GM like a PM is a new, three-part series that introduces Project Management concepts to RPGs to facilitate our job as Game Masters. The second installment is about reviewing sessions to verify that player and Game Master goals are being met.
Common advice for GMs and players is to talk out their issues at the table before they become a problem. One of the reasons that’s harder to execute than advise is that bringing up an issue can be awkward, and hearing about an issue can make people defensive. However, formulating and scheduling feedback in a way that makes it expected to be given and received makes it easier on both ends. One such formula is a post mortem.
What is a Post Mortem?
A post mortem (from the Latin for after death) looks back on a specific, completed project and reports on what decisions were made, which of them worked, which didn’t, and what could be done differently next time.
Before you can determine what worked and what didn’t, you need to define what your goals are to know if they worked. For a business, the goal could be directly profiting, but it could also be cutting costs, gaining greater exposure, improved public standing, etc. The end goal will basically always be an increase in profits, but the steps to profitability are also important.
Likewise, it’s easy to say that everyone’s goal for playing Pathfinder or other RPGs is to have fun, but how fun is defined is so subjective that one person at the table having fun is not an indicator that everyone is. The original Lost In Space could be described as more fun than the recent Netflix reboot, but the new Lost In Space is more engaging, more meaningful, more relatable, etc. Right there are three goals more specific and descriptive than “fun”.
Session zero has a reputation as being a good time for players to flesh out their characters -especially how their characters relate to one another- but it’s also a great time for us to establish what the players expect from us as GMs, and for us to clarify what the players expect from their characters.
Players and us GMs already set our goals and expectations when at the start of a new campaign. For us, it’s the campaign pitch. For example:
Pitch: We’re playing a classic high fantasy adventure, the one that started it all and establish Golarion and the Inner Sea Region, and made Pathfinder goblins the mascot creatures that they are!
Expectations: Players can make any characters of any class, but zanier concepts are less welcome. Lore will be important to the adventure but previous knowledge of the setting isn’t super important. Also, goblins!
A common reaction to Rise of the Runelords is “I wasn’t expecting so many giants…” That’s because to some, D&D 1st edition module Against The Giants is the prototypical classic high fantasy adventure. To others, it’s too specific to be classic. A post mortem would point this out, and while the adventure couldn’t be rewritten with a greater variety of enemies (because, again, a post mortem is written after the fact, it’s not playtest feedback), the writer might be more explicit in incorporating their inspirations in the pitch or re-evaluate their assumptions about what is universally agreed upon.
Player goals are likewise established by the characters they’re playing. Specifically, how they describe their characters.
Here are two different examples of how a player might describe a barbarian they are playing:
Barbarian pitch 1:
“She swings her massive sword with the greatest of ease, carrying it around both as the deadliest weapon in town, a trophy from her encounter with a frost giant, and a warning to anyone who thinks about crossing her.”
Barbarian pitch 2:
“Her hands are made for killing, not signing treaties, and she’s more comfortable with a sword that’s taller than she is than she is remembering which fork is for her salad. She has no problem letting her friends do the talking, throwing in the odd grunt of support when they do.”
Both versions mention her strength and massive sword, but one is all about what she can do and how awesome she is, whereas the other contrasts her strengths and weaknesses. The player who pitched version 1 probably has no plan for what the barbarian will do in a diplomatic setting, and therefore might check out or look for the first opportunity for violence in roleplaying scenes.
Conversely, the player who pitched version 2 knows that their barbarian is not equipped for social scenes and is prepared -maybe even excited- to play up her weakness in these areas. They don’t want to be catered to. Put another way, if a player rolls up Aquaman, maybe they’re telling you they want a lot of underwater combat, maybe they’re saying they know they’re not going to be effective most of the time but they want to excel on the off chance water plays into the plot.
Early on in session zero, discuss everyone’s expectations. If a player does want to play Aquaman and you have no intention of running water combat, make that clear and work out the clashing expectations. Try to get this done before players flesh out their characters so they can do so armed with appropriate expectations.
Once expectations are established, translate them into goals that define what everyone believes they need to have fun. Remember, a good project manager knows to write things down and confer with a good editor.
Before you write your first post mortem, establish a reporting schedule. If you are running an adventure path, I recommend after the first act of the first volume, then after each volume. The reason for the first one is to evaluate how everyone’s concept played out. The difference between a character that’s played through volume 2 and volume 3 of an AP is not as big as the difference between a character that’s 100% in a player’s head and a character that’s seen a few encounters.
If your campaign isn’t an adventure path, approximate the AP structure. If your campaign’s structure doesn’t resemble an AP at all, you can use time instead of chapter breaks to schedule your post mortems, say after two sessions then every two months.
If someone finds the campaign suddenly off the mark, an emergency post mortem can be called. Establish the starting and ending points of the issue and report based on that timeframe.
For example, enthusiasm for our Hell’s Rebels game suddenly and totally dropped out near the end of book 3. Minor spoiler, book 3’s second act is made up entirely of a side quest buffet. From the session that we received the side quests to choose from, we called one out as outside of our skill set and that we’d rather deal with the consequences of failure than even attempt it. Once we’d completed the quests we felt comfortable attempting, we felt the campaign couldn’t continue until we attempted the quest we’d disqualified.
After four or five sessions of a checked out group dealing with greater resistance due to our lack of preparation (due to being checked out), we did have some entertaining encounters and accomplish the goal. And yet through it all, no one could care. Our GM eventually posted to our group’s Facebook group, effectively, “everyone OK?” which started a much-needed discussion about this otherwise engaged group suddenly wasn’t.
Writing a Post Mortem
A post mortem is best written formally, citing facts and dates as much as possible.
Some suggestions for best practice when writing your post mortem:
- Goals: Establish your goals early on;
- Assessment: Establish important facts, then determine if each worked towards or against your goals Start broad, then get specific;;
- Summary: Based on the above, write a paragraph summarizing your successes and failures, elaborating on the degrees of your successes and failures.
- Plan of Action: Based on your summary, reevaluate your goals and whether you should change course to better meet them or change your stated goals if they are not as in line with actual goals as you expected.
A post mortem is not to judge or air grievances. It is an opportunity to express concerns, evaluate their magnitude, and plot a course together. As GMs, we need to honestly evaluate any criticism and players need to trust us if we believe their concerns are a setup to accomplish our goals later on.