Winning at roleplaying

Sun, 04/11/2021 - 01:04

As mentioned in a previous post, an RPG fundamentally consists of two different elements. The roleplaying element holds the promise that we will be able to express our character. The game element holds the promise that we will be able to beat the challenges that the game presents using our mental faculties.

So, what happens when we take the best practices from one of these elements, and apply it to the other one with the goal of enhancing it?



"If my players roleplay well, they get a bonus to their roll."

This is a statement that I am sure anyone who's ever played an RPG has come across. 

GMs generally see it as a way to encourage their players to talk in first person, to come up with a funny voice for their characters, or to describe their actions in detail. In other words, these GMs are trying to encourage depiction.

Some games even go so far as to formally represent this principle within the rules. For instance, consider the Flair rule as present in the game 7th Sea. It specifically instructs the GM to award an additional die whenever a player describes their character's actions. Additional dice correspond to a greater chance of success, of course.

7th Sea
Say what you want about the mechanics, but the art is stunning.

In theory, both of these approaches sound great. We want our players to roleplay. We provide positive reinforcement by rewarding this desired behaviour in an attempt to make it occur more frequently. 

However, by making the above adjustments, we are very likely creating an atmosphere that will reduce the frequency and magnitude of roleplaying in the long run. In other words, the exact opposite of what we set out to do. Let's explain why.

Why do we roleplay?

Before you continue reading this article, please consider the following question.

What is your end goal when you roleplay? 

Note that the question refers only to roleplaying. Not to playing the game, defeating baddies, getting fat lootz and the like. Strictly the act of expressing your character, whether through a funny voice or describing his morning routine. What do you hope to achieve through these activities?

I'm betting your answer can, in one way or another, boil down to simply 'because I like it'. No explicit objectives, no real end goal. No win state. We roleplay because we like it. We are exclusively intrinsically motivated to do so. 

Compare this to the game part of RPGs.

Why did you take feat X instead of Y?

Why did you cast spell X instead of Y?

Why did you put more points in ability X instead of Y?

In almost all of these cases, the argument can most likely be summed up as "because it makes me more likely to win".

Now, you will likely note that not every action or choice is pure RP or pure game. You may take a less powerful feat because it suits your character better. However, you won't take some other feat that suits your character even better, because it is mechanically too suboptimal or uninteresting. That's fine, this simply shows that RP and game is a spectrum, not a clearcut divide.

However, in order for us to win at the game, we need a challenge, an obstacle. A powerful character is pointless if we can't test and prove that power against a concrete challenge. A hero is only as powerful as the villains he vanquishes. Therefore, the validation of our choices is external and very easily measurable and thus, so is our motivation.

You’ve created a mechanically suboptimal character, and as a result you lost the fight against the villain and your character died.

You’ve created a mechanically decent character, and as a result you defeated the villain and saved the kingdom.

The RP part of RPGs is intrinsically motivated with no defined objectives, whereas the G part is extrinsically motivated and has defined and measurable objectives. There are several types of these objectives, but they are always there.

The research

In 1973, research indirectly pertinent to our discussion here was carried out.

In short, the goal of the research was to investigate the effect of extrinsic rewards on intrinsically-motivated activities. A group of children who all liked drawing were split into three groups:

One group was told to draw and they'd be rewarded.

The second group was just told to draw, no reward.

And the third group was also told there'd be no reward, but then they'd be rewarded as a surprise.

Once the experiment was carried out, the psychologists continued monitoring the children, to see if there would be any differences in their behaviour.

The results were startling. Click here to find out more!

Simple graph illustrating the research results

Just kidding… the results, in short, proved that the children from group 1 actually drew less after the experiment. The external reward they got for an activity they were intrinsically motivated to do in the first place reduced their desire to engage with said activity.

In other words, grafting external rewards onto an intrinsically motivated activity is detrimental to future engagements with said activity. This is also known as the overjustification effect.

Or in our example, if we observe RP as an intrinsically motivated activity and mechanical benefits such as added dice as the extrinsic reward, we reach the conclusion that RP should not be rewarded this way.

How to encourage roleplaying

So, how then do we appropriately encourage roleplaying? If we don't mechanically reward it, is there anything we can do? I would suggest following these four steps.

1 Do NOT systematically and consistently reward RP

In other words, don't do what 7th Sea does. Let the players' engagement with RPing remain an (almost) exclusively intrinsically motivated activity. See point 2 below for that 'almost' part.

2 Make rewards surprising

If any sort of reward is to take place, it needs to be unexpected and surprising. The occasional mechanical bonus is ok, but only if the players don't come to expect it for RPing. If the mechanical benefits don’t become the reason why they are engaging in the RP.

Go back to the research laid out previously. The third group of children, the ones who were rewarded as a surprise, were actually slightly more likely to draw than the ones who received nothing. The difference was tiny and statistically insignificant, but it shows that surprise rewards can actually be beneficial, as long as the reward is a surprise and not known or assumed before the activity is undertaken.

In other words, this means that you can provide mechanical rewards for RP. Just be sure to do it infrequently enough so that these rewards come as a surprise and the players don't come to expect them. 

3 Don't punish RP

I believe this should be clear from the get-go, but let's lay it out here just in case.

If your players engage in RP, don't punish them on the game level.

You had too much to drink with the barmaid last night. You have disadvantage on all attack rolls today.

You are caught bedding the mayor's daughter. He cuts your hand off for this transgression. You can't wield two-handed weapons or use shields.

Jesus Christ, G(RR)M! I was just roleplaying!

Your character is dressed poorly and not granted audience with the duke. Dear <player>, please wait for 30 minutes while we play out this conversation.

Go back to the children from the previous research. Imagine how they would react if they got punished by having their toys taken away every time they drew something. Or suffered corporeal punishment. How long do you reckon it would take for them to stop drawing altogether?

Now, your players are a tad more complex than this. RP can create difficulties and new obstacles, but these difficulties and obstacles should add to the play experience, not detract from it. See point 4 below for examples.

4 Intrinsic rewards for intrinsic activities

So, we're not going to regularly give our players extrinsic rewards for RPing and we won't punish them for doing so, but we still want to encourage them. We want them to RP. What do?

To reiterate, RP is an intrinsically motivated activity. It is something we like on its own, as is.

As this positive activity that we engage with willingly and without rewards or benefits, we can see RP as both the activity and the reward. In other words, we encourage RP by rewarding it with more RP. As the GM, you simply have to take the RP provided and then create chances for more RP stemming from that initial RP.


GM: You had too much to drink with the barmaid last night. As the guard smashes you with his warhammer, you feel your stomach start to go up.

Player: I throw up all over his shining armour, shouting "Hit me again, you ruddy bastard, plenty more where that came from!

GM: The guard is visibly mortified.


GM: You are caught bedding the mayor's daughter. The mayor is royally pissed and vows to write a letter to the duke, informing him of your character's behaviour.

Player: When next I talk to the duke, I apologize profusely for my behaviour and offer to make amends.

GM: The duke instructs you to save a princess from a dragon in a nearby castle to make things right.


GM: Your character is dressed poorly and just barely granted audience with the duke. Throughout the audience, the duke and duchess look at you with contempt and throw the occasional quip your way, reminding you of the derision you've faced from nobles your entire life.

Player: I ask them if this is how they treat heroes in this land? Maybe we should offer our services to someone else.

GM: They apologize, but you sense it is not completely honest.


When a child shows you its drawing, you express interest in the drawing, showing that you notice their work, and then give the child another piece of paper.

Do the same thing here - express interest in the RP, show that you are noticing it and then use that RP as the platform to create even more RP.


Roleplaying is an intrinsically motivated activity and as such should not be reliably reinforced using external rewards. Instead, roleplaying can and should be encouraged through validation on the roleplaying level and by providing more roleplaying opportunities.

Holy crap… 1000+ words to express and explain something that fits in a tweet. 

Anywho, next up we will be doing something a bit different. Instead of me taking jabs at my favourite systems or waxing philosophical, we will be going through a comprehensive redesign of one of the most beloved classes in D&D5E.

And I know you probably don't believe me, but…

... it's not the ranger. :O