Feedback

Jul 16 2010

"Circle of Fire" by stephenccwu on Flickr

"Circle of Fire" by stephenccwu on Flickr

I’ve been thinking lately about the best way to give feedback to players in my role-playing games.

By “feedback,” I mean pointing out particularly effective and particularly ineffective behavior, like creative problem-solving, forgetting to update a marker, effective teamwork, or aggressive interpersonal behavior.

I used to essentially ignore this. I’d occasionally reward a creative solution with a quick “Great thinking!” I essentially ignored bad behavior.

This, of course, is ineffective.

I then picked up a feedback system from Manager Tools, which used a four-part framework:

  1. Privately, ask if it’s okay to give some feedback.
  2. Describe the behavior you’re addressing.
  3. Describe the positive or negative consequences of that behavior.
  4. Ask if they can do it differently next time.

This model’s intended for managers talking to their staff.  Role-playing’s a game; GMs take on a very different role than that of a corporate manager.  (Though there are many parallels.)

I’ve modified it to this:

  1. Privately, tell the person that I have some quick feedback.  For positive feedback, I usually start with a “Thanks” sentence.
  2. Describe the behavior.
  3. Describe the positive or negative consequences of the behavior.
  4. Reassure that this is just a little note.

It still doesn’t feel quite right. On the one hand, it feels rather apologetic — can a player really not receive feedback unless it’s sandwiched between such deprecating phrases? On the other hand, RPGs are games, after all, and the GM has little power over the players. Sure, the GM can kill a player’s character…and then the player may never come back.

I also struggle to identify opportunities for positive feedback. I suspect that skill will develop over time, but it’s hard to find things to reward when the game’s going along fine.

I suppose smooth sailing, itself, deserves praise. Hmmm.

2 responses so far

  1. One of the best tools, not only for giving feedback but for any kind of persuasive discussion, is example. If you're talking to a player about negative behavior, describe a situation in a previous campaign in which a similar behavior created difficulties. If it's positive, you can say “this is great, it reminds me of x, I think you're on the right track with this.” Anecdotal examples are effective in two ways: they engage the listener, and they shift the burden of judgment away from the DM. Instead of you giving your personal, subjective opinion – about which you may feel uncomfortable or underconfident – you're relying on pure causal evidence, which is easier to introduce and harder to evade.

    Another principle of mine, specific to good behavior, is to give it importance proportional to its quality. If a player does something I think is good for the campaign, I shine a big spotlight on it. In previous campaigns, my group had a DM who came from more of a gaming school of thought. He had *his* plot, he gave us *his* scenarios, and if we failed to meet *his* victory conditions, then it was like getting the bad ending from a Myst game. We had a number of highly creative and ambitious players in our group, who would compose elaborate backstories for their characters, describe every detail of the clothing – one even wrote sheet music – along with creating the personalities of their friends and families. And with a handful of exceptions, all of that went mostly ignored by our DM. It was just flavor, as far as he was concerned. I kept thinking “are you crazy? They're making NPCs for you. They're writing half the story for you. Take it! Use it!” And when it was my turn, I did. It worked. The players were more actively engaged, emotionally invested, and continued to produce a wealth of self-generated content.

    Now, of course, that's not appropriate for all groups or playing styles, but I think the same principle can be applied in other ways. If a PC has a good spot check, give him a lot of stuff to spot. If he displays mercy and generosity to his fellow man, give him a boost to his reputation and the opportunities that come with it. In short: make their good behavior *work* for them. Make it obvious that they're on the right track. And hey, you save yourself a conversation.

  2. It might simply be a game, but an RPG by necessity deals with human behavior and so inappropriate behavior on the part of the player will translate to their character as well. This has huge consequences both for the other players and the game itself and needs to be addressed.

    Personally, I find that written feedback provides the privacy and assistance most people require. You can inform them of any positives or negatives to their style without “attacking” them in front of their peers. It also allows the person to approach you afterward if they have questions. You have thus addressed the problem but (rightly) put the burden of improvement on them. If that fails, and the behavior continues, a vocal warning during gameplay may become necessary. After that, you may have to ask them to leave.

    Certainly however you should not be apologetic about giving feedback. The submissiveness of “offering” feedback can be misconstrued as weakness in your desire to enforce appropriate behavior, leading to the conclusion that while you may not *prefer* such behavior, you won't kick them out of gameplay for it.
    “Offer” feedback only insofar as you are giving them the chance to ignore your advice, but it needs to be given whether they ask for it or not, else you're not communicating with them.

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