This question made me think about a problem I have been having that was brought up last night during a session.

This session was the first of a new campaign I was running, with the party meeting each other for the first time when summoned by an absent and unknown to all but one person employer. As soon as they were all together they opened the sealed instructions asking them to investigate an ancient tomb. Right away they walked out of the meeting place and to the dungeon and started performing their tasks (setting up marching order, searching for traps, asking the wizard to detect magic, etc) without even introducing themselves. On top of that I told them in their hooks that they had never set foot in a dungeon before or even been on an adventure before.

This brings me to my first question, the group acted like seasoned adventurers and best friends right out of the gate, which is true for the players but not the characters. How do I get my players to play their characters like they are real people.

Later in the session two members of the group got separated from the group unexpectedly. Instead of anyone being concerned they all continued about their business without any serious desire to recover the missing members. The larger group continued searching the room they were in for treasure and the two separated started searching the new area, which contained a monster that killed them both.

This brings me to my second question, when the group was separated they did not think anything of the danger that splitting the party could cause. How can I get my players to care about their own and each others characters.

  • \$\begingroup\$ Related: rpg.stackexchange.com/questions/7500/… \$\endgroup\$
    – mxyzplk
    Commented Nov 30, 2013 at 18:37
  • \$\begingroup\$ It's a suggestion/observation, not a real answer, but I think having the players care about each other outside the game often lends itself to transfer to the game itself. \$\endgroup\$
    – Cat
    Commented Dec 1, 2013 at 12:14
  • \$\begingroup\$ Outside of the game we are all friends and have known each other and gamed together for around 6 years. We do care about each other outside of the game, but this time in game they just didn't care. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Dec 1, 2013 at 18:45
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    \$\begingroup\$ @RyanRatenKuhar have you tried STOPPING the game to ask them this when this hit you? Like: Whoah, pause! So, you guys, a bunch of TOTAL strangers that just met for the first time, are going to A HAUNTED TOMB? Because SOME STRANGER asked you to? Susan, your gal is a waitress scared of spiders but you go to a tomb? Fred, you wanted a character that needed to keep a low profile but now are discussing traps with total strangers? Something like that could well give you answers you wanted. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Dec 2, 2013 at 12:55
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    \$\begingroup\$ Yes, that was the first thing I did. I stopped and said "You haven't even introduced yourselves yet. You don't even really know each other". They said "Yea, that doesn't matter we need to go to the dungeon". \$\endgroup\$ Commented Dec 2, 2013 at 20:34

8 Answers 8


Are you familiar with the Same Page Tool? It sounds like you had expectations that you tried to convey subtly to the group in-game, but this wasn't overwhelming enough to overturn their existing expectations or the conflicting messages being sent by your campaign kickoff's dominant tropes, so you weren't on the same page.

Getting on the same page is the first step toward your players having their PCs act like real people – you can establish your expectation, and the possibility, that they can ignore the common game-like meta structures that are often taken for granted around a roleplaying game. Things like they are all a party and cooperate and they're aiming for survival of their PCs rather than character embodiment are common assumptions that are often necessary for certain kinds of campaigns, because it is easy and expedient to say that some play possibilities are "off limits" in order for the group to focus their game time on the fruitful voids of the campaign.

What appears to be the problem is that you have tacitly broadened the fruitful void, without notifying the players of this strongly enough to make them set aside their (productive, functional) RPG-playing conventions. On top of that you set up the campaign with a very standard "form party, loot dungeon" structure, which strongly conveys a standard "dungeoncrawl campaign" set of expectations that are the opposite of what you seem to have hoped for.

How to get them play their PCs like real people is then a two-step process: first, clearly grant them the breadth of allowed play possibilities necessary to be able to play them like real people. Second, cultivate a group value of character embodiment.

The second is the hardest part actually, and the how can't be covered here because the barriers to doing that are personal and depend on your players. Given that they haven't even yet become aware of the possibility with the first step, I have no data to even begin giving advice on the second.

So, that makes the first step very important: get on the same page, eliminate the assumptions about how to play a dungeoncrawl-type fantasy RPG, and replace those assumptions with explicit understanding that you're aiming for humanist drama in a fantasy context. Once you've had this conversation, only then can you even find out whether your players are interested in embodiment-focused play and what their individual barriers for that are, if any. Be aware that they may not be interested in this kind of play; be prepared to have a conversation that is about negotiating a common ground, and it may not lead to the sort of play you're looking for. It's possibly you'll all get on the same page, but if you can't, that may mean the group can't continue – but that's better than forging ahead with conflicting expectation and play goals.

  • \$\begingroup\$ I've never actually seen that tool, but it looks fantastic. I should say that one of the first things I did when they started doing the things I mentioned was ask them why they were doing them. For example "Are you really going to go off with these people without even knowing their names or that they are the right people?" or "How do you know he is a wizard, he never told anyone and you have never seen him cast a spell?" That was my attempt to get them on the same page but it obviously didn't work. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Nov 30, 2013 at 20:08
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    \$\begingroup\$ @RyanRatenKuhar Consider that getting-to-know-you RP can easily become tedious and anti-dramatic, especially when the game type makes the outcome (like forming a cohesive party so you can go to dungeons) a foregone conclusion. Scandinavian character-drama LARPers have a rule: "Anyone in a scene with you, you [have already] known for at least six months." If you want the PCs to interact a bunch, build characters with shared history. \$\endgroup\$
    – Alex P
    Commented Nov 30, 2013 at 22:35

Aside from the Same Page Tool already listed, I'd say two things would be worth considering:

1. Emphasize difference in expectation

If the group is used to playing one kind of game style, you have to explicitly point out the differences in what you're trying to do. Something that flags me as a potential problem is this:

[T]he party meeting each other for the first time when summoned by an absent and unknown to all but one person employer. As soon as they were all together they opened the sealed instructions asking them to investigate an ancient tomb.

This is a standard D&D-esque situation — "real people" are not going to meet for the first time and decide to risk their lives together, an employer isn't going to just randomly pick up strangers without an idea of their reputations to do an important job, sealed instructions are pretty pulp-adventure trope-y — basically, you've given them a situation that reads completely like a D&D adventure setup, not like realist fiction, so there's no reason for them to change gears to a different way of playing.

2. Mechanical backup

Aside from telling them what kind of character attitudes fit the game, reward it with XP on the spot. Don't reward "adventurer" behavior, reward "civilian" behavior. Obviously, you don't want them to all go home, so there should be rewards aimed directly at "civilians on an adventure" behavior, mostly. ("Escaping Danger = XP equal to defeating it", etc.)

Second, if the game system is very lethal (such as low level D&D, etc.) players are more likely going to play it safe and try to play the characters hyper-competent just to survive. An alternative to XP rewards might be things that improve their survival overall — hitpoints, re-rolls, etc.

If I wanted to run a campaign based on "real-ish behavior in a dangerous situation", I'd reward these things:

  • Try to complete the mission but avoid danger
  • Take care of my teammates
  • Show when I'm scared
  • \$\begingroup\$ (I took the liberty of embedding the link to the Same Page Tool so that the answer is all in one place and self-contained, since in theory different answers can become very distant if many get submitted, and answer listing order can be changed by the reader.) \$\endgroup\$ Commented Nov 30, 2013 at 21:47

Character Background

Spend more time during character creation before beginning the session, and allow some flexibility to 'evolve' it even after the sessions are underway. When you begin with just a sheet of paper, a name and some stats, they will act accordingly. On the other hand, if you have them take some time to think about family, profession, personal history, this might grow organically into something more 'alive'. Beyond picking a set alignment like in the 3.0 D&D systems, you might instead (or in addition) prepare a list of a few dozen character traits - defining personality points and have them choose 3. Things like Treacherous, Couragous, Trustworthy, Lazy, Careful, ect. Another way to do this might be to have them rank their characters on a 1-10 scale of each of the Seven Deadly Sins and corresponding virtues. I would also encourage all players in a d20 system or something similar to always have a Profession or Craft skill in addition to whatever other skills or similar traits the system usually allows. Its simply something that most 'real' people develop.

Local Setting and Campaign History

Likewise, if you have a (somewhat) developed campaign setting and history, additional development can grow out of this, if you have it prepared already at the time of character generation. Just as an example, a character from a nation that was recently overthrown probably remembers living in exile as a refugee. Possibly they have a diplomatic post now in the area they are in and are working to re-establish their nation. A fighter character may have had military experience or been part of a unit that has seen action in a significant war with another nation that occurred in the recent past. Most real personalities have something that motivates them deeply (other than exp and killing critters ;) They have goals and history and a lot of these can be developed or flow from the environment that they live in. You need to create at least the skeleton of that environment to suggest ways in which the players can grow their characters beyond the stats of the sheet and give them some interesting life.

Immediate Contacts in the starting locale

Another way to help develop player roleplaying is to describe the initial setting or starting point and have them choose a few contact NPCs, organizations or guilds that they might know there. Describe their reasons for being there 'in the starting village' or tavern or whatever. What actually brought them there? In answering these questions, the players will come up indirectly with a little more information about 'who they are'. On the other hand, if the game begins with them having (for all intents and purposes) been randomly teleported into a bar in a village that they know nothing about, they will behave in exactly that manner. A character who has established that his family lives in that village will behave completely differently. He will say goodbye, he will get advice from others, etc.


Award some extra XP for good background creations, whether they have it down pat, or if it evolves from something 'fuzzy' over time, and also for roleplay related to the histories and personalities they have created. Allow these things to grow with minor reasonable revisions over time. Make the contacts they have chosen provide helpful hooks from time to time

Party Interactions and Preventing Separations

Eh, that's a tough one - but I think you will find that the 'realer' the characters become, the more the players will care about them. Once they are 'off the stats sheet' and into their (and each other's heads) they will love (or possibly hate :) them more. Many DMs do discourage the party splitting up, either by some OOC 'that's not a good idea' remarks or otherwise due to the danger and general slow-down of the game session when there is a split.

  • \$\begingroup\$ I like your answer, but just about all of it I have tried with the group. This group tends to avoid complex backgrounds since they think their characters will just die soon enough, but I have never had to push them to pick profession/craft/perform skills. I actually gave them a very large amount of history and each character had a plot important NPC or location that they knew well. I have also told the group that I award XP for good RP, but it hasn't helped. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Nov 30, 2013 at 19:59
  • \$\begingroup\$ I'm not sure what system you are running under, but one time our GM had us all start as NPC classes under D&D 3.5. So basically we were Commoner or Expert or Warrior'ish kids/teenagers. Different mentors were available and we could choose the path we wanted from interactions with them (if) we leveled up. It was interesting to have the different mentor NPCs in the village 'we all grew up in'. Not sure what other advice I can offer though. Maybe kill them less? Or more ;) \$\endgroup\$ Commented Nov 30, 2013 at 20:15
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    \$\begingroup\$ You might want to be careful though since 'they think their characters will die soon enough' to tune down the threat level a bit. If the world is so dangerous and the threats and situations are so 'game-like' that only players behaving in a meta-game fashion have a chance of surviving and 'growing', then that is how they will play. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Nov 30, 2013 at 20:27

Although this is given the GM techniques tag, I'm going to answer it in the context of fantasy adventure gaming.

1. Adventurers Aren't Normal.

The world of the fantasy adventurer is not a world of people as we understand them. Unless you're playing a purely historical game, adventurers are different. Acting like a real person in a fantasy adventure game means A) allying yourself with the most powerful creature you can find, and B) hoping you're not its food. The "real people" as we'd think of them in a fantasy adventure role-playing game aren't the PCs but all the unnamed, disposable extras in the background. They worry about surviving the day, having enough copper pieces to feed their families, and staying out of the way of all the myriad things that can casually, accidentally murder them--which totally includes fantasy adventurers.

In other words, it's pointless to try to get players to have their characters act like real people when real people run away from everything adventurers run toward. Most players will be unhappy playing Papers and Paychecks or Farmer: The Role-playing Game. That's not to say there aren't adventures there, but those are much rarer in the adventure role-playing game genre that's been developed over the past 40 years.

So, while the PCs may not have ever set foot in a dungeon before, adventurers have. Unless your PCs are the universe's first adventurers (which could be an interesting thing, I guess), the how of adventuring is certainly something one would pick up when considering an alternative to the quiet life of peat digger, dirt merchant, or monster servant.

2. Give Them Reasons to Care.

The group of random adventurers, while a time-honored staple ("We met at a tavern last night; let's go camping together until we die!") is a pretty shoddy set-up.

Older versions of Dungeons and Dragons postulated the idea of dungeons as similar to Old West Gold Rush towns: While one could gather gold alone, one can gather a lot more gold with more people with strong backs and big biceps to help. And everyone is disposable. The players didn't have to care about their own or other players' characters because nobody named a character until one hit level 3 when he could survive a hit from an orc. Life. Was. Cheap.

Modern role-playing games give starting characters much more depth but sometimes still leave them extraordinary fragile. The fragility of beginning characters might make your players believe them disposable. For the DM, though, they're not. You've a story that you want to tell and a dead character early (when means of return are unavialable) means that story remains sadly untold. And that sucks.

The DM's job, then, is to bind the random PCs, making them care about each other's fates. The easiest way is, of course, forcing a bond upon them: they are all family or are all raised in the same orphanage. They might share culture, education, national or tribal origin, or an enemy. I've gone so far as to impose game mechanical bonds upon player-characters when I knew the players would instantly backstab each other's characters when play began were I to not. (It was a group where oneupsmanship was common in and out of games; there was no way around it.)

You can even leave it up to the players. I explain to the players that the entire world is trying to kill their characters and the only folks their characters can rely on are played by the other people at the table. Then let the players figure out why their PCs are there; if they can't, have them come up with different concepts. Not every concept fits every campaign. For experienced, mature players, that's often enough.

There's no right way to play, and some gaming groups thrive on the conflict that comes from interparty murder sprees and random thievery, but I don't like the game to be about that. I like the PCs fighting the world not each other. If that means imposing cooperation instead of competition at the campaign's start, so be it. The alternative, while it can be entertaining and amusing, is chaos.

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    \$\begingroup\$ -1 people have conducted real in-character roleplay in fantasy settings for the last 40 years or so, "You don't" is provably incorrect. Without "railroading them" as the only alternative. \$\endgroup\$
    – mxyzplk
    Commented Nov 30, 2013 at 18:41
  • \$\begingroup\$ Are those supposed to be two sequential steps, or two separate possible approaches? If they're supposed to be alternatives, you need to set them up that way in your lede else people are going to read "You Don't" and stop/vote there. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Nov 30, 2013 at 18:44
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    \$\begingroup\$ (Post-edit) I think that "Adventurer's Aren't Normal" is going to attract downvotes too. There are people who play them as normal people (congruent with their fragility, even); there are entire game systems built on the idea that adventurer's aren't different. Or that fantasy PCs aren't automatically "adventurers" even, and are normal people who (may) become adventurers the hard way. Critically, the asker appears to subscribe to this (valid) way of thinking. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Nov 30, 2013 at 19:01
  • \$\begingroup\$ I'm willing to risk the downvotes. While there are campaigns that start with PCs as 1st-level commoners or 25-point GURPS characters, an answer that encompasses those games seems beyond the scope of a question wherein the example is a first session that leads from a mysterious note smack into a dungeon. That doesn't sound like a protect-the-farm-from-foxes campaign, but we could ask for clarification. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Nov 30, 2013 at 19:21
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    \$\begingroup\$ I would have thought the explicit "I want them to act like normal people" part would have covered that without needing clarification? As I was getting at before, not everyone thinks that "dungeon-delving game" means "every PC is a professional adventurer". There are even game systems explicitly designed to support that, and it can be done in others like D&D too if everyone is on the same page and doesn't jump to conclusions that "dungeon" = "pros". I think there's good advice in here (else I would downvote), but it's lost in assumptions about play style that are not universal. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Nov 30, 2013 at 19:52

The group acted like seasoned adventurers and best friends right out of the gate, which is true for the players but not the characters. How do I get my players to play their characters like they are real people.

This is all very game-specific, but it sounds like the players are not interested in roleplaying out the awkward introduction aspect of new relationships. Can you blame them? They're playing a dungeon crawl, and they're in the middle of a dungeon.

When the group was separated they did not think anything of the danger that splitting the party could cause. How can I get my players to care about their own and each others characters.

Character death is a particular good motivator here, assuming that the players know and accept that they're playing a system and game that allows for fragile characters.

With high fatality games, frontloading relationships doesn't necessarily make sense if they're one bad roll away from death. Let the relationships come out naturally during and after play, e.g., as the cleric repeatedly saves lives, as the thief saves them from a pit trap, as the wizard charms their way past a guard, and so on. They'll care more about their characters after a shared history together.


I've found that sometimes players don't care about that aspect of the game. For example, the group that I play with likes the idea that their characters want to adventure "just because." I try to roll with it. For example, the dungeon crawl may actually cause them to make some real enemies in their hometown. Or perhaps in the process of looting the dungeon, they accidently release some larger evil or empower their employer to wreak havoc on their own lives.

Also, try to play in such a way that each character is offering something unique and valuable to the party, so that their absence is missed (when the cleric disappears, the other characters are in real danger of death, the seperated characters are in danger of becomming prisoners, not killed).

Another trick I've used is this: death isn't the only consequence for poor decisions. For example, instead of killing off a character, make the mosters take them captives (perhaps they have an overlord directing them to do so). The characters aren't dead, they lose their belongings, and the party has to do without them until rescued (no new characters are rolled).

All of these things together can cause the players to develop bonds with their characters. Building shared experiences is what works with my group. Keeping characters alive prevents the "we're going to die anyway" mentality. And playing the game where each character has an important role in the overall success to the party keeps them together.


Regarding the second question, How can I get my players to care about their own and each others characters? why not reinforce a "No man gets left behind" philosophy by:

  • Rewarding all of the players with significant bonus XP multiplier (x 2?) + Reputation or Honor points if they all successfully complete the adventure alive.
  • Rewarding all of the players with a smaller bonus XP multiplier (x 1.25?) if they don't complete the adventure objectives but all make it out alive.

Given that in effect the PCs are a special ops team, this seems realistic and avoids artificially forcing players to roleplay.

Negative modifiers are also possible if a PC dies, but at the risk of pissing off players. At the least, a group of PCs who return with casualties may lose Reputation and/or Honor, as they'll seem foolhardy and inexperienced to their peers.


I normally run Cthulhu games so my experience is different. My players enjoy actually role playing rather than number crunching and rarely employ strategies that would not be known to the characters. I have only had one player metagame in one of my Buffy games and I explained to him that he had broken our previous agreement over how the game should be played and awarded him 0 experience points due to poor roleplaying (he was not happy but he got the message).

My advice is:

Have descriptions such as accent, stammers etc as part of character generation.

Give them proper bonuses. Not in terms of dice rolls but in ways they can role play. Often I tell everyone to cover their ears whilst I tell, say, military characters, things they notice that others have not about a situation. Then they get to reveal this themselves to other characters in their own way.

Forbid discussions about character stats. You do not say "I have shooting at level 3" you say "I am a marksman and have won a few competitions" etc.

Put effort into how you play NPCs. Do not say "he's an old man who talks with a high pitched voice" slump and talk with a high pitched voice, forget what you were saying and ramble on etc. If the player says "I drag him back on track" tell them "go on then" and make them actually say what their characters are saying (but reassure them that you are taking their character's skills etc into account when determining the result). If they see your example they might get what you mean a little more.

Have scenarios which require social interaction. Tell them that they are at a posh dinner and give the actual players pizza or something but tell them that they are in character in the dinner as they eat. Be an NPC and lead by example.

Have an NPC care when they players are injured or missing. Send him/her in with the party. If you have to make them essential for the mission success but have them insist on finding people who are lost etc.


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