If 4e isn’t a role-playing game you’re doing it wrong
Way to go with the incendiary blog title, Grey! But it’s a simple point easily made; it’s now become something of an urban legend that 4e D&D isn’t a role-playing game in the traditional sense. Like all the best tall tales if enough people repeat it, it begins to take on a life of its own and folks who frankly should know better begin to believe it too.
It’s like the myth about the wild axe killer who lives in the shack in the middle of the forest. Only without the axe. Or the killer. Or the shack. Heck, there isn’t even a forest. but if enough folks say it, it must be true, right?
And I’ll prove it too. Again.
Here’s a random dungeon courtesy of the awesomely brilliant Demonweb Random Dungeon Generator.
This is something I’ve used for those times when I want to run a quick zero-prep dungeon, or when I want a kick-off point and map for a planned scenario. Heck, it even provides full d20 D&D stats for you. Way to go, Mr LazyGM! In this case, there’s a Troglodyte Zombie in Room 1, a Duergar Warrior and hidden treasure in Room 3, a Large Monstrous Centipede in Room 4 and a Spider Swarm in Room 5. Room 2 is (thankfully) empty, though one of the doors is booby trapped.
Now, I guess it’s fair to say that no gamer would chip in right now and say “but that’s not a role-playing game!”. All of the ingredients are there for a classic D&D dungeon bash – gloomy corridors, treasure, traps, illogically-placed monsters, the works. What makes it a role-playing game is the interaction between the players and GM. Perhaps they’ll try to negotiate with the Duergar, or lure the Trog Zombie into the Spider Swarm. Maybe the impetuous Fighter will trigger the Door Trap while the Rogue is busy picking the Wizards’ pockets. Whatever. The dungeon map and monsters are just things. It’s what you do with those things which makes the role-playing experience.
Now, here’s the second encounter from Coppernight Hold from Dungeon Delve (one of my personal favourite encounters):
This contains five Kobolds – 3 Dragonshields, a Skirmisher and a Wyrmpriest. There’s two traps (the statue and falling tapestries), a patch of difficult terrain and a small amount of treasure to be had. In other words, pretty much the same as what you’d find in a one or two rooms in any other edition of D&D. It’s like a small part of your average dungeon map, zoomed in. In fact I could quite easily drop this encounter into the map above as Room 22 in the bottom left corner.
Given the choice between a rich encounter like the one above and a typical Third Edition one where an encounter usually means one monster against 4 PCs and balance means the PCs should lose a quarter of their Hit Points, I’ll take the Fourth Edition Way every time.
I’ll say again: What makes it a role-playing game is the interaction between the players and GM.
If you play it like a tactical wargame then that’s what it is. Play it like a role-playing game, and it’s a role-playing game – and a damned good one too at that. Every character has options far beyond mere combat, including everything possible in lighter Old School D&D variants. In fact, this is one edition of D&D where it’s far easier for the GM to say “yes” to even the craziest Player suggestion. If the Barbarian wants to topple the statue onto the Kobolds, he can. Heck, if he wants to pick a freakin’ lock, he can at least try. If they want to negotiate with the Kobolds and perhaps gain a hint or two at what to expect deeper into the dungeon, they can. Nothing in the rules says you’ve GOT to fight, though if you do, I’d say that 4e D&D has one of the best combat engines ever designed for an RPG – with or without battlemat.
The main problem has been one of perception, and the blame for that lays squarely on the shoulders of the Players Handbook. If the PHB had shoulders, of course. Of the three Core books it’s the most poorly written (sorry, Rob, Andy and James) with far too much over-emphasis on combat uber alles. Background Options should have been there right from the start along with a beginner’s guide how to make interesting, fun characters. There should be a discussion about personality quirks and traits. Five pages spent on actual role-playing and less space spent listing 1,001 different ways to hurt people would have made a world of difference.
In comparison, the DMG is chock full of role-playing goodness; there’s advice about world building, weaving storylines, crafting memorable NPCs and more. It’s almost as if it’s talking about a different game in places!
But what’s done is done; WoTC have recognised that particular faux pas and bent over backwards to correct it in recent publications and online.
So yeah. 4e D&D IS a role-playing game. And if anyone else tells you differently: they’re wrong.