(This post was written in a Coffeehouse in Switzerland, how cool is that?)
On the last day of Gen Con, I was sitting in a Restaurant (The Ram if I recall, I had the Salmon, delicious), surrounded by my friends from Critical-Hits and Stupid Ranger. We were all dead tired, living off our energy reserves and raw geekiness.
We had just finished playing in Stupid Ranger’s Out of the Box Seminar and I was telling Dante how I felt about the parts I liked and those I liked less in his game. I was telling him how I got frustrated at one point and why and how I managed to deal with it. Dante and I had some productive back and forth and the discussion was cordial and constructive.
Once I was done and the table’s discussion moved on to other topic, Dave (The Game) leaned over and told me:
“You have got to write about this!”
“About what again?”
“Giving feedback to a DM the way you just did!”
“Hmmm, did I do it wrong?”
“Not at all! That was good”
“Then I will!
(Actual discussion was far more confused due to extreme fatigue and a pair of colossal glasses of beer)
Having discussed gaming group issues at length with friends and readers over the years, I have come to observe a few related issues around feedback:
- GMs are starved for honest feedback from their players
- However, GMs are overly sensitive about their skills/campaigns and tend to react defensively to player feedback.
- Players aren’t sure what it is that they are looking for in a RPG and have trouble putting this into words.
- When they try, they often focus on negatives and come off as sounding selfish or judgmental.
- Players and GMs are loath to give each other feedback because they fear conflict, stonewalling or recrimination.
Giving good, useful feedback is hard. It is easy to list a series of things we liked, even easier to list what we didn’t. What isn’t easy is identifying and giving feedback on the few, truly significant elements about a RPG session/campaign that the GM can learn from and improve the game with. .
The thing is, many DMs, who have usually invested a lot of time and effort in their game, are not particularity well equipped to distance themselves from the game experience and don’t respond so well to critical feedback.
Based on these observations, I’ll write 2 posts that will explore this very interesting topic from both points of views:
This one will be about giving good, constructive feedback.
Player, know thyself
One of the recurring themes in my discussions with GMs is that their players can’t clearly define what it is they are looking for in a game. They know when they are having fun in a game, but if you ask them up front what it is that they like, they will often not know what to say or ask for very specific things.
For example, a friend of mine asked one of his players what he wanted in his D&D game. The player asked for a gunslinger undead hunter, saying that this was probably the coolest thing possible. The DM managed to meet him partway with a double hand crossbow-built Ranger.
The player then promptly never used his ‘guns’ and went for using 2 hand axes in melee all the time. Go figure.
I think that if a player wants to help his GM provide the best playing experience, they need to understand what motivates them as a player and inform the GM. Armed with that knowledge, the GM will have more tools to tweak the adventures of his gaming group to hit at least those motivations more often.
A good starting point to explore what motivates you as a player is this post I wrote shortly before Gen Con. There’s a good chance you,ll recognize yourself in some of the player motivations listed there.
For instance, the player described a few paragraphs above would likely be someone seeking supercooleness.
Timing and relevance.
Giving feedback is more than listing what was fun or unfun in a game session. To be useful, it needs to go deeper than that.
First, you probably need to wait until some time after the game, so that it allows the emotion of the game to pass so you can review it more objectively. Giving feedback when geeking out or irritated won’t likely lead to the most constructive of discussions, especially with tired players and GMs who aren’t necessarily in the best state to discuss this.
Then, you need to pinpoint the important, relevant part of the game that you especially liked or disliked. You need to do this so you can formulate your feedback around something precise and useful. The more precise your feedback, the more easily the GM can understand it and use it for future games.
Otherwise, you will likely drown the GM with too many, somewhat undefined issues that won’t be as useful.
Avoid the dreaded “You”
Once you have the 2-3 elements you want to give feedback on, you need to share with your GM the ‘why’ of each of your observations about the game. You must avoid being confrontational so you don’t trigger your GM’s defense mechanisms for nothing.
Start your sentences with ‘I’ and avoid using judgments where you assume what the GM was thinking at the time. You need to do this whenever possible. In other words, describe how you felt, how you perceived the game and how you reacted.
If you must give feedback on something directly related to something your GM said or did. make sure to focus on your reactions and not the GM’s actions.
“When you made the call that I could not do X, I felt that I was not allowed a chance to…'” instead of “That call you made sucked! I couldn’t do anything…”
Shaping your feedback to avoid accusations or apparent judgment on your GM will make discussions a lot more likely to lead to a constructive discussion. (I’ll get to telling DMs to chill out about taking feedback in the next post).
You also need to explain how you felt in the situations that you are describing and what brought you to the emotional state that makes you recall the event as noteworthy to share with the GM.
What I mean by that is that if you got excited, annoyed or irritated about part of the game, you need to recall what elements of the game brought you to this state so that the GM can understand the precise element that brought the response in you.
Here’s a example from my experience (in which I failed to apply what I’m preaching here BTW). A few months ago, I was playing PC in one of my friend’s game. I was already slightly irritated because we had spent a large part of the evening investigating a mystery and we had failed to make significant headway (I don’t particularly like investigation-type game, but I can tolerate it for some time if others in my group enjoy them).
We were in a very hard fight and I was called away from the game table take care of my children for a few minutes. When I came back, I found out that my character had been knocked unconscious by the bad guys. That made me incredibly angry and I was unable to contain it and discuss it rationally. I simmered for a few minutes and I ended up flaring up at the DM about how I hated investigations and how unacceptable it was to get knocked out like that when I had had no say in how it happened. .
In retrospect, I should have informed the DM that it frustrates me to find my character knocked out based on actions I did not choose while I was away from the table. Had I shared my feelings up front, in a non confrontational manner, I would probably have had a less negative experience and not blurted out anything about the investigation part of the adventure, which was a separate issue to be addressed after the game.
We have since then amended our Social Contract to address the issue of a player who leaves the table by asking him what he wants us to do with his character.
The same goes for positive feedback. You need say something more than “it was cool”. If you can pinpoint the event that made the game more interesting to you, share it and share how you felt at that moment:
“Dude, when that dragon stuck its head in the doorway and asked if we had any Hot Sauce for sautéd Halfings, I was so shocked, I nearly fell off my chair!”
“When you described how the Baron’s men cheered us as heroes when we returned, I felt the like I was really part of the story and I wanted to high-five them all!”
Thus, your GM, happy to have made the game more interesting for you, will be motivated to try to do it again.
Be patient, but make sure you are being catered to
Some players have shorter attention spans. Other get bored easily. That’s a fact of life. Hopefully you are aware of this and you shared this with your GM so that adventures can be planned accordingly (i.e. avoid spitting the party, keep action moving etc).
One core concept about Tabletop RPGs is that players need to compromise on what is fun. Players in a group are likely to be motivated by different things. Since no GMs are skilled enough to hit the motivations of all players in every scene, players will find themselves in situations where their needs are not being catered to… That’s an unavoidable issue and players must recognize that.
However, if the GM consistently fails to meet your motivations over long periods of time, you need to share this with him/her after the game so something can be done about that. Chances are, the GM was unaware of that and will likely try to accommodate you in future sessions.
In conclusion, Feedback is:
- Letting the GM know what motivates you in a RPG game and say when it does and doesn’t.
- Sharing the how you felt and why in regards to a few, key elements of the game
- Avoiding judgment and focusing the feedback on your personal experiences and perceptions, don’t assume your GM’s thoughts or motivations , let him/her do it.
Next: DMs, stop taking things so personally!