The other day, I was thinking back to the last ongoing campaign I ran, a story-heavy Mage: The Awakening game, and something occurred to me: Among the mistakes I made in that campaign there remained at least one that I’d never given due consideration.

Lessons Learned

As a GM, I tend to take a hands-off approach when my players seem to be having fun. If they’re not doing what I had planned, but are enjoying what they are doing, I’m a happy camper. The tricky thing is that this isn’t always the right approach.

For example, this Mage game featured a lot of intra-party conflict, including a few memorable instances that resulted in some of the most intense, emotional roleplaying I’ve seen.

That was awesome, but also concealed a problem that didn’t start becoming clear to me until towards the end of the game — at which point I felt, and I speculate that at least some of my players felt, that we were locked into the style of game that had emerged and needed to see it through to the bitter end.

I took some steps to dial back the intra-party conflict towards the end of the campaign, but probably did too little, too late. The problem, in hindsight, was that I should have violated one of my cardinal GMing guidelines — hands-off if my players seem to be having fun — and taken the reins to steer us away from playing out so much intra-party conflict and towards a more relaxing, purely fun style of game.

Knowing when to put a stop to something your players seem to be having fun with in favor of the larger goal of a fun campaign can be really tricky, and it’s something I’ve never gotten a great handle on.

Session Post-Mortems

For me, at least, the trickiest part is that there’s no sure-fire trick for spotting these kinds of problems. The best solution I can think of is to place a bit more emphasis on my own session post-mortems, where I look back over my session notes and think about how things went, what turned out well/poorly, and what I could do better next session.

Apart from taking notes and doing some post-session ruminating, I’ve never given the details of a good post-mortem that much thought before, and I suspect I’m not the only GM out there who could benefit from some structure and a fresh set of eyes on this topic.

What’s the Best Approach?

So how about it: If you do a private post-mortem after your sessions, what’s your approach? Have you learned any tricks to make this time as productive as possible?

And if you think my conclusion — that a more thorough post-mortem is the best way to spot these time-to-take-the-reins opportunities — is dead wrong, what would you try instead?

About  Martin Ralya

A father, husband, writer, small-press publisher, former RPG industry freelancer, and lifelong geek, Martin has been gaming since 1987 and GMing since 1989. He lives in Utah with his amazing wife Alysia and their awesome daughter Lark in a house full of books and games.



16 Responses to Tricky GMing Situations: Taking the Reins

  1. I mainly write a session summary, which allows me to look at what was going on during the session and then add Storyteller commentary to it… that way I can organise my thoughts on the game and look back at player reactions…

  2. Have you thought about incorporating the intra-party conflict into the BBEG’s plans? Not necessarily using their conflict against them (though that’s always an option) but taking credit or having the players discover that they are being “manipulated” into fighting each other? That way they work to resolve the conflicts between them and they gain motivation toward finding and/or defeating their nemesis.

  3. What sorts of things do you write in your notes? I see that you do your post-mortems from your notes (and memory, presumably) but what sorts of things do you make sure to write down?

  4. There are two steps I take that serve the purpose of a post-mortem.

    I treat the session notes as a creative writing exercise. This takes WAY too long, on the order of about 4 hours; but, for me is a reward in itself. The notes are pretty complete, though I do forget most of the dialog and battle details unless I write the notes immediately. When I haven’t had this creative writing exercise I usually just make an outline of the notes that touches on all the clues revealed, ideas for the future, major plot developments, trivial fun facts and NPC notes. This outline usually takes about 20 minutes.

    Secondly, I take the train home from the session with one of the more creative players. We usually review the session on the train together and he gives me lots of feedback. That helps me know when I’ve made something confusing or off the mark.

  5. Addressing the conclusion-that a more thorough post-mortem is the best way to spot these take-the-reins-moments:

    I think it depends on the situation. The intra-party conflict is normally fine as long as the players aren’t feeling hurt by the PCs’ actions. I think after a really tense moment it may be best to call a 30 minute break, Everyone Walks Away from the gaming area*, and then discuss what happened (possibly over soda/beer/burritos/comfort food of your group’s choice). This way you can evaluate what happened, why, how are people’s reactions, and if this is actually a good thing for the game you are playing.

    Then when everything has calmed down return to the game and continue. If you need let the players play out the apology that usually follows a fight/argument, so that anyone who would be “playing my character” has the resolution to avoid this situation the next time.

    *everyone walking away is very important, if everyone remains in the gaming area with the character sheets, minis, etc. they will have a much stronger incentive to argue for their character’s actions and are much less likely to be observant to how this affected the other player.

  6. I use Obsidian Portal as my campaign’s wiki. While I encourage the players to put in their own recaps (and they do!), I edit the relevant pages to include my own commentary. That gives me a chance to really process what happened, as my recaps are going into the wiki pages for all to read. I also catch a lot of things I missed when I update the GM-only sections….notes I had put in there that got forgotten during the actual gameplay. Then I can take those clues and work them into the next session (if they are that important).

    If it weren’t for a campaign wiki, I’d forget half of my good ideas…

  7. Learning when to take over a game from the players is a fine line, and it’s often hard to pin down the right moment to do just that. I often use the same partial fix that Razjah uses. There have been many times when I give the “all out” order so that I’m the last to leave the gaming area and the first to come back. Sometimes during these breaks players have been repositioned or simply just moved some of the clutter away from the table. These not so subtle clues are usually enough to get my players to come to their senses. If not, then I lay the hammer down in terms of game control.

    As far as post mortems, after every game I talk to one player (I cycle randomly through the group) asking what went well, what went poorly, and what they’d like to see change. Sometimes I get great story ideas, sometimes i just learn which mechanics to throw out the window or explain better.

  8. Kurt "Telas" Schneider

    I do a post-mortem, but I prefer the more positive-sounding “after action report” or the simplicity of “wrap-up”. Aside from recapping the night’s action, I use it to re-emphasize or clarify any information that might have been missed or misunderstood.

    As for perceiving these opportunities, I go with my gut and a dose of sensitivity. Be sensitive to how your players are feeling about the game. Watch for the signs of impending implosion. Ask a player privately if he or she seems less than perfectly happy with the way things are going.

  9. I pretty much stop douchy behavior when it starts. I don’t find player conflict interesting or entertaining. It is usually caused by boredom, so it’s best to rack up some baddies for the PCs to go after.

  10. @Lunatyk – I suck at session summaries, but in miniature that’s kind of what I do. (Mine is the miniature — I don’t write all that much.)

    @The_Gun_Nut – That’s a tricksy one — in this case, it was my players who were roleplaying the I-P conflict because that’s what their characters would have done. It’s an interesting idea, but also a long jump to then tell them that it wasn’t their choice after all. ;-)

    @samhoice – I write down what happened (the highlights), what was left unresolved, and what went well or badly.

    @Eric Wilde – That train ride sounds like a HUGE boon! How cool would that be. :-)

    @Razjah – Sound advice! I like your tip about making sure to all leave the room for breaks in general, not just breaks due to hurt feelings. (No actual hurt feelings in the case of my example campaign.)

    @Vance – I’d love to try the Obsidian Portal/wiki/the whole group contributes model. And it sounds fantastic for post-mortems — very cool!

    @evil – I love the rotating feedback idea — that takes the social pressure out of the equation, and would give even your less talkative players a chance to pipe up. Great tip!

    @Kurt “Telas” Schneider – That resonates with me, especially the bit about taking the simple route: watch and consider.

    @JakeSox – There was no douchery here — my group is douche-free. ;-) Intra-player conflict is definitely a different ballgame.

  11. Here are a couple of thoughts:

    First, this seems like a situation where the problem would have been best detected by group postmortem. Talking with the players individually or as a group about the sessions including those tense conflicts might have revealed the problem sooner.

    Second, a one page story progression tracking sheet that included BBEG, subplots, and player development could help. Write down each story element and check off one of the following 1)absent (think about including it in the next session), 2) stagnant (likely to be the rating for that conflict), or 3) developing (specify exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and resolution). This could be printed before each session and only take a few seconds to fill out, compare to previous sessions, and help in prepping for future sessions.

    If you viewed player interaction as one story element, you might have seen that the conflict was stagnant for several sessions and could have considered how to help the players develop the tension to a natural dramatic climax and eventual resolution. This of course, assumes an emphasis on storytelling roleplaying (from Robin’s Laws) more than the method actor roleplaying.

    -zerfinity

  12. I would have had a lot of problem detecting this, mostly because it was enjoyable for you and the group– it just led to a different style of game than you’d all intended.

    If it was bad/bitter/etc. at the moment, I think it’d be likely to be caught at the end of a session, particularly if it kept recurring– but with it leading to good roleplaying and spot enjoyment, I don’t think it would have triggered my tripwires.

    It sound more like the advice from Phil’s Use a Quote article would be the only way to make sure that you were staying on track with the right tone.

  13. As a player in that game, I can say that Martin is right on about how things were for us, or at least for me as a player.

    We frequently got into very fun but very drawn out in-character arguments. Our PCs always had a reason to not get along, even though we were all certainly “good guys.” Disagreements were political, philosophical, personal, and tactical, and they were fun to play through. To me, against the backdrop of the epic supernatural threat we faced, it helped make that campaign the favorite in which I’ve played.

    I definitely know what Martin’s getting at, though. The good, complex, purposeful arguments were like playing out an episode of Firefly – lots of character drama, but everyone pulled together for the heist/mission. When we took it too far, it was like a wangsty season six Buffy episode – petty, drawn-out, and leaving everyone wondering, “Okay, when will something actually happen?”

    I see this issue as part of the same continuum as too much joking or BSing at the table: sure, it’s fun to yammer away, and everyone’s having a good time, but at some point, the night will be over, and will five hours of B.S. be remembered as fondly as a well-crafted and well-played adventure? Probably not.

    I must admit that when I GM I almost never try to “rerail” the story. I thrive on reacting to the players, so I don’t know how I’d handle this kind of issue. My games typically have the PCs doing what they will, while the antagonists are acting independently. A team which does its own thing inevitably learns of the actions of the enemy – or sees the consequences.

  14. @Sarlax – “Wangsty” — I love it! ;-)

    This is incredibly well-said: “…sure, it’s fun to yammer away, and everyone’s having a good time, but at some point, the night will be over, and will five hours of B.S. be remembered as fondly as a well-crafted and well-played adventure? Probably not.”

  15. @Sarlax – I like the comparison to an episode of Firefly. With 42 minutes of running time, things need to move fast. Mal has only a couple minutes to argue with Inara or tell Jayne he’s about to kill him before things need to move on.

    I’ll let players interact for a little bit, but will cut in and move things along. I was once in a campaign where the GM would never move things along, and I found I would role play less hoping everyone would say their piece so we could get to the action.

  16. and for those moments I have a little hourglass that limits the time before things start to happen…

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