Over in our Suggestion Pot — the section of Gnome Stew where you can request articles — Crushnaut related the following problem:

The game started off well. Everyone seemed excited about playing, but now I get the feeling that my player’s interest has waned, although they do not seem to want to admit it. I ask the players if they are enjoying the game and they tell me, “YES! It is great!” But, then during the games they do not seem to pay attention. They seem more interested in having side conversations, falling asleep, or their favourite, drifting off into space. I try to rein them in but eventually I feel like I sound like a broken record player, or my mother nagging me.

If you’re reading this and have been here, you’re nodding your head right now — and if you’ve been gaming for long enough, you’ve been here (probably on both sides of the screen). Every GM will run into this situation during their GMing careers.

Crushnaut, I’m sorry to have to respond to your article request with an unpleasant truth: Your players don’t enjoy your game anymore, and they don’t know how to tell you that.

For Crushnaut and any other GM who finds themselves in this awkward position, let’s cover why this is such a tricky situation, how to spot it, and what to do about it.

But they said they like my game!

As GMs, we are often (though certainly not always) the player at the table who is most invested in the game. A big reason for this is that we have game-related responsibilities both at the table and away from the table: In order to have a game to play, we generally have to do prep.

And more often than not, we’re playing with friends. The most common exceptions are one-shots, convention events, and the like. If you’re sitting down together every week, though, your players are almost certainly also your buddies.

And your buddies don’t like to tell you that your game (because even though everyone at the table is responsible for the game being fun, in some ways it is your game simply because you’re running it), in which you’ve clearely invested so much time and energy, isn’t fun anymore.

Can you blame them? I don’t. I’ve been one of those players on more than one occasion, and while I’m generally comfortable speaking my mind this is one very awkward situation.

As a player, if you pipe up there’s really only one upside: maybe the game will get better, or be replaced with one you enjoy. But there are many potential downsides:

  • You might lose a friend. Some GMs are touchy, or are less confident in their skills; either way, they might take it personally.
  • You might lose a GM. More likely, your GM will vacate the GMing chair for a good while, potentially leaving your group with no game to play.
  • You’re almost certain to hurt your GM’s feelings. I’m an adult who can roll with punches, and intellectually I know that if my players don’t like my game it doesn’t mean they don’t like me — but it still stings.
  • You’ll feel like a hypocrite. And you know what? You are a hypocrite — you should have brought it up long ago. If you stop liking a game, the best thing to do is talk about it. If you wait too long, it just gets harder and harder to bring it up.

So when you ask your players what they think of the game (or worse, the leading question, “Did you like that adventure?”) and they enthusiastically say “Yes!,” they’re lying to spare your feelings. It’s difficult to get genuine feedback about a game from a player who isn’t enjoying it (though there are exceptions).

Spotting the problem

Crushnaut wrote a much more extensive summary of his situation, but the paragraph I quoted up top sums up the warning signs:

  1. Your players seem bored. Everyone gets bored at the gaming table from time to time — like when they don’t get enough spotlight time, or the session has drifted into a style of gaming they’re not so wild about. But bored players — especially the plural, rather than just one player — are always a warning sign that there’s a problem at the table.
  2. Your gut tells you something is wrong. If something seems off, it probably is. If you have to ask yourself whether or not your players are having fun, they probably aren’t having fun. Trust your gut.
  3. When you ask for feedback, it’s positive but non-committal. When your players are jazzed about the game, you’ll usually know. Some players are quiet about having fun, and with them it’s harder to tell — but if you ask for feedback and consistently get told that everyone is enjoying the game, and warning signs one and two are visible, there’s a problem.

There are other, more obvious signs, as well — such as your players finding excuses not to play week after week, or regularly scheduling conflicting events on long-established game nights. But those don’t usually speak to the specific stage of this situation that Crushnaut asked about — the stage where you’re not 100% sure there’s actually a problem.

When you want to think everything is going well but secretly know it isn’t, the three signs I listed are the ones to watch out for.

What to do about it

Okay, so we’ve covered why this problem is awkward and how to spot the warning signs, but what do you actually do about it? There are two pieces of good news.

The first piece of good news is this: You’re not a failure as a GM, and you haven’t lost any friends.

And believe me, in the moment it can be hard to believe both of those things. Even after years of GMing and years of friendship with my group, when I finally realize that this problem has reared its ugly head it is VERY hard not to think both of those things.

The second bit of good news is that this problem can be solved, although the solution might not be easy to swallow.

The first step

The first thing you need to do is bring up the elephant in the room. Not comfortable doing that? Here’s a basic script you can use:

“This might be kind of awkward, but I get the impression that you guys aren’t having fun with the game, and don’t know how to tell me. You won’t hurt my feelings, so let’s talk about it. I want us all to have fun, and if you’re not having fun we should probably play another game.”

Where and when you do this depends on your group. At the end of a session, everyone might be too tired; email is a terrible option (unless your game is online, of course); and if everyone shows up to play and you drop your bombshell, it might feel like bait-and-switch.

Personally, I’d do it in a social situation that doesn’t involve the game — over lunch, or on a random night while you’re all hanging out. If that’s not an option, just bite the bullet and do it however sounds best to you — the important thing is to do it.

You don’t have to use my script, of course, but it’s got some good ingredients: it fully acknowledges the situation; it’s non-confrontational; it doesn’t assign blame — either to you or to your players; it focuses on everyone having fun; and it ends with an easy out.

Likely solutions

There are two basic ways you can tackle trying to solve this problem, and they both rely on taking the first step of bringing it up directly with your players. They also both depend on what your players say in that conversation.

Fixable problems: If the conversation reveals that your players have specific problems with the game — too many social scenes (or too few), too much combat (or too little), less of something they were excited about than they expected, feeling like their characters aren’t central to the plot, etc. — then you’re in luck.

That means that a lot of what they liked about the game is probably still present, it’s just obscured by whatever is bugging them about it. If you can all agree on what’s wrong — and it’s probably just a couple of things, though they may be substantial — and you and your players are willing to work to change them, you can salvage your game.

Better still, it won’t just be salvaged, it will be awesome again.

Just pack it in: If the above situation doesn’t sound like yours — where there are specific, solvable problems — then it’s time to stop playing this game.

Bring the game to an end, take a break from GMing for a week or two (but not too long — get back into it quickly, if you’re so inclined), and start a new game. You can GM again, or let someone else take a turn.

This is a shitty situation, but there’s a silver lining: it’s less shitty than wasting your time running a game that neither you nor your players enjoy anymore, and continuing along that path until something worse happens.

Crushnaut, I sincerely hope you find yourself in the first situation. Talk it out with your players, look for ways to change the game so it’s fun for everyone again, and get back to having a blast every week. But if you need to end the game, that’s not the end of the world.

Get right back into the mix with another game, and make sure that whoever’s running it learns from the problems your players had with this game. Every time my group shares feedback (positive or negative), we gather data points for our subsequent games — you will have gotten useful data for your next time behind the screen.

I hope this helps, and to all GMs reading this and seeing their own games, take heart: You can collaborate with your group to fix the problem (one way or the other), get past the awkwardness, and start having fun on game nights again.

Have you found yourself in a similar situation? Bad or good, how did you handle it?