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GM’s Journal – The Elements of Roleplay

In the GM’s Journal we will discuss all things role playing. From tips for running a successful table to reviews of various systems, you’ll find it here.

It is no secret that players enjoy different things from a role-playing session. Some players enjoy optimizing their characters for peak performance during combat. Other players enjoy solving mysteries and puzzles. Some crave social interaction and contributing to the narrative. For the most part, role-playing encounters can be broken down into three categories: social encounters, combat encounters, and investigation encounters. I will refer to these categories as “elements.”   A balance of these elements is essential to the enjoyment of your players. But what are these elements and how do you make sure that your players are getting the right amount of each? Let’s dive right in and find out!

A Warm Welcome

During social encounters, the players are trying to persuade another party to act in a way that benefits the players. This could range from a simple negotiation with a humble merchant to political intrigue and even negotiating with a terrifying monster for the characters’ very lives. In my opinion, social encounters are the gateway to fantastic role-playing opportunities. Social encounters offer players the chance to engage in some theatrics, speak in their characters’ voices, and act like their chosen characters. Many of my favorite role-playing memories occurred not during combat, but during social encounters!

Social encounters can sometimes be tricky as most systems offer little more than guidelines for them. During social encounters, be sure to give every character who wishes to participate a chance to share the spotlight. Always reward good and clever role-play over a good dice roll. A good social encounter should never come down to a roll of the die! This will leave the players feeling frustrated.

Riddles in the Dark

Investigation encounters come in many different forms but they share the same basis. The players are given limited information and must draw conclusions using deductive reasoning. These encounters range from who-done-it murder mysteries to logic puzzles and riddles. Some players love solving puzzles. If there is a problem, they will find the solution. Many players derive great satisfaction from investigating these mysteries. Like the sleuths of old, they take to a case in search of clues to solve the mystery and set things right again. Never be afraid to throw in a red herring here and there. Sometimes there are clues that just don’t fit!

Investigation encounters can be frustrating to some players. Some players have trouble connecting the dots or are not interested in thinking too hard. (Role-playing is supposed to be fun right?!) If your players seem to be spinning their wheels, don’t let them suffer too long. Throw them a clue every so often and see what they do with it. Let the players piece it together and give them hints when they need them. As with social encounters, investigation should never be left to a die roll. Let them search, think, and deduce.

Out of the Frying-Pan and Into the Fire

Some players live for combat. They want nothing else but to crush minions beneath their heel. Their mission in life is to find new and exciting creatures and slay them. Fortunately, combat encounters exist for these players. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy combat as much as the next guy, but for me combat is much more about survival. The draw for me is to employ new and exciting tactics and to establish control over the battlefield. This way my allies have a greater chance of victory and, ultimately, survival.

In order to keep fights from feeling stale, it is important to keep them interesting. You can accomplish this by keeping the fights moving and by making them more challenging. Add a few more hit points and a little more damage if you need to. You can also keep combat encounters fresh by enhancing the terrain. Add hazards, difficult terrain, choke points, and other interesting terrain to encourage your players to fight differently. Perhaps your players are fighting against the same types of enemies consistently. Have those adversaries switch up their tactics to compensate for the players’ strategies. And when all else fails, try throwing something at the group they have never encountered before. Always challenge your players; they will develop new tactics and will have a fun time figuring out how to survive the next battle!

Maintaining the Balance

So now we have an idea of what the elements of role play are and how to keep them interesting, but how do we keep them in balance? Start by asking your players what kind of encounters they enjoy.  Once you know what each of your players likes, you can begin to prepare your encounters accordingly. If you are running a module, be sure to move quickly through encounters that your players are uninterested in without rushing the story or leaving out important details.

I have found that the best way to balance my encounters is by making sure that there is more than one opportunity for each type of encounter. For example, I begin the session with a social encounter that leads to an investigation. The investigation meets a stumbling block and combat breaks out. After combat, the players continue the investigation by talking with the locals through more social encounters. Finally, the social encounters and investigation lead to the location of the final combat for the session.

Talk to your players about what kinds of encounters they enjoy and what kinds they don’t. What do they look forward to in a session and what do they feel makes the session drag on? If some of your players are bored with what the rest of the group is doing, try to engage them but remember that not everyone enjoys every type of encounter! Always keep it interesting, always keep it fun, and always keep it moving!

See you at the Table!

Meeple Karington Hess - Small

Karington Hess is a lifelong gamer whose passions for hospitality and all things game-related led him to Ravenwood Castle, where he served as an Innkeeper before joining The Malted Meeple. When not pouring beers, crafting milkshakes, or teaching boardgames, Karington can be found behind the DM’s screen, weaving intricate stories for his fellow gamers.

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