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by Mike on 13 September 2021
Not all D&D games go well. Games can go wrong for many reasons and often each reason needs its own approach to get past it. Today, however, we're going to offer some general advice for handling the situation when a game goes bad.
For some research on this topic I took to Twitter and asked people how they recovered from bad games. You can see the Twitter thread here. The thread contains some good suggestions and I have a few suggestions of my own. These aren't a universal cure but they might help us aim in the right direction when we need a boost after a bad game.
For a deeper look into this topic, watch my episode of the DM's Deep Dive with Dr. Megan Connell. Dr. Connell has some fantastic advice on how to get past bad games.
The rest of this article offers suggestions from the Twitter thread, my conversation with Dr. Connell, and some thoughts of my own.
When a game goes sideways it's easy to get wound up into it. We might feel like our favorite hobby, potentially a big part of our lives, is completely falling apart. It's hard to recognize that this is a small bump in a long road of great stories shared with our friends and family.
Take a deep breath. Take a few of them. Whatever happened to cause your bad game, take a break.
It's almost never a good idea to try to solve the situation while you're still in the clutch of heated emotions unless you have to. If a game went bad, don't try to fix it right away. Give it a day or so. Get your thoughts together. Get past the initial emotionally charged moment. Give yourself time. Take a break and spend some time on another hobby. Take a walk. Anything helping you get out of the center of the emotionally charged situation can help.
Obviously, if a situation requires an immediate response, take that response. Violations of safety tools, for example, require quick intervention. If you can, take a step back and get your thoughts together.
Once you've gotten some distance, take time to look at the problem analytically. What went wrong? What were the precursors? Once you're not in the middle of the situation you can get a better perspective of the problem. Maybe it wasn't as big as you thought it was. Maybe the problem you thought you had was actually caused by something else. Did you make a mistake? If so, don't try to avoid it. Understand it. Study the situation, your reaction, your feelings, and the reaction and feelings of your players after you've taken a step back. This helps you better understand what happened and what you might do to fix it.
Once you've gotten some distance and looked at the problem from the outside, talk openly with your players. This might work in a group or it might work better in a one-on-one conversation. As much as we feel comfortable with texting and email to discuss things like this; face to face is often a better way to approach the conversations. It isn't always comfortable but we get a lot more information in a face-to-face conversation than we do in email or texts.
If you made a mistake, admit it. Talk about it. Don't get defensive. These are your friends we're talking about. It's much easier to get past situations like this if all the cards are on the table.
If our problem was tied to one of our players, talking to that player alone in a non-judgmental way can help. Focus the conversation on the situation and the outcome. Don't make it personal. What outcome would you like? How can the situation be better?
If it wasn't a problem with one of the players, maybe the problem was with the game itself. Maybe your players seemed bored or frustrated. This might be better as a group conversation. What went wrong? What previous games did they enjoy? What would they like to see more of? These last two are my favorite questions to ask at the end of any game. What did they love and what do they want more of? These questions work just as well for "bad" games as they do for good ones. Instead of focusing on the features of games that went bad, steer the conversation either to the areas the players enjoyed or previous games that seemed to work.
Talk to your players and really listen to what they have to say. Don't just wait for your turn to talk. Maybe a character died in a particularly gruesome way (I'm looking at you, obsidian coffin in Tomb of the Nine Gods). What would have been a better way to handle that situation? Your players may have better ideas about how to handle it than you do. Listen to them and find out.
Once we've dealt with the immediacy of the issue and hopefully corrected our course, it's time to get back to the table. Keep the next game simple, focusing on the things that make D&D games great. Keep the storyline straight forward. Read up on the characters. Come up with a strong start to the next game. Plan out some interesting locations and some fun scenes that take place there. Throw a few fun monsters at them. Getting back to the basics helps us remember what makes this game so great to begin with.
The bad game we had will seem a lot less bad once we run a few good games after it.
Depending on the problem that came up, a hard solution might be to step away. Whether it's burning out on DMing or the wrong personalities at the table, sometimes the best solution is a clean break. This is hopefully a last resort saved only for extreme circumstances. If this happens, it's time to get back to square one and start building a new great D&D group so we can get back to the joy of our game.
Bad games happen. We don't like them and, given that we're dealing with six personalities around our table, our games can get complicated and emotions can run high. These aren't easy situations to deal with. People problems are always hard to deal with. Hopefully we can get past it by taking a step back, taking a deep breath, thinking about the problems analytically, addressing the problems and solutions with our friends, and getting back behind the screen. Above all, our goal is to have fun sharing tales of high adventures with our friends and loved ones. If we can hang onto that, there are few problems we can't surmount as we share our tales of high adventure.
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