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Day 19: Worst Session Ever

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My memory only goes back so far, so if there is a worse session than this one, I can’t recall it. I wanted to do a dry run of one of my convention scenarios because it needed to be distilled down into a four hour session, so part of it was figuring out what was boring to players and what could be cut. But more than that, it was poor GMing on my part, for a number of reasons, and the session felt like a waste of time.

First, I wasn’t as prepared as I thought I was in terms of the game mechanics themselves. I hadn’t run the system before but had played in it, and thought that everything in combat was an opposed check, and that I would have the monster’s stats to compare against on the cards. (This is likely because my old GM had houseruled it in our old campaign because otherwise my character would have sliced through everything in sight.) So the first combat sent me flipping through the rules to determine how difficult a melee check was. Repeat this process for a few more times.

Second, I had a mixed group at the table, with players ranging from experienced GMs of the system to familiar but rusty players, as well players both new to the system and to role-playing games in general. I went over the basics with the whole group but figured a “learning by doing” approach would be fastest and most easily memorable. This had the awkward effect of meaning we had to stop the show for the new players, while the older players were pretty much capable of building their own dice pools with minimal help. Because I was already flustered by not having the most basic rules down, my attempts to help teach the game came off as snippy and condescending rather than patient and kind. This was extremely off-putting for the player new to role-playing especially, who felt like he was a burden.

Third, I didn’t rein in two of the “alphagamers” at the table, who were perfectly willing to take up all of my bandwidth as a GM and left little limelight for the other three players. I felt embarrassed calling them out in front of everyone, but eventually did have to put my foot down and tell their characters, “no, wait your turn, and let the other players have a chance to act.” Again, this came off as patronizing, because I was now frustrated with how poorly the session was going. By this point, the other PCs had already checked out of the game and didn’t know what to do when presented with the option.

Fourth, I didn’t intervene to keep the plot rolling. As written, the adventure has only so many plot-relevant events per day, the rest of which would probably filled with more sandbox-style adventuring within the city proper. I felt weird telling the players, “hey, you have to go to sleep in order for me to advance the story,” but neither could I bring myself to cram more plot points into the current day, lest it feel contrived.

The result was the fifth problem with the scenario—an all-too-alluring red herring. The players were sensing plot muffins where they didn’t exist because I had mentioned something offhandedly that seemed interesting to them. I should have just told them, “that isn’t relevant to your investigation,” but again because of my unwillingness to intrude into the scenario they followed the lead to the end. What was meant to be setting background noise became their obsession as they attempted to infiltrate a thieves’ den beneath a bar. I justified it at the time thinking that it was “true to the setting” and that not everything needs to be heroic—some things can just be mundane, and it can help condition players to stop trying to sniff plot muffins at every turn.

Three hours in, they had accomplished little in terms of their main quest. Some players were apologizing profusely while others just felt like they were made to look stupid, and everyone else just didn’t have more—or any—fun.

For all that it was basically an evening wasted, it did help me determine that I needed to cut the first few parts from the scenario entirely and when I actually ran the convention scenario it was a great success. I can also look back and take away five different GMing lessons to keep in mind as I go forward.

  1. Ensure that you understand the core mechanics of the game.
  2. In order to make sure that you have all your bases covered, do a trial run or write up an index card with the basic steps to make sure that you’re not just skipping over some in your head without realizing it.

  3. Be sure to integrate new players into the game.
  4. With players new to role-playing especially, they are forming their first judgments of whether or not they like this kind of game, and with a few missteps they can be lost to the hobby entirely. Either provide them with materials ahead of time so they can understand for themselves, or make sure that the rest of your party is going to be helpful and patient while they learn. Honestly, my best suggestion would be to not mix experienced gamers with newbies unless there is no alternative. Everybody feels more comfortable when everyone else at the table is learning alongside them.

  5. Gracefully shine the spotlight on all the players.
  6. When you discover that you have “attention-hog” players at the table, it’s your job as a GM to make sure they don’t monopolize your time and come up with hooks to entice the other players to be more active characters. It’s also your job to talk to the offending players outside of game to let them know what is happening. Yes, it’s awkward, especially when they’re your friends, but most of the time they’re not even aware that they’re doing it, much less doing it maliciously.

  7. Call a scene when it’s over, or keep the scenes alive with action.
  8. Games don’t need to played in “real-time”; in fact, like movies or writing, each played-out scene should have a purpose and further the plot or develop the characters, or both. Use screen-wipes and cuts to jump ahead to the next action scene unless you’re playing in a true sandbox-style game.

  9. Call the red herring for what it is.
  10. Unless misdirection is part of the plot itself, be careful about letting your players pursue red herrings. Once revealed as being irrelevant, the tension and life goes out of the game while the party realizes they have to backtrack and all their work was for naught. An improvisational GM can take potential red herrings and run with them, adapting and transforming them into relevant points, but I also don’t think that every single character or item needs to have plot significance. If you train the characters that everything mentioned is a clue, they are going to continue to see clues in everything you say and become reliant on the GM to move the story forward. The players should use more of their own problem-solving power to come up with solutions, rule out others, and pursue the leads they think are most promising.

  11. Don’t let frustration spiral out of control.
  12. After looking back on all that went wrong, a lot of it had to do with the fact that I had lost my confidence and felt like I was doing a bad job, which manifested as more frustration that further discouraged the players. I’m subconsciously empathetic, so when my group is enjoying themselves, I thrive off the energy and put more excitement back in the game. But once something goes wrong at the table, my being flustered tends to create even more tension among the players, which in turn makes me feel worse. Call a time out if you need to, dispel the negative thoughts and self-doubt, and re-center to get the game back on a good note. If the evening isn’t salvageable, sometimes it helps to call it early and let a week pass before trying to get the game back on a good note.

What was your worst GMing session and why? Link your answers in the comments below! You can find the rest of the 30 Days of Gamemastering Challenge prompts here. And stay tuned for tomorrow’s post on my best session ever. Thanks again for reading!

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