Session Hangover

In my last post I mentioned what I do the day after I run a session. That’s not exclusive to this campaign. Most of the time I use the next day to think about what worked, what didn’t, and where to go from there. Our sessions tend to run in the evenings, so it’s not practical to work on the campaign immediately afterward. Even when we game in the afternoon, I like having a chance to sleep on it before I do anything else.

But I also know I can’t wait a week, only touching the campaign again right before the next session. I’ve known DMs who do this, and that’s great, but it’s not how I work. If I wait that long, I find I’m not actually thinking about the campaign in the intervening week, which means I’m coming into my preparation with a bad memory of the previous session and no fully-formed ideas about where to go next. I have to start on the next session in that sweet spot, when the last session is still fresh in my mind but not so fresh there’s no room for anything else.

I call this the session hangover, in that it happens the morning after the session and has many of the same symptoms (headache, depression, anxiety, sweating, that sort of thing). This is the bulk of my DMing time spent outside actual gaming. Over the course of a week I’ll find time to perform small tasks like finding a picture for an NPC or brushing up on a particular rule, but by and large I like working on things in long, dedicated chunks. With how my schedule pans out this usually means the night (or morning) before a session is DMing prep time, and the morning afterward is homework.

Note that this isn’t like school homework, intended to reinforce the lesson. The session hangover isn’t about reiterating what already happened. It’s about creating something new using the session as guidance and inspiration. It’s more like homework on Trading Spaces, where people do grunt work after the camera crew leaves for the day. Its intention is to put in the time and effort to make something beautiful without putting a burden on people who really don’t need to witness it, it’s best done in a specific time frame, and (depending on how you feel about reskinning) there’s probably a lot of paint involved.

The most powerful thing about the session hangover is that it’s not structured. I don’t go into it by making recap notes, then rewriting plot, then creating monsters, and so forth. It’s an amorphous blob of time I can use to approach whatever I want in whatever order I want, a pencilled-in section of my (usually) Sunday mornings that says “do campaign things”. For example, after Episode 13 of Faith I used most of the hangover time researching and writing Macros in MapTool for a set piece I thought of the night before. “Write macros” isn’t a dedicated part of my session preparation; half of my campaigns don’t use MapTool in the first place. But if I spend two or three hours on it, I don’t feel like it’s wasted time. It’s still part of session preparation, and I wanted to do it, so I’m happy.

That’s the real power of the hangover time. I don’t have to do it. If I think I have things under control or I’d rather do something else, I can skip it. But I do it because I want to. After a session, I’m usually either so excited about the campaign that I want to get back into it as soon as possible or I’m so upset with what happened that I want to fix it. In both cases I’m riding the emotional investment and turning it into gaming content.

If that’s the case, why not do it right when the session ends? Because I’ve found I need some downtime to process how I felt at the end of the session and approach it without the mental fatigue of participating in a four-hour combination of chess and Whose Line Is It Anyway?. Even if I run game in the early afternoon, I still want to sleep on it before I do any further work. There’s a body of research on why this works and how the brain handles information and creativity even during unconscious thought, but my reasons are a bit simpler than that. When I was a (slightly) younger gamer, I tended to hold onto emotional states for longer than is necessary or wise, so I usually had to give it a few days before I could emotionally process a given event and respond to it intelligently. Now I’ve gotten that time down to the length of a good night’s sleep. If I try to go any faster, I’m not working, I’m reacting. That doesn’t create good games.

The opposite is also true. If I want to work on a campaign, and I don’t get to it the following day, it shows in my next session. My players are often too gracious to say when they think I’m not prepared for a session, but if they did, I’m confident those days would correlate closely with days on which I had some other obligation during my normal hangover time. The more time I spend focusing on non-gaming things, the less I’m in the groove of gaming by the time I sit down to actually do it. I have noticed that I don’t need to think about my campaign specifically, just campaigns in general. This is probably why I survived that ridiculous period where I played in four games each weekend, each in a different system. The gaming mindset persisted until I could use it to produce something for my next game.

I have a hard time recommending the session hangover to other DMs, but not because it’s bad. It’s something that developed organically over the years as I grew into my style, recognized my limitations, and adjusted accordingly. Other DMs may be better off working on things right after their session ends (and they may be better at staying up late, while I in my old age have a fairly strict bedtime) or getting back into the right frame of mind at will. The hangover probably isn’t the objective best way to translate recent game events into future content. But it is a good way for me, so if you also don’t have time immediately after your gaming session to work on the next one, try sleeping on it.

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