D&D Core Rules: Role Playing

by Wimwick (Neil Ellis) on July 8, 2011

This past week Wizards of the Coast ran an article about the core rules of Dungeons & Dragons. The current staffed were poled as to their thoughts on the rules and what rules had carried through the different editions of the game. The most constant point present was the power of the d20 to represent most actions. I have to agree, the d20 is what I associate with D&D more than any other die and this goes long beyond when the coined the d20 System.

What I noticed about the list was that no one listed role playing. My initial thoughts were, how bizarre or perhaps telling that role playing is not included in this list. Then I took a step back and I looked at the list and the initial request again. They were looking for rules, for mechanics. Role playing is neither of these things, it is a mindset.

If you look at your copy of the 4e Player’s Guide you will notice that it is a Role Playing Game Core Rules book. D&D: A Role Playing Game. I’ve heard and read a great many things over the past few years about 4e and role playing. Many positive, many negative, but if you have ever doubted what the game is about simply look at the title of the rule book.

So when I notice that role playing wasn’t listed as a core mechanic of the game I can’t really claim to be surprised. After all, there is no rule for role playing. The level and depth of role playing at your table is determined by everyone gathered around for the collective experience.

For some simply playing a Dwarven Fighter is enough. Imagining their character in their mind, of how he swings his axe and downs his ale, satisfies their desire to role play. Other players want more than this. They want to always be in character. Every word, every action is done in character. For myself, I sit somewhere in the middle.

I want to chat with my friends about their week while we are playing, I just don’t want that discussion to disrupt the game play. So always being in character doesn’t work for me. Having said that, when a moment that would benefit from deep role playing is presented I want to be immersed in that moment. The catch is recognizing those moments and then fully getting into them. The responsibility for these two moments is two-fold, belonging to the DM and the players.

The DM as the Enabler

Every DM has their strengths. Some can run combat with excellent efficiency. Others design and create elaborate combat encounters with beautiful maps. Still others develop original worlds that could rival any published setting. Then there are those who are able to breathe life into the NPCs that the players meet, making every interaction magical.

The ability to draw players into deep role playing moments is a gift that not every DM possesses. However, there are some tricks that can be very easily implemented to allow DMs to appear more proficient than they actually are.

  • Use character back story’s – The moment you use something your players created against them they will be hooked. They will feel compelled to enter into the role playing session. This rewards the player for creating a back story and will encourage others to do the same.
  • Create and use recurring villains – Nothing gets the players involved in a situation like having a villain they thought was dead come back to haunt them. Doing this will have your players asking in depth questions and approaching the situation from a role playing angle.

The Player as the Conduit

When one player is role playing it starts affecting others at the table. The energy in the room is palatable, everyone starts feeding off of it. Everyone wants their own opportunity in the spotlight.

As a player you need to be open to the opportunities that your DM might present for role playing. If you don’t respond favourably to the opportunities that are being presented they are going to stop appearing. Be attentive outside of combat for different cues the DM may leave that a role playing opportunity is approaching. Better yet, keep yourself in character.

The other thing that players who are comfortable with role playing can do is encourage others at the table. Ask questions in character, develop catch phrases, curses and battle taunts.

Role playing isn’t a mechanic, but it is the life blood of D&D. Because there isn’t a mechanic to enforce the behaviour of role playing it is important that everyone around the table adopt a role playing mindset.
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1 Dungeon Maestro July 8, 2011 at 3:10 pm

I think at some point in their life everyone should open up the first edition basic box; put away the mini’s and the maps; and play one session of Basic First Edition D&D.

I think that is probably the most fundamental the game ever was; and there’s no coincidence that the first three letters of fundamental are FUN.

Good times. I might try to get my group to do a one shot, basic D&D night.

2 Kiel Chenier July 8, 2011 at 3:28 pm

@Dungeon Maestro:

I’d agree, so long as one could use a retro clone of basic D&D, like the fabulous ‘Lamentations of the Flame Princess’.

That said, using character’s back story in the main plot of a D&D game is almost essential. Nothing draws players in faster.

3 mbeacom July 10, 2011 at 4:22 pm

@Dungeon Maestro,

Yes, absolutely. I agree 100%. I’m not so sure about using a retroclone to do it though. That’s kind of like saying everyone should watch Dawn of the Dead but make sure you don’t watch the George Romero version because the effects are not nearly as good.

Whether it’s RPGs, Films, Video Games, whatever, if you really want to understand where the hobby is today, particularly the RP side of it, you need to know where it comes from and how we got here. I love retroclones, I’m a huge C&C fan and I recommend it to everyone. But I still think there are huge advantages to playing something like Moldvay or Mentzer Basic, especially when it comes to “finding” the RP in an RPG. They did so many amazing things in those editions. There’s a reason why they helped pave the way for the multitudes of fantasy RPG options we have today. Many of the wonders of those editions are lost in even the best retroclones, simply because often their beauty was part and parcel with their lack of unification of ruleset. I think with retroclones, you give and you take. Ideally, you gain more than you give up, but that doesn’t mean you don’t give up some valuable things that are worth seeing, even if the net effect is positive.

4 Camelot July 10, 2011 at 8:54 pm

I’ve recently been playing the Wrath of Ashardalon board game for all it’s worth. By the list of the essential mechanics of D&D, the Adventure System is only missing the ability scores, damage rolls, rolling initiative, and the alignments. I’d say it still constitutes as D&D, and as such it can include roleplaying.

I agree that roleplaying is a mindset, and as such it should not be forced into rules and mechanics. Even though the rules don’t encourage it (much less require it), you can roleplay through an adventure of the board game just as you can with the pen and paper game. The difference is that you don’t need a DM to adjudicate the rules. I think this indirectly allows MORE roleplaying than standard D&D, because when a player gets a cool idea of “Oh, it would be so cool if the monster did that” or something similar, they can have it happen without worrying about ruining the DM’s plans.

5 PlayingD&Dsince77 July 11, 2011 at 1:32 pm

Hmmm… I remember when I was 7 and playing the basic box set with keep on the borderlands with graph paper and the lead miniatures that were also sold at the same time as the basic box set. But, I’m old so maybe my memory is foggy.

This hits it squarely on the head…

“So when I notice that role playing wasn’t listed as a core mechanic of the game I can’t really claim to be surprised. After all, there is no rule for role playing. The level and depth of role playing at your table is determined by everyone gathered around for the collective experience.”

I think roleplaying isnt a core mechanic… its a fun and core part of the game, but I dont think they have said it isn’t. Imo, it doesn’t need a set of mechanics defined by the rules. Just examples on how to promote it. Which the books provide.

I would hate to see a rule in the book saying player must hold up two fingers when talking out of character. Or, some other sort of gamey mechanic to force players to role play.

It’s up to the DM and the Players to roleplay… I have a player that will never act, he says… “my character says this” while another player always roleplays, even when out of character asking for a soda. And, they are in the same group.

So when they talk about mechanics… they are talking about Rules.

Eating pizza, drinking soda, rolling dice, drawing on a map, how you sit around the table (which seems to be pretty standard in most gaming groups) seem to be core to most roleplaying games. Do we need rules for that as well?

You have some great suggestions in your article. Great read.

6 Sunyaku July 11, 2011 at 10:22 pm

The list of DM strengths was thought-provoking… it’s good to take a moment to reflect on areas that one could improve.

This post also motivated me to reinsert the campaign villain into this week’s session so that he has a bit more face-time with the players… perhaps providing him a ‘level up’ in ‘villainy’.

7 mbeacom July 12, 2011 at 12:31 am


Thanks a great concept, thanks for bringing that up. I think it’s important to make it clear to your players that the villain is getting more powerful as time goes on too. It’s not like the evil villain is level 30 just waiting for the players to show up. Naturally, a LVL30 villain would eat up a group of heroic or paragon PCs and spit them out. However, while the PCs are busy doing other things, the villain is single mindedly pursuing his goals, getting more powerful and gaining levels at a rate similar to the PCs.

8 Wimwick July 12, 2011 at 10:56 am

@ Everyone
Sorry for the delayed response I’ve been under the weather for the past few days. Some great feedback and discussion around role playing. Sometimes getting back to the basics is a great way to get into the mindset of role playing. It doesn’t mean we need to play the old modules etc. Simply reading them can put us in that mindset.

9 Lugh July 13, 2011 at 1:20 pm

Side-stepping the basic point of your post a bit, I do want to comment on the survey results. Not listing “role playing” among the core mechanics of D&D isn’t that surprising, even leaving aside that RP isn’t a mechanic. It would be a lot like having people list the core mechanics of poker as it changes from stud to draw to Texas hold ’em. Such people probably would not mention that it is a card game. It’s just too fundamental to the concept. Similarly, role playing isn’t listed as a core concept because, as D&D is a role-playing game, it’s part of the definition.

10 leurnid hand July 28, 2011 at 2:28 am

Many RPGs have core mechanics that enhance Role Playing. GURPS is a good example, where the system of quirks and weaknesses (taken to give additional points to spend on attributes, skills, and abilities) are very powerful tools for pre-play character development, and subsequently create a structural rigging for your character’s personality that the GM then has an easy way to evaluate and reward your attention to.

WotC deliberately moved away from ‘character’ defining traits, and instead chose to interpret ‘role’ in another sense: What ‘role’ do you fill for the group? They have effectively replaced the character role-playing (play acting) with what amounts to the same system MMO’s currently use, dividing labor amongst ‘roles’.

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