Lot’s of Games Master’s decry that they cannot control their players. Why wont my players roleplay more? Why do my players always want to murderhobo? Why can’t they take it seriously? I sympathise with them. The best games would be ones without any players. However there’s an incredibly simply solution that the many GM’s seem to entirely miss. A solution that can have your players doing whatever you want while totally under the illusion they’re making choices for themselves.
B.F Skinner was an American behavioral psychologist who worked out the concept of operant conditioning. In one of his experiments he placed a hungry rat in a box with a lever. When the rat knocked against the lever it would provide a food pellet. The rat would work out that the lever provided food and so pull it whenever it was hungry. If re-introduced into the box the rat would immediately go to the lever. This might seem simple and obvious now but it ended up having huge implications for how we understand human behaviour.
If we were to translate this into an RPG it would be simple. Reward behaviour that you want your players to continue doing. Do not reward behaviour that you do not want your players to continue doing. Well designed games already do this. Let’s take D&D as an example. Why do players so often leap to murder as a solution? Are they all nascent sociopaths?
No. They’re just playing in a game that actively rewards combat in multiple ways. You gain experience from fighting combats which levels up your character and provides you progress. Monsters often drop or protect treasure which can be claimed for further in game reward. Likewise players have a slew of combat focused abilities on their character sheet and the act of using them and defeating others in game rewards their sense of competency. It’s not surprising considering these factors that players often choose to resolve conflicts violently.
So you want your players to ‘roleplay’ more and fight things less what can you do? First you tell your players that you’d like them to do this thing more. Then you provide rewards for it in terms of the rewards the game already offers.
If a player has a really productive conversation with an NPC, have the NPC provide them with a gift, perhaps a suit of armour, or a free roof over their head. Then reward XP for the interaction and crucially make it clear the party gained XP for roleplaying. You can even reward XP for little things like speaking in character, or choosing an action that while not tactically ‘optimal’ makes sense for the character, if that’s the thing you want your players to do.
You can also build situations that are rewarding to resolve via roleplay and investigation. In much the same way as resolving problems via the games combat system feels rewarding. Players often shy away from achieving goals via roleplay interactions as they tend to relegate such a role to the parties ‘face’, the charismatic bard or rogue. The mechanics get in the way here as D&D’s rather simplistic binary method of resolving social encounters means that often anybody who doesn’t have the required points will fail, so why should they bother?
Hence you have to throw a lot of the mechanics away, relying only incredibly sparingly on dice rolls to resolve social interactions is key. NPC’s might be a bit more friendly with characters with high charisma, but it wont be an instant win card. In fact it can have detriment sometimes. Consider an attractive, high charisma character, who is constantly being offered favours as a result but still can’t know whether to trust them as they may just be down to the characters looks. A good charisma roll might make the NPC give out a bit more information that can help but it won’t totally resolve the encounter, rather the players actions , choices and interactions should be the key factor.
The Gumshoe system by Robin D Laws is a fantastic guide for this that can be applied within D&D or any other RPG. Essentially you apply the principle of permissive clue finding, where you pretty much just outright tell the players the important information they need to know rather than relying on the dice to decide. You then let them work it out themselves, whether it’s working out who murdered a noble , if a prisoner they find is more than meets the eye, or how to get into a bandit camp.
The carrot is often far better than the stick in creating a reward. This even applies if the players go against what you ideally want them to try and do. What if for example you build an interesting roleplay scenario but the players decide to just fight their way through anway? The gut reaction would be to reprimand the players in some way. Either by berating them or punishing them in-game via say hundreds of 20th level guards. Yet this is an RPG game and the players agency is paramount, if they want to storm the camp you have to let them storm the camp, but you can still find ways reward them for the thing you want to encourage too.
You can for example congratulate them on a great description they gave in the combat, or a clever out of the box thing they did during the fight, or a funny insult they gave before attacking someone. Likewise it’s simplistic to split the game into ‘roleplay & combat’ enemies can stand down or retreat while fighting, they can have personalities in fights, and you can design goals beyond killing everyone for both your players and the npc’s. Such as saving prisoners, or finding intel or destroying some powerful artifact the bandit king holds.
You can apply this principle of reward to virtually any behaviour you want your players to partake in. Do you want your players to explore the map? Provide experience for every area of a hex they fully explore. Do you want your players to be more decisive about the choices they make? Give them experience *purely* for making a choice whatever the outcome.
I hope that helps get your pesky players under control.