Sometimes you know it’s an off week, but you game anyway. I had one of those experiences last week; different players were fighting off sickness, bad news, and exhaustion. I pinned too many hopes on the game– I was sick and hoped we’d be distracted from the bad news, and I didn’t realize how little sleep people had had until halfway through. Deciding to press on wasn’t a terrible idea… but we only barely avoided disaster.
Know your players
I’m running D&D 3.5 in my primary gaming group. Each of the players has reasons they enjoy playing– if you wanted to, you could allocate various Robin’s Laws player types  (or any other categorization scheme) to each of my players. The divisions in the group that showed through on Friday was more clear than normal due to everyone’s defenses being down.
We have two players who enjoy winning, one who just enjoys combat, and two who enjoy strategizing. Over the last four sessions, three and four sessions ago were very combat heavy, while the most recent two were wrapup of events and setting up new hot water.
Ordinarily, I’d consider that a good balance– in fact, I do. What I hadn’t kept in mind was that the combat loving player had missed two sessions– the two combat heavy sessions. It had been more than a month since she’d gotten to whet her character’s blades with blood.
Hints are good; listen to your players
Sometimes a player you that their itch isn’t getting scratched. My combat loving player mentioned a few times that they wanted combat… but the planning wasn’t resolved and they were inside a friendly city. After more cleanup and negotiation things got worse– the PCs (led by the planners) decided to skip over the road and travel encounters and teleport to their destination. If I’d been on my game, I’d have vetoed it [with an OOC explanation], particularly since they were dependent on an NPC for the service.
Instead, I provided teleport via the NPC mage, and they skipped right over the road events, scouting. and combat and moved straight into another social encounter with the suspected duke. This was a huge mistake– one player had repeatedly mentioned her frustration and a couple of the other players were losing interest and falling asleep.
When you’re off your game, it’s important to make sure that you’re still paying attention to everything– even if the game as a whole has to slow down. I fell to the temptation to cut corners (to pick up the speed a bit)– instead of running things through “is this fun?” filter, I just worried about plausibility. It keeps the pace up… but I lost player interest.
The clue by four
When players abandon characterization in favor of action, appropriate or not, you’ve passed beyond warning signs. As people it makes sense– the player’s input has been shut down by other players who are getting their itch scratched. By forcefully shoving the actions off path– perhaps in ignorance (since they haven’t been paying attention to the stuff that bores them), but just as likely knowing what they’re up to (converting another “talky scene” into a violent confrontation, whatever preparation and effort are derailed in the process)– the player can wrestle an unresponsive game into their space, even if it’s not supported socially.
When a player starts flailing like that, it’s time to step OOC and lay out expected timelines. Again I missed the obvious prompt to take things to the player level. It was perfectly obvious– I felt the impact of the clue by four– but I was off my game enough that the solution [talking about the game as people] wasn’t obvious.
In the end
It wasn’t anyone’s favorite session ever. We muddled through– which wasn’t bad given how many players were having an off week. Next session it will be important to pay careful attention to social cues and making sure that everyone has a chance to shine and enjoy play. The plot is at a place where I anticipate more conflict and combat so at least the overall framework looks like it will be supportive.
We’ve all had nights where we’ve GMed at less than a hundred percent. Is there anything you loose track of when things are off? Do you schedule more pauses or breaks to make sure that you have time to evaluate everything? [I suspect I should work more of those in, particularly when I’m not playing at my peak.] Or do you think I’m coming at this from the wrong angle– the whole “giving players what they like” isn’t your style at all? Are you quick to abandon a session and break out a card game or something else beer-n-pretzels light, or do you play your campaign anyway?