So the day is upon you. The dice are packed, the books have been dusted off, your DM screen ready to be deployed. You’ve talked to your players, told them this campaign was intended for “more RP”. More role-play and less roll-play is the way you put it. But the warmest response you got was a “yeah, sure, whatever.” And you see the bloodlust in their eyes. They just want to roll dice and kill stuff.
You’ve got a choice, then. Do you DM another game of Diablo? Guide another pack of murder-hobos through the realms? Or do you put your foot down and teach these munchkins what the meaning of role-playing is?
If you’re one of those GMs who’s sick of the tyranny of the dice, or if you’d just like to create a game where people actually get into theatrics of it, live out their character’s lives and, ya know, actually bleedin’ put the “role” in role-play, here’s some tips to help you along. Whether it’s D&D, World of Darkness or GURPS, these might help you, or at least provide some useful ideas to play with.
0. The golden rule.
Remember this old chestnut? Every RPG book has at least a passage dedicated to it: “have fun”. That’s what we’re here for, after all. A corollary to this is “choose your party well”. If they’re so bloodthirsty that you’re worried they might actually be vampires, and it doesn’t look like they’re interested in what your story has to offer, best cut your losses and move on.
But, even if they come at it with the best intentions, some people don’t take to the acting quite as easily. Maybe they haven’t done this before. Maybe they’re shy, or if they don’t know the people at the table very well, they might not feel comfortable enough to get into it.
For those people, there’s a few ways to help them along.
Points. A little positive reinforcement to nudge them in the right direction. Cookie credits, brownie points, whatever you want to call them. In some games, it may take the form of bonus XP, in Cypher it’s Story points, in FATE it’s Fate points, Destiny for Star Wars, and so on. Some systems have this built into them, some require a little house-ruling. 5e D&D, for example, has inspiration, and it basically tells you in the Player’s Handbook, “the DM can hand out inspiration to reward particularly good RP”.
Generally speaking, these are tokens or valuable points that a character can use to influence the story in a meaningful way. A well-timed Deus ex Machina moment? Spend that Fate point. Feel like it’s the appropriate time to go full BAMF and dispense some indiscriminate justice? Use that Story point. While its uses can be strictly mechanic, it can also be used narratively. If a beloved NPC falls in battle, with a plot point spent, they can recover. Perhaps a PC would like to take over the narrative and introduce a story element that they think would be cool. By all means, give the GM a tribute in unicorn tears and they’ll make it happen.
But whatever their uses, it’s the way you earn them that matters. Hand these out judiciously and reward the type of behaviour you want to see at the table. If a party member takes time to get into the shoes of their character and be true to their nature, you should encourage that. If they seek to engage with the world you’ve created in a meaningful way – even if it doesn’t move the main narrative forward, if it creates a good role-playing moment, then give that player a cookie (an actual cookie would be nice too, mind you).
Of course, sometimes playing nice just won’t do. You glance wistfully at the poker tokens you were going to hand out as rewards in story-based currency, and not a single one has passed into the hands of this wild pack of Combat Wombats. Maybe it’s time to play a little rough.
Often times, a player character’s actions are summarised, rather than acted out. “I haggle with the merchant”, or “I negotiate with the noble to let us into their exclusive soiree.”
Ah, well, you don’t say, me chums. And how, pray tell, would you go about this remarkable endeavour? If they refuse to act out their character’s lines, it may be time to ask everyone’s second least-favourite question. Take a page out of the annoying child’s playbook, only instead of asking why, it’s… “How?”
“I seduce the priestess”
“I’ll intimidate the bouncer”
If their answer is not satisfactory. If it’s a particularly bad speech, or if they don’t even bother, just fail them automatically. No roll, do not pass Go, do not collect 200 coppers. It doesn’t matter what skills they have, or what they think their character is good at. If you can’t be bothered, it’s not going to work. You just fail and get a chance to think about what you’ve done.
“I convince the dragon of the error of its ways.”
“How? How in the Nine Hells do you do that? Tell me, how?!”
“Uh… I dunno.”
“Fine. Then, you don’t succeed.”
“You get nothing. You lose! Good day, sir. I said, good day!
Burn their favourite tavern because of a botched negotiation, that’ll put the fear of Tiamat into them.
3. Make it about the role-play
Let’s say the stick worked and you’ve got their attention. Or the RP-bunnies that took to the carrot are now hanging on your every word. But they’re still struggling. How to continue to push them along the path of role-playing? Or drag them kicking and screaming, if you have to.
A first simple step is to get them to say “I” rather than “my character”. It may not seem like much, but that third person narration on their part creates a divide between the player and their in-game persona.
Furthermore, and if you’ve gotten this far into this article, I probably don’t need to tell you this, but put some effort into it yourself. Rather than narrate all interactions, act out the scenes on the NPCs part. Lead by example. At the very least, if monkey see, monkey do. You might just trick them into role-playing, you devious little demiurge. If you can do the voices, by all means do. If you don’t think you’ve got the chops, maybe drop it. No-one likes the bad DM voice. You know the one.
Try to engage their characters at a personal level. Dig deep into that backstory, find something that personally affects them. If they’re at all invested in this story they’ve made up for themselves, then they’ll respond.
4. Pay attention to the table!
As a GM, you may have to play matchmaker or mediator.
Remember that your role is to make sure everyone’s having fun (there’s that golden rule, again). From your position at the table, you have to keep an eagle eye on the goings-on. The story’s there to facilitate interaction between all the people at the table.
If the players aren’t talking to each other (except to divvy up the loot), then there’s no hope for them. Try and ask the right leading questions to get everyone in on the discussion.
Let’s say one of your players is the rogue type, and he’s up to mischief. He uses some of his tricks in full view of the party to swindle some people. Let’s call him, Loki. One of the other characters has a slightly less chaotic outlook on life. You may want to ask that second player:
“Thor, what do you think about what Loki just did?”
“I never like what Loki does. I’m going to punch him till he apologises.”
“Odin, your son’s flown off the handle again.”
“Oh, for the love of – Heimdall, hold my mead!“
And there you go, family drama in your D&D by way of some Norse mythology.
5. Encourage deeper characters from the beginning
Right from the onset, goad, cajole, entice and coax your players however you see fit into expanding on their character’s stories, motivations and outlook. I’m not saying you need 5-page bios (though wouldn’t it be nice?), but expand on the usual “orphan with a thirst for adventure” baseline. Seriously, though, the orphanages in Fantasyland must be overwhelmed!
Maybe their parents are alive and they’re a rebel running from home to adventure? Maybe they’re doing it to impress their family. What is their relationship to their family in general? Their village/town? Any childhood friends? Siblings? Second cousins twice removed? Their first crush, their first major disappointment? Any early life milestones or significant moments in a character’s development – these are not just useful markers for understanding their personality (which should help the player get inside the head of their character) but can also be invaluable tools in a GM’s bag-o-many-tricks to bring up at any point in the campaign.
At some point, these points from their backstories should play a role in the main story. That old flame might show up and cause all kinds of trouble. Old rivals can become recurring villains.
It’s important to know what your players want from the story. Push those buttons and dangle the carrot of closure in front of them. Everyone wants to wrap up a quest, and if it’s a personal one they might all the more motivated. String these kittens along with the shiny lure of personal accomplishment and you may nurture their budding theatrical sensibilities.
Just have some tissues on hand for the emotional ones.
While not every game has to be Critical Role, the rewards of role-playing are richer when you can get into the hearts and minds of your characters. If you actively try to think as they do, and walk a theoretical mile in their fictional shoes, you may be surprised by how that can make you feel. The high of defeating a Big Bad is stronger, the pain of loss is real, and the closure from healing that hurt is all the sweeter, if a little bitter still.
As a Game Master, Storyteller, Dungeon CEO, it’s your job to create the fertile soil in which a story can blossom. It’s up to your players to pollinate and grow those stories to their full potential. If you can create an environment where role-playing is welcome and encouraged, you may find that both you and your friends have discovered new ways to have fun. And it’s all about that golden rule in the end.
Something of a modern day caveman, Ian fell down the rabbit hole of roleplaying games ages ago and has refused to emerge ever since. In his daily life, he wears many hats. When he’s not wearing the hat of the dungeon master, he studies cultural anthropology, writes short stories and occasionally posts on his own blog.
You can find more of his stuff at https://cavemanblues.wordpress.com/
Image is courtesy of JESHEILDS: https://www.patreon.com/jeshields/posts
I am become death, destroyer of worlds.