Permission to Grieve (in Gaming…)

(Cover photo by Bret Lehne at Inside Hamlet 2017, Run 2.) This blog is a touch more personal than I usually write, but sometimes the personal can help you reflect on things professionally. I hope people take the lesson from this that I did, and my own reflections help others see their work and ability to process emotions in gaming. So, here goes…

When I first started doing theater twenty years ago, I got into it DEEPLY as any young, obsessive, nerdy child often does with their newest passion. I had a few bit parts, roles in the chorus, etc, but never got THAT role. You know the one, the one you really get to sink your teeth into? The one that makes you feel good about yourself and your talents? The one that transforms something from a hobby into a passion? It took a few years of doing theater until that role came. Carlotta Cortez, madame of the whore house in a melodrama called “Love Rides the Rails (or Will the Mail Train Run Tonight?)!” Yes, I know it sounds ridiculous. My taste in theater and roles has come a long way since then. But it was the first time I ever had a big part. The first time I ever got to create a leading character all on my own, to develop her over the course of rehearsals. Hell, it was the first time I ever got my own bow at the end of the show. I loved that show incredibly. I loved the character, the costumes, the cast, the crew — absolutely everything. It was one of those perfect moments.

So, the show closed, as all shows do. The cast party came around and I was devastated. We had no terms for ‘bleed’ or ‘drop’ back then, and everyone else was having an incredible time while I was off trying not to cry in the corner. I didn’t know how to go back to my life knowing such a powerful experience was over. That’s when my director, Martha Oliver of the then “Scottdale Showtime Theater”, came over and gave me some words of wisdom:

“It’s okay to grieve. Even fake people, even characters, are allowed to be grieved. The cast party is as much a funeral and wake as it is a celebration of what we did together. Be a part of this wake. Grieve as you need, but remember the good times. That’s why we do this, to say goodbye.”

Now, I probably got some of the words wrong, that was 1996. But I remember distinctly her saying it was okay to grieve and that the cast party was a wake. I’d never thought about it like that before, but it stuck with me. We are allowed to mourn the good experiences we’ve had together. We are allowed to mourn the characters which stick with us through the years. Hell, we’re allowed to mourn the wonderful spaces we create together. While nowadays we call it bleed, drop, or any number of things, it’s the same principle. We are all grieving. And that after party is a wake as much as it is a party.  And I want you all to know that is okay. Everyone grieves in their own ways over different emotional connections and memories. It’s healthy to acknowledge some of what you are feeling is grief and work through it in such a fashion. Sometimes, it’s not always just about being “too connected” to a character. Sometimes it really is about the loss of the experience.

Why do I write this now? Because I’ve recently realized some of the worst bleed I have from games (and I don’t get bleed often) isn’t bleed, but it’s grief. I play a lot of games between my campaign larps and one-shot larps. In campaign games, I next to never experience any sort of drop, sadness, or bleed from one game to the next. I know we will be back there next month, in the same space with several of the same people, telling similar stories and revisiting this reality which I enjoy living in once every few months. It’s easy to put it down knowing that I can pick it back up again and, while I live long term in that character’s headspace, it’s easier to acknowledge it as a fiction I do once a month and then put away, like a favourite toy. Emotions are a little more muted and game action is a little slower because it feels like there will always be more time to do things in the future.

However, one-shot larps get to me. I get more intense connections, ‘drop’, and after-bleed in those games than I ever do the long-term campaigns near and dear to my heart. When I came back from 1942 last year, I sobbed openly over pouring too much honey into my tea because my brain was still stuck in rationing mode. I walked through Denmark for two days last year after Inside Hamlet in an exhausted, grief-stricken haze: I thought it was bleed for Gertrude having watched her whole court fall, but I realized after it was grief for the entire experience. I would never play Gertrude in that space again. I would never tell a story with those people, as those characters, in that castle once more. Even going into Inside Hamlet again at the end of this week, I know it won’t be the same. We have a ton of new exciting stories, character connections, and people to play with. It’s going to be amazing. But knowing I could ‘go back to that space’ last year didn’t cut the grief out of my heart when it was over. My Getrude was done and that was a loss. With 1942, leaving the tiny little Strand family home from was a heart-wrenching experience beyond just the ration-brain. I missed our tiny table, bumping elbows, I even missed sleeping on a mattress in the upstairs hallway. I missed those players in that place. It took my brain entirely longer to get back into the flow of the real world after these games than it ever does after a campaign game.

I recently had a slightly more gentle, but still grieving experience after HLGCon. Pandaemonium was a powerful game with so many dedicated players, a really compelling story, and a faction with whom I immediately felt like I was family. When it was over, I felt that same shock and grief I felt after that first production where I sat in the corner at the cast party. Fortunately, nowadays, I’m spending a lot more time critically thinking about emotions in gaming and it was far easier to process. That’s when I made the connection. The feelings I was experiencing were the same ones as I did after my first big show closed. I wasn’t bleeding for the character, or even going through drop because of no longer being in a social space surrounded by my friends, I was grieving for an experience that had ended which I would never have again. The factions in one-shot games are so emotional and close that they often feel like family; losing those connections after a single weekend can feel like the loss of a dear friend or family. I take bigger emotional risks in one-shot games, so I end up more emotionally invested after a weekend and suddenly there is nowhere else to take that story. It’s no wonder the grief hits so fast — the characters in a one-shot game only get to live one life and then it’s over. It’s like the shortest run of a theatrical production ever.

Once I realized it was grief I was feeling, I gave myself permission to go through those motions, just like Martha gave me permission all that time ago. I poured a drink out for the character and the faction. I wrote stories and reflections to memorialize the experience for the future. I let the emotions well up and then pass. It was far easier to deal with these emotions once I acknowledged the root of them and gave myself permission to feel them. So, with this blog, I am doing my best to pass on that permission.

It’s okay to grieve, my friends. If you end a game, lose a character, miss an experience, or leave a gaming group, it’s ALRIGHT to feel grief over that loss. The emotions we feel in gaming are real. Our bodies don’t know the difference between simulated emotions in a gaming space and real ones in our lives. The friendships we form in factions and the stories we create in spaces are all quite real to our internal lives and it is alright to mourn their passing. Instead of damning yourself for having bleed or drop, maybe take a day to step back and mourn? Pour one out for your imaginary friends. They lived a good life. Take what lessons you can from them, remember the good things, and then work on moving on. But don’t dismiss or belittle your grief.

I’m taking this lesson with me going into Inside Hamlet and Welcome to Salvation: 1878 in the coming weeks. I won’t let the fear of grief hold me back from telling the best stories possible, but I’ll certainly be ready to mourn the experiences once they are done. I think it will prepare me a bit more for the emotions afterwards and I hope this permission prepares you as well.

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