Positively-reinforced role-playing

I cruise a lot of D&D/Pathfinder/RPG forums and blogs, and I notice that there are some commonalities among the many different discussions, debates, and debacles I see there. Hot topics are things like game balance, power creep, edition wars, etc.

One issue that doesn’t seem quite as volatile, however, is one that seems to have been around longer than most – problems of players (and DMs) who don’t role-play their characters very much (or very well for that matter, but that’s another issue). All too often I’ve heard about how role-playing is being eclipsed by “roll-playing.” That is, trying to figure out just who your character is, and playing him as such, gets ignored in favor of optimizing him for combat encounters.

Now, I’m certain that there are a lot of groups out there that are overflowing with players who do a great job role-playing their characters. I’m sure a lot of people develop a fully fleshed-out back-story for their character, complete with personality quirks, odd beliefs, distinguishing features, etc. What’s more, they bring these things up during game-play, and even *gasp* speak in-character while sitting around the table.

Most groups that I’ve known, however, don’t have such mavericks. The majority of the groups I’ve played in are content to move things along fairly quickly, with various dice rolls settling character interactions, until they get to the killin’. Heck, I’ve been guilty of doing that myself, which is why I think I know what the problem is.

It’s not a question of being embarrassed to stand out when playing with your friends (though that can be daunting), nor is it that people just prefer hack ‘n’ slash gaming to other modes of play (though some people might). Rather, it’s simple apathy in regards to the parts of the game that, to a lot of people, just don’t seem to matter.

Dig, if you will, a picture: role-playing games are reward-focused. While they are supposed to be fun in-and-of themselves, the sense of accomplishment comes from the cookie you get when you “win” various parts of it, such as a combat encounter. You earn experience points, which increase your character’s abilities; you earn gold/equipment/magic items which can be used to enhance those same abilities. You get solid, concrete rewards for engaging in certain parts of the game, so those are the parts that players are eager to engage in.

Given that, I believe that the way to encourage better role-playing is to offer mechanical rewards for doing so. That which benefits the PC in a tangible (that is, rules-based) manner will be gravitated to – so adding benefits to the parts of the game you want the PCs to spend more time in will draw them there.

Of course, this raises questions of how to do it? Yes, the DM can just hand out ad hoc awards, but this is a poor solution, since players prefer consistency and objectivity in terms of what they receive for the actions they undertake. Why is it that Player #1 received a 500 XP bonus for feeding a beggar, but Player #2 only got 150 XP and some copper coins for guiding the lost child back to his parents? Issues like that quickly undermine what the DM is trying to accomplish as players grow frustrated with an inscrutable and arbitrary reward system.

Unfortunately, I don’t know of any concrete system that categorizes good role-playing, which is what you’d need in order to hand out rewards for it. Luckily, I do know of two sourcebooks that have a method for rewarding certain types of good role-playing.

The first is a little gem tucked away in the pages of Fiery Dragon’s book Mastering Iron Heroes. Tucked away in chapter seven are some guides for alternate experience point systems, one of which is that PCs don’t gain XP for killing monsters, but only for gold they spend, on a 1:1 basis; moreover, it must be spent on things that have no mechanical impact – spending 10 gold pieces on ale earns 10 XP. Spending 10 gold pieces on a new longsword earns 0 XP.

Now, I personally incorporate this rule into my games, but keep it alongside earning XP from killing monsters. This still encourages PCs to be heroes who go out to put evil to the sword, but also gives them incentive to spend treasure they find in ways that their character would like to spend money. The majority of it still goes towards new magic items and such, which is expected, but some of it will be spent on things that the character enjoys or places value on. One PC might tithe some of it to his church. Another might have a wife and kids that he sends payments to. A third might decide to just blow his share of the treasure on ale and whores.

Now that’s what I call good role-playin’.

The second supplement is bit more specific in how it operates. Rewarding Role-Playing, from Spes Magna Games, deals in action points for what it offers, so you’re out of luck if you don’t use them in your game (though I suppose it’s easy enough to offer something else instead). Basically, you create various personality aspects to your character ahead of time, and when you bring them into play, you receive an action point. There’s more to it than that, of course (the book also has a dedicated section on uses of action points, by monsters as well as PCs), but that’s the gist of it. It’s a good idea, simple and elegant, and I’m quite honestly surprised that no one else has done it before.

Those are the best, and the only, methods I’ve found for mechanically encouraging PCs to become better role-players. What techniques do you use? Sound off in the comments below!

6 Responses to “Positively-reinforced role-playing”

  1. B.B. Says:

    Hmmm…. I’m not sure I agree entirely. I DO agree that getting people to role play as opposed to “Roll” play is a worthy goal. And I DO agree that one of the problems is that the rewards for winning combat are more tangible. But I DON’T agree that the only tangible REWARDS are AWARDS — booty and XP. There is also the satisfaction of victory — the body of the evil monster laying at your feet. And let’s face it, for all but a few very hard-core ROLE players, comabt is just plain FUN in most game systems.

    Which brings me to another form of reward for good roleplaying: Combat. If you have a group who is rushing in to hack and slash too quickly, subtly deny them those opportunities: Make the combat encounters something that occurs only after they’ve role-played their way into finding and confronting the baddies. Once they start getting the hint that getting to duke it out is somehting that only happens when they’ve EARNED it, they will move heaven and earth with their role playing. Plus, the sense that the combat is something that all that role playing has led up to will increase the suspense and excitement and fun of the combat itself.

    • alzrius Says:

      I’m not sure you could call “the satisfaction of victory” a tangible reward, though. The whole point I’m trying to make is that there’s an unambiguous, objective reward for engaging in good role-playing.

      If combat is the most fun part of the game, I think that’s because it comes with tangible rewards of booty and XP…or at least, those certainly help make combat the most fun. Denying the PCs the chance to engage in combat unless they role-play first, however, seems to me like you’re punishing the players unless they game the way you want them to. It’s one thing to offer them rewards for choosing to do what you want them to do – it’s another thing altogether to deny them what they want unless they do what you say.

      Your basic idea isn’t wrong – have the PCs undertake the action first, and then give them a cookie for it. But there’s a fine line between enticing them with a reward, and holding hostage the part of the game they enjoy most.

      • B.B. Says:

        Given that the game is entirely an abstraction, can ANYTHING in it be truly “tangible” to the player? To the PC, perhaps, but the player? Perhaps instead of tangible, I should have said “immediately observable”.

        As for the XP and booty being what makes combat fun, I beg to differ. I’ve played RPG’s for almost 20 years now, and I almost never found myself at the end of a combat (be that with D&D Monsters, Star Wars Stormtroopers, Vietcong or modern terrorists in Recon, or supervillains in Champions) thinking, “alRIGHT! I HAD to have gained at least X experience points!” Maybe at the end of the night looking back I recognized that reward, but at the moment of victory, the htoughts wre more along the lines of “Did you see that bow shot?” or “MAN! I almost bought it there, but you pulled my butt out of the fire!” or “YES! We finally defeated him!”

        And I do understand the fine line. That fine line is there between ANY enicement method being a stick and abuse, or a carrot and excess.

  2. Mark L. Chance Says:

    Alzrius: Thanks for the kind words about Rewarding Roleplaying!

    • alzrius Says:

      I’m glad to be able to spread the word on your book, Mark! It’s really a great supplement, and one of the few to address the concept of better role-playing through a clear reward system.

      The only thing I’d change about it is adding something about what to reward the PCs with if action points aren’t being used in the game. Maybe that could be a web enhancement? 😉

  3. Spes Magna Games » Word Slowly Spreads Says:

    […] briefly discusses Rewarding Roleplaying in a blog post about “Positively-reinforced role-playing“. About Rewarding Roleplaying linking player-defined roleplaying goals and Action Point […]

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