Defining Your Game

August 14, 2011

In Search of the Definition of Role-Playing

Those Are Fighting Words

So, as we’re zeroing in on what RP actually means and how to talk about strong and weak role-play, we can discuss a question that comes up a lot. Is it possible to RP in combat? And, just to simplify this discussion, let’s limit ourselves to 4E. Let’s ask “can you have strong RP in 4E combat?” And the answer is “its possible, but it’s exceedingly rare.”

First of all, let’s remember that all of the descriptive flavor text and combat banter that might come up doesn’t count as strong RP. Its acting on decisions that have already been made. And the act of visualizing, projecting, and deciding is where RP really happens. Its descriptive, its exciting, its fun, and its an RP aid, but it doesn’t automatically mean RP is occuring.

Combat in 4E (and, to be fair, in most RPGS) is a tactical game. The goal is to win the fight, usually by defeating all of the enemies. It is about figuring out an optimal strategy, using the characters abilities to maximize the chances of victory and minimze the risk of failure or death. It is, in the end, a challenge of strategy and reason. Combat is basically an extended puzzle sequence that requires a lot of die rolls to resolve. Put this another way: if you give the same fighter character to several players and have them play through the same battle. Most of them will make very similar decisions and any differences will be the result of the players’ individual tactical skill, not because of the personalities of the characters.

Again, this is to be expected and it makes perfect sense. Firefighters, police officers, soldiers, people who find themselves going into life or death situations are trained to react by rote to these situations. They are supposed to put their personalities aside and respond the way their training dictates to bring about an optimal resolution to the situation. Paradoxically, weak RP in a combat scene is very accurate RP.

But you can have strong RP in combat. Its just that most attempts to do so fall flat due to a lack of understanding of what strong RP requires. You can add all of the alternate goals and ways to end the combat early and terrain powers and everything else you want and still not have an impact on RP in combat. You can encourage all of the description, flavor text, and banter that you want. In the end, the RP is still going to be weak. Because to get to strong RP, you need to put the characters’ or the scenes goals in conflict. For example, imagine the only way to win a fight is to let two characters die, trade two characters for a victory and three characters’ lives. Resolve that, players. Good luck.

Strong RP generally requires the characters to give up one thing for another or choose between several bad outcomes. And 4E combat (specifically) strives to avoid that. Clerics do not have to give up attacks to save an injured character, characters do not have to give up damage to leave enemies alive for later questioning, and so on. Many DMs are driven to allow skills and improvised actions using Minor Actions so the players don’t have to sacrifice anything for them, which is nice, but it also weaknes the potential RP because the choices become easy.

Moreover, many strong RP choices involve making tactically poor decisions in exchange for a goal. The elf fighter who ignores the rest of the combat to engage the one orc due to racial hatred is leaving his allies out to dry. He has had to choose between being a member of a team and doing his job or serving his people’s goals and desires. But these sorts of decisions are generally discouraged in the name of teamwork and camaraderie.

Now, I’m not saying that 4E should go back on those choices. I’m just pointing out that they have made strong RP much harder to bring into combat. But combat has traditionally been weaker in RP in most RPGs. And that’s just fine. As I noted, it makes sense. Its realistic assuming the characters are trained to fight. And, even if they aren’t at first, they do get a lot of practice.

Mixing it Up

Saying combat is weak in RP is not a pejorative. In fact, just like a good session should include a mix of different scenes and encounter types, a good session should include scenes of weak and strong RP. Strong RP is weighty, hard, and slows things down. It puts pressure on the players and adds tension. Some of that is a good thing, but five hours of tough decisions and internal conflicts is hard on anyone. A good game needs to wander back and forth along the RP spectrum and should probably stay near the middle most of the time. And this will vary depending on what the participants want from the game.

Sometimes, we want to get inside a character’s head and psychoanalyze their decisions. Sometimes, we want to solve tricky puzzles. Sometimes, we want to kick the crap out of some greenskins and take their stuff.

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19 Responses to Defining Your Game

  1. Ensign Expendable on August 15, 2011 at 9:48 am

    Comparing 3.5 and 4e I can see a couple of big places where 4e can be ‘accused’ of being anti RP. Neither of which actually preclude RP from a group but definitely move the focus off of it from a mechanics point of view.

    1. Skills and to some extent feats. There is really a lot less control that players have in their skills compared to 3.5, and the skill list has been shortened. This may have been designed like this for good mechanical reasons but it limits the way that a player can customize their character to match their background and concept for the character. This doesn’t stop a player developing a strong character and playing the role of that character but it does indicate that this is less important in this game. The same could be said for feats. There are so many ‘must have’ feats that there is very little space for customization. When players are willing to give up combat advantage for interesting characters you can get a bit more variety however. So on the character sheet you really don’t get a lot of places to differentiate your character (ability scores are all high in 4e), well, apart from powers. But they are mostly for combat, the time of weak RP as you say. Which leads me on to…

    2. Long combats mean that a large chunk of the session is spent in what you characterize as weak RP by nature, and I would agree. This leaves less time for other areas of the game where the RP is more important. Now I realize that combats could also get long in 3.5 at higher levels, but they are long at low levels in 4e too, and low levels are the most fun for RP.

    This is actually quite a good thing for the closest we get to a mass market game in our little hobby as it allows people uncomfortable with some aspects of RP to play a large part of the game by pretending to be a character fighting (ie RP) and have a great time without having to talk about feelings. All the better if their character doesn’t like talking about feelings too.

    However it does lead to such quotes as the ‘We didn’t touch the dice this evening, it was RP heaven.’ Not because touching the dice mean that the RP is ruined as much as starting a combat is going to involve a fair chunk of time involved in weak RP, and it’s nice to have a break from that.

    I say again, neither of these preclude RP in your games. It’s just I get a feeling that these factors have added to the reputation of 4e as a Roll Playing Game rather than a Role Playing Game (but I first heard that joke aimed at 2e). It certainly doesn’t stop me providing interesting individuals as NPCs nor my players playing deep interesting characters.

  2. Camelot on August 15, 2011 at 1:43 pm

    I’ve been telling my group for some time that what people commonly refer to as “roleplaying” is actually acting. I used to be under that impression myself. Whenever someone would roll the dice and just tell me the result, I’d say, “But what does your character DO?” It’s not that I shouldn’t have done that; but I thought that I was encouraging roleplaying. You are absolutely right once again: roleplaying comes from meaningful decisions, not flavorful descriptions.

  3. Defining Your Game | Joel's Scattered Thoughts on August 15, 2011 at 8:07 pm

    [...] Defining Your Game | The Angry DM: D&D Advice with Attitude is a good post on what role-playing is and is not. RP means imagining a hypothetical situation, projecting yourself into the mind of your character, and deciding on a course of action. [...]

  4. [...] And can you define it for your non-gamer friends and family? If not, you might want to check out the Angry GM’s definition (at the bottom of the post). I think it sums things up [...]

  5. [...] Angry DM posted another article, this time attempting to define “role playing.”  He makes a thought-provoking distinction between “acting” and [...]

  6. Jack Palmer on August 20, 2011 at 1:44 pm

    Wow. This is a long article…

    *reads aloud* You know what pisses me off… *falls asleep*

  7. The Angry DM on August 21, 2011 at 1:57 pm

    Jack, thanks for that edifying and information comment.

  8. New Link: The Angry DM « The Evil GM on August 21, 2011 at 3:08 pm

    [...] Aug21 by Michael Lee I found out about The Angry DM because of this post, “Defining Your Game.” It’s worth the time. Share [...]

  9. The Brennon on August 30, 2011 at 10:55 pm

    So I pretty much only have one comment to make, and it’s mostly directed at some common themes that come up during discussions about the “lack of RP in 4E”, and that would be the idea that the skills list restricts the customization of your character. I just don’t see how this can be so, but I could be wrong so please feel free to point out a flaw in my logic or understanding of the mechanical effects of WotC’s decision to shorten the skill list. It seems to me that the only real difference between the skill list in 3.* and 4e is that the game designers have simply grouped similar skills into a general list. For example the grouping of all those fun thievish skills like move silent and hide in shadows, or pick locks and remove traps being grouped under the thievery heading. Mechanically you have the same process. Roll a D20, add a modifier and determine the result of your efforts. As a matter of fact, it would seem to me that a shorter, more generalized skill list would encourage RP as a player is now able to use his/her imagination to apply the few skills they have into a much more broader spectrum of situations. Again, as an example, it would be tough to justify using your wonderful Pick locks skill to jerry rig a trap to go off when the orcs whom are chasing the party opens the door that you have just slamed shut in an attempt to buy you some time to get away. The flip side of the coin is that I as a DM find it easier to allow my PC’s to justify unusual and interesting uses of their 4e skills set’s, especially when they are trying to do something not covered by the suggestions spelled out in the PHB. In my mind, this much more generalized skill set allows me and my players to become much more creative in how we apply the mechanics of 4e.

    This is of course just one very narrow example. But I think it does apply to most of the problems people seem to be bringing up about 4e. I think we as a community have been playing rules/mechanic heavy D&D for so long now, that many of us (myself included at times) have forgotten how to let ourselves be creative on the spot, especially when a creative player throws us a curve ball not covered by the mechanics as set forth in the rule books. I think we ( and by we, I mean the DM’s of 4 & 3E) have gotten very lazy in this regard. Let’s maybe stop looking at all of these small details that make up the whole of a game we collectively love as problems, and start looking at them as the tools we should use to cover the meat and potato’s of our games. Let’s also start being a little more creative and dip into some of that gravy!

  10. Ensign Expendable on August 31, 2011 at 12:09 am

    The Brennon, while not disagreeing with your comments (especially the last part) I’d like to clarify a couple of things that I feel does make a difference between the skills in 3 & 4.

    One is that the system of increasing the skills feels clunky in 4e and makes it feel less like you are building a character. It’s basically Trained/Not Trained and the option to add a specialty bonus plus ability bonus and half level. It’s not that this isn’t a perfectly good mechanic it just feels like the finer grained skill point system led to more exciting character customisation at level up time. It certainly doesn’t prevent RP (nothing in the rules does) so this isn’t a comment directly relevant to the blog post but, for me, it provides a little less flavour within the rules of the game.

    The second point is that with groups of skills all rolled in to one it leaves you less opportunity to add flavour to your character by leaving some skills low. I’ve always found that in RPG’s, as in music (or drawing or interior design, etc) what you leave out is almost more important than what you put in. I find a cunning thief who can pick any lock in the world but can’t pick pockets for squat to me far more interesting than one that has high thievery. Again the rules don’t stop a player from self imposing this on his character (I nearly fell off my chair laughing when I read that though).

    These are, of course, just some things that I find disappointing and they don’t stop me playing 4e and enjoying it. I focus on these nitpicks when I’m reading the internet, not when I’m writing and running adventures.

    Also, mmm, gravy.

  11. Ensign Expendable on August 31, 2011 at 12:29 am

    It’s just occurred to me re-reading my last comment that the binary Trained/Not Trained way of doing things in 4e is more akin to the non-weapon proficiencies of 2e. It’s just that instead of nobody taking ‘Fishing’, you simply can’t take it.

    D&D 4e: More ‘Old School’ than you think.

  12. The Brennon on September 2, 2011 at 12:50 pm

    Thanks for the thoughtful response ensign… it feels good to finally start commenting on some of these blogs, and being a part of these discussions. I’ve spent many a year playing DnD but have only just started actively participating in the online community. I guess you could say that you guys sorta just took my blog comment cherry!

  13. The Roles We Play: Role-Playing | Rhinec on September 8, 2011 at 11:09 am

    [...] some, role-playing games are intimidating because of the role-play aspect.  The Angry DM did a fantastic job of addressing “What is Role-Playing” on his blog, so I’m going to steal his definition and start from [...]

  14. 4E Adjustments « Jack's Toolbox on June 14, 2012 at 9:24 am

    [...] lot of this is based off of comments made on Dissociated Mechanics, Defining Your Game, and the Dual Faces of Healing, probably some other sources and influences as well.  Right now I [...]

  15. [...] recently read a rather long post by The Angry DM discussing the question “what is Role Playing?”  Angry got a bit irritated by stock phrases like “role playing means different things [...]

  16. [...] of his actions (leading to a new situation and further decisions).  This is the heart of role-playing, and all the other bits (rules, dice, acting, etc) facilitate that [...]

  17. Good Ol' Hank on August 13, 2012 at 12:09 pm

    As a long-time role-player (expressive acting type that hates playing a printed statistics simulator), I appreciate this article because my character experience hinges on making other people know my character better than their own. I agree that people put too much emphasis on the dice getting in the way, I mean nobody complains that UFC isn’t fighting because they wear gloves, it’s just the rules. It’s important to point out that dice can cause trouble (tell the truth and roll a bluff check some time, best way to get a guard to think you’re actually there for maintenance), but that the GM is just as responsible for giving opportunities and choices as the players are for making them (I hate railroad campaigns).

    I have one small, but very pertinent, retort. Even the min-maxing munchkins that are unstoppably attracted to the now video-game-esque D&D system (not a bad thing) would consider themselves role-playing. And, in the end, I can learn just as much about them as grinding system optimization as they can from me about “Yes, it matters if your character would talk to first.” As long as there is more than one person role-playing, there will be more than one definition.

    Great article.

  18. [...] look at how shine a bright spotlight on on Step 2. Because Step 2, as I noted in another article (Defining Your Game), is really what puts the RP in RPG. It is actually pretty much the definition of role-playing. [...]

  19. Grunt's Ghosts on April 27, 2013 at 8:35 am

    I won’t say that 4E kills role playing but it does hinder it in combat. Unlike in 3.5 (which is the only other edition I played) where you really are given a basic attack, feat attacks, spells, and it pretty open to interruption, 4E’s combat system with its At-Wills, Encounters, and Dailies really make it feel like a paper and pencil video game. While you can RP your actions, most groups I’ve been in other than Play by Post games, get to the point of just saying “I use Cleave on that Goblin” and call it a day. It helps streamline the combat for new TTRPGer but I feel like it hurts them when they try out other RP-Heavy systems like nWoD or Eclipse Phase.

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