Villain Self Care

Villain Self Care

I vividly remember the first time I played a villain. After years of always opting for and being cast as the sweet and innocent characters, I signed up to a larp with a group of friends and dared ask the big question: “Can I try playing the villain?”

Thus started my travels down the road of larp villainy – a travel filled with plenty of bumps in the road! Already during the larp, I started feeling increasingly bad. And after the larp concluded, I became riddled with guilt. I felt physically sick from what I had done to people I cared about, being the manipulative and scheming horror of a person behind many of the transgressive actions of the larp.

I started doubting myself: Since I had been capable of playing that character, did it mean I was secretly a terrible person? After all, it might have been imaginary, but it was my brain that imagined it – every thing I said and action I took came from somewhere inside of me. Not just the character, me.

Now, many years later, my minor identity crisis has subsided, and I have managed to not only come to peace with playing a villain, but to enjoy a good antagonist story.

As a part of that process, I developed a strategy (or a series of steps) to help me play an antagonist in a way I find both manageable and rewarding, as well as help with the potential negative emotional effects both during and after the larp:

1. Don’t be the lone villain.

It can be an isolating experience playing the antagonist, so team up beforehand with someone you trust. If you are able to create an in-game relation to the person, make sure it’s one that provides positive interactions and doesn’t fall apart immediately, when confronted with your actions. If you can’t establish such an in-game relation, make sure you at least have the support off-game, e.g., someone who checks up on you, makes sure you take care of yourself, someone to brainstorm horrible actions with, or confirm you are indeed not a bad person in reality.

2. Know your boundaries.

A villain can be and do a multitude of things. Consider what kind of villainy you are capable of and interested in portraying – and what you should steer away from. An antagonist can be everything from the physically and emotionally violent spouse or schoolyard bully, to the disengaged leader causing the suffering of hundreds with their actions (or lack thereof). What kind of play, themes, or actions are difficult or impossible for you to do? What is a soft limit you might want to explore, and a hard boundary you shouldn’t cross? It is as essential for you as the pretend-perpetrator to know and respect your boundaries, as it is for the pretend-victim.

3. Understand your character’s motivation and beliefs.

Unless you play an evil cartoon villain, most villains don’t perceive themself as evil. They act according to their moral compass, however flawed that might be. Consider how your character justify their actions and explain away their behavior. What is at the center of their decisions, driving them forward, and what brought them to this point? It’s both easier being antagonistic if you feel excellent – or righteous – doing it, and potentially horrifying to everyone else observing it.

Photo of person in black makeup and gold armor sitting at a stone table

The author in the larp Høstspillet. Photo by Bjørn-Morten Vang Gundersen. Image has been cropped.

4. Prepare your play and potential interactions.

Playing a villain puts you in the role of the aggressor, often having to generate new ideas for transgressive actions towards multiple co-players. It can be tiring and draining, both regarding energy and capacity for new ideas. First step is to consider what your low effort villainy is like. What can you always do if low on energy? Some mean bullying, hateful glaring, or sabotaging someone else’s life and relations? Secondly, can you plan some (inter)actions ahead? Either pre-calibrated scenes with other players (especially good for the start of a larp, as it kicks everyone, including yourself, into action and sets the tone) or “a catalogue of evil ideas” you can draw inspiration from during the larp.

5. Let your victims be creative.

See if you can make your victims come up with the perfect transgressive actions towards them. After all, they know what would hurt them the most. It can both be done in-game, which might even add another layer to the scene, making them tell you how to hurt them, or as a part of an off-game calibration, with the player of the victim brainstorming or suggesting ideas to you. Do, however, make sure you don’t end up as a facilitator of their larp. Their ideas might not match your character’s motivation and beliefs (no.3) or even more importantly, it might be against your own boundaries (no.2).

6. Steer for a conclusion to your character.

Consider what kind of ending you want your character to have. Do you want your villain-self to suffer for their actions? To experience redemption and forgiveness? To ride off into the sunset, preparing their next villainy deed? You might not be able to decide yourself, and it might change throughout the course of the larp, but steering for catharsis of your antagonist story arc, can add value to your experience – or be a full stop separating you from your character. It is especially relevant, if you are suddenly facing an ending you are not comfortable with, e.g., revenge from your victims. Remember to consider your boundaries. You might be comfortable playing the perpetrator, but not comfortable ending as the victim. And that is okay.

7. Check in with your victims – and yourself!

Checking in with your victims is necessary to make sure they are okay, the larp is safe for them, and the interactions aren’t crossing their boundaries. But it is equally important to check in with yourself, especially after hard scenes! What do YOU need? A comforting hug? A cup of coffee? A nap or a positive interaction-break? Being behind the transgressive actions can be just as emotional and taxing an experience as being on the receiving end. Use your support-person (no. 1) if necessary; your victim might not be the one wanting to hug you right after the scene – and that’s okay too.

8. Plan for larp aftercare.

Consider what do you need after the larp has ended, after all, villains might need aftercare too. Your needs are valid, even if they might not be possible to fulfill. You might want to change out of your costume to distance yourself from the character – or stay in costume to reconnect it with yourself. Maybe a hot shower is at the top of your list, or a sit-down conversation with your victims? Maybe you want to sit by yourself and digest the experience in peace? Some of it you can plan for, like packing your favorite snack and a soft sweater, other things require specific facilities or interactions with co-players. Be mindful of how you can best take of yourself, while also being mindful of your co-players and their needs. Sometimes you might need a little more help, especially if you find yourself cast as a main antagonist at a larp. In that case:

9. Collaborate with the organizers.

Villains don’t exist in a vacuum, and what seemed like an excellent plan prior to the larp, might fall short as soon as confronted with the runtime reality of the game. On location organizers can often help improve, steer, or brainstorm solutions with you, if you find yourself and your character stuck in a bad situation and/or dynamic.

Cover photo: The author in the larp Høstspillet. Photo by Bjørn-Morten Vang Gundersen. Image has been cropped.

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Nór Hernø is a Historian and literature major from Denmark with 20+ years larp experience. Throughout the years, they have lectured in narratology and larp design and worked professionally designing edu-larps, cultural events, exhibitions, and educational projects for museums. Their primary interest is developing workshops for larp and educational purposes, as well as supporting local larp designers and communities.