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What to Do After GMing a Lousy Gaming Session

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 [1] 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 [2] in a very useful way.)

Step 2: More importantly, what went right?

Very, very few gaming sessions are complete crap [3] — 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 [4], 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 [5] 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 [2], 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 [6], 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 [7].

Step 5: Get feedback from other GMs

Update: I added this step based on Lilith’s comment [8], 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 [5] 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?

5 Comments (Open | Close)

5 Comments To "What to Do After GMing a Lousy Gaming Session"

#1 Comment By Crazy Jerome On February 24, 2006 @ 9:14 am

My “post step” to your 5 steps is to save the notes from steps 1 and 2 (and maybe all the steps). Some of the stuff in steps 1 and 2 will look important, but isn’t. Or vice versa. Over time, the trends may give you more useful information than the isolated session data. (Sometimes, something that went wrong was just bad luck or an off-night. If it never happens again, it wasn’t really that important–or perhaps merely you now being aware of the issue is sufficient to fix it.)

As for tricks to get through the funk, I’d say to remember that if you never have a bad session (or at least part of the session was bad), you aren’t improving as a GM. Sure, you can have a bad session because everyone involved didn’t try very hard. There was no experimentation there. But fixes for those kind of things are the, “easy to explain, hard to fix” kind. “Don’t be so lazy next time,” will either work or not, depending on your motivation, but that’s bigger than gaming. OTOH, if you try new things, and they don’t work, you still got something out of the session.

#2 Comment By Lilith On February 24, 2006 @ 9:35 am

In step 3, you mention “never stop learning” – it’s a lesson that can be expanded to everything in your life, not just GMing.

I would also add “discuss the session with other GMs,” but that’s been pretty well covered by this blog and the forums. 😀 In my experience, discussing a session with another GM and going over both the good and bad points has been invaluable, especially when they’re also one of the players.

#3 Comment By Martin On February 24, 2006 @ 10:31 am

(CJ) My “post step” to your 5 steps is to save the notes from steps 1 and 2 (and maybe all the steps). Some of the stuff in steps 1 and 2 will look important, but isn’t. Or vice versa. Over time, the trends may give you more useful information than the isolated session data.

This is a great idea — an extension of the GMing naughty list, but viewed over time. I’ve added this to my post — thanks, CJ!

(Lilith) In my experience, discussing a session with another GM and going over both the good and bad points has been invaluable, especially when they’re also one of the players.

Right on — I’m embarassed that I missed this one! I’ve edited it in as Step 5 — thank you, Lilith!

#4 Comment By Zachary Houghton On February 25, 2006 @ 6:41 pm

To be sure, there’s nothing like venting and comparign notes with other GMs. I always think back tot he GM gathering at the bar in the Knights of the Dinner Table. It’d be nice if places had enough gamers to be able to do that, but after I’ve had a rough session, it really helps to bounce it off other GMs. First of all, it helps me see what went wrong, and remove it from that “my fault/their fault” realm of accusation. Sometimes it’s hard to look at our own failures or successes dispassionately. Peer feedback helps do that, but you can’t ignore that step #4–I’ve often incorporated a suggestion box or used email to ensure my players feel secure in offering feedback.

#5 Comment By Martin On February 28, 2006 @ 8:46 am

Zachary, when you say “a suggestion box,” do you literally mean a little box with a slit in the top that sits near your gaming table? I’ve never seen that done before!