How to Run a Post-Larp Debrief

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!

The discussion.

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.

Focused discussion.

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?

Debrief buddies

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.)

Writing exercises

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.

Physical exercises

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?

Further reading

How to debrief a freeform game (Advice from many different GMs)
Nordic Larp Wiki-Aftercare

Did I leave something out? Do you have more tips? Post them in the comments.

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14 thoughts on “How to Run a Post-Larp Debrief

  1. It’s interesting to see handling the emotions generated by the LARP as being the primary purpose of debriefs. I suspect you are involved in a lot more LARPs that are specifically designed to provoke emotions, especially negative ones (though I don’t wish to accidentally further the stereotype that the average American theater style LARP doesn’t provoke emotions or create bleed.)

    We call them “game wraps” and most people operate under the assumption that the primary purpose is to find out what was going in the LARP. Usually, we go around in a circle and let everyone summarize what was going on with their character, but it can be really hard to keep people brief, so they often drag. (Some people just love having a moment in the sun, some people get a bit nervous and don’t organize their thoughts well.) Some GMs have a stopwatch to make sure everyone only gets a limited amount of time, but it can be really hard to interrupt people.

    Many people also consider just after the LARP to be the wrong time to approach a GM with critiques and feedback, especially if the GMs are also the writers. They’re artists putting their work on display, and right after the LARP, they could well be feeling as vulnerable, or more so, than the players. The emotions of the LARP could really affect the players’ objectivity. For example, if a character was defeated in game in their attempt to become the new leader, they might feel really down and frustrated after the LARP, and want to tell the GMs that the mechanics were unfair, or that things were stacked against them. But if they wait a bit until the loss feels more distant, and maybe they talk to other players, they might realize that the LARP as written was fair, and their failure to become the new leader was a result of who happened to be cast in various roles.

    I think many GMs wouldn’t want to address the elephants in the room in the public game wrap. For example, if two players fought, it’s probably best to let them deal with it in private instead of trying to air in front of everyone. Or if one player clearly had a terrible time, they might not want to explain why to a group. They might be embarrassed or frustrated.

    On the other hand, if there was a fight that clearly stayed strictly in character, it might be a good idea to let people apologize or explain anything during game wrap, to keep bad feelings from lingering, as you suggested.

    One GM I know has the technique of doing clean-up first. This usually allows players to mingle and talk a bit as papers are gathered up and trash is thrown out… which reduces the number of things that need to be said during the game wrap itself. This often helps speed it along if time is limited.

    I love your idea of the post-it notes. I’ve often wondered how game wraps could be improved if there was writing instead of all talking. Do people who have used it like this technique?

  2. My two cents would be to add that as an organizer, the larp debrief is not your debrief. It addresses the needs of the players, and you should have a separate organizer debrief later.

  3. Great post (as usual)!

    A few things I thought about:

    – Time, for “The round” as well as sharing stories, it is good to have a time cap. I.e. for this question you have 1 (or 3 etc) to answer.

    – For me as an organizer, one gain, but of course not the main purpose is that you get feedback from the participants.

    – A super-speedy debrief (for lighter games), made as the round I say that everyone just shares one word or sentence what they are feeling right now.

  4. Yes, I’m familiar with game wraps. They are the sort of thing that grew into debriefs on the Nordic scene. For my part, I find that recapping thing that happens to be among the most dull parts of any game, particularly since they do nothing to address the underlying emotions that may have been roused. Even vampire games can be super bleedy!

    I agree that organizers don’t want to address the elephants, and in my experience it’s a hard thing to do, but a really valuable thing to do, particularly while everyone is still in the room. If you’re going to put people through an emotional experience like a larp, then you should have the courage to be able to address what happened during the game afterward!

    And creators of games, like any creators who put their stuff out there on the Internet, in print, in art galleries, should be built of strong enough stuff to take a little post-game critique.

    I guess my attitude is: accepting critique, asking the hard questions, and running the debrief are part of the job of organizing–if people don’t think they are up to the task, then I think perhaps they should not be running games.

    (And I love all the ideas for fast minimal debriefs! Juhana’s point, that organizers should debrief later, is also a good one.)

  5. FWIW, my favourite post on this topic has been Eirik Fatland’s wonderful Debriefing Intense Larps 101, which is where I suspect a lot of Nordic Larp Wiki picked up its habits. I was once actually debriefed by Eirik himself (wait, that doesn’t sound right) and it was very instructive for many reasons: insistence on third-person, insistence on time limits, and generally being one of the most efficient facilitators ever in getting to *what you most need to unpack* right away. Made me realise that the skill and experience of the facilitator makes a difference.

  6. I am not sure iI want it to be the responsibility of the organizer to manage the players’ emotional state. We overload the organizer role, and I would prefer to see a more collaborative creation process which asks the players to take on more of the meta-necessities of running a LARP.

    I agree that post-game time should be about validating and reifying the experiences of all the participants, and I would include the organizer in that list of participants. In my experience, attempting to use post-game as a way to create a singular shared experience – be it by attempting to frame all the actions of the game as part of the same narrative, or otherwise attempting to quantify or qualify the group experience – has very few up-sides and a lot of downsides. The process may validate the experience of those that already had the desired experience, but it can also invalidate those that had a divergent experience.

    I think that feedback on the structure, characters and qualities of the game should be done significantly after game-end, once the experience has settled and any social tension has been (at least mostly) processed. Those things can take time, but unless the game is running again very soon, time is something we have after the game.

    • I don’t think organizers are responsible for managing players’ emotional states. But I do think that organizers bear some responsibility for the social situation they create during the larp, and that it’s kind and human to help people begin to contextualize the experience. It’s also something that doesn’t require a whole lot of effort–usually just 20 or 30 minutes of some minor group moderating, with the benefit of helping work out knots that might otherwise be hard to untie. To me, that’s totally worth it.

      I agree that it’s OK for people to feel whatever they’re feeling after a game, and I think the debrief should support that and avoid creating a master-narrative of the game.

      I also agree that feedback can sometimes be better if people have time to mull over their reactions. However, also in my experience, once people are done with the larp they’re DONE, and it can be hard to pry design observations out of people long-distance. Doing it on-site has the advantage of everyone still being all together. I’ve also seen design feedback used as a proxy for talking about what happened during the larp. It doesn’t always make for great feedback, but sometimes it helps the debrief along quite well.

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