How do you deal with a game night failure? – Ask The Bellhop

Not every game night is going to go off perfectly. Sometimes game nights fail. Today I’m talking about how to deal with a failing game night. What do you do when something goes wrong during your game?

Math Guy Dave writes,

“How do you deal with a game night failure? Bad RPG session or a game that players didn’t enjoy? Maybe even drama between players?”

Bad game nights happen, it’s not the end of the world.

First off realize that a game night failure is going to happen at some point. There’s no way every game night is going to be a great one. No matter how much time and focus you put into it. No matter how many game nights you’ve already hosted. No matter how many great podcasts offering gaming advice you listen to, things can and will go wrong.

When things do go bad on a game night, it’s important to realize that it’s not the end of the world. One thing I try to always remind people about gaming, and game nights in general, is that they are meant to be a fun way to spend time with your friends and other gamers. The game group gets together to share a social experience, to enjoy playing games with one another and enjoy each other’s company.

No matter what happens on game night, it’s important that people know that it’s only a game. Gaming is a pastime and only that. It’s not important in the grand scheme of things.

Now, I’m not trying to devalue the importance of gaming or play here, play is very important on many social and psychological levels, I’m saying that compared to other things that can go wrong, a bad game night is pretty low on the hierarchy of bad things.

The rest of this post will get into some specifics of what to do when certain things go wrong. Hopefully giving you ideas on how to handle a few distinct situations. But first please note that I’m no psychologist. This advice here is based on my personal experiences, what’s worked and what hasn’t for me. It’s combined with listening and reading a wide variety of gaming advice from others over the years and hearing what works and doesn’t work from other groups. What I suggest here may not be what’s right for your group. You know your players better than I do, so adapt what is here for your own group.

What do you do when a board game night goes bad?

Something goes wrong while playing board games. What do you do? That is going to depend on exactly what happened. For now, let’s focus on problems that are centred on the game itself and not the players. I will get to people problems later.

Let’s say someone just isn’t enjoying a game, the game you are playing is broken, you have a runaway leader, you can’t figure out the rules, or you figure out halfway through a game that you’ve been playing a rule wrong.

In all of these cases, you always have the option to stop the game and either start over or play something else. You don’t have to finish every game you start. And yes that can be rather hard to actually do. There’s this thing called the sunk cost fallacy, a misconception that sits there telling us that if we quit a game then everything we have done up to that point was a waste. It’s the same thing that has us sit through a bad movie until the end because we’ve wasted so much time on it already.  Realize that finishing a game that isn’t being enjoyed is just a further waste of time.

When deciding to end a game or not the important thing is to make sure that everyone is on the same page. Pause the game, point out why you may want to stop and ask if people are interested in stopping the game. Questions like: “Is everyone still having fun?”, “It looks like Dave is the winner here no matter what we do, do we still want to finish?”, or “Okay now that we have figured out we’ve been playing the wrong way, does anyone want to start over?”

How about when one or more players get eliminated from the game, but the main game keeps going. What do those players do now?

Now, this could be a reason to stop the game, but that’s probably not what the entire group is going to want to do. What I suggest here is having some quick filler games on hand for any eliminated players to play. These games are also great for when there are multiple tables playing games and one finishes before the others or when new people show up at an event and everyone else is already in a game.

Tsuro is a good filler game for situations like this because it plays up to 8 players and is dead simple to teach and play. Many abstract games like The Duke or Santorini work well too. Silly kids games like Rhino Hero can easily distract board gamers while other games finish. Even just having a deck of regular playing cards can give people something to do between games.

Another thing is to make sure players know they don’t have to stick around if they don’t want to.

If you are playing a big epic game that’s going to take all night and a player gets eliminated make sure it’s clear that it’s okay for them to head home. This is a common situation in some of the bigger wargames and 4x games. While you may find it fun to sit through the final four hours of Twilight Imperium after getting eliminated in the first two hours, that may not be for everyone. This should be something communicated before the game night so that everyone is on the same page before the event actually starts. Let people know what’s available to play between or after being eliminated from a game if the player chooses to stay, but also let them know that no one will be upset if they choose to leave.

Rule disagreements can be a common thing at game night.

While all companies try to write the perfect rulebook, rules disagreements can happen. We’ve got an article about what to do when you’ve got a bad rulebook. It can definitely be a problem, but sometimes even with a good rulebook questions come up. Thankfully, we live in the future and 99% of the time an answer is just a Google search away. This is what I recommend groups do if something like this comes up. Head over to Board Game Geek, look for an official FAQ and find an answer to whatever rule question comes up. If your group found a problem there’s a really good chance that someone else has found the same problem and already posted an answer online.

Let’s say you can’t find any final answer. Then it’s up to the group to come to a consensus. If that’s a problem for your group I suggest one of two things, roll a die (or use some other randomizer) or vote (blind or open) on the ruling.  A blind vote, in particular, can be useful to reduce the chances that someone’s feelings get hurt if things don’t go the way they wanted. No matter what the result is or how you get to it, you stick with it for the rest of the game and probably for the rest of the game night. Then after the game night is done I suggest someone do some more research trying to find an official answer. If one isn’t out there you can post on BGG or try to contact the publisher or even the designer of the game through social media or email and get an official ruling.  Then the next time your group gets together point out the official ruling.

One thing to watch for when you do have a rule dispute is not wasting too much time looking for an answer. In most cases finding an answer is a quick Google search away but if it’s taking you say five minutes or more you are spending way too long. Come up with a quick fix and move on. Keep the game flowing and do the research later.

What if people can’t decide on what game to play?

We’ve got you covered on that one as well. Check out this previous article where we talk all about deciding what game to play on game night. The article lists various options including the host picking the games, a few different voting systems, and even online options like Board Game Menu. Use whichever method your group seems to prefer.

What I will reiterate here, is that you don’t want to take too long deciding what to play. Picking what game to play shouldn’t be the game for the night. Try to get something to the table as quickly as possible and get people gaming sooner rather than later. This is also something that can and should be discussed when planning your game night rather than when you are already at it.

What do you do when an RPG session goes bad?

RPG sessions have as much if not more of a chance of going south on you when you least expect it.

Personally I think having a bad RPG session isn’t nearly as dire as having a board game night go bad, unless you are running a one shot. Off nights are par for the course for most RPG campaigns, they happen along with the memorable nights your group never forgets and talks about for years to come. With most RPG sessions that go bad you can just move on, there’s always next session to get things back on track and there’s the downtime in between to analyse what went wrong to make sure it doesn’t happen again.

Most of the situations I discussed above can also happen in RPGs and my suggested solutions are pretty much the same when we are talking about RPGs.

If players aren’t having fun, consider stopping the game. Though in an RPG another solution is to change the game you are currently playing. If players aren’t having fun shopping jump to the next scene, if they are getting frustrated with not finding clues maybe an NPC offers one up, if players aren’t enjoying the character they made, let them change that character. To me, player fun is more important than in-game verisimilitude and simulation and players should be adjusting their game on the fly to keep things enjoyable for everyone at the table. Being able to adjust the tone and even the rules of the game even in the middle of playing it is one of the major strengths of a roleplaying game over a board game.

Rule disputes happening in RPGs as often, if not more often, than in board games. For me, if I come across a rule dispute I pause my games and look it up, the same way you would look up a board game rule. I do know many tables that don’t like to interrupt the action and have the GM just make a ruling and move on and look it up later. Personally I don’t mind the break of flipping through the rules and giving people a chance to use the washroom, grab a snack or whatever. This is going to depend on what your group prefers and how closely you like to stick to the rules as written.

There are a few things that can go wrong during an RPG session that that can ruin an entire campaign.

There is a ton of advice out there on these situations and I am only going to barely scratch the surface here. Each of these topics has had multiple blog posts and podcasts dedicated to them. If you are looking for a more in depth look at the following RPG game night problems, I encourage you to do a search and see what’s out there. If anyone is interested in having us deep dive one of these topics, I’m all for that as well, just send us an email or comment below.

The Dreaded TPK (Total Party Kill)

What do you do when all of the characters die during a campaign game? Start by having a conversation with the group, the entire group. This isn’t something that should be decided by the GM alone. The entire team should be on board and part of determining the solution. This can be done before the campaign even starts during session 0 and that may actually be the best option, to have a plan in place before the group is wiped out.

What you may end up deciding to do as a group goes back to my board game advice. You either keep playing or you move on to something else.

Maybe you make new characters ready to avenge the old ones. Maybe you play hirelings, NPCs, or other associates of the main characters and continue their quest. Perhaps you make a new party but stay with the same game world, with events unfolding based on the initial party’s failure.

Or, you use this as a chance to start a new campaign with a new world, maybe even trying a new system or perhaps letting another player be the GM. Swapping GMs is actually one of my strongest recommendations because ending a campaign abruptly due to a TPK can be somewhat traumatizing for both the players and GM. This could be a good chance to give the GM a break and let someone else take on the lead.

A similar problem happens when one or more players drop out of the game for whatever reason. I talked about this kind of problem in our article about absentee players but that was focused more on players not making it for one or more sessions. When someone leaves a game for good you need a more permanent solution.

This could mean ending the game as I just talked about but more likely it involves the GM adjusting the ongoing story and plot. I personally prefer if there’s an in game reason for the now absent player’s character to either fade from focus or go out with a bang. I’m all for having a heroic sacrifice, or something that will leave an impact on the campaign world so that those characters and thus their players are remembered going forward. Though, if the player or players are leaving under less favourable circumstances it may be better to just have their characters fade to black and continue the story as if they were never there.

Losing players could also mean that you no longer have enough people to continue the game. In this case, you could end the game or move on to something that works with fewer players, or it may be time to recruit a new player. Player recruiting really is an entirely different topic and not one I’m going to get into here.

Dealing with individual character death, or the death of two or three characters and not the whole party, is rather similar to having a player leave. However, you probably don’t have to worry about the group getting too small to continue the game. In most cases, this is just going to be a matter of the GM adjusting the story and plot. Taking into account the current characters deaths and adding in any new characters the players make.

What can be way more difficult here is how well the players handle the character’s deaths. Which leads us to dealing with player drama.

Dealing with player problems on game night.

We are all emotional beings playing these games and sometimes those emotions can get the better of us. Tempers flare, people get hurt and upset, in game conflict becomes out of game conflict and RPG character feelings bleed into real life. Sometimes emotions can be a mess and they can totally ruin a game night.

Here I want to go back to where we started this conversation, with a reminder of why we are doing this in the first place. When things get heated it’s time for everyone to remember that they all gathered together to play games. To share a pastime with each other and to have a good time playing games together. Stop whatever is going on. Take a break. Have everyone get up, walk around, pause and remind people why they came out tonight, to play.

Often just taking a moment and diffusing the situation with a break will be enough. After the break have the “shall we continue” conversation. If people want to call it a night, let them call it a night. As I said before not every game night is going to be perfect, and if you are having a bad one, just like a bad game, call it. End it. Even if it’s early. Remember the lost time fallacy. You didn’t’ waste your time so far and maybe the rest of your time that night is better spent doing something else.

If people are still interested in gaming maybe it’s time to swap up what’s getting played. If people are getting upset there’s a reason. It could be the game, it could be a mechanic in the game, it could be that they know they can’t win. In those cases, it’s probably best to end that game. If it’s a problem with another player, not only end the game but maybe split those players up. This is okay. You don’t have to enjoy playing with every other gamer on the planet. We all have our own idiosyncrasies and sometimes those aren’t compatible with one another. If there’s only one game going on that game has to end, but if there are other groups around, just move to another table and game with a different group.

Sometimes diffusing the situation by reminding people what they are here for doesn’t work and it’s time to be a grownup and ask the problem player or players to leave. This is never fun for anyone involved. Try to handle this without disrupting any other players or games going on. Make it discreet if possible.

One thing you can and should do that makes handling difficult situations like this easier is to have a set of documented rules for your game night. Even if these are just held at your own home. By having rules, if someone does need to be disciplined it’s due to them breaking the rules and not potentially seen as being arbitrary. It’s also a lot easier to ask someone to leave due to violating a clear and written rule that they agreed to follow beforehand.

This is a big topic and there is no way I could cover every particular circumstance here. I tried to keep things in broad and general terms so as to be relevant to the most possible groups. If there is a situation I didn’t discuss that you would like us to deep dive in the future, let us know in the comments below.

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