The Debrief Toolbox

Debriefing after an intense game is both difficult and essential for a variety of reasons. To those unfamiliar with the concept of a debrief, it is an exercise in separating a player’s mindset from the game world. Sometimes it discusses events of the game, favorite character moments, how to separate oneself as a player from one’s character, and the boxing away of event experiences. Debriefs are valuable in their ability to help players cope with the intense experiences they had at a game before returning to their real lives. Debriefs often help combat bleed (difficulty separating player from character) and drop (depression or low feelings that hit after an intensely social experience). In that ways, debriefs have value even if the game was not all that intense, as the experience of ‘Drop’ after a game seems to be shared across much of the community as an after-effect of the transition from being in a happy/collective/supportive game space to the more difficult/stressful/less supportive reality. With those quick and dirty definitions (as ever, your mileage may vary, these are simply my opinions), I’ll get on with the meat of this post.

As of late, the greater design community has had several discussions around the challenges of debriefing, but the major roadblocks I see us facing are as follows:

  1. Every player debriefs differently, on different timelines, in different fashions, and with different size groups (or no groups at all)
  2. Many games still don’t have debriefs as a part of their community or design
  3. Enforced debriefs put some players in uncomfortable situations when they are supposed to be a safe space
  4. No debriefs, however, leave vulnerable players struggling with bleed and drop for days or weeks after the experience

With the above complications in mind, I decided to create what I am calling a Debrief Toolbox. It’s a long list of all the debriefing techniques that I am able to collect from personal experience, games I’ve played, other players, and the far reaches of the internet. This list is designed for a player to use to create their own personalized list of debrief steps that work for them. I recommend players read it and select techniques that seem interesting (or have worked for them in the past) when they are in a clear and non-bleeding/dropping headspace. Pick some techniques and create a personalized Debrief Toolbox for yourself. Then, the next time you are having issues debriefing from a game, go to that pre-created list and use it to guide yourself through personalized debrief in a safe space.

Collected Debrief Techniques (Choose one or as many as you like!)

DL Debrief

Character props being prepared for storage, Dead Legends, 2017

Third-Person Shift: From the moment game is off, make a concentrated effort to no longer refer to your character in the first person. Now, the character is they/them/she/her/he/him, not I. As you recount stories of your character, tell them in the third person as if you were speaking of another being because, really, you are.

Ritualized Costume/Prop Storage: If there is a piece of clothing or a prop which innately represents the character at the core, make a personal ritual about putting it away after an event. Consciously picture yourself putting away the character and their headspace as you box up, fold, or put away that piece of them. Do not pull out of storage or handle this piece between games until it is time for you to pull out and play that character again. (Please, if it is a washable costume, wash it first!)

Fictionalize: Writing a brief summary of my experience, or something examining one of the centralized things that is staying with me from game, in a more sculpted narrative format is my favourite way to separate from a character headspace. I use it to examine the experience in a more fictionalized style and as a personal denouement for that specific event. Having narrative closure to that chapter in the story lets me put it away for a while and then gives me something to review before I return to the next game and pick up that character headspace once more.

Debrief Buddies: Have a few people in your life who are a consistent safe space where you can debrief. They don’t need to do it formally for you, but have pre-arranged agreements that if you need someone to reach out to and talk about these things, whatever is challenging you, you can reach out to them. Sometimes just rambling onto a debrief buddy will help you work through your feelings in a way no formalized debrief session can. These people should be someone you absolutely and intimately trust. I also recommend they do NOT play your game that you are actively debriefing (if possible). So, if you play many games, try to find debrief buddies from opposite communities.

Common Workshop Questions: I have three favourite questions I use when I’m running formal debriefs. I recommend people use whichever ones make the most sense to them, but especially the third one is the most important to me:

  1. What is something your character taught you that you can take back into your real life? (This question is useful in getting into the habit of speaking about the character in third person, acknowledging the character and the player are different people, and it helps build positive bleed instead of negative bleed.)
  2. What was your favourite moment in game and why? (This question makes a player review the experience in a narrative/storytelling context instead of focusing on their character’s emotions. Encourage yourself/your players to speak about that moment in the greater context of the game, not just their character’s story.)
  3. What is something about your character you want to leave behind in the game space and why? (This is the most important question, in my head, because it forces a player to acknowledge that their character isn’t always perfect or a comfortable/happy place in which to live. I often ask this question in conjunction with the ritualized removal and packing of the prop/costume piece mentioned above.)

24 Hours Off: This is a version of the 24 hour rule where a person acknowledges that they cannot objectively handle a situation and need to take 24 hours to clear their head before coming back to it with less emotionally influenced eyes. While this is HIGHLY difficult for many players after a game because of the world of social media, sometimes the most intense bleed just needs to be fought with a clean break. I encourage anyone having severe bleed issues to put a hard 24 hour rule on themselves a few days after game: take that 24 hours to intensely focus on work projects, personal house cleaning, other storytelling experiences or other creative endeavors.

Self-Pampering: Take care of YOURSELF. What is one of you, as a player’s, favourite zen experiences. Do you like to take a long bubble bath? Garden? Marathon a TV show? However you self-care, which is not related to gaming, make it a focus to take time out and go through that self-care. The important thing here is that the self-care cannot be related to the character or that game world at all. My personal favourite thing to do is take myself out to dinner with a book and read for a few hours.

New Creative Focus: If you are one of those people where creative energy feeds creative energy, you don’t need to completely cut off that energy to stop bleed. The important thing is to pull those ideas out of that specific game and character headspace then put that creative energy behind another project. There are times where I get so excited by a TYPE of story (Example: I love telling a path of self-destruction story), that I will see where I can touch upon that genre or theme in another place of my creative life. I’ll take inspiration from the game without letting myself remain living in that character’s continued headspace.

To-Do Lists: Sitting down and focusing on things that you need to do as a real life person can be a good way to shift out of a character headspace. While you don’t need to force yourself to accomplish everything on the list, simply taking the time out to look forward to the next few days or weeks and make a list of all that is coming up in reality can give you the long-view of why not dwelling in that character headspace is so important.

Feel Your Feelings in a Safe Place: After I played 1942, I ended up sobbing over pouring too much honey into my tea because my mind was still stuck in that ration-driven headspace. My girlfriend let me get out my emotions, didn’t judge, and I definitely felt better for getting through them. Giving yourself permission to feel things, experience the bleed with a safe person who can talk you through it, then letting it pass is often helpful. (See: Debrief Buddies above.)

Go to Afters/”The Diner”: If you can and your community supports it, go to whatever afters your community has. Afters (as mentioned by Sam Stone) has been the unofficial

Post Hamlet

Post-Game Elation, Inside Hamlet 2017. Photo by Bret Lehne

debriefing/come down space of much of the north American gaming community for years. Just going out to eat with the real life people you just shared an experience with, reviewing your experience as a real person, and checking in with anyone that you might have had a negative in-character interaction with is immensely valuable.

Part Two: Music to Debrief

(A guest section written by William Jason Burnett. He’d been posting it in conjuction with my debrief post and the recommendations are incredibly solid, so I asked if he’d let me add it as a section to the blog. I thank him so much for his honesty and words.)

I am a music teacher, and one of the most important things I have learned about teaching music is that everyone’s relationship with music is unique. In my music appreciation classrooms, I challenge my students to think of music that helps them identify themselves. This is a tool that I have adapted to help me as an actor and an active role player.

Frequently, I find many have been inspired by making playlists that feature music for characters they play regularly. I love the week leading up to a new event as I cram the earbuds in and listen to the soul of my characters on loop. However, as a musician, I learned quickly that consuming so much of my character in this way, especially after an event added to my feelings of fatigue and depression, commonly referred to as “larp drop.”

So, I decided to start listening to my “Self-Identity” playlist. Sure enough, just I had used character playlists to help me get into the headspace of my personas at these events, I was able to use music that was inherently –me- to get me back to myself.

I was surprised when I learned that not many others had a similar playlist, and was inspired by Ericka Skirpan to share this exercise with others, in order to help my friends combat drop and return to themselves.

My playlist is a work in progress across several years. Every month I am adding to and taking away from it. Some choices I love and listen to regularly, others I occasionally regret and skip but keep in there to remind myself of why it was there to begin with. Never should you feel ashamed by your choices in adding to it or taking away. But if you choose to undertake this project, please do so with care. Share it to others with an equal amount of care, this is in a way, baring your soul to others.

Below is a list of questions to help get you started when selecting music that identifies you. It’s okay if you don’t have an answer right away, or if you need to come back to it.

  1. What was the first music you remember hearing?
  2. What was the first music video you ever saw?
  3. Have you performed any solos or major performances?
  4. Do you have a song for your spouse/partner?
  5. If you are married, what music was a personal standout when it occurred?
  6. What is your favorite movie, is there music associated with your enjoyment of the movie?
  7. Same question but for video games, or other visual and audio media?
  8. Has a piece of music ever made you cry?
  9. What songs did you just put on repeat one day where one day became a week or more?
  10. Is there any fan made music that you loved for an IP you greatly enjoy?
  11. Has music moved you emotionally, to the point where you are brought back to that moment every time you hear it again?
  12. Did the lyrics of a song help guide you to make any life decisions, or help influence the outlook of your life?
  13. Did any song inject itself into your life ironically?
  14. Do you have a favorite musical artist, or have one in your past you might have moved away from? Was there a particular song from them that left an impact?
  15. Whats a tune you just can’t help but to sing?
  16. Do you have a previous character (preferably from a game you no longer play, or an acting role that has already passed) that has a song that reminds you of them? (It is okay to have one or two songs for ‘living’ characters in this playlist, just make sure that the focus is on you, and not all on one character.)
  17. Have any hobbies or habits out there that are unrelated? There may be a song for it!!
  18. Are you a musician? What was an early piece of music you learned that still sticks with you?
  19. At your job or a previous job, if there was music playing, was there one particular song that just kept on playing, and you noticed it everytime, to the point of near annoyance?
  20. Is there a song with your name in it?
  21. What did your Spotify year or decade in review tell you this season? Are there any standout songs or performers from there you wish to have represented?

These questions are a guideline don’t feel like you have to answer every one!! You may come up with a few good ones of your own. And what feels right right now, might not feel right in the future, so the playlist will always adapt and change over time.

The next step? Is to consume. I choose to listen to my playlist several times a month, but always as I am driving home after a performance or an event. And with each song, I actively ask myself why that song is in my playlist. John Williams’ Throne Room March? That played as I shared my wedding vows. Rogers and Hammerstein “There is Nothing Like a Dame” from South Pacific? A number I featured in as an actor in February of 2006 as a freshman in college. Too there are songs that represent characters I play regularly, if I happen upon them while coming down from an event that featured that character I simply skip the track and go to the next. It is okay to have music for your characters, after all they too represent you in a way. Just be sure to ask what the songs say to or about -you-.

Lastly, I would like to leave you all with a link to my own playlist. Every time I share it, I get a bit bashful. There are songs in there that I always feel like I need to explain why it’s there. But it’s this feeling that helps me to realize that it means a lot to me, and I must have done it right. Please be gentle with my soul everyone. And I greatly encourage you to discuss this project with others, music is personal yes, but it is also communal. I wish you all good luck in this journey to help find yourself.

In Conclusion: The Discussion Isn’t Over…

I’d like to continue building this toolbox and have this be a post people can visit time and again as they need. I know I’ve probably only touched the tip of the glacier of debriefing techniques out there. If you have a technique you use and are interested in sharing, please, leave it in the comments to continue the conversation. For full inclusion and crediting, please do the following for me:

  1. Explain it as fully as you can, so someone who has never gone through a debrief before could pick it up and use it.
  2. Leave your name and the way you wish to be credited online.
  3. Leave any projects/games/patreons you would wish me to link in your credit.

2 thoughts on “The Debrief Toolbox

  1. Michael Duetzmann says:

    Debrief Toolbox for Operations Managers/Plot Team:

    My Name is Mike and I have been Larping for 15 years and writing for at least 7.

    (These are what I have used/seen used by writers and staff as debriefing tools to help decompress. This is based on my own experiences, and as such there might be different or better tools out there)

    1.) Celebrate what ran, instead of regretting what couldn’t.

    I feel it is a very common place for writers to dwell on the encounters that could have been or how a story could have been told better. I try to remember that the world in my head can often be different than what the players see. By focusing on the stories that were on stage, instead of the machinations behind the scenes, you can share your experiences and decompress with your fellow players.

    2.) Have a decompression buddy who does not play your game or is “game adjacent”.

    This is my accommodation for the 24 hour rule. I usually need to talk about technicals and particulars to get them out of my head, but talking with fellow staff or with fellow players can lead to complications to neumerous to list.

    If the game is a multi chapter or multi game experience. I found success decompressing with fellow writers of different chapters.

    3.) Debrief in the middle of the game if you have written an incredibly difficult encounter for yourself.

    As an operator and writer, it is very likely that you will be cast to play an emotionally tiring or antagonistic role. Actually quick aside….

    3a.) If whenever possible, never cast yourself to be the primary antagonist in the storyline you are writing.

    (There are a lot of reasons why this is what I feel this is a good idea. But I cannot accurately describe it. Ericka: Ask me about this in the future.)

    Anyways, Operators and plot writers often go above and beyond a typical player’s level of emotion and engagement. We also then have to drop that level of emotion and shift gears to something else. So the decompression tools above also scale well in smaller scale. Maybe you need to pack away *that* clothing when you are done. Maybe you should do a fictionalized recap after the encounter is over. Do workshop questions with your other plot memebers. Intra-event care is often just as important as inter-event care.

    Liked by 1 person

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