Mission-Style Roleplaying – Part I

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #0223

Mission-Style Roleplaying

Combat in RPGs is a physical, tangible, visceral thing. In many games, combat stuff takes up 75% or more of a character sheet. When the fighting breaks out, you have concrete numbers, specific skills, exciting attacks, and pages and pages of rules. Damage lets everyone know how much they’ve dished out and how much they can take. It’s measurable, pleasurable, and definite.

Roleplaying, on the other hand, is much more ephemeral and undefinable. It’s harder to quantify, which puts many players off. It can require real-life acting and speaking skills, depending on group play style. There’s often no clear winner or loser, and it’s harder to know how well you’re faring in the encounter.

In fact, in many styles of gaming, roleplaying is mostly about being in the moment. Players want to put on their PC’s shoes for awhile, escape reality, and _be_ someone else. For others, it’s a chance to flex their acting skills, use their imaginations, or live out their favourite movie and book scenes.

Because roleplaying lacks the physicality of combat and is a highly social activity it makes many gamers uncomfortable. Board gamers, wargamers, and “gamists” sometimes get quite dissatisfied with roleplaying encounters and they pine for some action.

There is no right or wrong way to play. A dungeon crawl game format is just as valid as a roleplaying format where not a single die is cast. However, groups often consist of a mix of players and GMs who want one or the other style.

Hopefully, the following tips can make both sides happy some of the time by focusing on adding conflict and a “mission” style to roleplaying encounters and plots.

Add Conflict

One thing you can do to bridge the gap between role-players and roll-players is to add conflict. It’s not enough to just interact with each other in-character. For example, a tea party encounter with some influential nobles would make some players quite happy. Exchanging pleasantries and gossip, and using the words and body language that their characters, the game world, and the genre would use would be enough for a satisfying experience.

Other players would start to yawn almost immediately though. A few players would even draw their weapons and start hacking!One solution is to add conflict. Make the encounter an “us vs. them” situation. This creates potential winners and losers and makes the encounter a bit more tangible for some gamers.This might also introduce some skill-based dice rolls, which will appease action-oriented players. Yet, the action will occur within a roleplaying context–conversation and in- character references–thus satisfying many roleplayers.

In addition, players who focus on character advancement and characterization will enjoy employing the game mechanics.

Adopt A Mission Style For Roleplaying

A roleplaying encounter often lacks focus. The party encounters an NPC (or several) and a conversation ensues. The encounter might be premeditated (i.e. the party is conducting an investigation), coincidental (i.e. a random encounter or the GM just planted the NPC for flavour), or predestined (i.e. it’s a planned GM encounter), but the roleplaying is unstructured and chaotic. The party isn’t 100% sure of what it’s doing or trying to accomplish. Several PCs are trying to talk to an NPC at once.

The conditions of success, failure, and progress are unclear.This drives many players crazy.A fun solution is to adopt a mission style for roleplaying encounters some of the time. The players are given a “quest”, or a reason, to approach and parley with one or more NPCs.For example, one mission might be to discover a wealthy merchant’s greatest fear. This would require the party to roleplay discussions with those who know the merchant, the merchant’s family, and/or the merchant herself.

The PCs might pursue other forms of investigation, such as breaking into the merchant’s house hoping to find a diary or other clue, but eventually they’ll need to parley to get the information they seek (assuming you’ve designed things this way to encourage roleplaying, but perhaps there is a diary).With a roleplaying mission, the PCs have a unified purpose. Consequently, there is an implied condition of victory (mission success), and this style leaves plenty of room for “us vs. them” type missions as well as cooperative goals.

The increased tangibility will make many action oriented players happy. The conditions of success help players grasp what they’re supposed to do–reducing the chaos a bit–and whether they’re getting closer or further away to accomplishing their task.

At the GM level, roleplaying missions have numerous benefits:

  • Closure. There is a “mission accomplished” feeling once the PCs have achieved their objective. This not only increases player satisfaction but yours as well.
  • Pacing. Once the PCs have succeeded or failed, you have a solid cue for moving the game along. In encounters where the party is roleplaying just for the sake of it, it’s sometimes difficult knowing when to end things to keep the story progressing.
  • Victory points. If your game rules use an experience or victory point system, having a tangible mission lets you evaluate difficulty level and, consequently, reward levels much easier. It also gives you something specific and discreet to evaluate.
  • NPC preparation. A mission makes a good seed or hook to prepare and design NPCs around.
  • Encounter design. A mission gives you a distinct purpose to design for. It creates boundaries and parameters to help you tweak things to be more entertaining.

Examples of roleplaying missions follow in some of the tips below.

Make The Mission Objective Clear

Make loud and clear what the players are supposed to accomplish. Feel free to experiment with different levels of subtlety, but you can never go wrong by explicitly informing the players what they’re goal is.Note that you’re only providing the goal, the purpose, the condition of victory. You do not have to tell the PCs how they’re supposed to accomplish their mission. That’s the fun part for them! So, you’re not spoiling anything by providing a clear objective.

Some ways to make a mission objective clear:

  • A NPC hires the PCs and describes exactly what he wants.
  • An NPC, perhaps a friend, makes a perceptive comment about what the PCs are doing. He summarizes the PCs’ objective for them or describes them in a different way. “So, it sounds like all this boils down to finding out the merchant’s greatest fear!”
  • Tell the group directly, player to GM. Though this might seem to be a clumsy method, but it sure beats GMing a confused or frustrated party.
  • Player handout. Give the PCs a prop, such as a letter, that describes their mission.

By establishing exactly what the roleplaying mission is, you gain all the benefits of this style of quest. Hiding or blurring the party’s goal tends to frustrate action oriented players while the others are blissfully chatting and acting away.

Establish A Reward

Ensure the PCs know what’s in it for them. Establish what the reward will be for a successful mission. A reward will sometimes drive hack ‘n slashers to participate more in the roleplaying as well as give those players who crave action more patience during the encounter.Players who enjoy combat are used to immediate gratification. First, their PC survived–a small but important reward. Second, there’s usually a body to loot. Next, there’s often a lair to loot. Finally, there’s experience points to tally.

For this type of player to go along with a roleplaying mission, they need to understand what the reward(s) will be. What do the PCs get if they’re successful? Now that you can actually say if the PCs were successful in their roleplaying encounter or not, you have an opportunity to provide a conditional reward.

  • Experience points. When handing out experience or victory points, make sure you identify which ones (or how much) came from the roleplaying mission. That will help you generate buy-in for future roleplaying encounters as the players will know there’ll be a form of character advancement reward.
  • Payment. Someone is willing to pay the PCs to perform the mission. Alternately, what is gained from the mission, such as information, has value and can be sold for profit.
  • A link to treasure. If successful, the mission will bring the PCs closer to a valuable reward.
  • Action. Completing the mission will bring the party closer to a stage boss battle or some other cool potential for action. Combat junkies love to feed the beast and will even suffer through roleplaying encounters to get their fix. LOL. Seriously though, if a player is motivated by dice and combat, a good reward for roleplaying is to bring the party closer to a combat encounter.

Death Should Not Be A Route To Success

Design roleplaying missions so that death will not bring the PCs success. This will help keep the players focused on using roleplaying and imagination to accomplish their goal rather than steel.Don’t hesitate to make this point clear to the group. Even though you might feel it’s important for the PCs to make their own mistakes and choose their own actions, emphasizing the fact that combat won’t solve things will prevent session frustration or poor player meta-gaming (i.e. even if we kill this guy the DM will rescue the plot somehow).

In general, there are two situations you can design roleplaying missions around to ensure death won’t be a valid choice:

  • The NPC(s) knows something. Unless the PCs have access to some form of speak with dead, pretty much the only way to get information out of somebody is to roleplay with them (persuasion, intimidation, trickery, coercion) while the NPC is alive. 🙂
  • The NPC is a key. The non-player character has some aspect or element that is only valid if he is alive. For example, social status, employment status, a critical relationship.

Mission: What’s The Back-Up Plan?

The PCs need to find out an NPC’s back-up plan. Someone or something wants to take action against an NPC and they need to ensure the NPC won’t slip away or find an alternate means of victory.This is a cool mission because it has an air of subterfuge and subtlety. Whoever is sending the PCs on this mission will be perceived as cunning and subtle. “It’s not enough to simply corner the villain, we have to ensure he has nothing up his sleeve as well.”This type of mission is also good because it gives you more life out of your existing building blocks.

By that I mean you’ll be able to re-use NPCs, locations, plot threads, and various items, with the exception of what you need to invent for the back-up plan.You might want to ensure that the final plan for the PCs’ side is not to actually kill the target NPC. Otherwise, if the opportunity presents itself, the party might just kill the NPC directly, negating the need for discovering a back- up plan and for planning a final confrontation altogether.

For example, perhaps the long-term goal is to win an election, bring an NPC to justice, or to discover the final word of a soul trap spell.As an NPC could have several back-up plans, and back-up plans are often created in response to anticipated forms and configurations of attacks (which then change once back-up plans are discovered), this type of mission can be used over and over again.

Mission examples:

  • What will the villain do when we attack him in his lair and defeat his traps and guards?
  • What will the ambassador do if we succeed in proving to the King he is a spy?
  • We are about to win the lucrative royal contract, but our rivals, the Street Cleaners Guild, who are also bidding on the job, don’t seem very worried. Why?

Mission: The Promise

The PCs’ mission is to get a commitment or promise from an NPC. The party must roleplay things in such a way, though, that the NPC is sure to honour the commitment. Otherwise, the mission would ultimately end in failure as those who are depending on the commitment will not accomplish their own goals.Usually, there is some resistance in the NPC for making the promise.

There might be risk, cost, or danger associated with either making the promise in the first place or in carrying through with what was agreed upon. The greater the possibility of loss, expense, or threat the more resistance the PCs will have to counter.While intimidation will often get an NPC to make a promise, it’s no guarantee that the promise will be kept. Therefore, it’s not always the best tactic, making this type of mission a lot of fun.Be sure to arm the PCs with the ability to convince the NPC to make and keep his promise.

Ask yourself, what can the PCs do after the NPC initially refuses to make the promise? This mission might even spawn pre-missions to find the clues and information required to arm the PCs with their needed leverage.Even if the PCs are armed with a plan, offer, or leverage to make the NPC’s promise the logical best choice for him, not all NPCs will listen to logic. They’ll hesitate out of fear, greed, pride, or some other emotional reason, thus making the PCs roleplay a little harder for victory.

Mission examples:

  • Get the senator’s vote in the upcoming ballot.
  • For this caravan to make a profit we need to make sure Boris will give us good price on the wool we return with. Make sure he gives us that price in two months time when we return.
  • Last night the barmaid heard something she shouldn’t have. If she tells the wrong person she’s as good as dead. Please convince her to tell no one of what she knows, even though the information could be valuable!

Mission: Change An Opinion

The PCs must convince an NPC to change their mind about an opinion they’ve formed about someone, someplace, or something. This is different and trickier than just making an NPC like you. The NPC might like you but that won’t necessarily change their opinion about something.In general, this challenge has two axes:(x) Amount of proof and information the PCs can bring to bear to help their case.(y) Firmness of opinion – how likely is it the NPC will change his mind?The more firm an NPC’s stance is, and the more insubstantial the PCs’ leverage is, the harder it will be to change an NPC’s opinion.

Mission examples:

  • Convince the innkeeper that mages should be allowed to stay at the inn.
  • Persuade the moneylender that I’m not such a high risk for a loan.
  • How can I demonstrate to Loreille’s father that I’d make a good son-in-law?

Mission: Lose Face

The PCs are charged with making an NPC lose face in public. Name calling is usually the most direct, but least effective tactic. The PCs will have to come up with something creative to embarrass, humiliate, or socially injure the NPC.Watch out for the dueling option. Consider making dueling illegal, losing duels non-disgraceful, or the NPC an expert fighter.

Mission examples:

  • Trick the priest into admitting his lies before the council.
  • Convince Boris to do something foolish at the dance so that Loreille will lose interest in him.
  • Make Boris refuse when I challenge him to a duel so that everyone thinks he’s a coward.

Mission: Improve Reputation

The PCs are charged with the task of improving opinions about a certain NPC. While the party might come up with action-oriented plans, such as faking an event or masquerading as the NPC and performing good deeds, this will still require some roleplaying support to ensure that reputation-increasing situations are perceived in the right way and to measure success.

Enable the PCs to tap into a community grapevine so they can roleplay through this to achieve their goal. You can also fine-tune this mission to a target group whose opinions about the NPC’s reputation must change.

The more elite or remote this group is, the tougher the challenge.

Mission examples:

  • The PCs’ newest friend wants to be accepted into the “old boys’ club”, but they think he is too young and inexperienced.
  • After a few bad deals that “weren’t his fault”, a merchant wants the PCs to convince the guild he’s an honest businessman.
  • A shy scribe wants people to think he’s brave and courageous.
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Not all players enjoy roleplaying, parleying, and acting. Some come to the table to kick some ass, roll the dice, and see some action. By adopting a mission style for some roleplaying encounters, you can create a middle ground between various playing styles to keep your players entertained and satisfied.