Since creating a fully living and breathing world for the players to inhabit is a time-consuming process, I have been feeding them background info as often as possible as it is relevant to the story. Like, when we created characters, I told them all about the history of the towns they came from, their cultures and encouraged them to create family backstories. I gave them a general history of the planet, a specific history of the continent we started on, and specific history of the starting town and surrounding areas. And of course I always tell them that if there is anything they want to know, I'll think about the question and write up some info that addresses their concerns.

My question is: since 4e is so combat-focused, how do I encourage out-of-combat roleplay? I prompt them to describe their critical hits and misses, killing blows and other dramatically relevant die rolls, but between battles not much happens. They barely interact with NPCs that show up, they rarely speak in character, they don't even describe combat moves unless I tell them to. How do I get players to become more engaged in my game world? I feel like since it's a custom world without an adventure guide, my players aren't getting a well-rounded experience. (I know some players are more into roll playing, which is fine but a dash of character interaction has got to make it more enjoyable, right?)

  • 7
    \$\begingroup\$ What does the custom setting have to do with a question about encouraging RP? Also, it sounds like you're defining RP as "in-character conversation." That's a very very narrow part of role-playing, and many versions of "good RP" do not include it. If you're specifically asking about how to encourage in-character dialogue, please focus your question on that. And add something to make it clear why you think the use of a custom setting is important to this question. \$\endgroup\$
    – BESW
    Jan 26, 2014 at 8:03
  • 3
    \$\begingroup\$ If you have the full Dungeon Master's Guide, there's a section beginning on page 8 called Player Motivations. This describes several theoretical types of players, and not all types are actually fundamentally interested in roleplay! Each of your players might fit into one of those types or a mix of more than one, and it might give you some insight into your players' behaviour. \$\endgroup\$ Jan 26, 2014 at 8:08
  • \$\begingroup\$ @BESW added my concerns about how a custom world lacks an adventure setting with background materials to inspire RP, and hopefully widened my definition of role play enough to include things other than just character to character discussions. hope it's satisfactory, if not feel free to add more elements involved in Roleplaying, perhaps my idea of Rp is skewed. \$\endgroup\$
    – MC_Hambone
    Jan 26, 2014 at 9:06
  • \$\begingroup\$ How experienced are your players? \$\endgroup\$
    – wax eagle
    Jan 26, 2014 at 13:12
  • 3
    \$\begingroup\$ It has generally been my experience that a group of 4 players with 2 good role players and 2 folks along for the ride is a pretty average case for a 4E game. Encouraging good RP is a good idea, but don't make players that just want to experience the story feel like they are doing something wrong. \$\endgroup\$
    – DampeS8N
    Jan 27, 2014 at 15:40

9 Answers 9


Bottom-up instead of top-down

You wrote that

I gave them a general history of the planet, a specific history of the continent we started on and specific history of the starting town and surrounding areas.

It seems like you are using a top-down approach. I generally prefer bottom-up. Most people in a fantasy setting will not know anything about the planet or the continent they are living on. Most likely, those concepts will mean nothing to them, or maybe seem like theories for high-level mages or such that do not have any impact on their lives.

Start with only small bits of information on the immediate surroundings of the players, and give them more only if they ask for it, and if it makes sense in the settings that a character would know those things.

Players are interested in backstory if it gets them stuff

In my experience, feeding info dumps to the players is not a successful strategy, as they are usually concerned only with things that affect them and will ignore everything else.

That is, if the information you give them is not about enemies or opportunities for riches, it's often not deemed important. Therefore, try to weave in your information in a way that it relates to those things:

  • The story of an abandoned tower should contain clues to safely overcome (some of) the traps and other dangers safeguarding the treasure.

  • The story of a battle fought over the monastery a century ago can be told in the context of the holy avenger sword that was decisive in tipping the odds, but was lost afterwards.

  • The story of the destruction of the sleepy farming town where the big bad grew up hints to his one true weakness.

Use 4e skill challenges to explore the story interactively

A great way to tell the story is to do it interactively - don't just tell it to them, but let them discover it in a skill challenge. Make sure that they can learn most of the important bits that you want them to learn without rolling, but enrich the story with information on major NPCs, details that give them leverage, or tactical information that they can use to their advantage.

Encourage player to contribute

In a comment, Brian S mentioned another important point - let the players contribute. Allow and encourage them to insert custom elements into the world and fill out blanks that catch their interest. One of the major strengths of pen and paper RPGs is the shared, collaborative approach to story-telling, and integration of player ideas can serve as a great motivator in addition to adding flavour to the world.


From your description, you may not have the problem you feel you will have. D&D4 is extremly combat-centric. RP is not needed in combat and although roleplayers will probably want to roleplay some parts of combat, roleplaying every single strike is not something most roleplayers consider fun. D&D4 works perfectly with combat-only. So give your players a chance and an incentive to roleplay. You gave them all the background and from what you said you seem to be afraid that given a situtation, they will not know how to roleplay. There is only one way to find out: give them a situation where combat is obviously not the best option. I think they will surprise you.

Some things you can do as a backup plan if it really turns out to be bad:

  • have a role model. An NPC that interacts in-character with the world

  • have options. Combat might be an option, but not the best or easiest.

  • grant xp for good roleplaying. Make sure they know that roleplaying is officially part of the game.

Finally, you need to look at your percieved future problem from a meta perspective: Do you have fun with combat-only? If you do, there is no need to enforce roleplaying. Roleplaying is not about doing it right, it's about having fun.

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    \$\begingroup\$ As someone I know used to say, "If you play a game where telling some map coordinates and announcing a roll is all it takes to be able to move to the next issue, describing how that attack is dealt will look like a great loss of time". That's especially true if combats are long and if roleplaying out of combat feels more natural to the players. \$\endgroup\$
    – Zachiel
    Jan 26, 2014 at 21:43

So, the first thing might be just sitting down and having a full conversation about what kind of game you want to run vs. what kind of game they want to play.

It may be that they're used to fight & loot dungeon crawls, that they've never played in a game where any of that matters, that when they DID try to do that, previous GMs squashed their input so they stopped trying, that they're not interested in it, etc. Nudging is only useful if everyone actually knows this style of play is even possible and it's what they actually want to play.

A very relevant part of my article I linked is the discussion around this:

This game runs best when the players take time to create characters that are…

a) …built to face challenges using the mechanics and stats.

b) …written with extensive backstories or histories

c) …given strong motivations and an immediate problem or crisis

d) …tied into the other characters as (allies) (enemies) (as either)

e) …written with some knowledge, research or reading up on the game setting, real history or an actual culture

Assuming everyone actually is interested in that, then your options boil down to giving nudges like you have, giving mechanical incentives (xp more/primarily from roleplaying/narration participation), or, honestly, for that style of play I usually would go to a completely different game system that better supports it.

Games that work best for this kind of thing usually have some kind of Flag mechanics. Here's an example and another related set of short examples for older types of D&D I wrote awhile back.

  • \$\begingroup\$ +1 for the thorough answer. The struggles seem the most worthwhile. \$\endgroup\$
    – CatLord
    Jan 26, 2014 at 18:31

The focus of Tabletop Roleplaying games is a player being a character in another place and/or time. The minimum needed for roleplaying is for the players to act as if he was really there as his character. Even if the character is just a reflection of the player's own personality.

If the minimum is for the player act as if he there, what are some techniques to achieve this.

Have the players interact with the NPCs first person. If a players say s"I have Sir Bolzak go up to the guards and ask him where the dungeon entrance." Look the players in the eyes and say "Can I help you, good man?". If the player seems unsure of what to do, tell him that what the guard just said and he needs look at you, the referee, and respond. The ensuing exchange of roleplaying doesn't have to be involved but it establishes that the players are to interact with the setting rather passively manipulate it like game pieces.

Show not tell your background setting. Without specific details on your setting all I can give something general case. Remember the only way the players see and interact with their world is through you. I found that the more they can assume more comfortable they feel just doing things.

To illustrate this look at the 1981 edition Gygax's World of Greyhawk versus M.A.R. Barker's Tekumel. Greyhawk has many specific details but overall it is collection of stereotypes of a medieval fantasy world. Stereotypes that are found in dozens of widely read fantasy novels. It also has much of the implied setting contained in the AD&D rulebooks. A players who has read a selection of fantasy novels and the AD&D rulebooks can easily make accurate assumptions about how Greyhawk works.

In contrast Barker's Tekumel is based on South Asian mythology and its detailed culture woven deep into how it is presented. New players can assume almost nothing about how Tekumel works. Wisely for his first campaigns, Barker contrived an initial situation that reflected his players lack of knowledge. They played barbarians from the southern continent that arrived in the main campaign area of Tekemul by boat. Accordingly they were expected not to know nothing by the inhabitants and the campaign proceeded from there. During the course of those first campaigns Barker showed not tell how the world of Tekemul worked. Subsequent campaigns were able to be started in different ways because Barker's players learned more about his setting

From your question, you have constructed a rich and detailed setting that your player now little about. You need to do something similar to what Barker did, find the closest situation in your setting that fits with your players preconceptions and stereotypes. Have them start there. Then over the course of the campaign show them your setting in the situations that the party finds themselves in , and how you roleplay your NPCs

Another techniques to give write a short town crier poster. In-game it is a piece of parchment with important news posted by the town crier. Out of game it is way for you to feed background details and rumors naturally.


First and foremost I want to acknowledge you may not have players interested in roleplay because of inclination/shyness. My wife loves to play 4e but hates any aspect of roleplaying because she is too shy to get into character. About they only time she roleplays is if she in tipsy from drinks.

Reward your players

If you were running a module or adventure from WOTC there would be XP rewards and item rewards for completing jobs/quests. Your custom-setting shouldn't differ. From their perspective they only way they achieve success might be leveling up and getting new gear, thus out of combat roleplay not only is not worth the investment, but actually detracts from game time that could be spent killing monsters and finding treasure. In your example of getting them to write backgrounds you could award them a inherent reward power/boon related to their story. In general try to give xp for out of combat roleplay.

Make Roleplay affect rollplay

Rather than giving them a set quest with a set reward when they barely interact with NPCs telegraph that if they actually interact they could get something more, a better price for their job, a hint of another quest, even useful information that could help them at a later time. NPCs should treat them with disdain or refuse to interact with players if they treat them like robots.

Make the world come alive

This could also be an issue of player's just not being able to get into character because its all in their/your head. Use a product like GameMastery Face Cards (which have a helpful white side for you to keep notes on) can really tie an NPC to a face. Likewise giving out physical props related to the adventures can also help draw players in more than a map ever could.



There are many fine answers above, and this is supplementary:

A prior DM I've had would always award RP XP at the end of the night or adventure (depending on how much it factored in). For this DM she would decide it herself but it was also a small table and easy to keep track of all interactions. Usually it would range from 100 to 250xp a night.

Another one I had would periodically have the players fill out a survey on each other and use the average of a player's scores as a multiplier for the block of XP he set aside (something like 50XP, four scale of 10 questions plus comment sections). Of course, he as the DM had his own as if he were one of the players too. It's plinkage, sure but how many times I've come up just shy of leveling it can add up.

Yet a third DM offered incentive for background stories. The thinner the story, the closer to RAW character creation you were. Come up with a good hook, especially one that ties into the world in an interesting way, and it becomes part of your character for free. On occasion this is an item, contacts, or money in a world where money was acutally kept track of for survival gear.


I am surprised that you consider 4e to be very combat centric, I actually had the exact opposite impression.

There are several questions that you should ask yourself (and your group):

1. Do the players actually want to do role-playing?

Even though the name of the game suggests differently, some people just love to hack & slash through hordes of monsters and really don't care about role-playing at all. You should ask your group what they expect from this game and what they consider a good session and what's a bad session for them, then try to include that in your adventure designs.

2. Is it you who wants people to explore the world or vise versa?

I know that feeling once you created a huge game world, you want people to like it and explore all the things you created, if possible all on day one. The important rule here however is to detach yourself from it enough so you can accept that players will only see a fraction of what you created (even after month of playing) and possibly won't like some parts of it at all. You are after all creating the game world for your group as a DM and invent it to entertain them, not the other way round. This is difficult but necessary for a good story-telling. You should grow the world with them, not overwhelm them with facts.

3. Is there actually incentive to do role-playing?

Role-playing requires some time to get started. Are you giving your players enough time to actually start a conversion with npcs? Are you presenting characters and places interesting and well enough to actually make the players interested in learning more about them? And then role-playing always requires the good ol' hook to get started. People are not just running around starting conversions with random strangers on the street in real life either. Are you providing your players with a real reason to do role-playing? Can you create scenarios in which talking to npcs is actually a desire for your players? If you know your players well, you know what gets them started, use that for your advantage.

4. Are you a good role-player?

The big challenge for DMs is that they actually need to play a lot of roles, often simultaneously. Can you role-play several different characters in a believable and interesting way? Or does the local king sound and behave exactly like the local tavern owner? What can you do to present different characters differently and interesting even though they are all played by the same person? You should come up with a list of different dialects/ways of speech, believes and interests, emotions and reactions for your individual characters, so players actually realize that they are talking to different persons, and therefore can assume that they will give different answers/reactions to different questions.

And if nothing of this helps, return to #1 and talk to your players and ask them why they are not role-playing and/or what prevents them from doing so.


Try to introduce some objectives that cannot be solved by combat.

One example: the entrance of the dungeon they are looking for is only known by an eccentric old Ranger.

Another: someone is offering a reward for a mission, but before giving them the information wants to know them.

Then, you can introduce as many intermediate steps as needed (to find some guy you must ask another guy and that). Not too many steps to not desperate your players.

This way you force your players to try NPCs interaction. Hopefully they will start liking it and consider it an option, so you don't have to force it anymore.

  • \$\begingroup\$ I want to give you the +1 but this still leads to players not caring about the world, just looking for the proverbial question mark \$\endgroup\$
    – CatLord
    Jan 26, 2014 at 18:29
  • \$\begingroup\$ @CatLord Well, the GM can take advantage of these forced conversation to insert hooks about the game world. Hopefully, this will make players interested on it. If not, I don't know if it's possible to make them care in other way. \$\endgroup\$
    – Flamma
    Jan 26, 2014 at 19:21
  • \$\begingroup\$ I appreciate what you're going for, I've just seen it happen where players have gone "Yakkity yak... Oh guy B? Three horseshoes? Let's go." and not really do anything enriching. \$\endgroup\$
    – CatLord
    Jan 27, 2014 at 4:06

I will be blunt. 4e in NOT a role playing game. It is designed to be a role playing game and quite honestly, trying to make it a role playing game tends to break the rules. The problem is, the system avoids role playing opportunities by solving problems with skill checks: You meet a shop keeper who has what you need but does not want to sell...what skill will you use? I would say ditch the 4e rules and switch over to Pathfinder. This will at least give you and your players more opportunities to role play.

If you are tied to 4e (sorry), somthing that always worked for me was to make players "play" NPC's who are interacting with other players. In the example above, I would take a player who was not involved with the shopkeeper and have him play the shopkeeper. Tell him what the keepers motovations are, how he feels about the situation etc. and have him act it out with the other players. You can give suggestions as things progress but let the players work it out.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Pathfinder has the same skill check rules... just not skill challenges, which are no means required in roleplay interaction. You appear to have some significant misconceptions about 4e. \$\endgroup\$ May 21, 2014 at 8:16

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