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by Mike on 7 June 2021
In the Edition Wars podcast covering the 5th edition Dungeon Master's Guide, the hosts and guests of the show discussed the importance of talking to your players, and how hard that can be sometimes. Saying "just talk to your players" puts a lot of weight on the word "just", stated Brandes Stoddard.
How do we talk to our players? How do we get feedback for our game? How do we make sure the game we're running is the kind of game our players want to play?
Session zeros, now mentioned in many books and articles, including my own book, Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master and Wizards of the Coast's Tasha's Cauldron of Everything, help ensure you and your players are on the same page about the campaign you're about to run. Any campaign can benefit from running a session zero. Here's my article on session zeros for details.
When adding new members to our group, take the time to really talk to them about what they want from a game and what sort of game you plan to run. You're goal isn't to sell your game but to make sure it's a good fit for them and that they will be a good fit for the group. What type of game do you run? What sorts of things do you do in your games that some players may not like? For me, I make it clear that I run lots of battles in the theater of the mind, with less of a focus on tactical combat than the evolving story. That's not for all players. Read more in my article in finding and maintaining a D&D group and interviewing new players for more.
Before your game begins and during the game itself, it's important to have safety tools in place. I prefer a mix of "lines and veils" and some sort of verbal X card. These tools help ensure that the content you and your players bring to the game has clear boundaries up front but also has a way to pause the game and take stock out of character to make sure everyone's having fun. Read more in my article on safety tools and pause for a minute.
It can be particularly hard to get direct feedback on your game once you're in the middle of a campaign. If you ask players general questions like "how do you like the game?" you're likely to get shrugs and "great!" or the like. Most of the time players are happy playing and aren't thinking about it too hard. That's fine, but it doesn't give us much for feedback.
If we want good feedback we have to ask specific questions.
Stars and wishes comes from Lu Quade and is described in this article on the Gauntlet. Stars and wishes are designed to draw out positive feedback on a session, adventure, or campaign by asking each player two questions:
Stars. What are the things you liked best in our adventures so far? What did you love?
Wishes. What are you looking forward to in our future games?
Because you're asking each player these questions, you'll get insights into what they loved and likely what they did not, at least by omission if they don't bring it up themselves. You'll also hear what they want to see in future sessions, very valuable information for planning things out in the future.
While stars and wishes focus on what the player wants in the game, campfire tales let the characters talk about what they want, where they've come from, and how they feel about where they're going.
There are many prompts we might ask during these campfire tales but here are two big ones:
"How does your character feel about the direction they're headed?"
"What past memory does this current situation bring back?"
I like to start off the beginning of the session by asking the players to describe what happened in our last game. Often it takes them a bit to re-sync with what happened but I get good insight into what parts of the game they remember, what mattered to them, and what might safely fade into the shadows. This technique isn't for everyone. You may be more comfortable with your own recap or perhaps start the recap and let them fill in the blanks.
In Your Best Game Ever, Monte Cook brings up another question we might add to the mix to learn more about the characters in our games. After a significant milestone in our game we can ask each player to describe how their character feels about the current situation. How does their character feel in the world right now? Like stars and wishes, this gives us a great deal of information we can file away for future sessions and gives us a peek into the mind of the player driving that character, showing us what they're paying attention to.
Another good question to ask is what the players want for their characters. This probably works best one-on-one and isn't so critical that it can't be done over email or in Discord. Ask for just a few sentences in case the player wants to come back with six pages of backstory and ideas unless you're not bothered by that. Take note of what they want and try to give it to them if you can.
When the characters level up, players love to look at their new options and think about how they'll use them. If they keep this to themselves, DMs miss out on a lot of opportunities to show those abilities off. When characters level up, ask each player to describe the new options they've selected or acquired. This lets you know what they now have but also lets the other player know what they have. It gives everyone an opportunity to bond around these new features. It also gives you a chance ot ensure they've selected abilities you're actually allowing in the game and gives you a chance to build encounters that let them use those new abilities to the fullest.
Whatever questions you use to get feedback from your players, be specific about it and focus it on them and their experiences. Here are some example questions you might ask:
Specific questions are a key to great feedback.
An easy question to ask, one reinforced in Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master, is the loose magic item wish list. Ask your players to describe the kinds of items their characters are interested in rather than specific magic items. You can mix in loot from this wish list along with randomly generated loot sure to surprise them as they adventure.
Getting good feedback from our players is critical to running a great game and it isn't easy. You're more likely to get a shrug and a nod than a good detailed analysis of your game. That's ok. Asking the right questions can help you get useful feedback to help drive the game continually towards the enjoyment of everyone at the table.
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