“Instigator” may not appear in the seminal Robin’s Laws of Good Game Mastering, but it has been recognized as a significant player type for a long time all the same. Today I want to talk about how GMs, and especially LARP game runners, can engage this kind of player, and a lot of the issues that emerge around this playstyle. I’ll also address some of the things the instigator player needs to understand and accept.
I think the core of this player type is the motivation to see what happens if… Game narratives involve a lot of establishment of threat and stakes. This target is too dangerous to attack, this magic item is too dangerous to use, this offer is a Faustian bargain and too dangerous to accept. Really, Faust is a classic instigator and maybe the most classic self-destructive arc.
The fantasy of adventure gaming is about doing things you can’t possibly do it real life – risks you don’t take because the consequences would be permanent and/or fatal. I mean, this past weekend, I (not really what you’d call an instigator) held the line against a 30-foot-long, acid-spitting worm for a little while. Why not push that a few more steps, and draw the line of “interesting, acceptable risk” a lot more generously? Why draw a line?
Dramatically speaking, there are basically two outcomes available to an instigator. Either you stay ahead of the consequences and we discover that you were a trickster hero all along, or the consequences catch up to you and your career ends in a particularly messy or humiliating fashion. Coyote and Loki are two more of the great instigators of all time, and as often as not, their plans end in humiliating – but not career-ending – circumstances.
Plenty of tabletop games go by without an instigator in the party, but I’ve never yet seen a boffer LARP playerbase get to even the low double digits without one. That’s a big part of why I’m emphasizing LARP-running. The social dynamic of a tabletop group involves 2-8 players, with very little actual secrecy or solitary action (at most tables, anyway). Compare this to the 20-200 (or maybe ten times that) players of a boffer or Camarilla LARP playerbase, where there’s tons of time to fill and room for solitary or small-group action.
Playing Well with Others
You’re not really an instigator if all of the other players around you are on the same page. Even if it’s your idea that they’re all going along with, their full cooperation is contrary to the purpose of the type. How you can push the envelope if that’s the mainstream thing? Violating expectations and norms is also the problem, of course. As social constructs, games and playerbases establish their norms, often by adhering to the conventions of a genre.
Playerbases owe it to one another to have some level of tolerance for various playstyles. Further, they need to remember that actions look different from the outside than they do in the moment. Plot committees have a huge influence on how broad or narrow this tolerance is going to be, based on how consequences work in the game. Players generally hate it when the norm-violating thing that one player did falls on anyone else. It tells them that one player’s recklessness could fall on them. To put that another way, when divine vengeance is spread hither and thither, it means that the instigator is prioritizing their own fun over everyone else’s, and that‘s never okay.
On the other hand… the instigator player doesn’t control Plot’s decisions on how to administer consequences. It’s entirely possible for a player (even someone who isn’t habitually an instigator) to go into a situation expecting that the consequences of their actions would fall primarily on themselves, only to discover that the bad thing winds up happening to someone else, or everyone else. I’ve seen this happen plenty of times in games. If you take a little heat for this, but no one permanently loses their character over it, just keep your head down for a bit and wait for the next big thing that happens (and isn’t your fault).
What I’m trying to say is there’s a push-and-pull relationship between the whole playerbase, the game-runners, and the individual instigator.
- Playerbase and Game-runners: The game-runners establish what kinds of decisions they regard as stupid risks, as opposed to what is bravery or exploring the setting on its own terms. I’m accustomed to highly risk-averse playerbases as a result of decades of various game-runners imposing lasting consequences for many kinds of actions. In fairness to those game-runners, harsh consequences and the fear of same are a necessary part of horror themes in fantasy adventure storytelling.
- Game-runners and Instigator: The game-runners are obligated to follow through on stakes that they establish; the whole playstyle of the instigator is risking or triggering those consequences. If the instigator gets away without consequences, the rest of the playerbase has good reason to be unhappy. It’s easy for game-runners to see the instigator as someone who doesn’t believe in their setting, or doesn’t believe they’ll follow through with stakes as established. Try to see it instead as someone taking big risks to let you showcase the dangers of your setting.
- Playerbase and Instigator: The social pressures that the playerbase brings to bear, both in- and out-of-character, have the potential to make life very uncool for the instigator. The instigator can accept or reject much of that influence, either showing restraint for a time or escalating further. More than once, I’ve seen the playerbase exercise their final authority, though, and eliminate that character from the game.
The Self-Destructive Arc
Because you can’t be sure that you’ll get away with it all at the end – the ending where you prove yourself to be a trickster hero rather than a smoking crater – instigators have to accept the danger of the self-destructive arc. In the boffer LARPs I’ve played, no one is safe – any character could end any event in permanent death. For instigators, the risk is a whole lot higher. No one should play a fantasy adventure game with an assumption of character safety, but never play an instigator without making your peace with losing the character first. Of course your character is still playing to survive. As a player, though, you’re here to see what happens and be part of the drama, even if that means dying early, often, and possibly permanently.
Once you’ve understood that you might lose your character, you owe it to the rest of the players to make them okay with it as well. In many boffer LARPs, including all of the ones that I play, there’s a strong social assumption that we aren’t here for a PvP free-for-all, and that players will permit a fair amount of violation of social norms so that they don’t wind up permanently killing another PC. Don’t be the kind of player that exploits this metagame generosity – let people know OOC what you’re doing and that you’re okay with consequences as long as they’re flowing from what world, character, and narrative demand.
I’ve seen this done, memorably, more than once before. (Tallulah, take a bow.) There have also been cases where the instigator player was not appropriately at peace with the loss of their character at the hands of the playerbase, and… um. There were badfeels.
As I mentioned above, playing an effective and fun instigator that doesn’t wreck everyone else’s experience is a whole lot easier in a LARP, for a whole lot of reasons. I’d say it’s been about an even split in tabletop gaming as to whether the instigator works or not. My Aurikesh campaign is an unusual example, because it has so many active players. There are subsets of characters who – when they’re in a session roster together – decide to do the thing that the rest of the players wouldn’t approve. They’re all looking around for someone else to be the adult in the room, and when there isn’t one… things get out of hand in a hurry. In a good way, I want to emphasize – thus far in the campaign it has consistently been the good kind of IC conflict. Stands-in-Fire’s Planescape game also has a positive example.
I think the key for tabletop games comes down to how intense the friction between the button-pushing instigators and the rest of the group is allowed to get. Because people don’t have a way to escape content that they’re not enjoying without quitting the tabletop game outright, it’s much more important for the instigator to either make sure everyone at the table enjoys their antics (and the possibility of their self-destructive arc), or go with the flow a majority of the time and only do the impulsive thing occasionally. A constant stream of raw impulse, when the rest of the table hasn’t agreed to it, is unacceptably selfish play.
Once Again, More Succinctly
For game-runners: if you want to support instigators, keep the consequences more embarrassing than lethal, and keep them contained to the instigator PC rather than spreading them to everyone else in the area. (One big field battle is not the kind of consequence that people object to. Losing their stuff or taking deaths, those get players cranky.) If you want to discourage instigators, spread the harm around, and watch as the social pressure crushes the instigator, either slowly or quickly.
For instigators: before you decide that this is your playstyle, make your peace with losing the character at any moment, and let the other players know that before or after events. You become responsible for more work outside of events to sustain those OOC relationships. This is called aftercare in LARPing just as in other, less work-safe contexts, and it’s a necessary for the same reasons. I’m not saying you’re obligated to go to lunch after the event at Outback or similar purveyors of highly authentic Australian cuisine, but it’s one example of a good opportunity. Email or chat in the weeks between events is also good.
If you wanna play an instigator, you don’t gotta be coy, dog – just keep it low key. Enjoy getting thrown in the briar patch as often as possible. You’re going to wind up with a thousand enemies, so be a prince about it, make sure everyone around you is okay, and don’t. get. caught.