How can I determine if players are roleplaying well? World of Darkness (not the only system that does this) offers the option of giving experience for good roleplaying, but how do I as a GM determine that the roleplaying was good? Especially given different player experience (e.g. veteran vs novice).
Well, you've hit the crux of the problem for a lot of the hobby - there's a lot of different ways to have fun roleplaying, all of which can be "good", but not all of them work well together.
Good roleplaying might be:
- Entertaining dialogue spoken in character
- Good narration/description of how a character does things
- Character defining moments of growth and change
- Excellent use of character abilities or environemental elements in clever ways
- A suggestion to another player, or to the GM to shape the story in a better way
- Choosing suboptimal choices because it is "what the character would do"
- Choices that push the story in genre expected manners
- Choices that create new, engaging moments, regardless of genre expectations
Think about what you're looking to get out of this game you're playing and also find out from the players what they're looking for. Talk about it and coordinate.
There are some games, such as Primetime Adventures, Tenra Bansho Zero, etc. where ANY player at the table can award another player for good roleplaying. Those games also have a way of working well because the litmus is "what the group finds interesting" rather than putting the onus on a single person to make that call.
I've seen this done in two ways:
A) "I know good RP when I see it"
The first method doesn't have any particular criteria at all. Just watch what the players do, and when you see behavior that you think is good play, reward it. The upside is that you're not boxed into what "good RP" looks like, as it can be anything where the players are engaged.
The obvious downside is that if you don't already have an idea of what "good RP" is, you may not recognize it on sight and thus have no idea when to give out rewards. That seems to be the boat you're in now. (It also has a downside of being inconsistent and sometimes rewarding things that probably shouldn't be, like metagaming.)
B) Going by Criteria
The other way is to watch for specific behaviors and reward those. Here are ones that I tend to consider good roleplay in games I participate in. It's worth noting that "good roleplay" isn't a single thing, and other tables will have lists different than mine. There is no single correct way to RP well, it depends on the group and the game. The biggest thing with having criteria is making sure that everybody agrees on what those criteria are in your specific group, and thus what "good RP" is.
1. No Metagaming
Metagaming is when someone uses out of character knowledge in character. In some groups (and some games) it's perfectly acceptable. I consider it bad play (along with many others), as it leads to situations where someone can play a character who has no knowledge of something in game but can somehow know everything by the magic use of Google on their phone. Particularly troublesome in games where character knowledge of certain things has a character creation cost. If I'm trading power for access to specialized knowledge, someone else who doesn't shouldn't have the same knowledge because they have Google.
2. Avoid out of character chatter during scenes
Let's be honest - out of character chatter happens at the table. It's unavoidable in a lot of groups, and it's fine in limited amounts. But it breaks immersion when someone is always making comments in the middle of a scene and then saying "oh, that was out of character."
People who stay in character are helping make a more immersive scene for every player, and should be rewarded for it.
3. In Character Decisions
Good RP means you're playing a character, typically. That character has their own personality, history, motivations, and perhaps a code of honor or some other philosphy they follow. Player actions should typically be guided by what the character would do, and not what the player decides is optimized. Sometimes a Paladin will stand against impossible odds because they need to buy time to let the civilians live. Sometimes a character will backstab the party for working with his personal nemesis, and saving the world be damned.
Characters don't always do optimal things, even if players know what the optimal thing is.
I say "typically", because there's other times when the player may want to do something against their character in order to make the game flow more easily. If you're trying to get a new player into the group, someone being super picky about refusing to go along with the plot to do that because "my character would do X" is just causing grief for everyone. You can read about "my guy syndrome" for what happens if you go overboard on the in-character decisions.
4. Play nice with others
Sometimes, good RP as defined above will cause intra-party conflict between characters. That's fine. What's not fine is when someone creates a character that's deliberately designed to not play nice with others and creates excessive amounts of conflict by being impossible to work with. They might be RPing well in other ways, but they're harming the group's ability to get anything done and stifling the roleplaying of others by being so hard to work with.
This one is extremely subjective and group dependent. Some groups and some games encourage intra-party conflict. Others are really designed for a party that generally works well together and a party that's constantly fighting can easily derail everything.
5. Be Clever
Creative use of powers, the terrain, or other party members? Convince NPCs to do hat you want with a great speech? Those are all good roleplaying too.
The best advice I can give you is if you want to give out bonus XP for good roleplay, watch what people are doing when the group seems to be really into the game. If everybody is engaged and having fun, there's a good chance they are doing something that is good play. If you want them to do more of that, reward it.
Did the player roleplay in a way you liked during the session?
This particular form of XP reward is designed primarily to act as a subtle form of positive reinforcement to 'train' the players with. The fact that it shows up in the core books of various RPGs also helps keep it from looking like putative behavior on the part of the GM.
If your playing with a lot of new players, I would tend to be "fast and loose" with handing these out. Any time you notice what you consider to be an improvement in the player's roleplaying give them XP. On the other hand, when you're dealing with experienced roleplayers this can often end up being either a consistent XP resource or a constant contest of one-upsmanship. In either case, I would strongly recommend holding it back to reward roleplaying that fits well with the mood of the game.
If you find yourself particularly concerned with the amount of XP the players are getting, you are always free to award additional XP, but a lot of games (World of Darkness included) are intentionally designed as "slow growth" games.