Roleplaying

Five Mechanics That Will Make Your Game Worse

Rules are absolutely essential to roleplaying games. We wouldn’t have much of a ‘game’ without them. They give us a structure in which to tell epic stories of heroism and, of course, to murder orcs for their precious copper pieces. Unfortunately, not all rules are good. Sometimes they come in the form of overpowered abilities, which are certainly problematic and need to be dealt with. Even worse are the ones that reach far beyond what one character is able to do. These are traps unintentionally left in by game designers who didn’t realize the full implications of what they were creating. They are so bad that your game will usually be better for ignoring them completely.

1. The Stun Setting, Star Wars Revised Core Rulebook

Star Wars d20 The snarky part of me wants to say that you should never use any of the d20 Star Wars rules at all, because I find the idea of hitting someone with a lightsaber only to be told they have 30 hit points left very upsetting.

My own biases aside, a lot of groups have found the accessibility of d20 to be very handy. This system makes it an easy transition from a deep dark dungeon to a galaxy far, far away. So long as you never let your characters set their weapons on stun, that is.

Normally, weapon damage must chew through a character or monster’s vast reserves of health before taking them down. Not so with the stun setting. Any creature hit with that lovely blue ring must make a fortitude save with a DC ranging from 15-18 depending on the weapon. If they fail, they are stunned – immobilized – for a few rounds.

That doesn’t sound too bad, right? After all, most dangerous monsters or high level NPCs can manage that fort save easily. The weird part is that even if the target succeeds, they are still stunned for a round. No matter how badass the enemy, one trooper with a blaster rifle set to stun can completely neutralize them for a round. This means that a handful of level one characters can take down a Rancor by having a few of their number barrage it with stun blasts, while the others whittle through its mountain of HP.

When things get really serious, the PCs will bust out their nonlethal weapons. It’s not unheard of for games to have nonlethal options which are more effective than their lethal counterparts, but this is one of the more extreme examples. Fortunately, the solution is very simple: remove the one round stun on a successful save. It’s so simple, in fact, that I’m not sure why the game designers didn’t think of it themselves.

2. ‘Impossible’ Difficulty, Serenity

Serenity RPGIf you’re reading a Mythcreants article, it’s likely that you still mourn the loss of Firefly just like we do. If so, then what better way to ease that gnawing emptiness than by rolling up your own big damn hero and playing out the adventures Malcolm Reynolds and his crew never got to have?

The Serenity system is nothing to write home about, but it generally gets the job done. Bandits are dealt frontier justice, Alliance patrols are avoided, and player characters ride surfboards across the hard vacuum of space.

Wait, what? One of these things feels a bit out of place, and it’s all caused by an otherwise unassuming difficulty chart on page 141. The chart starts out innocently enough, listing the target numbers for easy tasks, average tasks, hard tasks, and so on. The final listed difficulty requires a skill roll of 31, and it is titled “Impossible.” That’s it. No other explanation or clarification given, just “Impossible.” It doesn’t take a genius game designer to figure out the problem with this. Imagine the following exchange…

Player: I roll Technical Engineering to create a machine that births unicorns.

GM: What? You can’t do that! It’s-

Player: IMPOSSIBLE?

Now let’s assume for a minute that your group is more reasonable than that and doesn’t want try using Athletics to run faster than the speed of light or some other such obvious nonsense. This is still a problem, because it essentially means the GM can never use restrictions to reliably create an adventure.

Say the GM has constructed a one shot in which the PC’s ship has broken down and needs a specific part replaced. They can’t lift off until they get it. In the meantime, they must deal with a pair of rival crime syndicates who both want their ship, and aren’t afraid to use violence to get it. Sounds like a fun adventure – except for the part where the group’s mechanic rolls ‘impossible’ and somehow fixes the ship without the needed part. No adventure today.

At the very least, rolling a 31 has got to be very unlikely, right? Not really, as it turns out. While the average character probably can’t do it, PCs who heavily specialize can. They won’t get it on every roll, but it only takes one to seriously mess up the session. Despite all my doom and gloom, the fix here is pretty easy. Just change “impossible” to “super duper hard” or what-have-you. The real issue is that in order for a roleplaying game to work, the GM has to be able to say that some tasks simply cannot be performed, and having a difficulty chart saying otherwise is a real problem.

3. Rerolling Failures, Legend of the Five Rings: 4th Edition

Legend of the Five Rings coverI went through a phase a few years back when Legend of the Five Rings (L5R) was the only roleplaying game I would deign to play. If it wasn’t romanticized, katana wielding samurai or sneaky ninjas all in black, I didn’t want any part of it.

Although the obsession has faded somewhat, I still enjoy the game, and would recommend its fourth edition as a decent game for anyone who is interested. That said, there is a mechanic on page 81 that I simply do not understand. Paraphrased, it allows characters to reroll failed non-attack skill checks at a significantly higher difficulty.*

Try as I may, I cannot understand what purpose this rule is supposed to serve. First, the wording is extremely unclear on how this rule is supposed to manifest in-game. The example given is a character failing to climb a tree, and then trying again. Is this supposed to mean they fell out of the tree and are starting at the bottom, or is the second roll entirely behind the curtain and the character actually succeeded without a hitch? If a characters is attempting something like climbing a tree and there’s nothing to stop them from trying a second time, then why the increased difficulty? Is the tree angry?

For that matter, if there’s no consequence for failure, then why make them roll at all? Just say they’ve climbed the tree and be done with it. If there’s a consequence for failure that’s repeatable, like taking damage because they fell out of the tree, then it’s up to the player whether they want to risk that failure a second time. Once again, a difficulty increase is pointless and nonsensical.

Roleplaying games should not make players or the GM roll more often than necessary. All this mechanic does is make the whole process take longer with no appreciable benefit, especially since the character is very likely to fail the second roll as well. If the intent is to increase the general chances of passing a roll, then the original difficulty should be lowered, not raised. The strange thing about this rule is that it feels like a tacked-on third wheel to a game that was already working fine. It adds nothing, and no one will even notice when you cut it. Just sharpie over that paragraph in the book so no one gets any funny ideas.

4. Increasing Attributes, Star Wars: Second Edition, Revised and Expanded

Starwars RPG Yes, Star Wars makes the list twice. This entry is from the days of yore, when would-be Jedi bought bucketfulls of d6s and worshipped at the feet of West End Games. In this version of the Star Wars universe, things were as they should be. Force users were the glorious master race, capable of rolling so many dice it would take all session to count them. Non-force users were the plebs who knew their proper place, because no one ever wanted to play as Han Solo, I guess.

Hyperbolic nostalgia aside, d6 Star Wars worked pretty well. It was very basic, with none of the narrative shaping mechanics we expect from modern games, but it let you shoot someone with a blaster, and that was enough for early to mid 90s gamers. Everything worked fine until you tried to do something really complicated, like raising your strength.

For those unfamiliar with it, d6 Star Wars operated on a point buy system where players could spend their experience to raise either individual skills like Melee Weapons, or an umbrella attribute like Strength. Raising the attribute was much more expensive, because it would also increase any skills associated with it by the same value. A character had to have a lot of skills associated with an attribute to justify raising it – otherwise it was more efficient to raise each skill separately. In fact, it cost 10 times as much to raise an attribute as a skill.

This was a tremendous cost, and it wasn’t unusual for PCs to go entire campaigns without ever getting together enough XP to do so. If that was the end of it, then it would have been fair enough. Raising attributes was prohibitively expensive, but that was the only way to ensure balance.

Apparently, the game designers didn’t feel that way. You see, when a PC tries to increase an attribute in d6 Star Wars, they must make a roll with a difficulty based on how high their attribute already is. If they fail the roll, not only does the attribute not increase, but it can never increase again.

That’s kind of a bummer after you’ve spent however many sessions saving up just so you could be as strong as that Wookiee who keeps tearing people’s arms out. But wait, it gets oh so much worse. PCs who fail the roll to increase their attribute are refunded half their points. That’s not an exaggeration on my part. It’s italicized in the actual book too,* as if to call special attention to how much the designers don’t like you or your stupid character. This is the kind of rule that will get the GM fired out of a cannon into the sun.

I would really like to know if any GM has ever enforced this rule. I know if I tried, my players would come at me with pitchforks and torches. Whenever I run d6 Star Wars, I take special care to make sure everyone knows their XP is safe. I won’t steal half of it for the crime of attempting to raise an attribute.

5. The Idea Roll, Call of Cthulhu

call_of_cthulhu_gwThe previous four entries on this list have all been the sort to make people say “WHAT? Why would you do that?” and then devour their book in a fit of disbelieving rage. It’s pretty obvious why each of them is bad, and what to do about it. This one is a little more subtle.

Idea is a stat in the Call of Cthulhu (CoC) roleplaying game, derived from a character’s Intelligence. It’s rolled when the character needs to come up with a spontaneous idea. Imagine that. The problem is, the main use for this roll is give players a hint when they are stuck. Again, that probably doesn’t sound so bad, but consider this. What happens if the idea roll is failed?

When characters need a hint, it’s because they’ve gotten stuck and don’t know how to advance. This happens most often in mystery games, which are common in CoC. The game has come to a halt because the players aren’t jiving with the GM’s logic on how to interpret the information in front of them. Along comes the Idea roll to the rescue, cluing the player in to the fact that those butter-covered knives they found might be a sign of Cholesterulu, The Bringer of Heart Disease. Unless the idea roll is failed, in which case the game gets to continue dragging on, with everyone getting more and more frustrated by the minute.

I’ve seen more than a few GMs call for an idea roll, then call for another every few minutes until they finally get a success. If players need a hint, the GM should give them one. It’s that simple. Attaching the hint to a roll that can be failed just gets in the way. It’s the GM’s job to keep things moving, and the Idea roll only makes that harder. It’s a crutch for people who are obsessed with the concept that the players need to solve every mystery themselves.

The problem is that Idea is a stat on the character sheet, right next to Sanity, so it isn’t easy to get rid of. Other entries on this list could be safely ignored, but this one is hardwired in. The best advice I can offer on the subject is use the Idea roll like this: give the player a hint regardless of the outcome, but if the roll fails, it should be a hint that gets them into more trouble as they solve the mystery. The player might be told of the connection to Cholesterulu, but not that his shrines are guarded by the horror inducing larddoths.

We hope that rules like this will be spotted before a game is released, but obviously that doesn’t always happen. Even the best designers and playtesters slip up sometimes, which is why it’s our job as players and GMs to be watchful for these hidden snares. If a rule ever seems odd to you, try to imagine how it will work in play. Ask yourself what potential problems it could cause, both from the GM and player perspectives. If a problem arises at the table, investigate it to see if a flawed mechanic is behind the trouble. Only by isolating and understanding the issue can you correct it.

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Comments

  1. Sionnachuighiim

    The obvious solution to a failed Idea roll seems to me to be rolling said roll behind a DM screen and giving the players false leads or insight based on said roll’s respective failure or success.

    A lot of games capitalize on a player’s statistics in game to provide a framework for their interaction with the world without supporting people who, out-of-character , lack the statistic. Or worse, allowing people who have fiddled their stats to give themselves an advantage to substitute real-world savvy for abysmal stats. (looking at you, Cha/Int/Wis 3 characters of the DnD world)

    I’m surprised you didn’t add Exalted’s world-bending pools of d10s to this list of failure. I guess the entire system being a miserable morass would mean opening a can of worms, being as there are more rules that make the game worse than make the game.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      If I had more experience with Exalted I probably would have. At the moment I’ve only glanced at some of the story stuff.

    • Oren Leifer

      A system that manages #5 really well is Gumshoe. It has “investigative points” in a variety of categories, from forensic anthropology to art history to flirting, and players routinely spend points to get a clue in that area. Rolling comes into play when players have already exhausted their points, or for combat to conflicting actions.

  2. Luke Green

    Generally on reroll failures, the failure never happened. As a GM how I do that with Scion or Fate is say “at this point you are going to fail, you can use Fate Points/Legend Points if you want, but if you do nothing at this point, you fail” and when they make a decision to reroll/add successes/add dice/whatever or not then I describe the results based the new totals.

    It allows for the players to match the mechanical critical hits with their descriptions. And because its based on resources, there’s usually some thought as to whether they want to waste resources on this particular roll.

    The mechanic is used in cases where the heroes are primarily competent and larger than life and works poorly for horror game play or grittier more realistic stories. It’s primarily supposed to make the world operate on dramatic probability rather than realistic probability. It’s the difference between Indiana Jones and Call of Cthulhu.

    Fate balances it by making it so that you have to suffer similarly critical failures in order to recover Fate Points, so the game runs from highs and lows with players managing their Fate Points trying to make sure they have more highs than lows.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      I’m not necessarily against re-roll mechanics, especially if the player has to pay some kind of price for them, but the L5R one is just really bizarre, especially with that +10 difficulty increase.

  3. JackbeThimble

    I’m surprised that Level Stealing monsters from D&D didn’t make it on to this list.

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