Seven Design Mistakes Roleplaying Games Keep Making

Dungeons and Dragons was first published 41 years ago. Since then, a lot of progress has been made. Dice pools were invented. Many games now have social conflict mechanics. Groups who want more than a dungeon crawl have options. And yet, the same errors crop up in system after system. These mechanical defects are clearly bad for games, but we see them over and over again.

1. The Ability Tax


If you’ve ever seen an “optional” ability that wasn’t really optional, then you’ve seen the Ability Tax. Sometimes these abilities are so overpowered you’d be silly not to take them, but just as bad is when they are merely a necessity for your character build to work.

For example, in Legend of the Five Rings (L5R), some players will want to play monks who dish out pain via their fists rather than samurai swords. The problem is that punches and kicks do pitiful damage. To address this, the game includes a Hands of Stone advantage, which brings unarmed strikes up much closer in damage to sword wielders. Not equal, but close. Hands of Stone is an expensive advantage that players have to take if they want their monks to be viable.*

In the New World of Darkness* games, this is the character’s magic stat. For Mages it’s called Gnosis, for Changelings it’s Wyrd, etc. Players have the option of leaving their magic stat at one in character creation or raising it with points. If they don’t raise it, their characters will be completely ineffectual, as most of their abilities rely on it.

Another flavor of the Ability Tax is near-useless prerequisites. Star Wars: Edge of the Empire is rife with these. Many low tier abilities remove special penalties that rarely, if ever, come up. However, players often need to purchase these semi-useless options to get better ones.

Ability taxes create traps in character creation. If an L5R Monk player makes their character without knowing that Hands of Stone is an option, they will be in a world of hurt. Same goes for a Changeling who thinks they can get by with only their starting Wyrd. Character creation needs to be as intuitive as possible. Anything that’s required for a PC to function should be required in the rules, and anything required in the rules shouldn’t be useless. It just feels lame to have an ability you’ll never use.

The simplest option for GMs looking to deal with the Ability Tax is to know their system really well. That way you can be aware of any traps in advance and either guide players around them or house rule them away. For example, in the World of Darkness setting, it’s simple to recommend that all players take maximum starting ranks in their magic stat, or just rule that everyone’s starts at a decent level.

Designers should test how the game would play without some abilities. Try playing without powerful abilities, and see if characters still work. One session playing a monk without Hands of Stone will show you how silly it is to make that trait optional. Then try playing a game without unlocked abilities, and see if it’s still worth using the prerequisite. You’ll soon learn what abilities can stand on their own.

2. The Wizard King


Tell a roleplayer that spellcasters are overpowered,* and they’ll look at you like you’ve just said water is wet. Magic has a history of being unbalanced, and it’s not difficult to see why. Magic is, well, magic. By definition, it’s something humans are incapable of in real life. If a game’s magic feels like something a normal human could do, then it’s a failure. Unfortunately, in trying to deliver that special feeling, many games make magic the most powerful option in town.

For the most obvious example of this, see the old D6 Star Wars system, when jedi were like unto gods among the non-force sensitive rabble. Unfortunately, it’s a trend that continues. Anyone trying to mix the various New World of Darkness (NWoD) settings will immediately notice that mages are the most powerful by leaps and bounds. This isn’t so much about their ability to shoot fireballs as their ability to teleport you into another dimension. NWoD mages are so flexible that they leave everyone else in the dust. Not only can they turn their enemies into lumps of rock, but they can also do it from a bunker half a world away.*

Another tool of the Wizard King is magical buff stacking. You see this even in games with great magic systems, like Burning Wheel and L5R. Both systems have spells that add substantial bonuses to mundane skills. Not only can sorcerers and shugenja do things others can only dream of, but now the spell slingers are better at everyday stuff too. Thankfully, these two systems have toned their skill enhancement spells down significantly from previous editions, but they still make non-magical characters sad.

If you make one option obviously more powerful than all others, at best, you’ll end up with an entire party of wizards. At worst, the non-spellcasters will sit glowering in the corner while their magical friends solve all the problems. Fortunately, this problem is not insurmountable!

One option is to make the magical and mundane complementary. Burning Wheel is actually a great example if you take out its skill buff spells. Sorcerers can shoot lightning out of their hands, but to cast such a spell successfully you need to not be stabbed during the long incantation. You see a similar dynamic in Torchbearer, where arcanists spend many of their spell slots getting around the unique challenges of being in a pitch black dungeon rather than murdering everything in sight.

It’s also possible to make magic types compete in a different arena than their mundane fellows. Burning Empires follows such an approach. Psychics in that system do most of their work in the minds of others. It’s powerful, but limited. They can’t simply force choke people they don’t like.

The final option is to give everyone the same access to magic. You see this in Call of Cthulhu (CoC), where cost of magic is the same no matter who you are,* and Weapon of the Gods, where it’s assumed that all PCs have access to supernatural martial arts.

In the short term, we GMs can either avoid systems in which the wizard is king, or we can muddle through and throw some bones to the non-spellcasters. If your sorcerer PC has an ice spell that can instantly kill everyone in the room, throw in at least a few scenarios where murder will actually make the situation worse. If you have a mind control expert that turns all enemies into unwilling allies, mix in a few monsters with thoughts so toxic they’ll cause damage to anyone trying to influence them.* You can even toss some extra experience or other rewards to your non-magical PCs, so long as you’re open about it.

Long term, game designers need to take some cues from systems like Call of Cthulhu and Torchbearer. Magic should either fulfill a specific niche or have a cost so high that abusing it isn’t a good idea. In those roles it can still feel magical without unbalancing the game.

3. The Gear Grind


If your character’s stuff has ever been more important than your actual character, congratulations, you have entered the Gear Grind. This is what happens when PCs are pressured into acquiring more and more powerful items, until it seems that the only reason they sit down at the table is to find a shiny new short sword.

You can get this in any system where there’s a significant discrepancy in power between different pieces of gear and a reward for exploiting it. The way a GM runs their game has a big effect on the reward aspect, but the system will also exert a lot of pressure. Call of Cthulhu and NWoD are both good examples, even if their reputations suggest otherwise. CoC is supposed to be about a Lovecraftian descent into madness, while World of Darkness is hailed as a game about roleplaying rather than combat. Neither of those sound like systems for obsessively collecting gear.

Unfortunately, the rules for both systems disagree. In CoC, the most effective way to stop a monster from giving you sanity loss is to wipe it off the face of existence, and most monsters are perfectly vulnerable to bullets. The vast majority of NWoD’s mechanics are combat related, so characters will naturally gravitate towards solving problems with violence. In both systems, your PC will be vastly more powerful armed with a fully automatic assault rifle. Also, a plethora of expansion books introduce all kinds of new toys that will give just a few more bonuses. Laser sights, extended clips, etc. All of this is the perfect recipe for the Gear Grind.

Gear Grinding not only takes the spotlight off the characters themselves but can also get out of control really fast. The difference between single shot and autofire weapons in CoC is so vast,* that PCs can handle even the most terrifying eldritch monster once they get some AK-47s. In World of Darkness, especially when the players are ordinary humans, an anti-material rifle will make all the vampires and werewolves run for the hills. And that’s assuming they don’t get some magically enhanced bullets. The PCs can quickly get so powerful that nothing will pose a serious threat to them.

There are three ways to avoid the Gear Grind. The first is to GM really well. Don’t ever put your players in a situation where they feel pressured to acquire a more powerful weapon. This is doable, but it would be better if the rules were more on your side. To that end, you could always play a game like Spirit of The Century, where gear is of trivial importance to the mechanics. That’ll work for some groups, but others want their stuff to count for a bit more. In that case, you’ll want a game like Spycraft or Torchbearer. Both have cool gear systems that allow for a lot of detail without a crazy power curve.

Many games could be improved by taking cues from those systems. Both have a wide variety of items that either offer small, non-stacking* bonuses or allow a character to do something they couldn’t otherwise do. In Torchbearer, 10-foot poles give a small bonus to disarming traps. In Spycraft, tiny water jets allow an agent to move more easily underwater. If more games were designed with this dynamic in mind, the Gear Grind could become a thing of the past.

4. Hitpoint Mountain

Assyrian_lion_hunt_-_lion_with_multiple_arrows,_blood_from_mouth Assyrian Lion Hunt by Richard Keatinge

How many crossbow shots do you think you could survive, roughly? For most humans made of meat, the answer is “Oh god, why would you shoot me with a crossbow?!” On the other hand, if you’re a roleplaying character, chances are good it won’t be a problem at all. You see, most systems don’t want their PCs to go down after one hit, which is fine. What’s not fine is how they often deal with the problem, which is making characters absurdly tough.

This is Hitpoint Mountain. Characters can take hit after hit and walk away completely fine. This is, to say the least, really silly. Some will argue that hitpoints don’t represent actually getting hit, that they’re some kind of abstract measurement of how a character is doing, but that idea completely falls apart in many systems.

For an example, let’s take another look at our friend, the crossbow. In Fifth Edition D&D (5E), it’s limited to one shot per action, even if you could normally make more. That’s reasonable; after all a crossbow takes a while to load, and each round is only six seconds long. You see, D&D precisely measures everything, except its hitpoints. Those are an abstraction. This creates a dynamic where everything is a realistic model of real life, except when a character is hit by a crossbow bolt. See the problem? No one uses a crossbow after low level because they can’t make more than one attack per action, and you need lots of attacks to scale the summit of Hitpoint Mountain.

Things get more absurd from there. A character standing in the middle of an empty room can be struck with a fireball and be completely fine. Remember, this is an exploding ball of fire. The character is fine because they’ve only lost half their hitpoints, and most systems with Hitpoint Mountain have no wound penalties either. Trying to explain how that happened in-character is a Sisyphean task. “Um, yeah. I guess you were protected from the deadly inferno by… positive thinking?”

This breaks immersion. As we saw with the crossbow, it also has negative mechanical impacts. One way out is to give your game extremely realistic damage rules like Burning Wheel, but that’s not for everyone. How many people actually want to play a character who burns to a cinder at the first sign of dragon breath?

The second option is to abstract all the rules, not just hitpoints. Spirit of the Century and other FATE games use this method. Characters are hard to actually kill, which works fine because the game doesn’t keep careful track of how many seconds a combat round is or how many square feet an explosion covers. The GM describes an incoming fireball, which does a little damage, and the wounded player describes how their character avoided the worst of the flames by hiding behind a zeppelin.*

If you’re stuck running a Hitpoint Mountain system, the best thing to do is keep everything to relatively low levels. In general, the absurdity of hitpoints gets worse the more powerful your characters are. It’s also not a bad idea to put in some house rules to correct for the weird dynamics that Hitpoint Mountain creates. In 5E, there’s no reason to limit the crossbow to one shot per action.

5. Incomplete Rules

Unfinished Bridge

Have you ever gotten to the end of a rules section and wondered “wait, where’s the rest of it?” Sometimes roleplaying books have sections that don’t feel finished. Maybe the designers ran out of time before the game had to ship. Maybe a chapter was cut to save printing cost. Whatever the reason, this mistake can range from annoying to game breaking.

Most commonly, you get incomplete rules in ancillary sections that, while not required to play the game, would have been a nice addition. The L5R fourth edition crafting rules are a perfect example. They essentially add nothing to the game, yet they take up an entire page doing it.* They give costs and times for crafting ordinary, run-of-the-mill items. There are no rules for making anything unusual or of exceptional quality. In other words, no PC will ever use them. It also gets the currency conversion wrong, which is just confusing. If the designers had left out these rules, no one would have missed them.

It’s irritating when a game includes an option that isn’t fully explored. Players get excited about rolling up a swordsmith, only to find out there’s no real support for it. Even more damaging is when the core rules themselves aren’t finished. Dungeon World has such a problem. It’s full of rules that tell you something and then don’t explain what it means. Some weapons have their reach listed in feet, but there’s no indication of what advantage/disadvantage that grants. Characters have to eat, but there’s no indication what happens if they don’t. Monsters have abilities, but no rules state how to implement them. These are mechanics central to playing the game, and they don’t exist.

On the player/GM side of things, not a lot can be done about incomplete rules. The group must simply decide if the missing mechanics are something they can deal with. To the designers, if a rule isn’t important enough to flesh out, don’t include it. Half-finished features are useful to no one. If your game’s core mechanics aren’t ready yet, please don’t ship it. We get sad when you do.

6. Repetitive Skills

Each of these probably needs its own skill. Each of these probably needs its own, separate skill to drive.

You’re in your car, and a left turn is coming up. Do you use “Drive: Sedan” or “Drive: Passenger Car?” Quick, which of these highly distinct skills are you going to use? Many of us have faced a similar situation in various roleplaying games when the designers couldn’t make up their mind which skill would work best for a specific task, so they decided to put in more than one.

Call of Cthulhu used to be exhibit A for this kind of silliness. Your character could have no ranks at all in Hide but max ranks in Sneak. You’re practically invisible so long as you keep moving, but the moment you stop everyone can see you. You could have a super high Rifles skill but have no idea how to handle a pistol. My personal favorite was making characters with lots of points in S.C.U.B.A* but none in Swim.

Good news for Lovecraft fans, though, CoC’s seventh edition has finally pared down most repetitive skills.* The notable exception is that Track and Spot Hidden are still separate skills. This is odd because most of tracking is spotting hidden signs of another being’s passage. In fact, a clever player could probably get away with using their Spot Hidden for a Tracking roll if they phrased the task correctly. Something like “Can I spot any hidden tracks in the underbrush?”

Burning Wheel still has this problem in spades. Hunting is supplanted not by one, not by two, but by three other skills. After all, there are three main tasks for hunting. One: follow the prey. Two: kill the prey. Three: get back home with the prey. #1 is covered with the Tracking skill. #2 is represented by a weapon skill like Bow. #3 is served by the Orienteering skill. The only explanation is that the Hunting skill represents someone who can follow tracks, shoot bows, and navigate the forest, but only when going after deer.

The most obvious problem with repetitive skills, other than sounding dumb when you explain them, is they punish players who spread their points out. Purchasing two skills might not let you perform two different tasks but rather the same task twice. Players who only put points in one of the repetitive options are rewarded unfairly. The reverse can happen too. A player might take the Apothecary skill, thinking it’ll be great for making a poultice for Old Man Withers’ bad leg, only to find out the GM thinks Herbalism is more appropriate.*

More immediate, repetitive skills are confusing, and that’s bad game design. Players should easily be able to tell what skill is for what task. Fortunately, the solution for GMs is simple; prune down the skill list. If there are two skills for stealthing around in the shadows, cut one of them. It will rarely cause any problems, and the benefit is huge.

For designers, don’t worry about a specific skill for every possible task. In real life, using a rapier and using a broadsword are very different skills, but in most cases you’ll be better served putting them down as “sword.” Unless your game is meant to really drill down into the minute differences between similar skills, it’s better to err on the more general side.

7. Repetitive Combat

Everyone wait your turn. This should only take four more hours. Everyone wait your turn. This should only take four more hours.

You hit the orc. The orc hits you. You hit the orc again. Rinse and repeat. It doesn’t take a genius game designer to see the problem here, and yet it’s disturbingly common. These are games in which combat takes multiple rounds, but the player has no meaningful choices. All they can do is mash the attack option until the other guy falls over.

This is why roleplaying games have their reputation as boring slogs, and sometimes that stereotype is far too accurate. Even though I praised Spirit of the Century’s combat earlier, it fails here. PCs and major villains take forever to knock out, and the only option is to keep rolling until they do.

Systems that present false choices also fall into this category. In Swashbucklers of the Seven Skies, players are given options for splitting their dice between attack and defense, but a little math shows that each option is almost exactly the same. Mouse Guard has this problem too, because while it gives many options in combat, Attack is by far the most powerful.

Combat, whether it’s physical, social, magical, or something else entirely, shouldn’t be boring. It should be the exciting action sequence that everyone talks about fondly afterwards. Many a new player has been scared off roleplaying games entirely by their first two-hour melee against a raiding party of goblins. It’s true that making a good combat system is difficult, but it’s been forty years. We should have figured it out by now.

The options for those of us playing at home are limited. The truly dedicated can attempt to house rule repetitive combat systems into something more interesting, but this is not to be attempted lightly. Some games will require more work than others. An easier option is to reduce combat down to a single or handful of rules. This has the disadvantage of rendering many PC abilities useless. A trait that grants extra attacks isn’t much use if you resolve every situation with a single Swords roll.

When designing a combat system, it’s important to bring in some testers who will try to break it. These people will discover that it’s most advantageous to only ever use one option over and over again, while the more roleplaying oriented types instinctively vary their choices to stay in character. Running simulations helps too and doesn’t require extra people. Every example I listed above can be deduced just from calculating die rolls.

Some game designers are catching on. Torchbearer features a much improved version of Mouse Guard’s combat system,* and 5E D&D gives each class new options for what to do in a fight. If we’re lucky, there will come a time when repetitive combat is consigned to the dustbin of history. Repetitive skills are also on their way out, with several major roleplaying systems slimming down their rules so that Hide and Move Silently are no longer separate, thank Pelor.

The other design mistakes might stick around for longer, but we can help drive them out! Our task as players and GMs is to purchase games that make as few of these mistakes as possible. After all, if we keep giving our dollars to designers regardless of these mistakes, they’ll have no reason to improve.

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.

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  1. omestes

    As a person trying to design a RPG from scratch: the over powered magic and combat slog problems are actually hard to get rid of. Magic, in a traditional fantasy sense, is by nature overpowered. I’m trying to fix this by making it more “utility” based. At low levels it isn’t going to be as powerful as a gun, but gives more tricks than a gun would.

    Combat balance and health is hard. How do you let players have their escapism, and not feel overly squishy, while keeping things from getting stupid?

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      Yeah, if it was easy we wouldn’t still have this problem. For magic, I think the best option is to change the dynamic of how the magic works in the setting. It’s very difficult to imagine a way in which D&D style magic wouldn’t be overpowered, because it’s wizards shooting fire around whenever they like.

      If you change what magic is able to do, as seen in some of the settings I mentioned, it becomes a lot easier. The magic dynamic with Call of Cthulhu is much easier to manage, for instance. Burning Wheel also has a neat kind of magic called Spirit Binding, which is far lower key but still pretty cool and fantastic.

      With combat, I recommend looking at how 7th Sea did things. It’s system of flesh wounds and dramatic wounds gives you a nice buffer for combat, but you can hand out a Dramatic Wound when it’s time for things to get serious.

      • CharonsHelper

        D&D style magic can be much more balanced if you make it have severe drawbacks. For example – in Pathfinder a pretty easy fix (for in-combat power at least) is to make nearly all spells take at least a full round. This gives foes a chance to hit them and break their concentration, thereby making spellcasters reliant upon their martial buddies for protection. (Also with the secondary benefit of making counter-spelling viable.)

        I do agree with your article though – games should avoid designing spells which allow casters to step on the toes of martials. (Going back to Pathfinder – get rid of all summon monster & polymorphing spells, and nearly all spells with range ‘personal’.)

        The final suggestion I’d have, is to allow inherent mundane counters to spells. For example – one thing already in the system is that lining buildings with lead makes them immune to scrying. (It works for Lex Luther too.) Or inherent limitations to spells – like teleportation only transporting you to ‘places of power’. (however you decide to define them) You don’t need to limit what your magic system can do so long as the spells themselves have limitations.

    • Ethan C.

      Omestes, here’s an idea off the top of my head that could help: have most of the actions in combat not affect health directly. For example, maybe instead of hit points, each character has a variety of defensive qualities that have to be overcome before you can hurt them: armor, dodging, parrying, etc. On your turn, you take an action to try to overcome one or more of these defenses. Once all of the defenses are broken, only then can you actually injure your target.

      That might help make combat interesting, as different foes could have varying strengths in defense, and certain actions could be stronger against different defenses. But “health” could still be low, a matter of only a couple good wounds causing death.

  2. Sionnachuighiim

    The Ability Tax trope is easily averted in “best option” settings like nWoD if players are reminded at chargen that their mystical effectiveness or lack thereof is a character trait rather than a flaw.

    Your changeling is bad at magic if they have 1 wyrd. Create them accordingly. Are you savvy? Should all the PCs be savvy starting out?

    That said, if the magic options not only eclipse but also encapsulate the mundane, if there is no tradeoff (other than narrative) for a lack in one area or another, the GM’s role is rolling up their sleeves to balance things out for the characters who are “lacking”, or even the table altogether. In the face of flawed systems, of course. Ideally there is some benefit to remaining a muggle at some point in each individual system.

    • Cay Reet

      The problem, as I understand it, is not ‘making the best possible character,’ but having abilities which, at first glance, have no logical connection to what you want to achieve. This makes it hard for first-time players who, perhaps, don’t have the most savvy GM in their campaign, either. They might make horrible errors building their character, because some arbitrary skill which they are not required to take (or raise, see Wyrd) is necessary for their character to actually function. That, simply speaking, is bad design, and will lead to players who all but enjoy the game. If a player can’t enjoy the game, because their PC can’t do something they should be able to do, then there’s something wrong.

      A PC doesn’t have to start out as a master spellcaster or suchlike. (Or as a master warrior.) Usually, they won’t. But they need a good basis to build up from. If they don’t know they need it, to use the Hand of Stone example, they won’t even get a real chance to correct the mistake, because their character won’t even get to a point where they could give it what it needs. You don’t usually design a PC as an everyman. You design them to be a budding warrior, mage, rogue, whatever. So you need to put in the basics they’ll be able to build on as their character evolves through experience.

  3. Boronx

    The hitpoint mountain problem is actually the same as the battle slog problem. If getting new hitpoints isn’t a part of levelling up, then there will never be much of a slog. When no player goes over 12 HP, someone is going to be in grave danger by the third round of combat.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      They’re linked, certainly, but you can actually have one without the other. Repetitive Combat comes from combat systems that both A) offer no choice, and take a long time.

      In Mouse Guard, for example, characters don’t have absurd amounts of HP, but it still has the repetitive combat problem, because there’s only one viable option in combat.

      Spycraft had way too many hitpoints on a character, but their combat system offered enough options that it wasn’t too repetitive.

      But you’re certainly right that they often go hand in hand.

      • GeniusLemur

        I’d argue that the hit point mountain inevitably leads to repetitive combat (although you can have repetitive combat without it) because even if you have different options, you’ll inevitably go with the same one or maybe repeat a simple pattern as you thrust your sword into the dragon over and over and over and over…

    • David Bowman

      What do you think about the Iron Kingdoms RPG by Privateer Press. It uses a “life spiral” for PCs. The system is d6 based and their life spiral is based off their ability scores which are fixed and determined by race though you get points to boost ability scores during creation. When a part of your life spiral is disabled by an enemy there is a penalty or negative modifier based off that ability. I think it definitely circumvents the hit point mountain problem. Characters can be much more fragile and have to use their abilities to not take damage instead of just taking the damage and then healing it up. I may be biased as I just love the IK setting so much. I just wish my players loved it more, they are all d20 Pathfinder players.

      • Oren Ashkenazi

        The IKRPG certainly isn’t the worst when it comes to hitpoint mountain, though I tend to think its life spiral system is mostly an overly complex version of a wound penalty system, mostly used because they felt the need to recycle mechanics from their miniatures game, Warmahordes.

  4. Skylark

    The variety in combat thing is why I didn’t like 4th Edition (plus EVERYTHING was a mountain of HP). Any version of D&D can get repetitive in combat, but I’ve found ways to vary it some. My Pathfinder cleric can heal, buff, attack or defend as needed, and the fact that I can spontaneously cast healing in combat means there’s less downside to preparing utility spells that I use outside of combat (I can swap for Cure spells as needed). In 4th edition, everything was “simplified” into specific moves for every class, which made them all equally viable in combat – and to me, equally boring.

    Pathfinder combat can be repetitive, certainly, but I found I at least had a few more choices in terms of what kind of spells I could prepare ( than in 4th Edition, which also seemed lacking in utility spells to use outside the battlefield.

    • Skylark

      Also thank God they collapsed Spot, Listen, and Search into “Perception”. And Hide and Move Silently into “Stealth”. Though it baffles me that “Appraise” is still a thing when everyone just looks up the gp value.

  5. TheHoundHalf

    I like to imagine that the Spot Hidden / Track distinction made in CoC7 is due to a character with a high ‘Spot Hidden’ noticing absolutely everything that could possibly be signs of a track, but being unable to distinguish which ones belong to the individual being currently tracked.

    It makes it less stupid.


  6. Adam Reynolds

    One issue that is interesting here is the way in which Jedi should realistically be portrayed. While the Force grants the possibility to have superior abilities to those without its gifts, choosing to accept this path causes one to lose a degree of control over one’s own destiny. You are accepting the fact that you must take on certain responsibilities in return for your unnatural abilities. Jedi cannot ignore the suffering of others, and can especially not hurt others through their actions intentionally.

    Choosing to take selfish actions leads one closer to the Dark Side. While it would seem that choosing to play as a Sith outright is superior, it then leads to a different set of problems, as you are unable to form proper emotional connections without being drawn towards the light side again. This makes it harder to have the cooperative party dynamic of most games.

    A smuggler can choose to do what they want, be it throwing in with the Rebellion or staking out on your own. A Jedi cannot. While you could choose to abandon your position and simply become a Force sensitive smuggler, you would have the problem that using your abilities attracts enemies. This would especially be true in the time of the Empire, which is sort of the default for Star Wars.

    The only system that I know of that does anything like this is the nature of compels in Fate, as Jedi tend to have a lower reserve as a result of spending all of their Fate refresh on stunts that allow them to do things like swing lightsabers around. But that is still problematic in that a normal character can choose to spend all of their refresh and be in the same position.

  7. IronKobold

    Dungeon World does not have missing rules:

    1)If one weapon has longer reach than another the player rolls Defy Danger to either get past the reach weapon or keep the enemy from getting past the players reach weapon and deal damage.

    2) If a character does not eat they cannot Make Camp and if they cannot Make Camp they cannot regain hit points or regain spells.

    3) Monsters have abilities and the Dungeon Master can use them whenever the players fail a roll, because the book says whenever the players fail a roll the Dungeon Master can basically do whatever they want.

    • Candlemoth

      I can see 1 working. I haven’t played Dungeon World, but makes enough sense to me for a mechanical perspective.

      2. Seems self defeating, isn’t the point of making camp to sit down and eat and rest? So my character has to stand around and eat a roll or something so he can sit down to cook something? Why does not eating effect only this aspect of their life. Presumably if they aren’t making camp then their are either traveling, battling, or doing some other adventuring tasks that would also effect their hunger? Suppose I’d need more context.

      3. I almost liked this until you said the Dungeon Master can ‘do whatever they want’.
      That’s not a very clear rules distinction and technically the Dungeon Master can do whatever they want in nearly every game.
      Now if the monster has abilities with vague sorts of descriptions that active when the Player’s fail a roll, I can see good opportunities for the Dungeon Master to create more interesting encounters or set the players up for a dynamic and thrilling finally or some such.

      Take all of this with a grain of salt however cause I’ve never opened the Dungeon World book, I just see issues with how the above descriptions qualify as completing some of the rules. I still have questions, but IronKobold may have just been summarizing. I.E. Grain of salt

  8. Jorge Jaramillo

    Ability Tax. It could be solved if the designer includes a list of character types to play, the way Call of Cthulhu does. A dilettante and a private detective are very different not only because the way players roleplay them, but also from the range of skills available to them. In changeling, you could have a list of ten or twenty different changeling types, some with high wyrd or high banality or high both (or low), along with a set of skills approptiate to the type. The designer might add that these types are recommended to start but new types can be invented once the players and storyteller get the hang of it.

    The wizard king. Magic is overpowered and vanilla fantasy D&D won’t change the system, just like countries won’t stop having presidents even when it’s obvious that a stateless society works better. But some OSR games, mainly Lamentations of the Flame Princess, have made important changes to the magic system, specially with the new magic system that replaced the original, oublished under the Free RPG Day book ‘Vaginas are Magic’. In the original system, 1st level spell Summon can go wrong and kill you or wipe reality off. In VaM, every spell has a miscast chance that will make you think twice before making a spell. Or, In Conan 2d20, the magic system is not for player characters but for NPCs.

    Hitpoint Mountain. Again, Conan 2d20, an otherwise really bad game, solved this problem the Savage World way: wound levels. Attacks deal damage which is measured in wounds. After a number of wounds, you die, no matter how experienced you are. And if I’m not mistaken, 13th Age solved it too, although differently, making your d6 sword deal 1d6 damage at first level or 2d6 at 2nd level, which makes combat quick and lethal, and you won’t be walking around with an arrow in your head, a missing arm and wielding a great sword.

    Incomplete rules. Dungeon World is the best example, it is almost impossible to play as written because it’s not written clearly, but it’s more or less easy to fill in the gaps. But then there’s the aforementioned Conan 2d20, by Modiphius. Not only it is the same system as Mutant Chronicles and Star Trek Adventures, including the same metacurrency problems, but it includes its own unique problems, like a magic system that is so badly written that one doesn’t know how it works (I won’t read it a third time). The magic rules are not only badly written, they are also scattered throughout the book, which is insane to say the least. This is what OSR games excel at, they don’t make long and complex chapters for their systems, they give you a general view on how the game runs, and you can make rules or rulings on the fly when your players face a situation not contemplated by the designer. The epitome of OSR is Lamentations of the Flame Princess, the book is short, the text is compact and clear, the rules are elegant and easy to teach and learn.

  9. Alan

    My biggest beef with most RPG’s is levels.
    Level based systems make it impossible for a newbie character to share an adventure with an experienced character.

    I prefer non-level based games where, though as a disadvantage, the newbie can at least stand some chance alongside a venerable character.
    Examples include:
    Shadowrun (Catalyst games for 4th and 5th editions, FASA for earlier editions) – Cyberpunk meets D&D,
    Star Wars d6 (WEG) – Star Ward. Nuff’ said.
    DC Heroes/Blood of Heroes (Mayfare/Pulsar games respectively and now updated by – Superheroes

    Does anyone know any other good non-level based RPGs?

    • Steve

      Marvel Superheroes allowed you to buy stats abilities and skills with experience directly. I don’t remember how to advance in anything from World of Darkness but I’m fairly sure it didn’t involve levels
      The ill fated DBZ RPG was from FASA and likely had a similar system to the old Shadowrun but I didn’t play much of that.

    • nijineko

      Try for some of the classic and more famous games for non leveling (though each has their own separate issues): Champions/Hero, GURPS, Rolemaster, Marvel Superheroes (FASERIP version), Amber Diceless RPG, Traveller… there are more.

  10. Nicolas

    I feel so identified by every point. That’s why i read about 10 rulebooks before trying a system, those flaws are so evident it hurts (My players dont even notice lol).
    Repetitive combat and those inifnite hit points kill the mood for me, in fact, i’m playing one of my favorites rpg Edge Of The Empire by FFG, but the hitpoints. Oh those hitpoints. I understand that it sucks to kill a character, but why not just… cripple him ? With a proper narrative, players may be less inclined to do brainless combat if a real danger is present. Less damage to have crippling results, but at the same time trying not to be anti-fun.
    Does anyone know another way ?

    Also, wich is the most polished rpg system you’ve played ?

    • Alan Shohat

      I really like Shadowrun (pretty much any edition) because the more damage you take, the more difficult it is to do anything, reflecting the effects/fatigue of actually getting hurt.
      The magic rules also add to this. You can cast low power spells all day long, but the more power you put into a spell the more likely you are to fatigue or even injure yourself in the casting.

      The nice thing about Shadowrun is that the base rules are plenty for most people, but optional rules (like armor degradation for example) can add some more realism and force your players to think about how they can avoid getting hit in the first place else find themselves with an armored jacket that looks more like Swiss cheese than anything resembling armor.

      There’s also the ability to eschew parts of the system without breaking the game as a whole; Don’t want magic in your game? No problem, don’t want cybernetics? easy peasy. Want a fantasy aesthetic with no guns, just medieval weapons? You can do that too.

      My only complaints are that
      a: Vehicle combat rules are clunky at best
      b: Cyber combat is difficult to perform in “real time” alongside real world combat at the sense of passage of time is different in the Matrix (cyberspace) than in “real life”. My group works around this by reducing Matrix situations to just a couple of quick success checks and eschewing the details (ie: one roll for the entire cyber combat situation, winner takes all, loser gets dumped from the system–or worse, brain fried).
      c: The game was created back before wireless internet was a thing so kind of forgets to include that fact, though the new editions may have resolved it. My group still plays 3rd edition and I think they are now on 6th edition).
      d: You’ll need a LOT of 6-sided dice! :oP

  11. Mark

    He missed the worst mistake- not giving your system mechanics narrative support since it is a roleplaying game (better to be called roleplaying system or framework if generic). You can get your players and GM to totally smooth over all these other issues if they totally get the universe that the game runs in.You can make the most ridiculous mechanics into total sense. All RP mechanics are roleplaying. D&D 5 has so much of mechanics dropped in there in and they aren’t explained working in a D&D fantasy way. He is incorrect to say that D&D only abstraction is HP, AC is also abstraction and all sorts of other abstractions mixed with simulation. They could have made it simpler and better but they are lazy.

    • Alan Shohat

      One of the things about D&D I never liked is AC.
      With 3.x though there is an “Armor as Damage Resistance” option that somewhat mitigates my issues with it. It separates avoiding the hit with absorbing the impact (hitting a knight in plate armor is easy, hurting the knight is another matter).
      Older versions of D&D (AD&D?) used to have different AC’s for different types of weapons (chain mail wasn’t very useful vs piercing and bludgeoning weapons, but slashing weapons weren’t very effective).
      One could also house rule that certain types of weapons altered their damage type vs certain armors (aforementioned chain mail may prevent that axes from cutting through, but it would turn the “slashing” damage into bludgeoning rather than increase the AC vs axes) but that was never part of the system in and of itself

  12. Numa Pompilius

    Mountain of HP in D&D is not a thing to be afraid of if you can let your epic heroes be as epic as mythological heroes. Do you know sons of Tuireann lived for days and could speak, walk and use a ship (and would survive if Lugh gave them magical healing) despite receiving wounds so big a bird could fly through them?

    “Fighter-20 is just a man with really good sword skills” is the poisonous idea D&D should get rid of. In one french fairy tale a warrior demonstrates his skill by deflecting every single raindrop, and he is treated as a good professional, not a superhero. Legendary chinese archer Hou Yi shot down nine SUNS, and most versions do not consider him a god! This is properly epic and this is how you make fighters on par with casters.

  13. Faranhor

    One way I try to balance out magic is to force recovery times.

    Doing several spells in a row or a more powerful spell causes the mage type to become “exhausted” for a half-hour or hour (or a number of turns) during which time they must disappear, vanish, go to sanctuary or refuge (a dimensional safe place). I make all mage types have this vanishing or refuge spell (it comes with the class) that instantly sends them to a dimensional space or retreat where they must “regenerate”. At the end of the regeneration period they instantly show back up (reappear) with their party.

    There’s a lot of precedent for this in literature where wizards do some remarkable feat and then disappear from the group only to reappear later.

    In game play mage types will think more carefully about the number and power of spells they cast in a period of time so as not to become exhausted and leave their party to fend for themselves without them for a while. I have made rules that assign a certain “power drain” to each spell so that it can be determined if a mage type becomes exhausted.

  14. Kenneth Mackay

    I can imagine that some mages would cast spells just to get into their ‘safe refuge space’ while the party faced some danger or difficult terrain, only to reappear in time to take a share of the treasure…

    • Cay Reet

      I can also see the party kicking them out sooner or later.

  15. Jonathan

    Just came across this! You should play Blades in the Dark. It solves all these problems.

    The game has a low-magic setting where even seeing a ghost can half scare you to death – and while you can do magical-ish things there’s a cost.

    Each hit you take makes you less effective and you can’t take all that many before you die. While can use a resource to resist hits, that’s also a resource that powers other mechanics that you’ll need.

    Players have lots of ways to be effective in combat without swinging swords or firing pistols.

    I could rant for a while, but Blades is awesome and everyone should play it.

  16. BLAKE 1001

    I think it’s mildly amusing – yet heartening – that you don’t bother mentioning D&D much in this article. Not only does it suffer from every problem mentioned in spades, but it originated most of them.

    But, speaking of games that aren’t so bad, and games that aren’t D&D… but I repeat myself… I’d like to try thinking of some games that avoid, or at least ameliorate each of the persistent problems you enumerate:

    1. The Ability Tax
    I feel like this started with 3e ‘feat taxes’ but you define it so broadly that I have difficulty thinking of a game that doesn’t suffer from it. If you have any choice at all, you’ll be able, even in the best-balanced system, to make a choice or a bad combination of choices, and guidance, examples, & experience is about the only way around it. Games that offer plenty of choice but also offer packages or pre-builds or/and are very carefully balanced could be allowed as minimizing the issue. Champions! (Hero more generally) depending on how hard it pushed it’s sample characters in a given edition, might be an example, though that brings up the related issue of build-optimization – and the 1st edition of Champions! was guilty in a big way with CON & DEX/SPD, while the 6th edition scrubs the problem rather zealously which introduces issues of it’s own.
    Completely random systems like Gamma World (again, depending on edition) or Classic Traveler also certainly side-step it.

    I suppose you could also see this as a specific instance of System Mastery as a problem. Champions!/Hero, WotC eds of D&D, OWoD Storyteller, GURPS, and many, many other systems all suffer from the fact that deep knowledge of the system can yield inordinate advantages relative to total ignorance (or willfully sub-optimization). It seems to come with the territory of player choice, the more you offer players meaningful choices, the more that privilege can be abused to willfully make bad choices (because optimizing to the point of ruining the play experience is a bad choice, too, afterall).

    2. The Wizard King
    Games that entirely lack magic, like, oh, the ancient cold-war Top Secret, obviously avoid the problem. So do games like Mage: the Ascension, that entirely lack non-magical PCs. Champions! – and most better superhereo RPGS, because the genre mixes magic, supertech, super-martial arts, arbitrary mutant powers and whatalleverelse – avoids the problem, doubly so because magic is built from the same powers, limitations & advantages as any other superpower. Ironically, 4e D&D was conspiculously balanced, that way.
    Unlike (1) it’s not really that hard to do, though, making magic distinctly magical but not overpowered is easy, because it’s the impossiblity of magical feats, not the power, that brings on the feel.

    3. The Gear Grind
    Again, Champions! which makes you pay the same points for your super-gear as for other ‘limited’ powers, avoids the issue, entirely, but other versions of the Hero System can fall into the trap. So do many games where gear is more or less fungible, that don’t make a big issue of .32 revolver vs glock or hunting rifle vs styr-AUG or whatever.

    4. Hitpoint Mountain
    There’s a converse of this problem, with is the “Glass PC” or “death spiral” problem. PCs *do* need to be able to survive, and in ways that are fairly dependable and predictable from the player side, or the game just doesn’t get played, it becomes too risk-adverse for any genre. Champoins! – and, again, a lot of supers games, because they must cope with everything from squishy normals to superman-clones – tackle the problem, since PCs can be inordinately tough or lucky, while attacks still are demonstrably lethal to ordinary people. Even D&D doesn’t always do it badly, 3e, 4e & 5e all get a decent cadence that can be a fairly engaging combat instead of a hp grind, so long as there’s viable in-combat healing and nothing too over the top in damage dealing on the player side.

    5. Incomplete Rules
    Effects-based systems, like Hero & M:tA do inordinately well, here, because no matter how many things you may be able to visualize characters doing, there’s really a pretty modest set of things they’re trying to accoplish. Get somewhere, defeat, avoid, or persuade someone, find, break or fix something. Games that try to model how you accomplish things just end up with ever-growing lists of skills, spells, items, feats, tricks, powers, or whatever that, no matter how cumbersome they become are never truely complete.

    6. Repetitive Skills
    I call this ‘skill inflation’ and it absolutely kills games. D&D 3e, Basic Role Play (CoC, RuneQuest, etc), Hero System (everything but the very, very first incarnation of Chapions! which had a blessedly short/broad set of skills) all suffer markedly from the problem. Skills don’t even have to overlap to become excessive.

    7. Repetitive Combat
    Ironically, though D&D has always suffered from this in spades, it also invented the mechanic that can get away from it: limtied-use abilities. It’s just that in almost all D&D, that’s almost all spells, and almost all daily. An ability you can use once, or must try to activate, in a given combat, can force some variety. When your best trick can only be done once/fight, and may only be ‘best’ under a given circumstance, you use it more tactically, and you get less repetative combats.

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