A gm who actively listens to the players, keys in on what gets them excited, and tries to work that exciting subject matter into the game will consistently run enjoyable games.
That sounds so simple. Right?
I think Apocalypse world / dungeon world tries to codify this by making the system force active listening.
The GM ask questions like,
"You are going to attack the orc? OK in what way? Tell me exactly how you attack the orc."
The player's answer might change what "move" the Gm is going to assign to the action and in turn what effect the dice can have on the story.
That it makes you slow down and listen is one of the things I like about dungeon world.
With that in mind, if I were to work on a fantasy style game, I'm not sure I would integrate the need to actively listen to the players in quite the same way. Dungeon World enforces this idea action to action, move to move. Some times the interpretation whether correctly or mistakenly of how a move resolves can lead to the Plans of the GM getting buggered up. There are times when I want my bad guys to act very specifically and having the game mechanics interfere with that can be troublesome.
So what are some other ways to make character interests part of the game with out straying to far into the Gm's lawn?
A while back I posted this (Rewards: There Can Be Only One) Which lays the direction I wanted to go while working on "Shards OF Thimbral.*" To save time the point was the only true reward players get in RPG's is the ability to shape the story. I still think this is true. I also think that giving the players narrative control when they are successful serves as a gm tool.
The Gm gains the opportunity to listen to what the player is doing with their character. When a player rolls a success and he or she always has their character use some witty trick to get out of danger, the gm can use that knowledge to set up the next encounter. If a character always likes to parley with NPC's give that player some NPC's worth talking to. At least give the players the opportunity to find useful opportunities to do what they enjoy. As a Gm every time the players say what the characters are doing it's an opportunity to tweak the content of the game . The GM does not get told what do do in the scene, but she gains more information to use as the game flows along.
Front loading the information:
In my designs I am a big fan of front loading. In other words making what the characters want a part of character generation. I love the idea of character goals. In our home brew game Phase Abandon, every character had goals, and were rewarded by in game actions with points that could be spent to fulfill those goals. Fulfilling a goal was paramount to going up a level.
As a gm the nice thing about this kind of system is that what the player wants out of the game is right there in front of your nose. If a characters goal is "Find the Five fingered man who killed my father!" The gm should relish the opportunity to leave a stray five fingered glove at the scene of a recent battle, or dropping rumors about the five fingered man whenever it's appropriate. The Gm can ride this right until the goal is fulfilled and the location of the five fingered man is revealed.**
Player goals as fixtures in character generation pretty much give adventure hooks to the GM on a silver platter.
Make Backgrounds matter:
5th edition D&D took a step in this direction with back grounds that give new characters some direction about how to player their characters, their motivations and starting equipment. I think the "special feature" that each background gets is also very helpful in fleshing out a new character.
Why not treat the sections of a back ground like attributes, give backgrounds some mechanical ummph?
Sticking whit 5th ed as an example
Can we give the character's trait, Ideal, bond, and Ideal each a number between 1 and 20 just like strength or Charisma? When the background comes up in play let the character use the bonus (or take the penalty) as if the background traits were an applicable skill.
Within my Archaeologist background ***, one of the Ideals is "Curiosity" if that was a curiosity of 15 with a +3 modifier the character could use that +3 on skill rolls while he or she was satiating their curiosity exploring some musty old ruin.
This would have a trickle down effect. Mostly players will gravitate toward the things their characters do well. The fighter wont check for traps because the fighter is much better at bashing things that need bashing, and stinks at finding traps. This is good turn by turn it keeps wizards casting fighters bashing. Once the back ground of characters starts getting some mechanical weight it gets more interesting, because now the curious archaeologist priest is going to more willing and even more likely to explore, because the player knows they are getting that +3 bonus. Now this is just an example could easily give the player die advantage or disadvantage whenever a background trait comes into play. Regardless of how it's done recognizing the background mechanically will have good effects.
How would having an attribute score penalty tied to a background help in anyway though?
Using the above example lets say that character has a 7 for the "Curiosity Ideal" the player has chosen to play a profoundly non curious archaeologist? Yes, this is a player background decision, and a choice about the character. This young priest would rather be in the library codifying ancient texts then in a cave discovering them. When the character is forced out of his comfort zone he takes a penalty to the related skill rolls.
Either way it trickles down to the GM, in that gm gets information about how the player sees their character and can adjust the game accordingly..
Leaving 5th ed behind now.
Take a player aside after a game or during a break and ask, "where do you see this charter going?" As a Gm if a player answers, "I don't care," or "Does it matter?" It represents a failure on my part to engage that player properly. I have to go back to the drawing board. I recognize different players want different levels of investments with their craters, and that's alright as long as the player and the Gm can establish it right away. If a Gm knows a player is normalcy one of those people who really engages with their characters and they don't seem to be it's time to talk about it.
When a player comes with something like, "We have been in this dungeon a while and my Druid is mostly useless and miserable here, he needs to get back to the grove."
It may be time to think about arranging a scenario where that druid can shine in the near future.
If a player tells you, "I want my character to put down roots in this town. I think it woudl be a good place to build a keep and a grain mill."
As A Gm this is golden, it give you the chance to flesh out a pat of your campaign world to a highly detailed level with the help of the player who wants to put down roots. Once a character is living somewhere, it opens up a whole slew of interesting political and adventuring scenarios for everyone to play out.
- Listen to players and use what they give to shape events in your game,
- Give backgrounds in whatever form they show up in your game some mechanical value, that that the players play to them.
- Find out where and what your players see their characters doing in the future and use that information to detail your campaign world.
The players and the Gm working with the system to create more satisfying games for every one, many hands make quick work.
Thank you for reading,
Comments section held in a raw energy stasis field below.
*(A game that was in fact the point of starting this blog and which sadly died on the vine. It happens.)
** in phase abandon one the goal of "find the 5 fingered man" was fulfilled it woudl change to "Kill the five fingered man." or what ever the player wanted.
*** The post that made me want to put "5th ed" in every post title from then on , as it got about 4 times my normal number of hits.