OSR/New School Gripe: Listen to your players!

I have a gripe. I often read these posts about how people have this great idea of meshing old school and modern games, sometimes **gasp!** the crazy idea of meshing modern story games with OSR games. Today I read a great post over on Stargazer’s World and it really got me thinking. In it, the author talks about how he took an idea in Fate and slapped it onto a modern day OSR clone. Great idea, only it isn’t new.

Back in the day, got to love a story that starts with that saying, I used to DM a long running campaign using AD&D. The game ran for probably well over a year or so and chronicled the adventures of a group trying to save my setting called Sylnae. I had a great group of players who started playing around our sophomore year and continued until our senior year and the group splintered as we went our separate ways in college.

This campaign was highly successful and had a running storyline with my subplots. The main story dealt with a set of blades that had to be found that would enable the group to defeat some great evil that was threatening the world. The funny thing? We never even got to the end, the myriad of subplots (very cliché if I remember correctly) keep the adventure rolling from city to city, dungeon to dungeon as the heroes fought to save their world from foes.

I always thought the success of the campaign had to do with these multiple storylines that ran the length of the game, and my sort of freeform DMing that allowed the story to blend and merge collectively  into something great than the individual pieces. However, the more I think about it, and after reading that post on Stargazer’s World, I think I know what it really was. I think it was something called Listening.

Inevitably in a campaign that runs over time and when players are friends, discussions develop regarding the game. As a DM I learned a valuable skill over those months, I learned to listen to my players. They often would discuss the game and the things they liked, the things they did not. I did not need to offer the players a token to use when they wanted to bend the game to their liking, I would pick up cues from the discussions.

I distinctly remember a player saying he thought some movie or book where one of the main characters ended up being  a traitor to the group and how this affected the others in the story. When his character was killed and it came time to roll up a new one, I immediately pulled him aside and suggested he play exactly that. That character became on of the most interesting characters in the entire campaign, feeding secret messages to the evil forces in the world working against the players. The players? They simply thought the bad guys were uber cool for always just being one step ahead of them. In the end when we revealed this, it became one of the most amazing and talked about moments in the campaign, when the long trust Riab’n turned on them in a dire moment and revealed his treacherous ways. And yes, even the villains name was an anagram of the player’s name Brian, clever eh?

Another key and amazing subplot that ended up becoming one of the main themes was a sidebar discussion that evolved completely unintentionally. One player had described his character as looking like a particular movie star. Months later, I had used a character in a movie played by that same actor as “the Duke looks something like that guy in” some movie I forget now. A keen player had remembered that and idly spoke about how it would be awesome if the Duke and the character were secretly related. Enter massive cliché and the character became an illegitimate son of the Duke, including title, wealth and even guards that secretly followed him around and trying to protect him, oftentimes to great hilarity (the character had disavowed his father when it was revealed and refused to acknowledge the family link). This connection caused many subplots involving political intrigue, royal bloodlines, and the father trying to use the newly found son as a marrying tool to save the kingdom.

Anyway, I will stop ranting. I would like to add that I am a big fan of the Hero Point systems various games have. I just think that GMs today can learn much by just listening to their players, especially in between games when they are idly chatting about the game. Players will tell you what they like and what they want…even without giving Fate/Action/Hero Points!

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6 thoughts on “OSR/New School Gripe: Listen to your players!

  1. Glad my post got you to thinking. I agree about just needing to listen to the players, that is probably some of the best advise I’ve heard in some time.

    I don’t think everyone needs “tokens” or points at all, some people just need to be reminded and this is how a lot of people play now.

  2. I agree but ‘New School’ roleplaying games are more than just the GM listening to the players, it’s about actually handing over narrative control. This is a very different prospect than simply listening to what they like and doing more of that. By handing over narrative control, you’re giving players direct control of the outcomes of actions (both good and bad).

  3. You can still do that. I have never, ever said “No” when a player has said “I have a great idea” or “Wouldn’t it be cool if this happened?” I disagree that this is not giving the player narrative control. It is, just without explicitly saying that and writing rules to subsequently support that sort of play. I can think back to many games where a player assumed narrative control, before there was a theory suggesting this as a play option, and gave the game direction.

  4. Thanks for commenting! Yes, I believe that is an image of Conan, not sure where I got it from now, but I liked the moment of reflection it showed.

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