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I'm pretty new to tabletop RPG and recently started to GM a campaign with a group of friends. None of us has much experience, so it's a learning curve for all of us. I've found myself completely fascinated by the process of GMing and I've read and listened to all the information I can get my hands on.

My problem is that although I've read plenty of theory on how to GM well, I find it difficult when in the middle of a session to either analyze my own actions or remember points I want to improve. Although I enjoy sessions, they tend not to go as I'd planned and I end up with the feeling that it could have been a lot better.

For example, in a recent session I planned to give the characters a moral dilemma which would allow for some interesting characterization and interaction within the group, but various issues (maybe a fast pace, lack of explanation or clues for the characters, mismatch between players' expectations and what I had in mind, etc.) meant that they blasted through without really considering the consequences I'd intended to show.

I get so caught up in acting NPCs, remembering important things to say, description and responding to their actions that I struggle to pinpoint what's causing the experience to not be as good as I hope. My question is therefore basically: as a GM, how do you evaluate and improve your own performance?

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"Are people having fun?" –  Mooing Duck Jul 31 at 20:13

5 Answers 5

up vote 16 down vote accepted
  1. Get feedback from your players. Set aside the last five minutes (or more) of the session to talk to the players: how do they think the game is going, what do they think will happen next, what can I do better, and what went well? Between the lines, you can determine what the players want (if they don't come out and say it). If the players aren't interested in moral decisions in their hack-and-slash, then you don't necessarily need to push that agenda. (Depending on the group, this might be like pulling teeth.)

  2. Read and use the GM advice (if any) that comes with the specific RPG you're running. Be sure you're engaging the game on the terms it was meant for, especially when starting out.

  3. Longer term, run a lot of different kinds of games. You'll learn what different systems offer, what you prefer, and what your players are looking for in a game. You'll stretch different GMing muscles, so to speak.

  4. Hardcore: Record yourself GMing and privately review it later. It's incredibly unsettling to hear yourself stumble, mutter, um, and ah your way through a session, but it can help you assess yourself and find things you'd like to improve.

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Yeah. Self-analysis mid-game is hard to impossible. It's all about the post-mortems. –  SevenSidedDie Jul 26 at 18:27
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"Although I enjoy sessions, they tend not to go as I'd planned" -- said every GM, ever. This will be a reoccurring theme no matter how long you GM. Get used to it. ;-) Likewise, "I end up with the feeling that it could have been a lot better" -- not always true, but sometimes even when you are experienced. My advice is don't be too hard on yourself. Because your unhappy with a situation or session doesn't mean your players are. Let them decide whether or not they like your style as a GM. :-) –  Anaksunaman Jul 29 at 1:43
    
+1 for reading the gamemastery section of the books, even of the books of different games. Meditating about the ideas of those chapters can be very illuminating. Also, the clue is that everyone in the table is having fun, everything else (colorful stories, moral dilemmas, real life metaphors, etc) must be constructed over this base. –  Mu_ Jul 30 at 16:35

If you're just starting out, I think it's best to start with the easiest measures of what's going on.

  • What were the most fun parts of a session to you? Why?
  • Did any parts stand out as having the other players really excited?
  • Was there any points where you didn't know what to do, or the players seemed at a loss?
  • Was there anything that was really unfun to you or to the other players?

Consider these, and you'll start to see patterns. Those patterns might be small and specific - "Sarah really likes cool descriptions in fight scenes" or it might be larger and broader - "When I try to use a clue-trail to start an adventure, we end up wasting half a session because they don't know what to do next."

This doesn't need to be a massive in-depth consideration - you know, just think a bit for half an hour or so that night or the next day. You may have parts where you don't know WHY they work, or WHY they don't work, but it's worth just making a note of it so next time it happens you can maybe see if there's a common thread.

Usually, at the end of the day, I can also say that if you're not finding things "clicking" and consistently paying off, after 2-3 sessions with a given game and group, you may be either using a system that's not supporting you enough, not using a system that does what you want as a group, or your group may not be wanting the same things.

Otherwise, you'll find your games quickly go into 70-90% awesome time vs. meh time, and the other parts are basically the issues of minor rules juggling or communication that can be refined through practice.

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Well, my first three rules are always "Talk to the players," "Talk to the players," and "Talk to the players."

In this particular instance, this can be instituted by just taking a brief break. Literally, just go, "OK, something's not going quite as I expected here. Let's take a five-minute bathroom and snack break, while I figure out what just happened." I've done this several times, and it's not usually too much of a problem. If you still can't get it working, you can actually tell the players, "I want to achieve this. I seem to be having problems working it. Any suggestions?" Generally speaking, the sorts of experienced players I play with are all too happy to help new DMs work through their issues. They're just happy they're not the ones DMing. XD And new DMs mean new ideas and different focuses on the game.

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You should try to broaden your gaming experience with other group of players (not necessarily being the GM), and have other GM playing these sessions. You will discover new ways of GMing.

Also, spend time after each session to discuss with the others, hear what they liked, what was boring for them...

Read a lot, not only GMing article but also books to see how good stories are made (watch movies) and think about how things would have gone if it was a RPG session.

Finally, I often measure how long people a talking about a game session after it's finished, and try to analyze this particular game session when they talked about it longer than usual (this often means it was particularly good/bad). I can't really detail how you analyze a session because it also depends on the game, but basically, I try to find out which of: the setting, the NPCs, the pure roleplay (with the GM or between players), the obvious improvisation, the plot, made the session especially good/bad, and then work on that to improve.

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It helps to have a group of beginners, which are forgiving and understand that it takes some time to build up experience. The players can make mistakes as well, so its an opportunity to learn as a GM and also for the players.

Especially at the beginning when you are not yet deeply vested in the game rules and mechanics you can allow things you are not sure yet, but take notes on the side and look them up later. Slowly over time you can build up experience.

As for the game, do not plan out to much; rather let the players drive the game into whatever direction they want. You can then try to add some reasonable obstacles in their way so they can earn their success.

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What about the self-analysis techniques the question is about? We have lots of questions about GMing best-practices that this isn't a duplicate of. –  SevenSidedDie Jul 26 at 18:26
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And this is how i learned to read the question :) –  pet Jul 27 at 13:12
    
@pet Welcome to rpg.se! –  okeefe Jul 28 at 17:15

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