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I'm going to be hosting a game at the end of the month. Myself, I am a semi-experienced DM but I will be playing with those who know only the basic mechanics of the game or have never roleplayed before. The group will consist of my wife, myself and three friends. My friends don't really know my wife as well as I do, which makes me think things might be tricky if we're going to be playing a role playing game.

Is there anything I can do to provoke role playing in the PCs (Such as making loose rules about it)? How can you encourage improvisation and in-character actions for newbies?

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8 Answers 8

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I'm assuming your players already understand the basic concept of roleplaying.

The Ground Rules of Roleplaying

Tell your players that roleplaying is supposed to be fun. They should do what they think is fun, but they shouldn't ruin other people's fun. Forget not that the GM is also a people whose fun can be ruined.

Also explain to players that sometimes they can Decide To Act Differently.

Reasons For Roleplaying

Characters need reasons to do things. Ask your players to establish goals, and instead of (just?) rewarding them for killing monsters, reward them for accomplishing story goals.

Ask them up front what their goals are, and then tell them how much XP those goals are worth. Big rewards for big and hard to accomplish goals, small rewards for small goals. You can also allow them to divide big goals into smaller goals, because that's how you plan things.

If they need inspiration for goals, then I suggest looking at Fiasco play sets. They are a great way to give goals to characters. A bunch of them are free on DriveThruRPG, and they are largely self explanatory.

You should also require that characters have relationships to the world. Every character should have someone they want to see dead, someone they would do anything to save, and a reason for being in the party.

Reasons for being in the party can be nearly anything:

  • "The rogue knows my secret, and will reveal it if I don't go along"
  • "I must protect the wizard until I can repay the life debt I owe him"
  • "She's my twin sister! Why the hell wouldn't I be here?"

Enemies and friends are useful to the GM, because it gives you more story hooks.

Feel free to reward characters for having good goals: "So you're in love with the mayor's daughter, and you want to impress her enough that she'll not just jump in your bed, but actually marry you? Well, you may have the Codpiece of Smooth Talking that you inherited from your uncle Don Juan Casanova, which gives you +5 to Seduction rolls. That'll help you with the daughter, but it won't help you much with her father."

Techniques for Roleplaying

If they can't think of how to play their characters, then I suggest looking at the techniques of improv. Play Unsafe by Graham Walmsley explores how improv can be used to roleplay, or you can Google for improv techniques.

I also recently found an article with 11 ways to be a better roleplayer, which your players may be interested in.

The Reward Cycle

The system you use matters, because game systems are geared towards reinforcing certain behaviour.

Typically, DnD encourages murderhobo behaviour. You kill monsters, sell the loot, buy the shinies, and then go kill more monsters. If you don't want that, then don't reward them at all for killing things. Reward them for completing story goals.

Say they're hunting for treasure in a cave - the treasure is the monetary reward, but if they can figure out a way to not murder the goblins who live in the cave, then they should still get the XP for getting to the treasure and they don't run the risk of dying.

You can also explicitly reward players for good storytelling. You can ask them things like "Is this action cinematically appropriate?" and if so, give them circumstance bonuses. "Swinging on the chandelier? +15 Swashbuckling bonus!"

If you want to show your players that storytelling is fun too, then I suggest playing Fiasco for a session or two instead.

And in conclusion

Tell your players what you expect from them. Explain the principles, then give them concrete examples.

But don't forget the rule of fun - don't force them to do things they don't think are fun, because they always have the option of just leaving. If they really want to play murderhobos... then let them!

And don't worry about it too much. Humans are naturally geared to telling stories. After all, like Terry Pratchett said:

The anthropologists got it wrong when they named our species Homo sapiens ('wise man'). In any case it's an arrogant and bigheaded thing to say, wisdom being one of our least evident features. In reality, we are Pan narrans, the storytelling chimpanzee.

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From Experience

I wish I could point you to a guide, but alas, I must rely on my own experience introducing people to role playing. There are a few things to help people get into the swing of things:

  • Directly address the social contract, and how the game is going to work. This is really basic. I usually address this by saying something like: "We're going to tell a story together. I'm the narrator, and you all get to play characters. If your character wants to do something, let me know."
  • Focus less on mechanics and more on having fun. You need to give them a good taste for RPGs in general, and the more fun you have, the better. Walk them through any mechanics when they need help, and be forgiving if they didn't know about something. I sometimes even go so far as to ask people what their character would like to do, and then introduce the mechanics to see if the succeed.
  • Establish motives and some backstory. It gives people something to role-play with. DnD 5e is certainly making this easier with backgrounds, bonds, and so forth, but you can (and ought to) have character personalities and motives without regard to system.
  • Give and ask for descriptions of people, places, and actions. The more you can get them into the magic circle, the easier it is for them to assume their roles! Descriptions help with that. You should describe things. They should describe things. Don't say "melee basic attack" or "a spell did 1d4 damage to you." Engage their imaginations!
  • Don't always ask for acting. Acting is different than role-playing, and isn't always part of role-playing well. If they want to act, assume voices, or other things, then great! If not, that's okay too. What you're really looking for is people taking charge of their characters, and acting on their motives and personalities.
  • Assume the role of NPCs and ask direct questions to party members. I know I said not to push acting, but simply assuming the role of an NPC and having a direct conversation helps people. For some people, it's all they need to step into role-playing. Others take a little more time.
  • Miniatures can help. It may seem silly, but drawing out a map and being like "you are here!" can help people get into the world or environment. Once again, this is just a trick to get people into the magic circle. People in the magic circle simply role-play better.
  • Try explicitly giving bonus experience for role-playing. At the end of the session, be like "so-and-so gets an extra 50 EXP for playing their role exceptionally well!" (Even if they didn't do an exceptional job.) A word of caution: the important part of this is you're putting value on role-playing, not that people are getting ahead. Yes, it may engage some people's competitive drive, but this may not work for other people. Make it a small yet tangible bonus to EXP.
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4  
"Focus less on mechanics and more on having fun" Godzilla sized +1 –  Rob Aug 13 at 18:30

Reading the comments, I understood that what you're looking for is a way to immerse them in the story and to give them a taste of what role-playing is really about. And maybe even to encourage them to play the characters. Here's how I do it, when I come to a group with completely new players. Hopefully, it will help you a little.

Explain to them quickly and verbally what an RPG is

I usually go for something like this: "I play some RPGs, it's like reading a novel or watching a movie, but you play the hero." This is here to make sure that firstly everyone is on the same line about this activity, but also to start giving them a feel for what we're going to have in here.

If they ask some questions or whatever, this is usually the time in which I answer them.

I let them choose the type of the game

Being an improve kind of GM it comes to me quite naturally, but if you're not like me let them choose from a few possibilities. By letting them choose the story, you get 2 head starts. One is that you show them that the only limitation is their imagination. The other one is that they will be much more enthusiastic around a game that lies within their preferred genre.

Let's take as an example a game I once GMed, so you'll be able to see how I approach it practically also. The game was a fantasy game, taking place during the French revolution. The players decided to be wizards during those times.

A quick character-creation cycle ensues

Nothing too fancy in here. They choose a concept, decide about a major event from their past. The basics, just so they'll get a feel of playing something completely different. I, of course, help them in whatever they need. If they need some ideas I suggest to them. If they want to know if they can be someone, I say that they can…

One player decided to be a death wizard, having the ability to kill with a single touch. The second one wanted to be something like Katara from Avatar. The first was born in a faraway land and after a witch trial in England came to France. The second was a rebel teenage noble.

The game begins with something big

Start with something big, something that will catch their imaginations. Describe it with as much enthusiasm as you can. If you're enthusiastic about this, they will soon follow. Through their enthusiasm, they will create a bond with the world, thus immersing themselves into it.

You should encourage them to do something in it. Whatever they want to do. They act, and you describe what happens, and then they reply what they do, and you answer and so the cycle goes. Enthusiasm is the key. Another one is to never say no. Go with the flow, let them try things.

We opened with a huge number of people, looking at the Bastille. Someone just finished giving a speech. They're going to take the Bastille down. The Death Wizard decided to become a leader of group of people, the other decided to infiltrate the Bastille and to attack it from within.

Now a few scenes to give them a greater sense of what they can do

Nothing much to say in here. Go with the follow, continue from their actions in the first scene, and never say no.

the first one led the people to the left side of the Bastille and had a short and bloody fight with the guards. The other one entered and created havoc and chaos after freeing the prisoners and freezing the main hall. After that they went to the palace and locked the royal family in the Bastille. Then they made themselves the new queens of France.

Now you add a little twist

Every story has a twist, and so does this one. This will give them a greater sense that this is a real and great story, and as such they will be even more immersed within the story. They may even talk about the twist in later days if done right.

Continuing from where we left off with the example, Napoleon came. Seeing that he is not powerful enough, he freed the royal family, rounded some nobles and still loyal commoners, and decided to attack the queens.

The finish scene should be the most memorable one

This will give them their lasting impression. If it was good, they will remember the activity as good, and as such may come back to playing the game, devoting more energy next times and so on.

A huge battle took place near some famous locations in Paris. The city was destroyed, the locations taking severe hits. The descriptions in the battle were epic, at times it felt hopeless, but they won. The city is theirs, France is theirs.

Addendum, or why you should never say no

This game is a one shot, so there are no consequences. As such, your main goal is to create an epic story, but more than that, to give them an epic memory. The way to do it is by being as much enthusiastic as thy can, but also to let them add as much to the story as you can. If you'll do that, and they'll see that their actions do affect the story, they will be even more proactive, thus leaning more and more toward your goal.

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Thank you very much for your detailed answer, incredibly helpful. –  BenjaminJB Aug 14 at 14:00

PipperChip's answer is solid. One thing to add...

We know there are different types of player, who play for different reasons and get different things from the experience. Even though they have never role-played before, your friends will emerge as one of the types. Let them. Take care not to make too many assumptions about what styles and preferences may emerge, and be ready to adapt.

I've seen new players lose interest because a game was too much combat and not enough role-play. I've seen them lose interest because there wasn't ENOUGH combat. In the long run, we all want to find a group with compatible interests, but in the short run, you're really just discovering what those interests are. You might know your friends well enough to make a pretty good guess at the sort of play they will prefer. Just be prepared if they seem to go in another direction.

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It's worth noting that the way answers are ordered on this site changes depending on the number of votes they get. This means that it doesn't really mean anything when you refer to 'the above answer'. –  Phil Aug 13 at 18:50
    
Ah. I will note that in the future, and edit my existing answers to take that into account. Thanks. –  Longspeak Aug 13 at 19:32
    
We have a question talking about types of players here that you might find useful to include. –  SevenSidedDie Aug 13 at 19:38

Some of the techniques you will use will be the same as in my other answer about transitioning long-time roll-players to roleplaying, but in this case you have the benefit of working with new players without a lot of preconceptions built up.

The biggest thing you can do is to make sure you are, explicitly and implicitly, encouraging in-character roleplay in your game. This means:

Not focusing so much on the rules. Both in play and implicitly (for example, telling people that character generation should be a long math exercise in "builds."). Keep up a paradigm of "they tell you what they want to do" and you interpret that through the lens of the game based on its reasonable chances of success, whether it's e.g. "covered in the grappling rules" or not. Encourage them to not really be looking at their character sheet much - a distraction like a standee or mini can help but also discourage people looking at each others' sheets, engaging in "rules talk," etc. The real trick is to do the same thing back to them - lead by example. Have a copy of their sheet so you can check their e.g. Will save without having to ask them.

Depicting the world and the people in it. Flex your description muscles and be ready for them to interact heavily with their environment. Make sure NPCs talk to them (and each other) without waiting for the computer game "prompt" to be hit. Have a lot of NPCs around to set the tone of dialogue and use them to explore your PCs' motivations and backstories. To disagree with @PipperChip's otherwise solid answer, do prompt acting. So many RPG'ers are uncomfortable with it just because they didn't do it in the beginning, and/or are in groups where many folks didn't do it. Get everyone kicked off on the right foot here, many gaming groups into the future will thank you.

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I agree with Longspeak's answer, that you should let their playstyle naturally emerge. However, I come at it from a different angle that I think warrants a separate answer. Or maybe not, since it doesn't really make sense outside the context of all the other answers, but I think it's worth saying so here I go.

Playstyle isn't just about preferred balance of combat vs role-play; it's fundamentally about what draws a person to the game in the first place. I'll use myself as an example: I don't really like roleplaying much beyond "me but competent" or "me but willing to stab people" as the scenario demands. The draw for me is the opportunity for open-ended imaginary adventures--going to strange places, meeting strange people, fighting horrible monsters or alternatively the strange people, and so on. It's about doing all this stuff with my friends while drinking heavily, and there just isn't a game that offers this that isn't an RPG.

Don't get me wrong, I don't just play myself all the time. I understand that my friends don't feel the way I do, so I shape my character's personality to be interesting for them, whether that calls for a foil, a rival, a co-conspirator, or whatever. Before the game actually starts, though, I'm not going to have any kind of motivation or personality in mind. If you were to press me to elaborate my backstory I'd literally make something up on the spot to get you to leave me alone. If you were to require me to take part in a genuinely-character psychodrama I'd quit.

I type out this giant wall of text to point out that at least in some cases the answer to "how to encourage role playing" may well be "you don't" or at the very least "you won't in the way you're thinking of." The key thing to remember to make this a good time for everybody is this isn't necessarily a bad thing, and it doesn't necessarily represent a failure on your part to be engaging or on the player to be engaged.

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You've got this marked as system agnostic. May I suggest you choose the RPG you will be playing with some care? Ask your players what genre of story they are interested in, and look for a rules light game in that genre. We have lots of game recommendation questions here. It might be worth asking what they're looking for (Sci-fi adventure, like Star Wars? Epic fantasy, like Lord of the Rings? Goofy kung-fu action, like Kung Fu Hustle?) and coming back to ask a recommendation question based on that information. Offhand, you usually can't go wrong with one of the *world games (Like Dungeon World) for introducing people to RPGs.

I suggest doing as much of the math of the game as you can behind the GM's screen without making them do it. Pre-build the chassis for their characters beforehand, as that will both save time and let you make them as simple as possible. Write down the important stats of their characters, like base attack bonus or dodge DV, on a couple of sticky notes you keep in sight. Let them tell you what they do ("I hit the orc!") and tell them what dice to roll, but do the math on which dice or how many dice or what dice get added yourself. Early on, most people can roleplay or rollplay, not both at once. If you want them thinking about being fascinating characters then do the math for them. Later on, a few sessions from now maybe, start telling them how you're doing the calculations and getting them to do it for themselves, but on the first session I almost wouldn't hand them a real character sheet.

Do hand them a kind of character sheet though. Ask them things like "What kind of clothes are you wearing?" or "What color are your eyes?" These are absolutely useless pieces of information for mechanical purposes, but they will get them thinking about who this person they're inhabiting is. Ask them to speak in character as much as possible. Explain what that means. Have NPCs ask them about themselves. ("Adventurers, eh? What draws you to a life like that?") If you have any talent at all with acting, act out the NPCs in your would. Make angry faces when you're having the orcs attack. Make your voice squeaky as you portray the ratkin running in terror. If you can make props for important mcguffins or suchlike, by all means do so. The more tangible you make the world, the more they'll think about their characters. The more they think about their characters, the more tangible the world gets.

I'm not the first person to suggest this here, but it does bear repeating- Start with a bang, and keep things moving fast paced. If they're going in circles, make something happen. If they're being indecisive, cut to someone else and back again. Momentum is important.

And have fun with it. If you're bored, they're going to be bored. Whatever you do, make it something you enjoy just as much as them.

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I've had to teach a LOT of non-roleplayers, how to play.

  • One shot

  • 1-2 hour game - figure on 3-5 scenes and a situation that fits that.

  • Action, or drama, anything with a VERY CLEAR set of goals. Not an investigation

  • Most complex mechanical conflict resolves with no more than 3-4 dice rolls/turns/rounds

  • Either pregens, or character building that involves no math

Explain the general ideas rather than getting bogged into specifics. Explain choices being made during play.

Focus on explaining how they need to ask questions, how they can describe what their character is doing as a core feature of play, that there's not a limited set of "moves".

There is no list of moves to choose from – you can describe anything you want to do within the expectations of the genre and you do it.

You can and should ask questions to define what is going on- there is no board or cards to refer to the game state, it sits in your head and your ability to get necessary information is critical

You should say things in character, you should have characters interact like acting or writing a story

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