Six Ways to Encourage Your Players to Roleplay

Black Dungeons and Dragons by Javier Mediavilla Ezquibela

Some days you can’t get beyond the game part of a roleplaying game. You have a clever story, your NPCs are unique and engaging, and your players are even excited about the PCs they’ve made, but they’re just not getting into character. Instead, all the focus is stuck on the die rolls and how to eke out the largest synergy bonus. At times like these you need to resort to drastic measures. Here are six ways to encourage your players to get into character.

1. GM Gifted Tokens

Keep a stack of small tokens on hand, and give them to players to show that you notice and appreciate their efforts to stay in character. Gifting a token draws everyone’s attention to a good bit of roleplay, and players can use it for a bonus later in the game when they need a small boost.

A reroll of a die, +2 to a roll, or an additional success are all good examples of what that reward could be, depending on the system you’re using.

2. Player Gifted Tokens

Similar to the first idea, you can set up a system where the players reward each other for good roleplaying. With so many things to keep track of while running a game, delegating the bonus system to the players can help ensure it actually gets used.

Because you have less control over how frequently and evenly these tokens are handed out, it’s a good idea to keep the bonus they give small.

3. Define Character Behaviors

Borrowing from Mouse Guard, you can encourage your players to define habits that help bring life to their characters during the game. My friend’s character, for example, would stop to light some pipeweed whenever he needed to solve a vexing problem.

At the end of a session you can reward players that used these behaviors to add to the scene. A typical reward for this would be bonus experience, or your system’s equivalent.

4. Poll Players After a Session

Sometimes players don’t put effort into their characters because they don’t feel invested in the campaign. It can be beneficial to step back and recalibrate a few days after a session by getting feedback from your players. Find out what they enjoyed and what directions they’re interested in exploring further. This will help everyone feel like they are contributing to a story, and not just trying to defeat the GM challenges.

Getting player buy-in to the story will encourage them to metagame in positive ways that add to the drama. Your players will come to the table with interesting ideas for advancing the story, and you can avoid preparing plot hooks that the group would ignore.

5. Create PC Side Plots

This requires a bit more planning on the part of both the players and the GM. Work with your players to add side plots for your campaign based on their desired character arcs. Balancing play between the character in focus and the rest of the party does take care, but the payoff for this effort can be some of your group’s best roleplaying.

This will be especially effective if the character arc resolutions, good and bad, have a measurable impact on the campaign’s end game. Everyone loves the buildup of friends and allies from all across the campaign, returning to aid the heroes when it comes time to storm the villain’s castle.

6. Write Scenes Between Sessions

Not all roleplayers are natural actors. In fact, a good number of people I’ve gamed with over the years have been more comfortable writing fiction than acting it out. One way that you might help these players to get in their comfort zone is through writing exercises between games. Start a scene focused on the PC, with the player and GM taking turns writing. I call these “.5 sessions,” and they can be used to explore character backgrounds, interact with NPCs in more depth, or anything else that might make a good scene for a single PC. As a bonus, you may find your players have a better handle on their characters at the gaming table as well.

While you should offer this option to all of your players, don’t try to require it. After all, the players that are already comfortable acting may find writing to be a struggle that they don’t enjoy. This exercise should be viewed as its own reward for those who are interested.

Of course, there is no one right way to encouraged your players to game in character. It may just be that the group needs to take a five minute break every hour to help everyone stay focused. Try a few different options and see what works for you. Once your group hits on something you all like, stay consistent and it will become easier to stay in character with each game.

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  1. Danielle

    One thing I’d like to add about point #5 is that one need only think about the single-player RPG’s they’ve played that have the best stories for an example of how good character arcs can enhance the experience. For instance, “Lunar: Silver Star Story Complete” and “Lunar 2: Eternal Blue Complete” (both for the PS1) have some very strong and interesting character arcs involving each of the party members. In SSSC, we have Jessica’s quest to find the strength to reveal her true adventurous personality to her father, to whom she’s only shown her girly, “Daddy’s Little Girl” face to for fear of disappointing him. In Eternal Blue, we have Ronfar’s struggle to forgive himself for the mistakes of the past and find a way to save the woman he loves from the grip of the Big Bad so that they can have a future together. Every party member’s side story ties in well with the overall plot, and has relevance to the progression of the main story.

    Of course, even good games with good overall stories can end up with really weak character arcs. Take Waka’s from “Final Fantasy X”, for example. For the majority of the game, he’s flatly, blatantly, and unflinchingly racist against the Al Bhed people because his brother died trying to fight the Big Bad with one of their mechanical weapons (even though pretty much everyone whose ever fought the Big Bad, win or lose, has ended up dead). Yeah, flimsy motivation, and it doesn’t help that the guy just feels really flat and underdeveloped overall. Then, the group gets saved by the female lead’s Al Bhed uncle, and suddenly he changes his tune…like, on a dime almost! No drama, just “Oh, they’re not so bad. I don’t hate them anymore. Let’s hang out!” So…yeah. Beware of creating a Waka.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      Oh man, I am having some serious PS2 flashbacks now. Oh Waka, you so racist! It was doubly frustrating because I was on board with the Al Bhed from the moment they appeared. “You guys have airships and giant lasers? Where do I sign up?”

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