It happens to even the most seasoned DMs: maybe someone is having an off day, maybe Mercury is in retrograde, whatever the reason…the session seems to be going a little sour. Things aren’t flowing the way they normally do, the players are running wild, maybe you’re running through the material a little faster than you anticipated. Don’t panic. Mid-session hiccups are totally normal and there are tons of ways to recover from them!
First and foremost, take a break. If a session is truly getting out of control, it is completely acceptable to suggest a snack or a bathroom break while you regroup and get your thoughts in order. Sometimes, that’s all you need to get back on track.
If, for whatever reason, you’d rather keep going, that’s fine too. You can adjust in the moment without taking yourself out of the game. The trick here is to fall back on your prep. You know this world and these people. Even if it’s your first session, you have plenty of resources to lean on to get yourself out of any difficulties. Your players are another lifeline. They may feel like adversaries when they go “off the rails” but if you listen to them, they may provide a solution that you’d never have considered.
If they’re going off script, try to figure out why. What inconvenient and irrelevant minutiae have they grabbed on to? An offhand comment by an NPC you forgot to name? A patch of woods you thought you were describing just for colour? As nerve-wracking as it is, this unexpected attention is a good sign! It means your players are invested in your world. You just need to encourage them to invest in your story as well. If they fall in love with a random NPC, let that character take them along the next part of the quest. If you’re feeling a little spicy, maybe make them a secret villain. If they want to investigate the woods instead of the caves you’ve been guiding them towards for three sessions, no problem! Make the main action take place there instead. You don’t even have to deviate much from your original plans. You can just describe things a little differently. This even works for combat encounters. Cave Dwelling Kobolds can become Forest Goblins if you want them to. You don’t even need to change their stat blocks, what your players don’t know, won’t hurt them.
If you really do need to get them back to a specific location, don’t be afraid of fun plot devices like hidden doors, secret passageways, or lost caches of clues and loot. Let your players find their way back to the main plotline themselves and make it feel like an accomplishment. It’ll reinforce their sense of agency and keep them from feeling railroaded. In a way, this means less work for you as the DM. If they resonate with a piece of your world or story, let them build on it and collaborate with you. It’ll connect them to the narrative and give you ideas for future sessions. Everybody wins!
Sometimes, the opposite happens. You’re offering a plethora of NPCs, plot hooks, and locations, but nothing seems to be resonating with your players. Again, look to them, they’re your biggest clue to rescuing the session. As you’re giving them opportunities to engage, try to assess the reason they’re holding back. Have things gone a little stale? If the party has been fighting or dungeon crawling, give them some space for roleplay, or vice versa. Has it been super story driven, with no space to develop the characters relationships with each other and the world? Take a break from the story, shake things up by changing locations or circumstances. I love a good dream sequence or surprise trip to the Feywild to inject variety into a session, sometimes a little chaos is the perfect thing to re-energize the party. If you need to stay put, try inviting the players to an event, like a festival or a religious ceremony. Create a special occasion in game and the session itself will start to feel like a celebration. It’ll help your players see the world and its denizens in a new light and hopefully re-invest them in the story.
The tricky part to these solutions is that they require either improvisation or extra prep. Personally, I like prep. I like to have a Plan B ( or C or D) to fall back on. If I ever have a free moment, I’m browsing dmsguild.com for mini-encounters, locations, puzzles, dungeon crawls, and one shots. I can then drop these in whenever I need to switch things up or add material to a session that’s going too quickly. I keep a library of these on my laptop to refer to if I’m ever in a tight spot.
If I do need to improvise, I find that my best friends are the stories I love. I’m a huge fan of fantasy novels and I draw from my favourites frequently for NPCs, magical items, locations, even quests and storylines. Feel free to take inspiration from your group’s favourite video games, shows, films, whatever sparks your fancy. Mix and match from different sources and adjust them to fit your world. It’ll provide you with a framework to support your improvisation and give your players a fun experience that caters to their interests.
Simply put, if you feel a session isn’t going quite right, trust yourself, listen to your players, and don’t be afraid to adapt and collaborate with them to recover. At the end of the day, it’s a game and fun is the first priority. You don’t need to be perfect to have a good time.