Recaps, History, and the Written Record

I took this myself...
Photo credit: me, on my camera phone

This week’s post sprung from a comment made to me by my GM after our most recent session. She said “its pretty amazing how much your recaps have simply become the canon of the game.”

She was referring to my habit of writing recaps and sending them to our gaming group over email following each session (more accurately, immediately preceding our upcoming sessions).

I write recaps because they’re fun, but also because it adds a certain sense of permanence to the game. I usually take notes during the game session, though how detailed they become depends on the style of the game. Translating those notes into an intelligible narrative gives me the opportunity to re-interpret the events of the game, which is especially useful after some time has passed. I like being able to reflect on decisions made or plans devised; sometimes things that seemed wise in the haste of a gaming session appear foolish upon reflection. Finally, I like writing recaps because I like writing. As an outlet for creativity, I can’t praise writing about your game enough. I’ve done recaps in different styles, from my character’s personal journal, to a chapter in a tale as retold by a bard years later, to a noir-ish NPC’s interpretation of the events of the session.

What I never considered was that, effectively, my recaps became the game. Historically, that is.

I mean to say that once the sessions had ended, all we had left were our memories of the game. And soon, minutes, hours later, those memories fade. The memorable moments last forever (the time we drove a car full of dynamite into a cultist bonfire, for example) but the other details fade more quickly. One of the driving forces behind my recaps is the desire to not let these details fade away.

Role-playing games are essentially a collaborative art form. There’s writing, acting, and drawing in almost every tabletop game, and many others include costuming, elaborate prop or miniature design and artistry, music, and so on.

While some of these types of art are more permanent (writing, sculpture, painting), others are very ephemeral. Along with music, acting, and dance, I’d classify role-playing as an ephemeral art. Unless you’re there, you can’t really capture it. (Though video and audio recording goes a long way.) There’s not really a great way to preserve the role-playing experience. You could re-create all the elements (the same players, the same characters, the same plots and systems), but you would invariably have a different game every time. Just like the other ephemeral arts, there are subtle bits of nuance that change the entire feeling of the art.

I plan to expand upon “the ephemeral art” more next week. Huzzah for inspiration coming in the middle of a post!

So, while my intent (to recap the game particularly for players who missed) might not be able to capture the full emotional effect of the game, for the most part I try to capture all the salient plot details.

One unintended consequence of my efforts to capture our game’s essence is that I changed it.

It was unintentional. But despite the best of intentions, things get skewed. I’m not an automaton, and even if I were, I would be unable to see and understand the game from any perspective other than my own. While robot-Nick might have perfect recall of events, I certainly don’t. I highlight the points that seemed most important to me, and I condensed 4-6 hours of role-playing into a few hundred or thousand words sent over email. It was inevitable that there would be some information lost.

It didn’t occur to me that the words I wrote would soon be the gospel of the game. The other players referred back to previous recaps for names of important NPCs, to cross-reference clues we had gathered, even just to reminisce fondly of past conquests. In time, my recaps filled the gaps in their own memories.

I was a mischievous kid, and I can remember very clearly the things I used to do that would tie my parents up in knots. For example, there’s a very famous story about how I attacked the VCR with a fly-swatter. I vividly remember these events in my childhood, but remember so little about the rest of it. Why? I  happened upon an answer: these were the moments that my Dad captured on video. (Yes, he did not intervene when I destroyed the VCR, he merely videotaped it for some future parent-child blackmail I’m sure.)

The historical record (the videotapes) have effectively replaced my own memory. Have they? Well, at the very least, they have amplified those memories. Without going too deeply into the biological and chemical responses of the brain, the tapes at least reinforced the neural connections in that area, preventing those memories from fading. I can’t help but wonder how much of what I “remember” is actually memory and how much is the stitched-together video memories. I can’t tell where memory ends and historical record begins.

Recaps exist in a similar space for my gaming group. As more time lapses after each session, we invariably need to rely on the recap more and more to recall what went down when, who was where, and why they were. I realize that I ultimately wield a lot of power; while the GM controls the narrative during the session, I’ve become the unofficial historian of the group. Since I have the most time and the most inclination, I have been given the keys to the vault of history.

I don’t know how I feel about that. I don’t think the GM should have to do the recaps, she already does enough, but I don’t really feel all that comfortable being the only source out there. I wish that the other players had more time to contribute their own recaps. I think that if everyone contributed a recap, we could then cross-reference our notes and compare the different angles and interpretations to arrive at a clearer picture. Historians have been doing this for ages: collecting all the known primary source materials on a given topic, cross-checking, ruling out the information that is not corroborated, ruling out the unreliable sources, until they arrive on the closest that they can come to fact. Call it “historical crowdsourcing”.

I think this would be the best approach for maintaining a historical record of your game. Crowdsource your recaps and notes, so that nothing is unturned (and if no one remembers it happening, including the GM, does it really matter that it happened?). That way, all the most important events will be corroborated, and the little details that each person noted individually will be instrumental not only in adding character to the game, but also in helping define what that player wants or gets out of the game.

You can’t force your players to write recaps, but I think they really help for so many reasons I’ve listed above. My GM gives a non-exclusive XP bonus (everyone who writes a recap gets a bonus). I used to give everyone who wrote a recap a bonus, plus an additional bonus to the whole group if a more than half wrote a recap.

There’s a lot more to be said here, but I’m getting somewhat long-winded here. Controlling or editing the historical narrative is not exclusive to game administration, but could also be an important plot point (“the victors write the history”, and so on). I could imagine many campaigns where some uncertainty in the historical narrative would add a lot of depth to the world (source Y says this about the ancient Empire, but source Z says this different thing). At what point does the legend (the shareable historical narrative) about an ancient wizard’s tomb overtake the actual history of the ancient wizard’s tomb?

I’ll leave you there, but I welcome your thoughts as well. Next week I want to talk more about a concept I introduced today, role-playing as an ephemeral art. We’ll talk about how to preserve it, and why you would want to.

(PS: Apologies if this is hard to follow, but the gremlins ate the first draft of this post, so I had to re-write it from memory. Thanks for staying with me if you made it this far.)

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