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Getting Them to Give a Damn about Roleplay

Written by Janna - Published on July 17, 2009

Janna discovered D&D at the age of 16, and she's been rolling the dice for 16 years. (You do the math.) She is fond of intelligent villains, drow society, and campaigns that explore the Dark Side.

Does your gaming group prefer role-play or roll-play?

Role-players enjoy seeing the world through their character’s eyes and acting accordingly. Roll-players tend to navigate obstacles by rolling the dice for combat and skill checks. If the party leader’s favorite pick-up line is, “Uhh, I make a Diplomacy check”, you might want to introduce your group to the joys of role-play.

I’ll preface these suggestions by saying that roll-play is fine if everyone’s enjoying it. But if you’ve got some dissatisfied gamers, or if you’re just dying for a little more dramatic flair, consider these tips for injecting more role-play into your game.

Have you ever read a book where the hero died, and you really didn’t care?

Emotional Investment

Have you ever read a book where the hero died, and you really didn’t care? That’s because you didn’t have an emotional investment in that character. You didn’t cheer them on, didn’t sympathize with them, and, ultimately, their death didn’t matter. That’s how your players are going to feel about their PCs until they flesh them out and get to know them.

You can get your players started down the path of good character development by asking them to write a 1-2 page character history, a short piece of fan fiction, or journal entries from the PC’s perspective. This doesn’t have to be Pulitzer Prize material. It just helps them get inside the character’s head. Once they have a better understanding of the characters they’re playing, your group will feel more comfortable about role-playing those characters.

Roleplay Rewards

You can encourage more role-play by dishing out rewards for players who give it a shot. Some DMs do this by awarding ‘Good Roleplay’ experience at the end of each session. Since not everyone is a born actor, be sure to reward effort as well as dramatic impact if you go this route.

Another tactic is to have the player speak the words (or describe the actions) their character will use during a skill check, and award a skill check modifier based on how well (or how poorly) the player does.

Example 1

Player: “I am Lady Destiny, Chosen One of the Raven Queen, come to deliver your soul to its final judgment.” As she speaks, Destiny draws her greataxe and takes a step forward.

That might be good for a +5 to an Intimidate check.

Example 2

Player: “I’m Lord Billy-Bob, and I’m gonna… uh… give you whacks with my axe?”

Ehhhh, not so much.

Do it for Fun!

If your players tend to freeze up when they try to role-play through dangerous situations, give them ample opportunities to explore their characters personalities in non-life-threatening scenarios. Taverns, with their endless supply of wenches and brawls, are always good for this purpose. You can also use colorful NPCs at any stage of the game to get your players to loosen up and banter like their characters would.

Got any advice for DMs who want more role-play?

The Hard Line Approach

There are some DMs who, pushed over the brink of reason and sanity, assume that every word spoken by a player comes out of their PC’s mouth as well. If the player messes up, so does the PC. If the player laughs out loud, so does the PC. This can make for some comedic moments, and if everyone’s happy with it, more power to them. But don’t take this approach with players who are new to the game and possibly intimidated by the rules and role-play. You’ll only scare them off and be forever known as the evil DM – and not in a good way.

So let’s hear about you. Does your group enjoy acting things out, or do they let the dice do the talking? Got any advice for DMs who want more role-play?

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Written by Janna

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Janna discovered D&D at the age of 16, and she's been rolling the dice for 16 years. (You do the math.) She is fond of intelligent villains, drow society, and campaigns that explore the Dark Side.



10 Responses to “Getting Them to Give a Damn about Roleplay”
  1. Adrian says:

    I had my 3rd first try at running a D&D game yesterday. I’ve never actually played myself, and neither had any of the players, so it was slow and painful work. One time however, the PCs were in a tunnel filled with corpses, and some ghosts appeared. The Bard had initiative, and so he decided to use Diplomacy and turn it into a skill challenge, starting by saying “Hi, can I help you?” and proceeding to roll a NATURAL 20 for his check, with a +12 bonus giving a total of 32. I can only imagine his character said it godly smoothly. Eventually, after a few turns and with some hinting, they figured out that the ghosts never received last rites, and the Religion trained wizard proceeded to give the last rites, ending with cremation of the bodies, which revealed the treasure for that encounter.

  2. siree says:

    role-play is the only thing my players and I like to do. Sometimes we forget to make rolls fro anything, and I let them have the information to make the story move along. It is really easy for us to play the characters, so I do not know how to explain it well, but I am going to try.

    At character creation, I refuse to let my characters be intimidated about all the techinical stuff. I tell them that they have to look at the descriptions of everything, and base what they want for “themselves” so they can flesh out who they are. While they do that, I start with one NPC that will be there to help them, and put them into one of their backgrounds. I tell them about her/him, let them see how “i” act towards them, and once that is done, they are ready to move on to background options, and we make sure there is nothing I can award for their cleverness.

    Currently, my players have barely left where they came from, but it is all ready an epic advemture. I have one gaol, and should they beat it when they are at 20th level, then all the more power to them, i will have a backup by then.

  3. GroovyTaxi says:

    I always have a few problem players that make fun of roleplayers or that just try too hard and end up with an exaggerated character that the other PCs find hard to appreciate. That’s why, everytime I begin a game, it’s good thing to ask your players the percentage or roleplaying VS action they want in their game. I have a bunch of players who like to go 50-50, a solo player that likes to put up long dialogue scenes to really make the game a story that’s only supported by the rules and another bunch of bored players that aks for dungeon crawling, 100% doors, monsters and loot.

    Tips I’d give to DMs who want more roleplay :

    – Ask your players if they prefer roleplay to fights. You’ll get a good idea of what they want. After every game session, ask them if they want more fights, more roleplay, and adjust your notes and plans.

    – If your party only wants to roll dice and kill goblin minions, force them to use roleplay every once in a while. Put some really arrogant, high-level monster in the middle of the dungeon, just to annoy them and force them to react. I once put an adult blue dragon at the end of a low-level dungeon, and the party had to give him ONE good reason to let them exit his lair without him eating them.

    – Award XP points for encounters resolved by diplomacy. I wouldn’t give too much though, since an adventurer can’t really become much stronger by talking. Reward diplomacy and intelligent play, but keep fighting and spellcasting the main ways to level up.

  4. Greybunny says:

    It’s a cheap trick and has the potential to backfire, but one thing I’ve found that works incredibly well to draw the all-combat dicechuckers into the role-play is a a good recurring villain for them to hate. They key is setting it up so that the villain is able to give a massive beatdown to the players (see “Karl” in the PA/PvP podcasts) and then give him an excuse to leave or get away. Especially effective if he laughs the PCs off and leaves them to his minions. After that all you need to do to get the combat characters to focus is have the bad guys drop his name.

  5. Mike Strand says:

    I do like to create a living world with repeat villains and memorable PC’s. One thing I do not do is get overly technical about how a PC games skill checks. His character may have +10 in Diplomacy, but the player may be diplomatically retarded. If the player plays his character well then I shouldn’t punish him for not being personally diplomatic. I mean, in combat, I don’t expect my players to go to the mat and fight me, so why should I expect them to act actually as skilled as their PC’s. The point of role-playing is often to be something you’re not.

  6. Harvester says:

    Adrian – that just sounds like Roll-playing. In Role playing you allow the players to change the outcome of a situation by playing a role – by talking and acting etc – in my opinion if you have the 4th Edition ‘Skill challenge’ mind set – you will always be a Roll-player…… So in the Ghost situation your players would just talk to you (as the ghosts) and you would ‘Role play’ the conversation out. No need for dice rolling unless you players have no imagination or personality.

    I remember playing 4th Ed at a games shop and I wanted to search something – but was then told by the DM that it was a skill challenge and therefore it would be best if the person whose character had the best score should roll for the search…….. In a role-playing game anyone of the party can look at something or have a search around for things that aren’t in especially hidden places.

    GroovyTaxi – Why can’t characters earn experience points from Diplomacy?? They get more powerful by earning experience points – which could mean they get more powerful by just experiencing all aspects of life (not just laying the smack down on some goblins) – there is no logic for a fighter having 120 hit points – he hasn’t got physically tougher – he has got magically tougher…. It’s a fantasy game…….. real people can’t survive a direct hit from a fireball or a bite from a dragon…….it’s magic…. (well that’s how I like to see it)

    As you can tell – I only DM Role-playing sessions…….

  7. Adrian says:

    Actually, I hadn’t set DCs for that challenge, just used the players’ responses for the information the ghosts gave with the occasional (ie on the nat 20) dice roll for a boost.

  8. Sand Worm says:

    I think that there are differences between roll-playing, character development, and role playing. Usually I DM, but when I get a chance to play I focus more on character development than role playing, since I don’t have the talents in creating voices or impromptu dialogue. When I DM most of my players are more concerned with roll playing, and I would like to see more role playing but I understand that they may not want to for their own reasons, however I have gotten a little bit of role playing to emerge through character development. Most of my players don’t have the time/inclination/imagination to write a detailed history but I found a nice little random background generator (created from the 3rd ed book) which I can then print out a couple of them and let them put the pieces together in a way that makes sense to them.

    Although it may seem tedious and unimaginative to say ” I hit an AC of 20 for 8 points of damage to the goblin in front of me” it is often easier than describing the action so elaborately. However I did take on a new player a few years ago and his style was a bit more… eccentric as he described what his character did not with words but with sound effects. Now I’m sure that what he wanted his character to do was very impressive but at first I had very little clue what all the wooshing, clanging, grunting and awkward breathing actually translated to in terms of actions. Then to get him to narrow down trying to stuff 10 rounds of combat into a single round is a task I’m still working on to this day.

  9. Gixustradt says:

    @ Sand Worm: Sounds like your newbie would be a good Hackmaster 5th Ed player. The simultaneous moves/ per second action system that game has might fit them better. Or worse, depending. I’ve also encountered the problem of running out of ways to describe combat, but I’ve found subtly varying the location and type of hit serves well enough EG: Hit 1: You slash the Orc about chest level, his armor absorbing much of the blow; Hit 2: A thick gash in the leg has the Greenskin howling in rage, but he parried your blade to avoid total amputation.” It’s worked well so far. I’ve come to appreciate how much HP allows for abstract hits, instead of specific hits. Still, HP makes things like called shots easily broken if allowed. I miss that part of WFRP…

    My players go in spurts of roleplaying, having an odd tendency to bitch about fighting monster after monster, but rarely participating in any RP with the various denizens (both important and incedental) of NPChood I toss their way. I think they just haven’t found their niche, or maybe -I- haven’t found it, but at least they have fun, and some…-interesting- stories.

  10. LordVreeg says:

    The first and hardest way to bring more role-playing into your game is for the GM to heavily role-play first. It’s difficult when you are controlling and tracking the whole rest of the world, but the players will not dice into role-play without the cue coming from the GM. So rule one to get the balll rolling is to get into character yourself.
    This includes in combat. Try to describe faces and voices more, and make sure that more powerful intelligent villains act and speak that way. Try to overdo it. You’ll be surprised how hard that is.

    Rewards are critical for behavior modification. If you are playing an encounter-based game, comabt experience should be the primary mode, but in a game with social and politcal dimensions, you are shortchanging the whole game if there were not good experience rewards here.

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