Updated: Sep 15, 2020
How to make role playing engaging and meaningful. And also some practical tips at the bottom.
Now if you do not identify as a role-player, you might for various reasons, (some of them a mystery to me and I really wonder why you would even read this blog if this is the case), not enjoy getting deep into your character, improvising dialogue, reading into subtext and experiencing an emotional journey through your avatar as you build a shared inner world and a trans-personal mythology. Maybe you are new to TTRPGs like Dungeons and Dragons and you are not sure how to approach the subject of role play. It is in the title after all but according to the internet, only Matt Mercer and a few voice actors are allowed to do it.
For whatever reason, you might not see RPG as a portal into another world, an experiment in existential philosophy or an opportunity for personal growth so much as an occasion to hang out with your actual friends, roll some dice, kill some bad guys and drink some beer. And I think that is completely valid.
The sort of thing I am going to be discussing in this blog is possibly the very sort of highfalutin and pretentious nonsense you just can't stand. And if you can't stomach this kind of over-intellectualized flakey garbage---there are a million other blogs and youtube videos aimed at your demographic. i.e. The Lowest Common Denominator.
But in all fairness, the reasons I can think of include shyness, introversion, a focus on mechanics and combat, you might be a tactician or you just feel that too much role-playing slows the game down and you only have so much time in your week and you don't want to waste it talking to the shopkeeper. Or maybe you just don't believe you have the talent for it. One of the common responses I get from people who play in my games for the first time is something along the lines of "I didn't realize you could even play like this" or "I've always wanted to play like this but never could". Well, now you can. First of all, for the most part, all you really needed was an example of what it looks like, and permission to do it. Players can often be shocked at the implications that you can stay in character for (almost) the whole session and only pop out briefly for the dice-rolls and the meta-game. (Meta-Game being discussion of mechanics and other out-of-character conversation that is sometimes necessary). For some people the idea of role playing amounts to nothing more than people doing silly voices and comic impressions of movie cliches. But the fact is D&D----and other TTRPGs----are indeed role playing games. You play roles. And I'm talking about character roles not the pre-digested neo-rpg roles we seem to have retro-inherited from games like World of Warcraft and other MMORPGs. I'm not talking about Tanks, Damage Dealers and Healers. We have those too, to an extent. I'm also not talking about your class or your race. These are not roles either. A role is a character. Like a role in a film, tv show or a play. And D&D specifically proclaims, on the very front cover of almost all its books, to be the greatest among them (the truth of that statement is dubious, but lets for the sake of argument go along with that). Now, if you are one of these players that play D&D (and other rpgs) to bash things, steal treasure and obtain power for the sake of power, you might not buy into meaningful role playing as a valid path to fun. You certainly wont be in it to learn anything about yourself or the human condition. Role playing heavy style gaming is certainly not everyone's cup of tea, nor should it be. Some people just don't have the interest, capacity or frankly the talent. (That said--almost all of these factors are illusions that arise from other issues like personal trauma and a lack of self esteem----both of which can benefit vastly from role playing in a safe environment). So what are the benefits to having a role-playing heavy campaign? This is a question that has multiple answers depending on your needs and I will try and approach them all with some kind of context. Loosely they can be summed up as Entertainment, Education, Self Esteem, Catharsis. 1. Entertainment
Obviously RPGs are supposed to be fun----and the kind of fun you can have varies with each type of player. Most of us played some sort of make believe game as a child at one time or another. Cops and robbers, soldiers, cowboys, knights in armour, Barby and Ken. Even doctors and nurses. Some of us more than others perhaps, but I feel it is a pretty healthy and universal phenomenon among children. I recall my childhood games (prior to RPGs) as being extravagant proto-LARPS where my friends and I re-lived our favorite movies over and over again. Starwars, Ghostbusters, Ivanhoe was my favorite though. And that honestly, was the most fun you could have as a kid. When you were free and uninhibited. When you would really use your imagination to put yourself in the situation. When you improvised your dialogue and argued over who got shot first. Storytelling has for millennia been an oral tradition (even after the written word) and it has been the birthright of every individual throughout time. Within families and other peer groups there are still individuals who are especially gifted or practiced storytellers who we hold in some sort of esteem. In past times they were chiefs, shamans and priests. Sometimes they were bards and fools. For us RPGers, they tend to be the DMs. The Alpha-Nerds. In any case, oral storytelling is a tradition that our culture has disinherited with the rise of technology. Film, video, multimedia. These may be great inventions and awesome tools of communication, education and entertainment but the side effect is they have stolen our agency to tell our own stories. (It can be argued that this is somewhat mitigated by the rise of youtube and the availability of video equipment etc -- but my point still stands). Even our best home videos and low budget independent films cannot compete with the hundred million dollar movies coming out of Hollywood regularly. And those stories are often so generic and formulaic that the entertainment value has been reduced to pure spectacle.
To many kids and adults these days, new to RPG, the idea that you could get excited about a game played in your imagination is a very hard sell when compared to the latest offerings from Hollywood. So as far as entertainment goes, playing your own character that you created and getting to live out that characters life can provide a vast spectrum of entertainment. With a good DM and a little imagination you can play out adventures ranging in genre from monster hunts and dungeon crawls to the highest levels of political intrigue, romance, thrillers, horror and science fiction. Anyone who has not experienced this as an adult should really cast their minds back to childhood and then apply their adult knowledge of themselves and the human condition to their imagination and immediately realize how much more potential role playing has now than ever. 2. Education In recent years a lot of new research has shown us that Rpgs have enormous value to education. Both in terms of primary (or elementary) education as well as high forms of education and research. We know for example that playing D&D involves maths, social skills, leadership skills diplomacy and improves self esteem and agency for children. It teaches empathy and language development. Doubly so for challenged or disabled students and adults, kids on the autistic spectrum and otherwise. But not just for them. Anyone can improve and sharpen their social skills and learn more about themselves by investing in their character and the imaginary simulacrum of the consensus narrative. For kids it's easy to pinpoint the benefits to education and this fact is slowly becoming accepted even within the establishment. For adults the benefits to higher education include elements such as research and development. Take for example a player or DM who wants to incorporate elements of an historical period (such as speech patterns and dialogue or social attitudes and prejudices) into a specific character or wishes to explore and understand the ramifications of playing a marginalized individual more fully. If you character is a bard for example you might study literature or music from a chosen period, place or movement. This type of research can vastly enhance your play and your ability to improvise inside the bounds of the setting----what actors refer to as the given circumstances. The great acting teacher Constantin Stanisalski included "The plot, the facts, the incidents, the period, the time and place of the action, the way of life. [...] The Given Circumstances, just like "if", are suppositions, products of the imagination". The Given Circumstances of a scene, campaign or even a an entire game may range from Medieval high Fantasy standard D&D or Middle Earth RPG, Steampunk, actual historical contexts (e.g. a Jack the Ripper scenario) through to science fiction. To actively portray the given circumstances requires research and cultural engagement with that milieu. The easiest approach is to simply find and watch a playlist of movies and shows from that genre but there are really no limits as to how far down the rabbit hole you wish to go with this. These given circumstances however do not stop at genre and milieu and setting. My friend, Barry will spend weeks researching and inventing ways to get into character for our games. He has studied everything from art movements, period costume, geography, languages, accents, philosophy and economics in order to understand his characters. He will even select an popular actor to cast as his character and then watch all their movies and absorb their cadence and physicality. And Barry is not an actor. Just a very talented and dedicated role player. I personally use role playing as an opportunity to workshop characters and scenarios for my writing and see it as a kind of experimental research. The opportunity to test out moral and ethical scenarios and dilemmas in a simulacrum cannot be underestimated. Role playing in a game like D&D heightens these tensions significantly making the story personal and the dilemmas more real. The more real the emotions surrounding the objects of the game, the more accurately one can gauge the dynamics of the scenario. This is useful for anyone. 3. Self Esteem
Confidence and self-esteem naturally arise from learning new skills and role playing is no different. I have seen players transform from socially awkward and nerdy individuals into powerhouse orators from the continued presence of role playing in their lives. I've seen children impress their more jockish peers with their cleverness, tactics and ability to use their imagination in ways they didn't know they could.
All good narratives, from the epic sagas to the the latest blockbusters tend to have some form of catharsis. Today our culture is obsessed with the simplest, most economical and frankly over-valued model of narrative catharsis-----the three act structure which is most simply described as a beginning, a middle and an end. There is a Setup, where we meet the characters and see them functioning in their normal world, a Conflict where something comes into their world and changes things in a way that becomes intolerable to them or their culture, forcing them into the fray, and then finally a Resolution where they defeat the antagonist, overcome the obstacle, wins the romantic interest and finally returns to a normal but more enriched version of their original world. There are other structures (five act structures like Shakespeare plays, Joseph Campbell's Heroes Journey, any many others) and methods of deploying catharsis in a story but they are beyond the scope of this discussion. In most cases they can be reduced to a three act structure anyway and most acts or scenes can similarly be reduced in such a way. (I say it is overused because its as if we have stopped trying to use any other formula and thus our movies---in particular---are growing extremely stale, predictable and frankly boring. Now, in most narrative media there is some form of catharsis. We have all cried at the end of film. We have all felt the rush and the sense of power as righteous justice is meted out against the antagonist. Or even the perverse sense of pleasure that Hannibal Lector has escaped and lives on. Whether it is cultural or personal depends on the storyteller and the audiences relationship. It also depends heavily on the narrative having a voice. In the case of role playing games, everyone literally has a voice, a character and a story to tell. Catharsis can be had from copious acts of violence that are inherent in most D&D games, perpetrated against imaginary creatures whose function is simply to die for our pleasure or it can be more complicated. We can seek, through actual role playing, to understand these creatures, negotiate with them, fail and then have to defend ourselves, our lands, our people, our treasure. Our philosophy, our identity, our way of life.
Protip: We can roll a charisma check, for example to guide us in our role playing experience so that as a group forming a consensus narrative, we have a pathway and an outcome in mind which we can all improvise towards. Using the dice to determine this outcome somehow makes the process more organic and feel real to us. Example, when you try to persuade the guard, you roll a 4 and fail, now you know the outcome you have to improvise some dialogue that justifies why you failed. You objective is held back (good for drama because conflict is drama) and you have a tool to determine how to play your scene. The story benefits and you get to do some role-playing, despite the minor imaginary setback...everyone wins. Catharsis for some may be deeper than any of this superficial stuff. You might have lost someone in your life and found a moment in the game that has spoken to you. The number of stories I have heard about things like this occurring is surprising. Especially among self-aware adults. I shall not give examples here. You need to trust me. Writers and actors have these experiences too. They however, have to dedicate themselves spiritually and financially to their careers. You can do this on the weekend or after school.
Tactics For Role Play:
It is my supposition that many players really want to role play and are either afraid of feeling silly or they just don't know how. I have already outlined numerous reasons why role playing is good for you and your campaign, so now I want to give you some practical tools to implement and improve the quality of role playing in your games. 1. Drop Your Preconceptions. Give yourself permission.
New players are awesome. They don't come with all the baggage. They don't know the rules or even the conventions of role playing games and their first impressions will go a long way to making them awesome role players. On the other hand, older players often have already stagnated and are stuck in a tabletop quagmire of number crunching, dice-rolling and random charts. Often older players have never seen D&D run with a role playing focus and so they insist it is a strategy board game and role playing is vastly under valued and appreciated. You might be lucky if they giggle like adolescents as they attempt backroom romantic liaisons of the paid variety out the back of the tavern between dungeon crawls. They think that is role-playing. These are often the same people who think an inventory is a character. Sometimes this is because they have poor social skills to begin with. Sometimes its because they just never knew they could do so much more with the game. In any case, new players have no preconceptions and they can be introduced to the game you run, the way you want to run it. And that will be their first impression. Make it a good one.
2. Call in Backup
I recently started a new campaign online with some complete strangers. The first session went well, but I noticed whenever I made space for the players to jump into character and be proactive they would sit back and wait for me to fill the air with an encounter or some kind of action. Afterwards I immediately called upon my old friend Barry to come onboard as a much needed Rogue to pick the locks and do the stealthy business. But also because I knew that he was a great role player and he would engage the other players---in character---in a way that would immediately give them permission to role play. It's one thing if I, the DM role play and do the voices and freak out in fear when I'm playing an NPC, but the players needed permission from one of their own, and they needed to see that this was acceptable to me. This immediately changed the dynamics of the group and the next session was suddenly a lot more engaged.
3. Use Hand Signals---So that almost everything you say is in character!
Ever since the old days when I played Vampire: The Masquerade I adopted a few really useful hand signals from said game. The single most important and useful of these is the T for Time Out signal that almost anyone will recognize. In my game the T signal simply means: What I have to say next is Out of Character. This means that players are by default "in character" and any thing they say, can and will be used against them in a court of rules lawyers. Protip: Live Action Role playing games like Vampire: The Masquerade (or the newer version, Requiem) have numerous hand signals and postures to inform other players and the game master of what your character is doing or what powers you have activated. Some of these are very adaptable and useful to any game. Invent your own or research how the LARPers are doing it.
4. Play Actions / Interrupted Actions
Almost any character can handle talking and doing something at the same time. Even in combat (although I don't suggest playing out too many combat actions---although it can be fun to show someone how you kill the orc for example). Really what I am talking about is miming actions during role playing scenes. Actions like eating, drinking, sharpening a blade. Sewing, wrapping a bandage, making a camp fire etc. Splitting your attention between talking and doing something makes the dialogue and the action more believable and paints a vivid picture. That is called an Interrupted Action in acting speak. its very useful, very simple, and makes you look professional. 5. Breath
Replicating a breath pattern will induce an emotion. There is an example at the beginning of this video I made on the subject of acting for role playing gamers. If you need to induce fear or terror in yourself for the scene or if your character is tired or excited---this is an excellent technique for fast results. Also note: You need breath if you want to vocalize. Ask any singer. I also suggest you do a voice warm up before the session. I make all sorts of loud stupid noises to loosen up my face, lips and tongue and repeat a number of tongue twisters, quote some long Shakespearean passages, practice some accents and growls to make sure I have my full dynamic range all ready before we go in so that I can quicken take up any npc the players might bump into, at a pinch. 6. Catch Phrases and Emotional Gestures
Sometimes you need to play a character with a certain cadence or accent and it can be tricky to find that character at the beginning of a session or if you are the DM---when you have to switch npcs frequently, especially in a single scene. Sometimes it is worth taking a moment and reminding yourself of the character by using a catch phrase. This could be a quote your character has previously said, or something they say all the time.
The full blown professional version of this technique is more complicated still and is sometimes called An Emotional Gesture (a Michael Chekov acting technique). The idea is to find a symbolic pose or action that resonates so deeply in you that you can encode the very core of the character into it and by performing it, the character is brought back to the surface of the actors consciousness.
7. Posture and Body Language
Beyond playing actions, consider posture and body language. If you are playing online, consider how you can use the frame of your screen to enhance the quality of your role playing. More on this in the video linked above.
8. Using The Space Firstly, in a standard table setting, try to seat or arrange players to best facilitate their role playing. Put the quiet ones near the DM. Put the loud ones in the least favorable spots so they gain less advantages to get their voices heard over the others. They will make themselves heard no matter what. If you have two groups who don't know each other, (for example a new couple join the party) split them up and mix them into the seating arrangement so they all have to sit next to strangers. Next, get off your butt and actually role play. Body, posture, action, gesture this is all part of drama, acting and role playing. Stop being lazy and narrow minded. For Oghma's sake. get up and do some make believe. At the very least wave your arms around a bit and get your blood flowing.
I notice 90% of D&D games occur seated either at a large table or around some kind of coffee table in a lounge or living room space. In any case, mostly players are seated. For me this is just a starting point and a default position because it is comfortable and a familiar and midway point between the other modes of play that I employ. Its useful but, please, don't think it has to be the only way to play D&D. "Motion creates emotion". Sometimes you or your players should gave room to pace, walk around, examine books, set camp, and do things as well as talking. This plays into point Number 4. Playing actions, above. I advocate that three different modes of play that are useful and the tabletop setting is merely one of them. i. Macrocosm: The battle-map and miniatures----which I avoid using until it is absolutely necessary because setting them up and using them slows pace significantly and interrupts the story flow. They are however very useful in the right moment and an awesome tool for certain fights and other situations.
ii. Default: Seated at the Table in Theater of the Mind: This standard mode allows for fast pace description, story-flow and role playing of most every type and is the default mode in most games, most of the time.
iii. Microcosm: I use a third space---I suggest a designated role playing space big enough for the players to stand in a circle at least. By utilizing this wider space we can literally stage a scene. Instead of minis we utilize LARP conventions for this special kind of scene.
Note: I don't use this for combat usually but it can be useful for slow motion moments and other vivid depictions of parts of a combat scene.
This stylistic mode is especially useful for court scenes, meetings, shady back alley exchanges and that sort of thing. Often these scenes culminate in combat and we return to our seats and our miniatures knowing exactly where we were in relation to one another when the scene began. It also helps us know what we are carrying and produces a vivid image of the scene in our minds. Knowing the space like that adds a lot to your role-playing. You begin to experience the details and textures of the world in a way that is much more difficult sitting around a table.
Protip: As the DM I will also stand up, walk around the table, stand behind a player or even, if I can get the player role playing among themselves, remove myself from the scene by vanishing into the shadows or leaving the room so they become less self conscious. Listen to the role playing exchange from the hallway or out if sight. 9. Never Be an Empty Vessel
If your character is not speaking---don't drop out of character. If your character is not in the scene---your are not (despite Mathew Coalvilles opinion) dead. Your inner life continues as the character and you are still ready to come back in at any point. If you and any other characters are not in the scene, consider (with DM permission) role playing among yourselves some minor scene or dialogue to reveal aspects of yourself to the other players or simply as part of an exploration of your own character. This builds bonds and ties between player characters and allows the DM more freedom to spend time with any one player or group of players without the entire game crashing to a halt.
10. No Devices.
Unless you are using it for the game, turn it off or get rid of it. It's rude, it's distracting and it's the absolute bane of good role playing. No more needs to be said.
Here is the a free acting class for role playing gamers which you can see some of these techniques in action, plus more Online screen-acting techniques that can help you during this