I love RPGs. You probably figured that out by now, given that you’re reading the RPG blog which I update five times a week. I think they’re a fun, community-building form of entertainment, which offers nearly limitless possibilities for those who play. But for all that is good about RPGs, there are some things which simply do not work within the medium. At least I’ve never seen them work, but maybe I’m just missing something. Thus, in the interest of exploring these failings of the medium, I’ve gathered three elements of gameplay which have never been anything but a game-slowing nuisance for me. I’ll detail why it would be nice if they did work, why they don’t work, and if I can think of one, I’ll offer a possible solution.
I’d really like to encourage readers (no matter how old this post is when you read it!) to chime in on this one. What game elements have you encountered which never seem to work well? Do you have any solutions to the three outlined below which I didn’t think of? Is there a system which actually handles any of these well?
Ammunition is an easy one to start with. In the real world, any projectile weapon has a limited number of uses based on how many projectiles are available. Once you’ve fired your revolver six times, you either need to reload, or come up with a new plan. In a medieval fantasy game like Pathfinder, arrows and crossbow bolts take the place of bullets, and the threat of running out adds an exciting depth to the game. Not only does limiting a player’s ammunition force them to use it more intelligently, but it also forces players who favor ranged weapons to have a plan for how they’ll contribute to the battle once their quiver is empty. After that happens once or twice, players will start to understand the necessity of scavenging for unbroken arrows after a battle. And eventually, when the GM chooses to include a Quiver of Unending Arrows in a pile of treasure, it will become a player’s most precious possession.
But keeping track of ammunition is a pain in the ass. Amongst the player’s starting equipment, they purchase fifty or a hundred arrows. And then what? Every time they fire their bow they’re supposed to take the time to erase that number and replace it with one number lower? Players are focused on whether or not they hit what they were shooting at. If they did, then they’re concerned about damage, and if they didn’t, they’re concerned with muttering to themselves about how badly they’re rolling today. Keeping track of ammo is even more burdensome if the GM tries to handle it. GMs are the center of everyone’s attention during combat, and they need to ration their time carefully in order to keep things moving. Giving their attention to minor details like how many arrows a player has left would kill combat flow. Every group I’ve been in has just house ruled it so that once you purchase arrows once, you have a full quiver for life.
Truthfully, I haven’t thought of a good solution to this one yet. I did consider making ranged weapons usable only a certain number of times per combat / certain number of times per day, but that’s just lazy game design. Fortunately, Telecanter of Receding Rules came up with a solid alternative called simple ammunition tracking. Rather than reduce the total amount of ammo by one each time it is used, players using projectile weapons each get a stack of poker chips. After each encounter during which the projectile weapon was used, the player gives up one chip to the GM, regardless of how many or how few arrows they fired. Once they’re out of chips, they’re out of arrows. It’s a good house rule. It doesn’t suffer from the inane number tracking problems that the core game’s method does, and it grants most of the benefits of keeping track of / running out of arrows.
To be honest, though, it doesn’t seem like a good fit for my games. Solid as Telecanter’s simple ammo tracking rule is, it doesn’t allow for the possibility of running out of ammunition in the middle of combat, which is the most interesting time to run out! For the present, I’m still looking for a better system of ammunition tracking.
Encumbrance is a problem which goes hand in hand with ammunition. Including a good encumbrance system in your game places reasonable & interesting limitations on the player characters. It rewards strong characters for being strong, which helps take the edge off how overpowered casters can be. It also provides the GM with a multitude of adventure options which wouldn’t be available if characters could carry whatever they want. Removing treasure from a dungeon, and finding a place to store that treasure, become adventures in themselves. And like the Quiver of Unending Arrows, an encumbrance system turns items which have become commonplace and boring, such as exceptionally light armor, or a bag of holding, into treasures worth questing for.
Unfortunately, encumbrance suffers from the same problem of excessive calculation that ammunition systems have. When a player is looking through the equipment chapter of the core rulebook, and they see that each and every item has a weight calculated down to ounces, they can’t help but balk at the idea of keeping track of it all. Every time anything is added to a pack, or removed from it, its weight must be added or subtracted from the grand total amount of weight being carried by the character, and then checked against the character’s maximum load to determine whether or not that character is now encumbered. I’ve never met a single GM who bothers with such rules. I have met a few who use simplified versions of those rules, but even those simplified rules often seem overly complicated to me.
I discussed this issue with a friend at length last night. He was of the opinion that encumbrance rules should simply be discarded as useless to gameplay. Despite the benefits, he said, there’s just no way to make things simple enough to be fun. I tried to come up with an example of an ultra-simple encumbrance system to use as a counterargument, and inadvertently struck on an idea which I think I may start using in my games.
A character’s strength score is the maximum amount of significant items which can be carried without becoming encumbered. Significant items are identified by the GM at the time of acquisition, and may include: a 50ft coil of rope, a 10ft pole, a sword, a suit of armor, or five hundred coins of any denomination. Items might qualify as significant based either on weight or on size, but no item which is not significant counts against encumbrance in any quantity. A character may carry as many non-significant items as they like without them counting against encumbrance, even if the sum total of their parts (such as fifty potions) would be heavier and more unwieldy than any single significant item (such as a sword). In some special cases, the GM may choose to make a particularly heavy or unwieldy item count as two or more significant items, though it is recommended that this be used only in special cases. Common adventuring equipment such as armor should never count for more than one significant item.
Chase Scenes are a huge problem in RPGs. What’s great about them should be obvious: they’re exciting. They’re a unique kind of encounter which, if I could figure out how to run one, would make escaping just as much fun as standing your ground to fight. But what’s exciting when every character has a pre determined speed? If your speed is 30, and your pursuer’s speed is 35, then eventually you’re going to be overrun. Numerous books discuss methods to make chases more engaging for players, but when speed is a set number there’s only so much you can do.
I think the best way to overcome this problem is to encourage our players to think creatively while escaping (or giving chase). Halflings, with their lower speed, should try to use their size to their advantage by going places where larger characters can’t. Other characters can attempt to use obstacles, or creative shortcuts to overcome the static speed problem. And of course, players being able to do this is contingent on the GM’s ability to improvise a constantly changing environment for the players to dash through. Being intimately familiar with Pathfinder’s movement and running rules (Pathfinder Core Rulebook Pages 170-172) can’t hurt either. They provide useful mechanics for exhaustion, which determines when somebody in the chase is forced to give up.
There are a number of other things which I’ve never been happy with. Keeping time is nearly impossible, and the game makes it far too difficult to sneak up behind someone and knock them out. I’m sure there are others as well, but I think three is sufficient for this post. Particularly because I’m currently operating at a significant sleep debt, and very desperately need to get in bed early tonight!
As I mentioned above, I’d like to encourage comments on this post. On every post, actually, but on this one in particular. Let me know what elements of gameplay have never worked to your satisfaction. Or even better, let me know if you’ve got any better solutions than those I’ve come up with!