What should you do when a session feels a bit flat?

We’ve all been in that position from time to time when you run a game session that you don’t feel is up to your best standards, this could be for any number of reasons, you might be tired or have other things going on that serve to distract you from running the game. The most recent example of this for me was a Star Wars session in my ongoing campaign, if you’re interested you can see the actual-play video here:

Now I’m not saying this was a terrible session by any means, luckily I’m blessed with a great group of players and–despite us being a man down–I had fun running the session, and certainly hope the players enjoyed it as well. None-the-less I didn’t feel like the session compared favourably against some others that I have run, particularly the previous session in the campaign that was a space battle extravanganza with people jumping across the vacuum of space, thrilling escapes and desperate fights for survival.

First of all have a breather

If you’re anything like me as a GM then you’re probably your own worst critic when it comes to analysing your sessions, we’re all striving to run that perfect session and improve on what we’ve done previously and–unfortunately–sometimes we falls short, “to err is human” as the old saying goes. It can be tempting after a session that you don’t feel worked, to immediately start pulling it apart and attempting to analyse what went wrong, I’ve certainly done this myself.

I suggest that you take a day or two after the session though to do some other stuff and not think about it too much, this will give your emotions time to calm down and allow you to look at the session more objectively when you do start analysing it.

It’s probably not as bad as you think

If you have recorded your session or have notes then have a look at them, the session probably wasn’t as bad as you thought it was, as long as your players still had fun then you’ve done okay; this isn’t to say you can’t improve in future sessions, but it’s a matter of perspective, you may have thought a game was terrible an actually your players enjoyed it. Talk to your players as well, find out their perspective on the game.

Work out why you think the session didn’t work

When you’re reviewing your session notes or watching the actual play video back, make a simple list of factors that you think contributed to the session not working as well as you’d liked.

Example: For my Star Wars session I’ve come up with the following:

  • I was really too tired–due to RL stuff going on–to run the game at my best, I knew this at the time but didn’t want to cancel the game since we only run bi-weekly and it’d be a long time without a session.
  • The afore-mentioned RL stuff didn’t allow me the prep time that I would’ve preferred.
  • We were introducing a new character, I’d not got round to reviewing their sheet so there were a few opportunities to introduce some interesting stuff for that player that I missed.
  • The session was effectively a dungeon-crawl on a space ship, there was too much dead space with nothing interesting occurring; I should have created a few different groups within the dungeon who had goals so that–if the game started to lag–I could have used one of these groups to have something interesting occur.
  • As the climax to a long-running plot thread it felt a bit anti-climactic.
  • A lot of my campaign has been fairly linear so far, I’d like the players to have more freedom and choice when it comes to steering the campaign.

While you’re doing this make sure you also pay attention to the stuff that did work during the session, it can be tempting just to focus on the negative, but if the session was enjoyable then you were obviously doing something right.

Create a tick list for future sessions

Make yourself a big tick list containing the things that you need to do in future sessions to not make these mistakes again, before each session have a quick look over it and check it against your session plan to avoid repeating mistakes.

The list I’ve come up with for my Star Wars campaign is:

  • Review character sheets–particular for new character–and jot down some potential tasks/encounters that are tailored to their strengths and weaknesses.
  • Create a number of groups/organisations active in the area with their own goals–and stats–that can be used to move the game along if it stalls or slows down.
  • Broadly detail the star systems in the Sector and make it clear to the players that going forward I’m going to be relying on them to steer the sessions more.

Don’t beat yourself up over it

Everyone has the occasional session that isn’t up to their normal standard, there’s no point agonising over it and beating yourself up, instead look at the session as a learning experience and an opportunity to improve your game going forward.

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