5 Tips To Increase Role-Playing At Your Game Table

by Wimwick (Neil Ellis) on February 8, 2011

Role-playing has featured prominently in several 4e blogs over the past few weeks. The topics and approaches to the subject have varied widely, from how to speed up combat to allow for more time to role-play to introducing new mechanics to encourage role-playing. Our own post on the 4th action is one of the later articles. The subject of role-playing in 4e has been of great debate since its release with many debating how much role-playing the edition allows.

Some have argued that skill challenges are the mechanic in 4e that facilitates role-playing. While skill challenges can certainly accomplish this task, to state that they are the only way to role-play in 4e is rather naive. I strongly believe that if your gaming group wants to role-play it will. I also believe that some players are more willing to embrace role-playing than others.

Role-playing can be an uncomfortable experience for some players. It requires taking on an alternate personality and sharing that with the rest of the game table. Included below are five tips that a DM can use to foster role-playing at the table.

  1. Encourage players to describe their actions
  2. Whether in combat or skill challenges. Don’t accept simple cut and paste actions from your players. A statement of “I roll Streetwise to learn about our foe” isn’t creative or interesting. Any character can make this check, but a Rogue and a Paladin are going to use Streetwise differently to learn the same information. By encouraging players to describe their actions it raises the level of immersion at the table.

  3. Give your players time to play their characters
  4. Combat in 4e is demanding and can chew up a lot of time. So it can often be tough to allot time to events that don’t have a large impact on the game. However, by allowing players these opportunities they are able to explore motivations that belong to their character and not just explore the plot points.

  5. Don’t give your players too much information
  6. This is a fine line to tread as players can easily grow frustrated by a perceived lack of direction. They should know the purpose of a skill challenge, but you don’t need to spell out the course of the encounter for them. An example of this happened at my home game the other night. The party was about to begin a skill challenge, the challenge would begin when they met with a NPC. The party spent an hour researching the NPC and how to find him. They believed the challenge had already begun. This is where the fine line comes in, as the DM I could or should have provided more information to let the party know the challenge had not yet begun. However, by allowing the party to continue they pursued their objective in character. I allowed the party to continue as most of the players are now playing new characters and I wanted to provide them with the opportunity to develop the personality of their characters.

  7. Encourage your players to write a back-story for their character and then reward them for doing so
  8. This is the first step towards encouraging role-playing at the table. As the DM you need to find large and small ways to incorporate the character back-story into the game. Doing this draws the player into the game and forces them to react to their back-story. If your players require extra incentive provide some bonus experience.

  9. Actively provide experience for role-playing
  10. This is my least favourite option as it has the possibility of alienating some players. You may also find that every player has a different definition for role-playing. Some will think they are doing a great job or may even get annoyed by a player who is going over the top. If you decide to go this route, make sure to monitor how well it goes over with your player base.

What tactics have you used to encourage role-playing at your game table? Have your methods been successful or have they backfired on you?

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1 Camelot February 8, 2011 at 10:51 am

I actually just got a great idea for roleplaying XP. I’ve always had a tough time deciding how much to dish out. Instead, I’ve been giving action points to the players as roleplaying rewards (and not giving it to them in between encounters to balance it out). Maybe if when the group takes an extended rest, the player gets XP equal to a standard monster for each action point they have left. Or I can save a lot of time and just give that much XP instead of an action point. =P

2 Alton February 8, 2011 at 11:25 am

I have a few that I use that seem to work well

1. Praise: I find everyone needs a BigUP once and awhile and when you give that person praise a couple of things happen at the table. The praised player is happy with their performance, the other players see this and attempt new things to get praise from the person dishing out the praise.

2. Prompting: another strategy is to prompt the person to explain themselves in certain situations. A skill challenge is a good example for the need for prompting. Ask for more detail, cause you do not understand what their player is trying to do.

3. Bonuses: I give PCs a beak sometimes for doing things that are out of this world. For example, a character ties a rope around their waist so they won’t fall off a ship. Then they decide to board another attacking ship with the rope still around their waist because the feel more secure in attempting the feat. If the character can gain that measure of confidence to jump to the next ship, I will sometimes throw in a +2 bonus.
If a fighter is taking on a monster and sees other monsters coming onto the battlefield, and decides to provoke and jump from the current enemy into the thick of things in order to mark all the newcomers, if the creatures miss their OAs I will give the Fighter CA against the monsters that missed for being ‘surprised.

4. Control on the story: I take some of the ideas of my pc’s and turn them into an adventure. Players like their ideas being used and will play up the rest of what they have in their heads whaen confronted with a setting of their imagination.

These are just some of the examples I use at my table.

3 Debora February 8, 2011 at 11:33 am

The role playing aspect is why I have such a love/hate relationship with the play-by-email format. In the hands of a masterful GM, pbem is my drug of choice. You can explore your character, interact creatively with other characters, get deep into emotional and intellectual responses and develop a full immersion into the game environment.

The problem is, the vast majority of pbem’s don’t follow the normal rules of standard gameplay. Their stories tend to be free-form, reality is rewritten whenever established facts become inconvenient, players move each other’s characters around…it’s more like a “make it up as you go along” book-writing collaboration than an rpg. I can’t play in those, I get all OCD and lose my mind every time my carefully collected clues are made irrelevant by a random plot revision. I’d love to find a decent pbem and get back into it. Can anyone here recommend one?

4 Tourq February 8, 2011 at 12:09 pm

I ABSOLUTELY recommend adding one or more aspects to your game (one to start with). Check out my link below to see what an aspect is and how they’re used.

The short version: Basically, you’d be adding a small bit of the FATE game to your character, something that is very easy to do with any system.

5 Sunyaku February 8, 2011 at 8:26 pm

Thank you for this list. I realize I am guilty of #2. My home group is composed of college friends and significant others who are completely new to DnD, and encounters have been moving at such a slow rate that I’ve been trying to encourage efficient play… perhaps a little too much. But in the grand scheme of things, I think I’d rather see some solid role playing.

6 Wimwick February 8, 2011 at 9:45 pm

@ Camelot
That’s an interesting idea. I would be hesitant to award xp based on action points remaining. That punishes the players who take advantage of action points to make combat exciting.

@ Alton
Great list, thanks for sharing it.

@ Deborah
PBEM is not a format I have ever had an interest in pursuing. You may want to check the ENWorld Forums and see if there is anything there.

@ Tourq
Thanks for the link, I’ll be sure to give it a read.

@ Sunyaku
It can happen very easily. Often some of the role-playing we do doesn’t advance the story as it is very free form. Combat moves us to the next section of the adventure. Also, most DMs spend most of their time preparing their combat encounters, so we naturally want our players to experience them.

7 OpenPalm February 8, 2011 at 11:35 pm

All encouragement is good encouragement, but positive feedback for roleplaying and tangible rewards are what I prefer. For tangible rewards, I think something like Karma cards works well, where you don’t take away any expected resource but you add in something that can help the player out during a difficult time. The positive feedback can be yours as a DM, but can also take the form of intangible rewards, like having your actions in the RP effect a storyline element, letting a person play front and center in a quest or piece of storyline or simply just saying how interesting the RP they did was. All are good choices and are probably the most effective scientifically-based way to increase behavior.

8 Bevin Flannery February 9, 2011 at 6:38 pm

Debora —
It can sometimes take a bit to find one that “sticks” (i.e., doesn’t result in the GM or most players disappearing four weeks after starting), or one that will maintain your desired pace (whether that’s multiple posts/day or 1x/week), but you might want to try RPOL (www.rpol.net). Lots of options for play, including one-on-one, and many GMs who try to stick as much as they can to whatever game system they’re using.

9 4649matt February 10, 2011 at 10:55 am

I don’t think that giving xp for roleplaying is the way to go.
I do think good roleplay should be rewarded with praise and potentially with a bonus token. Positive rewards should be given for any gameplay that makes the game fun, whether that is good roleplay, a good in-character joke, pulling off a daring tactic, etc.
A DM should actively encourage behavior that makes the game enjoyable, roleplaying or otherwise.

10 Gaptooth February 26, 2011 at 1:45 am

I agree with Matt: XP seems inappropriate as a reward-system for role-playing, since gaining levels mainly increases combat effectiveness. What I’d like to see is a system that rewards players for role-playing with richer fiction.

I’ve never played FATE, but Tourq’s suggestion hold’s a lot of appeal for me. I finally got a chance to write up my own alternative here. I’d love to hear what you think!

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