1. The Wrong Number Of Modifiers
It’s time for you to attack that troublesome bandit. You just have to add some bonuses to your basic stats, like the +1 you get from your sword, the +2 from your feat, another +1 from your magic braces… Oh no, this is going to take all day.
Alternatively, it’s time for you to make your big speech decrying your rival’s political proposal. First, you’ve got some dirt on your rival’s past. That’ll give you an extra die. You’ve also got a top-secret memo explaining your rival’s evil plan. That’ll also give you an extra die, but sorry, bonuses don’t stack in this system, so you get nothing.
In the first scenario, your system had too many modifiers. In the second, it had too few. Too many modifiers is certainly more common, so we’ll start with that. When a system offers an endless number of options for boosting your roll, things get cumbersome fast. For one thing, it’s just a pain to remember all the different modifiers, positive or negative. Players with better bookkeeping skills gain a distinctive edge as everyone else forgets to add bonuses to their totals. For another thing, it ruins the game’s balance. When a system has a ton of bonuses to choose from, it’s more likely that too many will build up on one character, sending their power level through the roof.
At the other extreme, a system with too few modifiers feels shallow, as if the player’s actions don’t matter. Why bother doing a lot of cool research and prep work when the bonuses flatten out so quickly? Plus, all abilities with the same bonus feels identical, even if they’re distinct in the story. If a character’s laser eyes and telepathic precognition both give +2, it won’t be long before the player stops bothering to distinguish which one they’re using. Finally, it can be jarring for two disparate elements to give the same modifier. This is what happens in 5E D&D, where being invisible gives the same bonus as attacking a prone opponent.
Most games are aiming for the sweet spot, where there’s enough depth to make interesting choices, but not so much that it drowns the players. But how do we get there? I don’t have a definitive guide, but in general, if a game has several different types of abilities, it should have several types of bonuses.
A big problem of 3.5 D&D was that the only real bonus most abilities could give was a plus or minus to a d20 roll. That’s what lead to the endless list of +1s. 5E tried to fix that by having only one real bonus, advantage, which let players roll a second d20 and keep the higher result. But 5E still has multiple ways of gaining advantage, so instead of a mountain, it ended up with a frustratingly flat line.
Instead, a system with lots of abilities needs a mechanically robust frame work, so those abilities can give different bonuses. Torchbearer is a good example. Abilities in that game can grant extra dice, make torches last longer, carry extra supplies, etc. All of those bonuses are mechanically relevant within Torchbearer’s framework. Alternatively, it’s okay for a game to have fewer abilities and, thus, fewer modifiers.
2. Objectively Inferior Weapons
Game balance is a complex issue. Imagine a game that has only two weapon stats: damage and speed. A longsword has damage 2, speed 1. A short sword has damage 1, speed 2. Those might or might not be balanced; we’d have to consider how the rest of the system works. But if a short sword’s stats were damage 1, speed 1, that would be obviously worse than the longsword, right? Surely someone would catch it!
Believe it or not, roleplaying games are full of such entries, stat lines that clearly show how one weapon is simply worse than another in the same category. This most often comes up in supplements with long lists of near identical weapons, but it can happen anywhere. For a long time, Burning Wheel only had a dozen or so melee weapons, and yet the sword was blatantly inferior to the axe.*
Sometimes this is a mistake. Sometimes it comes from a designer trying to insert realism into their game. Perhaps they’ve heard that one model of 9mm handgun has more stopping power, so they give it a higher damage value, making it clearly superior to the other entries. No matter the cause, the results are the same: a trap for unwary players. Someone new to 4th Edition Legend of the Five Rings might think a naginata sounds like a cool weapon, not realizing that the bisento does more damage with no other trade-off. Even for veteran players, this is annoying, as it often means they get penalized for using their favorite weapons.
Some games try to use cost as a balancing factor, but a few gold pieces hardly ever matters. It takes a robust economy indeed to make this work, otherwise the difference in price will be lost as a rounding error.
Occasionally, designers or fans of a game will claim that some ephemeral or niche benefit balances a weapon out. In the previous example, it could be said that the short sword is smaller, and therefore easier to conceal. That is technically a bonus, but how often is sword concealing going to come up? Probably about as often as needing to prop a lean-to up with your weapon, for which the longsword is clearly superior.
First, it’s okay not to include individual stats for every weapon you can think of. Most games are abstract enough that no one will mind if you have a category marked “swords” instead of having an arming sword and a Carolingian sword. That way you can let players flavor the type of weapon they’re using and not worry about the exact stats.
If abstraction isn’t an option, the hard work begins. You’ll need to go through each weapon and make sure there’s a reason to use it, unless you specifically want some weapons to be inferior. If a short sword has objectively inferior stats to a longsword, the short sword needs to be strengthened or the longsword needs to be weakened. Perhaps the short sword should get a bonus in the first round of combat since it can be drawn more quickly. This will be easier in games that are more mechanically robust, as you will have more levers to tweak. If you’re having trouble thinking of something, the internet is full of videos on how different weapons handle in a fight, watching some should give you inspiration.
3. Meaningless Drawbacks
Some abilities are obviously powerful, so designers give them a drawback to balance them out. That’s a good instinct except, all too often, the drawback doesn’t matter. Let’s say an ability gives +10 to Persuade rolls because of the character’s empathetic skills. That’s pretty powerful, so the designer gives it a drawback. The character also gets -5 on Computer rolls, because they’re so used to reading emotional cues that unfeeling technology confuses them.
That might sound fine, but it’s only a real drawback if the character is also good with computers. If the player never invests any points in that skill, then it’s not a disadvantage at all. If they go the full-social route, they’re receiving a penalty on rolls they’d have failed anyway, so no big deal.
Abilities with meaningless drawbacks are almost always overpowered. Their bonus was crafted with the idea that the penalty would matter. If the penalty doesn’t affect the game, the ability becomes a free bonus. This can drastically alter the game’s balance, as clever players figure out which skills their characters don’t need and heap all the penalties there.
Beyond game balance, meaningless drawbacks encourage hyper specialization. A normal socialite might consider spending a few experience point to branch out into Computers, but they’ll never bother with such a high barrier to entry. Instead, they’ll focus on what they’re already good at to the point where it’s nearly impossible to fail a roll. This silos each character into their own little world and leaves little room for interaction with each other’s spheres.
Despite what many designers seem to think, most games don’t actually need a lot of extra feats and advantages granting bonuses. If a PC wants to be better at persuading, they can raise their Persuade skill.
If a game is going to have advantages and drawbacks, those drawbacks need to matter. That means penalties to other skills rarely work, especially if they are skills outside of the character’s sphere. The ability might cost a lot of meta currency, or it might inflict damage of some kind, but it should do something the character can’t avoid. Penalizing a skill is only appropriate if it’s a skill everyone has to roll on a regular basis.
4. Unclear Skill Application
In a perfect system, every skill would be clearly differentiated, but no system is perfect. Instead, it’s all too common for skills to overlap in their application, causing great confusion for all. You see this when two or more skills have the same objectives but different means of achieving it.
Social skills are by far the biggest offender. In most games, social skills boil down to convincing an NPC to do something. Any other effects are secondary at best. If a PC wants to convince a guard to let them through via logical argument, that’s Diplomacy. If a PC wants to convince the guard by claiming to be a supervisor, that’s Bluff. The result is the same, the only way to choose the skill is by listening to the player’s description of their approach.
While this is most common in social skills, it’s not limited to them. Fantasy Flight’s upcoming edition of Legend of the Five Rings has it baked into the core mechanics. In previous editions of L5R, each skill had a stat associated with it. In this new version, players determine which skill they’re using and then choose a stat based on how they’re approaching the task. Some of these approaches are mechanically distinct, such as using Fire to make something new and Earth to repair something that already exists. But other approaches are merely a matter of flavor, like recalling a fact from memory with Earth versus discovering it by searching for clues with Water. Either way you get the fact!
No matter how it manifests, unclear application has the same problem: it causes a lot of arguments at the table. When it’s not clear what skill should be used for a roll, players have a clear incentive to push for whichever skill or stat they’re best at. The GM might think it’s a stretch, but they don’t have any rules to stand on, so it comes down to a contest of wills.
Even if an argument is avoided, unclear applications reward players who specialize and punish players who diversify. A new L5R player might spread their points out, raising several rings, while a more mechanically savvy player realizes they can spend all their points on Fire so long as they always describe themself doing things with passion and ferocity. From the player’s perspective, this is just good sense. It might feel more natural to roleplay this scene as calm and contemplative, but that would mean using their much lower Void stat, and no one likes being penalized for roleplaying choices.
When designing your skills, separate them by what they can do rather than how they do it. For social skills, the Fast Talk and Persuade skills from older Call of Cthulhu editions are a good model.* Fast Talk is for short-term objectives. It doesn’t require a previous connection, but it can’t achieve long-term results either. A character could fast talk their way past a guard, but the guard would soon realize their mistake.
Persuade, on the other hand, allows for much longer term results but requires more time and connection to use. A character could use Persuade to get themself permanently hired at a museum, but only if they had time to wine and dine the hiring manager. Both skills can use lies, both can use the truth, so there’s rarely any confusion over which one to roll.
5. Confusing Flavor With Mechanics
Flavor and mechanics don’t need to be completely separate. Sometimes they come together in beautiful ways, like when PCs are rewarded with meta currency for good roleplaying. Other times, designers rely on flavor for things that are clearly the province of mechanics.
My favorite example of this is the D&D druid’s relationship with metal armor. For mechanical and aesthetic purposes, druids don’t wear metal armor in D&D, but the reason why is a little strange. Most classes that don’t wear armor simply lack the proficiency, but that’s not enough for druids. In 3.5 they were “prohibited” from wearing metal armor. The books never said who prohibited them or what the consequences of breaking the prohibition were. In fifth edition, it only says that druids “will not wear” metal armor.
No other explanation, they just won’t do it. There’s nothing about the armor interfering with their powers, just that no druid worth their animal companion would ever be so gauche as to wear metallic armor. They’re fine with metal weapons apparently.
This is a clear case of confusing flavor with mechanics, but it’s hardly the only one. The problem also crops up in a lot of vaguely worded mind-control spells. The venerable Charm Person spell, for example, causes the target to act friendly toward the caster, but what does that mean? When the target is an NPC, the GM can be generous in the interpretation, but when Charm Person is cast on a PC, the definition of “friendly” comes under harsh scrutiny. Would a friend hand over their weapon in a potentially dangerous dungeon? Who knows?
In both cases, the game is supporting an important mechanic by making it into a roleplaying burden. Druid players are told their characters won’t wear metal armor, no matter what the player had in mind. Any target of Charm Person has to suddenly quantify what friendship means to their character, and it’s in their best interests to say it doesn’t mean much at all.
Best practice is always to avoid telling players how to play their characters, especially if it’s for something as obviously arbitrary as not wearing metal armor even as they wield metal weapons. If a restriction is social rather than mechanical, it should be explained. Where does the social restriction come from? What are the penalties for breaking it? Otherwise, its best to find a mechanical solution. For druids, it could be as simple as too much metal interfering with their powers.
For mind-control spells, or any other effect that subverts a PC’s free will, it’s important to be as specific as possible. Specify exactly what the target will do, under what circumstances. Otherwise it puts the player in a position where it’s in their interest to argue against the spell’s vague wording.
6. Proprietary Dice
Universal standards are a wonderful thing. No one misses the days when every cell phone had a different charging cord, and we just wish Apple would get on the micro USB train, even if it means a slight drop in performance.
So it is with dice. Since the first edition of D&D, there’s been an agreed upon standard of dice that all roleplayers should own. Some games use more of one kind than another, but in general, you can play any game with the same collection. Maybe you might need to lay in a few more d10s before you start a World of Darkness game, but no one was making games requiring d16s.*
But since nothing good lasts forever, a number of gaming companies are now running with the idea of proprietary dice that you need to buy specially for their games. In the best-case scenario, these turn out to be regular dice with one side replaced by a Doom Blight symbol or something similar, and we can just use regular dice.
That’s not the case with Fantasy Flight’s games, the current leader of the proprietary dice charge. Their Star Wars RPG requires at least two sets of their special dice, probably more if you have a large group. Those dice are useless for any other game, and if you lose one, you have to buy a new set. That’s seriously upping the cost of entry for a new game. To make matters worse, Fantasy Flight’s new L5R game is set to use a completely different set of proprietary dice. Joy.
The alternative to spending a lot of money on new, otherwise useless dice is to use an electronic dice roller. Thankfully, you can usually find one for free online, but that’s not a full solution. Dice rollers are annoying because you have to hand your phone around any time someone else wants to see what you rolled. Also, rolling physical dice is fun. I don’t know about you, but I enjoy taking a handful of polyhedrals and letting them fall.
I don’t have a solution for this entry except to stop using proprietary dice. I don’t know if Fantasy Flight’s mechanics could be replicated on standard dice, but nothing they’ve done is worth dropping a bunch more money on dice that can’t be used for anything else. It’s already bad enough with just one company doing it. Imagine needing to get a new set of dice for every single game.
Mistakes come hand in hand with any design process, and with more games coming out each year, there are bound to be more issues to pick over soon. Until then, remember to think critically about every game you try. Otherwise, you won’t know how its design mistakes will manifest at your table.
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.