4 Tips On Encouraging Roleplay

From Johnn Four

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #0246

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 could occur!


Johnn Four
[email protected]

4 Tips On Encouraging Roleplay

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 their PCs.
    • Interesting backstory
    • Fun quirk
    • Funny quirk (ensure it won’t get annoying over time)
    • A cool personality trait
    • A fun personality trait
    • Interesting equipment (i.e. a neat cane or utility belt)
    • 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 dreams
    • 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 free!”)
  • 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.

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 it.
  • 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 the Ss’th’irith.
    • 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 possible.
  • 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 meaningless answers.
    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 have planned.
  • 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 questions IC.
  • 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 designs.

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 themes.
  • Let friends and family members bring some good to the PC’s life.
    • 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 whole group.
  • 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 the player’s.
  • 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 roleplaying?”
  • 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.

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 been OK.

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 with:

  • 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 comfortable
  • 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

Tips From Roleplaying Tips Game Masters

Have a roleplaying tip you’d like to share? E-mail it to [email protected] – thanks!

General GMing Tips

From ChickenReborn

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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 current game.
  4. On the other hand…don’t discount the enjoyment of your players. Sorry, that’s a reiteration.
  5. 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 loses.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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.

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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.

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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.

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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 together.

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 aimlessly.

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 session.