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Fair or Foul? Do-Overs

My last session was a perfect storm of “meh.” I decided to go with a last-minute adventure idea that wasn’t quite ready for prime time and I started the session with a splitting headache that had plagued me all day. On top of that, one of my regular players couldn’t make it and I introduced a guest player for the session. All of these factors ended up fostering a session that, while not terrible, really lacked the punch of my earlier adventures in this campaign.

Of the two plot threads that were supposed to dovetail together, one never really got off the ground. I was stymied at every opportunity and I couldn’t think fast enough to compensate (see throbbing headache). I was really disappointed with the flow of the adventure and, as my last player (besides my wife) left, I had the sinking feeling that I’d wasted a good plot idea with poor execution.

Fast forward a day later. Pondering how to finish up next session I realized that I had one tool left in my arsenal. There were two key scenes that, had I run them slightly differently, would have fixed my issues. All I needed to do was to get buy-in from my players to re-do the scenes. It’s a technique that I rarely use, but often pays dividends with my group when I do.

Using this  technique requires my players to suspend their knowledge of the future, much like a jury when told to disregard something presented at trial. As with a jury, the players find it difficult to really disregard this information; it can’t help but color the do-over scenes. In this case, I’d ended the session on a cliffhanger, the murder of an NPC, that could possibly be avoided now that the players have foreknowledge.

Usually when I use this technique I allow as much previously-played material to stand as I can; players don’t need to do-over successful skill rolls or rehash the same conversations. Unfortunately I also run the risk of these do-over scenes being flat, as players aren’t going to be surprised the second time around.

This technique does fly in the face of the “if it was played at the table it stands!” school of thought (I’m looking at you, Kurt [1]!). I’ve also played with groups that would go back and fix mechanical errors if they negatively impacted the PCs, as well as groups that would massage the past if it would fix a derailed adventure. On the extreme end, I know of one group that  retconned so much that it was hard to remember what had actually occurred versus what was rewritten.

So fair or foul? Do you think doing over scenes that you flubbed as a GM is fine, or should the scenes stand? If you are amenable to do-overs, do you have any boundaries that you wouldn’t cross?

16 Comments (Open | Close)

16 Comments To "Fair or Foul? Do-Overs"

#1 Comment By OriginalDan On March 12, 2013 @ 6:20 am

What’s done is done. If you have a good group they understand not every session is going to be dynamite. When I have so-so sessions I try to make the next one that much better instead of worrying about how to fix the previous session.

As a GM I am often my own worst critic and even sessions that I feel are failures my players have had a pretty good time.

#2 Comment By Redcrow On March 12, 2013 @ 6:45 am

I don’t really like the idea of ‘do-overs’. I’d rather just let whatever happens stand and keep things moving forward.

I often record my game sessions and play it back while I’m preparing the next session so that I can critique my performance as a GM and note what I need to improve on. If the PCs reacted to a situation I presented in a way I was not expecting, then I pay particular attention to my description and setup for the event while listening to the playback. This usually tells me all I need to know to get things right back on track the next game.

Sometimes the game can really suffer if the GM just isn’t feeling quite up to snuff. Whether it is a headache or just a general feeling of ‘meh’ about running a game that day, I would recommend doing something else as a group (boardgame, cardgame, etc.) and let the regular game slide until the GM is at their peak. Usually when the GM is feeling ‘meh’, you end up with a ‘meh’ game session. And when the GM is refreshed and excited about the game, that is usually when things are the most fun for everyone. YMMV.

#3 Comment By schlake On March 12, 2013 @ 7:05 am

I had a group of 8th level PCs. They had tracked down the ancient albino basilisk they needed to capture, along with her brood of younglings. The first round they were 90′ away, and won initiative. They repositioned, but didn’t close their eyes. The first baby albino basilisk went, and dimension doored right into the middle of the party. Every single one of them failed a DC 12 fortitude save and was turned to stone. So I said, let’s try again, roll initiative.

Just recently I ran the 3.5 Tomb Of Horrors with Pathfinder monsters. For $1 their character could come back to life. I think I made at least $30, and called it when the skull in room 33 slew them all.

#4 Comment By Dhomal On March 12, 2013 @ 7:46 am

I really like the ” For $1 their character could come back to life.” bit!

I think this could be used to great advantage at a con or some such, where the money then goes to charity!

As far as a do-over of that level, it is not something I recall having done. The closest I can remember was perhaps 1-2 rounds of combat, after a severe error had been detected. I Can however say, there are a few instances where maybe it would have been a better solution to a problem, be it a more severe error (one not caught reasonably quickly to correct) or just that ‘meh’ session that I think most GMs and players have probably experienced.

#5 Comment By The Bearded Goose On March 12, 2013 @ 7:25 am

When pondering whether to do a “Do Over,” I think you have to find what exactly you’re trying to fix. I’ve never found a reason to redo an entire session, though I have re-run a scene within and during the same scenario (the same night). Normally this was done either because a rule was misconstrued and severely impacted the scene, or it was done to just avoid an unnecessary TPK (and yes, there are necessary TPKs).

If, at the end of a session, you’ve told a story, there’s nothing wrong with it being slightly less exciting then usual. It’s something to build on for the next session and story.

#6 Comment By Tomcollective On March 12, 2013 @ 7:35 am

Not my style, but if the group is ok with it, totally fair.

#7 Comment By amazingrando On March 12, 2013 @ 9:39 am

For my current campaign on the day that we did character generation, I ran a snippet that was about an hour and a half. I did this as a quick introduction to the system so that everyone had a better idea what was happening when we gathered to start the campaign.

Before we started this intro session-ette, I told everyone that this was canon, but that these events weren’t going to actually happen until later in the campaign. It was a pilot, inspired by the airing of Firefly out of order.

Fast forward one (real) year later and I’m ending a dramatic storyline with everything that happened in the pilot. Slowly it dawns on the players that they have been in this situation before. I have a good group of players, so they adapt well and we have a great session, despite needing to compensate for a few changes that have happened since chargen.

Now, speaking of retconning as fixing a broken session, I think that players need to realize that GMs have off days and need some slack. It is just like when a player is having a bad night.

#8 Comment By Roxysteve On March 12, 2013 @ 9:39 am

With one exception I never do this myself. That exception is if the scene was a session-ender and a “factual” error occurred which can therefore be changed by replaying the scene without all the other baggage you mention coming into play.

But, if you feel so strongly about things that it will impact your creative flow in the next session, do what it takes.

On the other side of this issue I once got involved in a Saturday-Morning Serial style Rockets and Rayguns game in which those of us old enough to remember the genre agitated for “cheat” endings – scenes that were cliffhangers (usually “of Death”) that would be recapitulated but blatantly changed at the start of the next game omitting the death event. The younger guys couldn’t understand the point, but he geezers had great fun with it.

#9 Comment By Scott Martin On March 12, 2013 @ 12:29 pm

We’ve attempted to retcon before, and it’s always a struggle. If we were more successful when we tried it, we’d probably embrace it more–but there’s always something that goes newly wrong when we revisit a scene.

In general, I attempt to move clues and information forward to introduce then in a different way than I’d originally planned, if that’s the flaw. Scene excitement is difficult to match the second time–though, sometimes, I could see it coming out much better with some foreknowledge and the anticipation based on the not yet revealed occurrence.

Like the bearded goose and amazingrando, I’d be tempted to chalk it up as a less than ideal session, and try to use it as a spur to make it better going forward.

#10 Comment By BryanB On March 12, 2013 @ 2:41 pm

I’m not really a fan of the retcon in home campaigns. I could see it being really cool during a one-shot convention for when the group is TPK’ed and there is still enough time in the event to see if the party can win the final boss fight with a second chance. Unless it was an elimination tournament or something where prizes for survival are given.

I’d pretty much have to have everyone on board with having a do over before I would ever even consider it. And there would need to be a really good reason to consider it in a home campaign. If it involved the players not getting a critical piece of information, then I would rather take Scott’s approach and work out a way to try and get them to a spot where they could get the information that was missed in some other way or from some other NPC.

#11 Comment By daeumling7 On March 13, 2013 @ 10:54 am

Not my cup of tea.

Of course it depends on the players and on the style of gaming. If you like dungeoncrawls or tactical fights it might work. In our group it’s different: For us it is important to play our characters, and we want them to experience the adventure. We want to be surprised, we want to be spontaneous, and we want to feel the danger.

If you just do the same scene again, that just isn’t possible. The second time the magic of the moment is gone. And it feels like cheating. Or like a computer-game where you can start over as often as you want.

#12 Comment By Norcross On March 14, 2013 @ 11:30 am

This may sound like heresy, but maybe we could take inspiration from the end of Twilight Breaking Dawn?

The “meh” session could end up being a possible future seen by some type of oracle, which of course the characters didn’t even remember consulting while they were “inside” the prediction. Then the next session could be the “real” session, and it wouldn’t matter if the characters had foreknowledge – that’s what they retroactively went to the oracle for. They could use the knowledge to make the session better, while you throw a few curves since not everything can be foreseen.

It’s a twist on the old (and often lame) “it was all a dream” retcon, but enough different to fit well within some genres.

#13 Comment By Walt Ciechanowski On March 14, 2013 @ 11:35 am

It’s not heresy; I’ve actually used that in adventures where one of the PCs was a psychic. That may actually work here as well…

#14 Comment By Dhomal On March 14, 2013 @ 12:46 pm

Oh wow, I DO like the solution!

Only problem I could foresee would be either being in a place where an oracle would not be (but that seems solvable) or if the PCs for some odd reason -would not- make that consultation.

Otherwise, brilliant! I might try and get a copy of the character sheets ~beforehand~ to make the rewind easier, especially if any major changes occurred.


#15 Comment By 77IM On March 16, 2013 @ 7:04 pm

If you can do a scene over because it didn’t turn out the way you want, doesn’t that greatly diminish the impact of the player’s efforts and decisions?

If I were your player, I’d expect a hefty bribe. ;}

#16 Comment By valadil On March 31, 2013 @ 8:24 pm

We had do-overs in high school D&D. At the time I thought the GM was being generous, but in retrospect I hated it. Whenever this happened, we all knew in the back of our heads that the game was lost and we were just screwing around. I’m pretty sure all our games fell apart within a few sessions of do-overs. In the end, is that really any better than a TPK?