Role-Playing Made Difficult?

Posted on : 07-12-2009 | By : Brian | In : News

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Over on the At-Will blog there’s a post about D&D being a tactical game first and foremost. I think that this is generally true for the most part, and I don’t necessarily think that’s a bad thing, but that’s not really what I’m posting about today.

There’s a section at the end of the post entitled ‘Role-Playing Made Difficult’ that talks about the idea that all of the crunchy tactical rules in D&D make it more difficult to role-play because the rules focus on tactical advantage rather than flavor or character development. Specifically, an example is given that posits the notion that, given a choice between Skill Focus: Intimidate (+3 to Intimidate) and a feat that grants you a +1 to Intimidate but makes your eyes glow when you’re angry, most people would choose the former.

I agree. And they should. The main reason being that the second feat is almost wholly unnecessary. Why do I need a feat to say that my eyes glow? Why can’t I just say that my eyes glow? Any halfway-decent DM would allow a cool special effect that has no impact on the mechanics of the game. And if your DM insists that you need to take a feat to make your eyes glow, take Skill Focus: Intimidate, and say that you get the +3 Intimidate bonus because your eyes glow when you’re mad. Done.

Wizards has actually been very good in 4th Edition about making a distinction between mechanics and things like flavor or special effects. Many of the feats in D&D have no particular flavor to them, allowing you to skin them any way you want to. The powers, rituals, and other things all have flavor text associated with them, but it’s pretty easy to divorce that from the rules and re-skin any discrete mechanical element to your liking. I think that this fact makes role-playing easier, not harder.

To illustrate my point a little bit, I’m going to do something very taboo in the gaming world: I’m going to tell you about my character. A friend of mine is in the process of starting up a campaign, and I’ve already gone ahead and created my character for that campaign. The short version is that he’s a genasi storm mage sorcerer. The long version is that he’s the child of two human parents. When he was an infant he was held up to the sky to be blessed by the primal spirits, in accordance with the traditions of his tribe. He was struck by lightning, but instead of killing him, it changed him on a fundamental level. He became the physical embodiment of the storm (represented by the fact that he’s a windsoul genasi, mechanically speaking, a storm mage sorcerer, and also has the Mark of Storm feat).

You’ll notice a couple of things about that if you’re looking hard enough. One, there’s a clear concept. That concept came before I chose the mechanics for it, and I made sure that all of the mechanics supported my concept. I also re-skinned the genasi race a little bit, making my character a human who was transformed into something unique. The second thing is that I didn’t go for optimization. The sorcerer focuses on Charisma and, in the case of the storm mage, Dexterity. The genasi gets a bonus to Strength and Intelligence, two ability scores which are almost entirely useless to me. They also happen to be some of my lowest ability scores. Why did I choose the genasi, then? Because it fit the concept for him to be an elemental creature, and also for him to be able to fly every now and again (the windsoul racial power). If I had been going for optimization, I would have made him a halfling and gotten a boost to both of the ability scores that I wanted high. But that wouldn’t have fitted the concept.

Enough about that. I feel like I’ve gotten a bit off-track anyway. My point is, there’s room for both those who optimize and those who role-play, and I think that the game supports both methods of play equally well. I think that the mechanics are so easy to separate from the flavor and role-playing that it makes it incredibly easy to come up with a really cool character with lots of role-playing potential, even if you’re optimizing. And I think that offering feats that grant a diminished mechanical benefit for a cool role-playing effect is a silly idea, because role-playing effects can and should be free. And I feel like the game supports me in that assertion.

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Comments (1)

After posting and reading the comments, I really wish I had chosen another example. You and a commenter on the post have both made the excellent point that there is no reason that a player can’t have both the mechanical benefit and flavor benefit. I agree completely, and it was a poor choice of an example. Rather, my point was that optimization of class builds and the nature of the combat rules with combat on a battle mat and figurines often makes the game feel more like a tactical war game than a RPG.

I am all for re-skinning powers and feats to better suit the flavor of a character – I wish it happened more.

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