The context for this question is the same as this related question about spending time in town, but I am looking for sufficiently different advice so I thought it warranted its own question.

I've been with the group for 15 years. We enjoy roleplaying but have a hard time finding opportunities to do so. My group has been running the same set of characters for about 4 years now, going through the main line of published 4th edition modules (H1-E3) which are obviously extremely combat-heavy and are basically dungeon crawls. The characters are epic-level now.

I'm taking over as GM soon, and will be spending a few sessions in town. Previous GMs have fast-forwarded through the between-quest downtime, basically narrating what happens in town so we can get on with the next adventure. I want the characters to spend some real time there, and make the town an actual place that the characters are invested in instead of just a vending machine to buy magic items. I've talked to the players about this and they're unanimous in wanting more of a roleplaying experience in town.

How do I help the players make this transition when they have been so combat-focused for so long? How can I signal to them that this is a time to roleplay, to explore and seek out opportunities instead of just waiting for me to tell them exactly what happens?

Since I am GMing for the first time in about 10 years I am looking for tips to help foster those opportunities without handing them out on a silver platter. I want the players to shape their own world, not just color inside the lines that I've drawn ahead of time.


11 Answers 11


Assuming everyone's interested in doing this, it will be difficult to break existing 15 year habits, so you have some work cut out for you.

  1. Get everyone's buy-in. Explicitly say that you want to go heavier RP and make sure you all have a common understanding of what that means. That's not a panacea - I did the same thing, a group agreed they wanted to go more RP heavy, but after we started a couple people clearly didn't want to (or, more likely, misunderstood what that meant to me). We had a large enough group we just split it - serious RPers played Sundays and casual kick-in-the-door types played Wednesdays.
  2. Consider whether you want to create tangible rewards for RP. "XP for roleplay" sounds good but often falls down in various ways - creates concerns over favortism, ends up promoting the wrong behaviors, etc. I've worked with variant mechanics like "players vote for best RPer of the session and they get XP" or handing out temporary bonuses/bennies that don't permanently augment your character for roleplay. Nowadays, I never give XP for RP (not only because I've given up on XP as a lame antiquated notion) and only sometimes/seldom give bennies, I think that maybe has its place but has a lot of downside - and isn't really necessary (see point 5 below).
  3. Get practice. Here's the deal - if you have a 15 year group that doesn't RP but wants to, they don't know how. There's no shame in that. Like when you start anything else new, some training and/or practice can be good to get you on track. Try some one shots of very rules light pure-RP games, things where there's practically no combat and everything's "downtime." Then people will take techniques they learned from that back into their usual game.
  4. Don't punish RP. One of the classic errors I see people make is say "I want roleplaying" but then using any non-by-the-book things characters bring up during RP as ways to get at the characters - in their mind "interesting developments," but in the players' minds "I better keep my mouth shut around NPCs because it always comes back to haunt me." Or when they choose suboptimal tactical options/gear/etc. for roleplay reasons, try to respect that and not punish them for not just min-maxing without regard to RP.
  5. Reward RP. Not with XP or tangible rewards, but with increased understanding of the game world and relationships with its NPCs that benefit them. Taking the time to understand who's who in a city and to forge relationships with them gets you favors, they tell you rumors, they cut you discounts... You know, all the benefits you get in real life from not being a sociopath. (The average "tactical" PC is a clinical sociopath from the point of view of the game world's inhabitants.) If a player can get just as good results through unremitting murder - why wouldn't they?
  6. Give them RP opportunities. This is challenging to you as a GM - it's where the burden of a RP heavy game lies, but if you step up then the players will respond. @wraith808's answer is a good example - you always have to be opening the door, having people around, reaching out to the PCs, opportunities to do something interesting-but-not-tactical. Players just trying to figure out RP may be passive and you may need to push the opportunities on them more aggressively - instead of "oh maybe that chick needs help with her wagon" it could be "man this lady is sweating me for orphanage donations like every single day, and won't stop talking about it!"

The easiest way to get them to roleplay downtime is to get their acceptance (even if it's "we'll try it this time and think about it later"), then give them the time to figure it out. You mention they use the town as a "vending machine for magic items". Suppose the weapon store is robbed, and the weaponsmith is willing to make a +3 sword for the fighter, but there aren't any in stock and it will take him a week or so to get the sword he just finished back from the Wizard's tower... and that's with a rush order. While I'm not familiar with 4e's rules, I remember that 2e and 3e both explicitly say that enchanting a magical item takes days to do.

Now that you have the party in town for a week (or two), what are they going to do? If you get blank looks, be prepared to throw "plot seeds" at them from all sides. Hopefully you should be able to reduce these seeds over time. Run with any that seem to sprout.

Seed ideas:

  • Have a feastday or a festival on the designated "rest" day
  • maybe a local noble invites the party to dinner and asks them to relate stories from the road
  • Maybe they can pick up free lodging in the tavern with the same tales they told the noble a day or two earlier?
  • Maybe they can be paid to tell those same tales, but have the nobility always end up the butt of the joke(s)?
  • And if the bard is really good, tell the same tales, the nobles always end up the but of the joke(s), yet is subtle enough that the nobility does not pick up on that particular fact?
  • A beggar very noticeably steals a loaf of bread while the baker's back is turned
  • a ruffian steals from the charity wagon
  • a (corrupt?) guard kills someone in the central square for no perceptible reason in broad daylight
  • the priest of the local town's dominant faith has a crisis of faith and chuckles when the party asks for a blessing
  • The rogue realizes that the street gambling dealer is cheating, badly
  • There is a plague in the area, and the priest has a large amount of food for those in the plague house but is afraid of catching the disease, will the paladin deliver it?

Anything that will inspire 5-10 minutes of play or an interesting conversation is the key here. Let the players play things of interest, and drop any (with minor consequences if necessary) items they aren't interested in. Also, as Rob suggested in comments, give them story awards for the roleplaying. They see the beggar and tell the baker that "we just saw someone steal a loaf of bread, but here's the coppers for it", give them a few XPs. The players decide to talk to the priest and show him that his faith is well-placed is a harder encounter but should still be token as compared to a level-appropriate fight.

  • 3
    \$\begingroup\$ Rewards for roleplaying will help make the transition; xp for interaction, backstory and talking to people? That will help garner interest as it will tempt them with rewards. I encouraged my players to do backgrounds in Pathfinder (for example) by only allowing them to buy traits if they've written a background. Everyone bar one wrote one, compared to previous campaigns where I only got one background fullstop. \$\endgroup\$
    – Rob
    Commented Aug 14, 2012 at 14:06
  • \$\begingroup\$ The "what are they going to do" question is covered by the linked question. This one is more about how to get players interested and invested in roleplaying. I'm not saying this answer is bad, but perhaps you want to split it between the two questions? \$\endgroup\$
    – dpatchery
    Commented Aug 14, 2012 at 14:10
  • \$\begingroup\$ @dpatchery, maybe I should copy/paste this answer in both locations? I would answer both questions with this same advice. How do you fill the time? Throw ideas at them and play what they like, how do you make them WANT to fill the time? Throw them interesting things that cause them to run around the town and have conversations/skill challenges. Unless your players have zero interest in RP in town. \$\endgroup\$
    – Pulsehead
    Commented Aug 14, 2012 at 14:17
  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ @Rob, I'm going to edit in the XP idea, players will almost always do more of what gets them more XPs. \$\endgroup\$
    – Pulsehead
    Commented Aug 14, 2012 at 14:18
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Pulsehead Yep! Pavlov them with XP! :) \$\endgroup\$
    – Rob
    Commented Aug 14, 2012 at 14:22

One of the biggest ways that you can signal that you're doing a transition is to buy into it from your side. You have to take that step mentally first, then take it when you're doing your descriptions.

You say that your GMs have traditionally narrated the time in town- fast forwarding through the group's time there. If you switch up the narration, adding details, and leaving it open-ended, it will give them cues, i.e.

As you ride into town, the trail dust that permeates your clothes and covers your body starts to become more of an annoyance- your skin itches to be clean, and your muscles yearn for a long hot bath in The Lazy Boar Inn. Though it's a bit early in the morning, you see Darcy Miller outlined against the morning light waving as you pass the general store. You guess her father's out on errands- she wipes her forehead as she goes back to manhandling the crates off of Old Man Hog's delivery wagon. You could go ahead to the Inn- in fact you see Jared Inn in the distance leaning against the door frame smoking his pipe and you can almost smell the familiar scents of the inn and hear him as he makes small talk about the town and gives you a bit of news in exchange for tales of your adventures. But you know that Darcy's father would give you a bit of a discount if you took a bit of time to help her get the stores in. What do you do?

The descriptions in that paragraph do a few things:

  1. It gives the adventurers an idea that the traveling is tiring and they yearn for the comfort of the inn.
  2. It frames some of the NPCs that they might have glossed over before, and gives a bit of a connection to the way that their interactions have taken place.
  3. It gives them a simple bit of decision making that's not based on rolls- but on how their characters would view them.
  4. It gives them a bit of insight into the possible rewards from their choices that are not system-based.

Start to play these interactions, and most importantly - ask them what they do in discrete terms based on smaller decisions, not based on general actions.

Their first instinct might be to narrate the whole bit- but put on the brakes. As they say that they'll go towards one option or the other, have the characters speak to them rather than narrating it out of character. The more you get into character, the more it will draw them into character. And if you have buy-in from them (as another answer asks), then these cues will be enough to get them trying. It might feel awkward at first, but as it goes on, and as they get used to your cues, hopefully they'll even take initiative.


You know what's the last thing the group would do during a few days of down time? Stick together. This is more work on your part, but if you can run a mini session for each player in private, away from the group you'll give the character more of a chance to emerge. That character will go where he wants to go instead of where the group consensus takes him. Just run with it.

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    \$\begingroup\$ This is an interesting answer that provides its own logistic challenges, but could be well worth trying. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Aug 15, 2012 at 20:35
  • \$\begingroup\$ "You know what's the last thing the group would do during a few days of down time?" My experience is different. I travel in real life frequently for business. We normally go in a small group, and while we sometimes break up into smaller groups, we normally stick together a large percentage of the time. This is partly a factor of knowing each other and not knowing others in tow, partly that we have a good group that likes each other, and partly logistical. We don't stay together 100% of the time of course, but more often than not we are going out together. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Aug 15, 2012 at 21:02
  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ @TimothyAWiseman, I can see that but I think the context is a little different. When you travel for business, you're doing so with people you see frequently, but not all the time. Returning home from an adventure is more like coming back at the end of a camping trip that was several months long and at the bottom of a hole. It definitely depends on the kind of adventure you're going on though. \$\endgroup\$
    – valadil
    Commented Aug 16, 2012 at 14:48
  • \$\begingroup\$ @valadil You have a point. Still, especially when entering a new town for the first time rather than returning somewhere that they all have friends in, I suspect at least sub-groups would be together a decent percentage of the time. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Aug 16, 2012 at 15:22
  • \$\begingroup\$ I like this idea. I may start individual email threads with each player to do this between sessions. \$\endgroup\$
    – dpatchery
    Commented Aug 18, 2012 at 12:58

As so many others have said, make sure the players want this. (I know you addressed it in a comment, but this is the most important factor by far.) If they want to do more role-playing and you give them an opportunity, it will happen and it will start to feel more natural with time. If they don't want to do it, then trying to force them will just create boredom and resentment. But as for some specific ways to do it:

  1. Provide plot hooks for things that can't be solved with combat. If they want to role-play, the next most important thing is to give them meaningful opportunities. One good way is to hand them plot hooks that have nothing to do with combat (or only conclude with combat). Since they are epic leve, the nobles will surely take notice.

    Perhaps a noble asks one of the characters to help him win the hand of a lady he is interested in, but can't approach directly for any number of reasons (this is a core part of many of Shakespeare's plays). Or perhaps that noble asks the characters to help resolve a dispute with a neighboring noble without going to war.

  2. Provide interesting NPCs. Role-playing is largely centered on relationships. It is easier to form a relationship with an NPC that is well fleshed out and have their own distinct back stories and personalities.

  3. Provide significant choices. Important choices form another key part of the role-playing experience. If you don't mind getting into romantic relationships, having two people fall in love with a character at once provides numerous choices and ways to express the character's personality while they are handling it. Moral dilemma's also provide another good way let a character really show their personality (Many of the Bioware video games like Dragon Age are filled with these.)

  4. Provide tangible rewards. mxyzplk rightly cautions that tangible rewards can cause problems if they are done poorly, but in the right group and done well I think they can be a very good thing. I personally don't hesitate to hand out XP on the spot for good role playing, but my group supports that, not all groups will support it that directly due to concerns over favoritism, etc. Other groups like to hand out XP rewards for best role player of the night decided by vote, and I have been in a game where that worked well.

Slightly less direct, you can hand out XP-rewards for solving problems, with a possible bonus for avoiding combat. This lets you hand out rewards for success rather than direct role playing, but it is the type of success that comes from good role-playing. (For a video game example, Planescape: Torment does this frequently).

Even more indirectly, provide rewards through the relationships. So the character has become friends with the Duke. The Duke might give lavish gifts to all of his friends on a certain holiday, including the character. Or the Duke might be an almost literal "get-out-of-jail-free" card when the character gets in trouble with the law. This again rewards things that come from good role-playing without directly handing XP for the role-playing itself.


I wanted to know if the group was more interested in either an encounter based tactical board game with some dialogue opportunities (D&D4e as I understand it) or a more open form game focusing on stories.

If the former, it is not fair to impose ones will over that of the other players. It is possible but involved the same methods as cult indoctrination. No, I am not suggesting you are an evil cult leader.

If the latter, you have the other players' buy in. Now, it is just a question of finding good motivators to make them role play (aka act) more. There are a lot of good answers about how to do just that. Just two little additions: Firstly, role playing is all about acting: take an acting class or/and look at how actor get into characters. Secondly, force some of the description of what is happen towards the players. Make them build the scene and story alongside yourself. For example:

GM: You are in a bar. What do you do?

Player: My character moves to the bar and orders a beer.


Player: I move to the bar, stop for a second to look to my right towards the group of card players. Is the one with the yellow shirt cheating? Nah, decide I do not care. Continue to the bar. Look at the bar maid and decide to ask the cute barman for a beer. When he passed me a pint, my finger and his brush. No reaction. Rats. He must not like men with beard or maybe he's not gay.


A gradual transition as recommended by others is definitely the way to go.

Might try setting up more roleplay encounters in the dungeon, where the (best) solution involves more than hack and slash or a spell. If you bring it to them in a place where things have not been fastforwarded, it will be easier to introduce it in the place that has. When the kobolds and goblins are fighting, who do they side with? Classic Sunless Citadel. In epic encounters this might involve a city of djinn or salamanders with many character levels themselves, where the place one needs to stick his sword is not immediately apparent.

Another good spot for advice... Link

"For each roleplaying encounter, you need to prepare three things ahead of time: what the PCs can gain from the encounter, what the NPC might accept in exchange, and what skills or class abilities will help them in the encounter."

Types of RP encounters: "a passage encounter, a resource encounter, an information encounter, a talk-or-fight encounter, or something else."

"One of the best ways to make a combat more entertaining is to set it up as a roleplaying encounter first. The knight who brags he can spit the party members like piglets on his lance, the giant who toys with his food, or the evil wizard who pretends to be their friend before betraying them one night during the midnight watch are all potentially more interesting than merely rolling dice. If the party is going to meet one of these, prepare some dialogue ahead of time -- and set the initial attitude to Hostile."

Good luck :)


Stealing blatantly from Amber...

Give out small (or not so small) bonuses for role-playing. A few XP per session (I do not have a good value here, but it should probably be no more than 10% of what one would normally acquire during a single session) where a player produces an artefact from the character's POV.

  • A diary entry (summarising the session)
  • Art (maybe)
  • Writes another few paragraphs of backstory

Why do people ever do roleplaying? Give the party challenges that can't be overcome by a die roll, and let them figure out what to do next.

  • Give them tasks that pit them against good people and using force won't be acceptable.
  • Put a powerful disguised evildoer in the midst of their friends and allies. Their detect evil spells aren't working, yet they know there's something wrong.
  • Send them to get help from a rival kingdom. They're going to have to talk the king into helping. If they use magic to compel the rival king to help, when that news gets out, they'll be seen as evildoers.

Try to use less dices in game, even during combat, narrate don't roll, your players has epic levels as you mention, so they shouldnt have problems fighting with common enemies

Force them to think, give them country/city/village to rule, let them talk plan or plot against NPCs rather than just killing them

Of course you can use some dirty tricks like (you lost your all gold, equipment, spells etc) but thats good for short run.


Have Players Explicitly Determine Their Aspirations

I wrote a long section of possible strategies only to find out that they had all be expressed very well by other respondents. However, there was one approach I have not seen yet: get the players to tell you their aspirations. These should be specific, concrete and creative.

These are the things that go beyond loot and XP. These should be short term, medium term and long term and should demand that the player provide some creative backstory. Perhaps their long term aspiration is to find their lost sister, their medium term aspiration is to buy back the family manor, their short term aspiration is to murder the one-armed teifling who killed their parents. Give them some free rein to create these aspects in your world.

If you get enough of these, you not only have plenty of plot hooks, you'll have stories that your players want to pursue because they have told you that these are their goals. You can even give out XP whenever they may progress on one of their aspirations.


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