I had a non-playing session on Saturday. That is to say, the players showed up, we set up the tables and got out our characters to start running . . . and then we didn't.
No one made a conscious decision not to run. I have learned from experience to let the players chatter away for awhile, wait for them to settle down from their lives and the need to share recent experiences, then calmly start the campaign with a few chosen words. On Saturday, however, the words did not encourage the players to start playing . . . so I let it go for another fifteen minutes and tried again. And another fifteen minutes and another.
Until finally, by 8:30, an hour and a half after our usual start time, I threw in the towel.
This isn't the first time this sort of thing has happened. It does occasionally - and the important thing is to not fight it, not feel guilty about it, not think of it as a sign that your campaign is on the skids. Fact is, these people are friends. Sometimes, friendship trumps role-play.
After many years of experience, I've gained a feel for when this sort of thing happens. There can be a number of factors. The game could reach a level of tension where the players just aren't quite ready to take the next step. By coincidence, there could be a lot of things that have gone on in their lives and they have to talk about it. Or, as in the case the other day, one player was out sick (as he is disabled, this is a serious thing) and the other was screwed by a commitment he could not ignore. And the rest of the players felt they'd be cheating the two others by continuing the campaign from where we'd left off.
So they didn't have the heart to continue. Nor was I prepared to make them.
I don't doubt that this has happened to a lot of readers. If it has, say so, because this is the kind of thing that DMs get deeply introspective about, feeling sure that it's a sign their campaigns are failing. Some DMs feel they have to get tyrannical when this happens, or they feel that a missed opportunity is proof that the campaign is dying.
Truth is, though the DM is the captain of the ship, tyranny will accomplish only so much. After a certain point, the crew needs shore leave. We give them shore leave because when they come back, they will be readier, they will be more focused, they will be stronger.
Now and then, letting the players chatter away for four or five hours, instead of playing, let's them work out details, it lets them bond, it encourages them to feel comfortable and natural in the space where they play. Moreover, the time afterwards, as they think about having not run, will encourage them to be bright, sunny and chipper when the next game starts.
Granted, two or three sessions in a row like this would suggest there was a problem. But I find that this happening once in a score of sessions is a good thing.
Better that we go with it and enjoy ourselves. The campaign won't spoil.