Two Game Design Bugbears

I'm a day late with this week's post, and, as I am currently madly racing towards two deadlines, it will be brief.

I'm currently running three(!) weekly games, each a different system, and this has given me some opportunities to refine what I like and don't like in game design these days. Two elements have recently come up that are bugging the ever-loving crap out of me, and I'm sharing them here to vent my spleen and also as a reminder to myself never to include stuff like this in whatever designs I end up doing in the future.

1. Player-character abilities that force the GM to remember a modifier. This is the old "dwarves are at -4 to be hit by ogres" thing. I prefer my mechanics active rather than passive. Nothing irks me more than to hear a player say, "Oh, these are supernatural creatures? Did you remember the +2 Toughness modifier on that roll?" It breaks the flow of the game, adds yet one more thing for the GM to track, and, if forgotten, has potentially major consequences. ("If only I'd remembered that modifier, your character would still be alive.") It's a burden for players as well: not only are they having to monitor their own dice rolls and abilities, but also the GM's. Abilities that impose one-time bonuses and penalties get a pass here, but only barely.

2. Stat blocks that list abilities that require further look-ups. Most systems have some sort of thing where characters get certain abilities due to class benefits/advantages/edges/disciplines. I have no problem with this as long as the mechanical effects of these abilities are listed on the stat block. Too often they're not. For example, in Vampire: the Masquerade, seeing "Dominate 4" on a stat block actually tells you almost nothing useful. Instead, you have to know the four completely different abilities that come with having Dominate 4. Why this isn't listed on stat blocks I'll never know. (Well, I have a suspicion, but I'll keep it to myself.) This happens in Savage Worlds a lot too. NPCs that have a big host of Edges won't always have the benefits of those Edges spelled out on the sheet. Instead, you have to know that the "Quick" Edge allows you to re-deal an initiative card of face-value 5 or less. Yes, it's a learning curve issue, but it's quite annoying, especially in the case of the more obscure abilities ("Serpentis 3?") or if, like me, you run more than one system. Even my beloved Call of Cthulhu falls into this trap whenever you have NPCs with spells; it's the old D&D problem of having to look up spell effects in the middle of a combat or else simply commit them to memory. For me, the platonic ideal of a stat block has all the information I need right in front of me: bonuses, penalties, effects, whatever. The trick, of course, is keeping the block to a manageable size. Pendragon actually does an excellent job of this, incidentally.

Ah, I feel much better. Back to work!

With apologies to Adam Scott Glancy

With apologies to Adam Scott Glancy