Telling Stories: The post-mortem examination

Yes, I know, it's a horrible logo. I'm not always good at those.

When everything is said and done, that’s when you can take it all apart.

I recently wrapped up some pretty big roleplaying in Final Fantasy XIV.  Well, “recently” more in the sense of “within the past month,” but that’s not the point.  It was a big storyline with lots of moving parts, the near-death of the main character I’ve been playing for the past four years, and a lot of long-standing character threads finally getting resolved.  Not that there aren’t still boatloads of story threads to be picked up, of course, and so as soon as it was over I started running a post-mortem on it.

So why do that instead of get started on the continuation of the story?  Because a post-mortem, written or not, is a great way of examining how the whole event went down, even if it’s just from your perspective.  The most effective tool in your arsenal when running events is the ability to look at what happened, see what did and did not work, and subsequently understand what could be done to make the next event run that much better.

By which I mean of course it is and I make no apologies.

Subject everything to careful critical analysis. My lifestyle may be showing.

Post-mortem analysis, if you’ve never run across the term before, is something that comes up most frequently in the business world.  (Or forensics, but that’s an entirely different sort of discussion.)  The idea there is to look over the procedures you used in your most recent project, taking a look at what worked and what didn’t in order to make the next project work that much better.  Did your team have communication problems?  Great, you can analyze what those problems were and how you can fix them next time around.  It’s essentially a self-diagnostic tool, and it’s useful for a variety of things, including roleplaying.

Obviously, you’ll have slightly different priorities with a roleplaying post-mortem, but the essence remains the same.  How did this work out once you took it out out of the realm of theory and into practice?  You don’t need to actually write it out, but it’s useful to think of it as a written tool, even if you don’t have the actual written document to look back at.

Start off with an abstract of the main plot and the ultimate goal of the storyline, along with the timespan and the major players involved.  Every character who managed to be in the “major players” list should have at least one significant effect upon the story as a whole, likely more; if not, they probably shouldn’t be listed as a major player.  This is a good thing to note as problematic if you had intended this character to have a significant role; either the player wasn’t into it or the structure didn’t support the character.

Once you have the overall structure laid out, go back through and try to piece together the actual events that took place as best you can.  You’re not going for absolute accuracy here so much as a general sweep, so worry more about relative times than absolute ones, like if there was a long gap between significant events or a series of sessions that all covered the same basic material.  Here, the goal is to identify where pacing issues may have developer or where the story might have felt lopsided, such as stories with totally different groups of characters at the beginning and the end due to varying skillsets.

With the whole thing down on paper (or loosely present in your mind), you can start examining how everything worked together.  It’s possible to have a series of events wherein each individual one is fun, but the whole process doesn’t feel terribly satisfying.  Ask yourself these questions:

  • Did the major characters involved have reasons for their continued involvement in the story?  Did the story have a significant effect upon them by its conclusion?
  • How much control did everyone have over the course of events?  Was the conclusion set in stone or flexible?  Did the majority of plot-advancing decisions or actions come from one character?
  • Was scheduling reliable?  Did players keep information in mind, or were the sessions spread out too far?  Were there notable gaps or clusters of activity in the overall thrust of events?
  • Are the players involved happy to talk about the event?  Did people enjoy themselves, if not necessarily for the subject matter (for darker or more depressing stories) than for the amount of involvement?
Yes, that's still a useful evaluation.

“What went wrong? Well, damn near everything.”

Remember, the goal here is critique rather than criticism.  If the plot was set in stone but everyone enjoyed the event and it had a major impact, hey, that’s worth noting.  Either no one in this particular group cares about being railroaded, or you built a plot that was heading in exactly the direction this group of characters would usually go.  It doesn’t mean you can’t improve for next time, but it’s worth observing for later.

The process also can highlight strengths.  Case in point: the roleplaying event that I had run in FFXIV had a very solid core group of characters who had a direct effect on the final result, including the characters I had planned to have at the center.  The biggest problem was scheduling, which partly was an issue simply because the whole event was meant from the beginning to have the feel of sudden and unexpected events, the sort of thing that blindsides you on an otherwise normal Tuesday.  It worked perfectly at first, but it meant that the conclusion was a bit more jumbled and further spaced from the rest of the event than I would have liked.

So I learned.  Next time around, I need to create a firmer schedule once things get moving, even if it removes some of the spontaneity from the proceedings.  Really, the big advantage to doing a post-mortem evaluation is just that – learning lessons from this event so that the next one is better.  There are always going to be flaws, there are always going to be things that don’t work as well, but there’s also space for you to make something even better for others to enjoy.

That’s why the last step is a matter of taking all of the information as an aggregate and seeing what conclusions can reasonably be drawn.  If players aren’t happy and the conclusion was set in stone, it’s pretty easy to see where things went wrong.  If players are happy, though, you can look at what you considered faults in more detail, places where the flow or pacing was off.  Figure out what you want to do differently next time, seal it up, and file it away.

It seems like a little thing, but like any hobby, you only get better with practice if you’re able to see what you did wrong.  So give yourself that feedback.

Next time around, I want to talk about repeats in stories and in play and how you can avoid these grim apparitions.  The week after that, let’s talk about stepping into someone else’s characters story respectfully.

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About expostninja

I've been playing video games and MMOs for years, I read a great deal of design articles, and I work for a news site. This, of course, means that I want to spend more time talking about them. I am not a ninja.

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