Larp House Notes: When your Larp Upsets Someone

Advice for Larp Organizers

IMPORTANT NOTE: this article does not cover situations where someone has been triggered. That’s, like, some serious business that I’m not qualified to offer advice on. Find some advice from a mental health professional or from someone with PTSD.

I’ve been a part of many RPG conventions, both as an organizer and as a participant. I’ve also (mostly through the Larp House) been involved in several larps of varying sizes, from four players to more than thirty. One issue that has come up repeatedly is how to accommodate and respond to unhappy players. Some events have had excellent plans in place for these situations, and capable support staff to enact them. Others, on the opposite end of the spectrum, have been abject failures, resulting in shouting matches and ruined experiences. What I’m presenting here are my suggestions for how to make your events more like the former. This advice is tailored to people who wish to run RPG conventions and larps (and particularly events for more than, oh, eight players or so) but I suspect that much of it is applicable in other situations too.

Set Aside an Area for Destressing

For many people, social interaction can be hard work, especially in the semi-competitive arena of roleplaying. If you’re thinking, “My larp isn’t competitive”, you’re wrong. Even if the characters are working together, there is always going to be some element of competition between the players, regarding who is roleplaying better, who is immersing harder, who is experiencing the most bleed, who designed the coolest costume, etc. While frequently this element of competition can drive players to have awesome larp experiences, it also heightens the emotional stress on individuals involved.

If you’re running a larp, then, that is going to last several hours and take up an entire house, set aside an area for destressing. This should be an easily accessible and plainly marked room where there is as little pressure on the people within as possible. There should be snacks, beverages, and seating available, and maybe some soft music and headache medicine. Players who enter should not have to be in character, nor should staff pressure them with questions or cajoling. Staff should, however, make themselves periodically available in the space, in case someone wants to approach them with a problem or complaint.

It is important that this space be separate from the rest of the larp space. Frequently, when someone gets upset during a larp, they begin to feel shame and anxiety regarding the fact that they are upset. They are often worried that they might be ruining other people’s experiences by crying, or shouting, and this can exacerbate their mood even more. Give upset players a low-pressure space to be separate from the game, and you can prevent this cycle of escalation from occurring.

Have Dedicated Emotional Support Staff

As a rule of thumb, any event large enough to require more than three staff to run it should have someone there whose job is emotional monitoring and support. It’s possible—even probable—that nobody will get upset at your event, so it’s probably okay for emotional support staff to have other responsibilities; on the other hand, they may have to leave the rest of the game to focus on a single player for an extended time, so it’s unwise to have them be the only staff member responsible for a central part of the game.

So what responsibilities should emotional support staff (ESS) have?

As I see it, they have two main responsibilities. First, all staff with a spare eye should be monitoring the players, seeing if anyone looks confused, lost, or angry. If it looks like a problem is afoot, then a member of the ESS should be dispatched to chat with them and try to figure out what’s up and if they need assistance. This role can probably be safely done at most times by any staff that spots a problem, but sometimes staff is in the middle of something involved. Having dedicated ESS who are available for this purpose can prevent pile-ups where a bunch of players have to wait while a personal problem gets sorted out. This structure is mostly a benefit for the person with the complaint; they don’t have to worry about holding up the game with their emotions, which, again, can take some pressure off of them.

The second main responsibility is to simply be available if anyone approaches them with an issue. If you have a destressing room, they should pop in there regularly and remind people that they are available to listen—it probably wouldn’t hurt to have a posted sign in the destressing room with a list of ESS members and a line like “These people are here to listen to any issue you might be having. Please feel free to approach them”.

ESS should be selected (hopefully they will volunteer for the position!) from people who are known to be good listeners. If a player approaches them with a problem, they should lead the player somewhere private, and begin conversation.

Step 1 of Emotional Support: Just listen

Most of the time, the number one thing an upset player wants is to be listened to and understood. When they come out with a complaint like “I feel like I’m being treated unfairly” or “I don’t think this scenario was designed well”, it can feel like an attack on you, the staffer; ignore that feeling. This isn’t about you. Don’t defend yourself. Just listen.

Resist, also, the urge to immediately start offering solutions. You may think you have the perfect solution; hold onto it. To an upset player, an immediate offer of a solution will likely come across as dismissal or trivialization of their problem, and just make things worse.

What you should say are little things to encourage them to talk to you and show them you’re listening; “mm-hmm”s are good, as are “yeah, okay”s.

Step 2: Repeat their problem back to them

After a few minutes, you’ll probably be getting an idea of what their problem is. When there’s a natural space for you to talk, say something like “So what I’m hearing from you is…” or “Let me make sure I’ve got this right. You think that…” and rephrase their problem.

If you’re right, they will probably tell you so, and you can move forward to the next step. Otherwise, you’ll hear something like “No, that’s not it” and should continue listening. Either way, they’ll appreciate that you are taking the time to make sure you understand them.

Step 3: Ask what they’d like to see happen

So at this point, just ask, “So, what would you like to happen here?”

If they know what they want, and it won’t cause problems, allow it. Maybe they just need to take a break or change out of their costume.

If they ask you what to do, then now is the time to present whatever sweet solution you came up with way back in step 1—and don’t be offended or insistent if they dismiss it out of hand.

If there is no clear solution, then the two of you can talk about it for a bit, or (if they’re comfortable with it) approach other staff members to get input.

Often, simply acknowledging that their complaint is valid, and that there is a problem with the situation will be enough to get them to a state where they’re willing to play and have fun again.

If the problem involves harassment or discrimination, then you should already have a policy in place to deal with this—follow it.

Have a Code of Conduct that Includes a Harassment Policy

A code of conduct is a public document that lays out explicitly what behavior is unacceptable at your event, and what repercussions are likely to result from violations.

A harassment policy is a portion of the code of conduct that defines what is considered harassment—usually things like repeated unwanted/inappropriate comments and actions.
A harassment policy should also tell people whom to notify if they feel unsafe or harassed, including if they feel harassed by a staff member or volunteer.

Ejecting harassers from the game and game space should be an explicit possible consequence.

Solicit Postgame Feedback

Even with all these precautions in place, it may be the case that a player had a bad time and was, for whatever reason, unwilling to bring it up during game. This does not make their problems any less important than those of a player who came directly to staff to complain. For this reason, you should make some form of survey or comment card available to all players so that they have a welcoming avenue to express concerns through a method other than face-to-face interaction during the larp.

Remember: just because nobody told you there was a problem doesn’t mean there wasn’t one.

FINAL NOTE: Nobody comes to larps with the intention of having a bad time. If someone comes to you with a problem, they are not trying to make you feel bad or damage your game. It is your duty to listen to them and believe them.