Nominations for Worst Role-Playing Game Rule or Mechanic

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



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.

15 thoughts on “Nominations for Worst Role-Playing Game Rule or Mechanic

  • October 28, 2009 at 6:22 am

    Disquiet in World of Darkness’ Promethean, makes the game the most joyless roleplaying experience ever. And you thought being any WoD supernatural was depressing? You ain’t seen nothing yet. The Promethean is built-for-emo the way Ford is built-for-tough.

    Hang around any one area too long, and people begin to suspect that they hate you. Walk into a big crowd, and unless the ST actually gave stats to somebody in that crowd (so they have half-decent resolve/composure) then the whole crowd may also automatically hate you. If you stick around, they’ll work up on hating you like they were sharpening knives.

    And they are. Along with pitchforks and torches (they hate you so much they sharpen torches, because any kind of human contact will lead to that. Your only choice as a Promethean is to avoid populated areas or run. Always run. Oh and avoid not-running, because your nuclear aura will devastate the landscape even if there’s no humans around to hate you.

    Because the world itself hates you. That’s Disquiet in a nutshell. The world hates you and it wants you to die. The world and you, neither can live while the other survives.

  • October 28, 2009 at 6:23 am

    While the version of White Wolf where your chances of botch given a failure went up the more skilled you were is a candidate, I think I’d have to go with the original Tri-Stat mechanic (hope they’ve changed it by now) where: your combat value is a maximum of 7, and you have to roll <= it on 2d6. If you hit the defender then rolls <= his combat value to negate your attack. Degree of success doesn't matter, so between equally skilled opponents that means that at an absolute maximum 1 in 4 attacks actually lands and does damage. Typical opponents it's more like 1 in 5.

  • October 28, 2009 at 6:33 am

    Pretty much any grappling mechanic ever. We have a house rule for grappling in my game: if you try to grapple with someone, it turns out that they are made of lava. This greatly simplifies things and avoids all problems with less elegant rules.

  • October 28, 2009 at 8:14 am

    The 4E version of drowning is worse, because it hurts higher level pc’s more then it does lower level ones. Boggles the mind. 😀

    In my mine, Ironclaw has the worse dice mechanic ever written. I mean, it looks really good on paper. You roll your dice pool against a target die, and pick your highest number, and if you roller higher, you won. It’s suppose to give the person who has a d4 in their pool a chance. However, it ends up making everything way too random, and often skilled players lose challenges doing things that should be simple.

    I love a lot about Ironclaw… just not it’s resolution mechanic.

  • October 28, 2009 at 8:28 am

    The drowning rule are indeed silly, but I will go for the dying rules themselves. I am specifically referencing D&D here but there are a few other games that have similar systems, when you have taken damage but are not yet dead . . . and the character slowly, over rounds, dies unless a strange entirely random and mostly unchangeable roll is made or someone comes to help.

    Sure, it gives the illusion of dramatic tension but mostly it is “roll right or roll up a new character.” What is the fun in that? Heroes get rescued in the nick of time or a villainous enemy shows how evil they are by cutting the helpless hero’s throat. Bleeding out is both a boring and stupid rule, screw realism, we are playing to have fun and be heroes.

  • October 28, 2009 at 9:09 am

    While I generally liked it, there are a few areas of 4E that I could pick on. Some of the rituals made no sense in terms of the fixed and limited benefits that they granted, especially as character levels increased. IIRC lockchalk always replaced the character’s Thievery skill with a straight +7 to the roll, instead of granting an item bonus to whatever their Thievery skill was at the time.

    But the one thing that I will specifically pick on is the sliding scale of DC’s listed on p. 48 (IIRC) of the DMG. Similar to the Tri-Stat example above, the difficulty of a task not covered specifically elsewhere in the 4E rules increased as the character’s levels increased. So something that a PC attempts at level 1 grows more difficult as the character grows more powerful!

  • October 28, 2009 at 9:19 am

    I nominate GURPS combat as a whole. For those who are unfamiliar with the rules, I’ll provide a summary of the things required to make a simple attack with a gun rather than listing the actual rules.

    First, check your weapons rate of fire and choose how many shots you’re going to fire. If you fire enough shots, you may get a bonus to your attack roll. Next, how far away is the target? Is it moving, and at what speed? What is the dimension of its longest side? You’ll need to know all of these things so that you can find the appropriate attack modifier on the Size, Speed, and Range table!

    After you’ve cursed the SSRT for the trouble it’s caused you and the massive penalty it gives you, how many seconds have you spent aiming your weapon at the target? If you’ve aimed at all, add your weapon’s accuracy bonus + another bonus based on how long you’ve been aiming for. Okay, now you’re ready to make the attack (I’m going to ignore the weapon malfunction rules).

    After rolling 3d6 and making sure you’ve accounted for all of the different modifiers, you should now know if you’ve “hit”. I put hit in quotes because it’s now time for the target to try to avoid the attack.

    If the target has skill points in Acrobatics it may attempt an “acrobatic dodge”. To do this, it makes an Acrobatics check. The result of this gives you either a bonus or a penalty on you _actual_ dodge check, depending on how you roll. The actual dodge check is based on your health, dexterity, encumbrance (relative to your strength), how much damage you’ve taken, and any special advantages you might have.

    Assuming that the target failed to dodge your attack, you now get to roll to determine hit location. This matters because every part of the body could have a different amount of damage reduction (DR), different kind of damage reduction, and multiple kinds of damage reduction in different orders.

    Roll damage! Oh, wait. What was your degree of success on your initial attack roll? This value, combined with the number of shots you fired, and the weapon’s “recoil” property determine the total number of shots that get to roll damage for. Ok, now roll damage. The target’s DR is applied to each shot individually. Once you determine how much damage how penetrated the DR, multiply this number by the damage multiplier of the type of weapon your using (e.g. impaling, piercing, large piercing, small piercing). If you’ve penetrated the skull then you get an additional multiplier for going through the squishy brain. If your target is Diffuse, Homogeneous, or one of the other things like that, then your weapon’s damage multipier changes.

    Once the total damage is calculated, the target may suffer a cripple limb (depending on amount of damage and the location) or stunning (it the target is male and was hit in the groin). Regardless, suffering damage means that the target has to make a shock check to see if these lose their next action because of the amount of damage they’ve just suffered. Also, depending on the amount of negative HP the have, they may need to make health checks to avoid unconsciousness and death.

    Phew! I think that’s it, but I’ve probably forgotten something. Can you believe all that takes place in less than one second of game-time? I’m impressed with the amount of “realism” that GURPS tries to use, but when I’m in an furious gunfight I don’t think I should have to wait for an hour just so I can say “I’m going to spend this round aiming so that I’ve got a chance of hitting next time.”

  • October 28, 2009 at 9:43 am

    I second that the 4e D&D rules are worse than the 3.5e ones, by far. Quite simply, they’re downright rubbish.

    Outside of strenuous situations, any character can hold their breath underwater for 3 minutes regardless of CON, Size or whatever (DMG159). In a combat situation, they have to make a DC 20 Endurance check at the end of any round in which they take damage – so a Wizard could theoretically keep himself at a distance underwater and lob Magic Missiles to their hearts’ content, or a Fighter could mix it up mano-a-mano and, so long as he doesn’t get hit, he doesn’t even need to make a check, ever. Daft.

  • October 28, 2009 at 1:23 pm

    This is exactly why we developed Fire and Brimstone! If you fall into lava, you die, no save!

  • October 28, 2009 at 2:25 pm

    The burst firing rules for the old Palladium games was quite wonderful. Firing an entire clip did something like x10 standard damage. Boy, did you go through ammo fast! Especially since reloading was automatic. Add MDC rules, and things got a lot of fun – full-clip sprays with an MDC handgun could take down most buildings pretty easily.

    In fact, the whole MDC/SDC thing looks good on paper, but caused some serious headaches when you actually use it.

  • October 29, 2009 at 7:14 am

    Blocking in the Hero System.
    A successful block, by anyone, with anything (including their own unarmoured body if necessary) negates ALL damage from any attack, by anyone, with anything (including swords, chainsaws, lampposts,…)
    So an unarmoured martial artist can block a katana with his arm.
    More to the point, technically Aunt May can block a punch from the Hulk.
    Come on. Surely there must be some way to make a blocking mechanic work but still leave in the rule that some things just can’t be blocked by some other things – at least without taking a bit of damage!
    I would usually say that blocking with something just made the blocking object take the damage. If that was your arm instead of your head, well it’s an improvement.

  • October 29, 2009 at 7:38 am

    Feng Shui’s dice mechanic always bothered me. Characters are meant to pull off amazing Hong Kong action movie stunts as a matter of course. But the d6-d6 mechanic doesn’t really allow for the levels of success such actions require, going by the game’s sample difficulty chart.

  • November 8, 2009 at 11:08 am

    AD&D (1st and 2nd edition) experience rules.

    OK, giving experience for killing things makes a *degree* of sense, though it’s ham-handed. But for getting loot? It was just asinine, and warped the game.

  • January 30, 2010 at 10:01 pm

    Should i even bother to nominate ALL of The Spawn of Fashan. or is it too bad to even grace this comment list. these rules may be bad, but this game is a black hole of creativity barely concealed by half written over complicated unorgonised rules.

  • June 17, 2010 at 2:17 am

    I nominate dungeon lords the its not the worst game but it is completely screwed up it has crap graphics and it said so many things that weren’t even in the game like create your character some of it can be fixed with a patch but its still a waste of money the auto map doesn’t even work in the first version i had to guess were i was because you can’t alt+tab or windows to leave because it stops working

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