Leaving the Magic Circle: Larp and Aftercare

Leaving the Magic Circle: Larp and Aftercare

Every time the bandwagon “tell me about a strong memory we shared” runs through my Facebook feed, a big amount of the memories told are from larps. Strong immersive larp experiences stay with us. Lending out our physical bodies and our real emotions to tell stories will of course make these stories stay with us players, as memories integrate with our own pasts, tying us together as a community.

Because this transition from larp to everyday life can be messy sometimes, it may require aftercare. And because larp is what brings our community together, I think more of aftercare as a collective than an individual issue.

The term aftercare is borrowed from the BDSM community, and basically means taking some time after a BDSM scene to recover, transition from intense play back to normal, and take care of each other’s physical and emotional needs. Larpers sometimes talk about the same thing as defucking (Bindslet and Schultz, 2011) or debriefing.

The idea to use the term aftercare in a larp context is hardly new (Grasmo 2011), but after listening to two related talks at Solmukohta 2020: Sarah Lynne Bowman’s keynote on integration and Julia Greip’s talk on safewords for brave spaces, I came to think about it again and wanted to write something on it. So in this text I will share some thoughts on aftercare in a larp context: how to do it and why.

two people holding hands

Photo by Kat Jayne from Pexels.

Applying the Campsite Rule to Larp

When we larp together, we are responsible for each other’s experience. We have the capacity to give each other very strong positive emotional experiences and to mess each other up quite badly. In my opinion we can absolutely apply the Campsite Rule to larping: “You should leave your co-players in the same, or better, condition than you met them in.”

I learnt the Campsite Rule from sex advice columnist Dan Savage, who coined it about relationships with big age or power differences, as a responsibility the older person has towards the younger. This aspect of it can be meaningful in a larp context as well. Differences in age, larp experience or social status can create power imbalances when we larp, and we have to take them into account whenever we talk about safety and consent. This is perhaps extra important towards young or new players, or players from marginalized groups.

Any participant that leaves a larp disappointed, traumatized, or hurt will have an impact. Both personally — these feelings can be hard to get over and haunt someone for a long time — and for the community as a whole, since these things often end up as inflamed conflicts, or with players leaving the hobby.

Another important aspect to me is that this care primarily is a player responsibility — nothing we should demand as a service from the organizers. They will have their own aftercare needs. Take care of your organizers and prevent them from burnout, and we will get even more amazing games.

two people clutching pillows to their chest on a bed

Photo by @thiszun from Pexels. Photo has been cropped.

Designing for Leaving the Magic Circle

But when do we actually leave a larp? We enter a magic circle and establish a social contract when we larp together, and for successful aftercare, we need to find common expectations of how far this social contract extends.

I don’t know about you, but I’ve been through “the train station scene” after multiple larps: the larp is over, the venue is cleaned out, and the participants are about to scatter off to their respective travels home. And we pretty often just end up standing aimlessly and confusedly in a big group of people, reluctant to leave. Most larpers are used to ritually leaving the first layer of the magic circle — going from characters back into players. But I still haven’t been to one larp where leaving this second layer of the magic circle has been smooth or thought out. Transitioning from a player group sharing trust and care for each other into our everyday selves at many different places is often really confusing. And this is one area where many aftercare needs could be acknowledged and handled better if we knew when and how our social contract ends. When do we actually leave the magic circle?

I have experienced a multitude of ways this social contract confusion makes people feel bad after a larp. I have been the player who desperately wants to talk more with my bleedy larp crush, but feels too needy and clingy to ask them. I have been annoyed that my co-player wants to talk with me much more afterwards than I do with them. I have felt bad for not wanting to engage in post-game group hugs, meetups, and lovebombing, and I have felt really alone and believed no one wanted to hang out with me after larps.

I know I’m not alone in having had these kinds of feelings. And I think we could save ourselves a whole lot of trouble if we talked more often and more openly about aftercare needs and where to go from here before we leave the magic circle of a game.

two people holding each other on rocks by the water

Photo by Anna Shvets from Pexels. Photo has been cropped.

Aftercare Needs: There is No One-Size-Fits-All

So, ok. Aftercare is important. But how do we implement it? Well, unfortunately there is no one-size-fits-all for aftercare. But predicting one’s own aftercare needs and being able to communicate about them is a great player skill to have. And it is a skill that we can get better at with more experience and practice.

Most importantly: Yes. Some larps will require aftercare. Sometimes predictably and sometimes in unpredictable ways. This is normal and this is ok. There is a great deal of useful further reading about different aftercare needs and moods. Some people get post-larp drop, feeling intensely sad after leaving a game (Bowman and Torner 2015). Sometimes it’s post-larp charisma — being filled up with intense positive feelings after a larp, maybe getting braver, bolder, or filled with self-confidence. Many of us have experienced bleedy larp crushes on our co-players, great love and sense of community with people we just met and shared a larp with, the Knudeblues when we have to leave our new amazing friends, or strong feelings of rejection and alienation when “everyone else had a great larp and I didn’t” (Harder 2018; Nilsen 2015).

Over the last 16 years of larping, I have learned a few things about my own general aftercare needs and patterns. Preparing for aftercare beforehand makes me feel better and more safe when I larp.

I know that I usually have a strong need to write down my thoughts or story after the larp, so I make sure I’ll have time and equipment to do that. I also know that I often want to be alone or choose my company very selectively right after a game, so I usually book train tickets in the silent compartment where I won’t feel forced to talk with anyone. Even though I enjoy international larps, another need I usually have after an English larp is to speak my native Swedish, so another comfort is the ability to do that with other players or friends.

Back home, I often make post-game playlists where I mix music related to the game experience with my own soundtrack, as a way to integrate the larp feelings in my own memory. I also generally have a need to indulge in the story told afterwards. For example, I spend lots of time in the participant Facebook group, starting lots of threads and sharing memories and experiences. It does help me to feel safe and really engage during a larp if I know there will be a possibility for me to have these aftercare needs met after the game is over.

Most texts I’ve read on the subject of taking care of oneself emotionally after a larp naturally has a self-care focus. And while self-care comes first, and also is much more predictable and valuable to learn to do than waiting for someone else to take care of us (Dalstål 2020), I also want to share some thoughts about how to aftercare as a player ensemble.

Here, once again, although many good articles have been written on post-play activities and debriefing, there is no one-size-fits-all. Cry it out, do physical labor, tell epic stories, cuddle pile, get drunk together, or dance the night away — any one strategy might be what someone needs and someone else really doesn’t. I assume the keys to good post-play is to base the activities on consent and opting-in, and not try to cast all players’ aftercare needs or wants into the same mould.

two people cuddling with lights in their hands

Photo by Matheus Bertelli from Pexels.

One thing I want to advocate for, though, is to communicate about how we want the social contract to extend afterwards before we leave the game site. Maybe decide with co-players when and how we will talk the next time, and try to be open about it. For example, tell your co-players if you feel a need for some distance and to go back to your everyday life without engaging in post-larp discussions. Tell them if you are likely to be very emotional and want to connect a lot. It could be a good idea to talk with people you will be playing close with about your aftercare needs even before the game.

I like the idea of sharing hopes and fears with one’s closest co-players or group before the game. A central part of building a safety to culture is finding trust to be honest and open about what we want to experience in a game and part of that is also communicating about what we fear will happen (Friedner 2019). Talking through the experience afterwards and reviewing those hopes and fears might also be a good debriefing exercise. Many of my larping friends have mentioned this in the context of playing evil or antagonistic characters. A common fear is that people will be afraid of or hurt by you out-of-character, and then it becomes even more important to get picked up and aftercared by co-players.

Also remember that for many players the aftercare needs doesn’t come only two hours after the game, but two days or weeks later. For this reason I like the idea of assigning everyone debrief buddies, because they are a predictable extension of the social contract after the larp has ended that doesn’t depend solely on one’s own ability to reach out and ask for a check in.

To summarize, I think aftercare is a collective, not just an individual issue. Leave the magic circle consciously and honor the Campsite Rule. If we make some shared efforts to make sure larp experiences integrate with the players in a positive and meaningful way, we build trust in the community and get more chances to be bold, brave, safe, and wonderful together. Let’s do that.

two people cuddle on rocks looking at the sunset

Photo by Arthur Brognoli from Pexels. Photo has been cropped.

References

Bindslet, Tobias, and Pernille Schultz. 2011. “De-Fucking.Playground Magazine 2: 30-33.

Bowman, Sarah Lynne. 2014. “Returning to the Real World.” Nordiclarp.org. Last modified December 8.

Bowman, Sarah Lynne. 2020. “Solmukohta 2020 Keynote: Sarah Lynne Bowman – Integrating Larp Experiences.” YouTube. Last modified April 9.

Bowman, Sarah Lynne, and Evan Torner. 2015. “Post-larp Depression.” Nordiclarp.org. Last modified on January 11.

Dalstål, Elin. 2020. “Self Care Comes First: A Larp and Convention Policy.” Bold and Vulnerable. Last modified February 17.

Friedner, Anneli. 2019. “The Brave Space: Some Thoughts on Safety in Larp”. Nordiclarp.org, Last modified October 7.

Grasmo, Hanne 2011. “Take Care.Playground Magazine 2.

Greip, Julia. 2020. “Solmukohta 2020: Julia Greip – Safewords for Brave Spaces.” YouTube. Last modified April 9, 2020.

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

Nordic Larp Wiki. 2013. “Aftercare.” Nordic Larp Wiki. Last modified November 14.

Nordic Larp Wiki. 2014. “Debrief buddy.” Nordic Larp Wiki. Last modified May 30.

Nilsen, Elin. 2015. “A Beginner’s Guide to Handling the Knudeblues.” Nordiclarp.org. Last modified February 17.

Q, Dan. 2008. “Savage Love Readers Talk About the Campsite Rule.” Scatmania. Last modified May 14.

Cover photo: Photo by Samantha Garrote from Pexels. Photo has been cropped.

Editing by: Elina Gouliou

Authors

Anneli Friedner
Anneli Friedner is a Swedish larper. She is passionate about larp, queer, feminism and sexuality. She works as a high school teacher, enjoys making workshops and writes the blog Jeu de rôles (in Swedish) about the things that interest her.
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