Occasionally, sessions just don’t turn out the way you envisioned. The players seem bored or distracted, combat is more tedious than exciting, and everything just feels…off. When this happens to me, it can be very tempting to start thinking I am a terrible DM, and I should just stop altogether. Don’t give up just yet! Chances are if your sessions are falling flat, one or more of these 10 things might be happening. Fixing these common mistakes will have a huge impact on the energy of your game! It did on mine!
Why do your sessions keep falling flat? Some reasons might include:
- Lack of Planning
- Lack of Descriptions
- Uninteresting NPCs
- Too Much Mystery or Not Enough
- Player Distractions
- Little Player Interactions
- Lack of Player Choice
- Lack of Visuals
- Misunderstanding Player Values & Expectations
- Party Dynamics
Each of these can lead to a flat session, but a combination of any of them is a recipe for disaster. It isn’t enough to simply know your group is struggling in one area, you also need to know how you can fix it. Don’t worry. I won’t leave you hanging. Just keep reading.
Lack of Planning
I just like to go with the flow, ya know? I don’t like to have too much planned, it isn’t as much fun that way. This mentality is the main reason many sessions fall flat. A lack of planning leads to long pauses while you try to figure out what is in a room, filled with “umm, you know, it’s like a, umm..” That’s not fun. As a player, I always get uncomfortable when a DM does this and it hurts my role play and makes me want to just look at my phone while he gets his act together.
If you are running a pre-written adventure or campaign, you need to read the material at least twice. This will help to solidify the information in your mind so you can be freed, at least a little, from the book. If you are running a homebrew campaign, you need to do a lot of homework.
You need to know the world your players are in, specifically, you need to know as much as you can about the region they are currently in. Some points you need to know are:
- Monsters are they most likely to encounter
- How are the locals likely to treat the group
- What races are common in this area? Which are uncommon?
- Nearby cities and towns
- The history of the area
- Possible side quests
- Any dungeons, ruins, lairs, or castles in the area the party could stumble across
Knowing these things does not limit the freedom of your party to do what they want, but it gives you quick options. You don’t even need to have all the side quests and dungeons mapped out, it is likely they will never get to them, simply having a list of possibilities will keep your session from falling flat because you were not prepared.
To ensure I am prepared for a session, I always have the following at hand:
- A list of possible NPCs the party could meet (including their shops or homes)
- A list of possible side quests based on the area
- Monsters specific to the region they could encounter
- At least one pre-generated dungeon I can use anywhere. Once I use it, I make another to keep on hand for the same purpose.
If I don’t end up using the NPCs or Monsters, then I keep them for the next session. Once I use them, I put them in my folder, making a note where NPCs were located. This makes it look like I have planned everything the players are doing, but really, I have I still have flexibility as the prepared options can be used pretty much anywhere the party goes.
Lack of Descriptions
Descriptions are King in Dungeons & Dragons. Much of the world exists in the collective imagination of the players, only sometimes are there visuals like maps and miniatures. This means that your description is really all that is tying the players to the world they are exploring. If you aren’t describing that world, then there is no connection.
Combat should be exciting! You should be describing monsters, player attacks, and enemy deaths, and spell effects. Just feel the difference between these two examples of a player casting a spell.
Player: “I cast Chromatic Orb. 17 to hit.”
DM: “Yep. That hits. Roll damage.”
Player: “8 points of damage.”
DM: “He is dead. Jason, your turn.”
Player: “I cast Magic Missile. 17 to hit”
DM: “As you weave your arcane symbol into the air and focus your aura, a blast of green energy shoots from your hand, crisscrossing its way through the battlefield and smashing into the Orc, causing him to stagger backward. Roll damage.”
Players: “8 damage.”
DM: “You watch as the Orc’s armor is blasted away and goes tumbling through the air, leaving a huge, gaping wound in his chest. He stands there for a moment, looking at the wound, then he falls forward, smashing into the ground, dead.”
The first example is, sadly, very common. Battles become tedious and boring as players just wait for their turn to roll dice and spout numbers. It isn’t alive. It isn’t epic. It doesn’t make them feel like heroes. The second example doesn’t take much more time than the first, yet it leaves the player feeling awesome. And that description makes other players take notice. It is likely to lead to role play where players talk about how awesome their kills were.
Here is a quick list of phrases you should memorize to use in combat:
- Crackling arcane energy
- Your weapon finds the gap in the armor, just below the armpit
- The sword slides across the armor, skidding off to one side
- The arrow embeds itself into the wood of the shield, the metal tip just poking through the other side
- You clutch your weapon tightly, raising it above your head for a crushing blow, bringing all your weight into the attack as you bring it crashing down (works well for critical melee attacks)
Make your own list of phrases based on your party that you can pull from during combat and watch the difference it makes!
In much the same way, you want to describe your NPCs in as much detail as you can. Not only their physical appearance but their personality and defining characteristics as well. If someone asked your party to describe an NPC, could they?
Describing the World
In much the same way, your players should be able to describe what the world around them looks like, smells like, and sounds like. Use as many of the senses as possible when describing new areas. Don’t just give generic descriptions of a forest, be as specific as possible. Some of this can happen on the fly, and random generators are great for when players catch you off guard. But planning out descriptions for large cities and specific areas ahead of time is a must.
Read my article on this topic for more on how to give descriptions that keep your players engaged.
Oftentimes, the party will need to interact with NPCs to buy supplies, complete quests, or progress the story. These bits of the game can really fall flat if these NPCs are not interesting. Your NPCs need to be interesting in some way. Make sure you are considering the following when building NPCs:
- Ticks (such as talking too fast or too slowly)
- World View (innocent vs jaded and such)
Just by considering these aspects of NPCs, they will become much more interesting to your party.
If you are looking for more tips on creating interesting NPCs, check out this post on Creating Unforgettable NPCs which goes into detail on the whole NPC creation process.
Too Much Mystery or Not Enough
You don’t want to spoil the twist, so you play your cards close to the vest. Then, slowly, you notice your players don’t really care about your mysterious plotline.
Alternatively, the players are looking for something to discover, and all they find are Gnolls. Both extremes can cause sessions to fall flat.
If your campaign has an amazing twist, obviously you don’t want to give it away too soon. However, if you don’t give hints of what is coming and reward players for finding them, they simply won’t care about the plot.
Mysteries are only good if an answer is in sight. Great mysteries leave clues for players to find, even if they don’t immediately understand the clue itself.
Need some help on how to do this? Read any Sherlock Holmes novel by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Doyle is a master at putting out seemingly unconnected clues then explaining them all in the end.
You should be dropping hints all along the way, keeping the true answer just out of reach of the players, but close enough to keep them chasing the carrot, as the proverb goes.
Remember, clues and puzzles are often much MUCH more difficult for players to understand than we think. So if they still aren’t getting it, make it even more obvious.
On the other hand, campaigns without any element of mystery at all are just as frustrating and boring. Even the most hack-and-slash groups like a good mystery to hack through! If you aren’t good at coming up with them yourself, that’s no problem. There are plenty of resources and books that have pre-written mysterious adventures you can throw into pretty much any campaign.
Lack of Player Choice
If you are railroading your players, they will know it. People don’t like to be told what to do. It is in our nature to rebel against it. So if you are obviously or too often railroading your players, it will cause the session to fall flat. Players won’t always make it where you want them to. Heck, sometimes they won’t even make it there at all! You need to be okay with that as a DM.
Your job is to make sure the players are having fun. If the group wants to spend 4 hours exploring the city and shopping, then you put on your NPC face and give them fun, interesting people with whom they can interact. Don’t push them to leave or insert an encounter that doesn’t make sense just because it’s what you want to do. If the players are having fun, then just let them have fun.
It can be tempting as a DM to push players in the direction of your plot or storyline. While there are ways to do this and still give the players an illusion of choice (which I will talk more about here) for the most part, players should have a genuine choice in what they do and these choices should have consequences.
When players know their choices have no impact on the world around them or the story as a whole, they are likely to not care as much about the story, and the session is likely to fall flat.
Lack of Visuals
I said above that much of Dungeons & Dragons is played in what’s called the “Theater of the Mind.” The collective imagination of the group. However, there are times when visuals are not only useful, they are necessary. If you don’t include visuals, at least occasionally, it can cause sessions to fall flat.
Combat where there are multiple enemies is an example of a time when visuals are needed. Not only do combat visuals help the players decide what to do during combat, but they will also help you as the DM know the positioning and number of monsters in the encounter. Trying to keep track of multiple monsters in combat is a headache for everyone without visuals.
You also might try giving your party a world map, treasure map, healing potions, or inspiration tokens, if you feel like the sessions are continually falling flat. These items can infuse some excitement into the party and give them something to pull out at later times to examine or use.
If you are looking to start painting your own miniatures for your campaign, be sure to check out my Recommended Paints & Tools page!
Little Player to Player Interactions
Dungeons & Dragons is a role-playing game. This means the majority of the game should be about characters and relationships, not combat and NPCs. If you are throwing too many encounters at players without giving them downtime to interact with one another, your sessions are certain to fall flat.
Camping, tavern meals, shopping trips, and even nights on the town are critical times for role-playing and bonding between players. If you are not providing these opportunities, then you need to slow down and let the players talk. Trust me. The best memories come from conversations, not combat.
Misunderstanding Player Values & Expectations
If you did not clearly communicate what your campaign was going to be like, or what aspects of the game you were going to focus on, then it is possible your sessions are falling flat because your players had a different expectation. Player expectations can lead to disappointment. If players were expecting a game to be heavy on the role-play and you are running it like they are all murder-hobos, (or vs-versa) then this could be leading to flat sessions.
Before starting a campaign, make your expectations crystal clear. Tell the players what the world will be like, (such as if magic is common or uncommon; if there are lots of race or primarily one) so they can make characters that are viable. Also, talk to them about what aspects of the game they like the most and which they dislike, and then plan your campaign around that. Make sure you are including something for everyone and keeping a balance, but you should know what your group leans towards.
My group is all about the role-play, preferring it to combat, so many plot points in my campaign are more about talking than fighting. I play in another group that if there isn’t combat every session, the natives start to get very restless. Each group is different, make sure you know what makes yours tick or you could be in for a whole lot of flat sessions.
Player Distractions to Avoid
Of course, it is possible that you are doing everything right and your players are just getting distracted. If this is consistently the case, then you need to have a group talk about rules. But there are some rules for a group rules talk!
- You are not the imposer of rules.
A group rules talk should NOT be you telling everyone what the rules are from now on. You should begin the talk by pointing out the issue. Trust me, the players know it is an issue, it is possible they are just as upset as you are about it! Your job is to facilitate the discussion about what the table rules should be. This will depend on your group and may end up being stricter or looser than you would have made them, but, regardless, the group has to own the rules and self enforce them or they won’t work.
2. Don’t call people out
Calling people out will only make them defensive. Nothing good comes out of that situation. You will want to address the issue without pointing fingers, whenever possible, take the blame! I know, this might make some of you cringe, but if you take the blame, others will follow suit and start owing their own mistakes (it’s a weird human psychological thing that really works!) The goal is to work together to create a fun experience, not single people out and make them feel bad.
3. Be specific
When making rules, push people to be as specific as possible. Humans are good at finding loopholes, eliminate as many as possible right out the gate. You will also want to set ground rules and guidelines for enforcing the rules your group makes.
Some common distractions you may want to talk about are:
- Side Conversations (in character and out of character)
- Rules Arguing
- Talking Over Each Other
- Telling Stories about Other Campaigns
Last of all, if you have done everything you can as a DM and had a group rules talk and the problem persists, then it may be time to take a hard look at your party’s dynamics. Is there a issue you don’t know about? Is there one or two people who are constant distractions? Is there a bully or someone who is making everyone else uncomfortable?
If you can pinpoint the source of the problem to one or two individuals, it may be time to ask them to leave. This is hard and uncomfortable, but also the responsibility of the DM. Your job is to make sure the group is having fun, if one person is ruining that for everyone, then you need to remove the tumor.
Do not do this by simply killing off his/her character and hoping they leave!
As uncomfortable as it is, you need to have a conversation with them, preferably with only one or two other people present. Tell them what the issues are, what you have tried to do to solve these issues and that you simply have to ask them to leave. This is awkward and painful at the time, but I promise, the freedom you and your players will feel at the start of the next session will make it worth it!
You Are Doing a Great Job!!
Being the Dungeon Master is a constant learning experience. It doesn’t come with a job description and it is a labor of love that is often overlooked. As long as you are doing your best, you are a great Dungeon Master! Keep learning, keep trying and please don’t stop! There are very few people willing to put themselves out there like Dungeon Masters are. You are a rare breed and we need more people like you!
Dungeon & Dragons wouldn’t happen without you. Flat session happen, its true, but don’t let that dampen your love of the game and your love for your friends. Keep on striving to be better, and those flat sessions will be fewer and farther between.
Until next time,
May your game have advantage, my friends!