Sometimes a game starts going down a wrong direction, and things stop being fun. Maybe the GM gave out too many magic items early on, and now the encounters are too easy. Or maybe some players decided to hoard fate points and are intentionally failing at everything to acquire them. Or perhaps the story took a bad turn, and now no one is having fun anymore.
Things happen, whether they be mistakes or bad roles or just unexpected plot holes. Sometimes friction gets into the players, or someone moves away, and that amazing game you were looking forward to every week is no longer as enjoyable as it once was. What do you do?
There are a number of things that players and GMs can try. We are going to offer a few suggestions here. They are not the only suggestions out there, but we know from experience that they can work. Keep in mind that none of these suggestions will work if the entire group is willing to move forward. Once people in a group are unwilling to compromise, the only solution is to find a new group.
Talk About A New Game
If a game is not going well and the entire group recognizes this, the first thing you should talk about is the possibility of trying a new game. Have everyone share what they enjoyed about the last game and what they would really like to see in a future game. The group will probably talk about where they think the current game went wrong, and that should help get everyone on the same page. Maybe a new system would help, or a change of characters, or even a new GM.
If the possibility of a new game is shot down by the majority of the group, talk about why the rest of the group does not want to start a new game. This is where you really want to have someone taking notes, as this discussion will be even more key to readjusting your game than when everyone talks about what went wrong. That discussion is helpful to get everyone on the same page, but fixing a game is not about avoiding what went wrong or patching up mistakes. Fixing a game is about bringing back what players (and GMs) loved about the game.
Now if you decide to retire the old game and start a new one, then that is fine. Try something new and exciting. Make more mistakes, but learn from them. Have some unexpected laughs with new characters or a new setting. But even then, do not neglect what made the last game fun. Otherwise the new experience is going to be very short lived.
Tighten That Spigot
As a GM, you may enjoy seeing the delight on a player’s face when they get a cool item or recruit an amazing NPC as a follower. But too much gold makes an adventurer fat and lazy. Too many fate points make too many successes, which in turn makes characters shallow and 2-dimensional. If players are breezing through a GM’s game, the lack of challenge will leave the game feeling boring.
The assumed solution to this problem is to then amp up the difficulty to meet the new adjusted strength of the PCs, but that will often lead to a quick ending game. If players have to spend 4 fate points each or use all their daily powers for one encounter, then they are only going to hoard more and rest frequently between each adventure. And if a GM takes one of those options away from them, it makes the game far too difficult and overwhelmingly un-fun.
A much better solution is to cut off the flow of boosts they are getting. Stop passing out fate points or powered-up gear for a while. Give them a multi-session adventure to run through their consumables without giving them the coins/fate points to replenish. Clearing out a base of baddies with lousy gear but good natural stats, trying to find your way out of a dangerous dimension where everything you get turns to goo in the real world, or being stranded on a planet and surviving until rescued are suggested plot lines.
This may be difficult to sell to your players after they have gotten used to a steady supply of game-breaking loot, so make sure they still feel rewarded for their efforts. See the end of the next section for more details on alternative rewards.
Sometimes a game gets stuck in a rut. The plot to collect all 8 parts of a weapon can lose its charm after the 4th dungeon that looks the same as all the others. Solving a murder mystery is boring when everyone knows that the butler did it. And really, who wants to keep sailing the ‘verse when no unexpected challenges come up ever?
Sure it sounds obvious when we type it out, but in a game that you love it is so hard to not keep going to the same things you know work over and over. But sometimes every discussion, tavern visit, and stealth check turn into a combat scene because that is what everyone knows. And just making combat scenes more interesting is not enough. Everyone needs some variety in the game as a whole.
If you are a player that feels like their character is in a rut, consider an alternate path. Try training up a skill to give you another option in a game or changing one of your aspects to reflect a new goal. If you are playing a game with classes, take a level to multiclass and see what new options this adds to your player character. The goal is to get your character to discover something new about themselves and either reaffirm the old way or grow into a new skill set that they did not expect before.
For a GM, a simple way to change the feel of the game without changing the mechanics is to offer an alternative reward. Most players expect gold, experience points, fate points, and special loot for completing a quest. But there are other rewards that they can strive for as well: titles, favors, divine blessings, permits, allies, and even support of an NPC. These rewards can be story based or add extra mechanics to the game. A +1 to a low skill or stat will not make much of a difference in powering up a player, but because it is a bonus reward it can feel phenomenal as a player. And what group doesn’t strive to own a base of operations?
Earth Shattering Events
If the group wants to keep their characters, but the game is lagging or the plot is backed into a corner, fixing the game may require the GM breaking it. Throw in a new plot line that shakes the story and the world of the game. Change things up so that the same PCs in the same world are suddenly dealing with a whole new game.
If you are playing with the Fate system, or any game where your group got together to make the world, it may be a good idea to talk about what you are changing. A player may quit the game if you decide to disregard their contribution to the world, even if there is an obvious problem with it. Discussion beforehand can better prepare someone so that they do not take your changes personally.
On the other hand, if you really want to throw the shock factor in as a way to spur things on, then end a typical session with your earth-shattering event. Have a monster or an alien army rise up and start attacking the world on a scale the party can’t deal with. Have a deity cut off from the world, and all their relics disintegrate. Or change the law of gravity so that suddenly everyone is falling up.
These huge changes should have a goal for the party to overcome (which will give the story a new direction). They can defeat the new threat, restore the lost good thing, or fix whatever change occurred. For the best results, this should be a full story arc instead of a goal for a couple of sessions. I would highly recommend the Omens episode of Critical Role for a good example of this method as you can literally watch the players talk, in character, about why they are still together and then see at the end how the DM responds.
Never Give Up! Never Surrender
Hopefully these suggestions will give you some options to fix a derailed game without cutting out players or abandoning groups. But if nothing works and the group falls apart, don’t ever stop gaming. Find a new local group, teach some non-gamer friends, or get on Google Hangouts and play with people online. You could even start a podcast if you are feeling courageous.
All good things come to an end, but you never know if a bump in the road is really the end until you do everything you can to plow through it.
If you have any stories of getting your group through a rough time, or you have questions for us then feel free to share!