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?