A Game Master Retrospective

Reflecting on past events is an important skill to develop. I have been wanting to replace my old and abandoned blog post series on deep reflections from previously ran systems with a format that is more digestible and likely more manageable for my feeble mind. In Against the Wicked City’s post about GMing retrospective, they presented, what I thought to be, a quick and simple format for reflection.

The format goes like this:

  • What it was is the section in which I provide context about the system, campaign, or session that I was running.
  • What worked is the section in which I identify and describe something that worked well.
  • What did not work is the section in which I identify and describe something that did not work well.
  • Lessons learned is the section in which I synthesise what I identified prior to assist myself with identifying something that I had learned.

Why is Reflective Practice Important?

I am of the mind that we all reflect on everything we do – it is one way in which we learn. These reflections may be brief thoughts or emotions such as feeling guilt about something you did that felt wrong, or they may be much longer and more intentional reflections such as maintaining a journal about your day-to-day life. In either case, reflecting on past events helps us make sense of what happened from a more objective perspective. An experience is worth only half its value without reflection.

This is such a pervasive practice that multiple formats for reflective writing exist with supporting scientific research. Each form has its own advantages and disadvantages but ultimately it just results in the same thing: learn from what you did.

Just like with any skill, game mastering takes time and practice, and by reflecting on sessions, campaigns, or whatever else will help focus our attention on what to change so as to improve. With that in mind, here are my reflections on the first four systems I ran.

Dread

  • What it was: This was the first time that I had ever ran a roleplaying game, though I had played in several games that used a different system prior to this. Dread is a horror roleplaying game that utilises a Jenga tower to resolve actions. It is focused on one-shot games with characters that are defined by a brief questionnaire at the start of the game.
  • What worked: I found that I did not have to do a lot of the work in creating an atmosphere of dread. A brief description of what to expect from the game at the start coupled with the stress generated from playing Jenga and some choice music in a dimly lit room did all of the work for me. All I had to do was support the players moving throughout the phases of the story.
  • What did not work: This was early days for me, and I had yet to accept that players should have more control over the narrative, these are collaborative storytelling games after all. I tried to mitigate a lot of the advantages that players developed or tried very hard to push them into the direction I wanted them to go into such as forcing players into a cave that was home to a giant amalgamation of flesh and bone.
  • Lessons learned: Though it took me some time to become comfortable with the idea, Dread taught me how it is important to allow players to have some control in the narrative and to run with what their characters are doing. Instead of taking a blunt approach to forcing my ideas on them, I can use some more finesse to inject my ideas in the narrative without limiting the players. Furthermore, taking time to create an ambience that matches the tone of the game does wonders for immersion.

Dungeons & Dragons 5E

  • What it was: I ran multiple games in Dungeons & Dragons 5E and with each session I became more and more tired. I felt that it never really synchronised with how I like to play these types of games. DnD 5E is a heroic fantasy lite wargame misrepresented as a roleplaying game with an emphasis on combat.
  • What worked: This worked wonders for bringing people together. Everyone knew what DnD was and it either turned them away very quickly or piqued their interest, at which point I had them.
  • What did not work: Myself and many of the other players were still very new roleplaying games so a lot did not work. This system required constant massaging from both parties for it to function. What has stuck with me the most is the sheer amount of work I had to do as a game master before each session or even just the time it took to interpret something simple like a monster stat block.
  • Lessons learned: I do not regret my time with DnD 5E and it did help me bring people together which allowed us all an opportunity to engage with these types of games. What I learned from my time with this system is that there is no one system to fit all types of stories. The constant massaging I mentioned was due to everyone having their own ideas about how the game plays or how they want to run the game – it would have been easier if we had just played a different system.

Blades in the Dark

  • What it was: This was the first system I chose to run after I recovered from my time with DnD 5E. It is a PbtA adjacent system set in an industrial ghost-powered city of rivalling crime gangs within a demonic post-apocalyptic world.
  • What worked: It took some time for my group to grok the system but from the very beginning it worked well for throwing us into action and suffering consequences. Players barely had time to think during those intense moments but afterwards they had time to be more intentional. I think it allowed them to define who their character was as they had to make quick choices. This was the same for me as a game master, however the greatly organised NPCs and factions supported me in running and prepping the sessions.
  • What did not work: It took me a while to figure out how to weave the different modes of play in the system together in such a way that the game flowed. Concurrently, my players had a tricky time adapting to the lethality of the game and initiating scores.
  • Lessons learned: Throwing players into actions and having them suffer consequences for what they do not only drives the narrative forward and help with future sessions, but it also helps the players become immersed into their character. Furthermore, NPCs do not have to have complicated stat blocks with mapped inventories but instead focusing on some details about their personality and appearance in the narrative works a lot more for me to improvise.

Mutant: Year Zero

  • What it was: This is a post-apocalyptic roleplaying game set in our universe. It incorporates more sandbox play with simple base building and survival mechanics.
  • What worked: My favourite aspect of M:YZ was how players had to create an NPC or two that related to their character on their sheet and describe how they relate to each of the other players. This immediately provided me with different avenues for engaging the players’ characters into the story each session. The game master advice really helped me with running more sandbox style games such as noting down 1-2 scene ideas per player.
  • What did not work: I struggled to run combat when using more than 3 different enemies. It was a lot to keep track of when running it as theatre of the mind as I did not fully utilise the range mechanics in the game.
  • Lessons learned: Sandbox games can be a lot of fun and really open the game up to allow player-driven games. I think this is my preferred way to run roleplaying games and has led to me always prepping some scene ideas for each player plus some for any relevant plot thread the players are following which takes up the brunt of my game prep now. Theatre of the mind can be a tricky thing to do, especially when there is a lot to remember. This is something that will require more practice on my part to better present to my players.

Interested in reading more?