by Dru Pagliassotti
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 VCR clock is showing 2 a.m. Another gaming session over. And, invariably, whichever one of us was DM—my husband or I—will turn to the other and say, “Do you think the game went 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 DM; and the DM is angry at him/herself or the players.
The trick to getting past a bad session is to remember Sturgeon’s Law. Nobody, player or DM, 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 DM 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.
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 DM, for one reason or another, can’t alter. The characters and the DM get frustrated and the session stalls in foot-dragging, endless planning, or bitter argumentation.
When a plot goes bad, it’s up to the DM 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, mayor, or noble, 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—maybe that magical barrier is lowered to bring in a delivery of food, or an acid-proof monster attacks the group at the edge of the unpassable lake of acid (so that when they kill it, they can use its skin to cover a raft), or an NPC is willing to sell or trade an item that the party needs. Problem plots can usually be recouped, especially if the DM is willing to put in some work between the bad session and the next game.
Sometimes the party’s luck just goes bad, and there’s nothing the DM 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; a Stinking Cloud engulfs the party and against all odds every member fails the saving throw; or the red dragon makes its perception roll and succeeds in killing or disorganizing the attackers who were trying to sneak up on it.
When either the dice or the plans go awry and multiple characters are critically injured or killed, the DM is stuck with the results (although see last week’s essay on dealing with die rolls). About the best that can happen is that the DM 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 DM 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.
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 DM can have NPCs in the group do the same. In one game, the DM (through an NPC) called all the squabbling characters together and gave each of them 3 minutes each (using a real egg timer) to state one thing they liked and one thing they disliked about each of the other characters. Nobody was allowed to argue until everyone had aired their point of view. It was a fascinating experience, it aired out a lot of interparty conflict, and all of the players agreed that it worked well. The DM 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 DM should set some time aside to discuss the problem privately with each player. S/he should 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 DM’s attention. These issues can come out in private conversation, and the DM can then take steps to fix the problem.
Sometimes the problems are simply in character, in which case the DM 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 DM 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 DM must step in as an authority figure. Sometimes the argument can be settled with a simple rule: “No, that spell won’t have that effect, end of argument, if you want to argue later, talk to me after the game.” Other times the DM 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 DM and will vary from situation to situation (for example, a DM 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 DM (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” will get them analyzing the game, suggesting improvements, and looking forward to the next session again.