Wednesday, July 09, 2008

D&D Is Not A Roleplaying Game

Picture a rulebook.

Picture a rulebook for a new ballgame.

The rulebook reads only, "Bring a ball to an open area, in the company of friends. Have fun using the ball. Tip: try throwing the ball, or kicking it with your feet."

That's not a ballgame. It's not rules to a ballgame. It's an activity, involving a ball.

In the same way, Dungeons & Dragons is not a roleplaying game.

A lot of people disagree with this. Among these people are a very small number of highly intelligent insightful individuals, who are in this case wrong in a highly intelligent insightful way. But the rest are simply people that have never played a storytelling game developed after 1990.

Dungeons & Dragons - and I write this while currently involved in no less than three 4th Edition campaigns - is very, very bad at handling roleplaying. It's not a roleplaying game. It may, if you feel charitable, be a roleplaying activity.

The reason I say this is that there is not a single mechanic within the game that supports, enables or encourages roleplaying. Picking any edition of the game from its origins through to today, that statement is true.

But, you say, the rules say the GM may award experience for roleplaying. Which was true, under the rules up to 3rd Edition. The current version of the game doesn't even mention this concept, although it could in some way be worked into the idea of "XP for overcoming encounters". But even under the old systems, a couple of lines indicating that the GM "may" award XP for roleplaying, without any further guidance, are hardly a firm support for roleplaying.

It's even more telling that the vast majority of a D&D character sheet is geared towards combat survivability. Key stats are hit points and armor class. When you're given a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. Solving problems by methods other than combat is not only poorly supported by the rules, but actively prevents the player from engaging with the core rules.

To put it more clearly, D&D is a game about resolving combat, collecting loot and avoiding traps. Roleplaying is not part of the game - it is something you do between playing the game. Its function is roughly equivalent to the chat interface in World of Warcraft.

Compare and contrast this to the World of Darkness games, where character creation is based more around how you would like to roleplay your character than it is about your combat potential, and where sinking points into acquiring unique foibles and story hooks could be just as attractive as power maximisation. Often in these games key power gains were tied to your character overcoming certain personal faults such as fears, addictions or preconceptions.

Or 7th Sea and Legend of the Five Rings, which use "drama dice" or "void points" as a reward for strong roleplaying; these tokens can be traded off to allow the player direct influence over the fate of their character and the direction of the plot. Conflict resolution mechanics are drawn directly out of the desired tone and mood of the game, so that the outcomes of die rolls naturally reinforce the implicit genre rules.

I've picked those examples because despite their roleplaying focus they're strongly built around combat and physical danger, much like D&D. But if you go further afield to titles like Primetime Adventures and Amber you'll find systems that see combat as merely a subset of conflict resolution, and conflict resolution as something that should be subservient to the core thrust of the plot. These are real roleplaying games, where the roleplaying is the main play content.

So don't tell me Dungeons & Dragons is a roleplaying game. It's not. It's an excellent tabletop tactical boardgame, which distinguishes itself from titles like Descent and Heroquest by its significant level of character customisation and its encouragement to set the combat and looting gameplay within the context of a larger narrative.

Now if you'll excuse me, I have to get back to choosing my level 3 encounter power and speculating as to what feat I'll pick up at level 4.


Anonymous said...

Nice. I'm going to print the URI for this post on business cards and when people ask me why I don't care about AD&D, I'll just hand them a card.

David Cake said...

D&D has alignment rules, and some classes have enforced codes of behaviour. Admittedly, its not a lot, but perhaps enough to undermine your 'not a single mechanic' thesis.

But still, its true that the focus of D&D is as a tactical combat game with a very gamist style, and the smart thing about 3E was that they figured this out and focussed on it, instead of making any pretense at D&D being simulationist in any useful way. But its clearly a game in which roleplaying is part of the fabric of the game, an everpresent (if not always used) component - rather than your interpretation (that the lack of specific rules implies absence), I think its equally valid to say that its simply a style of game design that eschews explicit rules that govern the roleplaying aspects of the game, a very common game design in early RPGs (and still a favoured one today). Would you also claim that RuneQuest, Traveller, etc fail at being roleplaying games?

I think this post smacks dangerously of you saying there is one true way to roleplay, with D&D held up as an example of failure. I don't think there is one true way, and rules that don't explicitly address the roleplaying aspects of the game are perfectly valid as an rpg design philosophy (indeed, arguably more appropriate for a lot of mainstream simulationist games).

Greg Tannahill said...

Alignments are a fair point, although one might argue that:
(1) Prior to their removal in 4th Ed, most of the non-good alignments added little to roleplaying and actively hampered party cohesion, and
(2) that the available alignments in 4th Ed of "Neutral", "Good" and "Lawful Good" hardly provide an impressive framework for roleplaying.

As for enforced codes of behaviour, of the core classes that was really only Paladins, and there that was less an encouragement of roleplaying than it was an attempt to balance a class that would otherwise have been overpowered. Once again, codes of conduct are gone under 4th Ed.

As for the rest of your points, you are of course perfectly right, that roleplaying is an implicitly core part of the game regardless of how poorly supported it is by the rules. It's much like "have fun" is an implicit part of team sports - it's an unquantifiable something to be extracted by each individual separately from the game resources.

Also, after I went away, I thought that probably I should have made a distinction. Of course D&D is a roleplaying game, in that you clearly within it play a role. What it is very poor as is being a storytelling game.

Post Simian said...

Very good point and I agree. Having not played D&D for a very long time based on that (and many ther issues) I can'r really have a strong opinion but still I agree.

George said...

I've been playing a 3.5 campaign for several months now and I'd beg to disagree that D&D is not a roleplaying game. It has amazing roleplaying potential, if approached correctly. The main problem is that most DMs these days lack imagination and the will to implement role playing effectively.

Our group's current campaign is a well balanced mixture of equal roleplaying and combat. Our DM not only encourages interaction with NPCs but rewards players who give their characters 'character'. We've had conversations that last for hours and periods of time where our characters barter, negotiate, explore, plan and bicker without a single die roll. A good roleplaying session results in EXP awards, magic items or services negotiated for, or just a better feel for our personalities. Our DM encourages working our characters into the greater story arc, resulting in a lot of interesting character twists, including many, many arguments, suspicions and conflicting motives.

It's true, there aren't a lot of rules in the book for roleplaying. But roleplaying is by its nature unruly and spontaneous. It's all about how much a player wants to put into their character, and how encouraged they are to do so within the context of the game.

Mike Leger said...

ARG... if there were rules telling you how to role play, then it wouldn't be role playing. rules are there to define the physics of a magical world.

alexandro said...

"if there were rules telling you how to role play, then it wouldn't be role playing"
Roleplaying is getting into the POV of your persona and making *decisions* based on said POV.

Anything else (like engaging in the thespian art) is optinal.

So if you enjoy acting out the conversations with NPCs, more power to you, but this isn't more or less roleplaying than saying "Well, I roll a Diplomacy check."

Santhil said...

TO THE AUTHOR: I clicked on your article because I was fascinated with the subject line but your logic is in peices. A roleplaying game is simply a game where you assume control of a persona, character, or avatar. Regardless of a games degree of focus on combat, if you take the part of a character, you are roleplaying. Next, The 4th edition dungeon masters guide contains a few paragraphs on how to award XP for non-combat encounters. Many non-combat encounters (well over half in my campaigns) involve interaction with an NPC which entails a dice roll and then an opposing dice roll. However, even with a perfect roll if the player is not roleplaying well, or saying things that dont make sense an NPC should not respond well. Therefore, in order to be awarded experience points the player would need to have successful dice rolls and good roleplaying as well. You say that 4th doenst offer XP for roleplaying but it is spelled out chapter 7 page 121 paragraph 1 of the 4th edition DMG. Lastly, dungeons and dragons has always disencouraged metagaming. This means that you are forced to act within the context of your character and not that of yourself in the real world to play. Thats what roleplaying is. NOTES: I liked Greg Tannahills storytelling point. Still though, I think even if DND is bad at it you can still get a decent story going. David Cake had good counter arguments to the article for sure. Rules or no rules, in our games roleplaying and noncombat is more than half of the time we spend.

Viagra said...

I couldn't agree with you more on this article!

Elliott Broidy said...

Great thanks for clearing this up for us all.

Unknown said...

Good points, though D&D can be played as a true roleplaying game, it's not as optimized towards being that as it is a really solid tactical game. There are certain older D&D campaign worlds that do have rules to encourage roleplaying though. Planescape for example had a reward system (though totally separate from XP which also existed in Planescape) based on a character's beliefs, and whether the character did things in support of those beliefs. The character would be rewarded, especially for doing very difficult things in order to stay true to their beliefs/principles. Plus Planescape rewards people for getting involved in the political/philosophical factions of the planes and things like that. But Planescape is no longer supported officially, perhaps because it's not the sort of game that the average D&D player is really looking for.