“Ninety percent of everything is crud.” —Sturgeon’s Law
The last guest is out the door, the gaming paraphernalia has been swept away, the trash bin is overflowing, the sink is piled high with dishes, and the clock is showing 2 a.m. Another gaming session over. And, invariably, the GM will wonder, “Did the game go OK?”
Sometimes game sessions don’t go OK. The players or characters—or both—get into arguments, the day devolves into endless planning at the expense of action, the characters fail miserably, or the plot gets derailed and the DM does a poor job of recovery. Bad sessions leave everyone feeling frustrated and depressed, especially in the wee hours of the morning when sheer weariness is already putting a damper on spirits. The players are angry at themselves, each other, or the GM; and the GM is angry at themself or the players.
The trick to getting past a bad session is to remember Sturgeon’s Law. Nobody, player or GM, is perfect, and the occasional bad session is part of the gaming experience. Then take a deep breath and evaluate what went wrong and how to avoid it in the future. Both the players and the GM should do this either the same night (post-game reprises are common while driving home or cleaning up), the next day, or later in the week—whenever the session can be analyzed calmly. Most bad sessions can be grouped under the following categories.
Bad Plot: Sometimes the dungeon doesn’t provide the characters with enough motivation and they’re just half-heartedly going along “because that’s the adventure,” or decide not to go along at all; sometimes the characters don’t catch a vital clue and end up chasing a red herring for the whole session; sometimes the dungeon poses a difficulty that the characters simply don’t have the resources to surmount and that the GM, for one reason or another, can’t alter. The characters and the GM get frustrated and the session stalls in foot-dragging, endless planning, or bitter argumentation.
When a plot goes bad, it’s up to the GM to fix it. Enhance the motivation by making it personal (perhaps they didn’t care about the highwaymen until one of their NPC friends gets taken for ransom) or political (perhaps their refusal to take the mission irritates the local guildmaster, governor, or media mogul, and the group is called on the carpet for it). Throw in another clue that will give the characters another chance to figure out what’s going on, or, if the game is running “on a clock,” at least try to put the characters in the right area when the theft, murder, or ritual occurs, so they have one last chance to stop it. Offer some way to get around the obstacle or an NPC who’s willing to sell or trade an item that the party needs. Problem plots can usually be recouped, especially if the GM is willing to put in some work between the bad session and the next game.
Bad Luck: Sometimes the party’s luck just goes bad, and there’s nothing the GM can do about it. The villain’s Sword of Sharpness lops off the cleric’s head and the rest of the group has no way to heal its wounds, falling quickly to the monsters or a grenade blast catches the party and against all odds every member fails the resistance roll.
When either the dice or the plans go awry and multiple characters are critically injured or killed, the GM is stuck with the results. About the best that can happen is that the GM gives the surviving characters a chance to grab the bodies of their deceased companions and flee to a safe hiding place. This is often a good time to end the day’s session. Even though the players and the GM may be depressed by ending on a low note, it gives both a chance to come back to the scenario later with fresh plans and ideas.
Bad Dynamics: Sometimes the players or the characters, or both, start to argue, and the game devolves into bad feelings. If the argument is completely in character, the resolution should be in character—players who don’t want to spend the day arguing should try to work out a compromise, or the GM can have nonplayer characters in the group do the same. The GM might also decide, after the party has been arguing, that it’s a good time to call a break for lunch or dinner. This lets everybody think about the problem as they go shopping, prepare their food, or simply sit around and eat; by the time the game starts again, chances are the players are ready to work the problem out.
When two characters just can’t seem to get along no matter what, and the arguments seem to carry over from game to game, then the GM should set some time aside to discuss the problem privately with each player. Find out what the problem is and how the players think it can be resolved. Often in-character arguments turn out to have deeper root causes, such as one player thinking that the other gets all the GM’s attention. These issues can come out in private conversation, and the GM can then take steps to fix the problem. It could, unfortunately, even mean dropping a problem player from a gaming group.
Sometimes the problems are simply in character, in which case the GM must ask the players to please tone down the intercharacter rivalry because it’s disrupting the game. Good players will try to do so, and the GM can then work to put the two characters into a situation where they can become friends (the old TV cliche of putting two rivals in a dangerous situation where they must rely on each other to survive is a good way to do this).
If the argument is partially or completely between the players, then the GM must step in as an authority figure. Sometimes the argument can be settled with a simple rule: “No, that tactic won’t have that effect, end of argument, if you want to argue later, talk to me after the game.” Other times the GM will actually need to call a time-out and discuss the problem with the players individually, pulling them into a separate room and asking what’s going on, or discuss the problem with the playing group as a whole. How to handle an interplayer argument is up to the GM and will vary from situation to situation (for example, a GM is likely to treat two arguing high-school students differently from two arguing spouses). However, the players need to be told that their behavior is affecting the game and given a chance to either work it out together or leave the session until they can come back to it with a clear head.
Once the problem has been pinpointed and steps taken to resolve it, the GM (and the players) should try to avoid a recurrence. Discussing the problem is a good way to get input from other players and to sensitize them to the fact that there was a problem in the first place. It’s not wrong to admit that a session went poorly—often just emailing or calling the players to say, “well, the last game wasn’t so hot, but I think I know what the problem was and how to avoid it in the future” can get them analyzing the game, suggesting improvements, and looking forward to the next session again.
Originally written August 8, 1998
Image Source: Irish Fairy Tales, Arthur Rackham, 1920