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Getting Feedback From Your Players

Over at the Suggestion Pot [1], Gnome Stew reader and high-level Cleric BishopOfBattle cast Divination [2] (or maybe it was Find the Path [3]; I’ve taken too many negative levels [4] in d20 to be an expert). Anyway, he asked [5]:

How do the Gnomes go about getting better player feedback? Often articles mention "Ask your players" but I often have difficulty getting useful (or sometimes any) feedback from my players.

Stocks [6]

In a beautiful example of irony, this picture is from “stock.xchng [7]

This is not an uncommon topic. I’ve seen this come up at every seminar I’ve given, and most of the ones I’ve attended. For whatever reason, we geeks are not comfortable with giving or receiving criticism, or with the disagreement (and conflict) that it implies.

First off, get over it. Seriously. The process of feedback will make you a better GM, will give your players a better game, and will make you all more comfortable with each other. Once you break the surface tension (which can be considerable), it’s potentially a big win-win situation.

Don’t Take It Personally

Possibly the most important thing to remember when asking for feedback is to not take criticism personally. Start off by telling your players that they’re free to speak their mind, and stand by your statement. Even if someone calls you a douchebag and the worst GM they’ve ever experienced, remain calm and ask them for examples. You can kick them out of your group and release your minions on them later.

Gamers are famous for poor social skills, and providing negative feedback to a friend may be entirely alien terrain for some of us. Remember that this is for a better game, not for ego-gratification.

If it does turn into a gripe-fest, keep your cool and manage the conversation in a positive direction by asking for examples and advice. “Okay, can you show me some ways to handle that situation that aren’t clichéd?”

Divide and Conquer

Humans are excellent at reading each other’s body language, and your entire group can shut down as the possibility of conflict rears its ugly head. Ask your players individually what they liked and didn’t like. Chat with them online between games, ask them on boardgame night or at lunch, or buttonhole [8] the last player leaving.

Once you have some feedback, address some of the issues as a group; gamers are nothing if not effective at collaborative problem-solving. But getting that feedback may require separate interrogations interviews.

Ask the Unavoidable

Don’t ask questions that can be avoided or ducked. Be specific, and ask open-ended questions. “Did you like last night’s game?” sounds like a search for a compliment. “What did you like best about last night’s game?” is better.

Likewise, “What did you like least?” is better than “Is there anything you didn’t like?” because it assumes that there is something that the player didn’t like. He or she should be more comfortable answering it, once that assumption is made.

Take Notes

This is one of those times when it’s okay to break the rhythm of the conversation and take notes on what you’re hearing. If it helps, email a copy of your notes back to the players for their assistance in expanding on them. This is also a great way to show them that you’re listening and responding to their feedback. 

Reward Useful Replies

“Perform this simple task for me, and your reward will be great!” If you have some kind of in-game bonus that is appropriate for their feedback, offer it. I offer Bennies to my players for feedback, but extra XP or a rule-breaker card [9] might work in your system.

Punish the Noncommittal

The flip side of reward is punishment. I’m not suggesting that you dock XP or target a noncommittal player’s character with every attack, but a minion who suddenly turns and attacks the PC with a battlecry of “Feedback!” might be a handy (and humorous) reminder.

Don’t Just Stand There, Do Something!

Now that you have their feedback, use it. You do not have to completely change your campaign, your GMing style, or your gaming system, but it would be folly to ignore your players, especially after asking them for their opinions. Start small, and ask for more feedback afterwards. “Is that the sort of thing you were looking for?”

Got anything to add or disagree with? I promise not to take it personally (except from you, Patrick). Sound off in the comments and let us know!

15 Comments (Open | Close)

15 Comments To "Getting Feedback From Your Players"

#1 Comment By Patrick Benson On September 29, 2011 @ 8:25 am

Well I was going to say “Great article!” but since you are going to take it personally I might as well as try a social experiment here. >:)

Kurt, you are a douchebag and the worst GM ever.


(Seriously, great article!)

#2 Comment By Roxysteve On September 29, 2011 @ 8:40 am

Candor might be more forthcoming in secret ballot.

Give the “worst/best” quiz (and I loved that idea I might add) by e-mail and you have the best of all possible worlds, especially if you stress the confidential nature of the exercise and the point of it – critiquing the game rather than other players.

#3 Comment By Roxysteve On September 29, 2011 @ 8:42 am

But “Irony”? I see a pun, but no ironic context for your pic.

#4 Comment By Patrick Benson On September 29, 2011 @ 9:32 am

[10] – I don’t know about you, but I find some irony in a picture of a restrictive torture device used in the past now being freely available for anyone to use in the modern world due to changes in how our society operates ironic.

1711 – “Thou whilst be put in the stocks for daring to peek at the noble woman’s bare ankle!”

2011 – “Dude! Look at this pic of the dungeon orgy and check out what they are doing on the stocks!”

Progress? 😉

#5 Comment By EpicWords On September 29, 2011 @ 9:40 am

One thing that might be useful is a list of specific questions that you can ask your players. I used to play a lot of RPGA events, and at the end of each event, there would be a survey to fill out that would rate the scenario and judge. I believe that the judging part of the survey was something like this: (on a scale of 1 to 5)

How well prepared was the judge?
How well do they know the rules?
How fair was the judge?
Storytelling/roleplaying: 1 – Just read the box text … 5 – Memorable NPCs and descriptions
Free-form feedback

Players might be more willing to give you a 1 or 2 than to tell you “I didn’t think you were very well prepared”. You can always follow up and ask for specific examples of what you scored low on.

#6 Comment By KnownWorld On September 29, 2011 @ 11:20 am

I really like Survey Monkey for this kind of thing. Its free and lets people give feed back on their time in a relatively painless and quick format.

#7 Comment By Kurt “Telas” Schneider On September 29, 2011 @ 11:33 am

[10] – You can’t tell that it’s raining on someone’s wedding day in that picture?

Meh, you’re right; it’s more pun than irony. One might even call it a punish device…

#8 Comment By BishopOfBattle On September 29, 2011 @ 11:42 am

Thanks for the great article, Kurt! You’ve given me a few new ideas to try.

[11] and [12] – I’ve used Google Docs Forms before with my players which works well (mechanically speaking), but found that I had few players who would take the time between sessions to provide feedback. At best, I had no more than half of my players provide any feedback on the game, and it was consistently less or none. I like the idea of it, and would try it again, but it didn’t pan out well for me and my group.

I will definitely try out rewarding player feedback; I think I’ll also start designating part of the closeup time after game to solicit feedback (and if they don’t give any then we can sit at the table in silence for ten minutes! That’s the punishment side of the coin you mentioned, right?) I do try to incorporate what feedback I do get, but I’ll also try writing up notes afterwards to share with the players as maybe that will be more encouraging to them (or maybe even start a dialogue if they particularly agree/disagree with a note).

Thanks again!

#9 Comment By evil On September 29, 2011 @ 2:14 pm

It was said above, but I second this notion: Be specific!

Figure out where you think you need to improve, and then ask a specific question in that area. Instead of “what was good about last night?” ask “What about that villain made him memorable?” or “What was your least favorite part of that dungeon?”

Once you’ve got some specific feedback, you can then use that to make generalizations about other areas and target those areas for more specific feedback.

#10 Comment By Scot Newbury On September 29, 2011 @ 2:33 pm

I agree with the need to get specific feedback as it’s the most helpful but I would lean towards asking general questions first and then move to specifics.

By starting with a general question you can open a dialog with them and work from there. While it is also best to do this face to face email can work – just beware of your tone in the emails as some read more into that than others.

When you get the feedback – USE IT! I know when I give feedback and see that it really didn’t matter I decided that future requests weren’t worth the time and effort.

Remember, feedback isn’t one way – it’s an ongoing conversation.

#11 Comment By Roxysteve On September 30, 2011 @ 11:25 am

[13] – Yes. Punnishment. You bring it.

#12 Comment By Roxysteve On September 30, 2011 @ 11:34 am

[14] – Well, since the point of each use of the stocks you mention was/is public humiliation, not so much.

#13 Comment By Patrick Benson On September 30, 2011 @ 11:40 am

[15] – Porn is public humiliation? No. That is Facebook. 😉

#14 Comment By Kurt “Telas” Schneider On October 3, 2011 @ 3:53 pm

[16] – Yes, I definitely meant pun-ish. So it was indeed pun-ish meant… (Please, stop me before I do it again.)

#15 Comment By MonsterMike On October 4, 2011 @ 1:51 pm

In our Monday night gaming group, we take turns GMing and do a lot of one-shots and mini-campaigns, so the GM chair rotates frequently. At the end of each session, we have a short feedback discussion with the explicit focus of “Help me be a better GM or player so our games can rock even more.” And the criticism flows freely and candidly.

I think this works in part because we are all old enough to understand the value of constructive criticism and are thick-skinned enough to accept it without taking it as a personal attack.

Often, we realize group failings. “We really didn’t roleplay that enough – everyone was feeling lazy tonight.” And sometimes the criticism is a surprise: “As GM, you’re too easy on us. That final battle should have been way harder. Seriously. If someone isn’t at the edge of death, it’s too easy. Don’t be afraid to kill off a character once in a while.”

In one session, the GM threw out a hook for an optional encounter, and none of the players took the bait. Asking why at the end, we told him “You didn’t give us a reason to care about the NPC that was being attacked. He was a total stranger and a ghoul to boot, and in this setting, most people like us hate ghouls.”

I think it takes a high level of trust in a group to be candid like this. When giving feedback, you have to commit to being specific about what could have made it better and not resort to broad personal attacks – e.g. “You’re just a crappy GM.”

And when listening to feedback, you have to really listen actively, set your emotions aside for a moment, and work to understand what your players are telling you. Help them be specific if they are having trouble articulating. And don’t act hurt when you find out that you are not the uber-GM you thought you were. Thank them and use the gift of feedback they are giving you to make your games better.