As some of you may remember, I played New World Magischola (a Live Action Role Playing game set at a wizard college) last year. Since then, I’ve played a couple of other LARPs (including the second semester of NWM). At some point in the past year my friend @algebraicbubbles and I started tossing around the idea of writing our own LARP.* Our concept was simple: we’re both queer kids who love superhero fiction and often read superpower narratives as metaphors for queerness, so we wanted to write a superhero high school game (think Sky High in terms of aesthetic) that had queerness front and center. We jokingly called the game Superqueeroes because we both love terrible puns, and then we couldn’t think of a better name so it stuck.
Anyway, one thing led to another, we recruited another friend to our team, and then we wrote and ran the game this past summer. (If you’ve been wondering where I’ve been, well, I was writing 11 character sheets, a world doc, and a whole lot of plot.)
This is less of a post about LARP and more a reflection on the process of writing ace and aro LARP characters, and how that’s different from (or similar to) writing ace characters in fiction. My hope is that this post will still be interesting to you even if you know nothing about LARP, and will be interesting to LARPers who aren’t that well-versed in asexuality or aromanticism.
Note: I’ve avoided plot spoilers in this post, but I necessarily have to talk about some character backstories. If you’re planning on playing Superqueeroes and would prefer to go in without any knowledge, it’s probably best to skip over this post.
In order to understand what the heck I’m going on about in this post, it’s probably necessary to give some background on the game. The premise is that the characters (there are 17 of them) are all seniors at a high school for kids with superpowers. The game takes place during graduation, when all the characters get to find out which superhero team they’ll be placed on after graduation, announce their new superhero name, and take their first steps into adulthood. (Needless to say, graduation doesn’t go entirely as planned, but what exactly happens is a spoiler, so you’ll have to play if you want to find out.) Some questions the players get to explore include: What does it mean to be a hero? How far would you go to achieve your goals? Who are you and who do you want to be? What kinds of relationships do you want to have and with whom? Who matters in your life, and how far would you go to keep them safe? Needless to say, it’s a game that’s really heavily about identity and relationships (of all kinds) in addition to being about having sweet superpowers and saving the day. It’s also worth noting that nobody has alignments, per se–anyway can become a supervillain if they so desire, or could become the greatest hero ever known. The path of the character is decided not only by their backstory and the game plot but also by their player and the relationships they choose to focus on. (For example, there’s a character who we expected to be played as a sweet, friendly social butterfly, who wound up being played as an incredibly socially savvy, kind of manipulative mastermind…which was 100% in line with what was written on the character sheet, even though we weren’t expecting that outcome.)
We decided early on that we wanted to have characters with a variety of genders and sexualities written explicitly into their character sheets. Some characters have their gender/sexuality explicitly defined (e.g. “you are bisexual” or “you are non-binary”), some have a list of other characters they’re crushing on (and the player can interpret how they identify in whatever way they like), and some were left undefined so the player could decide what felt best to them (although the understanding is, other than The Token Straight TM, every character is some flavor of queer). Some characters are dating other characters, some are hoping to date other characters, some are trying to figure out how to resolve the love quandrangle they’re stuck in,** and some are really tired of all the high school romantic drama. Non-normative genders, sexualities, and relationship structures are not that big of a deal in the Superqueeroes universe–nobody is going to face violence or backlash by coming out,*** although of course people can still be nervous about coming out or unsure if coming out is a good idea. Even without the possibility of negative consequences, disclosing part of yourself can be really scary and cause complications in your personal life. Again, some characters are explicitly out, some are explicitly closeted, and some are left up to the player to decide what feels best.
There is one explicitly ace character and one explicitly aro character in the game (although there are a couple of additional characters who could easily be played as ace or aro spectrum if their players so desired). I wrote both of them–in fact, I wrote a total of 11 of the 17 characters (and looked over/edited the other 6, while the other writer did the same for me). For the sake of this post, I’m going to refer to the ace character as G and the aro character as M. Most of the characters are written to be gender-neutral, and then we assign them genders and pronouns based on player preference–in run 1 of the game, for example, G was female and M was genderfluid. For simplicity’s sake, I’ll refer to both characters with “they/them” pronouns in this post.
One of the first challenges was that we wanted to keep our character sheets fairly short–I think almost all of them are in the 2-3 page range. We kept them concise to prevent people from having to memorize a boatload of information (it’s only a 4-hour game after all), and also to give people leeway to interpret characters as they saw fit. Our character sheets generally include information on the character’s family, power, gender and/or sexuality (although there were some we left up to the players as already mentioned), any past experiences that might be relevant (history of being bullied, for example, or a mysterious encounter with a superhero in their youth), their hopes for the future/general life philosophy, other characters they have relationships with (friends, rivals, siblings, study buddies, etc.), and a list of two or three possible goals for the character. As you can probably guess, that’s a whole lot of information to pack into a very small space, which meant that we could usually devote no more than a paragraph or two to a character’s gender and sexuality.
This, needless to say, made writing character sheets for the aro and ace characters hard. While in a work of fiction you might be able to really delve into a character’s backstory and motivations and flesh them out as a whole person, in a 2-3 page character sheet all you can do is gesture at a rough sketch and hope that the player can fill everything else in themselves. And while there are a lot of short-hand gestures that I can make to aro and ace experiences that I would expect aro and ace players to pick up on, I had no guarantee that the player we cast would be aro/ace or, in fact, have any knowledge of asexuality or aromanticism. So I had to come up with a really compact way to gesture to ace and aro experiences without creating a character that would be easily reducible to stereotypes.
First, I didn’t want either character to be defined solely by absence. There has been a lot of discussion about positive vs. negative definitions of asexuality over the years, and while I don’t object to negative definitions of asexuality in general, it was important (especially since I didn’t know who would be playing the characters) to define the characters not only by what they didn’t want but also by what they did want. M, for example, grew up with a huge extended family, and has always wanted that for themself, but knows that they don’t want a romantic partner, which makes the standard path to a big family tricky. G is an empath (which is how they figured out that they’re asexual), and sometimes has trouble understanding their peers’ romantic drama, not because they lack empathy (ha, puns) but because they don’t understand why people can’t just talk to each other and stop pining from afar. They have a classmate who they know is attracted to them, and they get to decide how they want to deal with that–do they want to take their own advice and hash it out with them or just keep avoiding them? M and G are both in situations that are directly linked to their orientations, but require more complex solutions than just saying, “Do not want.”
Second, I didn’t want either character to have no powers or a “late-bloomer” narrative. There are a couple of characters who have no powers at all, including one who is the child of two of the most famous heroes and who everyone is expecting to develop powers any day now. While having no powers seems like a really obvious metaphor for ace and aro experience, I didn’t want powerless ace and aro characters, especially if there was any chance that they were “late-bloomers,” since that would cast asexuality/aromanticism in a really negative light (it’s not just an absence–it’s an absence of what makes everyone else in the game special, yikes).**** Instead, both G and M have consistently undervalued powers, and a good chunk of their plot is trying to get people to take them seriously (also, arguably, an ace/aro experience, but one that’s a lot less value-laden than making them powerless).
Third, I didn’t want either character to be isolated or be a lone wolf. Especially in a game that’s so heavy on romance plotlines, the most stereotypical writing choice would have been to have G and M be the two characters uninvolved in romance plotlines. (There’s a lot of commentary to be made here about the ways that aromanticism and asexuality are often equated, but that’s a whole separate post in and of itself.) The second easiest choice would be to substitute very strong friendships for G and M’s romance plots. What I wound up doing instead was making very strong friendships normal for pretty much all the characters–most characters have at least one positive relationship (like a friend or a mentor) and one antagonistic relationship (although some characters have more of one or the other). M has no romance plotlines and G has a potential romance plotline they can pursue if their player wants to play them as romantically-inclined, but there are other non-ace non-aro characters who don’t have romance plotlines–there’s a bisexual character who thinks dating is way too much trouble, for example. Both G and M have figuring out what kinds of relationships they want in their life listed as one of their goals…but they’re not the only ones with that goal. They also both have very strong relationships with their families–M, as already mentioned, has a huge extended family and is in close contact with their siblings, while G has two university professor dads who would really prefer that they go to college rather than becoming a superhero straight out of high school. Basically, in a game about relationships and queerness, I didn’t want to paint M and G’s relationship desires as uniquely weird, and didn’t want to make romance a foregone conclusion for every other character.
Fourth, I wanted to avoid stereotypes about aromantic and asexual people–especially stereotypes about them being heartless, emotionless, robotic, alien, innocent/naive, etc.***** G directly counters a lot of ace stereotypes–they’re really emotionally fluent and not naive by any means. M is aromantic but cares about people really deeply and is far from emotionless (some might say that they have too many emotions). There is a cyborg character in the game, but it’s not either of them. I also wanted to avoid a lot of the “insufficient aro/ace” tropes that can appear in fiction–in a game where queerness is accepted and celebrated, I didn’t want either of the characters to be saddled with a plot where their orientation was “hurting” (or perceived to be hurting) someone else (as I have unfortunately seen happen in other games with ace characters).
I think I managed okay at all my goals–our first run, at least, suggests that I did. G and M were both fully fleshed out characters rather than collections of stereotypes. In the end, they became a superpowered duo (called “Emotional Assault” and “Battery”; yes, I have been crying about that truly awful pun for months) and also decided that once they got older, they were going to adopt kids together. They also schemed with some other students, brainwashed their principal, and helped a supervillain escape justice, but, you know, nobody’s perfect.
It’ll be interesting to see what happens when we run the game again–we were very careful about who we picked for our first run and how we cast, but if we run the game at a convention, for example, we’re going to have a lot less control over our player base. Even with our carefully curated group of players, we had a lot of trouble casting M in particular, in large part because not many people said they were comfortable playing an aromantic character. (Talking to players afterward, it seems like that was mainly because A. people wanted romance plots or B. they weren’t sure that they could accurately and sensitively portray an aromantic character. We had similar difficulty casting one of the trans characters.)
I think the big takeaway here is that writing ace and aro characters for LARP (especially if you’re going for compact character sheets) is pretty different than writing them in fiction. The space constraints are very different, and you ultimately don’t have control over the character–all you can really do is point the player in the right direction and hope that they follow your signposting. But the upside is that since character creation is collaborative, the players can take your characters in completely unexpected but delightful directions.
If you want to learn more about Superqueeroes, I have a whole tag for it on my other blog, which, granted, is mostly all caps text posts about how bad I am at naming things as well as some beautiful mood boards made by one of our run 1 players. There will almost certainly be future runs of the game, so keep an eye out for announcements about that if you’re hanging around New England LARP communities.
*For those of you wondering what a LARP is, there are a whole bunch of different styles, but in our case we were running a four-hour low-mechanics theatre game, so imagine doing improv theatre for four hours. Alternatively, imagine the games you might have played with your friends on the playground where you pretended to be ninjas or pirates or wizards. Basically, we got everyone together in a room and pretended to be superpowered teenagers for four hours. The three writers played NPCs, so I got to be the slightly douche-y, America-themed principal. It was good.
**I was very proud of the run 1 players for resolving the love quadrangle by all dating each other. Good job, kids.
***Although there are definitely LARPs that deal with heavy themes around gender and sexuality really well, we more or less wanted escapist fiction. We let people decide how dramatic they wanted to make being queer for their character–for some people it was really not a big deal at all, whereas for others it was a really central part of their identity. (Multiple characters wound up picking superhero names that were puns about their orientations, for example.) But removing the possibility of violence or negative backlash from the picture meant that people could pursue their love quadrangles or figure out how to tell their friends that they were non-binary without having to worry about whether they’d be fired or disowned or ostracized.
****There’s some good commentary from the author of The Wicked + The Divine about similar choices they made with regards to asexuality in their cast. (Major spoilers for WicDiv at the link, of course.)
*****Hey, have you read the Ace Tropes series yet? If not, you should do that! It’s really good!