RPG and larp designers increasingly recognize the importance of pre-game workshops and discussions to set parameters, themes, topics, and tone for the gaming session. Post-game activities immediately following a run are less discussed, however. Such activities –– game wrap, unpacking or epic tales, de-roling, debriefing, after-party, and aftercare –– are an essential part of participatory game design.
Unfortunately, the structure for larps and RPGs at game conventions is typically not conducive to post-play activities, unless a game organizer themselves shortens play to include them as part of the time allotted. A game ends and players disperse quickly to other games. The culture of conventions encourages people to make the most of their time and dollars by filling their schedule with as much gaming as possible, even though play itself is physically, intellectually, and emotionally exhausting, and requires processing, rest, and recuperation between sessions. Ultimately, making time for post-play activities is an organizer responsibility.1 Game designers should include post-play activities as part of the design, and account for them in the game’s total playtime. Convention organizers can take post-play activities and aftercare into account when making convention schedules, allowing for more flexibility or downtime, and ingraining the convention’s culture with an appreciation for post-play activities and self-care.
In addition, most larp campaigns and destination events also fail to include adequate time for pre-larp and post-larp activities. One prefers to valorize hours of play over pre- and post-play activities. Campaign boffer games typically just have a “game on” time and “game off” time, while a lot of destination larps may have an hour of hurried workshops and then an after-party. Participants finish playing and then quickly leave for travel and to return to their mundane lives. They likely have not had the chance to process the experience, resolve intellectual, emotional, or psychological thoughts and feelings, or to leave the world and headspace of the fiction and their character. These unresolved feelings can contribute to “larp drop” or “con drop,” post-larp depression,2 and negative feelings of bleed, a name for the phenomenon when the emotions of the character seep into the player unexpectedly.3 Not having a post-play process to handle conflicts, bleed, “moral hangover” from playing a villain, fictional relationship hangover, or social exclusion,4 or other difficult experiences can lead to social conflicts in the player community5 as negative or unresolved feelings build up, fester, are back-channeled among friends, or vented on social media. In addition, these negative or overwhelming feelings are often blamed on the game organizers or the game design itself.
There are three goals to post-play activities: reconnection, reflection, and recuperation, all achievable through designed activities. Larp is an intense experience, not unlike acting or a kink scene.6 Players generally need time and/or assistance to come down from the intensity and return to their primary identities and everyday lives. We spend a lot of time thinking about getting into character for roleplay; adequate attention to how to get out of character is also important.
In this essay, I argue that post-play activities should be selected based on the aesthetics, design goals, and logistics of a game, as well as players’ needs.7 This essay categorizes and explains multiple types of post-play activities so that players and designers can better understand their uses, benefits, drawbacks, and pitfalls.
Types of Post-Play Activities and Their Uses
This article explains several different types of designed post-play activities, and elaborates on the reasons that they may be beneficial. Developing a common language and understanding of these post-play activities may help designers know which ones suit their design goals, aesthetics, and logistics. Players can then choose their preferred post-play activities and know what to expect in each type. A shared understanding of these terms allows them to be easily listed in a larp or RPG facilitator’s guide, script, or design document and offer transparency of expectations8 for participants and players. Each of these post-play activities can be used alone or in any combination.
Game Wrap or Epilogue/ “Epiloguing”
Game Wrap, also sometimes known as Epilogue, is when players reconvene as a group to talk about or resolve the plot of the larp. As one of the most common post-play activities, Game Wrap lets players tie together the loose threads of the game’s narrative and/or reveal any secrets that did not come out during play. One sees it usually held after one-shot games and sometimes following each larp campaign session. It serves the function of explaining the content of the game itself, and functionally provides the game organizers the final chance to frame players’ experiences. Game Wrap is especially common in low-transparency one-shot chamber larps, known in some communities as “secrets & powers” larps,9 where each character has a secret role or identity, and the plot revolves around discovering the “real story.” During Game Wrap, plots, motives, and results are shared with other players and the game’s overall narrative is created through a synthesis of players’ individual experiences and details from the GMs. In a game campaign, a Game Wrap can also finalize that particular scenario or module, and set up the intrigue for the next installment.
The Game Wrap is a time for GMs and players to gather and share secrets, motives, plot elements, and interesting developments from the game they just finished playing. Its purpose is to close the scenario and tie up loose ends, and it is often a place for the game’s designers or organizers to reveal themselves or to have the final word. In some game cultures, this might be referred to as a “debrief,” though the distinction between a plot-related discussion (Game Wrap) and players’ emotion-related discussion (Debrief) is becoming more common.
Its purpose is to reveal story elements that may have been unclear or were not introduced into live play. At the Game Wrap, organizers have the chance to summarize the scenario, highlight interesting scenes, player decisions, or other elements. A Game Wrap helps to connect the dots for players, create a cohesive plot and ending, and produce a sense of shared experience. However, a Game Wrap as a post-game activity often only deals with the game’s plot and narrative. It does not deal with player interactions or feelings. Participating in a Game Wrap as the only post-play activity may increase feelings of negative bleed stemming from “Fear of [having] Miss[ed] Out” (FOMO). For example, a player could be perfectly happy with their game experience and their character’s story, until they hear about someone else’s story, character, or actions. Hearing about others’ cool scenes or characters invites implicit comparison with one’s own experience, which may then seem less adequate or important. In addition, information revealed in a Game Wrap may retcon10 someone’s experience or personal diegesis by challenging or changing what they originally perceived. If their entire experience is revealed to be a misunderstanding or a lie, that can affect how they feel about their decisions, interactions, and importance. In particular, retroactive feelings of betrayal or being excluded may arise. These can be dealt with in subsequent post-play activities designed to address bleed and player feelings, but if your game only has Game Wrap, those feelings may go unaddressed and cause players to have a negative association with their game experience or other players.
Game Wrap also sometimes reinforces the hierarchy of GM vs. players and can reduce player autonomy. Unexpected or unorthodox player choices during a game may be undone during Game Wrap by a GM who may correct or rewrite a personal or collective diegesis. These “here is what really happened” moments often arise because the GMs had a specific plot, theme, or ending they wish to enforce. For example, a game that concluded with characters having escaped a government raid saw those characters’ ship shot down during Game Wrap because the GMs had intended for those characters to be killed or arrested in the game’s finale. These kinds of reveals in a Game Wrap can also create negative bleed or player anger or dissatisfaction.
A Game Wrap can further emphasize GM authority and become a testing ground for players’ performances against a norm. Players can end up seeking to verify that their portrayal of a character or the choices they made was in line with the GM’s intentions or expectations. This can happen directly through affirmation from the GMs or atmospherically if the GMs praise certain performances as authentic but ignore others.
Retelling or Epic Tales
In this common post-play activity, players get together to talk with each other about their characters and what happened in the game. These retellings may be formal or informal, and may include highlighting individual scenes or interactions, or a play-by-play. Typically, these sessions have been known as “war stories,” a term that stems from the wargaming origins and battle-focus of many larps in the high-fantasy and boffer traditions. However, Tina Leipoldt and Larson Kasper, who have produced larps in Palestine and for Syrian refugees, suggested changing the term to “Epic Tales” at the 2016 Nordic Larp Talks.11 Using the terminology “War Story” to refer to a recap of a fictional experience disrespects and trivializes the real-life traumatic experiences of those who have experienced actual war. It also privileges a violent or combat-centered type of play as the only legitimate larp story, when larp is a diverse medium that includes many types of stories. “Epic Tales” thus refers to the personal and group recaps that occur post-play, either in person, through online text or video conversations, or both.
Bowman and Torner note that telling Epic Tales is a form of “reframing,”12 whereby individual stories of one’s experience are validated by one’s peers and connected to a wider frame that involves others. Narrated events are made more real and epic by the positive responses of others, which increases feelings of community and also personal esteem. Participating in Epic Tales helps players feel more comfortable with their personal experience and to see other sides of the game. In addition, narrating one’s larp experience orders and makes sense out of chaos, including going back and attributing motivation or logic to choices that were made impulsively at the time. Through personal narration and piecing together the stories of others, a player gains a mastery over their experience.13 Larp theorists note that this narration changes the experience, since larp is experienced as a “personal diegesis,” or an individual story narrated in a single-player’s head that interacts with another’s personal diegesis.14 The act of external narration itself shifts live experience to individual memory, as the speaker uses the benefit of hindsight that provides or reinforces their own agency in the narrative. Additionally, once a personal diegesis is narrated and comes in contact with another’s narrated diegesis, the experience is changed into a communal diegesis, containing parts from another’s story, and ordering one’s personal experience relative to a larger narrative.15 Explaining one’s personal experience to others creates perspective and gives context regarding how their personal narrative contributed to the event as a whole and impacted other people’s stories. Furthermore, this processing and retelling creates the memories from the event. As one connects with others and exchanges opinions, one forms a “final” narrative about the experience,16 refined from post-game reflection and exchange.
Epic Tales mean designated time for players to share their enthusiasm for the stories they told together or what happened to their character in the recently finished play session. Epic Tales may also include sharing appreciation, whereby a player thanks and acknowledges another player for something they did, said, or caused that improved the person’s play. Epic Tales is a time when the GMs and organizers can learn more about their players’ experiences as well.
Setting time aside for Epic Tales builds a sense of shared community and increases player hype and excitement, as well as feelings of bonding and closeness between players by learning about others’ experience. Epic Tales also help participants learn what types of scenes the players and community value. The mutual thanking and appreciation of co-players validate participants’ experience and performance.
When offering a time for Epic Tales, I feel that organizers should guard against allowing one or a few people to dominate the discussion, and they should set rules or mechanisms to allow others the chance to speak up if they wish to share. Epic Tales can create or reinforce hierarchies among players by making one narrative appear more important than another and unintentionally encourage talking over others. Epic Tales time can also struggle with the boundary of in-game and off-game prestige, whereby someone who played a high-status character in the game may transfer or attempt to transfer that prestige to create a dominant narrative or off-game social capital. Epic Tales done inelegantly can lead to feelings of social exclusion by some players.
Sometimes players do not feel that their own experience in the game is valuable or “epic enough” to share and, as with Game Wrap, this type of post-play activity can lead to FOMO (fear of missing out) if a player feels their own story is not as cool as another’s. In addition, a player narrating their Epic Tales will interpret a scene through their personal diegesis and perspective. However, their personal diegesis may directly clash with another player’s own personal story perspective, and those competing interpretations of what really happened may create genuine player-player conflict. Epic Tales by themselves do not have a mechanism for discussing or processing a player’s feelings about the scene, especially if a player had a negative interaction with another player or their character. Hearing an epic tale that was actually hurtful or humiliating to a player is very difficult, especially if others validate the scene or behavior without understanding how it may have hurt or harmed another. Epic Tales can result in overt or implicit silencing of some players and their stories.
Lastly, Epic Tales can simply take a long time to tell, especially if a player gets into a play-by-play of their entire experience. While a player may find their own experience intensely interesting, others may easily tire of hearing a detailed account. Too much “let me tell you about my character” can be tiresome, uninteresting, and create an expectation for others to perform emotional labor as someone processes their experience through narration. Epic Tales may be best combined with another post-play activity, such as an after-party or “dead-dog” (see below) so that players can opt-in and out informally.
After roleplay, it can be quite jarring to exit the headspace of a character and the fictional world you have co-created with other players. “De-roling” is one way to help players control their exit from the game and to create what is sometimes referred to as a “slow landing” after the experience. De-roling refers to the process of “shifting from an active, dramatic state of being to another one, rooted in the subjects’ everyday lives.”17 De-roling is a common practice in drama therapy, and it is increasingly discussed in larp, roleplay, and acting circles.18 Medical educators, who commonly use roleplay and simulation, also emphasize the importance of both de-roling and debriefing, which they affirm as two separate–though joined–processes. Stafford describes this as “not an either/or issue: debriefing must capture the learning and allow the discharge of emotions. De-roling allows the participants to discard aspects of the role which may have been taken on, including inappropriate responsibility, and to restore them to a sense of who they are.”19 De-roling is considered especially important when playing intense roles or after engaging in transgressive play.20
Since roleplaying or acting requires participants to not only draw on aspects of their own selves but also enact traits that are not their own, it can be difficult to “identify the limits of what is and is not the self”21 when roleplay is finished. This ‘blurring of the lines’ was introduced by Stanislavski in his seminal method acting work and corroborated by roleplay theorists van Ments22 and Yardley-Matwiejczuk,23 who note that participants in the Stanford Prison Experiment became so immersed into their roles that they exhibited personality changes. Stafford, van Ments, and Yardley-Matwiejczuk all advocate for de-roling as a must for roleplay: designers and directors of roleplay need to implement “clear strategies and procedures for returning role players to the mundane world.”24 All recognize that de-roling is underutilized and under-theorized, and that a lack of de-roling can leave participants in a state of confusion regarding emotions and identity. This phenomenon is typically referred to as bleed25 in the larp community, or when a character’s and a player’s thoughts, emotions, and identities may merge into one another. This confluence will happen to some degree with all roleplay, but bleed that remains unprocessed through de-roling and debriefing can lead to negative consequences for participants, including post-larp depression26 and social conflicts in communities.27
De-roling and debriefing often go hand-in-hand, but the two are distinct from one another as types of post-play activities. De-roling is a ritual time to locate and emphasize the boundary of the player and the character, to distance oneself from the character’s headspace, and to reclaim and reaffirm the player’s primary identity. De-roling can be especially important to mitigate what is known alternately as a “larp crush,”28 “romantic bleed-out,”29 or “fictional relationship hangover.”30 In these situations, positive or negative romantic feelings of one character for another character can be difficult to distinguish from feelings associated with the actual person. De-roling activities may include taking off the character’s nametag and replacing it with a player nametag, de-costuming or disrobing, leaving behind an actual or symbolic item that represents the character, emphasizing separateness by giving advice to the character or having the character give advice to the player, by claiming part of the character’s identity that you would like to embrace in your daily life and rejecting parts of the character’s identity from your consciousness, etc. De-roling almost always includes reaffirming the alibi of character by specifically referring to the character in third-person.31
De-roling is the conscious and often ritualized process of setting aside the character and reaffirming one’s self or primary ego identity as distinct from the character. De-roling post-play activities are helpful for leaving behind the world of the fiction and the headspace of the character, and for making a comfortable transition to reality.32 They separate the roleplay experience from everyday identity and reality and reclaiming or reuniting with your own identity or ego. De-roling reinforces the boundary between player and character by distancing oneself from any negative traits or emotions that were embodied in-character, and claiming any positive traits or emotions that were experienced in-character. It is a conscious process that uses reflection and analysis to move the game from what is felt viscerally through embodiment to what is known and remembered intellectually — a transfer from the body to the mind. Furthermore, de-roling gives time for players to interact with each other as themselves, not just as their characters.
De-roling activities definitively signal that the roleplay experience is over. It may be difficult to simply drop character and return to the real world, and players may be unwilling or unable to flip the switch from active participation to analysis; some may resist the closure that de-roling creates by design. Players may feel sadness, anger, or anxiety over the loss of the experience, and the finality of not being able to retrieve it. They may have been enjoying being their character, and their own identity may feel strange or somehow less cool or desirable than their character’s. For these reasons, it may be important for de-roling to lead to another type of post-play activity, such as a debrief, or after-party.
De-roling activities usually fall into one of three types: establishing physical (bodily or spatial) distance, establishing psychological distance, and ritualized demarcation.33 Some examples of de-roling activities include:
- Body movements, such as the literal shaking of each limb and the entire body to “shake-off” the character34 or changing one’s posture to the player’s usual posture and gait.
- Change of physical location: or “gating,”35 involves moving players from the space where the event or roleplay happened to another space as a signal for shifting out of character. This can also be done by changing the environment, such as turning on the lights, opening curtains, removing decor, or the like.
- Song can be used at the beginning of the game to facilitate getting into character and played at the end to bookend the experience.36
- Counting out of character. This de-roling activity is used to establish gradual psychological distance and occurs when a facilitator asks participants to close their eyes and uses their voice to count backwards, guiding players out of character and back to their primary identities, sometimes accompanied by meditative background music.37
- Cool-down exercises such as dance, music, meditation, walking, or talking in third person about the character, or getting snacks or drinks.
- Taking off the nametag is a type of ritualized “disrobing” activity in which a facilitator asks all participants to remove their nametags, and replace with a player nametag, if available, and to state “I was [character name]. I am [player name].”
- Taking off a costume item An item that particularly embodied a character, such as a hat, brooch, watch, gloves, etc. can be removed and set aside, marking the removal of the role.38
- Take with / leave behind occurs when a facilitator asks participants if there is an aspect of their character that they would like to claim, and/or an aspect of their character they wish to reject.39 This can be especially helpful for those who have played villains or characters that experienced something difficult or, conversely, if a player experienced something powerful or liberating as their character.
- Positive Feedback Round or Appreciations: is having participants express gratitude to another player or to the designers for aspects of the experience. This facilitates third-person speaking, thinking about the experience in the past, intellectualizing the experience, and moving the focus to another. Bowman and Torner note that this act of sharing can boost morale, and dignify the presence of all involved.40 Dalstål recommends that this be done in a circle with each player in a small group silently receiving positive feedback from others, in turn, until all players have given and received positive feedback.41
The assumption of a strict boundary between the player and the character has a long history in roleplaying studies, as does staunch opposition to any notions that role play is dangerous.42 People who experience strong emotions after a role play experience are still often told that their emotions are invalid, or worse, evidence of their inability to separate themselves from the character, separate the game world from everyday reality, and thus a bad roleplayer.43 Debriefing as a post-play activity began as a reaction against this type of thinking, beginning with the recognition that role play is indeed risky, and can “fuck you up.”44 Debriefing repudiates the idea that being powerfully emotionally affected by role play is evidence of “improper” role play or that something is wrong with the player.
Bindslet and Schultz refer to roleplaying as a social extreme sport that is risky, intense, and can create strong emotions, including negative or difficult-to-handle ones. Roleplaying can be dangerous because “we sometimes do things and put ourselves in situations we would never accept in real life”45 and we will often make the most dramatic choice, taking the most risk in order to tell the best story and to chase intense moments. These deliberate risks can “fuck you up” emotionally, and debriefing as a post-play activity arose to create better ways to deal with extreme emotions or trauma triggers that can occur as a result of play. Debriefing is designed as a method for “de-fucking” a player who has experienced intense emotions during or after a roleplay experience. The presence of a debrief validates a negative or extreme emotional reaction as a potential outcome of the experience.
Because larps are stories told on a compressed timeframe, players will choose to put their characters into situations they might avoid otherwise, situations with even more hardships, complexities, vulnerabilities, and intense emotions. Even when it’s supposed to be “just a game,” sometimes players end up with more emotions or emotional turmoil than they expected. Many times one stoically hides one’s emotions in order to focus on the positive, to hide one’s vulnerable side, or because one is ashamed of how they feel. A game’s culture can also make it difficult to speak up if one develops extreme emotions; feeling “fucked-up” and alone in a crowd of other players gushing over the experience can be lonely, isolating, and complicate or increase the trauma. People feeling “fucked-up” may need to feel understood, accepted, or in particular to “be reassured that [they] have not done anything wrong.”46 Debriefing creates a sanctuary for such feelings, if they are present, and signals to players that such feelings will be respected and heard. It presses against a culture of hardcore that reinforces the myth that only “bad players” or “people who can’t handle roleplay” experience intense emotions, bleed, or confusion after a larp.47 Bindslet and Schultz argue that because the tool to address the emotional turmoil (e.g. de-roling and debriefing) requires radical courage and vulnerability, it must be accompanied by a community culture that makes it not only acceptable to use the tool, but encourages it.48
The word debrief has military connotations and is often used to mean the act of reporting the observations and results of a mission to one’s superiors or team members. It can connote an interrogation, where the person who took part in the mission or scenario (potentially as a scout, spy, or designee) is questioned by others who did not participate. In business, events are often debriefed in order to discover what worked and didn’t, what the user’s experience was, and how it can be improved in the future. The purpose of such a military or business debrief is to share personal knowledge with a group in order to help them understand the experience and its implications on them or their further actions.
Despite its militaristic associations, debriefing in larp is not an interrogation, even if a series of question prompts are used to spark discussion. Instead, it is a sharing of personal experience and its effects –– positive or negative –– to seek understanding with those assembled. In this way, it may have more in common with the kink community, where debriefing is both expected and regularly conducted after scenes to discover what worked well, what didn’t, if either party was triggered by the experience, and to make sure everyone is doing all right emotionally and physically.49 Kink debriefs are done so that all participants in a play experience feel heard and validated, and to provide information to make future scenes even better.
Debriefs in larp share the structure of a corporate, military, or kink debrief in that they are a series of structured questions that help a participant share their experience with others.50 Debriefs are considered intensely important in these business, education, military, and kink contexts because participants need to reflect upon the experience, analyze, it, articulate it, integrate feedback, learn from each other, and then make decisions for what next steps to take as a result. Debriefs not only mitigate negative emotions or experiences, but solidify positive ones, and help participants receive a kind of emotional and/or intellectual closure.
In larp, debriefing refers to “structured conversation held after a larp ends about the larp that just ended,”51 and in some circles, it has referred to several different types of aftercare, including what happened (Game Wrap and/or Epic Tales); Critique or Evaluation; methods for distancing oneself from the character and returning to reality (de-roling); as well as “helping players articulate and deal with difficult emotions, thoughts or relationships that arose in the larp.”52 To establish a cohesive theoretical vocabulary, debrief must be distinguished from these other forms of post-play activities. Having a shared understanding around the word debrief helps both players and organizers players know what to expect and how to interact.
Atwater defines larp debriefing as “a transitional period between a game and its contextual reality that lets players reinforce the social bonds that allow play and reflect on their own actions.”53 As Fatland notes, debriefs have a “different purpose than the usual post-larp venting, sharing, bragging, joking and celebrating.”54 These explicit purposes include community validation, reflection and processing, and consciousness raising.55 Debrief for Eirik Fatland, thus explicitly means a structured conversation, facilitated by someone with training or experience,56 using rules that help create a welcoming environment and ensure everyone has a chance to be heard.
When designing a larp with intense or heavy themes, or when players are encouraged to make the alibi of character quite thin by playing a character which shares aspects of the player’s personality or experience, debriefs are an essential part of the design and play experience.57 Andresen notes that the longer and more intense the roleplay experience, the longer the debrief should be.58 Magrann writes that subs in kink often use debrief as a space for their “need to cry to let out some intense bottled up emotions.”59 However, since larps (like kink) are emergent play activities, “the need for structured debriefing cannot always be predicted in advance.”60 Even a seemingly light-themed larp experience may produce intense play or create strong emotional reactions in its players. Fatland suggests that organizers remain flexible, with the ability to adjust their plans for post-play activities based on a larp’s players: “the more they seem invested in the larp, the more likely it is they will appreciate a debrief.”61
People who have played aggressor characters such as villains, prison guards, dictators, cynics, and manipulators especially need debrief or other support.62 In the kink scene, where debriefing is quite common, Magrann notes that “dommes need reassurance that they’re good people despite doing ‘terrible’ things to someone else.”63 Fatland remarks that this is because “emotionally, it can be a lot harder to deal with your capability for cruelty than with your capability for victimhood.”64 Montola demonstrates the importance of debriefing for these players because they have experienced cognitive dissonance and disgust at their own behaviors; in the extreme larp Gang Rape, there were some complaints from players that the debrief focused so much on the rape victims, while those who played rapists had intense feelings of self-loathing and needed to both process that emotion and be reassured that they, as a person, were not capable of actually committing rape.65
Furthermore, organizers, GMs, and storytellers may also benefit from a debrief, either with each other, or with the players.66 Organizers have been through an intense experience as well, and they have also pushed the players to intense experiences. In addition to the feelings that may arise in players, they may also have feelings of guilt or responsibility regarding the players’ experiences.
A larp debrief is a structured, typically facilitated discussion among players in a larp, usually conducted in small groups with participants in a circle. Its purpose is to help players express and process emotions, thoughts, or relationships that arose in the larp by asking a series of open-ended questions that encourage players to reflect and identify intense moments and emotions. While debriefing encourages emotional sharing, it is crucial to note that “larp debriefing is not therapy.”67 Debriefs are not designed to deal with emotional fallout of actual (real-life) mental or physical emergencies,68 only emotions stemming from play. Debriefing is not mental health counseling nor is it intended to assist players with actual mental illnesses. If a counselor, organizer, or debrief facilitator is an off-game mental health professional, they should be cautious not to mix their roles by attempting to offer therapy sessions in the pre-, during, or post-play activities, including debrief. Debrief facilitators and organizers should refer players with mental health crises or needs to healthcare professionals outside of the game.
Debriefs are also not a guarantee against a player (or organizer) experiencing post-larp depression or lingering feelings after a game. Debriefing is not a cure for these feelings, though it can assist with them or mitigate them. Participating in a debrief does not mean that everything is neatly tied up and that the processing of the experience is complete; a debrief can be an excellent jumpstart to the emotional processing that a player may not even fully realize they will need.
Often, the people who have shared an experience with you are the best at understanding that experience and how you may feel about it. Participating in a larp creates a group of insiders who are uniquely able to relate to each other about the experience of larping; the co-players of a particular larp have gone through the experience with you and while no two players’ experience will be identical, playing together creates bonds, even if you didn’t play directly with each person. Thus, debriefing with those who participated in the experience is often the best way to process it. The shared basis of knowledge, as well as the feeling of having built something together establishes shared bonds and a sense of community that facilitates vulnerability and empathy. Many players find that attempting to debrief with outsiders – even those they are emotionally close to – can create additional frustration as they must explain and contextualize the experience to seek understanding.
Debriefs work well to normalize having emotions after a roleplay experience and to provide a safe space for them to be expressed. They also facilitate processing difficult scenes or interactions, wishes for play that could have gone better, or regrets for expectations that were not met or for choices that were made during play. By expressing or narrating them, or discussing them with another player whose character was also involved, the feelings associated with difficult or negative experiences can be released. Debrief can help with catharsis, or recovering from a catharsis that was experienced as a result of play. It may also be used to resolve conflict with another character and to reaffirm the alibi of character by attributing those actions and feelings to the character and not the primary self. For example, a person who played a brutalizing bully in game is actually a kind-hearted and friendly person in real life. This reestablishes the layer of fiction and separates the negative in-character interactions from the players themselves. Debriefing allows players who may have played characters with intense relationships, whether antagonistic or romantic, to interact with each other as players, in order to separate from the in-character feelings of attachment or animosity. In sum, debriefs work to foster an open, trusting, and supportive culture among players.
Debriefs imply a responsibility to others, especially if you played a harsh character or a villain. If you participated in socially excluding,69 snubbing, bullying, harassing, abusing, or depriving another character of any basic needs, you should check in post-play with the players whose characters were on the receiving end of your aggressive roleplay. This is similar to the responsibility in kink for tops to check-in with their bottoms or subs in order to make sure they are feeling and doing okay post-scene.70 If you cannot do this personally, for whatever reason, including your own needs and comfort, arranging for someone else to check-in with the sub or victim is recommended. At a larp an organizer, a member of the safety team, or another player can fill this responsibility.
Because of their importance as stated above, debriefs are opt-out, meaning that they are a scheduled and expected part of the experience. However, any player can opt out of a debrief, just as they can opt-out of any larp module. It may be more valuable for them to spend the time sleeping, or debriefing with trusted friends, or separating themselves from the experience by doing something that grounds them to their own reality, such as exercise, re-engaging with family, or zoning out with a video game or movie. Organizers should be careful not to create a toxic situation similar to that which debriefing was originally designed to address. Just as we should validate players who do experience powerful, intense, unwelcome, or overwhelming feelings, we should also recognize and validate those who do not. Not having strong feelings or bleed after roleplay is not an indictment of poor play any more than having strong bleed would be. Be careful not to pressure or shame players about their feelings or lack of feelings. In particular, take caution not to adopt a sense of superiority to players who state they are not having difficult feelings, implying that they “really do” but simply “aren’t aware of them yet” or are “repressing” them. Some players did not have an emotionally intense experience, and that is a valid outcome. They may still have had an amazing time! They may indeed by suppressing their feelings or not yet recognizing them, but that is their decision, and theirs to handle. Organizers can reinforce the importance of debriefing in a way that feels comfortable to them, or at a later time, but organizers must refrain from forcing a player to take part in a debrief.
Stating that something is opt-out, but then creating a culture that uses peer pressure or organizer pressure to effectively negate a person’s ability to do so, creates a coercion and consent problem. Players should not be pressured, shamed, or given a consequence from the organizers for their choice to participate in the formal debrief, to possess feelings as a result of the play, to express them with others, or to stay in the debrief past the point of comfort. In addition, organizers are cautioned to find the proper balance of their involvement in the debrief. Over-involved organizers can resort to defense mechanisms to explain or invalidate player feelings, or can seek to control a narrative of participant experience to ensure that players recommend the larp. Over-involved debrief facilitators may seek to control the conversation too much, or seek to inject their own feelings and interpretations of others’ feelings, rather than listening and validating the feelings being expressed. Under-involved debrief facilitators can allow improper behavior to arise in a debrief, such as accusing, attacking, or blaming another player. A poorly run debrief can end on a low note, open up and focus on negative feelings; or emotionally saturate a person, harming their ability to travel or return to the mundane world on a schedule.
All debriefs are not created equal. Organizers need to take care and consider all aspects of the debrief, from where it is held, the atmosphere of the room, the availability of comfort items such as tissues, pillows, water, etc., the timing of the debrief, the length, what questions are asked, the size of the groups, who should be grouped together, who runs the debrief, and how to handle difficulties that may arise in debriefs, such as conflict between players, arguments, accusations, breakdowns, hostility, dissociation, or psychotic breaks (in the extreme). Debriefs must be bespoke: they must fit the larp they are used for as well as the players who played it.71 For example, Magrann suggests making sure the questions asked in debrief are appropriate for uncovering the feelings that emerged in the game, and cautions against using a script that feels shoehorned into the debrief and might not echo how the game played out.72 Thus, while the time for the debriefs should be scheduled prior to the event, and the community culture designed to accept it, the actual “meat” of the debrief may be designed during the larp itself, to accommodate the actuality of the emotions and roleplay that emerged as a result of player choices. Debriefs can have templates in terms of their structure; the questions that are asked should be customized for the larp and the community that played it.
Wrap Party or After-Party
Once a larp is over, the participants and the organizers often get together to celebrate, mingle, and share their experiences. These are very often at the site of the larp, but sometimes organized at a nearby restaurant or venue. These gatherings have various names, from the self-explanatory “after-party” to the more cryptically named “dead dog,” a term used in the New England and mid-Atlantic theater larp community in the United States to refer to the gathering for a meal following a larp or larp convention. That term derives from the expression to be “dead dog tired.”73
An after-party reminds participants that they are a community that has bonded and co-created together. It ends an experience on a high note. After-parties encourage participants to get to know each other outside of the roles they have played, and can create or cement lasting friendships among participants. After-parties, when designed well, can provide a venue for player choice for post-play activities, such as personal aftercare, caring for others, sharing Epic Tales, de-roling, informal debriefing, and thanking the organizers or other players for providing or co-creating the experience. In addition, particularly after a physically or emotionally challenging larp, the after-party serves as a cleansing of the physical and emotional discomfort and a post-play activity that renews and supports participants. After-parties can help participants put the intense experience behind and prepare to reunite with their primary selves and reality.
Parties often involve serving alcohol, which will often make players open up more, for good and ill.74 Larpwrights and organizers in the Nordic scene separate the after-party from “serious aftercare” which they advise to complete before the party because any “unresolved issues can easily pop up in such a setting.”75 If a player has unresolved negative feelings toward another player, a confrontation may arise at the after-party. If a player is experiencing romantic bleed or relationship hangover due to in-character interactions, they may inappropriately harass a player with off-game sexual or romantic advances. These confrontations can not only dampen an after-party for everyone, but can also create an unsafe space for player interaction. After an intense experience such as larp, people are physically, psychologically, and emotionally raw, and are under the influence of bodily chemicals and hormones that alter our consciousness.76 This can make obtaining consent for player-player interactions post-play more difficult, as some players may be under the influence of the intense experience and not thinking clearly. The presence of alcohol can exacerbate this vulnerable space, and lead to regretful hook-ups and outright harassment, abuse, or assault if the community is not careful and does not watch out for each other.
A Larp after-party is an on-site or nearby celebration that closely follows the end of a larp during which players get together as players, like a traditional party for friends. It may include informal mingling as well as player assistance with cleanup. An after-party is typically held immediately following the end of the play, or after scheduled de-roling and debriefing or a meal break.
After-parties are excellent ways to celebrate, bond, make friends, remove oneself from the fictional world, blow off steam, and return to normalcy. After-parties can serve as a kind of informal debriefing if players are encouraged to seek out other players with whom they had an intense scene or significant roleplay. In addition, they can provide a space for the sharing of Epic Tales and set a norm for player assistance with care and cleanup.
Organizers should seek to create an open after-party that all participants can attend if they choose. Relying on players to make the after-party scene may cause difficulties, such as parties that conflict with each other, establishing or reinforcing off-game social hierarchies through who gets invited or hears about a particular party, comparing one party to another, etc. Smaller parties can reinforce cliques and also lead to overcrowding of smaller spaces. Ideally, the after-party will take place in a large enough space to comfortably accommodate all participants, and offer a variety of spaces for people to gather in small groups. Take care to ensure that there are spaces that are more private, and spaces that are more quiet for those who get overloaded sensorily, who have hearing problems, or just want to talk more intimately. Be certain you have enough seating for participants, who may be quite tired after the extended roleplay event. The space should be accessible to those who have mobility difficulties. Remind participants of conduct guidelines and to look out for each other. Have a designated no alcohol space for people who choose not to drink or don’t want to be around others who are drinking. Consider player safety if alcohol is present, so that you can seek to prevent underage and irresponsible drinking and driving under the influence. Be careful about community pressure to drink and respect players’ wishes to opt-out at any time. “Dead dogs” are generally held in public restaurants and thus tend to have a lessened amount of excessive drinking since service is controlled by restaurant staff.
Organizers may attend an after-party but are cautioned against pursuing any players for romantic or sexual interests due to the power imbalances in effect and the heightened physical and emotional state of post-play. The general rules about imbalance of power and taking advantage of people who are in the altered post-play state comes from the kink community, which acknowledges that aftercare is a time where participants are vulnerable due to the chemicals released in their bodies. In kink, the general rule is not to make any sexual advances during aftercare unless it was negotiated before the play experience.77 This can apply to larp too.
Larps are intense experiences, physically, intellectually, and emotionally. When we are running on adrenaline and the physical and mental rush of an experience, we may be surprised by how tired, or how wired we are when it is over. We may not even know what we are feeling, which can be the hardest of all. Having time for aftercare is an important part of experience design. After an intense experience, our minds and bodies need to rest and process the impressions, and we also need to take care of physical needs such as food and water. Bowman and Torner note that players “nurturing their physical and emotional well-being after a larp, taking care of mind and body” is useful for staving off post-larp depression. Emotions are often raw after any larp because a fictional experience, no matter how escapist or light, is designed to have us think and feel as a result. Many players find they need to care for themselves or receive care from others after a larp.
One participant described the feeling of coming down after an intense experience (in this case a multi-day larp conference) as being “filled with overwhelmingly strong, entangled emotions that are manifesting in very real physical pain.”78 Aftercare is common in the kink community, which is analogous to larp in many ways, as both involve the taking of roles for scenes which may be physically or emotionally intense. Hanne Grasmo, in her piece comparing kink to larp, describes aftercare as, “the process of attending to one another after intense feelings of a physical or psychological nature.”79 Aftercare includes hugs, cuddles, being alone or quiet, sharing the experience with another, hydrating and eating, resting or sleeping, getting a change of scenery to reset the brain, taking a smoke or vape break, sitting quietly, getting exercise, showering, huddling under a blanket, or other ways of caring for one’s self and recovering from the experience.
At conventions, when we rush from one game to another, we run the risk of emotional, physical, or intellectual overload or exhaustion, which affects our performance and enjoyment of subsequent events. After a multi-day event, the aftercare needed may be hours or even days. People have individual thresholds for what kinds of aftercare are helpful, and how much they need. Everyone needs at least some aftercare, though, and remembering to leave time for it in game or convention design, as well as your personal schedule is an important part of play. Masri suggests that participants should consider “aftercare as a part of a scene – the last chapter of the story;”80 post-play activities should be considered a critical part of a larp experience.
Aftercare emphasizes feelings of comfort, reassurance, emotional support, grounding, and recovery. It consists of two main components: helping your body recover from the experience, and handling all the impressions that have been made on your psyche as a result of it.81 For physical recovery, good aftercare activities are: hugs, back or foot massages, circles of shoulder massages, extended hugging, group hugs, or “cuddle-puddles,” groups of people lying together platonically in a pile.82 Of course all activities are optional. Some other important items to have on hand for the physical component of aftercare are blankets (our bodies can experience shivers or chills from hormone drops), pillows, plenty of water, chocolate, and salty items, such as nuts or crisps.83 For the emotional component of aftercare, people have different needs, with some needing or wanting to experience a catharsis, or purging of emotions, that may be pent up after an intense experience. Some are eager to talk about it with friends (such as the retelling or Epic Tales) while others prefer doing something individually reflective, such as writing a letter to their character, or creating a piece of art that symbolizes their experience. Having writing implements and some fun paper on hand can be helpful, as well as a quiet place to decompress. Others want to be as distracted as possible, so card or board games, movies, or music at the afterparty can assist with those needs. These activities can engage the participants’ brains through concentration or immersion, and put distance between them and the roleplay. Some participants may move from one type of aftercare to another: such as beginning with cuddling and hydration, getting some energy and taking up distraction activities, and then ending in catharsis and more cuddles.
Aftercare is taking care of one’s self or others after an intense experience, including one’s physical, emotional, and psychological needs, in order to process the experience and reset the body and mind. Aftercare in larp is sometimes used as an umbrella term for “methods to take care of the participants of a larp after it is over” or during in act breaks.84 Though it is useful in this context, we will distinguish aftercare as a specific type of post-play activity that is personal to each player and involves getting their physical and emotional needs met in ways that are helpful to them. Aftercare is a time of replenishment, rest, reflection, reconnection, and recuperation.
Aftercare attends to one’s own physical, psychological, and emotional needs, and to those needs in others. It’s a time of replenishing the body with food and water, resting, recuperating, processing emotions, clearing one’s head, affirming or re-affirming one’s self and relationships, returning to normalcy, and preparing to larp or roleplay again. Aftercare creates distance from an intense experience, moving it from the sensory body to the intellectual realm of memories; it may also replace one sensory experience with another. It is a space where gratitude may be expressed as well as requests for care and having one’s needs met. It may include discussing what would have made the experience even better, with some specific pointers for relevant improvement. In this latter case, it approaches a debrief, and the two can often be combined, especially as one may feel more able to discuss or analyze an experience after some time to recover and reconnect.
Aftercare means different things to each person and encompasses a wide variety of needs. Some people like close human contact and for most, consensual touch helps with both the physical and the mental stress of intense experiences. However, others need their space and want privacy, either to be alone or to be with a partner or small group. Some people like loud parties or sensory experiences that redirect the mind, while others prefer quiet to reduce the sensory impressions. Some want access to information and experiences that are outside of the “bubble” of the experience they just finished; others want to savor the atmosphere and ambiance and exit slowly. In addition, organizers need to ensure that there is time on the schedule for aftercare to take place. The amount of time for aftercare tends to be proportional to the length and intensity of the experience,85 but there is not a hard formula and needs vary. Failing to consider the time and need for aftercare is one of the most common organizer pitfalls, and can lead to safety problems later if participants are frazzled, exhausted, or quite literally in the bodily experience of shock after coming out of an intense activity.86
Leave Me Alone
Not everyone wants to take part in the same post-play activities, or any at all.87 Some people prefer to process their experience alone, with friends or family members they trust and who may or may not have been at the larp, or to intentionally repress their emotions and memories until a later time when they feel ready and able to deal with them.88 Sometimes, the pressures of travel following a larp event mean that you may not have the time, or the mental or physical energy to take part in a post-play activity. Some participants have chronic and/or invisible physical or mental illnesses that affect their willingness and ability to participate in post-play activities. There are myriad things that may affect someone’s ability to be physically, mentally, and emotionally present for aftercare, debrief, and other activities. A person may indeed need care for themselves, but feel unable to reciprocally provide that emotional labor for others, which may affect their choice to attend. Someone may have difficulty, or even a phobia, about opening up, being vulnerable, or expressing emotions in front of others. This may have arisen as a result of prior emotional trauma,89 other mental illnesses, or simply from familial and social pressures about demonstrating emotion, including what is often known as “toxic masculinity,” a gendered norm which chides a male-bodied person for crying or looking “weak.” The choice not to attend a post-play activity may also be because they are uncomfortable or “ no longer feeling safe in the current environment or situation.”90 Comfort, risk-assessment, and physical and emotional stamina are variable and can change quickly from one moment to the next. Someone can be enthusiastically opting into an experience, then tap out without warning. Again, this is the participant’s decision, and is not necessarily indicative of their opinions of the experience as a whole, or the person they are with. The reasons can be myriad, personal, and may not even be identifiable by the person experiencing them. If someone opts-out of a post-play activity, even one you had really hoped they would participate in, it is important not to take their decision personally or as an indictment of the importance of post-play activities themselves. While the community should take care not to deliberately exclude or make it difficult to participate in the post-play activities, it should never pressure participation. Likewise, the community should not gossip about, or otherwise pester anyone who chooses not to attend a post-play activity. If that behavior is discovered, organizers should intervene.
While the post-play activities should be designed appropriately for the larp experience, varied, available, and normalized as a typical and integral part of the experience, they should never be considered mandatory nor should a player be shamed or receive consequences for their lack of attendance. For some people, the act of being asked to open up about their emotions regarding an experience with a group of people they are not sure if they trust or wish to be vulnerable with is an act of emotional harm or “fucking up” in itself.91 If we recognize that intense emotional experiences can cause extreme reactions, then we also need to recognize that a debrief or another post-play activity may be an intense emotional experience of itself, also creating the possibility of feeling “fucked up.” Players must have a choice in whether and to what extent they will participate, and their consent must be respected by organizers and peers alike.
Sometimes other players can feel let down if they do not get the chance to process a scene that included a pivotal player, leaving them feeling without a sense of closure. Often, other players simply want the chance to thank, congratulate, or appreciate a co-player at the post-play activities, and they may regret not getting the chance to find the person responsible for the positive interactions. Organizers can help redirect those feelings so that they can be expressed without the presence of the particular player. For example, an appreciation card or video can be made and sent to the absent participant.92 A debrief facilitator or an organizer can listen to the emotions, feedback, and concerns of players as a stand-in for the absent player, and empathize, validate, and even compile for reference or to discuss later with the player in question.
Both Grasmo and Masri note that it can sometimes be quite difficult for participants to make appropriate decisions after an intense experience, as their bodies are still under the influence of hormones and endorphins.93 It can also be difficult for a person to identify or express what they need in terms of aftercare for the same reasons. As co-participants, we can ask what someone needs, but if they cannot or do not articulate it, we can simply be there, nearby, with the promise of the accepting community who will be ready to provide aftercare when and if they are ready.
Players who choose to opt-out of formal, scheduled, or group post-play activities may end up with overwhelming or difficult emotions after the event, or when they attempt to return to their everyday life. If they feel disconnected from the community, they are embarrassed about their emotions, or they feel they will be chastised for needing to process after they declined to process at the event, then they can experience post-larp depression, or feelings sometimes known as con-drop, subdrop, or reality crash. In these instances, a participant may swing from the emotional high to the emotional low,94 and may stay there unless additional aftercare is received. Establishing “debriefing buddies” or having a private online community presence for the larp can help, as well as having an established procedure or norms for reaching out post-event should one need to process or continue processing.
Not leaving time for post-play activities can leave players feeling uncared for, as the end of the experience is rushed, or as if their other players do not respect their need for aftercare or other activities to process the experience.95 Triggers cannot be predicted96 and leaving a roleplay experience is “often a very delicate process, as a too rapid exit can be traumatic.”97 There are many types of post-play activities and designers and organizers can select among them to provide an experience that is appropriate to their event and their participants. Organizers should remember that there are varying reactions to intense events, and that some or all may be present. They should also remember that players’ needs for how to handle these varying responses also differ, so organizers and designers should not ignore choice as a design principle for post-play activities. Participants will need some sort of aftercare after an event, and the way designers and organizers plan, facilitate, and make space for post-play activities can help their players more gently and effectively return to their everyday lives. Though no post-play activity or slate of activities can prevent all cases of post-event depression or emotional and physical exhaustion, they can mitigate these feelings and set participants up for a feeling of competence and community as they process the experience. Game designers and organizers must pay attention to the post-play activities and consider them an integral part of the game’s design.
Featured Image shows players and organizers at the Immerton larp debrief. Photo licensed via Learn Larp, LLC.
Maury Brown is a games scholar, educator, publisher, and a participatory experience designer, writer, producer, and consultant. She is the president of Learn Larp, LLC the live-action roleplay company behind the destination larp New World Magischola. She is also the designer of the destination larps Immerton and Beat Generation, co-designer for Inside Avernus, and has written several other parlor larp scenarios and larps for educational purposes. She consults with schools, museums, and non-profit agencies to bring participatory design into their curricula and events. She is currently a PhD Candidate from Old Dominion University, where her research focuses on roleplay as a way to explore — and transform — societal norms.