Nominations for Worst Role-Playing Game Rule or Mechanic

October 28, 2009 | | Comments 15

Rules are a critical element of all role-playing games, but sometimes they are less than optimal. Oh hell, let us be honest. Some role-playing game rules are just stupid. Not “slightly off” or  “in need of some work,” I mean completely  lobotomized stupid.  The kind of rules that make you wonder what the designer smoked just before putting pen to paper. It is time to share your horrific experiences with the world! There are no prizes, other than the cathartic sharing of bad rule design.

I will start this festival of pain with my own suggestion: drowning in the 3.5 OGL rules.  Let me refresh your memories.


Any character can hold her breath for a number of rounds equal to twice her Constitution score. After this period of time, the character must make a DC 10 Constitution check every round in order to continue holding her breath. Each round, the DC increases by 1. See also: Swim skill description.

When the character finally fails her Constitution check, she begins to drown. In the first round, she falls unconscious (0 hp). In the following round, she drops to -1 hit points and is dying. In the third round, she drowns.

I do not take issue with the concept of drowning in an RPG. It is simply one of the many ways to die in a dangerous world.  If you hit the water unconscious (a surprisingly common event given  the plethora of 3.5 knock-you-out spells/powers/poisons etc), you have three  rounds to avoid death.  Either you get help from another party member or you die.

Here is why it is my nomination for worst rule;  it only applies to low-level characters.  At low levels,most PC types  have terrible constitution bonuses and no magic to allow water breathing.  This vile synergy makes low-level characters very vulnerable to drowning.  Yet, at higher levels there are a plethora of counter-measures to either give water breathing to other players (ie spells) or players simply acquire an item that allows water breathing. I preferred the “Necklace of Adaptation,” since it also makes you gas-proof.

So, drowning is an absolutely lethal rule mechanic that ceases to have much impact at higher levels and is also wildly out of sync with the other environmental hazards in the game.  Drowning kills characters in three rounds regardless of hit points.   Lava exposure only does 2d6 per round! Hmm, let me think how that scores on the verisimilitude scale; 18 seconds under water is lethal, but playing chicken with a volcanic hellfire only scorches you.  I know games are not true simulations, but really…

Now it is your turn. Any game or system is a legitimate target, but please refrain from using the original 4th Edition Dungeons and Dragons  skill challenge mechanics as your submission.  As much as I dislike 4th Edition, it feels cruel to pour more salt in that wound. It is just too easy of a target.

I am anxious to hear what rule mechanic nightmares my readership has to share. I am sure there are much worse.

Trask, The Last Tyromancer

Filed Under: Role-PlayingRPGRule Systems


About the Author: Trask is a long-time gamer, world traveler and history buff. He hopes that his scribblings will both inform and advance gaming as a hobby.