LARPing safely

I’m talking LARPing with emotional safety here.

This came up because I was explaining some things about LARP to Anna, who has only participated in one roleplaying game (tabletop) in her life and it’s because I made it happen XD. I mentioned something which I’ve had trouble expressing before. The concern I have for my friends following a LARP event when I see posts for days about how hard it is to let go of the character, or how they’re still grieving for a thing that happened during the game, or how they hate the real world and want to go back to the world of the game instead.

Now, these things are of course totally normal reactions – LARPing is by nature immersive and one of the appealing things about it is that you can experience dramatic, emotional things without it ‘really’ happening to you. You can have the pain of grief or the ecstasy of love, or the difficult conversations that would be awful if it was real life but you’re playing a role so it’s okay.

But what if we’re not doing those things in a safe way. And I don’t mean physically safe here, I mean emotionally safe. The interesting thing is that when I talked to Anna about this she had a simple question ‘what do you do to get out of character?’ and I tried to think and couldn’t honestly think of anything.

Because as a teacher, Anna is super mindful of the well being of the kids in her class, and every time they do drama exercises or roleplaying (especially when it’s dramatic stuff, like about bullying) they do an exercise to get themselves consciously out of character at the end. It can be as simple as ‘walk around the chair, and when you’re done you’re yourself again’. This is especially important with children to delineate that the ‘bad’ things they may have been doing in the game shouldn’t continue to be acted on, and that those actions weren’t ‘them’.

And okay, the LARPers in Wellington/New Zealand aren’t all 8 year old kids, but the fact is that we need to be careful with ourselves and with others and maybe we’re not doing that as much as we could be. The last time I played World That Is I had a traumatic in character experience and found myself crying real, panicked tears for a couple of minutes. I remember thinking to myself ‘wait, this isn’t real. Fraser – your friend – isn’t actually dead’ and I was able to rein myself back in and play the character instead of actually freaking out. I can’t get into the heads of other players, so I don’t know if everyone has these little checks, or maybe they don’t go as far as that all the time.

What I’m suggesting is an increase in mindfulness and conciousness of the people around you, the effect you’re having on them and the effect they are having with you. I know some of my friends have come up to apologise to me in advance of a game, for what they will be acting like – and those same friends checking in with me afterwards. That is incredibly important, because it’s giving me trust in them. They’re saying ‘look, some shit might be about to happen, but I care about you and I’ll make sure you’re okay’.

This is tied also to the ability to call time out on something which is genuinely distressing you so that you can have a breather. Players can do this at any time, but to be able to do this without a measure of shame that you’re somehow breaking the scene for other players is not always easy.

Debriefs are super important, and I don’t think I’ve ever run a LARP where I’ve given them enough thought or care. Usually I’ve used it as a chance to get people to reveal their secrets, share some jokes and that’s it. I remember seeing a suggestion somewhere that you give players five minutes to go and talk to other players and just share something neat that you did, or something emotional that happened. Maybe this could be extended to ensuring you check in on the people you interacted with.

LARP emotion can be faked but it can also be indistinguishable to emotions you would have in real life. This is why it’s important to be aware of what you’re experiencing and ensuring that you’re not going to have repercussions from it as you go about your ordinary life.

Maybe it doesn’t have to be a group experience either. I’m sure not everyone is comfortable with too much talk about feelings with others, or spending too long mingling at the end of a game. In which case there’s nothing to stop you doing something inside your head, or on paper. I’ve found it helpful to do free writing in the form or a diary entry or a fic about my character. Or just sitting and reminding myself of what my real life is and letting go of the character. After the drama of the last World That Is game I got on skype and rehashed the whole thing with Anna, which as extremely cathartic for me!

LARP consists of space and time to experience things deeply and this should be followed by a time of separation: consciously taking yourself out of character, processing what you thought and felt, and letting it go. I know that the LARP community cares about each other, and that means taking care of each other out of the game as well as in it.

I found this neat article about post game debriefs and I’m sure there’s a lot more writing on similar stuff around. Feel free to link in the comments if you’ve read helpful things. I feel very strongly that this is important thing to think about.

Whatever it is you need to do, I urge you to do it ! (also this got long. Add comments, I want to know what you think. Have you got any little tricks that you do? Or methods of coping?)


8 thoughts on “LARPing safely

  1. The word you are looking for is “bleed”. And it is frequently one of the reasons people play: so they can bleed all over people afterwards.

    The Nordics like to close their games with a ritual to “break the magic circle”. This can be as simple as a particular piece of music which signals the end of the game (closing credits), or everyone gradually drifting away from the party (leaving the room) to signal that its all over. They also talk a lot about debriefs and post-game buddy systems, but I have no idea how much of it is required implemented in practice (and my reaction to a required debrief is likely to be the same as my reaction to expected long GM-wank sessions after flagships: “screw this, I’m going to bed”)

    • it sounds to me, Idiot, that you’ve got no use at all for any of what I’m suggesting? And that’s totally fine too, but I know it’s not true for everyone.

    • Well, I have a larp-buddy for debriefing such issues. But for various reasons (personal preference, bad luck, and GMing all the time) I don’t frequently play such games. But I’ve experienced bleed in tabletop, and it can be difficult.

      Other useful reading: Nathan Hook (UKanian, psycholgist, wrote The Green Book with larps about adultery and depression) has been writing some interesting stuff on his LJ this week about bleed, the magic circle, and the ethics of “anxiety larp” (yes, its a genre). Not so much aimed at players as game designers looking at some of the choices they can make to achieve their artistic aims.

    • sweet, thanks for clarifying 🙂

      Interesting link, I’ll check it out.

  2. Because I’m discussing this with Jenni, I should probably share somewhere people may read.

    I actually usually feel more calm after a LARP than after tabletop, I think because I find it hard to engage as fully emotionally in LARP as I do for tabletop. (which is weird, I’m capable of drama, and I’ve once almost given myself a serious paranoid episode from playing a role as part of an ongoing game for a week… ANYWAY)

    I find that with Tabletop, I get very intense reactions, and I can be very raw afterwards. My main coping strategy is to write after-action reports. This serves several functions for me:
    1) I have something to look at later, to remember what I did, and I can share this with people who might be interested. They’re interesting stories.
    2) I get to explore the ideas in more depth, which lets me get whatever extra I need to fleshed out.
    3) It containerises it (I don’t think that’s a real use of the word), which I mean to say it lets me put walls up around the ideas and feelings, and it helps me separate the self that was a Selkie with fucked up identity issues and a kind of suicidal love of the sea from the erst of me, to mark it as a separate entity that isn’t a core part of me.
    4) It contextualises it, it lets me pull the walls in around it properly. Why was I doing this? I was feeling this way as a reaction to that, I was led this way by this interaction, I was just in a mood that day, whatever.

    I think it probably says something about how oddly shallow my link to Marcus is that I haven’t felt any need to keep a diary of his thoughts. Oddly, I know I could force the connection by writing a diary of his thoughts, and I’ve done this for previous games as part of character generation. (Write a few weeks of life down in a diary style, to get my mindset there).

    Is this distancing intentional on my part? I’m really not sure, I’m sure it’s a barrier to getting the most possible out of Crucible, but I’m not sure it’s a barrier I want to drop atm.

  3. I completely agree with you Jenni, I think post-game distancing of the kind you suggest is a great idea to help people separate their in-character experiences from their real life. It seems like a sensible and very healthy way to end a game, and doesn’t preclude the post-game discussion element. I plan on introducing it from the next run of Slash 3, in particular.

    While Idiot talks about bleed being something Nordic LARPers seek and suggesting that they don’t actually use the post-game strategies they talk about, there’s one key point he missed- we are not Nordic LARPers. Sure, some of their games have been run over here BUT there are some that haven’t been for the specific reason that they wouldn’t be appropriate for NZ. There may be elements of their post-game strategies that we could take away and experiment with but at the end of the day the LARP culture here isn’t the same as it is in Scandinavia, and people here do care about emotional and mental health. It’s the reason Anna K and I always send out a big honking disclaimer before Slash games explaining exactly what will be involved, setting strict rules about boundaries, and giving people the option to back out with absolutely no shame if they don’t think it’s for them. In the end, I think people have to feel emotionally safe to go for the drama and intensity, and doing the separation activities seems like a great way to develop that sense of safety, that the game isn’t real, they are not their character.

    As for personal coping strategies, I’ve found that when, in a LARP, things get intense that I do start reminding myself “this isn’t real. This is a game.” If I need to, I’ll look around the room, and take note of the set dressing- “that’s just cloth, not a wall, that’s the bit I helped put up, that’s a gazebo…”. It’s the same coping strategy I use if a movie is scaring me- “the lighting guy would be there, the cameraman is there, there’s a whole huge group of people stood watching from the same point of view I am, this isn’t real.” In ‘Dreams in the Witch House’ I used this quite frequently- I remembered that I was me, standing in a Scout camp, not the character in whatever situation they were in. Just telling myself “I’m playing a part” can help. I’ve also visualised the character as an outer layer around me, with my real self further in and not touched by what’s going on.

    I do also write in-character fanfic, especially when a game is a one-off and I need to resolve things in my own mind that weren’t resolved in the game.

    But yeah, in conclusion, I agree- separation of life from LARP is important, and we should be doing more to help this process.

    • we are not Nordic LARPers

      No, we’re not. But they’re the people who have really driven this conversation internationally (thanks to their taste for risky games and playing close to home), and as you point out, their techniques are pillageable.

      I think what’s interesting is that here the concerns don’t come from risky games or close to home topics; we’re not waterboarding people or running games about dying of cancer or which radically deconstruct gender and family structures. Instead, its coming from strong play in ordinary campaigns. Which means that the usual techniques of safewords and rituals aren’t so useful (because the triggers aren’t necessarily specific incidents, and the game extends beyond the weekend).

  4. Bleed is a bit of a difficult topic for me, because I write games that are designed to minimise bleed, but I also will sign up for games that push me in different emotional directions – The Bad Dreams games, games about intense emotional attachments or difficult choices. I relish the opportunity to explore aspects of my own personality that I can’t in day-to-day life, as it really helps me pin down self-knowledge and self-awareness. Thanks to heavy-bleed games, I know what my reaction to death and despair is, and I know what it would take to drive me to murder or to do horrible things to other human beings. With a bit of luck, these games also help me prove to myself that I will never be able to reach that level in real life.

    And yet… I have pushed that boat out too far. When Zek died in 33AR, I was absolutely inconsolable – I spent my own funeral sobbing noisily. Much of it wasn’t for me, but for the other people who had been hurt by my decision to end the character’s life. No matter how much I pin that in conversation on the actions of the GMs, or hedging by saying ‘It felt like the right thing to do in the story’, that’s a lie. I made the conscious decision to perform an action, knowing it would hurt myself and others emotionally. In situations like that, telling myself it was only a game, all fake, didn’t make it any less painful. I felt like I had somehow been weak for making that decision, to the point where the results of that decision would play out in real life.
    I think I always feel fine after LARPs, no matter how fucked up everything gets. I may not want to get out of bed the next day; I may wake up sad a week later, but for me, that’s part of being fine. It’s important, I think, that we acknowledge that bleed is sometimes part of what we do, and that we can mitigate it, but there’s also merit in letting it pass as fast as it wants to. What I’ve always wanted is tips on how to make other people feel better – on healing the injuries that I feel like I’ve done to them.

    And FWIW, I usually get out of character by watching Disney films and eating cheeseburgers.

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