A complaint about 4e that I sometimes hear is that players are eschewing roleplay in favor of combat. While one might expect this from younger gamers who might think of Final Fantasy or Warcraft when they hear "RPG" before thinking of D&D, I am hearing this complaint among older (er, I mean, experienced) gamers like me, who have been playing and DMing since the late 70's and early 80's.
I've heard this complaint often enough to think it is not an isolated phenomenon. In fact, I noticed the tendency to rush through roleplay to get to the fights in my own 4e campaign. What is causing players -- many of whom had a history of being dedicated roleplayers through prior editions of D&D (and in other role-playing games) -- to become so combat-focused?
What is Combat Investment?
I believe the problem (or a great part of the problem) is a phenomenon I am calling "Combat Investment". It's not a new phenomenon either. I see it as analogous to the Sunk Cost Fallacy in economics and game theory. Once a player has spent time building a character for combat, he focuses on that aspect of the character in order to get a return on his investment of time, even if might enjoy the roleplay. It's a psychological phenomenon, and it can be addressed simply by recognizing that's what you're doing.
Players invest a lot of time in 4e getting their characters properly equipped for combat. Feats, Equipment and especiallty Powers are all combat-oriented. This investment psychologically encourages players to want a return on their investment. I.e., they spent time making a kick-ass combatant, so they want the pay-off. If you spend an hour making a combatant and then spend the whole session never rolling a die, you feel a bit cheated. You feel like you want that hour of your life back. This is true even if you enjoy roleplaying.
In contrast, role-playing takes very little investment. You pick your Abilities, Backrounds and Trained Skills at the beginning of character creation and then you never touch it again (unless you retrain or pick up a Linguist Feat). So even if you enjoy roleplaying, there's no "buy-in". You don't feel as cheated if you don't roleplay because you don't feel like you "wasted" any time prepping your character for roleplaying.
DMs also have a Combat Investment, although it's less than it used to be. Roleplaying a NPC requires some Ability Scores, some notes on personality, a physical description, some character goals, and maybe a funny accent. In contrast, NPCs require powers, hp, defenses, and other qualities, all properly balanced against the PCs. In addition, DMs -- particularly in 4e -- are encouraged to develop interesting terrain in which combat will occur. This means DMs can spend a lot more time planning fights than planning roleplay. This creates the DMs' own incentive to get a return on his investment of time.
Is this a new phenomenon in 4e? It sort of is. Except for spellcasters and optimizers, in prior editions, most players didn't require a lot of prep time for characters. And most people who played non-spellcasters were, almost by definition, not optimizing. So martial characters generally had very little Combat Investment to overcome. And in prior editions you had more spells that had use outside combat (often in the form of divinations and enchantments that could obviate roleplay altogether, but still), so the players' investment in spell memorization wasn't entirely Combat Investment in prior editions.
Selling Your Combat Investments
This doesn't mean 4e is bad for roleplaying. It works just fine in my games. What you need to do is overcome the hurdle of Combat Investment.
First, you need to be conscious of the Combat Investment. Usually, once you realize what you've been doing, the Combat Investment is easier to resist.
Second, you can reduce your Combat Investment. Wizards already encourages this with tools like the Character Builder and Monster Builder. The less time you spend dwelling on your characters' combat competency, the less investment you have.
Third, if you can, don't put the minis and maps on the table when there's no combat. Also, encourage your players to keep their sheets face down when they aren't looking at equipment lists during roleplay. This minimizes the temptation to get to the combat.
Designing Around Combat Investment
Still, I think 4e made a mistake in not properly considering the effect of Combat Investment. There are some things future game designers can to to alleviate this issue:
First, designers should be cognizant of the Combat Investment of the system and work to reduce it. 4e uses a lot of colorful language to describe powers, often in ways that aren't helpful in describing what the power does. This increases the combat investment because you spend a lot more time trying to decipher how this power should be used if you take it.
Second, designers should try to consider noncombat uses for powers and suggest them in the power description. This makes the investment of time less exclusively about combat, and more about building a character. But these noncombat uses should be more flavorful than mechanical. Powers should be useful for enhancing role-play, not a quick fix for getting around a situation that should be roleplayed. This is true, mind you, for both PC powers and NPC powers. A DM is more likely to roleplay if given some suggestions for interesting things a NPC can do in a social or skillful situation.
Third, designers should give thought as to how a character can develop in handling non-combat situations as the character develops. While Backgrounds were a great addition to 4e, it would be nice if your Backgrounds could expand as you gain experience. This will encourage players to continue to think of their characters as more than a collection of combat powers, and to really contemplate how their characters have been growing as individuals with personality during the campaign. This, in turn, will provide a richer roleplaying experience.