Treasure Tables is in reruns from November 1st through December 9th. I’m writing a novel as part of National Novel Writing Month, and there’s no way I can write posts here while retaining my (questionable) sanity. In the meantime, enjoy this post from our archives.
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I recently got an email from Jeff King asking me for help with an age-old gaming problem: What can you do about a player who just doesn’t seem interested in roleplaying their character?

Jeff’s situation isn’t unique, and there are 5 steps you can take to tackle this problem.

For starters, check out Jeff’s email (quoted with his permission):

I’m sure almost every GM has had a player or two that they just can’t get into the game. I have one of those players in a game I’m running now.

I was wondering if you had any advice on how to pull him into the world. In my particular case the player works mechanically–meaning he helps fight the monsters–but he almost doesn’t roleplay at all.

Do you know any techniques to pull him into the game?

There’s also a wrinkle that’s specific to Jeff’s campaign:

Normally I would direct a role-playing challenge at him but since I am running a book campaign my ability to do that is limited.

By “book campaign,” Jeff means that he’s running a packaged campaign — in this case, the Shackled City campaign for D&D (which originally appeared in Dungeon Magazine, but has since been collected into a hardback.

Here’s my 5-step approach to this problem:

  1. Is this actually a problem?
  2. If so, talk to that player directly — outside of the game.
  3. If they want to get more into roleplaying their character, continue to step 3.
  4. If they don’t want to get more involved in the roleplaying aspect of the game, it’s probably best if you part ways (assuming that’s an option).
  5. Make them the star.
  6. Ask the other players for help (again, outside the game).
  7. After a couple of sessions, solicit feedback.

Step 1. Is this a problem?

My first question to Jeff was the same one that you should ask if you’re in this situation: Is this a problem at all?

What I was getting at is that if this player is happy with the way he’s playing the game, and his approach doesn’t detract from anyone else’s enjoyment, then where’s the issue? Jeff answered that it bothers him as a GM, and that it bothers the other players as well — so in this case, there’s definitely a problem.

Jeff also mentions something very useful — two things, actually:

I think he is happy with the game. I don’t know if he even notices this. At the same time I wouldn’t know how to politely ask him if he recognizes that this is happening.

So in Jeff’s Shackled City game, this player appears to be having fun, but everyone else is having a bit less fun than they might be otherwise. Not a good situation — and Jeff isn’t sure how to approach the player about it.

Step 2. Talk to the player directly

Here’s how I would handle it: by being as direct as possible. Not rude, of course — but don’t pussyfoot around the issue, either. The goal is to find out why this player isn’t that interesting in the roleplaying aspect of the game. For example (and I’ll call this player “Bob,” rather than Player X):

Bob, I wanted to talk to you about something related to our game. It seems like you’re having fun at our sessions, but you’re not really very into your character. Is that a part of the game that doesn’t really interest you, or is it something you’d like to change — or that you feel kind of nervous about?

Corny, I know — but it hits the high notes: polite and direct, but non-confrontational, and it covers the two most common reasons why a player might not want to roleplay: shy/nervous/new to gaming, and just not that into it. He might also not be as excited about the game itself as you think, which will probably come out in conversation.

If this player isn’t gung-ho about his character because he’s not into the game itself, find out why and address it. If, however, he’s not roleplaying because he’s new to RPGs (or to your group), or a bit shy, those are things you can easily work with him on.

If it turns out that he just wants to kill things and not roleplay at all, you have two options: try to accomodate his playing style, or let him know that things aren’t working out and politely give him the boot. (That might not be an option if this player is a longtime friend, but handling that situation is a post unto itself!)

Robin’s Laws of Good Game Mastering discusses a variety of player types in detail, and offers some useful tips on accomodating different styles in the same group. (That portion of Robin’s Laws was also included in the Dungeon Master’s Guide II.)

Step 3. Make them the star

Now that you’ve identified the source of the problem, it’s time for step 3: Make this player the star. I first heard it put this way by Kevin Culp, who posts on the EN World boards as Piratecat, and it’s a great approach.

For your next couple of sessions, find ways to put this player in the driver’s seat. Make important decisions hinge on their actions, have notable NPCs specifically approach their character for help — there are lots of ways to do this. The key is not to overwhlem them, and part of that hinges on step 4: asking the other players for help.

Step 4. Get the rest of the group to help

Making one player the center of attention — particularly if your group is already frustrated with their play style, as Jeff’s group is — isn’t something you can do alone. Outside of the game (on the phone, via IM or email, etc.), let the other players know about your conversation with Bob, tell them what you’re planning to do about it, and enlist their help.

Step 5. Solicit feedback

Between step 4 and step 5, play a couple of sessions and see how things go. Unless it’s blatantly obvious that this player is having fun or hating life, ask them for some feedback on the game. You should also ask the rest of the group for the same kind of feedback.

Play this one by feel — if it seems better to do this as a group, run with that; if your gut tells you to solicit feedback outside the game, do that instead. (For more about soliciting feedback, check out Getting Player Feedback here on TT.)

Working with published material

Jeff’s game uses a published campaign, and it sounds like he’s not sure how to adapt that material to address this problem. With this 5-step approach, it’s actually not that tough — they key is step 3, making this player the star.

Take a peek at what’s on the slate for your next session, and look for ways to put this player in the spotlight. Does the mayor of Cauldron (the city in which Shackled City is set) approach the characters with a problem? Have him address Bob’s character. Does an evil NPC flee a battle with the PCs? Have her swear a blood oath against Bob’s PC. Can a set-piece encounter be reworked slightly to play to Bob’s PC’s strengths? Fiddle with it to make Bob’s character shine.

There are lots of ways to tweak published material without bending over backwards — and you’ll be helped along by the fact that the rest of the group is (presumably) working towards the same goal: getting Bob into his character.

Does that sound like a good approach to you, Jeff? Is there anything I can clarify or expand on to make it more helpful to you? (And if you try it, I’d love to hear the outcome!)

For others reading this, would my 5 step approach work for you? Do you see any glaring problems with it?
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Normally there’d be a discussion going on in the comments below, but due to time constraints I’ve turned off all comments during reruns — sorry about that! You can read the comments on the first-run version of this post, and if you need a GMing discussion fix, why not head on over to our GMing forums?