(Note: This article is a draft, intended for eventual publication on nordiclarp.org. It has been edited by me, but not by one of their editors yet, so it may differ from the final version. I decided it was time to post it, because it represents the most complete and concise presentation of these ideas that I’ve yet been able to write.)

The game culture in which I grew up was unique, I’ve realized in recent years. Several friends I met in 2003 didn’t just notice bleed, before any of us knew what to call it… They actively played for it, played Dungeons and Dragons or Vampire: the Masquerade as characters based on what amounted to a desired, hand-crafted future self. The term “alchemical gaming” comes to me from them. All of us are writers of one kind or another, but as the one interested in both psychology and the occult, but I’m the one who ran with it and tried to figure out how it works.

Most people are probably familiar with the popular concept of alchemy: a medieval pseudoscience that eventually developed into chemistry. Alchemists, our science textbooks tell us, was a well-meaning but ultimately fruitless attempt to figure out how to change one metal into another. Usually, lead into gold. It’s irrelevant today, except as the precursor to modern chemistry.

This is an empiricist fairy tale, or at best, a very distorted outside view of the history of alchemy. True, medieval alchemists did strive to learn the secret of what we might now call cold fusion, the ability to transform one metal into another, seemingly in defiance of natural law. But to most, this was one and the same with the spiritual and mental discipline needed to make such a transmutation impossible. Only after an alchemist attained sufficient wisdom and purity to become a Philosopher’s Stone of the spirit, they might produce a physical one to change lead into gold. As above, so below; as within, so without.

Like any initiatory tradition, alchemy’s secrets are not immediately obvious when you read a manuscript or look at a visual treatise. At first glance, it does indeed look like the philosopher’s stone is about gaining material wealth, as in the Harry Potter books. This is a mythological trap, meant to misdirect the casual observer… and of course the ever intrusive and proprietary church, always on the lookout for perceived heretics. The subtle truths within alchemy concern the transformation of one’s own weaknesses (lead) into the gold of one’s higher, individuated, self-actualized, or perhaps enlightened self. In an age when everyone was expected to have exactly the same beliefs, or at least to act as if they did, alchemy’s core tenets were literally revolutionary. Hermetics, alchemists, and Jungians know this journey of self-discovery and refinement as the Great Work, considering it the greatest contribution any person can make to their world. This process already seems to happen naturally for many players while roleplaying a character who matters to them, especially when playing that same character frequently over a prolonged period of time.

Most people who’ve been larping for a while can probably think of a time they’ve learned something, or explored or transformed some part of their identity, by playing a particular character in a particular game. It seems to me that while “positive bleed” describes this experience accurately enough, it contains within it the assumption that some bleed must be negative. I emphatically disagree. In my experience, bleed is always or almost always an opportunity to examine old trauma, cognitive dissonance, emotional blockages, or flaws in our thinking, and with practice, to alter what we find within. It is, in other words, an opportunity for personal alchemy, if we allow it to be. This is why I propose the terms “alchemical gaming” and “personal alchemy”, as a richer and more nuanced understanding of what we have been calling “positive bleed”.

The first step in this process is to learn not to be so afraid of bleed. As humans, we often fear what we don’t understand; bleed is often scary for us as players largely we don’t fully understand what it is here or what it is for. It gets in the way of the gameplay we thought we’d be having, true, but if we only dwell on that aspect of it, we lose its potential for unexpected learning. Bleed deserves respect, even reverence, but it should not be inherently scary if you know how to use it. To that end, here are the base assumptions of alchemical gaming as I understand them:

0. The basic principle: strive to examine everything, question everything, assume nothing, and consider all possible explanations when using these methods. No one is entirely conscious  of all their own behaviors, assumptions, beliefs, and opinions without help from others. Let yourself be interdependent. Be bold. Take risks. Give yourself permission to try on new beliefs or ways of thinking, just for a little while. Consider all sources of information, including your intuition or gut feelings (and yes, the gut does have its own mini brain, research recently found). Try to remember that there are as many different ways of seeing the world as there are sentient beings living in it. And that LARP gives you the opportunity to try on a new one.

Play this way, and whatever your play style, it will increase your empathy, resilience, willpower, open-mindedness, and overall clarity of thought over time. You will get better at understanding other people’s ideas and communicating your own. Your neural interconnectedness should tend to improve more quickly, which can enhance and simplify nearly any area of life. It feels like a subtle superpower after a while, and a uniquely human one. The technical term for these types of abilities is “metacognition”.

1. As far as I know, alchemy without bleed is like fire without fuel: maybe not impossible in every case, but I’ve never personally observed it. Bleed has been the method every time I’ve seen someone get results.

2. Larp is a journey throughout the conscious and unconscious mind.

3. Bleed indicates an opportunity to learn something, transform something, or process something.

4. If you don’t use bleed, it will use you. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it is usually intense.

5. Alchemical gaming can be directed or organic, with pros and cons to each.

6. Alchemical gaming can be solo, but works best in small groups. If at all possible, please find a few friends to do it with, and to meet regularly to discuss your successes and challenges.

7. Personal alchemy can come from character, or from the game world, game system, or group.

8. We all do alchemy whenever we immerse. The only question is how much we want to be aware of it.

9. Alchemical gaming is not therapy, and will not “fix you” because it does not see you as “broken”. Like everyone, you are a complete human being with their own unique challenges. Alchemical gaming is art: the art of self-refinement, the art of becoming your own favorite self, or simply the art of transforming oneself into a work of art. We are playing for healthy mental processes known as post-ecstatic and post-traumatic growth. However, like any personal development or self-improvement work, AG can complement a therapeutic practice, therapeutic gaming with trained professionals such as Game to Grow or the Bodhana Group enthusiastically included.

10. Inasmuch as it entails seeking a unification and/or perfection of the self, alchemical gaming may be spiritual for some players, just as it may be an expression of philosophies such as secular humanism or  transhumanism for others. Some approaches to personal alchemy may not make sense for you, or may even offend you. Please do not ridicule them to others, who may find them useful even if you don’t. Simply say a particular technique is not one you prefer, unless you truly suspect it may be dangerous. Or as one of the friends who taught it to me put it a few years ago:

We Dance to grow stronger;
We Play to finish the Work.
This Game is what matters;
Disregard if you’re a jerk.

(For a little more information on potential positive effects of immersion and bleed, take a look at the Counterclockwise study by Ellen J. Langer. Seniors who role-played as if it were 20 years earlier performed better, after a week, not just on cognitive tasks, but also physical measures like joint flexibility and gait. They even looked substantially younger in pictures. For information on how immersion and bleed can go wrong, read a little about the Stanford Prison Experiment.)

Now, here’s something I’m excited but a little nervous to share here: The mental state that most closely resembles deeply immersive larping is a psychedelic trip. Immersion may not be as intense as acid or mushrooms, but it shares most of the same characteristics. The user enters a world they know is not entirely real, but which contains both dangers and the potential for uncovering hidden insights. Both states provide some access to programming the parts of the mind we rarely have direct access to. Great fun can be had, but the experience can sometimes be very disturbing. Both psychedelics and role-playing games have suffered demonization and public panic due to slanted media coverage. But even with all of those commonalities, I was surprised to discover that much of the literature on psychedelic harm reduction is easily adaptable for other altered states, such as immersion, and this is largely what I have tried to do here.

Psychonauts, like larpers, have a reverence for the power and risk inherent to the tools they work with. While I’m excited to see how American culture shifts once the MAPS protocols for MDMA (post-traumatic stress) and psilocybin (anxiety) are fully legalized and prescribable, I believe games have even greater potential to transform culture because some people will never want to try psychedelics, or could not, due to existing medications or conditions.

So, what generally creates a bad trip, and how can we apply those insights to our immersion? Fear. Self-doubt. Unresolved anger. Emotional and psychic blockages. Even nausea or a headache. Psychonauts talk about “set and setting” in terms of creating good trips. Go in with a good mindset, and make sure the setting in which you place yourself feels safe and soothing. Neither of these may always be possible in larp, but if you’re using a character to work on yourself, it’s essential that the community feels safe and supportive to you as a player. As Oscar Wilde once said, “Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he’ll tell you the truth.” Your bleed is much less likely to turn dark if you’re surrounded by people whom you trust to be mature, helpful, friendly, and not too judgmental.

To be clear: While replacing psychedelics with immersive roleplay for personal tranformation is possible,  DO NOT combine immersive larping with reality-distorting drugs, ever, for any reason. It might seem that using two powerful tools together is a natural idea, but I almost wrecked my life in 2014 trying this just once. It is like putting fire near a tank of oxygen; both have important uses on their own, but when placed too close together, all they can do is explode.  A significant number of people in both larp communities and psychonaut communities have horror stories about extreme confusion or uncharacteristic behaviors resulting from this combination. When combined with substances that take away your ability to distinguish reality from fantasy, immersion can be outright dangerous, and sometimes can even contribute to psychotic states,. You have been warned. I realize some people may ignore this warning, and even that a few may even be able to do so safely. I wish you the best; on your own head be it.

I realize the psychedelic model is not for everyone. Here are some other useful ways to look at alchemical gaming in your own mind. Use whichever one(s) fit you best, or come up with make your own:

    1. I am using my character to model the person I want to grow / transform into.

    2. I am using my character’s advancement as an excuse or  motivator to learn new information or skills

    3. My character is a custom archetype (or one based on a god/dess I like) that I am repeatedly invoking, for the purpose of a heroic journey and/or exploring the archetype’s particular themes. For in-depth information on common mythological archetypes, I suggest Caroline Myss’s website or her Archetype Cards.

    4. LARP allows me to see that some things in life are simply narratives I can edit or replace. Or as one of my favorite musicals put it, “For all of what we live and we believe, our lives become the stories that we weave.”

    5. My character espouses a belief system, reality tunnel,  or worldview that I find difficult to understand; by playing them, I may gain greater understanding of those who think differently from me.

    6. My character and the game world are opportunities to experiment with parts of my identity that I may not feel entirely comfortable experimenting with in my everyday life, safely, and among people I trust.

Now, let’s get into specifics about methods. First, some simple rules to keep it fun, safe, and helpful:

    1. Do alchemical gaming in a way that seems fun and interesting to you. Gaming is not therapy, so if alchemical gaming doesn’t make your larping more fun or interesting, find a new approach or tweak the one(s) you’re using.

    2. If your idea of “fun” is playing to lose, or making sure today is the worst day of your character’s life, go for it. However, go into it with your eyes open: this play style has a high potential for causing players to re-experience past trauma or difficult memories. Consciously choose this, and do your best to think of it as a feature rather than a bug. Remember, bleed points to an opportunity to learn something, transform something, or process something. Every character we play changes us in some way.

    3. Make sure your ST or GM knows what you’re doing. Players too, if your method has any potential to affect their gameplay. Have prearranged signals you can use if bleed or emotional release becomes a little too much for you. If you have a therapist, they need to know also. And most of all the larp counselor(s), if your larp has any.

    4. Have buddies to work with, and organize debrief sessions after games if people feel they want or need them. Games where everyone has alchemical goals are easiest for this reason. Games with built-in safety mechanics, a supportive and inclusive culture, and traditions of after-game debrief and/or sharing of favorite moments or achievements often lend themselves well to personal alchemy, as some players have likely already experienced and discussed it.

    5. Know where your personal alchemy falls in your priorities for each game session. Is it the most important thing? Is the story you’re telling more important? Or that you and your friends have fun? Is alchemy more of a fringe benefit, that you aren’t very interested in conscious control over? However you answer, this will shape your approach and what you get out of it.

    6. How your personal alchemy is going to work will depend mostly on two things: whether you prefer it organic or directed, and whether you prefer to work with bleed-in or bleed-out.

    7. You will get the best results from alchemy if you decide what kind(s) you want:

      1. a.Social – Social skills (incl. acting & improv) and empathy, community building

      2. Executive – Delegation / time management / leadership skills

      3. Educational – History, science, mythology, languages

      4. Aerobic – “I exercise to get better at fighting / running away from in-game enemies”

      5. Personal – insights about behavior, emotions, and thought patterns, or exploring your own beliefs or those of others

8. Plan on debriefing, journaling, a personal banishing ritual, or whatever other ways of disengaging from your character after game sessions work well for you. This helps with bringing a character’s desired traits into your everyday life, without developing an unhelpfully strong attachment to that character or game.


The four main types of alchemy presented below – Organic, Directed, Reverse, and Shadow – work well together and should in no way be considered mutually exclusive. (Capturing a subtle concept like this was challenging, and dividing it into specific sections helped my thought process.) Using multiple types of alchemy at once becomes easier with practice, and also with the use of a player “character sheet” like the one presented in the section on Reverse Alchemy. However, for those new to these approaches, I recommend concentrating on one primary method per character, until you have a bit more practice.

Organic Alchemy

Play who and what you feel like playing. Figure out what it all means later.

Bleed Potential: Usually low to moderate, but depends on player orientation toward immersion and risk-taking

Play Styles: Any, with some introspection and analysis later.

Easiest goals: Learning more about your goals, desires, dreams, and fears; incorporating into your everyday life whatever you find coolest about the types of characters you’ve already been playing

Example Game: Cerebral Cortex Speed Dating

Some players feel that creating an entire character around a goal can make that character’s personality or skills feel artificial or forced. When I feel this way, I simply create a character who interests me. I make sure they are built to do two or three things really well. Usually I do a little in-character writing to find their voice, and play them over the course of weeks or months in a campaign style larp. Inevitably, once I have come to know the character well enough, I figure out which parts of their personality, skils, or abilities I want to develop or emphasize in my everyday life. Comparing a few characters you’ve played in the past can also help with this:

Think of characters you’ve played in the past, especially on a regular basis or for a while. What characteristics do they have in common? What do those similarities mean to you? Examples: I tended to play loners with dead or estranged families when I didn’t get along with my parents; my characters usually have a powerful interest in spirituality and occultism, and i tend to neglect those areas in everyday life; i play characters who are quick and dexterous because I feel clumsy and oafish.

    1. What do my past characters have in common? Things they are all good or bad at, or common background elements?

    2. Why did those details appeal to me?

    3. What might this suggest about my desires for my actual life, or the way I see it?

    4. How does this character / do these characters reveal something I feel is missing from my life? Do I really want it, or is it only a fantasy?

    5. What is this character’s core truth or preferred way of looking at the world? What does this tell me about my own values, desires, or dreams? Some well known examples: Love conquers all; God / the gods gave me a destiny; with great power comes great responsibility; trust no one (or, i can only count on myself) ; the universe is harsh and wants to kill us all, so I better be strong

Organic alchemy can also come from the game world or setting in which you’re playing. Every game has its own particular themes, and if they fit something you would like to learn or bring into your life, the game itself may be all you need to accomplish that:

Look at a game you’ve played a lot of, or plan to in the near future. What lessons or morals does it teach? What play styles is it built to cater to?

Examples:  Vampire: the Masquerade’’s themes include “time can make you jaded if you let it”, “everyone has an agenda”, “you can’t necessarily trust everyone you meet”, “life isn’t fair and you may not be able to change systems that have existed since long before you”, “best way to defeat an enemy is to outlive them”

Dungeons and Dragons’ themes include “heroism is its own reward… but loot is nice too”, “specialize and be extraordinary”, “even a peasant might one day become a god”, “the universe doesn’t care about you unless you force it to”

    1. What are the central themes and lessons of this game system, game world, and specific gaming group?

    2. What about the game mechanics – Nature/Demeanor, Fear/Rage/Noble, D&D Alignment, etc? 

    3. If they fit with my goals, do I even need to build my character around those goals also? If not, playing this game itself may be all you need to to.

Finally, organic alchemy can come from the fact that larp, by its nature as a social and collaborative art form, teaches social and emotional skills as a natural consequence of gameplay.

Directed Alchemy

Create your character around a particular personality trait or skill, and then use it for practice.

Bleed Potential: Moderate bleed-in; low to moderate bleed-out

Play Styles: successive approximation (“fake it till you make it”) for personality traits; motivation for new out-of-game learning for skills and knowledge

Example game: No need. Works with almost any larp or tabletop game.

Think of how you would like to be in the near future, no more than a few years away. Concentrate on one skill or personality trait, or up to three if you will be playing this character regularly in a long-term campaign-style larp. Then build a character around that. If it feels helpful, and if your game has them, don’t spend experience points on skills related to your goal until you have seen real improvement on your goal out-of-game.

Examples:  I want to be more confident. I create a character who is already better at this than i am, with high charisma, empathy, leadership, etc, and begin to see how confidence feels by immersing in that character over time. I read “How to Win Friends and Influence People”, and take a class on assertiveness, to help me bring my character’s confidence wherever I go. When in a situation where I feel meek, I can think, “What would my character do?”

    1. Perhaps I already have a goal or goals for my life. How can I build a character around modeling those or helping me to get better at those?

    2. If I were to make a real life character sheet, what skills would I like to see increase in the next 6 months to a year? Break it up into small quests or ordeals, then assign them XP to be held in reserve until completed.

    3. If I had unlimited resources and time, how would I choose to spend them? In other words, if money and time were no object, what would make my soul sing, and make me feel the most me I can be? Is that something I want more of in my life? (almost certainly yes)

    4. When I’m at my best, how does it feel? What brings it on? What do I decide to do? Can I build a character to access that state more easily or often?

Perhaps you’re wondering what organic and directed alchemy might look like if practiced together. Reverse alchemy is an attempt to synthesize them:

Reverse Alchemy: A “Character Sheet” for the Player

Create an out-of-character “character sheet”, representing your everyday self’s skills and personality traits. Then use it as a road map (or gold mine?) for future alchemical work.

Bleed Potential: Moderate to high bleed-in; low to moderate bleed-out

Play Styles: any, but especially tabletop RPG and campaign larp systems with detailed stats

Sample Character Sheet: Below

Have you ever noticed that some games have personality systems for characters that seem applicable to real life? Anyone who has ever described themselves in terms of a D&D alignment can probably say yes to this, and probably can point to other people in their life who are chaotic neutral, lawful evil, etc. Simple though the alignment system is, Dungeons & Dragons players can learn things about themselves by describing their everyday personality in game terms.

Here are some examples of my favorite game-based personality systems for gaining a little insight into one’s own everyday persona. They mainly come from tabletop games, since that’s where I noticed them, but similar personality systems or archetypes exist in some larps as well:

Alignment (Dungeons & Dragons) – A moral continuum with two axes, law vs chaos and good vs evil. Combining the two axes yields some interesting results: A lawful neutral person, for example, cares a great deal about what’s legal, traditional, and customary… but has very little interest in whether those laws are fair or unfair. Likewise, a chaotic good person might break into a jail and rescue a friend because he knows they’re innocent, but a lawful good person never would. More information on each of the alignments can be found at

Nature and Demeanor (White Wolf) – The idea here is that every person has two faces: the private (their Nature) and the public (their Demeanor). Like alignment, this can lead to some interesting combinations. Someone with Sycophant as their Nature might be a toadying little hanger-on in their mind, but if their Demeanor is Loner, they usually do a pretty good job of seeming like they don’t need anybody. A reasonably comprehensive list of Natures and Demeanors is at https://goo.gl/97yEq9 .

(Unknown Armies) – I’ve always enjoyed UA for many reasons, not the least of which is that like Wraith: the Oblivion, the setting and the system both seem built for personal alchemy. Nowhere can we see this more clearly than in the way it handles character personality. Every character has three Passions: the Fear Passion, whatever they are most afraid of; the Rage passion, whatever makes them angriest when it happens to them, or when they see it happening to others; and the Noble passion, whatever inspires them to be their best or make a difference in the world.

Each Fear Passion, and in my games usually the Rage Passion also, is linked to one of that character’s stress gauges: Helplessness, Isolation, Violence, Supernatural, or Self. Mostly self-explanatory. Self is the stress gauge for situations where the character acts in a way they didn’t think themselves capable of, or finds out they aren’t really who they thought they were. It matters what you fear or what you dislike, but it also matters why. So for example, if someone fears their spouse leaving them, and that Fear Passion is linked to Isolation, that means they’re afraid of suddenly being left all alone without a partner to face their life with. But if that same Fear Passion is linked to Self, they might be afraid of losing their spouse because it would mean they aren’t really successful, or they don’t really have their life all together like they thought they did.

The Sorrow Passion is new, and does not appear in Unknown Armies. It came to me from Lux Faros at Living Games 2018. He suggested it might be helpful to include a Passion for whatever makes you saddest or most sorrowful when it happens to you or others. I wholeheartedly agree, and suggest linking your Sorrow Passion to one of the stress types just as you would with Fear and Rage.

I love this system because when I build a UA character to explore one of my actual Passions, I see rapid and dramatic results just from staying in character, which I want to do anyway. Think about what your Fear, Rage, and Noble Passions might be, and what that suggests about your personal goals or motivations. In the Fear and Rage passions, it can sometimes be easy to see what kind of situations in larp could cause you to become confronted or triggered… or perhaps, what kind of difficult situation from your past you are ready to explore through a game character. It may be helpful to do this exercise again in six months to a year, just to see if your Passions have changed, and if so, how.

Here is the current version of my player sheet based on the above mechanics, as used in my workshop on alchemical gaming at Living Games this year:

Player Sheet for   __________________________________
Name of a Favorite Fictional or Historical Character:

Names of three favorite characters I’ve played:

What did they have in common?

Personal goal, intention, or aspiration:




Fear Passion:

Rage Passion:

Sorrow Passion:

Noble Passion:

Skills and Powers, with point values if applicable:

I want to acknowledge Dystopia Rising specifically. for showing me how a game system can encourage reverse alchemy through mechanics alone. Entering my first game as a new player, I was impressed how the system requires spending 15 to 30 minutes roleplaying with a student or teacher before one can teach or learn a skill. Removing a mental derangement or restoring mind points to a character through entertainment come with similar minimum roleplay times. As someone who frequently struggles to find people to spend time with and things to do at a new game, I appreciated how these systems drew me into the game world immediately. I had things I wanted to buy for my character with experience points, so I’d need to find people who could teach them and spend some time getting to know their character. While some players can talk extemporaneously about nearly anything for half an hour, most probably have an easier time running a teaching scene if they’ve already done a little research. This is why I think DR’s teaching and head-shrinking systems are genius: beyond the organic alchemy of bringing people together socially, the game system itself encourages players to out-of-character time learning about their character’s skills and knowledge for, maximum authenticity while roleplaying. My in-depth impressions of Dystopia Rising regarding reverse alchemy and game design can be found on a personal blog post here.

I find it can also help to add some non-game-based personality typing to your personal character sheet. My personal favorites are the Meyers-Briggs Type Indicator, its more in-depth cousin the Keirsey Temperament Sorter, and the Enneagram. A reasonably complete personal “character sheet” for yourself as a player will give you starting ideas for future directed or shadow alchemy, and also can give you a good basis for comparison with your characters when operating organically. This may be why reverse alchemy was the most popular technique at the Living Games 2018 alchemical gaming workshop.

What are some personality measurement systems from games you’ve played that you thought were helpful or insightful? Try adding those to your personal character sheet, and see what you learn from them.

All three types of alchemical gaming I’ve discussed above are mostly about bleed-out: things we learn from our characters, or traits from our characters that we aim to bring into our everyday lives. But what about bleed-in? We all bring things from our everyday lives into larp also. There’s no way to avoid it. This is where things get really interesting: shadow work, to borrow a term from Jung.

Shadow work in larp is tricky, because it is always personal and frequently ineffable, meaning impossible to fully describe to another person. It seems easiest in games that are designed for it, or at least designed for deep emotional experiences and pathos. I have tried my hand at a game intended to facilitate shadow work around family members, entitled Dirty Laundry. But I recommend Jacquelyn Bryk’s work more; she has been doing this a lot longer, has won a Golden Cobra for her game “The Porch”, and I am continually impressed with her honesty and talent. The game Bluebeard’s Bride also seems to be built for shadow work, and I keep hearing amazing things about it. In general, darkly-themed games such as Vampire, Wraith, Paranoia, Unknown Armies, Kult, Call of Cthulhu, Ravenloft, and Dystopia Rising foster shadow alchemy by focusing on Romantic and Gothic themes such as loss, death, moral degeneration, betrayal, enslavement, abuse, and difficult choices for which there is no single “right” answer.

I need to stress here that I am not a therapist yet – I don’t even have a bachelor’s degree yet –  and so I cannot responsibly recommend this method for ethical reasons. Only you can know and those close to you can know when you are ready. I also know that when you get that feeling, it will probably be impossible to talk you out of trying. While I can’t provide an exhaustive list to make shadow work 100 percent safe, I do have some guidelines to help reduce unnecessary risk should you decide shadow alchemy in larp is right for you.

Shadow Alchemy

What fills you with terror, or sorrow, or rage, or regret? Make your character a version of the thing that troubles you. Or play a character who likes the thing even less than you do. Some players choose to place such a charactertheir characters in situations resembling their own most difficult experiences. Go deep, play with emotional honesty, and allow yourself time and the freedom to express whatever the roleplay brings up for you. comes up from the roleplay. The growth and transformation will come. Often sooner than you expect.

Bleed Potential: Moderate to very high bleed-in and bleed-out

Play Styles: Playing to lose; Southern Way; jeep; one-shot and freeform games, as this level of intensity can be difficult to sustain for more than a few hours

Easiest goals: Exploration of one’s own motivations, beliefs, assumptions, memories, or experiences; attempting to transcend, reimagine, or transform the same; in other words, the lead into gold metaphor applies most here

Example Game; Dirty Laundry

Play a character based on some part of yourself that frightens or disturbs you, makes you sad or angry, or that you find confronting in some other way. This is not for the faint of heart, as it is best suited to dealing with trauma, addiction, anger issues, and the like. It is also somewhat less confirmed by clinical research, but we have very strong anecdotal accounts from many larpers that it works.

    1. What are some persistent negative patterns or fears that keep repeating in my life, or emotions or personality traits I feel like I can’t freely express?

    2. Would it feel good, or freeing,  to build a character around working through those?

    3. What is lacking in my life? How can I build a character to help me gain more of it?

    4. Who will you be? What are you becoming? How will you rise?

    5. If you were a superhero, what would be their powers, weaknesses, and origin story?

Shadow work in larp is tricky, because it is always personal and frequently ineffable, meaning impossible to fully describe to another person. It seems easiest in games that are designed for it, or at least designed for deep emotional experiences and pathos. I have tried my hand at a game intended to facilitate shadow work around family members, entitled Dirty Laundry. But I recommend Jacquelyn Bryk’s work more; she has been doing this a lot longer, has won a Golden Cobra for her game “The Porch”, and I am continually impressed with her honesty and talent. The game Bluebeard’s Bride also seems to be built for shadow work, and I keep hearing amazing things about it. In general, darkly-themed games such as Vampire, Wraith, Paranoia, Unknown Armies, Kult, Call of Cthulhu, Ravenloft, and Dystopia Rising foster shadow alchemy by focusing on Romantic and Gothic themes such as loss, death, moral degeneration, betrayal, enslavement, abuse, and difficult choices for which there is no single “right” answer.

I need to stress here that I am not a therapist yet – I don’t even have a bachelor’s degree yet –  and so I can only speak from my own experience, and that of people I know. Only you and perhaps those close to you can know when you are ready to incorporate shadow alchemy into your roleplay. Sometimes it can happen all of a sudden, without any planning or conscious intention. My own organic alchemy frequently veers into shadow territory. While I can’t provide an exhaustive list to make shadow work 100 percent safe, I do have some guidelines to help reduce unnecessary risk.

Safety tips for shadow alchemy, adapted from existing bleed management practices:

    1. Make sure your DM, GM, ST, or staff, especially a larp counselor if there is one, has a general idea of what you’re attempting and what known triggers or troubling memories could come up as a result of it. Share as much detail as you are comfortable sharing; it is okay to be vague if what you’re facing is very private. If they ask you not to do this in their game, don’t. If they suggest modifications for thematic or safety-related reasons, be open to them.

    2. Have a buddy to check in with you at least every few hours. If you feel more comfortable checking in hourly or more often, make the buddy someone who is part of your character’s family, party, trade group, or just someone you usually RP with a lot at events.

    3. If you aren’t able to find an existing game whose culture is friendly toward alchemy, consider running a freeform game yourself or forming your own tabletop or small larp group where everyone has their own alchemical goals. Confidentiality should be expected in such groups unless someone is in imminent danger. Bleed management agreements such as those presented in this article should be the norm.

    4. After games, always consciously disengage from your character. Talk about them in the third person, talk about what you learned or what was hard for you as a player in the first person. Do debrief, journaling, discussion, banishing ritual, whatever helps separate the one mind space from the other. For more information about specific ways to debrief, check out The Debrief Toolbox.

    5. As far as possible, only work on issues or experiences that you are reasonably sure you’re ready to face now. Regular journaling, meditation, introspection, or other mindfulness-based practices may help with identifying these. Go as close to your breaking point as you feel comfortable going without crossing it. Or, if you are a risk-taker, perhaps you will choose to blow through what you thought was your breaking point, and be open to radical, paradigm-breaking shifts in your consciousness.

    6. Have your own crisis response plan based on personal experience. If things become too intense in your shadow work, and your buddy isn’t nearby, how will you calm yourself? Be specific: Will you take deep breaths? Eat or drink something? Visualize your happy place? Listen to a certain song or type of music? Get a hug from someone… or get away from everyone? Having an action plan ahead of time means you can fall back on it, and do it with minimum willpower, if you feel trapped or confronted.

    7. Don’t wallow or allow yourself to get stuck. You are an alchemist. Find the lead in your psyche, and do whatever is necessary (within your known limitations) to transform it into the gold you need. Or think of it as untying a knot, or thawing an iceberg, or spinning straw into wool, if those metaphors are more helpful. As you the player evolve, let your character evolve in similar ways that fit the game world and current story. Otherwise, continuing the play the character may hold you back from further progress. Be prepared to abandon, retire, or at least radically alter the character after completing the Work you designed them for. Sometimes retirement is best. Other times, the way the character needs to change will pop into your mind as an “aha!” or “whoa, wouldn’t it be cool if…?”

    8. Many of the links on the Writings and Videos on alchemicalgaming.com are useful for knowing what to expect, or how others have tackled specific issues. For a more in-depth idea of how to do shadow alchemy, and how not to , familiarize yourself with Method Acting vs. LARPing: a Dangerous Mix and The Dangers of Chasing Catharsis .

    9. Most importantly, know what you want to get out of this. Be specific and detailed. Write it down or talk into a tape recorder if you need to, or discuss your intentions with a good friend or your alchemical gaming group. Strong, positive goals about what you will do (“I want X” / “I will do Y”), rather than what you won’t (“I will stop X” / “I don’t want Y”), make it easier to accomplish your goal, and emotionally get what you came for. Usually, the player intention for shadow alchemy is about letting go of something and creating something new in its place, or re-examining and re-interpreting a difficult experience or experiences.

A Beginning

I’m not an expert, so much as an enthusiast who has been experimenting with these tools for a long time. Much of what you’ve read above is reverse-engineered from looking at psychology or game design books later in life, comparing them withlooking back at my memories, and thinking, “Wow, that fits… so that’s what I was / we were doing. I’m so glad there’s a name for it,  and research to back it up now!” I have a draft of a book, but I will need more data and other people to write it with. I’m planning to finish a psychology BS or possibly MS first. Much like drama therapy, many of us know the feeling of personal alchemy that can come out of larp, but it often feels like each of us invented it on our own.

For now, I have created www.alchemicalgaming.com and collected as much research, narrative, video, and other information about this phenomenon as I’ve been able to find. The site itself is under Creative Commons (non-commercial with attribution) until the book is published, when I will change it to a free culture license. If you have more links that should be on the site, please let me know. The forums on  are basic, but there is also a Facebook group.  

I have primarily focused here on how the alchemical process works from a player perspective. For information on designing or running alchemical games, I suggest the article Let’s Play with Fire! Using Risk and its Power for Personal Transformatiion, and to a lesser but still important extent, nearly anything Jane McGonigal has written about how games facilitate learning, transformation, and flow states. I also recommend asking players to fill out the Reverse Alchemy worksheet (above), which should help you identify patterns in your players’ goals, from which you might draw themes or situations for a game session or long-term campaign.

I do have some preliminary working guidelines for running and designing alchemical games:

    1. Make your themes / messages ethical and helpful, especially when working with dark subject matter. A player questionnaire or checklist can help with identifying these patterns of player-desired themes.

    2. Be as subtle as you can. Let players figure out your point on their own, if at all possible.

    3. Give the players a toolkit to create their own fun. Resist the temptation to force them to play your game only one way.

    4. Try not to be all things to all people. It’s better to have a game that only appeals to a few people with a specific background, than to make a game so generic that no one has any fun or learns anything from playing it.

    5. Familiarize yourself with the seven stages of spiritual alchemy. All players doing alchemical work with a character may not experience these stages in the same order, but you will normally notice at least several of them over a long enough time period.

    6. Always include safety mechanics and suggested debrief questions. This is especially important if your game is designed to be intense, confronting, or in some way relates to trauma or abuse.

    7. Unless you are a psychologist, psychiatrist, counselor, or therapist and your game is for clients / patients, remember that your role is to create a story framework based on player-requested themes, not to fix anyone’s problems for them. Get comfortable with holding space for a player experiencing emotional release, cognitive dissonance, or post-traumatic stress. Further pointers on how a layperson can assist in such a situation can be found in Larp Counselors: An Additional Safety Net and the Zendo Group Education page.


I look forward to developing these ideas and methods further in collaboration with whatever members of the amazing and brilliant worldwide larp community would like to join the conversation. I plan to do a few more workshops at conventions this year or next, possibly Metatopia or Knutpunkt, depending on my school and work schedule.

Special thanks to Sarah Lynne Bowman, Whitney “Strix” Beltran, Ian Sturrock, Ericka Skirpan, Satyros Phil Brucato,  Brodie Atwater, Michael Burak, and all participants from the alchemical gaming workshop at Living Games 2018, for helping to make this document possible over the last few years through your collective insight, expertise, creativity, feedback, personal stories, and encouragement.
To all the former Camarilla / MES Ravnos who went to regional events between 1999 and 2004, for helping me to find my heart in what felt like the most unlikely of places.

And to Simon Zealot, Sara Mastros, and Matthew Jester, for starting me down this path. I love you, you beautiful brilliant troublemakers.