Brokenness by col_adamson used under CC BY 2.0

Roleplaying design is highly sensitive to context. Some rules work really well in one system and really poorly in another, and it all depends on what each game is trying to achieve. But then there are mechanics that don’t work well in any system, and that’s what we’re talking about today. These rules will always make your game worse, no matter the context, because they are fundamentally flawed, and they should be avoided whenever possible.

I’ve talked about these kinds of mechanics before, but roleplaying is a crowded medium, so naturally I discovered more with time. Let’s take a look at this newest batch and see why they have no place in your design project.

1. In-Universe Meta Currency

Sailing ships firing cannon at one another from 7th Sea's GM screen.
In 7th Sea’s 1st edition, PCs can’t activate certain magical abilities unless they’ve done something cool or funny enough to earn a drama die.

First, a definition for anyone not familiar with Mythcreants terminology: “meta currency” refers to the special points most systems allow players to spend on boosting their characters’ abilities. In Burning Wheel, they’re called Artha; in Serenity, they’re called Plot Points, etc. These points are almost always intangible in nature. They are earned for good roleplaying and don’t represent anything real in the fiction.

Now imagine you’re playing a campaign where you’ve been granted a magic sword that bursts into flames on command, but at a cost: you need to spend a point of meta currency whenever you use the sword. At first, this just seems like a reasonable balancing mechanic. But then you reach a scene where your character wants to use their sword but can’t because you don’t have any meta currency left.

How exactly do you explain that in the fiction? Is your magic sword just on the fritz? You can’t very well say that you need to go exchange some dramatic dialogue with the villain before your sword’s magic will activate, even though that’s the actual dynamic created by the rules.

The issue here is a break in how meta currency is treated. Most of the game treats it as an intangible factor, a reward you as the player get for enthusiastic participation. But the sword is treating meta currency as a tangible resource that your character can spend to get extra fire damage.

The only way this type of mechanic can work is if the meta currency is fully integrated into the fiction. It must be gained through in-fiction means and spent on tangible, in-fiction rewards. It must also be spent as a conscious choice on the character’s part, not just their player. This is rare, but it does happen. Legend of the Five Rings, for example, has Void Points that represent a character’s inner balance. They can be reclaimed through spiritual meditation or a calming tea ceremony. They are not gained through a dramatic shouting match with the villain. When a PC spends a Void Point, it represents the character leaning on their inner balance to give them an advantage.

2. Stables of Unrelated NPCs

A woman summoning some kind of green spirit in Delta Green.
Delta Green’s Home phase is the only time agents will pay any thought to the friends and family that are supposedly so important to them.

If there’s one thing all roleplayers can enjoy, it’s making fun of how PCs seem to pop fully formed into the world, with no meaningful family or friends. This problem is not unknown to designers, and many have tried their hand at solving it, only to fall into a different problem.

This scenario is probably familiar to you: you’re rolling up a character, and as part of the creation process, the rules want you to write down the names of several people the character knows in their personal life. Spouses, parents, and children are all common choices, but plenty of systems will have you name friends, coworkers, or even pets.

Creating all these connections is supposed to make your character feel more grounded, but there’s a problem. None of them have anything to do with whatever adventure your character is having, so they almost never come up in play. Maybe you make an effort to engage one of them during downtime, but no one else at the table has any connection to them, so the GM tries to limit these scenes in order to make sure everyone has time to do what they need.

This is what happens when games have you roll up a stable of unrelated NPCs. At best, you’re back at the original problem: a character with no meaningful connections. Those names on the sheet don’t mean much if they never come up. At worst, you’re disappointed because you were excited to roleplay with these NPCs, but there’s no opportunity.

The problem here is that designers sometimes forget why a PC’s family origins so rarely come up in a campaign: they aren’t important to what’s happening in the story. This same dynamic is pretty universal in other mediums. We don’t know who Han Solo’s parents are because it doesn’t matter. We only know Leia’s father is important on Alderaan because that’s the planet Tarkin blows up. On the other hand, we know a lot about Luke’s father, because he’s important to the story.*

If designers want PCs to have important connections, those connections need to be important to the story, shared between multiple PCs, or, preferably, both. If the game is about fantasy adventures, PCs should know someone who can get them a good deal on healing potions, whether that person is their sibling or a good friend. It’s even better if multiple PCs have a connection to this potion dealer, so any scene with them will be relevant to more than one person.

3. Vehicles With Character Stats

Serenity flying in front of the Serenity RPG logo.
The Serenity RPG gives ships the same stats as characters, but doesn’t give much indication on when or how to roll them.

Designing vehicle rules is understandably difficult. Vehicles are more complex than almost any other common type of gear, and it’s often unsatisfying to simply hand-wave these rules. Space opera games create expectations that PCs will be able to modify their ships and spy PCs will certainly want to trick out their cars with the latest gadgets. If these expectations aren’t represented in the rules, it’s a major disappointment.

For a lot of designers, the solution is to treat vehicles the same way they treat characters. Give them the same set of attributes and possibly even the same skills. Then the vehicles can level up and gain special abilities just like a player can. It gives players the robust vehicle rules they want and saves the designer a lot of work. It’s perfect, right?

Unfortunately, it’s only perfect until you start playing and need to roll for something while operating the vehicle. Should you roll your character’s ability or the vehicle’s ability? There’s no good answer. If you decide your character’s ability is more important, then it renders the vehicle rules unimportant, which is absurd. We all know that a pilot will do better if they’re flying a P-51 Mustang over a rusty old crop duster. If you use the vehicle’s stats, then it seems like your character’s own skill is irrelevant, which is equally unsatisfying. The best plane in the world shouldn’t be able to save a pilot who has no skill of their own.

The core problem is that both the PC’s skill level and the vehicle’s capabilities should affect a roll; giving them the same set of stats makes that nearly impossible. Combining the two ability levels would be unbalancing in most games, and there simply aren’t many other options. Some systems that use an attribute + skill system will try to split the difference, plugging in the character’s ability for one half of the equation and the vehicle’s ability for the other, but that still doesn’t work. It just feels like both character and vehicle are having half of their ability discounted.

More philosophically, giving vehicles the same stats as a character will never work because the two have fundamentally different roles in an RPG. Characters are the movers and shakers of the narrative, especially player-characters. Vehicles, no matter how complicated, are still pieces of equipment.* Confusing that distinction just causes problems, which is why we never do it for any other type of equipment. Imagine if a sword substituted for its wielder’s strength score. No player would stand for it!

If a system needs in-depth mechanics for vehicles, those mechanics should be focused on how the vehicle changes what a character can do and how they do it. Spycraft is a good example. In that game, a customized car never substitutes for a character’s drive skill except to represent some form of automation. Instead, add-ons like rotating license plates make the car harder to track, and a concealed rocket launcher gives it extra firepower. If a system’s core rules aren’t robust enough to support these options, then in-depth vehicle mechanics simply aren’t a good fit.

4. Exclusionary Content

Two samurai dueling from Legend of the Five Rings
In Legend of the Five Rings, dueling uses different skills and stats than regular combat, making it very difficult to be good at both.

Whenever you sit down to play an RPG, you’re confronted by a list of skills, attributes, and special abilities that outline what sorts of things PCs are expected to do in this game. Games about modern witchcraft tend to have a lot of research and occult skills, while high fantasy systems focus on sword fighting and courtly etiquette. The presented options aren’t always equally useful, but designers do their best.

This all works fine until you encounter some part of the game that requires a very specific skill, attribute, ability, or combination thereof. If you didn’t purchase the required option, tough, you are incapable of doing anything. This is exclusionary content, and the more there is of it, the bigger the problem.

Exclusionary content can manifest in a number of ways, but computer worlds are the most common example I’ve encountered. These are virtual realities that exist entirely within a digital space, whether it’s the Matrix from Shadowrun* or the Digital Web from Mage: The Ascension. In these computer worlds, normal skills and abilities aren’t important. Instead, the computer skill is king, and those with high ranks in it are gods among mortals.

Meanwhile, anyone who didn’t take the computer skill lags behind at best or is completely helpless at worst. You also see this type of dynamic at work in systems that have specialized forms of combat where normal skills are useless or in-depth resource management mechanics that only use the logistics skill.

No matter what form it takes, exclusionary content always has the same problem: players don’t like feeling helpless or underpowered, so they tend to avoid any content they aren’t equipped to handle. This means they either miss out on important aspect of the game or have to wait around while characters who do have the requisite abilities enjoy themselves. If the GM tries to force PCs into content they’re trying to avoid, it’s even worse. Instead of boredom, you get anger and resentment.

If something is going to be an important, time-consuming part of your game, all PCs should be able to engage with it. Requiring a specific ability or build makes the content exclusionary. If you can’t figure out how to make the computer world or formal dueling open to the entire group, then it should be resolved with a single roll. For instance, you’d have a PC roll Animal Handling to teach their dog a new trick instead of turning it into an extended training conflict.

5. Sudden Character Death

A group of characters on an alternate cover for Tenra Bansho Zero.
In Tenra Bansho Zero, your character can suddenly become unplayable between scenes because you didn’t manage your meta currency properly.

This week you’re playing a game about mage politics. PCs spend most of their time casting spells and plotting schemes. But between political adventures, they put a pause on all that for a special rest phase where the characters talk about their feelings and take stock of how much stress all that magic has put on their bodies. Oh, and if it turns out that the stress is more than a certain amount, your character dies and you have to make a new one.

That’s a sudden death mechanic, and it’s exactly as un-fun as it sounds. Sudden-death mechanics come in all shapes and sizes, but they all have one thing in common: a character can become unplayable based on random dice rolls, with little or no input from the player. This usually means the character is dead, but not exclusively. The character might be locked away in jail or trapped in an endlessly repeating time loop, as long as it makes them impossible to play.

In a lot of RPGs, combat is a form of sudden-death mechanic, if a less severe one. A D&D player whose character is killed by an unexpected critical hit probably didn’t have any agency in that event; they were just playing the game like they’re supposed to and without warning they needed to roll up a new character. On the bright side, most combat systems have options players can use to make sudden death less likely, but the risk is still there.

Players hate it when their characters die, and the less input they have, the angrier they get. It feels like they’re being punished for playing the game the way they were told to. This is bad enough when a character dies from random rolls in combat. It’s far worse if the sudden death comes from failing to manage resources properly or as the result of roleplaying choices the player made two sessions ago.

These deaths aren’t part of a fair contest; they’re the result of arbitrary systems that depend on a GM to apply them properly, something that can go wrong even if the GM is doing their best and the rules are well designed. Any possible benefit of sudden-death systems is outweighed by the damage they do to everyone’s enjoyment when a character actually dies.

In most cases, sudden-death mechanics can be replaced by options that cause a major consequence to the character rather than making them unplayable. In adventure games, running out of physical health can result in capture or lost gear rather than death. In horror games, running out of mental health might require a character to change one of their core traits rather than forcing them to retire permanently.

If death is going to be on the table, it should be something players opt into. For example, in Tenra Bansho Zero, it’s impossible for characters to die unless the player chooses to fill in the last box on their damage track. This gives the character bonus dice, but also renders them vulnerable to death. This option isn’t perfect, as some players will opt to risk death and then regret it, but at least the choice was theirs.

6. Adversarial Player–GM Relationships

An armored soldier with a young child on their back from Burning Empires.
In Burning Empires, the GM is supposedly trying to defeat the players, something the GM could do at any time with little effort.

Literally everyone who gives GMing advice online has to spend at least some of their time repeating that RPGs are not a contest between player and game master. Roleplaying is a cooperative endeavor, we explain, where the whole group works together to have fun, whether that fun is to be had in triumphing over dragons in a dungeon or in deep narratives about politics on the moon.

We’ve been pretty successful in getting this message across, until some new system comes out and explicitly claims that, in fact, it is a competition. None of this wishy-washy cooperation, the system expounds, it’s time to earn your victory fair and square. So far as I can tell, designers do this because they think it’ll be more satisfying if players win despite the GM’s best efforts rather than having their triumph be prearranged during a planning session.

There’s just one problem with this idea: it doesn’t work. If a GM actually played these games like they were trying to win, they’d wipe the players out in the first session. No system I’ve ever looked at has actually put enough limits on the GM’s authority to make the contest fair, and that’s not just coincidence. There’s simply no way to give the GM enough authority to craft a story while also limiting their authority enough to level the playing field. It’s like designing a vehicle that travels 60 mph but can’t outrun a human on foot.

If an RPG designer does manage to restrict the GM’s powers enough to create a fair contest with the players, then they’re no longer making an RPG; they’re making an asymmetrical board game. That’s not a bad thing! Asymmetrical board games can be a lot of fun, and some of them, like Descent and Omega Protocol, even mimic the structure of classic dungeon crawls. But they are not RPGs, and they will not provide the same experience.

In a competitive board game, players are trying to win. Any concerns about narrative, or even that everyone is enjoying themselves, are secondary at best. RPGs, on the other hand, are all about narrative, and it’s the GM’s job to help every player have fun.* Trying to make an RPG do what board games do better just produces a bad experience for everyone.

Two options exist for designers who have ideas for competitive RPGs but don’t want to sabotage their game. First, they can simply design a board game instead. The world can always use more good board games. Alternatively, they can channel their energy into rules that are robustly structured rather than competitive. These are systems like Torchbearer and Blades in the Dark. Their rules support the GM by telling them how to manage complex situations, like keeping track of supplies in a dungeon or building a criminal organization from the ground up. The world can always use more systems like these too.

Sometimes I get discouraged at how many bad mechanics are still common in RPGs. It seems like designers just keep making the same mistakes over and over again. Will they never learn? But then I remember this particular medium is less than fifty years old, and it’s still going through growing pains. With roleplaying reaching an ever-wider audience and more talented designers launching their own projects every day, I’m confident we can give these terrible rules the boot they so richly need.

Treat your friends to an evening of ritual murder – in a fictional RPG scenario, of course. Uncover your lost memories and escape a supernatural menace in our one-shot adventure, The Voyage.

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