[GM troubles] Third session blues

Dear friends,
I've been absent from Story Games (and actual story gaming) for a long time but I've been thinking about getting back into it and running another game, and I've noticed a rather ugly pattern in my previous GM'ing efforts that I don't quite understand but has held fast over several different systems. Namely, I have trouble keeping a game going past a few sessions. I do fine with one-shots or with the first session of games, everybody seems to enjoy it and look forward to more, but the second session gets... wobbly. Even if I have it planned out well, it doesn't seem to run as smoothly and I start to feel insecure about my GM'ing, and by the third session I get extremely anxious and freeze up and that usually kills the game.

I've tried to get around this by only running adapted modules so I have someone else's work to lean on, and by running kind of a picaresque game where each episode takes place without much consideration for continuity -- time passes and the characters continue their work and we pick up when something cool happens a year later -- but it still doesn't help, and I feel bad these days offering to run anything more than a one-shot because I'm not sure I can deliver on it. I'm curious if anybody else has had similar experiences.

Comments

  • I've had plenty of uneven sessions - and often those are second sessions! - but I've never run into a particular pattern like you are describing here.

    I think the key would be for you to try to identify whether the dissatisfaction is coming from something psychological going on, you know, in your mind (perhaps you're placing unreasonable expectations on yourself as time goes on, or have some fears about the long-term game), or whether it's something "technical" you're doing in the game (or not doing - for example, maybe you prep in a certain way for the first session, but don't do the same kind of prep for subsequent sessions, and something that helps you play at first disappears as the game goes on).

    Do you have recordings, notes, or reports/write-ups on any of these games, to study?

    Are all the games with the same group of players, or different people?

    Do you ever play short-term, finite games (one-shots, or limited duration games like My Life with Master)? How do those go? Do they follow the same pattern?

    Do the players share your feelings of reduced quality over time, or is it more of an internal sense you carry alone?
  • edited February 15
    The subject is wide, so I'll just walk the landscape and maybe step on a clue.
    First, an idea, about continuity. It's about reincorporation and retconning and enforcing continuity. All these are difficult to handle, in that they require precision and quickness at the same time : the time when you introduce new material (nearly every step of a game session, 'rite ?) I found from teaching experience and RPG alike that, for achieving this, a framework ( or multiple, if you GM for various groups) is better for me than a set of techniques, because techniques I forget sometimes while the framework (and a framework framing it if I am GMing) only rarely gets bumped into (and then you just have to notice it and put it back into place, and each time the table gets to reaffirm how they play).

    Without that, without these "technical gestures", I feel I've got either too much fluff, as if walking through cotton candy, or the burden of continuity, relying on the GM only, begins to look like actual work (because you don't pick freely your matter).

    As for techniques, things like Themes, Arcs steps, Keys, Beliefs can help drill on focus, Encouraging to play on these drop by drop (with the first big reward falling end of session 1, for you it seems) or binding players to their posts. The latter (no unmotivated conflict) is what I do, losing some "slice of life", gaining lots of "to the drama core". Note that many players like to play shop and fluff. Free time ("quartier libre") does this fine.

    I've been there where the group of players keep postponing closure, like in a unhealthy financial montage, where the new debt barely covers the running one, "mettre le sens en cavalerie", like you see in feuilletons and serials. The cycle of hope and disappointment that makes so many people follow bad fiction (or vote ;P)

    But it could also be that, like me, you like pure Discovery and, why not ? There's no law against not finishing a book or a game. If I want to taste, when I've got the taste, why continue ? It then becomes a matter of system : lightweight investment is better for this kind of experience.
  • Well, I mean ultimately it's a poor labor structure, and there's likely some issues in communication.

    It's likely you're not getting enough questions from your players, like leading questions, places to go for their characters. They are creative people, use them. You're not an island.

    I think the whole GM as head writer/director is not the greatest set-up for longevity, but it'll work better if there's an open channel for communication between everyone involved.
    You gotta democratize your creative dictatorship.

    You gotta find out what your players want, and if they're not good at communicating that, you still have to find out, somehow, which can sometimes be frustrating.

    Also, if you're gonna go the whole GM route, I suggest rotating, like when you get to a point in play that seems to resolve, or when people grow bored, you run out of ideas, have someone else pick up the mantle of GMing something new.

    We used to have a blind vote before beginning something new. I think it helped keep the excitement going.
  • Also, do you lean into a question? A conundrum.

    If you're having trouble resolving an adventure, maybe propose a question, like a question that no player can answer, maybe they don't even know it? But maybe they should? Sometimes you don't know, so maybe take some time and think about it, until you can pinpoint the question. There might be a bunch of them? Start with one.

    Play until you answer this question, for yourself and/or everyone else.

    It'll help you, I think, by having faith in answering this central question. You might not be able to, but it'll create momentum, purpose.
  • edited February 15
    If you're having trouble coming up with interesting complications, ways that this question(problem) compounds, steal from your players, steal from everything you can.
    Serialized podcasts, novels and television.
  • Maybe write down a list of "But..."s?
    As is, "But the book you need isn't in the library, it appears to of been taken out"
    Just make sure these "But.."s go somewhere.
    There's a reason there's usually more than one person writing serialized fiction; it's a tough job to make everything click. Don't worry too much about this. I mean, it's all a lie anyway.
    Just try and enjoy yourself, and hopefully it'll be catching. No one's paying you for this. It should be fun. Do what you enjoy.
    Find out what the people you play games with enjoy.
  • Dear friends,
    I've been absent from Story Games (and actual story gaming) for a long time but I've been thinking about getting back into it and running another game, and I've noticed a rather ugly pattern in my previous GM'ing efforts that I don't quite understand but has held fast over several different systems. Namely, I have trouble keeping a game going past a few sessions. I do fine with one-shots or with the first session of games, everybody seems to enjoy it and look forward to more, but the second session gets... wobbly. Even if I have it planned out well, it doesn't seem to run as smoothly and I start to feel insecure about my GM'ing, and by the third session I get extremely anxious and freeze up and that usually kills the game.

    I've tried to get around this by only running adapted modules so I have someone else's work to lean on, and by running kind of a picaresque game where each episode takes place without much consideration for continuity -- time passes and the characters continue their work and we pick up when something cool happens a year later -- but it still doesn't help, and I feel bad these days offering to run anything more than a one-shot because I'm not sure I can deliver on it. I'm curious if anybody else has had similar experiences.
    My experience is this kind of problem can stem from over-planning and also from not really knowing what kind of long term campaign you are looking for. If you are going to do a long term campaign, that means the game goes on once every week (or two weeks or month, depending on your schedule). When the game goes on past the first adventure, you kind of have to build off what has emerged over the first three sessions. When it comes to longevity, what has worked for me is sticking to tried and true adventure structures I know I can run. I also try to focus on keeping the world reactive to the players. You need the players to be active, but you also need the people and organizations in a setting to be active as well, and responsive to what players are doing, for a long term campaign to thrive in my experience. Being on the same page with the players is also really important. If you are running a sandbox, and they just want a series of adventure paths, it will be a nightmare (and if you are running an adventure path, but all the players want is to wander around and explore a sandbox, you'll have the same problem).

    What I usually do is start very small. For instance, I ran a campaign that lasted about three years and was divided into two basic portions. It originally just started with the players going to a small town on the frontier and looking to make their fortune. There was barely even an adventure, I think I just had some local bandits planned in a kind of 'deal with the local bully scenario'. But once the players expressed interest in rising up through the martial world, that started to become the focus. The first portion of the campaign was them establishing their rise and sect. That took a while. Then I started a second half to the campaign that was set about ten years later, with new characters who were rising within the organization the players had started (and their old PCs had become NPCs in the group). The campaign was really built on smaller moments of interaction between the party and NPCs. So while they might have been in that town initially to deal with bullies, one of the players had already got it into his head to try to get as many of the bullies they defeated to work for them. So they kind of went around making deals with people and started developing an organization (basically getting people to agree to things by doing favors them).

  • Thank you all very much for your input! I think the two things that speak to me the most is that I'm not getting enough feedback from the players -- we usually have a very intensive chargen and world-building session (what people call "session zero") and I think that sort of fills up my tank, and then by the end of the second session, it's worn off, and then that I probably over-plan and end up with a lot of material which I can't use.

    I think for now I'll plan to run some really kickass one-shots and practice getting feedback from the players before I start a new doomed campaign.
  • That's wise, in many ways. However, there may be some technical factors at play here, too. Would you tell us a bit about one of these campaigns, and your prep for it, in more detail? It might be much simpler then whatever you are worried about.
  • I think you found the crux. Sustainability is less about quantity of kerosene and more about reincorporation. Gliding-like.
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