Not too long ago, I had my performance review at work. Most people dread this event, but I always look forward to it. For me the performance review is a chance to get the recognition for my accomplishments for the year, but more importantly, it’s a chance to get a list of things that I can improve upon for the upcoming year. I am always interested in improving my abilities, and the review helps me to target those areas where I am weak, allowing me to get the most out of the time I spend on professional development.
This philosophy applies to being a GM as well. In essence, being a GM is a part-time job, and it is one that you hopefully want to improve upon each year. So how are you going to know what to improve unless you give yourself a performance review?
You cannot have a performance review without some criteria to measure your GM skills. Below I have a few areas that are common to all GMs:
- Prep— How well do you prep for your game? Do you rush at the last minute? Are you unprepared at game time? Do you have organized notes\ and extra material at the ready?
- Story Quality— Are your stories engaging and entertaining, or are you railroading your players and boring them with predictable plots?
- NPCs— Are your NPCs vivid and interesting? Do you have voices or distinct mannerisms for them, or are they monotone or indistinctive?
- Storytelling— Are you the kind of GM who has players hanging on every word? Do you vary pace and tone of your voice as you convey the story, or are you reading the descriptive text with the passion of federal tax code?
- Mechanical Knowledge— Do you know all the important rules for your system? Are you able to use them to keep your players challenged, or are you always looking up rules, forgetting basic rules?
- Leadership—Do you run your group or does your group run you? Who is in command at your table? Is there side chatter going on? Are there people reading other games while playing yours?
For each of the categories above, rate yourself with the following scale:
- Exceeds— Your efforts in this area are outstanding and are above what your players expect.
- Sufficient— Your efforts are adequate and are satisfactory for what your players expect.
- Below— Your efforts are below what your players expect and can use improvement.
Step 1: Self-Assessment
With the categories and performance levels above, go ahead and rate yourself in each area. Take a few moments to look at each of the categories and think about your most recent sessions. Be honest with yourself, but don’t be harsh. There is a tendency to evaluate yourself harshly, as we are often our own worst critics. So be fair. For each category, make sure you can justify your rating with some experiences from your recent games.
Your own assessment is important because it represents how you see yourself as a GM. While important yours is not the only point of view with which you should be concerned. You don’t GM and empty table, so after you complete your own assessment, it’s time to go to…
Step 2: Player Assessment
Now give these categories to one or more of your players and ask them to rate you on your performance. This level of assessment may not be for everyone. For those who are accustomed to being critiqued, there is a lot of valuable information that can be obtained from listening to your players. If you are not used to taking constructive criticism, then you may have some difficulty hearing your player’s evaluation. My advice is to give it a try.
There are two ways you can do this assessment. The first, and the most direct, is to do it face-to-face. In this way, you can discuss their assessment of your abilities and get direct feedback. You need to have tough skin to be able to do it this way, but you can learn a lot by talking with your players.
The second way, which is less confrontational, would be to have your players do the assessment anonymously (typed into a spreadsheet using Google Forms, etc). This way the players may feel more open to make an honest assessment, since they are not looking at you across a table.
Where we GMs may tend to be more harsh in our self-assessment, players tend to be a bit more generous in their evaluations, because they are your friends. In addition, most people seek to avoid conflict, which they may believe will arise from your reading of their assessment. In order to get the best results, you need to encourage your players to be as honest as possible. Let them know that their honesty is going to help you become a better GM.
Step 3: Review
After you have completed your personal assessment and your players have completed theirs, take a few moments to review them. First, are there any Below ratings on your list? If so, look them over and reflect on them. Do you think that those values are correct, based on your more recent games? If so mark them, we will get back to them.
Do you have any Exceeds on your assessments? If so, congratulations, but don’t rest on your laurels. Take a few moments to jot down some reasons why you are exceeding in this area. Save them for now.
Are the results between your assessment and your players’ similar? By similar, I mean, are your highest and lowest ratings are in the same areas, not necessarily the same ratings (you may have said your NPCs were Sufficient, but your players said Exceeds; both were positive). If the results are similar, then you likely have a good idea of your own GM skills.
If the results are different, then look at where they are different and in what way. If you scored yourself high in an area where your players scored you low, then you may have a misconception of your ability in this area. If you scored yourself low in an area, and your players scored you high, you may be overly critical of yourself.
If any of the scores have raised any questions, go and talk to your players about them, ask them to give you examples. It may be tough to hear you are Below in something, but it’s more important to understand what your players are expecting, and learn to deliver it to them, than to have a bruised ego.
Step 4: Improvement Plan
Having taken the time to assess yourself, identifying your strengths and weaknesses, it is time to make a plan for how you are going to improve them. Let’s go back to your notes from the last step. Did you have any Below values? If so, think of 3 things you can start doing in your next game to improve them.
For instance, I rate myself Below on Mechanical Knowledge. I am not a GM who memorizes rules nor does a good job leveraging the system to challenge my players. So, as part of my improvement plan, I plan on re-reading the rule book for my game, even though I have been running it for a year. My hope is that reading it now will help brush up my knowledge and help me find some rules that will challenge my players more.
Next review your Exceeds ratings. If you have any Exceeds on your list, write down the things that you are doing right, and make sure you keep doing them. For me, I exceed at Prep. I have a great system where I do a little prep each night for the week leading up to my game. It allows me to get my notes done and still enjoy other activities during the week. You can be sure I will keep doing this.
Next, were there any areas where there were some misconceptions (you rated yourself higher than your players). If so, you need to talk to your players about that difference and see what you can do to bring up their assessment to match yours.
Once you have a list of things to improve on, pick the three most important ones and figure out what things you can do, starting with your next session, to improve on them. Work on those first. When those are under control, then go get the next three, and so on.
Occasionally, Not Frequently
Once you have your improvement plan, work on it for a while. You need to turn those improvements into habits, and to do them consistently from session to session. That is going to take time. Don’t get into a habit of frequently re-assessing yourself. It is best to give yourself a year before you do another assessment. Think of it in terms of your annual physical or taxes. If possible, try to do it the same time every year.
The exception to this would be for the new GM. For you, it is best to make sure you are learning good GM habits and avoiding problem areas. For a new GM, those with less than a year behind the screen, I might do an assessment every six months in the first year, and then switch to yearly.
Take A Deep Breath..This Will Only Hurt A Little
The Performance Review is a powerful tool for improving your GM skills. It can be uncomfortable, but the insight it will provide will help you to improve, making you a better GM for you and for your players.
My assessment criteria above is only a suggestion. Feel free to add other categories, a more granular scale, etc. The important part is to reflect upon your skills and to gain honest feedback from your players. Put any ideas you have in the comments.
So have you ever done a GM assessment before? Are you likely to try one, now? If you want, you can do your own personal assessment right here in the comments.