There's No Role Playing in 4e

Sarah Darkmagic - Posted on 27 May 2010

I hear this all the time, 4th edition doesn't lend itself to role playing. I blame it on not knowing any better, but my campaign tends to involve a fair bit of role playing. Last night was a perfect example, we spent the entire session doing just that. No combats. No skill challenges. All I had was my storyline and the Hammerfast book (I reskinned Hammerfast to fit Andernach in my campaign world). In fact, here were my notes for the session:

After breakfast Elessandra announces that the preparations have been made for their trip to Andernach. She tells the party that they will arrive in the temple of Pelor, headed by Sunspeaker Deldaran. Deldaran can answer their questions about the town and perhaps point them in the direction they need to go.

Conversation with Sunspeaker Deldaran

  • Residents of the tenements are going missing at night. He suggests that the party keep an eye on the tenements to see if they notice anything.
  • He also mentions that the person thought to have stolen the books is probably staying in the tenements.
  • If they ask about history, he suggests they visit the House of Memory.
  • If they ask about hidden knowledge, he suggests the Grand Library.

Mystery of the Missing Destitute
Tenements are never nice places to live and the residents of the one in Andernach have been disappearing at an alarming rate. Players can hang around the tenements to see if they can spot what is happening to the residents.

I tried to make the mystery of the missing destitute into a skill challenge before the session, but I couldn't figure out a good system. Figuring the mystery would pique the PCs' interest, I decided to wing that part of the game at the table. I'm really glad I did, because it opened up the possibility that they could just explore town.

They decided to explore a number of different options in town. The warlord Lady Alexa pretended to be an elderly lady seeking a room in the tenements. Skamos, the psion, and Birkalis, The Bard[tm], tried their luck at the Great Library. Berend, the dwarf paladin, talked with a humble blacksmith to get his take on the town. Finnan, the rascally rogue, met up with some of his guildsmen to get their version of events.

All received clues that confirmed most of the rumors they had heard and conjectures they had made. Not only was someone kidnapping residents of the tenements, others went missing as well. Word is all of the workers in one of the smaller mines near town are gone. The town's leadership was doing its best to keep the news secret, to no avail. In addition, it seems Garell, the rumored book stealer, did make his way back to Andernach. He went from living in the tenements to buying a house in a nicer section of town. Some think he must have made his money at the Hidden Coin, a gambling hall, but it all feels a bit strange. The head librarian also remembers seeing him and Ragdin, a rather wealthy dwarf of Andernach, in the library, trying to find the books on the Age of Legend.

Done with their exploring, they headed to the Arcane Inn, a place recommended to them by Sunspeaker Deldaran. While Birkalis and Skamos chatted with the innkeepers, Berend and Alexa arm wrestled and Finnan sat in the corner and watched. Sensing Birkalis' sleepiness, the innkeepers suggested that he take a walk around to waken his mind so they could continue their conversation. Finnan left secretly to follow him while the rest stayed behind. They recommended a walk along the battlements and while he was up there, Birkalis heard a heated discussion down below. Curious, he let himself down to the ground. Worried about his friend, Finnan did the same, and let his presence be known to Birkalis. They saw a boat moored under the bridge and an open door. Sticking to the shadows, he snuck up to the door and overheard a heated conversation where a rather gruff voice was demanding more money for services rendered, saying that the kidnappings were becoming too noticeable and it was harder and harder to find good candidates. The other responded telling him to be careful as he would make a fine candidate himself for inclusion in the army. With that, the inner door opened with a bang and the two continued their conversation while walking towards the boat. Finnan did the best he could, hiding himself in the shadows under the bridge and, fortunately for him, was able to escape their notice.

Meanwhile, the rest of the group became worried about their friends and set off to look for them. As they neared the bridge, they heard the raised voices down below. By the time they got down to the lower level, one had gone back inside and the other was rowing up the river. Alexa tried to follow him, but he quickly passed out of sight around a bend. After a brief discussion, they determined that the one who stayed was the half-orc, Urgak, who runs the tenements and the other was either Ragdin or one of his men.

Overall, I'm really happy with this session. Inspired by @NewbieDM's red box session, I really hammed it up for them. I made up a lot of stuff at the table, such as how Celdaran the Mad died defending the library.

Celdaran: So there I was. It was dark and I could hear the screams throughout the town. I rushed to stash away the most important books. Then I saw their shadows outside the windows. I walked up to the doorway. Remembering a story from my childhood, I yelled, "Thou shalt not pass." I even killed some of them too.

Birkalis: You killed some of the orcs? How many?

Celdaran: Well, one and it was a woman, but I took one of them with me anyways.

I can't take all the credit though. The Hammerfast book provides so much great content that can be used and reused in numerous different ways. And my players were great, getting into character and just having fun with it.


Ive never understood the addage that people dont role play in 4e. Last week my character found out his entire reasoning for going to the underdark was null and void, and that his father still may be guilty for an assassination. He was crushed to find this out. Now he's essentially back to step one. I can however see your point in some respects, ive played with some groups that didnt roleplay at all but that was back in 3.0! I think that with the simplification of the rules and classes it leaves MORE room for roleplay if the DM allows for such things.

I just finished a 2 year long RP-heavy 4e campaign. Even when I would TRY to give them a solid hack'n'slash session (after several sessions of nothing but RP) they would find some way to drag all their backstories into it and next thing I knew the human wizard was a tiefling sorc bound to Asmodeus.

I don't see how this role-playing has anything to do with 4th edition. You say that no skill checks or combat was present, so what 4E mechanics were you using during this session?

From the sounds of the article as written, you weren't really playing any kind of structured game at all, just a freeflow narrative -- no game mechanics (rolling, rules) were involved. That's hardly a way to counter criticism of 4E as "all roll-play (combat), no role-play". People say 3E/3.5E provides for role-play because it has rules (and rolling) for role-play, whereas with 4E provides nothing.

I replied on Reddit, but I'll do it here too. It was a structured game, not a freeflow narrative. I just didn't use overarching frameworks like the combat or skill challenge systems, using RP and skill checks instead. Just ask Finnan, the rogue. If he hadn't rolled a 20 on his hide check, it's very likely there would have been a combat.

But then, you didn't use any mechanics that were 4E specific - that is, the ones that people who complain about 4E are complaining about. Simple skill checks were in 3E, too, and were not SO different. It's all of the other stuff - skill challenges, combat, many powers - which aren't very roleplayable since they can't be explained (satisfactorily) in game world terms. You essentially sidestepped the issue of "roleplaying is hard in 4E" by not using any of the mechanics that make roleplaying hard in 4E.

Requiring rules, tables, graphs and charts for minutiae is not role-playing, it is simulation. You are not so much playing a role as operating a set of rules that work to ensure "realism" on your own part. This of course assumes that when you scale back these rules that the people at your table are willing to play nice, to share in the collaborative storytelling by playing their roles fairly. Of course, if you can't trust someone to stick to their character, having mechanics such as alignment and rope-use skill does help.

Being fair, it essential comes down to game philosophy - compare older versions of D&D with "storytelling" games such as White Wolf. Both are essentially RPGs, but D&D is very ordered and structural in its approach to simulating/"encouraging" 'role-play' versus White Wolf's more chaotic, open-ended system.

Fourth editions Dungeons & Dragons, I feel (and of course this entire post is my view on things), has realized that you don't need mechanics to tell a story. Rules come into play to manage pressure points in this story - times when the details are life or death/important. Combat is a large portion of this. Skill challenges and skill checks are used when they're vital to the story.

A flippant example is the craft skill from 3rd edition. If you decide your 4e fighter was a farmer before he took up a sword, it's safe to assume that he knows about farming, without a skill check (Using the backgrounds system you could also use this to explain training in nature: knowledge of animals, crops and appraising the weather).

But this is all second to the fact that some people really enjoy the simulation that older editions provided. There's nothing better or worse about either philosophy. Role playing is about playing a role, acting. You do not need mechanics to role-play.


You know, it's kind of funny you say that 4th edition provies [no rules for roleplaying] - you are inferring that rules are required to roleplay. You say this clearly in the next sentence, where you assert that 3/3.5E has rules for role-playing.

It's funny because, back in the days of 1st edition, we did all kinds of roleplaying. We did so much roleplaying that the system hardly mattered at all. The rules were there to cover the hinky bits where "great minds wouldn't think alike". Imagine that.

Rules or mechanics in a game have nothing to do with the playing of the role. The entire notion is just pure rubbish. What 4th edition did was get enough of the game out of the way of the roleplaying so that it played more smoothly. The rest, that was left in, was what was required to make the game they wanted to make. Rules are what we have to have in games to make people play fairly.

No version of D&D actually encourages role playing. None.

If you want a game that does, look to some of the indie games. Games like Houses of the Blooded, or Burning Wheel. These games have mechanics that reward you for role playing, not randomly rolling dice.

D&D has no such thing, and it never has. Having a list of 20 different skills to pick from so you can roll the dice more often does not encourage or reward role playing. It does the opposite, actually. Having fewer rules does not encourage role playing, either. Role playing is just something that people add to D&D; it's game that otherwise is only (as far as the rules dictate) about defeating things and getting treasure.

"No version of D&D actually encourages role playing. None."

What a bold statement from such a youthfully-arrogant soul.

For the record, games like "Houses of the Blooded" and "Burning Wheel" are experiments, and in all reality are rehashed mechanics from other games, with some barely innovative mechanic welded on top. The writers are pretentious snobs, and most of the people who play those games are pretentious snobs.

There's nothing proud or noble about being an "indie RPG" in today's gaming market. They are not alone - nor are they entirely original. They provide some structure in places that most of us haven't needed structure (in ou games) for years.

You don't need rules to roleplay your character. Rules are there to govern the limits of your actions. After that, they should just stay out of the way.

I loved this post, but I just wanted to say that Combat and skill challenges are huge roleplaying opportunities as well. I too find the claim that there's no roleplaying in 4e to be spurious- but I attribute it to the wounded feelings of people who felt caught by surprise by the edition change. The ROLLplay vs ROLEplay argument (not nearly as clever as it is supposed to sound, see the comment above mine...) is one that D&D players are already well versed in since it has been used against them for so long.

The games I mentioned actually reward and encourage role playing through the game mechanics. The rules in D&D do neither of those things. Any role playing that goes on is purely a play style choice made by the players.

I could role play during a game of Monopoly, too. That doesn't make it a role playing game.

And just to be clear, I've been playing D&D since 1996, and am currently running a 4e game full of role playing.

My point is that we should stop arguing that D&D includes role playing. It doesn't. You can certainly do so during the game, but it is in no way necessary to play the game. Roll up a character, but leave the name, religion, alignment, and other stuff at the top of the character sheet blank. Can you still play the game without any problem? Yes, you can.

Let's accept that and move on. We can still share stories of fun RP experiences we had during the game, but we don't have to keep defending it as a game that provides or offers opportunities for role playing.

I can't really imagine how you would play D&D without roleplaying. Even if it's a pure hack and slash campaign, you're still roleplaying the hacking and the slashing by choosing builds and powers that fit your character concept, and there is at the very least a loose plot linking individual encounters together.

And even if you're just playing "Yourself, but better," you're still playing "Yourself, but better and who is also a Level 12 Dragonborn Sorcerer rather than an overweight Level 2 Human Receptionist."

Kid, in my copy of "The Player's Handbook", it tells that D&D is a roleplaying game. I'm not sure what it says in yours.

It self-identifies as a roleplaying game, and it looks like a roleplaying game. One in which you play roles. Get it? So there must be some roleplaying in there.

Maybe you bought a defective copy.

Calling me "kid" and "youthfully-arrogant" makes me not at all interested in listening to anything else you have to say. In fact, it's rather condescending from someone so eager to call others pretentious snobs.

Mechanics matter. A Call of Cthulu and a World of Darkness and a D&D game will all play differently in how we act at the table. Does the system impose barriers to role playing? Does it offer distractions? Does it reinforce it? How much time should the DM spend on crafting the role playing parts as opposed to say, a well designed dungeon or combat, or flavor and texture against brevity of access or depth of experience. How long does it take to make characters, and what are the focuses? How does the mechanics work back into backstory?

I could role play all night long with a pack of playing cards and a good team and DM to play off of. I can role play in anything. I've run campaigns in MMOs where the system didn't make sense at all. Telling a story requires nothing and acting requires nothing but our imagination.

But the Stage affects what kind of plays you can put on, and the props, and lighting, and clothing all matter for how easy you break into it, and what you focus on and what you remember.

My 4th edition campaigns are great interesting and balanced tactical engagements, with interesting encounters I could put together in minutes that would have taken hours to setup (correctly) in 3.5. I loved what the system does for bringing props and stage and clothing. Let's me focus on the stuff I want. But sometimes you want Shakespeare when all you've got is Andrew Lloyd Weber.

4E is like that. It's kind of low-brow, like modern television. Very quality stuff, some of the best stuff available today, but also limited. There's things it's super good at, and it isn't trying to be more then that. It's not trying to be a system capable of explaining everything. It's not trying to be a simulation. It's not trying to help you put on an impromptu play. It's a tactical combat simulator for a high fantasy system that strives for balance and fun.

Hope that helped. I love 4E, but I could see the limits of it pretty easy.
Also, The 4E FRCS and FRPG are just terrible in comparison to the breadth of world material to delve off of in their earlier forms. I don't think WotC really understood what people liked about their core brands, and I was completely upset with what those butchers did. It's hard to explain, but compare the depth of content, the life per square inch in a single Volo's guide with those campaign books and it's just a travesty. I think you can make a very good argument that the prebuilt settings offered by WotC these past 2 years has been pretty terrible, and that has a serious consequence for Dungeon Masters running campaigns there. It would not take much analysis of the 4E world materials to determine what kinds of campaigns WotC is expecting you to be running. Further, if you listen to any of the D&D podcasts put out by official WotC managers, you get a pretty good sense of what type of campaigns *they* think work best (especially with new players).

Combat is the one thing they put the most emphasis on. You can role play and combat just fine, but it's pretty clear that they favor designing a system that lends itself to combat over finding non-combat solutions to problems.

Hi Patrick,

Having played each of the games you mention, I agree that rules matter (and in particular that the 4E FR materials are AWFUL). But it's my experience that the player group makes a bigger difference; it's like coffee: you'll never make good coffee from middle grade beans, but bad coffee brewed in good water will taste better than good coffee brewed in dishwater.

Another poster seemed to be circuitously making the argument (perhaps you are responding to that poster) that by focusing us on roleplay, Sarah was not actually using 4E rules. I'm not sure I'd really present the argument that way, but essentially I agree. With the exception of some systems that include systems that control or simulate roleplay (whether or not these succeed is an entirely different can of worms) a system is just a system.

BUT - I'm not going to say that you're wrong, that the "tactile" element that the system adds to the experience doesn't influence the roleplay to some degree. Because I feel that it does, and this is an important consideration in rules design; without that texture, that "Stage", a system is just percentile probabilities.

As to Michael's discussion of indie systems that reward role-play where D&D does not, I've settled on my own opinion, after several years of consideration on the matter, that good roleplay is it's own reward. If a player wants to roleplay, they should be empowered to do so. If it's not their bag, or if they're just not that good at it (it's a social skill just like picking up ladies or landing a job interview) then they shouldn't be punished by a system that's intended to reward them.

But that's all theoretical system design stuff and has only the barest relevance to the art of GMing; a GM has to work with the tools available to her (including the players) and in this session, like a good teacher, Sarah lead us to the roleplay and let us do the playing. I don't know that there's any rules system that can govern that.

"I tried to make the mystery of the missing destitute into a skill challenge before the session, but I couldn't figure out a good system."

This is the crux of the issue with 4e, the rules as written do not support Role Playing. You had to "wing it" to get it to have the proper feel.

Sorry I wasn't clearer in my description. 4e gives me plenty of tools to support role playing. They give me skill checks, aid another, and skill challenges. I used most of these during the course of the night. However, given how open ended I wanted everything to be last night, I decided to not use the skill challenge system and to not provide myself with too many notes of what exactly I expected the PCs to do. That is what I meant by winging it, not overpreparing to the point where I would be tempted to railroad the players into one path of action.

To me, the issue is that there are some people who want specific rules to cover every possible action a player might want to do. If such systems bring those people joy, then I want them to play those games. But such a system doesn't appeal to me and I refuse to define role-playing so narrowly. Give me a loose framework, let me fairly decide success and failure and, most importantly, let's just have fun. :)

I never use the skill challenge system, Sarah. I would use it if I wanted a no-arguments decision based on some life-or-death escapade some player was trying to pull off, but beyond that simple skill checks have always sufficed. Even when players are a little bashful to roleplay out a scene, we still can give them some grace by just making them make simple checks for the bits they can't roleplay. If things get to the point where casual off-the-cuff decisions seem unfair, the rules are there to fall back on.

What's wrong with winging it? The system is there as a flexible set of guidelines.

Are you so helpless that you can't use a little imagination?

Hi Sarah,
sounds like my group. Besides evenings with lots of combat, there are just as many were my players are just conversing with NPCs and themselves.

By the way, how did you come up with "Andernach" ? Andernach is a German city not far from my place. It's known for its tower, its swimming crane and ist psychiatric clinic ;).

that one's kinda my fault... Newhamshire is set in a different corner of the same campaign world I was running the group in before Sarah took over. I had decided that I was sick of the scottish dwarf stereotype and so I gave a pseudo-germanic feel to the dwarf language which is just fake German. Andernach being literally "undernight," the name Sarah decided on as she and I discussed some of her early worldbuilding ideas.

I leave out the skill challanges in my D&D game...and yea have a field day about how I don't use certan parts of 4e but uh...I didn't use grapple rules either lol *stairs at 3.5 hard like* Anyway I like 4e makes you feel like a hero in combat and gives you some clout when your character is speaking with gruff generals about how they should help the war effort.

The argument that 4th ed isn't a RP supportive framework is one of the arguments that I've had a lot of people say as well. This goes with the fact that the game has had a lot of elements that come from Online RPG's where you have Tank, Heal, and Damage and how every ability that a character has is tied to damage in some way, with the exception of Utility.

This can give the impression that the game is shallow, and can be a big red flag for some players who are heavy with RPGs, even more so given the popularity of Dungeon Delves, where you have a collection of Dungeons that have little to no relation to each other, and the only goal is to "beat" the dungeon.

Regardless though, RP is something more along the lines of adding detail to your character in whatever way you can, and for the GM, finding a reason to connect all those dungeon Delves to provide access to information, artifacts, or even more story plots.

The system of the game is only there to handle situations of conflict, specifically combat, unique skill oriented challenges and the like. In other systems, the tables, rolls, and stats are there to provide a framework for you to build on (ICONS for example with its random rolling stats, where its up to the player to make sense on why their random rolls effect each other and why).

My position is that any system can be used for Role Playing, it just depends on how, as a collective of Game Masters and Players wish to use those tools, and how they interpret that system to better adapt to the style of play that like. Which leads me to believe that the system, for a purely Role Play oriented group, is secondary to the game, and that the system has nothing to do with how well a group role plays or not.

In such the case, you are right that 4e isn't limited to shallow to no RP, but its also not tied to just that system either. The RP comes from the GM and the Players.

As someone who's played RPGs for over 30 years, including all the big names and much of the off-brand stuff as well, I can strongly state that 4e has just as much RP as any other RPG out there past or present. RP is the act of... well... acting out your character's activities. This cannot be helped nor hindered by any system. Just look at White Wolf's games, Cthulhu, Warhammer, or even Amber's diceless RPG. Four systems often described as having more of an RP-bent. Care to explain to me how having an attribute ranked 1 - 5 is somehow more RP oriented than 3-25+? Or how having a library skill is more attuned to RP than a knowledge skill?

These games have more "realistic" rules in some ways, perhaps, but that hardly equates to RP. Yes, when you have rules that make combat tedious or boring, you're more likely to do other more RP-oriented activities, but that doesn't make them RP systems. I haven't seen any more RP during combat in those games than I see in any version of D&D. Combat and treasure may be less interesting, so there is less focus on that and thus perhaps more RP, but again, that's not the rules, that's a choice made by the players. One could do nothing but combat and roll dice in those games as well. 4e embraces the abstraction found in all RPs, and if you understand that, the RP opportunities are arguably more easily obtained than in more simplistic combat or open ended systems.

And is a game more RP oriented just because it rewards RP? If D&D had a rule that said "your DM awards 500-1000xp based on the quality of your RP during the evening," would it be more of a role-playing game? Different iterations have done that, and it has had zero impact on how my friends and I have ever played the game.

A role-playing game is one that generates opportunities for role-playing. Monopoly does not do that. There is no back story and no characters. There is no framework for a world or interaction with other characters. And playing D&D with only skill checks is no different than playing a Storyteller game with no combat. You're just using a subset of the rules that describes the part of the game you prefer. And since both systems have rules for skill resolution and advancement, they are both far more than just "winging it."

I do little more than RP in my games. I've been running games for decades (I rarely take the part of a PC), and averaging 2 games a month, our group has maybe 3 - 5 combats a YEAR. I pretty much always use the D&D system (especially in recent years). I've tried other systems, but the skill system in D&D is easy to understand, easy to implement, quick to apply, and gets the job done. I've tried other systems, and found them unnecessarily complex in some cases and no better in others. I play D&D because it gives me a better RP experience, not less of one. I also like it's combat system, because when we DO have combat, it's more interesting that "I attack." 4e has more of a board-game feel to it during combat, but it also more easily allows me as a DM to inject RP into combat. I find it's description of the abstraction much more conducive to interesting description than "you miss again." In most systems with "better" RP, combat is "I miss" or "I hit." Because that's all that can really happen without grim result. In an abstract combat system where you do hit points of damage, a hit can start to wear someone down (i.e. they lose some hit points and are easier to bring down in combat as they now have less "luck" to burn through), they can have injuries that have actual effects (most states can be described this way), and combat maneuvering via sliding, etc. is combatants driving their opponents to better positions during combat like what happens in the best swashbuckling movies.

To sum up, RP is a choice, not a game system.

You can roleplay a game of chess it doesn't make chess a very good roleplaying game.

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