Why are so many RPG grappling rules so complicated and ridiculous?

That’s it. That’s the question.

Thank you,

Dave L

Hey Dave, Oren here, great to hear from you!

I probably couldn’t give you a complete answer without running some extensive studies, but I do have a few guesses! First, I suspect a lot of it comes down to habit. A lot of modern game designers got started with 3rd Edition D&D, the poster child for complicated and ridiculous grappling rules. I’m not sure where 3E’s designers got the idea, but they really popularized it. 

Then, there’s the simple fact that grappling changes the dynamics of a fight, and any time you do that, it makes the rules more complicated. Once two or more people are wrestling, they can’t move around freely or use their hands like they could before. Large weapons become unwieldy if not useless, spell components are impossible to hold, even armor may be less useful as it’s easier to stick a blade in a weak spot. 

Simulating all that takes a bunch of new rules, which is why I call 3E’s grapple rules the Grapple Dimension. Once you’re in there, nothing works like you thought it did! You see a similar dynamic with grenades. Most other weapons can be easily represented by rolling to hit a single target with an instantaneous attack, but grenades don’t have to hit their target directly, just land nearby. They also travel in curving arcs rather than straight lines, and there’s even a timing element to consider. 

Just like grapple rules, grenade rules tend to be very wonky, as the game engine struggles to simulate them in a way that doesn’t contradict our expectations. However, I think this problem is slowly going away with time. As a matter of practicality, popular games are ditching the kind of detailed, simulationist rules that created the Grapple Dimension in the first place. 

Even 5E D&D has relatively simple grapple rules compared to its predecessor. This is sometimes counterintuitive, as being grappled by a kraken has little effect beyond holding you in place, not even interfering with your spells, but it’s better than the alternative. 

An even better option would be to ditch D&D’s stand and deliver method of combat, but that’s an entirely different barrel of discourse. 

Hope that answers your question and that you don’t enter the Grapple Dimension anytime soon!

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