GUIDE: How to Handle Bleed
What is Bleed?
Roleplay in general, in its many iterations, deals with people, monsters, sometimes cruel creatures, sometimes misguided interactions, injustice, murder, and other such things that can spice up a story. If you are new to roleplaying the term “Bleed” might be confusing or strange. But what it means is pretty straightforward, and something we have to be very aware of while roleplaying: The boundaries between self and character.
Briefly, bleed is what happens when you, the player, feel so connected, so emotionally invested in your character that the events and emotions they go through start to “bleed” deeply into your psyche and your personal life. In extreme cases, bleed may even damage your mental health. In other words, “Bleed” is the mixing of the In-Character (IC) emotions and response to a situation with your real Out-of-Character (OOC) feelings.
One of the first things we should address in RPGs is just that, a role playing game means embodying the role, and that means we take on the guise of the character to interpret their actions, their emotions, and their thoughts. Like reading a book, or watching a movie, it’s alright to connect with those emotions, but we cannot let them rule our interactions with others.
Roleplay is fun, but if bleed is not properly identified and managed as such it can become a toxic outlet for personal problems.
Getting to the Vein
One of the main reasons to avoid self-insert characters in your game is exactly that: A self-insert is a character that is basically you (the player) but in a fantasy setting that imposes no barriers to impede bleed. Because of this lack of separation and barrier between you (the player) and your character, whatever happens to this character will essentially feel as if it is happening to you, be it good or bad, and there is little we can do to help prevent that in such cases.
Bleed also occurs with characters that are not “self-inserts” though, and this guide’s main point is to try to address these, with simple tips on self care and mental hygiene so you can keep your real life separate from your game.
When we speak of Bleed, one must also speak of Catharsis. Catharsis is the process of empathising and making an emotional journey along with a character. Catharsis happens many times in our daily lives as we consume different media such as news, movies, and books. We all have the ability to connect to and relate to a character deeply enough that it affects us. This is not a problem; but, when the separation between the character and your personal life fails to happen, it can affect interpersonal relationships, and a roleplaying game is, in essence, a community game: We play it with friends, or we make friends through it. It unites people and brings us joy as we are able to experience things we would not normally experience in our daily lives. When it’s balanced, we share those tense moments and happy ones. When it’s not, it can devolve into toxic behaviour.
It’s important to also remember that Bleed is not one way. It is a lot more frequent to have IC affect OOC, but sometimes OOC affects IC. You could be in a bad week and that affects how your character is written, how you portray it and its effects in RP.
People have different approaches to how to deal with this problem, and this is only a small guide with some tips from some people. You might find a different approach helps you, not covered here, and that is fine.
It’s also important to separate and define some terms:
- Catharsis is a process of immersion with a character or event, where you imagine and feel what your character experiences while you play them. This process has a natural beginning, where you enter into your character’s perspective and experience, and ending, where you step back and resolve the feelings from that experience with appropriate closure. You identify with and share the experience as your character, but the boundaries are always there and the separation maintained with the beginning and ending of the experience.
- Bleed is when immersion affects your psyche too much and boundaries are lost; you take the fictional experiences of your character as those of your player self, and you may confuse others in the same way as being/feeling as their characters do. There is no release, no separation, no closure as there is with a cathartic response. As a result, you can become trapped in an emotional cycle because the essential separation between your character and player self is not maintained. This can result in a perpetual blurring of identities, feelings, and experiences that potentially risks losing your self player identity to that of your character.
- Burnout is emotional exhaustion caused by either catharsis, immersion, bleed, or some other aspect of your life OOC or IC — job stress, illness, an argument with a friend, etc.
Stanching the Flow
Step 1: Communicate
One of the primary mechanisms to avoid bleed, and the first one we feel should be addressed is the simplest one: communication. As a community game, it’s important that we are open with the ones we play. Speaking of consent in gaming is one of the first steps. You must remember to set boundaries about what would affect them, or, if they find something in the game that is making them uncomfortable, voicing this concern. There are things one person might be willing to explore in a game, but another might not. FC rules and can serve as the first barriers, but there must also be an agreement on how far things can go and where the lines are between specific players acting together in a scene.
Communicate with your roleplaying partners. Be it good or bad, have it known: it is a character, and you, the people, can decide what happens. What happens to them, and what doesn’t.
Step 2: Be Self-Aware
Communication also helps with the second step: Self-awareness. Take a moment to think of your emotions now. Who you are, how you feel, where you are. It might seem like a simple, even ridiculous thing to do, but being aware of your present moment can help strengthen boundaries between self and character. This can happen before or after play, or both; taking a moment to decompress and analyse what has happened in-character (IC) and OOC. Tactile sensations help. Take a shower, walk barefoot. The important thing is recentering yourself to you.
Step 3: Set Boundaries
Talking about your character as a character is another way to set a boundary. The character is there (the metaphysical there) and you are here. You are not the character. You don’t talk like the character. You might have similarities, but you probably have them with your neighbours, coworkers, and friends too. To elaborate, first person prose can be a fast path to developing weak boundaries. In fact, bleed via first person perspectives is a common problem amongst live action roleplayers (LARPers) in the nordic scene, method actors, and play-by-post writers. Using third person is encouraged to help keep the separation of you, the player, from your character.
Step 4: Decompress
Decompressing is another important step. It serves many purposes, but simply stepping away and doing other things can help. RPG is a hobby; it can be your main hobby, but should never be your only hobby. Play another game, watch a movie, go out with friends. Do not center your enjoyment around roleplaying a game and that alone; it can be far too easy to lose sight of those boundaries if your only outlet from your real life is a fictional one. If you find yourself getting angry or upset because of things that are happening to your character, within reason, stepping away and taking some time to do other things can help to reestablish those boundaries.
Dealing with Bleed when it's Happened
I think I'm Bleeding, now what?
OK, those tips are there to help you set a healthy level of separation between you and your character. But what do you do when they fail?
When bleed has happened it can come in many forms: hurtful feelings towards your peers, a deep sadness because of what has happened to your character that interferes in your life OOC, or even a crush towards people who do not want to have those feelings directed at them. Everyone has some horror stories about what happens when the bleed interferes too much with a player’s life. But it isn’t the end of the world. It can and should be addressed.
Remember, bleed is not an unknown phenomenon. Some people may experience it more than others, while some may never experience it at all. All of this is perfectly fine and valid, as long as you are careful to not let it hurt you and others.
When you find yourself experiencing Bleed, try these steps:
- Taking a break / stepping back. Step back from the game and take stock of what happened, and your feelings about these events. It might be necessary for you to stop roleplaying for a few weeks while you get your emotions in order. This is fine.
- Debriefing. Debriefing refers to going over roleplay or a scene specifically that prompted bleed at one moment. Go over the whole process of a scene, what happened, how you felt over it. If you still need to take a step back, do so. Take stock of what you have learned, your limitations, and your triggers. Avoid them if possible, if not, being aware of what caused the symptoms always helps.
- Communicating out of character/OOC socializing with the players you experienced bleed with. Reach out to your community, your roleplay partners and explain the situation. Talking about it is essential so you can recognise the other person behind the characters, and know they are not their character. Speak about what has happened IC that made you feel bleed, seek different perspectives, whether from your RP partners or a neutral observer. Usually, you will find that talking it out can solve a lot of these issues.
What if I’m the object of bleed, from another player?
Finding yourself on the opposite side of the bleed can be difficult. You can find out someone is holding feelings towards you that were supposed to be directed at your character; perhaps they are projecting an IC relationship to OOC, perhaps it’s an enmity that wasn’t warranted on you the person, a grudge about something that happened between the characters, whatever the case may be, it can be uncomfortable and stressful to find yourself targeted by unilateral feelings of someone else.
If you find yourself being the target of someone (or multiple someones) bleed the first thing you should do is reach out. Assuming the person is willing to talk, you can hash out what the problem is and clear the air about it. Bringing a third, neutral party into the conversation can be very helpful in keeping perspective of the conversation and minimizing discomfort levels. You can always be the bridge to start the communication and debriefing. The decision of taking a break from roleplaying with the person can also come from you.
Sometimes though people might be unwilling to admit they are suffering from bleed, be stubborn about solving the situation or uncooperative in some other way, in those cases reaching out does not help and can worsen and lead to even more uncomfortable and stressful situations. If you find that your fellow players are reticent about listening and trying to solve the situation, it might be necessary for you to step back and cut the ties where they are not able to entirely.
You should also feel comfortable reaching out for help from your Venue or Admin Team. On Eternal Noire, mixing IC and OOC in ways such as bleed can lead to behaviours that break our Code of Conduct. If you suspect you are a victim of bleed behaviours, please don’t hesitate to reach out to Staff for help. We are here to build a healthy community of roleplayers here to enjoy writing these stories together.
It can lead to a disruption of OOC relations and in some extreme cases lead to altering the nature of the RP, breaking from it, or have it end completely – much like any other social interaction. Here it’s important to remember that being targeted by bleed can affect someone’s mental health too, prompting burnout, among other things, and that asserting your priorities over a hobby, despite detrimental effects that it might have in roleplay or in a friendship, is not wrong.
Mental Health Note
Lastly we must address one crucial thing: Mental Health. Bleed tends to happen a lot less if you are in a healthy mental space, with a healthy community and peers. So bleed can and will be aggravated by depression, anxiety, or any other illness, as well as extreme burnout. We are all susceptible to those, we are human. If you find that you have been struggling with mental health and it is clashing with your RP, we do encourage looking for therapy out of game, primarily for your own sake, but also of those around you – reaching out and communicating can go a long way, but it should not be on your peers to address issues you might be facing.
Sometimes professional help is needed, there is no shame in it. As a community, we want to see our players having fun without suffering.