Yesterday’s main prompt was Wilderness, and I wanted to share with you all my custom Travel Rules for Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition—but then life happened. I’m as busy as I haven’t been for months so, instead, I’ll talk about how and what to Listen for in tabletop roleplaying games (TTRPGs).
Listening as a conscious skill
My favorite musical director is Herbert von Karajan and my favorite moment of his is not one from a live concert, but from a rehearsal.
A violinist is practicing his solo and the rest of the orchestra is watching with blank stares. Karajan stops the violinist and addresses the rest of the orchestra. He sort of scolds them and he tells them that they should be listening intently, that they should be accompanying the soloist, even if they are not playing at the moment.
This anecdote has always touched me deeply.
Listening isn’t something we are taught to do. We do it naturally and unconsciously, yes, but we can also do it consciously. We can make an effort and focus on whatever it is that we’re listening to and, as a result, the person speaking—or in this case, playing—doesn’t have to feel alone. They can really feel accompanied if someone is listening for real, placing their undivided attention on them.
I think this is something that we TTRPGers could learn a lot from.
Allowing everybody to listen
It often happens that a PC is having a moment, usually alone with the GM because they are interacting with an NPC or with the environment.
Back when I started playing, I thought that the ideal in those situations was to make the other players go away and have the one in the spotlight be alone so it was as similar in real life as it was in fictional reality.
Just the other day, while playing online, I asked three of my players to take their headphones off and mute themselves so I could have a moment with a single player. The moment went great—and now both of us have something we can reminisce about. But the other players weren’t part of it. Maybe the player shared what happened with the others, but I think he didn’t.
And the game experience was poorer for it for all of us, I think.
I now think that all moments at the table belong to all players, regardless of whether they are present in the fictional world or not. If I hadn’t asked the players to take their headphones off, all could’ve supported the other player with their presence, with their reactions and maybe even words. As Robin D. Laws once said, I think, roleplaying games are the only form of narrative were the author and the audience are the same people.
So, my advice now would be: don’t cut people out of those moments. Allow any and all to participate, even if it’s not the same as the fiction. They should still be part of these moments because these are 100% cooperative games. We’re supposed to share everything that happens at the table, I think.
Listen to Your Fellow Players
So, if you’re at the table, listen while you’re not playing. In fact, I’d go as far as to say that, as long as the game is going on, you’re never not playing. Maybe this isn’t your moment in the spotlight, but you can—and should, I believe—act as audience for the rest of the table, especially for your fellow players. Look at them and, as Karajan said, listen intently. Get excited for what they are going through. These moments are yours as well.
Listen to Your Game Master
Whenever the Game Master (GM) is describing something, listen. Even if your character isn’t there. GMing is a performance—a pretty exhausting performance at the best of times, and a pretty thankless one on top of that at the worst—and there’s nothing saddest that a performance without an audience. You’re the intended audience. You don’t have to look directly at them if you don’t want to, though; taking notes is perhaps the highest form of listening to your GM, in this sense.
GMs! Listen to Your Players
You are not telling your story, but facilitating the process so that everybody at the table gets to tell one together. Because of this, it’s super important that you listen to the players’ ideas. Don’t force them to follow your ideas just because you sometimes get to talk more. Assume your mantle with responsibility and provide an example for everybody else to follow. If you listen intently, others will imitate you at the table.
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