How to Get Better Roleplay from Your Players

This article is part of a bloggers roundtable of other GMs. Here is the question that was posed:

How would you, as GM, encourage roleplaying in a player who doesn't roleplay as much as you'd like, whether it's roleplaying with NPCs, being more descriptive in combat, or referring to themselves in the third person. If you want to take the roleplaying at your table to the next level, how do you get your players on board?

If you GM for very long, and if you play with a variety of players, then this is a situation you will inevitably run into. You may have a group where most people roleplay well, but you have one player who won’t (this is easier to handle), of you may have a group where none of the players roleplay (this is more difficult).

I grew up in rural Indiana, and it was always hard to find people to play RPGs with. I often recruited players who’d never played an RPG before, so in addition to the teaching the mechanics of the game, I had to also teach them how to roleplay and what that was.

Compatibility

The first step happens before you even bring the group together (or it should). That is that you want to have players that have the same goals as you as a GM—players who want the same kind of experience. Some players don’t like to RP for various reasons, and some will never do it no matter what you do. If having good RP is important to you as a GM, then you don’t want those players at your table. It will be easier for everyone not to invite them in the first place.

Talk with each potential player and let them know what you expect. Try to get a feel if he’s into the RP, or if he’d rather just build min-maxed characters, roll dice, move miniatures and kill things. It shouldn’t be too hard to decide whether or not each potential player is a good fit for your group.

If you don’t find out until too late (the game has already started), consider having a talk with the player and explain to him that it’s not working out. If he really dislikes roleplaying, and you’re running an RP heavy game, he’ll probably be as relieved to go as you will be to have him leave.

Define the Ideal

If you’re dealing with a player new to RPGs, you may need to explain what good roleplaying is. The simplest way to do this is to describe an ideal of roleplaying. For instance, I often tell new players that the ideal is an actor on the stage. The player makes the character come alive, and takes on a new persona using techniques including: changing voice timbre (perhaps speaking in a lower pitch than he usually does), using an accent (only if he can do it well), choice of vocabulary (a blacksmith who always uses smithing terms and analogies), body language, costume (dressing the part), etc.

Unless you have a true thespian in your group, no player is going to achieve this ideal, but that’s not the point. The point is to give the player something to shoot for. Explain that he probably won’t be able to use all the techniques (maybe he can’t do accents), but the more of them he can employ, the more real and distinct the character becomes.

Encourage the use of first person.

Tell the player in the very beginning that you want him to use first person perspective when describing what his character does and says.

This means he will say things like, “I try to pick the lock with my thieves’ tools,” or, when speaking to an innkeeper says, “How dare you charge so much for a room? That’s outrageous! I will pay five silver and not a copper more!”

Oftentimes new players will want to describe their character’s actions and words in third person. You want to break this habit right away. Speaking in first person will inherently put them more into character without them even realizing it. The previous statements done from third person would sound like:

“Anton tries to pick the lock with his thieves’ tools,” or “Anton is offended and tells the innkeeper he won’t pay any more than five silver for the room.”

See the difference? In the first examples (first person) the player IS the character, which is roleplaying. In the second example (third person), the player is describing what a character does, which is storytelling, but it’s not roleplaying.

If you have a new player, you really want to build good habits in the beginning, from the very start. If the player isn’t new to RPGs, but is speaking in third person, you want to inform him of your expectations right away and be consistent in always asking him to speak in first person.

Do a prelude with each player, and develop a background for the character.

The prelude is a perfect opportunity to break a new player in, show him what you expect and give some good examples yourself of good roleplay. It’s also a chance for a new player to ease into roleplaying with only one other person (you, the GM) as opposed to having to do it with a table full of people. Most of us are a little shy when we first start roleplaying. We feel silly. It’s a lot easier to do with an audience of one. I discuss preludes in detail in episode 71 of the GM Intrusions podcast.

The prelude is also a great time to work out the character’s background and attachments to the other PCs. Do your best to help the player flesh out his background. Make sure there are at least a few interesting hooks into the story that you have planned. Make sure the character has some compelling connections and history with at least some of the other PCs at the table. With a new player, I really recommend giving the character connections to all the other PCs.

Do you best to pull the character’s background into the story into the story whenever possible. Having a rich background that is relevant to what’s going on will really help the player get into his character and the story.

While you’re running the game, lead by example.

Use NPCs to roleplay with PCs. Show the PCs good roleplay by using good roleplay yourself. Even something simple like buying a new piece of equipment or renting a room at an inn is a chance for you to roleplay with the PCs using your NPCs. Give each NPC a distinct personality and voice, do your best to live up to the RP ideal with each NPC you play. Don’t let your NPCs be one-dimensional merchants or barmaids. Make each one a character with a story.

Do the same with creatures and monsters that the PCs encounter. Challenge preconceptions. Is every goblin really evil? Does every “monster” need to be killed?

As GM you set the tone and the stage of your game. If you’re not getting good RP at the table, a lot of the times the real problem isn’t the players—it’s you.

Ask for descriptions in combat.

Don’t let the RP stop because you roll for initiative. Show your players that even in combat this is a roleplaying game, not just a rollplaying game. Don’t allow metagaming or talk of tactics that wouldn’t be possible in the situation. Don’t let your roleplaying game devolve into a tactical miniatures wargame.

Ask for more than “I attack the thing.” Ask for descriptions of exactly how the character attacks. Whenever possible award those descriptions with situational bonuses. Not only is descriptive combat more fun and engaging, but if you’re giving bonuses, it gives a tactical edge as well. Your players will catch on.

Ask for help from the other players.

If you have a good roleplayer at the table, encourage her to ham it up and pull the other players into her RP. Ask her to RP with the other PC—ask him about his past, about his strange scar, or how he got the sword he carries. Get the player to talk about his character’s background, goals, dreams, etc. The other players are an invaluable resource. If you have one or more good roleplayers at your table, pull them aside and ask for their help in bringing more RP into the game.

Set up situations for roleplay.

One of the best RP sessions I’ve run was a game of Changeling where the characters went to a party thrown by the local nobility. We had a whole night of excellent roleplay where the PCs interacted with many of the influential NPCs in the area.

Sometimes putting the PCs in a situation where they need to accomplish something, and there’s nothing to do BUT roleplay can work wonders. Perhaps they need some information, and the only way they can get it is to attend the Duke’s annual costume ball.

Use NPCs the players respond to more often.

If a player responds to a specific NPC, make that NPC a major character (even if you didn’t originally intend to) and use him more. This works with NPCs the players really like and NPCs the players really don’t like. Players are much more likely to get into character when dealing with NPCs they have a strong reaction to, whether positive or negative.

Award good roleplay with experience and other rewards.

Award roleplay with xp and let the players know why they’re getting xp. It’s often better to award xp as the players earn it, as opposed to waiting till the end of the session. Let them know what the xp is for. If a player sees other players getting rewards for roleplay, he’s more likely to try to roleplay more.

Look for other ways to award roleplay as well. I already mentioned giving bonuses in combat. If a player roleplays well with an NPC, perhaps he can get that NPC as a contact, or perhaps learn a secret the NPC wouldn’t have otherwise shared.

NPCs may help out a PC they in all kinds of ways—supplying equipment, money, food, etc.

Conclusion

It’s easy as a GM to blame the players when we’re not seeing the level of roleplay we want, but a lot of it comes back to us. We have a lot of tools in our toolbox that we can use to encourage the kind of roleplay we want in our games. There’s a lot to be said for leading by example and showing the players what’s desired as well as telling them. Set yourself up in the beginning for the experience you want by communicating your expectations to the players and making sure they’re compatible. Reward the behavior you want to see in every way you can think to do so, and encourage the better roleplayers in the group to do what they can to draw the others out of their shells.

Other articles in this series:

Living for Crits by Jim Walls

Inspiration Strikes by Marc Plourde

Strange Encounters by Scott Robinson

Dread Unicorn Games by John Marvin