Beginner’s guide to roleplaying in D&D

Illustration by Ncorva

Dungeons & Dragons is a fantasy tabletop roleplaying game. In fact, it is the tabletop roleplaying game. But a lot of first-timers can be a little (or a lot) intimidated about the roleplaying aspect of the game. When I returned to D&D after taking a long break from TTRPG, I was pretty intimidated. I didn’t know where to start. I hadn’t played in years, and I felt exceptionally rusty.

It wasn’t until I started playing in a second campaign that I developed a knack for roleplay. I got some advice from a few DM friends, and I’d like to pass it on to you. Just a few tips and tricks on how to really get into the character.

Illustration by Athena Victoria. From The Dragon Mage web comic

Talk to the DM/GM

First things first, get to know the world your character was born into. It’s hard to roleplay if you don’t know anything about the person you’re roleplaying, and it’s hard to know anything about the person if you don’t know anything about their world.

Where did your character come from?

What are the local customs?

What is the social hierarchy?

What is day-to-day life like for the people that live there?

The DM/GM might give you a synopsis of the world you are about to step into. It’s a good idea to give that a thorough read-through. The more information you have about the world, the more you can think about how you’re going to act in that world. Play around with some ideas. Daydream about this new and exciting locale.

You might also ask about the kinds of social situations you’re likely to find yourself in. This might be a hard question to answer, players tend to go off in random directions, but you’re starting off somewhere. What kind of people are you going to be bumping into in session one? The DM isn’t going to want to get meta, but they might drop a few hints for you to start thinking about.

Illustration by Athena Victoria. From The Dragon Mage web comic

Also, ask the DM/GM for advice. He or she is likely the most experienced role player at the table. After all, they have to play everyone in the entire world. Every single NPC in the game gets played by the DM. That’s a lot of personalities. If you’re struggling with a particular issue, they probably have some helpful advice and can coach you through it.

Write out a back story.

This can be tough for some people, but I promise it’s worth it. Write about the character’s parents. Is your character an orphan? Cool, still write about their parents. It doesn’t have to be much. What they did for a living and one or two lines about their personalities. Why did they have to give up their child? Your character doesn’t know everything, but the more you know, the more confidence you’ll have.

You can also write about childhood friends. Orphan or not, most kids had at least one or two best friends growing up. Then add in at least one defining moment in the character’s childhood. We all have memories, moments from our pasts that drift into our minds from time to time. Things that change the way we look at the world. So does your character. It doesn’t have to be earth-shattering, it just has to influence the way they make decisions.

Once you have these influential people and this life-changing event, right down three or four decisions your character made because of these influences. For instance, perhaps your character didn’t get married because their family didn’t like the potential partner. Maybe your childhood best friend was hurt or even killed by a noble family, and now your character despises the upper-class. Maybe their first kiss was with a Drow, and now there’s a soft spot in their heart for dark elves and their culture.

These people and events can help shape how you make decisions in the game. You’re going to be coming across all kinds of social situations. When you’re not sure how your character might react to a specific event, you can think about how unfair your parents were when you wanted to marry that special someone and they pressured you out of it, or how devastated you were when your best friend was needlessly killed by the duke’s son; or whatever.

Ultimately, it gives you material to draw from. These personality-forming events help you make your decisions and know how to act. If your character harbors a deep-seated hatred for nobles, they might act standoffish or even hostile in the presence of one. You have reasons to behave in a certain way.

If you’re having a hard time starting this step, there are a lot of character generators out there that will give you a short summary. Sometimes, having a little prompt like that can get the creative juices flowing. They are typically just a few lines that talk about the “big stuff”, so I suggest trying to flesh them out a bit. You don’t have to go overboard. One page should be enough.

If you’re really feeling creative, however, don’t stop writing! You might end up with a best-selling fantasy novel.

I’ll add a few links to those character generators at the bottom of this post.

Try out an accent.

Okay, okay, I understand this one can be tough for a lot of people.

Playing around with an accent or funny voice might sound intimidating. I get that. I didn’t do accents until I started DMing, but once I did, I found it really helped a lot.

But you know you. If you feel like doing an accent is just asking for a panic attack, skip this tip and go straight to the next one. I do have a theory as to why accents are helpful, however.

Once I started using accents as both a DM and a player, I found that I really didn’t need to “work” on roleplaying. It started coming so much more naturally. Psychologists found that wearing a mask allows people to act completely different and even contrary to their normal behavior. I think that speaking with an accent kind of does the same thing.

It seems like you’re tricking your subconscious into believing that you are now a different person. Yeah, I know that sounds a little out there, but hear me out.

Let’s go back to the “mask” phenomenon. Psychologists have observed people behaving differently than their typical selves while wearing a mask. It is believed that subconsciously, people are able to partition their personality when they don a mask.

“I act this way when I wear the mask, and I act that way when I do not”.

Because this happens on a subconscious level, no thought or intention drives this shift in persona. There’s just a little part of your mind that “feels” different. I think accents do the same thing. You’re giving a defining characteristic to a new set of behaviors,

“When I talk this way, I act this way”.

As a result, an accent allows you to immerse yourself in the character you’ve developed. All their personality quirks exist in your mind, in your subconscious mind, when you “talk this way”.

Fill out the upper right side of the character sheet.

New players often get enthralled with race and class features and abilities when creating a character. Hell, veteran players get enthralled with features and abilities too! Seeing what you can do and strategizing your moves is a ton of fun, so the boxes set aside for “personality traits”, “ideals”, “bonds”, “flaws” sometimes get neglected. That can be a mistake if you’re feeling unsure about your roleplaying.

These boxes serve as a kind of shorthand for your character’s personality. Yes, you’ve already written out a backstory, but that’s just step one.

Let’s say you’re playing a Paladin. It’s easy enough to write “To Be Just and Fair” into the ideals box and leave it at that. But you still have room in that tiny little rectangle. Why not put down something like “be kind to children and the elderly”. You’re going to run into children. You’re going to run into the elderly. Now you have an opportunity to roleplay where you might not have before.

In fact, the more you write under these categories, the more you’ll have to draw on during the game. Be careful not to go overboard. It’s easy to get lost in too many notes. Having two to four lines for each of these sections should suffice.

Lean into your flaws.

Piggybacking off the preceding tip, let’s take a look at your character’s “flaws”. Having 2 to 4 lines in this box is fine, just really get to know what you put down. Think it through. There is nothing more fun or as easy to play-up than your flaws.

Some of my favorite memories from D&D came from players leaning into their flaws. For instance, I DM’d a table that had a greedy half-orc barbarian in the party. At one point, the characters passed through an underground crypt and saw a cluster of goblinoids praying to a shrine. The party was still low-level, so they decided to try and sneak by. As they did, however, they came across a statue with a huge jewel set in its hands.

This was a treasure the orc could not pass up.

He decided to pluck the gem from the statue. When it wouldn’t budge, however, he decided to grab a hammer! Throughout the orc’s ill-planned endeavors, another adventurer, a gnome rogue, berated him for being greedy and stupid. This character was played by the orc’s real-life wife, BTW. When the hammer came out, the little gnome just about lost it.

She started screaming “leave the stupid jewel there!” This, of course, alerted the goblins.

The table couldn’t stop laughing. The interaction between the two characters was hysterical. They kept their persona, their accents, and their personalities through the whole thing. Both of them were rewarded with inspiration points, and they were well deserved!

Start in-game, in-character conversations.

You have written up a back story, developed a personality, it’s time to take it for a drive. The only way for you to develop any skill is through practice. Starting an in-game conversation with the other PCs is excellent and fun practice. Ask the other NPCs questions that would make sense for your character to ask.

Think about it, a little, beforehand.

I say, think about it a little because I don’t want you to get lost in your own head. If you’re nervous about role-playing, don’t overthink it. In fact, for this exercise, don’t think about your character hardly at all. Think about the other PCs.

Why does that barbarian dwarf hate giant so much? That half-elf druid has an interesting accent, where does she come from? Man, that hex-blade warlock sure does have a pretty sword. Where did he get it from? I wonder if he’ll let me touch it?

Starting up a conversation with the other PCs allows you to practice your voice a little bit while listening and watching other players use theirs. You get a little bit of practice, and you have the opportunity to observe other role-players in action.

Just be prepared to have a couple of questions tossed back your way. At the very least, the other players will probably ask you the same questions you’re asking them. The two biggest answers you’re going to want to have in your back pocket are to the questions, “where are you from?” and “why are you adventuring?” In one way or another, most introductory conversations circle back to that.

Don’t take it too seriously.

My final tip is to not take this whole thing too seriously. It’s just a game. It doesn’t matter if you are good at accents, coming up with witty one-liners, or writing out backstories. What matters is that you’re having fun.

It’s easy to overthink things, so you need to put effort into not getting lost in your own head. If anything is going to trip up your improv and roleplay, it’s going to be your insecurity and self-doubt. Try to relax and have a good time.

If you sit down at the game table with a big smile on your face and a willingness to just roll with whatever comes your way, you’ll be fine.

Good luck and happy adventuring!

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