Here’s something that a lot of people may not realize, even if they deal with it regularly. Game Mastering is hard. You have to keep up with your players’ wants, needs, abilities and plans. You have to craft situations that challenge them or that let them feel powerful, and sometimes you have to craft a situation that seems dire without it seeming so hopeless that they decide to give up. You occasionally have to deal with players who have problematic habits, whether that is something disruptive or even something as simple as not telling you when there’s a problem. The good news is, many centuries ago humans created a tool that will allow a dungeon master to resolve these issues with haste… the cudgel! No, wait no, I meant words. Words are what I’m talking about. Don’t bludgeon your players!
Part of a Game Master’s responsibility is talking to players when there’s a problem. Most of the time if a group falls apart (Barring cases like a player changing his geography drastically), it’s because an issue was allowed to incubate in silence. Some issues require a private conversation with a specific player, but usually I believe those should be a last resort. Once you have to talk about something in private, it’s usually gotten bigger than it should be and there’s not much way to do it without the person feeling singled out. The easier way to do this is a mechanism that I refer to as “table talk.”
Table talk is pretty much exactly what it sounds like. It’s a small meeting where the GM asks players for input and brings up any issues he or she is having with the game. I recommend that GMs devote a small amount of time at the end of their sessions to table talk to ask a few questions as well as bring up any issues they might have had. Here are a few questions I ask pretty regularly:
*What’s one thing you would change about tonight’s session? (This one is super important, and I recommend wording it this way to get answers out of your players.)
*What did you think about X encounter? (Good to ask if an encounter seemed a lot easier or harder than you had intended).
*How does everyone feel about the pace of level/loot progression so far?
This is also a GMs opportunity to bring up issues that he or she has with the game and see how the players feel. Here is a personal example: During my last game my players went on a journey to fight a dragon. I had built this dragon up over the course of several sessions and I had given him a dramatic entrance when he finally showed up, to strike fear in the hearts of my players. The fight lasted a grand total of three rounds and ended with the fighter mercilessly hacking the thing to pieces. Now admittedly, I was choosing to not do things like have the entire fight be the dragon flying after the players out of reach of their attacks and I know that’s how Dragons are expected to be run, but I was disappointed with the battle as a GM. When I brought this up during table talk though, I got to find out how the players had felt about the encounter and it turns out that most of them were just as scared as I had wanted them to be though one of them did admit that the actual fight was a lot easier than expected. Information like this can go a long way in helping the GM plan.
The other important thing about table talk is identifying and addressing problematic behavior. Of course, when this is done at the gaming table you have to be careful not to call anyone out by name but you can mention behaviors that are a problem. For this to really work, of course, the player has to be aware of what he’s doing without being aware that it’s a problem. This is the case pretty regularly with most problematic behaviors: the person will know what they’re doing but not realize that it’s a problem because of a miscommunication about things like tone or theme.
Table talk also becomes increasingly important to have as the group becomes larger. In my current group I recently had a small session devoted entirely to table talk just to deal with difficulties that I was having due to the size of the group. I have a group of good players and none of them are actively trying to make things difficult, but in a big group it’s easy for things to get lost and it’s important to make sure everyone’s on the same page.