I feel kind of bad counting this game as a “failure,” since it was a fairly successful game, but since my roommate has once again lost all interest in Shadowrun I’ll include it as an example of how you can improve.
So, my roommate is a huge fan of Shadowrun. It’s the only RPG he played before college, and it’s been the only game he’s GMed–thrice, technically, with an improving (but still shaky) history as the attempts increase. The first game he ran was before he’d fully read the 4th Edition rules, so everything was hardcore difficult and the players were handed their asses frequently. That game died a miserable death when everyone got tired of flailing against the brick wall. The second game was run after my roommate had basically killed off another game, so the incentive to care about playing Shadowrun was diminished; and of the remaining players, two decided to hook up almost immediately and decided to spend most of the sessions playing grab-ass on our couch. (The mockery from the other three players is, sadly, less remembered than the grab-ass.)
So, a third attempt was made, which was the pinnacle of Shadowrun on campus. The first session had a wonderful flow to it—we hashed out the planning over dinner, and jumped into the action as elite cyber-soldiers infiltrating a convoy of medical supplies which is due to be attacked/hijacked by Mexican biker thugs. After wantonly abusing the vehicle construction rules and creating a flying brick out of our security van, complete with pop-up LMG turret and exploding toolboxes (think claymore mines using socket wrenches and washers), we got into the action. The game flowed quick and seamlessly after we got into the grove, with trucks exploding all around us as we skidded down a Mexican highway; it was handled with equal-opportunity attention as our three characters jumped around the battlefield during the attack. After stopping the internal threat of traitors, we ended the session for the night.
The next session, however, is where all the bad parts kick in. First, our main enemy here is a series of motorcycle thugs, totaling eight guys on four bikes, who we easily dispatch despite the horrible dice system’s attempts otherwise. Even the NPC truck drivers got a couple of good kills in, so it’s over in about an hour. All in all, it’s a pretty easy fight, mostly anti-climactic compared to the rockets and grenades of the previous session. Ok, this is manageable, even if it is kind of a letdown. Scaling enemies is always a hard task, since it either turns out to be far too hard (like the second game, where the three night watchmen were more powerful than the elite ninjas listed in the book) or far too weak (like the marauding biker scourge, who’d managed to destroy every convoy yet… apparently those convoys were provided guards with cerebral palsy). We move on, deliver the medical supplies, and begin to interrogate the bikers we snagged. This dragged on for most of the second session’s six hours; one character was very integral to this, while Kevin and I were mere onlookers. After an hour of this, the GM found himself very irritated that Kevin was spending most of his time napping or reading Exalted books, while I was walking back and forth between kitchen and the computer.
Here we come to point one: if your players aren’t being entertained, don’t get pissed. It isn’t always their fault. It means they have nothing to do, and want everything to be sped up so they can actually do something. It’s okay to focus on one character more than others, but still, players who are uninterested are not having fun; if they’re not engaged, you’re not doing your job right. Kevin falling asleep was a product of Kevin having absolutely nothing to do, thus loosing interest, and then having his insomnia catch up with him. I quickly got involved in a string of Wikipedia searches after looking for something game-related, and had nothing to draw me back to the game—I could sit around all I wanted to, but there was nothing to actually do. At the time, it felt best to go make a sandwich and continued the Wiki searches, and that I’d com back whenever the game moved on, plot picked up, what have you. As a GM, it’s really annoying when people get sidetracked in a game… but without anything for the players to do, it’s really hard to blame them. I’ve found myself picking up the pace or otherwise throwing random bits at the players, especially when they’re getting chatty or otherwise losing interest in the actual game.
Second, for fuck’s sake, don’t split the party intentionally. I try to balance out split parties, especially when they’re doing something tactical or strategic, but would never think of making them split up—otherwise, it’s a long session of sitting on your ass doing nothing. People love gratification, they love being engaged and in the spotlight. Splitting the party means that only half the players are getting this reward, meaning the others will sit there sulking (ok, not really, but they’re still loosing their investment in the game), until it’s time to reverse the scales and talk to the other half of the group. This is still manageable…when there’s something for them to do, or if they even get a turn in the spotlight. In this example, Kevin and I were behind two-way glass, and while we bantered for a short while, watching Reuben roll a lot of dice (and fail his checks) was hardly engaging, so we wandered off. What made it worse was that we really had nothing to do—we had no “turn” to do anything during the entire session—and yet the GM was pissed at us for wanting to wander off until the game started up again.
Drawing off that point: know when to speed the game up. If you don’t want the NPC to give up information, just have the guy die, otherwise let the PC’s in on some hooks and continue on your merry way. Even Reuben thought it was getting a little out of hand, given both his disdain for the system and the continually failed skill checks. (This is further complicated by the fact that we were torturing to continue a plot which the GM considered already finished; in a case like this, either wave the NPC’s into a little black box of “Not in the Plot” as the players advance towards Importantville, or leave it flexible enough to jump into the plot the characters are making. I’d recommend the latter, especially since the GM didn’t really have a fixed next-mission for us anyways.)
Lastly, a final note: this was the last Shadowrun session, because (once again) the GM decided to move on to other things. He had definitely improved, and the first session was a load of fun, but he just didn’t want to handle Shadowrun again. This is probably a byproduct of “this game is not the game I played” syndrome, pretty common in new GM’s. He’d played Shadowrun 3rd for years with the same group, and constantly would talk about the old game’s characters, plots, memes, and whatnot. The game he was running here at college, the group he was running with, the idiocy and goofiness he faced, none of it was the game he’d grown up playing. “Different Game” syndrome often happens when a player/GM finds the current group for his favorite game is different from the group s/he used to play with back in the day. This leads to feelings of “it’s not the same,” which can be hard on morale and the drive to play the system again. Among other things regarding college and change, it’s something everyone needs to overcome sooner or later—we can’t game with the same group forever.