Roleplaying Tips Weekly E-Zine Issue #246
4 Tips On Encouraging Roleplay
This Week's Tips Summarized
4 Tips On Encouraging Roleplay
- Enforce In-Character Only Discussion
- Empower The Players
- Avoid Victimizing The PCs
- Give Players Something Old And Something
Readers' Tips Summarized
- General GMing Tips
- Token Initiative Tip
From: Charlie Bell
- Split Party Tip
From: Atilla Ceranoglu
- Split Party Tips
From: Julia Pope
Return to Contents
A Brief Word From Johnn
Back-Up Your Gaming Stuff
This weekend my emails were corrupted by Outlook.
Fortunately, I had a very recent back-up. So, this is a
quick call-out to remind you to back up all your RPG stuff
now. You never know when a failure of one kind or another
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Ars Magica RPG 5th Edition
Come to a land of adventure and mystery, of falling empires
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roleplaying game Ars Magica ("The Art of Magic") features
new and revised rules, plus all-new graphic design.
4 Tips On Encouraging Roleplay
By Johnn Four
Enforce In-Character Only Discussion
This might seem to fly in the face of flexible and easy-
going gaming, but consider asking your players to chat about
anything character-related at the game table in-character
(IC). Anything non-character related can be discussed
normally either at the table (only if game related) or
elsewhere (non-game related).
This approach has many benefits:
- Enhanced immersion. If players are talking IC, and the GM
is roleplaying as much as possible, then everyone's
imaginations can kick in and the real world can fade into
the background while the adventure unfolds.
- More great game material gets inadvertently created. Just
as in any conversation, the players will want to talk IC
about people, places, and things in the game--especially if
they concern their PCs.
If only IC is allowed, then the PCs will conjure up people,
places, and things you hadn't considered designing yet.
They'll help you build your campaign and world.
- Meaningful game play. Players who don't take their
characters seriously are more prone to do unusual, jarring,
and destructive things. After playing IC for awhile, most
players will start to make choices that are inline with what
their characters would really choose.
- Fully realized PCs. If players are discussing things IC,
then they'll be confronted with who their PC is and why.
What would their PC say? What is their personality? How
would they react? Why would they react that way? What do
they know? How do they know that?
These PC realization questions and more will inevitably pop-
up after some good IC discussion. Some players will tackle
this by drafting a good backstory that explains their PC's
behaviours and motivations. Other players will have their PC
evolve as the game goes on, using consistency and impromptu
thinking to justify or rationalize their PC's choices and
actions. Either approach is great and helps create fleshed-
out PCs that aren't cardboard cut-outs.
A key to getting players to roleplay IC is to make the
activity of roleplaying as compelling as possible so that
the group will _want_ to roleplay. Here are a few ways to
motivate your players to play IC more often:
- Make it fun. Players have less reluctance to roleplay if
their characters have fun or cool personalities and
behaviours. If one or more players in your group have boring
PCs, then work with them to add interesting elements to
- Interesting backstory
- Fun quirk
- Funny quirk (ensure it won't get annoying over
- A cool personality trait
- A fun personality trait
- Interesting equipment (i.e. a neat cane or utility
- An interesting goal or mission
- Give the PC(s) an NPC to roleplay with. Often, players
feel uncomfortable roleplaying with others. Perhaps they're
new to the group, shy, or new to the game. As GM, you can
insert any NPC you like, whenever you like. Use this power
to conjure up NPCs that are fun to chat with in-character to
help draw reluctant players out of their shell.
- A buffoon henchman
- A cool henchman deserving of respect
- An intelligent magic item with personality
- A sarcastic familiar
- A compelling NPC who appears interactively in
- A mentor
- Bartering merchants ("My wife and fifty children must
eat tonight! Surely 20 gold is a fair price--and the
warmth in your heart from your generosity I include
- Listen. When your players roleplay, listen to what they're
saying. Note what the conversations reveal about the PCs'
personalities and then have your NPCs react accordingly. If
players know that their very words spoken in-character can
affect the campaign and their PCs, they'll be excited and
converse more (and take what they say IC more seriously).
- Reputation. NPCs who have met the PCs before will spread
the word of their impressions. "Watch out for Black Jax--
he's easily offended!"
- Reflection. Have NPCs tell the PCs what they think of
them and their words. "You seem like reasonable folk,
though that gnome in the back makes me uncomfortable
with his threats..."
- Your impressions. As GM, you'll be forming your own
opinions about what IC conversations reveal about each
PC. Through email or conversations away from the game
table, let each player know what you think about their
PC. They might be shocked, pleased, surprised, or
satisfied, but regardless, they'll be interested!
- Set an immaculate example. If you're talking to the
players' characters about THAC0, hit points, difficulty
ratings, and other out-of-character (OOC) things, they'll
respond in kind. It's up to you to be a shining example.
- Address players by their character names.
- NPCs should always speak IC and never use game rule
terms, such as experience points, armour class, etc.
- Minimize your own game rules chat.
- When a dice roll is required, catch the player's eye and
politely wave the type of dice they need to roll in the
air. This silent gesture will be understood (especially
after the first time you do it) and it results in one
less "Please roll a d20" OOC verbal request.
- Add embellishments and details to game rules chat, such
as during combat and skill resolution.
The caveat here is not to impede the game by trying to avoid
game rule talk. Sometimes, it's better to be clear and
direct rather to get things resolved. However, when the
opportunity presents itself, chat IC with the players.
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Empower The Players
If players feel like their roleplaying has little impact on
the game, they'll be less inclined to chat in-character, to
put themselves in their PC's shoes and act accordingly, and
to use their imagination to portray their PC in an
entertaining way for the benefit of the group.
You want to empower the players so that their PCs'
personalities, behaviours, and conversations affect the
game. Here are a few ways to do this:
- Design intelligent foes who can communicate with the PCs.
Even in dark dungeons, there are opportunities for roleplay
if the foes are up for it--so, design foes who are up for
- Have NPCs react to the roleplay. Have them make decisions
and perform actions based on what the PCs do and say. In
addition, try to have NPCs react to the specific words and
deeds of the PCs.
For example, you might design a talkative demon who will
give the PCs a mission if they parley and who will flee if
attacked. That's a two-fork design though. Can you think of
any ways to expand it so that different PC actions will
result in different gameplay? What if the PCs are truculent?
Meek? Cagey? Each of these attitudes should result in
different NPC behaviours, a different outcome, and/or a
different path to the same outcome.
Once you've got this in mind, it's critical to let the
players know that their specific roleplay will affect the
game. If they don't know that acting humble versus aggressive
will result in a different outcome or change the flavour of
the encounter, then they won't feel compelled to roleplay.
- Have NPCs react differently to different PC behaviours.
- Have NPCs spell it out for the characters after the
fact, so the players will know for the next time.
"Foolish land-dwellers, if only you had asked politely I
would have given you what you wanted. But that was not
the case and now you must leave!"
- Have rival NPCs demonstrate this principle to the PCs.
Having battled numerous lizardmen and depleting many
resources to return with an egg intact, the party is
stunned when they learn that their rivals showed up with
an egg yesterday, claiming that a decorative spear they
presented as a gift not only won them their prize
without bloodshed, but made them official friends of
- Perform post-mortems after sessions or encounters.
Reveal to the players OOC how things could have gone if
they had chosen various other tactics, words, or
actions. Avoid remonstrating them--you don't want to
punish them or they'll resent it. Instead, present them
with other options they could have employed in an
earnest and helpful manner. You want everyone to get
the most enjoyment possible out of the game, and
players often forget about alternative options, or they
might not be used to gaming with a GM who makes them
- Have PC words and actions impact the campaign, adventure,
and game world. Avoid the mindset of penalizing them for
rude or negative behaviour. Certainly, punishment or
negative consequences are often well-deserved. However, for
some groups, roleplay of any kind--even rudeness or
aggressiveness--is to be rewarded and encouraged.
Often, PCs will start behaving better once they've got the
"I can act anyway I want, not like in real life" bug out of
their system. Games are about escape, and many players
escape by lashing out in their make-believe roleplaying.
For example, if a PC was rude to the King, give the royal a
sense of humour and let him take it in stride. Have him
laugh off the character's bad behaviour in the hopes that
the PC will roleplay more positively next time.
As another example, if the PCs roleplay well, let that
activity earn them friends and in-game respect. Then let
these new relationships yield rewards later on, such as
through providing clues, contacts, or help.
- Encourage player to ask questions. The best way to
encourage questions is to reward players with good answers.
Avoid brushing off their queries or providing vague or
If you're trying to get your group to roleplay more, then
it's better to sacrifice secrets and valuable information in
response to questions than to keep that stuff guarded for
some future, non-guaranteed surprise or "aha!" moment you
- Invite players to ask you questions at any time (and
mean it. :)
- Ask that players ask in-game related questions IC.
- Ask that players ask each other in-game related
- If players present you with PC backstories, equipment
descriptions, or any other IC information, thank them and
then use it in the game.
Encourage your players to propose their ideas to you first
so you can help them integrate their input into the game.
You want to avoid players crafting something up and assuming
it's official campaign material. You want to reserve final
judgement as you have campaign, plot, game world, game
balance, and the other players as concerns.
However, try to welcome the creations of the players with
open arms and fit them into the game as much as possible.
While this might feel like you're giving up some creative
control, it's actually giving you more material to work
with. Plus, if you establish an approval process with your
group, then you can curb any excesses and help improve bad
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Avoid Victimizing The PCs
Many players cringe when character familial matters come up
because they fear their GM is about to kill, kidnap, or
villainize their family members. Heck, even friends,
mentors, and romantic interests are not immune to a good
poisoning, doppelganging, or enslavement.
You want to encourage character family development as much
as possible because it gives players more material to help
roleplay their PC with, it grounds characters to the
campaign, and it gives the other players something to
roleplay with their peer as well.
To help shell-shocked players whose PC families have been
the objects of torment for countless previous campaigns,
establish a safe zone around family NPCs--for the whole
campaign, if possible.
It's weird, but if a player has a character's family develop
and evolve through an entire campaign without being
victimized, they actually get a better understanding of why
families make such good, dramatic plot targets. You'll often
find that you can use family members as plot devices in
future campaigns without the cliche or victim feeling you
and your players might be experiencing right now.
It's OK to include family members in plots and adventures
while being protected by your safe zone. Just avoid
penalizing the player with their existence:
- Avoid making it life and death every time. Give the family
fun but non-lethal errand requests, civilized goals, or
enemies who don't believe in death or violence. It's
possible for good people to have conflicts, so explore these
themes for adventure ideas instead of the usual deadly
- Let friends and family members bring some good to the PC's
- Introduction to new skills and abilities
- Clues, rumours, information
- Ideas and possibilities
- Friendship and support
- A source of contacts
- A measurement of success (i.e. a parent's pride)
- Let friends and family members bring some good to the
- Spawn your deadly encounters three layers deep. If
something bad happens to a family member of a PC who then
drags the PC down with them, that's a first layer event that
should be avoided lest you risk the PC never introducing a
family member in your game again.
If a family member hooks the PCs into an unwanted deadly or
victimizing encounter, but the member is not directly
jeopardized, that's a layer two event. Even though the party
doesn't have to rescue the mother or cure the father, the
negative turn of events can be directly traced back to the
family member and the players will shake their fists at the
sky and bemoan their self-induced weakness.
If a family member hooks the PC into an encounter that then
hooks or leads them into another encounter that's bad news,
then that is usually enough breathing room for the player to
not blame the family member. There are effectively enough
layers between the initial chain of events caused by the
family member and the end-result that players won't resent
the existence of NPC relatives and friends.
So, feel free to involve family members and other valued
NPCs in your stories, but do not make them the direct cause
of the PCs' woes.
- If you do allow relationships to be the deadly target of
adventures, then let the PC be the cause of their own
trouble. Just introduce the villain or conflict, wait until
the player introduces a family member or inner circle NPC,
_and then_ pounce. The key is to make the inclusion fit
seamlessly into your campaign and story told to date.
You can unintentionally victimize players who try to
roleplay in other ways as well. Try to veer away from these
situations as soon as you recognize that you're in them, or
you'll find your group becoming more and more reluctant to
trust you with roleplaying.
Example victimizing situations to avoid:
- Quirks and personality traits are used to railroad PC
actions. If a PC resents authority, for example, then
avoid having authoritative NPCs proliferate the campaign
so that the player is forced to roleplay constant
conflict and get the other party members angry with him.
- Avoid straightjacketing PCs with alignment or morality.
Allow good PCs to act evil once in awhile, if that is
their wont, and vice versa.
- Player has poor parley skills. Many players will
not be as eloquent as their PC. Reward the player for
effort by using their PC's social abilities instead of
- Encourage the player to parley in first person (i.e.
they say I, we, me, us instead of "my PC", "the party",
or the PC's name. Avoid correcting players in front of
the group though, as this might embarrass them.
- Avoid anachronisms and point them out to the players
when the time is right (i.e. not in front of the group).
"Hey Bill, last session you mentioned the words phone,
skyscraper, and 'beam me up Scotty.' I don't feel your
character would know what those things are and
wouldn't use those words. Do you think it would be
possible to avoid modern terminology when you're
- Avoid using places and things in PC backgrounds against
the party as well. In general, where player-created game
content is concerned, it's better to build on it and grow
it than to destroy it. Rather than burning villages,
stealing funky equipment, and designing ability-nullifying
situations (i.e. dead magic zones, places where spells
don't work right, severing diety links), use these
elements to introduce new game elements instead.
Players will beam with pride if they learn their creations
have spawned cool, new things in the campaign (rather than
becoming GM fodder). For example, the magic school from a
PC background might be the location of a party where a
mystery takes place. Or, a tailor spots a PC's neat hat
and asks to copy his design.
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Give Players Something Old And Something New
Before they feel comfortable roleplaying, players need to
understand what's going on, what the current social and game
conventions are, and what's expected of them.
These needs are usually met by spending time playing under
your reign as GM for awhile. Unfortunately, this can take a
long time in some player cases, or worse, the quiet and
withdrawn behaviour during the feeling-out process becomes a
habit that players don't break out of.
I remember being a new member of a group who had played a
long time together. The GM jumped my character in right away
(cool, thanks!) during an encounter where the PCs were
confronting a possible traitor in a mage council meeting. It
was a tense situation, and to my discomfort, the players and
GM were deadly serious in their roleplaying. Almost
immediately, the limelight focused on me during a character
introduction moment, and everybody was looking at me and
waiting for my response. I don't remember what I said, but I
do remember being very uncomfortable and not having fun
because of that.
If I had had some time to get to know everyone, and if I had
had some time to get into character, I probably would have
If you would like your players to roleplay more, then create
a comfortable, safe, and trusted environment for them. This
involves providing them something old and familiar to get
grounded with, and then something new so they can explore
and try new things.
Possible old things to establish a roleplay comfort zone
- The GM is a friend and is supportive
- One or more players is a friend and welcoming
- Player knows the game rules (and is made aware of all
relevant house rules)
- Player knows the genre well (i.e. the game is high-
fantasy where elves never fart and anything named
"black" is evil :)
- The game location is private, familiar, and
- Player brings in an old character
- GM has a one-on-one before the game
- The group has a meet-and-greet before the game
- The GM waits for a safe, non-confrontational, easy
moment to introduce the new character
Some possible new things to prevent stagnation, cliche game
content, and boredom, and to encourage roleplay:
- New character class
- Different PC personality
- Genre twist (i.e. steam-punk)
- Guest players, guest GM
- Cool new equipment or abilities
- A neat background or backstory (i.e. PC is from a
different time period, has amnesia, or is involved in
an unusual plot or conflict)
- You use a different-than-usual campaign start
- You try a different GMing style
- A new gaming location (i.e. at a park)
- New plots and situations for PCs to interact with
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Readers' Tips Of The Week:
General GMing Tips
- Try to put yourself in the player's seat as often as you
can. This doesn't mean play more, but try to determine
whether or not what you're doing as a GM would please you as
a player. It's likely that, many times (though not all the
time), if it would please you, it would please the player.
- Don't overdo it. If you're feeling tired of GMing, stage
an illness or just give your players a little advance notice
and say: no game next week. This should give you time to
find your inspiration again.
- Play what you like. This might seem like a no-brainer to
some, but to others it's not. We all want to please our
players but we can't do that if we're not pleased either. My
players have been hinting (in no subtle fashion) that they
would like me to run a Forgotten Realms campaign. I don't
like Forgotten Realms. I don't like D&D. It's not happening.
Because, if I tried, I would run out of interest real quick
and they would be far more disappointed then if I ran my
- On the other hand...don't discount the enjoyment of your
players. Sorry, that's a reiteration.
- Remember: the players are supposed to win. I'm not saying
to make every adventure and quest a cakewalk. But so many
GMs can get very competitive and will forget this simple
fact. I myself am not competitive in the least, but I still
find myself doing these things. If a character dies, they
die, but remember that you are playing one of the most
complex and amazing games in which you win if your side
- Stay organized. I don't care how you do it, but do it.
File folders, binders, laptop, whatever suits you. I had
this great idea of having a file box with a bunch of those
file folders with the prongs to keep my info in. It sucked
for me. I'm back to my binder.
- Absorb any gimmicks you can to increase enjoyment.
Personally, I have a one-page weekly newsletter and a quiz
before every session. Though they don't utilize them, the
players at least seem to like them so what do I lose? Paper?
Ink? No biggie.
- Know your rules. Another reiteration, but worth it. Every
time you have to look something up you are wasting time and
looking irresponsible. A good thing to do is to write down a
set of rules you don't remember well but use often. I know,
it sounds like homework, but recording something is one of
the best ways to memorize general information.
In my last job I had to learn a lot of complex computer
things fast. How did I do it? I wrote it down as my boss was
teaching me. Then I went to my desk and wrote them down
again, reorganizing so that I understood everything "my own
way." Then I typed them on the computer and printed them out
for a binder. By the time they were in the binder, I didn't
need them down on paper.
- Always ask for advice/comments. Tell them to lay the
hammer down and don't hold anything back. You become a
better GM when you are open to the players' ideas.
Token Initiative Tip
From: Charlie Bell
In our 3rd Edition D&D game, we use the standard battlemat &
minis to plot out our combats. Being on a budget, I keep
cardboard tokens for the enemies. I number the tokens with
different colored markers, forty tokens in all: 1 through 10
each of red, black, blue, and green.
Even if the combat only takes a few tokens, I try to use
some from each color. When I roll initiatives, I roll
separately for each of the color groups. Rolling four
initiatives doesn't take significantly longer than rolling
only one, and the players appreciate the verisimilitude of
the bad guys not going all at once.
Split Party Tip
From: Atilla Ceranoglu
In the most recent campaign I ran, I designed specifically
in the opener session that all characters will be starting
at separate locations and coming together at a meeting. The
fact that they were invited/told to meet the authority would
soon transform them into a group did not really make anyone
feel railroaded. However, the pertaining aspect of this is
that the party was split into more than 2 fractions. Some
were traveling together, some were not. Here is how I
handled the split party situation:
Simple! Very much like in the format of Star Wars. Focus on
one player, take it to a dramatic point, and then cut! This
also gave me opportunity to regroup my wits if they did
anything out of line.
Another thing was to time the start of combats
such that, when it starts, it starts for everyone. So, roll
initiative as one combat, but follow it by running different
combats at once. Players were very appreciative of the
unexpected nature of the fun. This also gave them a lot of
idea as what the world is about by seeing other PCs'
interactions with it.
Split Party Tips
From: Julia Pope
To respond to your request for tips on how to handle a split
party, I have a few thoughts:
I used to have a problem player who, if there wasn't
something to do at any given moment, would have his
character wander off to the nearest market or village,
clearly hoping for something interesting to happen. But if
his fellow PCs then stumbled upon something useful, an NPC
to talk to or whatever, he would immediately ask to return
from the market (sometimes he wouldn't bother to ask, he'd
just announce "I return from the market" - I had to nip that
in the bud!).
I managed to discourage him from this habit by not
permitting him to simply return whenever he decided it was
convenient - after all, his character would have no way of
knowing that something interesting was happening back at the
inn/tavern/camp site/wherever. I also very rarely allowed
anything interesting to happen to him when he wandered off
on his own, figuring that "going out looking for adventure"
without a firm plan was something that would almost never
result in more than a pleasant stroll in a semi-realistic
world. After he missed out on a few crucial encounters, he
quickly developed a tendency to stay with the group.
That said, I've run other games where the "party" is only
tenuously connected. For instance, my current campaign
centres around a group of city guards. They work together,
but they don't necessarily spend all their free time
I always try to let them know beforehand whether
a given session of the game is going to be a "group session"
or an "individual session". In a group session, they have
some kind of mission to accomplish, often work-related.
They'll very occasionally split up for strategic reasons
(i.e. "You two run back to the barracks and get
reinforcements, we'll hold off the attackers as long as we
can"), but since they're on the job and/or have a specific
goal to accomplish, they wouldn't dream of wandering off
In situations where they have to split up during party-based
sessions, I try to make sure there's never one character off
by himself (usually this can be justified for reasons of
security - it's just not safe to wander off on your own in
some parts of the city!) That way, if they're stuck out of
the main action for a while, at least they can talk and
role-play with each other (I run this campaign via mIRC, so
it's easy for two people to engage in their own private chat
without disrupting the main flow of the game).
In an individual session, however, I'm dealing with their
PCs one-on-one, working through personal plots and problems.
Each player knows they'll get about 30-40 minutes for their
character to do their thing, and then it'll be onto the
next person's scene.
It helps that, for the most part, people are interested in
knowing what their friends are getting up to and are happy
to watch other people's scenes without being directly
involved in them. Sometimes information divulged in an
individual scene will have relevance for one or more other
PCs, so it pays for them to pay attention - not in a
metagame way (though it can often generate a lot of out-of-
game excitement and conversation -again, not a problem in an
IRC-based game), but more in a "so I tell you all that stuff
she told me" way, thus saving time and energy for all of us.
Also, I always try to get the entire group together at the
end of such a session for whatever time is left-over so that
they can share things they've learned, as well as get a
chance to roleplay and interact a bit more. Knowing they
have that bit of extra screentime coming is usually enough
incentive to keep people awake and tuned in for the entire
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