There are two important social elements to every roleplaying game: the Gamemaster, whom frames the situations that allow for narrative, and the players, whom push the story along with their actions. The Gamemaster is the subject of an awful lot of advice columns; important tools for a job that requires constant inspiration and innovation. But players are often left out in the cold. They have to learn the art of roleplaying through trial and error. This isn’t entirely fair. After all, the players – in theory – are the true storytellers, the catalysts for conflict and progression.
However, despite stereotypes to the contrary, not everyone who plays in a tabletop RPG has a flair for the dramatic. Some are thrilled by the tactical combat. Others take a more passive route, preferring to observe the world of the story instead of directly engage with it. Not everyone is instantly capable of method acting their way through the first few sessions. Yet, one of the most frequently asked questions by new GMs is: “How do I get my players to roleplay?” Even if it’s not the primary draw for every player, roleplaying enhances the experience of everyone at the table. It’s a skill that can be learned.
Gamemasters: The best way to get your players to roleplay is to provide an open and comfortable environment that will allow them to explore the ideas they have for their characters. A well-told and interactive story will work wonders as well. But this article isn’t about you.
Players: Roleplaying doesn’t come naturally to everyone. It can be strange to inhabit the mind of someone who is not yourself, especially if you don’t have any acting experience. Luckily, you don’t have to be Robert DeNiro to play Dungeons & Dragons. RPGs do require a significant degree of improvisation, but you don’t have to be intimidated by the openness of this style of gaming. In fact, it should be freeing, allowing you the powerful opportunity to flex the muscles of your imagination. Remember, you’re not in front of an audience of strangers, you’re with friends and together you can tell one hell of a tale.
Here are four techniques that you can implement to become a better roleplayer.
1. Motivation, Motivation, Motivation
What does your character want? Why does he want it? These are the two most important questions you can ask, because they will propel every action you’ll make in your game. Motivation is the stepping stone to defining your character’s personality, but more importantly, it informs her decision-making. You can easily ask yourself: “Does this get me closer to or further away from my goal?” when making world-shaking choices. This is especially useful when your motivation directly conflicts with that of the party or another player, adding flavorful (if contentious) layers to the relationship between your characters.
It’s important that youcreate your own impetus, because it will personally involve you in the creation of the story. If your motivation is revenge, you can establish the NPC who will be the victim of your wrath, and the Gamemaster will have a new means to grab your attention. Every time a clue is revealed to lead you to the offender, you’ll instantly have an easier time roleplaying because it will be a seed that you planted. Motivation is an implement of immersion and the simplest way to start your journey into deeper roleplaying. It can also change over the course of the game as you react to new plot hooks and evolve your avatar.
Background is the cousin of motivation, as they often directly relate. If you ascertain that your character’s parents were killed by a violent gang lord, the next logical step is to build upon that idea by attempting to claim vengeance; as discussed above. Similarly, if you know that you want to be motivated by revenge, you’d have to contribute that feature to your background. The inspiration can work in both directions. While not every character requires a novella-length back-story, it will help if you have a solid idea of your history that you can recall throughout the game. This lends an element of surprise, as parts of your past could creep up to find you at any given moment.
If you start with motivation and background, I guarantee that you’ll see an immediate improvement in your roleplaying.
2. Think Like Your Character
There are moments during any game session when things slow down for your character and others’ take the lead. Obviously, roleplaying is collaborative and your friends should be allowed their time to shine, but that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t attempt to remain in character. In the real world, your inner life is just as important as any actions you take. That should be reflected in the game.
Let’s look at an example: As you are being lead down a long, dark central corridor of a dilapidated ruin, how are you feeling? Perhaps you are scared out-of-your-mind, but feigning strength to support the other party members. Perhaps you are reminded of the times you spent exploring the catacombs beneath your hometown as a child. This isn’t anything that any other player ever has to know about, but it’s a way to personalize the game for yourself. Even if the Gamemaster hasn’t specifically described a function of the setting, try to use all of your senses: the corridor smells like mold and stale air. You can feel the uneven stone beneath your feet. You can taste the moisture on your tongue. These small details will bring the whole ordeal to life and create a more vivid mental experience. When the time comes to take back the reigns, you’ll still be deeply involved in the story.
Another thing to keep in mind is that most human beings are judgmental creatures. We might not speak out with all of our opinions, but we certainly have them. As such, you should constantly be judging the decisions and behavior of the other characters in your party and the significant NPCs in your campaign. The results don’t have to be negative, but they should be honest. If you are disgusted by aberrant creatures, you would likely react as such when you meet an Illithid shopkeeper. If you are passionate about a good sponge-cake, you’ll likely fall in love with the barmaid who makes the best in town.
Inhabiting your character to the point of thinking like them can take some practice, but can truly add to your perception of the game.
3. Challenge Your Gamemaster
Don’t be afraid to challenge the storytelling abilities of your Gamemaster. Don’t feel like you have to stick to the script. If it’s logical for your character to make a drastic plot-based U-turn, then do it. Good roleplaying should keep a GM on her toes. They’ll say it’s annoying. They’ll be frustrated by your boldness. They’ll be forced to stop railroading and follow the path of the players, which might mean some hasty improvisation. But ultimately, the Gamemaster is there to facilitate you and your entertainment. Don’t be a jerk, but do take the time to nudge the GM in your direction, because it’s within your rights as a player.
But how can you do this? The first step is to not be intimidated by the idea of fulfilling your characters full potential. Too many people don’t want to speak up about their character as an individual. They let them fall into a specific role in the group and work as an agent of the collective. However, you should remember that in your version of the story, you are the protagonist. It’s okay to make selfish choices occasionally, although they should be made sparingly as not to offend the friends you play with. The rule of thumb should always be: “Does this make sense in the context of my character’s personality, background, and motivation?”
If you don’t feel as though the game is engaging enough for you, it’s as much your duty as the Gamemaster’s to fix that problem. Introduce conflict. Follow a dangling plot hook that interests you. Cause some entertaining trouble. You’ll know if you’ve gone too far, because the group will let you know. They’ll shoot you some seriously evil looks. But if done in the spirit of fun, your Gamemaster will appreciate the challenge and it may take the story in exciting directions that it wouldn’t have gone in otherwise.
4. Leave the Tech at Home
Lastly – and this should be a sensible piece of advice – don’t bring your cell phone or your laptop or your tablet to the table, unless you’re using them for gaming purposes. Don’t text. Don’t browse the web. Don’t play mobile games. These are distractions and could be key to why you feel uncomfortable roleplaying. After all, you don’t feel like you have to roleplay if you are busy checking your e-mail.
This can be a bit of a harsh rule for some groups. We’re so used to be connected that we hate to disconnect. But the real joy of roleplaying games is being present and social in the moment. The people at the table are far more important than ninety-five percent of what you’ll be doing on your device and if you’re feeling bored; you should really be honest with your Gamemaster. Let them know so they can do something about it.
The fact of the matter is: you can’t roleplay effectively if you’re not paying attention. You’ll lose pieces of the information that you need to participate in the storyline. Do yourself a courtesy and try to turn it off for the few hours you’ll be playing. I guarantee you’ll see an upswing in your roleplaying and the amount of enjoyment you get from playing the game.