I'd like to ask a question that's been brewing for a while. A lot of the answers and comments on this site seem to be from people who play 4e and are insistent that the right way/only way/best way to play 4e is from a gamist perspective - in other words, the game rules come first, above the in-game fiction, story concerns, DM calls, et cetera. Also can be defined as "powergamer focused." Characterized by 1) the game's rules come over and above the need for activities to make sense in the fictional world of the game, 2) the game's rules come over the ability of the GM to make ad hoc rulings, house rules, etc.

Many posts here have aggressively stated that this is how you "should be" playing the game. This confuses me, because though I know this is a common criticism of 4e I've also seen articles passionately defending that you can use 4e as well as anything else for immersive roleplaying in a fictional world. So I'm interested in what the community, especially those who play 4e, have to say on the topic.

Should or must D&D 4e be played in this way? Does the game not work if subjected to house rules, hand-waving, fudging rolls to fit the story, and other such tampering to suit other creative agendas? It just seems to me that must be somewhat unusual because I can't think of any other RPGs I'd make that claim about. Well, maybe Champions, but even there sometimes there's advice for genre simulation to win out over the exact rules as written.

I know "system does matter" and all, but there's a difference between does 4e as written just tend somewhat towards this mode of employ, versus is it totally unsuitable/does it break down if tried to be uses for simulation or storytelling kinds of play? You can of course try to bring any playstyle to any game, but does 4e lean so far away from playstyles other than gamist that it's a losing battle? I see a lot of answers here on the site that really, really pressure people about "rules over fiction" being "the right way" to play D&D 4e and I kinda just wanted an explicit vote on whether that's the commonly held wisdom or not.


The comments in the answer here Item slots for mounts - "4e is much more game that simulation," "Not an accurate reflection of reality but... WotC.. game balance." I made the same claim myself and got the most upvotes here: How much (if any) force does Tenser's Floating Disk transfer to ground?. Another example is the "simulation is boring don't do that in 4e" of How do I adjudicate the natural tendency for hikers to spread in D&D 4e?

Answer Guidelines

I know that this might be a controversial topic so here's what I'm going to do. "Mod voice is on."

  • First of all, zero tolerance for anyone flaming anyone else; flags will be immediately acted upon in a vigorous manner. You are not here to argue against other people's answers, you are here to provide your own answer and support it. Don't argue with people, get heated, etc. No back and forth in the comments - you can edit your own answers and comments. If people bring up points, refine your previous postings to fit or don't if you disagree.

  • Secondly, I'd appreciate it if you could designate whether you play 4e or not and pile onto different answers designated with that distinction. It would be nice to see "I play 4e and no, you can't" separately from "I haven't played 4e and think you can't" - I don't want to go so far as to say "if you don't play 4e, don't answer/vote," but I would consider an answer a lot more authoritative coming from the players of the game. Also please answer from the viewpoint of REAL PERSONAL GAMEPLAY EXPERIENCE where possible. Opinions are hard to take as authoritative and are what start pushing a question to "bad subjective" land.

  • In this question there is no need to a) "defend" 4e, b) attack 3e, or c) otherwise be off topic... Just share your experiences with running 4e and whether it is mostly rules-first or if and how much fiction-first works with it please. This isn't a comparison or criticism.


14 Answers 14


My Background

I have played just about every edition of D&D after the white box, and I play 4E. I'm currently running a 4E campaign that intentionally breaks the Gamist expectations of the rules. I occasionally play in a "Western Marches"-style Darksun 4E campaign that very much adheres to the Gamist expectations of the rules.

Gamism as I define it is a type of play in which the group of players are all interested in being tested by tough challenges and showing what they're made of (as players, not characters). It doesn't preclude creating story or developing a character (personality) or making tough moral decisions or immersing in a fantasy world, but these things take a back seat to the primary goal of play: winning challenges.

Can you play D&D 4E in a non-Gamist way? Yes, obviously. You have to break the reward cycle to do it, though, and the 4E reward cycle is very strong. Breaking the reward cycle means ignoring some of the rules, and if you ignore too many rules, are you still playing 4E?

The Reward Cycle

When I talk about the reward cycle of 4E, I mean the internal currency mechanism that rewards players for a certain kind of play. The basic cycle is this:

  1. Players make some tough choices about their characters. The first thing they do is create a character, but this also includes choices made during play, and choices made between levels.

  2. Players pit their characters against all manner of dangerous challenges. This rewards them (the players) with feedback about how good their choices are.

  3. Players reward each other with feedback about how good they think everyone else's choices were. "Great job, Adam! Your fighter totally saved the lives of everyone in the party because you blocked that narrow door!"

  4. Players earn experience points (XP) and treasure. These are types of game currency that make their characters stronger. Stronger characters can face tougher challenges! This changes play dramatically. This changes the types of decisions players will make during play.

The end of that cycle feeds back into the beginning again. Players take the feedback from the game play, feedback from the group, and the in-game currency, and apply that to new choices. The new choices include new character options when leveling up, and new tactics and strategies "in the dungeon" (or wherever).

Note that my examples are all combat and treasure, but this applies for other parts of the 4E game, like skill challenges.

Also note that I leave the roleplaying stuff out. While this is an important part of play for most people and the rules do talk about roleplay, the rules don't specifically include roleplay in the reward cycle. You earn XP by defeating monsters, by overcoming challenges, and by completing quests. Any house rule that awards XP for good roleplay must award enough XP to overshadow the normal XP awards to have any real impact, too.

Breaking the Reward Cycle

It's hard!

In my Saberpunk campaign, I basically just keep mental track of how many meaningful "scenes" the party finishes and award a new level to the group every ten scenes. Scenes include any kind of interesting conflict that the party faces. Combats are obviously part of that, as well as skill challenges, but some of these scenes are resolved with simple choices and roleplay. I give out treasure at a much slower rate than the book suggests.

So I cut the cord at the currency end of things. However, the leveling is still there. That means the power level still changes and the players are rewarded with shiny new powers and new challenges to face. Those things are a strong pull for players, who inevitably want to see their characters' new powers in action.

My Saberpunk campaign is, as I expected, drifting back to Gamist play. I'd intended a more Sim game built around a cyberpunk mood and setting. That stuff is still there, but it's getting lost. Our sessions are moving back to the "one or two big combats" that I was trying to avoid. The players have actively voiced wanting those combats and I won't deny them the fun they want.

At the same time, 4E doesn't entirely do what I need it to do. The Sim style of play I want begs for some additional character skills (in this case, Perform for the bard, and an Espionage skill for the wizard -- though Insight will do in a pinch). We just hack those in with a house rule. I'm using the Obsidian Skill Challenge system, too, with great success. I use a Blood Points rule to reducing whiffing and make combats less deadly.

This is just my latest attempt in a handful of failed attempts to drift D&D away from Gamist play. Even older versions have a reward cycle much the same as 4E's. My 3.5E campaigns trended the same way, even with significant XP awards for playing to specific, player-written goals/beliefs. While the XP awards were significant enough to make killing stuff less important, the reward of leveling and getting new character abilities was more powerful, drawing players into combats just to see their higher-level character do his or her thing.

The game gives you an asskicking character, and players want to kick some ass.

What is 4E anyway?

How far can you bend (or ignore) the rules of a game until it's no longer that game? There's no one answer to this question, for sure, but my personal feeling is that you should be able to bring in an average 4E player off the street and, without telling him what you're playing, he should recognize the game.

4E is, at its core, about 50 pages of actual "framework" rules. Most of the rest is rules-by-exception stuff: character race and class lists, magic item lists, equipment lists, skill lists, ritual lists, and monster lists. Some of the rest is play advice. The core of the 50 framework pages is the reward cycle. That includes: rules for creating a character (minus race and class definitions), fighting monsters, handling skill challenges, awarding XP, and leveling up.

When you start ignoring the core stuff, you start drifting away from 4E. I replaced the leveling up system with my own system (which happens to be very similar to a variant in the DMG2, though). I replaced the skill challenge system with Obsidian. I tweaked some rules to make combats more fun (like Blood Points, and like letting characters make a skill check as a Move Action instead of a Standard Action).

However, if Joe 4E Player came into my house on alternating Thursday nights, he'd recognize what we were doing as 4E. It might annoy the crap out of him though, since I totally de-emphasize the getting-into-combat stuff, which is the bread and butter of a lot of 4E games.

When I hear people say that they run games where there are never combats and no one rolls any dice, I wonder why they still insist on calling that D&D, let alone D&D 4E. What about it is 4E? I could bring a GURPS Fantasy character, or a D&D 1st Edition character, or a Rifts character into that game and play, right?

If "playing 4E" means using all the rules as written, I'd say that it's nearly impossible to stop playing it in a Gamist way and still have fun. You'd have to build characters, fight monsters, overcome skill challenges, earn XP, level up, and not care about that reward cycle. Let's say you're interested more in reinforcing the cyberpunk-infused-D&D tropes of the Saberpunk world than kicking ass. You're still fighting monsters. You're still earning XP. You level up a few times, and now your character definition includes a bunch of new powers. To use them, you need to level up more. You don't want to die, either, so you start applying the best tactics you have. Maybe you choose powers that make better sense as a build option than a character-development option. You're headed back to Gamism.

But very few people play using all the rules. Say you're like most games and you have a handful of house rules and you ignore some other rules, like I do with Saberpunk. It's still easily recognized by the average 4E player as "4E" and not some other D&D edition or some other RPG. The rules-as-written even tell DMs it's okay to tweak things. So is playing "4E" the same as playing 4E? I don't know. If you have to modify or ignore the rules to get some kind of non-Gamist play out of the system, is it really fair to say you're playing 4E? It's a philosophical point, and I grant that it doesn't have an easy answer.

Can you house-rule 4E so that it supports non-Gamist play and is still recognizable to 4E players? Sure. I recommend starting everyone at a higher level, tossing out XP and leveling altogether, deemphasizing the combats, and focusing on the kind of play you want. But now that you've thrown out the core of what makes 4E a D&D game, why didn't you just use a different ruleset to begin with?


It is like hammering in a nail with a screwdriver. It can be done, but was not designed for that, and there are better tools for it

I have played and DMed 4e from the release, and I really like it. I played ADnD2e since 1993, but tried several non-DnD fantasy and scifi RPGs as well.

1 DnD4 encounter design

It balances the enemies' power around the number of characters. Simplified, if you add a new player, the DM has to add a new monster. As a consquence, if you come with a sub-par character, your party actually becomes weaker! So not only is there the inherent motivation to build a strong character, peer pressure is also present.

This is quite counterintuitive, so let me give an example with damage, as it is the most easily quantifiable property. If your character does 4 damage, you could say "it is more than nothing", and feel that you are still contributing to your party's success. You are not, because you do not compare your damage to 0, but to the expected baseline, around 5+0.5/level in heroic for non-strikers. If your charater does 4 damage on average, instead of 7 to an enemy is only there because of you, your contribution is -3. Let me repeat: minus three.

The DM can build around the party abilities, but then he has to work way more. In ADnD2e this was not extra work, as there was no standard encounter design guideline to begin with.

2 DnD4 heavily rewards powergaming

The right combination of a feat and a power can easily double your damage output, see Vigilante Justice style and Riposte Strike. The same is true for magic items, ability scores (as they are prerequisites for feats), themes, or even classes. Of course the opposite is also true.
There are really powerful choices not only for damage, but attacks, defenses, and every other game element.

In ADnD2e the differences were around 10%.

3 There are wrong choices

Your idea of a Rogue with a 2 handed hammer might seem cool, and has tons of flavor, but it is a suboptimal choice, closer to crippled.
If the difference between 2 options is 10%, it is just a question of taste. If it is 100% and sometimes more, as shown above, the question is not what is the motivation of your Rogue using a hammer?, but are you insane?!?

A nice list of conditions that can trigger the second question can be found here.

4 The right choice is not obvious

A Rogue with a dagger makes good damage, so one with Falchion will make great damage, right?

The rules are many, complicated, there are corner cases and niche builds. This is the reason the class guides of the WotC forum are referenced so often here.

The cost of building a good character, one that helps the party instead of hindering it (see 1 Encounter Design) is high, in time and effort.

[ 5 ] Making up rules on the fly hurts the fun

In DnD4e you can prone a Black Pudding. You can slide the Tarrasque, with a dagger.
It makes no sense.

If you, as a DM, try to remove these obvious inconsistencies, you upset the player. He spent 2 magic items, 3 feats, and 4 attribute points from his really scarce resources to be able to prone at-will. He feels cheated, and with good reason.
He built his character with great care and the definite knowledge that all creatures can be proned. (Less 2% of the creatures are immune to prone) The DM denying him this ability feels like betrayal.

[ 6 ] DnD4e is like a board game

Some say this as an insult, I think this is not. Board games can be really fun.
In ADnD2e, the spellcasters started out weaker than other classes, and ended up absolutely owershadowing them. I hated it. One of the stated design goals of DnD4e was to create balance between the classes. The price of balance is a static environment, as in Risk, or Catan. This is a price I gladly play, but those who value freedom of imagination above mechanical consistency will have a hard time with it.

What you can do

  1. Houserule it. Takes a lot of work, but at least your player will know what to expect.

  2. Make up rules on the fly. The simulation element will be great, predictability will suffer greatly. See [ 5 ] about making up rules.

  3. Play something that was meant for simulation. There are lots of games recommended on this site.

  4. Play it as it was meant to be played. Refluff! Use your imagination in a non-disruptive way: If you want a Rogue with a hammer still be relevant, build one with a Dagger, and say it is a hammer. You are not proning the Gelationous Cube, but stirring it, causing temporal desorientation. This video explains it quite nicely. (It is not me)

  • 2
    \$\begingroup\$ I want to upvote about 4 times for section 5. We had a discussion about this in a pre-campaign meeting earlier this week, emphasizing that although we want things to make sense, we don't want to take any abilities away from characters they paid for if the player isn't okay with it. \$\endgroup\$
    – DCShannon
    Commented Jun 12, 2014 at 19:39
  • \$\begingroup\$ The link at point 3 is gone. \$\endgroup\$
    – Zachiel
    Commented Apr 30, 2017 at 18:13

I GM, play, design for, and blog ("At-Will") about 4e. Been published in Kobold Quarterly, getting published as an author in a book coming out in April (Lost City). I've also been roleplaying for about 23 years and have played every edition of D&D to date (yes, even the old beige books, which I inherited from my brother). I play (and have played) tons of other games as well (amongst my favorites: Dragon Age, Dogs in the Vineyard, Mutants & Masterminds, Fiasco, Shadowrun, Mage: The Ascension, Trinity).

Here's my take: D&D traditionally is not a game that defines anything well but that which describes combat. The first skill system was "Non-weapon Proficiencies", as if to denote "oh, here's something to do besides fight". D&D has never mechanized things that people start to expect from games now – belief systems, willpower, relationships, etc. But it never needed to and really doesn't need to in its current incarnation.

4e D&D is pretty explicitly built with the understanding that you're going to play between the gaps in the rules. You are going to tell stories the way we generally always told them in RPGs – through description, pacing, a sense of improv, and, oh yeah, some ways for rolling dice.

I feel that understanding 4e well (which I'm not going to even attempt in this post) provides a context in which you can run the games you want and tell the stories you want without doing much extra work. If you want to do special things, then house rule away.

Keep in mind that 4e does tactical combat very well – note that I did not say that it is fast, but tactical RPGs aren't usually fast – and it is incredibly open and extensible. The power system has a lot of applications for combat and outside of combat.

Beyond that it doesn't give you a lot, pretty much on purpose. If you want a game that is more focused on the RP and less on the G, it's pretty simple and more a matter of the stories and encounters you design. Skill challenges can be a great aid here, but aren't necessary.

If you don't like the toolset 4e gives you, it's best to try something else. Dragon Age gives a more traditional ruleset (much closer to 2e D&D than 4e is) with the nice augment of a flexible "stunt" system.

I like much of what 4e does give, and find that my own house rules and work with skill challenges rarely finds me lacking to express story situations with game mechanics if I need them. My 4e games definitely include gamist elements, but I make the game subservient to the game fiction always.

But, like all things, YMMV.

(And I guess I could tag everything I said with a "FWIW" :))

  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ Hm, I disagree that the result in play in 4e is the same as all D&D "traditionally", but good insights. So you are able to run 4e "fiction first" and it works? Can you give more details on that? \$\endgroup\$
    – mxyzplk
    Commented Mar 2, 2011 at 1:26
  • 10
    \$\begingroup\$ i think a lot of the confusion with 4e is that of perspective. I look at RPGs as toolkits, and to me 4e covers the same ground as other versions of D&D. In that vein, I feel it is simple to structure my game the way that I want. When I say fiction first, I am really thinking about "What do I want to explore? What situations do I want the players to be involved in?" These things transcend system. Once I have that foundation, I then see what game elements I'll introduce into that structure. You can use an RPG's rules whenever you want, and the skill is deciding when/when not to use them. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Mar 2, 2011 at 14:35
  • \$\begingroup\$ Is there an archive of At-Will? \$\endgroup\$
    – Firebreak
    Commented Feb 9, 2021 at 23:24

I GM 4e. My group plays in what I consider to be a narrative manner with a side of gamism. We've done several sessions without combat and once we went a whole session without rolling dice.

Basically I tell a story and we treat 4e as a rules light system. I don't really do traditional skill challenges because I find them too structured. Even a well written SC felt like the path was chosen and I just had to jump hoops, rather than picking a path. Instead of that, I let the players figure out how to use their skills and I write down the checks they made. Between sessions I'll combine their results and retroactively figure out what the SC would have been for the sake of tallying XP. Or I'll just fudge it. At any rate, this lets the players approach things from all angles instead of the angles I predicted and planned for.

We get more gamist during combat. My group enjoys mechanics even if we don't prioritize mechanics above story. Basically we want a deep mechanical system for when combat happens, but making combat happen is not a priority.

I haven't intentionally been fudging combats. I don't feel the need to. However there have been a number of situations where I've misread something. I'll trigger an aura on each of the PCs' turns instead of on the monster turn. Or the other way around. Or I'll misread a burst as a blast. Or forget about an interrupt triggering on a monster being bloodied. Sticking with my mistake or correcting it (ie, turning the interrupt into an encounter power and using it the next turn) has worked great. The system is robust enough that it doesn't break if you fail to stick to the rules.

  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ Right, but so do you feel like the system doesn't work if you deliberately don't stick to the rules (as opposed to make accidents now and then)? \$\endgroup\$
    – mxyzplk
    Commented Feb 28, 2011 at 3:07
  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ @mxyzplk, I haven't tried intentionally fudging 4e. I decided to run this campaign by the book just because I hadn't done that before. It had nothing to do with the system. I see no reason why fudging 4e wouldn't work though. \$\endgroup\$
    – valadil
    Commented Feb 28, 2011 at 3:29

OK - a vote. I vote Yes! I play it all.

** Additional clarification edit per 'mxyzplk' request. Sorry for not being clearer.
I do not play 4e exclusively. However as an RPG, I do play 4e the most. I follow nearly all the rules as they stand, but have house rules for 4 things and 1 alteration to game flow in combat. All 5 changes are done to give more freedom to the players (and GM) for story purposes. My players are only aware of 1 house-rule.
** end **

NOTE: This forum is all about answering rules questions and so by definition it skews perception in a way that makes us all appear to be rules-lawyers.

Let me start by saying I started out in the mid 1970s playing Alexander by Avalon Hill as well as a dozen other titles. About 4 months after this I found SPI and subscribed to everything they published. 8 months into this obsession I discovered 0e (zero Edition) Dungeons & Dragons white box. I was hooked. I still play board games, military miniatures and RPGs and I always will. From that time until today my best estimate is that I have gamed with, in some way, at least 150 unique people. Face-to-face over a board and counters; over a carpet with rulers and lead; and around a table with any number of space ships, aliens, dragons, spies, robots, cars, time machines, dinosaurs and even handmade clay things we threw at each other.

I give this background for a reason. By the second game of Alexander, I was tinkering with the rules. And don't even get me started on the house-rules we used for naval miniatures.

When I discovered D&D white box it was a miniatures rules system at it's core. So I naturally tinkered with it. I always felt arrows where under powered and spells needed points and not fire-and-forget mechanics. I have never played a single rules system or table-top game that I believed couldn't do with some modification or house rules. I also am a very strong practitioner of the 'fudge' method of game mastering. For RPGs, I learned very early that the story always takes precedence over the mechanics. Without the story there is no game.

I have also learned that with enough tinkering you can completely alter a game system so that it no longer is the same game.

Dungeons & Dragons is not just a game system, it is a lightning rod. It was first and always has been the biggest RPG. Over the years, more people have played it than probably all the rest of the systems combined.

I have met numerous people who wouldn't game with me because I didn't do it right. they were either rule-lawyers or power-gamers. Some of these people I have met years later and almost always they say the same thing, they don't game anymore. I have asked them why and they give many answers, but the most consistent one is they got tired of the game. I have asked them which adventure/character was their favorite and they didn't really understand what I was asking. They didn't understand that it was about the story. They played the game like it was Monopoly and everything had to be by the book.

Dungeons & Dragons (or any role playing game for that matter) doesn't work when the only focus is the rules. They quickly become boring and tedious. Every RPG must be about the collective story experience. Ask anyone you game with, "What rule is your favorite" and they will probably check you for rabies. Ask them to relate their favorite character experience and they will talk your leg off. Why? Simply because on the unconscious level they don't care about the rules, they care about the story.

Part of your questions is: Does the game not work if subjected to house rules, hand-waving, fudging rolls to fit the story, and other such tampering to suit other creative agendas?

I submit that without some level of these things any game just becomes an exercise in dice rolling mechanics and that is just plain boring. I do not play for the mechanics of the game, I play for the friends around the table and way wicked adventures we have.

** Additional thought sparked by mxyzplk's comment below.
Why do I do house-rules and fudge? Simple, to make the game fit easier to run or understand, which then increases my ability to experience a good story with the group. Ever person is different in how they interact with the world and they approach story telling in their own way. When they modify a game system in some way they are most often correcting what the see as a hindrance to their way of experiencing the story. This is why these same people react so harshly when they perceive an attack on their favorite system. They feel attacked on a personal level, because that is how they express themselves. House-rules and fudge are a very personal thing and I for one have learned to treat them with a high degree of respect.
Also some ways of the experiencing a story tend to conflict with other ways experiencing the story. This is why some people can't game at the same table. This is not a bad thing it is just something to be aware of. Don't force people into your way of experiencing the story. They will very likely react negatively and in most cases not really understand why they don't like your gaming style.

All this is to say whatever system you use - vote for fudge and house-rules, but only where they help you and your group experience a better story.

Keep On Gaming Everyone!

  • \$\begingroup\$ This was interesting and insightful, but lacked any specific examples I could use in my own games. \$\endgroup\$
    – DCShannon
    Commented Jun 12, 2014 at 19:51

I'm amazed that nobody has directly referenced Maslow's Hammer yet, unless I just missed it. If the nail you're wanting to pound is that of intensely tactical combat, 4e makes a rather decent hammer...both for GMs and players itching to hit that nail. I regard RP in 4e to be about the same as RP in World of Warcraft...it's entirely possible, but it exists entirely outside the scope of the mechanics of the game and isn't what many of the players thereof are interested in. (Not a knock; I play WoW myself.)

You can use any system to do anything, if you try hard enough. I could play noir detective drama with Toon if I really wanted to. (Yes, I've seen the attempt. Oddly enough, that somehow made it even funnier, but the game was especially prone to random breakdowns into player noise.) What it all comes down to is that players and GM have to want to RP, and that RP be its own reward, or else you're reduced to coercion...and when you get right down to it, changing rules and rewards to induce the desired behavior is a form of coercion.

But if it's behavior they already want to engage in, then you'd be hard-pressed to stop them. The game rules are a tool. It's up to the people using the tool to figure out what they want to do with it. So the mindset you outline may indeed be "common", but I'm not so sure that "wisdom" plays into it one way or the other.

  • \$\begingroup\$ I'm not sure this is an answer. Have you tried playing with an alternate playstyle in 4e? (Have you played 4e at all?) \$\endgroup\$
    – mxyzplk
    Commented Apr 3, 2014 at 22:46
  • \$\begingroup\$ I've GMed it, and spent a good many hours poring over the rules in preparation for same...and can say the same for each version back to 1e (and other game systems besides, plus all the ones I've bought but never been able to run). So I've seen plenty of different tool kits. And it's as much of an answer as there is...if I were to come to you and tell you there was only one right way to use a screwdriver, you'd think me unimaginative at best. How is anyone saying there's only one right way to play 4e any different? \$\endgroup\$
    – Stormhound
    Commented Apr 4, 2014 at 3:23
  • \$\begingroup\$ Fair enough, I needed to ask - this is a question that people like to answer without any 4e experience, so it can't be taken for granted without more information \$\endgroup\$
    – mxyzplk
    Commented Apr 4, 2014 at 3:26

As rpg hobbist with a decade of game mastery under my belt, I think you have your work cut out for you if you want to use D&D 4e or 3.5 for simulationist play, under the Forge model of GNS. The combat system which is very Gamist, while the other mechanics namely rituals and skill challenges allow for and to my mind encourages Narravistic play styles.

That said its not a question of if you can. Its more a matter of how much work do you wish to do. You could certainly run a game of 4e where the PCs are merchant traders, traveling from one point of light to another trading commodities and use skill challenges to track the market value of their goods, possibly not using combat outside the occasional raid. This would require more effort than say doing a sword and sorcery game in the style of Conan the Barbarian.

The system won't fight you, but you won't get a lot of use out of the pages and pages of attack powers in a game about Merchants, while the second example...a sword and sorcery genre game, I've already run and for house rules I disallowed all non-lizard races, and found homebrewed Yuan'ti and Lizardfolk. The Obsidian Portal to that campaign is here.

How I prefer to run 4e, is by first identifying what genre the game is going to be and then arranging a few house rules to enforce that genre...limiting power sources, and playable races, adding vulnerabilities, new feats etc. Then once everything is formulated and negotiated with the players the game is run. Combat is usually run on the fly with whatever thematic monsters meet the encounter budget and with the occasional planned set piece battle. Skill challenges go on in the background and are uses as pacing and organizational tools to frame scenes and track how the group is progressing toward their goals.

I currently play a henchman and my employer in an Open World/Sandbox game of 4e set in the Chaos Scar that is very character driven, still we average one fight per session and yet why we fight is usually less kill the goblins and more Fist Full of Dollars, play one side against the other and cheat everyone, just last session we parlayed with a tribe of Bullywugs in order to arrange an ambush against the town's mercenaries that will make our party the dominant force in the region which we plan to squeeze for loot before the arrival of a massively powerful demon which we tricked/summoned to cause chaos in the region.

My character in that game is a warlock henchman, and his employer is a 1 hp familiar refluffed into a weak but immortal necromancer. The necromancer if killed rises again the very next scene, if the henchman were to die it would be permanent, however during a fight the henchman is the only one who participates as the pompous necromancer shouts orders and usually gets run through for his trouble. The necromancer has a couple of skills and a list of rituals that he can use, otherwise he has no ability to affect the story. There are very real consequences for disobeying my employer/master in that game even though most of the time I play both characters.

Skill challenges in this game tend to break the narrative, which is not to my taste but to each their own. The DM of this game tends more toward gonzo comedy than the sort of pulp adventure that I tend to run.

Hopefully my opinion was enlightening to you.


4E and it's source of gamism

4E's load towards gamism revolves around the fact that the expected way to play is to engage in a lot of tactical choice loaded play. Most of the mechanics you engage with, the advice to DMs about how to design adventures, and the XP all revolve around tactical play.

That said, most traditional games out there also focus heavily on tactical mechanics (though, usually in character power builds), except they push for GMs to build for other types of play and reward other goals as well, which usually leads to a game pulling in a couple of different directions. So, 4E's "difference" in this regard is simply getting all 3 of those aimed in the same direction.

Only one aspect of that - the immense tactical rules, would be a giant pain to rework. That said, there are games with that kind of rules without being the primary focus of play - such as Burning Wheel or Riddle of Steel/Blade of the Iron Throne but the key difference is both the adventure advice and the reward system.

Quests - the easiest hack

The easiest place to bend play towards something else is the XP system. 4E includes "quests" as an option to get XP, and the nice thing is it's a loose, adaptable system. Take out or drastically reduce XP for combats, and make most or all of your XP into quests, and you can bend it either towards Simulationist or Narrativist play easily.

For Simulationist play, the rewards are based on whatever the thing is you're emulating. 2E D&D dived into this a bit with class specific rewards - fighters got extra XP based on monsters defeated, clerics for healing/promoting religion, wizards for casting spells, etc. That's one way to do it. You could just as easily put in some kind rewards based on your race ("Dwarves do this"), class, religion, political affiliation, etc.

For Narrativist play, the rewards have to primarily aim at dealing with human issues. "Who are you/what do you believe in/can you uphold it/how do you change?" The easiest solution is to simply let players define their own Quests that deal with their character's ideals, beliefs and goals. The harder part is learning how to structure scenes and conflicts to meet those things, if you're not already familiar with how to do so.

Skill Challenges

What do you do for the majority of gameplay time? If you spend most of the time making tactical combat decisions, then that becomes the Creative Agenda being experienced at the cost of the other types.

The easiest, in-game rules to use to bend the core experience of play, outside of simple non-mechanical freeform aspects, are the Skill Challenges. And those can either focus on being challenges and rewards that fit Sim or Nar play depending on which way you angle it - which also can be rewarded with XP accordingly.


4E is not hard to bend to other Creative Agendas. That said, your players will be sitting there picking out class options and abilities for about 30-45 minutes each which will probably not see a ton of use... which makes it not particularly great as a system to push in a different direction. Some games make it easier to use these kinds of elements but stuff like, "Burst 3 squares" doesn't particularly lend itself well outside of tactical decisions on a map, and it's not particularly fun to spend a lot of time making choices about stuff that won't actually matter in play.


I am an old AD&D player (and mostly DM) but missed out on d20, 3.0 and 3.5. I wantto get back into D&D with 4e but haven't yet found a local play group.

That said I think the "gamist" camp may be overlooking a major rule which is in the DMG (I don't have the page handy but will try to edit this answer later). Namely an entire section about how a DM can handle things not covered by the rules and the related emphasis on how the DM has the final say.

If you listen to Wizards of the Coast's podcasts or employees at conferences and events they almost all talk about how their home games have house rules. How they experiment with alternative approaches and how at the end of the day it is the group and the DM who decide how to play the game.

The rules are just a shared starting point. As a player I can see the appeal of playing to the precise rules (which with errata are themselves a moving target) but this would get old fast if the focus became on the rules over the story and the social fun.

  • \$\begingroup\$ "Page 42" is what people call the rules you may be thinking of. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Feb 27, 2011 at 20:08
  • 3
    \$\begingroup\$ Yeah, there's a difference between "Page 42" and "Rule 0" though. "a DM can handle things not covered by the rules" versus "A DM is not bound by the rules." Good points about the designers' play being experimental (though I wonder if some people don't say "but that's because they're the designers, our home game needs to hew to the book though"). \$\endgroup\$
    – mxyzplk
    Commented Feb 28, 2011 at 3:10

Any and every game can be played in any of the GNS postures.

Whether the resulting emergent story is satisfying is a whole 'nother matter.

The "narrativist ignoring the mechanics" approach generally has been the recourse throughout the history of D&D... ignore significant chunks of rules until it's sufficiently un-gamist for your group. This, however, often also results in house rules galore, and it's considered questionable by many if such games actually remain D&D.

The Simulationist approach is one of two modes: treating the extant mechanics as a valid simulation, or adjusting the mechanics to be a better simulation. Adjusting the mechanics again potentially results in questions of whether one is playing D&D anymore.

The valid simulation mode results in unrecognizable settings; cities of aggregate stone made using Transmute Rock to Mud, and then letting it expire, most people having a continual light source of some kind, theocracies galore, and a host of other oddities... the mechanics change none in this mode, but the setting, no longer set above the mechanics, is literally bursting with monsters, and magic, while rare, is so valuable that permanent magic items will be major parts of any halfway decent estate. THis is because D&D, in any edition, makes little effort to be a "realistic" setting, and many spells and powers impacts are not thought out long term in setting creation at TSR neé Wizards...

Gamism is the hardest stance to prevent occuring as a designer... a gamist is taking a philosophy of play and applying it. I've seen someone try to "game" Wick's Blood and Honor... and to a certain extent, he succeeded... but the combination of group power and simple rules made it a losing proposition... because the rules are so subject to group interpretation. D&D has very complex rules, which means that, barring group consensus, one runs the risk of gamism arising.

One can, if one's players agree, use the core mechanics of 4E and run it in a fairly light mode, and the non-combat mechanics are not terribly hard-line gamist, anyway... only the combat is deeply rooted in gamism. So, minimizing combat, and keeping combats to minimum needed, you wind up with a less gamist game without rule changes...

  • \$\begingroup\$ I know you can try... I guess the question is, does it work, or does it break down, and do you have to alter the game so much it's "no longer D&D 4e"? \$\endgroup\$
    – mxyzplk
    Commented Feb 28, 2011 at 13:47
  • \$\begingroup\$ I ran a 3.0E game simulationistically, using RAW. We started the prep by looking at the magic item capacity of cities... even with a 20-year limit on Continual Flame torches ("Dear, go, put the lights in the closet..."), it will be lit well by modern standards. 10the level casters get 20,000 cu ft of tunneling per day...which others can muck out... and 11th get 44,000cf, or can make 22,000cf of bricks (TRTM, muck it into the forms, the TMTR it back to stone). \$\endgroup\$
    – aramis
    Commented Mar 1, 2011 at 7:20
  • 3
    \$\begingroup\$ So, about the price of tea in China… Can you ground that with something that makes it relevant to 4e? \$\endgroup\$ Commented Mar 1, 2011 at 18:27

In short, yes. (now to lengthen that.)

I started playing D&D with 3.5 and then migrated up to 4e (which I feel is the less rule heavy of the two) and think that it is impossible to play ether game for very long focusing on the rules.

D&D like all games is subject to house rules and minor adjustments, unlike monopoly though it is subject to the sacrificing of the randomized rolls of the dice to make the story it is meant to tell work. It is a fact that all RPGs need this to function, no system is sacred, they all need the help of a few fudged rolls, and some form of house ruling for the game to last. Without the story at the center of the game, and instead replacing it with rules the system dies off. WotC knows this, and is not going to put time effort and money into a system that would fail. They put a fun disclaimer as the first page of the books that tells you that the whole focus of the game is story not rule and therefore they can be fudged and finagled.

Like Acedrummer pointed out this is a rules and tips Q&A Forum, so it is quite reasonable to infer that the game is rules heavy merely by perusing the vast array of answers that one encounters on this site. That is by definition jumping to to conclusions, the 4e system can be (and is) in fact rather rules light, and easy to modify as you wish.


I'm very familiar with 4e and I just don't understand why this system's storytelling capacity is so frequently criticized. Are the DMs roleplaying with an interest in every character? I play in two long running games; One "gamist" and the other "roleplaying."


The DM's narrations and story arcs are very good and complex.

In any skill check players will do some math and debate a plan for whose characters will assist primary rollers with the highest skill values. Houserules have more difficult pass/fail criteria like a penalty for failed assist.

A gamist attitude grants the The Sorcerer a higher charisma score and enables roleplay for that character who tends to be ambassador for an entire party. An assisting character makes an assist roll roleplay in a skill that is assumed to elaborate a detail of The Sorcerer's supporting argument in character.

These gamers aren't interested in roleplaying for the most part, but when they are, the precedent makes it difficult to feel comfortable or break in. The DM expects his NPCs to negotiate with The Sorcerer because that character responds confidently.


The Sorcerer's player is the DM. His skill challenges are done in secret: he will ask for skill checks regularly which reveal flavor narration, clues or red herrings. Based on the rolls he will determine a pass or fail and change the plot.

Individual characters start conversations with PCs & pressure players to participate. e.g., an NPC will attack the cleric's religion based on his garb and the cleric will defends himself; even a player who muchkins their deity choice has just developed his character based on it. A resulting skill challenge could take place there or take place over time in other conversations. The cleric has an opportunity to influence NPCs favorably and even convert them. Otherwise there's a possibility that a religious difference becomes a point of contention & complication to the plot.

Skill checks aren't really used to persuade NPCs very frequently. When they are used, it is a big deal – the DM would probably ask for this roll if the player wanted to persuade against a zealous prejudice.

He has so many NPCs pre-planned in detail particularly to prides and prejudices that the PCs need to navigate to get along without violence. Reputation with organizations and making friends in high/low places are the strategies he's looking for.

There aren't any relevant house rules.

  • \$\begingroup\$ This made more sense the second time I read it, but the first time it was confusing rambling, and I'm still not sure what your point is. \$\endgroup\$
    – DCShannon
    Commented Jun 12, 2014 at 19:55

I would argue yes. One of the things that excited me about 4th Edition is the ability to play Dopplegangers. The appeal of a Doppleganger is in changing appearance to start infiltrating places, or for some unique roleplaying experiences. It's actually quite free-form there. Because combat is so well balanced, you're actually given a lot of freedom to do what you like outside of combat, which is not always the case in a system that expects you to be spending a lot of time outside of combat.


I've had a good read of some of the top answers, and a good skim of the others. The theme seems to be on what the GM does, but in my opinion the 'gamist' themes come from the players.

I'm not sure if I was playing with roleplayers who were naturally inclined to game rather than roleplay, but the only time I played a 4E game of DnD people were criticising me for more choices of items and abilities because, in essence it let the group down. They explained to me that the challenges (be they monsters, traps etc) were geared towards character with the best abilities, and anything less would put them at a disadvantage. At least this is the impression I've gotten, with my little experience.

In short I don't know if 4E create players who want to 'game' not roleplay, or it creates situations where you have to be 'gamist'. Either way, I think you not only have to address what the GM does to make the game roleplay friendly, but the attitudes of the players as a whole.


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