Role Playing and Dungeons and Dragons 4th Edition

Just how much role playing is in the new edition of Dungeons and Dragons? Just how much role playing was in the older editions? Is D&D a roll playing game? How much does a system of rules force players to play a game a certain way? How much impact does genre have on role playing?

I felt I should warn people that this is a rather long post. I get some flack about the length of my posts but I still have not learned the art of brevity. Since I have no soul and very little wit, this really comes as no suprise.

Since the release of 4th Edition (and actually even before its release) many people have become irate about the lack of role playing in it. Many felt that the changes were taking away options and making the game less realistic or more board-game-like. Not everyone agrees with this statement, and after reading through most of the core books I don’t agree either. In this post I would like to examine the evidence and explain why I feel there is greater potential for role playing in 4th Edition Dungeons and Dragons than in 3.0 or 3.5. I will also touch upon other aspects of role playing such as genre impact and rules impact. These ideas are far more general but they are no less important to the whole.

At the end of almost every one of my posts I invite readers to respond. I will mention it again here as I feel these ideas are grander and more open to interpretation and debate than many others I write about. I have always believed that truth (or even Truth) comes out best through discussion and thus I would love to start a genuine dialogue on this topic.

What is Role Playing?

Role playing means to modify one’s personal behaviors or, more bluntly, to take on a role. We all role play every day as the situation warrants. No fully functioning human being is the same among every group and even those who try very hard to be themselves at all times will find it nearly impossible to avoid certain actions in certain settings or refrain from certain actions in other settings.

Let’s look at an example. A loud, boisterous, and active person who loves being the center of attention finds themselves at the funeral of their spouse’s relative. They didn’t know the deceased and have no reason to grieve. Even a person who insists on being themselves at all times and resists change will still play the role of quiet grieving relation or silent comforter, as the situation does not permit them to act the way they would in most other situations. Yes, they are doing this out of respect but that does not change the fact that they are changing themselves and thus playing a role.

Other examples abound. Most people act differently at work than at home, many people act differently among different groups of friends, and most people will act differently in large or small groups. We don’t really think of this as role playing because we often do it automatically and without thinking, but I would argue that since we are taking on different roles for these situations we are in fact role playing.

What is a Role Playing Game?

We all have an image that comes to mind when someone says “role playing game” and I assume these images are at least related, if not identical. At its core a role playing game is simply a game in which participants take on imagined roles. says that there must be a Game Master in order to constitute a role playing game but I disagree. While “Let’s Pretend” (a term I would use for children making up a story and acting it out) has no written rules and no actual Game Master, it is in many ways a live action role playing experience.

So, while most role playing games will have someone running things (i.e. the GM, DM, Storyteller, etc.) it is not a strictly necessary component. I would instead say that a more necessary component is the ability for the players to do anything within their characters’ physical limitations. In other words, a board game where players take on a role (The Operations Expert in a game of Pandemic, for example, does not qualify as a role playing game because the rules directly limit what the player can and cannot do).

In a true role playing game there are far fewer limitations (though there are still limitations imposed by the storyteller or, in the case of Let’s Pretend especially, the group as a whole) and players are free to do nearly anything imaginable.

Role playing vs. Roll playing

Both here and in other forums a number of people have called either the new or the older editions of D&D roll playing games. Generally this is meant as an insult or a barb as many people found the old game to be a “Beer and Pretzels” game and others find the new game restricting.

I think that to call any game a roll playing game is a tad short sighted in the sense that (and I have mentioned this before) a system only slightly outlines how much role playing will actually take place. Is it possible to have grand dialogues, intricate plots, personal quests and deep character development using the Dungeons and Dragons system (either old or new)? I would say “yes”. In fact I think these things are possible in any game system as long as the players participate and jointly create this kind of game.

On the other hand, do some people play D&D as a hack and slash dungeon crawl game? Of course. Does this stop the game itself from being a role playing game? No, certainly not. I would say that playing a role playing game with simple character development and simple plots does not change the fact that you are playing a role playing game. While you are certainly not playing a very deep role playing game the game itself is not changed.

Let’s look at it this way. Two groups decide to start a book club that will read and discuss the ideas presented in modern novels. One group picks Snow Crash by Neil Stephenson to read and discuss, and the other picks Odd Thomas by Dean Koontz. Snow Crash is by far the superior novel as far as concepts, ideas, and even plot development are concerned but does that mean that the second group which chose to read the simpler story, Odd Thomas, failed in their creation of a book club?

In other words, does simplicity change the reality of what these people are doing? Because their game is simple is it no longer a role playing game?

Genre and its Impact on Role Playing Games

I believe that Genre has a major impact on how much role playing (or perhaps how deep the role playing goes) takes place in a role playing game. Some genres insist on more dramatic personas that others do and while most any genre can easily have a simple story with simple characters and little development told within it, certain genres are more prone to this than others.

Other gamers may disagree but I would contend that fantasy as a genre tends to lend itself to less role playing than other genres and specifically I would say that medieval fantasy would be the most likely genre to see light role playing. This is not meant to say that there is something wrong with the genre but rather to point out that genre certainly has an impact.

Why does medieval fantasy lend itself to lighter role playing? There are several reasons and I will mention a few. One is that fantasy deals with “fantastic” and often impossible things. These impossibilities require more suspension of disbelief than is required in other genres. For example a giant cannot exist within a realistic setting any more than a dragon can, while the idea of spaceships that can transport people from planet to planet is far less impossible.

With these suspensions of disbelief comes extra detachment of reality and I feel this can indirectly lead to less dramatic role playing. Along with this we have a second reason which is that fantasy as a genre tends to exalt certain themes. These themes are not necessarily required but they are so innately tied to the genre that escaping them is difficult. These themes, good conquering over evil for example, are rather simple and do not require great amounts of character depth to enact. Along with these two things we have many smaller contributors like the fact that the players are often vastly more powerful than the average person, the fact that killing one’s enemies is a generally accepted and acceptable outcome of a fight, and the fact that the fantasy genre is generally about high adventure and not high drama.

All of these things lend to a medieval fantasy story being more about the adventure and less about deep character development (in other words role playing).

Role Playing in Dungeons and Dragons

D&D is a fantasy role playing game and it is affected by the fact that its genre is not traditionally high on heavy role playing. Again I use the phrase heavy role playing (and its opposite light role playing) because any game in which you take on a role could be considered a role playing game, some simply involve more intricate characters and drama than others.

I’ve already touched on the fact that some groups invest more time into role playing than others. This is a simple fact of the hobby. Some game groups will move from dungeon to dungeon and hardly even mention the stops to town for supplies. Others will want to have small stories and role play out what they are doing between their grand adventures, while still others will want the stories taking place to be the major aspects of the game. Still, Dungeons and Dragons was not written to be a dramatic game of character interactions.

In a game like Vampire (either version) you expect a lot of interactions between the players, both positively and negatively whereas in D&D the party is very much encouraged to get along at all times. Vampire is meant to be a drama-based game where little of the game is about high adventure and much more time is spent having conversations and acting out what your character is doing.

Essentially I would say that the role playing in Dungeons and Dragons has always been of a slightly lighter variety than some other games which call for more story or drama and less action. However even a game like Shadowrun can be played as one “run” after another with little character development. Certainly there is often more need for talking to NPCs (leg work for example) but that does not necessarily require the players act it out in any way as much can be done by simply rolling dice. The same kind of NPC interaction can be found in Dungeons and Dragons as players are given their next quest by their benefactor (instead of the runners being given their next run by their Mr. Johnson).

Rules and their Impact on Role Playing

Dungeons and Dragons, in both the old and new rules, was designed to be a tactical game. Because of this there is a tendency for players to focus on tactics rather than options and to forget things like asking for a parley when their side is clearly winning. I mentioned in another post that the battle map for both 3.5 and 4.0 poses a challenge as far as role playing goes. This is because players feel detached from the story while they are looking at their miniature on the battle map and tend to forget the story in general for the specifics of a tactical battle.

This is a situation where the DM needs to make a decision. They can either allow this to take place and just let the battles be mini games inside their story, combat rules are after all just a representation of the way the actual combat would take place and no matter what rules you are using you need to use your imagination in order to truly see how things played out in a realistic sense. Or the DM can try to incorporate role playing onto the battle map by having the monsters speak to the players more often and encouraging the players not to always do that which is the optimal tactical maneuver but instead that which their character would most likely do.

Neither of these options is wrong by any means but certainly one lends to a deeper level of role playing than the other and I would guess that most DMs will choose something that combines these two options in a way they are comfortable with.

Role Playing in 4th Edition as Opposed to 3.5

How does the role playing compare between the editions? This is what I have been leading toward. In some ways things have not changed. The game is still a fantasy medieval game and still uses a battle map. These two things have a tendency to limit role playing or lend it to a “light” categorization. So what has changed that makes role playing more or less likely, or lighter or deeper, in the new edition?

Alignment is the first change that comes to mind when I think of role playing and 4th Edition. Others would disagree with this but I feel that the new alignment system is far less restrictive and pigeon-holing than the old system, and the fact that players are no longer capable of detecting the alignment of NPCs creates far more role playing potential.

An example from my last campaign was when the characters came across a magic pool. Sitting near this pool was a group of frogs that were acting rather strangely. My wife’s character decided to kiss one of the frogs, presumably as a joke for the rest of the players, and was stunned when the frog turned into a human. This human was in fact of evil alignment and because the players were able to detect this they wanted nothing to do with him. He was a fairly interesting character who could have traveled with them and provided role playing possibilities but instead because he was “evil” they tossed him a couple gold (and even debated doing that) and sent him into the woods to fend for himself. The new version’s views on alignment would have stopped this from happening and would have allowed the players to slowly learn distrust of the man (who would only have betrayed them if the situation had warranted it) instead of just leaving him alone.

It has been said that the new alignment system limits options as players can no longer play Chaotic Good or Lawful Neutral for example. Every time I hear this argument I shake my head. A player can still play a character that represents those things but they can now be Chaotic Good about some things and yet still believe in lawfulness in other situations. I feel that it is only a bad role player who claims that broadening the spectrum of possibilities by removing some of the limitations restricts their role playing potential.

Besides alignment there are four other changes I feel affect the role playing potential in 4.0 as opposed to 3.5. One of these is the way they address character creation, the second is Skill Challenges, the third is the more clearly defined roles players are encouraged to play within the party and the last is the simplicity of the new system.

At the beginning of the Player’s Handbook, after alignment and deities, is a section on Personality. I don’t recall this being a very important part of older editions and I was pleased to see it included here. In fact, in a lot of ways a person’s Race plus Class plus Alignment equaled their Personality in older editions (that formula again is R + C + A = P).

Instead, here we have a section that asks you to ask yourself a series of nine questions pertaining to three types of situations. The situations are Social Interactions, Decision Points, and Dire Straits and each of the nine questions has six descriptive words that can answer it.

For example the first question under Social Situations is “How do others perceive you in social interactions?” and the player is given the options of “Cheerful, Talkative, Reserved, Charming, Witty, Relaxed” to chose from. Certainly these are not the end-all and be-all of options for an answer to that question but it does get a person thinking about their character in a way that was hardly an issue at all in prior versions of the game. I feel that if a player took the time to think about and answer all of these questions they would end up with a fairly well-defined character whom they would then be able to role play during the game. While some players might find this restrictive others will find it very useful and those who find it restrictive probably do not need this aid in making a character.

While the above change is certainly one that leads to more role playing potential in 4.0, Skill Challenges ride a line in that they could potentially lead to more or less role playing. Any time that a rules set allows for a lot of rolling to determine outcomes there would seem to be the potential for less actual dramatic role playing. I hope that in my games at least Skill Challenges will prove a useful tool for pulling the players into the story and allowing them to feel that their characters are truly a part of the world but I can see some people simply rolling a bunch of dice and then saying, “yup, you did it” and moving on.

It seems worth mentioning that in any game all decisions could come down to dice rolls if the players allow them to. Players could make a roll to see how good their plan is for a certain event then the GM could tell them what they do based on that roll. When they come to a fork in the road they could roll to see if they can determine which way is better and then go which ever way the dice tell them to. Players could even forgo all actually communication with NPCs, instead just rolling to see how well the conversation went. This is of course silly and extreme but it could happen in any role playing game if the players wanted it to. Incidentally if this did happen it would certainly be harder for me to argue that the game was still a role playing game but taken to the ultimate extreme it wouldn’t be much of a game at all so it’s hardly worth discussing any further.

A mild hindrance for some as far as role playing is concerned with 4th Edition is the more clearly defined roles players are nearly forced to have as far as party make up is concerned. I have to agree that this does restrict role playing to some degree in that multi-classing is more limited and players of a certain class are even more expected to be capable of certain things. For example a 5th level fighter can no longer discover his true calling as a cleric of Pelor and leave his fighter training behind for good. I accept this as a necessary evil however as I do like the way the changes affect game playability. Still it must be noted that this does restrict things and it is a valid complaint made by many of the nay-sayers.

The last thing I wanted to mention about 4th Edition’s effects on role playing is the simplicity of the new system. Because the rules are more straight forward and less prohibitive players should find more potential for role playing. The sheer immensity of the old rules and their convoluted nature resulted in players feeling crippled when it came to doing something dramatic. A DM can more easily fit ideas the players have into the game and make the rules align with them and this has a lot of potential for role playing possibilities.

In Conclusion

I have said it before and I will say it again, the amount of role playing in any role playing game (or the depth of that role playing) is determined by the GM and the players. Certain genres facilitate deeper role playing than others and certain rules hamper or exalt certain kinds of role playing but no rules set nor genre specifically prohibits players from role playing.

As for 4th Edition Dungeons and Dragons I feel that the openness of the game and its simplicity make it have greater potential for role playing than the versions that came before it. While dramatic storytelling was always an option the new version encourages players to have a more defined character even as it encourages that character to fit into a specific role within the party. Overall the new system allows for a lot more to take place outside of a dungeon and encourages that activity to matter and progress the plot of the story. In fact as players reach the Epic tier they almost write the story themselves as they work toward completing their epic destinies.

I encourage people to think of some of these things when they pick up 4th Edition. If the reasons you dislike the edition are because you like the rules for 3.5 then most of this is irrelevant however if the reason you are wary of 4th Edition relates to the changes in how much role playing is involved remember that you and your players determine the level you will be role playing at (whether it be light or deep – the two terms I have been using – or some combination of the two), and not the rules.

In the end, it is the DM and the players who make the game.


    First off, I have to say: great post Josh! Sorry I didn’t get to this one earlier, because this is a good topic which I think deserves some discussion.

    I am one of those people who called D&D 4th a “roll playing” game.

    I will (again, and gladly) concede the point that the people playing the game have a lot more to say about the amount of role playing than the game system.

    Really, with any board game, card game, pen & paper RPG (even computer game if you are into modding), you as a player can modify the rules to your heart’s content. I do this regularly along with the others in my group when coming up with house rules to improve the playability and fun of the board and card games we try out.

    In my opinion the next questions are: what kind of game do you want to play? And how much time are you willing to spend making modifications?

    While I’m perfectly willing to take a board game’s pieces and change the rules a little to turn a broken game into a fun game, if a role playing game’s system is generally at odds with what I want to do I’ll probably go in search of a different game rather than put a lot of effort into retooling it. Role playing rule sets are typically far more complex than those for a stand-alone board or card game.

    D&D has traditionally been in such a position, from my perspective. This is partly due to the game and partly due to the perception a majority of D&D players seem (in my experience) to bring to D&D, that it’s going to be a “dungeon crawl“, an unrealistic hack’n’slash; this also seems to be what many want, if WoW’s popularity is any indication (no offense to WoW players).

    Rather than work against this perception to bring my preferred (deeper role playing) style to D&D players, I’ll opt for a different game, without the baggage, that accomplishes more of what I want off the shelf.


    On a side note, I also tend to enjoy choosing the road-less-traveled when I’m going to GM a game, where I have a chance of knowing as much or more about a game system’s rules than the players. I definitely do not know D&D’s rules (3.5, 4.0, or any other version) well, but I have a good head start on certain other games compared to my players, and I find this useful.