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 http://www.level30yinzer.com/blog/?p=1101 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.
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.
When You Touch the Dice, You Stop Role-Playing
So, let’s look at the idea that rolling dice precludes role-playing. Imagine this scene in a game:
The characters are standing at a roulette table in a casino. Its is extremely late and the casino is starting to close down for the night. The wheelman is calling for last bets before he shuts the table down and the table minimum is $20.
Player 1 is playing Risky McGambler, a lover of excitement and risks. He is careless and reckless because he always figures his lucky number is about to come up. He doesn’t take responsibility for his own actions; he is always waiting for life to drop something good in his lap. But lucky breaks don’t come often and he blames his rotten luck and an uncaring universe for everything that goes wrong. Risky has lost hundreds of dollars at the casino and is down to his last $20, which he needs for cab fare to get home.
Player 2 is playing Cautious Von Meticulous. Cautious is a very careful person who believes in planning ahead and avoiding risks. He lets a lot of opportunities pass him by because of his aversion to risk. He is desperately afraid that things might not go according to plan and he doesn’t cope well with the unexpected. He is also secretly jealous of Risky because things always seem to happen to Risky. Cautious feels his life is dull, routine, and safe. That’s why he likes spending time with Risky. Cautious brought $100 to the casino that he could safely lose. He considers it mad money, just to have fun with. He also brought along extra money for meals and other incidentals. He’s lost his $100 of mad money and is left with $20 in his pocket for the ride home.
The GM asks what the characters do and each player considers his character carefully. Player 1 puts down his $20 and Player 2 hems and haws for a long time before also deciding to play on the last spin. There is no doubt that the players are role-playing. In order to make those decisions, they had to consider their characters carefully. Player 1 knew Risky was the sort to assume he’s got to win now because he’s been losing all day. Player 2 decided that Cautious, standing beside Risky, decided to break out of his rut and take a chance, though he also knows Cautious is already craning his neck and looking around for an ATM and trying to remember his credit limit on his gold card in case he loses and needs money for a cab.
Now it is time to resolve the action. The GM picks up some dice and… damn it… it wasn’t really role-playing after all. Someone touched a die to resolve the situation, so that’s all over, isn’t it. Its too bad, too, because the outcome – any outcome – was going to be interesting. Even if they both lost, the conversation between Risky and Cautious when Risky tries to mooch money for a ride from Cautious would be interesting.
So, do you see how the idea that dice and random outcomes preclude role-playing is a load of gorgon crap? Role-playing is what happens before and after the resolution of actions. It is in the decision about what action to take and in the next decision about how to respond to the outcome.
Also note that the players didn’t have to do anything more than place a chip on a number. They didn’t have to talk to each other (though they could have) or provide descriptive flavor text (though they could have done that too). Imagine the scene, get into the character’s head, make a decision. That’s where role-playing happens.
How Strong is Your RP
It would be very easy to say that every decision a player makes in an RPG is role-player because all that is required is the act of visualizing, projecting, and deciding. But the truth is that some RP is stronger than other RP. Take this situation for example:
Risky and Cautious go shopping together. They both have to have the Amazing Widgetinator (as seen on TV), so they head to the mall to buy one each. In the mall, they find two stores side by side. Both are carrying the Amazing Widgetinator (as seen on TV), neither store is crowded, and they both have ample stock. One store is selling it for $60 and the other has it on sale for $30. The GM asks “what do you do?” The answer is pretty obvious, isn’t it?
This is very weak RP. Its almost non-existent. The players really don’t have to project themselves into the heads of their characters to make a decision. No understanding of the character is needed and the decision doesn’t reveal anything interesting about the character or the player. In short, its a decision that every character in that situation would probably make. It doesn’t matter whether a player is playing Risky or Cautious. The decision is the same and the reasons for the decision are the same: $30 is less than $60.
Contrast this with the situation above at the roulette wheel. Even though both characters made the same actual decision (play the game), the players had to think about their characters and the situation to reach that decision, and the characters arrived at their conclusions for very different reasons. And, because RPGs continue beyond one decision point, the next situation will build on the last, so even though they made the same choice in that situation, the outcome will mean different things.
Weak RP occurs whenever a player doesn’t have to project himself into the character’s head to make a decision. Generally, if the same player would make the same decision regardless of the character he is playing, the RP is weak. Usually, this occurs when a decision is based on reason and logic and has an optimal answer. Spending $30 instead of $60 is a very simple example. But the situation doesn’t need to be simple to be weak. Solving a complex riddle or puzzle is also weak in terms of RP because it comes down to reasoning ability, not personality and goals.
But let’s look at the other end of the spectrum: strong RP. In the roulette situation, Player 1 didn’t have to think too hard to figure out what Risky would do. It was pretty obvious and it required only a shallow understanding of Risky’s character. Player 2 needed to work a lot harder. On the one hand, Cautious didn’t want to lay the bet because that involved deviating from the plan and possibly stranding him at the casino (what if his credit card or ATM card doesn’t go through for some reason). On the other hand, Cautious has been depressed and trying to break out of his predictable rut. Jealous of Risky, he wanted to do something Risky would do, just for the thrill. Player 2 not only needed to understand both of these motives, but he also had to decide which was stronger. In this case, Cautious was conflicted and Player 2 had to resolve that conflict.
The strongest RP is driven by internal conflict. When a character is confronted by two things he wants (or two things he doesn’t want), his goals are in conflict and the player has to try and figure out how to resolve that conflict. That requires the player to really get inside the character’s head, not just to understand the character’s personality, but to go beyond the personality. That is, the player has to add something new to the personality and ultimately, gain a deeper understanding of the character. Of course, this makes sense because, in real life, we show our own personalities most strongly when we are conflicted over a decision and often we learn something about our own priorities.
There is a role-playing spectrum. The weakest RP occurs whenever a player doesn’t have to go into a character’s head to make a decision, usually because the decision is based on reason and logic and there is a correct answer to be found. The strongest RP occurs when a player has to resolve an internal conflict for the character, to decide between conflicting goals and motives and establish priorities that might not have been explored before.
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.
What’s a System to Do?
So, we’ve defined RP and laid out a spectrum. The question is what a game system can do for RP. Can a game system do anything? Can a system encourage strong RP? Discourage it? Must it remain neutral? The answer, which is probably obvious by this point, is that a system can do a lot.
We’ve defined RP as the act of visualizing, projecting, and deciding and defined strong RP as resolving internal conflicts. Let’s look at each part of those.
Visualizing: Anything a system does to help the players imagine the situation and think about it as a real – or at least possible – situation is an aid to role-play. A game system that provides a strong, consistent setting makes the world and the situation easier to imagine. Logical, consistent rules that allow the players to understand how things in the world work are also included, so that players can figure out the likely outcomes of their character’s actions. Visual aids like pictures, maps, miniatures help in many situations because, again, they help the players assess the situation. I know these things are traditionally viewed as creativity killers, but, once again, RP is not necessarily about creativity. Creative can be a useful skill to aid RP, but they are two different things.
Its important to note that some of these things can be a double-edged sword. In general, a token with the word “innkeeper” written on it is better than a nice, painted miniature of an orc that the DM says is actually a halfling innkeeper. If your game aids require a lot translation, they actually do more harm than good.
Its also important to note that I am not talking about maps, visuals, and tokens or miniatures just for combat. If the party is negotiating in an alley with no chance of a fight, a good map and some tokens or miniatures can be a big help in visualizing. This is especially true because each of the participants needs to get most of the details the same. Every time a player has to revise an imagined scene to include a detail someone else brought into it suddenly, that requires and adjustment and tugs the player out of the RP for a moment.
Projecting: Anything a system does to help the players understand their characters and how their characters relate to and interact with the world is an aid to RP. Strong, easily identifiable character archetypes and canonical details are a definite aid to RP. But even something as simple as a blank on the character sheet for personality traits, motives, or goals is an aid to RP. In addition, anything the game system does that allows a character’s personality traits to have an impact on their actions is a big help. Bonuses and penalties derived from particular personality traits or edges and advantages that key off of personality traits are a definite aid. If nothing else, they create incentives to use the character’s personality as a guide to making decisions. They also remind players of the character’s personalities.
Once again, it should be noted that creativity and RP are different things. Some of these things can be seen to actually constrain freedom and creativity, and that is true, but that doesn’t change the fact that they help the player understand the character and make decisions based on the character’s personality rather than their own. And, it is also true that some people have a much easier time understanding characters they, themselves have created. So we can say that, although strong archetypes and canon are an aid to role-play, so is freedom to create. This is much more subjective. But some players have a great deal of difficulty creating strong characters from whole cloth and need story threads to help them get into it.
And I should also point out that there is nothing about pregenerated characters or randomly generated characters that precludes role-playing. It is just as possible to role-play a character you did not make yourself as it is to role-play one you did. You may prefer one way or the other, or find one way easier than the other, but that is personal taste and does not speak to how role-playing works or what it is.
Deciding: Assuming that the player is visualizing and projecting, deciding will follow naturally. The best thing a game system can do to encourage RP in terms of the decision is to provide incentives for making good RP decisions. This goes back to creating mechanical incentives for following the character’s personality. Beyond that, the system can help slide RP toward the strong end of the spectrum by ensuring that decisions have consequences – good and bad – to help set up conflicts. If each decision has an opportunity cost (that is, a character has to give up something to make a choice), the likelihood of strong RP increases. Again, logical and consistent rules that allow players to assess the probably outcomes of their decisions help here. Finally, freedom of decision is very important.
Now, these are just general ways in which a system might encourage RP. And obviously, a system can discourage RP by impeding any of these. Wild, difficult to imagine settings and arbitrary and nonsensical rules make it difficult for players to visualize the world and assess their decisions. Mechanical bonuses or penalties that lead to optimal decisions and metagaming definitely get in the way. Constraints on decisions that don’t follow logically from the visualized world definitely get in the way. That is to say, its okay that the characters can’t walk through walls. But saying they can’t walk across a field just because the game doesn’t want them to gets in the way.
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.