Have you ever looked at the calendar and realized that you’re supposed to run a game in the near future and you just aren’t “feeling it?” Do you cancel the session or press on?
I find this happening more and more as I get older and, conversely, I play less and less. Both are related phenomena; being a “mature gamer” with a family, work, and other activities filling my social schedule, not only do I have less time to set aside and game but I’m also thinking about the game less often. While I enjoy being a Game Master I sometimes find myself doing something that would’ve been unthinkable a decade ago – I often go more than a week without thinking about my ongoing campaign at all!
So what should I do when that malaise extends to the edge of the next session? Cancelling a game seems the obvious choice, but it isn’t so easy when you only play about once every other week as it is (and, while Friday is our night I have a regular commitment on the second Friday of each month, so punting a session sometimes means pushing it to three weeks later). It’s hard to maintain enthusiasm, especially when Real Life is also cancelling sessions on you. Because of this I hate to cancel a session even when I’m not feeling it.
I also don’t want to tank a good campaign just because of this malaise. All too often in the past I let my boredom kill otherwise good campaigns when all I really needed was just a recharging of the batteries to press forward. That was okay back when I had a lot of time to create a new campaign that excited me and my players; now it makes more sense to try and keep something that’s been working moving forward.
What I’ve been doing lately when I feel like this is to walk in with a “short session mentality.” I look at my notes and try to create one goal for the players to overcome that session. It could be the introduction of a new NPC, defeating a particularly deadly foe, or uncovering a key element of the plot. The session ends when that goal is accomplished, no matter how much session time is left on the clock.
With goal in mind, I can relax when I walk into the session. I generally ask my players what they’re up to; if there’s anything they want to accomplish, etc. This kills a little time (and sometimes far more than I’d thought) before launching into my goal for the evening.
The good thing about having a goal, and one that the players can feel is an accomplishment, is that they are more forgiving of a session ending early. For them it’s obvious that you’ve run out of notes or just don’t feel like launching into the next part of the adventure with so little time left. Of course, if I am feeling up to it, I will throw in an extra scene to set things up.
Usually, I find that this is enough to recharge the battery and move forward, in no small part due to the continued excitement of my players. It’s also much more satisfying to me to move things along, even in a small way, rather than cancel a session and hope that I’m up for it next time.
So how about you? What do you do if you just aren’t feeling it? Do you cancel the session or do you have your own techniques to help you move through it and run a game anyway? Have you ever regretted running a session when you knew you weren’t feeling it going in?
A proble for me too, lately. Work and girlfriend are some serious nusnces to us Dms 😀
Usually i use a great deal of improvisation when it happens, since i really don’t want to waste one of the scant sessions we get to arrange.
However some “evergreen” tricks are:
-useful / meaningfull dialogues with high calibre NPCs
-combat! an unexpectd ambush will free me from missed preparation and can be used to press on the PCs “they found us!, better hurry on our mission!” and give them some clues when they will be scavenging corpses after the battle
-letting the PC go and act with no restraints: they wanted to buy some special wares? roleplay the search and the transaction. They wanted to build / research something? roleplay the crafting / research process with some skill challenges, maybe.
usually these three methods are enough to win me a night of easy DMing, subtracting nothing to the players enjoyment.
My current group seems comprised (cursed? 😛 ) with a bunch of method actors, so I’ve found all I need to do to get an easy session if provide an opportunity for interaction with prominent NPC’s or just have an NPC part of the ship, (it’s a space opera/Fire Flyesque home brew sci-fi game) ask the group their over all plan.
They will happily go into a hour or three of discussion on their up coming plans when given an opportunity, (Often revising or completely changing their plans somewhere during the talk amusingly enough.)
Having a few “drop in anywhere combat encounters” prepped for those nights when I’m not feeling it or the group has a sudden desire for action, also helps quite a bit.
While canceling isn’t a huge thing with my current group, (we can more or less meet up for a few hours nearly any day of the week or weekend) I still find it better to run on plans night whenever possible, just to keep with the consistency and meet player expectations.
My Delta Green game could once be finessed in the way Sivveressa does, but not so much now. It is rare that I don’t want to run a game once it is scheduled, but not doing the necessary preparation in more of a problem these days since I find I can’t get worked up in the days before to the extent required.
Part of that is that so many of the game settings I use have whopping great logical flaws in either the background or the scenario’s basic setup that I can’t invest totally (and remember, I’m a Call of Cthulhu GM of thirtymumble years standing so the “logic” needed to make me happy can be of the fantastic variety, it just has to be internally consistent).
I recently was running Deadlands:Reloaded – The Last Sons which was punted as a campaign for native American player characters. Except almost every single plot point in the campaign made having a team made up of such characters virtually impossible unless they and I were willing to have frequent “BA Barabbas has to fly” moments. The internal consistency of the stated “mission type” and the actual ingredients was minimal. The players and I got less and less invested and that wasn’t an inexpensive game to equip for either.
I’m just now reading the out-of-print Elric RPG rulebook and there are internal contradictions sometimes between consecutive sentences. This may be a hallmark of certain Mongoose writers – I found the same disease running rampant in some of the supplemental books for “Conan” too. Either way I have to fix this sort of stuff before I can buy-in and run the game.
Then there was the beyond horrible Numenera experience – I’ve never had so much anticipation for a setting be so profoundly dashed by the material in the book. A horrible, horrible mess that I could fix but why should I? I paid a lot for that blasted book, and I just know that once I’ve made the whole thing workable so that the features of the setting actually can work together Monty Cooke will put out a “must have” supplement that will contradict everything I did. My excitement for the system survived exactly two attempts to convene a game.
From the other side of the screen I am frustrated beyond measure by a friend who starts strongly with much enthusiasm for the campaigns he runs, then goes off the boil and starts phoning it in. He has reasons that make the process understandable, but it doesn’t make it any less frustrating for the players who invest time and money in his campaigns only to be left high and dry when it all pales for him.
All I can say is that when the GM loses his/her drive, no-one ends up being happy.
Perhaps I’m not the demographic you aimed this article at, Walt. I am in the position of not having enough audience for what I want to run.
I have the Delta Green game, which is very popular with the players but will suffer a catastrophic loss of same when real life intervenes this year and two of my four current guys relocate southwards. We play once a month and cannot wait to get to it each game day. There are games that sometimes leave me feeling things went less than well, but feedback shows this is not usually the way the players see it. Perhaps DG has had its day in that store, but after five years I’d be sorry to see it go.
My Deadlands game runs twice a month and is in severe need of more players. It just isn’t a popular game milieu in my LFGS. I’ll run it as long as I can get at least two people to play.
I’m also running a classic Call of Cthulhu game once a month for some older players. That one is in early days but the guys seem enthusiastic and in that one I’m playing to *my* strengths too.
Games I *want* to run but have no time: Firefly (lots of interest in this), Trail of Cthulhu, The Dying Earth, The Vorkosigan Saga (I admit this probably wouldn’t work well since it is based on the terrifying GURPS engine), Lankhmar, Rippers, Microscope, Elric, Hawkmoon, Space 1889 (Oh boy would I Like to get that one back on the schedule), Traveller (jeepers I’ve tried to get interest up on that one), Conan, Empire of the Petal Throne … well, you get the idea. The list is so large that were I paid to run games five days a week I’d still likely be dead before I got to the end of my game publisher crap collection.
Players can sometimes help; I know that one of our regular GMs is also the social coordinator and takes the lead on scheduling. When the scheduling end gets frustrating, or players don’t show enough enthusiasm, it affects him too.
Keep an eye out for these enthusiasm drags and take them off your GM’s plate, or make your enthusiasm clear when game day does roll around. A session with lackluster prep can shine when players are excited and pour their effort into roleplaying; often the GM steps up to match. But a reluctant session met by distracted or lackadaisical play can bleed the momentum out of an otherwise fun campaign.
My local group had completed the first book of the Kingmaker adventure path: Stolen Lands. It is an excellent campaign starter that provides a solid framework for sandbox adventures, which is something I have long been a fan of.
We had excellent player characters and even though we lacked a healing class, the group worked hard and well enough together that they overcame this deficiency.
We started into book two after book one had taken us about a half dozen 6-7 hour sessions to complete. The intro period of book two was a bit trickier. There is a bit of a level gap between the necessary campaign events and where the players leveled up to after book one. It has to be filled in by the GM. My feelings of D&D burnout increased rapidly as I struggled to come up with something fresh and inspiring. At first it worked out.
After a decent couple of sessions I had the burnout hit me bad. I lost enthusiasm for the game. I knew my players would be disappointed but I decided to put a hold on the campaign. I would rather put things on hold than attempt to force a game while burned out and have the game go south on us. We may return to the great characters and our player ruled community of Hilldale but not until I can be enthusiastic about it again. It’s been over a year and I haven’t gotten the vibe yet so I think it was a good decision.
My group is lucky enough to have three GM’s in it. When one of us can’t make it or is feeling burnt out another one will run a one-off or side campaign for a few sessions. This is how I started running Numenera, which eventually turned into a full campaign when our main Pathfinder game wrapped up.
I sometimes find that some nights when I just don’t have the energy, the players really help. Once we get rolling with the game, if things are going well, it can really get me out of the funk.
Now, does it happen everytime? No. And there are some nights the players are a little off as well and the session doesn’t fly by.
Thanks for a great, honest article, Walt. Hopefully we all have more good nights than bad.
I’ve found that it’s not too hard to get the players into a “talking about our feelings” episode (a term I created after the execrable second season of The Walking Dead.) Don’t have the energy? Give them a few prods to see how the last big event has changed them, affected them, or give them something that is disconnected from the plot (if possible.)
The main issue sounds like disappointment. Family and work life is cutting into the gaming, and what was once a center-point for your free time is now — work — to set up, to put together, to make time for. I think everyone hits that point, at time. My daughter’s school schedule makes gaming during the week at my house a pain. One of the players hosts most of the time, but that adds a good 30 minutes to my night when running another of the players home.
Maybe someone else needs to take the reigns — although my experience is that long time GMs love the idea of “just playing”, then are a major pain in the ass (often inadvertently) because, in the back of your mind, you think you could have done it better/would have done that differently. Maybe you need to do something different, campaign-wise. Maybe you need a different hobby; people’s interests change. Or to sell your kids to gypsies so you can have more gaming time. (Don’t judge me!)
I go through the “maybe I need to stop gaming” thing about once a year, according to my wife — usually around the holidays, when the schedules get screwed up and it’s a pain to get everyone together.
My local group threw in the towel on the Holiday Season ever being a good time to schedule any games. From Thanksgiving to New Year’s Day there is basically a no-game zone in place. We used to think we could squeeze in a game or two sometime amidst the festivities. It just didn’t ever work out and it was frustrating to even try to make it happen.
My group does that also. We keep to the schedule as much as possible, but we switch to board games and the like, not RPGs.
So we still visit and hang out as much as we can, but no pressure to A) have a game to run and B) be at the game so that it can be run.
I think a good thing to remember is that the success of the game session does not rest solely on the GMs shoulders.
Get the PCs talking about what they thought (in character) of some of the recent events. Have a new NPC ask them these things. Or get them to talk about what they want to do and just run with it.
When you let go of that pressure to tell the greatest story, and understand that it is truly collaborative you can get the ball rolling and just wing it for the session. Guaranteed you’ll get some new plot hooks.
I run anyway. One of my games runs through a university society that is built around weekly games across the academic year and I know that if I cancel I won’t get that time back because I have a fairly hard end date, and the other is so much hassle to find a date for around our lives that I don’t cancel.
This means I deal in a lot of improv – the last two weeks of my 13th Age game have been seat-of-my-pants – because I work full time and have fairly hectic social commitments so finding time to prep is tough. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. I let my players have their head, go where the whim takes them, and work in response to that to set up them being awesome, which tends to mean they have fun even if the plot’s a bit lacklustre. When all else fails, I say ‘sorry, folks, I REALLY NEED THE LOO’ and go think about what happens next for a minute or two in the toilet.
Otherwise, it’s just a matter of energy drinks and standing up.
Just last week I wasn’t feeling up to running my sci-fi fantasy session since life was being oppressive and I was feeling depressed. Not to mention I got into a fight with my girlfriend just before the session. The session hadn’t been planned very far and was basically in shambles at that point. I told the group this and they all decided that they just wanted to play and whatever happens happens. We ended up having one of the best sessions I’ve ever run with actual tears from some of the Players.
With good friends, and a group that doesn’t care what you do, I find that it’s best just to make it up as you go. You’re all there to have fun and just being with friends and having them help you tell the story is great fun for everyone.
My gaming is currently restricted to online via Roll20. Although that means set-up time is virtually nil, I still sometimes find myself not really “feeling it” when game time approaches.
However, I still log in and run the game anyway, and always end up being glad I did. I have really great players and the game sessions always end up being a lot of fun.
I also push through my own malaise and run the game out of respect for my players. Like me, they are all adults with careers and families, yet they still set aside one evening a week to play in my game. I just feel like if they’ve made the effort to show up for a game which I’ve agreed to run, then I owe it to them to actually do it.
Being an online game, my players are located all over the country. Outside of game night, I have no idea how their week has gone, how work has been, none of that. For all I know, our game night might be the one bright spot they’ve been looking forward to all week. If that night finally arrives and I log in only to announce that I wasn’t “feeling it”, it might be a huge disappointment. None of them would actually say that, like I said earlier, they’re all great people. But the disappointment would be real, all the same. So anyway, regardless of how I might be feeling, I always buck up and run the game.