Designed for roleplaying, part 2

Wed, 02/17/2021 - 22:36

In our previous entry in this series, we discussed the 3M method for creating a roleplayable character, arguing that such a character needs Motivation, Method and Mannerism. Furthermore, we split the very act of roleplaying into three categories: pastime, depiction and action. The key roleplaying type for us at this point is action, since it is the only type that we can actively design for.

In this article, we will discuss how to create deliberate and universally applicable scenarios aimed at requiring action, and thus significantly increasing the likelihood of roleplaying happening at the table.

If you need an extra hook for reading this article, just imagine that it's titled:



1 Introduction

At its core, GMing is the craft of asking questions.

The core conversation going on at an RPG table goes like this:

GM: <describes situation in the fictional world>

GM: "What do you do?"

Player: <describes or narrates his actions>

<dice are rolled as necessary>

GM: <describes the newly-arisen situation as a result of the player’s action>

GM: "What do you do?"

This core conversation then repeats as many times as necessary, and it holds true in basically any situation in a game.


GM: “Jerry, it’s your turn. The orc has hit you for 16 damage and you’re down to 6 hit points. One of your allies is down, and you have only a single health potion. What do you do?”


GM: “The dwarven king says that he would never enter into an alliance with elven scum. He looks at you cockily, knowing full well that you need his help to vanquish the lich. What do you do?”


GM: “The road to the city is rife with bandits, but the longer path through the forest may easily lead to ambushes by starving beasts of all kinds. What do you do?” 

Granted, the question may be implied at times, but it’s always somewhere in the background. The GM presents a situation to the players and they need to decide how their characters react to it. 

As discussed earlier in Roleplaying should be designed for, part 1, the GM should also ask meaningful questions in a way that can help the players in expressing, fleshing out and developing their characters.

Now, an issue that may arise is the following… Often before even a single die is rolled and any of the PCs have been created, the GM is already set on having certain events occur in-game. Alternatively, the GM knows what the general gist of the campaign will be and he designs the adventure around this. 

And let’s be clear about one thing, there is absolutely nothing wrong about this.

A GM is also a player at the table who deserves to have fun. Much like a player creating a certain character because of a desire to explore and develop that character, so too does the GM deserve to create a world that he wants to be explored and developed by the actions of his players. Too often is GM prep simply classified as railroading, where instead, good prep serves exactly the opposite function and facilitates character expression. 

With that said, we still need a way to have adventures and situations that facilitate roleplaying, even if at the time of designing these adventures, we have no idea who our player characters will be. The question, of course, is how do we achieve this?

Josh. Sexy and he knows it.

In his 2017 talk on GDC, game designer Josh Sawyer spoke about this very issue, albeit in the context of video RPGs.

The issue he discussed was that computer RPGs, unlike a GM, do not know what type of character the player(s) will create. The game is designed well in advance, then the player creates their character and plops them into the game. What the game designers need to do is figure out in advance what types of characters they will validate in their game, and then create dialogues, situations and questions that will allow the player to properly express (roleplay) any character within that array.


One important distinction that I’d like to draw here is the difference between the words ‘allow’ and ‘validate’.

Allow means that the player may create a certain type of character.

Validate means that the game will recognize that the player made a certain kind of character and be meaningfully different for it. At the very least, the game will ‘nod’ at you in regard to this choice you’ve made.

Think of it like this… whenever a PC takes an action, and the game world does anything to acknowledge it or recognize that this action was carried out, this is validation.

2 Manners of expression

So we are putting ourselves in a position where we want to ask a dramatic and personal question of a character, before we even know who that character is. Sounds tricky, but fortunately, there are ways to help us with this.

For starters, let’s assume we’ve already written out a good portion of our campaign and now we’re just looking to inject some roleplaying into it.

As mentioned previously, we first need to decide what range of characters we are going to validate. Are we playing an evil campaign? Are we playing a heroic campaign? What do we expect our characters to be like? Once we know this information, it needs to be communicated to the players. This allows us to set up an expected scope of characters that we will validate in our game.

Expression through gain

Mommy! The nice GM gave me 5 gold!

The first method, once we know our supported range of characters, is to take a look at what the characters stand to gain in an adventure. Values such as money, reputation, magical items, alliances, the greater good… Once we’ve noted these, we know what values we can give out in our adventure. It is generally beneficial to vary these values to a certain extent - we don’t want to hand out only money or only reputation as this reduces roleplaying opportunities for the characters more invested in the other values.

At this point, the only thing that is left is to provide the player characters with the opportunity to replace one value with another.

The example with the rogue and the pending ambush on the town is a good example of this.


Choice A: handle the goblins preemptively | Gain: Greater good +10, reputation +5

Choice B: let the ambush happen | Gain: Greater good +5, reputation +10

Now take a look at your adventure and note how frequently the player characters can make decisions like these. Make sure they can make a bare minimum of one such choice per gaming session, but the general ideal you are striving for is ‘as many as possible’. Granted, this approach is fairly formulaic, but it is a very simple way to ensure at least some level of character-driven choices in your game. Also note that one often overlooked value is PC preservation, or in other words, how risky a given choice will be for the player characters. The more risk that a certain action entails, in general the greater the rewards should be.

By using this approach, we are allowing our player characters to express themselves through the values they gain. This goes hand-in-hand with the motivation part of their characters, but can also dovetail nicely into method as well.

And for the love of God, don’t just tell your players that they gained a +10 reputation with the village. Actually, don’t tell them about using this approach at all. Instead, showcase the effects of their actions in a meaningful way. Have it affect the story, or even the mechanical layer of the game, in some way. Validate their actions. Provide feedback.

Expression through approach

The second way to facilitate character expression is to allow for a variety of ways for the player to tackle an issue they are faced with. In general, I like to aim for three meaningfully different approaches for each significant or interesting issue the players are faced with.

Returning to our example of the dastardly goblins, we previously only included one possible solution: head into the goblin-infested caves, cleave through the goblins, kill the goblin king in direct combat and return with his head. We need two more.

For our second solution, let’s say that the goblins are hiding in a subterranean complex under the ground. And this cave is located under the estate of the town’s mayor, who is a jerk and doesn’t want to help take out the goblins out of fear. Well, the players could go to the mayor to try and persuade him to help clear out the cave. Alternatively, they could also go to the townsfolk and convince them that the mayor and the goblins are clearly working together, starting a riot against the mayor, further ‘motivating’ the mayor to eradicate the goblins. This approach could lead to the town militia taking on a good part of the goblins, or even the PCs being able to control the militia and use them as a resource in this quest.

And for our third solution, let’s say that there is a subterranean river flowing near the goblins’ hideout. The players could sneak in and sabotage the riverbed, just enough to distract all of the goblins or flush them out before sneaking inside to assassinate the goblin king, having never killed a single other goblin directly. Or they could find a way to get into this river upstream and then swim into the goblin hideout, avoiding their sentries and traps.

The first approach is direct and to the point. The second approach is underhand and devious, and the third one is resourceful and audacious. By picking one of these approaches, the players are informing everyone at the table of their individual characters.

Instead of telling our players what to do (‘Go to the cave, kill all of the goblins and retrieve their king’s head’), we’ve created a situation that asks that beautiful question - What do you do? And by answering that question, they are roleplaying and informing both us and themselves about their characters. Note that, unlike the expression through gain, the players will gain the exact same thing from their quest, but they will perform said quest in a different way. Of course, gain and approach can be combined to form situations where the players need to use a certain approach to gain a certain benefit, but let’s not complicate too much at this point.

Expression through context

Curse your name, Yorick! Just tell me if Claudius has any good loot on him!

Sometimes you just can’t or don’t want to express an in-game situation and the trade-offs that the player characters make using pure and objective values as per the ‘expression through gain’ system.

Sometimes, a question that is asked of the characters is simply too contextual and/or too complex to simply be reduced to numbers on a slider. We can generally refer to these situations as moral dilemmas, although it is worth noting that even a simple ‘expression through gain’ situation is often a moral dilemma.

The difference between ‘expression through context’ and a regular ‘expression through gain’ situation is that, in the former, our characters do not necessarily gain or lose anything tangible based on their decision. 

Returning to our goblin king example, let’s say that, while exploring the goblin caves, our PCs stumble upon a makeshift goblin prison. Within is one of the townsfolk who was assumed to have been killed by the goblins, let’s call him Ben. Ben admits that he actually initially approached the goblins to have them help him overthrow the jerk mayor, but his plan went awry when the goblins locked him up and started torturing him for information. Ben pleads for mercy and asks the PCs to take him back to town, and not say anything about his role in the entire situation to anyone. The PCs have a few choices here:


  1. Out of revenge for the slain townsfolk or a sense of justice, they can just flat out kill Ben on the spot. Everyone believes him to be dead already, so no questions will be asked of the PCs.
  2. They can take Ben into custody and turn him over to the town militia to answer for his crimes.
  3. They can take Ben back to town and not tell anyone about what he did.
  4. Anything else the players come up with.

Note that no values pertinent to the PCs in this adventure will immediately change regardless of which choice they make. They won’t get more gold, the townsfolk will not hold them in any lesser or greater regard and Ben will not affect the outcome of their quest in any way. This does not mean that it is impossible or even undesirable for the GM to initiate a callback to the characters’ decision at some later point, but it is not mandatory and does not need to be planned for at this point. This is where we could discuss the meaning and importance of emergent play, but we'll skip that topic for now in order to keep this article a bit more focused.

4 Hidden benefit

In addition to validating a set range of characters, there is one final giant benefit to using the above stated manners of expression.

Note that, when we started designing this mock adventure, we only had a goblin king who was attacking the town.

After we used the manners of expression, we had quite a few more elements: a goblin ambush, a jerk mayor, a cave system, a subterranean river, the traitor Ben… By using these approaches, we added more elements to our game world that the players can meaningfully interact with, and by doing so, we have exponentially increased the range of options for the players in our adventure.

They may decide to let the ambush go through, and then follow the goblins back to their cave. They may decide to capture a bear and let it loose inside the caves. They may decide to use dynam… fireballs to crash the entire cave system on itself and pluck the goblin king’s head from the rubble. Dethrone the jerk mayor and take over as rulers of this quaint little town. Blackmail Ben to acquire something. Anything goes, and this is just this one tiny little adventure, as stereotypical as it can humanely get. 

By using these three manners of expression, we have made sure that we will validate a much broader scope of characters within our adventures and facilitate meaningful roleplaying, before we even know who our characters will be. Furthermore, pertaining to all of the manners of expression, note that the GM’s part of the equation is to ask questions, not provide answers. By using these manners of expression, we have created ways for the players to express their characters, and should they come up with an alternative solution to one of the challenges presented, the GM should generally go with it if it makes sense within the fictional world. In other words, designing potential solutions to a problem is merely a tool used to facilitate your players coming up with solutions of their own, not to create fixed solutions that they must adhere to.

By facilitating roleplaying in this way, we have provided an excellent baseline for all roleplaying in our game. The players will generally be more likely to partake in pastime and depiction, which will in turn feed into action and vice versa, which all leads to deep characters, immersed players and a satisfying and unpredictable playing experience, and as I will discuss in a future article, an unpredictable playing experience is of extreme importance, both from a gaming perspective and a narrative one.

5 Conclusion

GMing is the craft of asking questions. We can make the questions we ask interesting, even if we do not know who will be answering them, simply by deciding the range of characters we will be validating, and then requesting that these characters express themselves via:

  1. Expression through gain
  2. Expression through approach
  3. Expression through context

Using this approach allows us to not only facilitate meaningful roleplay at the table, but also helps us create more nuanced and deep adventures and situations.

In the following entry in this series, we will be taking a look at two difficult issues when it comes to roleplaying in tabletop RPGs that pop up at most tables, and discuss a few approaches for resolving them.