Disappointing Games: Who Failed?

I was just reading @Jeff_Slater's recent post about a disappointing game (we-had-a-disappointing-session-playing-house-of-reeds-the-other-day).

This has got me thinking:

When something doesn't quite do it for in a game (and who hasn't felt that way?), it would be really nice to be able to zero in on why.

For instance, consider these three cases:

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1. The game failed us.

We gave it our best shot, but it didn't produce what it was supposed to produce.

Solution: The game should be fixed. Alternately, it's just a bad match for that group's preferences.

(These are cousins! Identical cousins, in fact, if you're deadset on playing again...)

2. We didn't quite play the game right.

We gave it a good try, but, ultimately, missed some point of the rules, or perhaps the spirit of the game, and we ended up falling astray. It wasn't satisfying.

Solution: Adjust your approach to playing to better match the game's intent. Find a technique you were misapplying, or implement a new play habit or play culture. ("Oh, I'm not supposed to keep secrets from the other players in this game/I'm not supposed to try to win/You have to keep the stakes really small?")

(When the Forge talked about Creative Agenda clash, it was often all about this.)

3. We failed the game.

We followed the procedures, and understood the game, but it just... wasn't a good night. Someone was tired, someone was distracted, or maybe we're all new to this. We tried our best, but we didn't quite manage to play well enough for our own satisfaction.

The point is that the game operated as intended: it was the group which didn't "step up" and bring the awesome, in spite of functional rules and procedures. ("D&D is cool, man, but you always play the drunk dwarf, and all the DM ever throws at us is kobolds. Bo-ring!")

Solution: Try it again on another night, or work on developing your gamer skills. Break out of bad habits, shake things up.

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The question:

You brilliant, experienced masses on Story Games! Do you have any awesome tips or rules of thumb which help you distinguish one case from another?

How do you know if a game is no good... or that it was just your imagination flagging?

How do you know what feedback to give a designer? How to make the next session rock, or whether to discard the game and move on to another?

Share your wisdom! (Including smart questions or good gamer stories!)

Comments

  • edited February 2017
    When playing collaborative storytelling games we have actually never had a bad session unless we didn't pay attention to the rules close enough, as was the case with the session Paul mentioned above. We have had okay sessions and awesome sessions. For me, it's much easier to see if a role-playing game has a rules issues then if a collaborative storytelling game has a rules issue...maybe that's because I have played role-playing games longer, or maybe it is because I haven't ran into a 'bad' storytelling game yet. I think you can tell a game is 'bad' it has a very obvious issue; such as, the dice always creating the same issue, which causes gameplay issues, every time you roll them...things like that... I think coming to a place like Story Games and posting about and drilling down also helps to determine what happened.
  • I KNOW this is stating the obvious but let's just put it on the table:

    I mostly referee in games with a traditional referee role. Mostly fixed term convention games. When games don't shine I blame myself for:

    A) insufficient prep. Usually not having a cool climax, thought through, with something for every player to do - should the players not discover one for themselves.
    B) an erroneous spur of the moment decision during the game that derails things
    C) mishandling the balance of player interactions.

    I then have a habit of sharing my thoughts on line in the form of convention reports. When I believe a game wasn't up to my best I get players either berating me for putting myself down or feeling I was somehow criticising the game and, by implication, their play.

  • Gaming is such an intense and intimate activity I think you might not ever be the best judge of which state your less-than-stellar night falls into. To an outside observer, though, it is often crystal clear. Often when I talk to someone who has had a sub-optimal experience with a game I designed, I can very handily put it into one of these boxes, for example.

    So I guess my advice would be to talk about it with someone who knows and has success with the game, ideally in person.
  • I think there's an important element missing from the list, which is: none of the above.

    Storygames are really complicated systems! I mean, they don't necessarily look like it from the rules, but, like, you're trying to tell a story extemporaneously, getting it right the first time, with only minor, on-the-fly editing. A storygame narrative is a first draft, and it'd be completely unrealistic for a writer, say, to expect all (or even most) of their first drafts to be great. Most creative projects, even by highly skilled people, die in the early stages - and a lot of the time it's not because of anything the author did wrong, it's just Some Things Don't Work. It routinely amazes me that storygames succeed so often.

    Sometimes a session goes badly and it's not the game's fault, it's not the group's fault, it's not a systematic problem that needs to be fixed; you just got unlucky.
  • tsawac,

    I don't disagree with your premise - certainly, creative endeavours are often hit-or-miss affairs. But how is this meaningfully different from "we failed"? If I'm shooting baskets, I know I'll miss some of the time, and that's just how it goes. But it's still something I tried to do and failed; I initiated the action and didn't carry it out as I intended. Certainly it's not someone else's fault - the best I can do is to try to improve my percentage of "hits" (if that is, indeed, something I'm interested in).

    Jason,

    That's good advice! What makes you good at identifying these things? What techniques do you use, what works, what helps you identify different scenarios? What questions do you ask?
  • Yeah, maybe it boils down to semantics, or to saying the same thing in a gentler way.

    But the difference is - I think sometimes a game can be a failure even though nobody involved could reasonably have done anything any better. Probably that doesn't cover most failed games, but I still think it's a real thing that happens.

    The thing about highly complex, unpredictable systems is that everybody can do a perfectly good job, and the system as a whole can still fail sometimes. Something like shooting baskets - well, that's a relatively simple activity. It's just you and the constants of physics, and since physics doesn't mess around, if things fail then it's on you. Fiction is a lot messier.

    And I think it matters in terms of what you do about it! In the 'we failed the game' answer, it's actionable information for how to play better in future. If you were too tired to be creative - get more sleep next time. If it's down to inexperience - get more practice. If an interpersonal issue interfered with play - sort that out before you game. But sometimes, occasionally, a game fails and there isn't any lesson to draw from it, and overdiagnosing one won't help you play better in future.

  • Interesting! I'm all for "presenting things in a gentler way", when it comes to dealing with actual people (whose ego may be on the line). That's a very laudable goal.

    However:

    But the difference is - I think sometimes a game can be a failure even though nobody involved could reasonably have done anything any better.
    I find this difficult to imagine. What does this look like?

    If it's entirely outside the control of the participants, why wouldn't you then conclude that you simply should never play that game again? I mean, if I can't do anything to prevent this failure happening, why would I want to play again?

    If "playing this game often presents this problem, and we have no way of fixing or avoiding it (i.e. playing better or differently)", I think I would advise not to play that game anymore. (Unless you're specifically in it for the thrill of "will it be fun THIS TIME?", I suppose...)
  • I mean that it's possible with any storygame, and I definitely didn't say often.

    I mean, if I can't do anything to prevent this failure happening, why would I want to play again?

    That doesn't follow. That's like saying 'it's possible that I'll be in a car accident which I, as a driver, could not have anticipated and could have done nothing to prevent. Therefore, I will never drive.'
  • What makes you good at identifying these things? What techniques do you use, what works, what helps you identify different scenarios? What questions do you ask?
    For me it is a combination of things - sometimes a few questions quickly reveal that they literally played it wrong in a way that derailed the fun. Preference mis-matches are usually very obvious with a friendly conversation. These can also fall into your third category - a group that just wants to relax and take it easy is going to have a crap time with a game that demands everyone be 100% on all the time.

    Some of it is just experience, too, since I have been having these conversations for years.
  • All of that makes total sense to me, Jason. I was just hoping that you might share some of your experience and wisdom, so others can benefit from it. If you don't want to, however, that's fine! I appreciate your feedback all the same.
  • tsawac,

    So, what does that look like?

    I don't see how the car driving analogy holds at all - a car accident I can't prevent is caused by something entirely outside my control (there's an earthquake; the car's brakes suddenly seize up; someone falls asleep at the wheel), and I don't think gaming has any outside forces like that to interfere with what we're doing. Pretty much everything we do at the table is something we can choose to do or not to do, isn't it?

    That's why I was hoping for an example. Otherwise, I fear we're talking in circles.
  • It routinely amazes me that storygames succeed so often.
    Absolutely. It is bold and daring stuff.

  • Pretty much everything we do at the table is something we can choose to do or not to do, isn't it?
    I thought of things like this:
    - Someone has a headache.
    - Someone had a really crap day at work and has almost no energy left.
    - Someone gets a call about a family/work emergency in the middle of the action.
  • I don't think this is a simple question. I've been in sessions when I'm not having fun, even when a person next to me is clearly having a blast. Most games are not clear successes or failures for me, rather, I like some elements and dislike others, and often my dislikes are some other player's likes, and that just makes it all worse.

    I think the core of enjoyment is the social component for most people, and the game just adds a layer of activity to that. It's rare that you have your ideal mix of people and even they have moods and practices that clash. I think the game layer isn't usually the direct cause of failure, rather it just highlights the different preferences the players on the table have. This is actually why I like really focused games: in an ideal situation they prevent other players from doing stuff they might enjoy and I don't. And if I know the game actively promotes content I don't enjoy, I don't need to play it. But even the game played is usually a "good enough" compromise.

    To sum it up: a session is a compromise between different people and their preferences, a fertile ground for disappointment.

  • I thought of things like this:
    - Someone has a headache.
    - Someone had a really crap day at work and has almost no energy left.
    - Someone gets a call about a family/work emergency in the middle of the action.
    Ah, right. I think that fits pretty squarely in my category #3, though, doesn't it? After all, those are things which caused some kind of failures (however understandable) on the part of the players, and so we can pretty safely say they aren't a design issue. (Unless your design goal is a game which is robust despite such factors, I suppose.)

    Upstart,

    Agreed! It's not always obvious. I'm still hoping people might have some insights - e.g. specific techniques or observations - to share.

    After all, we come face to face with this all the time, as players, designers, playtesters, or game organizers.


  • Ah, right. I think that fits pretty squarely in my category #3, though, doesn't it? After all, those are things which caused some kind of failures (however understandable) on the part of the players, and so we can pretty safely say they aren't a design issue.
    Yes, it does. I'd forgotten that bit in the first post :/

  • I don't think this is a simple question. I've been in sessions when I'm not having fun, even when a person next to me is clearly having a blast. Most games are not clear successes or failures for me, rather, I like some elements and dislike others, and often my dislikes are some other player's likes, and that just makes it all worse.

    I think the core of enjoyment is the social component for most people, and the game just adds a layer of activity to that. It's rare that you have your ideal mix of people and even they have moods and practices that clash. I think the game layer isn't usually the direct cause of failure, rather it just highlights the different preferences the players on the table have. This is actually why I like really focused games: in an ideal situation they prevent other players from doing stuff they might enjoy and I don't. And if I know the game actively promotes content I don't enjoy, I don't need to play it. But even the game played is usually a "good enough" compromise.

    To sum it up: a session is a compromise between different people and their preferences, a fertile ground for disappointment.
    I'm going to agree in general with Upstart.

    Yes, the design of a game can lead to disappointment for its players, but in most circumstances a group of players can detect the "bad smell" of a game when reading up to determine the rules of play or character generation. If they don't like it's smell, they can not play and all goes well.

    That doesn't mean that there aren't games that don't live up to the expectations they present. That certainly can happen. But as gamers gain experience with different games they can usually detect a problematic game before committing to play.

    I think options #2 and #3 of the OP's list are the most common, and in the games I've run or played in, close to equally common. I often see players trying to bend a game's purpose or intent to something other than it's design is meant to support. This isn't often from ignorance, but rather from a desire to change the play experience for their own purposes. Distraction and energy issues I see a lot too for all the obvious reasons of work, timing, food, etc.
  • I'd like to propose a fourth category: "One or more of us failed the others."

    I recently had a horrible experience with an open-invite pick-up game at a game store, and it was entirely the GM's fault. The system and setting seemed interesting, I liked the other players, and we did our best to work with what we were given. The GM didn't know the system, didn't know how to ad-lib, and wasn't willing to let us move forward around the rules. Anything we tried to do was met with "I don't care, whatever," or the GM shutting the game down for five minutes while he flipped through the game on his iPad looking for answers, or the GM complaining because our choice made it harder for him to kill off our characters. He didn't listen to a lot of what we said, so it was hard to establish any kind of basic reality to the game — for instance, we'd say we were trying to do A, and he'd start describing what we saw/experienced if we did B.

    You could say this falls under "we failed the game," but there were five of us at that table, and only one of us was failing the game, and creating an unpleasant experience in the process. And teaming us with him as failing the game seems unfair to the situation. I've been in other situations where one or two players became the primary problem, and the reason the game didn't work. In those cases, it isn't as simple as "our" actions vs. the game.

    You asked about zeroing in on why a particular game experience is bad. Here's one idea: Try to honestly finish the question "I would play this game again if ________________." In the cases you cite above, you might end up with "…if we fixed the combat system," or "…if we found a way to give the story an ending," or "…if everyone was in a better mood." Or maybe you answer is "…if hell froze over, and even then, only reluctantly."

    In my case, I would play that game again… if someone else was running it.
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