I read a blog post the other day that made me groan inwardly and let out a deflated sigh at my desk, once again requiring me to reassure my officemates that no one had died. I would post a link but that would mean diving into my twitter feed, and as you know I’m kind of lazy and prone to half-assing things. Oh yah I am on the Twitters now, you can follow me @middleageddm. I don’t really twat a lot…is that the right term? Is it twating or tweeting? Whatever, anyways it wasn’t like this article was a provocative flame war punch to the crotch; it was just the depiction of modern D&D that rankled me a tad. The gist of the post was about gamers retreat from the heavy rules focused editions of D&D back into the loving embrace of the OSR. The part that stuck in my craw was a statement that 4th edition’s particular rule set and combat focused mechanics had eliminated role-playing from Dungeon’s and Dragons.
I just find assertions like these a little rigid and myopic. Don’t get me wrong this has nothing to do with the OSR. I fully understand the desire to dust of those old 1st edition texts on the shelf and head off into the bowels of the Moathouse, holy symbol in hand, to kick Lareth the Beautiful’s ass six ways from Sunday. When I hear assertions about role-playing and how 4th edition discourages it or has an absence of it, I feel like that person is erroneously applying their subjectively held schema about what role-playing is for them in a weird sort of nerd pattern recognition.
Look I will grant you that the rules/mechanics can make combat pretty long in 4th edition, which can be off-putting to some, but I don’t find that it reduces or discourages role-playing in anyway…well at least based on my subjective schema of what role-playing is. You see for me combat is or can be role-playing. It’s all there for the taking; you get character-character interaction, character-npc interaction, character-environment interaction, character-monster interaction, collaborative storytelling, and narrative descriptions of character actions/moves and the corresponding DM narrative moves. Combat itself can be a rich, flowing tapestry of smack down, that is if you want it to be. So are we then talking about a lack of exploration or interaction scenes? I don’t find this to be true either as these things seem more dependant on group play-style and taste, as games can have as much or as little of each as desired. Are we then talking about how the clearly defined and codified combat and pc mechanics stifle creativity? I haven’t really found that to be the case either, maybe even the opposite for some people as this allows for easy fluffing..er I mean re-fluffing (fuck why does my mind always go there first?) or re-skinning as desired. For example I had two wizards in my last game that weren’t even recognizable as wizards. One was essentially Green Lantern and the other was a dumb as rocks gladiator.
I think in reality I have found 4th edition’s rule set to be the most flexible and inclusive of multiple play-styles. I have seen or heard about games that run the full spectrum of the continuum. On the forums one guy was describing his multiple 1-30th level campaigns that don’t even have a DM and are a series of delves and completely combat focused. While at the other end of the spectrum I have heard many descriptions of peoples games were they proudly declare having an entire session without any dice being rolled. As an aside this seems to be the gold standard seal of approval for grognards when championing the greatness of the older editions and the bastard demon spawn that is 4th edition. This is something I don’t really get as I tend to get kind of jittery if I don’t smash something in the mouth during an evening of gaming, but that’s me.
Role-playing isn’t necessarily inherent to a system, unless were talking like a diceless system such as Amber or some heavy story game, it really seems more related to the individual people playing the game and what they do with the rules. Take Battletech as another example. That game is essentially a tactical Mech Fighting game but some cats have created such deep role-playing rich campaigns that would make some of my 1st edition campaigns look like a game of checkers. So when people say that the older editions of D&D encouraged or had more role-playing in them I just don’t buy. My personal experience and anecdotal research shows that a lot of people just killed things and took their stuff through endless dungeon crawls back then just as much as they do now.