“I wish my group roleplayed more.”
Wishing that players engaged in certain behaviors is the lament of many a Dungeon Master. Whether it’s roleplaying, coming up with plans, being less cautious, or any number of desired behaviors, the common complaint is, “No matter how many times I tell them, they don’t listen.”
Fortunately, there is a solution, and it all comes down to the message you send your players.
“But wait,” you’ll argue. “I just said that my players don’t listen.”
Oh, but they do. They are, in fact, listening much more intently than you realize. They’ve just learned to listen to the message you are actually projecting, rather than the message you think you are projecting.
When you tell your players to try to talk their way through encounters, but you have every attempt at diplomacy end in bloodshed, the message they receive is that they should just fight from the start. When you tell your players to be less cautious and more heroic, but you have the dragon kill the entire party when they charge into its chamber, the message they receive is that boldness leads to death. When you tell your players to spend time coming up with plans, but you thwart their efforts and have them fail spectacularly, the message they receive is that planning is a waste of time.
Always be mindful of the way you resolve players’ in-game actions, because that is what delivers the strongest message about the type of game you want to run. Players want to “win,” and whether you intend it or not, the behaviors that lead to the quickest road to success are the behaviors you are encouraging.
Does this mean that players should succeed whenever they attempt a behavior you wish to encourage, regardless of how foolish their actions may be? Of course not. But repeated, catastrophic failure will turn a player off a given behavior, and what’s key here is our definitions of “winning” and “losing.” Given a tabletop RPG is not a zero-sum game with definitive winning and losing conditions, “winning” is really just a measure of having a good time.
In general, players will have a better time if their characters defeat the villains, overcome the traps, and find the treasure, but there’s also fun that can be had when obstacles hamper their efforts. If your players try to use diplomacy, but they’re clearly being rude and offensive, and their skill check rolls are abysmal, then simply make this “failure” at diplomacy a fun, memorable event with a silver lining – maybe the diplomacy fails, but they still get some useful information from the exchange.
It goes beyond what happens in-game, as well. If a reluctant roleplayer tries his hand at getting in-character one session, and his attempt is met with a derisive snort from a fellow player – or worse, the DM – then the message he receives is that roleplaying leads to social ridicule. By fostering a positive atmosphere, desirable behaviors can be encouraged with recognition and praise. While XP and loot are the traditional reward mechanisms that let a player know he’s doing a good job, sincere kudos can be equally – if not more – rewarding.
Not only can praise be given without concern for game balance, but it can be awarded even if the characters fall in battle or fail to find treasure, and it’s the only reward that has any real-world meaning. If a player finds a vorpal sword, he’ll feel good about having a powerful character. If he comes up with a brilliant plan that his friends fondly talk about for years, he’ll feel good about himself.
I like to end my sessions with a debrief in which we go around the table and get everyone’s thoughts on how the session went. Speaking last, I make an effort to highlight something positive that each player contributed to the session, whether it was a clever idea, a memorable roleplay moment, or taking the initiative to move the game forward. Everyone likes to be validated, and a player won’t know his efforts are appreciated unless you state it.
It all comes down to being mindful of the message you send your players. Avoid penalizing, nullifying, or deriding desired behaviors, and instead encourage them both in- and out-of-game with reward and praise. The behaviors you wish to encourage should be the ones that lead to the most fun, entertaining, and rewarding experience. Of course, you cannot change who a person is or what they find fun – if someone has no interest at all in roleplaying, you cannot brainwash him into enjoying it. All you can do is encourage certain behaviors, and often, that is enough.