I’ve written in the past about overcoming anxiety as a player, but players aren’t alone. Tabletop roleplaying games are by their very design social games. If you follow me on Twitter, you may have recently seen me giving some advice on how dungeon masters can support nervous players. There is more to say on the topic than can comfortably fit in a series of tweets, so I decided to write a full article on it.
So you’re a dungeon master. You have gathered your party, but one or two of the players seem nervous and hesitant to dive into their character. They don’t speak much during the session outside of combat, rarely speak in character, and seem generally out of their comfort zone. What can you do to help? Well, it all starts with…
Whether the player in question is nervous because they’re new to tabletop gaming, new to the group, or unfamiliar with a few of the other players, they need time to settle into roleplaying. It’s important in these cases for the dungeon master and other players to be patient and understanding. Pressure and judgment will just make shy or nervous players retreat even more from the spotlight.
It’s important to be vocal about this patience. If you say nothing at all, odds are a shy player will assume the worst and feel pressure to perform that isn’t actually there. As the DM it’s your job to be the centre-point of communication within your tabletop group, and that includes reminding nervous or shy players that it’s okay to take their time getting comfortable with roleplay. Along the same vein, it’s also important to remind any impatient seasoned players at your table that they were once new and nervous too. Little will intimidate a new player faster than a table of seasoned players being impatient and judgemental.
Once your player understands that nobody is going to be annoyed with them for being too shy to speak in character, they will feel far more comfortable slowly getting into roleplay and stepping out of their comfort zones. Which leads me to my next point…
Playing a character is not an all-or-nothing affair. In previous posts I explained that among the five active campaigns I’m currently involved in, I am the dungeon master in one. In that group are several new and inexperienced players with little to no history of roleplay. Something I explained to them is that playing a character isn’t all voices, accents and speaking in character- at its very core it’s about developing and staying true to a character.
Defining roleplay this way frees shy players up to get into playing their character one step at a time. If a player chooses to spare the last remaining bandit because their character wouldn’t have the heart to kill someone in a helpless position, that’s roleplay. If a player refuses to take the lead down dark and mysterious corridors because their character is claustrophobic, that’s roleplay too.
Of course, the experience is more immersive for everyone when players speak in character, but when a nervous player speaks up at the table and says “I guess I ask the guard if he’s seen a blue Dragonborn near here recently,” don’t tell them they’re playing wrong. Shooting a player down when they do this is unhelpful and only makes them more self-conscious. To be clear, I’m not saying that a dungeon master shouldn’t encourage a player in this scenario. On the contrary, encouragement is fantastic- in situations like this I sometimes ask something along the lines of “can you tell me how your character would phrase that?” This way the player is pushed to speak in character even before they’re ready to change their voice at all.
Not every player starts out ready to dive into the deep end of roleplay- I certainly wasn’t when I first started out. Some of us need to take it step by step, at our own pace. The method that took me from barely speaking at all at the table to being able to assume a character comfortably is the same one that I try to guide shy players down as a DM:
- Start by considering what kind of person your character is
- Choose actions that your character would take rather than ones you would
- Speak for your character, even if it’s your normal voice
- Think about what mannerisms or habits your character might have. Start implementing them one by one
- When you’re ready, start trying out voices until you’ve found one you like and are comfortable using at sessions
- Take that final leap and start using the voice you chose in sessions
It’s easy for players to feel bad about themselves or like they aren’t playing their character “right” simply because they aren’t putting on a voice. Even simply affirming that the other elements of characterisation count as roleplay can take a weight off a nervous player’s shoulders. Once your players have an idea of the steps they can take to slowly become an increasingly confident roleplayer, back up your advice with…
Encouragement and Reward
Never underestimate how much of a difference positive feedback can make. Not only do I make it a point to congratulate my players on a great moment of roleplay or particularly creative solution to a problem, but I encourage my more seasoned players to do so as well. The effect of this is twofold: it gives players- especially those new or shy- a boost in confidence, and it creates a positive gaming environment where players feel they can make bold character choices without fear of judgment. Speaking from my own experience, tabletop gaming is a lot more dynamic when players feel relaxed and encouraged- people take more risks, are more experimental and spend far less time thinking about how everyone else will react.
Some systems have their own built-in rewards for just this purpose, like DM Inspiration in D&D 5E. Use these systems. A practical reward like Inspiration can be the difference between a player going through with a roleplay decision or not. These tools are available for a reason, so make the most of them.
These are the methods I use as a dungeon master to help players find their roleplaying mojo. Many of these techniques are ones that were used on me by other DMs when I was a new and hesitant gamer. For the most part, I consider it to be rather simple: people thrive in environments with open communication, encouragement and kindness. When I provide that, I find that my players have more fun, and the story goes more interesting places. Relaxed players are adventurous players.
Let me know in the comments below how you encourage players to engage in the roleplay side of tabletop gaming, or if you’re a player, what was most helpful to you?