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"Goodbye, Jean-Luc, I'm gonna miss you. You had such potential. But then again, all good things must come to an end."
- Q, Star Trek: TNG

Role-playing Mechanics: The Third Way

by Ken Newquist / August 10, 2009

Recently Chris Youngs at Wizards of the Coast wrote an editorial pointing out that people can role-play in D&D 4th Edition just fine without any rules actually governing said role-playing:

Fourth edition doesn't include some of the mundane mechanical elements of character building that 3rd Edition did. For example, certain skills (I'm looking at you Craft and Profession) enabled a player to feel like his character had some sort of grounding in the "real world" of the campaign. Odds were good that you never made a Craft or Profession check in your game, but having ranks in that skill made you feel connected to your character's background. In 4th Edition, those skills are gone. Why? Because we feel like a character's statistics don't represent the absolute truth of a character's story. That's right -- one of the reasons those skills (and other such elements from other editions) are gone is that we felt they hindered roleplaying.

This elicited some "Hear! Hear!"-style posts from gaming blogs:

The basic argument comes down to this: you don't need rules to role-play. With rules, you're "roll-playing", which is letting the dice tell you how your character acts and what he believes. At best, they get in the way, at worst, they take control of your character away from you.

The counter-point is having such rules can add an element of randomness that enhances role-playing. My example (originally as a comment in a post over at Role-Playing Pro) is that when I was playing my bard Thom I could simply have role-played out his weekly shows at Fire-Eaters Inn, but I found it more interesting to make the Perform roles and play off of that. Sure, I'd still come up with song titles and such (and maybe earn him a bonus to his roll) but ultimately it was the dice that decided how brilliant (or catastrophic) his performance was. That in turn might lead to a bigger gig somewhere else ... or having to dodge a hail of pickled eggs.

I think both sides tend to exaggerate: using skill checks to determine how well your character negotiates, schemes or crafts a widget does not mean that every decision is made by a die roll anymore than a lack of such rules results in rampant metagaming. Most of the gaming groups I've belonged to have found a way to mitigate the extremes of either approach.

I also think that there's an important alternative that gets lost (or worse, discarded outright) in these kinds of discussions, and it's this: the use of game mechanics to encourage role-playing.

Savage Worlds: Bennies

Bennies are used in Savage Worlds to save characters from exceptionally bad attacks (on their part) or particularly horrible wounds. They can also be spent to enhance a roll. Mechanically that's not a big deal; action points in D&D and d20 Modern have somewhat similar effects. The difference is that GMs are encourage to award bennies to players for good role-playing, great jokes, or simply being helpful.

The effect is subtle, but tangible. The desire for a bennie, either as a hedge against future disaster, or to re-stock after spending a bunch in a row, tends to bring people out of their role-playing shells. It's also a way for a GM to reward players for helping out (e.g. the guy who grabs the GM a cold soda during a break, or the one who takes the initiative and wipes down the battle map between battles).

Battlestar Galactica/Serenity/Cortex: Plot Points

Plot Points are like super-sized bennies: they can be used to augment rolls or soak damage, but you can also spend them to edit the story. The more you spend, the greater the change you can make. Need an extra ammo clip? Spend a Plot Point. The Alliance closing in on your position, and you need to quick way to escape? Spend 6 and what do you know ... there just happens to be an idling shuttlecraft nearby.

Plot Points awarded for good role-playing, but that includes more than just hamming it up. The system actively encourages you to bring character flaws (which are a critical component of character creation) into play, and then rewards you for doing so. I've played a lot of games with hindrances and flaws; Battlestar Galactica was the first one where I found all of the players (and not just the one or two diehard thespians) wanted to work them into the story.

Ths sort of mechanic was essential to games like Battlestar Galactica and Serenity, where a character's flaws were just as important has his advantages. What's Colonel Saul Tigh without his alcoholism? Or Malcolm Reynolds without his hatred of the Alliance and disdain for religion?

When it came time to play the games, we saw similar results in each session: the quiet ones at the table, the ones who were usually content to sit back and let the more active role-players lead, leapt to the fore.

The Plot Points mechanic didn't replace the need to role-playing. Instead, it became a sort of in-game narrative currency, frequently earned, and frequently spent. It made for dynamic, fun sessions and were easily two of the best one-shot games we've run.

Spirt of the Century: Fate Chips

Spirit of the Century offers the single best example of this approach I've experienced. Characters in the game don't have traditional attributes like in D&D, instead they have "aspects". Aspects are the defining elements of a character like "Never Backs Down From a Fight", "Prodigy of Tesla" or "this scalpel can either save lives... or end them" (to name a few from my SotC game at Origins). The goal when creating them isn't to seek the greatest possible advantage for your character ... it's to seek the most interesting ones.

These Aspects can then be tapped in game to provides you with mechanical bonuses. They can also be compelled by the GM; maybe you (as the player) don't want your character to get into a fight with the band of Irish toughs that just walked into the bar and insulted your father. But the GM can attempt to compel your "Never Backs Down From a Fight" aspect, encouraging you to respond to that terrible insult about your dad with your fists.

The benefit to you? You get a Fate chip, which (like the other examples) provides you with a mechanical bonus. The other cool thing about Spirit of the Century is that it dissolves the barrier between social and physical conflicts that we see in D&D. In SotC, a cutting remark from your arch-enemy can be just as devastating as the cursed blade of a cultist.

The Right Ways

I find these kinds of mechanics interesting because (at least at my table) they've had a positive impact on that game. Players have been more engaged, more attentive, and more eager to role-play all aspects of their characters.

When I lament the state of role-playing in 4E, it's partly nostalgia for the old skill system, but it's also because I wish it had incorporated some of these techniques. For example, having D&D 4E hooking the Destiny die mechanic from Star Wars: Saga Edition into epic destinies seems like a no brainer -- suddenly what had been a strictly epic-tier mechanic could have had impact (both mechanical AND story) starting from first level. But ultimately, that's not important; there are plenty of other games out there that scratch that particular itch for me.

What I do think is important is this: there's no right or wrong way to role-play. There's only what works for you and your group, and what doesn't. If you're having fun with the 4E's rules light approach, 3E's professions and crafts, or Serenity's story-editing Plot Points, then you are doing it right. If you're not having fun, well, then that's when you need to try something else.


Thanks for anothe great article!

I agree, that having fun is the most important. Do it however you want. I also agree that I do like to have those mechanics in there to round out my character and to possibly bring into the game at unexpected moments.

I was looking at the old basic and expert D&D from back in the day. There was a lot about them both that I liked, especially as concise and "light" rules. Thing is, I quickly realized the characters would lack a LOT of the customization I love.

Fraser Ronald

It's weird what does and doesn't bother me with the intersection of player choice and mechanics. I'm okay with insanity and fear mechanics, or a GM asking for a control roll against a disadvantage like Greed or whatever.

The problem arises when there's no room for a player's choice, because there's no mitigating factor like Drama Points, or the system requires characters to have stakes or drives. It just trips me up.

I haven't encountered drive/stakes systems yet, though I know they're out there. I don't think I'd want to cede my character's entire destiny to the rules.

At the same time though, I find it frustrating when Professions/Craft checks get equated with losing narrative control over your character. It's like slippery slope argument ... but with more of a plunge than a slope. :)

To add to my original post:

I find the logic behind firewalling combat mechanics and role-playing mechanics ... interesting. And occasionally frustrating.

On the one hand, we have arguments in which players want no rules for role-playing (e.g. 4E) because they want the freedom to play their character however they like without being slaves to said rules ... but at the same time want a robust combat system that does exactly that.

As some one who's had terrible luck with certain characters in combat, I can safely say that my combat rolls have had far, far more effect on my role-playing than my social ones. Being the rogue who can't pick a lock or the fighter who can't land a blow can be just as devastating to one's preconceived notions of what a character can do.

That said, I can see how 4E works perfectly for folks who have these priorities -- 4E is all about minimizing the downside (e.g. no racial penalties, no armor check penalties, no non-weapon proficiency penalties), and maximizing the upside (racial bonuses, proficiency bonuses, etc.). Sure, you can still miss with your attacks, but if you miss with a daily power, you're guaranteed to do *something*. Even if you do miss, you can always spend action points to turn that miss into a hit.

The end result is that your character is more likely to fit its concept both on and off the field. The chaos factor is minimized or (in the case of role-playing) eliminated. Now I don't mean to say any of this as a Bad Thing (TM). It's not quite my cup of tea, but I can easily see how folks would find it appealing.

For me, I like to retain the chaos, but perhaps channel it in different ways. For me, that's what one of the things that makes Cortex RPG and Spirit of the Century interesting.

At the same time though, I find it frustrating when Professions/Craft checks get equated with losing narrative control over your character.

I hadn't thought of them in that way. Rather, I see them as an expression of that mitigating factor. It's an expression in the long term, as the player's recourse is to save experience points to improve the skill, but it's still there.

Yeah, my tastes have definitely changed over the years as well. I had a blast playing OD&D, but that was when I was in 6th grade. :) Most of the subsequent backstory and enhancements to those characters happened much later, when I returned to the game in college, and then after college when the Blackrazors got together.

I have nostalgia for those early characters, but I don't know that I'd have as much fun playing them nowadays. And I think that, in turn, is because of how much I've enjoyed the role-playing mechanics in Savage Worlds, SotC and Cortex. At least for me, once I'd tried those kinds of games, it was harder to go back to what we had been doing.