5 Ways To Help Your Players Roleplay More

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #0052

A Brief Word From Johnn

Supplemental Issue #3 Released

I’m pleased to announce that Roleplaying Tips Weekly Supplemental #3 is ready:
“Helping Players Choose To Roleplay vs. Fight”

It’s a long file (66k, 11,000 words) but each post in it has at least a nugget or two of excellent advice. Supplemental #3.

Roleplay Versus Combat

I don’t want you to think this issue’s message is that roleplaying is better than combat. It is about ways you can introduce roleplaying to new or veteran players who normally shoot first and ask questions later.

Personally, I like to have at least 2 good combats each session in my campaign. We play D&D 3E, and combat suits those rules pretty well. And, my group really enjoys a good fight too.

Many of you have written in asking about combat vs. roleplaying tips, and last issue I asked for your feedback. That feedback is available in Supplemental #3, and this week’s issue is a summary of the best of your tips.

The object of roleplaying is to have fun. It’s a game. So, having lots of action in your game is perfectly OK if that’s your group’s style. And, if you prefer to have little or no combat in your games, that’s great too!

Enjoy this week’s tips.

Warm regards,


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5 Ways To Help Your Players Roleplay More

Create A Situation That Cannot Be Solved By Combat

Put the PCs in a situation that cannot be solved by combat and they’ll need to seek other means, such as negotiating or subterfuge, to get past the obstacle.

For example:

  • A foe who is too tough for brute force
  • They require information to accomplish their goal(s). And they are in a setting where getting information from the dead is impossible, extremely difficult, time consuming or expensive.
  • Killing their foes does not stop the main source of the problem. And a new foe will just appear again before long (i.e. what point is killing squads and squads of stormtroopers when Darth Vader and the Emperor can just deploy more?).
  • Combat is an extremely poor tactical move:
    • it reveals what side the characters are on
    • it reveals their tactics
    • it tells their enemies their strengths, weaknesses, special abilities, etc.
    • it gives away their current location
  • Using force causes them to lose their objective (i.e. the hostages are killed, the foe’s family’s revenge is severe and starts the cycle all over again).I’ve tried these techniques before with good and poor results. Here’s what I’ve learned about putting PCs in situations that they are unfamiliar with, such as not using combat to solve their problems:
  • Don’t get frustrated if the PCs resort to combat the first few times. They are learning new habits, and you may be a bit rusty too. 😉
  • Give them lots of opportunities, at first, to think and re-think their actions. If one player blurts out “I draw my bow and fire” at the very start, allow him to cancel that action if his peers talk him out of it.
  • Give them enough information so that they can quickly and easily come to the conclusion that combat is not the answer. For example, one time I made an NPC so tough that there was no chance the PCs’ could win a battle with him. However, during the encounter, the players perceived that the NPC was only *acting* tough and they attacked. I should have made it more apparent that he outmatched them (i.e. rumours, stories, a scene where he takes on a party of adventurers and wins easily).
  • Make sure you’re not motivating the PCs to attack. In the example above, the PCs were in a public place arguing with the tough NPC and were losing “face” in front of other NPCs. Also, they figured (rightly so) that the NPC had some cool magic items.
  • Be generous with clues. i.e. use their skills, such as spot, alertness, perception, tactics, whatever, to let them know combat will not solve their problem.

Reward For Roleplaying

Make sure the reward for fighting is less than the reward for roleplaying. If the PCs get more skill points, experience points, credits, gold pieces, glory or excitement from dead foes than they do from live ones then there’s not much you can do to prevent too much combat. It wouldn’t be fair to the players either, if you made them choose unrewarding courses of action.

Also, if your group is unused to roleplaying, the roleplaying could be tentative, hesitant, or just poor. But that’s ok because everybody needs to make mistakes to learn.

When the roleplaying isn’t very good from inexperienced players, reward them anyway to encourage them to continue trying.

Also, be a leader by roleplaying your NPCs well (which is usually a result of good planning) and showing them how to do it without shyness, embarrassment or reservation.

Turn Combat Into A Roleplaying Encounter

This is a fantastic way to introduce your players to roleplaying.

  • Have the foes roleplay during the fight.
    • Grimaces of pain and shouted curses
    • Last, dying words
    • Insults
    • NPCs talking it up with other NPCs
    • Imaginative actions that go beyond attack rolls (i.e. climbing atop tables, making faces, waving a torch around)
  • Scar the PCs and NPCs. Have an NPC tell a story to the PCs about each one of the battle scars on his body. Encourage your players to do the same. Or create a long term reminder of the combat, such as the arm that always aches in the rain and makes the PC think about the chilling day when…
  • Put the encounter in an interesting setting, such as a runaway stagecoach, or outside a spaceship in space.
  • Go “over the top”. One of the best campaigns I’ve GMed had the foes communicate long and involved messages to the PCs with their eyes: “He glares at you a moment, then draws his longsword; and in his eyes you could see his resolve to make a stand in this spot, his home, his father’s home and his father’s father’s home, and he is prepared to die, right here, right now, to make his ancestors proud.”
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Don’t Always Fight To The Death

From Dylan C.

If every NPC the heroes fight comes at them with a lethal implement or spell, your players will become used to reacting with similar levels of force, ‘just to be on the safe side’. However, if it’s obvious that (a) their opponent isn’t intending to kill them, and (b) the PCs have a good chance against them without resorting to lethal force, then the chances that they will respond at a similar level are higher.

To illustrate: ‘normal’ people who are provoked into a street brawl don’t attack like berserkers until knocked unconcious. A few sloppy blows are exchanged, some threats and insults are yelled, and a few more punches are thrown. At some point the fighters will decide that this isn’t worth it any more and will withdraw.

In ‘hit point’ terms, the fight has never been in danger of becoming lethal; and yet, a confrontation has occurred, and the ‘winner’ can go on their way satisfied that, in as much as such terms are appropriate, they have ‘triumphed’ or ‘been victorious’.

Such tactics will only be employed by players who trust you not to change the rules halfway into a fight; if they’re slapping, ripping clothes, and cussing when their opponent suddenly changes tack and pulls a gun, you can bet they will never do it again. So, the trick is to show the players your cards, by allowing them to get a feel of the different levels of danger posed by various common sources of violence in your campaign world. This gives them a better sense of their surroundings and what is considered an acceptable response to different sorts of insult or injury.

“Even gunslingers should get into fistfights”

Make Characters Meaningful To The Players So There’s Always “Something At Stake”

If the players are afraid of losing their characters, and you make combat deadly, then they will be more open to roleplaying their way out of problems.

Bonus Tip: Play A Couple Of 1-On-1 Sessions

A one-on-one session is a fantastic way to help a player learn to roleplay, or learn to roleplay more often. You can do some solo adventures before the campaign starts, or during the campaign, between sessions.

One-on-one sessions, whether they are 1 hour long during lunch, or a full session-length, have many roleplaying benefits:

  • A character is much more vulnerable when alone and will need to seek other options to fighting if s/he is going to live to re-join the main party.
  • Solo adventures give the player more story share and more GM time–meta-game elements which often prevent roleplaying in a group.
  • The player may feel more comfortable roleplaying, as other players aren’t there to watch and judge.
  • 1-on-1’s tend to build pretty good stories due to focus, concentration and rapid story development (usually because there’s far less discussion and arguing among players ;).

I’ve found a character that has been on a solo adventure or two is very much treasured (re: Tip #5 above).

You can also use solo adventures as a possible reward (the PC who does XYZ gets a solo session).

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Tips From Roleplaying Tips Game Masters

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

Create Character Reputations

From DZW

Remind players of the moments in which they did something extraordinary. Use those moments as stories others have heard in the game world so that a reputation follows the character(s).

As a GM, make side comments about what has been done previously so that a player is encouraged to do more in the future.

Make some encounters very personal exploits for the characters.

These may be simple ideas but they have a huge impact on games.

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Create Great Stories By Mixing Movies

From Ben “Digga” Price

This is a follow-up to the article posted by Kate Manchester titled ’10 ways to find inspiration’. [See Issue #49]

Kate’s list was very good and covered a lot but I felt she missed out one important source, other media. In my GMing experience, PCs love to play out a plot that they half recognise. Great Cyberpunk games have been played using Die Hard as the basic plot line, and an interesting Feng Shui game led the PCs against the Spice Girls (who had demonic powers).

I’m not suggesting you totally copy the plot of your favorite film, as its no fun knowing the outcome, but little hints and plot similarities can make an enjoyable experience. What is more fun is when you mix the plot of a film with a totally unrelated genre, such as Star Wars in Middle Earth, or the 13th Warrior in Cyberpunk. PCs feel rewarded when they work out the plot connections.

One of my best roleplaying friends, Tom Rice, once said; “Never be afraid to rip off films and TV shows. Its not like they’re going to sue you for it!”. Films, TV shows and even computer games have brought me a wealth of inspiration for a variety of RPG systems, that have resulted in satisfying games.

Try it and see.

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Using A Silly Mood To Your Advantage

From Bryan Jonker

I was GMing an In Nomine campaign where the mood turned from somewhat serious to plain goofy. Not sure why, but one funny thing happened after another, and the characters ended up getting drunk at a bar. I decided to escalate things a bit. First, they tried calling back at base, but there was no answer (there was a major NPC who lived at the base). They thought nothing of it, got more drunk, and headed back. The door was open, and they found the NPC murdered and their place trashed.

Role-playing-wise, the silly mood ended up accenting the horror. Turned out pretty good – I used the silly mood to my advantage.