I have run some dire, dreadful sessions over the years. I suspect many didn’t crash & burn as badly as I remember. Others…well others I know did. I have been a Rookie GM and have made those classic mistakes. And when I’ve hit a system I didn’t quite grok, I’ve fallen back to being a newb even after years of play. That’s the undertow when you desperately swim in new rules. In this episode of Play on Target we talk about those classic mistakes- things we soon picked up on the fly. They’re 101 problems, but you have to learn somewhere and in some cases, like mine, relearn from time to time. I’ve made all of these mistakes…hopefully not in the same session.
A Few More Ideas We Didn’t Hit Directly. Assume that where I say “GMs have…” I’m also saying “I have…”
1. Ask Players. I started out thinking that any screw up undercut my authority. Some of that came from early years running for players several years my senior. I dug myself deep holes. I had to contort desperately to make up for my contradictions. If you’ve forgotten a detail at the table, check with the players. You can avoid coming up with something you’ll have retcon it when it turns out you were wildly off-base.
2. Chill about Unearned Triumphs. If the players can’t figure out your clever plot, the bad guy miraculously escapes, or they get defeated by an overly potent villain, don’t gloat. Tease in situations where the players had choice and control, but came up short. Use those moment to generate excitement for the next scene/confrontation. I’ve seen new GMs arrive assuming the players are their adversaries. They hit them hard to prove who runs the show. Those unearned victories make the GM smug. Often they think their crowing pushes the players to hate the villain, when it instead encourages frustration with the GM.
3. Nod and Keep Going. The flip side is that players will gloat. Let them. Express a little regret and “I’ll get you next time” but don’t immediately hammer them down. When the players win, give them a chance to revel in that. Don’t always shatter their triumph as they relish it. Yes, you can turn the tables, but if you continually ignore or denigrate victories, you devalue them. This can be as simple as glossing past their success. I’ve also seen GMs have NPCs express disdain: treating them still like lowly folk despite their good work, refusing to acknowledge their victories, critiquing their methods. Make those moves for character reasons, rather than from frustration.
4. Bringing the Funny. I’ve seen GMs bomb running comedy games (Paranoia, Toon, etc). They try too hard. They go straight to 11. Put absurdity out there with a stony face. Play the straight person. Take it seriously. Let the players find the comedy.
5. Telegraph Success. Sometimes player actions will upset nefarious plan and operations. But that’s behind the scenes so logically they might never see the outcome. They’ve won, but don’t know it. This usually happens when you’ve got complicated plots, mysteries, and many stories juggling at once. I’ve run and played in these campaigns. The players work and work but feel like they aren’t getting anywhere. They are, but the GM isn’t telling them. Think about alternate ways to get this info to them: second-party analysts, telltale signs from abandoned locations, turncoats telling them the inside story. I really wish I’d done this many times. Instead I kept my silence when the players got angry at the table: “Little do they know they’re succeeding…” I thought. Little do they know being the operative phrase.
6. It Was Really… Here’s a related point Sam made to me: don't brag about the clues players missed, or tell them what they didn't find that would have sent the game in a different direction. Yes you’re clever, but at the table that comes off as annoying. Save that stuff for later, you may be able to reuse it.
7. Here’s Another Shopkeeper. It’s easy to get rolling and drop in NPCs just to fill a role. When you do that, there’s a risk of making your NPCs monotone. I’ve played in games where everyone had the same sneer: regarding the PCs as scum or marks to be taken advantage of. You might be selling a tone, but at the same time it isn’t interesting. Vary the color palette to make it more striking.
8. Deal With It. Sometimes things don’t go well. A session trips up, moments fall flat, the group doesn’t have it together. Don’t just go home and beat yourself up about it, don’t blame the system, don’t post angry rants about your players on Reddit. Talk to them about problems. Start with questions and get their reactions and impressions. Don’t call people out, instead try to find common ground. And if a person does turn out to be a source of friction and tension, be ready to ask them to leave. Don’t keep them around to avoid conflict if their presence makes things worse. (And it will…Christ it will…)
9. Kill Your Darlings. Sometimes the game doesn’t work. Have a conversation about it. Then, if you’re certain, put the game to bed. Don’t just stop running: BOOM. That’s hugely frustrating for players. And it’s something that will stick with you: an unfulfilled promise. If you’re unhappy, tell the players you’re going to move to a good stopping point the next session. If the players aren’t happy, ask them to give you one more session to wrap things up. Ghosting or perpetually putting off a campaign does no one good. It clogs schedules, makes people not want to trust you again, and leaves you with regrets. I have several campaigns where I wish I’d gotten one more session to finish the story (my Wuxia game, our Crux Exalted campaign, M&M Arkham Harbour, Changeling Lost Vegas). Their dangling storylines still bug me.
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