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Hot Button: Do You Want Criticism or Affirmation?

Phil’s article [1]made me think about my own GM evaluations over the years. While I’ve always been pretty good at self-criticism, it took me quite a while to realize that, when canvassing players, I was usually looking for affirmation, not criticism.

Let’s face it; as a GM you put in a lot more time and effort than the average player. You’re responsible for bringing an adventure to the table (in many cases also providing that table) and running it for several hours. This can mean quite a lot of prep time plotting, statting, and reviewing adventure elements. It also means dealing with rules disputes, difficult players, and extensive plot rewrites.

In such a situation, it can be quite difficult to hear bad criticism from people that don’t put nearly enough work into the game as you do (the tone is intentional). How dare they say bad things now, after sitting through your campaign for weeks, even months, without complaining? Could they do better? Do they even have the right to criticize you if they’ve never taken the GM chair themselves?

Unfortunately, GMs looking for affirmation unintentionally end up punishing themselves or their players for honest criticisms. She might be crushed and end the campaign prematurely or, worse, make things difficult for the player that honestly criticized her. In the end, though, such a GM usually gets what she’s looking for, as her players will never be honest about how the game runs again.

So today’s hot button is this: Look deep within yourself. When you ask for criticism, are you really asking for affirmation? How have you handled bad criticism of your GMing in the past? And what do you do when your GM asks you for criticism?

19 Comments (Open | Close)

19 Comments To "Hot Button: Do You Want Criticism or Affirmation?"

#1 Comment By Yax – Gamer Lifestyle On March 22, 2010 @ 7:36 am

I’ll take criticism every time from my regular gaming group – it’s easier to take criticism from longtime friends.

#2 Comment By jonboywalton On March 22, 2010 @ 7:36 am

I have to confess when I ask for criticism I’m also looking for the love. When I’m playing in someone else’s game, it’s like a holiday – nearly all the fun, not nearly as much work, so I always find something positive to say at the end of the session, and make a point of thanking the GM for the game.

In the last year I’ve spent about two-thirds of the sessions as a player and one third as GM. When I’m GMing I put a lot of work into it, a lot of colour (e.g. making up cheat-sheets in Excel for new systems, developing accents and tag-phrases for recurring NPCs, setting up spotlight events for each PC). The other guys in my group put in at least as much effort into their games. That warrants some affirmation, whoever’s in the chair.

Sometimes things don’t come off as well as they could; the PCs go off on a tangent that takes them off the story path, or the GM (read “me”) hasn’t prepped for an unforseen run-in with a bunch of mooks. These are issues that come up when you have more than one person involved in telling the story (i.e. “role-playing”), and can happen to anyone. My group usually takes this kind of thing in their stride.

The other kind of problem is more serious: someone brings their own personal cloud of grief to the table, which brings down the whole tone of the session down, one player is always hogging the spotlight or is always “shooting first and not bothering to ask questions later” when confronted with carrier-pigeon NPCs, or (another example from my own Tome of Disasters) the GM isn’t 100% across the conflict resolution rules of a new system, and the game gets bogged down (players start to lose interest, the story stalls, and there is great wailing and gnashing of teeth).

As a rule, we talk openly about these problems via email between sessions. Often we’ll leave it for a day or two before starting the conversation. This means that nobody is talking out of their immediate frustration – we’ve all had at least a night or two to sleep on it; instead we acknowledge the problem and discuss how best to resolve it in a mutually respectful manner in a neutral space. And at the end of it, we’re still thanking whoever is running the game for going to the effort.

If it’s meant to be helpful of constructive I can handle the criticism – heck, I go asking for it – but it’s the affirmation, which can be as simple as someone saying how much they enjoyed the session, that brings me back to the chair with a new adventure or a new set of rules to try out.

#3 Comment By callin On March 22, 2010 @ 8:38 am

Affirmation, but then I make sure I don’t ask for opinions. Not only do I set myself up for disappointment (any critism will be blown out of proportion), but I would put the players into a hard position. How do they answer without hurting their friend?
I am content with attempting to read them during the game (I know my players enough to know when they are involved or bored) and fooling myself into thinking they enjoyed it.
I GM to provide a fun and engaging evening’s entertainment. If I fail in that, I get disappointed with myself.

Of course, my wife also GMs a game I play in and she always asks me “how did it go?” after. How to answer? I tend to upplay the positives and downplay the negatives, without ignoring either.

My Blog-http://bigballofnofun.blogspot.com/

#4 Comment By pseudodragon On March 22, 2010 @ 8:52 am

I look for both affirmation and criticism. Any feedback is useful. The worst thing happens when players walk away stone-faced and mumbling amongst themselves. Fortunately, my group is not shy about dishing out positive or negative strokes, so I generally don’t have to prod them too much.

#5 Comment By Razjah On March 22, 2010 @ 10:30 am

I look for criticism .Not being a jerk, just criticism. Preferably of the constructed variety. For example, if my NPCs are being lame I want my players to tell me that my NPCs are getting to be repetitive and that I could try to bring more life to them.

Criticism on its own is not enough. Being told that you have lame NPCs is bad. Being told your NPCs are lame and here’s why and here’s what I think would be better; that’s good.

I do look for affirmation that what I think is my strong or weak points and what my players think is a strong point or weak point are the same. I want to be on the same page as my group.

#6 Comment By Scott Martin On March 22, 2010 @ 11:54 am

Criticism is tricky; often I want to hear how to improve, but it’s not every night that I’m willing to look so deep.

Some nights I’m looking for affirmation; I put in effort– did it pay off? Do we want to continue this game, or is it as flat as I’m reading from my side of the screen. On nights like those, if the game is to continue, the players have to feed back some enthusiasm, or I’ll burn out.

The best way to differentiate, I suppose, is how I ask. If it’s, “Did you enjoy tonight?” or “Was that a cool fight scene?” then I’m probably looking for affirmation. If I get more detailed and hand out a [1], it’s a more concerted effort to improve: honest criticism is sought.

Do you think that would come across without further explanation– vague questions like “how was it?” are seeking affirmation or broad strokes like “it was fun!” while specific questions seek specific responses to help me improve? Or is that something that you need to layout in advance, or carefully watch in your question phrasings?

#7 Comment By Walt Ciechanowski On March 22, 2010 @ 3:01 pm

@Scott- I think specific questions are generally an acknowledgement that things aren’t going as well as you’d like and you want constructive feedback.

You can also ask a question so that you’re asking for suggestions rather than criticism. “Wow, that fight was bland. What can I do to punch it up for you guys?” is not asking for criticism, as you’ve already told them that you didn’t think it went well.

#8 Comment By alisonrobin On March 23, 2010 @ 12:43 am

I’m okay with criticism as long as it’s delivered constructively and or good-naturedly. I’m lucky in that I have a set of players who are very kind. Compliments are always a plus.
I make sure my players tell me what they like so I can add more of it to the game, and I also tell them to let me know what they dislike so I can remove it. They’re mostly new to RPGs, and they’re still getting to know what they like and what they don’t like.

#9 Comment By BryanB On March 23, 2010 @ 9:22 am

I’m a big fan of constructive criticism. I like to get feedback from players. It helps me improve as a GM.

I’m not sure that I’d go as far as Phil’s article does with a rating system and an evaluation process and that kind of detail. I am aware of my strengths and weaknesses as a GM for the most part and I’m probably my own worst critic.

The bottom line for me is very simple. Are people enjoying my games? Beyond that, to my players I would say: What can I do better? To other GM’s I might say: How would YOU have handled that situation if you were running this? To all participants: Is there anything else that you want to discuss about how the game is going? I like keeping it more informal and something to discuss between game sessions (or right after a session).

#10 Comment By Walt Ciechanowski On March 23, 2010 @ 10:56 am

@BryanB – It sounds like you’re primarily looking for affirmation (which is in no way a bad thing. I think most GMs would rather have affirmation than criticism, or at least have affirmation mixed in with the criticism).

#11 Comment By BryanB On March 23, 2010 @ 11:48 am


I’m not sure we have same take on this. If I’m doing something that isn’t fun for the players, I want to know about it. If I’m doing something that another GM would have done far differently, I really want to know. In this case, I am seeking crticism that is constructive in helping me be a better GM.

To me, affirmation is hearing only positive commentary about one’s games. While we all like to hear the positive, we also need to hear the negative as well. Otherwise we will never improve our approaches to things.

#12 Comment By Lee Hanna On March 23, 2010 @ 1:57 pm

Immediately after a game, I want affirmation. So often, I have felt an adrenaline rush at the joy, or sometimes a letdown of some kind. I don’t need anyone to rain on my parade right then.

Afterwards, maybe a day or so, I would accept criticism, but not when I’m coming down off the high.

#13 Comment By Swordgleam On March 24, 2010 @ 7:53 am

Criticism comes out enough during the game. Players looking bored, building dice towers, etc. PCs acting oddly because their players are bored or because they can’t follow what’s going on. The game getting off-track. PCs making bad decisions based on bad player information, or spending a long time deciding what to do because the plot isn’t moving enough. Etc.

It’s pretty easy to tell where you screwed up in a session. Affirmation is something that doesn’t really come through. When the players are having a blast, you’re usually too busy juggling all the things required to make that happen to really notice. And sometimes small things don’t get remarked upon, even if the players appreciate them.

So yeah, I’d say I’m going for affirmation. I have a long enough list of self-diagnosed flaws to fix. If the players dislike something, but not enough for it to be obvious and not enough for them to come to me about it, it’s a lower priority anyway.

#14 Comment By Walt Ciechanowski On March 24, 2010 @ 7:57 am

@BryanB – No worries. I understand what you mean. 🙂

In your initial comment, you said that you were a big fan of constructive criticism. You followed that up with your bottom line being a question that most GMs ask when looking for affirmation (the broad sort of question that Scott was talking about).

Obviously, the rest of your comments makes it clear that you’re really looking for constructive criticism; I was just pointing out that “are [players] enjoying my game” sounds affirmation-y.

#15 Comment By BryanB On March 24, 2010 @ 9:17 am

[3] – Fair enough. I can see that now from how I wrote it. Ultimately, however, player enjoyment is my number one concern.

One thing I didn’t think about writing… When I’m a player and something is really bugging me, I find it constructive compliment the GM on some things I like about the game and then say something about what is bugging me. Two teaspoons of sugar with one teaspoon of vinegar, or something like that. 😀

#16 Comment By Omnus On March 24, 2010 @ 9:35 am

My affirmation usually comes in the depth I see in the involvement the players have with the game. I rarely get a lot of constructive criticism. I also don’t get a lot of pats on the back, but count my rewards in time spent with my friends, and the enjoyment they seem to get from my game. I have tried giving my players a score card of sorts once, and I didn’t get a whole lot of useful information from it, so I haven’t done it since.

I do pay attention to concerns they have, however. If they feel too railroaded, for instance, then I let off the throttle of the plot train a little to give them the illusion of space. They’re good players who buy into my story-lines with little prompting (and why shouldn’t they, when I custom-tailor them to fit each player directly?), so we get back on track in short order. If they feel disconnected from the scenario of the campaign world, I slow down and feed them more detail, or ring in an event to tie them into that world and that time. Perhaps it’s dragon-spawning time, or the Festival of St. Quirtz, celebrated by throwing pies at strangers.

I suppose I feel a lack of affirmation when my players have bad attendance. If I see them belly up to my table promptly, week in and week out, it lets me know that they are eager to spend that evening playing my game. There’s no gold watch at the end of the campaign, but the memories and the effort that they put into my game alongside of me makes it all worthwhile.

#17 Comment By Bluedress On March 24, 2010 @ 1:43 pm

I’m a very inexperienced DM trying to work through a lot of social anxiety, but when I ask for feedback I want the criticism alongside the affirmation. I love when I hear that I designed an interesting encounter, but I know I need to hear about the lack of RPing too. I don’t want to fall into bad habits.

Besides, I’ve often wanted to tell DMs of mine that their decisions are making the game un-fun for the players, but couldn’t because they consider such actions an attack against them. I would hate it if my players were faking interest to avoid a socially uncomfortable situation, and were really very bored and unhappy.

#18 Comment By Roxysteve On April 22, 2010 @ 2:37 pm

Affirmation, if I’m being honest, though if the entire cast complain of a specific problem with a game, scenario or scene I try and figure out what went wrong and why so it doesn’t come up again.

That said, after a week (typically) of creating leads and clues for my BRP Trad Call of Cthulhu game, burning myself on the toaster “aging” documents and generally going half mad trying to make sure everything that should point to the central mystery does so unambiguously enough that the players will define the mystery yet ambiguously enough to provide a challenge and a frisson of menace, the last thing I’m in the mood for is whining players who didn’t get enough die-rolled combat with NPCs to suit their D&D-honed tastes. 8o)

Yes this has come up, and though I explained (gently) that they were holding unrealistic expectations for the game not held by the majority of the other players and that I was willing to run a different style of game for them, just not in this campaign’s context, still it came up again and again.

The player saw things as a systemic problem with the game or the way it was being run, but in fact it was a problem with the player not being a good match for the game. I’ve sat the other side of the screen an been the bad fit myself, so I empathized to some extent, but the answer was never going to be “I’ll pulpify this campaign for your benefit”.

In almost every case, if a GM has asked me whether I’m having a good time, affirmation has been the underlying motive for asking too. Criticism is valuable, but I think probably bears more fruit in a sandbox game than a tightly plot-focused one.

#19 Comment By Wesley Street On June 23, 2010 @ 9:45 am

Love is nice but criticism is what I need. If players come to a game and actually come back to play more, it’s an affirmation that I’m doing a good job. I only learn through critical analysis and, honestly, I’m harder on myself than anyone.

The only caveat I would hang on external criticism is that it be constructive and that it not start with “well, this is how I would do it…”.