This article, by Thomas Munier, was initially published in French on ElectroGN on January 18th, 2021. It was translated into English for publication here by JC, with the approval of the author and with the permission of ElectroGN.
“It’s not me, it’s my character.”
In larp and tabletop roleplaying, this justification of our actions is called alibi, and it allows us to dare to try new experiences. Alibi is a key factor in benefitting from what larp has to offer.
However, alibi is not always accepted: either because the participant does not see any difference between themself and their character, or because the other participants refuse to forget about the participant when considering the character.
This article will categorize several definitions of alibi, consider the ways in which it is emancipating, and finally the situations when alibi is not enough. Another article will follow, focused on ways to strengthen alibi.
The common contract of “it’s not me, it’s my character”, also called alibi, allows the participant to experience both themself and otherness, which is both enriching and liberating.
However, the simple fact of knowing about this process keeps us from really abandoning ourselves to the role. We are aware of the concept’s limits: the larp remains part of reality and so there are some things we do not allow ourselves to dare.
Furthermore, even when we fully wish to abandon ourselves to the character, this remains very difficult if other participants do not consider us fitted to play them. We see this when the group does not manage to distinguish the character’s social category from the participant’s; or when it refuses to recognize a character’s ability that the participant does not have. This stems from a larping perspective where “the character is what the participant does and says”, which keeps participants from being seen as able to play characters too different from themselves. The cognitive load, which can be significant in certain larps, also sometimes keeps participants from giving the actions of others the consideration they deserve.
These cases where alibi is not enough motivate us to search for tools to reinforce it. These will be studied in a follow-up article, Building the aura.
Definitions of Alibi
Dico GN (written by Leïla Teteau-Surel and Baptiste Cazes) states “Alibi is making your in-character actions legitimate through your larp character and the larp context”.
Axiel Cazeneuve states: “The basis of the social contract in a roleplaying game is alibi. Alibi is what allows us to say: it’s not me, it’s my character. It’s a contract because, by taking part in the roleplaying game, we in a way commit to not holding other participants to account for their in-character actions. This is an essential aspect of roleplaying, because without this alibi, it’s impossible to really play someone else, including when this someone else commits morally reprehensible acts. Playing a war-criminal or a narcissistic manipulator is only possible because we trust others to differentiate between my actions as a character from those as a person. This is even more true in larp, where we are directly involved in our character’s actions and cannot simply represent or describe them.
- To go further (in French):
[Video] Axiel Cazeneuve, LOIDOROS – Alibi, on the Larp in Progress channel
The basic principle is that alibi is a form of social contract that stipulates that participants are not held responsible for what their characters do and say (and, in return, that they accept to not hold other participants accountable for their characters’ words and actions). In other words, “What happens in Alibi-land stays in Alibi-land”: once the larp is over, no participant has to answer for what their character did.
The larp constitutes a “magic circle”, an imaginary space where we cease to be ourselves to become the characters, or, at least, where we change social masks. In that space, participants agree to dissociate the actions and words of other participants from what those participants do and say outside of the larp space.
In reality, things are of course often quite different. In practice, alibi implies a tolerance margin (how far can I go before I go “too far”) rather than actual freedom from responsibility.
Firstly, freedom from responsibility only covers a limited number of situations (participants are, for example, still legally liable). These limits are often informal and implicit (participants are responsible for each other’s physical and psychological wellbeing). They are also often unclear and arbitrary: while some have no issue with being spat on, others will consider the contract broken as soon as someone raises their voice.
The tolerance margin is also often (implicitly) linked to how different the other participant’s character is from that participant: oppressive insults by a cyber-pirate on amphetamines will go down better than if they come from a modern-day character that is similar to their participant.
Finally, the freedom from responsibility is only formal, because despite the alibi contract, the human psyche creates subconscious transfers between “participant–participant” relations and “character–character” relations. Participants who play friends tend to be more mutually friendly after the larp. Our thoughts end up conforming to our actions.
Alibi and its practical manifestations lead participants to exploit it. Abuses of the tolerance margin are easy to find: abusively extending the margin (for example, harassing other characters despite your character not fitting that profile) or abusively reducing the margin (for example, being vindictive towards a participant because their character disobeyed).
There are also abuses of alibi’s porosity. These can be “bleed in”, from outside towards the larp (for example, becoming close in character with real-life friends), or “bleed out”, from the larp towards outside (for example, becoming close in character to someone you would like to meet in real life).
Used well, alibi is emancipating, in a way that the larp community almost unanimously defends, letting participants act without fear of being personally judged (for example, allowing them to speak or sing in public).
Of course, alibi does not grant total immunity. Even inside the magic circle, participants must obey the law (some laws may be broken in character, for example with insults). They must also respect a number of usually implicit rules regarding the physical, material and psychological well-being of other participants (we will see later that the psychological aspect is the most ambivalent, since that is where the participant/character distinction is least obvious).
Alibi is one of the almost systematically assumed social contracts when participating in larp. But it is one of its tacit components. Alibi is considered as self-evident and is rarely explicitly expressed in design documents or larp briefings. In most larps, “you are playing a character” is supposed to be enough, and participants are expected to infer “what the character does cannot be attributed to the participant” by themselves.
Those were, hopefully, the more rigorous definitions of alibi.
Now here are some of the fallacious ways alibi is defined in practice, and which are the cause of the problems we will detail later on:
- Alibi is an excuse to justify certain behaviours, in good or bad faith.
- Alibi is an authorization to be “rude”, as defined in improv theatre (to refuse the character or situation the other person proposes, or to impose a character on them).
- Alibi is a state of deep immersion (we believe in the situation and in our character).
As we can see, alibi is, in its most rigorous definition, most often an implicit concept. Therefore, it is not always known or understood. Other, fallacious definitions of alibi are also implicit and can generate misunderstandings, which we will see later can be quite damaging. But let us first take a deeper look at the benefits of alibi, when the concept is well understood and mastered by participants.
The concept of character, which was initially a gaming construct, allows us to inhabit another person’s identity for the duration of a larp or RPG.
This allows for escapism but also for the experience of oneself. After all, in reality, when we do or say things in an RPG or (even more so) in a larp, we have really done and said them, simulation techniques aside. The role was a pretext to do it, both making us disinhibited and helping us get legitimacy from the group.
Axiel Cazeneuve confides that they are afraid to sing in public. But when, in the larp OSIRIS/Wish You Were Here, they are supposed to play a renowned artist, they can finally go for it. Axiel explains how the audience (the other larpers) fully supports them. Alibi has attained its goal: it has given Axiel the ideal excuse to try a new experience.
Playing a role is an opportunity to experience oneself. We are still ourselves, but we try different things.
And this makes our real life richer. By experiencing polyamorous relationships and making art in the larp “The Ivy and the Vines”, some participants revisited what they allowed themselves to do in art and love.
Because playing a role is doing, says Marie Olivier in her anthropology memoir of that title on roleplaying (unpublished). Thanks to the alibi it procures, the character is a wonderful tool to construct our identity, by giving us a safe space to experiment before drawing conclusions to use in real life.
- To go further (in French):
[Video] Axiel Cazeneuve, LOIDOROS – Alibi, on the Larp in Progress channel
[Video] Convention on Roleplaying and experience of self, on Lille University Web TV
[Podcast] The Scenario-shop of the Little People: larp as experience of self
[Article] Lille Clairence, Utopia and alibi, on the Courants Alternatifs forum
[Memory] Marie Olivier, When roleplaying is doing – An ethnography of roleplaying (unpublished)
[Article] Anonymous, Alibi, on the Nordic Larp Wiki
When Alibi is in Danger
But all is not simple in Alibi-land. Alibi mostly works, for participants used to the concept: but it is more fragile in novices – as well as, paradoxically, in some participants who are very experienced or focused on others’ well-being, because alibi’s limits are hard to pinpoint accurately. Alibi can also be exploited for abuse by people who are clumsy or have bad intentions.
When participants self-sabotage
Participants themselves are not always convinced by alibi. Many fail to suspend disbelief when the character sheet lacks coherence, or when they don’t think they have the necessary ability or self-confidence to play their character. If a participant does not believe in their character or feel credible when playing their character, they cannot immerse in their role and reach the experience of self and of otherness promised by alibi.
It may also happen that alibi, being an unspoken social contract, is not well understood by beginners. These participants then will not “dare” to act in character in a reprehensible or socially charged way.
This concept of alibi, progressively popularized in articles and discussions, has become demystified. Let there be no misunderstanding: it is important that concepts like alibi be discussed far and wide. Most participants can finally “go all out” once they really understand the implications of alibi. But for some, learning the tricks kills the magic. We end up understanding that alibi is just a pretext, and that if roleplaying is doing, then we are just playing ourselves. Alibi made us not responsible for our actions, making it possible and acceptable to experiment. But now that the concept has been explained, we are once again responsible for our in-character actions.
Larps reveal themselves to be political spaces. These larps are more than games and they aim to transform the participants through their characters. It therefore becomes difficult to really dare to go beyond one’s comfort zone and social markers, because alibi, considered a scam, no longer operates. Some larps aim to denounce alibi. In Love Is All by Yannis, for example, participants kiss each other. Can anyone really consider that that kiss only happens between characters? This is perhaps only an issue for larp veterans that tend to over-analyse, but it was worth mentioning.
“It’s not me, it’s my character” actually becomes a suspicious sentence as we ponder a new question: emotional safety. Because if alibi can be a pretext for experimentation with oneself, it can also be one for abusing others, if there is no consensus on the limit between participant and character responsibility. Anecdotes abound of people using their character and gameplay to simulate aggressions, that are felt by the victims as real ones. This is a case of rudeness or alibi hacking, since the participant knowingly or unknowingly uses their character as cover to exert actual physical or psychological pressure.
- To go further (in English):
[Document] Niina Niskanen, translated by Aleksi Joensuu, Safer larping: A package of materials to combat and prevent harassment
We are our characters
Because we know that the border between participant and character is porous. Because if alibi allows us to get invested in our fictional life, it also implies an emotional back and forth between participant and character.
- To go further (in French):
[Article] Hoog, Bleed bleed bleed, on the ElectroGN blog
[Article] Sarah Lynne Bowman, Bleed: the Spillover between Player and Character, on Nordic Larp
There are cases where the simulation is too far removed from reality to impact us emotionally (even so, some feedback from mass-larp battles relate incredible emotions), but in other cases, the difference between doing and pretending is very small.
When you say “I love you” or “I hate you” in character, you really say it. It has an impact on us and on others. For example, a larper who had to play out a love story with someone they did not really like testified they were still a little bit in love with that person at the end of the larp. It is not so easy to erase the impact a role has on us. I personally avoid larping love stories (less so in tabletop, which seems more abstract) because it makes me feel like I’m cheating on my wife, which goes against my wish to be faithful to her. And I also do not want to run the risk of falling in love.
Alibi’s unclear limits
We have seen previously that the unspoken social contract that creates alibi is limited to ensure that the physical, material and emotional wellbeing of other participants is protected. But how does one discern those limits when it is hard to distinguish the participant from the character? The previous example about romantic relationships is relevant, but here is another one: is it OK for me to shout at another participant? They might find loud noises painful, or they might find getting shouted at difficult to deal with on an emotional level. So yes, alibi should allow me to shout since it’s my character, not me, but by shouting I might be jeopardising the other person’s physical or emotional wellbeing.
As a consequence, out of precaution and in a bid to be inclusive, larpers have no choice but to pull their punches. I would also like to remind everyone that videos of larpers shouting at each other in a historical larp were used to criticise larp in the French Zone Interdite TV show (by people who did not give alibi any consideration). So how can we truly play a character with intensity when it can hurt another participant or impact our hobby’s image negatively?
To go further (in French):
[Video] Zone Interdite, Roleplaying games (1994)
No alibi, no transgression
In short, even if we were at one time fooled by alibi, we no longer are once we calmly think about it. By recognising the artificial nature or the unwelcome effects of alibi, we remove the opportunities for transgression that it offered us.
When Others Ignore Our Alibi
If it can be difficult to believe in one’s own alibi and so to really let oneself go, it can also be difficult for others, because of:
- cultural and social barriers;
- an unwillingness to see the participant as legitimate;
- a larping culture that reduces the character to the participant;
- a cognitive difficulty in giving importance to the actions of all characters.
Cultural and social barriers
It does not seem to me that respecting the alibi of other participants is part of the social contract of all tabletop RPGs and larps. It depends on the culture, the people and the organisations. Here are some examples where a participant’s alibi is not recognised, preventing them from legitimately playing the role of someone different, and sometimes even of someone similar to their real identity!
In the Harry Potter at the School of Masculinity podcast, Axiel Cazeneuve talks about their experience on a Harry Potter larp where character creation was quite free, including choice of gender. Gendered as female at birth, Axiel decides to present their character as male. They then change their mind, explaining their character is in fact genderfluid.
During the larp, Axiel plays their character as masculine, in a way they deem convincing. Despite this, most participants gender Axiel’s character as female. Axiel explains that, even though most of these larpers were from a progressive environment, accustomed to issues of gender, they still ignored Axiel’s alibi, gendering their character not as neutral or male, but as female, their socially assigned gender. This can be explained by determinism that remains strong within the group, as well as by Axiel changing their mind during character presentation, which might have confused people.
My point is not to blame anyone for what happened in that particular example. I am simply trying to show that alibi is not always a given and that certain factors can lead a group to ignore your role to see you as your usual self instead.
To go further (in French):
[Podcast] Axiel Cazeneuve, Harry Potter at the School of Masculinity
Issues related to abilities and disabilities
This is also something we see during boffer fights in larp. If combat is touch-based, without a system that codifies damage or magic that could give you an advantage, you can only play a dangerous adversary if you are indeed good at boffer fighting. Even with a character background and roleplaying that say you are the finest swashbuckler in the land, if you are a beginner in boffer fighting, you will probably lose your fights, because the mechanisms of boffer fighting keep your opponents from taking your character background into account.
We see here that the problem comes less from people than from design. Systemless boffer fighting is a legitimate part of larping, but it is not a tool designed to support alibi. If you do not assign yourself a role that aligns with your actual boffer fighting skills, we observe ludonarrative dissonance. We will not here delve either into the fact that boffer fighting is a form of sports combat and is thus different from real fighting (where touch-based victory makes no sense), or into larps using metal weapons instead of boffers (which support alibi even less).
The concepts of authority and hierarchy between characters are also often problematic in terms of support for alibi. In a rules-light larp, if you are lacking in natural leadership, there is a risk that characters that are supposed to be under your orders will not show you respect. Even if their character backgrounds indicate that they fear and obey you, the participants will quickly forget this if they don’t find you charismatic enough.
The problem with the search for convergence
In these cases, longstanding sexism and ableism can of course be involved, but the problem comes essentially from an approach to roleplaying based on “roleplaying is doing”, or convergence.
Convergence is a technique that guarantees simplicity, immersion and bleed. It is sought after for its many advantages, but does not support alibi.
Convergence is making what the character and the participant feel and do as similar as possible. In larp, this is close to a “what you see is what you get” approach. In other words, the main source for the virtual experience is the actual experience. Simulations such as “let’s pretend I’m very athletic even if I’m not in real life” or “let’s pretend that stick in front of you is actually a dragon” or “let’s ignore these electric wires” are put aside.
In other words, when you interact with a participant, you mostly take into account how you see them and their real-life background. Anything in their character sheet that contradicts this is hard to take into account, and the mechanics of convergence tend to erase as much as possible any dissonance (this is a caricature, because a larp can be convergent on some aspects and divergent on others). This means you will gender a character based on the participant’s roleplay and real-life background, you will only lose a boffer fight if they are more skilled than you are, and you will respect them only if their roleplay and real-life background confirm their status.
Convergence completely blurs the distinction between participants and characters. Here, roleplaying is more than ever doing, and there is no room for make-believe, abstraction, or taking into account character background information that is not corroborated by roleplay, the participants real-life background or reputation.
- To go further (in French):
[Article] Uiop, Convergence roleplaying, on the Courants Alternatifs forum
[Article] Bross, Rules systems that suck – chapter 3, on the Electro-GN blog
The difficulty of forgiving
When we see participant and character as one and the same, we can sometimes bear a grudge towards the participant for something the character did or said, for example because the character hurt us, humiliated us, turned us down, foiled our plans, etc. It seems difficult for anyone to just forgive, even if some participants thank others “for having been a great antagonist”. But within populations who are new to alibi, grudges can appear that outlast the larp.
When we also see some participants using their character to assault others, it seems all the more reasonable to say: “Wait a second, what your character did to me was not OK.”
In other words, whether for reasons legitimate (assaulting the participant via the character) or not (lack of familiarity with alibi), alibi does not magically grant immunity or forgiveness for everything we said and did as a character. Other participants will not automatically forgive everything, and this can hold us back.
The issues of cognitive load
I wanted to finish on one last instance of ignoring alibi, which does not necessarily have to do with participant–character confusion, but rather with the issues of cognitive load.
- To go further (in English):
[Article] Anonymous, Cognitive load, on Wikipedia
You may know these climactic scenes that frequently occur in larps, where many issues are resolved at the same time. While you are declaring your love to the duchess, two sisters are challenging each other to a duel nearby… and that is when the zombies attack.
In general, it is difficult to roleplay a strong emotional reaction to several things happening at once. So we concentrate on our personal roleplaying objectives, which for example lead us to continue a trivial conversation even as the baron just dropped dead from poisoning.
This creates dissonance in our own experience, but also ignores other participants’ alibi. When you challenge your sister to duel to the death, you expect everyone to react – this is your moment – but unfortunately no one does. Alibi is definitely impacted!
Alibi is an implicit part of the social contract, that removes responsibility from the participants for the things their character does and says.
When the participant is familiar with alibi, they can abandon themselves fully to their role and so access experiences that would otherwise be inaccessible. Alibi is a real tool for emancipation through an experience of self and of the other that is deep and without judgement.
But the physicality of larp and our flawed humanity catch up with us in the end. Some participants do not believe in alibi any more, either because they do not feel able to play their character, or because they lack knowledge of the concept of alibi, or have analysed it too far to still believe. Still others use this concept to commit abuse, knowingly or not.
The community can also be a hindrance. Alibi’s “non-judgement clause” is not always respected and others can sometimes confine us to our social constraints, refusing to let us legitimately roleplay the character we have chosen.
For us to roleplay someone different from ourselves and for the group to acknowledge it, we would need to be surrounded by some kind of aura that gives us legitimacy.
So, how can we build this aura? That’s what we will see in the next article!