One complaint I hear a lot about D&D 4E is that it does not allow for a great deal of role-playing, at least as compared to it's immediate predecessor. There are a number of specific examples worth exploring, but I wanted to explore something that developed at my D&D Encounters table over the past year. Sometimes, it's the style and polish, the quirky character customization, that differentiates your dwarf fighter from every other dwarf fighter out there.
I started playing Fourth Edition after hearing the Penny Arcade D&D podcast. One thing I still remember from that podcast was Mike Krahulik renaming one of Jim Darkmagic's power, Magic Missile, to "Jim's Magic Missile" and that this kind of personalization was actually highly promoted by the WotC Dungeon Master. Shortly thereafter, I played in a game where somebody made a shifter tempest fighter named Wolverine who wielded two katars in battle. In both cases, the player made essentially cosmetic choices that helped solidify the character as a *character* and not just a monster killing robot. I have spent a lot of time thinking about this notion of making something your own as I DM games both public and private.
One day, a friend brought a half-orc monk character he made to my Wednesday D&D Encounters. Afterward, with help from a friend, I considered how hard it would be to make Akuma (of Street Fighter fame) into a D&D monk character. We started testing various builds and eventually came up with a few options that seemed to fit very well. We made a novelty character card for him, renaming all of powers and abilities to be sound like Street Fighter moves. It worked surprisingly well. Akuma made a number of appearances in the Dark Legacy of Evard, exploring the Shadowfell and vanquishing enemies with his Tatsumaki Zankukyaku.
Eventually, making notable video game characters into D&D characters for Encounters became a thing I do. People get to experience Neverwinter or the Feywild with characters like Zero (Mega Man X), Starkiller (Star Wars: The Force Unleashed), Naked Snake (Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater), or Larry Laffer (Leisure Suit Larry). They play like you would expect. Zero slashes monsters with his Z-Sabre. Naked Snake hides in the shadows and chokes enemies by surprise.
So, back to my original question. Does Fourth Edition promote less role-playing than Third Edition? Like any role-playing game, you get out what you put into it. The rules of the game should not change your ability to create a character in a fantasy world and have them go out on adventure. I think an important element is the ability to customize the details about a character outside of the realm of game mechanics. That process goes a long way to making the game more about role-playing.