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I have a friend in a couple of my role-playing groups who just isn't enjoying the games very much. (We are currently running Exodus in one campaign and an D&D retro clone in the other.) This player is in their late 20s and started playing RPGs about a year ago. They play other card and board games with us as well, and seem to enjoy them. (Things like Magic, Small World, Munchkin, etc.)

Both of our games are very casual; there's lots of joking and laughing. They very much enjoy the social aspect of playing RPGs: sitting around and talking/BSing with friends. They also tend to get more involved during combat and skill checks, i.e. any time there is dice rolling involved.

The role-playing is another story. They will say the minimum required by the story, like a "Yes" or a "No" to accept a quest. Because they seem to be uncomfortable with it, we haven't pushed them into trying to "come out of their shell" more, but we still make sure that they have spotlight time. We definitely enjoy having them as a player.

I've talked to the player about this, to see if there's anything we can do to make the game more enjoyable for them. They stated that they have "very little imagination", even going back to childhood. They talked about playing pretend with siblings and friends and just not knowing what to do. They have mild Asperger's syndrome, which may be coming to play here. (I say "may" because I just don't know.)

I have a great imagination so I'm not sure how much imagination is needed to enjoy an RPG. How do we help this player enjoy the games more, so it's not a chore to play with us?

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My brother has AS and has an unbounded imagination, so YMMV. –  called2voyage Feb 19 at 16:03
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It's a broad spectrum, so it's not something that looks the same in every individual. Coming from an education background with inclusion training, I don't even know that it's worth noting as a factor in this discussion, since "imagination" at an individual level can differ greatly regardless of any medical diagnosis. –  Kyle Willey Feb 19 at 16:13
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@called2voyage, mileage certainly varies. I think it unlikely that "imagination" is the core of the problem, but more likely that it stems from the social issues that Aspies exhibit (in various degrees and flavors). "Very little imagination" could just be difficulty talking about (or facing) being uncomfortable or something similar. I don't want to analyze someone I haven't even met, but my experience says Aspie diagnosis could be relevant, and therefore temper any approach to "changing" the player's involvement. –  Carl Cravens Feb 19 at 23:03
    
Can you as the DM go full out in RP mode? voices, accents, acts, etc. Then give them time to learn. –  DoStuffZ Feb 20 at 7:11
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9 Answers 9

up vote 15 down vote accepted

Some people like to "act" in RPGs, some like to tell stories, and some want to roll dice. Most players I know expect all three activities, but in different amounts. It is unlikely you will ever be in a group where the balance is the same for each player and the DM.

In my opinion you have already done the right things by not pushing too hard, and having a chat to see if there is any problem. I think to follow that, you should accept the player for who they are, and make the best game you can with how they currently contribute.

Where you can, take a "yes" or a "no" from the player, and treat it as if the PC had said something a little more in character. Don't have the NPCs react to the lack of social niceties, but respond instead as if the PC controlled by this player had given the essence of what they said, but more appropriate to the situation. If you want, cover that with a little description (but avoid temptation to voice the request as the PC, narrate it instead).

If the player has a character with good social skills on the character sheet, and the system allows for it, let the player state intent without acting in character, but narrating desired outcome: "The fighter explains that he is a veteran of several wars, and worth more money than the merchant is offering. I want to persuade the merchant to offer more for the quest."

Continue to give them opportunities to contribute further, but don't make a big deal of it.

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Is your player happy with things as they are?

It is admittedly frustrating when players don't immerse and do more than the video game experience but is that okay to them, and is their playing style disruptive to anyone else at the table? Having seen several players come and go I feel like I've run the gamut of different styles.

  • One player I have intermittently kind of treats it like going to a sports event. He's invested in everyone participating - rolls when it's time to roll, cheers when they succeed, laments when they fail, fears when BBEG appears... But doesn't get his character involved in much at all. To him the social experience is what brings him to the table and that's what makes him feel like a part of something.
  • Another player I've had wanted to be more involved in the story but simply wasn't as quick on his feet when it came to in character repartee. Without a short menu of choices he got jammed up and would ask what he was allowed to do from me, what he should do from other players, and things like that to which I would give world information and even if he said something poorly but his sentiment was clear his rolls could save him. He wanted to play the game, but didn't find the accessibility without a railroad track to guide him.

So while I'm sure your planning is meant to engage every character, and that time and effort is spent on worthwhile plot hooks, is that what this player is there for? They excel at making and moderating their character, but get more involved with the players than the characters. If they care more about achieving goals via character specialties (which if they play social characters, the interaction aspect gets key) then maybe tailor a few objectives around this. From your description the player is respectful of your role as DM and of the other players when they play even if there's side talk. Thus barring any breaches of actual etiquette or flagrant disregard for the rules I might say that this is okay. Maybe it will take a significant amount of time for them to truly find their place and be the player you're hoping for and that's always something to hope for in the meantime.

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I remember when almost our entire group was like your second bullet point - we were too used to video games, and had to take cues from the more experienced players for a good couple months. –  Izkata Feb 19 at 20:07
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They will say the minimum required by the story, like a "Yes" or a "No" to accept a quest.

Perhaps your player needs a little nudging into the right direction. You'll have to guide him there, and you'll see that this can be surprisingly simple. Allow me to elaborate.

When you are misunderstood, you aren't clear enough

When I studied journalism, I had a professor tell the class that "when somebody misunderstands you, it is because you weren't clear enough." Now, that may not always be right, but it's a good philosophy to go by: when somebody misunderstands you, you have to reword things so that they will understand what you meant.

Stretching this a bit, we can conclude that most of the time, when you get a wrong answer, it is because you asked the wrong (type of) question.

Types of question

Basically there are two types of questions: open questions and closed questions.

Closed questions are questions that typically only allow for yes/no answers. It's easy to recognize them: in English, they usually start with a verb.

  • "Do you accept the quest to retrieve the Sword of Infinity +1?"
  • "Is there any beer left in the fridge?"
  • "Have you seen the new Quinton Tarantino movie?"
  • "Does your father work at the library?"
  • "Did you go to college?"

All of these can be answered with a simple yes or no, or perhaps such non-answers as "I don't know."

Open questions are the more interesting type of questions. A simple yes or no won't do for an answer, and some thought will have to be put into a response. You can recognize most open questions because they start with "who", "what", "where", "when", "why", or "how".

  • "How would you go about finding the Sword of Infinity +1?"
  • "Why would the Sword of Infinity +1 be useful for you?"
  • "What did you think of the new Quinton Tarantino movie?"
  • "Where does your father work?"
  • "What was your major in college?"

The answers to these questions will tell you a lot more. The first two examples will let your player think about the quest beyond such trivialities as "do I accept it?"

And even in those cases where the answer is rather simple ("my father works at the library"), you can just throw more open questions at them ("oh yeah? What does he do there?" -"Well, he sets up programs to help children who have difficulties learning to read.")

In many cases, even if the answer to an open question doesn't seem satisfying, you can use one simple word to go a little deeper: "why?"

Alice: "What did you think of the Quinton Tarantino movie?"

Bob: "I liked it tons!"

Alice: "Why?"

Bob: "Well, as usual, the violence was over the top but in a different way than what we saw in his previous work, the dialogues were amazingly brilliant, blablabla..."

Conclusion

If you find that your player has difficulties getting that feeling of immersion -even if just a little bit-, you can help him think about the game, the world, his character, by asking open questions.

Don't ask, "do you want to go find a treasure in the Cave of the Dragon?" Instead, ask, "what would you like to do with the vast amounts of wealth that'd be yours if you conquer the Cave of the Dragon?"

If the answer is still kind of dull, go deeper by asking why:

They: "I'd buy a bigger sword, I guess?"

You: "Why?"

They: "So I can beat baddies better!" (+1 xp for alliteration)

You: "Why do you think your current sword can't handle it?"

They: "Last time I barely got past those redshirts. I just want to decapitate them!"

Ah. We've established that your player has found his bloodthirsty side. Good! Let the RPing commence!

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+1 for communication skills. I learned something similar in business writing. –  CatLord Feb 19 at 18:34
    
I'm definitely a Quest:Yes Diceroller, and I personally feel uncomfortable when people unexpectedly dig into my character's history/reasoning/etc. I understand it and don't really think about and do my best to answer, but I prefer when a DM gives me a week or two to think of an answer to these sorts of questions. Also selecting from a list is very helpful. I love the 4e backgrounds lists. –  Mooing Duck Feb 19 at 20:31
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I think in most cases imagination is like a muscle. Many people don't lack imagination, they just have it a bit atrophied.

You can get them working their imagination. Step by step, you don't want to hurt their muscle.

Try to be imaginative yourself, and induce their imagination. Make curious NPCs that talk about themselves, and ask about other (family, homeland, couples, opinions about the king,...).

As everyone has suggested, don't push it. If they still give short answers, let them. But hopefully, they will become more accustomed to talk with NPCs. If you see them in trouble, make the NPC laugh, palm their back and just say "You are not a very talking fella" (alternatively "I just remembered I have to pick kids from school"), and make the scene end.

One of my Vampire players, the wife of a veteran player, said to me on the first game that she had no imagination and she wasn't going to be a good roleplayer. I told her the same: "Imagination is a muscle". I let her create a character that is a clone of a Twilight character. I knew her imagination couldn't bring much more. Now, she is a roleplayer as good as anyone.

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Be aware that Asperger's can have a lot to do with it. A friend's son has severe Asperger's, and my own son is on the autistic spectrum (a developmental disorder with no specific name (PDD NOS, they call it)... he's very high functioning, but is behind his peers in social development).

Every Aspie is different, but one of the fundamental obstacles they deal with is difficulty with social interaction. (It's in the definition of Asperger Syndrome.) It is likely that anything like "acting" or even being expected to solve problems (to "perform" in front of others) may make your player uncomfortable... more so than your average player. Aspies often have a lot of difficulty with empathy... putting themselves in someone else's shoes and understanding what they're feeling. This may translate into issues with roleplaying... difficulty with imagining that he is "someone else" in the story you are telling.

My advice is, barring input from the player telling you otherwise... let it be. Keep doing what you're doing, keep him involved, give him openings to expand his activity, but don't push. Pushing is likely to make him more uncomfortable. If he is not unhappy with the game, and the rest of the group is comfortable with his contribution... just keep playing and give him time to grow comfortable with expanded activity.

He may not, which is something you have to be prepared for. He may want to stay in that comfort zone permanently, and trying to force him out of it could be very stressful for him.

Beyond that, the other advice given here is good. Techniques for getting reticent players out of their shells, applied with a gentle and non-demanding hand, are likely to help, if anything will.

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First of all, I would warn you about not forcing him to enjoy roleplaying. It may be that he simply doesn't enjoy it, period. It is difficult to imagine for all of us on RPG.SE, but some people just don't like this kind of imagination-based game.

That being said, you say that your player is more involved when dice rolling is. I believe that maybe, only ludist aspects of the game interest him. Try to involve him in strategic roleplaying, like crucial negociation or politics.

Or maybe, as he says, he just lacks imagination, or is anxious about roleplaying in front of other persons. In that case, I would try to make him forget about the rules by describing in a very cinematic way (for example, instead of "the ogre attacks you", try something like "the enormous creature's eyes meet yours, and it screams with rage. You can feel the whole room trembling around you, but you have no time to worry about it, for the ogre has just thrown his gigantic spiked club at you, and it's coming right to your head. What do you do?" If he gives you a generic answer, like "I dodge!", try to ask him for details ("how?"). It should quickly become a habit to describe his characters acts if you give him enough details to do so. Try to feed his imagination a lot of "accessories" for him to use when you describe (tables to hide under, torches to use as weapons, carpets to pull when his opponent step on it, etc.)

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Self-assessment is not every player's strength.

People who say they are not creative or imaginative are not necessarily correct. I wouldn't worry too much about this, but it's worth noting that the concern may be a non-issue in play. Again, don't assume that a player won't enjoy the game because they're "not imaginative", simply ask and get an honest response from your player as to what they enjoy, what they don't, and how to improve.

Now, on to some solutions.

Train their "creativity".

I don't know how long your player has been with you, but eventually almost every player will become comfortable with the act of roleplaying. Consider providing access to support materials on method acting or on playing a character, or discuss potential aspects of their character with them to give them a crib-sheet for what their character might do or feel like, if that's a concern for them. Encourage them to try to see the world through their character's eyes, considering the motivations and past lessons that shape their behaviors.

If they enjoy play, they enjoy the game.

This is one of the things that I like to point out: being a "bad" or nervous roleplayer doesn't necessarily mean they don't enjoy the game. Many of my players who enjoy the game the most are terse, focusing more on the plot as it unfolds than even their character's low-level interaction. Of course, that's not to say that passionate players who get into their characters don't enjoy the game, but even just enjoying the mechanics, the social setting, and the story is enough to keep a player satisfied, which is, in my opinion, the job of the GM.

Don't force roles.

One of my most awkward table experiences was with a GM who required that we do everything at the table "in-character" or be docked in-game rewards for it. Stress to the player that the important thing is that they come and have a good time; if they aren't enjoying the experience they don't have to come, but they also don't have to roleplay if they don't feel like it. Of course, this assumes that your fellow players aren't going to complain, but if they do you are within your rights to the GM to give as little or as much explanation as you wish and outright state that role-playing is not mandatory.

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One thing to note is that the perceived "lack of imagination" can be affective; provide encouragement and positive feedback whenever you see progress or "imaginative" elements, even those that do not necessarily seem imaginative. For instance, if the player comes up with an interesting solution to a problem, that's a good reason to use praise to reinforce the idea of "I'm a creative thinker", which will then make full participation more likely and less intimidating. –  Kyle Willey Feb 19 at 16:15
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RPGs are not for everyone

People have different tastes, and tastes change over years. Not everyone will ever like an RPG. Even people that like RPGs tend to have different styles. I for instance do not like the heavily tactical, system heavy games like D&D 3.5. I tend to go for more story focused RPGs when I play RPGs and then play Magic or Go when I want more strategy.

So, for him, he may not ever enjoy RPGs and perhaps that is fine for him. Or perhaps he will enjoy RPGs, but prefer system heavy, tactically focused one where the story just explains why they are fighting at that moment. That is also fine. As others have said, if he is enjoying the tactical aspects of the game and not disrupting anyone else's enjoyment, this isn't a problem.

If he actually wants to be a better role player...

I just said it, but I'll say it again, if he is enjoying himself and isn't disrupting everyone else, there is no problem and I don't think anyone else should try to change him. If he isn't enjoying himself and doesn't want to be changed, the answer may be to just play different games with him and do the RPing without him. But, if he actively says he wants to be a better roleplayer outside of combat, then it is time to step in. But it needs to be internally motivated, not pushed on him from outside.

Now, if he asks for help, then I would tell him that imagination is like any other human skill and it develops with time and practice. (Note: This may be different for someone whose mind works differently than normal. I just don't know and won't presume to guess...) Over time he is likely to get better just by doing it. But if he wants to get better even faster, then he should work on his creativity.

He may want to just start with reading creative fiction if he hasn't done much of that. During RP sessions, he can work on interacting more, with the others (hopefully this is a group effort) deliberately stepping back to put the limelight on him (but let him bow out gracefully if it gets uncomfortable...then he can try again later). As a group, be supportive when he does try to do something in character.

He may want to try writing his own short stories, with or without feedback.

In time, with practice, someone who wants to improve will.

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I've read all other responses, and I agree with trying to stimulate him without pushing him. I have thought two more suggestions:

Find what motivates him

Explore the player, presents him various situations and try to figure which themes can appeal him. Romance, humor, adventure, violence, even sex. If you can find things that appeal him, you can use them as hook of roleplaying.

i.e.: In the tavern a sexy lady approaches and flirt with him. If he responses positively, give him the opportunity of trying to seduce this or other women.

If he does not show interest, try with a thug that brags and taunts him. Maybe he enjoy interchanging insults before fighting him. This could be a starter for roleplaying. Didn't work? Try finding something else.

I think asperger syndrome people have narrower interests, but finding this interest can be the key to open him to the experience.

Gives him objectives and personality traits

Or better, try to find that with him.

I have a player which also has roleplaying problems. His main problem is to find what his character want to do. If he has clear objectives he can figure better what to do, and then interact with NPCs to find it.

It also helps giving the PC clear behaviour pattern or personality traits. If he knows his character loves the knowledge, he will do anything, including roleplay, to find books or get the knowledge from other NPCs. If he knows his character is proud, he will try to seek the glory and defend his honor.

Having clear guidelines of what his PC wants and how he behaves (with extreme personality traits if neccesary) helps my player a lot.

Find help with your players

Pick a player with good roleplaying skills and ask him to chat with him in character, maybe while you are involved with other players scenes. Maybe he can talk with him with less pressure than with a NPC, or maybe he is more comfortable when the focus is the others players.

But make sure the player you pick has empathy and patience, and does not expect the same level of interaction and roleplaying from the others.

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