There are probably as many ways to define “roleplaying-intensive” as there are gamers, but for talking purposes here’s the definition I use: A game in which mechanics take a backseat to character interaction, where all (or nearly all) in-game decisions are purely character-driven and where most (or all) in-game conversation happens in-character.
I’ve been running a Mage: The Awakening chronicle since October of 2007, and from the outset I planned it as a roleplaying-driven game. Credit goes to my group for really getting into the roleplaying side of the game, and I certainly couldn’t have forced a roleplaying-heavy game on them if that wasn’t what they were in the mood to play — but I could, and did, take steps to help create the right atmosphere for that kind of game, and so can you.
Step 1: Know Your Group
I’ve been lucky enough to play with most of these guys for several years now, on both sides of the screen (though mainly as a player), and I have a pretty good idea of what they like and dislike in a campaign — and how much and what style of roleplaying each of them enjoys.
You might not have that luxury, of course. If you just moved and are starting up a fresh group, you won’t know who likes what, who never talks in character and who wears a cloak to every session. If that’s the case, run a one-shot that includes a good mix of roleplaying and more mechanics-driven elements, and see how they respond. If that’s not practical, just ask them what they like most about gaming, and see where that leads.
Once you have an idea how each of your players will respond to a roleplaying-driven game, adjust your expectations accordingly. For example, if you know that one player prefers to refer to her character in the third person (“Red Sonja says…”), don’t try to force her to speak in the first person.
As a rule of thumb, if a player is having fun and their style of roleplaying isn’t detracting from anyone else’s fun, everything is fine. Your perceptions of how your players “should” roleplay are a lot less important than making sure they have fun. Just roll with it.
Step 2: Talk to Yourself
This step is a quickie: When you first start thinking about your campaign, tell yourself, “I’m going to run a roleplaying-intensive campaign.” That’s it.
That declaration will be one of your two touchstones from here on out. (The other will be “Make the game fun for everyone.”) Any time you need to make a game-related decision, think back to your intention to run a roleplaying-oriented campaign.
At least for me, making this kind of mental declaration is a big help, and it’s a simple step to take.
Step 3: Declare Your Intentions
Part of any good social contract for a game is making sure that you and your players are all on roughly the same page about what kind of game you’re going to be playing. The simplest way to make that happen is to pitch your game as a roleplaying-intensive campaign. (If you know your group well, you might be able to just skip this step — but even then, it’s still a good idea.)
This step doesn’t have to be complicated. Just let your group know that you want to run a game where roleplaying takes center stage, and give them an idea of what that will entail. In the case of my Mage chronicle, I had a great frame of reference in the form of our just-completed Stargate campaign.
Our GM for that game, Don, had crafted and run a game that was driven by our character backgrounds and character choices, and coupled those elements to an engaging story that felt — and played — a lot like the Stargate: SG-1 TV show. All I needed to do was say that I wanted to run a Mage game that was along the same lines (sans TV show elements, of course), and we were off. Without a convenient reference point like that, you’ll need to briefly outline what you have in mind.
Next up, in Part 2  (and perhaps spilling into Part 3): character backgrounds, spotlight moments, limiting metagame discussion and making sure that your players’ decisions impact the campaign and the game world.
What do you think of steps one through three? Would you put knowing your group first, or do you have a different first step when you set out to run a roleplaying-intensive campaign?