Games fall apart for many reasons. I've had my share of bad gaming experiences, some caused by my inexperience as a GM some caused by the players. But I've noticed a few trends and I would like to talk about them. This is my The Center Cannot Hold series of topics. Why games fail.
The first issue is what I call the Zany Threshold.
What I'm talking about is that moment when a game breaks down in to meta humor, jokes about the setting, the game itself, etc. This is triggered by a number of reasons, either the game took a weird turn, the mechanics broke in some spectacular fashion, or player choices bend the credibility of the campaign beyond normal expected bounds.
Folks also describe this as Verisimilitude, but it's more complicated than that what we're talking about is each groups threshold for crazy behavior and strange in jokes. And keep in mind it depends on game to game. Some like Paranoia and TOON have the threshold set so low it might as not even be there, but others like Shadowrun, 40K, etc set the bar much, much higher. It's both the GMs and the players job to pay attention to the required atmosphere to run the game. In fact you could call it a failure of atmosphere more than anything else.
Let's look at 2 things. How do you gauge the Zany Threshold and then look at what causes it to be breached.
Measuring the Zany tolerance of a game is a 2 part process. The first is always the group itself. How comfortable is the WHOLE group around each other? Be careful to judge that everyone is cozy and happy if only 2-3 players do all the banter and the quiet few sit away from the others and really only talk during character actions. That's warning 1 that you have a low threshold right there. Character focused players HATE, HATE the game breaking down into mega in jokes and banter when in character actions could be going on. There has to be a balance, but if you keep breaking the mood for joviality and weird in game wackiness then you are going to loose them.
The other warning sign is when a group gets defensive about what's going on in a game. What I mean by this, is does the group get irritated when the story is moving along and they keep stressing they want to see what happens next, or they want whatever the current plot and event to played out. Sudden bait and switch wacky events will NOT go over well. Avoid changing the tone to harshly in the middle of the game to avoid irritating your whole group.
The next things to consider is the type of game you are playing. You'll noticed I mentioned 40K earlier, well, it's a weird corner case. Part of the reason why the 40K universe works is the constant black comedy it oozes. Black Comedy however requires a strong element of timing, strait playing, and then hard wham lines and events that sink in the depravity and weirdness of the universe. It's all to easy to screw up the mood and turn it into Ghostbusters with Chainguns. That's not going to work for setting purists, or those who enjoy the grimdark.
Games themselves can be flexible depending on the variant of the rules you are playing with. A serious game of GURPS Fantasy set in Yrth is way different than GURPS Dungeon Fantasy or even GURPS IOU. The game goes with different WOD games. One of the biggest issues I had with the end of oWOD line wasa the shoehorning of MAGE into the Vampire Gothic motif. MAGE, Vampire, and Werewolf had 3 very unique flavors. And it seemed the developers at WhiteWolf didn't understand that toward the beginning of the revised oWOD era, in a way the removed the needed Zaniness of the MAGE line which broke the threshold for players who sought MAGEs optional lightheartedness vs the rest of the lines darker overtones. But MAGE oWOD vs nWOD is a topic for another day.
On a personal game note, I've had Zany issues with games like Shadowrun where the Orc and Bug City jokes got a little too thick one game causing the focus to break down making events crawl. The Tolerance level was low for many of the players, but the disruptive few were causing it to be un-enjoyable. Same goes for a few D&D4E session when jokes by a duo of Han/Solo style players. THEY were having fun, the rest of the group was seething.
This is were the Chaotic Stupid/Lawful Stupid attention keeper players tend to push the boundaries way to often. A classic minefield of players ruining it for other players.
Still, figure out what your groups Threshold is and you can enjoy the table humor. Just not too much, not too little. Just right!