Five More Convoluted Rules in Roleplaying Games

Some weeks back, we talked about convoluted roleplaying rules–rules that are complicated without providing depth. We didn’t get to all of them, not even close. These rules are surprisingly common problems in roleplaying games. Let’s look at the next batch of offenders, shall we?

1. Space Combat: Edge of the Empire

Why would you even want to do this in a Star Wars game? Why would you even want to do this in a Star Wars game?

It’s tempting to label the proprietary die mechanic of Star Wars: Edge of the Empire (EOTE) as convoluted, but that aspect of the game is merely complicated. All those symbols do have depth if you’re committed to learning them.* For the real deal, you’ve got to climb into an X-Wing cockpit.

How complicated could space combat be? Make some piloting rolls, shoot some TIEs, go home, right? Not quite. Reading the rules, you’re first greeted by a sidebar explaining how important the Pilot skill is. Fair enough, these are spaceships we’re talking about. Then you read through the long list of maneuvers and find only one of them that actually requires Pilot. Most of them can be done by someone who’s never seen a spaceship before.

Then you realize that most of the maneuvers are also pointless. Sure, you can take evasive action to avoid enemy fire, but it penalizes your shots by the same amount. You can accelerate or decelerate, but every pilot will immediately put their craft to top speed. That’s because flying faster than enemy ships gives a small bonus while being slower gives none.

Gain the Advantage, the one maneuver that does require Pilot, at least looks promising. It represents making fancy maneuvers to line up a good shot. Finally, a way to use the skill you put so many points into. But then you read it a second time and find it’s only useful on ships large enough to have dedicated gunners. You see, the pilot must spend their entire action to Gain the Advantage, which means they give up their chance to shoot.

That’s right. Pilot is somewhat useful for a ship like the Millennium Falcon but not an X-Wing or TIE fighter. The only skill check that matters is Gunnery, for firing your ship’s weapons. This is antithetical to how Star Wars dogfights are shown on screen. If you want to simulate Luke’s Death Star Run or Lando battling the Imperial fleet, you’re better off throwing out these rules entirely. While EOTE’s space combat isn’t the most complicated system on this list, it earns a special prize for delivering so little depth.

2. Scene Construction: Burning Empires

Why did I script a scene just to jump out of a plane?! Why did I script a scene just to jump out of a plane?!

Burning Empires (BE) is an epic science fiction game about defending your planet from the Vaylen, parasitic alien worms that get in your brain!* BE takes that concept seriously and has rules for absolutely everything you might need to run such a game. The system includes mechanics for technology creation, worldbuilding, even sweeping conflict rules to determine your planet’s fate. While most are excellent, the scene construction mechanics are a glaring exception.

In BE, the GM does not simply declare that a scene is happening and who’s in it. Players frame their own scenes, seizing the means of story production! Fair enough, roleplaying is collaborative after all. But it gets more complicated. BE has several different types of scenes, and a player only gets one of each. Conflict scenes, where the most exciting stuff happens, are even more restricted. The players as a group get only one conflict scene per session.

This limits how much can get done each week. Outside of conflicts, players can only roll dice in a special kind of scene called a Building* scene. These are used for infiltrating your enemy’s stronghold, creating a piece of technology, or anything that requires a roll. Each player only gets one Building scene per session, so it’s easy to run out before you do everything you need to do for the story.

Adding more confusion into the mix, later in the book there’s a caveat that says players can save the rolls from their Building scene to use at any other time in the session. If that’s the case, why have Building scenes at all? Just let players roll when they need to!

The scene-construction rules’ stated intent is to keep the session focused on what matters. While that’s a worthy goal, this kind of rigid system doesn’t accomplish it. Game masters exist to keep the game moving. They react in real time to make sure that everyone’s on task. BE wants the game’s rules to do that instead, but there’s no way the designers can foresee all the possible situations that might come up at the table. With this kind of one-size-fits-all approach, the rules limit the story rather than facilitate it.

Players have to constantly think in terms of their limited number of scenes, rather than story. Instead of enjoying the session, they spend all their time strategizing how to use limited resources. That’s great for a board game, but not what most people want from roleplaying.* BE has a section where it specifically discourages this dynamic, but players have no choice when the rules are so complicated and restrictive.

3. Building Something: Fire, Fusion, & Steel

When we're done, you'll be able to calculate the volume of these tanks in kittens cubed. When we’re done, you’ll be able to calculate the volume of these tanks in kittens cubed.

Traveler is a game with a million supplement books. One of those supplements is Fire, Fusion, & Steel (FFS), a book where you design your own spaceships, vehicles, armor, and weapons from the ground up. Sounds great–what roleplayer hasn’t wanted to build their own gear?

Oh, you sweet summer child, do not venture further. For within this book, you will find only math. So much math. Math inside math with math sprinkled on top. To figure out your tank’s base movement speed, you’ll need to solve for km/h = 5+([MW+LW]x2500). Dear lord, it has brackets inside parenthesis. Is anyone else having algebra flashbacks?

I suspect FFS is what happens when you let engineers write a roleplaying game. The sheer amount of detail is staggering. To build a ship, you start by calculating the volume of a spheroidal hull.* Then you decide on the shape you want, which of course comes with equations for adjusting surface area and volume. After that, you calculate interior compartments, system power loads, weapon hardpoints; the list goes on and on.

Making a personalized assault rifle is just as complicated. You have to deal with unit conversions, decimal places that go way past zero, and long division with dozens of variables, all to make a weapon with only seven stats.

Full disclosure: I have no idea what kind of depth FFS provides, because my English-major brain cannot follow the rules. I try, and my eyes glaze over in the face of endless numbers. The amount of time it would take to design even a simple spaceship is beyond the pale for most roleplayers.

That said, FFS possesses a unique beauty. It’s a fascinating look at a completely alien way to roleplay. The rules are so intricate and complex that they draw you in. Just don’t ever try to use them. That way lies madness. If you want a practical way to build shiny new devices, try Burning Empires’ Technology Burner instead.

4. Rolling Dice, Call of Cthulhu

How do I oppose getting eaten? How do I oppose getting eaten?

You wouldn’t think that something as basic as a core die mechanic could be overcomplicated. How would the designers fail to notice this? I don’t know, but apparently they did, because Call of Cthulhu’s (CoC) core dice mechanic is as convoluted as the plot of a bad cosmic horror story.

For those not familiar, in CoC a player rolls two percentile dice to simulate a d100 and tries to get equal to or under their skill level in order to pass. A PC with 52 in Sneak would need to roll 52 or less to successfully get by the angry cultists. That means the difficulty of a roll is based on the PC’s skill, not the task they are attempting.

Almost no other system has a core mechanic like this. In most systems players use dice to generate a number greater than a difficulty rating. The GM determines the difficulty rating based on how hard they think the task is. That basic idea can be used to simulate almost any situation. CoC’s method cannot.

Call of Cthulhu runs into trouble any time an opposed skill roll is called for. In older editions, there simply were no rules for this. It was impossible for a cultist guard to pit their Spot Hidden against an investigator’s Sneak.

Opposing stat rolls were possible but cumbersome. For decades, CoC had something called the Resistance Table. This was a chart that players had to consult whenever they pitted their base attributes against something else’s. They couldn’t just roll dice because CoC’s die mechanic was designed only for skills, which range from 1-99, while its stats max out at 18. Trying to roll equal to or under a stat meant almost certain failure. Even simple contests, like holding a door shut against the angry deep one, required opening the book and consulting a chart. Cumbersome indeed.

Thankfully, 7th Edition did away with the Resistance Table and introduced a mechanic for opposed rolls. Better late than never. But the CoC player’s trial is not yet over. Because of the percentile system’s focus on PC skill level rather than task difficulty, it’s not as simple as rolling dice and comparing results. First, they have to check to see if both participants in a contest have succeeded. If so, then they have to check the level of success. A hard success* beats a normal success; an extreme success* beats a hard success…it goes on.

That’s an absurd amount of complication for something you can do without thinking in nearly any other system. And try as I might, I can’t see what benefit the percentile system has that’s supposed to make up for all this complexity.

5. Combat, Old World of Darkness

The first time you try to figure out Mage combat. The first time you try to figure out Mage combat.

Combat is often the most complicated part of a rules system, because simulating all the physics necessary for humans to properly kill each other is difficult. While newer games like Mouse Guard go for an abstract approach, the classic method was to create a rule for everything and hope it all worked out. Old World of Darkness (OWoD)* took a particularly convoluted approach even without all the magic powers and vampire disciplines.

First, OWoD has a declare-up, resolve-down system. That means characters declare what they’ll be doing, from lowest initiative to the highest, then resolve those actions in reverse order. This is supposed to give higher initiative characters more of an edge, because they know what all the slower characters are going to do in advance. In practice, declaring up and resolving down just slows combat. Few systems have enough depth to make this foreknowledge affect your action. At best, it might affect which enemy you’ll choose to blast with arcane lightning. Not worth the extra time and complexity.

Once the declaration stage is finished, players have to do some very odd math. You see, characters can choose to take more than one action a turn, but every action they take imposes a larger and larger die penalty. Depending on the size of their dice pool, each PC will have a different point at which taking more actions is no longer worth the increased penalty. That gets more complicated when you factor that ones cancel successes in OWoD. This is supposed to simulate a high-action fight scene. Instead, it mimics a statistics class.

Then you have to deal with OWoD’s multiple types of damage: bashing, lethal, and aggravated. Bashing is the least serious, categorized as anything that doesn’t break the skin. The designers apparently didn’t have much experience with blunt-force trauma, or they’d have made it far more deadly. Lethal is caused by swords, bullets, anything that makes you bleed. Then there’s aggravated, which is like double lethal? It’s usually caused by a magical creature’s specific weakness, like sunlight to a vampire. I have no idea why those sources needed their own damage type instead of just doing more lethal, but here we are.

If keeping track of the different damage types and their effects is challenging, writing them all down is even worse. If you’ve got two bashing damage and you take a lethal, you have to move the bashing down to the next rank. This is important. If you put damage down in the wrong order, your character could die.

A multitude of small factors follow, each one delivering a cut of confusion. OWoD has rules for flanking but nothing to determine facing, or how a character gets into position to flank. Near the end, you’re ambushed by a rule saying you need to take a special action to attack someone in melee whose weapon is longer than yours. Something that important should be front and center. Good luck figuring out if the higher-difficulty, extra dice from autofire will make you more or less likely to hit the target. Maybe these strange equations are all part of the dark, hopeless atmosphere? I’m certainly taking Paradox damage trying to figure them out.

Some of the games on this list are brand new. Others are from roleplaying’s ancient past. Convoluted rules are timeless. They have always existed; they will always exist. But by learning to recognize them, we can make sure they exist less! If you’re a GM, look for convolution in the systems you run. When you spot them, apply a dose of house ruling to save your group time and frustration at the table. If you’re a game designer, take these lessons to heart. Complexity does not automatically equal depth. If a rule isn’t pulling its weight, time to get rid of it.

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.



  1. Jeff

    If I recall Warhammer fantasy 2nd edition also worked on a percentage system, however the gm could give boosts for greater success.

    It did a very effective job at showing most players in the old world are basically losers with weird jobs that fed into the career system.

    I actually rally enjoyed it because it nailed the atmosphere of dark hopeless fantasy that warhammer aims for. Yet there were also fortune and fate points so that players wouldn’t be totally screwed by the percentile system.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      CoC also allows for GMs to adjust the percentages of a skill roll, but the options are quite limited. Even if a GM just ignored them and adjusted the percentage as they saw fit, it doesn’t really fix the problem because it’s super easy to forget.

      In a standard RPG, the GM declares a difficulty and the player rolls against it. The GM can’t forget because if they do, there is no roll. But in CoC the GM can easily forget, and the roll goes forward anyway. This is how games go gonzo, as the success/failure rate doesn’t actually reflect what’s happening at the table.

      If you’ve ever listened to RPPR, they’ve got one player who always takes maximum ranks in Fast Talk, and as such gets away with the most outrageous lies, and then the group spends multiple rounds trying to pass a flashlight back and forth because no one raised Throwing above 25%.

  2. Geroto

    So, I have a question: different types of damage is always a bad idea? Or just the way are figured in OWoD?

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      Well, I’m not going to say it’s never a good idea, but I have as yet to see a system where it worked particularly well. In general, the distinction tends to be fairly arbitrary. In WoD, being stabbed is lethal, but being brained in the head with a baseball bat would be considered ‘bashing’ even though that’s pretty likely to kill you as well.

      On it’s own it might not have been terrible, but OWoD’s combat was already so complicated, it was just another thing to keep track of.

      At least in OWoD, the different kinds of damage were at least useful for determining what kind of damage was useful against different defenses. In NWoD, they’re still there, but they just denote how long it takes to heal.

  3. Adam Reynolds

    With Edge of the Empire, does Age of Rebellion add anything to space combat? I could see EoE not really having as much of a focus on fighter combat as smugglers wouldn’t generally use them as much as a military would. Though I haven’t actually played or even read any of those books. Personally I prefer Fate as my system of choice for Star Wars games. The rules light fast pace seems to fit SW nicely, as it runs more on narrative rules than physics.

    Though I haven’t even looked at FFS, I have went through GURPS Vehicles 3e. Based on your description they sound like they have exactly the same problem, and if anything GURPS Vehicles is worse. One calculation requires that you find the surface area of your vehicle, regardless of what odd shape it is. I believe there was even a computer version of the rules so that people could actually do something with them. Though in favor of the GURPS book it does have interesting rules for using vehicles, even if the design rules are too complicated for anyone to ever use. It actually works nicely for my favorite use of GURPS books, using them as inspiration for other systems.

    Though I am not sure I agree with your recommendation of Burning Empires for designing technology. My problem with those rules is the element of making a piece of technology color before giving it stats as needed. It just seems odd. It would be like having the Millennium Falcon present only to not be able to use the guns because no one has the resources to pay for them. I suppose it could be justified in a particular case as lack of maintenance, as in The Empire Strikes Back, but if it happened over Endor it would feel odd. It feels even more odd in the case of a unpaid sidearm, in which it is incapable of even doing damage, regardless of how skilled the wielder is.

    Though I admit I haven’t fully read the rules or played the game, so I could be missing something. On the issue of the overall mechanics of Burning Empire, how do they work in terms of resolving the large scale conflict? I rather like that idea in the general sense as a means to play out large scale conflicts mechanically. It is one of those ideas I have always thought would be interesting but never seems very popular.

    One of the few examples I know of that does this is Our Last Best Hope, which is a rules light system with a focus on saving the world with heroic scientists in a simulation of disaster movies. It works by creating a scenario in which most of the heroes often die, but that they usually are victorious in the end.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      I do not know if Rebellion improves the space combat, I haven’t picked it up. I hope so. It would help justify the full price of what otherwise looks like a glorified expansion book.

      As to the Burning Empires rule about establishing color first, it doesn’t terribly bother me. I believe the purpose of that rule is the idea that in fiction, a plot-relevant piece of gear is usually showcased a bit before it becomes super relevant to the plot.

      Mechanically, I would say the Solo probably started with the Falcon in character creation, rather than building it in play. However, I can see how that restriction might chafe, especially if your having trouble explaining how your character apparently had their cool space ship last session, but only now are their resources getting taxed for building it.

      On the bright side, that’s a really easy rule to ignore. If you ignore it, nothing else about the Tech Burner has to change. Where as if you start trying to house rule FFS or the GURPS Vehicle book, you’ll just end up with a mess on your hands.

      The large scale rules in Burning Empire are, I’m sorry to say, a bit of a mess. I really wanted to like them, but after playing with them in four campaigns (3 as the GM), they create some really weird dynamics of play.

      For one thing, they encourage a very specific type of character building. That is, you have a huge incentive to build characters with the skills necessary for the big Phase maneuvers, rather than characters you really want to play. That can still be fun if you’re into it, but players who aren’t as into strategizing their builds often feel left out.

      For another, because all the various rolls and conflicts during the session don’t effect the Phase roll at the end (short of removing a character from play), it can get hard to explain how one side is winning super hard at the table, but then get their ass kicked in the Phase roll. Not impossible, but difficult.

      Then again, if you house rule the reverse, and have the Phase roll influenced by whoever does best in the session, it can create a steam roller effect, where PCs feel like they have to win every conflict, otherwise their planet burns.

      On the bright side, the Phase maneuvers are a lot more balanced than the Firefight maneuvers. In Firefight, you just gotta mash Flank over and over again. There’s no equivalent to that in the Phase maneuvers.

    • NelC

      > Based on your description they sound like they have exactly the same problem, and if anything GURPS Vehicles is worse.

      You say “problem”, I say “fun”. The problem, such as it is, is that building vehicles is complicated, and often involves powers of numbers, roots of the square and cube variety, even the occasional logarithm. FFS and GURPS Vehicles try to make it easier than actually studying for an Engineering degree, even putting in a look-up table for finding those surface areas so you don’t have to touch the root sign on your calculator, but in the end they can’t be flexible and easy to use for all the designs a GM and players might need. If you’re putting armour on anything from a mini-robot to a dreadnaught, you have to deal with the sanity-warping signs of √ and ^3, or have the math hidden away in a table relating armour points to vehicle size.

      The real problem with FFS and GV is that they have the design process back-to-front, and they don’t do much to recognise the iterative nature of the design process. For most vehicles one really needs to decide what equipment is necessary for the design, then add crew (positions and/or quarters), then make a stab at whatever makes it go (wheels, wings, powerplant and so on), check whether you’ve got enough oomph to make it go, then add more crew, and finally wrap it up in a hull. Then check you’ve still got enough oomph, and if not go back and make the engines bigger.

      And, like all design, you have to be prepared to orbit the perfect solution while you add stuff, cut stuff out, try more expensive options and so on, before settling on something that’s close enough (just like real world design). This is the painful bit, but there’s no getting around it.

      I don’t know about FFS, but one of the design goals for GURPS Vehicles was to provide a system, not for everyone, but for those who enjoy that kind of thing so that we could make vehicles for those who don’t enjoy that kind of thing. Of course, that was when the internets were a lot smaller and you couldn’t look up the stats on the latest Russian tanks or ocean liners or space station modules as easily. These days, you kids have it easy and you can just fill out a stat block by googling the estimated top speed of a bireme, instead of multiplying the number of oars by the number of oarsmen, cross-referencing that with the length of the boat and getting a number (steps simplified for the easily bored), or ordering through interlibrary loan a book on bireme-building in the Ancient world, reading through the whole thing and making up a number. You just don’t need GV for most mundane vehicles anymore.

      And, just to lay to rest a hoary old cliché, I’m an arts major, and I’ve built everything from Vespa scooters to starships in GURPS Vehicles.

  4. James H. Jenkins

    FFS discussed above was about 3 editions ago of Traveller.
    You do not need to use FFS to play Traveller, it’s there for the engineering mindset type Referee or player to create devices, and stat them as part of the specific setting, if the Referee doesn’t like the ones provided by default with the game, or the Player wants to play with the design mechanics, or if they want to delve into the design specifications.

    When it comes right down to it, Playing Traveller is a case of “did you hit, roll damage” for combat, and characters moving forward within the plot.

    Players with English, History, and similar degrees will of course, get more out of the characters and the setting, because those aspects are non-technical. FFS is a supplement that was not designed for them, specifically. It was for the people that want to dive into the nuts and bolts of it.

    Though Traveller does cater to the Engineering / Math / Physics person more, in way that say D&D or Vampire:tM doesn’t, anyone that likes Space Opera or science fiction can enjoy Traveller, with a competent Referee.

  5. Jonas Schiött

    I’m a little nonplussed here. You display a deep knowledge of many past and present RPG systems, yet you act as if CoC was the only BRP-style game you’ve ever come across. But in case you’re not being disingenuous, allow me to explain that all other games in this family (in fact every game with a roll-under mechanic that I can think of) include difficulty modifiers that reduce (or increase) your baseline chance of success (which is your skill) according to the circumstances. CoC has traditionally not had them because it’s aimed for greater simplicity – I think the idea is that it’s kind of mean to make mundane tasks harder for the investigators since they’re just gonna get eaten by a shoggoth anyway.

    As for why roll-under systems exist at all, again I find your limited perspective kind of odd. The reason for a percentile (or the equivalent) system is that it’s intuitive. If your skill is 55%, you know immediately what that means: under normal conditions you will succeed at a typical task 55% of the time. In for example D&D, if you want to know what your +5 skill means you first have to know what a typical difficulty is, then perform soms mental calculations, before you understand how good you actually are.

  6. Tim

    After reading the section on the FFG rules / vehicle rules I had a thought or 2.
    1) Like some others here I actually like the design rules – specifically FFG but Corps VDS, EABA Stuff and GURPS vehicles to name a few. The most important part for me is to ensure that the numbers i’m going to come up with are useful to the game in some way.
    2) Simulationist vs narrative style / games. You noted that building a spaceship is beyond the pale for most roleplayers? – is this actually correct as most of the roleplayers I know would jump right in and design several :). However most of us are a simulationist at heart and come from a technical background.
    2a so the next question is do you think that in general simulationist roleplayers tend to be in the harder sciences / engineering, whereas narrative roleplayers tend to be in the arts?
    Both are equally valid obviously but the different ways we approach our hobby is interesting and useful and understanding our inbuilt assumptions and where they come from is the first step in becoming truly objective

    • David Pulver

      I came from a History/English university background. Although I’ve always loved reading about airplanes and tanks and things like that.

      I generally find roll-under systems more intuitive because they default to “average difficulty” so that the GM can get by without having to assign difficulty numbers unless the situation warrants it.

      The other big advantage is that you never have the confusion that you get in roll high systems between “difficulty” and “bonuses to the die roll.” In a roll high rules there’s often two ways you can get the same effect: raising or lowering the difficulty (the roll or higher you need to succeed) and adding bonuses/penalties to the actual die roll.

      The trouble with this is that “+3 to difficulty” (it gets harder) and “+3 to success” (it gets easier) have the exact reverse effect. It can get confusing if you aren’t careful with your definitions.

      In contrast, a percentage system like CoC you always modify the skill level and never the die; it can be easier to explain.

      • Michael Campbell

        Welcome to a little field called mathematics. Or more specifically Algebra.
        Plot the locus of all the points expressed by the following equation.
        X + 3 = Y
        You can plot between value of X starting at -10 and finishing at 10.

        Next plot X = Y + 3 and X = Y – 3.

        You’ll notice that the X = Y – 3 line fits over, exactly, the X + 3 = Y line.

        The basic rule of thumb is:- when you try to shift a value from one side of the “equals sign”, the sign of the number is multiplied by negative one.

        This is actually a good thing.
        Good for the PC:- a plus.
        Good for the opponent:- a negative OR of a positive on the other-side of the equation.
        Bad for the PC:- a minus.
        Bad for the opponent:- a positive UNLESS you make it a negative on the other side of the equation.

        Once you know, it’s easy because you can resolve on whichever side of the equation you’re most comfortable with.

  7. Greg

    #1. There is only One True Star Wars RPG, and it was the first one, by West End Games. Using any other rules is like preferring the Prequels to the Original Trilogy.

    If you want more detailed ship combat, West End’s Star Warrior game works great.

    #5. Aggravated Damage is any damage a Vampire can’t soak with Blood Points. That’s why it’s different from Lethal and Blunt. Honestly, that isn’t really too convoluted. It makes sense that a Vampire can shrug off some kinds of injuries, but get really jacked up by sunlight or fire.

    But I agree with you about the combat system in general.

    • Michael Campbell

      I still say Rogue One makes The Phantom Menace look like Citizen Kane.

      So maybe a new system could trump the old D6 system.

    • Wayne

      I agree Greg.

      WEG Star Wars is a gem of a game. Simple, fast, intuitive, and – perhaps most importantly of all – massively fun to play (and GM).

      I just purchased the 30th Anniversary Edition of the game from Fantasy Flight, despite already owning both books in hard-copy as 1st Editions from WEG.

      The one thing I hate about 5th Ed D&D is just how long combat can become and how bogged-down it can get in the action economy.

      I am trying to convert 5th Ed to D6 for my group, but they are resistant to the change – oh well, maybe next group.

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