What Is Bleed?
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.
The main point of roleplaying games (RPGs) is that we address it as just that, a role, and that means we take on the guise of the character to interpret their actions, their emotions, and their thoughts. It’s a fugue state, but if not properly identified and managed as such it can become a toxic outlet for personal problems.
Vampire: the Masquerade deals with monsters, cruel creatures of violence and dominance; injustice, murder, and other such things can and will happen during our game, and we feel it’s essential to speak on this subject here. We could exemplify these themes with blood bonding, a cruel game mechanic in which another can be enslaved and robbed of their own will. It is psychological horror and it is personal horror; because things like manipulation and abuse are inherent to the workings of vampiric society in this game.
Bleed tends to happen a lot less if you are on a healthy mental space, and so it can and will be aggravated by depression, anxiety, or any other illness, as well as by extreme burnout.
One of the main reasons we do not allow self-insert characters in our game is exactly that: A self-insert is a character that is basically you (the player) but in a fantasy setting, which 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 though 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, however, and this guide is aimed at addressing this situation with simple tips on self care and mental hygiene so you can keep your real life separate from your game.
When one speaks of Bleed, one must also speak of Catharsis. Catharsis is the process of empathising with and making an emotional journey alongside 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 with and relate to a character deeply enough that it affects us. This is not a problem; but, when there is no clear separation between the character and your personal life, it can affect interpersonal relationships. A roleplaying game is, in essence, a community game: we play it with friends, or we make friends through playing. 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.
We must also remember that Bleed is not a one way street. It is a lot more frequent to have IC (In Character) affect OOC (Out Of Character), but sometimes OOC affects IC. You could be having a bad day or week and that might affect how your character is written, how they are acting or reacting within the context of the game.
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, which is good too!
It’s also important to separate and define some terms as we’ll use them in this guide:
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 is 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 the same as their characters. 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 — job stress, illness, an argument with a friend, etc.
Steps to avoid bleed
One of the primary mechanisms to avoid bleed, and the first one we feel should be addressed, is the simplest: communication. As a community game, it’s important that we are open with the ones with whom we play. Speaking of consent in gaming is one of the first steps, especially in Vampire: the Masquerade. One must remember to set boundaries about what would affect them; or, if they find something in the game that is making them uncomfortable, one must openly voice this concern. There are things one person might be willing to explore in a game, but another might not. Server rules and game tenets 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, it should be clear: these are character,s and you, the people writing the scenes, can decide what happens to the characters and what doesn’t.
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.
Talking about your character as a character is another way to set a boundary. The character is there (the metaphorical 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. You are still you. This clear separation between character and writer is also the reason for some of our server’s rules, such as prose being written in third person rather than first person, OOC channels being separated from RP channels, and discouraging IC talk in OOC channels. First person prose can be a fast track to developing weak boundaries. In fact, bleed via first person perspectives is a common problem amongst live action roleplayers (LARPers), method actors, and play-by-play writers. We’ll link other articles at the end of the guide about this subject. It is also worth pointing out that communicating in-character in out-of-character channels makes the line between the character and the self unclear for both the players themselves and, potentially, the people they are communicating with. This makes the separation even more difficult.
RPG is a hobby; it can be your main hobby, but should never be your only hobby.
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, stepping away and taking some time to do other things can help to reestablish those boundaries.
Dealing With Bleed when it has Happened Already
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 on 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 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.
- 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 your RP partners or a neutral observer. Usually, you will find that while Vampire: the Masquerade is full of monsters, the players OOC are not.
Go over the whole process. If you still need to take a step back, do so now. Take stock of what you have learned, your limitations, and your triggers. Avoid them if possible; if not, at least being aware of what causes the symptoms can help.
Lastly we must address one crucial thing: Mental Health. Bleed tends to happen a lot less if you are in a healthy headspace, and so it can and will be aggravated by depression, anxiety, or any other illness, as well by as extreme burnout. We are all susceptible to those; we are all human. If you find that your mental illness is clashing with your RP, we do encourage looking for therapy out of game — primarily for your own sake, but also for that of those around you. One should also take note that the amount of bleed either you or your fellow players experience is not a valid basis for judging them, or their RP skills, personally. They are not bad people or bad RPers because they have experienced bleed.
Sometimes professional help is needed; there is no shame in this. As a community, we want to see our players having fun without suffering.