Encourage Role-playing while enjoying Roll-playing

Despite the experience of running D&D for over ten years, there are still simple things about the game that trip me up. This has been especially true as I adjust to running 5e. While new, shiny, and fun, some of the same types of questions pop up with every new campaign. Luckily, 5e also finally gives us some answers to help with these reoccurring issues.

One of the biggest questions digs up an age-old debate about “role-playing” vs. “roll-playing”. The trouble with this dispute is that it’s one of pure personal preference. On one end of the spectrum, there are those who are nearly improv thespians - those who talk in character, act in character, and believe that no roll should interfere with the social aspects of the game. On the other end are the hardcore crunchers, min/maxers, and system mastery folks who love digging deep into rules, math, and strategy.

Let’s be very clear: there is nothing wrong with either of these extremes. RPGs are meant to be played exactly how the players who are playing them want them to be played. Both sides of this particular coin are not only fun, but rewarding in their own ways.

However, there can be tension when a group gets together and has varied opinions on how a game should be run. So my goal as a GM is to figure out which side people prefer, and lean in that direction using whatever rule set I’m presented with. My goal as a game designer is to figure out how to get the best of both worlds without the GM having to bend the rules (as much).

D&D 5e is an interesting case - it gives us a “charisma” stat that is more or less used for all social interaction. So when a character wants to haggle with an NPC to lower the price of an item, it technically doesn’t matter what they say “in character” - they simply take the action and roll charisma to see if it worked. For those of us with less social aptitude, this is a wonderful mechanic that lets us roleplay as something we would not normally be able to. For those who are actually skilled in wordplay or bartering, it can be frustrating to have a clearly well thought-out statement be completely ignored in favor of a random die roll.

You can argue that if they were actually playing their character (let’s assume with lower charisma), they wouldn’t say such intelligent things. But much like it’s hard not to meta-game monster information, it’s hard not to try your best when interacting with NPCs. Worse, it’s completely unrewarding for those who do try, which makes them try less. Eventually, all actual role-playing can be sucked right out of a game of D&D simply because of failed charisma-based rolls!

My goal as a game designer is to figure out how to get the best of both worlds without the GM having to bend the rules.

To help us solve this, 5e has given us a wonderful tool: the advantage. Advantage/disadvantage is mostly applied through character skills and abilities, but it’s also supposed to be a very versatile tool for the GM to apply situational bonuses. If we use this rule, and award advantage on charisma rolls to players that role-play well, this keeps everyone happy (in theory)!

  • The cruncher who plays a bard can still take an ability or feat to give them natural advantages on such rolls, without having to be actually good with their words.
  • The thespian who doesn't have the best charisma, but comes up with an awesome argument or funny joke can be granted advantage on their roll. Even if they end up failing, they at least were acknowledged for their effort, and that's often all they need to keep it up.

When everyone else is happy, the GM’s happy, enjoying their roll-playing, while encouraging good role-playing.