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Background:

I'm a fairly inexperienced GM and I'm working with a group that has wildly varying experience with role-playing - the game is intended as a teaching campaign to help a couple new players get familiar with the game, and give me some experience GMing. We're playing Pathfinder and have just reached level 6, and in the time that we've been playing I've found that the player characters rarely interact with each other. I feel like I'm reading a book to them in between battles, and there's very little role-playing.

More specifically, we've been playing for 6 months and still none of the characters know anything about any of the other players except their class. They haven't spoken about themselves or asked about the other characters' stories until tonight - and then only because I spoke to some of the players before the game, introduced an NPC to spill some of their personal beans to the rest of the party, then locked them in a room to "powwow" for a while. Fortunately, they're good players and when they saw what I was trying to do they played along. But I need to learn how to do it without ramming it down their throats.

Most of the players know each other, though one just recently joined at the invitation of his friend and he's new to the rest of us. 3 of the players are true veteran role-players and GMs with experience in many different systems. The other 2 have minimal RPG experience and no familiarity with any particular system. I've played since the mid-90s in multiple systems with many different groups. I've tried GMing once before and it lasted one session and failed miserably.

While this game and most of the games I participate in right now are Pathfinder, I am hoping that the question can elicit answers that will apply broadly to any system and any group.

My problem:

Some of the best role-playing experiences I've had were when the GM set up a situation that gave the players a chance to interact with each other. I realize that not all players enjoy the kind of character role-play I'm aiming at, but I know that this group does - I feel that I'm just not very good at giving them opportunities to do it.

So what are some good kinds of situations that I can place my party in to encourage them to interact with each other? How do I set up the circumstances so that the players (and characters) will have the opportunity to talk to each other and will want to do so?

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One of the best ways to begin interaction like this is at the beginning. That is in the "how they meet each other" set up where you have each person arrive at the table, inn, tavern, starport, recruiting center, house of first client (or wherever) and then invite each player in one at a time (IRL) at intervals of four or five minutes to begin to introduce each other.

This is based on a group dynamics model that I learned years ago1. It has worked on teenagers, preteens, and adults in games I have run.

OK, you have group "forming" established.

Next, present them with more than one challenge for their first (or, in an established group their next) adventure/quest/task/raid/operation/grift challenge. Then step back and only answer their questions to you as they decide to choose an adventure/quest. A trigger to this is to provide a private message, hint, or clue to each player individually before or at the beginning of the game session, so that they all come to the table with having to choose among options and each has to present their clue to the consideration of the rest of the party.

There, you have a bit of "storming" added in.

During the following adventures, encourage them to interact to choose the next of the tasks/challenges/adventures you provided earlier. This allows them to begin to set priorities together, and to establish some party roles. Some nudging here from the DM/GM is very helpful in getting them to discuss this "in role" as opposed to "table talk." Some allusions to player background, particularly if backgrounds are somewhat private in you group, helps you to cue them to take on the role.

A bit of "norming" there.

Performing will happen by itself, even if it is dysfunctional in some ways, thanks to how the RPG works anyway. For you to keep encouraging their role interaction, keep offering them choices where they need to reach a consensus.

  • Capture or kill that BBG's henchman?

  • Rob that bank or set up a sting to catch the other gang right after they robbed that bank? How will we manage to do that?

  • Direct attack or ambush of that bandit party?

When they have to discuss and choose between options, or have five people and two items/trinkets/bits of tech, nudge their decision process along but cut them loose to decide.

Choices, decisions, and achieving group consensus: DM light, in terms of you setting it up and then sitting back as they make decisions and choices to influence the game world.


1 The group dynamics model is "Forming, Storming, Norming, Performing" and can be found in a lot of small group dynamics, leadership, and management courses, articles, and texts.

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Going for "small footprint, cumulative effect" here...

GM: you open the door and see a pair of seated giants, one picking his teeth with the bones of his last victim, the other fashioning a goblet out of a fallen hero's helm, turn to face you. Grinning, the first reaches for his enormous maul...

BARD: who wants a buff-

WIZARD: everyone delay until my-

BARBARIAN: raaaaage!!!

So what are some good kinds of situations that I can place my party in to encourage them to interact with each other? How do I set up the circumstances so that the players (and characters) will have the opportunity to talk to each other and will want to do so?

GM: alright, everybody, stop. Pause this scene. We're flashing back to three nights ago, camping out, having dinner on the road. One of you asks: "hey, guys, what should we do if we come up against a pair of biggies? It's a little different than either a crowd or a solo...." Go.

There it is:

  1. you've put them in a situation that needs discussing,
  2. you've set up the circumstances that they have space and permission to talk in-character,
  3. they want to have the conversation as much as they want to survive.**

They can have the same exact conversation they'd have had, can roleplay-with-a-reason, and two real-life minutes later you un-pause the battle and play it out.

If you look at the in-universe timeline creatively you can find opportunities like this all the time. During your next session, make a note each time your players are having conversations about the game. When you go home, imagine how that conversation might have been cast as characters' conversation. Do this enough times and you'll start to see them coming at the table.

Lastly, be honest with your players that this is what you're trying to achieve. Tell them "I'm starting to keep an eye out for times when we can do more interactive role-play." That way when you throw them a jump-cut like that, they'll know and understand the reason.


Obviously, for the sake of crafting an example native to your PF campaign I went with the traditional FRPG setting and archetypes. But I believe you'll find this works no matter the system/setting.

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In my experience with Pathfinder, there are two surefire ways to encourage people to interact with each other in role play: have each player make a game-relevant background and throw problems at them that have no short-term answer

The first and easiest way to get people to interact in game more is to have them follow this background guide as the first step in creating their characters. When most people who aren't familiar with table-top games create their first character, their first instinct is to fall back on Video Game RPG logic and construct a PC that appeals to their wants rather than their imagination. For example, a guy that is into something like Harry Potter could be thinking "Man, I'd love to be a Hogwarts Wizard. HEY, there is a wizard class. WITH A TON OF MAGIC. AWESOME, I SHOULD BE ONE!". And with that line of thinking, he either makes a perfect bad ass in every way mystically (that tries to be a glory hog by doing EVERYTHING with magic) or some mopey little twat that sits on the side-lines (because the person playing them is miffed at only having 7 spells a day). However, by having them start with the background sheet (with one or two subjective re-rolls), they get a view of everything that their character came from rather than what they can be right off the bat. For example, if someone had the misfortune of rolling Outlaw Profession Con Artist, the guy could be like "I could deal with that", and then skim through the classes thinking of how to make the profession/background work in their favor. He could be lazy and take the rogue for simplicity sake, but then he stops at the cleric thinking "Hey, wouldn't it be funny if this priest goes around swindling people while preaching the good word?".

And now you have him hooked. From there, he isn't looking for what feats or powers he would like to buff his PC with to make him Tru Soopor Sand, he is looking for what feats and powers work with his idea. Eventually, The good sister Loralia of the Elvish Isles walks into a tavern, who proclaims the admittedly unfocused teachings of Seraph the Sunbather. As she picks the pockets of the old geezer in the corner, a glint catches her eye. A blade that sparkled like a shooting star is a scant five paces away. "Surely such a magnificent blade could cut through stone like butter!" she thinks. Looking just a little higher cleanses her palate and throws her into disgust. The shooting star is on the belt of some ugly half-orc beanpole that was too small to fit his bearskin jacket. Steeling herself for the opportunity to take the blade for her own, she strides up to the runt, swaying like an ocean. She puts her hand on his thigh and asks "What is your name, my child?". Two things happen. First, he stammers with a blush that he is Roc, son of Kornak, who seeks to do his father proud by claiming many heads with the familiy Longsword. Second, Loralia realizes too late that the sword is secured too firmly to Rocs' belt to pull away. From there, the guy could get his character in a bitter fued with Roc, or start a long quest of Romance and Betrayal to take the sword. All of which is happening in the background of the main campaign!

The more complicated, and equally effective way to get people more involved in your campaign is through long-term dungeons. When I suggest this, I don't mean something as long and arduous as spelunking from one side of the continent to the other and kill fifteen dragons on the way, I mean present an overarching problem and drop them into the middle of it. For example, in a previous campaign that I played, our overall quest was to travel across the countries of Flails' Head and gather the remaining Hero Kings to destroy the one that turned traitor, killed an other Hero King, and declared war on the whole continent using his hordes of the undead. Our first stop on our quest was this little bo-dunk town where our contact was supposedly hiding in; we found a ruin that was buried under the town instead. After clearing the dungeon, we were appraised by its watcher, who turned out to be this crotchety old lady that was at the inn when we found out about the abandoned fortress beneath the town square. She informed us that the King, who we were led to believe had taken a leave of absence to wander the world, had be usurped by some upstart spell-caster that threatened to level the capital if he didn't stand down. After leaving the city, he was captured and had his soul rent into four chunks that were hidden or entrusted to her commanding officers.

Other than 'You have to go to the city to revive the King' and 'I will meet you here, but get lodging elsewhere' that was all we got. We got dropped off at the main gate, got let inside, and the rest was up to us. By making us find our own allies and do our own planning, our DM put us in a position where we had to actually work as a team while he worked off of our ideas and set up encounters that either challenged or completely wrecked our plans. For instance, there was a part where the cleric was wandering around and just happened to find the Dock Masters' lost pet duck. After we returned the pet, he idly mentioned about the constant threat of sabotage he and his guild had to deal with. We offered our services and set up about twelve traps around the boat to alert us when the saboteurs were among us. At around midnight, we found a group of street thugs dressed in all black that proudly claimed that they were going to blow up the ship when we sprang out of the shadows. However, we didn't realize how obvious moving all the tables and shipping crates to surround the boat was. Moreover, we didn't think for a second that these guys were a distraction that their Dark Paladin leader used to set the bombs on the opposite side of the ship. That was a fun night.

TLDR: Instructing your players to roll for their background first when they make their character creates a strong connection to them, one that makes them feel like playing the roll of the character rather than the class. Putting the party in a long-lasting dungeon that gives them no other direction than "Save the Day" promotes teamwork and a good situation to play out their characters.

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For small elements that encourage RP, I can think of a few pointers:

1: When at the game, call them by their character names. Not by their real names. If Steve is playing Greckar the Barbarian, then don't say, "Steve, your turn." Instead, say "Greckar, take action!"

2: Do an in-character questionnaire for your group. Good questions:

What would your character do anything to gain?
What would your character do anything to avoid?
What's your character's long-term goals?
What's one of your character's annoying habits?

I'm sure you can think of a few similar questions. Which leads us to:

3: Go ahead and give them adventures tailored to their characters. By feeding their ideas about their characters, making stories around their characters, you automatically draw their ICness out. Stopping a ghost in an abandoned and haunted mansion is one thing. Stopping the ghost of the Greckar's uncle, Count Modron, infamous necromancer and the REASON that the family has lost most of its riches and had to abandon their family manor, is entirely something else.

4: Finally, toss scenarios at them which requires roleplay to solve. Ask them who's got watch. Start them 'in media res' finding the one who's got watch tying ... a second of himself up. Doppleganger situation. They need to figure out which one is him.

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