Session Notes : Edge Of The World, Session 6

“Edge of the World,”  Session #6: Our Bad Session

Another weekly installment of GM reflections from my pirate campaign.  Ugh – we’ve all had sessions that don’t go anywhere.  And not in a “Hey guys, wanna just watch Kung Pow?” kind of way.  More in a, “did everyone inexplicably forget how to game?" kind of way.  This week I suggest  it's your fault when this happens and talk about one way around it.

The Session in a Nutshell
Last week, after a bit of roleplay with the Mad Captain, the party convinced him that he should help them neutralize the Order of Osiris, using the brilliant logic that the Order’s business plan was turning the chaos and madness of pure wholesome piracy into boring, scientific mercantilism.  A totally unexpected player-generated twist, which is what makes the whole ad-lib thing worth it for me.

I wrote a bunch of prep for it and this week the party headed back to Tortuga for what we were all sure would be some good old leading-the-pirate-revolution-against-an-oppressive-authority-structure fun.  I was even sure to import some important plot info to the Order of Osiris’ stronghold so that this adventure would serve a purpose in the greater campaign.

Then the players just kinda talked about what to do next.  This started off as the PCs talking about what they should do, then gradually transformed into the players talking about what they’d like to do: “let’s infiltrate through the sewers,” “no, I heard there’s a party in the next few days (which is a totally allowable player suggestion in my games) so let’s infiltrate it as guests.” 

Normally I love that kind of dialogue because it gives everyone the kind of game they’re looking for.  But in this case, so many conflicting ideas were being thrown out that people got annoyed we weren’t moving forward on any of them, then they lost interest as it got late. 

GMGenie, Isn’t This a Pitfall of your Lasseiz-Faire, Player-Centric, Ad-Libbed Game Mastering Style?
Yes.  If I was pushing the players through a script, this wouldn’t have happened.  But then again, we also wouldn’t have had a cool player-created quest to go on in the first place. 

If you’re a player-centric GM, your challenge is to allow player ideas into the game while also controlling the story enough to make sure it goes somewhere.  Most of my articles are about the first part since it's usually harder.  This article’s the opposite.

First rule of leadership: everything is your fault.
Rule #1: It’s Always the GM’s fault
Ok, maybe I should rephrase.  When a session goes bad, when story doesn’t get advanced, when players leave frustrated with each other, it is always the GM’s responsibility.  You’re the one who could have prevented it.
Rule #2: If planning time gets boring, you’re doing it wrong you should be in action time already.
Having a planning phase where players are allowed to make game suggestions (the "infiltrate the party" idea above) is supposed to be the best thing about player-centric GMing.  So if it gets boring, that just means you’re supposed to be in action time already.  We’re all here to experience some good adventurin’, after all.

Sometimes you have to force the transition between planning and action phases, whether that means telling them that discussion is over and we’re going forward with so-and-so’s idea (dealing with it from outside the game) or throw in a plot twist that forces them to stop talking and react (dealing with it from within the game). 
Solution (and my advice to my past self): don't be afraid to take the wheel!
Don’t be so afraid of railroading that you don’t step in even when the whole ad-lib thing isn’t working.  You may let them drive most of the time, but don't forget that this is your car.

Let’s look at the initial “deal” that is made when the player sits down at your table.  He offers player input in the form of the things his character says and new ideas he introduces to the story.  In return, you push the story in the direction he’s interested in.  Good roleplay is rewarded with control over the story. 

You let them drive most of the time, but don’t forget it’s your wheel
That being the case, I try to take all player ideas seriously… but when gameplay gets bogged down in a morasse of player-generated ideas, I have to remind myself that the “deal” goes the other way too: roleplay becomes an ineffective means of moving the story forward, GM takes over the storytelling.

The Consequences of a Bad Session
If the players aren’t taking the storytelling anywhere, you better take it over or you’re going to face…

  • Lost momentum.  Having a pause in the story because the group couldn’t meet that week is one thing.  But having a pause in the story where the group actually does meet and then stands still plot-wise… that’s another thing entirely.  In rpgs, it's already hard enough for the players (and you) to remember minor plot points and cool things he PCs were planning to do. You will feel the repercussions of such a session (e.g., you'll be remembering stuff you had wanted to do but it's too late to introduce) for weeks 

  •  The GM Fatigue-Cycle.  Waiting for players to decide what they want is part of your job.  But it also weighs heavy on your “GM Stamina” bar.   When the players finally decide what they want, you’ll find yourself forgetting the coolest parts of whatever you had ready to throw at them.  And when your ideas become lame, players lose even more momentum, and the spiral continues. 

  •  Enmity between players. Regrettable as it is, when a session goes bad, everyone can find someone to blame, rightly or wrongly.  (note: my group is on the more mature side, so any frustrations they had with each other after this session didn't hang around long.)  This blog is devoted to the idea that story is built on the group’s ideas.  But deeper than that, an rpg group itself is built on trust.  Players invest a lot of energy and creativity into an rpg, and they resent having their time wasted.  And then resentment leads to hate, and hate leads to a dead campaign, or something.  If you allow players to share ideas in a way that ends up harming their trust for each other, then the ad-lib’s not worth it.  And when that happens, it’s not necessarily anybody’s fault – except yours for letting it happen.