role playing games and activities rules and tips

free role playing games ideas and theory for employee training, motivation, team building and development

Here are techniques, theory and ideas for designing and using your own role playing games, exercises and activities, and for using the free role playing games, exercises and activities available in this site (below and here). Role playing games, exercises and activities help build teams, develop employee motivation, improve communications and are fun - for corporate organizations, groups of all sorts, and even children's development. Role playing games, exercises and activities improve training, learning development, and liven up conferences and workshops. This free article about role playing ideas and rules has been provided by Edward Harbour and Jill Connick of AIM Associates (Drama) Limited, a London-based specialist consultancy using drama in learning and development. will help you design and use games and exercises for training sessions, meetings, workshops, seminars or conferences, for adults, young people and children, in work, education or for clubs and social activities. Role playing games, exercises and activities can also enhance business projects, giving specific business outputs and organizational benefits. We cannot accept responsibility for any liability which arises from the use of any of these free role playing ideas or games - please see the disclaimer notice below. Always ensure that you exercise caution and sensitivity when using any role playing games or activities which might disturb or upset people, and take extra care when working with younger people and children.



effective use of role playing in learning and development

Role playing has been around as a learning tool for a long time. Without defining it as such, many of us use role play as a basic tool of life. Whenever we project into the future in a kind of 'what if' scenario we are indulging in a role play of some sort, we are projecting ourselves into an imaginary situation where, though we cannot control the outcome, we can anticipate some or all of the conditions and 'rehearse' our performance in order to influence the outcome. Much of the time we are better for it. By way of example, you might wish to speak to your garage to raise the fact that they have still not cured the oil leak. Before doing so you might well rehearse to yourself what you intend to say. This would be a mini role play - we do it all the time because it helps.

In a learning environment role play can be a very flexible and effective tool. The tenet 'I hear and I forget, I see and I remember, I do and I understand' is very applicable here. Role play is often used as a way of making sense of the theory, of gathering together concepts into a practical experience. And yet, it often goes wrong. Why? Because like so many things which are simple on concept, it can become awfully complicated. If used badly in a training environment the role play tool can be ineffective and sometimes even damaging. One of the main complicating factors surrounding role play is the attitude or emotional state of the people taking part. Quite frankly, many people are nervous, even terrified, at the prospect of participating in a role play; not surprising when you hear about some people's unfortunate role play experiences.

For the purpose of this article, role play is defined as an experience around a specific situation which contains two or more different viewpoints or perspectives. The situation is usually written as a prepared brief and the different perspectives on the same situation are handed out to the different people who will come together to discuss the situation. Each person will have a particular objective, or objectives they want to fulfil which may well be in conflict with their fellow role player or role players. It is how each role player handles the situation that forms the basis of skills practice, assessment and development. The situations will be realistic and relevant to the role players and the most successful ones will be focused on developing a particular skill or skill set. If you consider a musical analogy, each 'player' is involved in the same 'symphony' but has a different score - their perspective and objective(s) - for their own 'instrument' - themselves as individuals - their histories.

So, how can we take the fear out of the role play experience?

Here are some guidelines that you might like to think about when planning your next session.


role play objectives

  • Be very clear about what you want people to get out of the role playing experience. Muddy thinking at the outset will result in muddy outcomes. Clear thinking and role play preparation result in clear outcomes.
  • Are you assessing skills or are you developing them? If you are assessing people, they need to know the competency level expected of them and the brief needs to have measurable outcomes. People also need to trust that the role play will have the same level of challenge for them and their peers. So, don't put people through an assessment role play until you know they have reached a certain standard (through development activities and role plays).
  • Are you giving everyone the same level of challenge, or are you flexing according to the level of skill demonstrated by each individual? The former is more recommended for assessment, the latter for development (see above).


role playing placement - where in the agenda?

  • In skills development programmes, trainers and facilitators often schedule a role play exercise at the end of a course, to gather in the learning, and to assess how well the participants have understood the training. Leaving it until last can cause 'the dreaded role play' to loom large in people's minds, causing a negative distraction throughout the course. So instead, introduce people to the role play experience gently by holding mini role plays earlier and throughout the training. This serves a double purpose: it de-mystifies the experience so that people become more comfortable with the idea of 'performing' in public; and, it more fairly shows role playing to be a very good tool for rehearsing life, which is its main function.
  • To illustrate the important value of role playing, here is a theatre analogy: actors spend hours rehearsing a twenty minute scene. They do it again and again to get it right; to get the behaviours and the relationships right, to make sense of the scene and to understand the issues. They get feedback in the form of notes from the director, which they will immediately apply to the work in hand. They carry on in this way until it's perfect and the scene becomes part of them. This is not to suggest that people in learning and development situations should become actors and rehearse their life scenarios for hours on end, but the principle is the same.
  • Be realistic in your ambitions for the role play. For instance, if you are teaching a complex behavioural model, break it down, rather than have people role play it in one huge chunk. Just as actors don't rehearse a play in one huge lump, they break it down into (sometimes) tiny micro-units and rehearse until they really feel confident with each bit, so the same principles apply to any complex new skill to be learned. Being over-ambitious causes people to lose confidence in themselves and in role playing as a tool. Like any tool, role playing must be used properly or it won't work. If you don't have time to eventually get the participants doing the whole thing properly, in depth, with plenty of rehearsal and revisiting, then just do a part of it.


role play briefing

  • Role playing can become ineffective if people are unclear about what they are supposed to do. The briefs for all sides of the role play should be unambiguous and totally in line with the objectives. Here again, any muddy thinking will have consequences. Be clear about the purpose. If you are assessing skills in a certain situation then the brief must reflect this. If you are assessing or developing behaviour, keep technicalities out of the brief. Generally, remove technical content except for the very basic information needed to particularise the culture. Otherwise, lots of technical detail provides a bolt hole for people who are skilled or pre-occupied in technicalities, when they should be focusing on structure, or process or behaviour. The exercise will keep its point and value if it avoids technical distractions.
  • Role playing briefs should contain enough information for both parties to engage in a believable and relevant conversation, which should be in line with the objectives. Give as much detail as is necessary - too little and there won't be enough to sustain a conversation, too much and people will be swamped with information, most of which they either won't need or won't remember.
  • Avoid giving people the task of role playing attitudes alone. If you want somebody to role play an angry customer give them something to be angry about. Behaviour, like acting, is all about specifics. If you are angry with your garage about a specific oil leak and their inability to cure it, there will have been a specific chain of events that has led to your picking the phone up and complaining. It is not a general anger at everything. Role players can forget this in the heat of the moment if given open licence to just 'be angry'; there needs to be a reason for it. A well written brief will help to keep the role play focused and on track.
  • Adequate preparation time may seem obvious, but it is often overlooked in the belief that it is best to get on with it. People can be encouraged to share what they are trying to achieve with observers, so it becomes a shared, facilitative exercise rather than a battle - this will also defuse fear and tension. Again, sharing objectives will help and not 'spoil' the role play.
  • In developmental role play, the option can be given to press the pause button where people feel they are getting into difficulty. Although building up a flow in a role play has advantages, it is not a scene from a TV soap, it is a rehearsal tool. And in rehearsals, people stop and start. No-one should be expected to give a 'performance'. Emphasising this too will dissipate people's fear and concern.


role play observation and feedback

  • Allow the other participants to observe the role play and give their comments afterwards. Observers are hugely beneficial to the participants' learning. How often in life do we get the opportunity to gain from such focused attention? We not only have our own response to the role play; we can also benefit from our fellow role players' observations, and tutor's point of view, and the feedback from the observers.
  • For the observers, explain clearly what you want them to look out for. Again this should be in line with your objectives. The language of feedback is also very important. Feedback should broadly follow SMART principles (Specific, Measurable, Agreed, Realistic, Time-bound). Role play feedback should describe specific things that the observer saw and heard, relevant to the exercise and to the person(s) doing the role playing. Role play feedback should not contain subjective judgements or comments based on personal knowledge or assumptions. Feedback should be meaningful and specific - something that the role player can act on. Role play feedback isn't helpful if it suggests that the role player should 'get a new personality' or 'be nicer'. Remind participants that the purpose of the role play is for the development of the person or people doing the role play. Objectivity facilitates learning.
  • The order of feedback should be participant or participants first (that way it's untainted by others' views; it also recruits them into their own learning experience - people 'buy in' more if they are themselves expressing what happened and why). If others give feedback and participant(s), wait till the end, they may feel they've been bombarded by a lot of 'tell', without initial space to compose their expression of what it was like to be inside the experience. It's best to hear from them without the pressure of someone else's views first which may then colour their own. It's worth asking what went well for them and why.
  • If there are professional role players involved, the role player(s) can make their comments after the participant and observers have expressed their observations. It often happens organically anyway (once you have set it up) that once the participant has formulated out loud what happened for them, the observers will start to offer their feedback and in the process will include the professional role player. It is important though that the (non-professional role player) person or persons involved in the role play go first.


Role play rules are basically simple: role plays must be focused; the objectives must be clear and understood; instructions must be clear and understood; feedback needs to be specific, relevant, achievable and given immediately. Crucial to learning and developing options of behaviour - knowing what works, what doesn't work, the range of behaviour available to an individual - is the opportunity to go back and have another go or several goes at bits of the role play and/or the whole role play. This flexibility needs judging and managing on each occasion, so as to provide a more comfortable experience, and to double the learning value. Aside from which, when you plan and run proper role play sessions, participants will often tell you they actually enjoyed the experience; that they forgot it was a role play, and found it the most powerful learning they've ever experienced!

This free article is aimed to help non-professional role play trainers and facilitators (ie., those without an acting background) to create and provide effective role playing for training and development, and includes the same principles that professional role play facilitators use in designing, writing, and delivering specialised role playing training activities.

This article is provided by Edward Harbour and Jill Connick of AIM Associates (Drama) Limited, a London-based specialist consultancy using drama in learning and development, and its contribution is gratefully acknowledged. Please give similar acknowledgement when you use or pass on their methods.

The design, facilitation and training of role playing are at the core of AIM's expertise. If you'd like more information or advice about role playing please contact them: phone +44 (0)20 8829 8978, website: or email:

see also


© content edward harbour and jill connick 2004-8; edit and contextual material alan chapman 2004-2013

Please see additional referencing/usage terms below.