Dungeon Masters, don’t let a bad game get you down
As Dungeon Master, you’ve been preparing a week or longer, planning for your Dungeon & Dragons group’s next session, writing out stats for NPCs, trying to think through various story lines, contemplating possible player character actions and responses, etc. It can be a lot of work, and time consuming. It doesn’t necessarily have to be, but sometimes it is. Then there’s the mental exhaustion that can set it.
Finally, the game arrives! You open your rules books, lay out your maps, places the minis, maybe start a Google Hangout, whatever.
Then the game sucks.
Before we go any further, let me point out that quite often the DM is not a good judge of whether or not his or her session was a good one. Sometimes you go away thinking a particular game was boring, yet your players heap praise upon you. True, you can’t always trust your players, especially if they are friends of yours, because they might just be playing nice or they might fear driving you away since maybe none of them wants to take over the role of DM.
So, you can’t trust yourself and you can’t trust your players. What to do? You need to keep an open mind and be receptive to criticism, constructive criticism. No one likes being criticized, but you can grow somewhat used to dealing with it with practice, and over time you’ll learn what types of criticism are actually helpful to you and which ones are not.
Keep in mind that criticism isn’t necessarily a bad thing, especially in this case where you are wanting others to help you be a better Dungeon Master. Sure, it can still sting, but this is how you get better, this is how you run great sessions in the future.
Talk about the game
Now that you’ve decided to be open to criticism (you have, haven’t you?), the next step is to gather your gamers together for a session in which you don’t actually game. That’s right, you don’t actually game. No dice rolling and no role play. You want to talk with the players for a bit, maybe an hour or two, as a group and possibly individually, and find out what they liked and didn’t like about your last session.
If you are familiar with the notion of a Session 0, think of this as sort of a Session .5, one that takes place between adventures.
At first your players might hem and haw around, maybe not saying much. Or possibly they will offer only the most bland of criticisms. That’s okay. Nobody likes to be the bad guy, especially with friends, especially with the Dungeon Master. But if you keep with it, if you keep pressing them for their opinions, sooner or later they will probably open up to you.
Don’t let this turn into a bitch session, but also don’t become defensive and start making excuses. Excuses won’t make you a better DM.
Listen to your players. Hopefully you know them well enough to know what kind of games and characters they prefer, but sometimes in this day of online gaming you are faced with players whom you do not know well, if at all. Either way, don’t take anything personally. Be perceptive to their opinions. That doesn’t mean you necessarily have to agree, but the information could help you steer games in the future, and it might even provide some adventure ideas.
Dungeon Master, you can’t control everything
Okay, remember how I just told you not to make excuses? It’s true. Making excuses will not allow your mind to properly take in constructive criticism because you will tend to ignore that criticism. However, sometimes there are things that are out of your control that can harm or ruin a game.
Sometimes you’re simply not at your best. Maybe you’re sick, or maybe you had a rough day at school or work. Maybe you just had a big fight with a friend or relative. Maybe you ate something that is upsetting your stomach. A thousand different things could happen to you before a game which could have a negative impact upon the game and your capabilities at running the game.
Don’t beat yourself up over it, but do learn from it. If you are sick, possibly next time you should simply cancel the game or ask someone else to run a session or maybe just play board games or something. If work or school sucked, possibly do something fun before your game to help you get in a better frame of mind (I’ve found ice cream helps … and donuts). If you ate something that has made you sick, then don’t eat it again, at least not before a gaming session.
Besides whatever is going on with you personally, there are other factors that can be out of your control.
If you aren’t an online D&D player, ask someone who is how often technology intrudes upon their sessions. I’d guess most will say at least a third of the time. The Hangouts is glitchy, your microphone isn’t working, Roll20 decided to lock up, or somebody else is having issues with their computer or phone. Such occurrences are common enough. If you play online for any amount of time, you’re likely to run across them and others.
Also, sometimes the dice just roll badly, for the DM or the players or both, and this can lend itself to a bad atmosphere.
Then there are human factors which can be out of your control. Maybe you’re in a great mood and feel fine, but one of your players doesn’t. Maybe one of your players is “that” guy, the one who for whatever reason and in numerous fashions makes everyone else at the table miserable. Maybe one of your players acts immature, or maybe there’s a personal issue between two or more players. One bad player can ruin a session for everyone, and while it is part of the DM’s job to try and negotiate such rough waters, it is not always possible to do so, at least not smoothly.
Still, don’t make excuses. Take what happens and any criticisms and advice from others and move on to the next game. One bad game doesn’t mean you are a bad Dungeon Master. Heck, if you run often, a hundred bad games doesn’t mean you are a bad Dungeon Master, though it probably does mean you have room for improvement.
However you handle such situations, just remember not to beat yourself up over it. Repeat these words, “There will always be another game. There will always be another game.”
And while you’re at it, keep in mind that everyone has to start somewhere. If you are a young and/or new Dungeon Master, cut yourself some slack. You’re learning. And the best way to learn to be a good DM is on the job. Sooner or later you will find your flow, and things will go better. That doesn’t mean things will always be perfect or that you won’t run a less-than stellar session from time to time, but with experience comes improvement.
Now get out there and be a good Dungeon Master!
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