Transformative Role-Play: Design, Implementation, and Integration

Transformative Role-Play: Design, Implementation, and Integration

Role-playing has the potential to have profound transformative impacts on participants. Over the years both personally and professionally, we have received hundreds of stories from players who have experienced dramatic expansions in their worldview, their understanding of others, and their ability to affect change in the world around them as a result of role-play. In our own backgrounds, we can both point to several role-playing experiences that have altered the course of our lives as a result of the realizations and interpersonal connections resulting from them. The sheer number of people interested in implementing role-playing and simulation as tools for education, empathy-building, and skill training attests to the methods’ potential potency (Bowman 2014a). Whether through virtual play, tabletop, or larp, role-playing can change people’s lives for the better when participants are open to expanding their perspectives.

Following our Butterfly Effect Manifesto (2019), we believe that the insights gained from role-playing can become powerful tools to help participants become more self-aware, process “real life” experiences in a community that feels safe, and transform their lives and the world around them for the better. When role-playing achieves any of these goalswhether in subtle ways or with greater magnitudewe call these instances transformative experiences. However, in our view, the role-playing experience itself is only truly transformative if it impacts the participant’s life in some meaningful way after the event. Thus, while an experience may feel transformative in the moment, the integration of that experience is the wider-reaching impact that we are most interested in cultivating. In other words, for a complete transformation to occur, the impact should expand beyond the bounds of the original experience and integrate into one’s daily frames of reality and identity. 

bufferfly on a petal drinking water

We propose that although transformative effects might occurand certainly do occurby chance or as a result of intuitive choices that designers and participants make, we can seek to maximize the potential of such impacts through intentional design, implementation, and post-event integration. We argue that designers and players who wish to maximize the potential for transformative impacts should consciously and transparently focus on the following goals throughout the entirety of the process: 

  1. Establishing a clear vision explicitly detailing the desired impacts
  2. Providing environments that feel safe, and
  3. Offering structures and resources for post-event integration at the end of play. 

While this article focuses mainly on design and implementation, individual players also can use these suggested approaches independently to increase the likelihood of undergoing transformative impacts from any given role-play experience.

Before we proceed, we should note that careful consideration and implementation of these concepts and processes will not ensure a transformative impact will take place. Experiences vary from person to person and event to event. However, we believe that the more intentional the choices that designers and organizers make in accordance with these principles, the more likely at least some participants will experience a profound shift in their sense of self, perspective, or agency in the world. We strongly recommend that designers and organizers explicitly state their goals before and after the experience in order to create a deeper sense of investment, increased trust with the participants, and clearer focus upon these impacts for everyone involved. 

Finally, we believe that informed consent and safety should be at the forefront of this design philosophy. In other words, we trust players to judge for themselves the extent to which they feel comfortable leaning into certain types of content or experiences based on their own emotional, psychological, and physical thresholds. While growth often involves facing our own resistance to change, we do not advocate for pushing participants beyond their limits. Therefore, while we believe that transformative impacts should always be at the forefront of design and implementation choices, concerns about safety and consent are inextricably linked to creating a secure-enough container for such experiences to transpire.

Below are some suggestions for how to intentionally and systemically design for transformative impacts, followed by some examples from our own design backgrounds.

woman in space holding a galaxy in her hand

Designing for Transformative Impacts

When seeking to design for transformation, the first step should be establishing a clear vision explicitly detailing the desired impacts upon participants. Although additional categories likely exist, we propose the following impacts, which fall under four broad groups: Emotional Processing, Social Cohesion, Educational Goals, and Political Aims. Note that designing for certain types of impacts—such as therapeutic aims—may require advanced training, consultation with experts, or increased safety measures.

Emotional Processing

Social Cohesion

  • Increasing empathy
  • Teamwork
  • Leadership
  • Holding space
  • Conflict resolution/Transformation
  • Prosocial communication
  • Perspective taking
  • Collaboration/Co-creation/Cooperation
  • Building understanding
  • Exploring intimacy/Relationship dynamics
  • Exploring community dynamics

Educational Goals

  • Intrinsic motivation
  • Content exposure/Mastery
  • Promoting active engagement
  • Self-efficacy/Perceived competence
  • Multitasking
  • Problem solving
  • Scenario building
  • Creative thinking/Innovation
  • Critical thinking
  • Skill training
  • Understanding systems

Political Aims

We recognize that any such list can never contain every possible impact that a role-playing experience can invite and any single design can likely only address a few of these aims. Our goal is to provide a concrete tool that enables participants to make conscious choices during the design and implementation processes.

Practical Implementation

As one gets further into the design process, a number of choices are made that can affect the transformative potential of a role-playing experience. Some examples are the setting, format, game structure, practicalities, mechanics, character concepts, safety tools, workshops, and debriefing structures. Conscious implementation is key if designers seek to maximize the potency of these potential impacts.

While choices relating to the larger structure of the game — such as concept, setting, and format — can have a clear influence, in this article, we will limit our focus to the categories of Safety, Workshops/Debriefing, and Character Design.

Safety

Feeling safe to stretch beyond one’s comfort zone without exceeding one’s boundaries is called a growing edge in personal development. Implementation requires creating a secure-enough container for participants to feel that they can surrender into the experience and feel held in the process by the facilitators and co-players. Some recommended structures for intentionally designing safer spaces include:

* The process by which sign-up lists are screened for players whose previous actions have marked them as either unsafe (red flag) or on watch (yellow flag) by the organizers.  

** For example, casting players who have a good reputation for providing safe and consensual play in the more sensitive or antagonistic roles. 

orange kitty looking in a puddle and seeing a lion reflected back

Workshops and Debriefing

We believe that designing for transformative impacts requires creating an intentional framework for transitioning into and out of the game frame. This framework can include steps for establishing: a sense of communal trust, a shared reference point for the game’s themes, explication of the game’s transformative goals, methods for expressing preferences for play, safety culture and tools, and norms around communication of participant and organizer needs. Workshops before and during the game can help to achieve these goals. Debriefing after the game can aid in the transition back to the frame of daily life. 

With these goals in mind, we have constructed the following suggestions for workshopping and debriefing activities:

Pre-game

  • Safety briefings and practicing tools
  • Trust building exercises
  • Establishing character relations
  • Explaining game mechanics/tools
  • Practical/Logistical briefings
  • Contextualization discussions*
  • Pre-game consent negotiations 
  • Discussing or playing backstory scenes

Mid-game/Breaks

  • Calibration discussions or exercises
  • Narration of events occurring between acts
  • Mid-game consent negotiations
  • Contextualization discussions*
  • Self-care or downtime for participants
  • Co-player care or emotional processing
  • Organizer care

Post-game

  • Structured or informal debriefing
  • De-roling or formalized shifting from character to player
  • Contextualization discussions*
  • Narrativizing events taking place after the game, or Epilogues
  • Integration practices (see below section)

* One important step that is often overlooked in design is contextualization, which can take place at any stage during the off-game periods of role-play. For example, in the larp Just a Little Lovin, which is about HIV/AIDS in the 1980s, the organizers provide contextualization sections during the workshops before and after each Act break. Contextualization helps the group filter their experience through the lens of the larger social context within which it takes place, an especially important step for role-plays that feature historical, personally sensitive, or politically-charged content. 

Character Design

Much of the transformative potential of role-playing lies in the character design, particularly in the relationship between the character and their player. Whether the character is designed by the organizers, by the participants, or both, several considerations are important to keep in mind during character creation and enactment:

  • Strong alibi vs. Weak alibi: How much responsibility do players feel that they have for their character’s actions?
  • Close to home vs. Far from home: How close are the characters to the players’ identities and experiences?
  • Fictional vs. Autobiographical: How close to a player’s actual life events is the character’s story?
  • Deep character immersion vs. Light role-play: How deeply, intensely, or seriously are players expected to immerse into their character?
  • Fantastical abilities vs. Mundane: Do the characters and setting have fantastical qualities or are they representative of social realism
  • Personal themes vs. Unfamiliar concepts: Are the themes relatable to the players or are the themes new to them?
  • Bleed management – Maximization vs. Regulation: Does the game intend to maximize the potential for bleed or attempt to regulate it?
  • Existing social dynamics vs. Constructed: Do the interactions mirror ones familiar to the participants’ lived experiences or are they unique constructions? 
  • Playing with strangers vs. Playing with familiar people: How well do the players know one another?
  • High status vs. Low status: How much status and responsibility do the characters have in relationship to one another?

As with any of these implementation considerations, we cannot be certain that a particular design choice will lead to a transformative impact. For example, we cannot assume that playing a character similar to the self with a particular set of emotionally-charged life circumstances that the player finds relatable will inevitably lead to bleed or deep insights about one’s daily self. However, we find it important to recognize that certain design choices can influence the way in which a character is experienced by the player and the potential impacts those experiences may have on the person moving forward.

boy sitting as he disintegrates into pixels

Facilitating Integration

The discussion about “when a role-play ends” is ongoing. Some players argue that play ends when the organizers decree that players should drop character. Others consider the processing that players undergo in the days, weeks, months, and even years following an  event to also be part of the experience. Extreme views posit that a role-play ends the moment the last person to participate passes away, as all living memory would have passed with them. For our part, it seems evident that many external and internal processes do not end the moment that play does, which means that these processes have the potential to lead to a transformative impact if the participant sufficiently integrates insights gleaned from the role-play into daily life. 

Thus, we believe that conscious implementation of integration practices after a role-play is crucial to support these transformative changes. Integration is the process by which players take experiences from the frame of a game, process them, and integrate their new awarenesses into their self-concept or the frames of their daily lives. Integration can range from small observations that shift one’s worldview to large-scale changes in identity or the structure of one’s life after the experience.

Below are examples of integration practices in which players may engage on their own initiative or guided by organizers. In an attempt to provide structure, we propose the following six broad categories: Creative Expression, Intellectual Analysis, Emotional Processing, Returning to Daily Life, Interpersonal Processing, and Community Building.  

Creative Expression

Some players choose to integrate their experiences by creating new works of art, including: 

  • Journaling
  • Studio art
  • Performance art
  • Game design
  • Fiction writing
  • Storytelling
  • Co-Creation

Intellectual Analysis

Players may also engage in cognitive processing where they seek to analyze their experiences on an intellectual level, including:

  • Contextualization
  • Researching
  • Reframing experiences
  • Documentation
  • Theorizing
  • Applying existing theoretical lenses
  • Reflection

Emotional Processing

Participants often find valuable the ability to emotionally process their experiences, either individually, one-on-one, or in a group setting:

  • Debriefing
  • Reducing shame
  • Processing bleed
  • Ego development/Evolution
  • Individual or Group therapy
  • Validating own experiences
  • Identifying and acknowledging needs/desires/fears
  • Identifying and acknowledging Shadow aspects
  • Distancing identity from undesirable traits/Behaviors explored in-character

Returning to Daily Life

On a psychological level, participants sometimes find a variety of practices useful in helping them transition from the headspace of the game frame to that of their daily lives and identities:

  • De-roling
  • Managing bleed
  • Narrativizing role-play experiences
  • Distilling core lessons/Takeaways
  • Applying experiences/Skills
  • Engaging in self-care/Grounding practices
  • Transitioning between frames of reality
  • Incorporating personality traits/Behaviors

Interpersonal Processing

Some participants find social connections important after a role-playing experience, which helps them transition from the social frames of the game to their off-game interpersonal dynamics:

  • Connecting with co-players
  • Re-establishing previous social connections
  • Negotiating relationship dynamics
  • Sharing role-playing experiences with others
  • Engaging in reunion activities

Note that some role-play experiences can dramatically shift a player’s interpersonal life, e.g. romantic bleed leading to a daily life relationship, new friendship groups forming, etc. Other times, existing relationship dynamics may help players ground back into their daily life while the new experiences from role-play are being integrated and processed. 

Community Building

Some players take the lessons learned in role-playing further, deciding to create or transform the communities around them:

  • Networking
  • Planning events
  • Collaborating on projects
  • Creating new social systems
  • Sharing resources and knowledge
  • Establishing safer spaces
  • Creating implicit and explicit social contracts
  • Engaging in related subcultural activities
  • Evolving/Innovating existing social structures

These lists are not intended to be exhaustive and no participant is likely to wish to engage in all of these activities after role-playing. However, our goal is to provide a framework for designers, organizers, and players to use in order to intentionally integrate their experiences into the flow of their lives after an event.

Woman with a red leather jacket blowing magic dust from her hands

Examples of Designing for Transformative Impacts

We shall now discuss ways in which we have designed for transformative impacts in our own work to provide concrete examples of how one might consider this process from start to finish.

In the larp Epiphany (2017), co-written with Russell Murdock and Rebecca Roycroft, Sarah Lynne Bowman included concepts from White Wolf’s Mage: the Ascension within the framework of a weekend-long spiritual retreat. Epiphany invited players to enact characters who were quite similar — in some cases, nearly identical — to their daily selves. These characters were designed in collaboration with the organizers; players detailed which personal content they wished to explore through an extensive questionnaire, which the writers translated into a character sheet. While the characters had magical abilities, the goal of the larp was for players to explore their own spiritual and philosophical beliefs and share their personal perspectives and practices with one another within the fictional framework. This goal was explicitly stated in the first paragraph of the design document, meaning that players knew they were explicitly opting-in to close-to-home, personal play:

The setting is a weekend self-help Epiphany Retreat where adults learn how to access their inner potential. Over the course of the larp, mentors will guide initiates through an Awakening into their own magical power through a series of classes and rituals. Participants will socialize and discuss metaphysical principles with one another as they learn to expand their consciousness and personal power. The goal of Epiphany is to play characters similar to ourselves that explore issues of philosophical paradigm, empowerment, and enlightenment. (Bowman, Murdock, and Roycroft 2017)

This slippage between character and player allowed some participants to explore aspects of themselves within the frame of the larp that led to insights and even life changes after the event was over. The larp featured: safety mechanics, consent negotiations, a post-larp Reflection Hour where participants could make art, write, or contemplate their experience, formal debriefing, and informal sharing in the Facebook group and chat after the event. These aspects of the design were intended to establish a secure enough container for players to lean into exploring growing edges within themselves through the frame of the game and character, while also giving participants tools to process and integrate those experiences after the event. For an example of such processing, see the documentation piece by Clio Yun-su Davis, Morgan Nuncio, and Jen Wong. Documentation itself can be an important integration process for participants, along with journaling, story writing, and other forms of creative output.

Another quite different example is how Kjell Hedgard Hugaas and Karijn van der Heij are in the early design stages for a larp called The Mountain, inspired by the song of the same name by Steve Earle. Set in a small mining community in American coal country, the larp centers on a mining accident that captures the world’s attention and promises to change the way of life in the sleepy town forever. While the expected participants are likely to be mostly middle class and quite politically progressive, the characters that populate the town are almost exclusively working class conservatives. As such, The Mountain aims to educate the participants on a subject matter that is most likely unknown to them, broadening their understanding of actions taken by people that they perceive as being very different from themselves, and increasing their understanding of the lived experiences of others.

In order to achieve these aims, the larp leans heavily on concepts and structures that are already familiar to the participants, such as family, romantic love, shared dramatic/traumatic experiences, and so on. By applying these already familiar concepts, the designers hope to create a sense of belonging that allows for emotional connection and intensity to occur even in a somewhat unfamiliar setting for the participants.

By allowing players to connect with experiences far from their own, the larp’s intended impacts are to increase empathy, promote prosocial communication, and build cross-cultural understanding. Additionally, by highlighting the oppressive systems that underpin the setting on both a social and a political level, the designers aim to raise awareness, promote political activism, and build bridges across a deep political divide. Thus, The Mountain will focus upon several transformative impacts in one larp experience, while still providing a tightly focused narrative concept and setting.

person standing on rocky ledge gazing toward a portal with light emanating from it

We’ve Only Just Begun…

Although role-playing is enjoying a Golden Age at the moment, we believe that our communities have only begun to scratch the surface of the potential of the medium. While we acknowledge that desiring to role-play for entertainment is an entirely valid motivation, we seek to provide tools for participants to use role-playing experiences as a means to transform themselves and the world around them in positive ways. We look forward to what the future will bring in terms of role-play design, innovation, and integration. 

Selected Bibliography

Below are a few recommended resources to consider when designing for transformative impacts and building safety structures. We also suggest joining the Facebook group Larping for Transformation for more discussion.

Algayres, Muriel. 2019. “The Evolution of the Depiction of Rape in Larp.” Nordiclarp.org. Last modified May 20.

Algayres, Muriel. 2019. “The Impact of Social Capital on Larp Safety.” Nordiclarp.org. Last modified October 29.

Andresen, Martin Eckoff, ed. 2012. In Playing the Learning Game: A Practical Introduction to Educational Roleplaying. Oslo, Norway: Fantasiforbundet.

Beltrán, Whitney “Strix.” 2013. “Shadow Work: A Jungian Perspective on the Underside of Live Action Role-Play in the United States.” In Wyrd Con Companion Book 2013. Edited by Sarah Lynne Bowman and Aaron Vanek, 94-101. Los Angeles, CA: Wyrd Con.

Bowman, Sarah Lynne. 2010.The Functions of Role-Playing Games: How Participants Create Community, Solve Problems, and Create Community. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co.

Bowman, Sarah Lynne. 2014a. “Educational Live Action Role-playing Games: A Secondary Literature Review.” In The Wyrd Con Companion Book 2014. Edited by Sarah Lynne Bowman. Los Angeles: Wyrd Con.

Bowman, Sarah Lynne. 2014b. “Returning to the Real World: Debriefing After Role-Playing Games.” Nordiclarp.org. Last modified December 8.

Bowman, Sarah Lynne. 2015. “Bleed: The Spillover Between Player and Character.” Nordiclarp.org. Last modified March 2, 2015.

Bowman, Sarah Lynne. 2016. “A Matter of Trust – Larp and Consent Culture.” Nordiclarp.org. Last modified February 3.

Bowman, Sarah Lynne. 2017a. “Active Imagination, Individuation, and Role-playing Narratives.” Tríade: Revista de Comunicação, Cultura e Midia 5, no. 9 (Jun 2017): 158-173.

Bowman, Sarah Lynne. 2017b. “Immersion into Larp: Theories of Embodied Narrative Experience.” First Person Scholar. Last modified March 8.

Bowman, Sarah Lynne, Russell Murdock, and Rebecca Roycroft. 2017. “Epiphany: A Mage: the Ascension Larp Design Document.” Google Docs. Last modified December 12.

Branc, Blaž, et al. 2018. Imagine This: The Transformative Power of Edu-Larp in Corporate Training and Assessment. Edited by Michał Mochocki. Copenhagen, Denmark: Rollespilsakademiet.

Brown, Maury. 2016. “Creating a Culture of Trust through Safety and Calibration Larp Mechanics.” Nordiclarp.org. Last modified September 9.

Brown, Maury. 2017. “Safety Coordinators for Communities: Why, What, and How.” Nordiclarp.org. Last modified April 17.

Brown, Maury. 2018. “Safety and Calibration Design Tools and Their Uses.” Nordiclarp.org. Last modified November 29.

Clapper, Tara. 2016. “Chasing Bleed – An American Fantasy Larper at Wizard School.” Nordiclarp.org. Last modified July 1. 

Davis, Clio Yun-su. 2019. “Writing an Autobiographical Game.” Nordiclarp.org. Last modified September 11.

Davis, Clio Yun-su, Morgan Nuncio, and Jen Wong. 2018. “Epiphany – A Collaborative Mage: the Ascension Larp.” Nordiclarp.org. Last modified February 1.

Davis, Clio Yun-su, Shayna Cook, and Lee Foxworthy. 2018. “Walking the Talk: Working Disability into Gaming.” Roundtable at Living Games Conference 2018. YouTube. Last modified August 16.

Fatland, Eirik. 2013. “Debriefing Intense Larps 101.” The Larpwright. Last modified July 23.

Harder, Sanne. 2018. “Larp Crush: The What, When and How.” Nordiclarp.org. Last modified March 28.

Hugaas, Kjell Hedgard. 2019. “Investigating Types of Bleed in Larp: Emotional, Procedural, and Memetic.” Last modified January 25.

Hugaas, Kjell Hedgard, and Sarah Lynne Bowman. 2019. “The Butterfly Effect Manifesto.” Nordiclarp.org. Last modified August 20.

Kemper, Jonaya. 2017. “The Battle of Primrose Park: Playing for Emancipatory Bleed in Fortune & Felicity.” Nordiclarp.org. Last modified June 21.

Kemper, Jonaya. 2018. “More Than a Seat at the Feasting Table.” Nordiclarp.org. Last modified February 7.

Koljonen, Johanna. 2016. “Safety in Larp: Understanding Participation and Designing For Trust.” Last modified September 18.

Leonard, Diana J. and Tessa Thurman. 2018. “Bleed-out on the Brain: The Neuroscience of Character-to-Player Spillover in Larp.” International Journal of Role-Playing 9: 9-15.

Mendez Hodes, James. 2018. “Best Practices for Historical Gaming.” Jamesmendezhodes.com. Last modified November 12.

Montola, Markus. 2010. “The Positive Negative Experience in Extreme Role-playing.” Proceedings of DiGRA Nordic 2010: Experiencing Games: Games, Play, and Players.

Nilsen, Elin. 2012. “High on Hell.” In States of Play: Nordic Larp Around the World. Edited by Juhana Pettersson. Helsinki, Finland: Pohjoismaisen roolipelaamisen seura.

Paisley, Erik Winther. 2016. “Play the Gay Away – Confessions of a Queer Larper.” Last modified April 15. 

Simkins, David. 2015. The Arts of Larp: Design, Literacy, Learning and Community in Live-Action Role Play. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co.

Stark, Lizzie. 2012. “Mad About the Debrief.” Leaving Mundania: Inside the World of Larp. Last modified October 22.

Edited by: Elina Gouliou

Authors

Sarah Lynne Bowman
Sarah Lynne Bowman is a game scholar, designer, and organizer. She currently teaches as adjunct faculty in English, Communication, and Humanities for several institutions including Austin Community College. McFarland Press published her dissertation in 2010 as The Functions of Role-playing Games: How Participants Create Community, Solve Problems, and Explore Identity. Bowman served as an editor for The Wyrd Con Companion Book from 2012-2015 and is currently a Coordinating Editor for the International Journal of Role-Playing. She was the lead organizer for the Living Games Conference 2016, helped coordinate the Role-playing and Simulation in Education Conference at Texas State University, and served on several committees for Living Games 2018.
Kjell Hedgard Hugaas
Kjell Hedgard Hugaas is a northern Norwegian larp designer, organizer, writer, and trained actor. He has been active within Nordic larp communities for about two decades and contributes to larp conferences on a regular basis. His design work tends to be quite political and often addresses societal issues. In his daily life, he works as a technical advisor in local government, works with local, regional and national trade unions, and is a part-time lumberjack.
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