3 Quick Ways To Increase Role Playing At Your Table

by Wimwick (Neil Ellis) on June 22, 2011

In reading Ameron’s reports on D&D Encounters and in my own observations there seems to be a lack of role playing occurring in D&D. Another way of looking at it is, there are good role playing opportunities presented with combat encounters that just seem tacked on providing an excuse for combat.

The pace of 4e D&D combat tends to squeeze role playing out of the equation. I find this happening to the extent that 4e could almost be classified as a tactical combat game rather than a role playing game. The opinion might be extreme, but it does have merit. If you are looking to ensure that more role playing occur at your table and not sacrifice the fun that 4e tactical combat brings consider the points below.

  1. Engaging Story – This might seem like a no brainer, but too many DMs put too little emphasis on the story. If your story is just an excuse to cobble some interesting combat encounters together your players are going to realize this and react accordingly. The result will be a minimum amount of time spent between combat. Don’t get me wrong there is nothing wrong with non-stop combat, but if you want role playing it won’t work. You need to focus on story first and provide your players with a compelling reason to meet you half way.
  2. Controversial NPC – Introducing a NPC that the players aren’t sure about is always a great way to get them engaged in role playing. In a recent campaign I had a NPC who filled the role of the quest giver. He kept the party busy for a while investigating some strange occurrences. However, the players always had the sense that this particular NPC was holding something back, that they were never being told the complete picture. This hunch that the player developed is something I fostered and encouraged. It caused the players to ask questions they might not have otherwise and forced them to explore the motivations of their own characters. As things turned out the players had a reason to be suspicious as this NPC also turned out to be the primary villain of that campaign arc.
  3. Quick Challenging Combat – Combat in 4e is not generally a quick affair. As you climb in levels the amount of time each encounter requires seems to increase. While this is great for creating wonderful, tactical combat that requires a great deal of teamwork from your player it is not good at allowing for deep role playing to flourish. When a combat can take two hours to complete and players really hoping for two combat encounters in a session there is no room from role playing. The trick is to create combat encounters that are challenging, but don’t stretch the clock in duration. This can be a two way street, if your players are slow on their turn there isn’t much you can do to change things other than punish them.

What has your experience been with 4e and role playing? Does 4e tend to squeeze out role playing opportunities in favour of length combat? What techniques have you used to combat this trend?

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1 The Bearded Goose June 22, 2011 at 10:55 am

My experience of role-playing while playing D&D 4e varies depending on the venue in which I’m playing the game.

If I’m playing it with my home-based group of friends, where the only time limit is what we place on it, plus the fact we’ll see each other in a week or two to continue the adventure, the role-playing is typically fantastic, fun, off-the-wall and serious. We tell stories together and the dice rolling may be very minimal some nights.

If I’m playing at a Con or doing LFR at the local game store, I find that the role-play takes a back seat, if it’s even in the car. We don’t know each other, most of the time, and we’re also under a time crunch (4 hours, as in a typical Con slot). We want to get this module/adventure done so we can get our XP and level up. I find I enjoy these less. If I wanted to play a minis game, there are others I’ll play in lieu of this. If I wanted all combat, no role-play, same thing.

Anyway, these are my experiences. Thanks for the article!

2 Svafa June 22, 2011 at 11:12 am

I’ve not had a bad experience with role-playing in 4E. I switched back to 3rd and Pathfinder, but that was for other reasons. On the other hand, when our group gets together its usually for games in excess of three hours, so even if a combat encounter does last an hour there’s still plenty of time for role-playing.

My own technique for handling overly long or boring combat encounters is to stop them or change them drastically. In the former case, if the combat really isn’t important – it’s a couple guards or a random encounter for instance – then I just kill the baddies off, ignoring any remaining health they have. If there is still a legitimate danger to the PCs or the encounter is important to the story or characters, then I spice it up. I add in some dialogue, throw some new ability at the party, change the scenery, or something to keep the players on edge and add opportunities for interaction. Some examples that encourage role-playing in combat might include:
-Start monologuing in combat. This is one of the quintessential villain tropes, and should at least keep the players mindful of the story if not shouting back, interrupting, or trying to deliver their own discourse.
-Retreat. If it’s possible to get out of combat with the players, then you’ve effectively ended the combat. Sadly, often the players will simply chase the enemy. This could be a tactical retreat removing the big bad from the encounter, or it could be actual fleeing after the big bad has fallen and his minions are attempting to get away alive.
-Start a ritual. Who cares what it does, make it up on the spot. The intent isn’t to complete the ritual, but to change the dynamics of the encounter. This is likely the least role-play of the examples, but it might just change the dynamics enough.
-Add a controversial NPC. You can do this in combat as well. Add a hostage, a “neutral” third party, or a sympathetic enemy. Two of my recurring NPCs along this line are the enemy who surrenders in combat and the enemy who turns on his fellows when he realizes they’ve lost. The latter isn’t always a backstabbing cut throat, but simply someone who couldn’t (or wouldn’t) stand alone against the evil he saw perpetuated around him. How the PCs handle this both in combat and out can make for some interesting role-play and character development/revealing.

3 Corey Ehmke June 22, 2011 at 11:12 am

There was a great writeup over at the Standard Action blog (http://standardaction.wordpress.com/2011/06/04/roleplaying-combat/) about the false dichotomy of RP vs combat, and how to bring roleplaying back into combat encounters.

Inspired by the discussion, I decided to create a resource to combat the Power Verb phenomenon (“I will Tide of Iron the gnoll!”) by providing flavor text for all Dnd 4e monster powers. The site is only a few weeks old, but is already getting lots of contributions from the community. I encourage everyone to check it out at http://www.beyondthestatblock.com/ and to sign up and start contributing!

4 Nathan June 22, 2011 at 12:03 pm


I have to completely agree with you about 4e. In my opinion it truly lacks the same flavor as the 3.5/Pathfinder products. It seems like D&D is trying to emulate World of Warcraft Online by focusing so much on the combat and so little on the back story/Roleplaying. When 4e was announced I was very excited but after trying two campaigns that just lacked the depth of the older 3.5 editions my group and I gave up. And yes combat did seem to drag on…

I truly hope that this is not the direction that D&D is going to continue to move towards in the years to come.

Thanks for the article!


5 Dungeon Maestro June 22, 2011 at 12:27 pm

I hold a little bit of a different view I suppose. At our table we don’t rely on the RPG to dictate the amount of RP in our game. That onus is on the players. Outside of combat or in the middle of combat, it’s the players descriptions of their actions, their verbal assaults at enemies, and their commanding shouts to allies which make for good role play. In fact several players we have write their own descriptor text for their powers and they describe the action they are taking as such. The DM’s usually describe kill shots, bloodied shots, and large hits with some sort of flavor text to give a mental image of the battle. We use “tokens” to reward players for “style and bravado” either in combat or outside of it. Ergo players try to earn the tokens which they can use at a later time to add a +1 to any roll. (houserule)

In my opinion though, it’s up to the group to ramp it up, but the DM can certainly provide incentives.

6 Nathan June 22, 2011 at 12:43 pm

@Maestro I do agree that it is the player’s responsibility to put forth the effort to role-play and it is great that the DM provides incentive to do so. I do a similar thing with the nWoD Mage game that I run currently. At the end of each of session when XP is awarded, I open the floor for “Excellent Roleplaying Nominations” this is where any player can nominate another player for good RP during the session and the player who receives the most nominations wins a small bonus XP award from the GM/DM/Storyteller.

I like the idea of players writing their own descriptor text for powers. I just wish that the D&D writers had provided a bit more depth on these to begin with. I appreciate the fact that it leaves it open for player creativity but often times style and creativity can suffer if there is not a good jumping off point especially for new players.

Thanks for sharing!

7 j0nny_5 June 22, 2011 at 12:46 pm

I’m all for increasing roleplaying. I’d add to your list “Interesting Choices”. Presenting the group with a crossroads where each road is an equal option creates a lot of party chatter. Add to this personal goals for each character down the differing paths to really stir the pot.

I also give blatant bonuses for good roleplaying. A roll that would miss may hit instead, or grant some other bonus, if roleplayed well. When I do this I make it obvious their roleplaying brought them the win.

8 Wimwick June 22, 2011 at 1:55 pm

@ The Bearded Goose
You make a good distinction between home games and public play. In the latter, there is definitely less role playing going on, though I have seen some exceptions.

@ Svafa
I should be clear and state I haven’t had a bad experience role playing with 4e, simply that I find more often than not it is taking the back seat to allow for one more combat to be completed. I like your idea about monologuing during combat. I’ll have to try that sometime soon.

@ Corey Ehmke
Thanks for providing the link. I’ll be sure to get over to Standard Action and give the article a read.

@ Nathan
I didn’t want to make this artcile an edition war, but in the back of my mind while writing it was the thought that I do remember role playing more when we played 3.5. It’s not a knock on 4e, I like the game a lot. What I need to do is figure out what changed aside from the rules/edition and get that back.

@ Dungeon Maestro
Agreed. It should be the players not the game that determines the amount of role playing or combat that occurs at the game table. Perhaps my group just enjoys combat a lot more than role playing. For all I know they don’t see the lack of role playing as a problem. I’ll have to ask.

@ j0nny_5
Thanks for adding to the list. I always enjoy it when readers share their ideas on the game and on how to make the game better. Thanks!

9 Dungeon Maestro June 22, 2011 at 3:40 pm

I think 4E is a victim of it’s own creativness in one regard. 4E gives you an attack that does “something”. Ergo the saying “I Tide of Iron” the mob. Previous editions, just had “I attack the mob 3 times”. Unless of course you were a spell caster. Ergo in previous editions players HAD TO add flavor. 4E it seems makes players lazy about being creative. I suppose we could apply that to technology in general too. After all our society is growing lazier and lazier by the decade.

With 4E giving a cooler name for powers, which some use as a descriptor, and even throwing in some descriptor text, I think some folks just take the easy way out. The rest of us “Charge the Orcs, outnumbered, uphill, in the snow, with death cries rattling in the wind (which is blowing against us of course) and blood dripping from our raised axe as we leap into the air in order to bring doom to Orcish foe”……. So what I mean is, “Basic Melee attack”…

10 Rabbit is wise June 22, 2011 at 4:16 pm

I was brought into D&D about 2 years ago, I’ve only ever played 4th ed, and I havent ever played another RPG. I dont understand how some people think 4th ed isnt condusive to roleplaying. I play twice a week, encounters and homebrew, the encounters game is just an excuse for me to try out different classes and races and i told the DM thats why i was coming, he’s fine with it says everyone else at the table does the same, since they all play their own homebrew games where the RP is more prevalent. In my homebrew game sometimes we’ll go several sessions with little to no combat, spending hours roleplaying dinner parties, and heists and whatnot… from the perspective of a relatively new player 4thed is awesome and entirely what you make it just find some like minded people who want the game to be what you want it to be too… a good DM who’s flexible really helps. And equating d&d to WoWC is far fetched, unless thats what the group wants it to be, and whats wrong with that!

11 Nathan June 22, 2011 at 4:28 pm

Some groups like lots of in-depth backgrounds and intense role-playing while others enjoy non-stop action and combat, testing their characters against difficult foes. I guess the final point is that as long as everyone has fun it doesn’t really matter what style of game it is or what edition! (warm and fuzzy moment.. group hug. Ha!)

12 C.D. Gallant-King June 22, 2011 at 8:04 pm

Even worse than the combat is the skill challenges. I hate that “role-playing” has been reduced to “I roll Diplomacy. Now I roll Insight. Now I roll Intimidate.” LFR and Encounters is the worse for it, but it’s inherent in the 4E system. I like the game, I really do like the strategic and tactical aspects of it, but I’ve just become bored of it lately.

I’m not hating on 4E, I know you CAN play creatively and with lots of role-playing, but I think that’s based more on the abilities and the wants of the players. The game itself does not encourage it naturally.

13 Matt Gallinger June 23, 2011 at 12:19 am

Interesting how many people point to the players as the driving force behind role playing. Although they are the ones that are supposed to role play it is the DM that creates the environment conducive to role playing.

I do agree that at Cons and Encounters, role playing takes a back seat largely due to time constraints but also to newbies who are spending a lot of time just figuring out the game mechanics and their character sheets.

But I play in a campaign after Encounters every week that our FLGS is generous enough to host and we have spent two of the last four sessions (about 2 hours each) just role playing, exploring, asking questions and coordinating 6 different characters with slightly different agendas as they seek answers.

When the DM creates a compelling enough story and has the right players at the table, role playing in 4e is no different than role playing in any other version.

With that said, not every session needs to be role play based… but if you break out of your two or more encounter structure and have your players spend three hours role playing and one hour in combat, you can devote other sessions to several sessions of intense combat and not sacrifice the ability to let the players’ role playing move the story forward.

14 Lugh June 23, 2011 at 9:35 am

Stepping aside from the edition comments, which are remarkably similar to those from a decade ago…

There are a lot of blog posts out there on how to spice up combat, end combat early (check out Dave The Game’s “outs” on Critical Hits), et cetera. However, one tip that I don’t see get used often is “use people as enemies.” If your players are fighting dire wolves, zombies, golems, and even demons, there just isn’t a lot there but the fighting. Include people who can speak, and be spoken to. Further, make sure that your monsters are acting like people. Have them speak. Have them react. Have them bluster, or cower.

Another way to drive home RP is to make sure that entering combat is not like entering an encounter in a video game. With 4e in particular, it’s very easy to feel the scene shift. When the characters first encounter the bad guy, don’t have the bad guy order an attack. Have the bad guy say “Can I help you?” or “What are you doing in my house?” By starting the encounter with something other than an initiative roll, you can start it off on the right foot.

15 Kilsek June 23, 2011 at 10:50 am

Yes, the lack of RP and storytelling sometimes – if you let it get to that point – to balance out combat bothers the hell out of me in 4e!

You have to fight a little more for the non-combat elements to have a strong presence because combat is so tactically rich.

In fact, I just expanded on the Mike Mearls’ recent Core of D&D article, talking about exactly this my The Heart and Soul of D&D article.

The truth is, a rich and classic D&D experience is just not complete without a fine balance of RP, storytelling and combat elements!

16 Paik the Kenku Monk June 23, 2011 at 11:35 am

I have just come back to DnD from a many year absence (missed 2nd and 3rd editions). I find in my group its all about the combat. Many people are there to “bust up stuff”. I try to role play as much as possible but I find there is alot of metagaming and silliness in the Encounters group I play with. While the DM is excellent, I think he finds it hard and tiring always trying to corral these players. I am there for the fun and to learn (I’d like to DM my own group soon) so I can make it a rewarding experience for all.

Any advice?

17 Lugh June 23, 2011 at 11:47 am

@Paik – The problem there is simply a disconnect of play style and priorities. You want one kind of game. Your DM seems to want at least a similar game. The other players are there for a whole different kind of fun.

The best solution? Find different players. Talk to the DM about pulling together a different group that is more interested in role-playing. Maybe even volunteer to run it!

18 Rabbit is wise June 23, 2011 at 8:08 pm

@Paik and @ Lugh… exactly, the answer is finding a group that is more condusive to role-playing. NOT quitting 4th ed, because 3rd was better lol.

19 Jim June 25, 2011 at 10:44 am

I really dislike the argument that 4e squeezes-out role playing. 4e is just a rules set. I, as DM, can add as much or as little role playing into our sessions as I might like. And I often do. The rules do not determine this in the slightest. My players and I do.

Whenever I go back and look at material I have from previous editions I cannot imagine ever playing earlier rules sets again. 4e has made my job as DM so much easier, in and out of sessions. There is no going back for me.

20 Sunyaku June 28, 2011 at 9:57 pm

One of the reasons I play in the “late” encounters slot at my FLGS is because that’s the time that the “cool people” come out to play. These people put a lot of thought into their character backgrounds, and roleplay a great deal– which says a lot, given that these characters are only valid for 10-20 weeks of play.

Playing with a group like this makes the DnD encounters program a much more enjoyable experience.

21 Eli July 16, 2011 at 5:23 pm

The simplest way I’ve found to increase roleplay in ANY game is to ask the player’s questions “Ok, so you want to convince the Baroness to help you… what do you say?” Its remarkable how often making them think in character gets their mental juices churning

22 dukethepcdr August 20, 2011 at 4:43 am

Regardless of the edition being played, it seems to me that the ability and/or willingness to role play lies in the players, not the game system. I have even played games of D&D Miniatures Battles (aka DDMGuild) where players have come up with back stories and personalities for the creatures in their warbands. They even narrated the attacks and defenses of their characters during skirmishes. I’ve also played the D&D board games Castle Ravenloft and Wrath of Ashardalon that way. It’s great fun! For example, one time when we played Ravenloft, I had Cyrus Bellview do more than what was on his encounter card. On the spot, I came up with a bunch of questions for him to ask the heroes. They discovered that he was unhappy with serving Strahd and that they could actually get some real help from him if they showed him some pity. He led them through a secret hallway that let them bypass some especially nasty monsters and get to their goal faster.

I’ve found several ways to encourage role playing in various D&D games. As Eli said, asking the players questions as though you are talking to their character rather than to them is a good way. Instead of just plopping a mini of a Tavern Brawler on the map and saying “It’s your turn Bill”; you can place the Tavern Brawler mini on the map and say “An unkempt and rather drunk baker, with smears of flour still on his tunic rises purposefully from his chair at a nearby table. He looks about the pub for support and receives dozens of nods of encouragement. He says ‘Ye aren’t from aroun ‘ere are ya dragonborn? What business do ya have in me village? Speak trutfully an’ meybe my friens and me ill let ye leave this tavern in one piece’. And then see how Bill reacts.

Another way is to mix it up a bit. Don’t make every challenge out to be one that can be beaten with force. Put in puzzles, riddles, side quests and such. Even if you are running a published encounter, it isn’t too hard to add in some extra flavor. I once had the heroes meet an old man who knew a secret way into the dragon’s lair. He refused to tell them what it was until they helped him get back in his wife’s good graces after a fight they had. They had to go and talk to the wife and convince her to give him another chance before he would help them. The first time I did this with a 4e group, they didn’t want to bother and just ignored him. By taking the non secret route they stumbled into traps and monsters that were way above their level. After nearly dying and using up all their healing surges and spells, they came sheepishly back to the old man and agreed to help him. I kinda taught them a lesson with that: you can’t just muscle your way through an adventure (not mine anyway). You gotta use your head now and then too.

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