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
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
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
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
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.