Parting Is Such Sweet Fodder


Well, you've done it again. Another successful night of stewarding your players through trials that would make Hercules cringe is behind you. The foul beasts or cunning evildoers are dead or dealt with; the princess is safely back in her chambers amongst fine linens and Britney Spears posters. The players have divvied up the loot, jotted the new experience totals on their sheets and reveled in the acquisition of that shiny new sword, devastating spell or twenty second century thing-a-ma-widget. They hold your story-telling skills to be about a half a step shy of Tolkien's. It's Miller time, yes?. . . Nope. You've got work to do Bubba. The next few minutes can be some of the most useful time you have available to help you maintain a vibrant, stimulating and connected campaign.

Well, you've done it again. Another successful night of stewarding your players through trials that would make Hercules cringe is behind you. The foul beasts or cunning evildoers are dead or dealt with; the princess is safely back in her chambers amongst fine linens and Britney Spears posters. The players have divvied up the loot, jotted the new experience totals on their sheets and reveled in the acquisition of that shiny new sword, devastating spell or twenty second century thing-a-ma-widget. They hold your story-telling skills to be about a half a step shy of Tolkien's. It's Miller time, yes?. . . Nope. You've got work to do Bubba. The next few minutes can be some of the most useful time you have available to help you maintain a vibrant, stimulating and connected campaign.

Your players are in the perfect mindset to help you with the next adventure and the campaign as a whole. What they liked and disliked about the night is fresh in their minds. They are clear on what puzzles and encounters were too easy or too hard and what ones they felt were challenging. They might be considering newly uncovered side stories or narrative hooks (some of which could be entirely unknown to you and a result of a random encounter you did not think twice about). Most importantly, they are probably talking about it with you and/or amongst themselves (or at least willing to do so with a little help). On a good night you might even hear comments about what it is they would like to do in the future. This stuff is pure gold. Get out some paper and scribble like the wind.

There are a couple ways approach this productive time, or at least two ends to a spectrum of ways to handle it.

  1. Formally by making it an 'official' part of the session. This would be accomplished by setting aside time at the end of the game to ask for and receive player feedback on the adventure. You could gather this, verbally, in freeform write-ups by the players or even from pre-made forms handed around the table.
  2. Informally through conversation with the players and eavesdropping on the conversation and comments between them. This approach requires a bit more subtlety and greater listening skills from you as GM.

Of the two, I much prefer the latter. It is my opinion you will get a more honest assessment of what the players think if they don't feel pressured to provide it. However, I will give some thoughts on each of the two approaches.

The obvious prerequisite for the structured way of obtaining feedback at the end of a session is the cooperation of the players. They have to be willing to give over a part of the evening to the process. They also need to be willing to provide the input you are after. I have found some players are not comfortable doing this. Some feel they are being 'put on the spot' and do not want to critique the adventure or the GM. I have also noticed that some players or groups that stress role-playing consider this type of 'OOC' discussion to be an intrusion into the suspension of disbelief necessary for their type of campaign. However, there may well be groups where this type of information gathering is appropriate. These groups are likely to be more analytical of the overall campaign development process and the players more interested in furthering the plot in a collaborative effort along with the GM. While I personally do not advocate this method, individual GMs know their players and may decide this can work productively in their group. Some points I see as important in this are:

  • The time set aside at the end of the actual playing should be a small percentage of the overall session. You are not trying to create a detailed roadmap for the future of the campaign, you want a feel for the current satisfaction level, likes and dislikes and a few future plot ideas. I would think 10 to 15 minutes should be adequate and anything more than half an hour is probably too much.
  • It is important the less vocal members get a say. In most campaigns the more vocal members are finding a way to get their opinions known already. It is the ones who sit quietly and don't complain that you are trying to draw out here in my opinion. Some of the most unique plot hooks I have come across came from guys who rarely speak out in game. It is a clich�, but still waters do run deep.
  • An advantage to this type of information gathering is the direction of the campaign is clearly geared to what the players want. The obvious drawback is the lack of surprise and spontaneity which can result. The GM in this situation must work hard to balance the player input with his own vision for the campaign. Player feedback must be viewed as suggestions and not as a map to follow into the future. Ideas the players present can be adapted and changed; they can be expanded or tightened to match the GMs own feel for what the campaign calls for.

The method I try to employ in my own campaigns is much less structured and more freeform. I greatly value the impressions and ideas of the players in my group but I try to let those thoughts come to the surface in a more organic and natural way. I believe the most important tool I have in this is listening. At the end of every gaming session there is a period where the players are gathering up their books and putting their dice back in the bag. I don't put my things away at this time. I listen to the conversations going on around me. What is being said and what is not being said. I also try to notice the expressions on player's faces as key topics are mentioned. I should mention I have known many of the guys in my group for a long time and the subtleties I notice between a grimace and a frown - or between a smile and a smirk - may be one such result. For some of the other players (particularly the more quiet ones I mentioned above) it takes a bit more work to get the kind of information I'm looking for; this where creativity and subtlety come in.

I try to draw the quieter players out in a conversational way. "Hey, Barney OrcBasher, I really enjoyed your take on the three fountains puzzle tonight. How the heck did you think of that?" or "Man, Gernock SpellLobber, that forty gazillion Anklebiter encounter sure seemed to drag on forever, huh? I wonder how that could have been handled smoother?" I try not to ask yes/no questions and I try to lead the conversation a little. I also try to stroke the guy's ego when I can; a person is more willing to open up when he feels confident you are interested in what he has to say. I don't do this in a deceptive or insincere way. It is my practice to jot down examples of what I consider to be good play during the game; I take this opportunity to use those observations.

One specific piece of information I am after is feedback on any part of the session I felt was particularly tedious, confusing, or just plain bad. After years and years of doing this stuff I am pretty confident in my GM chops, but I am certainly not silly enough to think I know all (or even most) of what there is to know about running a good campaign. When I get to the point I don't feel there is more to learn about the process, that's the day I will likely lose interest. I am also of the opinion my job is to provide an entertaining session for my players. I do want to 'write a good story' but that is secondary to the goal of making the evening fun. While it's true the game can't happen without a GM, it is also true there is no game to master without some smiling faces around the table. You have to keep 'em coming back. Taking time to listen well at the end of the night is one more way to do that.

I do that, although it is a bit more formal. It works wonders for the level of enjoyment and character development.

It also allows the group to iron out differences and relationnal problems due to differing interests and styles of play.

It is a very good investment of a group's time.

Interesting idea. I've never done it myself, intentionally. Off course we all get feedback informally.

I've been a software developer for 16 years, and what you're describing is a 'Post Implementation Review. Whenever we complete a project, everyone submits a report and we write a review of what went right , what went wrong, number of errors, lessons learned etc. Its supposed to help with the next project.

One thing though. You have suggested reviewing a game immediately after the event. This certainly has the benefit of people still being enthusiastic. However, we prefer to do our software reviews a few weeks after the end of project. This is to give people a chance to reflect over what happened, and to give time for any problems to be discovered. Just a point.

Personally, I think you won't get enthusiasm from players to do a formal review. This requires a bit of discipline. The best way is probably to bring it up in discussion a few days later when you are chatting informally.

I usually end each session with something like this. I allways aske every player for constructive critisim. Sometimes I gaet some others I don't. This phase comes right after the awarding of experience by me, which comes right after the begging for extra XP by the players.

Its great when you have a group that can communicate their likes and dislikes of the game in a non-aggressive way. As is having a GM who welcomes feedback and comments about the game they are running.

Its usually always better to be open and honest...with gaming, anyway.

I appreciate the comments and I realize I might have been 'preaching to the chior' a bit here. Most of the readers here are probably experienced GMs and do some variation of what I advocate in my article. However, I have been in some campaigns where the GM kind of shuts down as soon as we get to the end of the session. It always seemed to me that they were missing some great stuff.

I thought sam made a good point about this practice helping the group to kind of 'homogenize'. Not in the sense of everyone playing the same but at least all more or less on the same page regarding overall campaign direction.

You raise some valid point as well, Mo. I agree that valuable insights are available from players after a few days when they have kind of digested the adventure. We do our share of rehashing and kibitzing at work, over brews at Hooters, etc. I get a lot of good stuff that way as well but it is more 'broken up'. You know, one guy here, another guy there, a couple guys another tiime. I like to get at least a bit of feedback while things are fresh and I still have 'em all in a big pile so to speak.

Thanks for your comments as well, eater. As far as that begging stuff ... you could always do what I do. I get up and walk around the table and kick 'em a good one in the shin. I know it a bit OOC and not really productive - but it just feels SO damn good.

oops ... was composing during MA's comments and missed 'em. Thanks for the kind words. I try hard to be as open as possible ... as far as honest? Well ... ya know ...

I allways ask if there was anything that they did that was worth extra XP. My girlfriend allways say "I don't know." and one of my friends will relate everything he did in the session. So it kina works, and I ask for it. The kicking idea is a good idea for 'he who has a photgraphic memory for the game'. Said person will remain nameless. You know who you are, Tim.

Now he's gonna give me hell for talking shit about him again.

I always enjoy listening to my player's feedback, and sometimes hearing what they think can really spark something in your head as to where to take things for the next week. They really do think in funny directions sometimes.

Although one thing I've resolved not to do is to give away experience based on deconstructing actions and awarding on that basis. I'm sure it's a fair enough way to do it, but even a bit of combat and story experience keeps them moving and saves me the headache of "Didn't I get any experience for that?" repeated sixteen times.

I allways award story, roleplaying and combat XP at the end of the session but I like to give extra for stuff that was especially cool, funny or interesting. I've found this keeps the players more involved in the game, my group needs all the help in this area they can get, and encourages interesting interaction. Thankfully it does not encourage them to be overly dramatic or stupid, my group also needs no help in this area.

I would like thank everyone once again for the interesting comments. You guys have given me the idea for my next article. I think I am going to like it here.

Yes, yes, you should. Just come a little closer so we can drug you, give you a lobotomy and plug you into the machine.

It ain't so bad, Grimm... they... go in through your nose... and they let you keep the... little bit of brain they cut out as a souvenir... Who's that big man there? Who's that? Wooo! Hello!

I tend to do what Mo does. Do the real recap a few days later after people have had some time to reflect. Any major issues that came up in the game I might recap immediately. Part of the problem, especially with new players, is that they may not really have the language to express precisely what's good for them or what isn't, and why.

I kind of like to use the immediate post-game period to "decompress". If you are like me, we play infrequently, but we play long. It's nice to be able to do a bit of real live chatting between adults if you've just spent 8 hours or more with them. I don't like to go home or to send people home while I'm still fresh from wearing the DM hat. It just feels a bit wierd. Nice to talk to people like a normal human being for a while, without coming across as a mediator or facilitator before I go home - because they are my friends. If I don't, it always feels slightly uncomfortable, like a too hasty goodbye after a one-night stand.

We had a real DM hat at B.U.B.s. It was blue felt with little stars and moons on it and it was pointy and everything. I don't know what ever happened to that hat. I think it might have gone into the time capsule we buried in the basement next to the altar.

As far as personal experience goes, I have found that the second version of Grimm's concept seems to work best for my games, and I tend to make use of it pretty liberally, as we generally have a half hour cool down period after games before everyone wraps it up. It helps that everyone is fairly into their characters most of the time, so they're gripped with the idea of planning out their progression, making business choices for their assets, and maybe getting a hint at what the future holds for them.

Also, I've found that some games, which have an achievement awarding system at the end, can foster this as well, although they can also act as a group divider if certain folks were shining stars and others felt left out. However, when the game's been fairly balanced, they provide an incentive for people to rehash their ideas, what they felt went well, and whether the session was good all around.

Finally, I also believe that however you approach this concept, you need to keep firmly in mind the concept of tact. I've experienced both sides of this, and with the wrong GM, a wrap-up or evaluation of the game can mark the doom of a campaign, rather than incentive to continue. Primarily, this tends to happen when they find themselves frustrated with how the players performed (bad puzzle skills, poor combat, annoying choices) and then detail it out to them where they should have made better choices. Rather than a fun discussion of ups and downs, this can cascade into a lecture format where noses are rubbed in mistakes and the mood of even a good game goes from ambivilant to bad.

Anyhow, my general thoughts and cautions on the subject, which overall I think is a valuable tool for those who aren't using it to try and integrate.

I've used both formal and informal debriefings after sessions. These days, it's generally informal, post game discussion of various aspects of the story, peoples impressions, and the like.

I used to provide preprinted sheets for feedback at the start of each session. Campaign themed, full sheet styled stuff. I usually asked for best moments, worst moments, suggestions, and best roleplayer. they got back half the sheet with their XP and GM notes. Getting something back made it a formal process. In general, I got very good, specific information back from my players. Really a minimum of BS.

Currently, I'm experimenting with conducting on-line polls for my players to complete. That's in addition to sending autoreminders for the upcoming sessions via email. ;)

I think that getting info around on-line has really helped the DM out in general. The uses are many. Between campaign history and posted messages, it really pays to build a site just for your party.

That being said, I don't think that a DM should ever hold his players responsible for accessing that information. It should be a tool used to create depth, not a necessity for gaming a PC.

There should never be time when a DM says to the gamer "you should have known that this city was razed during the rebellion, I posted it on the site three weeks ago."

I had a DM who put up a site for the detailed history of his game and it worked great so all his players could just log on and know what was going on. He posted a game journal too to keep everybody up to speed.

Yay! Shark's back!

And, um, so is Olly. Er. Huzzah?

It is never a mistake to say good-bye.

We don't say goodbye in Eternia, Rowe.

We say...good journey.

I've had good DM's and bad DM's, as I'm sure plenty of other people have had.

One of the best DM's I worked with knew that we were all amature writers and would ask for (if we wanted to) out of the adventure short stories about what our characters did during our down times.

One of my more powerful characters was in a high powered game and was chaotic neutral leaning towards chaotic evil. Shadis hated every one and everything and hung out with the rest of the party simply to find more power. In the side stories two of the party came up with, he was the result of a rape of a human and a demon. His reaction to almost everything was a fireball, using whatever feats were necessary to maximize the explosion. After that group retired reaching near demigod status, we started a new group with the children of our old characters. (Get a lot of storytellers together and you get love stories and death feuds at every turn.)

Shadis, being the charming, gentle soul that he was, (ha, ha) did not have a child so we wrote about his finding of a thief in his tower and mind-wiping him.

Enter the dark secret: After starting with a completely blank slate like this, we wrote of Eric (the new guy) having nightmares constantly. The psionic of the group was concerned for his welfare and began to teach him ways to still his thoughts. As they worked together, the two started falling in love and Eric consented to try to have his love reach into his thoughts and regain his memory. We were at an impasse on what she should find, so we consulted the DM, who was dying to find a way to get us into an insanely high powered module called Bloodstone. We found out that Shadis' father was none other than the demon Orcus, and that Eric was tied to that family in some way.

Having your brain eaten is better than regressive therapy:
As we fought on in the adventure, and tried to give Eric his deep dark secret out of the adventure, we came across a mind flayer who completely out-flanked the brash Eric, and managed to attach all of his little head suckers in quick succession. My DM was not one to kill off a character who is played right (I couldn't have acted smarter in good faith, because Eric was brave, stupid, and defending his love). So he passed me a new character sheet: Eric the demon, Shadis' brother.

After wiping the geas placed on Eric by his brother, the mind flayer got a face full of horns and the party got a lot more interested in the details of the two brothers' story. I've got a box full of stories, written by three players and the DM, which helped us shape a memorable game that lasted through hell for a few years, real time.