When I sit and ponder the games I am involved in, a lot of the time is invariably given over to considering the relationships my characters have with others in the game world. Whether it is about understanding the plot or deciding what direction to take, I spend far more time on this than planning my next level changes. I would consider myself a keen roleplayer, but to be truthful I find it easy to forget to role-play in the heat of the action and revert to type (I end up making the decisions instead of my character). For this reason, I thought I should share my opinions of the subject in the hope I remember some of the important aspects myself!

Roleplay and Rule Systems

Roleplaying is fun for players for a whole lot of reasons. One is because it allows them to influence a game that the GM really controls completely. Without it, a game is just that – a tactical skirmish wargame. Both game types require a system but the skirmish game lacks any roleplaying aspect. For me, the mix of system and roleplay determines how much I get out of a game and everybody has an opinion on the right mix. Chris would admit he is biased towards roleplaying and could in theory play a game without a system, dice and rules (communist!). Another gaming friend Pete is clearly a system addict. His characters are always extraordinarily well put together and get the best out of the system as a consequence. I should say that Pete happens to be a fine roleplayer as well. What I think is essential to a satisfying game is having a good mix of system and role play that all enjoy. A GM who spends an evening steering his adventurers through one round of combat is probably going to spend next week on his own if the players prefer bantering and talking in character.

The Dangers Of System over Roleplay

System complexity is hard to balance and I do not envy system writers at all. A game’s mechanics have to get the right mix of depth, accurate representation, speed of play and durability to give a few examples. The system is also a source of role play idea triggers so make sure you agree what rules you play and what you ignore. In D&D, there are a whole host of character attributes, feats, skills etc that build a character and have an influence as to how it is played. There have been times when I have built a character around a feat or skill only to find it pointless as the GM does not play in detail the system it needs to be effective (“eschew material components” being a good example) But they are only the tip of the iceberg. An astute player can choose to have a huge influence on the game and the GM by roleplaying character aspects the system does not cover (so long as the GM allows it). Part of the entertainment for me as a GM is being surprised as the players dismantle my prepared scenario by roleplaying around or through the tasks I have anticipated and scripted.

Maintaining Interest through Role Play

Good roleplaying can make an average campaign a success. I believe if there is the right mix between the system and the role playing, a campaign will have more colour and hence be enjoyed for longer. I am sure there are still gamers who enjoy a good dungeon bash but for me, weeks of action and “system based” challenges no longer appeal. Character interaction gives the players more active participation and more ownership. Assuming they are enjoying it, the game is more likely to run to its completion and be remembered. Chris’ Rome campaign has run for about a year but the combat mat only comes out on average once every other session. It works very well and maintains players interest through intrigue and plot development.

Role-playability of characters

Certain characters probably only have a limited entertainment value. Whilst “evil” has a certain appeal, I personally feel evil campaigns should be treated with caution. A short evil campaign with a fairly clear remit can be fun. The trouble is that for most of us, the choices made by our evil alter egos are far from natural. Maintaining the fa├žade of evil for a prolonged time is hard. Narrow character types like the priest of St Cuthbert are another to treat with caution. When the behaviour choices of the character are so transparent, roleplaying can be formulaic or too subtle. These types are again ok for a dungeon bash but probably a bit too shallow for much else.

My Roleplaying formula for success

Whatever you do, make sure your group agree. Balance system against roleplaying with a mix everybody likes. When you start a game, make sure the players understand the roleplaying pitch; dungeon bash or character lead. Avoid playing prolonged evil campaigns unless you have a clear understanding of where it is going and the parameters. Above all, have fun, but make sure everyone is enjoying the game!


  1. Scanning the site I have noticed that an old prejudice is being perpetuated.
    This is the idea that knowing the rules of the game is synonymous with power gaming.

    When a set of rules has been around for some time there is really no excuse not to learn them. This provides several tangible benefits.
    The players don’t have to hassle the DM and can leave him to concentrate on plot, NPC characterisation and what’s happening around the PC’s.
    The rules provide consistency, if the players know them then there is less opportunity for anyone to wrangle an advantage through argument and weedling.
    The players can make informed choices regarding the skills, feats and spells their characters will choose as they go up levels. They will be less likely to find themselves lumbered with redundant choices and can plan towards a cherished prestige class.
    The characters that are run should be capable of pulling their weight and won’t need to be carried by the other party members.
    It is hard to do anything original in terms of character design without knowing the rules. I would prefer a bit of originality to yet another party of high strength cleavers (yawn). Toughness can be achieved without origniality so why assume original players are looking for advantage?

    And I could probably go on.

    The main reason (in my experience) for players not knowing the rules is pure laziness.

    When it comes to role-playing, I have seen no evidence in 30 years of role-playing that people, who role-play well, do so at the expense of knowing the rules.

    I would add that players will be informed by the style of the campaign they play in whether they should role-play or concentrate on small unit tactics and XP acquisition. It is up to the DM to set the tone and up to the players to contribute. The same player might play very differently in two separate campaigns, entirely because of the way they are refereed.

    In practice I can see no link between the way a set of rules is written and the amount of roleplaying the players indulge in. After all the rules are either clear or they aren’t. If they are clear then there shouldn’t be a problem, if they are unclear, then portraying them as ‘encouraging roleplay’ is just making an excuse. The simplest rules I have seen were Tunnels and Trolls – the game with more solo adventures than multiplayer ones – and also the game that I have seen least role-playing in (unless roleplaying being in a game show counts).

    In conclusion then, there are many skills that can be utilised when playing RPG’s, they are not mutually exclusive in any way.

  2. Hi Pete,

    I’d rather the site were described as emphasising role play rather than condemning the rule system. Like you. I think I like good, well written rule systems but the point of this discussion goes far beyond this observation.

    I agree that knowing the rules is fundamental in creating the opportunity to get the best possible play and yes, it does not inevitably lead to power gaming. Having said that it is difficult to be a power gamer without having a good knowledge of the rules by definition.

    I think ultimately we both agree that the style of game and the degree of emphasis placed on system, rules and role play has to be tacitly agreed by all the players and GM collectively. What this means in practice is that over time, players or GM’s whose interests and emphasis differ from the rest of the group tend to drift away. Us oldies therefore end up playing with the same folk all the time and rarely introduce newbies.

    Finally Pete, sorry for describing you as a system addict in my original article. To anybody else reading this reply, the point I should make is that by mixing a deep knowledge of the rule system with good role playing, highly entertaining and original characters are conceived. Of the people I usually play with, Pete consistently conceives interesting characters based around previously unexplored aspects of D&D, a rare talent.

    What I am investigating at the moment is how things have changed over the editions. My initial thoughts having refreshed my memory about 2nd edition over 3rd is how the approach changed. In 2nd, there were less well defined rules and more discretion specifically handed to the GM. In 3rd, there are much clearer defined rules covering larger aspects of the game and therefore, by logical deduction, less discretion for the GM. Ironically, this is totally reversed in practice because 3rd created rules for situations never hinted at in 2nd and therefore creates more triggers for creativity.

    I’ll steal my own thunder here and provide the example of the humble fighter. In Second, there was a very clear concept of what a fighter was, his role and specifically, what his life time objective was, i.e. to become a Baron and have land and followers. Third reconstructed the fighter and created avenues that were probably always there, but drew attention to them through feats and prestige classes to name 2 examples. The consequence is the choice between the plate clad cleaver, the archer, the lightly armoured “agility” type etc.. Prestige extends the parameters far further.

    I suppose the reality of D&D is that we are all susceptible to be being influenced by the designer’s objectives and game companies have to find reasons for producing new editions to shift units. I am disappointed by 4th edition because my initial scan of the PHB has left me cold. I found the artwork, layout and the mechanics very sterile and so it does not grab me creatively. I am sure this is contrary to the objectives of WOTC and the reasons they have changed the emphasis of the rules, tidied up messy bits and loop holes is not to stop me getting the same pleasure out of it but that is the consequence for me.

    We all need a rule system and rules to be a platform for our role playing creativity and so we will stick with games, genres and systems that hit the spot. In truth I know I am being lazy because I am sure I could transpose my gaming juices into 4th and with a bit of effort get just as much out of it as I do out of 3rd Edition.

    Rob´s last blog post..Dungeon a Day goes Live

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