Great Story, Terrible System–Games that Need a New Set of Rules

The Poster Child for a Rules Redo
The Poster Child for a Rules Redo

Storytelling is at the heart of every role-playing game.  Think of the game master as a director and the players as actors in a very dynamic piece of theatre. Though, they are not in total control. Chance plays a part in this play as well.   Gamers use a rules system (usually dice based) to determine success or failure and add an element of risk to the game experience.  When the story is original an exciting and the rules serve to advance the story, all is well.

Sadly, that is often not the case. Games with amazing stories often endure grossly inappropriate rules that bury exciting worlds in terrible mechanics. These are my top picks for games with great plot and world design, but systems that need serious updates. Of course, few of us have the time or energy to completely redo a game’s rules, so this is just wishful thinking on my part. Hey, it is Christmas, the time of miracles. You never know…

1. Nightbane or Nightspawn

This 1995 offering by CJ Carella is one of my favorite game worlds. An urban fantasy version  of the “X-Files” combined with superhero PCs and a secret invasion from another dimension. Lots of sneakiness and intrigue wrapped in a growing horror. A great game to play with those that do not own the book. Makes the revelations about the world all the more startling.

Did I mention it uses the Palladium game system?

I actually quite enjoy some of the other Palladium game worlds (Rifts,) but their rules system is unclear, unbalanced and nearly unplayable.  Palladium rehashed this system so many times that you would think it would improve with each release. Not so! Cut and paste is the order of the day. I long ago gave up on their product lines, though I heard there was some sort of new rules release in the past couple years. Someday I might rouse myself to take a look at it, but a new version of Nightbane is what I really want.

2. Traveller (Original)

A rousing space adventure from days gone by. I have fond memories of carefully generating a character in anticipation of a new game. I gave him statistics and started him on the path of personal development, went to school, attended the space academy and then died.

Yes, died. Traveller had rules for killing you during character generation. Admittedly this was back in the days of truly random character creation, but it was unusual even then.  Combat system was not bad, but the character generation was ugly. There are many versions of Traveller since, but I have a soft spot for the original “little black book” game. Hence its appearance on my list.

3.  White Wolf

White Wolf, strictly speaking, is not a game but a company. They created the elaborate and interesting “World of Darkness” comprised of “Wraith,” “Mage” and the venerable “Vampire” role-playing games, among many others.  Great story and deep character development. A favorite of LARPers everywhere. I played a few times and could not stand the incredibly simplistic character generation and combat mechanics. I know this is a story based game, but it still felt a little…talky. I like a bit more crunch in my role-playing games.


West End Games attempt at a cross-genre game (similar to Rifts.) Multiple universes collide and struggle for dominance. It was possible for a cybernetic ninja to battle a pulp-villian in a Jurassic era jungle. Great fun, until you started running a combat. Some PCs were tough and some were fast. The fast ones dodged attacks very well and the tough ones absorbed damage. Problem was that the damage from a single hit was sufficient to put down a “dodge” character that traded hit points for speed. Occasionally referred to as the “glass-jawed ninja.” Tough to hit, but it only took one hit to kill them.  This system also suffered from “complexity creep.” Every supplement added new rules and very quickly it got out of hand. One bright spot was  a deck of cards to add randomness to combat. It was a blast! Someday I hope this game makes a comeback in some form, but I am pessimistic.

5.  Witch Hunter

Paradigm Concepts created an exceptionally deep world for this game of dark horror. Set in the early years of the American colonies, Puritans, religious fanatics and native americans  do battle with the forces of the devil himself. One of the best written game books I read in a long time. I especially enjoyed the historical research. It makes the list by using a system that reminds me of “White Wolf’s” d10 system. Not identical, but close enough.  This is one of the only games I might suggest going with a pure LARP or the Amber Diceless rules set.

Anyone else have some ideas? I am sure there are other great games buried under bad rules.

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.

11 thoughts on “Great Story, Terrible System–Games that Need a New Set of Rules

  • December 18, 2008 at 1:46 am

    Can we please add both ShadowRun & CyberPunk to this list? I know future settings are tricky, but my groups couldn’t get either of these games to work.

  • December 18, 2008 at 2:49 am

    Wooohoo for Nightbane…yes,I remember that game (when we played our copies said NightSpawn, wish I still had my copy).

    Palladium put out so many awesome worlds to play in, and the system has sucked from day one. After the Bomb, Rifts, Mechanoids, all these worlds I wanted to game in, wrapped in a nightmare of a ruleset.

    Rackham’s Cadwallon book I would say falls into this. Amazing backstory of this massive Fantasy City Setting, with tons of intrigue and an amazingly beautiful book. But, either due to its French origin and the hardship of translating not only the language across but the rules as well, it is just this mass of “wow, wish I could comprehend how to play this, let alone convince my group to play in it”.

    I’m sure there are more, but there is my submission!

  • December 18, 2008 at 3:04 am

    I’d just put every single Palladium system game on that list. I definitely agree with Torg too, then maybe it could make a comeback! Traveller had a cool character gen system that was similar to the old school game “Jones In The Fast Lane”. Other than that, the game’s rules sucked.

  • December 18, 2008 at 9:04 am

    I nominate Shadowrun as well. A game that I have purchased multiple versions of, in hopes that in one version they would get it right. Sadly not the case.

    As for White Wolf, I could not agree more. They have a rich and complex story world and some of the worst mechanics. I ran a 2 year campaign and in the first month we ditched the mechanics for a more Amber approach.

  • December 18, 2008 at 9:42 am

    In Nomine, from Steve Jackson Games. The concept is brilliant and the game plays with archetypes in interesting ways. Some buddies made characters and I made up an adventure for them. They got into a fight early on with a baddie about their “level.”

    An hour later, everyone was out of bullets, and the party was starting to gain the upper hand in the battle.

  • December 18, 2008 at 10:56 am

    You haven’t played a White Wolf game in years, have you? Might be time to try again. New WOD is vastly mechanically improved, without degrading into a simulist nightmare.

    And if you want a more crunchy White Wolf experience, Exalted is a fine game.

  • December 18, 2008 at 12:41 pm

    Dragonstar, from Fantasy Flight Games.

    Excellent sci-fantasy setting with excellent fluff, but using the D&D 3.0 core classes left it feeling…off.

    Even a d20 future conversion would be SOMETHING!

  • December 18, 2008 at 2:09 pm

    I’m in complete agreement with you about the palladium system. The game worlds and settings are great, some of my all time favorites, but the rules get in the way. If they revised the rules, I mean really revised and not just copy and paste with a new paragraph here and there, it could be the best system/group of game worlds on the market. I just don’t understand their resistance to streamlining the system.

  • December 18, 2008 at 11:28 am

    Yeah, it’s time to look at White Wolf again. The old systems were… deeply flawed, it’s true, though I can tell by reading other posts that you like deep crunchy systems, whereas I prefer a less crunchy system because I don’t really care about all the details. The new system is definitely better, though I suspect it still won’t meet your standards for crunchy.

    On a 1-10 crunch scale, White Wolf is about a 5. It’s not Amber Diceless or Savage Worlds narrative, nor is it Battletech or AD&D crunchy. You seem to lean toward about a 7, I tend to like 3-5.

    I’ve never enjoyed a game where I had to care whether I was 3 or 4 feet away from an opponent in combat. Designations like ‘grappling’ or ‘melee’ or ‘projectile’, with short and long range modifiers is good enough for me. Some people want to have a sliding dice scale depending on the exact number of feet from a target modified by weather and wind and moon phase, and I can’t stand all that. I still don’t think it’s fair to call the WW system ‘terrible’ even so.

    As for Shadowrun, 4th edition is much better than previous editions. It’s still pretty bad because a new player can take upwards of four hours to make a character, but once you’re in play the system is decent.

    Additions to the list might be Dark Heresy, now by Fantasy Flight games. The career and rank system is a nifty way to take the levels paradigm in-character, but the skill lists don’t make sense. A first level assassin can’t hide, for example, and a first level soldier can’t shoot a gun to save his life because the percentile system won’t allow him to at that level. It needs some serious rebalancing and redistribution of skills to make any sense.

  • December 18, 2008 at 6:25 pm

    Journeyman was a great hard sci-fi game setting… with 1e type rules and crazy complex subsystems.

    I agree with putting Palladium on the list– I like the ideas, but the weird mixes don’t work well in concept.

  • December 20, 2008 at 2:57 am

    GURPS. To be fair, it’s not terrible, but I nominate it because it’s the system that’s most disappointed me to date. I own a fair number of GURPS books, and they’re enjoyable to read and often great sources of inspiration, but the game itself… I’ve tried running it several times, and it’s always collapsed under the weight of its own rules. It just… won’t… work. Not for me.

    And I say this as a person who’s run several long-term HERO campaigns, so I’m no stranger to complex systems.

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