Lousy sessions — if you’re just starting out as a GM, you’ve probably got some of these to look forward to; if you’re a veteran GM, chances are you’ve run your share of them over the years (and you may do so again!).

So what do you do when your players have left (possibly reassuring you that it wasn’t that bad), and you’re sitting at your gaming table feeling like crap?

Here are 6 steps you can take to turn a lousy session into a GMing tool.

Step 0: Was it your fault?

GMs tend to feel a lot of responsbility for whether or not their gaming sessions are fun, and rightly so — as the GM, you have the biggest and most varied role in your group.

There are two important things to keep in mind in Step 0. Firstly, sometimes sessions go badly because of your players, or a combination of what you did and what your players did — don’t overlook that possibility.

And secondly, although you may be blaming yourself, “fault” isn’t the right focus. It’s tough not to think about it, though, so I’ve included it here — but mainly as a stepping stone to Step 1.

Step 1: What went wrong?

Take a moment and think about what you didn’t like about the session. Jot it down, mull it over in your head — whatever works best for you.

But don’t lose it — for me, thinking about this while the session is still fresh in my mind is key. It’s too soon for careful reflection, but identifying what you think went wrong now lays the groundwork for looking at it more objectively later on.

(Update: In his comment Crazy Jerome recommends saving these notes — and any others you take during this process — and referring back them later on. This is an excellent idea, and it expands the idea of the GMing naughty list in a very useful way.)

Step 2: More importantly, what went right?

Very, very few gaming sessions are complete crap — and the folks who run them consistently aren’t too likely to read blogs devoted to GMing advice, so you’re covered there.

Now that you’ve given a bit of thought to what went badly, think about all the things that you did well — the moments where the whole group was into it, where you really got into that NPC, etc. One bad session does not a bad GM make, and remembering that is key to keeping your confidence up!

Robin Laws really opened my eyes to the importance of this step in his interview with TT, when he said this:

Here’s an exercise for ya: Make a list of the scenes that went really well, pause to congratulate yourself for ‘em, and then see how you can repeat the feat in a fresh and satisfying way.

In other words, think about what you did right, too — and how you can do more of the same next time.

Step 3: Later on, look at how you can learn from your mistakes

In his interview, Robin Laws also said:

So rather than put oneself down by generalizing about flaws, I’d advise folks to look at games that went wrong and see what specific problems occurred, and work to be aware of the reasons for that.

That’s excellent advice, and well worth taking to heart.

Without knowing what your specific mistake(s) might have been, it’s impossible to give specific advice on how to do this in this post — that’s what the GMing Q&A Forum is for.

For me, though, the key is getting a bit of distance between myself and a bad session — stepping back and trying to look at things objectively, and see how they interact with my personality, my GMing style and my group. If you already have a GMing naughty list, you might find some of what went wrong in the last session on there — or you might just have identified something important to work on in the future.

The important thing is this: As a GM, you should never stop learning how to be a better GM, and your next session is a great opportunity to do just that.

Step 4: Get feedback from your players

Now that you have a pretty good idea of what went wrong and why, and how you can improve on it, ask your players for feedback.

It’s important to do this after you’ve had time to think about the session on your own — I’ve covered the whole process in an earlier post, Getting Player Feedback.

Step 5: Get feedback from other GMs

Update: I added this step based on Lilith’s comment, below — and I can’t believe I left it out in the first place!

Talking to other GMs about the problems you had in the session — and your conclusions about them — is a great way to hone your skills.

Because they have GMing experience (which not all players do), and because they’re a lot less likely to worry that their criticism muddying up a friendship (a common concern among players), other GMs will often be more likely to give you unvarnished feedback than your players.

The Treasure Tables GMing Q&A Forum is a perfect venue for getting (and giving) this kind of GMing feedback.

Step 6: It’s just a game!

Seriously — you’re not the president, the fate of nations doesn’t hang in the balance, and you haven’t lost any friends over one bad session. It’s perfectly natural to feel that way, at least at first, but don’t let it get to you.

And most importantly, don’t do what I did once just after college: Get so bummed out about how badly the session went that you cancel the game entirely. There were a couple of other factors involved, but one very bad session was at the heart of it — and I still regret doing that.

No matter how passionate you are about GMing (and gaming in general), remember that it’s just a game — it went badly last time, you learned from it, and now you know what you need to work on next time.

What do you do when you’ve run a bad session? Do you have any tricks that get you through the (inevitable?) funk and on to planning for your next session?