Dungeons & Dragons was invented with two concepts perpetually locked in an ongoing tug of war throughout its existence: storytelling versus statistics, characters versus mathematics, drama versus probability. The game itself is intended to be played in careful balance; although many players lean heavier on one side or the other. This is referred to as “role playing” versus “roll playing.”
Being a writer, I tend to prefer the elements of a good story; and thus prefer to encourage people’s games to be more about playing roles and developing the dramatic elements. I also lean this way because being able to create characters and storylines is what makes RPGs unique.
Here are several ways you can keep your game focused on being a “role” playing game rather than a “roll” playing game.
CREATE A GRIPPING STORY AND SETTING
This one is obvious, I’m sure, but it’s important to bear in mind. Players will follow the lead set by the game master. He or she sets the tone, and even the situations. If the game master keeps leaning on the dice, the players will lean on theirs. If he or she requires the players to roll the dice a lot, they will do as instructed.
It’s important for the GM who wishes to have a story-driven narrative to actively bear in mind the example he or she will set when planning the adventure, and while running the game. Most players will be drawn into a good story, and if the game master can create one, most players, even mathematicians, will drop their statistics and charts in favor of the drama.
To draw players into the story, remember the elements that make stories so gripping. Character arcs for each player, an ongoing obstacle for all the players to overcome with smaller obstacles along the way to reach their goal, a strong villain that’s just out of reach for the players to destroy until dramatically appropriate, and personal conflicts for the players are all important to include.
MAKE YOUR WORLD LIVE, NOT EXIST AS NUMBERS
One of the biggest mistakes game masters make is to describe things in the game through their game mechanics rather than the physical descriptions their characters would see. The most obvious example of this is where players find a magical sword. A game master may just say “you find a +1 sword.” That tells them the bonus they will have when they roll the dice. To make it more immersive, the game master should describe the ornate, golden hilt, the dim blue glow that hovers over the blade, and/or the engraving on the side. The player only learns after using it on an enemy, and even then it is described like this, “you swing and you’re certain you’re going to miss, but then the sword draws you to the enemy like a magnet and you hit. It has a +1 benefit to hit.”
Nothing is EVER a +1 anything. It is always the Sword of Faith, the Dragonheart Amulet, or something else that feels like a real name of your not-so-real object. You can even have the players provide the name. That will give them an emotional attachment that cannot be overcome by simple numbers.
Also, if you’re running a campaign, make a lot of the equipment they pick up regional. That will give the players a feeling of place and time. If a player passes up better armor in a new location because they don’t want to give up the unique armor that was given to them as a gift by the tribes people they saved, you know you’ve succeeded at making a true “role” playing game.
WHAT IF PLAYERS ARE OBSESSED WITH “ROLL” PLAYING?
You can still draw “munchkin” style players into your story-driven game, even if they’re constantly on the hunt for the next piece of equipment that’s going to give them that edge. You just have to beat them at their own game.
One thing you can do is to make a prized possession they have personal. For instance, once I had a player who was constantly searching for equipment to upgrade. His obsessive search bogged the entire game down, forcing all the players to wait for him. I finally had his armor personally tailored based on a heroic fight he had, and the two swords he wielded bore the spirits of his parents inside. He stopped caring about what the bonuses were and focused on the character.
Having the players describe what they’re doing in a combat, or providing a description of how they’re accomplishing a task also de-emphasizes the dice rolling and focuses the minds onto the story. The game master can even give bonuses to those who come up with a creative and vivid description of what they’re doing. This works especially well for those players that are always searching for an edge; and if you do it right, they will become true “role” players without even knowing it.
And, as I said before, lead by example. Make the game what you would want if you were a player. For my part, I always prefer it when it’s a story I would enjoy seeing on a TV or movie screen. That, in my opinion, is what sets RPGs apart from all other games; and to lose it would be a waste.
Tell us what style of role playing game you prefer in the comments below.
Featured image credit: dnddice.com
Image credits: Zero Charisma, The Boston Globe, iO9