Let’s talk about role-playing mechanics for a second.
Now, I know the automatic, pre-programmed response is: “I don’t need mechanics to tell me how to role-play!” That’s nice. I don’t mechanics to narrate a combat. I can write gripping action scenes that are much more narratively fulfilling than a one produced by the dice. But I play role-playing games for both the element of random chance and the interaction of a group of people with a story.
A very short note here first. I’ll be referencing a couple Order of the Stick strips because, well, it’s a flimsy excuse to slip in some links to a couple Order of the Stick strips.
Because of this, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the OotS Kickstarter (found here). It’s currently the most funded creative project on Kickstarter (i.e. one not producing a gadget or piece of technology) and is slowly working its way to becoming the fifth most funded Kickstarter project ever. So go Team Geek! I have all the OotS books already but I’ve still thrown $40 at the project to help get books back into stores (and get myself what is becoming a metric tonne of swag).
Even if you’re not interested in donating, it’s worth checking out to see the charts and watch the numbers creep upward.
In one of his blogs, the ever-readable Wrecan talks about the tentpoles of D&D, and I favour the big three: combat, exploration, and role-playing socializing (introduced here and expanded here). This blog touches on "socialization" which overlaps with role=playing, as mechanics for one can bleed into the other.
Now, the big question is "why?" Why do we need mechanics for role-playing? We all know how to role-play. Little kids can role-play just fine with finger-guns as imaginary cops or cowboys or soldiers.
The big reason is determining success and failure, but that answer that interests me is "rewards". If you establish a framework of mechanics around role-playing you can also add a reward mechanism. Good role-playing can be encouraged, and acting in-character and not metagaming becomes desirable for intrinsic reasons.
We’ve had ad hoc role-playing rewards in the game for a looong time, with experience being the default. However, experience as an RP reward is inherently unsatisfactory. First, there’s and increasing movement to remove or downplay xp in D&D. The party levels as a group so individual experience rewards are useless. And there’s always the potential for abuse, with people overacting or making poor decisions under the guise of being “in character” to try and snag that extra XP.
Experience is also the mechanic of combat advancement: you kill monsters, gain xp, and level-up so you can kill better monsters. It’s an character based reward. But role-playing is a player-based activity, so the reward should be focused on the player not the character.
Likewise, without the possibility of a reward there’s also no possibility of penalties. You cannot take punitive action against bad role-playing or a character acting, well, out-of-character. Acting in-character should not be done only when it’s convenient, when it helps the story: character flaws are the most interesting when they’re inconvenient.
Let's move to the most obvious example of purposeful inconvenience: alignment. I do miss the old alignment restrictions; having to make hard moral choices with a personal penalty was part of the game. By removing the penalties for alignment violations they removed some of the sting from moral choices: if the paladin can be evil whenever it's convenient then what's the point of being a paladin? What makes them special and more than just a Fighter McCleric?
Now, penalties for alignment violation can be a little hard and unforgiving – likely penalizing those already in a bad place – especially for other classes But what about rewards? If there was some sort of role-playing mechanic or sub-system in place, than acting according to your alignment when it was inconvenient could be rewarded and the player given a bonus.
This makes alignment matter, as a player stated at character where their character stands on moral grounds, and can be penalized when they stray. Again, the token OotS strip.
Similarly, everyone's familiar with the Lawful Stupid paladin everyone in the party had to work around and manipulate so they could do what they wanted. The player of the paladin had the standard hard choice: do they let themselves be tricked by the obvious ploy so the party can "question" the prisoner and advance the plot or do they maintain their good alignment and take a stand against torture? If they make the hard decisions that might be worth a reward, which makes alignment matter. A paladin that lets their party commit evil deeds while they look away might not be stripped of their paladin-hood but instead lose an opportunity to be rewarded for playing their alignment, the high cost of plot expediency.
Deals With the Extremes
In my Pathfinder game one of my players is a gnome tinkerer who is rocking a 24 Intelligence. And in my 4e game my psion is first level and has an 18 Int. In both cases, there is the role-playing challenge: how do you accurately role-play someone who is twice as smart as you? Ditto the other end of the spectrum, where you have a character with an Intelligence score so low chewing solid food is likely a problem and he needs Combat Advantage to hit his sleeves with his arms.
How do you role-play a character who is so different from yourself? And what's the encouragement for doing so. I think we've all seen the dump-score Int fighter played by a smart character thinking of all the best plans and strategies. Because there's no incentive to play the character as the stats suggest.
Mechanics would help. In theory, light RP mechanics would enable a player to reflect an extreme in an Ability score and should reward the player for acting in-character and playing up their stats.
Flaws & Advice
Here's another reason to write rules and actually address role-playing: some people do it wrong. When making a character, some people make bad decisions which results in characters that are simply less fun to play or impact the fun of others.
Now, if there was a mechanic system it could be used to reward players for positive role-playing and characters that are in-character but acting detrimental to the plot or fun could be denied rewards for those reasons. It could be used to encourage positive role-playing.
When I say "bad decisions" there's a range of badness from poor planning to demonic. We've all likely seen the character who justifies a bad decision with "but that's what my character would do." Often this is tied to stealing from the party, picking a fight, splitting the party, or betraying an NPC. General bad behaviour. This may be what the PC would do, but the player decided what the PC would be like. The book should have advice encouraging players not to make characters like that, and to instead make characters that have a reason to be a part of the team and work well with others. There should be advice and suggestions for justifying positive reactions, encouraging players to not make characters that don't get along with others or are one-man wolf packs.
A lesser example of bad decisions is character traits. Characters should have a memorable hook or personality quirk, something that can make them stand out from all the other members of that race or class. Some quirks will just never see play and might as well not exist, and some quirks will come-up so often as to slow down play. You should likely never play a D&D hero who's afraid of going underground or terrified of the dark.
On a similar vein are character flaws. These can be a tad tricky, as normally they're tied to generic mechanics and can have a combat effect. But normally, their use results in Mix/Maxing, focusing on the least offensive flaws to gain extra benefits elsewhere. Tying flaws to a role-playing system keeps them out of the rest of the game while making them much more important to the social aspect of the game.
Similar things could be done for allies and organizations and values. More often than not, player's forget about their character's background, as there's no reason for them to care. A character should have social ties and a reason for remaining interested in said ties, and sometimes the best way to encourage that is to have a reward/penalty system.
This is long. But what it really all comes down to is that role-playing mechanics are not necessarily and automatically a bad thing. There's a place for them in the game, as pretty much every other RPG produced in the last fifteen years has realized. If D&D doesn't acknowledge this sizable aspect of the gameplay experience and do something to encourage it, offer advice, and reward positive play it will forever be considered an elaborate combat simulator.