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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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