Villainy: Tips and Tricks for Black Hatting in Larp

(Feature photo by Mor Shani on Unsplash A guest post by Emily Randall, wonderful fellow larper, IT nerd, and creative writer.) Playing a villain is far from easy. You have to plan out all sorts of horrible things to do to your victims and proper motivation for doing them, which is harder than it sounds — random violence or cruelty isn’t very effective, from a game perspective. You’re often dealing with a major amount of in-game hatred, and you may find a number of players avoiding you, which can be quite isolating. So, by the end of the game, it’s easy to wonder if you really are a terrible person.

As someone who often gets typecast as the victim in those scenarios, I have an incredible amount of respect for a good black hat player. The work they take on to make the game better for everyone is so valuable — without villains, many games would fall apart. But, because it’s such challenging work, I’ve found that many players don’t know where to start, or, once started, how to continue. And that’s no fun for anyone. So here are a few tips that might help all the lovely black hats out there.

Negotiate, Negotiate, Negotiate!

Obviously, you need to know your victim’s limits — relying on safewords alone to stop a scene is going to get you in trouble sooner or later. But it’s equally important to know what they really want. “I’m comfortable with everything the larp allows” is nowhere near as useful as “I’d like you to berate my character for screwing up the mission, then give them some awful punishment duties.” While improvisation is good, knowing how to make the scene something your victim will love is better. You can still improvise, within the limits of your co-players, but, if you have a solid foundation to build on, you have a much higher chance of creating an amazing scene.

Knowing your fellow players want that particular scene will also help reduce the guilt you’re likely to feel afterwards. If you know your victim is thrilled with everything you’re doing, and they can reassure you of it afterwards, you’re going to feel like less of a terrible person. Whereas, if you know limits alone, you may find out that the scene didn’t really create the kind of play your victims wanted. And there’s little so demoralizing as realizing that you failed in that way. If your victim isn’t great at setting boundaries, giving them good examples of clear boundaries and enthusiastic consent for particular elements in a scene is a good place to start. And remember: SET YOUR OWN BOUNDARIES AS WELL!

Tell a Story and Have Motivations

Sure, you can walk up to someone, stab them, and walk away, but that’s not satisfying for your victim or you. Spend a while building up to that stabbing, though, with insults and glares and threats, and it means a lot more when you finally do it. Or convince your victim that you’re their best friend, and smile as you twist that knife. Either way, you both get a great tale out of it.

If you aren’t sure how to tell a story, ask yourself, why is your character targeting your victim? What draws you to them, or makes you hate them? What’s happened in the past between your characters that informs the dynamic? Give your character a motivation other than random rage. Maybe she thinks killing her victim will save their soul, or he is so obsessed with his victim that he’ll murder them before anyone else can have them. Maybe your character loved their victim once, or thinks they still love them. Motivations like that make your character more three-dimensional, which makes all the scenes better. 

Plus, if you’re a black hat, you’re a player too — your character deserves the same sort of arc as everyone else. It may be a redemption arc, or an arc where they get their comeuppance in the end, but, if you want a story, you can and should steer towards one.

Create Contrasts with Your Scenes

There is little so heartbreaking as a betrayal from someone you love or trust, or so creepy as someone flipping between caring and murderous in the blink of an eye. Contrast makes the highs seem higher and the lows seem lower, which is perfect if you want to torment someone. Even if it’s not a contrast with the direct victim, having people with whom you are friends, allies, loving, a ‘good’ person, or get to relax will make the dark times seem all the more vicious AND give you a break from constantly being a black hat. 

This can play out over a long period of time, or within a single scene. While you can certainly spend half the game befriending or seducing someone, you don’t need to do that all the time. Instead, if you’ve got a scene where you’re antagonizing or torturing someone, try flipping the script a bit. Be gentle and kind for a bit before going back to hurting them — ease their pain or dry their tears, tell them it’s all going to be alright. Maybe you’re doing this for their own good, or to make them stronger. Maybe they’re being so brave to endure what they’re enduring. Even a single line, a compliment on something in the middle of a nasty exchange, can throw someone off balance, which is great for scenes like these.

Of course, if you have more time, you can do more, with proper negotiation. Gaslighting and emotional abuse are tricky to play out safely in game, but it can be done. Or simply go for the traitor route, where you’re all smiles till you stab everyone in the back. 

Give the Victims Choices and Agency

“Who’s going to die first? You decide.” It’s everyone’s worst nightmare. Being forced to pick from a set of terrible options (I’d limit it to two or three) gives the victim agency, while making them complicit in their own torture. “Remember, you chose this” is a heart-wrenching reminder when you’re sobbing over your friend/lover/relative’s dead body!

You can even make your victims beg for something, if you want — it’s a great way to enhance the power dynamic, as well as a good way to sneak in an off-game check-in before things really start rolling. Begging to, say, be the one to take the punishment, is a powerful thing for both a character and a player. “I’ll do anything you want, just don’t hurt him” is an iconic trope for a reason, after all.

And agency is always good in larps. No one likes feeling like they’re an NPC, so making sure that your fellow players feel like they have some control over the scenes will make their games better.

Self Care is a Priority

If you’re not familiar with the terms drop and aftercare, it’s pretty simple — after being in an altered headspace (like playing a villain or victim), you’ll often experience drop, which feels like a miniature depressive episode. All the lovely chemicals you had running through your body are seeping away, making things seem dull and grey and lifeless. You may find yourself tired, or crying, or easily frustrated, or even all of the above. (You also may not experience drop at all — that’s also totally valid.)

Aftercare is a way to combat that drop. People’s needs vary, but a hug, water, and sugary or salty snacks are often a part of the aftercare that happens right after a scene — you need to reconnect to your body and the real world, and those are good ways to do it. For post-larp aftercare, folks may want to debrief with their fellow players, share war stories, or just be around people they care about. Sleep and healthy food are also essential then, since you may not have gotten much of either during the game!

There is no shame in asking for aftercare, either during the larp itself or afterwards. Checking in with your fellow players, especially ones you were just doing horrible things to, is important to regain a sense of equilibrium. Your body is literally in a different state than you were before the scene or game, and you need time to process all that. So be aware of how you’re feeling, and ask people to help if you need someone to check in with or talk to. The more you are doing awful things, the more aftercare you will generally need. Please ask for it as often as you need and, if a scene partner isn’t up to giving it, find someone else before going back into play! Take care of yourself!

Have Fun

In the end, we do this because it’s fun! It may be a weird, Type 2 fun, that’s not fun in the moment but creates great memories, but it’s something that we value and enjoy. If you’re miserable playing a black hat, there is no shame in switching things up or joining the good side. As I said earlier, playing a villain is challenging on a number of levels, and it’s not for everyone. (To be clear, the same is true for the victim side.) If you find out halfway through game that you’re burnt out on it, that’s valid! Players are more important than larps, always.

And, really, that’s the most important thing to remember. Focus on the players, with the game and story as secondary, and everything else will follow.

So go out there and have fun! Be the cruel, twisted, villainous character you’ve always longed to be, the kind the rest of the players love and their characters hate. Create some amazing stories, and make sure you take care of yourself afterwards.

See you in game!
– Emily Randall

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