The other day, I was thinking back to the last ongoing campaign I ran, a story-heavy Mage: The Awakening game, and something occurred to me: Among the mistakes I made in that campaign there remained at least one that I’d never given due consideration.

Lessons Learned

As a GM, I tend to take a hands-off approach when my players seem to be having fun. If they’re not doing what I had planned, but are enjoying what they are doing, I’m a happy camper. The tricky thing is that this isn’t always the right approach.

For example, this Mage game featured a lot of intra-party conflict, including a few memorable instances that resulted in some of the most intense, emotional roleplaying I’ve seen.

That was awesome, but also concealed a problem that didn’t start becoming clear to me until towards the end of the game — at which point I felt, and I speculate that at least some of my players felt, that we were locked into the style of game that had emerged and needed to see it through to the bitter end.

I took some steps to dial back the intra-party conflict towards the end of the campaign, but probably did too little, too late. The problem, in hindsight, was that I should have violated one of my cardinal GMing guidelines — hands-off if my players seem to be having fun — and taken the reins to steer us away from playing out so much intra-party conflict and towards a more relaxing, purely fun style of game.

Knowing when to put a stop to something your players seem to be having fun with in favor of the larger goal of a fun campaign can be really tricky, and it’s something I’ve never gotten a great handle on.

Session Post-Mortems

For me, at least, the trickiest part is that there’s no sure-fire trick for spotting these kinds of problems. The best solution I can think of is to place a bit more emphasis on my own session post-mortems, where I look back over my session notes and think about how things went, what turned out well/poorly, and what I could do better next session.

Apart from taking notes and doing some post-session ruminating, I’ve never given the details of a good post-mortem that much thought before, and I suspect I’m not the only GM out there who could benefit from some structure and a fresh set of eyes on this topic.

What’s the Best Approach?

So how about it: If you do a private post-mortem after your sessions, what’s your approach? Have you learned any tricks to make this time as productive as possible?

And if you think my conclusion — that a more thorough post-mortem is the best way to spot these time-to-take-the-reins opportunities — is dead wrong, what would you try instead?