If it’s a Roleplaying Game, Why Don’t My Players Roleplay?!

Hello all! And welcome back to Always Split the Party!

Today I’d like to talk about a problem that has plagued DM’s and GM’s for centuries (or at least since 1st edition)… players. Now, players make the game worthwhile. They drive the story, they kill the creatures, and they roll the dice. Without the players, you might as well be writing a novel, fanfiction, or even (heaven forbid) a blog! Without players, there is no game.

However, players are also a source of incredible frustration for the DM. Carve out a massive, beautiful, complex dungeon from the bowels of the earth? The players will walk right past the entrance, on their way to the tavern. Build a city from the ground up, and spend countless hours developing the rich tapestry that is its history? The players burn it to the ground, and sow the ground with salt. Give birth to a fantastic NPC, filled with life, depth, and breadth of character? He’s not going to live long enough to even talk to the players, who are more interested in his +2 flaming longsword, than his heartbreaking backstory.

One of the primary sources of frustration that I have encountered in my time playing roleplaying games is the lack of good roleplaying. Many players seem to focus on the “game” and mostly ignore the “roleplaying”. These are the “video gamers”. Now, I call them that for a very simple reason: they view tabletop RPGs the same way they view video game RPGs.

There are essentially two kinds of “video gamers”. The first focus on the damage they can deal, the XP they can get, and the treasure they can acquire. They treat D&D like Diablo. Diablo is an RPG (although I’m not sure what roleplaying is actually done), and has a story. However, the primary focus is on the “gamey” aspects. Some players might pay more attention to the story than others, but ultimately, the roleplaying is not the point.

The second kind of “video gamer” views tabletop RPGs as a Bioware game, or another Final Fantasy. These players are interested in the plot, the want to explore the world, and they want to be part of a good story. The problem is, they expect the story to happen TO them. They expect the DM to do the funny voices, to give the colorful descriptions, and to provide the entire narration of the story. Roleplaying, for these gamers, is the same as decision making. They want to make decisions that change the story, joining this side or that, killing this guy or letting him live, and other such things, but that is all that they imagine “roleplaying” is.

Now decision making is an important part of “roleplaying” side, just as the damage you deal is an important part of the “game” side. However, neither part can be reduced to just one aspect. What if you made a character and didn’t bother giving him a high AC or HP, but instead only focused on the damage he could deal. He would die rather quickly. Just so, if you take one aspect of roleplaying, the decision making, and focus entirely on that, you won’t be a very good roleplayer.

Roleplaying is about “collaborative narrative”. When the DM describes a room the PCs have entered, he is building part of the narrative. When the players describe what their heroes do, they are also building part of the narrative. They should feel like they are also telling the story, not just providing material for the story the DM is telling! They should also be using funny voices, giving colorful descriptions, and adding to the actual story being told!

There are many ways to encourage this level of engagement. One way is through Collaborative Combat Narration (see my last post). Another way is to begin each session by asking each player to describe, in character, something about either their character or the world around them. Maybe you could have a character describe a scene from his backstory. Maybe you could have each player tell what their character thinks about the events of the night before, or their reservations about the assault on the castle late that day. Give each player a chance, at the very beginning of each session, to bring to mind that they are an essential part of the game, that what they say matters to the narrative, and that they have a say in the story. Emphasize that the way the character speaks to this or that NPC is part of the story, and is every bit as a part of the game as big “decision points” are. You get the picture.

There are many more ways to encourage players to engage in the narrative of the game, and not simply leave roleplaying for “decision” moments. However, I don’t intend this post to be a solution, or list of solutions. It is instead just an identification of the problem. “Knowing is half the battle”, and now you know what the problem is. I leave it to you to come up with the solution.

That’s all for now. I’ll talk to you again later. In the meantime, happy gaming!

And Always Split the Party!

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