Many Nordic larps portray instances of one character oppressing another — individually, not as in systemic oppression — including abusive relationships, uneven power structures, and perpetrator/victim dynamics. Some of us like to explore the victim side of these dynamics, but there is a risk that responsibility for advancing the story falls entirely on the perpetrator’s player. This means the victim character’s game becomes a long wait for the perpetrator to act or approach, which can be frustrating for everyone.
Some great articles have already been written on how to play the oppressor (e.g. Dalstål 2018). But in this piece, we’ll draw from our experiences to give you tools as a victim player. What can you do to help tell the story of the relationship? How can you support the perpetrator’s game or have agency even when your character doesn’t?
Types of Victims in Larp
There are different types of victims and they create different kinds of play. How you approach your character’s lack of power will change your story. When we think of a “victim”, we first imagine someone who is mainly afraid of the abuser — the passive victim. The passive victim is the biggest challenge for player agency, because their main drive is to stay away from the abuser but the story you want to tell as a player requires seeking them out. Constantly doing something your character doesn’t want can be both hard and draining. There are tools that can make it easier, but first, let’s see if another type could be the answer.
Someone who fights their perpetrator but is destined to lose anyway can be the defiant victim. The defiant victim has agency and can act independently, but they might have fewer resources or less strength, status, or willpower than the perpetrator. Regardless, you aren’t a poor, frightened thing. You will actively seek the other character out and shout or fight, making it clear you are not afraid. A few of the prisoners of war in Spoils of War (2019) are an example.
Relationships are complex, so you can have some warm feelings or even genuine interest in the abuser’s character — the ambivalent victim. You can be drawn to them even as you’re disgusted. Fighting your own emotions as well adds a layer of dilemma and complexity to the character, whether it’s Stockholm Syndrome or an abusive partner who your character still loves. This ambivalence both gives you agency and gives the abuser more power over you. It also can prevent other characters from saving you from the abuser permanently.
Ask for specific scenes. As in many other aspects of larping that try to explore hard dynamics without crossing boundaries, communication, collaboration, and calibration are essential.
Don’t be afraid to ask for specific directions or scenes . This makes it easier for the perpetrator’s player to provide, because they don’t have to come up with all the ideas and they know they have full consent. Calibration goes both ways, though — make sure that they don’t feel pressured into play they don’t want. The perpetrator’s player has boundaries too.
Give enthusiastic consent! As always with edgy content, it’s important to stress that you want the play. If they are dragging you by the wrist and you struggle to get out, signal or use mechanics to communicate that you as a player are happy even though your character isn’t. This makes the other player feel safe and encouraged.
Vary in your reactions. The two extremes of freezing/just taking it or shouting/fighting physically are opposite and valid reactions to abuse. However, without variety the first option can lead your character to become entirely passive if it’s your only reaction during the game. However, only doing the latter creates an adversarial dynamic, not an oppressive one. Quiet reactions — long haunted looks when they aren’t looking, whimpering, shaking a bit while holding someone’s hand, or just a moment of sympathy or pity — will give nuance to the fear or fighting.
Let them win (sometimes). Collaborating toward losing is valuable in this dynamic. Your character may think that giving in a bit will get them off the hook, but it will only draw them further in. For example — if an abusive and controlling boyfriend insists you wear certain kinds of clothes, agree to change your clothes because your character thinks it will make them stop and it’s such a sacrifice. Really, it just encourages the perpetrator character, and also encourages the player, offgame.
Fail to avoid your perpetrator. It’s easy to avoid someone at a larp. You can hide in the bathroom or the forest for the whole larp, but this isn’t an interesting conflict. It’s hard to be scary or abusive when you’re being avoided all the time, and it takes a lot of energy to constantly seek out the victim. Help your abuser by seeking them out or make other characters push you into being near them. Your character can still want to stay away, but use your fear to create an active connection. For example, look in the perpetrator‘s direction too often, or always keep them in line of sight but never look at them directly. Walk into a room you know (offgame) they’re in, and then act shocked and try to sneak back out.
Be a bad liar. Tell different versions of the same story to the same person, or get others to spread conflicting versions as rumours. Be really obvious or flag it offgame, so players know it’s not just you being confused. When the perpetrator finds out you were lying, you give them an extra tool to be angry at your character and maybe even to be in the right. You were the one being dishonest. This gives them some moral high ground to work with later in the relationship.
Involve other characters. You can draw people into your scenes with the perpetrator. Show others how scared or powerless you are. Tell somebody what is going on in confidence, or make sure that they witness something they shouldn’t have. Maybe they can become a victim too, and sharing the experience of being oppressed can be very powerful.
Delay the “Hero”. Involving others can mean that unwanted heroes step up. If other characters try to fix things at the wrong time, it can make a victim dynamic blurry or difficult to play on. Explicit calibration can help — ask players to support the relation — but so can working to make sure the hero isn’t in a position to fix things. Being powerless to intervene or having to work around the victim can also make great play for others.
Have allies keep the two of you together. For example, calibrate and make sure that some of your character’s loved ones like the perpetrator and keep them around. Or have the perpetrator’s allies notice you can help them, and decide to work with them.
Defend the perpetrator. Take care of the abuser’s reputation. Things like making excuses for the perpetrator or making sure they don’t do anything unambiguously wrong for as long as possible can prolong and intensify the dynamic, and help stop unwanted heroes.
Dalstål, Elin (2018): Playing nasty characters, https://nordiclarp.org/2018/01/31/playing-nasty-characters/ ref. March 12th, 2020.