1. Space Combat: Edge of the Empire
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
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
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
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
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.