There is a question that burns in the minds of many gamers: How do you get so and so to role-play? Many times GMs and players alike resort to instructing someone as if with a child, bribing them with mechanical incentives, or just plain forcing role-playing situations on to a person they are just not comfortable with.
As someone who among their favorite hobbies have included improvisation and a lot of freer forms of role-playing without systems....
As someone who has been in the spot of no gamer friends and have had to introduce several people to role-playing who of all kinds: strangers, friends, online, and offline....
As someone who has heard all the excuses of “It seems weird”, “I am not good at it”, or “That seems too nerdy”...
I want to say to you who are using social pressure. STOP! You don’t need to these kinds of things. It is a person’s own choice if they want to role-play or be immersed into what is going on. It is a player’s or GM’s choice to be invested in a narrative, scene, or world. You need to do things that respect that person’s choice. It boggles my mind how GMs reward role-play with mechanical power and then are surprised when newer players get the idea mechanical power takes precedence. So many of these tactics of extra experience or ganging up on the person in a conversation is at worst hobby-destroying and at best belligerent. There are other ways.
There are things you can do to turn a player from being someone who eats out of your hand into someone of with their own sensibilities and proactive reasons to want to be involved. Why not have players who want, by choice, to work with everyone for the good of the experience? Why not have a GM that is equally invested in the characters as the players are? No matter what role it is, the trick is to help the person find their own reason for role-playing and their own reason for wanting the welfare of the session. So here it is...
7 Subtle Ways to Help Someone be Invested in the Story
1. Leave Blanks to Fill. Players and GM’s alike do have one thing in common: they will be engaged by what they helped create. Depending on what people are used to, this can seem counter to your habits. Letting a person decide a fact about the plot, the setting, or any given character is not as bad or as difficult as it sounds. They save the Tavern, so why not let them name it? The person has a previous relationship with your character’s relative, why not let them make that NPC’s appearance and personality?
Doing this does require you to trust the players. If that bothers you, I would advise gaming with people you do actually trust, since it is unhealthy not to. Regardless, you can test the waters of with a person by just letting them name something. Depending on how they respond, you know whether or not they can be a cool contributor to that part of the game. It’s simple; but one of the quickest ways to build attachment to a world is having done something to it and named something in it.
2. Make things open to interpretation. Not every single aspect of a world or plot needs to be fully explained. If an event happens and there isn’t an immediate explanation, then there is a sense of curiosity to draw on. What eyes are looming in the dark? Was that a real conversation or a guise to mislead us? People will be motivated to by their own needed to fill in the canon. On top of that, letting others interpret an action or thing will allow you to know what assumptions their making about the plot, characters, or setting. This will often times tell you more about what was actually communicated than they say was communicated.
3. Play off assumptions. Once you know someone is thinking a certain a way about a situation, you can make a story out of it. Someone thinks its a trap when its not? Why not, mess with their heads and let them wander off into interesting territory? Someone interprets a character to be different than their cannon? Why not let that misunderstanding factor in the role-playing of their conversations? If you know what a person assumes, then you know what they will do. Knowing what a person will do opens up opportunities to create interesting situations. They will be invested by confronting the reality that this story, world, or character really isn’t what they thought. They were responded to.
4. Give simple, meaningful choices. You can give someone an input that matters and break it down to 2 or 3 options. A person who is shy can be brought by asking if you should go left or right on a path. Giving choice means they’ve determined the path that is being tread upon. It was their choice and it has consequences attached to it. People are invested in things they have a choice in.
5. Reward with Climax, not power. People have tried a “carrot-and-stick” method of manipulating GMs and Players alike. This can work but it doesn’t mean a person is interested in the world. The behavior x is a reward to y bonus to my character. That’s not what you want the table to think. The trail of bread crumbs will not work on every person and many can see through it.
The key is to reward people with their interests. What parts of the story do they want? Airship Mechanics? Flashy Moves? Large Combat? Long Slugfests? Words of grandeur? Interesting Environments? Whatever it is, let the getting to know the characters of the world and each other be the means by which they get that Climax they enjoy. Why not have a Bartender also be the organizer of a fighting ring that he can hookup things with? Why not tie in negotiation with allies into the massive combat strategy to have elements for everyone? There are plenty of ways for people of different intent to have middle ground. It turns into a positive feedback loop. The more involved everyone is, the more they get what interests them; consequently the more they are getting what interests them narratively, the more involved they are.
6. Let them describe. A simple way to reward a really good roll is to acknowledge they succeeded and say to them, “How do you do it?” They describe their finishing blow, their massive revelation, their clever plot, their roaring speech when they choose as they choose. They have a window of agency and spotlight to properly get to display their character, plot, or setting as they wish.
7. “In World” or “In Character” Jokes. People like to laugh and its one of the easier emotions to invoke in another. Turning an in character mishap into a slapstick mess involving the other player can lead them to realize the world has an emotion attached to it. Bring the GM’s NPC in on a gag. Make funny voices or lines within character rather than pop culture references outside of dialogue. Save the references for the what a person is doing in character and use them as simalies: “He failed his role and weeped in a deep voice like that Girl Scout from Dodgeball.” Laughing with a character attaches an emotion to them and people will be more engaged by what have an emotional value of.
There is obviously more to it than a list of simple tricks. There isn’t a one size fits all solution to get someone interested. But I can say from experience, that these ways help others at the table to get invested. Consider them tools to use rather than solutions to a problem.
As with anything this amateur writes, I hope this helps.