Wednesday 8 September 2010

D&D Is Not A Role-Playing Game

Well, at least the original edition was not a game about role-playing - any more than Clue is.

In both games you get a character to pilot. It's up to you whether you are going to speak in character, allow the character's identity to influence your play choices. You can get all professorial as Professor Plum and make a bee line to the library, or you can just plod along as a competent problem-solver with a purple pawn.

On the other hand, we have all known people at the D&D table who just didn't go in for theatrics, accents, or back story. They played their characters as well-balanced, flexible, unremarkable protagonists. I have no doubt that they enjoyed the danger, exploration, problem solving and treasure finding of the game as much as the others. They may have even been playing closer to the pulp-adventure model than the more characterized players. More often than not, the hero of a 1930's adventure or sci-fi tale was a rough block of a character with an Anglo-Saxon name and few personal characteristics. It's a technique whose visual equivalent has been described in comics by Scott McCloud: through the abstracted narrator or protagonist, the reader gains a greater personal immersion in the fictional world.

There are few if any rules in the original D&D game that direct, enforce or reward role-playing. A Lawful alignment was the player's to lose, giving only social benefits. It's anyone's guess, for example, whether a Lawful cleric who acted evilly would lose their powers or just turn into a Chaotic one. Otherwise, characterization was left up to the players and, of course, the referee as master NPC roleplayer.

It's AD&D that started holding mechanical game benefits hostage to role-playing. The most notorious case was the paladin, but also rangers and druids, assassins, and clerics (with the authority given to the DM to skimp or change spells for bad alignment playing) had to watch how they acted. The vaguely defined moral universe of the alignment system created a culture of pettifogging casuistry, where "do baby orcs have souls" and other choice questions were debated throughout the rec-room seminaries of the land.

While everyone accepts this as part of the AD&D games and smirks nostalgically at alignment shenanigans, I'd argue that this is not the most shining moment of the system. A paladin bound by twelve clearly defined behavioral commandments similar to the one about accumulating treasure, for example, would work a lot better in play. Cut loose from the alignment system, that class would have the additional interest value of varying just how far you can get from Lawful Good and still play within the rules.

Of course, there is a side branch of development toward games with true role-playing mechanics, whether built into the system as with Pendragon, or included as options, as with the personality flaws in GURPS. Other systems on the indie/experimental side pump the importance of role-playing even more. And many DMs in D&D, too, have had the practice of rewarding in-character play with experience points.

I personally don't see XP for role-playing as necessary to the D&D game. Role-playing is something that should be its own reward because it's fun. Many players take to it even if only on a basic level (grunting fighter, flighty elf). If done well, the whole table benefits as the audience. But what I don't want is having to hand out XP that encourage players to do bad roleplaying (although even that can be entertaining in its own way); that pay off on prima-donna character motivations that work against the party in a game best played cooperatively; or that make people who aren't really cut out for play-acting feel left out. Nor do I want the spontaneity of the role-playing to fall victim to the overjustification effect. "Woops, session's closing soon, better get in my stock catch phrase so I can cash my XP check."

Now, I'm aware the "controversial" D&D != RPG statement has been made many times before. What I want to do here is make it a positive, instead of a slam on a game seen as too combat oriented. As with the other player-skill aspects of old school gaming, just because there aren't rules for roleplaying in D&D doesn't mean it won't happen. The good thing about D&D, done right, is that there's always a safe place at the table for the person who would rather just play an adventure game.


  1. I played in an amazing home-brew game (and home-brew world) late in my high school days where there was no alignment or 'quirks and flaws' system. It freed up players to play more dynamic characters and the GM to concentrate less on alignment/personality mechanics and more on the story being told.

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  2. You'll get no argument from me. Original D&D gave out xp for monsters killed and loot recovered. No experience awards for staying in character there.

    People wore funny hats and spoke in silly voices because they wanted to, not because they were being rewarded for it.

    I always preferred Colonel Mustard.

  3. Alignment causes brain damage. That's what I usually say. Normal and intelligent beings atart behaving like idiots and argue about orc souls.

    Brain damage, I say.

    Anyway. I think the fact that there are no rules for roleplaying might actually leave more room for it to happen. I just thought out loud a bit about that right now.

  4. Thanks for the good anecdotes, and Andreas you are correct, rules for roleplaying just means the responsibility for it passes from the players to the DM (who already has enough roleplaying to do as the NPC puppetmaster).

  5. The bigger the ruleset, the fewer spontaneous role-playing moments you'll have. (Kristof's 1st Law of Game Complexity) Don't know if it's true overall, but from what I've seen, every new edition of D&D has added rules and enforced standardized gameplay more... In our early games, when all we worried about were our stats, our class, our level and our armor class, it was easy to roleplay: "I put my ear up against the door... do I hear anything? OK, then after we kick open the door, I draw my sword, and charge into the room!" Nowadays, it seems to be more "I made my perception check, what do I find out? OK, gimme a sec, I have to see which powers will work out best for me..." followed by shuffling of pages and reading of rulebooks. What we considered poor roleplaying ("Although I'm known far and wide as the greatest swordsman alive, it turns out I'll be better in combat if I use that Hammer of Thunderbolts with my Guantlets of Ogre Power and Girdle of Storm Giant Strength... so forget that legendary sword I spent the last three games years hunting for!") is now standard fare. How can you roleplay if the (4ed D&D) game has been designed to run like a computer game, with every allowed action already designated? Munchkinism has been built into the very rules!

  6. If as a DM, you award xp for any encounter the PCs can walk away from you will most certainly be encouraging role playing. Not every encounter in OD&D was meant to be a combat encounter. Characters had a charisma score that influenced the reaction of opponents. A good DM would let a player say what his character was saying and assign a modifier to the reaction based on how good or bad it was. The Player didn't HAVE to, mind you but the option was there.

  7. It depends on what one thinks of when they think of role-playing. In the beginning, it wasn't so much theatrics at the table (which EGG wasn't so fond of, at least in the early 80s) as it was the role a Cleric played, vs. the role a Fighter played, in a party.