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. Continue reading “Some of the worst design choices in RPG history”

Why the right name and cover for a game is vital

I believe I’ve found what is possibly the worst name and book cover for an RPG I’ve ever come across.

Atlantis: The Second Age (First Edition)

Doesn’t look so terrible? You probably think you’ve seen far uglier things before. But this isn’t about beauty, but appropriateness. The game is called Atlantis: The Second Age. What does that make think you off? A utopian society from the Golden Age of Greek mythology where people were enlightened and lived in pleasure and luxury? And look at the cover art. This women decked out in jewelry and in the background a map of a precisely geometrically constructed city with parks and palaces.

But why is this so terrible? Think about the assumptions you make what this game is like and how it plays? It certainly does not say action-packed Sword & Sorcery based entirely around mechanics that encourage and reward the players for outragous stunts and hot-blodded carnage, where your characters grow in power based on the awesomeness of their heroic deeds. A world where you can play as a hyper-intelligent gorilla with guns? But that’s what you actually get once you make it behind this cover and take a look at what’s inside.

Atlantis: The Second Age (Second Edition)

The recently released second edition still carries over the legacy of this unfortunately boring name, but look at the cover! This is awesome! So much more better than the first edition that was the incarnation of boring. This one captures perfectly what this game is all about. Being a total badass slaying legendary monsters and adding their feared reputation to your own glory.

I quite like Barbarians of Lemuria as a lightweight Sword & Sorcery game. And while Atlantis is significantly rules heavier (though still quite moderate), there is so much more flavor and incentive to actually play an over the top Sword & Sorcery hero.

And let my say it again: Hyper-intelligent gorillas. With guns!

Humans with pointy ears

In Goethe’s probably most famous and classic play Faust, the honest and properly raised Gretchen falls in love with the dashing and intelligent Doctor Faust, but has some concerns about his pursues of alchemy and astrology and the highly suspicious companion he spends much of his time with. Despite all the trust she places in him, she eventually can no longer dismiss her worries and confronts him for the moment of truth: “How is’t with your religion?”

When it comes to fantasy these days, both literature and games, one of the big Gretchen-Questions appears to be “What do you think about nonhuman characters in fantasy?” No matter how you reply, there will always be lots of people all too happy to tell you why you should reconsider your stance. Some think it’s always a bad idea while others really don’t want to have anything to do with works that limit themselves entirely to humans. When it comes to Sword & Sorcery, a lot of people seem to be especially vehemently entrenched in their oppinion that it can’t really be even considered Sword & Sorcery when there are characters who are not humans in it.

One comment I see very often that appears to go for a middle ground is “I am not entirely against nonhuman characters, but they must be more than humans with pointy ears.” They have to be distinctly nonhuman in their nature and behavior or they could just have been humans in the first place. When you see a comment like that, you usually also see a great number of people who can totally get behind that and very much agree with it. But when you look at actual works of fantasy fiction, how often do you really see nonhuman characters that truely think and act completely different than humans do. Dark Sun had the Thri-kreen, a race of large and intelligent insects; Eberron the Warforged, a mass produced type of golem with human proportions build for warfare; and in sci-fi I could think of the Geth, a collective of trillions of programms that group together into artificial intelligences that control all kinds of robot bodies as fits their current needs. But these are a few exceptions out of hundreds and possibly even thousands of fictional types of people that have been made up in the last 100 years, who pretty much all very much fit the mold of “humans with pointy ears” (or horns, green skin, four eyes, or whatever).

Continue reading “Humans with pointy ears”

Psions, sorcerers, and redundancy in D&D 3rd Edition

I’ve just been thinking about psionics in AD&D and in particular how you could run a Dark Sun campaign without having to bother with the psionic rules and instead use something like 3rd edition sorcerers with limited spell lists.

And I think I know see why psionics always seemed redundant, as someone starting with 3rd edition. In AD&D, magic is something that is always learned. All you need is to meet the ability score requirements and you can learn arcane and divine magic. There was no such thing as being born with magic power or having a special natural talent that opens the path for magic training to you.

And that was the point of psionics. Psionics is a type of magic that can not be taught, but is something you are born with. A psion was simply a person who spend all his training on improving and expanding the powers he was born with, at the cost of forgoing the training of any other skills other character classes get.

And that’s exactly the same thing that sorcerers do. 3rd edition said that characters do have the option of being born with magic powers. But instead of bothering with an alternative list of abilities and mechanics, sorcerers simply use the same spells that wizards do.
But when they later added psionics to the game, that created a redundancy. Sorcerers and psions have the same fluff. They fill the same role only with different mechanics.

And that’s why you sometimes see people making such a big deal about psionics being not magic and being completely different because the power comes from within. In 3rd edition, that’s the same thing as sorcerers, but in AD&D, it was indeed a big difference. Magic was always something you learned about altering the world around you, never something you had naturally within you.

It also explains why the 3rd edition Monster Manual has creatures with psionics, which work 100% like spell-like abilities. In AD&D, aboleths and yuan-ti were getting their powers from the list of psion powers, not from the spell-lists of wizards and clerics.Apparently some writer wanted to keep calling it psionics, even though they were now spell-like abilities in everything but name.

So now I think that when you use psionics in a 3rd edition or Pathfinder game, that campaign should not include sorcerers. Other classes like bards or beguilers can stay, their spells seem to have always been considered learned instead of inborn (except for dragon disciples, but those are their own can of worms.)

XP for treasure

One oddity of AD&D 1st edition that had always seemed nonsensical to me, is to give characters XP not only for defeated monsters, but also for the value of treasures they bring back with them into town. Why do that? Picking up stuff that is lying around does not make you better at fighting or casting spells. And in those games I’ve been playing the most, treasure is there to be sold so you can buy better equipment and magic items. But in campaigns of a more oldschool leaning, there frequently are no more things for sale, which you don’t already have by 2nd level. So why bother with treasure at all?

Very often, and probably most of the cases, defeating an enemy also gets you treasure. But you can also defeat an enemy and not getting any treasure (because he doesn’t have any). And you can get treasure without defeating an enemy!

That’s what makes XP for treasure relevant. Sometimes an enemy can’t be fought, or the risk is regarded as just way too high. But if you can find a way to get his treasure while avoiding him entirely, you still created a clever solution to a problem. Which is rewarded with XP. Even in a game where money has no practical use, treasure still serves as a measure of your accomplishments. When you return to town, the treasure you bring back with you is your proof for your deeds.

You can’t make the player feel the comforts the money of the PC can buy him. And it’s extremely difficult to really play out the benefits of good clothing and a fancy house. To the character, being rich has great value and benefits. And when the chracter sees a golden idol, it is luring him with expensive wine and crocodile skin boots. But since comfort does not carry over to the player, XP can serve as a substitute lure. Instead of dollar signs in the players eyes, it’s saying “XP”. What matters is the emotional response.

When the GM describes a golden idol with ruby eyes on a pedestal, the player should think “I really, really want this. I hope there’s a way to get it without getting killed.” In other games like D&D 3rd edition and later ones, the player will want to have it because it can be traded in for magic boots or enchanted armor. So there is no need to add the additional lure of XP.

My impression of D&D 5th Edition

I went over it once and as a longtime 3rd edition player and GM, I can say with confidence that 5th edition is 3rd editions with many of the small modfiers of combat removed.

My biggest complaint with 3rd edition was the wide gap of attack bonuses and saving throws over the levels, and this aspect has been adressed.
However, a very close second is it’s reliance on new class abilities at every level, which now in retrospective is a much more significant problem and antithesis to the oldschool style of playing RPGs. And in this regard Wizards remains true to itself and makes this the centerpiece of the game. Problems are solved by searching for the right special ability on the character sheet. And with this the whole business is completed. I don’t have any interest in running this game.

There are a few good ideas here and there, which should have been there 14 years ago, but it doesn’t affect the main structural problem I mentioned. I’ll probably keep an eye out for campaign sourcebooks, as in this regard 3rd edition did have a couple of gems. But the rules system is of no concern to me.