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An Unpleasant Truth: Your Players Have Stopped Enjoying Your Game

Over in our Suggestion Pot [1] — the section of Gnome Stew where you can request articles — Crushnaut related the following problem [2]:

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:

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 [3], 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 [4]; 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?

9 Comments (Open | Close)

9 Comments To "An Unpleasant Truth: Your Players Have Stopped Enjoying Your Game"

#1 Comment By Rafe On July 14, 2009 @ 6:52 am

As you said, I think everyone’s been in that situation, either as the GM or a player (or both). I think the important thing to do before bringing it out in the open is to take a good look at the game and ask yourself, honestly, if it’s the game people were expecting.

If the purpose of the game was a romantic high seas adventure and the game has come to be focused around inland investigation, the issue might be that you aren’t delivering on the social contract, implicitly or explicitly determined at the start of the campaign. Think of how to get back on track with the original premise. That could solve things right there.

Also, is the system you’re using player-reactive or player-proactive? In other words, are you playing D&D or Burning Wheel? (just examples that are relevant to me, personally.) If the former, the GM will have most of the work to do to rectify the issue – they carry the ball. If the latter, the players have a huge stake in how things have gone so far. They, with the GM, will have to take a good look at the situation and come to a way to resolve whatever is happening that is causing player drift or disinterest.

Last thing: I’d say that, before you point out the elephant in the room, rethink your next session plan. Really examine it. Be critical. Now totally alter it. Draw out more spotlight moments, force players to come to decisions about their characters, bring back that villain or great NPC, etc. Change things to see how that session flies.

Regardless, at the end of the session, bring the “elephant” forward in chains and talk things out. “I’ve been feeling like interest has gone downhill. I tried to change up this session to see if it would have an impact.” If it did: “You guys seemed more into this session. Do you want to see more of X?” If it didn’t: “Let’s work this out. We’re all players here, and the goal is to have fun. I’ll start: I think I ought to be doing more of Y…” and have the players all chime in.

If you (the GM) start the process, they’ll feel more comfortable getting in on the honest feedback because they see you’re committed to making the game work. If you look to the players to speak first… well… you may find they’re holding back, and can you blame them?

#2 Comment By Kurt “Telas” Schneider On July 14, 2009 @ 8:11 am

I’ve been there; I think any GM with some experience has been there. And this is definitely the right way to handle it. Tough love time…

I think one of the reasons we keep seeing this over and over (he says, pulling on his philosopher’s robes) is that the personality type drawn to gaming tends to assume that everyone shares the same view of the world. (Yes, it’s a gross generalization, but IME it’s also a fairly accurate one.)

As an example: “I’m a gamer and a geek. I like anime and steampunk. Therefore, all my gamer-geek buddies must like anime and steampunk, too.”

Sorry to burst your bubble, but I honestly cannot stand anime, and steampunk does absolutely nothing for me. This does not mean that you can’t like them, or that I’m rejecting you as a friend, or that I’m criticizing your GMing. I just don’t like them. Deal with it, and let’s find some common ground.

#3 Comment By Crushnaut On July 14, 2009 @ 8:59 am

Thanks for the quick reply!

What you say makes a lot of sense, and in some ways is what was running through my head. I will be seeing the group this weekend. Hopefully we can resolve this problem. I think it is going to involve starting a new campaign though.

#4 Comment By TwoShedsJackson On July 14, 2009 @ 9:46 am

Something to think about, but let me play devil’s (or demon’s) advocate. Could it be that:

1. …*you* are bored with the game, and are projecting your boredom onto the players?

2. …the players are bored with each other?

3. …the players are distracted by other matters, such as their actual lives?

4. …you have done something to keep your players from being invested in the game, like constantly joking about killing their characters, or suggesting you would rather play a different system?

#5 Comment By Zig On July 14, 2009 @ 10:59 am

I’ve run into this problem in the past from both sides of the old GM screen. I think the ideas presented in the article are great.

In my own experiences, one of the things I did was tag team with another friend. I’d run my Shadowrun campaign for 6 months or so and then we’d switch over to his Rifts campaign. This gave us both a nice break and a chance to recharge. We also learned from each other and our observations of the other players by being a PC next to them. Those insights were handy.

During one stretch of GMing that same long running Shadowrun campaign I could see my players were getting a bit bored of their characters and the setting. What I did then since I had no one willing to take on the GM mantle was to send the players off in groups of two to different parts of the globe to do shadowruns. They worked with NPCs, but instead of me playing the NPCs I gave the players who were not on that particular run an index card with NPC info and had them play them. It gave them all a chance to play something different for a few game sessions and experience different parts of the world. It provided a nice breath of fresh air.

Recently, I shelved the three year running 2nd Edition D&D game I was DMing. I was getting the sense that the players for the most part aside from one of them was drifting off in their enjoyment of the game. So, I said I’d like to put the campaign on hiatus for a while and we could do one of three things — a new D&D game, a Shadowrun campaign, or someone step into the GM shoes for a while. They picked a new D&D campaign and it seems to be working…they are all enjoying playing very different characters and are in the midst of a dungeon crawl which is a nice change from the political stuff they were involved in in the last campaign.

As a player, I have been remiss in mentioning that I am not enjoying a game. Once we had someone step into the DM boots and he insisted, for instance, that the paladin had to make a wisdom check every time he was near a woman to not stray from his vows…I hated having the DM tell me and the others how our characters felt. The game died from people making themselves “unavailable”. We should have been upfront with the problems we saw. I think he might have actually appreciated the frank discussion if we had been brave enough as his friends.

#6 Comment By Tiorn On July 14, 2009 @ 6:39 pm

I know that people who are trying to have fun will avoid negative vibes. It just seems to me that this approach is bringing the negatives right into the foreground, when players don’t want to go there. Its true in life with a lot of different things: people just do not respond to negatives. So, honestly, I have to ask: “why go there?”

I plan on running a 3.5E campaign sometime soon. I have worries that I will fall way short of keeping my players’ attentions and interest. It seems like a better approach in dealing with such potential problems (when it seems to be more and more obvious), would be to be kind of sneaky about it. Go for positives instead of bringing up the negative elephant.

If some players seem more uninterested than others, then talk to them about what they would like to be doing with their characters. What makes the character tick? What are its goals? Ambitions? Motivations? And so on.

Take notes on the responses… then use them. Rewrite your story to include what you were told by your players. When you get right down to it, the story is all about the players after all.

#7 Comment By Scott Martin On July 22, 2009 @ 5:03 pm

I’ve been there on both sides. It’s very hard to critique the GM for all the reasons you mentioned– the GM’s increased effort and investment, not wanting to say hurtful things to defensive friends, etc.

One of the things that often makes it hard to comment is when you had a bad feeling going in, but swallowed it to game. It doesn’t feel right to critique something you were already lukewarm on… it doesn’t feel like you gave it a fair chance. But playing on can really ruin your enthusiasm… it’s a tough line to walk.

#8 Comment By Martin Ralya On July 22, 2009 @ 10:51 pm

[9] – You’re most welcome. This topic just reached out and grabbed me, and I’m glad it resonated with what you were already thinking.

The weekend has come and gone. How did it go?

[10] – Whether it applies to Crushnaut or not, that’s a good point. I’d say less common overall, but definitely worth watching out for.

[11] – This is a nice middle ground; I’d say it falls under the rubric of “Talk to your players and use what they tell you,” and if that step leads in a positive direction so much the better.

#9 Comment By Crushnaut On July 30, 2009 @ 7:35 am

Well it turned out that we did not all get together when I thought we would. Instead I ended up talking with 3 of 5 of the group members, and ran a game with just the three of them. Let’s called them Adam, Bob, and Chris.

Adam and Bob were both REALLY into this game. I had more time to focus on them individually, they had more spotlights, and in general the game flowed a lot better. I still cut the game short though, because Chris was practically asleep at the table. He missed all his spotlights, and being the mental character at the table he slowed down an otherwise smooth, and fun game. I decided to cut the game short, because I was frustrated with Chris’s lack of attention.

After the game I started handing out XP. The first thing I do is ask the player’s what they thought the really cool momments of the game are and award bonus XP for these momments. We raved about the awesome leadership qualities that started to sprout in Adam. We all had great things to say about Bob’s new found ability to roll play his character’s religious side and really get into the roll of a Theban. Then no one said anything about Chris, so I said, “Chris what about you. Do you think you did anything that deserves mention?” His reply, “No, not really.”

That really struck a nerve with me. I closed my books, laptop, etc. and said, “Okay guys, it is time we had a talk. Before this game I really felt you guys were not into the game. Now I see I was wrong. Chris, you are really dragging the rest of us down. What is the deal. Are you not interested in this game? Is there something you would like to see? Is there something I am doing that I should change?” His reply, “I am not really that into Vampires.” At this point I was pretty steamed. His wishy-washy attitude really set me off, so I decided to pick up the conversation later.

I talked with the other two, Adam and Bob, and they both agreed with me that he was dragging the group down. They assured me that the story was interesting, relevant, etc. and if they seemed disinterested it was because Chris’s character seemed to just be a sack of meat that followed them around. They explained to me that it was easy to get side-tracked by him when he was not paying attention. They also mentioned that he NEVER knows what his stats are. For example, I will say, “Chris give me a Wits and Occult roll.” They said that it takes him several minutes to get his dice together. Or during combat it is the same thing even though he makes the same roll everytime. They said that during the times that I have to explain the rules to him, or wait for him to collect his dice is when the side conversations start.

I then decided to talk to the fourth player, lets call him Dave. Before I even broached the topic he started asking me when the next game was, apologized for missing the last one, and asked to do a little side story for the time he missed. At the end of this I asked him what he thought about the other players, and if he thought they were enjoying the game. Right away Chris’s name came up as not being interested.

I still haven’t had a chance to talk to the fifth player, or to have a good sit down with Chris. I think that I will be dropping Chris from the game as the others still seem interested in continuing the Vampire campaign.

Hopefully I get get this sorted soon. 🙂

Thanks again for all the suggestions, and ideas. Hopefully my experience will help others.