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:
- Is this actually a problem?
- If so, talk to that player directly — outside of the game.
- If they want to get more into roleplaying their character, continue to step 3.
- 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).
- Make them the star.
- Ask the other players for help (again, outside the game).
- 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?
I don’t see any glaring issues with that approach, but I do spot a couple of potentially important niches that are glossed over a bit:
2.1 – Player may be relunctant to roleplay because his preferred/natural style is different than the other players. Typically, this would seem like “no roleplaying” to the others when maybe it is only minimalist. For example, Bob may prefer to use third person when talking in character, while the rest are emphatically first person speakers.
4.1 – Another way to get the other players to help actually contradicts #3. Don’t make Bob the star, at least not at first. Instead, alternate making the other players the star, with Bob in a prominent but supporting role. Some players react better to direct conversation from other PCs than they do from a role played by the DM.
I’m also curious as to how many players are involved. If it is more than four, perhaps Bob is merely yielding the floor out of politeness.
I’d try my 1-step approach first:
1. Give the player’s character something that is truly his.
Something that helps flesh out his identity and gives the player a better feel for the world.
For example, when my current group started, we had 3 very experienced RPers and 3 newbies. One newbie picked things up pretty quickly. Another newbie is a bit nervous and clumsy about it, but he’s like that in real life too, and at least he tries. The third newbie liked to smash things. Loves fights, big epic events, that sort of stuff. Not much into the roleplaying. But he was the only troll (Earthdawn) and a skyraider, so the GM gave him a book about the troll skyraider culture, and he loved it. He figured out his history (the last survivor of his clan), relationships (the party is now his new clan), and goals (get a skyship so his clan is skyborne again), and keeps throwing bits of troll skyraider culture into the group, which is great.
I’m not sure how much the GM talked to him about it, but he loves it and we love it. Now we only have to figure out what to do with the nervous guy.
This is one of the main reasons why I write Treasure Tables — both of these answers substantially improve on my original post, are well-written and are likely to be helpful to a lot of GMs.
The bar for comment quality is always pretty high on TT, but some days I feel like I need pom-poms. 😉
For example, Bob may prefer to use third person when talking in character, while the rest are emphatically first person speakers.
Is this sort of thing really a problem for anyone? In my experience it’s never a problem if a group is part first, part third person.
(mcv) Is this sort of thing really a problem for anyone? In my experience itâ€™s never a problem if a group is part first, part third person.
In a group that’s focused on immersion, I could see this being detrimental. Apart from that, though, I’m with you — it’s never been a problem in any of the groups I’ve gamed with.
Well, it wouldn’t be a problem in our group, because we are all pretty much middle of the road on such roleplay issues (and somewhat erratic, to boot). I have observed other groups in play that I believe would consider us to “not be roleplaying” because of speech patterns. The first person/third person thing is merely an example, though. It’s really a question of over the top roleplay versus roleplay that is minimalist or even subtle.
You might say that this is more like step 0.9 than 1.1. It’s being assumed above that Bob really is not roleplaying very much–then deciding whether or not that is a problem.
mcv hints at one thing that can be a problem. The player may just not be aware of how he can contribute. I think it’s very much an osmosis thing that we just sort of amorphously figure out that we as players CAN make stuff up. And a good GM will try and incorporate our material. Of course if the player isn’t quite so new, they may have been trained by a bad GM to NOT contribute.
I always struggle with how to accept player contribution, but I do try. In my first Arcana Unearthed campaign, the player of the thief (I mean Rogue, I mean Unfettered) showed up one day with a bunch of NPCs he had created and a story about how they were basically his guild and since the PCs had just captured a tower, he wanted to move them in. We kind of joked around, and it never became really important, but I didn’t shut him down completely, I let him have his guild. Now I should have worked better with the player to figure it out, and to use it to drive an adventure or two (though the player also soon retired that character).
That player’s wife is my “barely plays” player. Unfortunately she just plain doesn’t read (she’s learning disabled, as is he – he at least reads some stuff). I’ve been totally unsuccessefull at getting them to read background material, otherwise the idea of sending them home to read up and have something to contribute would be really good.
Ah, the eternal question of how much the players can contribute to the background of the world! When the GM wants the players to add their own bit, they invariably expect the GM to do everything, and when the GM has figured everything out in great detail, the players come up with all sorts of ideas that conflict with the GM’s ideas.
And in fact, I think one is the cause of the other. The more detail the GM has worked out, the more the players will be inspired by it. They need to have a feel for the world before they understand it well enough to contribute meaningfully. Sounds like a good subject for a future blog entry.
In any case, in our campaign, the troll player just read a lot of background about Earthdawn trolls and used those to spice up the game. I don’t think he made up much himself. And that’s perhaps the core of one of the problems here: some players can come up with a whole world if you just hand them a sheet of paper, others need a bit more help to get going. I played a human warrior, and I immediately had some ideas about what humans and warriors were about. When it later turned out to conflict somewhat with official material, I adapted and nobody noticed. He just saw trolls as big brutes and that’s it. When he later read about the troll culture and customs, he had something to work with.
So when a player looks like he’s not really in the world, help him out with some ideas. Give him official background material about the city he was born, his people, his guild. If there’s no official material, make some up. Or better yet, do it together. That should help him think a bit more about his character as an individual with a real past, culture and background.
I think the real problem with most “bad roleplayers” is that they see their character mostly as a collection of stats. So help them see it in a different way.
Ofcourse if that doesn’t work, you can still try more extreme measures.
Thanks for the advice.
I wanted to wait to comment till I got a chance to talk to the player to comment. It went pretty good. He said that it just takes time for him to get into a character. I can understand that but I still intend to try and put him in the spotlight as much as I can.
The one thing that I wouldn’t have thought of my self is to talk to the other players about it. The thought of this makes me a little nervious but I’ll definately give it a try.
I’ll let you know how it goes with more comments
I’m experiencing a similar problem with one of my players now.
He was a AD&D 2nd ed. player when he got introduced into my gaming group. A fellow player said he’ll learn D&D 3.5 from the SRD as he already knows what he wants to play (In my group, you first think about what sort of character you’d like to play, then go and generate them).
The group is nearing the end of the first adventure in the Age of Worms Path (New Dungeon adventure path), but “the new guy” hardly knows what sort of a character he’s playing (Half-Elf Ranger, 2-weapons style) not to mention that he’s unfamiliar with the new D20 ruleset or doing any kind of Roleplaying.
I’ve already spoken to him about sitting in front of the RTF files from wizards site, and reading about what exactly is a ranger and/or the D20 ruleset from the OGL and I’ve asked some of my players for help.
So far, it’s a disaster according to a player of mine. “The new guy” haven’t done any of the readings, and have been avoiding my phone calls to schedule a “tutoring session” where I’ll personally teach him some of the game mechanics.
I’m afraid I’ll have to give him the boot if this doesn’t improve by the end of the adventure. It feels like having to fire someone for repeatedly not doing a good job at work.
No suggestions this time, just sharing today 🙂
Jeff King said: He said that it just takes time for him to get into a character. I can understand that but I still intend to try and put him in the spotlight as much as I can.
Be careful. If he just has trouble getting in character, putting him in the spotlight might make him more nervous or put the spotlight on his inability to get into character. Or it could work fine, ofcourse. You know the situation best, while all of us don’t. (Since when do you have to be an amateur shrink to be a good GM?)
DM T said: â€œThe new guyâ€ havenâ€™t done any of the readings, and have been avoiding my phone calls to schedule a â€œtutoring sessionâ€ where Iâ€™ll personally teach him some of the game mechanics.
You make it sound like homework. Be careful you don’t scare him off. I’d say just help him out with the game mechanics during play, point out his options, and eventually he’ll get the hang of those.
It feels like having to fire someone for repeatedly not doing a good job at work.
School. Work. Be careful you’re not taking this too seriously. It’s still meant to be a game, and most of all, fun. That said, some games do indeed require quite a bit more commitment than others (imagine playing ASL with someone who refuses to learn the rules). But since he does have RPG experience already, isn’t it possible that the problem is just that he’s looking for a different kind of RPG experience? I think in less tactical games, the exact details of the game mechanics don’t matter nearly as much.
(Frank) Of course if the player isnâ€™t quite so new, they may have been trained by a bad GM to NOT contribute.
Amen to that. That’s why it’s so important to talk to the player in question, and see what’s going on behind the scenes.
(mcv) The more detail the GM has worked out, the more the players will be inspired by it. They need to have a feel for the world before they understand it well enough to contribute meaningfully. Sounds like a good subject for a future blog entry.
Some indie games do this quite well, I’m told — like Dogs in the Vineyard (town creation system) and Stranger Things, wherein the players describe map elements during setup.
(Jeff King) Thanks for the advice.
You’re welcome, Jeff. I hope you’ll come back and let us know how things went. 🙂
(mcv) School. Work. Be careful youâ€™re not taking this too seriously.
I think the parallels that DM T brought up often have a lot of merit, especially from a GM’s perspective. This is mainly because for a hobby devoted to fun, GMing requires a lot of work — and if one player isn’t sharing the rules-load, that can be pretty frustrating.