Sunday, January 4, 2015

Encouraging Role-playing at Your Table

We are in a golden age of gaming.  There are a lot of ways to scratch ones' gaming itch.  Superb new board games release every month.  Video games provide increasingly more immersive experiences.  But still, there is something special about tabletop RPGs (even across electronic communication).  The experience is truly and dramatically emergent.  There is some of that in each of the other examples -- but it happens more consistently and is more central to the experience of tabletop roleplaying games.  This leaves us wanting to encourage role-playing.

1202 Vul-Con [Adams] -- Devon Christopher Adams [flickr]

The challenge is, of course, that role-playing can be intimidating.  Some players may only have experience with video games where there are clear limits on character's actions and dialogue options may be limited.  Other players may have previous experience with RPGs but have used systems that more-or-less limit you to a specific list of options (particularly for non-social encounters).  

How do you encourage people to role-play?

I have a few suggestions based on my own experience as a reluctant role-player.  

[1]  Have modest expectations.  Fundamentally, role-playing is a lot like public speaking.  The fears that people have related to public speaking cross-over into reluctance to improvise in role-playing.  Those who are reluctant to role-play are likely to be confronting these sorts of anxieties.  Make the space safe for them to contribute (more on this in a bit) and let them reach out on their own time-table.  This means being encouraging and avoiding (as a group) anything that could make people feel self-conscious about their role-playing.  In a safe space, reluctant role-players may try (maybe only once in a session) to actually reach out.  See each attempt as a success, encourage it, and build on it.

[2] Allow people to choose their contribution.  Not all writers excel at different parts of fantasy narrative (just to take that as an example).  Some writers are excellent at narrating combat.  Others dive into the voice of their characters.  The same is true for role-players.  Some players are (and want to be) better at providing detailed descriptions of their combat actions.  Others will want to provide direct dialogue in social encounters.  Not all players will want to do both.  Allow your players to choose which part of the game they want to most actively role play in.  If someone wants to start with detailed combat narratives, allow them, encourage them, and don't push too hard for them to participate in other types of encounters.  Let people get comfortable with role-playing where they are most comfortable.

In my personal case, I am reluctant to do anything with voices.  I am just not that brave yet.  My contributions when I play (or GM for that matter) are focused on providing descriptions of environments and actions.

[3] Diversify encounter types

Part of allowing for diverse contributions is to create diverse encounter types.  If a session only includes direct social encounters, there is little room for a person who wants to focus on narrating combat.  Similarly, if a person wants to try social encounters then a series of strictly combat encounters will not give them the room to role-play.

The balance you strike between different types of encounters should depend on what your groups is looking for.  Your group may want to focus on combat with occasional forays into social encounters.  You may want an even balance between opportunities to narrate combat, narrate environments (with exploration and obstacle encounters), and directly interact with NPCs.  There is no wrong answer for this balance -- the only problems are when expectations for the balance differ across the group.  While there may be some variation session to session, players will not know what to expect (for role-play or for character creation -- for that matter -- if the balance is not well-understood).  

[4] Ensure that player choices are important

My last recommendation is to make choices within role-playing matter.  If you only allow players to choose the color of the robes the cultists where, they won't invest much in role-playing.  If social interaction seems pre-determined or irrelevant to the outcome of the session, there is no reason for the players to pay attention to this interaction.  If you want role-playing to occur, role-playing must matter.

Different types of rule-playing will require different types of consequences.  For social interactions, winning or losing favor must have consequences (access to resources, access to information, active opposition or support).  For exploration, pay attention to the choices players make in describing the environment.  Make sure those choices persist.  Vivid descriptions of the environment or combat should result in the ability to use skills to make particular actions easier.  This is made easy with assets in Cypher System.  By generous is allowing players to create assets through their descriptions.  Once they see that these descriptions can result in a 15% bonus, many players will work harder to describe the environment.

There is no formula for increasing role-playing.  You will find these little hints helpful, though.

What do you think?  Feel free to discuss on Google+ or in the comments.  This post is part of a broader discussion across several Cypher System blogs.  You can find the other contributions (when they are posted this week) at:

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