Not every roleplaying game can be Primetime Adventures, with a single rule for resolving all conflicts. Some have to be more complex, and that isn’t always a bad thing. I champion Torchbearer’s light and resource tracking system on a daily basis, and it’s as complicated as they come. In order to qualify for the status of convoluted, a rule must be complicated without producing a commensurate benefit. As the folks at Extra Credits would say, convolution occurs when complexity does not buy depth. That is, these rules are a pain because they require a big investment and give little in return. Often, using them will actively make your game worse. Let’s look at some of the most notable offenders.
1. Grappling, 3.5 Dungeons and Dragons
Oh third edition D&D, the system we slip into like a pair of really uncomfortable house slippers. Many rules in this game are convoluted, from multiclassing to item creation, but grappling takes the cake. In a grapple, nothing works the way it’s supposed to, and an entirely new set of abilities is required. These abilities are useless outside the grapple. It’s so separated from the normal rules that I dub it the Grapple Dimension. Do not venture there.
To even start a grapple, you need a special feat. Without Improved Grapple, any attempt to grab your opponent allows them an attack of opportunity against you, which makes your grapple fail. If you have the feat, you must make an attack and then an opposed grapple check. The grapple check is almost identical to an attack roll. So, just to get started, we need a feat and two attack rolls. Strong start!
Once you’re in the Grapple Dimension, all your normal abilities stop working. You can’t cast spells, can’t attack with most weapons, and can’t move. All those rules you spent hours memorizing? Forget them. They have no place in the Grapple Dimension. Instead, you have to memorize an entirely new set of rules that apply to your character. You lose your dexterity bonus to AC, you can’t move, you don’t threaten surrounding squares, the list goes on.
Grapples take forever, too. While normal D&D combat is already time consuming, grapples do a lot less damage, so it takes even longer to whittle down an opponent’s hit points. All this for what is ostensibly a way to wrestle your opponent into submission.
It gets worse. The only way to be good at grappling is with specialized abilities, so characters who focus on it can never be out-grappled. It’s very easy for powergaming PCs to pull enemies into the Grapple Dimension, never to be heard from again. That’s a really ignominious end for a campaign’s big boss.
2. Karma Taxes, Tenra Bansho Zero
As mentioned in my review of Tenra Bansho Zero (TBZ), it’s a fun game with a lot of depth. The character generation and combat rules are both examples of good complexity even if they’re hard for new players to learn. Unfortunately, I cannot say the same for the Karma rules.
Between each act, of which there are usually three to five, players must figure out their character’s Karma levels and how many kiai points they have. It really does feel like doing your taxes. First, you have to manage your Fates, which are limited by current Karma levels. This is important, because Fates determine how much Karma your character can absorb, so you can’t skip it. Then you have to eliminate or reduce those Fates to keep your Karma from going over the limit of 108.* If you don’t have enough Fates available, your character becomes an evil NPC forever.
Doing your Karma taxes is cumbersome and time consuming. It drains energy from TBZ’s high-action pace. It requires players to keep a lot of numbers in their head, and for what? If the drama is potentially losing one’s character to an overabundance of Karma, there must be a better way to do it. As the rules stand, losing a character is only a possibility if you really mess up the math. So, the whole exercise feels pointless. It’s funny in its absurdity the first time, but that’s it.
Getting kiai points is a little less complicated but with more random number generation! During play, you are awarded aiki chits* for good roleplaying. At the end of an act, you spend these chits to make Empathy rolls. The better your Empathy roll, the more kiai points you get. Considering you can easily get six or more aiki chits during an act, that’s a lot of rolling.
It’s not entirely clear why the game has two kinds of currency that you have to convert between. Why not just award kiai points for good roleplaying up front and avoid this clunky exchange system all together? Empathy would lose some of its usefulness, but that could easily be compensated for.
3. Fight!, Burning Wheel
Exclamation point and all, Fight! is Burning Wheel’s personal combat system—or at least one of them. The Bloody Versus rules allow you to resolve fights with a single roll, while Range and Cover is used for missile weapon conflicts. But if you want to get into a detailed, dramatically important sword fight, Fight! is at your service.
Many, many roleplaying combat systems boil down to combatants exchanging blows round after round until one of them falls over. Fight! tries to get away from that, and it’s a noble goal. Unfortunately, the result doesn’t work very well.
To promote player strategy, Fight! has a number of different maneuvers, each with a different effect. Players carefully plan their moves, first dashing in with a Charge, then knocking the enemy’s blade aside with a Beat, and going for the kill with a Strike. This works, until players take a close look at the rules, when they find that most maneuvers aren’t worth using. Strike, the basic attack action, is always effective. The others are either very situational or prohibitively difficult. They do nothing but tempt players who don’t understand the system very well.
The rules for parrying are overly complex as well. Since players script their actions in advance, the only way for a parry to work is if the opponent attacks on the same action. If you script a parry for an attack that isn’t scripted, your character is left with a wasted action.
In previous editions, movement was similar. Back then, you scripted movement in advance without knowing what your opponent was doing, and it was very easy to move closer or farther away from the enemy than you meant. While this might be realistic, it was counter-intuitive to new players. They felt like their characters are bumbling idiots, parrying when no attack is imminent and stumbling past their opponents as if in a drunken stupor. Fortunately, that problem was fixed in the most recent Gold edition.
Despite all the complexity, there’s little strategy in Fight!. The randomness of parries makes them pointless, and the other non-attack actions rarely come up. Even if you parry successfully, you’ve only spent your action to cancel your opponent’s. You don’t gain anything. The best “strategy” is simply to wear heavy armor and script Strike over and over again, because Strike is always useful. It’s a shame, because Burning Wheel’s other conflict systems do a much better job of promoting clever tactics.
Correction: The original version of this article confused older versions of Burning Wheel’s movement rules with the most recent edition.
4. Mass Combat, Legend of the Five Rings
Sometimes a one-on-one fight just won’t cut it. When the great clans of Rokugan go to war, they bring thousands of soldiers each. To simulate this, Legend of the Five Rings (L5R) presents a system for what happens when armies clash. That certainly sounds useful in a romanticized samurai setting, and maybe it would be if the rules made any sense.
First, L5R’s mass combat rules don’t provide an interesting way to determine who wins the battle. The two generals simply make an opposed Battle test, and that’s that. While a detailed method for determining the victor isn’t strictly required, it’s certainly an expectation of many players.
Instead, L5R focuses on simulating the experiences of individual characters within the battle, doing great deeds and earning glory in their lord’s service. That would be great if it worked better. Characters’ successes or failures depend almost entirely on their Water Ring, a stat that’s barely used in normal combat. The character you spent hours building to be the perfect warrior is suddenly helpless. None of the stats and skills you spent so much XP on do anything.
While making a little-used ability more important is a great idea, it shouldn’t be hidden away like a trap. As it is, players find their characters slashed to ribbons because of a stat they didn’t know they needed.
Even if you have a high Water Ring, damage is random and unavoidable. All the normal ways to keep your character safe, like a high Reflexes or special school technique, do nothing. This is meant to simulate the randomness of battle and how no soldier is ever 100% safe. In practice, it feels arbitrary and more like your character is stuck in a natural disaster than a battle.
To make the battle more impactful to the characters, L5R’s system has a random chance of PCs earning heroic opportunities. Dueling an enemy commander, rallying a friendly unit, etc. In theory, they keep the battle from becoming monotonous. However, if a character has a low Water Ring or rolls poorly, they might go through an entire battle without such an opportunity. That’s really boring and shouldn’t be an option left to chance. In fairness, the book does have a sidebar reminding GMs that they can put in as many heroic opportunities as they like. But if that’s the case, why bother with a random system at all?
5. Combat, A Song of Ice and Fire
A Song of Ice and Fire Roleplaying (SIFRP) is a complicated game on every level. The noble house creation mechanics alone took me over an hour to read. The Intrigue social conflict rules have so many different options that I almost lost track. But remember, complicated doesn’t necessarily equal convoluted. Building your own noble house is a rewarding experience,* and debating rivals with Intrigue will get your roleplaying on.
It’s just the combat mechanics that cross the line. Like Intrigue, combat has pages and pages of rules. Everything from a terrain’s effect on a battle to avoiding death via taking the black. Unlike Intrigue, these options create few interesting choices for the player. In most cases, all these rules boil down to the combatants hitting each other over and over again until one of them falls down.
One of the examples talks about a Braavosi mercenary playing with her opponent for a few rounds before going in for the kill. Try as I might, I couldn’t find a mechanical incentive not to go for the kill immediately. While there are a myriad of options to read through, few of them are ever as effective as attacking the enemy.
While SIFRP insists you don’t need a square grid to play it on, many of the rules are meaningless without one. Equipment is limited by how bulky it is, and bulk’s primary effect is to reduce a character’s movement. Without a grid, there’s no effective difference between a character who can move four meters a round and one who can manage five. The same is true for terrain. The GM can tell you there’s a river running through the battlefield, but without a clear visual representation, it has no impact.
Then you get to the Warfare rules. In this chapter, you stop playing a roleplaying game and start a tabletop board game instead—and not a very good one I’m afraid. First, an army’s commander must roll to activate their units. A failed roll means the unit does nothing. Any wargame designer can tell you this is a bad idea. Poor rolls should never mean a player has to sit around doing nothing.
Units function like characters on a larger scale. They even have the same stats as a character. Once you get them moving, Warfare plays like a normal combat, except you have dozens of characters to manage instead of just one. If that sounds exhausting, it is. They all have hitpoints to track, and you need to make sure not to mix them up. Even if you enjoy taking hours out of your session to play a board game, the legwork required is overwhelming.
Some of the rules are completely nonsensical. One allows for a character to attack a unit of 100 soldiers by themselves. This is meant to be an act of desperation, but it’s not that difficult to make a character capable of taking down units all on their own. That doesn’t sound like the Song of Ice and Fire books that I remember.
Then, there’s what I call the Pillage Ray. You see, units can receive an order called Slash and Burn, which damages the holdings of the defending noble house, reducing their Wealth and Population stats. That’s fine, except there’s no limits on when or how often Slash and Burn can be used. All you need to do is march your army onto the field, repeat the order a few times, then laugh as the defender’s house disintegrates under them. It’s not clear how this is accomplished, but I prefer to imagine the soldiers involved staring at the defender’s castle until it crumbles to ruin. Hence, the Pillage Ray.
Why is it important to know these convoluted rules in advance? So you don’t waste precious time. Getting players to learn rules is hard enough under the best circumstances. Do you really want to spend hours explaining every single option they could take, only to discover that none of them matter? If you also dip your toe into game design, so much the better. Designers make the mistake of assuming complicated equals deep all the time, and that’s a mistake you want to avoid. If a rule’s complexity isn’t buying depth, simplify it. Presenting players with a bunch of useless options won’t earn you any points.
Treat your friends to an evening of dark ritual murder. In a fictional game scenario, of course. Uncover your lost memories and save the day in our stand-alone game, The Voyage.