We want to be excited when our favorite roleplaying system releases a new edition. The designers have been hard at work, we hope, fixing problems and adding new functionality. But that’s not always what we get. Sometimes, we open a shiny new book and find that not every change is a good one. For inscrutable reasons known only to elder gods, the designers occasionally alter a rule so it’s worse than it was before.
It’s impossible to know for certain how often this happens, especially because folks are often deeply divided about whether a change was good or bad.* However, some rules changes stand out as clear mistakes, and that’s what we’re talking about today. With luck, we’ll even gain some insight into what makes a rule worse.
1. Less Elegant Wounds, 7th Sea
Way back in its first edition, 7th Sea had two kinds of damage you could take: flesh wounds and dramatic wounds. Flesh wounds were nothing to worry about, just scrapes and nicks that did nothing except make you look cooler. Dramatic wounds, on the other hand, were serious. They might not kill you, but they caused some harm. In a movie, they’d be the kind of injury that would make other characters gasp dramatically, if you will.
Fast forward 16 years to the second edition, and the game is radically different. The simulationist aspects have been mostly replaced by narrative ones, the core die mechanic is completely changed, and you no longer have approximately one million special abilities to choose from. The game still has two different kinds of damage though, and they’re essentially the same as in the first edition. One of them is an actual injury that can hinder you, while the other the other is no big deal.
The difference is that instead of dramatic wounds and flesh wounds, they’re called dramatic wounds and… wounds. That’s right, for some reason, the designers decided the big change they were going to make to their damage system was dropping the “flesh” descriptor. That might sound like an insignificant change, but it has major repercussions.
First of all, this breaks the basic rules of categorization. When you have two distinct things, you don’t use part of thing one’s name as thing two’s name. This makes dramatic wounds sound like a subset of wounds, which it isn’t, and leads the reader to expect other subsets of wounds.
Further, the name is no longer intuitive. On its own, “wounds” sounds like something pretty serious. You have to read the full description to understand it doesn’t mean a real injury, and that understanding has to override your first impression. On the other hand, “flesh wounds” communicates with clarity. You know exactly what it means just by reading the heading.
Finally, the name changes causes actual rules confusion. When other rules refer to your wounds, it’s hard to tell if that includes dramatic wounds or just regular wounds. Dramatic wounds are a type of wound after all, or so the naming convention suggests. All this confusion is because the designers decided to ditch a term that was perfectly suited to its task.
2. An Extra Social Skill, Call of Cthulhu
The division of social skills is one of the more difficult tasks confronting roleplaying game designers. Should convincing the monarch to lend you a magic sword be Bluff or Diplomacy? Often, it comes down to how the player describes their action, more than any concrete rules for which skill applies.
Despite this difficulty, Call of Cthulhu (CoC) seemed to have this problem solved. For years, CoC had two social skills: Fast Talk and Persuade. These skills were divided by when they could be used and what effect they had, rather than what approach you took. Fast Talk produced only temporary effects, but it could be used without any setup. You could Fast Talk your way past the door guard, but it wouldn’t be long before the guard realizes they’ve made a mistake. Meanwhile, Persuade was more powerful, but took more setup. You could Persuade someone to be your ally in a fight, but only if you had at least a few hours to make your case.
Fast Talk and Persuade were clearly delineated, and they served well for CoC’s limited social aspect. But then the seventh edition added a new skill: Charm. Reading the rules, it’s unclear when and how Charm should be used. While the other social skills are defined mostly on what you do, Charm focuses on how you do it. The skills description is mostly about how you get others to do what you want via flattery, good looks, and so on. That’s fine, but what can you make them do, and in what circumstances? The rules are unclear.
There are two basic ways to read Charm, and they’re both bad. In the first scenario, the GM would let you use Charm in any circumstance where you’re trying to get an NPC to do something by being charming. Read that way, Charm would supersede both Fast Talk and Persuade. Alternatively, the GM could rule that circumstances and desired effect are more important than the method you’re employing. In that scenario, Charm is a useless skill no one should put points in.
Either way, the CoC character sheet has at least one skill that’s a trap for the unwary. Charm disrupts the game’s delicate balance just by existing, and it adds nothing in return. I seriously doubt that many people were looking at this game of cosmic horror and thinking what it needed was a more nuanced range of social skills.
3. Less Interesting Chases, Spycraft
Spycraft’s first edition was decent as d20 games go, but it had one shining bit of design: the chase rules. These rules were easy to learn, fast paced, and included a strong tactical element. Each driver would secretly choose a maneuver, then roll off against each other. Different maneuvers had different effects. A successful Pull Ahead put more distance between the cars, while a successful Ram did exactly that.
For an added twist, certain maneuvers had bonuses or penalties against each other. This rock-paper-scissors element made predicting your opponent’s moves an important part of the game. Your first instinct might be to use Pull Ahead, but does your opponent know that’s what you’ll do? If so, they’ll probably pick Shortcut, which is good against Pull Ahead. Maybe that means you should use Set Up, which is good against Shortcut, and would force your opponent to risk crashing.
In the second edition, the designers expanded the chases rules to to include other kinds of conflicts. Now you can use the rules for infiltration, interrogation, and much more. That’s great, but in expanding the rules, they also took away something vital. You see, the different maneuvers no longer have specific bonuses or penalties against other maneuvers. You still pick your maneuver secretly, but there’s no point; knowledge of the opponent’s action won’t change yours.
Not only are the new chase rules less tactical, but they’re also boring. Without the rock-paper-scissors element, there’s no reason not to simply choose your best maneuver and use it over and over again. In the previous edition, your opponent could have used that against you, but not anymore. Instead of exciting conflicts, the chase rules now feel like a big waste of time.
I’m not exaggerating when I say that the first edition’s chase mechanic is among the best conflict systems I’ve ever seen. The game designers took what was otherwise a pedestrian system and made it exciting. For 2.0, I can only assume the designers thought the rock-paper-scissors element was too complicated, but in simplifying, they lost much of what made their game great.
4. New Success Numbers, Chronicles of Darkness
Be it Mage: The Ascension, Vampire: The Masquerade, or Mummy: The Resurrection,* World of Darkness used the same core dice mechanic. You rolled a number of d10s equal to your skill+attribute, and each die that came up a six or higher was a success. That was the default, anyway. The GM could move the success threshold higher if a task was difficult or lower if the task was easier. This did some funny things to the math, but in general, each die had a 50% chance of coming up a success.*
That system served World of Darkness well for years, until the new edition: Chronicles of Darkness* came out. That game took out the GM’s ability to change your success threshold, likely in the name of simplification. Even though I liked having that option, I recognize it was probably more trouble than it was worth. However, the designers also set the default number for a success at eight instead of six.
This changed the game’s math in weird ways. In the old system, it was easy to get a rough idea of how many successes you could expect. Since each die had a 50% chance of coming up a success, you could count on one success for every two dice on most rolls. This didn’t give you a pinpoint knowledge of your odds the way CoC’s percentile system does, but it was enough for most players.
With a success on eight instead of six, the math gets way less intuitive. Instead of calculating with an easy half, you have to use 30%, which is a little less than a third. This seriously slows down the game if any players like to know their chances of success before committing to a roll. The weird math is even more of a problem if you’re a GM trying to house rule something, because it’s a lot harder to determine how powerful a given number of dice is.
Another unfortunate side effect is that each die now counts for less than it used to. World of Darkness already had a problem where players were encouraged to scrounge every last die they could find, and it’s only gotten worse in Chronicles. A single die no longer feels relevant, so you end up wanting more and more of them. For all these downsides, I can’t figure out what the upshot of changing the system’s basic math like this was. It’s possible there’s some important reason buried deep in the game’s design notes, but from the outside it looks completely unjustified.
5. Shrinking Dice Pools, Legend of the Five Rings
Since its publication in 1997, Legend of the Five Rings (L5R) has used the same dice mechanic. You roll a number of d10s equal to your skill+attribute, then of those d10s, keep a number equal to your attribute and add them up.* In most cases, you’re trying to get the highest number possible. It takes a little getting used to, but it’s relatively straightforward. It worked for over 20 years—that is, except for a hiccup in the game’s second edition.
In second edition, the designers made a very strange choice. Instead of rolling skill+attribute and keeping attribute, you rolled a number of dice equal to just your skill, then kept a number equal to your attribute. To say this changed the game would be an understatement.
For starters, skills became way more important. Previously, you could get by with a high attribute and lower skills. That was no longer the case. If your attribute was more than your skill, it was a complete waste, since you couldn’t keep more dice than you rolled. I believe this is what the designers were going for, as players had previously complained that skills weren’t nearly as important as attributes.
I can only assume the designers didn’t intend the other effect of their new rule: it completely broke the game. All of L5R’s math was designed around players having a certain number of dice, and the second edition radically shrank that number without changing any of the system’s math. Suddenly, tasks that were of low or moderate difficulty before were nearly impossible to complete. Characters needed to reach epic levels just to swing their swords competently.
My group tried switching to the second edition a couple years after it came out, and it was one of the most demoralizing experiences I’ve ever encountered in a roleplaying game. Our characters were suddenly incapable of even the most basic tasks. Just getting through a session was like repeatedly running headlong into a brick wall. Ironically, even the focus on skills backfired. Buying a new skill just wasn’t worth it, since you’d still only be rolling one die. Better to focus on only a handful of higher skills. Needless to say, we quickly abandoned this edition and retreated to the safety of a dice mechanic that made sense.
Fortunately, L5R’s third edition fixed this problem a few years later, so the second edition can remain an unpleasant memory. New edition difficulty is fairly common, but this is the only one I know of that completely broke a game.
Some bad rule changes come from designers wanting to try something new, only for it to blow up in their faces. In other cases, it seems like a change was made just to fix something that wasn’t broken. Either way, changing rules should always be undertaken with caution, especially for a paid product. A GM can always retract a nonfunctioning house rule, but it’s harder to reverse course after people have spent their money on books containing a bad rule.