In this episode we discuss our pet peeves in game design. Yes, I know that’s the theme of the whole podcast. We were just being more specific this time. Tell us your pet peeves in game design. Is it hit points? I bet it’s probably hit points. Also listener questions are answered.
My pet peeve actually relates to what you discussed: healing rates.
I don’t mind long recovery times, even though they’re not a good fit for every genre, but what I’d really appreciate if the healing rates made any amount of sense. Most editions of D&D are guilty of this, because they assume a standard healing rate that is the same for all characters per day.
Now, given the abstraction that is hit points this leads to a weird situation where two characters, a sickly Wizard and a swole Fighter, both brought to the bring of death, recover at the exact same rate… which leads to the Fighter actually having to spend a much longer time resting in bed than the Wizard while he regenerates his luckmeat. It also leads to an odd situation where level 1 characters will be up and at it within a week or so, and the higher level they are the longer they will have to spend resting.
I mean, the only edition of D&D that I know that doesn’t do this is 4e, which is actually amazing because almost all healing effects are relative to the characters’ maximum hit points. The only thing I kind of don’t like about it (even though I love 4e to bits) is that it went a bit too far towards the other extreme, what with a single long rest being able to heal you to full.
And yeah, this is one of those things I’m going to modify in my upcoming Rules Cyclopedia D&D campaign: according to the rules characters recover 1d3 hit points per day regardless of class or maximum hit points, and I’m probably going to change this and tie it to a character’s maximum hit points in some way.
Which leads me to another pet peeve: overly-abstracted Hit Points.
If you just look at Hit Points as actual physical trauma inflicted on a character, then it makes perfect sense that it takes the fighter twice as long to recover from being stabbed seventeen times as it takes the wizard to recover from being stabbed six times. The benefit of being so ridiculously tough is just that the fighter doesn’t die from those wounds, where the wizard would have. (I’m fine with abstraction at that level, where we just leave it as generic physical trauma instead of getting into the different effects of specific damage types and specific hit locations.)
It’s really a case of picking your battles. You need to choose which silliness you can live with, and what’s a deal-breaker, because a realistic system would be overly complicated and boringly lethal.
I’m personally comfortable with highly abstracted hit points in the style of D&D’s luckmeat. I just find it funny that even back in the 70s and 80s Gygax himself insisted that hit points were abstract and not simply a representation of physical trauma, and I think hit points make perfect sense that way, but the healing rules never really reflected the abstract nature of hit points and seemed to be only concerned with physical recovery.
I can personally live with the silliness that is hit points (because ultimately, they’re very silly), but so that I can make the abstraction really work in my mind I have to adjust the recovery rules a bit.
Oddly enough, the D&D derivative that models recovery in the most satisfying fashion, to me, is Hackmaster: there each “injury” (as much as I hate that word) is tracked separately, and each injury heals at a constant rate of 1 hp per day. It does require a bit more book-keeping, but in an odd way it does exactly what I want the healing rules to do: a Fighter who takes three 3 damage hits taking them down to 1 hp and a Wizard who takes a single 3 damage hit will recover in the same amount of time. I really like that.
I always get annoyed at any mechanic that boils down to “there’s a random chance you don’t get to do anything this turn”. It’s usually something like a paralysis status effect. I get why it’s there – it’s a useful and powerful ability in any tactical game to take someone completely out of play for a turn or more – it’s just never any fun when it happens to you. You can’t even spin any good roleplay out of it beyond “my character blinks frantically and goes ‘mmm! mmmm-mmmm!'”.
As a role player and a board gamer, any “lose a turn” mechanics will automatically make me sour on a game at least a little.
Strike!, a pretty cool rules-light tactical combat RPG, has the stunned status which does exactly this, BUT the game’s monster creation rules explicitly say “Don’t use this status on players, it’s just not fun. It’s only listed here for the sake of reference.” So players can stun enemies (which is fair, because the GM won’t lose their whole turn if a single enemy is stunned and the game has a mechanic where big bad boss monsters will automatically save against such conditions) but the players (who are only controlling one character) won’t ever lose their entire turn. This is pretty much the way I think it should be.
I actually backed Strike! on Kickstarter after listening to the Six Feats Under episode on it but I’ve not had a chance to play it yet. Sounds like it might be right up my street.
One of my biggest pet peeves is more a thing for board games and CRPGs, but it still bothers me enough that I feel it has to be said. I hate it when a game doesn’t present you with the option to play a female that isn’t a.) a healer b.) a caster or c.) a ranger. Partially that’s just because I prefer my characters to fight in melee and not use magic, but it’s also about the intersection of those gender locks with that fact that those classes tend to be unable to take a hit and/or unable to deal significant damage. It’s especially prevalent in the Korean MMOs coming over these days as those tend to have characters with set classes rather than character creation.
For something closer to pen and paper, my other big pet peeve is just Wizard Supremacy and the tendency for magic to always subtly trump not-magic.
Holy crap, maybe I just haven’t had lunch yet, but now I REALLY want some cheese dudes. What do we need to do to make this a real thing?!
Hmm. I probably have too many to list, but ok:
1) Designers assuming that there will be no math problems, because they have not done the math. (“Hey, this isn’t that kind of game, so it doesn’t matter..)
2) Half-assed abstractions. I’m dealing with this now in FFG Star Wars, although it was in FFG Warhammer as well. FATE has “zones” indicating perceptual regions of an area to deal with range. FFG tries to do this with “range bands”.. except that the ranges are still defined by distances in meters, so you have to deal with whether or not the trangulation of two borderline-short distances would be medium, and so on.. Bonus points for games that do this with range and also have ridiculously precise rules for speed.
3) Initiative uber alles.
4) The Class/Character That Can Only Do One Thing.
5) Resource management systems that come down to the player’s ability to guess when the next break/rest is going to be.
6) Adventures that tell you to railroad the players but try to hide it by using sandboxy language (like in Four Bastards for Feng Shui, when missiles are fired at a structure: “let the PCs stop all but the last one”. There is no count for how many missiles are fired)
7) GM-side story points, also knows as “asshole GM points”.
8) Player-awarded RP bonus points, also known as “free points”.
My biggest pet peeve right now are the mechanics that a lot of the modern-darling games run on. That is the not-quite-crunchy, not-quite-fluffy, narrative direction mechanics of Powered by the Apocalypse and some of FATEs. I know I’m in the wrong about this. I’m sure they work fine, and especially so for play-by-post. But every Monsterhearts ability to “take a string on another player” just rubs me the wrongest way.
FATE’s refreshes and milestones just cause me to kinda short out. I like abilities that meaningfully interact with the game world but don’t strictly dictate the narrative (for players and GMs.) I like picking my advancements and equipment from a big menu, because it gives me an aesthetic of gaining something concrete. When modern design suggests “just give the players what they want” I find myself saying “just write the story as prose” because the rules so sheepishly pushed into a corner. I’ll admit there’s a need for the GM to not be an ass and the party to have a certain amount of kayfabe, but those are things that tables should want anyway.
A big pet peeve I have is when a game’s mechanics are at odds with its fluff. I recently read a game called Secretfire(or something like that) that exemplified this problem. The fluff suggested that PCs shouldn’t really ever get into a fight. Players should run away, talk their way out of a situation, or use every trick at their disposal to evade fights with the powerful monsters. While fights were written to be very dangerous, every ability the character classes had were combat focused and there were only rules for combat situations. The game’s crunch only gave the players one real option, which the fluff said not to use! I wonder how the designers intended people to plan the game they wrote because the whole thing feels incomplete.
A much smaller pet peeve of mine is odd numbers in prerequisites in D&D 3.5. Power Attack needs a 13 Strength, but the modifier is the same between a 12 and a 13, and the modifier is what actually matters in that dumb game. Same thing with Two-Weapon Fighting needing a 15 Dexterity. By Kord’s giant muscles, just round the number down! The later 3.5 books had less of this, but the Two-Weapon Fighting tree and Power Attack are ubiquitous and make my eye twitch every single time I see them.
I totally agree! It’s really weird that even the most supposedly story-based RPGs (I’m looking at you, WoD) where most of the base mechanics are sort of simple and free-flowing suddenly dedicate an inordinate amount of time to combat mechanics! In some games it makes perfect sense (i.e. D&D, everyone’s favorite fantasy combat simulator), but I just find it really jarring that physical conflict is almost without fail the one part of the system where things suddenly get really fine-grained and detailed!
Unknown Armies is sort of guilty of this: I mean, the game’s combat mechanics are very brutal and deadly and the combat rules start with a list of ten things you probably should do before even thinking about engaging in combat, so at least it’s honest about the fact that combat is generally a bad idea, but then once you get into the actual combat-rules they’re really fine-grained and detailed which is really at odds with the game’s theme of being mostly about paranormal investigation and getting sucked into a weird obsessive magical punk scene!
Well, there’s a couple of problems that result in this. The first one is kind of an issue in game design in general and is most visible when you look at video game design: above a certain scope, almost every single video game is primarily about combat. If you ask most game designers, the reason for that they’ll give is that they fundamentally don’t believe you can make a game about talking that will be as interesting and as engaging as a game about shooting or the like. They’re also not entirely wrong, thanks to the limited nature of the video game experience.
Tabletop designers theoretically have more leeway with this because they can lean on the dynamic nature of players interacting. When you have an actual, completely variable conversation with another human being it’s almost always going to be more interesting than picking dialogue options from a preset tree. But then you get to the rub of it: that dynamic conversation is the reason non-combat becomes much more viable and interesting in Tabletop, but it’s very difficult for designers to make rules to interface with it that won’t just end up being a detriment. For examples just look to the “I am the moon” bluff masters, the PUA-like social control rapists and others that take simple rules regarding persuasion and use them to, at best, invalidate whole sections of gameplay (e.g: “the king’s going to send you on a quest to clear the necromancer’s dungeon” “fuck that, I’ll just tell him we already did it and get him to pay us now”).
If you go more complex, though, that has a far greater likelihood of strangling the players out of having that interesting conversation. So it’s sort of an odd catch-22 and the best answer I’ve seen so far to it is the Powered by Apocalypse systems answer of making the whole game a streamlined and very rules-lite conversation, including combat.
SweaterGear: “A much smaller pet peeve of mine is odd numbers in prerequisites in D&D 3.5. Power Attack needs a 13 Strength, but the modifier is the same between a 12 and a 13, and the modifier is what actually matters in that dumb game. Same thing with Two-Weapon Fighting needing a 15 Dexterity. By Kord’s giant muscles, just round the number down! The later 3.5 books had less of this, but the Two-Weapon Fighting tree and Power Attack are ubiquitous and make my eye twitch every single time I see them.”
If the requirements were on even thresholds instead of odd, there would be literally no reason to ever have an odd stat in anything. No benefit for having a STR 15 over 14. That would be bad; common sense demands that every stat increase makes you actually stronger.
Of course, they could have worked around this in various ways. They could have discarded the stat entirely and only kept the modifiers; or done the reverse, discarded the modifiers and only used the actual stats in rolls. But they wanted to keep it somewhat in line with previous editions’ logic, and having all stat reqs be odd was their way of making odd stat levels theoretically useful.
I’m not so bothered by the lack of diplomacy rules, but the lack of innovative chase, subterfuge, or similar mechanics. I would love to play a clever stealth focused game if the mechanics would support it.
Counterpoint: Nickelback isn’t even actually that bad.
For the record, my biggest pet peeve is when a game suggests wide-scale re-skinning or re-flavoring for any object or effect.
I read the game in order to learn the one true mechanical representation for each thing in the game world, in the language of that system. The game world is a complex system, and the rules are a simplified model of that system. Being told that you can swap out any parts interchangeably, and that you just need to follow certain guidelines in order to keep the game balanced, ruins the whole integrity of the model.
Yeah, the whole “just refluff it however you want!” thing that pops up in a number of games kind of makes it seem like nothing matters except the raw numbers and everything else is meaningless. I assume it’s intended to give greater options for customization and player creativity, but it makes me wonder why are these numbers more important than the reality of the game world. Shouldn’t they be representations of the game world, and not the other way around?
I regard that as extraneous text. What could possibly stop people from refluffing things however they want? (one of my greatest regrets in recording episodes is that we forgot to mention the Synnibarr rule of “No changing or houseruling the contents of this book”) Putting in “You can reskin this” is akin to putting in “You could eat this book if you want.”
But then that’s coming from a huge fan of reskinning.
A particular pet peeve of mine is when the ST/referee advice in a book tells you, explicitly, to ignore specific rules. For example, having a rule that states that characters die when they run out of hit-points, then ST advice about not killing off characters even if they lose all their hit-points.
As the author of the game, you wrote the rule that characters die when they hit 0 hit points. If you think that characters shouldn’t die when they are killed, all you had to do was not write that rule!
where’s my fat guy white noise generator?!