A game-like exercise that was designed to help explore the practice and effectiveness of debrief techniques, for The Game Kitchen.
It works for anywhere from four to eight participants (see below for expansion for up to 20). The facilitator can be a separate person or one of the participants, depending on numbers and preference.
The idea is to simulate the situation of players who have just finished taking part in an emotionally-intense larp, and so are in need of debriefing. We don’t have time to actually play through a larp to get them to that situation, so instead we use How Was It for You? to shortcut to the desired position.
Selected debrief techniques can then be tested on the participants as required.
A brief series of workshop exercises will prepare participants for taking part in How Was It for You?
Choose your preferred warmup routine(s), things that’ll work for small numbers. Suitable examples include Fire drill, Shaking hands, Penguins and flamingos.
You’ll need to get participants into readiness for riffing and building off each other’s suggestions. There are stacks of good impro exercises out there, and it’s largely a matter of personal taste what you like to use, but telling a story around the circle using “Yes, and…” is a good example of a simple one that will serve to prepare participants for what’s to come.
Participants won’t have the opportunity to build emotional trust during the larp, because there isn’t one. Instead they’re going to be plunged right into emotionally intense relationships with one another. So it’s important that they should have a mutual trust and a sensitivity to each other. Counting upwards is a good one for developing this sensitivity. Fall and catch is another nice exercise if you have enough people to do it safely.
Explain the safety terms Cut and Brake, and perform examples of their use.
Participants decide the setting of the larp that they will have ‘just finished playing’, by mutual agreement. It should be something that involves a tight group of people in a restricted environment. For example: the officers of a starship travelling through space; an extended family on holiday in the Scottish Highlands; members of a medieval court; anything like that where a large part of the story will be generated from interactions between the characters as they respond to circumstances.
Think of a name for the larp, if you can.
Example: a group of creative writing students sharing a residential block at a university, in contemporary Britain. To be called The Writers’ Block.
Participants identify, by suggestion and discussion, a list of pressures which the situation is under at the beginning of the larp – ie. tensions that would have been set up during the larp design. They might be external threats; emotional drives; anticipated impacts; rivalries; competition for scarce resources; dangerous secrets… anything from the larpwriter’s wardrobe of plot-driving squeezers. Their form and identity will vary considerably between settings, but you should aim to have at least three of them identified and written down.
For The Writers’ Block you might identify:
- Competition for writing contracts;
- Sexual tension between students;
- Envy – of literary success, or sexual success;
- Literary criticism of each other’s work;
- Teacher-student relationships that go bad;
- How people appear on the page vs how they are in real life;
- The tension of inner life / creativity vs the social persona;
- Sources of inspiration / plagiarism;
- Prostitution of talent;
- Writer’s block;
You won’t have to use all of these in the rest of the exercise – they’re just there to give inspiration and a bit of structure as the participants think about what their characters were doing in this game world, and what they were reacting to.
Participants each choose which role they would like to have played in the game. They describe the role to the group, in a couple of sentences; and choose a name for the character.
It’s important to note that not all roles in the game need to be present in the How Was It for You? exercise. So for example a starship would be expected to have a captain, but it’s not necessary that one of the participants must choose to have been the captain. If no-one does choose that, that might be because the captain is dead or otherwise absent: perhaps that was an important plot point in the game? Or it might be that the game was set at a lower level, eg the characters are mostly redshirts and the captain is a remote figure to whose orders they respond. Or perhaps the captain was a player character, but for whatever reason, none of the participants’ characters had important relationships or interactions with them. Any of these explanations are fine.
In The Writers’ Block, the five characters are all students:
- Martin, the highly insecure talent;
- John Denny, the arrogant sniper and critic;
- Frankie, who anonymously writes [Mills & Boon|Harlequin]-style romances;
- Samson, whose great talent was destroyed by passion for a woman;
- Edie, the breakout self-published fan-fiction writer of ‘m[u|o]mmy porn’.
Put a piece of A1-size paper (eg. a flipchart sheet) on the table between the participants, so they can all reach it. Each participant should write their character’s name at a point on the edge of the paper, so they form a rough circle/oval, and large enough that everyone can read all the names.
In turn, ask each player to suggest a connection between their character and one of the other characters, as they were at the start of the larp. These connections might be:
- Familial (the two characters are related somehow)
- Occupational (they work together, or one works for the other)
- Emotional (romance, hatred, envy, admiration, pity, …)
- Joint interest (sing in a choir together, both trying to hijack the ship, …)
If the other character’s player is happy with the suggested connection, then great. If not, the two players should discuss it: if they can come to an agreement on something that they both like, excellent. If not, not a problem: start again with a new connection idea. Try to keep a spirit of ‘Yes, and…’, ie. don’t just block people’s ideas, instead think of ways to make them work better.
(Both should feel free to ask the other participants for thoughts and suggestions, too: it is a group exercise.)
The connection might be a secret one at the start of the game, which is what we’re considering – secret to one player, or to both. For example, character A is secretly the love-child of character B, but neither of them know this at the game start. (We assume that the secret will have come out somehow during the game.)
Draw the connection onto the piece of paper by drawing a line in marker pen from character A’s name to character B’s. Put an arrowhead on one or both ends if it’s necessary to indicate whether the connection is one-way (A loves B) or two-way (A and B love each other) or inverse (A is loved by B).
Towards either end of the line, write a one-word emotion indicating how that character feels about the connection, as agreed by the two players. This will help them remember the emotional dynamic of the connection, as How Was It for You? progresses. (This might not be necessary or appropriate for all of the connections: don’t force it.)
If you can, use different coloured pens for different types of connection: eg. red for romances, black for working relationships, etc. Just to make it easier for people to see what’s what.
Go round the circle of players, each in turn suggesting and then drawing a connection. (Don’t be too strict about taking turns – it’s fine to skip over somebody and come back to them later, if they need more time to think of something.)
Keep going round the circle until each character has as many connections to others as the player wishes. This might just be one or two – or it might be to every other character. Entirely up to the player. (There shouldn’t be more than one connection each way between a pair of characters, though: that will confuse the diagram and make it harder for participants to think about.)
Edie, in The Writers’ Block, started with these connections:
- She and Samson are ex-lovers, and she used their story as the plot of her breakout novel (she feels smug, Samson feels bitter);
- She knows Frankie’s nom de plume (she feels powerful, Frankie doesn’t know about it);
- She craves validation from Martin about her writing talent (she feels envious, Martin doesn’t know);
- (She had no starting connection with John Denny.)
And Martin started with these:
- He is envious of Samson’s romantic history with Edie (he feels envious, Samson doesn’t know);
- He and Frankie were old school friends, and it was Frankie who had first encouraged him to start writing (he feels grateful, Frankie feels supportive);
- He is keen on Edie (he feels frustrated, Edie doesn’t know);
- John Denny hates and resents his success, and belittles his talent (he doesn’t know, John Denny feels resentful).
What happened in the game
OK, so you’ve now established what was the state of the character relationships as at the start of the imaginary larp. Next is to find out what happened during it.
In turn, ask each player to make a suggestion about one of the other characters that answers the question “What did my character do to yours during the game?” It should build on the relationships and other connections that have been established, and on the list of pressures that you all decided would exist in the setting.
The other player is happy with the suggestion or not, and the two negotiate an agreed version of what happened, similarly to how it went in the Initial connections part of the exercise. Use this discussion to get quite detailed about the events that took place. So not just “My character A betrayed your character B” but “My character told the captain about your drug problem and got you fired from your post, allowing me to get promoted into it” or “My character (your boyfriend) had sex with character C while you were at your job interview, and lied about it (although you eventually found out)”. And as before, do ask the other participants to contribute, if you’d like to.
Draw this happening onto the diagram, using a wiggly line this time. Again use arrowheads and a coloured pen. Write alongside the line a (brief!) summary of what was agreed, and add an one-word emotion near to each character’s end of the line if appropriate.
It’s good to aim for a mix of positive and negative happenings. There can be a tendency to make them all negative – resist this. Even if you’re aiming for a grim and terrible tale, it’ll make for better story if some little moments of light shines amid the darkness. And conversely, as this exercise is aimed at testing ways of debrief emotionally intense larps, you do need to have a certain amount of emotional intensity in these interactions – it can’t all be fluffy bunnies. (But don’t feel pressured into creating an intense happening with another player if that’s really not what you want in this particular case.)
Go round the circle as many times as necessary until everyone has stated what their character did to each of the other characters in the game. Typically, some of these will be very intense, some quite trivial. And “Nothing” is entirely acceptable as an answer.
In The Writers’ Block, Martin’s player decided (together with the others) that he had:
- drunkenly declared undying love to Edie – and was rejected. He felt destroyed, Edie felt furious;
- betrayed Samson’s trust, so as to keep him emotionally weak – and Samson’s mental state went from bad to worse. He felt guilty, Samson felt betrayed;
- protected Frankie from expulsion from the university for fighting with John Denny – successfully. He felt noble, Frankie felt grateful;
- turned to John Denny for support and reassurance – and got his reputation traduced. He never found out about it, John Denny felt bitterly triumphant.
While Edie ended up doing these things:
- nothing to Samson (although he went public on her having used their relationship as material, about which she felt wounded);
- carried out a savage ad hominem attack on Martin’s qualities as a writer and a person – driving him into a state of severe depression. She felt nothing, he felt miserable;
- nothing to John Denny (although he was anonymously trolling her online, which she never found out about);
- had a drunken one-night stand with Frankie – it was terrible. They both felt dreadfully awkward.
And so on, until we had this diagram:
Then the debrief
You should now have your participants in a suitable state to be debriefed about their experiences in the imaginary larp. These are the debrief techniques that we tested (you can see the meeting report for how they went):
- Play a piece of music while everyone listens still and quiet, centring themselves.
- Guided meditation to return people to their real-world minds and bodies.
- Ritually consign ‘bad’ aspects of the character, and of the larp experience, to an imaginary fire.
- Participants one by one describe their experience, while others listen silently.
- One-on-one discussions between participants about particularly intense interactions.
- Party – a general drink and chat.
Variant for larger numbers of players
If you’ve got more people than can conveniently fit around the piece of paper, you should still conduct the first part (connections) as described, because it’s important that connections should exist across the whole group and not just in little subgroup bubbles. Use a larger piece of paper for the connections diagram if you can!
After that, though, divide the participants up into groups of 3–6 (4 or 5 is best). The best way to do this is by desired intensity of game. Ask them to line themselves up in order of how emotionally intense they wish their game to have been: highest at one end, lowest at the other. They will tend to align themselves with people with whom they’ve established stronger connections in the initial phase: this is fine .Then just divide the line into two, three etc parts as required to make the subgroups of the right size. This all means that people who do want a severe angst-fest won’t be grouped with people who prefer something more along the fluffy bunny lines.
Put the connections diagram up somewhere where everyone can see it. Give each subgroup a fresh piece of paper, and have them write their names around its edge, and then conduct the ‘What did my character do to yours?’ part of the exercise within each subgroup.
In theory this should work for up to 20 or so people, although it hasn’t yet been tried with that many.