Most every gamer has encountered one form or another of the “roleplay vs. roll-play” debate – the imagined divide between gamers who enjoy the character-acting aspect of tabletop gaming and those who prefer to roll dice and kill stuff for the XP.
Setting aside the long (and already well-covered in that link) debate over why that’s a false assumption and typically more elitism than anything, I have noticed a point of friction between two particular challenges at the table that may be part of why that false divide has survived so many years of gaming’s evolution.
The much more legitimate divide exists between narrating your actions versions acting them out.
Since some folks use the terms interchangeably, in this instance “narrating” means you speak of your character’s actions in the general sense, while acting it out involves describing each specific action taken or word spoken by a character during a given scene. Many gamers who generally prefer the latter format throw the former into the “roll-play” camp, and vice versa, but just like rolling verses role-ing, everyone does both to some degree.
As a GM, it’s your job to know when best to ask for which.
While it’s true that some players have a strong preference for narrating vs. acting, many more prefer both in the right circumstances, and few groups will prefer all of one variety or the other for an entire game, or even an entire scene.
Narrating has great advantages when…
- a player is nervous, new to a group or just generally shy about being in the spotlight
- a player is playing a character who has skills the player isn’t intimately familiar with out of character
- you need a decision from the player but don’t need to know exactly how they plan to go about making it happen
Acting out has great advantages when…
- a player enjoys the spotlight and wants to make their character memorable
- a player has rotten dice luck, and acting out can help them succeed without a role (or earn a bonus through roleplay)
- the point of the scene is inter-player RP
So both have key uses in any game, and you should find yourself switching modes as the scene or player dictates.
Nervous or quiet players are often (but not always) folks you want to allow to narrate their way through a game, giving you a general idea of what they’re doing (“I distract the guard”) rather than the particulars. They’re often confused with “roll-players” because, in order to challenge someone who is narrating their actions, you have to use the dice/cards/pull or whatever mechanic the game uses to gauge success vs. failure.
A player acting something out is being challenged by the scene-setting itself – the specific choices they make, be it what words they use to try and charm an NPC or how they describe breaking into the megacorp facility, can often supplant dice rolling (or augment them with bonuses or penalties) based on the out-of-character choices they make.
Both have a risk – and that’s key. When a player narrates an action where failure matters, ask them to roll, and when a player acts something out, ask them to roll but let them know what they’ve gained/lost from the scene they just acted out.
You don’t want to create a dichotomy where your actors are always earning a free bonus or foregoing rolls while also taking more time to take their actions, and you don’t want to create a situation where their efforts are being completely ignored (especially if you specifically ask for acting out on a given task).
Balance things between the formats by capping the total bonus/penalty an actor can earn with their choices, and be sure you award negatives as well as positives when warranted, especially early in the game. It will establish to all players that acting out is a gamble – useful when your dice hate you or you feel confident, unnecessary when you’re nervous or feel good about the way your d20 is leaning that night.
One of the worst things you can do is unevenly demand acting out versus narrating. Many GMs make this mistake around things that we see as clever or complex in real life – social manipulation, deception, theft, and hacking are particularly common victims. So much of our media centers around clever wordplay, political manipulation or heist movie themes that we feel like all those individual pieces matter much more than, say, the gestures a wizard makes when casting a spell.
If you’re not asking your fighter to describe the fighting style they’re using maneuver by maneuver whenever they pull their broadsword around to cleave a goblin in twain, don’t ask the rogue how they plan to cross the room full of traps unless they volunteer that information. The character knows how to case a joint; the player doesn’t need to.
Ditto social interactions. If your bard says “I attempt to deceive the guard,” and they succeed at the roll, it’s on you to help them come up with the lie they told that would work on that particular guard. They don’t have to both roll AND find the right out-of-character words to succeed – that’s twice as many chances to fail, and few players will thank you for it.
Now, if they choose to swagger up themselves and start rattling off a con job from the hip, then it could go better or worse for them in a hurry – but that’s their choice, and that’s paramount.
It’s important to remember that narrating vs. acting out also matters for the GM in a game. For GMs:
Narrating has great advantages when…
- you want to get out of the way of a player’s moment in the spotlight
- the particulars of an event or NPC matter in terms of game mechanics
- you need to clarify a complex situation
- you need to save time
And acting out has great advantages when…
- you need to evoke an emotional response around a scene or NPC
- you want to be subtle in how you lay out a plot clue
- you need to give a player who is acting out a branching-off point for their RP
So don’t fall into the trap of ruling out either method of roleplay at the table – you’ll typically need them both for a game to be both fun and memorable without getting in its own way.