I play a lot of 4th Edition D&D, and while I don’t haunt boards or rp sites at all, I do think about all the topics my very forum-happy DM of a boyfriend brings up. Lately, he’s been doing a lot of 4E defense – saying yes, you can roleplay using that ruleset, yes, you can have involved stories, no, it’s not “just like an MMO” because someone might say “tank” instead of “defender” at the table once in a while. I’m paraphrasing here, and maybe making some stuff up.
It took me a few sessions in one of my ongoing games to realize how I had to approach roleplay in 4E to make it worthwhile. This is heavily informed by the aforementioned boyfriend’s brilliant “Roleplaying with Miniatures” article, especially this: “Step four: make your character do whatever your character would do. Fuck tactics.” Provocative, yes. Something to discuss with your other players so you don’t end up with two people in Super ZOMG Tactics Mode and two others running around hitting evil statues on the nose because their characters are “fun.” There’s a balance to be struck.
I started thinking about mechanical ways to make this part of the game itself, as opposed to a potential social contract that may not work in play. What I came up with, for lack of a better term, is “chosen limitations.” Detriments, challenges, etc. Everyone in the party chooses something – some facet of tactical play – to be a limitation in combat.
Choose it right at the beginning. Make it an explicit part of character creation. Have a pretty strong vision of what these limitations might be. You don’t want it to be like a Secret Santa exchange at the office, where everyone spends $5 and That One Guy spends $30. In the same vein, you don’t want lots of little limitations and then the guy who says “I wear an eyepatch on my left eye, so if a bad guy hits me from the left, I’m automatically dazed!” Too big.
I’ve only used this in practice once, and I don’t even know if it was noticeable to the other players. It’s a 4E game in a rich, fascinating setting (a shout out to Metrocalypse here), and our characters are folks who were in Oxford, England in 1605 who woke up to a radically changed world. My character is a fairly young woman who went from her father’s care to her husband’s. She’s all of 19, the world is a wreck, and now she’s fighting giant ants and explaining religion to bullywugs. Neat rp! But how to reflect that in combat to keep my interest going? I decided: she will cling to the strong men in her company, as she’s always clung to father and husband. Cecily will never be further than two squares away from one of the male characters. Ever. If pushed to a square further away, her first action will be to return to that range.
It’s just a tiny little consideration that I can set alongside all the other tactical decisions I make in play, but this one ties into who she is as character, not who she is as class. And how about a halfling who can’t swim? A half-elf who was a captive as a youth, and who will automatically react violently if shoved into small spaces? A character who has fallen in love with another character, and will always see to that character’s health before anything else? Make it a tactical challenge, decided upon with the DM. Choose to share it with the other players, or keep it a cool secret to figure out in play.
Really, this is what I love about 4E. I don’t see it as limiting; I see it as an incredibly easy and expansive framework. And making your character’s life harder is fun!