Give Feedback to your GM… and live! Part 1.

(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).

Explain Why!

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!

Comments

  1. Flying Dutchman says:

    Good advice. As a DM, I try never to get insulted at all when I am criticized. As a player, I am apologetic when giving critique (which is not necessarily a good thing).

    We actually tried to use anonymous fill-out forms sent via e-mail to all players and handed in at the end of a session as a feedback option. The problem is that you’ll recognoze most player’s writing style or you can track back their negative comments to a certain point in the game, immediately knowing who filled out the form. So it’s not all that anonymous.

    Needless to say, we returned to good ‘ole verbal communication after the forms ended up being too much of a drag and not really efficient anyway. A form does work for player suggestions for next campaigns, though.

  2. Good stuff, and say hi to Alex for me this weekend if you meet up :D

    A corollary to this is that a good GM needs to know how to give advice and feedback to players too. Sometimes this can just be a matter of going over points in the rules that the player is unsure of (AKA If I hear “how do you grapple in 3e” one more time, I shall scream…..), suggesting how their characters could work together, agreeing House Rules or planning future plots and machinations just for them. Players love it when you take them behind the scenes and give them little off-camera snippets about what you’ve got planned for them.

    For example, I told one of my players “by 5th level, your character is going to be a Duke. Don’t die.”. Boy did his ability to role-play caution (and cowardice!) improve! :D

    Feedback works both ways, and it’s a fine life skill to possess if you can give and receive it diplomatically. After all, it’s not called co-operative storytelling for nuthin’.

    Good post, as ever!

  3. Hey there my Dutch and British friends.

    @Flying: I found that giving work to players, especially written, is usually not a good idea to get results. Asking for pre-campaign ideas and input is a great idea and I tried doing it on occasion and it works wonders!

    @Greywulf: Good comment, as always! I am in fact having dinner with Alex tonight. You should come! :)

    I’m coming back Tomorrow…

  4. I think fresher feedback tends to be better since players remember more of the details. Unless something went very badly, I would hope the players wouldn’t need to cool off. This seems like better advice for giving (constructive) negative feedback. Positive feedback is more fun to give and receive and I don’t think needs to be approached with quite as much caution as outlined here.

    Joshuas last blog post..Fluid Combat Rounds Rules

  5. @Phil Remember to bring toilet paper :D

    Hope you have a great time, wish I was there too!

  6. Flying Dutchman says:

    @Chatty
    Yeah definately! I tried that method to circumvent any reservations the players might have against criticizing in my face, because I might get insulted, and I thought I could handle it better in written form. But there is no discussion or motivation when you do it like that.

    This was at age 15 though; I am a bit better at handling criticism now. With me, I think puberty and associated lack of confidence were the evil-doers in a low tolerance for critique. To what extent this applies to others, I don’t know.

  7. I wish I could get good feedback as a GM. I’m currently teaching someone how to roleplay and they aren’t really that good at giving feedback so that side of things is a bit rough. I’m really rusty at GMing and I’m having to gauge everything myself which adds to the pain a bit.

    All of the campaigns I’ve been in since shortly after 3rd edition came out have ended badly to be honest. RL concerns tore me away from one, two crashed and burned because the GM decided he couldn’t run anymore (the last of those was blamed on me, the other one was blamed on a different player), and one completed a full story arc but the GM ran it in a very antagonistic fashion so it wasn’t much fun to play. All four were run by two GMs. The thing they had in common was getting very defensive about player feedback, no matter how well concerns were laid out or how neutral and friendly the words used. I’d say a quarter to a half of all feedback they got ended in arguments which seems really high to me (and I’m generously assuming I forgot a lot of times when arguments didn’t happen).

  8. The Last Rogue says:

    Good post. I am running a 4e homebrew right now, and we recently had to cut short the game . . .my player’s were so disappointed and actually mentioned how much they loved the story line (they are bandits, go figure). That put a smile on this DM’s face.

  9. I’m always very blunt and honest with my DMs, and I will tell them after the session exactly what I felt was off and what it did for me. However, this comes from being mostly an online gamer rather than a tabletop gamer. Over Fantasy Grounds, Gametable, or heck, even AIM or IRC, it’s far easier to tell a guy online “The rust monsters were a douche thing to do John, seriously, if you don’t want us to get a cache of +5 items, don’t put them in plain sight. Now that I’m a travelling hobo with a high BAB, I’m unsure if this was your plan all along or you just don’t know that Rust Monsters rust stuff, and not just the stuff you wanted,” than it is to say the same thing to someone IRL. Well, for most people. I am generally crass enough to consider it in any situation.

    Wyatts last blog post..Paizo Watch: The CP Machine Keeps On Truckin’

  10. Very good tips in there!!

    I always find it difficult to comment ‘publicly’ on a game.

    Our DM always polls for our opinion at the end of the game – which is great. But if I really have something constructive to say, I’ll usually try and talk to him privately about it. He’s always very receptive of criticism.

    @greywulf: I *love* your idea of the DM also giving feedback on the players.

    It reminds me that we used to award XP based on roleplaying quality and creative game playing.

    Eric Maziades last blog post..Writing adventure logs.

  11. Excellent advice! I think I’m going to need to keep a link to this one.

    I tend to ask for opinions at the end of my games, but everyone tends to be tired or not feel like commenting. I should implement the giving feedback to players thing as well….

    Ravyns last blog post..The Generic Villain on When Not to Kill Your Lieutenant

  12. Michael M says:

    THANK YOU!

    I’m quite new at GMing, and have only run a few sessions total. I never get much for feedback other than “I liked it.” But there’s that inner GM voice that tells me, “He’s lying! He’s just sparing your feelings!”

    I’m sincerely looking forward to Part II, as I’m currently in that “My world/story/system modification is going to be so awesome no player can possibly not enjoy it!” phase right now (good thing I don’t have a group to suffer it!). I’ll be sure to take this stuff to heart next time I game (whenever that will be, *le sigh*)!

  13. Wow! Thanks for the feedback (he he).

    @Joshua: In terms of being careful, yes I agree that it applies to negative/constructive feedback. As for positive feedback, if it can be given freely and about specific items, I agree that it should also be given as soon as possible. However, gamers being geeks, they are sometime on a geekout high and then feedback gushes out in some garbled mess of praise and reminiscences. Pinpointing out the factor that brought the geekout can get lost.

    But I’m spitting hairs here. Bottomline, I agree with you.

    @Greywulf: Alex told me what you were referencing. Har Har har. I hope to go to the UK (Astra Zenaca has offices there I might visit soon, and I’ll drop by la Maison du Loup Gris)

    @Flying: Lack of self confidence in our GMing skill… one of the most common characteristics of our craft. I will get to part II soon enough.

    @Lanir: Ack, I recall you sharing that you had been unlucky in your games. That does indeed suck. One caveat of this series will be that sometimes, no matter how skillful, careful and helpful you might be, the GM will be too defensive for it to be of any help.

    Which is a shame really… the key to becoming better as a Gm is to get that proverbial self-esteem (and related misplaced self-importance) stick out of your butt and accept that you can always get better.

    @The Last Rogue: Welcome to the Blog and thanks for the kudos! Positive feedback from players, when honest, is sooooo appreciated. I hope you get to DM again soon.

    @Wyatt: Welcome back Hombre. It’s clear from reading your blog that you are of the tough love/tough shit brutal honesty school of thought. While I don’t share the same conflict resolution methods, I know that it is sometimes very efficient.

    Thing is, especially with inexperienced DMs, implying that the DM was dumb or evil for choosing so and so creature makes me grit my teeth. I mean, I have been doing this for 25 years and I still manage to wipe the players with a badly designed encounter once in a while.

    Then again, I assume that your DM can take it when you dish it out and that’s fine. It comes with the Salazaar combo package I’m sure. As you say, online feedback and discussion are often devoid of the filters of face to face caution and diplomacy.

    So I’m not saying you are full of shit, far from it, I’m just saying your kind of shit ain’t my first choice! He he he! :)

    @Eric: Greywulf’s player feedback is indeed a very good tool. I use it often to make sure players are aware of their options and are not missing out on things they would find fun.

    @Ravyn:Thanks. The best time for feedback is a few days after the game, by email, when you start planning your next session. You basically go out on a limb sayiong you’d appreciate feedback to help you pave the way to the next sessions. It usually works. Well it does in my group.

    @Michael: Welcome on the blog! I’ll got to part II real soon. Just tell yourself that its impossible to be good at all aspects of GMing all the time. Hell, I’ve been doing it forever and I still learn things at each game!

    If you are honestly focused on making your player’s evening the most fun possible for them, you can say you are doing a good job and you can stop torturing yourself.

    Cheers.

  14. I’m actually far nicer normally than on my blog. Surprising I know ;)

    That was a pretty extreme example. Usually I won’t take such things very personally. Especially in 3.5, which is not my system of choice, often times I might roll with a bad DMing choice and made the most of it. My now-a-traveling-hobo Warblade spent a few encounters being the only one able to combat things effectively, using Mountain hammer techs with his unarmed strike. I ate a lot of AoO, but it was worth it to see the rogue, knight and bard shouting at me to go get every monster, like I was an attack dog…

    I can forgive things, is what I tried to say with that rambling nonsense. But sometimes things really rub me the wrong way. Like a room full of treasure way beyond our level actually being a rust monster encounter that goes way out of control and leaves us at “Wealth: 0 gold”. At those times, the Wyatt Machine might whirr up to work.

    Wyatts last blog post..Paizo Watch: The CP Machine Keeps On Truckin’

  15. @chatty You just reminded me… I have an idea for a future post. After both parts of this series feel done to you, want to make a post encouraging people to comment with one bad habit they know they have as game masters? I know I certainly have one to share (“one” here being something of a euphemism, I’m sure I’ll read several other comments and think “oh yeah, I do that too!”). Just, no “helping” other people add to their list. Wouldn’t be fair. :)

  16. ^_-

    Perhaps I’ve been at this too long.

    A GM should be soliciting that feedback, and ought to have the thick skin to handle whatever it is they have to discuss. The game is meant to be collaborative, so there should be some give and take, there should be discussion about what kind of game people want, there should be input from both sides of the screen. What you’re describing is what ought to happen with the start of every game, every time. Are you telling me it doesn’t?

    -Ben.

  17. Sandrinnad says:

    @Chatty – I think you mean splitting hairs rather than spitting hairs…. (ironic, eh? :D )

    In the past I’ve had trouble conveying to DMs that I’m _really_ not comfortable having my character be the focus or leader of the game….I’ve tried pretty much everything from hints to flat-out statements and have been basically SOL. Any suggestions on how to give feedback that encourages them to point the roleplaying/leadership stick at someone who enjoys it rather than someone who dreads it?

    (oh, and written in a coffeehouse in Switzerland is so cool that you get 12 extra ‘dude!’ points :) )

  18. I had a similar experience to your “KOed while not at table” example, wherein my character ended up tied up naked in a train by some bad guys when I missed a game session. I’d given advance notice and everything, so I felt this was very uncool. Unfortunately, even though I told the GMs this (two guys were co-running the game, with a large number of players), and was not confrontational, they blew me off. Sadly, this was never amended, and they moved away, and now I’m part of a mostly different gaming group.

    The need for meta-social communication is one I’ve been stressing to my group for quite a while now. It’s still very difficult for me to get feedback out of them, because it’s tough to stir them to the “know thyself” portion. I get mostly “oh, I had a lot of fun, can’t think of anything wrong!” It’s good to know when I do a good job, but it’s better to hear specifics. Thankfully, we’ve made better progress towards frank discussion after the fact when there are problems, so we rarely get repeated big mistakes.