yodaWe’re all probably familiar with the famous Empire Strikes Back line delivered with incredible gravitas from the wizened old green muppet Yoda: “Do or do not, there is no try”.

While the meaning is fairly clear – you have to tackle challenges with the attitude that you will succeed – I’ve been thinking about how often that idea can be misinterpreted and put a lot of pressure on people. I’ve been thinking about this in a gaming related way thanks to playing in a few… well, not quite stellar games. The GMs were trying their hardest, but elements of the games or a misread of the group at the table just made them fall apart.

It’s hard to run a great game, and that always seems to be the brass ring that we as Game Masters strive for. We want our next game to be 10 times better than our last one, and we work towards that. But a bad game can feel like a huge let-down and really demoralize us. In one of the games I was in, the table was not read, we took two hours of play time to make characters instead of what we thought we were signing up for, and we didn’t have any real tie in to the story after that. I think only 2 of the 5 or 6 players came back for the remaining parts of the Game Master’s 3 part planned epic.

As I sat at a table across from the second session of that epic game and listened to it go on, slowly deflating until a break was called, I couldn’t help feeling bad for that GM. I’ve been there, and I feel that we’ve all probably been there. The game I was currently eavesdropping from, and not paying attention to, was decent but not as interesting. [pullquoteleft] In so many cases, we fail to do – and it’s okay. Sometimes all we can do is try and hope for the best.  [social_warfare] [/pullquoteleft] A playtest of a person’s new system, it relied on heavy knowledge of the Game Master’s homebrewed space setting and suffered from many breaks so that we could be told what the importance of a particular element was or that certain options and physics manipulations were available to us because that was a common thing within the world. It would make for an interesting book, but the game failed to grab most of the players.

Thinking on these games, I couldn’t help but remember many moments that I as a Game Master have failed at achieving what I set out to do. I set my sites too high, I envisioned different reactions, or I watched as a carefully crafted intricate world got overrun by the murder-hobo’s that the PCs decided to be.

In so many cases, we fail to do – and it’s okay. Sometimes all we can do is try and hope for the best. Setting out to run a great game and failing isn’t bad. The two games I played in weren’t the best, but those Game Masters did so much more than people who didn’t even show up at the table with their epic ideas. Just coming to the table and trying to make a fun experience for the group is an incredible feat in and of itself and every Game Master who does so should be applauded, whether successful or not. Go out there and try, and don’t worry too much about being incredible if it puts pressure on you. Always try to do your best, even if you don’t feel like you’re going to make it. Always be willing to ditch the epic epic results in your head for the more epic actions going on at the table. Never be afraid to step up and give it a shot. There is no do without the try.

What was your worst GMing failure? What was your most epic idea gone wrong? What was the most fun game moment you had come out of something failing to be taken as intended?

7 replies
  1. Solomon Foster
    Solomon Foster says:

    Agh, I think my most extended failure was a multi-year con campaign. The first year I thought I set the tone very nicely, but the “hard decisions must be made” thing I was going for evaporated at the finish of the game as the players cleverly avoided making them, making it weirdly light-hearted. The next year I tried to amp up the threat a bit to compensate, and instead of rushing in to save the day, the PCs ran away, resulting in the destruction of their setting, a much darker ending than I was hoping for. The next year I finally got the tone right, but the resulting session was pretty much strictly on the rails — I don’t think the players really made one significant choice in that session. I went into the fourth session not sure I shouldn’t just bag it and take everyone out to the movies instead. I think I pulled out an okay session, but it’s telling that I spent the time before the next session trying to figure out how to patch things up to get a stable setting and interesting conflicts. Then I was forced to cancel because of scheduling conflicts, and I cannot tell you how relieved I was!

    It sucks, though, because I had a great group of players and it was one of my favorite settings I’ve ever created, and it just didn’t quite ever work right.

  2. Scott Martin
    Scott Martin says:

    There was a disastrous time when I tried to cling too close to The Tombs of Ataun for a D&D scenario, and it intersected weirdly with the PC powergaming. It went weird fast and we were all quite fine calling it early and never picking it up again.

    Oh, yeah, I recently had a huge vision mismatch that made for a limp session of my 80s dystopia Fate game. Try, try again…

  3. Angela Murray
    Angela Murray says:

    My worst failure was probably actually a pick-up supers game I tried to run for my regular group. I’d gotten a little burned out on a more serious supers game, so wanted to do something ‘four color’. Had the players make characters quick off templates and threw them into a fight in media res. I quickly deflated as I realized I had no interest in these characters or in the world they were fighting in. It ended up being a short session, and it’s one of the few games where my players didn’t ask to play it again.

    The failure I feel the worst about, though, is one my players actually enjoyed. It was another supers game, but the plot spiraled out of my control and I couldn’t keep up with it. The players didn’t have a clue and were enjoying themselves, but I dropped the game like a hot potato. Which, unfortunately, is something an old GM of mine used to do all the time and I hated, so I feel particularly guilty about that.

    I absolutely agree, though, that you have to TRY. It’s the failures that give you an understanding of what works and what doesn’t. Success gives you that euphoric rush of ‘I CAN DO THIS!’ but isn’t very good at telling you where you need to improve.

  4. Frankie Blankenship
    Frankie Blankenship says:

    Two distinct memories come to mind.

    The first is DMing AD&D 2nd Edition. I prepared a cool underwater adventure as a way to mix things up. The group had been questing to restore the lost throne of the dwarves. They succeeded, and the dwarf player couldn’t have been more pleased with himself and the game. So comes an adventure underwater. I tried to give the sea elves and accent that was vaguely European sounding (almost Russian), but it didn’t matter. The dwarf player responded to all of this with, “Why the fuck am I leaving to go adventure? I’m the king of the dwarves. Bubble, bubble.”

    This little joke at the end broke the whole game. And so bubble, bubble has become an inside joke these 20 years later. What do you say to a plot that you personally have no interest in despite what your character might feel?

    The other time was a Vampire the Masquerade game.

    This was much more of a failure for me as I let it just putter out. The players played their characters from Dark Ages Denmark, to Enlightenment Paris, to Victorian London, to Modern NYC. We made it to the end game… NYC.

    And it fell apart for two reasons. Suffering health problems about this time I was forced to change scheduling, which always puts pressure on the game. Additionally, one player had left the story by this point due to personal issues with the other players.

    The remaining three were sufficient for the story, but something happened where I got lost.

    The actual played-through history of these characters had provided them with experience sufficient to survive the modern nights easily (different from earlier times). I wasn’t prepared for them to be bored with feeding and the hunt, but to say it had become old hat for them was an understatement.

    I did try to make it spicier with interesting NPC’s, modern problems, etc. But these Kindred were short on emotion as well, their coterie being composed of a Toreador, a Brujah, and a Gangrel.

    In retrospect, I think I would have introduced some Clan-related plots, but was trying to avoid getting into Gehenna territory (as that would be the bells tolling The End). I should have simply had the world come crashing down, but wanted to have NYC last longer than the other times they had played in. I don’t think that was a good idea.

    Never being ones to lead armies, these elders did not embrace any other vampires. This put them somewhat outside the local politics and the drama of having childre – removing that as a motivator as well.

    I simply did not challenge them in the NYC part. I own that, but I am still somewhat at a loss for how to run “high level” games. While they seem cool on the surface, the game can lose it’s appeal if there isn’t a genuine threat (other than the end of the world… an event that has lost much of it’s attractiveness after 2000 and 2012.)

    The only two gaming experiences that I actually regret, but there they are, warts and all.

  5. Roxysteve
    Roxysteve says:

    “If ya ain’t first, yer last!” Reese Bobby

    Small Long Island convention about three years ago. Evening session. I used three tables to contruct a 28 mm Wild West town using card buildings from the Whitewash City line (great products BTW, worth a review) that had taken me a couple of weeks of lost evenings to assemble.

    The scenario was a Deadlands:Reloaded one in which the players would be Bad Guys on the run from their last bank job, washing up in this little middle-of-nowhere town where they would hear rumors of large payrolls sitting in the bank.

    There was a rich field of tactical options for the players to draw from when they pulled the inevitable bank job, from a store full of dynamite to an easily stampeded stockyard full of cattle (off table). What could go wrong?

    Well first off there were so few people at the con that night the game attracted no real interest. I finally managed to sell four people on playing after an hour of shilling.

    Second, once they were playing, even though I gave each player a customizable pre-gen character with excellent gunfighting potential and bank-robbing mad skillz, the players had the characters sit in their hotel room for almost the entire game. I could not get them to so much as chat to a single townsperson, any of whom would have presented one or more possible adventure seeds. It was bewildering.

    Worse, it meant that all the foreshadowing I had intended to hint that the otherwise off the wall ending was an indication that the players were dead and in hell was lost, so the ending was just “Prisoner Theater of the Bizarre”.

    Sometime it just isn’t worth getting out of bed.

  6. Shelby Dawg
    Shelby Dawg says:

    Worst gaming failure was not keeping in ‘out of game’ contact with all my players, allowing a disgruntled and deceitful s**t to convince the others I had quit running, No one showed up and it took weeks to get the real story. He had been setting this up for months and blind sided me.

    If you have a tech player, have them set up a campaign board so everyone can access and comment. They can be made utterly private…well, kinda.

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