Choices Must Matter
I’m not a D&D player, but I try to keep my eye on what’s going on with D&D since it has such a big influence in the hobby. During the 3e vs. 4e edition wars it was a common rallying cry amongst 3e fanboys to say that 4e had removed roleplaying from the game, to which 4e fanboys would invariably reply that nothing was stopping any player from roleplaying well in a 4e game. Since these are broad-brush generalizations they’re pretty easy to dismiss, but I think there’s a useful observation hidden inside them. First, we should realize that the 4e reply I gave above is a form of cheap argumentation: The question isn’t whether it’s impossible to roleplay with 4e, but whether the design of 4e discourages roleplaying. Although I can’t speak from first-hand experience, I think there is some merit at the core of the 3e fanboy’s complaint.
The D&D 3e design includes a complex character creation system and encourages players to think in terms of “builds” of which classes, prestige classes, feats, etc., they want to use to achieve their character concepts. These choices are rarely made of discrete elements but are strongly coupled together: Prestige classes have prerequisites, you have to take lower level class features before the upper level ones, you accept the “flavor” consequences of some choices for desired mechanical effects, you accept the mechanical consequences for desired “flavor” choices. Players are encouraged to take these choices seriously, to think about them ahead of time. This encourages commitment to a character concept.
Many elements of the 3e system were widely criticized. One criticism was the need for “system mastery” to know that some of the choices were just categorically worse than others. Another criticism was that many choices included tradeoffs between combat effectiveness and effectiveness in other arenas which made it harder for different characters to harmoniously function “as a party” while interacting with different situations: player A was twiddling his thumbs during the fight, player B wandered off to get a snack while the rest of the party negotiated with the baron. The 4e designers tried to address these issues by making it hard to make bad character building decisions. While the optimizers can still find ways to make smart decisions pay off, the difference between a mechanically optimized character and a non-optimal character weren’t as dramatic. Additionally, the designers made sure that each character had a combat role to play: each character has an array powers that do damage and inflict status effects on monsters. While there are many reasons to commend these design decisions, one consequence is that the choices matter less. This is the source of complaints about the “same-y” feeling about 4e classes and powers. If one mechanical choice is roughly the same as any other then making those choices creates less investment in the choices the players actually make. Less investment in a character could easily manifest as less “roleplaying” and a greater lapse into purely mechanical talk. Since 4e’s mechanical design is more robust than 3e’s and it gives players lots of fun-looking mechanical buttons to push it’s easier to switch into purely mechanical talk and not contribute to rich and robust fiction. As a result we can see that there is some merit to the concern about there being “less roleplaying” in 4e: roleplaying isn’t outlawed in the game, but one of the psychological mechanisms that supports investment in a character is weaker in 4e than the earlier edition.
If we’re trying to extract lessons from this analysis to use in other game designs, I wouldn’t recommend inserting “system mastery” features like feats that only newbies use, but I would recommend making sure that the mechanical choices feel sufficiently different to players that they matter. One way to do that is to make it harder to evaluate choices on a single axis, such as damage-per-round. By making hit point damage the common thread in all 4e powers it encourages players to think about their choices in those terms. On top of that, damage and hit points, as bland totalizing mechanics, tend to blur differences rather than making them more distinct.