It’s “just a game”.
LARP is a rare source of play for adults. It can be more than that, too: it can be art, theater, creative outlet, social experimentation, physical exercise, and even a kind of therapy. It is an opportunity to experience a visceral sense of risk, adrenaline, conflict, and deep emotion in the safety of a fictional environment. It can be a source of community, a web of relationships of all kinds.
Thinking of it as “just a game” doesn’t just cheapen the rich possibilities of live-action roleplaying: It’s potentially dangerous.
If it’s “just” a game, then maybe we don’t have to take the emotions of others and their reactions seriously, because we can dismiss it as overreacting. if it’s “just a game”, maybe we don’t have to take our own emotions and reactions to the game seriously. If it’s “just a game”, there’s no personal risk — right?
Indulge me in taking it seriously for the length of this article.
Immersion and Bleed
Nordic LARP Wiki defines immersion as “a state of mind where a player does not need to actively suspend disbelief in the fictional universe, and where role-playing flows as naturally and easily as if you really were the character.” Some LARPs strive for high immersion; some go lower-immersion.
There are many things that increase immersion: props, costuming, length of a game event, time of a game event, and game culture, among many others. A weekend-long event that runs constantly from game-on Friday to game-off Sunday is higher immersion than an evening parlor game that runs for four hours, due to the time it can take to sink into the world and character. A game in an environment that fits the game setting (such as a Battlestar Galactica LARP on an actual battleship) increases immersion; a game in an environment that doesn’t fit the setting (such as a medieval fantasy LARP in the middle of a modern city) decreases immersion. Immersion often increases bleed.
Bleed is defined by Nordic LARP Wiki as “when emotions bleeds over between player or character, in either direction.” There has been much written about bleed, and thoughts about whether U.S. LARPs are even interested in it. Sometimes it’s demonized as metagaming or inability to distinguish in-game and out-of-game; other times it’s sought as a way to intensify the gaming experience or engage in personal development through the tool of roleplaying. It is a tool and a phenomenon, and not inherently negative or positive in and of itself, and yet it is an element that must be considered when talking about emotional safety in LARP.
Increasing bleed can be a large part of the enjoyment of the game for some players. It can also significantly detract from enjoyment for other players. Safely, responsibly playing towards bleed requires self-awareness, self-care, and knowing your personal limits. Otherwise you can too easily hit burnout, or confuse another person’s character with the player themselves.
Taking Care of Yourself
You are responsible for your own behavior, and you are responsible for taking care of yourself. If you find yourself getting upset out-of-game about events that happen in-game on a frequent basis, consider playing away from bleed. Consider lowering the intensity of your play, and make sure you’re doing self-care.
- Take a break during the game. If you find yourself so deeply in character that you feel overwhelmed by the emotions or intense experiences of the character, or you find yourself out-of-game getting upset about the in-game experiences, it’s okay to take some space. Go to your cabin and step out of character for a while. Read a book. Take an NPC shift at monster camp. Go for a long walk.
- Know your limits — and don’t ignore them. Maybe you get really reactive and have a hard time separating in-game and out-of-game when you haven’t eaten enough, or haven’t gotten enough sleep. Maybe there are certain themes that are triggering to your own personal real-world pain that you just don’t have the capacity to handle at LARP. Maybe you yell at people out-of-game when your adrenaline spikes, such as in combat. Know your limits, and take actions to prevent yourself from hitting them. Schedule a nap, step out of game or step back from combat if your adrenaline gets too high, bring snacks and ask a friend to help make sure you eat regularly enough. Engage in self-soothing skills.
- Play further from home. Nordic LARP calls this strengthening your alibi, the premise that any actions taken in game are taken by the character, not the player. Rather than playing a character who is very much like you (“close to home”), deliberately make character choices that separates the character from you and provides some differentiation. If your character has a very similar job to your ideal or actual job, find a reason for your character to change jobs. If your character has a very similar personality to you, find aspects of their personality that are different from yours to play up and focus on. Or play an alternate character that is deliberately “further from home”.
- Talk to people out of game. If you only interact with a player as their character, especially if your characters dislike each other or have significant conflict, make an effort to get to know that player out of game, outside the context of LARP. Find out who they actually are, rather than projecting their character onto them. Not everyone plays close to home, and many people play characters that are quite different from them. Develop real-world relationships separately from character relationships.
- Develop a de-roleing ritual. This means consciously, methodically setting aside your character at the end of the game and stepping back into the role of your mundane self. Maybe this is when you remove your costuming and makeup: instead of doing so while chatting with someone, do it in a mindful and intentional fashion, stripping off the character as you strip off the costume.
- Take breaks between games. If you’re experience unwanted bleed or you’re experiencing burnout, or you want to prevent both of those things, start leaving the game at the event. Don’t roleplay your character between games. Do non-LARP things with your LARP friends, or focus on spending time with non-LARPers. Tell people that if they talk to you about in-game events out-of-game, you’ll assume it’s in-game and that your character has heard it. (This last might not stop them from talking about game to you, but at least then it’s one less thing to try to remember to separate.)
- Debrief intense experiences. If you’re playing an angry, aggressive character, or one who is intensely speciest or racist or classist, find a time to check in out-of-game with the people you’re having intense in-game interactions. Let them know it’s not you, or them; it’s just your characters, and you actually don’t hate them. Additionally, if you felt strongly impacted by a scene, check in with the other participants afterwards, even if you know cognitively that it was all in-game. Let them know it impacted you personally, and you want to be reminded that you’re all okay as players, even if your characters have issues with one another.
- Debrief all the experiences. Really, a post-game debrief is valuable even just to make sense of the game experience and slowly return to the mundane world. Most U.S. LARPs don’t hold formal debriefs, but you can get together with a group of other players for dinner after the game (often called “afters” in some circles) to swap stories.