Last updated on September 11, 2020
It’s hard to get feedback. In my games, things must be going fairly well since they keep coming back each week. How do you know what can specifically be improved though? It takes skill and experience to identify how a practitioner’s performance affects what someone likes. That’s why you, the GM, should the first to provide feedback to yourself.
Recording Your Session
Listening to TTRPG streamers is a very popular hobby. The great ones showcase excellent performances and reveal how players and GMs interact to produce a quality experience. You can learn a lot from these sessions, so I decided to record my own. It was rough. I am both much better and much worse than I thought.
Reviewing your performance through a recording lets you take a more objective approach to the experience. You can identify what worked and what didn’t, without affecting the outcome of the session in the moment. It can be intimidating though. We build up this perception of ourselves and our abilities, and it can be hard to see things as they really are.
Before you pull out your phone and start recording your next session, I ask you to take a moment and accept yourself and where you are at. You run games for a group of people you care about. They all gather together because they enjoy the experience you facilitate. By taking the time to review yourself through recordings, you’re going to be confronted with both your strengths, and your weaknesses. Give yourself permission to invest in yourself through failure. Be okay with discovering you are not as great at running combat as you thought, because developing new skills takes time to internalize.
New skills are awkward, clunky, and feel uncomfortable as we practice. We will fail more practicing new skills than using the amateur ones we are comfortable with. In Josh Waitzkin’s “The Art of Learning”, he describes this principle as “Investment in Loss”. Invest in a significant amount of failure as you take the effort to practice, internalize, and develop a difficult—but more useful—skill. In order to grow, we choose to give up our current success with a less useful skill, in order to develop a greater skill—even if that means you fail more at first.
Reviewing Your Craft
You respect your craft; you know it takes work and effort to deliver a great session. When practicing a new skill, some things might flop, but once you get it, you’ll be a better practitioner. The only way to know for sure is to practice your skills in session and review how it goes. You have to be willing and vulnerable enough to record and review your performance. Remember, great professional performers record and review themselves to improve.
Next session, ask your players if you can record yourself to help you get better. Once you get their approval, pull out our phone or other audio recording equipment, and start recording in a central location at the table. Keep it somewhat out of sight to help you forget it’s there, then just play as normal.
Listening to my First Recording
I learned a lot from listening to my recording. I was able to be more objective on how the session went. I’m not as bad as I thought. People had a good time throughout the night. There were plenty of successes. There were also a number of failures. Listening to the recording gave me the ability to identify my weaknesses and determine clear ways to improve them.
Three Things I Learned
There are three specific takeaways I learned from my first recording experience. I want share them to illustrate how quickly listening to yourself helps objectively identify weaknesses, while providing insights into how to improve.
1. Public Speaking is a physical skill
There are many components that go into the physical act of speaking to a group of people. The way you deliver information, the variations in your pitch, volume, and rhythm, and the way you present yourself are all skills that go into effective public speaking. In RPGs, all these skills affect the way your players engage with the game. They way you control, manipulate, and utilize your voice to communicate the story in your RPG is a very important set of skills for the genre. When listening to myself, I realized that I may have interesting content, but my delivery left much to be desired.
My voice is fairly monotonic. I’ve been working on improving my tone, but during the session it translated poorly. Instead of varying my pitch, I varied the rhythm and volume of my voice. Just like a drum set, my voice created a very percussive and jarring experience, distracting from any natural vocal melodies. Successful narrators utilize both melody and cadence to convey strong emotion. Without both, it can be hard for the audience to track the feel of the scene.
I realized the most important thing I can do to improve my game is to develop my intonations and pitch to deliver more emotional and nuanced performances. This will expand my vocal palette, allowing me the ability to convey more while saying less.
2. Sensory Details are Immersive
I spent a lot of time “telling” players things instead of “showing” them in my descriptions. I use emotionally charged judgment words like “cool”, “evil looking”, and “definitely gross” to describe my world. I told them how to perceive the situations, inadvertently limiting their choices on how to see the world. I need to use more sensory details to better illustrate the world, and let them make their own judgments on what they see.
When using sensory descriptions in game, you keep the players grounded in a similar reality, while leaving them free to judge the world through their own unique lens. Brandon Sanderson states that by bringing down your descriptions from the abstract to the concrete, you create a more sensory world for your audience to experience. Often this means providing detailed descriptions of small features in each scene. When doing so, you provide a physical lattice for people’s brains to utilize and extrapolate to fill out the rest of the world.
We sustain the world using our collective brainpower. By using descriptive words, you anchor the world, making it easier to focus on the meaningful choices. The more you describe what they see, hear, taste, smell, and touch, the more similar and concrete the image is in your players’ minds. When they see the same thing, they make better informed decisions as a team. By strengthening the sensory qualities of your descriptions, you make it easier for players to hold onto the reality of the world, freeing up their brains to make those meaningful choices.
If we want to maximize these meaningful decisions, we need to ensure the player’s brains are free to fully engage with each choice. In Tony Crabbe’s, “Busy: How to Thrive in a World of too Much”, he states an easy way to multiply your brain power is by writing things down. When you write stuff down, your brain doesn’t have to keep manifesting it in your mind’s eye, so you are free to use that brainpower to explore solutions to the problem. We can extend this idea to sensory descriptions in an TTRPG. When descriptions are sensory and concrete, it is easy for your brain to sustain the image. When the descriptions are abstract, conceptual, and emotional, the world exists as more of a primordial fog, with the onus on the player’s brain to recreate the world from scratch each time there’s a physical change.
3. Acting is not Role Play
My acting skills are not great. When acting out NPCs in person, it felt jilted, awkward, and needlessly prolonged. Just like how some combats can last far longer than necessary, some of the character conversations held on much, much, longer than comfortable. You do not need dialog to create good roleplay in a game, though. As a GM, you provide opportunities for meaningful choice. Even if you include NPCs, you can just convey them through narration.
Acting can be fun though, and it adds a level of immersion that many players like. Recognize it is a unique skill that needs to be developed. Good dialog scenes have a goal. People want something and both parties negotiate till they either get what they want or they give up. If the players pass their checks, got their information, and are done talking, then end the conversation. Transition, move on, and keep the momentum going.
How to review your sessions
Go ahead and record your next session. Once you finished your recording and you’re ready to review the session, pull out a paper and get ready to take notes. Create three separate lists: Positive, Negative, and Unique Insights. Once you’re ready, hit play and get started.
Listen objectively and write down interesting things you discover. When something went well, put it on the positive list and describe what worked and how the players reacted. If something fell flat, write it on the negative and explain what specifics lead to the poor performance. When you find something incredible that deserves repeating, write those down in the unique insights and come up with ways to incorporate them in the future.
Once you finish, review what you wrote down. Each of these comments and insights can be used to focus your skill and elevate your craft. Ask yourself, “What are the top 3 things I can do to improve my skills for next session?” Rank these items and use these to guide your next session’s performance.
Note any strokes of inspiration you uncover each week. This could be something a player did that everyone really liked. It could be the way you role-played something, the way your players engaged in combat, or their response to a specific situation. Write these down and collect them. Soon, you will amass a library of the techniques that work, performance pitfalls to avoid, and the gems of inspiration that fill your sessions. You’ll find trends emerge you can evolve into core principles that level up your game.
Work with your performances and provide yourself critical and honest feedback. You will quickly develop mastery in the skills you know, and uncover even greater skills to learn and develop. Remember, each new skill comes with the potential for new failures. Embrace failure and let it guide you to developed mastery.
I’m excited about reviewing my sessions, testing out new ideas, and developing meaningful skills to make my sessions better. Record yourself this week and let me know what you discover. I’m excited to hear about what you hear, and look forward to seeing the transformations you’ll make in your games.