Tobold's Blog
Thursday, May 08, 2014
Rules on how to play roles

A pen & paper role-playing game consists of two major parts: Combat encounters, which are following a set of rules. And interactive story-telling, which is a lot more free-form. That duality causes some problems. As Mike Mearls remarks in his latest D&D developer post, earlier editions of Dungeons & Dragons often assumed that people already knew how to role-play, and thus just provided the rules necessary to handle things like combat, spells, or skills. That kind of backfired on them in the reception of the 4th edition of Dungeons & Dragons, where apparently some people who didn't know better just played the game as a series of rules-based combat encounters and then people complained that this wasn't a role-playing game any more.

D&D Next is trying to do better with a character creation system that has tables on which you can roll a die to find a personality trait or an ideal or bond or flaw for you character. So you end up with a character who has marked on his character sheet that he has a "relentlessly optimistic attitude", strongly believes in charity, owes his life to the priest that took him in when his parents died, and is suspicious of strangers and suspects the worse of them. My problem with that is that it solves the problem only for the people who didn't have a problem in the first place. Somebody who knows and understands role-playing will be able to either pick personality traits from those tables or make up similar ones that fit his character and work with that. Somebody who hasn't got a clue and uses dice to create a character will end up with a personality which isn't necessarily workable, and quite likely alien to the player.

In short, rules are a bad approach on teaching people how to role-play. Unfortunately the best approach on learning how to role-play is playing with people who do it well, which isn't something WotC can sell as a product (well, they could, but that would transform them into a gaming service company, which would be quite a daring move). The best solution I could imagine for a company like Wizards of the Coast is to make a big chapter in the Player's Handbook "On Role-playing", with examples and detailed explanations on why role-playing can be a good thing; but without putting role-playing into a corset of rules. Outside the context of company profits, we would basically need one book on how to role-play on the market, and that would be valid for quite a lot of different pen & paper RPG systems.

There are lots of different ideas and systems that help with creating characters with a personality and a background. I do like 13th Age's "one unique thing" for example. What I don't believe in at all is random dice rolls in personality creation, and rules that make a certain amount of role-playing mandatory. Role-playing is something that I would want to encourage, but not force upon my players. Tools like personality traits are starting points to get players thinking about who their character is, what his motivation is, and to induce interactive stories that go beyond simple stereotypes.

I've been playing with the same people for over a decade, first as fellow player, then as DM. Few people are able to play very different characters, often distinctive personality traits will be the same in all the characters they play over the years, because they reflect personality traits of the player. If your player is a pessimist at heart, rolling a "relentlessly optimistic attitude" on a personality trait table will be next to impossible to role-play well for him.

Having said that, for my next 4th edition Dungeons & Dragons campaign I am trying to do better in the role-playing area. The current campaign has cookie cutter characters, with only one player having worked out a background for his character. And with the campaign being "episodic", that is consisting of a string of not well connected adventures, the personal story aspect of role-playing is falling short. So the next campaign will have an over-arching story, and I will spend more time with each player in creating each characters background. Most importantly that will include giving the players a detailed description of the world and the role of the group in this world before they go and create characters. That way we have a better chance of getting a group of characters which fit in the world and the story, and can have interesting role-playing interactions with that world and each other.

I do think there is a serious issue that a lot of players have simply never thought to role play their character as a different personality than their own. Even many of those who do role play will only talk differently, they don't actually behave differently. You get a "Thog think E = mc2" situation, where a player will only talk stupid, he won't actually let his character do anything stupid.

So while I can't vouch for the D&D Next system specifically, I do applaud an effort to make players write down character traits and flaws, and encourage them to act accordingly.

Related to this, there is almost never a reward for role playing. I know, I know, it is a huge part of the game and should be its own reward. But that argument is no different than saying dungeons are the content of MMORPGs and doing them for fun should be their own reward. Take away the loot at the end and see how that works out.

I would love to see a system which rewards players for role playing consistently with their character's personality, and penalizes them for behaving against that personality. For instance, you could have a personality trait of "pious" which comes with certain benefits with the church. But then the player finds a powerful holy artifact. Their "pious" trait compels them to give it to the church (they take some penalty if they don't), but keeping it (or selling it) has its own benefits.

Another issue I have complained about before is the lack of real moral choice in basically all RPGs. It is almost always simply good vs evil, with the "choice" being something like saving children from a burning orphanage, or locking them in to burn.

A real moral dilemma would result in disagreements between characters of different personalities and conflicting interests. For instance, the "pious" character might want to give the holy artifact to his church, but the mercenary wants to sell it.

Of course, this leads to decisions when forming the party. You could make a party where everyone is "pious," eliminating conflicts, but you would miss out on the benefits of all the other diverse traits.
I think what you really need to insert (and perhaps have never had any exposure to) is that this is applicable only to traditionally structured RPGs. Dungeons & Dragons is a particularly egregious example because it is the ur-example; an entire lineage of role-playing game assumptions and designs descended from the popularity of D&D – in fact, that lineage is currently referred to as the OSR when it's referred to in the context of modern role-playing side, the Old-School Renaissance. It's important to realize that such design architectures are now referred to as "old-school," as opposed to "new school."

Or the short version: "there are a lot more, and better, ways to design games today."

Consider one of the less extreme examples in my personal rotation, Kingdom (, a game designed by Ben Robbins and probably one of the best game designs of the last five years. In it, players have characters who are defined by their fears and desires, and take on one of the dynamic roles which distribute narrative authority in the game, Power (the one that essentially decides what the powers that be do), Touchstone (the one that decides how the people of the community/Kingdom feel and what they want), and the Perspective (the one that has the power to decide how decisions will actually turn out). Being both diceless/randomizer-less and GM less, and with the mechanics providing processes by which a characters Role can be challenged, possibly taken, introducing a high level of outcome dynamicism, the desires and fears of characters in Kingdom are really the driving force – mechanically – without forcing a particular archetype or predetermined system of behavior on a character.

And that's one of the more traditional game systems that my group likes. We actually have several examples of play online on our YouTube channel (, which people should probably check out. (Not just Kingdom but Robbins' other game, Microscope ( – which takes out the idea of "one character per player" and replaces it with "let's construct a world together and a nonlinear history" and run so far with it you would may never look back at traditional gaming again.)

So – the core of my suggestion would be to get away from games of an extremely linear derivation from D&D and move into something more modern, games which put a lot more focus on the characters and how they think and feel. If things like Kingdom and Microscope, or even Fiasco ( or Polaris (, are too far out there – and they might be, some people aren't ready to give up the traditional strictures to that degree – at least a shift to a more character-focused mechanical system like FUDGE ( / FATE (, which is a far more traditional GM/player dichotomy but allowing a lot more influence from the character conception to be reified mechanically.

There are a lot of choices. Many of them are quite good. But if you keep using the same systems, keep doing the same things, keep playing games with the same assumptions, you shouldn't even be remotely surprised when you keep coming up with the same concerns and the same questions and don't actually develop as a gamer and as a creator, or even an educated consumer.
Do any of these games you recommend come in French? Half of my group doesn't speak English.
Do any PnP systems use pre-generated characters? For example, an adventure could give you three named characters with all their attributes and backstory (though the latter should be condensed to memorable high points). Not only would this allow better balancing, but it might allow more role-play if players are freed of the task of inventing a role, and just given one to play. (OFC, it could be handled simply as an optional extra in scenarios.)
I disagree. Adding those rules on personality design in leads to discussion and consideration of what they mean and how they work in play, and it makes the game at least somewhat open to new players without a veteran to frame the experience for them. That was one of the reasons 4E was problematic: it offered very little framework for new players to grasp anything beyond combat.
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