Players get fed up and leave. DMs get burned out. Why? How can we prevent this? RPGs are social experiences that work best when the players engage in specific positive behaviors beyond simply following the rules of the system.
The group benefits from clarity of purpose, frequent feedback, and simple validation. Assuming that we're playing a longer-form RPG (more than one session), let's suggest a few practices:
Every campaign should start with a "Session Zero," in which the group agrees on a few things:
- What genre and sub-genre is this game? If fantasy, is this high fantasy or low fantasy? Is it gritty or light?
- What do we want to avoid in game play? This includes triggers and other topics we just don't want to get into (sex, violence against children, body horror, politics, religion, etc.).
- Who are the characters?
- Why are the characters together?
- What sort of things do we want to have happen roughly every session, or roughly every three sessions? We call these Proposals.
Examples of Proposals include:
- Social interaction
- Exploration of forgotten spaces
- Interactions with characters from the PCs' backstories
- Moral dilemmas
- Run-ins with the law
- Daring escapes
- Emotional scenes
Helping Players Play
Every player has a "buddy" who knows that player's in-character goals and pushes the plot in directions that support those goals.
At the start of every session, the players review the list of Proposals from session 0 to verify that they still apply.
In addition, the group identifies any Proposals for this session specifically. They don't have to be major plot twists; they could just be "I need to go to town to buy some equipment" or "I'd like something to happen that involves my character's gambling flaw."
For players, this is a chance to push for story threads that will further their characters' personal goals. If you have a vendetta against the prince, and it hasn't come up in a while, perhaps it's time to ask that the events of this session involve the prince somehow.
The Plot Thread Board
The group maintains a board of plot threads. This can be a physical board with sticky notes, a piece of paper, or a digital collection of notes (e.g., Trello). Every time the group encounters a new plot thread, someone adds it to the board.
Powering through a session without breaks may feel good in the moment, but almost inevitably leads to poor choices on the part of tired players in need of a bathroom or food break. Breaks also give players (and GM) a chance to think about the session's direction.
At the beginning of the session, someone sets a 1-hour timer. When the timer goes off, the group takes a break, then when they return to the game, they re-set the 1-hour timer.
Some groups may run this timer longer or shorter, but the principle remains: take regular breaks.
The Post-Session Review
After each session, the players briefly review what happened and answer the following questions:
- Did we get to all the Proposals? Why or why not? Do we need to revise our list?
- Are the characters progressing towards their goals and/or at least getting engaged as unique characters?
- What did I enjoy most about this session?
- What did I enjoy least about this session?
- Were there any new plot threads that need to go on the Plot Thread Board?
- When will we hold our next session?
Buddy Check Ins
Between sessions, each player checks in with their buddy to ensure that the buddy is satisfied with the game.
Notes Are Recorded And Posted Publicly
One player is dedicated as the note taker and records the party's actions, at least at a high level. After each session, the note taker posts those notes somewhere public where the group can collect feedback.
Obviously, this will vary dramatically from group to group. Some may post this on a blog, some on social media, and others on a forum like Reddit. Some will measure feedback in hits, others in likes, and others in comments.
The point is that public review of a game, while scary, almost inevitably results in a better GM and better players.
Every 8-10 sessions, the group engages in a brief retrospective where they review those past sessions and answer at least the following questions:
- How many of our Proposals did we actually accomplish? Why or why not?
- What plot threads did we completely ignore? What about them caused us to ignore them? This doesn't have to be a separate meeting; it can happen at the beginning or end of a session.