Article Header Image
Roleplaying, Hook, Line, and Sinker
Save My Game
by Stephen Radney-MacFarland

Last time we chatted, I’d received an e-mail from Dustin who’d caught the roleplaying bug in a big way. Though he had already been playing D&D for awhile, he found a DM with a very immersive roleplaying style, became hooked, and wanted to bring that style back to his regular, hack-and-slash group of gamers. But Dustin was having problems. He just couldn’t get his group to stop hacking, looting, and metagaming. When confronted with this newer style, they blinked, dumbfounded.

The very nature of roleplaying is more free-form than the game rules. Free-form makes some people nervous and self-conscious, especially if they’re not a ham or an actor. Sometimes you have to ease players into roleplaying; make it work like other things in the game.

Here’s some ideas as to how:

Create Hooks

There are a lot of D&D games out there that involve the bare-bones, smash-and-grab model of roleplaying—it’s about stats; it’s about action; it’s about ass-kicking; it’s about treasure. Players in these games don’t need as much story to guide them in. They don’t give a damn about the implausible. They’re having fun, because they’ve bought into the game. Why? Because the game and its design have built-in hooks.

What do I mean by hooks? The parts that grab your audience, pull them in, and never let them go. D&D has these in spades. Classes and races are both hooks; their concepts, art, and application reach out and grab people. The “simple rules with many exceptions” principle of D&D is another. You always have a firm idea of the generals, and you can reference the specific. That’s very much a hook. It pokes its head up and says, “Hey, I’m here, and I think you’ll like me.” The people who do like it, grab it and run. Heck, just the fact that D&D is a fantasy game is its own hook.

Oftentimes DMs forget the general principle of hooks when they make their campaigns. Some make the critical mistake of making a place they believe “could be real”, not realizing that few players are interested in the models for trade and agriculture of their game world—since much of the game is a power fantasy. Others are so fixated with their campaign’s overarching story that they overlook the fact that this form of storytelling already has an audience (and cast) of real people in the form of players and their characters. In the end, these DMs are often trapped creating hooks that interest only themselves. And as the DM, if you’re only interesting yourself then you’ve lost a good chunk of your audience.

It’s much better to have a sandbox approach to story and roleplaying. Throw out loose threads, see who bites, figure out why they bite, and react to the story rather than driving it autocratically from the start. You might guide your players in class and race choices, but you wouldn’t make those decisions for them. Don’t try to make roleplaying decisions for them either. Don’t be afraid to be loose in your details of your world and story vision without losing it completely. Pick up on good ideas and suggestions from your players. As your players become more attached to the story, the immersion level will rise, especially when they figure out that they are the ones driving it rather than simply riding it. When they have more investment in the storytelling and roleplaying parts of the game, they’ll focus on these parts rather than ignore or avoid them.

I’ll give you an example by briefly outlining what I’m doing in my current campaign—my first, full-fledged 1 to 30 D&D 4E campaign—a little ditty I’ve titled the Days of Long Shadows.

When my players made their characters I gave them a list of seven backgrounds they could choose if they so wanted. I told them from the start that choosing a background would ensure their characters had a stronger connection to the overall plot of the campaign, but that they didn’t need to take one. I made these backgrounds simple, with few restrictions. Here are a couple of examples:

The Hexed
Half-elf, human, or tiefling
You are cursed by a mysterious master—so mysterious that you don’t even know his identity. All you know is that his raspy voice occasionally compels you to do things, sometimes terrible things… but worse things happen when you refuse.

The Orphan
You’re an orphan of the disappeared village of Fadail. A wandering oracle of Ioun prophesized that Fadail could only be found by its last scion. Presumably, that person is you.

Basically they are just raw hooks with a purpose. I took some of the interesting themes I wanted to explore in the campaign, composed them in a form that might interest some of my players, and put them out there for my players to pick.

Having my players pick their backgrounds did a couple of things. First of all, it gave them a focused hook into one or more of the stories and themes of the campaign. Having choice alone strengthened their story investment, and gave me a tool that simultaneously focuses their plot-seeking activity and helps me create stories that speak to their characters personally—even before the campaign has started.

For instance, I definitely had a player in mind when I wrote the hexed… and was not surprised when the player took that background. He’s a little emo (which is fine with me, I love emo!), and likes playing these mysterious, tormented characters that have a secret. I knew he would gravitate toward this background.

As for the backgrounds not chosen (like the Orphan above)… well, I have a page of rough ideas I now won’t be using this particular campaign, but that’s no big deal. I can learn a lot from what my players didn’t pick about what kind of game is going to interest them.

More importantly with backgrounds done this way, I bridged the gap between game and story. Since backgrounds became a character choice, it feels like another choice the character owns. I created roleplaying and story hooks the same way the rest of the game hooks worked—I let my players grab what they like!

Keep those Lines Taut

So you have the hooks, next step: don’t let them go. Not only that, always keep a lookout for new and interesting hooks. Every time you’ve identified what a player finds interesting in your game, find a way to pull them in with it. In the case of my campaign, my first order of business is to make sure that the background choice each of the players stays important and relevant. Picking a background will feel like a wasted choice if its themes and ideas never come up in the game, and the hook thus becomes irrelevant and pointless. After all, it’s not like my PCs can retrain their background! At the same time, a D&D game has an ensemble cast. Rare is the game session in which every line will get a tug—usually you’ll save them for when they’ll have the best effect.

For instance, if the hexed character picked that background and never heard the voice… well that would just be silly and counterproductive. But the opposite is true as well. If every game started with the voice telling him what to do, that would be just as bad. The right decision is to save these reveals for the right moments, and until then, leave them hanging over the character’s head. After a few sessions go by, and when something interesting is going on, I will bring in the mysterious agenda to create drama, conflict, and give the player some interesting choices to make.

My second order of business is to see how each player interprets those hooks, and uses them to flesh out their character and inform their actions. My backgrounds lack detail for a reason—I want to see how each player interprets and weaves them into the story. As the hexed player comes up with past stories on how the voice guided him, I can make sure that future instances of the voice act in a similar manner.

Don’t Be a Sinker

Lastly, don’t sink honest effort even if it is awkward. It takes practice to do anything really well. Yes, there is native ability, and each of us has encountered some activity that we have a natural talent for, but those gems are few and far between. Anything else we want to do well involves trial, and usually a lot of error, until we hit our groove.

The same is true for roleplaying. While the drama major in your group might excel, your group introvert will have a hard time with it at first. And while pointing out when someone does something awkward while trying to roleplay might give us that brief moment of snarky joy, if you want to promote roleplaying and deeper story interaction, carrots and a friendly guiding hand is better than the snark stick. Don’t worry; none of you are up for an Oscar. No talent agent will come knocking on your door. People will continue roleplaying as long as they are having fun. Being overly critical might be fun for you, but it is rarely fun for others.

Approaching From Other Directions

So, I’ve talked a lot about how a Dungeon Master can support roleplaying, but the hook, line, and sinker method of promoting roleplaying works for the players on the other side of screen as well. For you, the player, the hooks are your character’s relationships with other member of the party. They can be as simple as competing over kills, like Legolas and Gimli did in the Lord of the Rings, or as immersive as making a detailed history with connection points to each of your fellow PCs. The important part is to find ways to compliment your character’s story with the other characters in the campaign, in the same way that your character’s role complements the other characters’ roles. Watch out for the same pitfalls that threaten your DM in the promotion of roleplaying and interactive story. Remember that you are not the only one playing the game. Don’t try to make your story or personality dominate, at least not at the expense of others.

Just like the DM, tug those lines when you can and create new hooks with your friends’ characters and the story as it unfolds. Instead of telling your warlord, “Use wolf pack tactics again!” look at the player and say, “Remember how we defeated the dragon, Vesrimax? I think that might be the right move here.” In the end you have a share of the responsibility when it comes to building story. After you have the rules down, start seeing and driving the action through the eyes of your character.

The “don’t be a sinker” part is exactly the same… just don’t do it. I know it’s hard to pass up a few laughs at the expense of someone else’s foibles. But if I can do it, you can too!

Okay, with that done, let’s take a look in the mailbag!

Immediate Reaction

All of my players are strictly reactive. I play with people who have been in games before, they aren't brand new players, but they don't act... they react. In other words: They want me to lead them around by the nose through the story instead of creating their own stories by actively having character goals or party goals and working to accomplish them. Any suggestions you may have on drawing these guys out would be really appreciated. I mean, I can run a "lead them by the nose game" but really, what's the point in that?
--Michael Master Proactive

It sounds like your players are unused to making decisions in the game, so they don’t. I get the impression that you’ve inherited this group or members of this group from other games—maybe games where they had a lot of DM railroading. The best way to counteract this is to retrain them. Through play, let them know that their actions have consequences and reactions. Build encounters that involve the PCs making quick decisions with obvious and terrible consequences to others if they don’t. Make encounters and decision points that don’t have one obvious solution, but that involve multiple routes to degrees of success and failure. Challenge them with recurring bad guys that they desperately want to defeat, but they have to outsmart first—a bad guy who capitalizes on their unwillingness to act. In short, more instances that incent activity over reaction should do the trick. Build that, one encounter, one game, one character at a time.

Gaming Bandwidth

I'm currently playing a game on a play-by-post site. Though our DM has stated explicitly that the goal of the game is to form a Magicians' Guild, we have only got to the dungeon crawl stage.

It seems that due to my experiences as a DM, I want to explore the details of the world that seem to stand out. For example, when we came across a stone wall in the tower that an earth elemental could not walk through, I wanted to investigate. Though our DM had no problem with explanations, my fellow players get impatient and want to move on quickly.

Am I being too nit picky about the details? Or maybe I should not try to find the information we need to succeed?!
--“Hey, what’s that” Jonathan

I think a big part of the problem is in the play-by-post format you are using. It’s obvious that the other players want to move on to “the fun”, while you’ve already found it. This would probably not be as big of an issue in an around-the-table game, but because playing by post can take more time than games that sit around the table, the problem is that you are chewing up bandwidth. The trick with playing in a format with a ponderous communication method is to spend more time on group activities, and less time on personal activities. So yes, in this particular instance, I think you may be a little too nitpicky about the details and you should find ways to promote activities that everyone in the group can enjoy. See if you can’t deal with these details through a number of personal e-mails with your DM. You are interested, he wants to answer your questions, but see if you can’t do it in a way that doesn’t gobble up precious time or that hogs the spotlight.

This trick is useful in more traditional game settings as well. A player finds a book and wants to delve into its secrets or wants to have an extended talk with an NPC. That kind of stuff can be handled with phone calls and e-mail away from precious table time.

Story and Choice

I’m new to DMing and have a group of friends who would like to play each week. I’ve talked to them prior to doing anything and wanted to see what they enjoyed the most. In the end I’ve concluded they want more combat then story, but they DO want story. My problem and the reason as to why I’m emailing you is that, I have a problem with story. My question is how do I set this up? I want this to be an "open" or "free-world" where my PC's can do anything they wish. I want my players to have absolute choice, like there in a town, they can see what quests are available or they can just say, "Let’s go north or south and see what we find”. I guess this seems like just a task to big to handle or is it?
--Vengful Night

It’s too big to handle. The trick is not to create an open world or a free world but to create the illusion of a free world. To be honest, giving your players a good number of choices is excellent, and in doing so you create the illusion of absolute choice. But, keeping it so open that you always have to catch up on your characters’ wishes and actively allow changes at the drop of a dime will create a game full of stalls, confusion, and ultimately heartbreak as you quickly find that you can’t get enough done in time. It’s part of the DM’s job to anticipate player action and to make a fun game, not to create the world from whole cloth. There will be plenty of times when your players will throw you a loop and you’ll have to ad lib, but I wouldn’t suggest to anyone to create an entire campaign where this was the main DMing challenge.

About the Author

Born on a stormy Christmas day, in our nation’s capital, during the Nixon administration, the stars were definitely wrong when Stephen Radney-MacFarland came screaming into the world. Spending most of his impressionable years as a vagabond and ne’re-do-well, Stephen eventually settled in the Northwest to waste his life on roleplaying games.

Once that RPGA guy, Stephen is now a developer in RPG R&D where he doesn’t create the traps… he just makes them deadlier. He also teaches a class on roleplaying design for the Art Institute of Seattle, molding the minds of young and upcoming designers. Be afraid. Be very afraid.

Follow Us
Find a place to get together with friends or gear up for adventure at a store near you
Please enter a city or zip code