Debriefs make game experiences not-quite-so weird. They help you switch from game mode to real life mode, and avoid awkward post-larp encounters with people you played closely with.
A couple weeks ago, I posted about how to plan and run a basic pre-larp workshop, so I figured I might as well bookend the experience with a little something on post-larp debriefs, another eminently steal-able technique from Nordic larp that would benefit many American games, in my opinion. As usual, this post comes with a caveat–I’m just one person with one attitude toward debriefs, which I’ve used many times as an organizer of freeform games and larps–there are doubtless many many other methods that are just as good or even better.
Here are the basics as I see them.
What is the purpose of a debrief?
A debrief–a structured discussion after a larp, run by organizers and including all participants–can help players begin to process their emotions about the game, address things that were or could have been problematic about the game or the way it was played this time, and can provide feedback to organizers.
Do all games need debriefs?
Well, that depends on who you ask. Serious emotions can arise from many games–even Monopoly!–so while certain games definitely need them (did my character just waterboard yours? Let’s unpack that.) in other games it’s more a matter of judgement on the part of the organizers. I’d say that a debrief rarely hurts a game–it’s another chance to build community among participants by basking in the shared experience created.
What are the basic debrief phases?
Not every game needs all of these, but I’ve noticed that there are four possibilities.
Immediately post-larp: Get people out of character.
You can hold a little ritual to help people say goodbye to their characters or get out of character. Sometimes it’s as simple as saying, “thank you, and that’s the game” to people. Here are a few other methods I’ve seen:
- Ask players to put an item of costuming symbolic of their character onto the ground all at once. You might ask them to think about an aspect of their character they would like to say goodbye to, as they do this.
- Sometimes, during the workshop, players get counted into character (“Close your eyes, while I count from one to ten, at ten, you will be your character.”) If so, they can be counted out of character and back into real life.
- Music can cue players out of game as well–you can play the same song at the beginning and end of a game to bookend the experience.
- Add your own!
Typically the meat of a debrief, the discussion is a chat with all the players.
If you have lots of players, it can also be good to collect them into smaller groups–as with the workshop, when you want to work people in small clusters and big ones, it’s a good idea to do that during the debrief as well. I think it’s wise to do this somewhat randomly to avoid strengthening in-game power structures. It’s tempting to try to debrief with only the people you interacted with during the game–but I think it’s important to break-up in-game cliques; getting out of their in-game social role helps people get their heads out of game and back into the real world. Also: those cliques will naturally find each other after the game to talk together, so it makes sense to spend your debrief points getting people who wouldn’t otherwise talk to discuss things.
The Nordic Larp Wiki post on debriefing suggests that discussion covers at least three sorts of conversations, including “what really happened” (the revealing of secrets and recounting of war stories), player critique of the larp design and execution, and de-roleing (helping players process emotions about the game).
In my book, debriefs that recount “what really happened” tend to be both long and boring, but some element of this is inevitable in most debriefs, because of course everyone is excited about the game. I think design critique is valuable, interesting, and educational for the organizers, but not as essential as de-roleing–though sometimes critiquing design can be part of the experience of de-roleing. For my part, I think de-roleing is the most essential function of most debriefs, and so this post is skewed toward that.
Suggestions for discussion exercises at the end of this post.
On-site mingling and post-larp party.
It’s nice to let people run into each other during cleanup, and it’s a good idea to build in some time for an informal debrief afterwards. A post-larp party lets all the war stories out, and lets people get to know the players behind the characters. Sometimes it can be nice to suggest that players try to find and talk with people who shared intense in-game scenes–good or bad, but especially negative scenes–with them.
Interactions way after.
Sometimes debriefing happens after the game, in the form of a summary letter from player to organizer, or through emails or on forums. Certain games offer players debrief buddies, partners who they can share game experiences with at certain points after the game, if desired, as an extra means of support. Occasionally, you’ll meet people months later who still need to talk about what happened during the game–the distance of time has changed perceptions about what happened, and it feels good to discuss.
What should an organizer do during a debrief?
The main function of organizers during the debrief is to make space for people to have their own reactions. Here’s how you do that:
Shut your mouth.
Of course, you’ll need to ask questions and direct players into groups if you are using them, but as an organizer, the most important thing you can do is to listen to the experiences of the players, and take in their criticism. Chances are good that your players are feeling a bunch of feelings and need to get some of them out. Sometimes, their critique will be clouded by the emotions they’re feeling, so take it with a grain of salt.
It can be tempting to defend your game design or explain why dinner was late that one night, or did they get what you were trying to do with that one metatechnique? or whatever, but usually the debrief isn’t the best place to do that. For now, at least, it’s all about the players and validating their experiences. Listening is love, and attentive listening can be transformative for both parties.
It’s OK to feel weird.
Make sure you let players know that it’s OK to feel whatever they’re feeling, and that it’s normal to have emotions (or not!) after a game. If this game was supposed to blow people’s minds but didn’t, it’s important to validate that reaction–otherwise the debrief ends up being a lie, with players forced to dance around how they are really feeling. This nerfs the point of the whole exercise.
Make space for quieter players, and if needed, check on people individually afterwards.
It’s a little bit like running a classroom–some people will take up a lot of social space, and others less so. Some people stay quiet because they don’t feel comfortable interrupting someone or grabbing the group’s attention. I think it’s important, especially during debriefs for small games, for everyone to say a little something–building the shared narrative of the debrief requires community participation. You can get people to speak by asking them questions directly. You can also ask them to keep it short and watch the clock as needed.
It is a bit delicate, though. Some players really need to get this whole long anecdote off their chests. Likewise, if a player intensely doesn’t want to talk, it’s generally a bad idea to push them. If you sense during the debrief that a player has had a really rough time but isn’t interested in talking about it, don’t push it. However, it’s generally a good idea to try to talk to them individually afterward and make sure they are OK.
Ask neutral questions.
As organizers, of course we want players to have liked the game. But for now, it’s more important for people to get their real feelings–good or bad–on the table so that processing can begin. “What made the biggest impression on you in this game?” is a more neutral question than, “How much did you love the game structure?” which might require players to fake an enthusiasm they don’t feel.
Be bold and address problematic stuff directly.
This varies from larp to larp. I played in one game where my character’s role was to have good ideas that everyone else continuously ignored, for example. Although the game topic was quite light, my experience in that game was rough, and it went unaddressed by the organizers afterward. I left feeling very hostile toward my fellow players. It would have been great if they’d included a debrief at all, and if they had, a good question would have been, “What was it like to constantly ignore that character? To be ignored?”
Sometimes there is an elephant in the room–one person obviously didn’t have a good time, or there was a big fight during which people’s real emotions definitely seemed involved. It can be hard and scary to do it, as an organizer, but cut through the miasma of fear and social anxiety and simply ask people to talk about it. This means the topic isn’t taboo and validates everyone’s response.
Ask players to focus on emotions, not war stories.
War stories are rarely entertaining, and the focus during the debrief should be on the emotions and issues raised, not on the specific cool things that happened. Larpers ALWAYS want to talk about what happened in game right afterwards, and some of this is OK during the debrief. Sometimes people need to confess bad things they did and feel the absolution of the group and reassurance that it was good for the story but doesn’t make them a bad person. On the other hand, hearing a really long story about an amusing conversation isn’t all that interesting or the best use of time. So moderate the war stories and try to keep them to a minimum.
There will be plenty of time for anecdotes during mingling or the post-larp party.
Ask for practical feedback, if you have enough time.
These players have truly experienced the game, so they might have great ideas or critique about the design, or about the organizers’ execution that could be useful for future events. It’s great to get this sort of feedback, but don’t let it dominate discussion, since it has a secondary function. You can always bug players with an online questionnaire afterwards.
Encourage the debrief to continue during clean up and beyond.
For the players, the debrief is only the first step in the process of boxing up this story and putting it on the fictive shelf of their minds. Your job as an organizer is to start them on that path, but it’s also a good idea to encourage them to keep talking, particularly to people they might have been mean to in-game.
End on a high note
It’s good to make the last question one that will emphasize the good stuff that came out of this larp. A debrief can totally set the story of the experience of the larp. I’ve seen great larps end up with “that was a horrible game” as the tag because the debrief ended on such a downer. Own up to mistakes you made, yes, but accentuate the positive as people leave. You can do this by asking something like, “what will you take with you from this larp?” or “what was your game highlight?”
How long should a debrief last?
As long as it needs to. A general rule of thumb is “the more intense the game, the longer the debrief.” You should note that even short games can be very intense. A very intense one-hour game where everyone is bullying one character might need a two hour debrief. An intense, three-day larp might want a half-day debrief. On the other hand, a hilarious, slapstick game that lasts six hours might only need 15 or 20 minutes.
Debrief length also depends on how many players you have, because shuttling around lots of people requires more time and logistics. You’ll sense when people are getting board and antsy–like a workshop, a debrief can definitely run too long.
In general, a short debrief is better than no debrief. A very minimal debrief would be going around the circle of players once and asking each person to share one sentence about their experience. A maximal debrief might include a half-day of discussion in different groups plus the use of debrief buddies or forums.
Some useful exercises and techniques
As with workshops, not every game requires every technique, and certainly I’m no expert on debriefing. I have, however, played and organized a number of games that use them, so I’ve got some ideas. These aren’t the end-all be-all, just a few ideas to get you started–you’ll want to suit your debrief to your game and player group.
Make a round.
Gather everyone in the circle, ask a question, and have each person respond briefly. Go around the circle.
Ring the bell for small groups.
If you have a lot of players, ask people to mingle around the room. When you ring a bell or raise your hand, ask them to gather in groups of 2-3 players and then briefly answer a question for a short period of time. You can do this several times. It’s a great way to get some war stories out of the way, if you handle the questions right. It also exposes players to lots of other people in small groups.
If you have an unwieldy amount of players, split them into medium sized groups of say, 8-10 and have a chat, maybe about some of the issues the game raised and the connection to real life?
Ask players to pair up before the game or afterward and turn them into debrief buddies. It’s your job to check on your debrief buddy via phone or email or in-person one day, one week, and one month after the game.
Jump in when you’ve got something
Gather players in a big group and ask a focused question. “Would anyone like to apologize for something their character did during game?” Tell players they can jump in with one sentence if they have a good response. This is a low-stress way to invite inclusion but make space for people who don’t want to talk. (Hat tip to James Stuart for this one.)
These can take the form of organizer feedback, what you as the player would want to tell your character, or general impressions as in a blog post. I also participated in a debrief where each player got three Post-It notes, on which you wrote something you loved about the game, something that seemed just OK, and something not great. Then, one by one, we put our notes up on the wall, explaining what went into each of the different categories.
You could ask players to hug each other or shake hands, or if you’ve had a real downer of a game, I recommend this exercise I tried once at a Court of Moravia workshop at Knutepunkt 2013. Have the players all gather together in a big mass and get really really sad with their faces and body posture. Slowly, count them up from 1 to 10, with the idea that at 10 they will have the postures and expressions of the happiest people on earth. It’s a good one to end on.
There are probably many more out there.
Character v. player
It can be helpful to ask people to refer to their characters in the third person during the debrief, which emphasizes that “I” is no longer “Orc lord of Minar” but rather, themselves. Talking about characters as separate from oneself can help shelve this experience on the “fictional” shelf. It can also be good to get players out of their costumes and back into their normal outfits.
I’ve recommended asking questions in many places above. Here are some questions I’ve seen used effectively in debriefs. Of course, your mileage may vary depending on the game, and you’ll want to add some questions specific to your scenario.
- What made the biggest impression on you about this larp?
- What will you take away from this experience? What would you like to leave behind?
- Would anyone like to apologize for something their character did during the game?
- Describe one cool thing that happened to you.
- Describe one cool thing you saw that someone else made happen.
- Let’s talk about X, that problematic thing that happened.
- [In small games] I was a little worried about you, X, during the larp. Are you OK?
- What do you wish had been different?
- How did you feel when X happened?
- What was it like to play Y?
- What was hardest for you about this game? What came easiest?
Did I leave something out? Do you have more tips? Post them in the comments.
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