by Tobie Abad
We've all heard it before: "My players don't like role-playing. They prefer to just roll the dice." But sometimes a storyteller needs to look deeper to the real source of the problem. After all, if there is any absolute truth to gaming, that truth is the game must be fun for all players involved. If you have players who seem to be having trouble role-playing, then determine first the roots of this issue. Once you realize what the real root of the issue is, you will be able to find the solution necessary.
Is it because the players in question do not like to role-play their characters?
This, of course, is a problem only if the game is already ongoing. Everyone has their own gaming styles, after all. Typically, every player enjoys the cathartic experience that a role-playing game can give. But how that catharsis is achieved does vary. Some people love the chance to wear a whole new skin, and portray a personality that interests them. Some people seek the thrill and rush of a fast paced combat sequence. Some people indulge in the brain-gasms that a tactical scenario throws at them. And all these things are among the joys delivered by a table top role-playing game. But clearly, not all of them require the player to speak like an actor delivering their lines. So yes, you must learn to accept the fact that not everyone wants to role-play a personality.
How then does one fix this issue? If the game has not started yet, you always have the option of clarifying with the players what expectations they have and clarifying whether or not the game will be heavy on role-playing or not. There's no harm in setting expectations early, after all. In fact, if you share that a game is expected to be one that explores political maneuvering and social manipulations among Lords and Ladys, for example, you won't end up with players who create characters focused on sword fighting and leading crusades. Mapping out the expectations of a game help the players tailor their concepts to capitalize on and explore the game's themes.
But again, if the game is already ongoing, it is very hard. Because imposing on a guy who loves the rush of battle in a game to start getting into a romantic scene might just lessen the fun for the player. Just as a guy who indulges in the passion plays of an emotional moment might feel lost in a heavy battle scene.
a) An option therefore is throw some additional incentives the players way.
Most games, such as Dungeons and Dragons and the World of Darkness storyteller system provide the option to throw in circumstantial bonuses which allow you to throw in a few extra boosts to player rolls. So a basic approach is to note down each time a player pushes himself outside one's comfort zone, and for every moment he does so, you can later award an equivalent bonus to later rolls. The player therefore gets encouraged to explore more and as a reward becomes even more awesome in things he normally does.
b) A second option is to remind the players that the lack of a character's social stats does not mean the character cannot have a notable social trait.
Televisions shows, comic books, and movies are full of characters who exemplify this: Jayne Cobb of Firefly, for example, is clearly not a social character by any means. However, his lack of actual social graces is clearly represented with his foul-mouth and terribly rude approaches towards women. Braniac 5.1 of the Legion of Super Heroes is a character who clearly represents an incredible intellect, and his social failures are nicely reflective of his poor stats there. So feel free to tell the combat-monster player that his character doesn't have to shy away from all social scenes. You can even suggest to him, "What would Jayne Cobb do?"
Is it because the players in question find it hard to embody the concept they chose?
At times, the player character's concept might seemingly be fun at first, but later then be discovered to be harder to portray than expected. I once had a player in an Exalted game who wanted to be a fast-talking sly shape-shifting Lunar wanderer, but as the game progressed he started to realize that he just didn't really have the skills to fast-talk in character. As the game progressed, he started to always respond to social challenges with this general statement, "I fast-talk my way out of it" followed by a handful of dice clattering on the table.
Given that just retiring or killing off the character then creating a new one isn't an acceptable option, consider the following ideas you might want to suggest to your storyteller.
a) Events CHANGE the character
The fast-talking Lunar becoming too hard to role-play? Maybe you can suggest to your storyteller that the Lunar receives an aggravated wound to the throat and even when healed sadly strips him of the ability of speech? Other than wounds, you have many other options at your disposal: magic, super-science, alien technology... you name it. Personality shifts can also happen as a response of trauma. So maybe if your character witnesses or experiences something overwhelmingly traumatic (his whole tribe being murdered before his eyes, or a week-long torture sequence, etc) the events can scar him psychologically enough that he starts acting (and therefore being portrayed) a little bit more different. As deux ex machina as if may feel, consider it as the Storyteller dipping in a finger into the universe to change it just enough, that the player doesn't feel like his character isn't working out for him.
Using the same example, maybe the Lunar hero fails in a major undertaking and as self-punishment, vows to never speak until he finds a way to right his failure? Or maybe the character begins to "grow up" and starts to realize how he approaches things hasn't been working for him. Sometimes it doesn't need a major traumatic event to change a person. Sometimes it could simply be an eventual change in one's outlook. Maybe the character learns more things about the world that changes his perspectives? Or maybe the character simply realizes how he lives his life is not helping and it is time to try to be someone else. The character then becomes something you can portray better, and the storyteller gains a new plot hook to use.
Is it because your players are shy?
Then show them there's no reason to be shy. This tends to be a problem only with new players. An easy clue to spot this is when players tend to shift to a third person narrative when trying to describe their actions. "My character will approach him and then my character will say, 'I don't like you at all.'" The lack of willingness to commit to the character is easily reflected when a player makes it a point to indicate the separation in his choice of words. Players more comfortable with role-playing would simply state their character's actions as if they were their own. "I grab the weapon.. You bastard! How could you betray us! I hold the blade to his throat." Even better, they know how to shift their tone just enough so fellow players and the storyteller can tell when a question or statement is said in-character or as a player.
The best solution to this is to tell them outright at the start, "Don't feel shy about portraying your character. Know I'll let you know if anything might be out of character or too much." Build the beginnings of trust between the player and yourself by showing them how you role-play the characters without needing to separate yourself as well. During interactions, talk to them as if you were the character. Act a bit if you are comfortable with it. Let them know that while the game is going, the "stage" is set and you are allowed to be someone else and have fun.