#RPGaDay Day Six: Tabletop Self-Care

A very late Day 6 of #RPGaDay asks “You can game every day for a week. Describe what you’d do!”

I think many people would want to do a single campaign or something, but I like variety. At the same time, I think a Powered by the Apocalypse game like Monsterhearts would be too intense to play every day for a week. I think that I’d end up too deep into the rollercoaster of emotions and that wouldn’t be an emotionally safe or respectful environment to game in. But I think a single campaign every day for a week would get a bit samey. So, I think I’d probably want to do a series of one-shots and improvisational games, things where we could enjoy them while they’re happening and then set them aside. Not all games benefit from being so short, but I think a mix of more guided and unstructured games would be good. Something like Fate for less structured, mixed in with Lady Blackbird or pre-written adventures for something with more guidance (for when we’re all tired and can’t plan properly), and then light fun games like Lasers and Feelings as a palate cleanser. Probably throw some board games and maybe computer games in for variety as well. It sounds pretty cool, but I also think that trapping myself in an isolated situation with a bunch of people, even close friends, sounds like hell. I’m at my best in small doses!

Self Care and RPGs

This is firmly about self-care during tabletop rather than live games or field LARPs – because those deserve an entry of their very own. But a lot of the same things can apply, because honestly they’re just common sense.

We don’t tend to think of tabletop games as particularly intensive. You crowd around a table or sit on sofas and roll some dice and talk a bunch, why do you need to do self-care? Well, it’s like any sustained social or leisure activity. You get caught up in the moment and forget to have a drink of water, so you end up dehydrated. You eat junk food without noticing or (horror of horrors) forget to bring any snacks with you. You tire yourself out talking to people and can only flop on the sofa when you get home. You get too emotionally involved and get angry or upset.

It wasn’t until I started playing Powered by the Apocalypse games that I started thinking about self-care and RPGs. They recommend regular breaks and self-care above all – in fact, with the three circles of responsibility discussed in Monsterhearts 2, the first is to yourself. Because you can’t be responsible for others if you’re not looking after yourself too.

Things I consider to be super important in tabletop self-care:

Hydration – if nothing else, have a bottle of water with you. Like, just that. If it gets knocked over, it won’t damage anything, and you can refill it when it gets empty. Plus it can be a good prop for gesturing or unconsciously sipping from if you get anxious (I use that latter one to trick myself into rehydrating). But also, don’t just have loads of sugary or caffeinated beverages unless you know you can do that without getting too intense or crashing. You’re a grown-up, you can judge this stuff, and I know I have a massive mug of tea through most of the games I play, so I’m a huge hypocrite, but be aware of your own limits. Does too much caffeine make you less fun to play with? Then cut back. And, I feel it goes without saying but I’m saying it anyway, don’t drink alcohol to the point of getting drunk unless it’s something that’s OK with the rest of your group. Drinking a bit to relax is really different from drinking until your behaviour and speech are altered. I’ve been in groups where part of the fun was sipping port as we went and having nonsense shenanigans while buzzed, and that was cool in that circumstance, but be aware that your ability to gauge how fun you are while drunk is impaired.

Noms – snacks are a gaming table staple. Plenty of people eat while roleplaying (though if people in the group have issues with that, make sure to communicate about everyone’s comfort levels, and also don’t talk with your mouth full, it’s rude) as there’s usually down time while you wait for your next turn, games often take place in the evenings when people are hungry and sessions go on for hours, so it makes sense to sustain your energy. And don’t get me wrong – I’m not judging junk food. I love junk food, especially while gaming. But it is really easy to not notice how much you’re eating while you game. You started with a massive bag of crisps at the start of the session and you find yourself trying to solve the Mystery of the Missing Salty Snacks by the end of it. Consider limiting the amount of food you bring with you or portioning out into a bowl. But not eating at all can be just as bad. I am Not Good at dealing with low blood sugar. My Mum used to carry pureed fruit bars with her everywhere so when I inevitably became the Hangry Monster, I had something to bring me out of it. But if you’re like me and have blood sugar spikes, consider something with more sustainable energy release than a bag of sweets that’s just going to make you crash and get sleepy or grumpy and emotional a few hours in.
Moving around – sedentary lifestyles being bad doesn’t just apply to watching TV or the workplace. When people have a break, move around in some way. Gamers are often too immersed in the game to notice that they’ve been sitting down for four hours. Resist the urge to just stay seated. Getting up to make tea or get some water (see point 1) is a good way to do this, or just walk around the room. I’m not proposing doing star jumps here.
Breaks – having a smoker in the group is actually really useful for this. It introduces a regular break into the game without anyone having to set an alarm. Not that anyone should take up smoking just for this, but you see what I mean. Especially right after a super intense scene, or if you feel yourself getting too emotionally invested, it’s well worth taking a few minutes to get your head out of the game. I’ll often read something like a webcomic to switch my brainspace. Pets are also great for this – I quite often go and snuggle the house cat for a bit. Bear in mind: this makes the assumption that you are easily able to move around in a relaxed and casual way that does not cause you pain. If you are in a situation where that would be more difficult, you totally know more than I do about self-care relating to that!
Emotions – games are immersive, they drag us in and we care about the lives of the people involved. That’s why they’re fun. Unfortunately, that can also lead to bleed, where the emotions and relationships our characters have affect our real lives, and also frustrations with the game can poison real relationships when we snap at someone or say something to undermine them. Games are a hotbox atmosphere, with emotions bouncing back and forth and getting amplified. Don’t let that happen. Take a step back. Take a break. Get some water. Read a paragraph of a book (I’d actually recommend not using Facebook because it can add to and amplify the feelings, and it’s super tempting to post about it right then and there, but hey, you do you). Catch up on some news. Maybe have a chat out of character about how you’re feeling and why.
Waiting – there’s inevitably going to be waiting in games. Waiting while someone else finishes an emotional scene you aren’t involved in that drags on but is super important for their character arc. Waiting while someone else gathers information or uses their skills. Waiting for your initiative to come up. The ideal, if we were all shiny group-oriented roleplayers with an equal appreciation for everyone’s fun, is that we’d all be equally invested in what everyone else does and considerate about making sure everyone gets a turn, but this is the real world. I’m sure not like that. I get impatient as anything, and I hate being bored. It used to be that while I was waiting for my turn, I would formulate a strategy, but then someone would change the battlefield and suddenly my strategy didn’t work, or I’d roll a critical failure on my one roll for the next ten minutes and it’d make me disproportionately annoyed. So, it’s OK to have something automatic to do that takes up a bit of your mind but doesn’t distract you too much from the game (that latter stipulation is super hyper important). However, I would highly recommend agreeing this with your GM. I’ve known some GMs be fine with it, others not so much. I generally feel that phones, even while gaming, are more of a distraction than I’d like in the games I run, but my fiance is fine with it. I’ve known someone who makes chainmail during games, people who knit or draw. I personally favour colouring in. It seems weird to say that doing something fun while also playing a game can be helpful, but I think it’s something we don’t consider enough.
Boundaries – this is something that has plenty of good resources elsewhere online, but using stuff like Lines and Veils, the X-Card or just communicating about boundaries can be super useful. Don’t feel bad for interrupting the flow of a game to highlight a boundary you have – your mental health is more important, sorrynotsorry. A lot of GMs will have a space at the start of a game to highlight sensitive subject areas, but you should feel you can bring stuff up as you go. For instance, we were playing a game where one of the bad guys was heavily implied to be interested in under-age girls and I got the GM to clarify that, as my reaction to a sexual abuser will definitely be different to if they’re just a sleaze – my character would have had a much more extreme reaction, because I wouldn’t have felt right participating in a narrative in which we let someone like that go. Respecting others’ boundaries is part of this, obviously! If you’re not sure about something that’s a common sensitive issue and isn’t explicitly not in play, ask before you include it. That’s self-care on some level too.

Of course, I’m not always great at these. I still have my massive mugs of tea at games, I still don’t eat properly a lot of the time, and I have definitely not been great at emotions and boundaries, but I’m making efforts to improve.

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