“What Do You Do Know About Debriefs?”

How my obsession with “Larp Safety” started, and why I use that term in quotation marks

I’ve looked back through the oceans of stuff on my computer but I can’t put a date on where my obsession started: possibly 2011? I know exactly where it happened though: in the big lobby area of the Swedish larp convention Prolog. My great (and then relatively new) friend Teresa Axner came up to me and asked, “What do you Knutpunkt people know about debriefs? I mean, actual knowledge? About what works and so on?”

Teresa hails from a different larp culture than mine. She honed her considerable game design skills making youth larps for the gaming association Camelot, which had engaged with my theory-obsessed Nordic Larp design community only recently. She wasn’t asking because she didn’t know about debriefs – she just made the reasonable assumptions that we might know other things, or even more, or at least have systematized it in some way.

“Of course we do,” I answered. “Hangon”. Debriefs, I thought. Hm. When have we last talked about debriefs?

Debriefs, in our design parlance, is a kind of structured conversation after the runtime of a larp, during which participants share their experience. In the 90s, when I started playing fantasy larps in Finland, debriefs were when everyone told the story of what happened to their character. This was very boring and an inefficient way of establishing the emergent plot of the larp. So we stopped doing it in that way. Or altogether.

Debriefs had a resurgence at the turn millennium when the Nordic Larp community started designing more realistic games about heavier, darker, more grownup topics, played in a style of strong psychological immersion. There was a general idea that it was probably healthy to have some kind of structured conversation about the experience the participants, “so let’s do that”. But did we actually know anything? About what worked or why? Had I, for instance, heard a Knutpunkt talk on the topic in the last decade? Not that I recalled.

I knew the word “debrief” itself had recently been contested, because of its association with trauma. Larps can be intense, but that doesn’t equate with “traumatic”. And I knew that I’d written an essay about what happens when larps end that was indirectly related to this topic. But otherwise? Nothing.

“Uhm…” I said to Teresa. “I’ll ask around.”

I asked around, and here we are, some four or five years later. I’ve spoken to and facilitated sessions with literally hundreds of larpers and larpmakers working in the Nordic tradition. I’ve given…maybe ten lectures on larp safety since, and I teach it at the Larpwriter Summer School. I am slowly starting to have some answers for Teresa, who obviously just went on an solved whatever she needed at the time with overall design awesomeness.

It’s taken a little while because larp safety, it turns out, is not something you do at the debrief. It’s something you do all through your design process. Also, it shouldn’t even be called larp safety, because when we say larp safety, we speak about around four different things. That’s what this blog is about, and that is what my book is eventually going to be about.


0 thoughts on ““What Do You Do Know About Debriefs?”

  1. I’d love to chat with you about this. I’m currently writing a freeform game about sexual consent, and I’m trying to take player safety into account as much as possible throughout the game, but the debrief is actually the part that I’m struggling with the most. I’ve got some concepts on what I want it to do, and a little on how, but it’s very different from anything I’ve written before and I’m flailing a little. I want to have a reasonable try at this before I playtest it, because I do think it’s an important piece of a whole.

    1. Haha, how very weird, just as I’m approving this comment the playlist of Claus Raasted’s interviews at Living Games switches to your voice! Must pause so I can listen to you separately!

      Your game sounds great and important. There are interesting challenges AND potentials in the overlap (or divergence) between power structures, rules and calibration inside the characters on the one hand and between the players on the other.

      And if you’re trying to tell stories about another reality than our own, then the ghost of our norms and expectations are in play at all time… Actually I suppose they will be all the time anyway! So your game is a perfect example of why safety should be designed as a system that is coherent on each game design level – because even players from exactly the same larp culture will very different sexual histories and politics!

      Do you think it would be at all useful if I put together a “debrief basics” post that was just best practices and a few questions to start with when designing the debrief? It would rely heavily on other people’s work so it might not be impossible to do relatively soon? (You might be far beyond that stage in your design, but who knows!)

      A good place to start meanwhile is this post by Eirik Fatland: https://larpwright.efatland.com/?p=384#more-384
      The checklist stuff in there is great, although the post is geared specifically towards big Nordic-style larps that might me multi-day events and have 100+ people engaged in very intense things together.

      I think you’re right to start by designing a debrief before you test! Just like any other part of the game design, it will need testing too. (Although I think personally that it also makes sense for a debrief design to be a bit modular, so you can privately keep some things that were redundant in one test in case another player group totally needs it in another run. While in a game design you might totally scratch stuff that wasn’t necessary for the core “machine”).

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