Defining Your Game

August 14, 2011

In Search of the Definition of Role-Playing

You know what pisses me off? I know what you’re thinking: everything. And yes, that’s true. But it was a rhetorical question as a lead in to a point. So just go ahead and say “I don’t know, Angry DM, what pisses you off?” And then I can say “people who say ‘I had a great D&D session last night; no one touched a die. We just role-played the whole time.'” Why? Because it proves those people don’t know what the hell role-playing is, despite the fact that they claim to love it. We can also add the phrase “role-playing scene” and anyone who insists that “role-playing means different things to different people” to the list of phrases that grind my gears.

That last phrase drives me particularly batty. Lots of words mean different things to different people, but that’s usually because those different people don’t actually know what a given word means. Or they don’t like the definition so they just made up their own. The problem is that the compound word “role-playing” is actually a word. Its a thing. Dave and Gary didn’t invent it. They just incorporated it into their war game like mixing peanut butter and chocolate.

A problem arises when everyone has their own definition for a word. It makes conversation impossible. Especially when its one of those words that everyone is convinced doesn’t have a fixed definition. Look, if I ask you to put my shirt in the washing machine with your laundry, that should be pretty straightforward. But if I am using shirt to mean “shirt” and you are using shirt to mean “domesticated feline,” we are going to end up with a very angry domesticated feline and a lot of cuts of scratches. Also, my shirt will still be dirty.

So, we have all these conversations going on about whether D&D 4E allows role-playing, doesn’t have any role-playing, makes role-playing impossible, or whether it even counts as a role-playing game; but they are all useless because we’re all talking about different things. And role-playing has become a bit like pornography: we don’t actually try to define it but we assume we know it when we see it. If you are using role-playing as a synonym for “creativity” or “free-form unscripted acting” or “the talky-talky parts of the game,” you can’t talk to someone else who ascribes it some other meaning.

And in the middle of it all, here I am, the poor little ole Angry DM. I desperately want to talk about role-playing in 4E and offer some ideas about how DMs can bring more of it into the game. And how they can work within the system or modify it to bring even more RP into the game. But I’ve got to deal with all of this other crap instead, about how “role-playing is whatever you want” and “the system has nothing to say about role-playing” and “a group can bring as much role-playing into the game as they want.”

A sickeningly friendly, cheerful fellow blogger, Jenny, recently wrote an article about how her players aren’t really embracing the role-playing aspects of D&D 4E and putting forth the theory that the system is getting in the way. You can check her article out at and follow her on Twitter. She’s @VanityGames.

Now, I’m not writing a direct response or counter-argument to Jenny’s article. I’m trying to lay some groundwork so that I can start to discuss how to design adventures, encounters, and skill challenges with a stronger focus on RP. But, in laying that groundwork, I’m going to be buzzing around her points enough that its worth taking a few detours to try and answer a few of her questions.

So, let’s do it. Let’s talk about role-playing. Let’s try to define it, solidly, and figure out where it happens in role-playing games and, specifically, in 4E. Now, you might not like what I have to say. You might want to disagree. You might want to hold on to your own, personal definition of role-playing. And that’s just fine. I’m an American, so I support your right to proudly cling to being wrong like a dog proudly rolling in its own mess. But if you want to have that debate with me, just be warned that my responses will be neither polite nor information.

Defining Role-Playing

Role-playing means to play a role. Done.

Okay, maybe that’s not so useful. Let’s try this again.

We can go check the dictionary definition, but its actually pretty much the same as “playing a role” when you break it down. So, that’s not going to help.

Role-playing is about changing your behavior, adopting different behavior, in a given situation or about exploring your own behavior in a hypothetical situation. For example, if you’ve ever read a news story about someone trapped in a terrible situation and tried to imagine how you might react to that situation, you were technically role-playing. You were putting yourself in an imaginary situation and trying to figure out how you would behave. If you’ve ever played out a scenario in your head about asking your boss for a raise and tried to imagine how the boss would react, you were role-playing.

In a nutshell, role-playing is about assuming a hypothetical situation and trying to decide how you (or another character) would behave in that situation. Yes, it can also be about being in an actual situation and changing your behavior, but that definition doesn’t apply to what we do around the table. We’re talking about the same sort of role-playing used in education, therapy, and improvisational acting; not social role-playing.

Now, its pretty clear that this is exactly what we do in an RPG. Its pretty much the definition of an RPG. You are presented with a situation and you (the player) decide how your character reacts to the situation. The action is resolved, creating a new situation, and then you start over. The point is that almost all RP occurs inside the heads of the various players. The act of visualizing the situation, understanding the character, and deciding on an appropriate course of acting is 90% of role-playing. The remaining 10% is about presenting that decision to the other participants. And honestly, if you want to get meta about it, that last 10% is more about helping others role-play than about your own RP.

The more vividly you present your character’s actions, the easier it becomes for the DM to resolve your character’s actions and the easier it becomes for other participants to visualize the new situation. After all, your character is part of the situation the other players have to react to.

Most importantly, it doesn’t matter how you present your decisions to the group. You might speak in the first person, describe in the third person, you might adopt a specific voice or pose, or you might just narrate like a book. You might be brief or overly verbose. None of that actually matters in terms of whether you are role-playing or not. The act of visualizing the scene and getting inside the character’s head to reach a decision; that’s what RP is. After all, as I’ve already said, you can RP entirely inside your own head. So, for completeness, we will classify all of the presentation techniques as “acting.”

Just keep that in mind for now: RP means imagining a hypothetical situation, projecting yourself into the mind of your character, and deciding on a course of action.

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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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