There’s a lot of discussion about this all over the place. I hesitate to answer, but I would like to shed some light on some of the terminology in use and mention some bits where I think people may be being unclear.
According to the old Threefold Model, which is a seminal attempt at theoretically classifying approaches to roleplaying, there are three (natch): Gamism, Simulationism (or Immersion), and Dramatism (or Narrativism). Usually people don’t come purely from one approach or the other but some mix of them, although you usually see consistent leanings into one of the three approaches. Would you like to know more?
“Gamist” usually means a focus on playing the game for the rules, with clear challenges and victory conditions and metagame goals. Often in games this means combat, but skill and interaction events are also gamist if pursued with a “rules first” mentality. Some people like the gamist approach. Gamism is what people are complaining about when they say “D&D 4e plays like Magic/RoboRally/a board game/a tactical minis game/etc.” Gamists like to “do what will win.” People don’t use the old terms “munchkin” or “powergamer” much any more, but they were deprecating ways of referring to gamists, since they worried about their character’s build or loot more than a realistic in-game motivation.
“Simulationist” usually means a focus on “becoming” the character inside a realistic game world. RPGers like to use the big word “versimilitude,” which means “Yes I know magic isn’t ‘realistic,’ but the game world can still behave realistically according to its own rules from its inhabitants’ point of view.” Simulationists like to “do what their character would do.” Metagaming, or making decisions about what the character does using information not obvious to the character, is heavily frowned upon. D&D was extremely simulationist (with a side plate of gamist) up through 3e; a lot of the reaction to 4e is its movement in the other directions.
“Dramatist” usually means a focus on the storyline from an artistic sense. Dramatists like to “do what is cool” or “do what makes a story that’s most like a novel.” Games that wholeheartedly embrace a specific genre or show (the Buffy: The Vampire Slayer game is an example) are dramatist. D&D 4e has added some dramatist elements previously completely missing from D&D – for example, “encounter powers” and being completely healed overnight are somewhat gamist, but also somewhat dramatist because they are causing the game flow to follow a narrative structure – “the power ends when the scene ends, not at some specific time.” Now, admittedly, they are more gamist than dramatist because though they follow a narrative structure they don’t specifically seek to advance a narrative, but it’s definitely mixed in there.
In one sense, all of these are “role-playing,” in the sense that the general body of role-playing games consist of some mix of these elements. But some of the time, when people say “role-playing,” they mean a strongly simulationist approach, in the sense of “no really, taking on and playing a character as a role.”
Many people claim that the game rules don’t have anything to do with “whether there’s role-playing or not.” From one point of view (all three approaches are valid RP) that’s true. But from an understanding of RP as simulation, that’s definitely not true. RPGs have sets of rules that can lightly or strongly encourage each of the approaches. Now, it is true that it’s hard to make rules (as opposed to “advice” in a game book to roleplay) that specifically advances simulationism – but you can easily make rules that detract from it. Rules that specifically serve gamist or dramatist ends by their nature involve some metagame consideration and thus are harmful to pure simulationism. You have to take yourself “out of character” to decide what is the most clever plot twist or what super combo you can pull off to take out that beholder.
Interestingly, gamism and dramatism can meet, especially in games that have rules that are heavily prescriptive to story elements. Like the Star Trek: The Next Generation RPG, which had a “Random Technobabble Generator” chart and explained how to set up the game to mimic the dramatic structure of a normal Next Gen episode.
D&D 4e is a lot more gamist and a little more dramatist than previous editions. And it also flirts with the conjunction of gamism and dramatism with the encounter powers and healing surges and whatnot. I think this is what simulationists perceive as the “bad thing” about the 4e rules. Many of the rules are just fine from a gamist POV, like the “magic items sell for 20% list” or “marking” or “movement in squares.” They are, however, harmful to the simulationists. People who aren’t simulationist don’t understand this, because to them role-playing is either a) playing a RPG, duh, it’s in the name or b) a code word for “acting,” which is sometimes dramatist and sometimes just funny voices.
This is where people say “You can roleplay just fine in 4e!” It’s true in the same sense that you can roleplay in Monopoly – you can make the little doggie act up. But you can’t really do simulationist Monopoly (and its rules are disjoint enough from real-world that versimilitude’s impossible). Similarly, it’s harder to do simulationist D&D with 4e. Not impossible of course, just made harder by the rules and the core conceits behind the rules. It specifically prescribes things like defined quests that are effectively metagame considerations and therefore counter to a simulationist’s expectations about their activity in the game world.
But don’t you “just need more imagination?” Perhaps. Imagination is what helps smooth over rough points in the imperfect nature of simulationism – it’s “suspension of disbelief” and finding a reasonable in-game-context explanation for things that seem to break simulation. But there’s a continuum of how much people can tolerate/how much work they want to put out to make the simulation happen.
My personal preferred approach is simulationist, with a dramatist streak, low on the gamism.
As a result, 4e doesn’t meet my expectations as much as previous editions have. And sure, they’ve all been a mix – 1e used “inches” as movement, but that was generally understood to be a holdover from its more gamist origins as a tactical wargame, and the evolution of D&D has largely been towards simulationism (although some argue removing complexity worked against that, I tend to disagree – those weapon vs armor type charts may have arguably had more realism to them, but they made you spend much more time focusing on rules and so were overall a detraction). I think the change in direction from “moving from gamism to simulationism” to “moving from simulationism to gamism with a side of narrativism” is what’s throwing a lot of people who liked the previous direction.
I’m not saying that 4e is “bad” and I’m not saying the non-simulationist approach to RP is bad. But everyone sees the anti-4e furor, and those that don’t understand this say “Oh, everyone’s always afraid of change” and other such meaningless dismissives. The deal is, that there’s a lot of people who lean simulationist out there, and were used to D&D evolving down a simulationist path, and the fact that the new edition takes a direction away from that approach is surprising and unwelcome to those people.
All this is just so you understand what the real issues are when someone says “4e sucks donkey balls because it’s not a roleplaying game!” What they usually mean is, “I like simulation and am used to D&D catering to that approach! This new D&D doesn’t and thus it fulfills my needs less!” You may not have those same values or concerns, but that’s what the fuss is about.