Using the Power Fantasy for Good

Today’s guest post on designing for the power fantasy comes from Polish designer Kamil Bartczak.

The power fantasy—the fantasy of having supernatural abilities allowing you to do anything you want, defeat anyone you dislike and seduce anyone you desire, is a deep, old universal one. You can find it in books, movies, and, obviously, larps. Though often seen as a base desire, many larp designs aim at it. But pulling it off well in a larp is complicated. After all, satisfying the fantasy for one player could mean letting them overpower other characters, which might diminish the experience for them. On the other hand, the potential of power fantasies in larp could be quite positive, empowering players to overcome real-life obstacles to achieve their goals.
In this post I will present few ideas on how to better weave the power fantasy into game design, including design in activist larps.

The Dream of Power

The power fantasy is as old as writing. In the deep past, we’ve got myths about gods, demigods and heroes and the tales of King Arthur’s knights, all the way up through Bruce Lee, James Bond and Marvel’s Avengers. Power fantasies shape culture. The appeal of this plotline is not that it is unique or original – on some level, most power fantasies and heroes are similar. The appeal is that we experience the narrative by putting ourselves in the role of protagonist.We see and act out our own fantasy through the stories of these characters.  The power fantasy is basic and potent enough to force its expression in the form of art and activity.

Larps literally put a participant in the role of hero. A great many of them express the power fantasy quite visibly– through mechanics for supernatural abilities. This is not only true of action / fantasy / vampire larps. Although many artistic larps are designed to re-shape the participant’s mindset, dreams of grandeur find their way to slip in.

Have you ever imagined that your political views are appreciated and shared? That you are a thought-leader or high-ranked politician? That your concept of how society should work can be realized with your decisions? The sweet, empowering nature of these thoughts follows the same pattern. I truly believe that larp designers should be aware of the nature and presence of the power fantasy and take it into an account in the design – regardless of the larp’s genre.

How Power Fantasies Go Wrong

The problem with the power fantasy is that it directly feeds our ego, which is not very good at compromising. If a player’s mindset drifts too far into playing their power fantasy, it may be harder to think out of game about steering their character. Instead, the player may try to win, and overpower opponents. The impulse may lead them bend convention or the rules. The player may  think of “losing” as a very negative outcome, limiting their enjoyment of the larp. Have you witnessed the quarrels about the interpretation of combat rules, effects of spells and who should be dead right now? These are participants’ egos trying to prolong the broken dream of power.

Why Design for the Power Fantasy?

Obviously – player satisfaction. Many players want to play as mighty heroes, and will want your larp to satisfy them. But it is possible to achieve more. Bleed – the mixing of the emotions of a player and a character—also works with power fantasies. Players who relate strongly to their heroic characters may feel that they are in control: able to deal with obstacles and achieve their goals. The bleeding empowerment can affect the real person. I consider this effect a holy grail of all heroic larps.

Think About the Dosage of Power

When designing for power fantasy bleed, the first, obligatory step is to make a conscious choice about how much power to make available to the players, and to factor that into the rest of your design.

You can balance the influence of power levels by calibrating how players achieve power within the game world. Great examples of such design decision are the Harry Potter-inspired larps College of Wizardry and Witcher School, in which the characters are significantly more powerful than regular humans. With their magical wands or swords, they can defeat some lesser supernatural threats. But, joined together under the leadership of a more experienced character, they can stand up against a more demanding foe.

This design empowers the players. Placed in a world which poses a threat, they have the means to achieve their goals. At the same time, they are clearly located within the game world’s power structure. They are students / adepts led by more powerful persons. These mentors are authorities who can give more power to the characters through education, and thus form a playable, living society.

You can decide to give more or less power to the players, but I believe it is important to make this an aware design decision. It will have strong consequences on an individual character, as well as on relations in groups and in-game society.

Don’t Design Against Players

Here’s a typical design problem in larps with supernatural characters: the designer wants players to have their powers, but also scripts in an ultimately powerful villain. As characters become more powerful, the ultimate monster also has to be enhanced, often to the level of near-invincibility, with, of course, one critical world-saving weakness. This decision makes many character skills useless, breaking the players’ motivation and satisfaction.

But it is possible to avoid invincible villains while still giving players the feel of overcoming great challenge by defeating them. Firstly, designers should avoid treating players’ power as a challenge to overcome. If you gave them special abilities, fighting mechanics and so on – don’t write a plot that requires limiting these.

Your players came to your larp with some expectations and needs behind them. If those expectations are different than you imagined – well, this means that there is some problem in communication. You will not do any good by trying to make player-proof design. Instead, offer rewards other than the feeling of ultimate power, for example, design for deep emotions, robust relationships, the satisfaction of weaving good stories, etc.

The Odds Should Not Be in Their Favor

There is only one character archetype more appealing than an almighty hero. It’s the underdog. Under-appreciated, seemingly underpowered, put in a position when they are obligated to perform some heroic deed, the underdog tugs at our heartstrings—think Willow, Frodo, and Katniss Everdeen, Overcoming adversity as an underdog is plain satisfying. Instead of beginning the game with mighty heroes and scaling up the power of the challenges, you can start by creating interesting challenges: oppression, enemies, or personal issues. Then calibrate the characters’ power levels accordingly—victory should be achievable, but with some required effort. Each struggle encourages players to consider their positions in a game world and motivations for going forward. This can increase the feeling of empowerment without shifting the focus to pure power fantasy.

Though this pattern seems naturally related to fantasy settings, it can work in, many scenarios where a player wants to accomplish something. A feminist activist agitating for change can be psychologically rewarded in the same way as the character of Frodo.

Set the Stakes Low

Players experience more satisfaction from achieving a goal depending on its perceived difficulty and internalized meaningfulness. It’s epic for the one true hero to save whole realm, but in larp, being the one peasant brave enough to defy oppressors and save your own village might be much more satisfying.

Really big stakes, like the realm, often feel like abstract concepts. The village or local community is much more concrete, especially since it can be represented in game through parents, friends, or other entwined life stories. If you want players to fight, give them something personally valuable to fight for. Try to give them a concrete feeling that there is a lot to lose. The characters’ emotional relationship to the goal matters the most. The bravery of a knight doesn’t depend on who stands in front of them, but on who seeks shelter behind their back.

Include Plot Variety

We don’t want players to completely drift into their power fantasies, even in epic boffer larps. This primal motivation can become dull and tiresome when intensively realized. Position it in your design among other elements. Social positioning, personal relationships, and in-game art like dance or  music offers players rewards that don’t depend on caressing their egos. Depending on your design, these non-power elements can be most important part of larp, or some add-on to epic combat, but even in the most power-driven larp they will be useful in providing contrast to the power fantasy.

Victory in Defeat

What can be a greater tribute to a hero than a heroic death after accomplishing much more than could be expected of him? It’s probably wise to be transparent about including such an element in a game, but if a stake is set right, and the odds are so low that even resisting will be heroic, players should totally go for it. Soldiers could shield withdrawal of civilians, expected to defend their position for 2 hours, but managing to do it for 12. This could be a great win for players, even if their characters would probably die. The same goes for a political or social struggle. Achieving a little in the face of impossible odds can be very rewarding if players would feel that they are making a difference.

Surmounting impossible odds can be a very nice design trick, giving a feeling of victory to both sides of an in-game conflict. One side wins literally, the other morally. Also, bleeding empowerment can be achieved in this way. Just remember to give players an epic memento, like a  story about how their deeds affected the big picture – world, society, realm, their loved ones, etc.

Briefly concluding – I think that power fantasies are an inevitable part of many larps, but are not often handled with awareness. Though it may seem overtly related to fantasy and supernatural larps, I think that the issue is widespread, potentially affecting political and activist larps. Conscious design around power fantasies could be helpful in motivating and engaging participants.

Kamil Bartczak is a larper and larp designer from Poland. He is the co-audesigner of Geas, Fight Club, Mir, The Third Side and dozens of other larps. He is also the co-founder and architect of the larp-writing software Spindle. In real life he works as al business analyst. owes its existence to the continued support of many wonderful Patrons. If you enjoyed this post, consider joining the conflagration of awesome people underwriting my blog on Patreon.

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