Some of the worst design choices in RPG history

I’ve been talking with some people on the Giant in the Playground Forum for the last week about design choices in RPGs that ended up causing a lot of trouble in the long run. Simply making and adding a bad rule to a game is one thing, that happens all the time, even to the best game designers that are out there. But sometimes there are ideas that turn out to be not simply bad or not working, but have actually been sources of lots of problems for years to come.

Obviously, a lot of it is personal oppinion, especially when it comes to ranking them in order. But I think with these examples here, few people would dispute that they did end up causing a lot of trouble, regardless of whether the original idea was actually terrible or not:

11: Magic solves everything (Dungeons & Dragons, Pathfinder): Ranked very low because it only affects one game and it’s spin-offs, but it’s a pretty big problem in those. the magic system of the 3rd edition of D&D is quite similar to the one in earlier editions, but with several important differences. The time it takes to cast a spell is generally lower, spellcasters have a very easy time in getting out of reach of any enemies (see grid combat), and even when they get hit, they have a good chance to successfully cast their spell anyway. Then you got spells that can instantly kill if the target fails a single saving throw, but in 3rd edition the chance to fail a saving throw is much higher than it was in earlier editions. Oh yes, and generally, spellcasters get a lot more spells they can cast every day. That already makes magic extremely powerful, but perhaps even worse is that there are really no limitations for what a magic spell can do. Given that the game has over 700 prestige classes and 1000 feats (and that’s just the official ones published by WotC), there are most likely thousands of spells out there, and they can do absolutely everything. And sometimes, some genius thinks it would be a great idea to make a spell that does something that normally requires a special ability from another class. Like opening a lock, detecting a trap, and so on. In the older editions of D&D that was less of a problem because spellcasters had really few spells and were expected to go a long time without recharging them. But 3rd edition not only has more spells per day, it also has the option to buy or make scrolls and wands for a pretty cheap price. Do you really want to have “knock” (opens locks) prepared two times each day even though you have so few slots to prepare spells and you might not even get to use them? Probably not, so why not buy a magic wand that allows you to cast knock 50 times, any time you need it. All this combined just completely broke the whole game.10: Flaws: Not a huge deal but still a widespread source of trouble. Flaws can be great. My favorite game Atlantis has Disadvantages and I think they are one of the best elements of the game. But what I am talking about here is supposed “Flaws” that really just give you a small penalty to a specific type of dice roll in return for being allowed to pick an additional ability you want. So your character has really low Charisma and you won’t put any points in the Diplomacy skill? Then why not take a flaw that gets you -2 to Diplomacy checks so you can instead get yourself another ability that increases your Reflex throws by one or adds a +3 bonus to Climb checks? These are not flaws. These are just a way to dump abilities you already dumped even more. When there is no actual disadvantage, a character shouldn’t get any benefits as “compensation” either.

9: Initiative Counts: This is more a minor annoyance, but once that is very widespread and the games that suffer from it are affected by it the entire time you play them. I am specifically thinking of the system which starts every fight by having every combatant roll a d20 and add his Dexterity modifier or something like that, then everyone takes a turn from highest initiative count to lowest. Once the last character has taken his turn, you go back to the top and work your way down again. This seems a pretty neat way to handle turn taking, right? Well in practice it causes all kinds of trouble and annoyance. First thing is the amount of work for the GM. Every player tells you his initiative count and you write them down. Then you roll initative for the enemies and write them down. Then you have to put them into the correct order. That already takes a minute or two in which you’re sorting through numbers, right at the highly dramatic point where combat breaks out. Not so good. Then every time someone has completed his turn, you have to find your list again and find the combatant who just finished and see who is below him. It doesn’t take a lot of time to do it once, but over an entire campaign, it adds up. But perhaps the biggest problem is that it very often results in players not paying attention. The players know that only one of them is doing something right now and their turn won’t come up for another couple of minutes, so they do all kinds of distracting things and talk with each other, and then get cought completely by surprise when the GM shouts at them that its their turn. And then they start to take a look what has happened in the fight since their last turn. Especially when you play with miniatures on a grid! That takes time, in which one player is staring and thinking, during which the other players go and distract themselves with other things. My personal preference is to have all the players take their turn together (they have to agree among themselves who goes first) and then all the enemies, but there are many possible ways how to handle initative. But I think the “standard” initative count system is one of the worst. The Angry DM wrote a piece about this which is very good (aren’t all of his?), and even if you don’t want to use the system he is using, it’s still a good read to understand the problem with this system here.

8: Slot-based magic system (Dungeons & Dragons): It’s commonly called Vancian magic, but that would be very unfair to Jack Vance, who was in no way responsible for this one and created a magic system for some of his novels which is actually quite different, as several people have told me. I really don’t have to say a lot about this, but I really, really don’t like this one bit. It just doesn’t make any sense and feels completely arbitrary and disassociated. (Yes, I know it’s a buzzword, but actually an important thing to understand.) It made some sense when it was first introduced for the very early versions of dungeons and dragons, which were more tactical combat games about managing resources than what we now understand as “roleplaying games”. But RPGs, including D&D, have evolved a very long way from that since then, and this spell slot system just doesn’t make any sense anymore. It really should have been dumped by AD&D, or by 3rd edition at the very latest, but here we are, still draging this clunky weight around with us. Well, or D&D and Pathfinder do. It’s one of the reasons I really don’t want to go back to them now that I made the effort to really learn how some other fantasy RPGs are working.

7: Funky Dice (Fudge, The One Ring, anything by Fantasy Flight Games): I think it started with Fudge, but the idea might go back further than that. Games that are build about a base mechanic that requires special dice with special numbers and symbols. First it doesn’t sound so bad, and I think in many cases the game actually works well. But having to hunt for your dice when you’re playing a game can be quite an annoyance and it’s really nice if all players have their own set of dice. But buying a new set of dice for any other new game you are trying out? The problem is not that funky dice exist, it’s that they appear to have become so common, especially in recent years. For me, it’s always one of the reasons that enter the equation when I consider getting a game or not. If it has funky dice, it really needs to have some very good advantages to compensate for that annoyance. One that is frankly not necessary.

6: Prerequisites (Dungeons & Dragons/d20): Personally I think there are a lot of things wrong with the d20 system, but most of them are personal taste. What I consider to be an objectively terrible design choice is the implemention of prerequisites for feats and prestige classes. In a way, requiring that a character is qualified to actually use a special ability before he can learn it makes sense and seems like a good idea. But the d20 system just went completely overboard and added lots of prerequisites that were not only excessive, but often completely arbitrary. Sometimes the feats you need before you can learn another feat are really bad, or they don’t seem to be connected at all. To be better to push someone into a wall you first have to learn how to do really powerful but poorly aimed strikes with your weapon? And to make someone trip you first have to learn how to be really good at parrying? It just doesn’t make any sense and feats are something that is pretty limited for most characters to begin with. The result is that you can’t just play the character you want who uses a certain fighting style, but you have to wait until 7th or 10th level or even later before your character can actually do “his thing”. This only encourages players to plan their entire character advance before the game even starts and prevents players from developing their characters organically based on what kind of things they actually end up doing the most during the campaign. And that most prerequisites are for combat feats, but spellcasters have no prerequisites to learn new spells also doesn’t help the game a bit.

5: Virtual Reality Hacking (Shadowrun and others): I don’t know which game exactly did it first, but it has become a kind of staple of sci-fi games. One character, and there usually is really just one because it’s such a highly specialized skill, goes into a virtual world were he tries to hack something by having his own little adventure. And in the meantime, all the other players in the group really can’t do anything while they wait for that one player to finish his thing. It’s a nice idea and works well in fiction, but for a roleplaying game it just doesn’t work. When hacking works by a completely different system of rules than regular combat, it only makes things worse because it’s so rarely used that few people can remember how it works, which slows down things only more. It’s not just hacking computers, though. Some games, including again Shadowrun if I am not mistaken, let shaman characters go on journeys into the spiritworld, which again has all the same problems. Bonus points for bad game design if you have both things in your game and they both have completely different rules.

4: Storyteller (World of Darkness): Such a tiny and innocent detail, but yet so utterly and terribly wrong. It is simply the word “Storyteller”. It creates all the wrong associations and expectations you could have when thinking about what a Gamemaster does and how good gamemastering works. A storyteller is the complete opposite of a gamemaster. The gamemasters job is to set the stage for the players and present them with obstacles for which they have to find solutions. But calling the gamemasters job “Storyteller” makes it sound as if he is supposed to create a full story and then tell the story to the audience. And that’s just completely and utterly wrong. The players are not the actors in the gamemasters play, they are the people who make the descisions and play the game.

3: Air Breathing Mermaids (d20 and many others): No, this time I am not actually talking about any mermaids. It’s an example someone has made up, in which your Mermaid RPG Second Edition introduces the new special ability “air breathing”, which allows your mermaid character to breath air. The first edition never said anything about this and it was simply asumed that mermaids could stay above water without suffocating, but it never really mattered anyway. The designers might think they now gave the players new options, but in fact they did the opposite. They took away options for all the players whose characters do not have this specific special ability. It doesn’t actually have to be new rules introduced in a new edition of an old game, but the problem is one that affects game design in general: If there is a special ability that enables players to do something, you make this special ability mandatory to do that thing. And is it really necessary to limit that thing to just only the characters with the special ability? Would it hurt the game if everyone could do it? Even if you introduce a special ability that gives a big bonus to something, it’s very easy for new players to get the impression that it’s not really worthwhile to try that thing unless you have this ability. I am thinking of the Improved Sunder and Improved Trip feats from d20 here, which give you a pretty significant +4 bonus when trying to break an enemies weapon or push him over. Though in fact all character can attempt these special attacks, I’ve never seen them done by characters that were not optimized for it. This problem actually goes back a very, very long way. It really started with one of the first addition to the first version of Dungeons & Dragons, which was adding the thief as a fourth character class to the game. The thief is a master at stealth and can sneak past guards with a much higher chance than the other characters. And versy quickly this lead to the unconscious idea “anyone but a thief shouldn’t even try”. Even though sneaking, lockpicking, and searching for traps was something that all character could be doing, now it was something that only one class was actually good it. Does this mean all games should be very rules light and have no character classes or special abilities? Of course, not. But it’s something really extremely important for all game designers to understand and constantly keep in mind when adding new things to a game. This is the real reason why rules bloat usually ends up being such a terrible thing for a game.

2: Alignment (Dungeons & Dragons): This one almost made my number one spot on the list. Not because it’s so extremely bad (it’s only very bad), but because it is so utterly annoying and completely pointless. In Dungeons & Dragons, a character can be either Good or Evil, and Lawful or Chaotic, or Neutral on either or both scales. The big problem is that it was never really made clear what these terms mean. Lots of different writers of D&D rulebooks have tried to, but they are always contradicting each other and there really is no consensus at all about which of the dozens of interpretations is correct. So for 40 years, we’ve been having endless arguments about whether a certain action would be Evil, or if a Chaotic character would to a certain thing or not. This is by far the most prolific creator of arguments anywhere in RPGs, and possibly the biggest source of fighting in any fandom ever, simply by the fact of having been around for so long. But still there are plenty of people who think it’s worthwhile to argue about it and sit down to find the real truth of how it actually works. But the very worst thing about alignment is, that it is completely pointless. It really doesn’t have any purpose. There isn’t anything to be gained from having alignment as part of the game. The only effect it has on roleplaying is to actually nudge players into playing according to one of nine poorly thought out categories instead of just playing a character with a rich and powerful personalty. It works wonderful in all other games that exist. Why does this thing still exist in D&D?

1: XP for defeating enemies (Dungeons & Dragons and others): Yes, this may sound like a very strange choice, and I can imagine lots of people objecting to it. But I really think that this was a very bad descsion with an unimaginably huge impact on roleplaying games ever since. When you first hear about it, it really seems to make a lot of sense. Characters who have a lot of combat experience are better at fighting and winning more fights in the future. Their bodies get trained and they improve their reflexes and accuracy. You don’t do these things by delivering a scroll or holding a speech. But when you start to look a bit closer, it starts to not really work that way either. How does fighting with your sword improve your skill as a negotiator and why does the casting of spells in battle increase your physical endurance? If your character has stats for anything but fighting, advancing character stats depending on how much you fight doesn’t really hold up. It’s an arbitrary abstraction, just like any other system that tracks character advancement. And when you acknowledge the fact that character advancement is abstract and somewhat arbitrary, then awarding experience points purely based on the strength and number of defeated enemies really isn’t such a good system. When you play videogames, you surely have come across the situation that you’re actually done with whatever it is you came to do, but still go over to that group of enemies over there because you want the XP you get for killing them. In a videogame that’s not so bad, but in an pen and paper game, this is the path that leads to the dark side. XP are always a reward, and one players will almost never decline to take. By chosing what kinds of actions are rewarded with XP, you are steering the players to certain kinds of behavior. If the main source of XP is killing enemies, then killing enemies becomes the main priority of the game. Which is not always good. Assume the PCs are sneaking around and there’s an enemy patrol coming close. Stay in the shadows and let them pass by, or quitly kill them from behind? One action gets XP, the other doesn’t. One is strongly preferable to the other. And that leads to all kinds of unfortunate implications. Players start to think of every enemy as something that should be killed. The GM rewards them for killing, so they are obviously expected to kill everything. The idea that guards might be people who may not actually be evil and need killing gets slowly and quietly pushed into the background until it’s no longer even considered. And even worse, once the players have picked up the mindset that the GM expects them to kill everything, they also asume that everything they encounter is only so strong that they are capable to kill it. After all, why would the GM put a monster there if they don’t fight and kill it? Usually it won’t get quite as bad as this, but it’s still a subconscious assumption in the back of everyones mind and a real obstacle to complex roleplaying. And I think most players really want to engage in complex roleplaying with interesting stories, but it’s just so easy to keep following the Hack & Slash track. And it’s not even that XP for defeated enemies has been the default way to do if from the start. In early D&D, XP were awarded for the amount of treasure you find and can get to town. In AD&D 1st edition, characters got XP both for defeating enemies and recovering treasure. The first time I heard that I thought it sounds stupid and was glad they no longer do that anymore. How does collecting treasure make you better at fighting? And after all, you already get rewarded for finding treasure by getting money to buy better equipment. Why reward the players twice? But as I already said earlier, XP as a measure for combat training doesn’t really work to begin with, it’s always a very broad abstraction. And awarding XP for treasure seems much more conductive to encourage roleplaying and noncombat solutions than XP for fighting. When the player characters encounter a monster and the monster has a treasure, the players have not only the two options “attack and take loot” and “don’t attack and leave loot”, but also the third option “get loot without defeating the monster”. Which can be by far the most interesting one. It also ends the assumption that the monster is in the adventure because the GM wants the players to kill it. Which leads to the consequence that not every monster the players encounter will actually be easy to defeat in a fight. Now suddenly the players have to judge if a fight can be won and if it would be worth it. They might decide to start a fight but then chose to flee when it turns out to be much harder than anticipated. And already a game of simple dungeon crawling has become so much richer. The choice how to reward players with exerience to advance their characters should really depend primarily on what kind of behavior you want to encourage from the players. My favorite game Atlantis is a Sword & Sorcery game, which is a genre in which the Heroes pull of a lot of stunts, but also get terribly beaten up at times. In this genre you want the players to attempt very daring things and either pull it of heroicly or fail in a very dramatic way. So as a result, Atlantis awards experience for attempting very difficult skill actions. And it even rewards the players if they fail. You don’t get quite as much experience for failing the biggest stunts as for actually pulling them off, but for players it’s very powerful incentive. You have an idea, think about it for a second, but actually the chances to make it work are very slim. So should you even bother trying or just accept that you failed this scene? That nice little experience reward heres says “Yes, you should!”

Dishonorable Mentions

These are more things I personally consider really bad ideas that became a major nuisance, but don’t really count as design mistakes. They are just unfortunate assumptions about games that took on a life of their own:

GNS Theory: GNS is supposedly a “theory” about roleplaying games that explains… well, nobody is really sure what. Or what it should be used for, and how it applies to anything. Which doesn’t stop people from using its categories of RPGs in online forums to argue… well, something. It’s really a piece of random trivia with no apparent purpose, but people still keep using it like it’s some kind of science, which can get really annoying.

Class Tiers: Class Tiers are an idea that started when someone took a look at the character classes in D&D 3rd edition and sorted them into different groups depending on how versatile they are, ranging from Tier 1 (can do pretty much everything) to Tier 5 (can’t even do the one thing it’s supposed to be best at). That was a valid thing to do and I generally agree with the categories and what classes have been assigned to them. But it was merely an observation, nothing more. But somehow this thing got a life of its own and now you can see people asking in forums about what Tier a class they are interested in would be, because they don’t want to ruin their character. Roleplaying considerations get completely ignored in favor of mechanical optimization. A huge annoyance to me.

Miniatures/Grid Combat: I also don’t give this one a number because I guess it’s really a matter of preference. But I think using miniatures on a grid map for combat in RPGs really was a step in the wrong direction. Instead of helping to visualize the general positions of each character in a fight, it turns the game into a logic puzzle. Having a grid allows the game to add more small rules and modifiers for additional accuracy and supposed “realism”, but it really gets out of hand very quickly and gets in the way of thinking of the game as a story and visualizing the environments of the scenes.

4 thoughts on “Some of the worst design choices in RPG history”

  1. I think you need to read some many lots of games if you think nobody is really sure how the GNS Theory applies to games. As a theory, it’s not so useful anymore, but it’s behind many of the great games of this and the past decade, including Burning Wheel, Dungeon World, and many, many others.

    That it isn’t so useful to us now doesn’t make a theory “some of the worst design choices in history”, quite the opposite, I think it was one of the best as it allowed to leave behind many misconceptions about how do rpgs work and how should we design them.

  2. It sounds like you are not familiar with 5e D&D which goes a long way to solving some of these “problems”.

    1. I have indeed never read the 5th edition rules, but I think that is actually of little relevance to the points I wanted to make here. Yes, almost all problems with certain games can be fixed, just as there are always lots of other games you could play instead, which don’t suffer from a specific problem you particularly dislike. But it remains that those design descisions had been made and did have problematic repercussions that still continue to affect all the people who keep playing the games instead of abandoning them for others. And once an idea is released to the public and has established itself in peoples minds about how certain things in RPGs are “normally” done, it’s close to impossible to make them disappear again.

    2. D&D 5e still very much suffers from 1, 2, 8, 9 & 11. (11? not 10? Whatever, not my article.)

      It will likely suffer from 3 and 6, as well, if enough additional material ever gets published for it.

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