How to Debrief a Freeform Game

This new series delves into the complexity of game mastering a freeform game.

What is a freeform game? No one knows for sure, so let’s say that it’s somewhere between a larp and a tabletop roleplaying game, with some scenes acted out, and with a variety of scenes enacted, rather than just one single long one.

Since some games are emotionally intense, game masters sometimes hold a structured conversation afterward, called a debrief, which serves as a buffer between the game and the return to real life. Players may talk about what happened in the game, reassure each other, mull over complex emotions, and give the GM feedback during the debrief.

I asked my panel of freeform GMs whether they used debriefing, and if so, how they used the time. 

Emily Care Boss gives a nice introduction to what debriefs are and what they can or should do:

What is a debrief? Is it a lie-session where you tell what “really happened” in the game? Sorry, that’s what often happens in larps. Freeform has the advantage, generally, of everyone having experienced the same events of play. So what is valuable about a debrief is sharing the experiences of the players, rather than the intent of the game writer. This is valuable stuff.

If a game has been hard-hitting, it is good to have some space to decompress. Whether the impact was good or bad. Although, if a game did bring up strong negative emotions, that may not be expressed by the player until a later time, perhaps with friends, or one or two other participants in the game. If the majority of the players had a good time, the debrief can be this wonderful moment to relive these experiences with the only people who are or who can ever be shared witnesses. It’s a wonderful thing for people to be able to hear how they have affected others through their portrayals. Debriefing on a playing high can be a bonding experience.

If the game went horribly wrong, or fell flat, or had technical issues, this is also the time when the players get to let the GM know what went wrong for them. They may not be brave enough to say so (my experience says that that is more often the case in the US than in the Nordic countries), but if they do, and you can stomach it, those are really great pieces of feedback. One has to not take them to heart too deeply, it’s rare that you actually ruin someone’s life through a game. But this is one of the hardest parts of it for me, so if you do have to suffer through some negativity, you have my solidarity.

Reflecting on it, I do find it important to build in time for a debrief into the game. It will not always fulfill all of the functions that it could, or even should, but at least you give everyone the time and space to be heard on whatever their reaction was to the game.

Debriefs haven’t always been about the emotional stuff, according to Lars Andresen:

The tradition for debriefings at Fastaval (my point of reference) is based on the actual written scenario. Not the feelings and emotions of the players. Since we introduced the Otto it’s been customary that the game master and the players discuss the game afterwards and writes down grades and comments. So there is a debriefing but it’s definately not in the usual larping sense. Now there are games at Fastaval that affects players emotionally in a very unpredictable way and we need to talk about establishing debriefings and methods of debriefing.

It sounds a bit silly but normally I do my debriefings over a beer in the café or the bar. If a player needs to talk about the game (and a player often needs to talk about the game) we go down to the bar or café together and talk about it. Perhaps with other players and game masters coming down after finishing the game. I haven’t mastered a game at Fastaval where I got the feeling that any of the players *needed* a debriefing. I played some games where I definitely needed a debriefing and I talked to the other participants afterwards but it was all done in a very unplanned way so to speak.

Debriefs can provide a crucial moment where community bonds are forged and the experience is affirmed as a positive one.

Sanne Harder:

I always do a debrief. Some roleplaying experiences can be pretty intense, and you simply need to withdraw from them together with someone who understands. For that reason, I try to make the players bond. We now have a mutual experience, and that ties us together. I usually also try to make sure that arrangements are made so that we will meet again in a situation where we can talk and reflect on the scenario together.

But also: I’ve noticed that the most important element in how players perceive the roleplay afterwards is the ending. You might have had a terrible experience with the game, but if you end it on a positive note, the players are most likely to remember it fondly anyway. Unfortunately the opposite is true too. So, in order to make sure the players come away with a good experience, I make them talk about all the good things: Not just the scenario, but also other players’ performances.

Anne Vinkel:

I really like what the scenario My Girl Sparrow says about debriefing: The GM’s role is to create a space where it’s all right to have weird feelings about what you just played and to talk about those feelings. And where it’s equally all right not to feel weird. Tell the players that, and tell them that if they are feeling weird the best thing might be to talk about it – to the other players, to you, to somebody else entirely. Bringing snacks for debrief is a good idea too.

Most scenarios don’t really need debriefing, IMO, but it’s always good to chat a bit with the players, say thank you for playing and tell them which of the things they did you liked the most. This is also a good time to try and get their names right so you won’t end up adressing them by character names for the rest of the convention (I would never do that, of course).

The debrief can be about creating a shared narrative — or a lie —  about the game experience. It’s unclear whether this is a good or a bad thing. Matthijs Holter:

Debrief is not usually part of my games. Maybe I should do more of that, since it tends to focus and cement the experience. On the other hand, it tends to create a consensus reality after the fact – a reality that none of the players may have experienced or perceived during the game. It can feel like a lie, or a game after the game.

Several folks stressed the idea that the debrief is all about the players, and noted that GMs should stand back.

Oliver Nøglebæk:

Debriefing should always be about the players; they’ve been through quite a ride and need to offload emotions and tell warstories. So give them time to do that — it’s important for each player to hear that the other participants also had a great time. Sometimes you think your contributions were crappy only to discover that everyone else actually loved them. As a GM you should try to keep the talk moving and make sure everyone gets to say something about the game; it’s easy for the vocal players to steal the spotlight. And don’t be afraid to ask questions or bring your own observations, as long as you leave most of the space for the players.

Peter Fallesen:

If it has been a tense experience, I try to design some kind of exit-ritual to let the players leave their characters behind. Besides this I let the players talk and define their experience. The GM-role holds some authority, so I try to be careful not to take up too much space. Yet, one should remember that as a GM you also push the players, so you might need to join in on the debrief at some point for your own sake. Besides this, I always ask the players to give me feedback on my own performance as a GM – you can always become better at the trade.

Frederik J. Jensen:

I carefully wait before presenting my view of the session since a strong statement from me can easily discourage other players from presenting their views. Instead I let the players do the talking and ask plenty of how/why/what questions about specific situations. This helps me discover when I misinterpreted a scene or a player’s intent.

I also give praise to the players who contributed an extraordinary moment to the game.

Don’t lay down the law unless it’s a tough game and the players are pretending they are too tough to have felt anything major, says Troels Ken Pedersen:

Usually I hold an informal brief. If the game has had really tough and challenging content I might say that it’s a debrief. I usually just serve snacks as a tension-breaker and hand-occupier, and let people talk. I take part myself with brief questions and compliments, as a player among players.

I only step in with game master authority if the game was tough and people start establishing a consensus that we’re all good and hardcore roleplayers who don’t have problems with content and who don’t feel embarrassing and unpleasant things on account of games. If that happens I shut it down fast, and as hard as I have to. I’ve laid this out in advance in the past with tough games, but lately I’ve meandered to the conclusion that laying down the law is not a great idea. I might deviate from that if, say, one or two players seem so domineering and hardcore-happy that it’s bound to come up if not put down with gamemaster authority anyway. Possibly. Or I might just lead the way and throw something into the conversation about something in the game that made me queasy.

It’s not just a time for everyone to congratulate one another, according to Klaus Meier:

I suck at debriefing. I usually just keep the players in the room for 10-20 minutes where we talk about the game and what went well and what went bad. I try to refrain from letting the players and me just pat each other on the back; I try to get some pointers to what could have been done better by me, the game and the players. But it is hard and all too often the debriefing becomes too comfortable. Considering how much time goes into writing a game and planning to run it, very little time is spend on how to do the debriefing which is a shame especially in more psychologically challenging games. People need to be un fucked and we need to get better at doing it.

And maybe the best way to debrief isn’t right after the game, but informally, and later on. Tobias  Bindslet:

I’m a big proponent of taking post-game debriefing (and defucking) seriously, but in most freeform games the social space immediately after the game is most suited for a brief evaluation and establishing a common ground version of the shared experience. I then try to ask for feedback on my gamemastering. But the actual debriefing on a more personal level, is something I often do after the game itself, over a drink or in smaller more informal groups.

So go forth, give your players snacks and maybe beer, and let them talk about their experience as a way of creating community, dealing with tough emotions, and reminding themselves that they totally had a good time.

More from the freeform series:

How to Cast a Freeform Game
How to Cut a Freeform Game 


Lars Nøhr Andresen is a Danish roleplayer and designer who has been writing Fastaval scenarios since 1994.

Tobias Bindslet is a roleplayer with one foot in the Danish freeform scene at Fastaval and the other in the Nordic larp scene (Knudepunkt). At Knudepunkt in 2011, he co-organized a “de-fucking” workshop on how to handle difficult experiences in roleplaying and another on the ritual and play style of the collectively organized larp campaign Rage Across Denmark. Recently, he’s also been involved in a number of smaller projects to help make local games and methods available in English.

Emily Care Boss is an acclaimed American game designer and theorist who owns the trademark on romantic role-playing games with Breaking the Ice, Shooting the Moon and the jeepform-y Under my Skin.

Peter Fallesen, 27, is a sociologist who knows stuff about crime, and who tries to make a living in academia. He started roleplaying and larping in the mid-nineties. He wrote his first freeform game in 2003. It sucked royally. The next one was better. At present he is working on two games about loss, trauma, and the things players don’t say to each other during the game.

Sanne Harder is an experienced scenario author, who has contributed scenarios for the Danish freeform scene for the last 15 years or so. She has had the pleasure of having several of her scenarios published, and even translated (into the Finnish language). In real life she works as a teacher at an alternative school, where she uses roleplaying as a teaching method. She also writes a Danish blog about roleplaying

Matthijs Holter (b. 1972) is a Norwegian roleplayer and game designer. He’s fond of throwing random things at groups to see what happens, and believes friendship is magic. He once wrote the Hippie Method Manifesto. Currently working on Play With Intent with Emily Care Boss.

Frederik J. Jensen is a Dane living in Sweden. He enjoys taking chances with new games but tends to have a weak spot for GM-full story games. Designed and published Montsegur 1244because nobody else did.

For the past three years Klaus Meier has been in charge of the games at Fastaval and is now moving on to become head organizer of the whole shebang. He has been writing free form games since 2000 and quite good free form games since 2004. Klaus has won numerous of Fastaval’s Otto awards, been the editor of a book of Danish freeform games and given lectures on the Fastaval style of games at conventions in Denmark, Sweden and Finland. 

Oliver Nøglebæk studies interactive landscape architecture, which influences his view on larp. He’s been attending Fastaval for nearly ten years and game mastering much longer than that, though mostly indie games and traditional systems. He writes an English language blog on Nordic larp.

As a game writerTroels Ken Pedersen does both off-beat action and drama games about grownup subjects. He believes fiercely in roleplayers as co-creators, and is headmaster of the Danish School of Game Mastering, found at conventions and online. An all around anti-authoritarian dirty f*cking hippie, both as regards roleplaying and other things.

Anne Vinkel Anne has GM’ed about 17 conventions scenarios in her life – some of them more than once, two of them written by herself. She still gets nervous before GMing, but in a sort of good way. The things about freeforming she does worst are cutting and exercising authority. The things she does best include being a fan of her players and creating a good atmosphere for play.