Assessing Group Performance

Perception shapes reality, but sadly individual perception shapes only an individual’s reality to any great degree. I say sadly, not because I long for the chaos such a totally mutable world would bring with it, but because many of us remain trapped in glass rooms for 1 in the Hotel of the Real, thinking that our perception is the truth, while those looking in have a completely different understanding. For good or ill this happens on a large and small-scale in most aspects of our lives, all day, every day. I suppose it is this disconnect in perception which makes the world interesting enough to heed.

Get to the point!

In gaming, the effect of this disconnect is magnified as the process by which games are implemented by a group tends to have one central source of what is real, and a limited range of modes through which to communicate that data. Generally, just one mode is used: speech. From time to time we branch out to using images, referencing shared memories of films, fiction, music, or life experience for comparison, employing minatures, allowing shared authorship of a scene, or immersing very deeply in a scene via LARP or other full-body interaction. Most of us, however, tend to experience a game through speaking as the primary method of conveying the reality of the game world and the results of player action within it.

The opportunities for ‘signal loss’ in such a situation are quite high, particularly among players new to each other, new to a setting, and/or new to a genre. It takes time to learn your fellows’ shorthand terms for the building blocks of your shared fantasy.

Quite honestly, this can be a huge part of the fun for some gamers, myself included. I have seen it turn people off, however, as the disconnect between what they thought was going on or was important in a scene, was not what the GM and/or the other players thought. Sometimes a single person is on the outside of the shared vision, sometimes one or two, sometimes it is the entire group versus the GM. Communication is something we all take for granted, but it is not something we automatically do well. Like any other skill, it requires practice, and in this particular case, it requires cooperative learning within the group.

Homework?

For many, the idea of preparing for a session is that the GM needs to prepare and the players just need to remember what happened in the last session. While that is a good recipe for general success, I think more is required. I think we do this naturally and subconsciously as younger gamers and unless we make it a conscious habit it will vanish as we age. The lack of time, the lack of time spent together, and the increasing discernment granted by our growing experience conspire to rob us of a skill critical for the refinement and improvement of our gaming experience: we stop talking about it.

As young gamers we have tons of time to discuss the game outside of the game. This is the foundation of a critical review process which if developed can help each member of the group become a better player on either side of the screen. As we age and life gives us a greater appreciation of washing the dishes, mowing the lawn, and taking out the trash, time for this detailed rehashing of the game’s events evaporates and with it the review which highlights to each person how the game was perceived by the others, how their character is perceived by the others, how their actions were perceived by the others… in short: what really happened versus what they think happened.

Perception defines Reality

I have said before that a game is what the players think it is, not the GM. At the end of the day, the burden of creating the unifying threads for the group’s shared reality is laid before the GM. I think a lot of GMs spend a lot of time considering how the game is going as they prepare for the next session, or plot out the potential arcs contained within a campaign pitch. I think players do this too as they review and recall the events of the campaign. It is important to do this, but it has a negative effect if that is the only sort of review which is being done: it reinforces the individual’s sense of the reality of the scene, not the aggregate reality that their interaction is creating. Frustration in a game does not really arise from what we think is happening, but from how our actions fail to have the effect that we think they should.

We say, “Talk to each other,” when people ask how to fix a group that is losing its cohesion, or is beset by some social problem, but this valuable repair tool is equally valuable when things seem to be going well. Who wants to run a game that is just okay? Don’t we all want to run games that do more than just satisfy?

If it ain’t broke, upgrade it

The review process I am recommending is not time-consuming, nor is it intended to turn into a venting session about all the things people do not like about a game; quite the opposite. The process I recommend is to take a few minutes at the end of each game to relate and discuss the events of the game from their character’s point of view, and to repeat that process at the start of the next.

This can be led by any member of the group, and its purpose is to establish what the group thinks is going on. That is it. In order to be most effective, each member of the group should contribute their thoughts to the recap and each member of the group should be encouraged to speak their minds about what they see are inconsistencies or incongruities in how they remember certain actions or implication of events. This short discussion establishes a baseline for reality out in the open with a focus on what happened during the session, and what people think those events meant.

It is important to note that even the GM can participate in this, simply relating their memory of the events of the game, what they think the characters were trying to do with their actions, and what they think the group will intend to do next time. With a little practice this process from the GM’s side of the screen can be taken not as, “This is the truth!” but as “This is what I saw happening.” Each player needs to share what they experienced in play and what it meant to them. The GM is a player, too.

This advice does not sound new. We hear it often. The distinction is that I believe it is usually offered as advice for making the story better. “Listen to the players and steal their good ideas! Tweak the tale so that we can magnify the awesome!”

I see this procedure as going beyond enabling the GM to narrate a story with players supplying dialogue and die rolls which may or may not actually contribute to the tale that gets told. As those who read this blog know, I support the idea of discovering the tale in play. No tale-telling here! I see this review process as enabling the group to improve as a group. It allows each member from the GM to the newest player to see what effect their descriptions and reactions have on the emergent story and the characters operating within it. It allows the group to align their individual perceptions into one shared perception of the shared reality they are fostering together.

In the end, it is possible for us all to get along~

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Comments
9 Responses to “Assessing Group Performance”
  1. BF Wolfe says:

    You should take less time getting to the point. Your ramblings are often just as much fun as the point you are making. hmm, sometimes I think they are the point you are making. You know? I think I would suggest skipping on the post game review. The pre-session review after things have settled for a bit is a great idea without question. But I am reminded of an old study on memory and the ways it can be influenced. participants were shown a video of an accident. one group was asked ‘how fast do you think car a was going when it smashed into car b’. The second group was asked ‘how fast do you think car a was going when it hit car b’. Of course the first group estimated faster. But when both groups were brought back a few days later and asked about the scene, people from first group also claimed remembering broken glass at the scene even though there was none.
    You are absolutely right in how individual our memories are. what we remember from any described situation is influenced by our mindset and background. But I think a discussion immediately after the events could lead to a consensus on memory at the expense of the diversity of the group. Whoever speaks first will set the theme of recall and the exchange will decide what is remembered from the story. I think I would prefer to let those memories settle in different ways, so that when it is shared, the tapestry is richer, and it becomes an interpretation that is shared rather than the memory.

    • Runeslinger says:

      I am glad you brought that up as there wasn’t a tidy way to fit it in the flow of what I wanted to say. You will note, I emphasize getting everyone to speak, and keeping the review focused on what the events were.

      Likewise, discussion needs to be focused on clarifying where the motives perceived by some of the players clash with the intent of the others. For example, I might say that Thimble the Mighty started a fight in the tavern because he was bored. Another player might then interject and say that Thimble did it so that his attempts to woo Thimble’s favorite wench would fail. Thimble’s player might reveal that he had actually seen his version of the ‘one-armed man’ but in the heat of battle he the player had forgotten to mention it.

      Talking about events (just events) afterward can increase the retention of these details. Coupled with the review before the next session (where the GM can correct erroneous memory of events, and capitalize on juicy tidbits of motivation the previous exchange revealed) helps keep players grounded in the same world. The repetition also helps those with memory challenges keep better track of in-game events.

      Memories are going to fade and alter regardless. The suggestion is more about helping players bring their individual thoughts to the consensual reality than it is about preserving accuracy of events and all the little details. It’s about gaining insight into how each person is seeing the flow of events, and what we can do as players to improve the signal strength so that each person gets more of what we mean.

      Know what I mean? I love a rich tapestry as much as or more than the next guy, but I like to have a stable wall resting on a solid foundation to support hanging it.

  2. I get a huge kick out of my players writing up the game events after the fact. The best ones are done in character as they put a bias on the subject matter that is obvious to everyone reading it, and allows for discussion when we start the game the following session. If two people remember the same event differently, or put their own spin on it to deliberately whitewash over something they felt was either not important or detrimental to their characters, it adds to the characterization, not just for that player, but maybe shaping other character’s relationship with them.

    As for when to ‘talk’ about the game? i’m lucky enough to game with people whom I consider my closest friends, so we talk about the games a lot anyway, but I do prefer the pre-game catch up. I know it can be biased as the strong personality can set the tone, but it does seem to encourage – in my groups at least – others to speak up and take some limelight if the alpha-gamer isn’t describing events in a way that does other characters justice.

  3. BF Wolfe says:

    I really like the idea of writing it in character as a journal. I’ll have to try this next game I am in :)

  4. anarkeith says:

    My players show very little enthusiasm for journaling. A brief recap at start and end of sessions might be perfect. At the very least, I’ll send them all links to this post so they’ll consider the value of the recap.

    I often write up a brief session recap. It focuses on the overall narrative rather than individual exploits. I suspect this is why it gets very little attention from my players. Building my writeup from a recap such as you suggest might garner more player interest.

    Great post!

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