Good Rules Don’t Mean Bad Roleplaying

Paul and I were talking a while back about how recently it seems like Wizards of the Coast seems to have been focusing its attention on older editions of D&D recently and thinking about what made people so excited about them. The Redbox and Essentials line is one example of this, where they tried to capture both the simplicity/accessibility of D&D and the charm of playing very different types of characters. Another example is the series of articles by Mike Mearls focusing on the history of D&D and discussing what that can tell us about the game today. These seem like good steps to take and have the potential to address some of the objections fans have to 4th edition versus 3.5 or earlier editions of D&D.

What strikes me is that from what I can tell a lot of people are objecting more to what they see as the new philosophy of D&D rather than the rules themselves. And in some ways I see where they are coming from (in other ways I completely disagree).

The thing is, the new rules for 4e are GREAT. They are hands down superior to the rules in other editions. They are more elegant, expand choices in and out of combat, generally more balanced, and basically more fun in every way. They involve less arbitrary charts. They involve more meaningful choices. They are great. I’ll save a meaningful defense of the mechanics of 4e for another article, however :).

Meanwhile, the philosophy behind the new editions or in some cases the perception of the philosophy sometimes leaves room for lingering doubts:

1. A Return to Dungeon Crawls: Is it just me, or is 4e more about dungeon crawls and less about more free-form encounters in the wilderness or in cities, which seemed more common in 3.5? Official adventures, for example, seem to consist almost entirely of long dungeon crawls. And 4e rules, with their structure of encouraging multiple encounters in a day, definitely seem to work very well for a dungeon crawl.

The thing is, this needn’t really be the case. There’s nothing in 4e rules forcing PCs to muck about in dungeons, and it is not too difficult to create situations where multiple fights crop up naturally over the course of a day. Or just one or two SUPER HARD fights. So this is a situation where the general tone of 4e seems to imply that players should be fighting wave after wave of monsters in a dungeon, which could turn off some more die-hard roleplayers, when in reality, the rules support any style of play in this area.

2. More Dice Rolling: There is an impression in some old school rpg circles that more rules means more dice rolling to resolve conflicts or solve puzzles, even outside of combat. For example, in early editions of D&D there were fewer rules for resolving social encounters. Now PCs have diplomacy, bluff, and insight. There’s also the skill challenge system for resolving many different sorts of non-combat encounters.

These rules seem to be viewed as a hindrance to roleplaying, getting in the way of what should be a fun social encounter or a gritty encounter with a trap. I suppose they could be if you NEVER used them as a DM, since there is some expectation that a PC with a high Diplomacy will get to use it from time to time.

However, I view all these rules as just another tool in my toolbox as a DM. For example, if I am a hurry to continue with the story and one of the players wants to recruit some townspeople to join them in their next mission, I will let them make a quick Diplomacy check to convince them to come along. I often find this preferable to a 30 minutes roleplaying encounter that will bore half the adventuring group, and the player is happy that they get to show off their high Diplomacy.

At other times, however, I’ll spend 45 minutes to an hour in a fun social encounter with few if any dice rolls if everyone (including me) seems to be enjoying themselves. Similarly, I’ve come across and run my fair share of straight up puzzles in D&D, where player ingenuity trumps any roll their character might take. You could easily run a whole campaign this way. It’s a simple matter of taste that only tangentially relates to the actual rules.

3. PC are Superheroes: There’s a strange perception in D&D 4e that PCs are super heroes starting at level 1. My own personal pile of dead first level PCs points to evidence to the contrary. And seriously, if less than a dozen low level goblins poses a serious threat to your 1st level adventuring party, then maybe you want to rethink your claims.

Yes, 1st level PCs have a ton more hit points than in previous editions, and some nifty powers to boot. But that’s because previous editions were crazy! You became nearly TWICE at powerful when you hit level 2! Fighters had pretty much nothing to do but swing their sword once a round (or more times a round as they got higher level!). I guess there is a certain charm to literally being one hit away from death, but it gets trying fast. I just can’t get THAT excited about playing a 1HP wizard, where every combat means an almost certain chance of death.

Sure, if you throw a few EL +0 encounters at a 1st level party they are going to look like gods, but throw a few gnolls in the mix and suddenly things look pretty gritty again, with the PCs pulling out all the stops to survive, including creative use of their environment. And hey, if you really want to turn up the heat at any level, let the PCs stumble into an encounter level way over their heads and see how they do; they may surprise you and turn the tide to their advantage, but more likely it will become a fun exercise in beating a tactical retreat.

4. Adventures are all about Combat: There seems to be a perception in 4e that adventures are all about combat. Again, this seems partly due to many of the published official adventures, which seem to be primarily slogs through dungeons. To be fair, I’ve heard most of this from word of mouth and have only personally looked through a handful of 4e adventures. It does seem that more than anything else there is a lot of nostalgia for adventures from older editions like Ravenloft and Tomb of Horrors, which went beyond a bunch of linear combat encounters and gave players a lot of opportunities to develop a story and explore their surroundings. So sure, I think there is something that Wizards can take away from that.

However, I think most people who have played in 4e campaigns realize that there is just as much roleplaying and out of combat encounters as in previous editions. The ONLY impediment, really, is that the combat rules are so good, it’s a shame to go too long without indulging in a good fight.

With that said, the skill challenge system (a useful tool in the toolbox!) can allow running cinematic non-combat encounters  that have the same sense of danger and high stakes as a combat usually would have. Furthermore, a good skill challenge invites the players to craft their own narratives by fleshing out details in the scene with creative skill use and descriptions.

5. Points of Light: Other aspects of the D&D 4e philosophy I go back and forth on, but the idea of the D&D world as a few bastions of civilization and order amidst a darkness of wilderness and danger really grabs me! I love it, and I love that most of the official D&D fluff builds on that viewpoint. Again, there’s nothing stopping someone from using all the material from a 2nd edition campaign setting, but why would you want to? It’s awesome to be a group of heroes who are one of the few people keeping small pinpricks of civilization from collapsing, even if you do so in pursuit of your own selfish and petty goals!

Conclusion: Really, this all boils down to the point that 4e has provided more tools and better tools for running games, but at the end of the day it’s provided the flexibility (or just stepped out of the way) to allow players and the DM to pick and choose the ones they want to utilize at a given time. As someone who blends seamlessly (or semiseemlessly) from running a fun involved tactical encounter one minute, to a freeform social encounter the next, and finishing everything off with a bizarre puzzle that is solved as much by player skill as cruel fate, I appreciate the tools that D&D 4e has given me.

Addendum: I wrote this article several weeks ago. Since then I have had the pleasure of playing in a couple sessions of odnd that Paul ran as part of some future articles we may be posting. He DM’d, and I ran all the heroes. He tried to run it completely by the book using a sample dungeon that was provided and rules for randomly determining if a room had treasure or monsters in it.

It was fun, very interesting, and VERY weird. It definitely had a different feel from almost any previous edition of D&D I’ve played in (I’ve done a small amount of 1E and quite a bit of 2, 3, 3.5 and 4th edition), mainly because I didn’t get the feel at any point that the DM truly cared whether I lived or died. It was like exploring an abandoned dungeon with no real sense of purpose, save to survive and gather treasure.

It would be interesting to replicate that experience in 4e. This would involve challenging a lot of base assumptions that have build up over the years, such as the idea that the DM is crafting a narrative, that fights are challenging but balanced, and that players aren’t expected to die fairly regularly. The DMG has some stuff for creating a random dungeon that I might borrow from, but I think I may end up creating my own system, perhaps with help from the essentials random treasure rules, so watch out for that in a future article!

16 Responses to “Good Rules Don’t Mean Bad Roleplaying”

  1. Ladislaus says:

    While “good rules don’t mean bad roleplaying” is certainly true, 4e (of which I am a big fan, by the way) does miss the boat (in my own humble opinion, of course) with its mechanical treatment of the skill system. 4e’s tactical combat rules coupled with characters’ multiple & different combat powers allows for exciting and unique combats to unfold. Excellent! Gone are the days of: “I attack” or “I already cast my spell for the day” from the previous editions of the game. Good riddance, I say, good riddance.

    However… (and you knew there was a “but” coming)… the 4e skill system simply lacks this charm. Non-combat encounters seem to always devolve into a rather monotonous series of dice rolls, where players’ whose characters have good skill bonuses participate and those players’ whose characters lack good bonuses in the necessary skills, do their best a pretending they’re not sitting at the table. 4e combat is tactical, fun, and filled with suspense; 4e non-combat is simply not. That said, 4e has at least attempted to address the situation* with skill challenges, but those too in my experience simply do not rival the fun of the tactical combat portion of the game. (*In game mechanics terms, prior editions of the game were no better at non-combat encounters than 4e.)

    Role-playing or not role-playing during the game is not the point I’m trying to make here; players [the DM included] can chat away (role-play) as needed when ‘in game’ discourse is needed. This can and should continue as necessitated by the adventure, players, and situation. My point is, though, when it’s time to roll the dice to resolve non-combat encounters, the game simply doesn’t have the same “oomph” that combat encounters do.

  2. Rory Rory says:

    I completely agree, Ladislaus. I think a well run skill challenge can be very fun, but it definitely lacks the depth and tactical choices of a good 4e combat and usually isn’t quite as engaging as a result. On the plus side, it’s significantly shorter, so at least it doesn’t drag on or anything!

    It would be interesting to see D&D seriously tackle making some really cool and engaging non combat mechanics that rival their mechanics for combat, but I suspect we’ll continue to see the general D&D philosophy of taking a step back when combat is finished and letting the DM and players sort things out with only a few dice rolls.

  3. paul paul says:

    Skill challenges definitely do feel 1.0 (which makes a lot of sense, as they are).

    I’d be interested in seeing someone take a stab at adding combat-style immediacy to out-of-combat interactions. There are, of course, a couple of pitfalls:

    -Don’t make people choose between a combat feat and a social feat: they should be separate.
    -Don’t interpose a layer that will always kludge up every simple conversation.

    It might also be that D&D should leave this sort of thing to wheel of time rpg or dogs in the vineyard. I’m not sure.

  4. paul says:

    I’d also like to add that, while 4e is my system of choice, I have a deep love for 1e and 3e. I don’t like saying that 4e is the best edition because I’ve had a lot of fun playing other editions, and I can’t rule out the possibility that the older-edition rules facilitated that fun.

    As far as I can tell, every edition of D&D is a hell of a lot of fun. Except 2e. I have no evidence either way on that score.

  5. katre says:

    My big problem with the 4e skill system is that, after chargen, you’re done with it. You choose your trained skills, and after that skill bonuses only bump when your stats bump. I appreciate that they wanted to move away from 3e’s more complicated skill points system, but I’d appreciate a system that let me differentiate my skills as my character gains levels.

  6. paul paul says:

    I agree. I wouldn’t mind if, for instance, characters got to choose a new trained skill at level 11 and 21, or something. I’d be fine with that as a replacement for the giant skill bonuses that people get at high level.

  7. I’m beginning to get curious.
    Personally I played B/X, 1st, some 2nd (which I thought was an improvement, but also a loss of soul), and after that I’ve mostly played the various incarnations of my own Dark Dungeon system. And the latter is much more scene and story based. More free form, and dungeons are rare in my games nowadays.

    D&D seems to have stayed with the dungeon. But the break between 3 and 4e seems to be too great for many. Even if the combat is deemed better by many others. Every new system usually elicits resistance, but this seems extraordinary.

    Any idea why, especially from your NON-OSR viewpoint?

  8. trey says:

    I would say that whether 4e is “worse” or “better” largely depends on what you’re looking for in a game.

    For me, 4e with all its encounter and daily abilities and its tactical emphasis feels very “gamey.” There’s nothing a priori wrong with that–a lot of “old school” gamers are very much into that very sort of thing.

    All the machinery of 4e seems a step too far for me. I don’t think that makes it “bad,” though–just not right for me.

  9. anarkeith says:

    I’d note that I believe too many rules can hinder opportunities for good roleplaying. Too often I have players making decisions based on whether or not they think they have the stats to succeed at something (which may be commentary on the human condition anyway, but I digress), or saying they didn’t think to try something because, “it wasn’t in the rules.” *sigh*

    Back in the day, players asked for what they needed, and weren’t shy about it. *wink* Bottom line is that it is easy to get distracted leafing through rule books for the “right” way to escape a grapple, when it’d be more fun to say, “you wriggle free!”, or, “I poke him in the eye and escape!” This opens up narrative possibilities like, “Well, you wriggle out of the giant’s grip, but he was holding you ten feet in the air, so you take a d10 worth of damage from the fall.” Choice, consequence. Deal with the consequence. As long as these are reasonable, and not malicious (on the part of the DM) or blatantly exploitive (on the part of the Player), keep the story moving. No extra rules needed!

  10. Rory Rory says:

    Hi Jaap de Goede,

    Here are some of the reasons I see for the resistance:

    -3.5 was only around for 5 years or so. In contrast, 2nd edition was around for over ten. So where people were in the mood for a change by the time 3rd edition came out, there wasn’t that same sense when 4th edition came out.

    -3.5 was pretty good: Frankly, towards the end of its run, 2nd edition was starting to look pretty antiquated. I picked it up around 1997, I believe, and I remember thinking it seemed pretty crusty compared to other pen and paper rpgs and computer rpgs out at the time. So many inelegant charts and weird rules! Where as 3.5 had and still has a pretty solid core system. It’s logical and mostly consistent. So I think there was a sense of if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

    -4th edition was a departure in gaming philosophy: 4th edition is explicitly more “gamist” in outlook, where as 3.5 is more “simulationist”. So there are many more elements in 4th edition that don’t try to mirror real life and instead try to facilitate a more enjoyable gaming experience. Encounter powers are a good example; they give you an opportunity to make a few really cool moves every combat, even if there isn’t a realistic explanation for why you can only pull that once a fight.

    My feeling is that D&D was never particularly simulationist (hit points have always been an abstraction and Vancian spellcasting was either VERY SILLY or pretty game-like), so I welcomed these changes.

    -Then of course there are all the things I mention in my post, most of which I think are misconceptions about 4th edition: basically that its a big combat fest with no roleplaying. I think of lot of these misconceptions come from early demos people participated in, which were combat focused to demonstrate the principle changes, and the more gamist philosophy, which leads people to believe that you have to play it more like a board game than a roleplaying game.

  11. I’m one of the folks who support the view that 4e dnd is a combat fest, but by comparison to other systems only; not as a negative aspect. It was designed as such and the design was well executed. It has a far more detailed and mechanical way (deliberate abstraction of combat) of resolving battle than many other systems, and requires the use of playing aids such as minutures and such, so its an easy and blunt comparison to make when looking to drag it down.

    All that aside – it does not prohibit an effective roleplaying team from avoiding, resolving the story, and generally the mechanics are very effective and built for purpose. I’ve been playing rpgs since 1st Ed (too many years ago) and can see the progression of the game as a positive. Who else was offering a game of this style which was executed in such a polished manner? To my knowledge this was the first which did not start as a miniture gaming ruleset.

    Thank you for the great article, a darn good read.

    Only thing I’d add is that the 4e rules feel very much like a computer game in style and presentation. This also makes sense, but it makes you ponder which audience is the target; or perhaps the target audience has not changed for every edition of DnD, but we as players have evolved our needs. When I started playing a game like 4e would have been fantastic, and has led me to where I am today in rpg tastes.

  12. […] Good Rules Don’t Mean Bad Roleplaying from Blog of Holding ( […]

  13. Claire claire says:

    I totally agree that skill rules are a useful tool in the DM’s toolbox. You don’t _have_ to use them; one thing I love about playing D&D (especially with Rory or Paul as the DM) is that if you as the player come up with a really inventive or logical or persuasive or funny solution to a problem, you can get a big bonus to your roll. In some cases I can imagine the DM deciding that you shouldn’t have to roll at all–if you offer the troll king a thing that he really wants in exchange for your friend’s freedom, why should you have to roll diplomacy? So you can reward storytelling without resorting to a die roll; but it’s nice to have the option of structuring non-combat encounters. So much of the excitement of a combat encounter comes from the suspense of die-rolling mixed with the player’s ingenuity; why should non-combat encounters be less exciting? From a story-telling/role-playing perspective, I think die-rolling works as a means of adding necessary narrative tension in both combat & non-combat; if the players are adding enough of that narrative tension themselves, you can relax on the die-rolling.

  14. paul says:

    I agree with everything claire says, especially about me being a good dm.

    I think claire nails it when she says that die rolling adds narrative tension. That’s why I personally prefer die rolling to be out in the open. The significant clatter of dice behind the DM screen may add a little Old Testament dread, but the visceral thrills and chills come from seeing high and low numbers on the dice.

    Speaking of viscera, making D&D dice rolls is much like reading the future by examining goat entrails. The DM is like the priest who can interpret these omens.

    Rolling dice in the open is like sacrificing the goat before a crowd. From the state of the entrails, knowledgeable onlookers can get a general sense: are the portents generally good or bad? Only the priest can determine whether the entrails actually promise victory in the coming battle against Sparta, but still, everyone’s attention is on the goat. The priest is just an expert interpreter.

    If the priest sacrificed the goat behind, say, a DM screen, the observers’ nervous attention would be on the priest’s face. At the end of the sacrifice, the priest would announce, “According to this goat, we should totally attack Sparta!” In this case, the priest feels much more like the guy making the policy decision.

    People say that rolling the dice in secret – and, in general, hiding rules elements from the player – lets them focus on immersion. In fact, I think it just changes their focus from the dice to the DM’s big ugly face.

    Personally, I think that a dice-focused game can be more immersive than a DM’s face-focused game. When you see a bad roll, you say, “Them’s the breaks”, not “The DM is being mean to me.”

  15. […] of Holding had a discussion of why he thinks that 4e does not, in fact, discourage roleplaying.  An old discussion, I know, […]

  16. […] be fair, D&D4e eliminated some of the "min-maxing" and numerous inconsistencies, but I think it also lost some […]

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