On the one hand, the rule gamer is right: if you don't have rules and statistics, if you don't have attributes, classes, racial modifiers, and skill requirements, your role is undefined. That isn't role-playing, that's pretending the way kids pretend. There's no hard limit to push up against, no consequences for your decisions, no meaning to any of your actions. You might as well not play the game at all and just sit in the dark pretending your way through every conflict.
On the other hand, the role gamer is also right: if the rules prevent you from playing a desirable role, what's the point of playing? If there are too many arbitrary rules restricting your freedom of choice you're not really playing a role, you're just following a script. It might be a good action game, or a good strategy game, but it's not really a role-playing game if you can't make basic decisions about things like your character's skill development, what kind of armor they wear, or whether or not Absalem the melancholy Elf can reject his racial heritage and live in the cities as a drunk pimp with an Orc girlfriend and a gambling addiction.
Meanwhile, Greg Tito over at Escapist Magazine has written an interesting series on the past, present, and future of Dungeons & Dragons. I reference the future article here, because I think it makes some interesting points considering j-u-i-c-e’s comments above. Tito quotes Mike Mearls, head of Dungeons & Dragons development at WoTC, regarding the ways in which 4e D&D may have gotten out of balance. It is apparent from the article that the perception is that 4e D&D suffers from being too rules-oriented, per j-u-i-c-e’s definition.
According to the past-present-future articles, older versions of the game (and modern variations spawned by the Old School Renaissance) are more balanced in this regard, if perhaps hampered by somewhat arbitrary rules and/or too many allowances for the role gamer. J-u-i-c-e argues — in the context of Skyrim — that gamer immersion comes from a balance of both rule-gaming and role-gaming opportunities. Immersion being the nirvana that RPGs generally seek to achieve.
I think what immerses devotees of the OSR is the rich tradition and history of settings like Greyhawk (among many others), and the familiar mechanics of exploration, combat and magic as defined and refined by game masters from Gary Gygax to James Raggi. Such games include just enough rules to satisfy most rule gamers, while focusing on role gamers.
4e D&D, as originally released, emphasized rules in an effort to create a playing environment that included more gamers. But, as Mearl’s admits, "We've lost faith of what makes an RPG an RPG." In creating a rules game, they lost touch with the role game heritage of D&D.
Where Do We Go From Here?
Lest this devolve into yet another bashing of 4e D&D, I’d like to point out that there are many elements of that game that I, as a role gamer, find compelling. I have just enough rule gamer in me that some of the more arbitrary rules and game mechanics of the original editions of D&D (often perpetuated by the OSR, in my opinion) ruin my sense of immersion.
In my evolving homebrew rules, I’ve incorporated a core set of the conditions imposed by D&D spells and powers, as well as specific powers and effects that cause those conditions. Further, I’ve arranged it so that the player may tactically choose powers and effects that apply those conditions on the fly, in the form of customizable attacks and spells. For example, a weapon user might choose to sacrifice a die of damage in order to knock an opponent prone, if the situation warranted it. Or, a spellcaster might decide to expand the area of effect of a spell, sacrificing some duration, for a temporary advantage.
In the update I’m working on now, I’m tying skill development to defenses. For example, devote more of your skill development to lore-based skills such as history or spellcraft, and your Will defense will increase. Choose agility-based skills instead, and your Reflex defense is emphasized. Additionally I’m tying feats and powers into skill advancement, much as perks are used in Skyrim. When a player spends a point to advance a skill, they may have the option to select an associated feat or power. For example, a player might invest points in their character’s One-handed melee skill, and select the power “Disarm” as part of their advancement. Then, in play, the player would have the option to sacrifice a die of damage in order to disarm an opponent.
Ultimately, my goal is to have a rule system that contains a rich set of choices for rule gamers, while remaining straightforward and streamlined for role gamers. I try to invest as much of my development time in my campaign setting as I do in campaign rules, but finding the personal balance is as challenging as finding in-game balance.
The conflict between rules and roles seems central to dissension in the ranks of gamer hobbyists. Tabletop RPGs that try to become too rule-centric (like 4e D&D), and CRPGs that endeavor to be more role-centric (like Skyrim), inevitably cause a backlash from gamers dissatisfied with the attempts. However, I think it is important to keep trying, from both sides of the issue. If you have examples of games that you feel are nicely balanced in this regard, or thoughts on the matter, I’d love to hear them!