Most Advice for Encouraging Role-playing Stinks, But I Found the Good Stuff

Before I wrote this post, I scoured the Internet for help encouraging Dungeons & Dragons players to role play.

Sometimes Dungeons & Dragons players tell me of a session where no one rolled a die because everyone role played for the entire night. Imagine this: On a flight to Los Angeles, I gain a free upgrade to first class, get seated next to Deborah Ann Woll, spend the flight talking D&D, show the wood-grained first printing I scored at a garage sale on the way to the airport, and then get invited to sit in a super-secret Hollywood D&D game. Later, my story of the day still couldn’t capture the rapturous tone of the folks who tell me about their sessions of pure role-playing.

We all know that acting in character adds fun, but role playing enhances D&D for everyone at the table. Role playing heightens the drama and the humor. It raises the stakes by making goals, successes, and setbacks personal. It fosters relationships between characters.

I’ve never reached the pure rush of a session focused entirely on role playing. Perhaps I just favor a balance of combat and exploration with role playing. Perhaps I’ve never played with a group who threw themselves into character with enough zeal. Nonetheless, stories of dice-free sessions fill me with a sense of inadequacy. Could my dungeon master skills lack some essential quality that nurtures role playing?

Ready to improve my game, I turned to my stack of gamemaster guides and then to the Internet for advice. How do I encourage players to role play?

In Internet discussions, lots of gamers ask this question. Most of the replies offer weak advice. Some of the older discussions had recommendations for things now baked into fifth-edition D&D: Encourage players to develop backgrounds, ideals, and flaws for their characters. Offer benefits such as inspiration for good role playing.

Beyond this sound but conventional advice, many DMs suggested ways to pressure uncomfortable or uninterested players to role play. Don’t do that. Other DMs require written descriptions of character backgrounds. To most folks, a writing assignment will make role playing seem like a chore. The players who do enjoy the homework need no encouragement.

How else can a dungeon master encourage role playing?

Create ties between characters

Traits, bonds, ideals, and flaws provide a foundation for role playing a character, but these aspects miss an essential ingredient: a character’s relationship to rest of the party. In any book or movie featuring an ensemble, their interactions create the humor and drama. The group’s interplay reveals their personalities. By inventing relationships between their characters, players gain a way to role play among themselves.

When starting a new group of characters, ask each player to invent a reason their character feels loyalty, friendship, or trust toward another character at the table. Both players must negotiate so the connection suits their characters. Every player should invent a new bond so most characters feel tied to two others.

In the official D&D podcast, Shelly Mazzanoble remembered this exercise. “It forced us to find each other, to interact with each other. ‘I want to be connected to you. Here’s our story.’”

For even stronger interaction, have players invent a source of friction between their character and another. Unlike the strong, positive bonds of trust and loyalty, make these notes of discord relatively mild, even humorous. They should foster amusing banter, not genuine rancor.

Portray non-player characters as you want players to portray their characters

As a dungeon master, you set the style of interaction at your table. To encourage role playing, make your non-player characters come alive by portraying their tone, mannerism, and speaking patterns.

Even if you struggle with character voices, body language can make NPCs come alive. “Your physicality can completely change a character without having to do silly voices,” Matt Mercer explained on the DM’s Deep Dive. “If they’re more of a sly character, steeple your finders and drop your shoulders a bit and just sort of be that sly sneaky character. If they’re a welcoming persona, put your palms up in front of you in a very open and welcoming position and smile. These are all things that you don’t have to have any performing experience to do, but it really makes a difference in embodying an NPC and changing how your players perceive them. Even if you just shift your physicality a little bit, you’re players will know that you’ve become a different character in that scene.”

Speech patterns also make NPCs distinct. Recently I played at a table run by DM Brittany, and the way she portrayed an older, male character struck me. After a relating each fantastic or tragic event in a long tale, she deadpanned, in character, “Well, that happens.” Without a silly voice, she made the character memorable and amusing.

Ask “How would your character say that?”

Don’t pressure players into character, but when they say they persuade, intimidate, or otherwise interact, invite them to show how their character acts. “Gently try and remind them to respond in character,” Matt Mercer suggests. “Like ‘Great, how would Dermans ask that question to me, the jailer?’ Or ‘Sure, and as those angry thoughts fill her mind, how would Layla express that verbally?’”

Single out specific characters for interaction

When the entire party participates in a role-playing scene, typically only one or two players participate. The rest watch. Sometimes players find themselves overshadowed by players with more forceful personalities. Singling out characters gives more players a solo. “Make direct eye contact,” Matt Mercer says. “Lean in and gesture, or point to them when asking a question of their character. Let them know that they are in the moment and that this is their moment to seize.”

Whenever you introduce NPCs, ask yourself if they would feel an affinity for a member of the party—especially one who deserves time in the spotlight. Perhaps the NPC and the character share a class, background, or allegiance. Have the NPC focus on the character who shares a kinship.

Your players develop characters with exciting qualities. Try introducing an NPC who appreciates one of these unique traits or who admires a character’s reputation. Such regard lends characters a sense of importance, keeps players engaged, and lets them bask in a little glory.

You can encourage more players to interact by making characters tackle separate role-playing scenes simultaneously. For instance, if the characters only need to gain the support of the head of the merchant council, then typically one player makes all the diplomacy rolls. If the characters must split up to convince every member of the merchant council before their vote, then every player must contribute.

Have non-player characters ask personal questions

Rather than limiting interaction to persuasion and intimidation, let your NPCs indulge in a little small talk. Personal questions feel especially natural from a character who admires or feels kinship toward someone in the party. On the official D&D podcast, Matt Colville suggests, “Have an NPC ask a player an introspective question like, ‘Why are you a adventurer?’ or, ‘Why did you become a paladin?’ There’s nowhere on your character sheet where you can find the answer. You’ve got to come up with the answer in your head. It’s often the first time the player has ever wondered those things.”

I’m still working to improve my game. How do you encourage players to role play?

Related: A priest, a warlock, and a dwarf walk into a bar and…nothing happens

22 thoughts on “Most Advice for Encouraging Role-playing Stinks, But I Found the Good Stuff

  1. 1958fury

    Excellent post; I’m going to try some of these tips. I especially like this bit:

    “Beyond this sound but conventional advice, many DMs suggested ways to pressure uncomfortable or uninterested players to role play. Don’t do that.”

    Thank you for that. I see that suggestion given a lot, and it drives me nuts. I’m shy, and I usually have to play with the same group for a while before I break out of my shell. Being put on the spot too much early on is a sure way to keep me from returning to your table.

  2. timothypark

    Good post. May I suggest following it up with things a player can do to encourage their own roleplaying *without needing to be an actor*?

    Some things I do when I play as seed:

    * Come up with a few “catch phrases”. Memorable characters in all media have memorable phrases associated with them. Some are “one offs”, some more repeatable. “You shall not pass!” is very key for Gandalf but balrogs and Nazgul Lords are rare encounters. Oddball’s “None of these negative waves.” comes more to mind. Valkyria’s “You wanna live forever?” Dirty Harry’s “Make my day!” The Terminator’s “I’ll be back.” Watch people: everyone has a few very common “verbal habits”. What’s my character’s?

    * Similarly, what are my character’s “tells”? Habitual actions that we all have. In Tombstone, Doc Holiday taps his index finger on his gun butt and at other times when his attention is focused. The elder samurai in Seven Samurai rubs the back of his head in a particular way when he’s worrying. At the table it’s other things that are easy to describe and visual. Grissly as it is, one character collected trophies from the more significant creatures battled. An NPC that was frequently encountered had a perpetual winning grin that sometimes forced an “opposed persuasion check”, and several “winks”. Another would twirl her spear like a batton. Another, a noble, never gave an order but would always phrase things as requests and questions (this bridges back to the first.)

    * Determine what the character’s favorite weapon is and why. Weapons are highly symbolic and memorable. Then determine how it is personalized.

    * Determine an item that is not a weapon that the character always has and frequently uses. I never go out without wallet, keys, lighter and swiss army knife. “Vade mechums” is the term. These can feed back and support the “tells”. One character always had a big wooden mug and a spoon, and every rest was eating. The sage wizard made a fuss whenever in civilization to find writing gear and constantly made notes in a waste book.

    * How does the character laugh? What happens to their features when they’re upset?

    * What’s their irrational, embarassing fear?

    * What’s their compulsion? The thing that’s very hard to pass up?

    * How do they tend to start an attack if surprised? If not surprised?

    The handful of habits, ticks, catch phrases gives a start to playing the role. Other’s develop with play. And, of course, all this works for significant NPCs encountered frequently.

  3. alphastream

    Your advice on leading by example really speaks to me. When we put the energy into creating interesting interactions between NPCs and PCs, the players tend to respond. It really sets the tone. As a baseline, establishing that the default is to speak in character (not, “my rogue asks the guard,” but for the player to actually speak as that character “I say, town guard, you seem a bit tired…”). That’s a huge step.

    Creating interesting interactions between players is probably my second go-to, and it’s a complex one. It has a lot to do with your idea of having NPCs connect with specific PCs, but also with tying the plot into character/player interests (goals, bonds, flaws, etc.). It comes down to the player caring enough to want to work through this in character, so the more you do to create that player-focused campaign, the more it will come forth. A big part is reaching the point where the players feel they know their own character and the other characters well enough, which in turn came from enough interactions laying down that familiarity. Every bit adds up to create a campaign better than a first class seat next to Deborah Ann Woll. 😉

    1. Adewyn

      Role playing comes so easy to me I have a fee characters and I have friends that ask do you have multiple personalities…. Lol.. noooooooooooo. It’s called haing fun with your character lol.. my favorite is my little halfling Feana… Oh she is fun witty loves shinney things meeting new people lol… But don’t make her mad lol oh boy ?

  4. Matt

    In all 3 of the D&D shows I watch, Critical Role, Aqc Inc C-team, Dice Camera action, I’ve noticed that a good part of the roleplay comes from the characters/players having a secret origin that no one else knows except the DM. This will be something I try in my next campaign.

  5. Pedanticus

    I can’t help but feel that what you are describing is acting, rather than role-playing. Role-playing is surely ‘playing a role’, that is, thinking about what your character would do in any particular situation. The paladin deciding to risk their life in a particularly perilous combat to help a citizen trapped in the crossfire is surely doing just as much ‘role-playing’ as your resident thespian talking to the mayor. It’s my opinion that the antithesis between ‘role-playing’ and ‘roll-playing’ is fabricated. Rolling dice can be part and parcel of resolving an action that results from a player acting in character, whether that be a diplomacy check, or an attack roll.

    Acting and speaking in character can be fun, but not all players enjoy it (some of my players actively dislike it). Telling them that they are not playing the game to its full potential because it is a ‘role-playing game’ and they aren’t ‘role-playing’, simply because they aren’t acting is, I think, disingenuous.

    Therefore, I think that we shouldn’t see role-playing as separate from exploration or combat. Role-playing is universal. If players have developed characters, they should be role-playing almost the whole time, wondering what their character in particular would do in the situation the DM has described. Interaction between the characters or between the characters and NPCs is another pillar of the game. Role-playing should be taking place during interaction scenes, but it is not limited to such scenes. It should be happening all the time.

    tl;dr: ‘Role-playing’ ≠ Acting or Interaction between characters

    1. David Wintheiser

      “Acting and speaking in character can be fun, but not all players enjoy it (some of my players actively dislike it). Telling them that they are not playing the game to its full potential because it is a ‘role-playing game’ and they aren’t ‘role-playing’, simply because they aren’t acting is, I think, disingenuous.”

      I’ll agree with you on your point about players disliking speaking in character — I have a player in a long-established gaming group who actively resists speaking in character when invited to do so, always prefacing his actions in-game with phrases like ‘my character says’, or ‘my character does’. When other players begin an in-character humorous bantering session, if he enjoys it, he’ll usually respond as himself, the player, commenting on the banter, not in-character and participating in the banter. He’s just not ‘wired’ to be an ‘actor’ at the table. That much I’ve seen for myself.

      The problem with saying that ‘role-playing is wondering what your character would do’ is that it’s a wholly internal thing — if the behavior never is expressed at the table in an in-character fashion, then it doesn’t really exist for the purpose of role-playing. I mean, I can certainly imagine that my friend, silent during our discussion with the Lord-Mayor about what to do about the undead rising up in the graveyard is pondering his character’s feelings and potential actions, but it’s just as likely he’s trying to figure out how to modify his spell list for an undead-heavy series of encounters, or even just trying to remember the shopping list his wife texted him five minutes ago to pick up on his way home after the game.

      If role-playing is not expressed as interaction between characters, it doesn’t really exist from a practical perspective. I can’t respond to your internal monologue about how your character feels about the situation, and as such it doesn’t affect anything outside of your own subjective experience. As such, there is no practical difference between the phrases, “He is role-playing, but having an entirely internal experience which has no impact on the other players or the game being played,” and “He isn’t role-playing.”

      1. Pedanticus

        I think you’re conflating two of my ideas and thus confusing my message a bit. When I talked about players not liking to act, I wasn’t necessarily ruling out their describing what their character says, rather than saying it (‘My character tells him that…’).

        My point about ‘role-playing’ being thinking about what your character would do also necessarily implies that you then take the in-character action. I agree that there is no visible difference between considered inaction, and lack of engagement. That’s why I gave the example of a paladin putting their life in danger to save an innocent bystander (an action) as an example of role-playing.

        However, even considered inaction is not always necessarily a bad thing. In the case of interaction scenes, one of your players may have decided to play the silent, brooding type (I always strongly discourage if not outright ban these characters – they just don’t fit into the types of games I like to run). If so, it would certainly be role-playing for them not to utter a single word in a conversation with the king. Actively engaging in the conversation despite their avowed character traits would actually be poor role-playing, however good their acting. That’s what I would call considered inaction.

      2. macmanjc

        As such, there is no practical difference between the phrases, “He is role-playing, but having an entirely internal experience which has no impact on the other players or the game being played,” and “He isn’t role-playing.”

        I’m sorry, but I strongly disagree (to an extent). Yes, a player sitting quietly through an interaction might be laser-focused on what is going on or they might be thinking about that shopping list. However, they also might be thinking about how their character is going to respond to the situation later.

        I play a fighter/thief in a campaign and sometimes he is very talkative and sometimes he is quiet. The rest of the party knows from experience that when he is being quiet then something is up.

        To use your example, I might be completely quiet during the entire 30 minute conversation with the mayor as he talks about the undead uprising. When we leave his presence and head outside my character might mutter something about, “Interesting. Looks like we need to make some preparations.” From there he might suggest getting some supplies, or talking to some townspeople about historical info, the layout of the graveyard and crypts, etc. Sure, he could of talked about that stuff in front of the mayor, but my CHARACTER would worry that someone in the mayor’s entourage might be corrupt. In his world experience loose lips sink ships…

        But here is what my character would really have been focused on during the 30 minute discussion: hmmm, the mayor seems to be somewhat weak. If he turns out to be a bad guy how can I use this against him? If he turns out to be good then how can we spin this to help him? And from there I would have made a bunch of notes about either option as well as anything else he said that was important.

        So, based on your statement earlier, was I not role-playing during those 30 minutes? Should I have had my character speak up, tip my hand, and say, “Pardon, your excellence, but you some to be having some difficulty resolving this on your own which some would take as a sign of weakness.” Should I have attempted an in-character whispered sidebar with some of my party members so that they, and the DM, know that I am really role-playing?

        I guess my bottom line point is that maybe it isn’t important if, “I can’t respond to your internal monologue about how your character feels about the situation, and as such it doesn’t affect anything outside of your own subjective experience.” In the end I think that a player’s subjective experience can greatly inform the interactions that they do choose to have at the game table.

        1. simontmn

          “So, based on your statement earlier, was I not role-playing during those 30 minutes?”

          If you’re not doing anything other than thinking, if you’re not expressing, then you’re not roleplaying in any meaningful sense. Maybe you roleplay after the meeting.

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  7. Michael Benensky

    An other fine article David. Will you write an other one once you have implemented these suggestions and tell us how successful hey were. Also, give us a report on your dice-less adventure.

  8. JimB

    Here’s another way to create ties between characters and link them to the game world. Ask each player to say how they met the player to their left (for example) in real life, and then translate some element of that into in-world terms. Fellow students or coworkers? Maybe they trained or served under the same master. Introduced by another player? Maybe that other character is how their characters met. Did they meet through the GM or someone who’s not playing? Make up an NPC who introduced them, even if it was five minutes ago. Siblings in real life? Make them siblings in some sense in the game world, even if it’s just “Yeah, I’m an elf and he’s a dwarf, but he’s always been like a brother to me.” Whatever the relationship, the two players should agree and the GM should help them fit the relationship into the game world.

  9. Tardigrade

    “How do you encourage players to role play?”

    I don’t. At least, not the way your essay is describing.

    I’m kind of with Penadicus on this. As I see it, we are playing a game, not hosting amateur improve theater. Pushing players to be actors does not benefit the game.

    Going so far as to give special rewards to the “best” role players only rewards players with more outgoing personalities. In my experience they are also the overbearing players who want to dominate the whole game, not giving the others an opportunity to get an action in edgewise. And you will end up just rewarding the same players every game. Not fun.

    If players want to talk in accents, that’s fine, unless it becomes a distraction. Like quoting Monty Python (explicitly banned at my table). Same with theatrics. A little flair is fine, but if we’re spending half our time indulging Fred and his need for soliloquies, I’m putting an end to it. Fred can join community theater for that.

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  12. Ilbranteloth

    The number one rule in our group regarding roleplaying is:

    It is all Roleplaying.

    Every action your PC takes and every decision they make should be in character. By ‘in character’ I am not referring to acting, or speaking dialog as that character. If you can do that and enjoy it, that’s great, but it’s not necessary.

    Role playing is simply making decisions and taking actions as if you are that character. It’s not a question of what you would do in those circumstances, but what they would do.

    This applies to everything. Combat, interactions, etc. Everything.

    The best way to do that is to treat your PC (or monster or NPC) as a real person in a real world. The more you understand about that character, the better. As the game has gotten more mechanical, players often spend time between sessions optimizing, figuring out how to maximize the use of their abilities, etc. I recommend you spend that time getting into your characters head instead. You can do this anywhere. Driving, waiting in line, wherever. Just think about different situations and how they would act.

    It also helps to ground the characters in the world. What do they like and dislike? What do they do with spare coin? What would they do if they won the lottery? Do they have a love interest? Think of friends and family. You can consider what you do in your life for guidance. For example, when we get extra money we don’t typically immediately spend it on things for work (like weapons and armor).

    The two most important questions, because they greatly affect when and how they would get involved in combat, what would you kill for? What would you die for? If something doesn’t rise to that level, then getting involved with lethal force probably isn’t something they would do under those circumstances.

    Just like it’s important for the DM to be consistent when presenting the world, the players should be striving for consistency with their portrayal of their PCs. They should ‘feel’ like real people. Not just to you, but to the rest of your group too.

  13. mrosskne

    If you have a player that doesn’t like roleplaying, ask them why they’re playing a roleplaying game, and then recommend some activity that they actually enjoy.

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