When Things Go Wrong

Even the best of DMs with the best of players can have the occasional off-night. Whether it’s simply the players taking an unplanned direction while the DM draws a blank, or external stresses bubbling over and causing an argument, no campaign goes off without ever having a problem.

There is, however, a difference between a minor problem and a game-ending problem. A minor problem may conceivably lead to your game being cancelled for the evening to give the DM time to think up a way for the adventure to continue in the unexpected direction (or even to let tempers cool) but a major problem could cause players to permanently leave the game, or even end friendships. Most major problems begin as minor problems that, through improper handling or neglect, develop into a serious issue.

Handling minor problems before they become major problems, while it often requires delicacy, is not an especially difficult proposition. If certain guidelines are adhered to, in fact, it can be quite easy to avoid major problems from occurring at all. Every situation is, of course, different, but the following are some useful tips to keep in mind:

  • Remain calm. Nothing escalates a situation faster than allowing one’s temper to flare. Avoid raising your voice, demanding immediate action, or pointing accusing fingers. Explain your point of view calmly and be willing to offer suggestions for compromises, rather than throwing out an ultimatum. Don’t be confrontational—it’s very rarely effective.
  • Be respectful. Whether you are the DM or a player, remember to treat the other members of your group with the same respect you would expect yourself. Remember that each member of your group has their own individual needs just as you do, and try to be accommodating of those needs—as you would hope for others to accommodate your own.
  • Be punctual. This goes hand in hand with the above, but continued tardiness or absences are a frequent enough cause of problems in gaming that it bears separate mention. Being late or absent from a game time is not a problem when it is an occasional thing, especially if you can give advance notice rather than simply showing up late or missing the session without letting anyone know. If it is a regular occurrence, discuss it with the group first, and be prepared to bow out if there is no way to rearrange schedules to permit you to commit to the normal time.
  • Maintain separation between in-game issues and real life. Internal conflicts within the party can be interesting and fun, but it’s important to make sure that what happens in the game stays in the game. Try to avoid becoming frustrated with the player over something that is done in-character that you don’t like; by the same token, don’t use your own character as a tool to lash out at another player in some form of punishment. If a personality conflict arises among the characters, decide whether you’d like to roleplay through it or whether you find it disruptive—and as the DM, don’t be afraid to step in and arbitrate if you feel that it is detracting from the overall experience. If there is a personality conflict between the players themselves, try to work it out calmly and reasonably, and be willing to compromise.
  • Avoid favoritism. As a DM you will often be expected to arbitrate or speak up when a problem arises. Be sure to listen to all sides and find a compromise if possible. Don’t make a snap decision that you may regret later. If you do need to make a quick decision, for example, when settling a rules argument, make it clear why you are making the decision, and offer to spend some time examining the issue after the session wraps up for the evening—and be sure to follow through.
  • Be decisive. If a problem player is causing the rest of your group to dread the weekly session even after repeated attempts at compromise, or a given rule interpretation causes regular game-interrupting debate, sometimes the only thing to do is to make a decision and stick to it, even if it might offend someone. Being up-front and polite about a hard ruling or ejecting a player can do a lot to soothe wounded feelings, but don’t back down once you’ve drawn the line.
  • Be willing to put the game on hold to find a solution. In the co-operative game environment that most RPGs try to foster, it’s counterproductive to continue playing with the players at each other’s throats. If you need to pause to let tempers cool, to wait for a missing player to return, or even just to think for awhile about how to proceed in the face of an unexpected direction from the players, by all means, do so. Most players would prefer to have a game where everyone is at their best than at their worst, after all. If you have to put the game on hold, for whatever reason, consider finding some other way to keep your players entertained during the downtime.

The most important thing to remember is that as always, it is a game, and designed to allow everyone to have fun. Problems happen, but there’s no reason to let them stand in the way of that enjoyment of the game when it’s so easy to avoid it.

Comments (10)

Pingwin (September 30th, 2009)

You approach it very similar to how a manager should approach similar issues with their staff.

I dont think it really works that way, frankly. Most groups out there consist of friends who want to spend some time together having fun and who picked an RPG to do that. Treating your friends as if they are ‘to be managed’ just to keep the game going, I dont know mate, some groups might simply not be ‘rpg material’. Go see a movie I’d say! :)

I also dont think its the responsibility of the DM to sort out the group just cause he is the DM. Every group (of friends) that wants to keep itself together over a long period of time will have to find a way to
make it work for themselves and in that perspective the DM is just another guy.

Stormgaard (September 30th, 2009)

Ack! Pingwin, I couldn’t disagree more.

Unless you are just that - friends hanging around to have a good time - then maybe you’re right, but he’s addressing something different here. It may not be just like “running a business”, but it’s definitely up another notch from just hanging out.

A group of friends who want to hang out can (and usually) do anything - watch movies, drink beer, play cards, play pool, whatever. Running a successful long term tabletop campaign requires a lot more “work” than that.

Above all I’d say that in regards to the group as a whole - apart from running a mechanically coherent game - the DM’s primary responsibilities are to…

1. Set the tone for the gaming session.

Are we serious? Are we silly? Are we rules lawyers? Are we RPer’s? Are we combat junkies? etc.

2. Settle disputes as they come up - disputes between players and disputes between the DM and players (because they will both come up eventually).

I have friendly disputes with the characters all the time - mostly in terms of their own characters role play progression (what they would like to work towards, how they would like to impact the story etc.).

I’ve also had an occasion where one player contacted me privately because another player was being too silly at the table and talking over a lot of the role play sessions (with bad jokes etc.) and I had to get a handle on that.

Pingwin (October 1st, 2009)

@stormgaard: without disagreements internet would be boring :)

I think the core of any healthy RPG group is a group of friends looking for a good time. The difference with watching a movie or play pool is indeed the extra efford playing a RPG takes. In a way it is taking things up a notch, but I dont see the necessity of using a game role differation between the players and the DM as a ‘reason’ to put the DM in a management role.

When dealing with the workings of the campaign and the game I’d agree. But with the workings of the group? Does that mean if you swap DM’s this ‘job’ also rotates? In real life it doens’t seem to work that way, at least not in my experience. Social dynamics in a group don’t get overhauled every time someone else takes the DM seat. If the ‘alpha’ guy is a player he’ll still be the alpha guy and he will be the one who will (have to) fix the problem for the DM.

When a group of friends want to play a RPG they all need to have a level of commitment and share a level of responsibility to make it work. They all have to ‘remain calm, respectfull, be punctual, seperate IC and OC relations, avoid favoritism and be decisive’. The most important one (got left out as a topic but is soaked in all the others) is communicate. Players and DM’s have to communicate if they are enjoying themselves and if not they have to be frank about this. Sessions that go poor in general of poor for a specific player (got stunned for 2 hours of realtime…)happen and has to be dealt with. Just as players should let the DM know when they had a blast, great for motivation.

But I think the assumption that it is an integrated part of the DM’s job to manage the group OC is wrong.

Brandan Landgraff (October 1st, 2009)

There are a few assumptions that you’re making here that I would have to disagree with, Pingwin.

The first is that most RPG groups consist of a bunch of friends who just want to hang out and spend time together, and are doing so over a night’s gaming. While this is sometimes true, I think most long-term gamers have war stories of groups or games they joined that just went horribly, but they continued to attend because they wanted to play the game.

A lot of my friends wouldn’t or don’t enjoy gaming, and with those friends, I don’t game. I do, however, enjoy gaming enough that I’m not always willing to let a lack of interest with my closest friends turn into an inability to game at all. I’ve seen, and been a part of, a lot of groups where the players don’t really get along that well, but try and set aside their enmity because they love the game enough to be willing to do so if it’s the only game they can find. It’s not at all an uncommon experience for gamers to have war-stories of horrible groups that they joined looking for a game, and not because they had any sort of friendship with the other players.

The second assumption I’d like to disagree with is that the DM’s job does not include wrangling the players out of character. In any game, the DM is the de facto authority figure, and if the DM would like to continue to have a game then it falls to him or her to ensure that the players are getting along well enough that the group doesn’t implode. This doesn’t negate the responsibility of the players to communicate and try their level best to get along, but the DM is the one who’s put the work into the campaign, organized everything, and thus has the highest stakes, so in the absence of all reasonability on the behalf of one or more players, it’s going to be important for the DM to be able to divert these issues before they turn into game-ruining arguments. Again, I’ve seen plenty of groups where inter-player conflict has led to someone storming away from the table—or being driven away by another player’s behavior—that I don’t think it’s a safe assumption that it never happens.

It’s also not about the social dynamic at the table. Sure, you’ll still have alpha personalities, but again, the DM should have some interest in continuing the game.

The third assumption that you are making is that there’s a healthy RPG group being discussed. The article is about when things go wrong, not when things go right. When things go right, I’d have to agree, you have a group of friends who enjoy hanging around, work out their disputes calmly and rationally, and don’t end up storming away from the table and leaving everyone hanging without the cleric for the night. If you’ve never experienced that, you’re fortunate.

Stormgaard (October 1st, 2009)

@Pingwin - I kind of see what you’re getting at. Even though it’s my job to run the game and handle disputes I’m not their “Boss” (or Alpha male, whatever).

That’s true to a certain extent. I’ve carried over a lot of what I’ve learned as being a World of Warcraft guild leader for 4 years to the D&D table. My job isn’t to micromanage people - it’s to establish the conditions whereby the other members of the group can do their jobs effectively. Some members good at leading raids, some are good are running the guild bank, some are good at telling jokes and keeping everyone laughing etc.

Same is true at the table. Some guys are good role players, some guys are good at tracking combat conditions and initiative, some guys are good at telling jokes and keeping the group laughing etc. Like my first example (the private call I got from one player about another) it’s my job to make sure that the guy who is good at telling jokes isn’t stepping on the role players toes.

I’m might borrow a bit from Brandan here too. He’s right, it’s not always a group of friends sitting down to play - although it will become that eventually if the campaign goes well enough. Most of the guys at my table I wouldn’t have considered “friends” a year ago the same way I do now.

Pingwin (October 1st, 2009)

I have to admit, I have never seen or heard of a group of people playing an RPG that were not friends, or at least at a friendly footing with each other before any play got done. (well except one day convention stuff with randoms) Playing with people you dont like doesnt sound like a great plan to me, frankly. People I dont know yet is something else, but if I have a dislike against someone I wouldnt play with them. I could go to the same birthday party, but in an RPG you cant really avoid the other guy that easy.

On the note that the DM puts in the work and therefor is the most commited with the most at stake (true) I understand he will be the best motivated to act if things go sour. You say ‘It’s also not about the social dynamic at the table. Sure, you’ll still have alpha personalities, but again, the DM should have some interest in continuing the game.’ Perhaps I don’t understand correctly but why does the increased stakes of the DM push him to take the role of group leader? If he simply isnt the social leader of the group, the group will look at the true leader for ‘confirmation’.

When as a player on a convention type game other players are not paying attention, leaving the table for chats whenever they want, play deliberately distrubtive stuff under the cover over beeing in character and that they cant help beeing a jerk I am surely not going to wait for the DM to ‘take care of that’. Usually the DM is very happy if I take care of these things so he can focus on running his game. Especially newish DM’s need all their attention and energy to do the ingame stuff. I think it is very much about social dynamics, as adressing people is done from the point of view that we all agreed to commiting to the game and have the responsibility to put in our share of the efford. And its not my adressing of the guy that is disrubtive that makes him accept he needs to take it more serious, it is the agreement of the other players and DM that make it so.

Doesn’t have to be done in an aggressive/conflicting style or anything. ‘We’d better pay attention’ is a lot better then ‘you have to pay attention!’ but I guess you know that.

On the third notice, that you have an unhealthy group to begin with, hell, you really must love your RPG a lot to put up with that! That’s crazy! :)

As a sidenote I’d like to explain why I ‘agrue’ with you guys over this. It’s because I do recognise the need of some kind of management for an RPG group, but that this is very conflicting with the fact the relations in the group are primairily friendships and acting like a manager would (imo) damage that. But the problems are not always that different…

Pingwin (October 1st, 2009)

‘Same is true at the table. Some guys are good role players, some guys are good at tracking combat conditions and initiative, some guys are good at telling jokes and keeping the group laughing etc. Like my first example (the private call I got from one player about another) it’s my job to make sure that the guy who is good at telling jokes isn’t stepping on the role players toes.’

But why would it not be an option to have a guy who is good with beeing the DM doing that while you manage the conditions he needs to perform well?

Do you feel that the ingame control the DM has should not be seperated from the social authority needed to adress the issues that prevent people from beeing able to do what they should?

Brandan Landgraff (October 1st, 2009)

"On the third notice, that you have an unhealthy group to begin with, hell, you really must love your RPG a lot to put up with that! That’s crazy! :)"

Sometimes we have to make sacrifices if we want to be able to continue with a hobby we love. Honestly I’ve played in games where the common thread was friendship with the DM, not necessarily with each other, and if not for the DM’s intercession the game would have imploded. I’ve also played in games where the DM didn’t intercede and it DID implode.

The worst was playing in the game where the DM WAS the problem, though. That one didn’t last long, but it didn’t end quick enough, either…

Pingwin (October 1st, 2009)

Yeah, I know the situation were people have ties with one or two other people but not with all members of the group, that can easily get messy.

Might be interesting to explore how to turn a group of strangers into a healthy gaming group :)

Stormgaard (October 1st, 2009)

My group started out with two guys I was friends with, some friends of theirs (I didn’t know), and a couple of cold calls out of a local gaming shop. So yeah, there was some bond of friendship there, but it took a while for everyone to get to know each other on that level.

Quote: “If he simply isn’t the social leader of the group, the group will look at the true leader for ‘confirmation’. “

The group will look at whoever is the authority on whatever topic is in question. The guys don’t look to me to have the final word on a lot of the more esoteric rules calls for instance - there’s a couple other guys at the table who are much smarter at the game mechanics than I am.

Quote: “But why would it not be an option to have a guy who is good with being the DM doing that while you manage the conditions he needs to perform well?

Do you feel that the in game control the DM has should not be separated from the social authority needed to address the issues that prevent people from being able to do what they should?”

And yeah - actually I think you’ve hit on a good point there. I do think that it’s preferable that the DM be the social authority. Not in terms of being an “Alpha Male”, but in terms of being able to enact diplomacy between the players when it’s necessary. Again to draw from my WoW guild experience that’s been 90% of my job over the past 4 years. I don’t run the guild bank, I don’t run the raids, I just usually tend to smooth things over between the members when conflicts arise.

I don’t think it’s an absolute necessity - because like you said, the guys will automatically look to whoever is best at that job (it’s only natural) even if it isn’t the DM - but it does help. I’d go so far as to say if the DM is not that source of authority that whoever is should have a strong dedication to the campaign over the long haul, because you’ll have personal blow ups without it.

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