Over at B/X Blackrazor, JB was wondering:
hmm… I wonder how Oddysey and Trollsmyth’s current on-going campaign developed. Odd has said this is the first time she’s played in a campaign that took things to this particular depth of character interaction…were her former games played in the mini-campaign or forced plot setting? Or is their current gaming style simply built on mutual rapport and understanding of narrative agenda needs?
The answer is, not quickly. That's not the sort of play you can start cold. You have to build up to it.
It would be nice if you could just say, "Hey, we're building a social campaign and it's going to deal with x, y, and z." You could, I suppose, pull it off if the DM was willing to give the players extreme amounts of narrative control, and I've done that in the past with a few players I knew very well and had played with a lot before. If you don't do that, however, you end up in a situation where the players don't have anything to talk about. Even if they've read voluminous amounts of campaign material, they don't really understand the setting well enough to interact with it. (Unless that setting is based on a well-known IP, like Harry Potter or some such, which is why such are the most popular themes for free-form RPing, I'm sure.) The background gives players something to talk about, and knowing and being comfortable with the style gives them ways to talk about those things. If either is missing, they're reduced to talking about the weather in the safest and most boring of tones.
My preferred style is open sandbox and very laissez-faire. But such games need a bit of impetus, and if the players are to be comfortable enough to stretch themselves a bit, they need some limitations. There's nothing more intimidating to a lot of people than a completely blank canvas.
In Oddysey's case, I started off with a very open-ended problem for her to solve: being shipwrecked on a strange coast. This got her used to my rather loose, the-DM-doesn't-have-a-plan-so-do-what-makes-sense-or-is-fun-for-you style. When she returned to civilization and was able to choose her own path, she latched on to dungeon-delving. This was great because it was a style she'd not had much experience with, but comes with its own set of very focused goals and geographical limitations. As Oddysey recently commented, however, it wasn't raw monster-slaying and trap-finding. Since it was a solo game, there were hirelings and such to fill out the party, mostly chosen by her. Whenever she mentioned interest in hiring a particular class to join her group, I'd gin up at least three examples (it's so easy in LL that three take maybe a half-hour or so to roll up and write down) with a brief description of their personalities, reputations, and competencies beyond their class. Because there was no one else to interact with (most of the time) there was a lot of interaction with these NPCs. And that's really where we got things rolling.
Up until that point, I wasn't really sure what sort of play Oddysey was interested in. As she points out, most of the traditional assumptions of Old School play, like dungeons, were not very well known to her, so even she wasn't sure what sort of play she wanted, other than something new that she hadn't tried before. So leaving things open and not forcing a certain agenda left it open for us to explore, and we built the playstyle together out of mutual interests.
(And yes, this did mean that certain dungeon complexes were left "uncleared" but that's fine with me. Like Mr. Maliszewski, I've never assumed that clearing the entire locale was the goal, and my players have generally been happy with focused, surgical operations rather than genocidal invasions. ;p )
The one thing I did rigorously enforce was the verisimilitude. I think that really helps, because it gives players things they can rely on, things they can trust. With that bedrock, they can begin to invest in their characters' interests and goals, and from that comes engagement with the world. And once they do that, it's easy to build an entire session around chatting with a rakshasa and a priestess about boys, because the players know who their characters are, how they relate to the rakshasa and the priestess, and why boys would be fun to talk about.
Art by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema and Edward Moran