Gamemastering is built on hope. We write our session notes, draw our maps, and paint our minis hoping for a great game. And sometimes things don’t work out. It’s happened to all of us. In this article, we’ll look at three tough situations, and how (maybe) to make something good out of them.

It Doesn’t Run

This happens to all of us. You’re all ready to run, and you don’t get enough players to have a session. Often it’s unavoidable, people are busy and sometimes real life has to take priority. But it’s still tough in the moment. You were hoping for a great session, and it didn’t happen. So what’s good about that?

First of all, you are now ahead in your preparations. If this session is all done, you can focus on the session after that and get ahead. Second, you can refine the session that didn’t run. If you are like me, you sometimes have sessions that are almost ready to run, and you fake the rest on the fly. If we have a canceled session, maybe we can prepare a little more and make it even more memorable for next time. Lastly, sometimes we need a break. No shows can be life’s way of helping prevent GM burnout.

It Runs, But With “Issues”

Sometimes things seem to be chugging along just fine, and then “it” happens. It can be rules-lawyering, egos, or player to player snarkiness. Also, to be truthful, sometimes even GM’s say things they shouldn’t during a session. If you haven’t had “it” happen in some form or another I’d be shocked. So what do we do?

Sometimes bad situations can be a chance for personal growth. Not all problems are unsolvable, and often an “I’m sorry” or a quick do-over can smooth things over. Sometimes you can handle it right then, sometimes you may be better to wait and send the person an email the next day. There’s no quick formula for every situation.

The bad situation may also give us some insight into where our scenarios can be improved. Maybe we can avoid these kinds of issues in the future by knowing some of the rules better or how to handle certain player choices better. Or maybe we can look at how we react to some of our players and how to better temper our own responses.

If issues cause a player to leave a group, that’s not the end of the world either. While it can be difficult, in the long run it might be the best thing. If there are personality mismatches or differing game expectations, a split might be necessary. (Now, if all of your players leave, that’s another column entirely).

It Runs, and “Meh.”

Sometimes this is worse than not running at all. You’ve put your heart, soul, and creativity into a particular situation, and the players aren’t really into it. You may get a “thank you” afterwards, but you are left with the sense that the session was below average. You can hear the inner “Meh.” (Maybe you’re thinking that about this column right about now.)

Don’t despair. Perhaps you can go home and tweak the scenario to make it a little less “Meh.” Add some variety to the combat situations, sprinkle in some more physical or mental challenges, flesh out your NPC’s to add a little sparkle to the roleplaying opportunities. Then try to find a chance to run it with a different group to see if these changes work.

It’s also a chance to consider our GM techniques. How well were we able to involve everyone at the table, even the quiet players? Did we give the players enough detail about the situations and possible choices? Did we manage the pacing of the game properly, or did it drag or race along when it shouldn’t have?

Let’s leave this topic with one word of caution: it may not have been you. Perhaps some of the players were tired or going through a rough patch. Also, there may have been a mismatch between your playing style and their expectations. You can’t please everyone, and nothing can please some people. That’s true in life and in gaming. Sometimes you have to ignore people and their “Meh’s” and move on.

Concluding Thoughts

Don’t let this article discourage you from considering gamemastering. While it’s not all roses, it’s not all thorns either. There are times when things won’t go the way we want or expect. Our hard work doesn’t always come to fruition, and is sometimes unappreciated. But those situations aren’t the norm. Most folks want to play and are grateful when you present them with the opportunity. Together we build something that’s more fun and creative than we could on our own.

How about you? Any tough situations or lessons learned from them? Share it below, folks.