Renaissance of Roleplaying

Copyright 2010 Wizards of the Coast and the artistMathematically speaking, the best way to evaluate statistical trends is to look around and gauge what you personally have viewed. For example, you could watch Albert Pujols strike out during a clutch inning and decide he’s a terrible baseball player, or watch some smoochy couple order rum raisin at the ice cream shop and decide it’s the most popular flavor in the world. Using this approach, I have determined three absolute, indisputable truths about Dungeons & Dragons:

  1. There is a vast influx of shiny new players, and not just former D&D-ers who are picking up the habit again. No indeed, this includes males and maybe one or two females who have never played any roleplaying games before.
  2. A significant portion of these new players are total strangers to each other, brought together through some mildly creepy website like (Note: not a real website as far as I know, and if it is, it probably has nothing to do with D&D).
  3. The other significant portion of these new players are the children, raised by gaming old-timers droning on endlessly about “walking uphill through the snow both ways to Gen Con” and “buying the first Player’s Handbook for a nickel.”

When I was growing up and developing my unhealthy addiction to D&D, I played with family (my older brother, until he decided it was stupid) and friends (who I liked more than my brother anyway), and this group steadily expanded with the addition of friends of friends. It was a reliable circle built on trust and forgiveness, which meant I could act like a ham with a side of dork, coating myself with several layers of roleplaying.

How do I define roleplaying, you ask? Well, as a cleric, I would demonstrate my faith in prayers so fervent that another player invited me to his church. When my wizard’s familiar was kidnapped (imp-napped?), I confronted the villain with pointing hand and shaking voice, begging him to let Grundy live. Playing a hopeless romantic, I once wooed a young lady over dinner with honest and heartfelt words, who happened to be an NPC run by an increasingly uncomfortable DM.

I remember these moments (and many others) vividly, in the form of the characters interacting inside our collective imagination, and that was because of the non-crazy disconnect from the table and chairs and dice and books. For just a short time, I became the character I was playing, and I didn’t have to think about my actions or have to wonder, “What would my lawful good human monk do here?” I responded instinctively. It’s all part of improvisational acting, where you’re not thinking, you’re just doing, just reacting.

But it is just so difficult, and it’s made all the more so if it’s with internet strangers at the local gaming shop or even with your kids and their friends at your own kitchen table. You don’t want to terrify the strangers with your unabashed acting, and you certainly don’t want to give your kids more evidence that there’s something seriously wrong with Dad.

You know what’s easy? Or at least easier? Rolling dice, using tactics, performing a cleave, shift, action point, knee breaker. That’s thrilling, engaging, epic, and makes for a fun story, especially if you managed to roll above 5 on those attacks. You can tell the rogue, “Delay your action until I get over there,” or command the wizard, “Use with fireball, I can take it.” These sorts of mobile, lively, evocative adventures are pure cinema, just a whole lot of easy fun.

However, this could lead to a game that feels as shallow as a late-80’s action flick, with a distinct lack of motivation in the characters and an absence of characterization in the storytelling. The settings are grimly lush, the obstacles are turgidly lethal, the rewards are blandly wonderful, and the people in this imaginary world are measured in exactly two dimensions, in the form of 8½” x 11″ copy paper.

I feel like it is possible to establish a renaissance of roleplaying, assuming you even want to, but it couldn’t possibly work through just one devoted person, even if that person is the DM. It would just be too excruciating, too mortifying, and gradually, the intensity of peer pressure would grind the method actor back into a more acceptable shape. If this is to work, it would have to be through an explicit contract at the table, where each person agrees: “For the next four to five hours, I am going to be my character. I am going to speak, act, interact, and react as my character would. I will make no out-of-character comments. I probably won’t be as funny as I usually am.”

Having experienced those few moments of real, pretend emotion in my gaming life, when I let go of the paper, the dice, the ability scores, and simple let myself exist in the same space as my character, I can attest to the overwhelming joy of it. No, it’s not easy–actually, it’s pretty terrifying–but I think we owe it to this next generation of gamers to show what our imaginations can do, and the many amazing worlds we can explore.


  1. Dixon, every time I read you I want to go back in time to before I developed my own writing style and adopt yours. I love reading your stuff and how your humor seems to come forth effortlessly. I love every word.

    For a less meta response, you have to know that many many groups have played these little “mostly boardgamey peppered with nuggets of pure roleplay” sessions/campaign for decades. As you so correctly point out, it’s easier and less embarrassing. Also, a large proportion of RP gamers are not into playing in character and showing emotions… but when such gamers, for just one short hour, break down those barriers and do lose themselves in a story that transcends rules and moves, those are moments to be cherished.

    So I say YES to trying to bring your renaissance… but also savour and remember all the little nuggets you were blessed to witness/participate in.

  2. I’d like to have more role-playing at my table, but the biggest obstacle for me is the other players. As a DM I should have more control over the situation, but I just don’t. One of my players agrees with me, and attempts to inject RP into the game, but it quickly duds out. When I first took the DM reigns I tried to role-play everything, down the the swings of a goblin’s dagger, but no one else would follow my lead. I’m a pretty stone-cold introvert in the first place, and feeling like I was on stage all alone got to be too much.

    Unfortunately, unless you really have the ability to stand alone in the spotlight, it’s really hard to push the acting too long. As you intimated, it’s so much easier to say “I shift back one space and cast fireball, I use Wizard’s Fury to cast Magic Missle, then I spend an action point to cast shock sphere.”

    Do you have any advice for pulling more RP out of others when they’re reluctant to do so? That’s the sort of advice I need (and I’ll bet more DMs do as well, but either don’t realize it, or have just given up.)

  3. I’m just wondering when method acting became the right way to role play?

    I certainly don’t need to start method acting to role play, and I’ve never needed it to “transcend” the moment and imerse myself in my characters. I can do that just fine at the same time I’m considering tactics and rolling dice for outcomes. My characters live vivedly in my imagination regardless of the fact that I rarely ever speak in first person when portraying them, and yet I’m still roleplaying.

    There isn’t a way to role play that is more correct, as long as everyone is having fun playing the game.

  4. I think that Dixon longs for more of that. I think its fair to say that players motivated by Stories and method acting would prefer (even if they never get it) to be surrounded by similarly motivated players.

    It’s not better, it’s not preferable.

    What I have noticed is that the last 2 editions of D&D have made it easier to focus on the tangible, physical aspect of the game. And in my particular case, the numbers/powers game that’s a large part of 4e has acted as a distraction/hindrance. When you are so focused on numbers and future moves, it takes more effort to describe the facial expression of your bloodcrazed barbarian.

  5. The term roleplaying existed before the games did, and was adopted into this hobby, shoehorned by Gary and Dave. It is important to understand that in roleplaying, the very purpose of the exercise is to lose oneself as much as possible in the role.

    So while it is a game, it is also, most specifically, a Roleplaying Game. Fun is the #1 rule, or else you lose players, but immersion into character is what changed chainmail into 0D&D. Immersion is what makes a Roleplaying Game and not just another tactical wargame.

    Dixon’s comments are well considered; and in my book speak to the very heart of the immersion question. None of us expect to spend hours totally in character. But there is certainly a collaborative build effect that happens when a few people start roleplaying.

    Alio., something I do is to reward my roleplayers. We use a skill based system, but I also use a, ‘Declare, Roleplay, Roll, Roleplay, Effect’ system, where The player declares what they are doing, then they start roleplaying it. I let them get about 75% through whatever they are doing, then I declare if they recieve an RP bonus, then they roll their attempt, then roleplay the last 25% based on how the roll goes.

    By giving good RP bonuses to actions (and after a while, the other players give you non-verbal cues to how good eaxh attempt is), it really builds some in-character moments, especially when they REALLY NEED to jmake the roll (so they tend to roleplay the most when it is the most important).

  6. One way to draw out more role-playing is to reward it in a way that will encourage different kinds of players. While you won’t get all kinds of players “in-character” all the time, it will prompt more nuggets. XP awards will appeal to those who are more interested in leveling their character, while rewarding role-play and cool actions with actual bonuses for a round may inspire combat focused players. More story oriented benefits will appeal to those already more inclined to role-play, but if their peers see the actual upside (that barmaid you helped last night has a sister that is a priestess and can cast a cure spell for you), it may nudge them to join in on the fun.

    Something else I do is run most fights without a grid and minis. Instead of worrying about how many squares one has to move, my players are more descriptive of their actions, and when they want to try something cool, I let them try and tend to be a little generous of difficulties. Moving 6 squares to get around the bar… boring. Vaulting over the bar to come to the defense of the barmaid, give me a DC10 Athletics check and if it’s a critical success not only do you get to attack, you catch your opponent off-guard and get +2.

  7. People are right on that rewarding roleplaying is the way to go if you want more of it. I give a mechanical bonus for descriptive attacks, for example. This bonus has an added benefit of mitigating misses, as well–which is something I care about.

    I also lead by example. My NPC action is descriptive.

    Although roleplaying (or acting) isn’t necessary or “right” in the game, and the game can indeed be vivid without it, I have been left wondering “what just happened?” when someone uses a power name, rolls, then declares damage. The action might have been vivid in that player’s head, but it was a blank screen in mine. Somehow that feels less than ideal for a group experience.

  8. My own anecdotal evidence for internet strangers vs circle of friends falls in line with Dixon’s. I played a B/X-AD&D mashup with friends in high school, and a mix of 1 or two friends and internet strangers when 3E and 4E released. If I were to make an objective analysis, I would probably admit that the level of RP was relatively similar, but felt less forced and awkward amongst the group of friends.

  9. This is spot on.

    I feel that with all the combat emphasis in 4e, that role playing has become sidelined. Yet role playing the best part. I feel that its just a matter of bringing it out more in the game.

    In published works I notice a distinct lack of exploration, story lines, and villains. And lets not forget that its the published works that all these new players are going to learn from.

    I feel, that it is the duty of us experienced players to go forth and train the newer generation so they can enjoy more than the roll playing they are currently experiencing.

    The action is fine. Stop looking at. Look at Exploration, Story line and Villains. That’s what these guys need to really get into their characters.

  10. *posts link on blog*

    Well said.

  11. I’ll pretty much mirror Phil’s first comment, I encourage you to try and form groups that love this kind of immersive roleplaying, but I also think there’s plenty of room for the other kinds out there.

    One of my most memorable experiences was playing in a fully in-character vampire (not the masquerade, more bram stoker’s / interview type) LARP at JohnCon, a convention at John’s Hopkins University back in the summer of 2001 when I hit as many local cons as I could before going off to college. It was a crazy couple of hours, LARPing out things and acting like a vampire (I was chosen as the one and only vampire of the game, I guess being tall and dark haired does that…) was a great experience and I’d be surprised if it didn’t change how I approached table top games from that day forward. I’d love to get a table of players who are into the concept around a table for a D&D session, but am very scared of the idea of even suggesting this kind of play to most of my current players.

  12. TheWizard says:

    I’ll be running a game with people who agree with me that the whole “Does 21 hit his AC?” “Yes” “14 damage and I slide him two squares to here.” “Okay. Jim, it’s your turn.” style just isn’t that fun anymore. I’ll be rewarding role-playing with abstract things like plot lines as well as things like bonus XP and bonuses to rolls. I’ll also be throwing in a few house rules (like rules for fleeing enemies) to encourage realism and asking the players to describe what they want to do before checking their skills list. That stuff along with lovable NPCs and battle descriptions will hopefully keep everyone engaged in the game instead of leading to texting or playing other games on the computer like what has happened in other games. I’ll be running my first campaign soon and I’m looking forward to it. I ran a short 4 session improv game with some new players earlier this summer with all that stuff and they followed my lead and everyone stayed in character and everyone had tons of fun. The bard stood up and sang the tale of their previous battle with Goblins. It was probably my favorite session ever.

  13. Instead of rewarding only those who roleplay more or deeper than the next player (who can be shy and has trouble roleplaying), reward everyone at the table when a single person does well or makes a significant effort. That way less-inclined roleplayers are penalized.

    That’s my two copper pieces anyway.

    Dixon – well written, as always.


  14. Sorry, the last line should read, “That way less-inclined roleplayers aren’t penalized.”

  15. One of the things that I found encouraged people to roleplay, or at least adlib it a bit, was the way I handled skill challenges. Using the Obsidian skill challenge system, I would have each player announce the skill he/she was using, and make the skill check. They would then describe the situation that occurred and how their success/failure impacted it. For example, while climbing through a network of caves inside a volcano, one player announced “Endurance” and failed the roll -he then described a boulder that the players came across – he tried to lift it and keep it up, but just couldn’t, forcing the players to take a different route than what they had planned.

    It turns the game away from a tactical movement, and more toward collaborative storytelling – my players really enjoyed the tactics of 4E, and I didn’t want to take it away from them (why remove fun?), but also gives a chance for them to be creative and in character. Also, it means that I have to do less work as DM – it’s an hour where the players are creating the story, not me.

  16. The first time (from my point of view) that such a call for a rennaissance came around, fueled mostly by WW games and a few others, I had a similar desire to find a way to get more Role into the Play at my table.

    Experience and other rewards are fine, but I think ultimately reduce roleplay to just another tactic – limiting its depth and flow. From an even more idealistic standpoint, the real reward of roleplay with actual acting should be the fun of the acting. If acting is not fun for you, no amount of in-game mechanical rewards will make it so, nor encourage you to do it. If it is fun for you, but alienates the rest or most of the rest of the group, a similar problem arises. In both cases, you end up with a lack of fun, and the desire to find other players.

    What I did, long, long ago, to build toward a goal of greater roleplaying was to slowly introduce character elements into our tactical gaming (Battletech at that time) and as people got more and more attached to the careers of their characters, the games became more and more about the personalities of the pilots, which led to banter between pilots, then to negotiations between pilots and npc pilots, and finally to roleplaying. We gamed together happily until I moved to Asia 5 years later.

    I am not sure what I might attempt were I to have to build another group toward this goal. My current group loves the acting more than the game aspects, so things are quite enjoyable. If it were necessary to try again, I imagine I would try this approach again.

    Thanks for the post~