Defining Your Game

August 14, 2011

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.

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21 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.

  20. […] develop when it is not obvious what will happen next. Or put as an even more extreme statement, when you touch your dice, you stop role-playing. You don’t have to agree with such a bold statement, but there’s still something to […]

  21. Response Blog #2: Reading Reflection | patakygn on September 5, 2014 at 11:37 am

    […] with the four definitions for RPG that were required reading and can be found: here, here, here, and here.  I will synthesize these definitions to create a more encompassing, and I feel more […]

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