We’re on a quest to make you a less worse GM by covering some basic GMing skills. Last week, we discussed how to structure a game session. We talked about the importance of pacing the session just like you would pace a story. We walked through how a session should flow. And we discussed how important a good recap was to a good session. Now, it’s time to expand on that…
Do you see what I did there? Do you? I mean, it should be f$&%ing obvious. That paragraph there? THAT’S a f$&%ing recap. Of course, I wouldn’t be surprised if you DIDN’T recognize that as a recap. Because GMs seem to have some fundamental f$&%ing brain damage when it comes to recaps. I don’t know why it’s so f$&%ing baffling. But it is. Holy mother of f$&% it is baffling to people.
Some GMs give don’t bother with recaps at all. Others e-mail f$&%ing novellas because they wish they were novelists instead of running games. Or post them on the f$&%ing internet. Others still give their overly long, overly detailed recaps directly to the players, boring the s$&% out of them. Or they give utterly useless, anemic little recaps. Or – WORST OF ALL – they make their players give the recaps. And holy s$&% do I want to punch every dumba%& GM that suggest this is a GOOD thing.
And I’m going to save some arguments right now: do you think there are good reasons for players to do the recap that are better than the reasons for the GM to do it? Good for you. Go the f$&% away. Don’t post your arguments in my comments. You’re wrong. I’m going to explain why you’re wrong in this very article. But after I’m done, I know there is going to be some dumba$& who’s going to insist on saying “yeah, but, players…” Well, no. If you already know it all, you don’t need my site. Close your browser and go away.
The Recap is Part of the Game, Dumba%&
Last week, I pointed out how the recap is part of the structure of the session. It’s actually a very important part and it’s very important that you do it right. Why is it important? Imagine you’re starting a race. And, before you get to the starting line, someone puts a blindfold on you and leads you to where the race starts. But they won’t tell you where to stand or which direction to face. And then the starting gun goes off and they rip the blindfold off and yell “RUN!” How do you think that race is going to go?
Now, it’s pretty obvious why that’s a sucky way to start a race. The first few panicked seconds are going to be spent not running. Instead, you’re going to be frantically looking around trying to figure out which way the racetrack goes and which direction you’re supposed to run in and where the other racers are so you don’t run into them. But that’s only half the problem. The other half of the problem is that you can’t get your brain ready for the race. Racers don’t just start running. They stretch a little, they pace around, they get their blood pumping. And then they walk up to the starting block, stretch their legs a little, look around at the competition, take their position, and focus their brain and body on the task at hand. They get themselves ready so that the moment the referee fires that gun at them, they can start running. Well, if you stick them in a blindfold, they can’t do any of that because they are filled with rising panic that the race is about to start and they don’t even know what direction to run, let around what else is going on around them.
Starting your game without a recap is like blindfolding your players and then yelling “go.” Apart from the fact that they spend a few minutes flailing around trying to remember what was going on and what plans they had and bumping into each other, they also don’t transition from “sitting around being social” mode to “game mode.” They can’t psych themselves up.
That is why the recap is always done at the game session right before the game starts. The recap is the starting line for the game.
Now, if you like writing out detailed recaps and posting them on the Internet or sending them to your players, that’s great. You can keep doing that. No one is stopping you. If you’re into that sort of verbal masturbation, go to town. But that ISN’T a substitute for a recap at the session. It’s a supplement. It’s extra.
Players Can’t Be Trusted with Recaps
Okay, now, let’s tackle the thorny issue of why you never, ever let the players do the recap. See, some GMs who are not me and who therefore suck, argue for letting the players do the recap for a couple of reasons. First, they say, it helps you – the GM – figure out what information the players retained and what they didn’t. Second, they say, it helps the players get engaged with the game. Third, it gives the players the opportunity to do fun, quirky things like do their recaps in character. The first reason is utterly worthless. The second reason is wrong. And the third reason is basically kicking all of your players in the teeth because you hate them.
Here’s the deal. A LOT of information comes up at a game session. But only some of it is important in a given session. Only some of it is important in the campaign. Lots of information that comes up is just world flavor. It’s just the sort of unimportant bulls$&% that brings the world to life. As the GM, you can tell the difference because you know where the game is going. You know which characters are important, which information is useful, which clues were vital, and so on. Players don’t know that s$&%.
Now, this is actually really common. It comes up in TV shows and video games and books all the time. The reader doesn’t know which characters are going to be important and which ones are just one-shot characters. The reader doesn’t know which pieces of information or backstory are important. At least, not at first. We learn which bits are important because the show or book or game keeps bringing them up. They get reinforced. The unimportant details, meanwhile, get gradually forgotten.
The idea that it is in any way useful to discover what IS and IS NOT sticking in players’ brains session by session is misguided and dumb as a bucket of s$&%. Because stuff only sticks through reinforcement and repetition. If they are remembering the wrong things, each time you make them recap, they are reinforcing the wrong things. Which means they are actively working AGAINST you trying to correct that.
Simply put, the recap isn’t a tool to find out what the players are thinking. If you want to know what the players are thinking, ask them. The recap is a tool for you to reinforce the important stuff and shove aside the unimportant stuff.
A recap is not a pop quiz to see how good your players are at GUESSING what’s useful. It’s a tool for YOU to reinforce the information the players NEED to remember.
And this goes beyond session-by-session crap too. We’ll come back to that idea in a little while, though.
Forcing the players to recap the sessions also doesn’t increase their engagement with the game. And holy s$&% do people LOVE to misuse that bulls$&% phrase. “Let players make up their own NPCs, it’ll increase their engagement.” “Let players invent new plot details, it’ll help them get engaged.” “Let players track initiative. That’s good for engagement.” It’s like people literally do not know what engagement is and how it happens. I’ll tell you something: I was NOT emotionally invested in Up or Mass Effect because the writers invited me to do some storyboards. That ISN’T how engagement and investment work.
Asking the players to do the recap turns the game into a test. It turns it into a pop quiz. Most players don’t like doing recaps. Trust me. It makes them nervous. And starting off a game with a test is NOT a good way to get people invested and engaged. Over time, what happens is that your players spend more time focused on taking notes and memorizing details in each session because they are afraid this s&%$ is going to be on the test. Do you really want your game to feel like a high school history class?
Moreover, it robs the players of a gradual transition into the game. There’s a reason you don’t shift your car from first gear to third gear without going through second gear. That reason is that transmissions and clutches and s$&% cost $1,500 to replace. Well, player brains are cheaper to replace, but they are also WAY more breakable than transmissions and clutches and things. My car can take a hit at 30 miles per hour far better than any of my players can. I know. I’ve tried.
Listening to a recap warms up the player brain. As you remind them of the events of last session, their brain starts to remember things and say stuff like “oh yeah, we did find that magic sword, that was cool” or “I bet that vizier is up to no good because viziers are always up to no good.” It starts firing their game neurons. Forcing them to DO a recap forces them to start driving before the car is warm.
And then we come to the biggest, most awful idea about recaps ever: recaps in character. Yeah, it SEEMS like a fun idea that gets a player into their character. But it’s really the worst idea you can have about recaps. We’ve already talked about how recaps are a tool for reinforcing the right information, discarded the useless information, and transitioning player brains to game-readiness. Let’s replace that with a quirky performance by an amateur thespian unreliable narrator who’s more concerned with showing off than getting information right. THAT’S a good idea.
Players have plenty of opportunities to be IN CHARACTER. We call it “the entire f$&%ing game.” And if your players want to keep journals and logs or write short stories about their adventures from their character perspective between sessions, that’s fine. I’ve had lots of players do that s$&%. I don’t read any of that garbage, but I don’t stop the players. I mean, if players could write, they’d be GMs. And I have no desire to read someone’s fanfic retelling my stories only worse. But, players can do that s$&% if they want.
But they can’t have the recaps to do it. The recap is TOO F$&%ING IMPORTANT to the flow of the whole game.
And it is for those reasons that all of your sessions always start with a recap that is delivered by you, the GM, and no one else.
How to Recap Good
How do you give a good recap? Honestly, it’s not that hard. Like everything I talk about, there’s a good formula to follow. And that’s because a good recap serves several specific purposes. The most important thing to remember is recaps are boring. As important as recaps are, they aren’t game and players aren’t making decisions. They are exposition. And exposition is boring. The longer your recap, the more likely you are to lose your players. A good recap consists of between five and ten sentences. And it should stick to five. More than that, your players are building dice towers and bored as f$&%.
Before we talk about the formula though, we have to cover something else. And that is your stupid memory.
Your Memory Sucks
Your memory sucks. It really, really does. There are a few people in the world who have very, very good memories. But they are extremely rare and you aren’t one of them. And the worst part about that is that you don’t know how bad your memory is because you can’t remember the things you aren’t remembering or are remembering wrong. So, everyone who has a bad memory is also convinced they have a good memory.
A recap – a good recap – relies on you remembering all of the things that happened in the last session AND EVERY SESSION BEFORE IT. We’ll come back to that second, capitalized point in a minute. Just trust me for now. A good recap relies on your ability to remember every detail from all of the sessions you’ve ever run in this particular campaign. And your memory isn’t that good.
Beyond that, after you remember absolutely everything, you have to distill out the most important things. Even though you have to remember absolutely everything, you have to be able to highlight the stuff that’s actually important. And that is a lot of pressure to put on your stupid brain and its crappy, crappy memory.
A good recap begins at the end of the session, not at the beginning. That is, at the end of every session, it’s a very good practice to take out a fresh sheet of paper and write down a list of the things that happened in that session. Something like this:
- Got the quest to kill the goblins of Deathdanger Peak
- Researched goblin tribes
- Learned about Deathdanger peak
- Vizier sent secret word to the goblins to expect trouble – players don’t know that
- Traveled through the Forest of Doom
- Fought wolf spiders
- Climbed the cliff
- Slept in a bear cave, killed bear
- Arrived at goblin lair entrance in the morning
That list is the starting point for your recap. And you shouldn’t through away those lists either. In fact, if you can keep a notebook just of those little recaps, that’s a really good idea.
It only takes a few minutes to put that list together. But it’s vitally important to do it as soon as you can, while the session is still fresh in your mind. Remember how I said that you – as the GM – shouldn’t participate in the denouement at the end of the session? Well, this is what you could be doing instead. Scribble out your list of s$&% that happened. Or do it after you get home. DON’T leave it until tomorrow. Or the day after. DON’T leave it until the next session. DO IT NOW!
Because your memory sucks and you don’t know it.
“Previously” Not “Last Time”
In the last few years, a certain type of TV show has become more and more popular. These are character and plot driven, ongoing stories that gradually reveal more and more of their story. They are the stories with important continuities. They are the shows where it is important to watch the show in order and to remember various details.
And those shows have gotten very good at doing recaps. Because they have to be good at doing recaps. And if you’re really attentive, you’ll notice a really strange quirky detail. Most of them don’t start with the phrase “last time, on this show!” They used to. They used to say “last week, on whatever the show is.” But now, they say “previously on the show you are currently watching.” PREVIOUSLY ON. Why? Well, if you pay attention, you’ll also notice that often, details in the recaps don’t come from the previous episode.
The thing is, as stories become more complicated, plot threads and characters tend to drift into the spotlight and drift out again. And so, several episodes might pass before it becomes important to know that the brash, maverick soldier has issues with his father and authority figures in general. Pay careful attention to television recaps and you’ll notice that the details that come up aren’t ALWAYS from the immediately prior episode, but they do remind you of things that will be important in the upcoming episode.
You can use that as a GM too. If it’s been a while since the PCs dealt with the goblins of the Deathdanger Peak and the goblins are back in the story now, it’s helpful to remind players who the goblins are and what they wanted.
Months ago, you defeated off the Deathdanger goblins who were particularly violent and militaristic, but you never found out who was commanding them. Now, you find yourself facing more of their number.
Now, you want to be careful with this trick. It DOES give away surprise reveals. If you don’t want the party to know that the Deathdanger goblins are back, don’t include that in the recap. But when they show up in the story, go ahead and stop the game for a short recap sentence like that. And then, NEXT SESSION, if the goblins are still in the story, incorporate the previous encounters into your recap.
The point is, a recap is not just about reminding players what happened last time. It’s about reminding them of important details from the entire history of your game. It isn’t “last time, in your game” it’s “previously, in your game.”
Remember, Character Revelations Are Revelations Too
Okay, now here’s one that almost every GM forgets. Even those dumba$& GMs who are constantly bragging about how much they are a fan of the PCs and how much the PCs are everything and how they only exist to serve the PCs and all that bulls$&% that they think makes them sound SO story and character focused (it doesn’t). Sometimes, big revelations and bits of information come out of the players. For example, a PC might reveal that his warlock powers come from a Fey Queen. Or a PC might trust her fellow party members enough to admit she is an exiled queen from a faraway kingdom trying to reclaim her throne and bounty hunters are following her. GMs almost ALWAYS focus on their own plot details in their recaps. They almost NEVER treat this stuff as important revelations worthy of recap.
Again, if you watch television show recaps, you’ll find about half the thing that get reinforced aren’t plot events, but character details. Because the characters drive the story. As the GM, the recap is your tool for reinforcing everything that is important in your game. Character details ARE important.
So, when you make your list of important things that happened during the game session, don’t leave off the details about the warlock’s imprisonment by the Winter Queen or the noblewoman’s secret lineage and the bounty hunters trailing behind her.
How to Start a Recap and How to End It
Now, with that bulls$&% out of the way, let’s get back to my bold claim that there’s a simple pattern to follow when recapping your adventures. Because there is. And it’s simple. A recap always starts with the goal for the upcoming session and the motivation for that goal. And it always ends with where the party is right now and what they are about to do.
Sounds simple right? Well, it is. If the party is on a quest to recover the Jade Idol of Macguffin, you remind them of that. “You’re on a quest to recover the Jade Idol of Macguffin.” And then you remind them why. “The king of Plotsylvania has agreed to make you stupid rich in return for the idol.” That’s how you start. What’s the goal and why is it the goal.
If the goal is part of a larger goal, you should also state that. “In your ongoing battle against the Kingdom of Tyrantia, you’ve learned that they are trying to unlock the Seven Mystic Seals of Destroying the Entire World Somehow. One of those seals lies before you in the Miserable Mire of Misery and you’ve been racing Captain Vilynous to the lost shrine.” What’s the goal and why? In this case, the why is just how it ties into another bigger goal.
The recap ends with you transitioning into the first decision of your session. For example, “rested for the night, your camp broken down, you now stand on the edge of the Forest of Too Many Spiders…” and then you begin describing the trail into the forest and ask for a marching order and who is keeping a lookout and all that s$&% so the party can start adventuring.
Or “you’re standing over the bodies of the slain scouts and you know Captain Vilynous can’t be far behind. Unfortunately, you’re going to have to ford this river to continue your way…”
Start by stating the goal and the motive. End with where the party is right now. Transition into running a f$&%ing game.
The Middle of the Recap
The hard part is, of course, the middle of the recap. The stuff between the goal and the transition to game. That’s where you actually share important details from previous sessions. The idea is to remind the players of everything IMPORTANT that came after the party started this stupid adventure but before wherever they are right now. It’s also to remind the players of anything that came in the past that is IMPORTANT now. The key word is IMPORTANT. And IMPORTANT means “connected directly to what is going on right now and having some sort of ongoing impact.”
Most of the encounters that fill an adventure are just one-and-done kind of things. The party is always fighting wolves and crossing rivers and climbing cliffs and all of that s$&%. That s$&% is unimportant. It doesn’t belong in a recap. Yes, that’s true even if a player did something really, really cool. They will remember the really, really cool s$&% on their own if it’s memorable and you’re not a cheerleader and this isn’t a pep rally.
Remember, recaps are boring and you want them to be as short as possible.
What IS important is stuff that is going to come up again or stuff that is going to help the party achieve their goal. If the party is fighting a goblin horde, the individual fights aren’t important. But revelations about the goblins motives and tactics? Those are. “After several fights with the goblins, you discovered that the goblins are brutal, savage, and not cowardly at all. They are zealous berserkers.” THAT’S important. It’ll keep coming up.
Basically, for every piece of information you include in the recap, ask yourself “would the players say ‘holy crap, I’m so glad we remembered that or else we’d be toast right now.’” Experiences with ongoing threats or obstacles that are going to continue to be an issue, clues or information vital to solving the mystery, steps taken toward the goal, that kind of thing is important.
And remember, if it isn’t important in THIS session, it isn’t important. You can always remind the players about the goblin tactics in future adventures when they come back. If there aren’t any goblins tonight, don’t sweat it.
Apart from ongoing, useful information, you DO want to remind players of victories, defeats, and other story beats from the last session, even if they AREN’T important. If there are no goblins tonight, but they did defeat all the goblins, remind them about how they defeated all the goblins. You know enough now to know what a story beat or plot event is. Those belong in the recap. But only the ones from last session. And this is where important character revelations also go.
The middle recap should consist entire of short sentences that speak to the party in second person. That means you use the word “you.” Focus on what the party did. “You defeated, you fought, you learned, you fled, you discovered, you searched, you decided, you explored, you, you, you.” And you can give your recap as a series of “you did the thing” statements. And if something happened that the party didn’t do directly, make it a “you” sentence anyway. “You noticed…”
Speaking of “you noticed…”
Better Recap Through Lying
Sometimes minor things that the party didn’t notice or care about are actually important. And sometimes, there are details that you didn’t play up at the time that you know are going to play a role. For example, remember our list of events above? We said that the party didn’t know it, but the vizier sent secret word to the goblins. Well, now, two sessions later, the party is dealing with the goblins and they are going to discover the goblins have a bunch of gold and have probably been paid off by someone. You want them to connect the vizier to the goblins.
Well, this is where I like to use the fact that players also have sucky memories to my advantage. I like to lie a little. Or bend the truth.
You’ve plunged deep into goblin territory to recover the Jade Idol of Macguffin. The king has promised to reward you handsomely, though his vizier was suspicious of you and advised the king not to hire you. You fought numerous battles against the berserk, ferocious goblins and discovered they are fearless. You also dealt with their giant pet wolf spider and beastmaster. Now, battered and bruised, you stand outside what you suspect to be the goblin king’s throne room.
That little detail about the vizier is just a quiet reminder of something that maybe didn’t even really happen quite that way or didn’t seem like a big deal at the time from two sessions ago. But when the party defeats the goblin king and finds the idol along with handfuls of gold and a map of the treasury with a secret passage labeled in common, their suspicions might just go back to the vizier. Or maybe not.
TV shows do this too, but you have to be very attentive to notice it. It’s rarely blatant. Few shows will actually include footage of things that didn’t happen on screen, but there ARE shows that do. SciFi Channel’s Farscape used to do that to fill in gaps in the story that got left out due to cut content or a jumbled production schedule. Other shows use subtler tricks to add information that didn’t exist. For example, imagine the recap shows two characters discussing how they’re losing control over a third character and need to figure out what to do. That might have happened three episodes ago. Now, the next scene in the recap is that third character getting attacked by a mysterious assassin in last week’s episode. By putting those two scenes together, the recap is now implying that the two characters hired the assassin.
There’s nothing wrong with doing this, by the way. Remember, you are the eyes and ears and memories of the PCs. If they didn’t notice something small or subtle, that could be on them, but it could be on you. Either way, it’s important to tell them any details you think they should have noticed. Emphasizing the right bits of information or adding details that will help the players figure out the puzzle? That’s your f$&%ing job.
The real takeaway here, apart from a very simple recap formula you can follow is this: a recap is not a reminder of what happened last time. Not in any way. A recap is a tool the GM uses to set up the CURRENT session. If you think of a recap only in terms of telling people what happened last session, you’re doing it wrong. The recap is about information management, it’s about emphasizing details and shining a light on certain events to put the current game session in context. It also warms up the players’ brains for the current game. It’s just another tool in your arsenal that no one but me is smart enough to tell you how to use.
Because, as we’ve learned previously on this site, I’m a f$&%ing genius.