Tuesday, 14 February 2017

The 25th Hour, and the Courage to Use It (Originally published on the Mad Adventurers Society)

This past week, I have been unable to find the time necessary to put together the piece I wanted to write. It's a big enough subject for me, that I didn't want to just bang out something at the last minute. So here is a piece I wrote a long time ago on the nature of time and how we can squeeze one more hour out of the day when we really need to...

As years pass and responsibilities increase, free time is absorbed by real life like The Nothing consumes every imaginary world you’ve ever traversed on a flying dog.  Finding the time to indulge in whatever pastimes you enjoy becomes an exercise in herding kittens.  What we end up doing is holding a lottery, where we cast off the smaller pleasures in favour of the things that we really enjoy and that contribute to the balancing effect that hobbies have over the stresses and rigors of our days of toil.

If time (or lack of) can act as walls closing in on the average tabletop gamer, preventing them from enjoying their hobbies and interests, what is an intrepid enthusiast to do to mitigate that conundrum?

The 25th Hour

There is a book somewhere with this title.  Apparently, there is a movie of the same name.  I have even heard that both of these are very good things to pass your time consuming.  What I am talking about has nothing to do with either of these things.  Let’s move on.

The first time I heard the concept of the twenty fifth hour was from one of my many musical influences.  I can’t remember whom exactly to credit with the idea, but the concept is simple:  

There is a secret twenty-fifth hour lurking in the corners of every day, and if you find a thing truly important and absolutely need time to do it, the twenty-fifth hour is there for you to make use of after all of your other duties and commitments have been met.

This hour could involve some simple exchange of scheduling.  Instead of taking an hour to answer emails or check facebook, you sit down and have a good long look at your character backstory and compare it to how your sessions are going.  Does it all fit, and what changes do you need to make?

Sometimes the twenty-fifth hour is hidden throughout the day in smaller chunks.  Five minutes here and twenty minutes there, you contemplate the contents of the tournament deck you are preparing for an upcoming con, making notes on which cards need to be in the deck, and what cards are upcoming in the next expansions and how will they affect your strategies going forwards.  The twenty-fifth hour involves sacrifice and dedication, because you need to focus on gathering those small moments throughout a day or night and compile them into blocks of time where the reward is that extra opportunity to work on what you are passionate about.

For me, the twenty-fifth hour lurks at the beginning or the end of the day.  A long time ago, I needed more practice time on the bass guitar.  There were techniques and scales that I was learning as part of my own voracious appetite to expand my knowledge and understanding of my instrument and music as a whole.  These approaches to the bass were not a part of my usual musical vocabulary as it applied to my band.  As a rock/metal cover band, slap/pop techniques and jazz scales didn’t show up nearly enough in our set lists.  What that means for a musician is that you have to practice and explore those things outside of your usual musical routine.

I didn’t exactly have tons of free time sitting in heaps around me.  Besides my normal practice routine learning and maintaining proficiency in our library of songs, I had all of the previously mentioned responsibilities of adulthood breathing down my neck.  Home, wife and child were all things that I wanted and needed to pay attention to, no matter how much my brain was masticating the application of seventh chords over a II-V progression through the circle of fifths.

I needed more time, so I resolved to get up earlier, and/or stay up later.  You may think this is silly, or you may wonder why it took me so long to figure it out.  However, simply decreasing your hours of rest is not the healthiest choice.  We have all heard over the years how our bodies, minds and souls need rest to be healthy and navigate the perils of the day.  How else will we recover hit points?!  The powers that be, and game designers are not wrong, so I caution you to be honest with yourself when examining your rest patterns, and make healthy choices.

I discovered with some conscious experimentation that I require (read: absolutely NEED) seven hours of sleep a night to function in a productive, safe and sane manner.  There are certainly times when I get less or more, but on average I aim to meet that seven hour goal, because I know that it is appropriate for me and my lifestyle.

After I established how much sleep I needed, I tacked that newfound extra time on to the parts of the day where it would do the most good.  This turned out to be the morning.  Up at five everyday, to make coffee and sit down with my bass in a quiet corner of the house.

That was definitely the benefit of scheduling my time in the morning.  Silence.  With everyone else asleep in the house I had free reign of that hour, without hearing “Daddy” or “Honey” on never-ending replay breaking my concentration and drawing me away from my studies.  That was the time that I needed to devote to learning new aspects of my instrument and expanding my base of knowledge in musical theory and how that weave of talent works in different genres of music.  Mission accomplished.

How does this apply to gaming?   Easy.  Exchange bass and music for games and gaming.  Wouldn’t it be nice to study up on your latest campaign in a quiet house with a fresh-brewed cup of java?  Not your thing?  Fine.  Headphones playing your preferred music and a pot of tea, or your favourite anime and a smoothie.  It doesn’t matter.  Once you find that extra hour, it’s almost like a cone of solitude, a bubble of space/time seemingly separate from the rest of your life where you can hyper-focus your efforts towards a thing.  It happens that way because you have made that special, extra effort to prioritize that block of your day for that singular purpose, somehow segregating it from everything else and drawing your full attention towards it.  Remember my “woodshed” analogy?  you are in it.  And away you go.

The twenty-fifth hour can be helpful as an emergency measure if you just haven’t been able to study up on your game between sessions.  There have been weeks where all of my worldly responsibilities have just been too much for me to hit the books and prep upcoming encounters for my group.  It was a real challenge to prepare when we were playing 4E D&D, and I had to find an extra hour quite often, but that’s a distant memory now, and we don’t need to dwell on it.

I have even on occasion used my twenty-fifth hour in the hour right before our session started, staying in my car outside of Game On (our FLGS at the time), and vigorously cramming stat blocks and NPC notes before allowing myself to exit and make my way inside.

We’ve all been there.  Desperately seeking the extra bit of time that we need to prepare for a session or read up on rules, etc. before our games began, and defining an extra hour of a day and making other apparently small time sacrifices in an effort to create that chunk of space to get there.  Establishing that block as a definite thing and calling it a Twenty-fifth Hour can help to draw your brain into the necessary state of mind to reach your goals as a GM and enjoy the effort spent, which helps to reap the rewards in the form of a great session for all and more time spent enjoying what you love.

But what happens if that extra block of time has to be taken in the wild?  What if those who choose to ignore your weird little hobby are forced to confront it head on, and what if you are content to separate those elements of your life for your own peace of mind, but this time it just can’t be avoided?

Just Do It.

I ran into this exact problem a few years ago while running a D&D Encounters series on top of my usual campaign arc.  For those unfamiliar with Encounters, it is an adventure series published by WotC and distributed to participating stores and their in-store groups.  From a certain starting date, each group plays through one encounter per week, usually over twelve weeks, and completes a story arc that leads to the next adventure.  This is all well and good, but at that time my group was really enjoying our homebrew, so after each official encounter we would switch settings and play as much of our regular game as we could for the remainder of the evening.  As DM, I thought it would be easy to study one encounter a week for the serial game, and still maintain all of the information I needed to run our usual game.  Of course, this was fourth edition, and I was just plain wrong.

As a DM for fourth, you had to maintain a seemingly mountainous mental list of abilities and special attacks and conditions and ohgodicanttakeitanymoreimsogladfifthishere.  Phew.

I ended up behind the eight ball on game day having not spent enough time to confidently run that evenings’ session.  I had a choice to make:  I could study in the parking lot.  Like I said, I’ve done that before, but the job site I was on was a fair drive from the store, and would only leave me about twenty minutes before the session to fit a lot of stuff in my head.

The second choice was to grab that encounters book and put it in my lunchbox, whipping it out in front of everyone, with my yogurt whatever else I had stuffed in there.  Fantastic depictions of struggling dwarves and meticulous maps and numbers and arcane symbols there for everyone to see.  People knew I did something every Wednesday night, but were content to file it under “weird stuff Rob does that we don’t get” (I also listen to weird music, have a seemingly bottomless well of obscure music and movie trivia, make constant TV and movie references, and generally have an odd and ridiculous sense of humour that may or may not lead to dancing around and behaving like an idiot.  Normal geek behaviour that is lost on a lot of the people in my life.  Sigh.  Nobody gets my art.).

I had to go with option two.  And that’s when I had that revelation that I was in my mid-thirties and that I was still behaving like a child when it came to the things that I loved.  I was still hiding my interests because they weren’t common or understood by some people who populated my world.  I was still deferring to that group when it came to what was acceptable to talk about in casual conversation.  I realized that if I chose to wait until the end of the day to study up, I would be under prepared and it would be because I was putting social discomfort and fear of others’ disapproval before what I liked doing and the necessary commitments that I made to ensure everyone else had a good time.

In a lot of ways I was very mad with myself for feeling this way.  I enjoyed working with these people, and we had a good time all around.  If I sought their approval or validation, it was because of the jobs we were doing together (remember, I’m a carpenter.  We build houses).  I only needed them to be satisfied with my workmanship and not what I did when I left work.  That’s not to say that I would go to work and boast about our orc-slaying exploits on the tabletop, daring any cynics or non-believers to question my undying loyalty to polyhedral dice.  Just that I shouldn’t have to hide it just because I’m the only one interested.

So I wadded up the adventure book and sandwiched it in next to my leftover roast beef and made my way to work.

At first break I very casually pulled out my snacks and book, poured my tea from my thermos and opened to the appropriate page.  I didn’t really start reading, because I was immediately aware that conversations about hockey and hunting and yard maintenance were dying off around the room as people noticed that it wasn’t a magazine I was reading, but something altogether different.

To my great delight and even chagrin, I wasn’t mocked or derided like a nerd in a school yard.  I was asked questions about what I was doing.  They were curious enough to listen until they understood just enough to know that I wasn’t under the impression that I would be conjuring flames or summoning demons anytime soon.  I was different enough already that me pulling D&D books out of my lunch box just wasn’t a shock to them.

I explained that I was studying and needed to get as much done before the end of the day as possible, and after they were satisfied with the concept and mechanical explanations of how the whole thing worked, they respected what I needed from my twenty-fifth hour and left me alone, returning to their own conversations about the things that were important to them.  The hobbies that filled their own spare hours.

It’s common knowledge now that I run a community gaming group, and that I have spent Wednesdays and/or Thursdays for the last few years engaging in what is a niche hobby, but really no different than someone who has a weekly poker game, or coaches youth hockey.  I don’t fly my geek flag in defiance of the norm, it’s just a thing that I do, like everyone else.

That’s not to say that I don’t have moments of insecurity.  It’s a lot of fun when someone new starts at the company and is confronted by my interests.  The casual, comfortable attitude of everyone around me is inspiring, and at the end of the twenty-fifth hour, it’s just me and my hobby, and I’m smiling.

The twenty-fifth hour is there for anyone devoted enough to find it.  Sometimes loving something and being committed to its pursuit means putting yourself out there in uncomfortable situations.  It is worth it, if you are willing to make the necessary sacrifices, and sometimes you can be pleasantly satisfied with the results, making it all worth the risk.

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