Save My Game
Encouraging Roleplaying
By Jason Nelson-Brown

This column provides advice for DMs whose campaigns are in trouble. Do your players constantly bicker or complain about issues both inside and outside of the main campaign action? Do your best ideas fall flat? Have you set up a situation that you now wish you hadn't? Worry no more, because Jason Nelson-Brown has the answers to save your game!

Getting Players to Roleplay

The topic for this installment of Save My Game is getting players to roleplay. Some players prefer the wargaming aspect of D&D over the roleplaying one to the extent that their characters have no, well, character. What's a DM to do?

Problem: All Combat and No Roleplay

The bane of all that is D&D -- and probably the one problem that won't ever die -- is the dreaded "How do I get my players to role-play?" -- On_the_wings_of_TPK, from the D&D boards on the Wizards of the Coast website

Maybe you need to ask your players whether roleplaying is what they want to do. Such a question may seem rather silly in a roleplaying game, but D&D is much more than just roleplaying. It's also a wargame -- a tactical simulation involving problem-solving elements and puzzles -- and some players enjoy those aspects of the game more than the roleplaying.

A lot of people love to digest the rules and try different character-building concepts to see which are the most fun, or how best to achieve certain combinations of abilities. Such players enjoy figuring out how to "beat the system" and want to test their ideas in action. Other people like the D&D game for its story aspects. They see themselves not just as actors in the story, but as collaborators who write parts for the actors and work with the DM to weave the campaign narrative. Still other players don't really care about either the mechanical or the roleplaying aspect of the game. They just enjoy hanging out with their friends, and D&D provides a fun venue for such interaction.

However, as DM, you get extra votes in how the game should be played because you have more time and effort invested in it than anyone else. If you want more roleplaying, start by talking to your players as a group about what parts of the D&D game they like best, and see if you can find a happy medium. You might need to accept a game with a lesser degree of roleplaying than you prefer, or have someone else DM if you can't find a good fit. However, you may be able to incorporate more roleplaying into your game even if your players start out preferring other aspects. Below are a few suggestions for how to demonstrate that roleplaying is a fun and worthwhile part of the game.

Solution 1: Modify Charisma-Based Skills

One solution is to apply substantial circumstance bonuses to checks involving Charisma-based skills for players who put some effort into roleplaying the situation. In the same manner, you can also penalize those who don't bother to roleplay. This tactic makes a great deal of sense on the surface, but it may be difficult to justify to players, especially in the 3.0 or 3.5 rules.

The gist of the opposition to this technique is that portraying someone with different mental statistics (Intelligence, Wisdom, and Charisma) than your own is difficult, especially if those statistics are significantly higher in the PC. Portraying someone with very different skills than you possess may be equally difficult. A player might justifiably say, "Hey, my character is the one who's suave and cool. I don't know jack about negotiating, but his +22 Diplomacy modifier means that Marcos Talks-a-Lot is great at it!" And this objection makes a great deal of sense. After all, you wouldn't penalize a character's Tumble checks because the player is a klutz, now would you? Still, rewarding those who make a serious effort to roleplay (and penalizing the slackers) can be a great way to encourage players to try new techniques, as long as they understand the intent and you don't overdo it.

Solution 2: Lead by Example

If you want more roleplaying in your games, make sure you provide plenty of opportunities for it to happen. Put some effort into creating and portraying your NPCs. Give vivid descriptions of the people, places, and things that the PCs encounter. Inject some personality into your NPCs, and don't use the same accent for every one -- make each voice unique! Make notes about personality quirks and voice elements you have used for recurring NPCs so that you can be consistent in portraying the people PCs encounter on a regular basis.

Even if you don't feel that you're naturally talented at impressions or dialogue, you can develop memorable NPCs if you put some work into them. After all, that's what you want your players to do, isn't it? So think about what your important NPCs will say or do in a given session before you sit down at the gaming table. Give each a few sayings to repeat frequently. Sometimes you may want to use comfortable clichés; other times you'll want an unusual manner of expression. The key is to decide which is appropriate for each NPC and situation, and plan your interactions with the PCs.

Solution 3: It's Not All about You

Even more important than planning out the personalities and details of your NPCs is making sure that you provide in-game opportunities for players to do the same. A D&D game is not a one-person improvisational show; the PCs need their chances to shine as well. Don't pack the game so full of combat and traps that PCs have no time to talk, or to do what normal people do -- namely finding places to live and developing friendships and relationships.

The best way to ensure a good balance between roleplaying and combat is to watch the pacing of your campaign. If every situation the PCs encounter is an emergency, players will never feel that their characters can take the time to settle down and develop "real lives." So create some "empty space" in your game sessions and in the overall campaign to give PCs the chance to do what they wish -- to relax, to breathe, and to grow as characters.

Solution 4: Reward Roleplaying, Don't Punish It

The fastest way to discourage players from roleplaying is to engineer consistently bad outcomes when they do it. Sure, sometimes you may want to trick them by getting them to trust someone they shouldn't, or make a bad deal, or delay combat to talk when they should be fighting. But if you use such techniques, be sure you're not creating a pattern that makes them automatically distrust NPCs. When a game reaches that point, PCs may find it less troublesome to kill first and ask questions later. After all, speak with dead is a great interrogation technique, since the subject can't lie or change the topic.

Instead of punishing roleplaying, make it rewarding. Make sure it can provide PCs with tangible benefits -- such as information, business and adventuring opportunities, and new friends or allies -- that aren't available in the absence of roleplaying. You might need to tell your players up front that such opportunities exist, however. Though the benefits may seem obvious to you, players who aren't used to roleplaying might not think to ask.

Another useful technique is to award experience points for roleplaying as you would for a combat encounter. You can either calculate XP based on the creature's CR (as though it had been defeated), or simply use an ad hoc award. Trivial roleplaying should net minimal XP, but important or dangerous interactions -- or just encounters that are roleplayed exceptionally well -- should net substantial XP awards. Show your players that you are serious enough about roleplaying to make it worth their while, and they should respond.

Summary

Roleplaying has always been an integral part of the D&D game, but not all players participate in that aspect of play. To encourage them to hone their roleplaying skills, make it worth their while by offering bonuses on checks made with "social skills," and let PCs earn experience for quality roleplaying. Provide examples of good roleplaying via your own NPCs, and offer the players plenty of opportunities to resolve encounters through roleplaying and develop their characters. Above all, avoid punishing characters for roleplaying by using such interactions against them too often.

About the Author

Jason Nelson-Brown lives in Seattle with his wife Kelle, daughters Meshia and Indigo, son Allen, and dog Bear. He is an active and committed born-again Christian who began playing D&D in 1981 and currently runs one weekly campaign while playing intermittently in two others.


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