You sit around the table. You, the Dungeon Master are safe behind your Dungeon Master screen like a child in his cardboard box fort. Your players sit at the table to you left and right and before them, are character sheets, pencils, some dice and a hoard of snacks. The game starts and you get ready to set the scene for the first encounter “After many days of travel on the open road, you finally crest a hill and look down on a small Hamlet. It is dusk, and the light from the windows of each building beckon you. YOU and your companions descend into the town, and find that the most prominent building is a large inn. A young stable boy approaches you and offers to take care of your horses while you enjoy the hospitality of the inn. You open the door and are immediately hit with the warmth from the fire, and your nostrils are assailed with the smells of several culinary delights. The sound of a minstrel playing in the far right corner hits your ears. You find an empty table and take a seat. Shortly thereafter a serving wench catches your glance and she approaches the table. What can I get for you this evening gentlemen?” one player says “I would like a pint of your finest ale please m’lady, and pray tell what is that delightful smell that caught my nostrils as I entered this fine establishment? the other characters follow suit and the scene is alive and being brought to life by the mutual role play. Then John Smith pipes up and says “My warrior orders a drink and some food and I guess I need a room to rest as i am down ten hit points.” Suddenly the mood crashes and Burns. While this is by far not the worst example of a player not embracing the role playing aspect it would still be a mood killer. SO how do you help John Smith get into the fold and drink the cool aid of Role Play?
Firstly you have to accept not everyone will take to the art of role playing naturally. This could be for a variety of reasons. They may feel awkward or silly acting out a role in front of others, or they may just literally not have any real clue on how to go about it. Part of your job as the Dungeon Master is to teach. Not just the rules of the game but how to be part of the game itself. Everyone has to learn, including the Dungeon Master. It baffles me how so many people think they can be a good Dungeon Master just because they pick up the rules and decide to run a game. Dungeon Mastering isn’t an easy thing to do well, yet it blows me away how so many people think because they have run a few games over the course of a year or two that they are accomplished Dungeon Masters. Much like many other skills or professions, it takes time to hone the skills required. I know way more piss poor Dungeon Masters than I do good ones. On top of that a certain natural skill set is required (Which I will cover in another topic).
If we acknowledge that you have to learn to be a Dungeon Master then it stands to reason you need to learn to be a player. Fortunately for the players, they have you to teach them. Even if you are a new Dungeon Master, it is still your job to read the books, learn the rules and develop the parameters for your game. When it comes to the skill of role playing (yes it is a skill) you first must lead by example. How you choose to speak and act will ultimately dictate how your players will reciprocate.
Firstly are you going to speak in the first or third person? Whichever it is you need to decide upon your style and stick to it. Its confusing for players if they do not know which side of the pronouns you fall on.
First person is typical used in an autobiographical form of writing or when discussing the self. In role playing terms it is when you refer to the players or Non Player Characters as yourself, and thus you become the character. For example. When you present the players with a group of bandits upon the road and the lead bandit wishes to speak to the players you would say something like “That’s far enough travelers. Me and my friends here plan to relieve you of your coin purses before continuing, and if you put up a struggle we may relieve you of your lives as well!”
Third person is used more in fictional or academic writing. In respect to the game it is when you refer to the Non Player Characters as He and She etc. If we take the same example as above it would come over this way. “The bandit steps forward and tells you that that is far enough. He tells you he means to relieve you of your coin purse, and that if you struggle he will relieve you of your lives as well.”
I have seen groups play both ways. I personally only play using the first person approach, and this lends far better to role playing as it forces the players to BE the character. If you train your players to use first person they will learn to role play much quicker, and the more they do it the more natural and less forced it will become.
Third person allows you to hide from role playing. It is a good choice for a Dungeon Master and players that mutually do not want to bother with the role playing side of things and would rather treat Dungeons and Dragons more like a conventional game. To this I say A POX on anyone that uses this method. Its a role playing game and embracing the role play is over half the fun.
So if you want stronger role play and are not currently using first person, I say you the Dungeon Master are partly to blame for your players lack of role playing so bloody well change to first person!
Next I always insist that each player write a lengthy back story for his or her character. Give the players some guidance in doing this, and let them know what you wish to know. I encourage them to decide if their characters have any prior relationships with each other and if so to detail them. I want to know where they grew up, about their family, friends and life before becoming a first level character. If we are starting at a higher level I also insist on details about the previous years as a cleric, rogue, warrior etc. Then I ask them to imagine how their character feels about their previous years, and what state of mind has it left them in. This exercise not only give you the Dungeon Master some great ammunition to draw from for future adventures but it helps the player bring his character to life. It is easier to role play a character when you know who they are and understand them. Its a basic form of method acting. You may have heard Television or movie actors saying things like “What is my characters motivation?” well there is a reason for that. They need to understand it to be able to give any emotion to the character. So do your players. If in their back story they were wrongfully imprisoned for three years by the city guard. It would stand to reason they may have a distrust for the law. If they watched their parents murdered by goblins, well maybe they have a hatred for all of goblin kind. If they had a lot of tragedy in their past, maybe they have a dour demeanor. All of these things should be considered when creating a character, and it will all help your players role play.
Next I encourage you as the Dungeon Master to reward good role playing with Experience points. Don’t just shell out Experience as a reward for killing monsters or defeating an encounter, but expand it to reward good role play. Also be vocal in rewarding it. For example “Great job role playing that intimidation check. I actually felt scared. I am awarding you a bonus 100 EXP!” If a player who is not really role playing sees his piers getting rewarded for their efforts, he or she is given an additional incentive to follow suit.
Finally you can give them pointers before or after any game session and offer encouragement. If you noticed a player really trying to role play, especially if it is a player who typically struggles to do so, let them know you noticed their efforts. “I loved it when you acted drunk after your character downed that entire bottle of mead. The slurred speech was great.” If they feel like their efforts are noticed and appreciated they will not only want to role play more but they will also start to realize that no one is looking at them and thinking “you dumb ass“, but instead are impressed by their efforts.
Above all I can not stress enough that as the Dungeon Master you must lead by example. In my games (as i mentioned earlier) I use first person. I jot down a few personality traits for even the most minor Non Playing Characters so as to give them some personality. I voice act every Non Player Character and while I know many do not have the desire or talent to do that, It gives my Non Player Characters a life of their own. Players in my games learn how to role play fast, because I don’t give them any other choice but to do so.
Follow my advice and I guarantee that you will have your players role playing their asses of in three short game sessions or your money back!
Well actually the advice was free so you wont get jack in the way of reimbursement, but you get the point…..