You have a great idea for a new campaign. You explain it to your group, and everyone’s on board. Session Zero goes great, it seems like everyone has made interesting characters and is totally bought in to the premise. Then you start playing. For whatever reason, things just aren’t hitting the same way that everyone thought. Then comes the big inciting action. This will drive everyone to really dive in, right? Maybe it doesn’t. Maybe everyone’s looking across the table awkwardly. Maybe someone gets upset, maybe not. Whatever happened, the game blew up, and now it’s time to pick up the pieces.
When most of the hobby assumes that you’ll pick one game and play it forever, there’s not a lot said about the risks of trying something new. Even among those inveterate RPG collectors with four dozen different systems in their bookshelf, there were never that many games that were really *out there* until recently…and even now, the vast majority of games sold hew to a common template. So, when the range of experiences and expectations is fairly narrow, you have to be prepared for what happens when you step outside of those experiences and expectations and something unpleasant happens.
There’s two big goals that you should have when your group has a game fall apart. First, it’s important to bring everyone back together and make sure the group is still doing all right; a game usually blows up because something unpleasant happened, and this can hurt feelings in multiple different ways. Second, it’s important to figure out what went wrong with this particular game; a good post-mortem will both ensure that your group will keep trying things in the future but also be better able to figure out what they like. No matter how exactly you go through these two steps, the ultimate goals are to keep lines of communication open, and make sure the game improves from here on out.
Games have the potential to fall apart whether or not you have a long-running group or use safety tools extensively. Neither group history nor safety tools are all that good at predicting how a person will react to a new situation when it happens, as opposed to when it’s described. In my group, the situation was player versus player intrigue. My group haven’t been strangers to character conflict and intrigue, but when we started a campaign that focused on this sort of intrigue, the reaction was different. This is a perfect example of a situation that safety tools or a session zero could not have prevented. As my players were familiar with some level of character conflict, they agreed to play in a campaign where such conflict would come to the forefront. It was only when they were in the campaign and trying to play the game did it become clear that this sort of conflict, while it works as a spice, was not appealing as the main thrust of a game.
The fact that people don’t always know how they’re going to react to a new situation is exactly why the temperature check is important. As soon as possible, bring the group back together, ask what happened, and ask how they feel about it. Try to keep the conversation on first-order events: what happened, how everyone felt about it, what they did in response. It’s important not to blame or use the context of blame, even as there will be actions taken by players (or characters) which elicited conflicted or hurt feelings. From there it’s then time to start talking about first-order next steps; if a certain action generated a negative reaction, then that action becomes something we want to avoid. Intent neither causes nor avoids these negative reactions, so once again it’s important to keep the conversation first-order and direct.
The next part of the conversation becomes a little bit more difficult, so if you haven’t already, now is a good time for some bleed management. Bleed is when ingame emotions affect out-of-game emotions, so if anyone is still feeling angry, hurt, or otherwise bringing the negativity from the game into the post-mortem, it’ll be good to step away for a bit. This can involve the group hanging out and doing something other than a role-playing game, or it could just be stepping away and reconvening later. Either way, you’re going to want the group to be on the level, because you’re going to ask them if the game should continue.
When I last had a game blow up, the answer was easy. Everything started falling apart in the second session, and the group wasn’t convinced that the issues had anything to do with us, rather believing it to be inherent in the game and how it was designed. As such, we dropped the fledgling campaign, no hard feelings, and agreed to play something else. If your game blows up a year in, this becomes a lot harder. On the other hand, it also makes a retcon possible. Whatever your next steps may be, lay out what you think is possible and reasonable, and let everyone share their opinion. Then, when you have a consensus (or at least a strong majority), you can go forward with your plan.
It’s important to note here that in a short-form game, like a one-shot or a con game, if the game blows up it’s done. If it’s just a one-shot with your group it’s still important to follow the next steps and figure out what the group can do going forward, but a one-time group like at a con is never going to meet in that way again. This should make it very clear; for con games you need safety tools. If you want to run anything interesting with a group of strangers, you absolutely need to communicate what the game is going to be about and what it will contain. With a group you have next steps, at a con your night is over.
Whatever happens, whatever the group decides, you cannot just continue in the same way you were going as if this was just a bump in the road. One or several of your players just revealed to you, in about the least ideal way possible, a strong play preference, and you have to honor that.
This is easiest if you decide to start a new campaign. If your post-mortem went well, you should know exactly what sent your game off the rails and therefore should be able to avoid it. In my case, as the element of the campaign that made the game go off the rails was PvP, I framed my next game in such a way that PvP would have almost no chance of happening. An easy patch, and I didn’t really have to change my future plans all that much. If you’re sticking with the same game, this can be significantly more difficult. If something new created the issue, then you can retcon, remove, and go on with the campaign. On the other hand, if it was something about the way that something came up, or even how a plot point or conflict was resolved, then you have to tread carefully.
I’ve been writing from the assumed perspective that something big and, as far as the group is concerned, static has caused the issue. Whether this is disliking PvP or a previously unrealized but significant case of arachnophobia, dealing with static elements which can be included or excluded in a game relatively arbitrarily is easy in the scheme of things. Now, your Lolth subplot might be completely dead if you have a newly discovered arachnophobe in your party, but so be it. It was one prepped thing, you can prep another. When a player freaks out at the resolution of a plot element…things are tougher. This is where being taken by surprise can be really bad, both for you and for the player. Imagine that your player has an NPC in their backstory, a sibling. You’ve done the good GM thing and asked if it’s OK to make this NPC plot-bearing, and the player says yes. You’ve asked every question and gotten no negative responses, and you have a great idea. The sibling gets kidnapped! The player is into it, they lead the charge to go rescue the NPC. Then, the final encounter occurs, the dice land the way dice sometimes land, and the NPC sibling dies. You never said this wasn’t a possibility, and no one, including the player of the character whose sibling it is, had a problem with it. But for whatever reason, it does not land. The party has had successes and failures before, but this failure is not OK. The player goes very quiet, gathers up their dice, and stalks out the door.
So let’s assume you get through the temperature check, you get all the players back at the table, there’s no ill will. What’s the right play here? When a large game element is causing discomfort or making things less fun, you can usually make your adjustment in an outcome-independent way. If players don’t like PvP and you switch to a game with little or no PvP, the outcome of the game is unchanged beyond the original game being put to the side. If a player finds out they don’t like spiders, you can stop putting spiders in the game regardless of how the spider encounter went. But if a player is fine with something up until it goes wrong for them, you have to be careful. In the above case, it’s possible that it is in fact outside the game; maybe the player recently lost a sibling, and didn’t make the connection until they lost a sibling again ingame. That’s exogenous and requires a lot of care…that’s the sort of bleed that inclines me to remind you that a GM is not a therapist. But, it’s also the sort of event where it’s likely better for everyone to put the sibling arc completely to the side, not even think about how that final encounter went, and pivot the whole game. What if the player just grew attached to the NPC and then got really upset that they died? For no direct reason? That’s when the conversation becomes a bit more difficult.
If you’re running with novice players or young players, in-game failures are opportunities to talk about the nature of failure and where the characters go from there. Character deaths in particular are good opportunities to show what losing gracefully looks like, and maybe even honoring the character in-game to make the event feel less like all the play leading up to that point was for nothing. On the other hand if you, like me, are playing with decade-plus veterans of the hobby, then after everyone cools down, you need to let that cookie crumble. Emotions can run high, but there’s a difference between a strong and unforeseeable reaction and a tantrum. This of course all depends on how well you set the expectations at the beginning of your game! If you kill a character in a game where there was not expected to be character death, you screwed up and you need to make that right. If you killed an NPC sibling without consulting the player first, you screwed up and you need to make that right. If you want a table where it’s OK to be firm and let character failures stand in the narrative, it needs to be a table where the expectations are clear and you follow them. As the GM you need to both navigate player mistakes without blame and at the same time immediately own and correct your own mistakes. You are running the game and managing the table, and as such you need to hold yourself to a higher standard.
If you and your fellow players are interested in exploring everything that the tabletop role-playing hobby has to offer, you’re going to come across things you don’t like, no matter how carefully you plan otherwise. When the game blows up, the best way to take it is as a learning opportunity, and let the event show up what the group does and doesn’t find fun. As you move forward, you’ll find that you can really sharpen your game towards what your group is interested in. What makes this all work, though, is communication. Communicate your expectations clearly, make it feel safe for players to communicate your wants and needs, and listen to those wants and needs. The more effort you put forth into making it safe to explore potentially uncomfortable territory, the more interesting and engaging your games can be. The trade-off might be having a couple blow up along the way.
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