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:
- Every player debriefs differently, on different timelines, in different fashions, and with different size groups (or no groups at all)
- Many games still don’t have debriefs as a part of their community or design
- Enforced debriefs put some players in uncomfortable situations when they are supposed to be a safe space
- 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!)
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:
- 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.)
- 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.)
- 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
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.
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:
- Explain it as fully as you can, so someone who has never gone through a debrief before could pick it up and use it.
- Leave your name and the way you wish to be credited online.
- Leave any projects/games/patreons you would wish me to link in your credit.