Why I’ve Changed My Approach Roleplay

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #1051

Awesome RPT Patron Roel asked for my two cents on a couple of roleplaying house rules he’s thinking of for his campaign:

When a player role plays a social situation well they can take +2 on social checks (diplomacy, intimidation etc) (GM’s discretion).

This rule is to encourage players to role play conversations. The bar for the qualifier ‘well’ is pretty low. It is more about the effort than the result.

When a player does not describe his attack action properly they will take a -2 on all attack rolls (GM’s discretion).

This is to encourage more flavour text in the game. It does not need to be Oscar worthy. Just a short description rather than just saying ‘I roll a 16 and do 4 damage’.

I was just wondering what your thoughts on these are. Especially the second one is a negative rule, essentially, but I figured that adding a +1 or +2 would be affecting the game balance too much.

The idea is for them to really say anything other than just the dice roll and damage.

Furthermore I hope that enforcing this behaviour this way will train their skill at it as well and in the end they will do it automatically.

What do you think? Very curious to hear your view on these rules.

Thanks for the question, Roel!

My views on rewarding roleplay have shifted over the years. It’s a tricky topic because context matters.

For example, convention games are different beasts than regular campaign games.

Also, your players might react differently than others.

Communication is Key

I don’t know how you’ll roll out these house rules (pun intended!), so let me make a couple of general caveats off the top not specific to you but hopefully relevant.

Solving a problem you have with people by means other than a direct chat could be considered passive aggressive…. And likely to fail in the long run.

House rules are not good ways to solve behaviour problems. They often have little effect.

And last, applying negative effects is often a bad way to nurture the social contract.


Your house rule ideas look fair and balanced to me.

And I like the spirit with which you’ve created them. You want great roleplay from your group because every player who leans into roleplay and descriptions lifts a session up for all.

If you have not already planned to do so, have a chat with your group first. Discuss what you’d like to see from players. Be open to their responses. Then design and apply your house rules.

Put your house rules on probation. Give them a one session trial. After the session, from your side of the screen, assess whether the house rules were used, if they had a positive effect, and if players seemed to enjoy them. Then ask players how they liked the new rules and what their experience was with them.

I mentioned my views on roleplay have changed. This is my view, and it might not suit your GM style or your players’ preferences, so grain of salt here.

Roel, I believe you’re running D&D 5E. I’m going to make that assumption based on the skills you mentioned, but let me know if I’m wrong.

Combat Descriptions Are Overrated

Roleplay outside combat is fantastic. Roleplay via character action description inside combat, not so much.

For D&D 5E especially.

It’s more the GM’s job than the players’.

Here’s why.

Roleplay outside combat affects the game. It affects situations and NPC relationships.

For example, if my PC is rude to the guards, I can expect some consequences. They’ll be less helpful next time. They might even make some trouble for my character and the party.

Players describing character actions outside combat results in opportunities for evolving the situation, skill checks, and intra-party roleplay. Good stuff!

Describing character actions inside combat doesn’t not affect the combat in 5E, however. Descriptions are pure flavour text. And, worst case, they break the game.

For example, I had a player in my Demonplague campaign tell me, “I run across the stream, swing my axes over my head, and attack the goblin’s head with each.”

I remember this exact moment because I thought, “Oh crap, this is well outside the purview of D&D, but I don’t want to deflate my friend or discourage his great description.”

The double attack was not allowed because the character had a shield. Called shots are not an official thing in 5E. And called shots to the head for a quick win are definitely not a thing.

Therefore, only certain descriptions are relevant in combat. So you’d need to coach your group to provide descriptions that comply with the rules.

I like fast, dramatic, and exciting combats. The most exciting bits are the results. And players do not control the results, the game master does.

So I want the GM to give me clear descriptions of what’s just happened so I can decide as a player what to do next. GM descriptions with flavour help make combat exciting as long as the flavour does not ruin the clarity.

Non-combat descriptions in 5E can hook into mechanics and drive results. But combat descriptions by players don’t affect the mechanics or results.

Combat descriptions get repetitive, as well.

I think there are three situations for combat descriptions.

  1. The actions of the player character.
  2. Flavour surrounding the actions taken by the player character.
  3. The results of actions and dice rolls.

If you are trying to address #1 then that is great. You need clarity from players about what their character is doing so you can referee the game.

If you aren’t getting this, that’s a mechanics problem, not an incentive problem. Players must be clear with you on their character actions taken, character abilities used, and any special rules employed.

For example, a player might say, “I attack.”

Well, that needs a bit more information. Attack with what and what target, at minimum. To me, this isn’t optional description. No house rule needed here, just clarification questions from the GM.

#3 is also crucial. And as GM, you need no incentive to provide great descriptions of how actions turn out.

Which leaves #2. What benefit does this offer your game? Why exactly do you want players to describe more than character actions?

Also factor in the cost of pure flavour description in combat:

  • Slower combats (but not by much, really)
  • More cognitive load on the GM (unless you ignore the descriptions)
  • Potential clashes with rules

Get total clarity on why you think combat descriptions from players will improve your game, and whether that outweighs potential costs.

In my experience, faster fights generate more drama and enjoyment than flavourful player descriptions. It’s the results and the speed at which they develop that makes combat the most fun.

I want to deprioritize anything that chips away at combat speed that also fails to provide much benefit.

Ala Scott McCloud in his fantastic book, Understanding Comics, the abstract stirs the imagination more than detail.

That’s because our brains fill in the gaps. Which is why abstract or less detail makes for greater fun, as our imagination gets to work a bit instead of being fed all the detail and put out of a job.

Players will envision and imagine combats even with sparse details.

Last, if you find your combats boring, I worry that the root cause is not lack of player descriptions. You might be fixing only a surface level problem, and find combats still remain lacklustre.

Roleplay Is Its Own Reward

If I enjoy providing detail, great, I’m having fun.

If I don’t enjoy it, then I’m not going to do it. And an incentive could actually make me dislike the GM’s game as I must do something I dislike to get a boon other players receive.

Non-combat roleplay and description form the heart of the game for me, regardless of game system.

It’s as important to understand the context and approach of an action as it is to tell me what action you’re performing. Such detail helps me roleplay NPCs and the milieu, creating a positive feedback loop. More flavour begets more flavour.

Therefore, roleplay and descriptions are their own reward.

At the least, if a player feels no intrinsic reward for imagining their characters’ actions and sharing those details, then ensure there’s a GM-driven reward for conjuring them up.

If a player is reluctant to provide a little extra detail surrounding their character’s non-combat actions, then I’ll probe with some question and, most importantly, explain my thinking. When players understand how I use their details to portray NPCs and figure out results, they’ll become interested in providing those details more often.

The way I adjudicate character roleplay actions in 5E comes down to dialing in the difficulty level or giving NPCs a boon or penalty.

For example, a diplomacy check after being rude becomes more difficult. No character roll modifiers needed.

I do this so roleplaying becomes less mechanical for the players.

I’ve found granting players preset bonuses to roleplay skill checks results in just as much out-of-character mechanical discussion.

“Johnn, I’m going to flatter the guard. Do I get my +2?”

However, putting all the mechanics on my end gets rid of that entirely and we all stay in-character either first person or third.

Krug: “I saw you practicing this morning. You are getting really good with that halberd. I would run away if you ever came at me with it, haha!”

Guard: “Thanks. No orc will ever get past me on the wall!”

Krug: “May I enter the inner bailey? I have some business with the Prelate, but don’t want to bother him and make him come down here to sign me in.”

Player: “Can I make a diplomacy check?”

GM: “You bet. It looks like the guard is warming up to you, so it’s going to be a bit of an easier roll this time. Well done.”

Behind the scenes I make the difficulty easier because of the roleplay. The players all see this and how it works, so will try to do this again.

That’s my preference. Try it out and see how it goes.

Roleplay Shmoleplay

I hope I have not discouraged you, Roel. I feel this response is a bit on the negative side, even after re-writing it on the weekend.

Roleplay and great descriptions are awesome. Long live roleplay!

I have concerns with incentivizing roleplay, however, especially if it’s meted via a penalty. Negative reinforcement backfires a lot when it comes to human behaviour.

To summarize my thoughts:

  • Consider letting roleplay be its own reward.
  • Speak with your group directly first.
  • Do bonuses solve the problem for new, shy, or awkward players? (The power of incentive vs. fear or obstacle — is it high enough to win?)
  • Be prepared for your world to react to the roleplay. (Can your game actually handle the results of colourful combat descriptions, or are they mere window dressing, which demotivates some players.)
  • Combat rounds with fast descriptions and start-round summaries by the GM are better because melee drama comes from results of actions.

Patrons, what do you think? Either in regards to my philosophy on roleplay in combat, to incentivizing roleplay, or to creating house rules to encourage roleplay and combat descriptions? I’d love to hear your thoughts!