Starting your dnd session with a recap seems natural. You sit at the table, remind everyone what had happened before, and from that point you move on with your session. Unfortunately, it can quickly become a boring slugfest or a confusing experience altogether.
I must admit, I hate Critical Role Recaps. I skip them all the time.
Understandably, CR is a show so there is a different set of rules from a home game. Nevertheless, stay with me to the end and you will know why I dislike Matt’s recaps.
Admittedly, a lot of what you will read here is going against AngryGM’s point of view so have fun finding out for yourself what works better for you.
What can go wrong in session recap?
Several things can make your session recap an unbearable experience without you even knowing it. You might be a great DM, so most of the players won’t even notice this, but once you are on the other side, the recap format can punch you in the face and take away your will to live.
Too much details
Recap can become a rabbit hole. You start with ‘so you went to the city and…’ and then go on and on about every single detail that might be fun to re-live, but has nothing to do with your new session.
Not only some of the details won’t be necessary, but most likely they will concern only part of the group, putting the rest of your party on a waitlist.
Too little details
Simply going through major points of the campaign can be a very useful tool for DM, especially if it is a long campaign but recap is not a place for it. Simply stating what had happened for the last year of playing can become confusing for everyone and make players think that what they do now is irrelevant.
Session recap most likely turns into a meta description of your game. It is a bird’s-eye view, that forces your players to distant themselves from the immersive experience of the game. It is a comfortable position for DM since that’s what you do the whole game, but for players, it is a forced perspective. One, that can makes roleplaying and immersion harder for those at the table, later on.
Forcing your perspective
That’s a big one. By recapping the session, you put your way of viewing things over what players thought and how they imagined the game. Like a steamroller, you flatten the roleplaying experience by turning it into your story. After all, you are shaping the collective memory of your group.
Spilling your beans
Yes, I admit. I did that once. By forgetting what the players did and what they didn’t discover in the past, I’ve spilled the beans and shared one of the secrets with the players. Some of them were confused, others didn’t even notice, but it can happen. Especially if your last session was six months ago.
Why we do recaps in our sessions?
1. Reminds everyone what had happened
Ye, it is important. If you play weekly games this won’t that much of an issue (it can be!), but after few weeks, people start to forget. Especially if you play multiple campaigns, if you are super busy with other stuff like life (pfff, ye, I KNOW!).
Having a couple of points from the last sessions gets everyone up to speed. It makes you and players aware of what’s going on. I lied saying I disagree with AngryDM on everything. He is right about the brief points, most important elements of previous sessions, and most significant and urgent elements of the last session.
You recap to go from ‘You are a party trying to stop a war by…’ to ‘So you stole the maps and now you are running away, chased by five riders in the middle of the forest’.
2. Allows everyone to fill the gaps if there are any
Recap is a good moment for your players to ask questions and fill the gaps from the last sessions. Maybe they didn’t note something or they’re not sure about some of the things that transpired. Having a quick Q&A with your players at the beginning can help them a lot.
It can help them create a plan. It can allow them to connect the dots. Remind them of something that went over their heads because so much was happening. Someone’s cognitive capacity can be impaired for multiple reasons so allowing players to go back, reset, understand is necessary.
3. Becomes a transition from simply talking to playing
Recaps occupy space somewhere between the game and outside of it. They are almost like a menu and UI in the video game. It is a tunnel that connects your real life with your game, so doing it right can significantly improve the immersion process and make you dnd games better.
Mike from Sly Flourish in his ‘Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master’ says to start strong. It is great advice, but I think it has more to do with structure than content. Fighting is a great idea to start with because it has a clear structure that involves everyone at the table. It is about a strong push towards the game, making the players forget about ‘playing’.
So what if we can merge it with the session recap?
Improve Session Recap
Against the AngryDM advice, we will roll with it. Involve your players in the recap. Make it a shared experience, just like the game itself.
Why would you involve players in the session recap?
1. Understand what is important for players
Things that were big in your head don’t necessarily grab the attention of your players and vice versa. It’s almost a meme in the D&D community, that the players enter the tavern and instead of approaching visibly fleshed-out NPCs, they approach Boblin the Goblin that you just shoved into the scene to make the tavern more lively.
Sounds familiar right? Ye, so, players don’t know what is a part of the plot. There are no highlighted elements of the world strictly design to be interacted with. What might be a small detail that you’ve improvised, became a big part of their interest.
It is good to know that! You might wanna steer them back to the plot or build other stuff around the detail they’re interested in. Leaving part of the recap to the players you can find out what is important to them, what they pay attention to, what makes the great game for your players. It is one of the best ways to know, understand and relate to your players.
2. Let them compare notes
In a busy life, we all have, players, won’t have always time to talk to each other in-between sessions to figure out what to do next, what they plan, what they have noticed. It’s good to have time like this in-game, but a recap is a perfect moment to give them space to just talk and compare notes.
It is a great source of information for DM and a bonding / cooperative moment for players.
3. Correct mistakes or misunderstandings
It is a tricky one since you don’t want to straighten out every single piece of the plot. It is not about telling them how things really are. This is the moment when you can correct what is bluntly misunderstanding of what you said or did.
Last time you described the character as ‘huge ugly men’ and one of the players noted that the size of the character is huge because they couldn’t hear what you exactly said. When they bring it up, correct it. Make sure that what you intended to say is matching what they think you’ve said.
We are all humans and sometimes, especially when the situation in the plot is complicated or when the session is long and you start to be tired, we make mistakes.
4. Active over passive recaps
I constantly try to cut out the long bits when most players don’t do anything at the table. Whether it’s fighting, descriptions, conversations, or recap, I don’t want to be the one talking for 20 minutes.
Engaging players as often as possible is part of DMs job so I recommend doing it with recap as well. I’ve already given few examples of how players can actively take part in recaps. I often ask players who want to start the recap so they have a choice to do it. It also creates a sense of agreement that it’s their time to talk now – especially important when there are many people at the table.
What I would add here is to pay attention to players who are not engaged or can be overwhelmed by the game and others. It can give you clues on giving this particular player and their character some space within the game.
5. Put role play in your session recap
That’s a big one. Let’s make AngryGM even angrier. Introduce roleplaying to your recap. Most of us are not actors, for many of the players RPing is hard and can be embarrassing. Having few moments out of the game, that can help immerse yourself into the character and feel closer to it can improve everyone’s ability to RP.
There are two ways we started to do it at our table and it worked magic!
- Ask questions about the character – technique I’ve seen on Ginny Di channel. Simply make a list and ask you players questions about their characters. Make it more about preferences than facts. Ask them what they like or dislike, what would they do in hypothetical situation.
Don’t be afraid to use language and examples out of the campaign theme. It is about player understanding the character rather than character knowing those things.
- Ask the character what the thought, felt or wonder – technique that surprised my table as well as myself. Towards the end of the recap start asking players about their characters. Ask what they felt when situations occurred, what were they thinking when falling asleep that one night, how they felt when they were told this particular piece of information.
It helps the players to go into the minds of their characters. Process some emotions and situations that normally they might not have space to do it. It is especially effective when you finished on rest (short or long) or in otherwise safe situation. As DM you become the unconsciousness, someone who brings back memories and feelings that had to be buried deep.
I believe this can be your Strong Start when there is no fight on the horizon.
6. Mood is more important than plot or Why I hate Matt Mercer’s recaps
We’ve established that session recaps help to fill the gaps and share information about the campaign. Plot and the story are extremely important but so is the mood and transition from sitting on the chair to delving into the stinking dungeon. Mood.
You and your players are already thinking. Now it’s time to shift gears towards feeling. Recap is a perfect moment to slowly bring the mood of the campaign and the immediate situation you left off. It is a slow process of guiding the players through the door of imagination.
Addressing the surroundings, consequences, emotions will be the most important element that will help all of you immerse in the game. If you start the recap with laughs and jokes, but your game ended with death and defeat, you have a span of few sentences to bring out the atmosphere and help everyone feel that.
About Matt and his recaps. Obviously, CR is a show, but it’s now a cableTV. Most of us know what happened – both last time and six months ago (why would you go so far in the past MATT!) or can simply check it out in a few minutes. The mood thou…
Many times CR players ended up with sadness, tension, and panic, just to start a new session and continue with a new attitude. I believe that could be avoided many times if Matt was more focused on the mood of the scene and “last we left off” rather than plot points.
Make the session recap work for you
A recap is a tool in your hands. Use it for the benefit of you and your players. It can be whatever you want it to be, as look as it helps you make the game better. Like every tool, it is there to make your life easier, not harder.
Try different approaches, pick elements from these articles and tips provided by others. Mash it all up and come with a perfect formula for your group. Most players don’t pay that much attention to recaps but showing them how it can help them as well, can be a game-changer for your games.
Let me know in the comment section what your recaps look like and what would you add to the list.