Tactics vs. Role-Playing

There are two parts to RPGs: The "Role-playing" part and the "Game-playing" part. "Role-playing" involves developing a character, improvising, telling a story and making a fool of yourself in front of your friends. "Game-playing" involves
rules, dice, strategies, tactics and arguing for hours over whether or not you can somersault over a pit of lava without an "acrobatics" skill on your character sheet. Most RPGs, like most gaming groups, lean toward one side or the other, but some of the best games find a nice balance between the two.

My question is this: What happens when the two sides contradict each other?

D&D 4E is a game firmly on the rules side. It revolves heavily around tactics and combat. It expects that characters (and players) to act in a certain way, and rewards certain strategies and actions. Sometimes you just HAVE to play the game in a prescribed way to defeat certain challenges. Now, many hardcore "role-players" balk at this like a horse being urged to swim through a lake of mechanized crocodiles, but others players (The "game-players") revel in the chance to use the rules to solve the puzzle. It's like a math problem, and some people like doing math problems.
I bet Pythagoras would have frakkin' ROCKED at D&D.

There's nothing wrong with role-playing in 4E (or any game). It should be encouraged, and even WotC have made half-hearted attempts to push it on people. But what happens when the role you're playing flies completely in the face of how you've been taught to play the game?

I have a perfect example. In my current PBEM game, my players were recently slogging through an old dwarf fortress overrun by orcs. I knew they would be heavily outnumbered and up against some tough opponents, so I gave them each a dwarf minion to control in addition to their characters. The minions weren't particularly powerful, but I figured they could use them to set up flanking opportunities and to draw out the enemies' attacks to help the players live longer. So what did the players do? They put the minions BEHIND them so they wouldn't get hurt! They risked their own lives to protect the meat shields. Maybe it was my fault for giving the minions names and personalities, but to give up a tactical advantage for a role-playing one (they told the dwarves they were going to "teach them the ropes" of adventuring) takes a lot of balls.

I would have tossed that dwarf at the orcs and run away without looking back.

Next, they couldn't decide on a marching order. While the rules encourage the defender (tank) to go in first to draw enemy fire with their high AC and hit points, when the paladin suggested this the strikers would have none of it. The ranger wanted to go first because his background said that he distrusted following the orders of others and he wanted to rely on no one but himself. The eladrin warlock believed that all non-elf/eladrin races were inferior and thus he should be on the front line leading the charge because he was the best and could do the most damage.

The most telling exchange:

Paladin: Okay, everyone stay close to me and concentrate your fire on the orc chieftain! He does the most damage so we have to take him down quickly, then we can move on to the next enemy.

Ranger: I'm going to charge bodyguard #1.

Warlock: I'm going to attack bodyguard #2.

Cleric: I'm going to attack anyone who comes near my dwarf minion, and make sure he doesn't get hurt.

(I apologize to my players because I may be exaggerating their motivations a little bit for emphasis, but really, this was pretty much the exact conversation from our game.)

Every encounter was much harder than it should have been because they couldn't agree on tactics and everyone ended up taking more damage than they should. Miraculously no one has gotten killed yet but it's only a matter of time if we keep going like this.

Please understand: I don't believe they're playing "wrong." Not at all. I am impressed with the conviction they put into playing their characters the way they think they should be played. Sure it may be frustrating sometimes (personally, I think it's hilarious) but I hope they are enjoying themselves.

The rules of any RPG should be treated roughly like the rules of Calvinball.

So what about everyone else? Which side of the game-playing/role-playing line do you fall on? And have you had any problems where the two sides come into conflict?

Like this?


  1. Book_ScorpionMarch 15, 2011

    I'm definitely more of a role-player. If that collides with the rules, then that's how it is. I feel that changing the way my character reacts to make it compatible with the rules or mechanics of the game is something like cheating. I did write him that way for a reason and usually with the full knowledge of the problems that may arise from it.
    I do try to avoid things that I know will get the group in deep trouble, there's a limit to how far I am willing to go for the sake of roleplaying. But since many of my characters are very loyal to their group, that's not often an issue.

    My current Shadowrun character is paranoid and I mean more than is normal for any Runner. I've had any number of problems due to that, like being mugged on the bus since I won't drive a car, almost landing in prison after getting hacked by another decker because the group had no idea where I was or having to spend much of my recent income for a new apartment - I can't go back to the old one after having been hacked (well, I could, the hack wasn't that severe and I know that both as player and character, but I still wouldn't feel safe). Of course that's making the game complicated for myself and from the gameplaying viewpoint it's stupid, but it's fun.

    We also had a character turn against the group because what we were asked to do went against his personal moral code. The player ended up making a new character, but it turned out to be an interesting evening before that.

  2. Your players rock, but I can't help thinking they'd be better suited to the more freewheelin style of Basic, Labyrinth Lrod, or Swords & Wizardry. Just to be clear I'm not claiming badwrongfun is happening or preaching edition superioty, just sounds like they might enjoy something a bit more tactically forgiving.

  3. steelcaressMarch 15, 2011

    I prefer roleplaying waaay over tactics, because the bogus "tactics" they put in most games isn't how it happens once you go mano-y-mano. Being in the SCA long enough will tell you that much. Most of the 3E gaming groups were just the opposite, sadly. I made a con-man rogue, and wondered why his sneak attack damage kept rising every time he gained a level...

  4. Tequila SunriseMarch 15, 2011

    I find myself surprised more often by trope-playing vs. real-playing than by role-playing vs. game-playing. In last Sunday's Dark Sun game, for example, we went into the desert to track down a runaway slave and a teenage girl for the girl's landowning father. Sure enough, when we find them, they've got the usual Romeo-and-Juliet thing going on.

    So half of us stay with the two lovers to make sure they don't die of naivety in the desert, and the other half go back to chat with Father. The player talking to Father lays out the truth for him, and suggests that accepting his daughter back and her slave lover, as a husband-to-be, is the wisest course of action. Meanwhile, I'm thinking "Oh, now the shit's going to hit the fan. We're going to need to drag these kids back to Father, or make a speedy getaway to the next town." But we don't need to, because reason (or idealism?) works. Father has his former slave married to his daughter within the session, and gives us a good meal and a pat on the back. No diplomacy checks, no long-winded role playing. I don't know if I was trope-playing and the other were real-playing, or vice versa, but I was sure surprised!

  5. Lord TransconaMarch 15, 2011

    I just don't understand why you'd have characters in a tactical game. Its just a war game then, like Battletech, no point in roleplaying your mech. As soon as the rules become tactically heavy it ruins the roleplaying for me. I want my character to do what I want him to do, not be railroaded into an action because the rules don't give me room to move. Also in a tactical game dying is essentially losing, and it sucks. Roleplaying a character that dies a dramatic, or even ironic, death is still fun and exciting.

  6. BaradtgnomeMarch 15, 2011

    I like the balance, and for the most part think we achieve it. If your party will make character decisions ahead of tactical decisions, and that is what you want, you must build encounters taking that into account. We all think the game is more fun when role playing messes up perfectly good tactics.

    As a DM I try to avoid the obvious tropes, though some are hard to avoid. Oh, and we do play 3.5 and having played AD&D for 15 years before that don't see why 3.5 can't be a role playing game. We do just like we did back then - used house rules and ignored rules we didn't like.

  7. CDGallant_KingMarch 15, 2011

    I suspect you don't go much for "crunchy" systems, and that's totally cool. Flying in the face of what's expected is AT LEAST half the fun of gaming. Rules are made to be broken, right? Though I know guys who get all red-faced and upset when you don't "play right." Fortunately none of them are in my regular play groups. My number one rule of gaming is if you're not having fun then you're doing something wrong. Don't let the rules or expectations get in the way of that.

  8. CDGallant_KingMarch 15, 2011

    I completely agree. We're committed to the campaign right now, and I don't think anyone wants to redesign their characters, but I'm never playing 4th Edition PBEM again. I plan on switching systems at the first opportunity. 4E is too crunchy for the loosey-goosey style we favour in email gaming.

  9. CDGallant_KingMarch 15, 2011

    Amen, brother! Gaining sneak attack damage, or any power or skill automatically when gaining a level is without a doubt my biggest pet-peeve in any game. I don't need realism in combat (I suspect the tactics in modern games owe a lot to video/computer-style RPGs) but I do like my characters to at least make logical sense, so that I can rationalize them at least within context of the game universe. Magically learning how to fly a helicopter because you earned 1000 experience points kickboxing ninja does NOT make sense in ANY context.

  10. CDGallant_KingMarch 15, 2011

    Interesting ideas. There ARE a lot of tropes in RPGs, just like in television, books, movies. It makes the game familiar, and helps establish certain scenes and character archetypes, but makes for a ridiculous game when over-used (just like in other forms of storytelling). I think it takes good adventuring writing, just like it takes good-scripting, to use tropes intelligently without falling into laziness and repetition. And I'm sure most groups have familiar elements they enjoy, but other common plot devices that make them groan. A good GM (and players for that matter) just have to be careful how they use them. Thanks for the comment!

  11. CDGallant_KingMarch 15, 2011

    That's an excellent point. 4E is a tactical game, pure and simple. It's about picking and choosing just the right build to make your character do what you want it to do, and then using the right strategies in combat (within the rules) to out-maneuver your opponent. The role-playing part is just kind of pasted on over top of it. You can play 4E without a lick of role-playing (Living Forgotten Realms and Encounters are proof of that). It's not necessarily a bad game, it's just a completely DIFFERENT game. (Battletech is actually a great comparison I've never thought of)

    And characters don't die in 4E. With minimal effort and investment, they get back up the next day with minor penalties to their die rolls which go away after a couple of hours. It's hard enough to kill them in the first place, and then they don't even stay dead? Why do I bother game mastering???

  12. CDGallant_KingMarch 15, 2011

    Hallelujah. Again, I agree. Find what works for your group - a balance of tactics and role-playing, of combat and storytelling, of the common and the unexpected. Pick a game that works for you - players that like Battletech are probably not the same players that like Vampire: The Masquerade (and vice versa) - and make it your own. Toss out anything that gets in your way, and find a way to make it something you all can enjoy.

  13. Book_ScorpionMarch 16, 2011

    We had this Cthulhu adventure where we (three people, only one armed with a revolver) got captured by five cultists, all armed with revolvers. The "rule" with Cthulhu is more or less: if you look down the barrel of one or even several guns, you're toast. We still think that the look of total unbelieve on the GM's face when we not only attacked, but won, was one of the best moments any of us ever had while gaming.

    I can totally get behind your number one rule. And I love it that I have GMs who allow and can cope with all the ridiculous/stupid/rule-bending things I or the group have done. Sometimes just because it looked so cool in our imagination that we had to try it.

  14. JsalvatoriMarch 21, 2011

    Quit making fun of us!
    But really, it may be way harder than it's supposed to be, but who cares? I for one am having a great time.
    And I don't need a pathetic human DM telling me how to play! I cast mists of madness on you.

  15. RichardjohnguyMarch 21, 2011

    I once totally derailed a Vampire game by refusing to kill a non-vampire NPC just to calm down another PCs bloodlust. But I think that sort of role/roll conflict is expected in WW games.
    Cthulhu is the game that I find most consistently produces these conflicts. you know it's a bad idea to go into the cellar, but you do it anyway. I confess to concreting in some high-powered cultists, though. just because you're role-playing, doesn't mean you have to replicate the cliches of dramas.


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