Hear Ye, Hear Ye! A Simple Way To Improve Gameplay, Engagement & Character Outcomes

From JohnnFour

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #1181

Cén chaoi a bhfuil tú Johnn?

Here’s a refreshed tip from Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #5, going way back to 1999 right before the world was going to end with Y2K.

Too often we become trapped in our heads thinking three moves ahead, doing math, or coming up with names and details on the fly.

If we make the effort to be still and quiet while GMing, and listen to our players, we get valuable information to mine for our campaigns.

Below are tips from Issue #5, updated for modern times.

Listen & Mine Player Feedback

I’ve taken more conflict resolution, active listening, customer service, and employee communications courses than you can shake a stick at.

There’s one skill I’ve picked up from all this, though, that has truly made a huge difference in the quality of my roleplaying and game mastering:

Listening to my players and echoing their words and thoughts back to them.

Doing this offers several boons:

  • Encourage roleplaying by incorporating player words and character actions into your narrative.
  • Players will feel heard, appreciated, and respected.
  • Have words and actions actually affect play beyond what the rules dictate.

Do this and you provide fantastic ongoing feedback and encouragement.

You’ll find the quality of roleplaying in your sessions will shoot way up too.

For example, here’s two versions of player + GM interaction during a combat scene:

Scenario #1 No Feedback

GM: The kobold measures you up and down, snarls, and draws his short sword!

Player: What?! How dare he assault the great Roghan! I raise my bastard sword two-handed high up in the air, unleash a blood curdling scream, and charge headlong at the foolish creature!

GM: OK. Roll initiative… You win, roll to hit… Great hit! Roll damage… The kobold dies horribly!

Scenario #2 Feedback & Reaction

GM: The kobold measures you up and down, snarls and draws his short sword!

Player: What?! How dare he assault the great Roghan! I raise my bastard sword two-handed high up in the air, unleash a blood curdling scream, and charge headlong at the foolish creature!

GM: The kobold flinches at your blood curdling scream.

He nervously brings his small sword up to parry your headlong charge.

The creature is so intimidated that you automatically win initiative. Roll to hit and add a +1 bonus because of your mighty overhead swing…

You land a mighty blow! The creature howls, fear written all over its snout. Roll damage…

The kobold is cut down in one blow with your bastard sword.

The creature didn’t even have time to beg for mercy as, at the last moment, it sorrowfully realized it was completely outmatched trying to defend its family.

Great attack! How do you feel?

As you can see, I hammed it up at the end to try to make the player feel a little remorse — undeserved or not, it’s always great trying to draw a player reaction — but the essence of the point is there.

The player gave such a great attack description that I had the kobold react cowardly and gave the character a couple of perks by way of the automatic initiative and attack bonus.

This rewards the player for good roleplay and creates a better roleplaying experience for everybody at the table.

And don’t just do this for combat either.

Anything and everything the players and characters say and do can be embellished, reacted to, and rewarded (or penalized).

Seek Out the Nouns

If we pause and get out of our heads to listen to our players, we can not only improve roleplay, but change our game, too.

Players tell us what they want.

We need but listen to glean great hooks, inspiration, and portrayal ideas.

To make our listen quest easier, because we still have to think three moves ahead, do some math, and roleplay our NPCs and monsters, focus on one type of thing to start:


Pay attention when players mention a person, place, or thing.

Those become grist for your hooks and plots.

If players are interested enough to mention something, take note and find a way to bring it into play.

If players aren’t mentioning nouns in their descriptions, questions, or roleplay, take that as a potential sign to add more such content to your campaign.

Note my general axiom to introduce a new NPC every session. Get into that habit and you’ll have a full Cast if Characters in no time, and lots of material now for players to use.

And whatever — or whoever — they mention, you take that as a vote to include in future sessions.

Turn them into 5RD seeds, encounters, and narrative detail.

When players hear the stuff they’re interested in come up in-game, they’ll follow your thread!

So listen hard for nouns.

Find the Motive

Once we’ve heard what players want to do, it’s ideal if we then find out why.

What are our players’ intentions?

As with any action, there’s an intended outcome.

If we can learn what they want to accomplish, then we can understand why their characters are taking such actions.

It’s like that in life too. When confused by someone’s actions, it’s often because we do not understand their objective.

We’ll project our objectives onto others and then get bewildered when they do something unexpected.

In truth, they’re following their own logic based on their intentions.

So once we see what our players are going after, then their actions will make more sense.

And this will help us direct encounters with much greater success.

Do this by asking their intentions.

This is a softer and more exacting approach than just asking why.

It won’t trigger player defensiveness.

It’ll get your player thinking.

And it’ll share the rationale behind a character’s actions for the whole group to hear and benefit from.

Krug: I leap into the middle of the pack of guards and start swinging!

Exasperated GM: Oh no, not again.

This will derail the whole damn adventure.


Krug, the guards are many in number. They pummel you into unconsciousness and drag you to jail.

Krug: Hey, that’s not fair! Aren’t we going to roll initiative? I’ve got some heads to smash.

Exasperated GM: You’re not screwing things up again. And enough with “it’s what my character would do” business.

That doesn’t justify trashing another game night, forcing everyone to run from the law instead of solving the quest here.

Like it or leave!

Ok. So that’s not going to go over well.

The game’ll get disrupted. The campaign might even. And we might even lose a friend this way.

So let’s try to first understand.

Then decide.

Then respond.

Here’s another take on it.

Krug: I leap into the middle of the pack of guards and start swinging!

Exasperated GM: Sigh. 🙂

There’s quite a crowd of them and they look angry, as if they plan on taking no prisoners, if you know what I mean.

Before we game things out, let me ask you quick, what is your intention here Krug?

What’s your intended outcome here, so I can figure out how the guards will respond.

Krug: Well, first off, I don’t like guards. You know from my background that guards took momma away and Krug has never seen her since.

Also, I want to create diversion. So then the party can escape and carry on.

(And, if I care to admit it, I’m kinda bored. Sorry Johnn. The campaign is great, but I’d like more action because I enjoy that part of the game.)

[Note from Johnn: I added the last part in parentheses as something I wish players would tell me but never do.

When players do weird stuff like Krug attacking authority knowing it’ll disrupt the game, I often believe there’s a secret motive or outcome they’re after.

So I’ll take note and follow-up after the game in private to try and suss the secret motive out: I’m bored and I like combat and I want more combat.]

Exasperated GM: Awesome, thank you for sharing.

So for creating a diversion, you’re aren’t really trying to murder all the guards here. I understand now.

So Krug would know that, if you can avoid doing serious harm to any guards, you’ll likely be just thrown in jail and be let out tomorrow morning.

And don’t forget about the subdual rules. You could use those, if you wanted, to avoid unilaterally whacking someone.

Krug: Thanks! I’ll do that then.

I’ll get as many guards involved in my scuffle as possible, and keep my sword belted.

I’ll try to hit as many of the ugly jerks in the face as possible!

Exasperated GM: Awesome. Everyone, roll initiative. Here’s the situation.

Krug’s diving headlong in to distract the guard and buy you time to escape.

Let’s see how things turn out….

So in this fictitious example, things have worked out.

It might really go down like this in a session.

But chances are, it won’t.

But with this approach, at least we’re triggering conversation. We’re digging deeper into outcomes and understanding our players better.

And everyone around the table will see how you’re trying to sort things out for best possible gameplay, and understand each other better in the process.

Finally, I’d definitely have a chat with Krug in private and learn more about what the player wants from my campaign.

Even if this particular incident turns into a disaster with the party wanted by law enforcement once again, we’ve made progress.

We’ve listened and learned.

And that helps us improve and respond even better next time.

Over To You

Listen to players as they describe their character actions.

Then echo these details in your descriptions or ensuing gameplay. Ideally, both.

Doing this makes players feel heard and validated.

It’ll increase their engagement a lot, as a result.

And when mystified by a stated action, ask for intentions.

Once you learn the motive being strange character actions, you can often make sense of things and tweak work towards a better gameplay outcome for all!

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