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The Douchey DM » Adventure Design, Advice, Alternate Views, General Gaming, Inspiration » JiB On GM’ing 2: Influencing the Level of Role Play in Our Games

JiB On GM’ing 2: Influencing the Level of Role Play in Our Games

I’ve noticed in the many years that I’ve been gaming that players tend to follow and approach problems differently depending on how I present the problem. In short, the more descriptive and evocative I am with what they see, hear, smell, feel, etc. the more likely most players are to role play the solution. However, if I am more spartan in my description the players tend to lean more towards mechanics in how they want to resolve whatever might be in front of them. This is not a hard and fast rule, but it is a trend that I have noticed. In this On GM’ing article I will discuss this tendency and ways that the GM can influence how the players approach the obstacles that we give them.

How GM’s Influence the Level of Role Play

GM’s have a great deal of influence over the way that their players approach problems and puzzles in their games. Sometimes it feels as if we just throw things in front of them and go along for the ride, but the truth is that how we present things and the sorts of things we present in game play influence how the players respond to those puzzles and obstacles and how the approach solving them. If we present a problem in a shallow light the players are more likely to take a mechanical approach, but if we present a deeper problem with a deeper description or in a way that is more interesting, we are much more likely to engage our players and bring up their play. As we move forward through this article we’ll talk about how we as GM’s can influence the level of role play in our own games.

How Players Influence the Level of Role Play

We’ve already talked a little bit about how we as GM’s influence the level and type of play in our games, but the players also influence the play and it’s worthwhile to delve into that topic some as well. When we sit down to play we bring our ideas and our perceptions to the table. When we approach a problem as players we have the ability to influence the game to change how the whole table feels how the whole game is played we can change the entire encounter or problem or puzzle by how what we say and what we do. If we as players are more descriptive, more illustrative with what we do that will influence other players, if we lean more towards mechanics that will also influence the other players and the GM. I’m not saying that one is better than the other, only that we need to be aware of what we’re pushing forward in our game play and make sure it’s what we want out of our gaming experience.


In my own gaming as a player I’ve found it much harder to keep character and play in character and get to the level of immersion that I’m after if the players around me are very mechanically minded players. This is the situation in one of the games I play in now. Not a bad game, not a bad group. Quite the contrary bunch of great guys, but the approach to this particular game is very mechanical and that makes it harder for me to be in character.

Bringing Up (Or Down) the Level of Role Play, and Why We Might Want To.

Why would we want to alter the level of role play either up or down in our games? The obvious answer is to make for a richer gaming experience and more exciting play all the way around. The thing to keep in mind is that there are times when we want more role play and times when the mechanics are the right answer to the situation at hand. Personally I tend to lean towards the role play side for most things, but that’s a matter of personal taste yours or your gaming groups may be different and that’s fine. The trick is to know what type and level that you want in the game from session to session, from moment to moment, from encounter to encounter. One of the tradeoffs between deep descriptive role play and more mechanical play is that of time. It takes longer to play out an encounter at a deep descriptive level than it does to resolve it with mechanics. This is one of the principal reasons that you might want to pull back on the descriptions a bit from time to time or at least keep them to the point. More about that in the next section.

Evocative Descriptions

By now those of you who read my twiddlings or listen when Stu and the Happy Jacks RPG Podcast crew are kind enough to read one of my emails know that I’m a proponent of what I refer to as “lurid evocative descriptions”. I find that one of the very best ways to increase the level of role play is through evocative descriptions that capture that player’s imaginations. This also works in the inverse if as the GM you want to back down the level of role play a bit one way is to lean up the descriptions and in a manner of speaking, “tighten things up.” For those of you who may be reading this and saying to yourself, “Yeah but JiB I’m not good at coming up with flowery descriptions of things off the top of my head,” a later “On GM’ing” article will address this topic in some detail.


I do not use boxed text, or if I have boxed text I paraphrase it. I’m not going to go into lengthy examples here because you’ve probably seen or heard them and I don’t want to waste your time with more of the same. What I am going to do is illustrate how I use bullet points to give me queues when I need a description and how I might evolve that into a strong description that suits the mood and the moment of the game. The following is the actual written material for a key scene in the Savage Worlds game I ran at OrcCon 2011. Those readers who have played the game might remember this scene.


Act I, Scene III: The Scene of the Crime

Mood: Dark with a brooding sense of sadness and horror

General: Once a very nice well kept apartment not really in keeping with the image of a bachelor private detective. Remy lived much better than one might expect. (Note: This would not be a surprise to Annabelle)

Inhabitants: None

Events: None

Current: The expected invasion of the police has left the place in a mess but it’s the area by the windows where the very rumpled bed still bears the remnants of the horrid events of last night blood soaked sheets in fact the quantity of blood spattering the entire area splashed on the walls and floor is horrifying.

Information: Before going to bed last night Remy was reviewing his notes on the case he was working on and at some point the notebook fell between the bed and the wall. (This is a very important clue so it is seen on a normal passive notice check, or if the characters are actively searching a notice check at +2.) On a raise of a notice check the character will also spot a flash of gold in the rumpled bedclothes. This is a gold necklace that Annabelle gave to Remy as a gift and though it serves no real purpose could easily serve as an emotional trigger for Annabelle. (Note: Remember that Annabelle has certain abilities that actually might give her a flash of vision of Remy’s last moments if she holds the necklace for any length of time at all.

Other things of interest: In the safe beside Remy’s desk are really just two things of interest. A pair of loaded Colt 1911 pistols, and a strong box containing a large quantity of cash ($50,000 to be exact) Now why Remy would have this much cash in his apartment is anybody’s guess and there is no real clear reason why, but it’s here anyway.


The real key to making this work is to know the material. If I have done my homework properly then just by glancing at the first few words of any section should remind me what was going on in this scene and the imagery that I’m trying to convey with the scene. Though this scene has no inhabitants in this room. If there are inhabitants, they are actually the MOST important part of the scene and what they do when confronted with the heroes is critical. The details of the inhabitants would appear under the information section, but under inhabitants I would put how many, why they’re here and what their actions are likely to be. So here’s the inhabitants section from another scene in the same adventure.

Act III, Scene 4 : More Zombies !!!

Inhabitants: Handa has stationed 8 more zombies in this room to protect him from intruders. They wait patiently and if observed without them noticing the characters would be seen to be weaving back and forth slightly and moaning in unison. Once they notice the characters they will move to attack immediately.

Remember, the whole idea is to evoke a strong sense of emotion and imagery with the descriptions that we give to the players and there by guide the level of role play in the game.

Interesting Situations

Another way to guide the level of role play in the game is by providing interesting situations. I know, I know that’s the whole point is to make the game interesting. But lets step back a moment and think about it. If the characters have been facing fight after fight of nothing but orcs that are all the same over and over again this is going to lose its impact over time and that’s going to lead to a reduced level of role play and even interest in what’s going on. This is more a matter of planning than it is execution. You want to plan out the encounters and situations that come up to do two things. First you want to move the story. Second you want to evoke the emotion and imagery that will inspire the players in the direction you want them to go from a role play standpoint.

The simple answer here is shake things up and don’t be repetitive. Personally I think that encounters with role play are more interesting even if the goal of the encounter is to lead to a fight. Play up the drama and the tension. Make it interesting. Ok, so they’ve come upon the displacer beast in its lair. A creature of any intelligence at all is probably going to try to drive the intruders away as a first line of action. So (thinking rather like what would happen if one came upon a mountain lion in its lair) it might very well roar and bluster and try to look really threatening to get them to go away. Play with this, don’t just go straight to the dice rolling and the initiative. In essence understand the psychology of the encounter and make it interesting. This leads us directly to our next topic, characterizing pretty much everything the characters encounter.

Strong Characterizations

When we characterize anything what we are actually doing is to give it attributes and behaviors that we can recognize and equate with. One of the ways that we can influence the level and nature of role play in a game is by building strong characterizations of the people and things that the player characters encounter. Similar to lurid evocative descriptions, having strongly characterized elements in a game draws the players and hence the characters into the immersion of the game or pushes them back from the immersion of the game depending on how much and how strong the characterizations are.


Tappy made a comment in episode 5.4 of the HJRPGPC that I agree with whole heartedly, give things names. A longsword may just be a longsword, but if it’s magic and it has any kind of power, it deserves a name and if possible a history of some kind. Think about the sword of the king in Lord of the Rings (Narsil) it has a name it has a history it has a legend about it. I also recommend resisting using game mechanics in the names of things it’s not a +2 longsword it’s a “well crafted longsword.” The same works with places and people and it helps to bring them to life. Of course people are going to have names but try to give them something beyond just the name give them some attributes that make them memorable. Instead of being gate guard #3 in the red uniform that’s going to get eaten by the basilisk in scene 2, maybe he’s Raf the gate guard with the scraggly beard and one cast eye who tends to scratch himself a lot. Now he has a name and a couple of things about him that make him memorable.

Conclusions and Parting Shots

The quick summary of this (about damn time JiB) is that by increasing or decreasing the level and nature of descriptions, and characterizations and by making the encounters interesting and varied we as GM’s have the ability to influence how our players play. Likewise as players with basically the same sets of tools we have the ability to influence other players and the type and nature of play in the games that we play. Whether we guide the level of role play up or down is a matter of personal taste and desire and may well change back and forth during the course of play. That’s fine. The critical element is always that everyone is having fun playing and getting more out of their gaming experience.

Two parting thoughts before I wind this up.

First, be aware that players may have very different ideas about what sort of playing experience they want. This can both produce conflict in the game or at the table and it can cause hard feelings. Don’t be afraid to let it ebb and flow and encourage players to try new and different things. They may not think they like the flavor being served right this second but then again they just might.

Second, and this is a caveat for everything that I’ve said so far. All of this has one potential downside for the GM and the players, it takes more work. It takes more work to give things names and characterizations, and it takes more work to not throw the same dozen orcs at the characters again, and it takes more work to learn to give evocative descriptions of things. It also takes discipline to make the choices about what to use when and how deep to go when and make intelligent decisions about our game play from moment to moment. On this I can only express an opinion, if I’m a player at a table, or a GM at the head of the table, I owe it to my fellow players to give them my very best every moment. I’m not always able to do that, but I try. Anything worth doing is worth doing well, particularly something that we enjoy and spend this much money and effort to do.

With that I will close this article and wish all of you much success in your gaming.





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Software developer, gamer, ice hockey player, sometime musician.

Filed under: Adventure Design, Advice, Alternate Views, General Gaming, Inspiration · Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

3 Responses to "JiB On GM’ing 2: Influencing the Level of Role Play in Our Games"

  1. JoeGunNo Gravatar says:

    Wow Great Article as always JiB. I agree with everything you said. And I’m more of a mechanical player(sorta, I’m kinda like Tappy, love system mechanics, but enjoy good story and role playing as well, but I do love rolling some dice!)

  2. JazzIsBluesNo Gravatar says:

    Thanks Joe. Much appreciated.


  3. MattNo Gravatar says:

    Nice article. Good advice.

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