How To Do A Deeper Analysis Of Your GMing In 5 Easy Steps

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #1010

In a past Musing I talked about pre-mortems. Anticipate problems before they occur and fix them in advance. Everyone wins.

Players win by getting smoother gameplay and great sessions with fewer friction points.

You get a double win.

You not only have more fun at every game, but you create a systematic way to learn the game at a deeper level.

Here’s why.

Most GMs run on instinct and talent. Plus skills built over time.

This is reactionary GMing.

If a problem arises, you use your experience, skills, and talent to solve it.

However, the magic of pre-mortems is you become a scientist.

You put your game and GMing under a lens and learn how it ticks.

Each time you do a pre-mortem, you are brainstorming the answers to two questions:

  1. What’s failed in the past that I can take care of right now, before game night?
  2. What decisions are players most likely to make?

Each item on your brainstorm list becomes a hypothesis. You don’t know yet whether it’s 100% true and whether your solution will work.

Truth Is Hard

We are not wired for objectivity. Our beliefs, experiences, and limited perceptions give us each a unique, splintered view of reality.

It is especially tough being analytical and observant during games when you’re doing a thousand things and trying to think a step ahead of play.

Also, how do you go about analyzing game sessions scientifically? There’s no map out there for that.

But your pre-mortems give you an easy way to be objective and analyze game sessions better.

Here’s how to get scientific with your GMing:

Step 1: List Hypotheses

During each pre-mortem you write down possible friction points and problem areas.

“I feel a bit drained after combats.”

“Even though I’ve planned a bar brawl, my players will screw it up.”

“One player gets distracted constantly by their phone.”

“By the time we’re halfway through the session the food wrappers, bottles, and chip bags clutter everything up. I can’t see the minis half the time.”

“My rules lawyer frustrates me so much!”

Brainstorm, brain dump, and write out your complaints until no more come to mind. Keep this list ongoing and add to it between and after sessions.

Step 2: Turn Pain Points Into Hypotheses

Your list of pain points and sources of fun-gaming friction are probably good enough as written to proceed to the next step.

However, if you get stumped in Step 3: Solutions, then you need to return here and do a little extra work. You need to turn your complaints into hypotheses.

First, though, pick your top three to five items to address next session.

Three is a great number to perform for analysis and constant GM improvement. Staying on top more than three to five gets overwhelming.

If you treat three problems or opportunities every session with a Test Solution, then after 10 sessions you’ll have performed 30 tests! That’s a lot of fantastic thinking and experimentation.

Your sessions can’t help but improve with that consistent effort. And the good news is effort is low because you’re chunking things out into three to five tests a session.

Back to forming a hypothesis.

If stuck on creating a solution, ask Why? for each complaint and then add the word because to your problem statement that answers Why?

“I feel a bit drained after combats.”

Why: It is mentally exhausting doing all the math, tactics, rules, and organization.

Hypthosis: “I feel a bit drained after combats because I have to do so much to run them.”

“One player gets distracted constantly by their phone.”

Why: They need constant stimulation and get bored when it’s not their turn.

Hypothesis: “One player gets distracted constantly by their phone because they get bored fast.”

“Even though I’ve planned a bar brawl, my players will screw it up.”

Why: The PCs won’t fight. The PCs will leave or bypass the bar. The wizard will just fireball the place.

Hypothesis: (Pick one Why? if you can think of several to focus on a single Test Solution to prove out a hypothesis.) “Even though I’ve planned a bar brawl, my players will screw it up because they probably won’t go to the tavern next session.”

“By the time we’re halfway through the session the food wrappers, bottles, and chip bags clutter everything up. I can’t see the minis half the time.”

Why: No one cleans up.

Hypothesis: “By the time we’re halfway through the session garbage clutters the table because no one cleans up.”

“My rules lawyer frustrates me so much!”

Why: They want to be right. (Why?) Ego. They also want to play the game by the rules. (Why?) They want the game to be fair. They also want to plan their character’s actions with confidence about possible outcomes.

I asked Why? a couple of times there to get deeper into the problem because the first answer didn’t feel like it hit the mark.

But, notice how we have still not answered our complaint. We have not given a reason why the rules lawyer frustrates us so much. The complaint is not about the player, it’s about us. Tricky stuff here.

Let’s try this again.

“My rules lawyer frustrates me so much!”

Why: I feel it undermines my authority. I take it personally.

Hypothesis: “My rules lawyer frustrates me so much because I get offended and it tangles with my ego.”

Ok, great work!

We’ve got a few in-game issues we can improve. We’ve also got some personal stuff we can work on outside the game to bring our better selves to the table.

Step 3. Work Out A Test Solution

For each problem on your pre-mortem list, decide how you’ll handle it next session.

Do you see how adding a because can help with problem solving? Getting to root causes of problems helps the GM Scientist create lasting solutions.

Now we go through each problem statement and come up with a test or treatment to confirm and fix the issue.

When players zig left and miss the tavern, what will you do?

Solution: Provide two more hooks and ensure at least one hook is personal for multiple characters.

When garbage gets in the way, what will you do?

Solution: Keep a big garbage can nearby. Call a break. Ask players to pitch in and clean up the table. We can help clean up or use the short break to gather our thoughts.

When that player argues about the grappling rules, what will you do?

Solution: Practice sincere gratitude and see it as an opportunity. Thank them and then log quick notes to grapple better next time (pun intended!). Use this as a great way to master the rules over time.

When energy crashes after a battle and you feel tired, what will you do?

When that player stays glued to their cell phone, what will you do?

Solution: Two birds, one dice. Ask the bored player to help you run the combat. Ask them to manage initiative and track enemy hit points.

Step 4. Perform Your Tests

Armed with hypotheses and tests, go and run your game.

Each time a hypothesis triggers, try your solution.

Observe what happens. And log notes.

As GM Scientists we aim for solutions. But our number one objective is more than that.

Our number one objective is to always be learning.

If a solution works, awesome.

But if a solution fails, we have a fantastic learning opportunity, which brings us to the final step.

Step 5. Perform Your Next Pre-Mortem

Here’s the secret sauce.

If we stopped at Step 4: Solutions, we’d have better game sessions ongoing. Success!

But if we do one extra thing, we speed up our learning by a lot.

Before next game, add a new step to your pre-mortem of evaluating your previous pre-mortem.

1. Did all your hypotheses trigger? If not, why?

2. Did triggered solutions work? If so, why? If not, why?

This is the whole key to a simple process for gaining deeper knowledge about GMing.

You gain objectivity by using predictions and comparing them against actual gameplay results. This helps mitigate confirmation bias.

You then have a simple and objective tool with which to evaluate your game. Did your predictions come true? Did your solutions work?

Each pre-mortem will build cumulative study of your GMing.

One pre-mortem won’t get you a deep analysis.

But one dozen, two dozen, three?

You’ll spot patterns and trends. You’ll see recurring issues. You’ll know what solutions work. You’ll discover new problems you did not know existed. And you’ll find some things you thought were problems are actually red herrings.

By putting down on paper your hypotheses and tests in advance, you gain a level of objectivity that’s tough to otherwise manufacture.

While not perfect, this approach gets you a better analysis of your GMing than just going by reactions after the game.

Once you’ve reviewed your pre-mortem and results, decide what solutions you’ll keep and where you need to return to Step 2 and revisit a problem. Repeat before each session and you’ll soon have a much deeper analysis and understanding of your GMing.