. In particular, you don’t always need to be the one who comes up with the ideas. Encourage players of lower status characters to talk about how they want their characters to be ordered around, dominated, or abused — this will make your job easier and make their games better.
- Think about what happens when you’re
“off the clock” in character if you’re playing someone with formal authority. You probably don’t suddenly start treating other characters as your peers, even if you’re playing a kind leadership figure. There can be a lot of interesting play in the subtle friction here, especially if your character’s status conflicts with their own needs or desires.
Not everyone enjoys playing dominant, but it can be accessible for anyone. Playing dominant means using a specific palette of social dynamics when you engage with other characters and shapes which kinds of narratives and challenges you will play out, but with a good foundation, you’ll both have a lot of room to improvise and the confidence to do so . Having a good grasp of how to perform dominance will make your play both more credible and more interesting. Thanks to Simon Rogers for some of the ideas in this piece and early discussions about it.