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Pulling Together

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 [1] (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?

6 Comments (Open | Close)

6 Comments To "Pulling Together"

#1 Comment By brcarl On October 2, 2008 @ 8:22 am

My group doesn’t get together very often, so we’re loathe to cancel if people are just slightly under the weather. Thus we’re likely to run into the situation described.

I agree fundamentally with your assumption that the core goal of the event should be for everyone to have fun. But because of our infrequency, we’re unlikely to bail to a “simpler” game (eg., cards) just because one or two aren’t feeling well.

Given that, I would agree with your idea that taking additional breaks makes sense. Again, this is hard to do as we’re trying to squeeze in as much gaming as we can before we all start to drift off due to the late hour. But I might argue quality over quantity — especially if there are folks who are feeling frustrated.

I think a lot of this problem comes from the built-in assumption that OOC conversation has this taboo: the shunning of meta-gaming, and the desire to not ruin the atmosphere, etc. Again you could counter those concerns with Rule #1: Make sure everyone is having fun.

Overall, in situations where people are playing at less than 100% health and/or attention, I would address it as GM right at the beginning of the session — or as soon as you realize that it’s an issue. Just pointing out the elephant in the room is often enough to get others to say what’s been stirring in their minds.

#2 Comment By LesInk On October 2, 2008 @ 11:18 am

My group would rather have a bad session than no session. This makes for a simple rule that we push on even when we’re not doing so well.

As a GM, I tend to make the mistake of just slowing down when I’m not at 100%. If we’re in combat, it drags on. If its a social encounter, we go on and on about nothing. In short, the evening just seems to get whittled away.

The best option, I find, is really just to cut the game short. Reach some objective the players wanted to get to, but cut it short. People will be happier that you played than not, got an objective completed, and then retired a bit early to catch up on whatever they need to handle (be it a problem or a bit of sleep).

#3 Comment By Scott Martin On October 2, 2008 @ 2:25 pm

Brcarl and Lesink: It sounds like we’re in similar groups– the game must go on. I know that I worry about things dragging (as Lesink suggests) when I’m off my game– who wants to waste the session on pointless discussion?

I agree with you Brcarl– addressing it upfront and early is probably the best way to handle it. I’ll try that out next time.

#4 Comment By Kurt “Telas” Schneider On October 2, 2008 @ 11:24 pm

Historically, I’ve had a ton of bad sessions. I’m sure I’ve still got my fair share of them ahead of me.

But the more I game, the more I have learned to recognize when things aren’t “right”, and I’m now okay with taking a break to find out what’s wrong. I’m pretty much over the “but I’m a good GM; I can’t be having an off night!” ego-fest.

I’m glad you muddled through; lesser groups may have imploded after a session like that. I’m also impressed that you recognized what went wrong, and that you took responsibility for your share of it.

#5 Comment By BryanB On October 6, 2008 @ 10:38 am

I have had some mixed results on those “off-nights.”

The groups I have been a part of tend to play anyway, simply because we have about two sessions a month and a session being “off” is better than a session being missed or postponed.

If things are running down the hill, I may ask for a break to try and recalibrate the game. Five or ten minutes can help the GM and players regroup and try to turn the off-night into a good session. Most of the time, a break is an effective method for turning the game around. I’ve even had an off-night turn into a very memorable session after the break.

There is an exception to being able to pull together. If I am supposed to be the GM and I am in a really bad mood (pretty rare), then I know not to run a game. I’ve tried the forging ahead thing and pulling together when in this situation and it was full of fail.

Two of the worst games I ever ran came on bad mood nights. In one case, I was ticked off at one of the players for out of game reasons and I vented that out in game (bad form on my part). The other time, I had a really bad work week and I was in an irritable mood when the other players wanted to continue the campaign on short notice. Even after I objected to role-playing for that day, the players insisted that I continue the game and the pressure came in from everyone to give it a go. I ran the game and it was a total disaster ending in near TPK and a lot of disappointment for all.

The group I am in now seems more likely to pull out of a funk if we are having one. I think we realize that not all sessions will be great, but that all sessions have the potential to be great. When a session is off kilter, my current group seems even more motivated to pull it together for the next game. I think we have the ability to pull each other up when one of us is down as well. I know that the enthusiastic banter that comes from player interactions can often rekindle my spark as a GM and hopefully vice versa.

#6 Comment By Scott Martin On October 6, 2008 @ 4:28 pm

Thanks for the support and stories. We played on schedule on Friday and had a good session– everyone was energetic and we didn’t want the evening to come to an end. While I’m not eager to have bad sessions more often… I appreciated a solid session after the bad previous go.