(This is the fortieth installment of Dice Tales, an ongoing series of posts about RPGs as storytelling.)
I don’t know if people use this term outside of the group I used to LARP with, but I suspect the phenomenon is well-known: game hangover.
It’s especially a LARP thing, but not solely. It’s the feeling you have after the game session ends — even into the day after — where you’re tired and a little brain-dead and maybe full of ideas and excitement but man that took something out of you. I suspect there are two reasons I find it to be more common in LARPS, one meaningful, one utterly prosaic. The meaningful one is that in a LARP, you’re usually much more immersed. Instead of sitting out-of-character for part of the time, maybe playing something on your phone while the GM runs a scene that doesn’t involve your PC, you’re “onstage” pretty much the entire time. You’re not stopping as frequently to look up rules or refill your water glass. Your performance is constant, and when a LARP can run for three, four, eight hours . . . yeah, that gets draining really fast. And then on the prosaic side: in almost every LARP I’ve been in, you’re on your feet for the majority of those three or four or eight hours. Even when the game set includes chairs, people hardly ever use them. So you’re tired in exactly the same way that you would be if you stood and walked around for that length of time, with the mental exhaustion of improv theatre stacked on top of it. Whereas with a tabletop game, you have more downtime, and you’re probably on your butt the whole session, give or take.
Game hangover doesn’t necessarily happen every time, at least for me. Lots of game sessions are the equivalent of having a beer or maybe two (says the woman who loathes beer and has never drunk enough to be hungover in her life — take all alcohol analogies here with a grain of margarita salt.) Frankly, I wouldn’t want to experience that every single time, not on a regular basis; our Changeling LARP gave me game hangovers more often than anything else I’ve played in, but fortunately we only had sessions once a month. Going through that every week would, I think, feel like being in a really drama-tastic relationship: after a while the exhilaration would fade, leaving you with just the burnout.
But I’ll admit that I do want that feeling at least some of the time. Because it’s a sign that the session was really awesome: I got into my character’s head, had some emotional moments of either the happy or traumatic variety, went under the Plot Hammer and came out, if not intact, then at least entertained. If I play in a game for a long time and don’t ever wind up like this afterward . . . it probably means the game isn’t really engaging me that much. And while I’m okay with that in the short term (not everything has to put me through the wringer to be fun), after a while it means I’m going to feel like there’s something lacking.
That’s as a player. As a GM? Man, this happens a lot, just because of the sheer mental lifting involved in running a game. I don’t scour my brain out every week — plenty of sessions are low-key enough that I can coast through them pretty easily — but things that would be low-key to me if I were a player don’t necessarily look that way from the other side of the table. Even a lightweight session often leaves me fit for very little after my players leave (which makes life fun when I’m in the middle of drafting a novel, lemme tell you). Scientists talk about how our ability to make decisions is actually a finite resource, one you can burn through and then have to recharge; if you ever doubt that, try running a game. It’s wall-to-wall decision-making, choosing the relevant skills and difficulty for a roll, adjudicating the results, controlling the actions of the NPCs and figuring out how PC action will affect them. I’ve never been a fan of running pre-written modules, but I see the appeal: not only does it mean the game prep has been done for you, but many of the decisions you’d have to make during the session are also taken out of your hands.
When I run a major session, the kind of big set piece that resolves a huge plot or kicks things off in a new direction? Yeah. Brain sludge. That’s what I’m left with afterward, not just that evening, but often for the next day as well. It’s a lot like writing the climax and conclusion of a book, really. (Go read The Unstrung Harp, or, Mr. Earbrass Writes a Novel, by Edward Gorey. Then imagine me as Mr. Earbrass.)
So it’s no surprise that I often saw a significant difference between the players and the GMs for that Changeling LARP. The players rebounded fast: we might be tired the next day, but we’d also be writing lengthy emails to the GMs about what we wanted to do next. Maybe two or three days later. The GMs? As near as I can tell, they wanted NOTHING TO DO WITH THE GAME for at least four or five days afterward. Maybe more like a week. Which was frustrating when you had a dozen exciting ideas to pour out on them, and really sucked when you got your PC involved with something that put you in a timestop: something was going on that needed GM approval or resolution before it could move forward, and in the meanwhile, you couldn’t do anything else, either, because the next thing you did might depend on what happened in the current scene.
What’s that you say? You’re confused by how anything could be happening when I’m talking about the period in between games?
Stay tuned for next week’s post, aka the Secret Life of Game Junkies.