3 Ways To Get Your Players To ROLE-Play More

From Christopher Sniezak

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #0639

A Brief Word From Johnn

RetCon, or retroactive continuity, happens when you undo gameplay and play it again. I’ve never liked doing that. It’s wasted game time, somebody often gets the short end of the stick, and worst, it feels like a betrayal to the story.

I’ve been researching drawing maps lately. And a word of wisdom from artists is to draw in ink. When you make a mistake, just use it, build on it, and make it part of the art. This builds skills and gives you more confidence than drawing in pencil where you can wimp out, regress, and erase any little part you think is off.

So when you run your next game, GM in ink.

A Couple Of RPG Reviews

I’ve started a series of quick video RPG reviews.

I’m taking books off my shelf – just the lesser known titles and tools I’m not seeing others talk about much – and letting you know why they deserve precious space on my GM bookshelf.

Check out a couple recent ones:

World Builder’s Guide

RPG Review: The World Builder’s Guide

The Tasks of Tantalon

RPG Review: The Tasks of Tantalon

Gamemaster Law

RPG Review: Gamemaster Law

I’ve got the flu, hence the lateness of this issue. So while I try to make two consecutive heal checks, you get some gaming done this week!


3 Ways To Get Your Players To ROLE-Play More

How can you create encounters and adventures that rely not on combat but role-playing instead?

My approach is to look for mechanics and tools that get your players to act out their characters’ roles to advance the story. Here are a few ways to do this.

Triggered Roles

This comes straight from Apocalypse World and many of the games derived from it. When your players want to make a skill roll of some kind, require them to provide a story, description, or narration for their character that will trigger the roll.

Third person descriptions are just as relevant as first person acting.

This gives you a fictional foundation to play off of when the die roll goes well or poorly. Details driven by player roleplaying help you narrate a result determined by the dice. Here’s an example:

Throndir is a cleric of the god of light. He’s got a decent diplomacy check and wants to get a thief captured from the local thieves guild to tell him where the local hideout is. Using the Triggered Roles method, you ask Throndir to make some kind of gesture of good faith or assistance to the thief to get the information.

He could say, “Look, we’re not here to hurt you. We just want you to help us and then we’ll let you go. Tell us where the thieves guild is?

Or he could say, “My character plays nice cop while Boris behind me makes threatening gestures. I explain to the thief we’ll let him go without injury if he tells us where the hideout is.

Now your player can make his diplomacy check.

This draws non-roleplaying type players out, because they know there’s a dice roll coming up. It’s a nice hybrid approach between roll-play and role-play.

Regardless of the roll, you narrate back what happens based on the details players provided you. This closes the loop, rewards details offered, demonstrates by example, and encourages more roleplay next time.

For example, success: “The thief pales when Boris makes a neck-breaking gesture along with a crick-crick-crick growl. He spills, fearing his life….

Foundational Fiction and Fail Forward

Take a look at what’s just happened in our example above. Throndir gave his word he’ll let the thief go if he gets the information. You’re getting the role-playing you wanted, but you’ve also got some fictional input from your player and set stakes for the roll.

Throndir gets the info on a success and the thief goes free. With the input from the player a precedent has been set. The player used diplomacy and not deceit, so Throndir is bound to uphold his end. The question is, what happens when Throndir fails? Don’t block but have the situation fail forward through either success with a cost or escalation.

Success With A Cost

With this result, it will cost the players more resources to get what they’re trying to accomplish. Maybe the thief wants money or safe passage out of the city. It’s an extra cost to your players, but they still get the information to move the story along.


Here, the situation changes, which introduces a new problem with higher stakes.

You could escalate by having the thief point at a tattoo on his arm and mouth that his bosses can hear through it. Now your players have a new problem to deal with and everything they’ve said so far has been heard

The Bargain

Maybe you don’t want any kinds of rolls in the game for the role play portions. This means it’s all about the conversation, the give and take, and the narrative prompts you give your players and whatever tells they give you.

What all this boils down to is a bargain. Your players find an NPC and want something from them and your NPC asks for something in return. The bargain is easy enough to understand, and your players get to make the choice to pay up or escalate the situation. To make a situation like this happen and not feel too arbitrary and forced, you need your NPCs to have a vulnerability and a desire.


This is something the NPC will give into. It’s something they care about more than their desire and will give up things to keep their vulnerability from being compromised. Example vulnerabilities are a family member, their own pain, or their honor.


This is something they want and will be willing to give up other things to acquire. Examples are money, freedom, or a date with one of the characters.

Let’s look at the above example with Throndir and the thief. The thief’s desire is to live on and he knows if he talks his bosses will kill him. His vulnerability is he doesn’t like pain.

Throndir doesn’t know this, but he tells the thief he just wants information and then they’ll let him go. The thief knows if he talks he’s dead but he doesn’t really see any way out of this. So he counters by telling Throndir he’ll tell them what he knows if the players get him out of the city with enough money to make it to the next city and set himself up.

Now the players can make a choice to either pay the price for the information or escalate by trying other things. If they threaten torture against the thief he’ll also crack, but that also tells you something about the characters and what they’re willing to do so you have information to use against them in the future.


The point of NPCs having vulnerabilities and desires is so players can find leverage on them. Leverage is how you get people to do things for you, which is the crux of most conversations in an RPG.

Sometimes your players want information and it’s from a an NPC who’s a friend to the PCs. They’re leveraging their friendship to get what they want.

In the case above, the thief leverages his information to bargain so the PCs get him out of the city. And Throndir leverages his friends’ abilities and on-hand wealth to get what the thief wants so they can acquire the information.

If you’re ever stuck just ask yourself the question, “What does my NPC want and what are they willing to do to get it?

If you can answer that then you have some direction for where to go with your NPC.

Investigation and the Core Clue

Mysteries are great ways to have scenarios rely on things other than combat, but they can be tricky to pull off if you don’t have the right tools or mindset.

Forget the idea of rolling to find clues. You should want your players to have the clues because acting on them and piecing together the mystery is really what an investigative game is about.

To facilitate this, I suggest using the idea of the Core Clue. This comes from Robin Laws <http://www.pelgranepress.com/site/?page_id=672> Gumshoe system, but it’s pretty easy to apply to any game. The idea is, no matter what the characters do they will always find the core clue they can act on to move them along in the scenario.

Not Forcing It

Handing out clues can make the game look like you’re being heavy handed. Getting around it isn’t as hard as it sounds.

Frame the clue from the perspective of the character who would most likely find it. If it’s a brutal murder, have the rouge or fighter notice how those kinds of wounds would be created. They would also know the people around the area that could do such a thing.

If magic was employed, the arcane types notice it and gain the next lead. If it was sacrificial or a kind of religious rite, then the holy people know something.

Use character classes, skills, and backgrounds as a way to give clues. Make the study of each character’s skillset more than just a bunch of powers and abilities on a character sheet. It makes your players feel more like their characters and promotes playing to their role. This also lets you get past the rolling of dice and pushes your players towards making choices, which means talking, which means role playing.

Another way to not force it is the number of clues and their possible interpretations. Here are a few ideas or tips for throwing them out there:

You Provide A Trail Of Clues

You construct a series of clues that lead from one to the other, acting like a trail. This will be a linear scenario but it’s the easiest to do. At a murder crime scene you provide a matchbook for a bar. At the bar you learn Mr. Smith was hanging out with the victim of the murder, and you get his address. You find Mr. Smith at his home and a chase ensues where you catch him and he confesses to the murder. Simple. And each clue leads to the next place.

You Provide Multiple Clues In A Single Scene

In the above example, the players have already arrived at the bar but you give two clues for the players to act on. There is Mr. Smith, whose address they get,. But there is also Jenny, who is the victim’s ex, and she had an argument with the victim at the bar. That’s two leads for the players.

You Provide A Clue With Multiple Interpretations

Jenny had an argument with her ex, but someone else lets you know they were arguing about money and his job.

Yes people fight about money and jobs, but maybe the money and job were about money and a job they were doing together, and it wasn’t about spurned love. Maybe Jenny isn’t the killer but the next target on the killer’s list.

Now you have a clue that might mean more, especially if Jenny and the victim are known criminals.

The Tip of the Iceberg

These are just a few ideas how games can played that don’t rely on combat and push for role-playing.

Before I go, here are a few ideas I didn’t touch on: chases, heists, conspiracies, and the Ocean of Clues. Ponder on those for a while and I’ll get back to you next time.

5 Ways To Use Ships As A Dungeon

From Jesse C. Cohoon

Ships as dungeons is an interesting challenge because they are mobile, limited in size, and waterborne. Expanding some definitions, however, can lead to a variety of possibilities you may not have thought of.

Redefine What A Ship Is

A ship doesn’t have to be this thing that floats on water. Maybe it’s an elven airship that sails through the skies or a submarine that inhabits the depths. Or perhaps it could be a dwarven ship that sails through solid stone in the Elemental plane of Earth or is the deceased hull of what used to be a dragon turtle.

Other options are to have the ship on lava or traveling within ley lines in your world’s magic system or even in space.

In cases like these, the players would be stuck on the ship until they could figure out how or where to exit.

Examine Different Types Of Ships

There’s always the classic haunted pirate ship. But even these can be changed up by rearranging the levels and having hidden passages. Why not have a dungeon be set on a giant version of a Viking ship?

Or have the dungeon be an old-fashioned paddle wheel steamboat, a cargo ship, or a prison ship. If you don’t mind borrowing from modern day, consider a cruise ship or a canal ship as a location.

Consider Expanding The Location In Unique Ways

In Zelda: Skyward Sword, there are these items called “time stones” that shift a portion of the level back and forth through time.

Another way you could expand the location is to have the ship occupy two or more dimensions simultaneously, and the players have to shift from one to another to get to different places in the ship.

A third way to expand the location is for parts to have different gravity rules, but under different circumstances, so players never know whether or not they’ll be affected.

Consider Different Races

In designing a ship as a location, think not only of standard fantasy races but variations of them. For instance, you might have a group of Avariel (winged elves) who are sailing above the treetops, or tinker gnomes, with their penchant for all things mechanical, in some sort of steam-driven airship, and wearing magic-punk collapsible hang gliders that allow them to rain death from above.

Or you might have powrie (bloody cap dwarves) who use their heat-proof barrel boats in lava.

Also think of other intelligent races that might want to travel, but may not wish or be able to travel to a location normally. For instance, you might have dragons that have starships, beholders who sail within the ley lines, or lizardmen who explore the deep in submarines.

Consider The Reason For The Dungeon To Be There

Ask yourself “what’s the story behind why this is here?

Stumped for answers? Consider the following ideas:

  • Protection of a magical item. The dungeon moves around because it protects a magic item that, if it fell into the wrong hands, would mean the end of the world. The creatures and traps are a test of merit. Those who fail are not worthy of the ultimate treasure.
  • Lost in time. In Zelda: Skyward Sword, the ship dungeon was lost to the annals of time, the area gradually became desert, and the ship fell into disrepair.
  • Exploration. Consider the opening sequence as narrated by James T Kirk: “Space, the final frontier. These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise. Its five-year mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man has gone before.
  • A prison. Maybe everyone and everything on this ship is there to keep something inside, and others out. Maybe the traps, automated guards, etc. are the ship’s defenses to prevent the criminal’s escape.
  • Creative genius. The dungeon might be a ship because the person (or people) building it simply could. They wanted to challenge others with their creativity, but also wanted to make it a challenge to even get there, so they made it.
  • The result of an experiment gone bad. Similar to the prison scenario, the magic or science experiment is too dangerous to remain free in the general sense of the term, so it was put into this ship and set adrift. It could be free as in the case of the Minotaur wandering its maze, but in this case the experiment would be wandering the ship.

d20 Triggered Roles Table

From Johnn Four

The great tip from Chris above about using Triggered Roles inspired me to make a table for you to help groups where storytelling and roleplaying isn’t natural, yet.

Use this tool to squeeze a crowbar into your regular combats and crack open story, description, and narration.

Step 1

Start by explaining this table to your group before the session begins, so everyone knows what to expect.

Step 2

Then, during the heat of a battle, when you feel like combat is grinding and just boring dice rolls, whip out the table and roll 1d20 and 1d10 before the next player’s turn.

Use the d20 for column #1: Role Plays.

Read the result to the player. That’s the challenge to him, the gauntlet you throw down.

If they can roleplay or describe that action, then they get the benefit of what you rolled for column #2: Boons.

Step 3

If the player chooses not to try the Role Play, let them proceed with their action, Boon unearned. That’s ok, this is a process, keep at it and be encouraging. As other players earn Boons and offer examples, reluctant players will see how it’s done and can try to imitate. Make it a safe room to learn.

If the player does try the Role Play, then evaluate whether they did a great job.

I’ve built column #2: Boons so the best benefits are in the 11-20 range.

So if a player does a great job, apply the d10 roll to the 11-20 range. If a player doesn’t do a great job, then apply the d10 roll to the bottom half of the column, to reward them for trying.

Alternatively, you can roll a d20 for column #2 instead of a d10 and open all the results up without judging player performance. This might be safer if your group is very tentative with this roleplaying stuff. 🙂

Please give this table a try next session and let me know how it goes. I tried to make it system neutral. If you have ideas for better Role Plays or Boons, I’m all ears – just email me your ideas.

Role Plays


  1. Clever taunt
  2. They hesitate
  3. Complication
  4. Take it to them!
  5. Good idea
  6. Sudden insight
  7. Help from a friend
  8. Perceptive
  9. The tough get going!
  10. Shot of adrenalin
  11. Distract them
  12. Make it personal: bring a sideplot into the action
  13. Make it personal: bring the PC’s background into the action
  14. Spot an advantage
  15. Rousing speech
  16. Inspired cursing
  17. Think fast on your feet
  18. Out of desperation
  19. Dire threat
  20. Feel no pain
Graphic of section divider
  1. +2 bonus to next action
  2. Gain a temporary +2 ability boost
  3. Foe defense reduce by 2
  4. Give two allies +2 to their next action before they roll
  5. Change places with any ally within 10′ at no cost or penalty
  6. Double your chances of a critical next action
  7. Foe drops weapon or gets weapon caught in something
  8. Foe is incapacitated and non-reactive until his turn
  9. Foes must make a morale check
  10. Roll two dice, take best
  11. Gain a bonus action
  12. Swap up to 4 points between defense and offense next attack
  13. Add an ally’s charisma or social skill bonus to action
  14. Add an ally’s wisdom or insight skill bonus to action
  15. If use action to help ally, ally gains +4 next action
  16. Any mind, spirit, or social skill will automatically succeed if used next turn
  17. If another ally can make a difficult skill check against a foe, you gain +4 next action
  18. You spot an unseen tactical advantage (e.g., sand in face), try it now for free
  19. You can put yourself just before your foe in initiative, letting you act again before them
  20. Make an opponent’s action automatically fail