Adventurers go through a lot…just think about your own RPG party for a moment: How many times in a month do they deal with some sort of betrayal? Monsters and other humanoids attacking them? Cultists? Painful memories from tragic backstories? How do they cope with the, admittedly, traumatic experiences they go through over the course of an adventure? I think we can all agree that our RPG worlds are pretty intense. It can be an emotional experience for both PCs and the players at the table, especially if your party enjoys immersing themselves in roleplay.
When you read about things like Game or Play Therapy, you see that RPGs can play a huge role in establishing healthy social interactions and coping mechanisms for the people around the table, so introducing an environment that allows those mechanisms to develop naturally– even in an imagined setting– can be very helpful. I think that the benefit of using a character/proxy to explore more complex emotions can’t be overstated, and it’s important to find ways to establish in-game opportunities for that exploration.
So how do we do it? The good news is that you don’t necessarily need an advanced degree or special training to help your players open up. Here are some different ways to help you get started!
Everyone needs a break sometimes, right? Whether after a long week of work or battling hordes of undead…it’s important to take the time to recover and de-stress!
As players, think about how your PC likes to relax. What are the things they enjoy doing outside of combat? What kind of hobbies do they have? You can pull from their backstories by delving into the things that they enjoyed before they became an adventurer, or perhaps they’ll develop new interests as they travel around the realm. You can even think about the things you enjoy doing in real life, and find things you and your PC may share– we do tend to put bits of ourselves into our characters, after all! Here are some examples to get you started:
- Going for a walk in the woods/park
- Eating tasty food
- Visiting friendly NPCs
- Reading a book
Just as it’s healthy to have hobbies in real life, your PCs need something to help break the questing routine too! They can lean on these hobbies and interests when things get hard or if they experience something that taps into their emotions.
As GMs, you can use the Down-Time mechanic in between particularly difficult or impactful battles to help balance the pace of the story. It’s also the perfect way to allow the party to re-stock on necessary supplies and really show off those NPCs and worldbuilding you’ve spent so much time on! Work with your players to develop different locations or scenes to match their interests and help them explore who their PCs are off the battlefield. Don’t be afraid to have this conversation out-of-character either– you’re the GM, but you’re not expected to be able to read minds. Some of your players, especially new ones, may benefit from brainstorming together.
In addition to having hobbies and activities to lean on, it’s important to have someone to talk to after a significant event, whether joyful or traumatic. That being said, it seems as though one of the most challenging aspects of role-playing is simply talking to one another, especially for brand-new players! It can feel daunting to delve into a deep and emotional conversation at the table, as it certainly requires trust between the players and GM, but those kinds of conversations are important for helping your characters grow.
BUT! Don’t feel like you have to dive right into a Critical Role-style exposition…start small until you start feeling more comfortable. Here are some simple ways to start a dialogue and build up those PC relationships:
- Post-Combat Checks: After a challenging battle, check in with your companions. Are they hurt? How are they feeling? Anyone need a potion or a Healing Word? Did anyone fall unconscious during the fight—how are they recovering? Chatting a bit during a short rest is a good way to boost that empathy.
- Meal Times: If you have a group who enjoys meals by the campfire or in the local inn, this is another opportunity to chat and interact in-character. Who does the cooking? Do you enjoy the food? What did you think about that last quest? Where do you think you’ll be going next? Just as in real life, meal times are a great way to get to know eachother and chat about the day’s events.
- Keeping Watch: When it comes to personal conversations, especially between characters that aren’t as likely to open up in front of the whole group, keeping watch offers a nice opportunity to speak more openly about more sensitive topics. Try starting with a simple “How are you holding up?” and let the conversation develop naturally from there.
As a GM, the most powerful tools in your kit are your NPCs. You can use them to provide information about the world, deliver quests or rewards, present challenges, and help move the story along if the party gets stuck. Your NPCs can also help lead to some of the most memorable moments in your game in the way they interact with the PCs.
In the early stages of the campaign or game session, before the party members really get a chance to know eachother, it might be easier for a player to interact with an NPC. With the exception of villians and antagonists, many new players see NPCs as a third-party entity who’s there to help them in some way. Sometimes they’re shopkeeps, other times the NPC may be elevated to the status of a confidante or fellow companion. In the case of the latter, you can really tailor the NPC to whatever the PCs need at that time. Particularly if they’re a re-occurring presence or have a tie-in to someone’s backstory.
I think re-occurring NPCs are among my favourites precisely for this reason. They give the party someone they can visit time and time again…a bit of constancy and familiarity in an otherwise chaotic world. They can watch the party grow over time and help them along the way if they get stuck. They can start to learn about the struggles and challenges each PC faces, and they are a great avenue for character growth.
Remember, these are just starting points and any of them can be adapted to your specific party. What are some other ways you and your group incorporate in-game self-care? Share your stories below!