Tobold's Blog
Monday, March 02, 2015
A multi-layer approach to role-playing

Pen & paper tabletop role-playing games are a combination of two very distinctive parts: A mechanical rules part in which your character is a collection of stats and numbers, with dice, mathematics, rules, and tactical decisions deciding what happens. And a "playing a role" part comparable to improvised theater where a character has a background, history, and personality different from that of the player controlling the character, where "what would my character do next" decides what happens.

Since the early days there have always been conflicts between the two parts. Different players prefer different approaches. Some are perfectly happy to play a tabletop game like you play a computer game, as a tactical combat game with numerical character advancement. Others insist on the role-playing being essential, especially in view of the fact that it the part that tends to fall short in the computerized games, and thus is the unique selling proposition for the pen & paper version. Also gamers have a strong tendency to tell other gamers that they are "playing it wrong", and get into pseudo-religious arguments about stuff like this.

When I started my current 4th edition D&D campaign three years ago, I was faced with two problems: A group of players where I knew that not all of them liked to role-play, and a rules system which was new to us and very much on the complicated side. Tons of options (which my players loved), but requiring a lot of rules knowledge and mechanical game preparation by the DM. So at that point I decided to keep the role-playing on the light side. I didn't push anyone to create a character background, and only one player did it voluntarily. And the episodic form of the campaign with the characters not having strong bonds or loyalties, but just being a band of mercenaries traveling from one adventure to the next didn't encourage role-playing either.

Now this campaign is drawing towards the end, and I would like to have a bit more role-playing in the next campaign. We won't change the rules system (because 5E isn't available in French), but at least we are sufficiently familiar with the rules now that we can add role-playing layers to the game without causing a total chaos. I'm going for the Zeitgeist adventure path as campaign, so the world and campaign has a lot of background that can encourage role-playing. But what I still need to overcome is that some of the players might not be terrible interested in the role-playing part. How can I offer role-playing opportunities to those who would like them without forcing those who don't like them?

What I came up with is a multi-layer approach where different levels of role-playing are possible, and there are some house rule incentives to trying them. At the most basic level every character has the same motivation: They are all members of the Royal Homeland Constabulary of Risur, and loyal to king and country. So if in doubt to the question "what would my character do?", this basic premise should already provide a lot of answers. And even that basic level is a lot better for interactive story-telling than the characters being orphans without loyalty or bonds to anything. It is what the Zeitgeist adventure path strongly suggests as premise, because without the loyalty to the king and to Risur a lot of the story of the campaign doesn't make much sense. Imagine Game of Thrones where the various characters would not have bonds and loyalties to their houses, it would make for a much weaker story.

As medium level option for role-playing I decided to use character themes. This is something that has been added to 4th edition Dungeons & Dragons later in its life-cycle, often as part of some campaign setting. Basically a theme describes what your character did before the first adventure starts. The Zeitgeist campaign setting has a list of pre-made character themes that fit into that particular campaign world, for example the Docker, the Gunsmith, or the Skyseer. But there are also some more generic options, like the Aristocrat, Scholar, or Street Urchin. It is character background and history made easy: Choosing a theme from a list is a lot easier than creating a background from scratch by yourself, and as the DM you can make sure that the list of proposed themes fits into the campaign story and is relevant for giving role-playing opportunities. As an incentive for players who are more comfortable to think in min-maxing terms than role-playing, the theme gives access to different skills, and I am going to give every character with a theme or self-made background one additional encounter power which will be based on that background.

For those who really want to get creative with role-playing, I have created an added page for the character sheet using a mix of 13th Age and 5th edition D&D rules. If they want the players can invent a "One Unique Thing", a freely created unique characteristic that sets their character apart from everybody else. They can also choose personality traits like their ideals, or flaws. And their background and personality can then give rise to bonds with places, organisations, or NPCs. Again I'm using a bit of an incentive here, from 5E rules: A player who makes decisions based on the personality and background of his character, especially if those decisions aren't just the strategic or tactical best choice, will get a point of Inspiration, which he can use to roll two dice instead of one in one future dice roll.

The Zeitgeist campaign world is both sufficiently rich in story, and sufficiently open to additions to that story so that I can use all those possible levels of improved character description and create some interesting individual stories besides the main campaign story. Whatever theme or One Unique Thing a player chooses, it will figure somewhere in one of the campaign adventures. But if the players don't want to play along with that, I can also run the whole campaign just on the basic level premise of loyalty to the king and country. You can lead a horse to water, but you can't make it drink. I will see how it goes.


You made pretty much all possible contigencies to involve your players into RP, if they so wish it. Even if some players are reluctant, the issue will resolve itself; they will see the rest of the PCs having a richer experience with their 'unique traits' and elaborate backgrounds, that they will eventually be tempted to join in. I've seen it happen literary dozens of times.

They key point here is that the GM (aka, you) doesn't shrug the RP elements off if he meets some resistance from parts of your group.
I'd just note that not all computer RPG players min-max all the time either. If the game doesn't seem to force me along certain lines, I'll often choose a sub-optimal path that seems reasonable for the character.
If the game doesn't seem to force me along certain lines, I'll often choose a sub-optimal path that seems reasonable for the character.

I do that in certain old school computer RPGs like Divinity: Original Sin. But there is quite a number of modern games out there where you don't even get the option to play something "interesting but sub-optimal".
I'm so jealous of you running Zeitgeist. I tried to sell my players on it and they were turned off by the steam-punk elements.

In any case, I've had great success in re-using FATE's character creation minus the FATE specific things like aspects and power level. The whole book title, guest starring, background generation using index cards is a great way to quickly establish a framework for a background and connections between characters without actually requiring the details to be spelled out immediately.
I'd suggest using only Zeitgeist themes. They're not only very well integrated into the campaign and the setting, they're also much, much more developed than what I've seen in themes from WotC.

Great flavor and crunchy! What more can you ask?
My problem with the Zeitgeist themes is that I would consider them to be "advanced". You already need to read a lot of campaign background to be able to play a "Docker" or "Eschatologist". I want to add a few more generic options that are simpler to play for beginners, like "noble" or "street urchin", because there players already know what that theme is about without studying.
I see your point, but at the same time, the themes serve as a "hook" to bind the character to the setting. Some of them do require a deeper knowledge of the setting to understand (Docker, Eschatologist, Vekeshi Mystic), but my suggestion would be to steer the players that don't care much for that towards the more self-explanatory themes, like Skyseer, Gunsmith, Spirit Medium or Yerasol Veteran (it's basically a veteran of the WWII pacific theatre). Technologist and Martial Scientist aren't bad either, but not quite as obvious as the previous four.

A benefit would be that the themes will align the character in quite a few of the conflicts of Risur (old faith vs technology, worker's rights or relations with foreign powers). As the GM you can then present the players with roleplaying opportunities (the adventures already do this based on themes) and the player can run with it or ignore it as he wants.
I was just watching an interesting example of this in action on Week 8 of Rollplay: West Marches.

Two players turned up with essentially non-genre respecting immersion-breaking joke characters, more than half the party was drunk from the night before and inclined to be trollish, destructive and silly, doing their best to wreck the GM's created world.

Watching what GM Steven did was remarkable. He stayed absolutely cool and calm and collected, let the players work off their silliness on unimportant characters while firmly putting his foot down about set pieces that needed to stay intact for other weeks and other parties (ie. the inn, the town), and most importantly: He kept up a consistency of setting, describing stuff to a level where the players couldn't help themselves but get pulled in by the world.

It was amazing to see previously nonserious players suddenly freak out when they realized the world wasn't going to adjust to let them do their comedy act and hammer away desperately at a door because they were -scared- about what was approaching them (while all the NPCs were safely behind said doors.)

In that moment, they were roleplaying because the consistency of the world that the GM was describing let them -believe- in the world.

I think it helps to also have one or two player allies, if you can figure out and/or approach beforehand the players you think might be more inclined to RP.

Just one or two players behaving in character, speaking in voices, having fun interacting with the world, and the GM rewarding this interaction with cause and effect, conflict and story... and it'll probably get easier to tempt the rest to dip a toe in.
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