August 23, 2011

Listen To Your Players When They Aren’t Talking

Here is my scale of DM ability when it comes to listening to their players:

-Horrible: Ignore the fact your players are not having fun after they tell you so, “because the DM knows best”.
-Good: Listen when the players request something.
-Great: Open avenues to make it easier for the players to talk to you.
-Awesome: Listen to your players when they aren’t talking.

It is that last one I will be talking about in this article. It is easy to listen to your players when they let you know what their desires, likes and dislikes are. How a DM reacts to those times of open expression is the mark of a good DM. However, players can also communicate those same desires, likes and dislikes without ever speaking about them in an open manner (and I am not talking about a passive-aggressive thing). Often, the choices a character makes is a reflection of their desires as a player.

At first glance this appears to be a no-brainer statement, but looked at a bit more deeply it shows that often the players are letting a DM know their desires without ever expressing them and often without even realizing they are even making a statement. And a good DM will pick up on these desires.

As an example from one of my current campaigns; I designed a race of apemen to be the equivalent of orcs, i.e. fodder for combat. I didn’t even allow the characters to speak their language, purposely created a language barrier. I then also I designed the race as one that values strength and physical confrontation as their way of interaction. I set them up as antagonists. However, every time the players have encountered these apemen they have decided to try negotiation or avoid combat. I believe the players are trying to tell me they prefer something other than mindless combat; they want their characters to integrate with the native society instead of being marauding conquerors. They want to actually role-play instead of the usual (and expected) hacking.

My players are not going to openly tell me, “Hey, Dave, we want to get along with this race and not kill them”. They are letting their characters do the talking for them. And it is my place a GM to give them what they want, or at least allow for its possibility. Of course, I have to be listening for what they are saying, even if they aren’t saying anything.

So what can a DM do to listen to his players when they aren’t talking? First is to observe. Take a look at what the characters are doing. What choices are they making? Are they consistently making the same choices?
The second thing a GM can do is to create opportunities for the players to express what they desire in an in-character way. Don’t have the NPCs immediately attack; let the characters dictate how a confrontation starts. This will show a DM whether they prefer hack-n-slash or negotiation. Provide options that will show what they are looking for in your game.

Do the characters prefer stealth over a combat charge?
Do they prefer talking over combat?
Do they spend large amounts of time preparing for a fight over a blind charge?
Do they get excited about magic items or are the items filed away to be forgotten?
Do they enjoy spending gold or is it a chore?
Do they try and gain followers/people to their cause or are NPCs an annoyance?
Do they try to build things (businesses, castles, etc) or do they quickly move onto the next objective? Also, do they save certain items for a future endeavor (starting a business, castle, etc)?

The players are communicating with their DM; the trick is to know how to listen.
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