Though diverse and numerous, roleplaying games feature some tropes that almost any player will recognize. Even if you’ve never played a D20 game in your life, you know what a critical hit is. Losing sanity is a well understood effect, even to those with no experience in the mythos. This shared language is a good thing; it gives us a platform to discuss our experiences without having to start from scratch each time. Unfortunately, it can also keep us from questioning those experiences. The more codified something is, the less we examine it. We don’t stop to ask if something should be the way it is. Take a look at these scenarios, for example.
1. Fighting a Rust Monster
Without a doubt, the rust monster is in the running for most well known D&D beastie. It’s a fan favorite, turning metal into bits of oxidized scrap with the greatest of ease. Players remember their first encounter with a rust monster, and for good reason. It might be the only time the full plate wearing fighter tries to hide behind the squishy wizard.
But while we GMs cackle at the thought of unleashing this corrosive beast upon our players, we often forget what the game is like for the fighter in question. They’re suddenly trapped in an adventure without their armor, weapons, or both. D&D is a game that assumes the PCs always have access to their basic gear. Without that gear, warrior classes lose their primary means of interacting with the setting.
While taking damage is built into the economy of the game, losing gear is not. A fighter without their sword is worthless. They were already having a hard time keeping up with the spellcasters, now they’ve got to make do with 1d3 punch damage. Losing armor can be even more debilitating, depending on which edition you’re playing.
The higher level a character is, the worse this effect. At level 1, it’s not too hard to find a backup shortsword on the corpse of some unlucky kobolds. At level 10, the lost gear was probably full of expensive enchantments that represent a good percentage of the character’s total loot.
The worst part is that short of immediately fleeing, there’s very little a warrior type can do to avoid a rust monster or other effect that targets their gear. D&D is designed so that most enemies take several hits to bring down, while the rust monster only has to hit their equipment once.
If we want destroying a PC’s gear to be fun, it has to be built into the game, not tacked on as it is in most systems. If it takes three attacks to bring down the rust monster, it should take the rust monster at least three hits to destroy a vital piece of gear.* Alternatively, there could be more for the fighter to do than hit things with their sword. In systems like Burning Wheel, a fighter with no weapon still has a bunch of useful skills to fall back on.
2. Running Out of Supplies
Most roleplaying systems still expect players to keep track of their food and ammunition, to say nothing about light sources. Theoretically, they do this because it would be fun to run out of arrows in the middle of a demon-infested swamp. While that might make for a good story to tell your grandkids, it’s no fun at all when it actually happens.
Similar to the rust monster problem, a lot of roleplaying games just assume the PCs will always have whatever supplies they need. If that isn’t true, the game starts to break down. Archers with no arrows are effectively useless, as are wizards who lose access to their spell components. Without supplies, those characters simply can’t play the game any more.
Light sources are even worse. A creature without dark vision who runs out of torches is out of the game. Of course, many characters can see in the dark without issue, so this penalty gets applied unevenly. In fact, any kind of supply related penalty will be uneven, because only some players will actually bother to track their supplies.
It’s an open secret that erasing and rewriting your arrow total every time you shoot is too much of a pain for most players. It’s the same thing with rations and torches. This means the honest player is punished, while the rest of the party chuckles nervously and tries not to look guilty.
While running out of supplies can be a fun plot, it has to be handled with care. Instead of waiting for a character to run through all 500 arrows, running out should be based on something that happens in the game. For example, losing vital spell components is a good consequence for the GM to impose when a character is mauled by an angry demon and left for dead. That’s much more exciting than suddenly realizing you’re out of lamp oil.
Alternatively, you could play Torchbearer, the only system I know that makes supply management fun. It’s an isolated case, so don’t expect other systems to measure up.
3. Hardcore Character Death
Players love to talk about all the times their character narrowly escaped death. Death is supposed to lurk around every corner, just one failed reflex save away. It’s rooted in the idea that GMs are the antagonist trying to wipe out the party, and it’s patently ridiculous. I’ve yet to encounter a system* where the GM couldn’t easily wipe out every PC at the table.
Even assuming the GM isn’t out for blood, killing a character every time the dice say to is a terrible idea. Campaigns would never work following that model. You see, in most systems, dice produce lethal results far more often than the players ever know. PCs are fragile things, even in hitpoint mountain systems like D&D.
GMs employ misdirection and dice fudging because otherwise building a story would be impossible. For the players, losing a character they were invested in is a rough experience. Each time it happens, rebuilding their investment is harder. After all, what’s the point if the character can be so easily snatched away from them? The more characters a player goes through, the less connected they feel to whatever is happening in the game.
In addition to how the players feel, losing a bunch of characters causes serious structural damage to a story. Loose storylines never get wrapped up. Vital NPCs no longer have any reason to help the party because the PC they were allied with is dead. If one character is the primary reason for the party embarking on their journey, and that character dies, the whole thing can fall apart.
Occasional PC death can still be great for a roleplaying story but requires a lot of planning. It shouldn’t happen because of a failed spot check. Deaths should have a dramatic purpose, and the relevant player should be consulted ahead. Mouse Guard has this dynamic baked into its rules. Players always know if a given roll risks their character’s death, and it’s up to them whether to go through with it.
4. Being a Prisoner
Listening to long time roleplayers talk about their various campaigns, you might get the idea that PCs spend most of their time in jail. They’re always getting thrown in there by the city watch or an evil overlord and then busting out in a dramatic escape sequence.
Of course, that’s only focusing on the two exciting parts. The time in between being captured and escaping – actually spending time as a prisoner – is rarely fun at all. It turns out that there isn’t much to do in jail.
Any PC stuck behind bars can only watch quietly while the rest of the party has an adventure, and that’s assuming they don’t turn disruptive out of boredom. Most players have good enough manners to wait their turn for the spotlight, but those manners wear thin after a while.
The natural solution is to immediately give them a chance to escape, but that comes with its own problems. Prisons are designed to keep people in. If they aren’t formidable, it will damage the credibility of your setting. Why would the villains keep throwing the PCs in jails that are too flimsy to hold them?
Instead, imprisoning PCs should be rare. When it does happen, you can either time jump forward, or you can plan something fun while the PC is in jail. The first option is easier, but it means you have to figure out what any PCs on the outside did with their time. Planning a prison-based adventure requires a lot more work but can be very rewarding, especially if the PCs are being imprisoned by someone plot-relevant.
5. Personally Solving a Mystery
I have a riddle for you. What’s less fun than trying to solve a GM’s mystery story without any hints? Trick question, nothing’s less fun than that! We’d all love to think our mental facilities are up to the task of figuring out whatever the GM throws at us, but in truth roleplaying games aren’t a great medium for figuring out a mystery.
One problem is that the GM and players may look at an identical set of clues and draw completely different conclusions. The GM thinks that a bloody cleaver and a set of hooks obviously means this is the den of a serial killer. The players think it means they’re in the back room of a butcher shop.
And that’s assuming perfect clarity in transmitting the information from GM brain to player brain. Information flow is hard enough to manage in a book, where the author can go back and make edits. In roleplaying, it’s really easy to forget a vital clue, or to deliver it at a moment when the players are distracted by a passing taco truck.
The opposite problem can happen too. Sometimes players are a bit too clever, and they figure out the mystery ten minutes into the session. Then you’ve got the whole evening and nothing to do. This is a serious danger, because players can ask whatever questions they want. They’re not limited by what questions the GM would like them to ask, the way protagonists in prose are.
To keep this from happening, GMs should plan for players to use their characters’ abilities rather than their own brain power. For anything else, this would be obvious. If we don’t expect roleplayers to defeat cyborg ninjas in personal combat, why do we expect them to solve mysteries? Let them roll their skills to interpret what clues mean, and give hints. Lots of hints.
6. Completely Free Form Character Creation
“Freedom” is often used as a synonym for “good” when discussing roleplaying games, and it’s easy to see why. Many roleplayers spent their formative years in the restrictive clutches of D&D, a game that doesn’t care what you want to do. A fighter will always be a fighter, a wizard will always be a wizard. Trying to make a wizard who can also fight just results in multiclass mess.
For players tired of a such a restrictive environment, a system that offers no restrictions at all seems like a great idea. They imagine all the wonderful characters they could make if the rules would just get out of their way. Enter systems like 7th Sea and Shadowrun. These games give the player a bunch of points and tell them to go nuts. Spend the points however you like, color outside the lines, anything goes.
In theory this kind of absolute freedom allows each player to customize the perfect character. In practice it leads to disaster. The problem with absolute freedom in character generation is twofold. One, it’s very difficult to balance. While every system is vulnerable to some level of power gaming, it gets worse the more freedom is allowed. In Shadowrun, certain combinations of cybernetic implants will make your character into an unstoppable death machine right out of character creation.
Two, absolute freedom means you can make a character that is unplayable. In 7th Sea, it’s easy to imagine that your heavily muscled brawler wouldn’t need a high level of finesse. However, because of how the math works, having a low finesse is a path to ruin for fighting characters because they can’t hit anything without it.
While it may sound counterintuitive, some level of structure is good when creating a character. It helps ensure that everyone has a character suited to the game they’re going to play. Many systems go too far and impose pointless limitations, but that’s no excuse to overcompensate in the other direction. Ideally, you’ll play games with a decent balance, but if you find yourself in an overly free form system, fear not! You’ve just got to impose some structure on it yourself, be you GM or player. As a group, figure out what options are actually necessary for a functioning character and which are too powerful for anyone to possess.
The key here is that free form character creation isn’t universally a bad thing, just that it can cause problems when applied without thought. The same is true for solving mysteries or fighting creatures that rust your armor. We can use these tropes to generate enjoyment in our game, but only if we examine them carefully.
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