What’s Wrong with Tabletop RPGs

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I love tabletop roleplaying games. They are, in some ways, the perfect game. That being said, they certainly aren’t without their flaws. I’ve been working on a tabletop RPG system, and one of the things any creator needs to ask is “what’s wrong with what’s already there?” and “how can I make it better?” Here, then, is a list of the things wrong with tabletop roleplaying games.

Edit: Of course not all of these things are true of all systems. Many games have offered solutions to these problems, and some of them succeeded. But the below problems are true of most of the currently popular systems, especially the ones in the traditional mold.

  1. Character creation is too complicated.

    If I am starting up a campaign, the first session will always be the “character creation” session. Let’s say I want to have a weekly, four-hour session for the campaign. That entire first session will likely be taken up with people creating characters, totaling up points, picking classes or feats, working out the mathematical complexity of the skill system… it’s often a titanic endeavor. With four to six players, you’re lucky if you’ll get any actual play time done the first session, which means that by the time the campaign’s been running a week, it hasn’t even begun. And forget about doing a short one-shot session without pre-creating characters.

    Beyond that, the sheer complexity of creation systems is a problem. The Hero system requires a system of fractions for modifiers to its advantages, which must be applied in the proper order. GURPS has a psuedo-logarithmic table of costs for its skills that depend on the category of the skill (mental or physical), its difficulty (“easy” through “very hard”), and the associated base attribute (usually IQ or Dexterity, but sometimes Health).

  2. Rolling dice isn’t fun.

    To be more specific, the way it’s typically done isn’t engaging, and the out-of-character feeling of rolling doesn’t match the in-character results. In most systems, a failure and a success are virtually identical experiences for the player: roll dice, compare result. The only feeling of victory is discovering a high number. Add to that the concept of critical failure, where the player is effectively punished for trying to do something, and you’ve got a mixed-up system. At least Dungeons & Dragons Fourth Edition made its critical successes automatic; in 3.5, if you roll a 20 you need to “confirm the critical,” which causes an instant of elation at the initial roll followed by disappointment when the crit doesn’t happen. The player should never be disappointed by rolling the best possible value.

    A good dice-rolling mechanic should be quick and simple. It should have a limit to the dice pool, to avoid the inevitable immersion-destroying moments of scrabbling around for two more dice for an epic pool that should be exciting. Exceptionally good rolls should feel fun somehow, and should never cause disappointment. I’ve previously discussed my plans for a solution.

  3. Combat is slow and complicated, yet somehow still lacks strategy.

    D&D 4e is the best-of-class in this area. The developers manage to create a fast-moving battle system with opportunities for true tactics and teamwork. Unfortunately, they do so by essentially embedding a miniatures wargame into a roleplaying game, to the detriment of anything in the system other than battle. Other battle systems are either painfully slow and boring to play, or so simple that they boil down to rolling dice at each other repeatedly until someone runs out of hit points. A good battle system should move quickly and be simple, but still allow for tactics and customization of characters’ battle approaches.

    Initiative is also broken in most systems. A big deal is made over initiative, and there is indeed an advantage to whoever goes first… during the first round. If that round decides the battle, then initiative is important, but afterward, play just cycles through the initiative order, and there’s no advantage to being first rather than last. Re-rolling initiative each round doesn’t help; it slows down gameplay and still doesn’t manage to be significant enough. A good initiative system would make it matter each round whether you rolled a high or a low initiative, without slowing down play significantly.

  4. Settings are limiting.

    Most roleplaying systems, from D&D to Shadowrun, pair a rules system with a game setting. This is nice, because it allows the rules to be customized to the unique requirements of the setting. However, it restricts the usefulness of the system. If I really like the rules of Shadowrun, but I want to run a present-day military-themed campaign, I either need to take time to adapt the system or hope that FASA or Catalyst or whoever controls the game now has released a game in that setting with the same rules. This problem, fortunately, was solved long ago by the introduction of generic systems like GURPS that support a wide range of settings, with small rules modules that can be added on to the basic rules to customize it for a certain setting’s requirements.

I’m putting the finishing touches on LORE, the Lightweight Omnipotent Roleplaying Engine, which I hope will successfully address all these issues. Look for it sometime before the end of the month.

20 thoughts on “What’s Wrong with Tabletop RPGs

  1. Three questions:
    1) Will you be coming to GenCon or Origins this year?
    2) If so will you be running anything in LORE?
    3) If so will you let me dibs a spot?

  2. Does LORE count as your May game?

    Also, I’d be interested to know what you think of Burning Wheel.

    1. LORE will be my May game, combined with a setting-and-rules module called Belief. It will be a beta release; I’ve done some playtesting, but not enough to justify calling it complete.

      I haven’t played Burning Wheel, but it looks interesting from the free previews. The basic dicerolling looks fine, although I question the use of obscure flavor-words like Obstacle, Shade, and Exponent in place of, say “target successes,” “difficulty,” and “skill rating.” The Duel of Wits seems like an amazing idea, but it’s really complicated (on first read).

  3. Character creation is too complicated

    A related issue is most RPGs (tabletop and digital) require players to make decisions without understanding their implications and then prohibit any significant changes (without creating a whole new character). Deciding your class is probably the most influential decision you’ll make in the game, yet if you haven’t played much or at all, it’s a pretty arbitrary decision. E.g. try to explain the differences between a 3rd Edition D&D Wizard vs. a Sorcerer to a new player.

    Even classless systems like Shadowrun make it very difficult to dramatically switch from one character concept to another.

    One of the things I like most about D&D 4E’s class system is how each class fits into a certain role. Being able to easily communication “If you want to be good at this, look at these three classes.”

    1. That’s definitely an issue from a gameplay and usability perspective. I’m enough of a simulationist when it comes to tabletop systems that my instinct is to say, “Yes, but in real life it’s difficult to change your character concept.” Being able to rearrange your character is good from a having-fun viewpoint, but not from a presenting-a-consistent-world viewpoint.

      I think the way I’d prefer to address that issue is through clear terminology, as you said, and through GM leniency. The choices the player makes should be clearly defined and described in natural language, and the GM should allow a player to change the details of her character if she discovers it’s not what she thought it was or wanted it to be.

  4. Have you checked out some of the other independently-produced RPGs like Primetime Adventures ( http://www.dog-eared-designs.com/games.html ) and The Shadow of Yesterday ( http://tsoy.crngames.com/ )? Both of them have been featured on Play This Thing. Sadly, the writeup for TSOY ignored the game feature I was most impressed by (Keys / experience) and instead focused on the setting.

    Keys in TSOY define how you earn experience. e.g. the Key of Bloodlust gives you XP for defeating other characters in combat, or the Key of the Conscience gives you XP for helping those in need. You buy them with XP, either your starting XP or the XP you’ve earned in play. You can also “buy off” a Key, which means that you do something drastically in opposition to the Key, you cross it off your character sheet, and you get enough XP to buy two more things (including a new Key if you want one). So Keys both define a character and spotlight how the character changes.

    I think TSOY hits all of your points. Character creation gives you a fair number of choices, but it’s nowhere near as complex as D&D. Rolls are reserved for important situations, and if a player doesn’t like the outcome, s/he can call for “Bringing Down the Pain”, a zoomed-in “combat” system. (It can be used for non-combat conflicts as well.) You can easily swap settings by coming up with different Keys, Secrets (basically feats), and skills.

    You can read all of TSOY on http://tsoy.crngames.com/ . There’s also a booklet about the Solar System, the underlying system of TSOY, available from http://www.arkenstonepublishing.net/solarsystem .

    Primetime Adventures also hits your points, in a slightly different way. It’s all about playing a TV show. You can come up with the show concept, create characters, and play through a single episode (session) in four hours. You draw cards instead of rolling dice (the first edition use die rolls) once per scene and only to resolve the most important conflict of the scene. There’s no subsystem for combat because combat isn’t what the game’s about. And setting is generated at the start of the game and on-the-fly as needed.

    1. I’ve looked a decent amount at a lot of the indie RPGs that come out of places like the Forge. I own a copy of My Life With Master, and I’m very impressed with it. Still, my own preferences tend toward more traditional, simulationist roleplaying games, rather than the narrativist, make-die-rolls-rare indie RPGs.

      The Keys system does sound really cool.

  5. 1. I think complexity in character creation is half the fun, as long as it’s meaningful complexity rather than just mathematical complexity. In my system, which is fairly similar to Fallout’s, you can create very unique characters through a combination of stats, skills and special character traits and eccentricities. It still usually takes a whole session to figure everything out, but it’s not frustrating.

    2. My system is based almost exclusively on d6s, and while I quite enjoy its flexibility, in late stages of campaigns players do tend to have ridiculous numbers of dice, which is annoying.

    3. Personally I prefer a flexible and simple combat system, in which the players can basically try to do anything. Want to kick your enemy’s foot? Roll for agility and/or martial arts. Want to throw something at them? Roll for strength and dexterity. And so on… there’s always some way of turning a player’s action into a roll.
    This is very dependent on the game master and his or her ability to describe the battle and the environment properly. It’s very important to see battles as parts of the story rather than just mathematical procedures. You never know what players will come up with, if you give them the material. It’s also quite important to make the environment as three-dimensional as possible, and to make it react to what’s happening. (Somebody shoots a fireball in a wooden building? Make it burn! Make the roof collapse!)
    We re-roll iniative every turn, and it does make a big difference. Maybe it’s because I’m pretty harsh when it comes to enemies – their level of power is based on the reality of the situation, not what the players can handle, so who gets to play first makes a huge difference. Plus, when combined with the players’ ability to do what they want, playing first may mean making the enemy lose their turn.

    1. I agree that meaningful complexity in character creation is fun. You want characters to be different from each other and to be personalized. But there’s just too many fiddly bits in character creation. Point-buy systems are hella flexible, but require keeping track of points, double-checking totals, figuring out where to spend those last few points… LORE won’t fix that entirely, but it should help streamline the process without too much loss of customizability.

      I totally agree with you on combat. Players should be able to do whatever they want. There does need to be a strong base to the system, though. For the majority of the rolls, players won’t be using the environment. They’ll be trying to hit the enemy. And you need solid, smooth mechanics for that, and they need to be well-defined.

      I don’t think you’re a bad person for re-rolling initiative each turn, but doing that has always been way too slow for me.

      1. Maybe the initiative thing doesn’t bother us because the combat is so fast. Or, as I said, because who gets to play first makes such a big difference that it can be quite exciting (and funny).

  6. There are some indie RPGs I’m sure you’re overlooking. Both Agon and Mouse Guard have quick and meaningful combats (Though Mouse Guard has the shortcoming of requiring a chart just to remind you of how your tactical decisions interact)

    Agon has just the right level of abstraction where maneuvering and initiative both actually matter. The character with the highest initiative can move a bit more than other characters, and each weapon has an optimal range with a kind of rock/paper/scissors mechanic so you’ll constantly be wanting to move out of range of your enemies (or moving enemies out of range of other players) and into your personal best range so that you can get the kill and all of the glory.

    Mouse Guard is an extremely stripped down/streamlined version of Burning Wheel, so the combat has a heritage with Miniatures RPGs, but positioning mechanics aren’t actually relevant and combat is centered on group cooperation and tactical decisions (There are only four things you or anything else can do each round and they each have unique interactions inbetween each other)

    As far as Character Creation taking too long, I really like how Spirit of the Century works (character creation works as a group, with each character ‘guest-starring’ in two other character’s pulp novels). It’s actually fun and takes advantage of the trend that character creation takes a session to happen.

    1. I’m sure I’m overlooking plenty of systems. I have only limited experience of indie RPGs, and they tend to go more against the grain than “mainstream” RPGs. I’m not saying every one of these criticisms is true of every system. But most of them are true of most systems.

      I’ll have to check out Agon and Spirit of the Century. Agon does sound a bit more complex than I tend to look for in a combat system, though. And I do approve of systems which make character creation interesting even though it takes so long. I just decided to try going the other way, and streamlining character creation. I’m not sure if I’ve been successful; further playtesting will decide.

      1. Spirit of the Century (as well as Fate, the system it’s based on) is available online under the Open Gaming License: http://www.faterpg.com/ , so you can check out the rules. SotC/Fate can be played in a fairly “traditional” way if that’s what you want.

        Agon is played with a range strip and tokens to represent character locations in combat. Positions are one-dimensional only, so it’s not as complex as miniature combat in D&D 4e with a full grid.

        I think you keep having indie systems pointed out to you because they were made by designers who addressed the issues you point out rather than doing what everyone else was doing.

  7. did Erick Wujcik not train anybody at all to follow in his Amber footsteps? oh well.

    1. I’ve not played the Amber Diceless RPG, but I’m a big fan of diceless and dice-light systems, including consent-based freeform roleplaying and the SLUG system (roll some dice and decide what happens). A lot of the time, though, I do prefer a more traditional system.

      Based on various descriptions I’ve heard and read of Amber DRPG, it’s an interesting system. You seem to think it doesn’t suffer from the problems above; I haven’t played it, but I would believe it. The character creation system does sound like a lot of fun, if a bit complex, and the system definitely avoids the bad side of dice rolling. Of course, it also seems to all-but-eliminate the element of chance, which I find to be fun.

      But as I’ve said in response to other comments, I don’t think all of these criticisms are true of all systems, just that most of them are true of most systems. I’ll edit the article to make that more clear.

  8. Is there a tabletop RPG with a luck stat?
    I’m designing a tabletop RPG system, and I’ve done some research but I can’t find any RPG systems with a luck stat. Primarily, I want to know what’s been done before with it, because I’ve got some ideas that are quite original, but I need to know if they are actually original, or if someone’s already done them.

    1. I can’t think of any off the top of my head. A luck stat would complicate rolls quite a bit; in order for it to not be a too-dominant stat, your rolls would need to have a wide range of results so that an extra +1 or +3 wasn’t an overwhelming bonus.

      One thing I’ve seen done in several systems is to treat “luck” as a bonus ability that lets you re-roll or gives you other benefits. It’s a Trait or Advantage or Feat that lets you, say, re-roll three rolls per game session, or in the case of GURPS’s Serendipity, lets you just request a lucky event from the GM.

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