How Do I Get My Players to Roleplay? - Ask the Prof

 Probably the best photo that’s ever been taken of me.

Probably the best photo that’s ever been taken of me.

Caveat: Not a real professor. I just play one on TV….if your TV is looking at my YouTube videos.

I'm trying something new here. Got a question about board games, roleplaying games, comics or pop culture? Send me an email Chris@ocdcast.com or tweet me @ChrisTheProf on twitter with the #asktheprof hashtag and I may answer it in a future column. 

Brandon from the Brawling Brothers podcast (@BrawlingBros) asked: 

"How do you loosen up the 'stiffs' at the table and have them fall into character?!?" 

First of all, calling them stiffs is probably not helping your cause. Secondly, I totally know where Brandon is coming from. One of the first games I ran as a GM was the Star Wars Saga Edition RPG from Wizards of the Coast (basically D&D 3.5 but with Star Wars). I was trying to get a new group of friends into RPGs and as such pretty much everyone in my game had never played in a RPG before. A couple of players got into it, but there was one or two people that basically acted like we were playing Zork

"I attack the thing" 

"I use this ability" 

"I ask about the MacGuffin" 

At the time, it was kind of frustrating to me because I really wanted these players to get into character. It was not long after I graduated from college and moved away from a group of friends that were big roleplayers. I really wanted to recapture that feeling with this new group, which may have been a good or bad thing. I wish I could go back and talk to that version of Chris Renshaw (I'd have a few sports games for him to put bets on)! 

Four+ paragraphs later, I *do* have suggestions here! Fans of the podcasts might know that my friend Philip loves to play RPGs, but that wasn't always the case. Back in 2014, we invited him to join our D&D group around when we started D&D 5th edition, but he was very hesitant to join. To him, he loved playing games and rolling dice, but didn't want to do the whole "create a backstory" thing for his character. Finally, he decided to make his character mute so that he didn't have to tell anyone anything! 

 Philip used to be so sad before he started playing D&D with us…

Philip used to be so sad before he started playing D&D with us…

Suggestion #1: TALK to them. 

This is kind of an obvious one, which is why I'm putting it first. If you are expecting one thing, and they are not delivering, it may be that you are wanting different things out of the RPG experience. Or, they may just not know *how* to "fall into character". But if they are wanting just an experience of rolling dice and attacking monsters, then no matter what you do you are probably not going to get them to role play. At that point, either just come to accept it, or maybe suggest playing a dungeon crawl board game like Descent instead. However, if they are willing to try some new things, then keep reading... 


Suggestion #2: Help them create a backstory for their character 

People may have trouble "getting into character" because they haven't really defined what that character really is. To them, the character is just stats on a character sheet. If this is the case, help them create a backstory for their character. What was their childhood like? Why did they become a paladin/warrior/Stormtrooper? How did their character meet up with the rest of the group? Helping someone define these questions can help them make the character feel more real. 

 See? Doesn’t Philip look much happier here?

See? Doesn’t Philip look much happier here?

Suggestion #3: Ask for details 

This suggestion works better if you are the GM for your group. When said player says something simple like "I attack the creature", make them tell you how. Which weapon are they using? What does the spell they are using look like when it goes off? And don’t just pick on the one character – make sure you are asking everyone for more detail. The last thing you want is for that player to feel like you are singling them out. Hopefully, over time your players will begin to give you this sort of details automatically. 

Suggestion #4: Try a RPG that doesn't have a binary success system 

What do I mean by "binary success system"? I mean a game where each situation isn't just a pass/fail dice roll. An example of this would be the Star Wars/Genesys system from Fantasy Flight Games. Each dice roll not only has the option of pass or fail, but also introduces advantages and threats. Thus, you can succeed at picking the lock, but you triggered the silent alarm. Or perhaps you failed to pick the lock, but you do see a flyer for a party that your target will be at later tonight. Playing to that complex dynamic can help immerse players into the narrative. 

 Sourcebooks/Adventures from the FFG Star Wars RPG line.

Sourcebooks/Adventures from the FFG Star Wars RPG line.

Suggestion #5: Play a board game that helps with story telling 

There are a lot of "story telling" board games out there, where the whole point of the game is to get those type of immersive narratives you might want in your roleplaying games. There are some obvious ones that other people talk about all the time when they mention story telling games, but I'm going to recommend some other ones you might not know about. Recently, we reviewed Before There Were Stars from Smirk and Dagger, which is an *excellent* game for coming up with narratives on the spot. Dream On from CMON also is a great co-op party game that revolves about creating and remembering a story based on some prompts. 

 Dream On from CMON (oh and Blades in the Dark, which is a great RPG)

Dream On from CMON (oh and Blades in the Dark, which is a great RPG)

So there you go, there's a couple of tips to loosen up some players at your gaming table. Did any of them work? Got any other suggestions I missed? Let me know in the comments below!