Ask anyone, or look anywhere, about how to get good at any particular skill and you'll see a lot of the same advice: self review. This is no different with being a GM. However good - or bad - you are as a GM right now, you can improve and self-review is a big part of that. Today I want to talk about how it works, and I'll be giving examples from my recent D&D game where I killed the party cleric.
What Is Self Review?
Self Review is looking over your own work, play, or performance in a given task and analyzing it for what you could improve on. In specific, you are looking for things you think you could do better on, or things you didn't get quite the feel you wanted out of, and things you thought worked out very well. It is crucial to identify both when doing self review. Focus too much on what you liked and you won't improve because you don't see your own flaws. Focus too much on what you could improve, and you'll be left thinking a successful session was a failure and start to doubt yourself.
You want to do this with every session when you can. If you skip some sessions it's not the end of the world. But you'll find you improve the most steadily when you are constantly self reviewing your own work.
I personally like to start with what I could improve on and end with what I liked. This way I'm ending on a positive. Your mileage may vary though, so do it how it works for you.
Things to Improve Upon
I want to be clear. When I say identify things you can improve, I don't necessarily mean it has to be something you did wrong. GMing is a delicate art, and we can't always get everything right. We won't always get the full feel we're going for in prep. We won't always hit all the points we wanted to hit. That's fine. Just find things you thought could've gone better, and try to identify how to make them go better.
For example, in my last D&D session we picked up with the PCs more or less hired by the local thieves guild to take out a rival, drow-led organization. The PCs had three targets and the session was entirely dedicated to how the PCs would approach this job. This meant the session played out primarily on the initiative table as the PCs went through two major fights.
Looking back on the session there are a couple things I felt I could improve upon:
First, one of the PCs asked the Thieves Guild for information. I gave some, but I feel the player was somewhat disappointed about what the Thieves did and didn't know. This was ultimately a failure on my part. While I made the scenario, I didn't put a lot of time into fleshing out the reasoning behind why, and I definitely didn't give enough time to thinking out how the little shadow war had been going, who did what and why, and what both groups knew about the others. These are all things that can take 'ok' scenarios and make them good or great, and it's just about putting in the work.
Second, with the session being so focused on combat there was very little room for narrative. In other systems I tend to pride myself on my ability to bring RP elements into combat, but in D&D enough is going on I have to think about that I can't. This is as much about comfort as effort. Simply put, I need to work on getting descriptions in during combat, and making my fight scenes happen in areas that are described more than just "you're on this arbitrary fighting area." This is again a matter of time and effort, but also in having the confidence to just go for it at the table.
Things You Liked
Identifying things you liked is just as important as identifying things to improve. Why? Because these are tools you want to bring with you to other sessions. Things you want to employ again, or keep in mind in the future as tricks, scenarios, or other things that worked and paid off well.
For example, in the last D&D game the second fight took place in a warehouse. I got a bit ahead of myself in describing it and said that this warehouse - with a 20-25' high ceiling - had stacks of crates that went about 15-20 feet high. I even added it might make the PCs wonder how the warehouse worked barring the use of magic to move boxes around.
However, when it came time for the fight I had the inspiration to use tactics and split the enemies up. The enemies already had potions of invisibility, but their description in the Monster Manual gave them all heavy crossbows. I put them on top of the crates, giving them cover and vantages to fire from. It coupled well with the PCs' target - a drow mage - to use spells to trigger an ambush. When the PCs hit the center of the warehouse, the trap was triggered. Some luck kept the PC ranger occupied with Evard's Black Tentacles, and the firing positions let the guards drop the group cleric before ultimately killing him - revenge for the PCs killing the Drow priestess earlier that evening.
I like this fight for two reasons.
First and foremost, using tactics - even rudimentary ones by positioning the NPCs for a trap and ambush - made the combat a lot better than your normal bland line up and hack each other up. I liked the feel of it, I liked the setup, and I like that it made the encounter feel harder and better without necessarily upping the raw numerical threat.
Second, I like that I killed the cleric. Attacking a PC that is unconscious and dying already feels like a dick move but it was right for the scenario in a number of ways. It was clear the bad guys were targeting the cleric. The cleric passed up multiple chances to take cover. The PCs passed up multiple chances to provide cover to the cleric or otherwise deal with the threats shooting at the cleric instead of being engaged with others. I also feel it's good for the PCs - IC and OOC - to know that that threat is there.
Besides, they have enough gold to pay for a raise dead. So it's not like he's really gone. Right?