Larp Counselors: An Additional Safety Net

Many contemporary larps are adopting structures to bolster their players’ feelings of emotional safety, including Codes of Conduct, safety teams, Sanctuary Spaces, special mechanics for signaling discomfort, and consent negotiations. This article advocates for the inclusion in certain larps of the unique role of a counselor, who is part of the safety team and a member of the overall organizing body of the event.

Alex Rowland and Brodie Atwater as counselors Watson and Whipple, New World Magischola 7.

The counselor role is considered both diegetic and non-diegetic. In other words, a safety team member is embedded in the fiction as a character. Depending on the type of fiction, this role may be called a “counselor” — as in New World Magischola, Event Horizon, — or may be renamed something else appropriate to the fiction, such as “bartender” or “goddess.” Similar to a Storyteller or non-player character (NPC), while these individuals are immersed in the story, the counselor can also step out of their role in order to tend to the emotional needs of players in distress and help with calibration of play styles. They can help overwhelmed players find the off-game room, Sanctuary Space, or other members of the safety team on staff. Therefore, the counselor role requires a strong degree of sensitivity to the needs of others, flexibility to switch in- and out-of-character with ease, deescalation skills, and willingness to perform emotional labor for the player base and other organizers.

Counselors are especially useful at bigger larps that are spread over a large area. While the role is present in other larps, such as Lindängen International Boarding School, we are describing the counseling role that we first developed for Run 1 of New World Magischola (2016), where 160+ players were spread over 100+ acres. Since then, Magischola has featured embedded counselors for all eight runs, as well as two Yule episodes. Event Horizon (2016) adopted the role, as has the U.S. run of Just a Little Lovin (2017). Ideally, the counselor job is compensated if the larp budget allows, e.g. expenses, lodging, food, and/or stipends for travel.

Optimally, counselors serve other roles on the safety team such as leading workshops, de-roling, and debriefing sessions. The staff should introduce costumed counselors at the opening of the game if possible. That way, players can easily identify them as trained safety team members in play. Embedded counselors make safety both visible and pervasive in a larp culture. However, counselors are only one part of the safety culture of the larp. Ultimately, we hope to encourage a community of care, where other players feel motivated to provide support for one another, rather than relying on staff to handle all problems that arise. 

Distinctions from Traditional Therapy

While we use the generic term “counselor,” we would like to make clear several core distinctions between this member of the safety team and a traditional therapist. While counselors may provide advice for players in- or out-of-character, they do not perform therapy as a psychologist would in an office setting. The counselor’s job is more akin to crisis management than therapy. In a therapeutic setting, a client enters into a relationship with their psychologist in which trust is built over time and personal information is revealed in order to produce meaningful change in the client’s life. In a larp, that relationship has not been established, and neither the space nor time needed for traditional therapy are present. Indeed, such intensive analysis of a player’s psychology could work against the goals of individuals in this role.

Instead, a larp counselor’s role is to provide players and organizers in need with the following:

Thomas Whipple (Harrison Greene) in New World Magischola 1.

Thus, the counselor’s primary goal is to help establish a sense of emotional well-being in the hopes that the participant can re-engage with the larp and social environment with minimal disruption to their experience. Unlike a therapeutic session, where upsetting or traumatizing personal information is often unearthed, the larp counselor only engages with such content if the player spontaneously discloses personal information.

In this regard, while having trained psychologists on staff is desirable in larp settings, we recognize that emotional distress and even crisis can arise in any social situation. Larp can be particularly intense and place emotional demands upon players in terms of focused attention and intensity. In some cases, larpers experience physical strain, lack of sleep, or insufficient food or water, whether by personal choice or the event’s design. These demands can lead to powerful larp experiences, but can also add psychological strain. These issues can arise even in larps with presumably light-hearted content. In our experience, having a system in place to aid in these situations is important, as other players may not be able to provide care and organizers may be overwhelmed. The counselor serves as a safety net to help player’s process this strain and receive immediate help.

Thus, while we advocate for counselors to obtain professional development around emotional safety, crisis treatment certifications, and psychological training, we recognize that these requirements are not always practical. We believe the primary skills needed for a larp counselor are empathy, active listening, patience, and the willingness to help others through immediate emotional issues. Counselors should also work well in a team with other safety committee members and organizers, reporting often about the events occurring in the larp and any emotional difficulties that arise in the player base.

While counselors should strive toward confidentiality, they may need to report serious issues that arise to the larger team, especially if action needs to be taken to stop problematic behaviors such as harassment. Counselors are not subject to the same strict rules of confidentiality that a licensed professional may be, as they are working in service to the larp organizers. However, ethically, restricting who is exposed to sensitive information is extremely important. In issues of alleged harassment, legal repercussions could ensue if counselors reveal the details of a claim. Retaliation against reporters is also a possibility, which reinforces the need for discretion. Counselors should make clear to participants who they will inform about safety issues, particularly in the case of violations, before participants reveal personal details. Counselors can also disclose potential actions the safety team might take. Ideally, such information is contained in their Code of Conduct, Internal Procedures, or other design documents. If your larp needs help developing these procedures, we encourage you to borrow with attribution from the Living Games Conference safety documentation, which also includes professional development exercises for crisis management and empathy training.

Psychic twin sister counselors Winnie (Alex Rowland) and Raindrinker (Sarah Lynne Bowman) in Event Horizon. Photo courtesy of Event Horizon.

Ultimately, counselors work to try to resolve issues that happen during the larp, as well as keeping their fingers on the proverbial pulse of the events unfolding, often reporting back to the rest of the staff. We believe that dedicated counselors whose only role in the larp is to provide in-character and out-of-character assistance can not only assist players in need, but can relieve some of the pressure from other organizers, who are often overtaxed by logistical concerns.  Thus, safety members in this role should also offer support to other members of staff in need, including each other, in the case of a larp with multiple embedded counselors. While counselors can double as physical safety staff trained in CPR and first aid, the skills required for these two jobs are often different and should not be conflated. Unless a larp is seriously understaffed, we suggest another organizer handle physical safety issues.

Advantages to Embedded Counselors

Having a member of the safety team embedded in the larp has several advantages. They are involved in the fiction and can better understand the references made by the characters and players. Counselors may even be present for key scenes and know which events have unfolded. This practice makes it less alienating for the counselor when hearing about larp events, as they understand the context.

Counselor Whipple (Brodie Atwater) with the Dean (Maury Brown) in New World Magischola 7.

For example, in New World Magischola, counselors are part of the staff of the school. They have in-character reasons to run administrative events, connect with faculty, and be available for students to express their career or personal issues. In the fiction of Event Horizon, counselors were hired by the corporation hosting the event. These counselors were telepathic twins with empathy powers. In both cases, magic can enhance the in-game counseling role, e.g. by providing flashbacks or future sequences, as one would in a black box, to help process character emotions. Embedded counselors can also work in a socially realistic setting. In the 2017 run of Just a Little Lovin’ in the United States, Joani, a New Age self-help guru character, was adapted to have counseling training.

The fiction influences the way counseling is portrayed, but provides a convenient reason for players to steer toward emotional processing or a satisfying resolution without breaking immersion. We term these strategies diegetic interventions, or ways to solve in-game problems through magic, psychic powers, role-played therapy sessions, or other creative solutions. Diegetic interventions are powerful because they redirect players to the fiction and that resolution becomes canonical, not just imagined. Players feel like they are getting a special scene, which can raise spirits and help them reconnect with the larp.

Additionally, embedded counselors can:

Ideally, each larp has at least two counselors, which enables them to tap out if necessary, as well as to emotionally process with one another. Sometimes, counselors may need to check with one another to figure out a course of action. If a participant feels comfortable, having both counselors present to address an issue can be helpful, although some players prefer one-on-one private interactions.

In the most recent runs of New World Magischola, all counselors were coordinated through the use of walkie talkies, so that they could communicate regardless of their location in play. The Sanctuary Space also had a walkie talkie, which allowed players to page a counselor if needed. Counselors listed their schedule on the door of the Sanctuary Space to identify their approximate location. Sanctuary Spaces also feature water, snacks, blankets, soft music, and coloring books when possible. Ideally, Sanctuary Spaces have a door that can close for privacy. These logistics allow embedded counselors to slip smoothly in and out of play to address issues as they arise.

Drawbacks to Embedded Counselors

Embedding counselors into the fiction does have some drawbacks, which we will address in turn. They are:Active counselors in the play space are not always easy to find.

  1. Active counselors in the play space are not always easy to find.
    • Walkie talkies and other forms of communication such as text may help, assuming the technology is working and counselors regularly monitor these devices.
    • Counselors can serve in shifts, where some are in-character while others remain in the Sanctuary Space or off-game room. Downtime may be necessary when performing emotional care, although boredom and alienation may arise if off-game shifts are too long.
  2. Counselors can become involved in major stories or plots through emergent play as part of the fiction.
    • Counselors can become central figures to the play of others due to the emotional bonds formed through the act of sharing, which can lend to player comfort.
    • This engagement can also become negative, if players associate the counselor with a particular plot, player, or social clique that they find undesirable or alienating.
    • Counselors should strive to maintain neutrality and objectivity in plots and social groups when possible as a best practice. Non-embedded members of safety teams are less biased in general, so counselors may direct players to these individuals in specific situations.
  3. When immersed, counselors may show a range of emotions outside of their “professional” role.
    • Counselors should strive to play characters who have a pleasant, welcoming, and empathic demeanor. Preferably, the characters’ default personalities are both engaging and emotionally available. However, these traits are not always possible to maintain when engaged in intense stories or moments.
    • Players should not be afraid to show other ranges of emotions during role-play, but when interactions focus on counseling, this default personality should predominate.

Counselors Raynar and Traquility Whipple explore a mystery with a Divination professor in Magischola 4. Photo courtesy of Learn Larp LLC.

Counseling and Self-Care

Counselors are not superheroes. They cannot help every player or be emotionally available at all times. Just like any member of the safety team, counselors should maintain boundaries with regard to their time and energy. A good rule of thumb is to help a person for a maximum of one hour. Players should not feel that they have unrestricted access to the emotional labor of counselors, so good boundary and expectation setting are necessary. Ideally, these boundaries are mentioned in workshops and enforced by the organizer team.

Counselors must be extremely vigilant about their own self-care regimen, including getting enough sleep and food. If necessary, a co-counselor, another member of the safety team, or another organizer can relieve them of their duties if self-care is needed. Counselors should feel enabled to self-advocate. For example, they can say,

Note that while two counselors may decide to help the same player at once, they should avoid enabling players to monopolize their emotional resources by coming to different counselors with the same issue.

Divination Professor Ziegler (Kat Jones) and Ethics Professor Hassinger (Evan Torner) also served as counselors at Magischola Yule.

Additionally, counselors should also remain vigilant of their own emotional capabilities throughout play. Some counselors have their own mental health challenges or trauma triggers. They should make sure that they feel sufficiently rested and comfortable addressing certain issues before engaging. They should also be upfront about their own limitations. For example, a counselor can say,

Counselors should not feel responsible for players during off-duty hours. Therefore, it is preferable to set boundaries around when counseling shifts are, e.g. 8am-1am, with breaks in between. The exception to this guideline is in cases of harassment or other serious mental health issues, where counselors may be needed when off-duty.

Finally, counselors may wish to make themselves available before and after the larp over social media and personal message. Sharing links about bleed, post-larp depression/blues/drop, debriefing, and other resources is helpful, especially the during 72 hours after the larp, or the bleed window, where players are often still transitioning back to their default lives. However, counselors should not feel required to perform additional emotional labor above and beyond their role in the larp unless they wish to do so. Again, boundary setting is necessary. Counselors are not community managers. They should decide upon how much post-larp emotional labor they are willing to provide. Some suggestions:

Common Counseling Issues

Counselors Tullamore and Tranquility Whipple attempt to guide a student away from a dark path in New World Magischola 5.

In our experience, these problems arise in larp settings, although some are far more common than others:

Diegetic Interventions

The structure of New World Magischola, with its player-driven scene requests and consent-based play, meant that counselors could take the tools available to players and use them with proficiency. Diegetic interventions allowed players not only to return to the larp, but to resolve their issues through play. Counselors could cancel scenes, make new ones, plan for plot events, or encourage negotiation with other players about closing or opening up storylines. They could use freeform scenes to create canonical content that could have happened in a story in order to justify a new character direction. While anyone can create this content, an embedded counselor can demonstrate proficiency in how a player might use it to transform their play.

Counselor Winnie at Event Horizon

Some example diegetic interventions are:

Scene requests

Player: “I had a lot of ambitions for this storyline about my family, but the person playing my sibling brought a bunch of people to the scene and took most of the spotlight.”

Counselor: “Well, what if we put in a scene request for your character to meet one of their family members again, but on their own this time?”

Player: “Can I do that?”

Counselor: “Of course, and you can also talk to that other player to see what they’re trying to get from the plotline, so you can discuss expectations of where the play should lead.”

Freeform

Player: “I was really hoping that my character would get arrested before the ball so they could break out of prison to see their date. But there won’t be much play after dinner.”

Counselor: “What if we checked with the NPCs to see if we can make that scene? If not, we can take some time to act out the scene together, with us playing the marshals who arrested them.”

Plot Knowledge

Player: “I’m feeling exhausted by being around so many people.”

Counselor: “There’s going to be a big scene that draws everyone out into the forest in about an hour. What if you just focused on being in the common room or resting, then looked for other quiet people who weren’t out at the scene, and tried to play with them? There will be someone drawing people to your character’s common room about an hour after they get back, so you can make plans to be gone by then.”

Future Steps

While not all larps may require a counselor, we believe that they provide communities with a distinct advantage. For this reason, Brodie Atwater and Alex Rowland — experienced larp counselors, academics, and therapists-in-training — are developing a guide for counselors. This manual will serve as a touchstone for people who want to begin contracting and training counselor roles for their game. Starting from a standardized crisis counseling model, this work will also examine ACA Compliance in order to start synthesizing larp communal wisdom with wider psychological standards. Ultimately, we hope that this work will serve as a foundation for increased professional development and more nuanced safety team design in larps.

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Cover photo: Catching the Light by Chi Tranter on Flickr. (CC BY 2.0). Photo has been cropped.