Like every GM, I like to know how the sessions are going for the players: did they enjoy the game? Is is challenging enough? Player satisfaction is crucial to me, but I find that asking naively about it, as in “How did it go?”, has very little chance of bringing any helpful answer. So if that doesn’t cut it, how to ask about the game?
I found that the best way is to ask each player, separately and after each game, the same set of five questions:
- What does your character want to do next?
- What do you want to do next as a player?
- What have been the most important moments for the character?
- What have been the most important moments for the player?
- How does your character perceive the rest group?
I remember reading about this it on a (french) RPG forum, and thinking this sounded like an awkward thing to do, to question your players like this. I didn’t see myself circulating a questionaire and processing the answers in Excel. But I felt like being adventurous and I decided to give it a go nonetheless.
At the time, I was GMing a mystery-oriented scenario with a new-ish group of players and things weren’t going too well. Little progress was being made during the sessions, the players kept ignoring or misunderstanding what seemed to be obvious clues and situations and morale was getting rather low. I had tried adding tension to the scenario through new GMPCs, understanding they were feeling unchallenged in the game, but I could never re-ignite the sacred fire.
So one day, after one of these sluggish game sessions, I emailed these five questions to the players. I confess I was expecting either no reply at all or something along the lines of “What the hell?”, but everyone replied, and I even got detailed answers to each question.
Reading through all this, I came to understand why the game wasn’t going so great.
Actually, I had failed to realise the group itself wasn’t working: the characters all had developed opposite objectives for themselves, and the players were looking for very different kinds of fun in the game. Moreover, I gave a strong mystery tone to the game and most players had entirely missed what was at stake, which meant that spotting valuable information or turning points in the plot was impossible to them. I wasn’t losing the players, I had already lost them.
This rather extreme experience had the merit of proving the point of asking these questions: to get honest answers and break assumptions.
What to expect
I’ve been asking these questions now after each game for the past three years and each time I’ve been remembered how important this is to driving a game. And it’s not just about failing games, successful ones benefit from this a lot as well. I believe the key is to ask the players to distinguish between their motives and that of their characters. They’re both equally important, and favouring one over the other, as a player or as a GM, is a recipe for a boring game. As soon as one player is bored, the whole group suffers. So the first two questions help to keep tabs on what keeps everyone motivated, in-game and in real life.
The next two are useful to evaluate how well the pace and the key moments of the scenario have been conveyed to the players. Has the section you identified as a climax been experienced as such by everyone at the table? Or has someone felt some other sequence in the scenario was more important, more intense for them or for their character? Again, both the distinction between players and characters and being able to compare the answers give insight as to whether the group, the scenario, the players and your style all fit together.
It’s also useful to the players as by answering the questions, they might develop a new perspective on the game, which might help them refocus their roleplay, better voice their expectations or shake off old habits. At the very least, it gives the players a frame within which they can think about their characters.
The last question allows both the players and you, the GM, to better think about and understand the relationship between the characters. In particular, this is once again an opportunity for you to spot a problem in the group and take care of it before it becomes uncurable, or this can be gold information for you to detect new dynamics to play with during the sessions.
Hot or cold
You can ask these questions either right after the game session, of some time later. I prefer the latter, for several reasons: first, everyone might be tired after a whole night of play, and the quality of the answers might suffer. Next, since it’s key that each player gets to think a bit about the questions before answering, and 3:26 AM might not be the right moment for this kind of exercise. At last, it’s also important the players are asked the questions and give their answers in isolation: we’re not here to open a debate between the players, but to get everyone to think about how the game plays for them.