Game Mastery

Why Won’t They Roleplay – Part 2

by on Aug.25, 2008, under player management

Alright, so last time we discussed players that really, truly do not want to take part in roleplaying. This part of the article isn’t for them. It’s for the players who are potentially interested but don’t know how to roleplay or won’t come out of their shell. The best advice I can give here is to make it personal. The character needs to care about the plot he is involved in. This is why I’m not a big fan of uber save the world quests where the players are the only ones capable of standing up to overwhelming evil forces. Those quests aren’t personal, they’re right place, right time. Whenever I run a game I require a character backstory. No exceptions. Period. End of discussion. Players who object don’t get to play. And in all fairness players who don’t want to write a page or two about their character probably wouldn’t enjoy my style of game anyway.

The backstory accomplishes two important goals. The first is that it gives the GM plot hooks. Your players should have goals and events left unresolved. Use those to your advantage! Even if you’re using a pre-written adventure module you can use these. If a PC’s parents were murdered in the night, you better put that murderer in game. You don’t even have to insert a new character into the game. Just merge “parent murderer” into an existing NPC. I’m a big fan of merging NPCs and events together. When the player encounters this NPC, he’s going to give a damn about what happens. Because the murderer has been merged into another NPC, he’s now tied into whatever plots the original NPC had going on. If you do things right, your player will now have a reason to care about that plot. You can also use techniques like this to merge players together. A couple games ago I had one PC whose wife left him and another player who was raised by a single mother who left her husband on bad terms. The PC’s ages were about right, so I merged the lost wife with the single mother and one PC became another’s father. There was little reason for this and I didn’t even tie that plot into anything else very well, but the revelation of this was a lot of fun and it created a new dynamic in the group. They were no longer a band of equals, but there was a distinct hierarchy between those two characters.

I should point out that merging too many plots and NPCs will make your game look contrived. Too many coincidences and things stop being believable. Stop worrying about that and just write the damn game. As GM you always have a bird’s eye view of the game. This means you see the dozens of linked plots and characters all at once. Yes, it does look unbelievable. To the players’ point of view it will be fine though. Players will encounter this coincidences one at a time. Individually they’re very digestible. Furthermore, your players won’t even encounter all of the coincidences you put in the game. In my experience they play through 50-75% of them, and only realize about half of those. It’s even worse if the players are secretive. Back to the point, use backstory to your advantage.

Players will write plot ideas for you. Be a lazy GM! Don’t come up with ideas yourself. Use your players backstory plots. They’ll have a much better time interacting with NPCs they wrote. It’s a great way to involve PCs with the plot. There is one caveat to this technique though and that’s that some players dismiss another adventurer’s plot. They see it as Steve’s turn in the spotlight instead of the main plot. This gives Steve a great game session, but leaves the others bored. The trick is not to run the game as Steve’s session. Run a normal game session while merging Steve’s backstory into the game session. This will enhance the session for Steve, but give everyone else the sort of game they’re expecting. If Steve’s character decides to tell the others that this plot is personal, that’s his business. But the plot should be able to carry itself without being tied to any PC. Tying it in just makes it even more interesting.

The other advantage of a good backstory is that it gets the players into the characters heads. I advocate dialog in backstories. Biographical information is all well and good, but naming your parents or home town rarely helps with getting into your character’s head. Dialog does help. Events leading up to game start help too. When I write backstories I spend a whole lot more time on those two things than on biographical factoids. The backstory is especially helpful at game start. It’s always bothered me that most games start with all the characters in bar introducing themselves. You’ve got characters making first impressions on each other and nobody has played their character yet. Ideally players have pregamed with the GM, but that’s not always feasible. A good backstory is the next best thing and will let your characters introduce themselves properly. This will help negate a lot of the awkwardness that takes place in a new game and that will help loosen up your players and get them chatting.

Those are the two big things. Use backstory to make plot personal. Encourage your players to use backstory to rehearse their character. There’s more to come, but these are the two biggest things for me.

(Continue on to Part 3)

1 comment for this entry:
  1. Why Won’t They Roleplay – Part 1 - Game Mastery

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