In Search of the Definition of Role-Playing
How Does 4E Shape Up?
Does 4E encourage RP? Does it discourage RP? I’ve laid out the terms, but now its going to come down to a subjective opinion. And I understand people will disagree here. But hopefully, anyone who wants to discuss the question can do so more rationally with a more solid framework for that discussion. If people can have the conversation without talking past each other and understand that people are going to score 4E differently, I’ll walk away knowing I’ve done a good job.
4E, in my opinion, is no different from any other edition of D&D: it strives to remain staunchly neutral on the question of RP. It strives to provide a well-defined world and rules for creating situations, and it provides a strong method of action resolution that is logical and simple to understand, but that’s where it begins and ends. In that respect, it bookends the RP. It helps the DM create and present situations, waits for the players to make their decisions, and then it provides a mechanical system for resolving actions logically and consistently. Even the generic D&D setting is a strong setting and the various other campaign settings are even stronger, providing well-thought out, immersive worlds and powerful archetypes, but it allows a high degree of individual customization and creativity for players who prefer that to strong archetypes. Obviously, as a class-based system, there is a limit to how much freedom it can afford, but it is much more customizable than some class-based systems, so that isn’t really against it.
Now, there are those who say the combat system is constrained and limits creativity and I can accept that argument. But, as I’ve already noted, combat is traditionally the purview of weak RP to begin with, so I can’t really care too much about that. The free-form skill challenge system can be constraining at times, but nothing in the system requires it to be. By the book, the system encourages the DM to draw the players into making narrative decisions rather than trying to optimize their path through the skill challenge. Again, I am prepared for people to disagree there. I am also prepared to accept that some people might find the rules of the world too abstract to provide a consistent, logical framework to help visualize the world, but I think that’s also subjective.
Ultimately, and take this however you want, I don’t think 4E cares if you role-play. You can play the entire game referring only to the mechanics and think about the characters as pawns in a chess game (in combat and in skill challenges) and the game will function just fine. Or, you can build strong characters, use the characterization to choose feats, skills, races, classes, backgrounds, and themes, and the game will function just fine as well. It doesn’t care one way or the other.
But I do have to note this is not the default for all RPGs. If you look at a game from the FATE system, for example, with its Aspect/Personality driven resolution system, you’ll quickly see it doesn’t function well if you aren’t thinking about your character’s personality and using that to drive your decisions. Mechanically, every time you ignore the character’s personality, you cost yourself resources and every time you follow your character’s personality, you increase your chances of success. If you look at Warhammer Fantasy RP, the GM uses party tension and the party sheet to create mechanical consequences for ignoring personalities and ideals in the party and the only way to avoid them is to address those things. In Mutants and Masterminds, each time you ignore character traits (complications), you are costing yourself potential power that you can use to defeat your enemies (hero points).
But D&D is none of those. D&D is a rich world building and action resolution system that doesn’t go anywhere near the RP. But I don’t think its fair, by any means, to say it is actively discouraging role-playing.
So, What’s Jenny’s Problem?
I understand exactly where Jenny is coming from. After all, I agree that 4E doesn’t really want to get itself involved in the question of how much RP is happening at the table. Again, I think this is part of the D&D legacy. And I think that is also part of the broad appeal. After all, different groups have different comfort levels with RP. A game that remains neutral on the question provides a framework for all of those different groups. The strong RPers can bring their own, the weak RPers can dip their toes in, and the monster slayers can just slay monsters. The strong, but generic setting that comes with the core rules allows the group to decide whether they want strong archetypes and strong canon or ignore that stuff or write their own. The presence of rich optional settings lets the strong archetypes/canon folks find even stronger canon. And so on.
But here is the problem: every participant is coming into the game with different expectations. No one who has read the Dresden Files rules is going to sit in on the game if they aren’t interested in a high level of strong RP. But with D&D, there is no default level of RP implied. Players can come in wanting no RP, lots of RP, or something in between. So, if the group doesn’t sit down and discuss their expectations first, mismatches can occur.
Complicating this is the fact that people tend to assume that there is some default level of RP implied and that they are expecting that. When Jenny (or I, to be honest), sit down to play any RPG, we are expecting a high level of RP and we figure we’re pretty much on the same page as everyone else. After all, its an RPG. Why play a role-playing game if you don’t want to role-play. But the truth is, because systems can encourage or discourage levels of RP, or remain neutral, its entirely possible for people to have very different expectations depending on their experience. In addition, the term role-playing game also refers to video games that simply cannot provide the same level of strong RP as a game run by a real human with a human brain. Beyond that, the term RPG is applied to a very broad spectrum of games without real concern for what RP is. So, new players coming from outside or from video games will have very different expectations as well.
Like so many things, the RP neutrality of D&D is a trade-off. You open the game up to lots of different experiences, but you also risk mismatched expectations. And a group may be forced to compromise to play together, which means some people may be pushed above or below their comfort levels. Or else, the group may have to admit they want different things and split up. Choosing to play something else might work by encouraging RP and making it easier to RP, or it may just result in a group of players who are unsatisfied with the game.