Debriefing Intense Larps 101

Debriefing is a structured conversation amongst players about their larp experience, usually held immediately after a larp.

Debriefs have rules. They often have a facilitator. They have a different purpose than the usual post-larp venting, sharing, bragging, joking and celebrating.

Debriefs are used for many different purposes, and there are several different styles. Edu-larp designers, for example, often use long debriefs to facilitate a learning process, bridging the personal experience with the subject matter. My home community in Oslo used “debrief” to mean a speach where the organisers tell players what REALLY happened. I’m not writing about that kind of debrief.

An introduction to larp debriefs

The kind of debriefing I’m writing about is the Inter-Nordic Intense Larp Emotional Safety Debriefing, and in particular what I think of as the “Europa-style” debrief, descended from the debrief held at the larp Europa (2001).

This type of debriefing was developed to deal with the most intense kinds of larp experiences – the ones where you are fully invested, mourn a fictional death as you would a real death, empathize deeply with your characters plight, or perhaps declare your fictional love for a fictional person and feel your real heart a-flutter in ways indistinguishable from an actual crush. This kind of experience is often referred to as deep immersion, or as “bleed” for the imaginary line between player and character emotions that has been punctured. This kind of thing happens at all larps – if you didn’t feel anything, what would be the point? – but to different degrees.

Plenty of people go to larps precisely to get the intense experience – it allows you to learn, bond with your fellow learners, and experience creativity with an immediacy that is lacking in most other media. There is an element of katharsis to it – an emotional cleansing through emotional overflow, allowing you to express in larp what you can’t express in life. And it makes for amazing memories.

Europa (Weltschmerz, 2001). Photo © 2001-2013 Britta Bergersen

Such experiences can also be overwhelming, requiring a lot of thought and processing, bringing focus to questions that are good and necessary but also hard and difficult. Going emotionally deep-diving together brings us closer, leaving open questions about the larp’s meaning for your real-world self and real-world relationships. These are positive things, part and parcel of the experience. Debriefing is meant to make the process smoother.

But it is possible, though rare, to have too much bleed – especially when playing close to home (your real self, and your real problems) – and end up with more emotional turmoil than you bargained for. Debrief is a tool to identify and begin dealing with such instances. And if you expected the larp to be “just fun and games”, then bleed experiences can be troublesome. Especially when they are dismissed by co-players who still insist it was “just fun and games”. Implicitly or explicitly, they’re telling you there must be something wrong with you. The first function of the debrief is to say: there isn’t.

Debriefing has three goals:
  1. Each player should have their larp experience, whatever it was, validated by their co-players.
  2. Each player should have a chance to begin processing the larp, translating from the immediate experience and emotional bundle into lasting memories, reflections, and learning.
  3. If a player experienced anything particularly difficult, the debrief should provide an arena for others to become aware of the problem, and take steps towards solving it.

The bottom line is that the debrief is a tool to foster an open, trusting, supportive culture amongst players.

Debriefing is not:
  • An evaluation of the larp’s design/production. The debrief is for the player, not the organiser.
  • A chance to figure out “what really happened”. This can be done informally, or as a separate “plot debrief”.
  • A tool to prevent larp from causing mental ilness (psychosis, depression, etc.) in participants. Despite moral panic to the contrary, there are absolutely no documented instances of larp causing mental illness and plenty of indications of the opposite.
  • A method to deal with the emotional fall-out of actual (real-life) emergencies, physical or psychological. Emergencies should be handled by health-care professionals.
  • The end of the process. A larp experience, just like a life experience, can and should “compost” in the player’s mind. It can take weeks, months or years until the players have a clear picture of what the larp actually meant to them.

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The Europa-style debrief is one of several techniques used in a holistic approach to emotional safety – for more on the others, see the bottom of this blogpost. In my view, some of the other techniques – especially that of a slow landing – are more important than the debrief and that the general culture of play surrounding a larp is the most important factor. Emotional safety techniques should be tailored to the larp, both aesthetically and in terms of scope. Some larps do not need debriefing at all, some very little, and some can’t have enough. Sometimes, only a couple of players benefit from debriefing, while the rest would be better off going straight to the wrap party.

Does it work?

Larp debriefs are based on what larpers think works, and we are not always known to be right, not on any scientific findings. Recently, this has led some to question whether debriefs are effective or even safe. Part of my motivation for writing this article is to provide a reference for that discussion.

I’m open to be persuaded otherwise. But until I am, I’ll continue listening to my gut, which tells me that debriefs, done right, work pretty well at achieving the three goals mentioned above. At least, that’s what I experience when attending intense larps with proper debriefs versus the intense larps without, and that’s what players often tell us after larps that have used Europa-style debriefing.

I have organized debriefs after some 10-20 larp events, which isn’t much but still makes me one of the more experienced debriefers around. This text is based on learning from those events, and on the continuing discussions about larp safety in the inter-Nordic community.

What larps need debriefing?

I usually run debriefs at larps with “serious” content and significant production values, i.e. the ones where players invest a lot of their life and mindspace in the larp. Conversely, I do not run debriefs after short, comedic “drop-in” larps such as those typically held in The Larp Factory. There is a large gray area in-between those poles. The Vampire larps I played in Oslo in the 90s, for example, would have benefited greatly from some serious debriefing. Their content was silly, and the production values low. But we were so deeply involved in the game that it was hard for us to talk entirely out-of-character, even when we met professionally outside the larp context, and real-life relationships were affected negatively by in-game events.

The need for structured debriefing cannot always be predicted in advance. As an organiser, you might need to adjust your debrief plans while the larp is being played. Listen to your players: the more they seem invested in the larp, the more likely it is they will appreciate a debrief.

When to debrief?

Within a couple of hours after the larp ends, but not immediately after. Give the players some time for informal conversation, practical necessities, etc. The debrief should feel unhurried – stress is the enemy of the good debrief.

A debrief can last from 1 to 4 hours, with 2 hours being a normal length.

Everyone should get a chance to speak and be heard in full during the debrief. If the larp has more than a handful of players, it is necessary to divide up the participants into smaller debrief groups, alternately into pairs. The smaller the group, the more “airtime” can be given to each person.

Who should be in the debrief?

A debrief should be opt-out, not opt-in. Ideally all players should join in. Their conversations are about shared experiences. It is better if the people they shared them with are present. But if a player doesn’t want to join the debrief, or talk about their experience, that should be respected. Players who for whatever reason can’t join the debrief should be encouraged to debrief with a trusted friend or co-player.

Note: It is particularly important to debrief, or otherwise support, players who have played agressor characters – the bad guys, the prison guards, the cynics and manipulators, the dictators. If these have been played as NPCs or by organisers, they can be easy to forget. Don’t. Emotionally, it can be a lot harder to deal with your capability for cruelty than with your capability for victimhood.

Who should run the debrief?

Debriefing is an organiser responsibility. If the organisers have not set aside time and space to debrief, it usually isn’t practically possible for players to initiate one.

However, the organisers can, and should, delegate the responsibility of actually running the debrief to others. Usually, a debrief session has several facilitators, leading different groups, and one lead facilitator leading meetings of all players.

Facilitators should be aware of the basics of debriefing. They should be focused and relaxed, be prepared to listen far more than they talk, and not evaluate or pass judgement on the players’ statements. That excludes the stresseed-out senior organisers from facilitating a debrief.

When recruiting facilitators, I look for people who are empathic, are good listeners, trustworthy, good conversationalists, and capable of leadership without coming through as strict or authoritarian. They should also have sufficient experience with larp to understand what players are talking about. Only a minority of people qualify, and this is OK to admit. For example, I do not consider myself a good facilitator.

What to look out for at the debrief

Some issues that may warrant particular attention:

  • Moral hangover: the player has, through role-playing, felt their own ability for cruel or immoral actions. Usually, players in this situation need to be heard out and to be acknowledged for the good person they actually are. Immoral people don’t have moral hangovers. Also see the “Note” under “Who should be in the debrief”, above.
  • Fictional relationship hangover: feelings (both positive and negative) that were felt for another character remain after the larp is over. This is normal. Players in this situation should be encouraged to get to know the co-players as they are off-game.
  • Social exclusion experiences: the character was socially excluded at the larp, or lived with the threat of social exclusion, and the fear or sense of alienation persists. I only recently became aware of this issue, but it has made me re-interpret statements made at after larps held as far back as 15 years ago. In retrospect my impression is that it is one of the hardest experiences to deal with, in larp as in life, and should be treated with caution as a design ingredient. It is important for the player of the excluded character to be clearly and unconditionally included in the post-game community.
How to debrief

Here’s a fairly standard formula for 90-120 minutes of debrief:

  1. A short talk by the lead facilitator, outlining the plan and common rules and questions.
  2. Pair debriefing, no facilitators. 20 minutes.
  3. Group debriefing, one facilitator per group. 40 minutes.
  4. Communal debriefing, lead facilitator. 30 minutes.
  5. Summary, the lead facilitator offers suggestions for further processing.
Useful rules for debriefing sessions
  • The third person rule: when talking about something that was done at the larp, avoid the use of the first and second person. Not “You screamed at me” but “Your character screamed at my character” or (even better) “Ophelia [your character] screamed at Polonius [my character]”.
  • Confidentiality: what is said in the debrief, stays in the debrief, unless it can be anonymized. Common sense provides many exceptions to this, where sharing an anecdote is perfectly OK for all those involved, but that doesn’t need to be said explicitly.
  • No interrupting each other. Let the current speaker finish.
  • All experiences are equal. This larp may have been experienced very differently and may mean different things to each of us. Accept that, and do not challenge it.
  • The door is open: you can opt out of anything at any time without giving an explanation. If you don’t want to talk, don’t. (this rule applies to larping as well).

Ideally these rules are implicit in everything that is done, and do not need to be stated explicitly. I usually state the door-is-open-rule before the larp without particularly mentioning its relevance to debriefing, leave the no-interruption and all-experiences-are-equal rules to the facilitators, and state the third person rule and the confidentiality rule explicitly at the start of the debrief. I also usually make a statement about the purpose of the debrief (“your experience, not evaluating the larp or figure out what happened”), though this can be omitted if most of the players are familiar with debriefing.

Pair debriefing

Players are sorted into pairs. The pairing should be organised by the lead facilitator. Pairing should be random.

In the pair debrief the two players take on the roles of interviewer and interviewee. The interviewee describes their larp experience from beginning to end. The interviewer listens and asks follow-up questions. The facilitator should keep time, and signal at the half-way mark that it is time for the pair to switch roles.

The main reason to do pair debriefing is to maximize the airtime each participant has to talk through their experience, without needing to beg for the attention of co-players. Additionally it serves to build trust amongst people who do not know each other that well, and open other angles of conversation than those that would occur naturally. For this reason: If players end up being paired with a (real-life) very close friend or family then the pair should be split up and assigned new partners. Being paired with someone they played close to, but don’t know well, is OK.

Group debriefing

Players are sorted into groups of no more than six, no less than four, participants. Each group has one facilitator. The facilitator asks questions about the larp experience, and players take turns answering them. Aside from asking questions, the facilitator ensures that everyone is allocated airtime, and enforces the third-person rule and the all-experiences-are-equal-rule.

Conversations and digressions and questions from other group members are allowed, as long as airtime remains roughly equal, and the rules are followed.

Questions should be tailored to the larp and its particular content. You will rarely have the opportunity to ask more than three questions of the group. Here are some examples:

  • “What happened to your character at this larp?”
  • “Were there any situations that were particularly intense or emotional?”
  • “Is there anything you experienced during the larp that you haven’t experienced before?”
  • “High point / low point – Can you tell us one good thing and one bad thing that happened during the larp?”

The facilitator should be attentive to digressions, and be prepared to change the debrief questions on the fly. The larp might have played out very differently than expected when the questions were planned.

Be attentive to, but do not press for, the issues that might be most challenging at the larp. E.g. if the larp has been about intimacy (example), with players encouraged to role-play very close physically and emotionally, don’t ask people how the intimate play worked, but be sure to give space to any player who wants to talk about it. Instead, you can ask less private questions, such as “how did your character’s relationships develop?”.

Communal debriefing

Meet the “runda” – Swedish for “round”. Everyone pretends to be Swedish – all egalitarian and inclusive – and sit down in a circle. The participants take turns talking, one after the other, each having a set amount of time to talk. Questions or interruptions are not tolerated. The facilitator keeps time. One minute is the customary maximum per speaker. Participants should give their answers to a single question – for example “how was your larp?” or “how do you feel now?”. Herring sandwiches are optional.

A full runda can be used to conclude the debriefing session, as a summary. An abbreviated “runda” can also be held right after the larp ends (before normal debriefing begins), with one sentence per person.

Re-negotiating relationships and wrap parties

Additionally, players will often need to re-negotiate relationships formed in-game. How much do you REALLY have in common with the person who became your best friend and ally at the larp? The love that you felt for your character’s spouse – is that sustainable outside of the larp? Was it mutual? Should it be sustained? Was the asshole you hated all through the larp really an asshole – or a fellow humble role-player, who really needs a hug right now?

Such experiences are unevenly distributed, and sometimes quite personal, so it is usually not a good idea to try to facilitate their post-larp negotiation. This is best dealt with by players, face-to-face. But as an organiser you can recommend players to seek out co-players with whom they have shared strong emotional entanglements, whether they were positive or negative, for a conversation.

For players in such a conversation: It is not necessary, but sometimes OK, to go into detail about who felt what, when. The important thing is to get to know the player as someone other than their character. A wrap party – or “afterlarp party” – is an excellent arena for this, as well as for general celebration. A wrap party should be held some hours after the end of all larp-related activites, so players have a chance to take a break and change into their ordinary costume, and should provide space for talking – not just dancing.

Further processing

Debriefing is only the beginning of processing – the player converting the impressions and actions and emotions of the larp into something of long-term use to themselves or society : fond memories, new works of art, lessons about themselves, lessons about how the world works, new friendships.

Nordic larpers have described two different phenomena following intense larp experiences: post-larp blues, and post-larp charisma. Post-larp charisma describes a bundle of creative energy, an extraversion and increased ability to meaningfully connect with other people, a visible aura of passion and confident joy. Post-larp blues describes a partial social withdrawal (especially from people who were not at the larp), melancholy feelings, a bundle of hard-to-describe emotions lodged somewhere in the body. These are not exclusive – players can and often do experience both, even simultaneously. Both tend to dissipate within a month.

I haven’t encountered a convincing explanation for either phenomenon, but they are also not unique to larp. A group of friends who have spent their holiday on a daring adventure might go to through the exact same processes, as might youth who have attended a summer camp.

When processing a larp experience, I have found the following advice helpful:

  • Keep talking, preferably with other people who have been to the same larp. Your best insights will usually not come at the debrief, but two weeks later.
  • Continue pair debriefing. Some Danish larps have assigned their players a “debrief buddy”, a co-player whose job is to contact you a while after the larp is over. When this works out practically (i.e. people actually remember to contact their buddies), it works.
  • Keep expressing – write down your story, compose a song or a poem, edit the larp photos – whatever your chosen vehicle of expression. Share your work, but not with everyone, at least not at first. My preferred way of processing intense larps is to write highly sentimental and pompous larp reviews. I have learned to leave them on the harddisk a couple of days and re-read them before publishing. Or not publishing, as is sometimes the case.
  • Party like it is 1997.

And then, of course, there is the universal technique of the totally optional, not in any way mandatory, and yet strangely satisfactory Group Hug.

What do you think?

Has this style of debriefing worked for you? Do you know of good techniques not listed above? Do you see any problems with this style of debriefing? Leave a comment, or send an email – I’ll try to keep the article up to date as a “best practice” overview of debriefing.

20 thoughts on “Debriefing Intense Larps 101

  1. I would like to do the discussion about safety somewhere else. I’m one of the people, that might have been heard arguing, that not the debriefing in itself, but the dominant discourse about player safety is more harmful than helpful. But I like this post as a technique-discussion.

    I’ve used debriefing as a way to frame the players experiences from the game. At Den Hvide Krig (a larp about an occupation) the last thing the players did before the game started, was to be paired up with a player from the opposing side (occupant with occupied) and talk about their expectations for the conflicts between the two parties in the game. The first thing we asked them to do after the game, was to talk with a new player from the opposing side about their experiences of the conflicts between the to parties during the game.

    The focus on privacy, although mostly obvious and self-evident, can also be disruptive. After the game Totem the players were very discrete about their experiences. Besides being insanely frustrating for me and others, that wasn’t there – it also made them seem more caught up in the game afterwards. Since they couldn’t talk with others about the game. Which seems to me to be a bit contrary to another central goal of de-briefing, to letting the players move on from the game, which I would argue lies in extension of your point number 2 “Each player should have a chance to begin processing the larp, translating from the immediate experience and emotional bundle into lasting memories, reflections, and learning.”

  2. I am a bit surprised that you dont want to include experiences of post-traumatic stress emerging. If a player experiences a deeply held memory resurfacing (“The situation suddenly reminded me of the time we crashed in a car when I was 5 and it was an intense experience, and now Im having trouble stopping thinking about it”) this should be very valid input, and a good method for first-line lessening of the reawakened memory in my book. To be told that these reactions are not allowed to talk about with the group seems sort of counterproductive to me, both because it will make players feel guilty for the feelings (Oh, I am feeling this but if I express it it will be bad and I will be just a whiner who is crazy) as well as limiting what can be said in the debrief so that socialy unsure people will just mumble platitudes in order to not be the emoperson who brings up strong emotions so as not to be seen as the emo-kid who should stop laiving and seek professional help.

  3. And could you make an editbutton so that my morningcofee mumblings can become more coherent in edit?? ;-D

  4. Troels – interesting point about the disruptiveness of privacy. In the past I have felt that trying to explain my intense larp experience to friends who weren’t there and “don’t get it” to be quite frustrating. I know I’m not alone here, and this goes some way towards explaining your perception of the Totem players. On the other hand, I guess that what I’m doing when I draft my sentimental reviews is precisely trying to build a bridge to those who weren’t there. And I think talking about intense larp experiences with others has become a lot easier as the larp community and society at large have moved away from the “just fun and games” fallacy.

    Also hoping that you, or someone, writes down their criticism of the dominant discourse on player safety. I suspect I might agree. But I won’t know until I can read the arguments. 🙂

  5. Martin K – you misunderstand, and I’ll edit the text to be more precise: I was talking about possibly traumatizing events that theoretically could happen at a larp, for example a hypothetical car crash at an urban pervasive larp.

    If this were to happen, recent research has shown that talking through the experience is more often harmfull than helpfull. So the point is that larp organisers shouldn’t jump for the debriefing toolbox in the event of an actual emergency.

    I would never stop anyone from talking about anything at a debrief, including “old baggage” that resurfaced at the larp, if they feel a need to talk about it. Nor would I push people to talk about whether the larp brought up any old baggage – too intrusive.

    I haven’t actually been in a debrief where old baggage has been an expressed issue, and wouldn’t have any better idea on how to deal with it than a random person off the street.

    * Edit: edited the article for clarity. And at the moment, I’m the only one who has an “edit-button”. It requires an account with this blog, something I assumed no-one would bother to have. I’ll look into re-opening user registration.

  6. Ah, I see. You replace trauma with “emergencies” wich frankly speaking is a bit weak given your reason for it, that trauma is best dealt with by professionals. An emergency is a purely physical disaster, but traumas/shocks are a lot harder to define/debrief. Because where do you set the difference between a “real” traumatizing experience and a “ingame” trauma? For some, the experience of violence, especially sudden violence, ingame can be pretty traumatizing even though its only makebelieve. I can remember at least a couple of scenes I have played where I was so immersed that the scene became quite close to a traumatic experience: the sudden transformation of a lovely girl into a screamin undead in two seconds in the mist at Veiskille: A wintersnight leaps to mind. For half a minute there I reacted as if I was *really* in danger (this was my second Larp), and looking back with the wisdom of the ages I can see how that could have developed into a real traumatic situation for somebody just a bit more tender. You need some definitions if you are going to forbid/discourage people to speak about issues wich you clearly set out in the first text.

  7. I don’t mind presenting my views here. I just thought it would be easier to leave them for another place and let this be about specific techniques 🙂

    But in short. The dangers of larping (even intense games) is often highly overestimated. Because of the tendency to try and describe larping/roleplaying as something inherently unique and fantastic (which the nordic community is very fond of) and at least different from other types of pastimes, the dangers are exaggerated. Because if it’s dangerous it’s even more special.

    There’s a tendency to define good roleplay or a good game as one where you are emotionally affected afterwards. That makes the one’s who are affected the good roleplayers. This can lead to hysteria. Also it lessens the mutual social contract of the magic circle, that is important for your fellow players to play to the fullest, without constant fear of overstepping boundaries. The idealization or synthetization of bleed is one of the worst parts of the discourse since the idea of bleed lessens the safety net for all of the players.

    Life is dangerous – and any pastime where you spend months on with your friends will affect you. Games with heavy workshops and preparations months ahead of the game itself are prime examples of this. If I spend 3 months relating to a specific group of people I will feel closer to and affected by them. Even more so if we keep acting as if it will be lifechanging (unless we’re doing something wrong of course – but then it will kinda be our own faults for not being good enough roleplayers).

    I’m not trying to argue, that you’re not affected by larping. It’s your own body that participates even if you can discern cognitively. But the discourse teaches us that we should actively seek out the bleed or that we’re better roleplayers if we experience it and that isn’t really nice.

  8. Troels: I agree with you in general. The reason I support a debrief is for the exception, where you may have one player with some acute sensibility or maybe a little difficulty with dealing with reality. That one player who was deeply affected and maybe does not have a social network or social capacity to offload their experience, and wich may be quite upset. If it costs only two hours to make sure every player returns safely to base (and more important, gets that warm glow of sharing in a post-mission enviroment) thats two hours well spent.

  9. Troels – I tend towards agreeing with you, but it is unclear to me what you think is the cart and what is the horse. In my view we can and should have awareness of risk factors in larp, without thereby condoning bleed culture – i.e. the kind of attitude where difficult larp experiences are sought out purely for their own sake – or a culture of vulnerability, where people feel bad because they’ve been told they’re supposed to.

    Historically, the safety discussion was a response to intense larping rather than the other way around. Europa (2001) had a structured debrief largely because 1942 (2000) didn’t.

    There is a difficult balancing act in the safety discussion between enhancing the play experience on one hand, and mitigating risk on the other. Many techniques serve both purposes – debriefing is one of them.

  10. Martin: Even though I was talking about hypotheticals, I made a mistake using the terms “trauma” and “traumatizing”. Pop psychology has made these into loaded words – they bring with them all kinds of connotations and scary maybes. So I don’t think they are good starting points for discussions about risk factors in larp.

    To take your concrete example of a shocking experience: would you think differently of risk if you experienced the same watching a horror movie? At the theatre? Or if you experienced a loud car-horn right behind you as you were walking down the street immersed in your own thoughts? If the act of larping makes a difference to your evaluation of risk: why?

    I think your example illustrates a different kind of risk: when the fight/flee response kicks in and takes over before the conscious mind gets around to doing its fact/fiction-separation-thingy. And that actually happens quite often, in life and in sports and in larp. There was a guy in the Oslo scene in the 90s who had his nose broken three times at three different larps. He played monster NPCs, and had a talent for scaring people. There are also examples of players literally running off cliffs when scared. So what I’d worry about here are the physical risks: block off dangerous spots on the larp location, and if you’re gonna surprise people – make sure there’s enough distance between your nose and their boffer weapons.

    BTW: I wouldn’t run debriefs for the sake of “weak players” (if such a category of larper actually exists, which I doubt), but for all the players – including myself. I think it is important that we meet on equal footing in the debrief, both in theory and in practice.

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