Sometimes sessions don’t work out the way you plan. It is a reality of game mastering, we all know that. You plan for the players to go left, and they go right. They kill the NPC for no good reason. You plan a puzzle that they solve in a creative way and instead of 30 minutes, it takes 10. Sometimes they latch onto the most obscure parts of your clues and come to the completely wrong conclusions. Perhaps that the villain must be made of living sound.
But sometimes the stars align and the group is not meant to game that night. Distracted players, distracting environment, tired GMs, and any number of other combinations of factors can conspire to create a perfect storm of anti-gaming. As the GM, that can be extremely frustrating. Let’s be honest, it is very unsatisfying seeing a session that you took time out of your busy week to plan, fall apart.
Just like in poker, reading a table is invaluable to influencing how your night is going to play out. I will admit that it is a tough skill for me, mainly due to how often I actually use it. Most of the time, this skill is completely unnecessary. You and your players come to the table and the game gets rolling. The table is in the zone, and while you may have a couple of stragglers or bumps in the road, the table/game interaction stays below the distraction threshold that the GM are able to manage. But when you have a session that goes pear shaped, it is time to turn on Kenny Rogers and brush this skill set off.
For those times that that threshold is reached, here are some idea to help take the edge off and hopefully help you navigate through a frustrating evening.
Sometimes it is as simple as grabbing the table’s attention. If you think you can pull the group below the threshold with an unexpected twist, sudden fight or some other shock to their system, do it. Keeping the game going is the best solution. Have robo-ninja-nazi-zombies kick down the door and attack. Then when the fight is over, give the PC’s a clue that puts the game back on track. With a bit of clever story manipulation, you pull your games focus back to the table.
Some nights you just need to turn in the towel. Maybe you tried to hold ‘em and it failed, or maybe you don’t have the energy. Call the game and get a boardgame out. Or just hang out and chat with friends. It could be that the source of the distraction is just that the table needs a hang night. In my opinion, when it gets to this point, it is better to call the game for the night than to let (GM or Player) frustration ruin it.
If you are finding yourself holding or folding a lot, maybe it is time to walk away from the current game. It could be time to end the campaign. The game might not a good fit for your game group’s style, or your style as a GM. Just make sure you talk with the group when it comes to this point. I have walked away from games with only cursory explanations of my reasoning and it never worked out well. Take the time to explain to your group why you feel this way. You might be surprised with a solution to your situation that you never considered.
Running is a last resort. But it needs to be mentioned. Sometimes, the situation is too broken to be fixed and you need to remove yourself. This could be because the GM is suffering from burnout and needs a break, whether as a player or from gaming as a whole. It could be that the group needs a break from RPGs or that it has reached its expiration date. But when your frustration with the game, on either side of the screen, reaches the point where it is damaging your mental health, get out of there. Explain your need to step down or away and then relax.
It is only a game.