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Gaming for Grown-Ups

Keeping A Good Game Going

by Tim Kirk
Jul 31,2003


Keeping A Good Game Going


You have a group together, settled on a place to play, chosen a game, and even played it a few sessions. The game is chugging a long, then it snags. Your creative juices are spent. Players are getting fidgety.

Now what?

That is a loaded question isn't it?

Most gamers I know have plenty of ideas of things to do, but even the vast well of ideas can run dry, especially for adults whose lives are not entirely their own, and they may have less than twenty minutes to come up with the next thing for their game session and it has to be good.

Mix it up

Don't play the same game every session or have the same GM, if that is at all possible. Having other games run by other GMs gives a bit of a reprieve and allows you a bit more time to contemplate what to do next. Don't waste this time -- you may only have another twenty minutes of adventure writing added before it is actually time to run again. However, running multiple games by a single GM may actually limit your time more as you're now trying to write more than one session of adventuring, shmoozing, or political intrigue at a pop. Try to pace yourself and limit yourself to running one or two games at most (and keep the sessions planned specifically for each game).

Ask around

Ask your players at the end of each session some questions; in my experience, too few GMs do this, so here are some ideas to be used as needed.

What kind of events do you see your characters getting involved in?

What did you like in this session? What did you not like in this session?

Are there any new directions you would like to take your characters?

Now, direct questions may not get a lot of response, but some feedback can aid you in developing the next plan for a game session.

Don't neglect to examine copies of their character sheets. Go over them closely after a game in order to see if there are any hooks you can make use of -- virtually any game with an advantage or disadvantage system can provide serious ways to drag player characters into the next subtly planned string of chaos of their lives.

No Matter The Setting, Anything Can Be A Hook

The character's gear -- be it magic, technological or mundane. A jacket bought at flea market may have a letter sewn in the lining that falls out when it is damaged in a firefight, one with a mysterious link to what is going on right now in the characters' lives.

The character's stats or attributes can be a hook as well, especially if they are renowned for their capabilities. As word spreads, so do up-and-coming types who think they can make their own name by showing up the characters.

Disadvantages may come up and cause all sorts of problems; a small mental drawback may come out in a psychological test, having the hero committed for "observation" at the local institution for mental health.

It all boils down to how you look at it, and as always, look very closely. Even the simplest things can be turned into an adventure.

For Example: A character of mine, named Sebastian, is simply a stunningly handsome man. Now this one tiny thing can be fodder for hundreds of plots in the game, especially since this particular game has themes dealing with love and it never quite working out. Female villains may kidnap him because of his appearance. Alternately jealous men may seek to disfigure him. Two hooks which may recur regularly from one single thing on the character sheet.

Lie, Cheat, and Steal

When it boils down to it, most plotting, most reasons for a group to go out and get them involved in any sort of hi-jinks, has likely been done before. This doesn't mean you can't do it again.

For example: S.John Ross has this wonderful 'Big List of RPG Plots' http://www.io.com/~sjohn/plots.htm. Read them and consider them. Plots and subplots are not the most important aspect of gaming, but they are an important part. By throwing a bit of this at your players, their characters' interactions can take the simplest one of these and turn it into a several session experience.

If you can't find one that works, you might print these out, put them on 3x5 cards and shuffle them up. Pull the top three, then work to make these random elements fit your needs and those of your players.

Books, movies, and plays exist by the hundreds whose core plots are easy enough to lift from their sources and file off the numbers. The general ideas can be altered enough to make them unrecognizable to all but the most astute players. In one session I was a player in, we had our erstwhile SF heroes seek a downed escape pod in a jungle filled with giant reptilian predators (what Earth people call dinosaurs). The plot was simply one of survival against a difficult environment with predators who shrugged off fire by even our heaviest side arms. The adventure was a blast even if it could have been any one of a dozen different stories from pulps, modern cinema, or similar sources.

In any event, just be sure that you provide enough new twist to an old plot to make it yours, and to fit your players.

Ask Others

When players and character sheets don't pan out, ask other people, friends who aren't in the game, people online in any of the wonderful message boards RPG.NET hosts, or even in RPG.net's mIRC chat room many people exist who'd be glad to make suggestions, and even if they don't work for you, they may spark your own wheels to turning at record speed.


One important aspect of keeping a game going isn't just having a game plan; sometimes it's about how the game itself is paced.

Games which flow too fast may leave the players unsatisfied with any resolution, no matter how genre-appropriate it is for the game to move at that pace.

Contrarily, some games may be paced too slow and seed boredom in your players. Ideally, you should always speak to them and get feedback on how they feel a given game is paced.

A suggestion in pacing: Cliffhangers. Very simply, give them a climatic moment where they are shocked, awed, or otherwise at a loss and then end the game for the night. This allows your players to consider reactions, as well as gives them a good reason to "tune in next week."

Like anything else, use cliffhangers in moderation. Overdoing them makes the whole game seem like a series of old radio plays, or old science fiction shows where everything is over-acted to be "dramatic." This lends itself well to some games but can make others less serious in tone.

Pacing can make or break a game. Two otherwise identical games with similar characters and settings can turn out very different with different pacing of events, actions and so on.

Take Breaks

A short break from game mastering every once in a while gives you time to recharge the creative juices. Read. Go out. Watch a movie. Think about anything but gaming to give you a bit of time for the old narrative batteries to rejuvenate. A short break can be just the ideal way to re-invigorate a game. Don't however take too long as an extended hiatus will kill your game dead.

Keep Going

Sometimes though, the best thing to do to keep a good gaming going is just to keep playing. Don't stop because events haven't turned out perfectly. Just continue to move forward. Players may come or go, but if you maintain your standards for yourself and push forward, you may indeed have a campaign that lasts for years of enjoyment with the playgroup. If a player can't make a game or leaves the game, just find a way to write their character out. Turn them into a villain or make them die dramatically. Whatever works for your group. Sometimes you don't even need a player to leave, just a character. With the player's permission, the same kind of events can be played out before a new PC is introduced.

What to do if all else fails

Don't give up. First, gaming is a hobby -- not every player group and game work right, or even work well together. It might be time to find another group. Maybe take some time only as a player. Or try a different mix of players. No one says you have to have only one group of the same people to play every time. One of my own games became literally "Team up with Stormdancer" in which we constantly had a rotating cast of partners for the one reliable player who was always there to play the game.

Alternately, campaign play may not be ideal. Maybe you should be doing games on a one shot basis, run a game or two in a given setting then move on for a while. Sometimes these things turn into much longer affairs, but don't artificially limit yourself to campaign, episodic, or one-shot play.

Don't get discouraged. Gaming is hard work, but it's also hard fun. You just have to remember to have both in equal measure.

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