One of the things I find that most gives new gaming groups problems are finding and encouraging ways to make role-playing part of the table experience. 4th Ed, which is designed with a big slant towards combat encounters, seems to also be a source of concern for groups, if what I read on forums, groups, and emails that I’ve received are to be believed. Of course, there is absolutely no reason why role-playing can’t be part of your game, so I’m going to give you some ideas that have worked well in my game and have led to some good role-playing opportunities.
I quickly found that moral conundrums led to great player interaction and role-playing. There is a fine balance you must keep if you are going to do this, because players will often have differing views of what is right vs. what is wrong, and you want to avoid this leading to inter-party conflicts at the table, where it becomes destructive to your game and an all-around bad time for all.
One of the situations I used involved a side-trek I designed around “Keep on the Shadowfell”, back when I was running it. I had an abnormally large number of missing players that week, so felt that I couldn’t run the 3 players that did show up through the module, so instead I designed a delve that took place in Keegan’s Crypt, a mausoleum where Sir Keegan’s wife and children were buried. There, they defeated a group of hobgoblins that had taken residence in the crypt, and inside a casket they found a magical dagger that had been buried with Sir Keegan’s wife, in order to protect her in the afterlife. The party’s rogue immediately wanted the dagger, as it was magical, while the cleric felt it wrong to steal from the tomb. The role-playing took over for a large amount of time, as both players made their arguments in order to justify their actions.
Another situation that came up in my game involved a minor npc I created as a McGuffin to the storyline. She was a child that was being hunted by Shadar-Kai, as she had powers that controlled the weather, and they wanted to use her for her abilities. My PC’s who work for “the man”, were ordered to find the girl and bring her to them. When the players asked what would happen to the child, “the man” didn’t really give them any clear answers, and this ambiguity created discomfort amongst the party. Some felt that they needed to follow their orders, as they were told that finding and delivering the child was necessary for the common good, while others were uncomfortable with what was essentially a kidnapping mission, with an uncertain fate for the child. This issue led to very good role-playing scenes in the game, because it capitalized on player emotions and their views on certain moral issues.
One time I had the party go and attack a group of Ogres that was attacking farms on the edge of a city. When they arrived at the ogre living area, they found an ogre mother with her children. Needless to say, it wasn’t as clear cut and dry as to whether or not they would slaughter the ogre children. Ultimately they did, due to the racism that is so prevalent in fantasy gaming. Apparently ogres are just monsters there to be killed, children or not. But the point is that the situation lent itself to role-play moments.
Questioning their honor
Characters, and particularly dragonborn and dwarves, are big on honor. This is something you can use to your advantage. Push their buttons, as sometimes the simple insinuation that they are being somehow dishonorable will lead to them defending their actions and their methods. A dragonborn, as someone out on the blogosphere said (and my apologies for not remembering who), is basically a Klingon dressed like a walking dragon. If you are at all familiar with the Klingon race you know how much they value honor in battle. Play that up, have your npc’s ham it up, question the honor of your party members who value it, and encourage the role-playing that will follow.
If you set up situations in your game that lead to investigations, keep it from becoming an exercise in die rolling and checking against a DC. If a player says “I’m making my streetwise”, ask him exactly what he’s asking or telling the barkeep at the tavern. Play up the conversation, asking for rolls (that may or may not mean anything, but will keep him guessing) and determine where the conversation will go from there. I found that pc’s that give off bad attitudes or ask for coin in exchange for info provide great role-playing moments. People don’t like random strangers asking them random questions out of the blue, so remember that next time the party goes around investigating.
Finally, role-playing during battle is also a possibility. Always remember that intelligent creatures are not very keen on death, and at some point, may give up fighting to try to save their hides. Eight bugbears may be tough when encountered, but when it’s down to one bugbear and his Morningstar, he may have a different view of the situation. When Sam the bugbear is groveling and begging for his life, he will encourage your players to perhaps stop the combat and begin the role-play. You may need to nudge your players a bit to take the hint that the bugbear wants to talk, and not fight anymore, but try to do this organically and not be too heavy handed. Gauge their interests, don’t force a situation either. An interrogation skill challenge would be a perfect follow up to this situation, but keep in mind about asking your players how and what they are saying as they interrogate the subject.
While these aren’t the only ways you can get your group to role-play more, they are easy situations to introduce in your game. Don’t be discouraged if you are a new DM with new players, the role-play will come in time. Also keep in mind that as one of the books somewhere says, this isn’t an exercise in improvisational theatre. You need to learn to create a fine balance between dropping the dice to role-play, and just killing things and taking their stuff. Either way, the most important thing is to have a good time, no matter what your group’s play style is.