How to Encourage ROLE-Playing

This is an article on how to help players get into character. It was editted from contributions by Al Petterson <>, with commentary and additions by Sarah Kahn. Sarah's comments are in italics. There are three caveats to all this advice:

  1. Different things work for different people; keep trying if the first thing you try doesn't get results.
    This might seem intuitively obvious, but I think that a lot of people shy away from it out of a vague sense that the individually-tailored approach shows bias or unfairness. This is just not the case, in my opinion.
  2. Some of this isn't for some people. Me, I don't like the TORG deck, but there are those who swear by it as a roleplaying tool. If you think something below is bad advice, well, don't do it. It worked for me, but it won't work for everyone.
  3. Finally, as was pointed out on this thread already, you can lead a munchkin to roleplay, but you can't make him think. If all else fails, give up on the GM thing, break out the Magic deck, and go find some other gamers next week.


  1. Run one-on-one prologues.
    AP: If the game is already started, fill these in as flashbacks. Don't just ``write up'' a background, roleplay the background. As you and the player develop a place for this character in your world, be sure to ask questions about ``what effect did this have on you? How did it make you feel?'' about major events in his past. You should get a sense of how the events shaped the character, and keep reminding the player of it when you play. Make comments like ``I bet that reminded you of the time when...'' and remind the player of some relevant bit of his own character's background. Confront them with it and force them to think about it.

    SK: It's time-consuming, but well worth the effort. Jumping straight into a character is *hard,* even for the best role-players, and this approach allows people more time to get comfortable with their character before they are called upon to perform in front of a larger group. Role-playing in front of a group can be pretty daunting sometimes, particularly when you aren't quite comfortable with the character yet. One-on-one prologues can help to reduce the self-consciousness factor.

  2. Ask personal questions
    AP: Too often the only question GMs ask players is "What are you doing next?" Ask about the character as much as possible. How do you feel? What does that make you want to do? Are you angry? Are you happy? How does this change your plans?

    SK: Just a brief caveat that, although well-intended, this approach can get a bit cloying if you aren't careful with it. Maybe it's just me, but I react fairly negatively to questions like: "How does this make you FEEL?" It has psychotherapeutic sort of tone that happens to rub me the wrong way. YMMV, of course, but I just thought I'd mention it, if only to offer a possible explanation for the cause if you DO try this one and notice one of the players cringing in horror.

    AP: A great question to ask is: "What is important to you?" Keep asking variations on this question until you can figure out... oh, let's say three scenario hooks that threaten, or offer, things important to this character.

    SK: The one-on-one prologue is, IMO, really the best place for this. Once the actual game has started, this question usually seems rather out-of-place. And besides, if you're looking for plot hooks, you need to get an answer to this one before the game starts anyway.

  3. Make suggestions
    AP: If asking questions doesn't work, turn it around and *tell* them. It is the GM's job to describe what a character is experiencing. Part of that experience is emotion -- *tell* the player what his character is feeling. "You're cold and hungry, and you're starting to get a little scared" is a good generic example. Don't even give them a choice about whether their character is being roleplayed. Eventually, the player might take the hint and start volunteering descriptions of his character's emotions himself, before you can do so, since it's not like he can pretend his character isn't feeling anything.

    SK: I'd also like add a somewhat subversive addendum to it. Once the player *does* seem to be getting into the character's internal life, try suggesting an emotion that you believe to be simply WRONG. If the response to "you're starting to feel pretty nervous about this..." is "I am NOT! I'm so deeply in denial that I haven't even BEGUN to contemplate the ramifications of the situation yet. I've been busy thinking about..." then you know that you've done your job well. And a gratifying meta-game moment it is, too.

  4. Pronouns
    AP: Never say the words "your character". Say "you", or better yet, refer to the player character by name; you'd be surprised at how often this can fool your player into thinking of Rodrick as a person. (Only, that is, if you don't let your players get away with silly names -- I once had to slap down a player who wanted to name his character Barry Barfbagger.)

    SK: For some people, the second person is more conducive to role-playing, while the use of the character's name is a little disruptive.
    For others, such as myself, a very self-conscious THIRD person stance (referring to the character by name, for example) is far more conducive, while the use of the second person is a little bit disruptive.
    Figure out which camp the player falls into, and then USE it.
    I have never met ANYONE, however, for whom "your character" is a very helpful term. There's always a first, of course, but until you meet one, I'd also suggest avoiding using those words.

  5. Role-play through dialogue
    AP: Don't let a player get away with anti-roleplaying like "I try to convince the bartender to tell us the information." The proper response to this statement is "Okay, sounds like a good idea to me. You approach her; she's washing a glass and looks up -- she has very dark eyes -- as you lean over the bar. What do you say?" If you still get "My character will ask her for the information," ask "How do you phrase that?"

    SK: This can be a little intimidating, particularly for shy players attempting to portray smooth-tongued characters.
    I was rather fond of someone else's (Magnus'?) suggestion of meeting the players half-way on this one. Reassurance that yes, you ARE taking the character's skill into account, but you'd still like the player to TRY, is sometimes needed for players who, quite rightly, don't want their suave characters to be done in by their own social ineptitude.

  6. Rewarding role-playing
    AP: Make the "goodies" dependent on roleplaying. By "goodies" I don't mean magic items or experience points, I mean "the sort of stuff the players are accustomed to". Example: the city fathers every now and then finance an expedition to the nearby Ruins. It's a plum job -- the NPCs who go on the expedition get loans of lots of cool stuff, and they almost always return with tales of derring-do and lots of critical successes and near-fatal fumbles. But the assignment of this job depends on the city politics -- the city fathers have to like and trust you before they'll assign you the job. So you have to make friends.

    SK: The "goodie" technique with which I'm more familiar is the incentive of screen time. Pay less attention to players who are being boring. Interesting characters tend to generate interesting sub-plots. This one is really pretty self-perpetuating; it tends to happen automatically anyway.
    At the same time, if you want to *encourage* one of the boring players, then it is often advisable to pay *more* attention to them, impose interesting sub-plots upon them, and so forth. Does this contradict the paragraph above? Yes, it does. Cope.

  7. NPCs, NPCs, NPCs.
    SK: Force them to deal with NPCs who have absolutely *no* relevance to any "plot." This encourages people to stop thinking about characters in utilitarian terms. They aren't plot devices; they're *people.* If the players come to accept this, then their own characters are more likely to stop acting like plot devices themselves.

  8. NPC peer pressure
    AP: Get the PCs to belong to some organization which sets some standards of behavior. Ostracize them -- beat them up, kick them out of town, steal their stuff, blast them with god-magic -- if they break the rules. (A fine Runequest tradition, btw.)

    SK: I'd advise being careful with this one, myself. Ideally, the PCs should follow the prevailing community standards for reasons other than fear of retribution. Too much of this sort of thing can subvert that goal.

  9. Responding to bad role-playing
    AP: Don't be afraid to "slap them down." I don't mean physically. I mean, when a player starts to do something totally out of character, glare at him until he feels stupid and the other players *realize* it's out of character, and tell him "No, you *don't* do that," and go on to tell him why not. Use peer pressure to your advantage.

    SK: This is a little hostile, isn't it? Correcting totally out-of-character actions is a good idea, but I think that this is usually better done gently. Remember that the fear of "looking stupid" is often one of the major obstacles to role-playing in the first place. Reinforcing this fear by making a player feel stupid for making an error seems likely to me to make him simply unwilling ever to try it again. Bland actions and non-committal statements are safer. They are also, however, the sort of thing you are trying to discourage here. I'd really not recommend this approach. Really.

  10. Keep some humor
    AP: Use humor to disarm players. Don't be afraid to look foolish. If *you* get laughed at once in a while, your players will lose their fear of being laughed at for doing prissy Real Roleplaying (tm) things. Even if your intent is to run a gritty or dark game, give the players a chuckle now and then.

    SK: This can also be of some use in avoiding the "role-playing backlash" that some groups can fall into once they have decided that role-playing is the One True Way (tm). There's a certain type of gaming that often follows a "conversion" to role-play-intensive gaming: humourless, angst-ridden, narcissistic... You know the stereotype. Avoiding humourlessness in the early stages is probably a good way to reduce the risk of this happening.

  11. Refrain from killing PCs
    AP: Bad experiences with bad GMs can scar players. If a character gets carefully developed, then killed off abruptly, the player will learn that there is no return on investment for creating good character background. It can sometimes be helpful to assure the players that if the characters act *believeably*, you are absolutely not going to kill them, at least not for a long time. I've tried this in several games, and it's worked to a surprising degree; the player knows he's stuck with this character for a while, so he develops him instead of thinking about what he might play next.

  12. AP: Run the sort of game that bores munchkins to tears.

    SK: Yup. Get rid of all of the action-adventure genre conventions. Try running a game with a more internal focus. If you really love the action-oriented genres, you can always return to them later, once the players are more accustomed to role-playing.


    Fast pacing, in my opinion, seriously inhibits role-play. If you want to get really extreme, play in Real Time. Real Time demands role-playing.

  14. SK: Forget about the plot.

    Run a "plotless" game for a while. Throw away the plot hooks and all of the other accroutements of plotting for a while and see what happens. This is a bit like slow pacing, in that it demands a higher degree of role-play from the participants. If the players don't role-play, well...then nothing much is going to happen at all. It's up to them: boredom or role-play. Their choice. If they start giving you those blank looks, shoot the blank looks right back and demand to know what they want to DO.
    If you like plot, you can always re-introduce it later, once the players have got the hang of the role-playing.

  15. SK: Give the players more control over world-design.

    It's much easier to have a good handle on your character's background if you helped to design it yourself. Without a strong sense of background and culture, good role-playing becomes very difficult indeed. D&D-type fantasy games often suffer from this lack. A priest ought to know the theology of his religion, as well as its history and cultural context. It's hard to play an educated character if you know nothing of the literature or history of your culture. Most people, particularly those unaccustomed to role-playing, find it easier to assimilate this sort of knowledge if they are permitted to help develop and create it in the first place. Enjoying reading the GM's 500-page explanation of your character's theology is usually an acquired taste.

How NOT To Encourage RP

  1. XP Rewards
    JK: While XP rewards are not neccessarily a bad thing, they are not very effective at role-playing. Giving out XP or other game-mechanical "goodies" tends to encourage theatricality and outlandishness rather than in-character thinking.

Editted by
John H. Kim <jhkim-at-darkshire-dot-net>

Based on works by Al Petterson and Sarah Kahn Last modified: Thu Apr 24 23:39:01 2003