Jul 112012

This guy is nitpicking, too. Thanks to flickr user Pete Lambert. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

The Inquisitor is back now after a well-deserved holiday break, and I come bearing gifts: talk about the little nits we pick during our games.

This comes at the heels of last week’s post regarding how we are all free to choose the rules with which we play. I tend to rely on the wisdom of game designers (especially those of large publishers such as WOTC) simply because they’ve probably devoted hours and hours of playtesting and tweaking spread across dozens of players and GMs. I just don’t have that kind of time myself, and I get worried about interrupting the homeostasis of a game system. Furthermore, there are plenty of indie designers who make games that are excellent and well-tested, balanced and thought-out.

However, there are also design blind-spots that folks run into, even with the best of intentions, and from those blind-spots crappy rules are made.

Thus we have today’s post about nitpicking: some rules just don’t seem to add very much to the game. Why are they there?

You know the rules I’m talking about, the ones that at first glance seem quite annoying. Bonuses not stacking, encumbrance, prerequisites and prohibitions, and so on. Why do they exist?

Everything has a reason

I’m a firm believer that everything has a reason. Well, rather, I believe everything should have a reason. If you can’t find a reason for something existing, than that’s the perfect excuse for eliminating a rule completely.


For most games, and gamist games particularly, annoying rules are there to preserve balance. They prevent the characters from outclassing monsters quickly, and, maybe more importantly, they prevent certain characters from outclassing other characters. These type of rules ensure that the carefully tuned balance of the rules universe remains.

Most of your rules are going to be balance-maintaining. After-all, at some point role-playing is a game, and there needs to be some kind of structure. What that structure is, however, depends on how these balancing rules are implemented. In the most free-form of games, the rule might just be that each character can have three skills, and that those skills are based off single words chosen by the players. Ignoring this rule would allow an unfair advantage to the character who simply put more


Since I’ve tried my hand at creating a few games here and there, I often run into the wall of “realism”. I mean, we’re role-playing here, there is some element of fantasy involved (whether that fantasy takes the form of spies, or dragons, or otherworldly demons, or magic, or whatever), so it always seemed kind of funny to care about what is “realistic” and what isn’t. (Remind me about this for next week’s post)

Anyhow, I think the vast majority of “trouble” rules end up promoting some sort of misguided realism. Every game needs a little bit of realism, but all of the worst rules I can think of sacrifice smooth, fun gameplay for the sake of realism.

What about my game?

It goes without saying that different GMs, players, and groups have different styles. My first DnD DM heavily focused on intrigue, diplomacy and roleplaying (maybe it was because we didn’t have a Monster Manual back in those days). My second DM was one of the best 3.5 optimizers ever, so our games were very gamist and all the little nit-picky rules were adhered to for the sake of balance. One of my current GMs throws out rules such as the -4 penalty for shooting into melee and AOO’s against archers, but forces us to constantly worry about rations, food, water, and carrying capacity, something which I just usually dismiss (as long as you can make it to civilization now and again). My players got pissed at me once because they didn’t specifically SAY that they tied up their horses, and they were scared off in the night by some approaching monsters.

We all selectively apply the rules. Sometimes it’s omission: some games have quite a few rules and we don’t even know are there. The commercialization of roleplaying games leads to more splat books and expansions of the rules, more modules and more options, so naturally there are rules we might not be aware of. Furthermore, some designers tend to put rules in, let’s say, less than obvious places.

Now, I’m going to tell you to just throw out the rules you don’t like. Just have an open mind. Try to understand why rules exist, try to grasp what they do for the game, and then adjust accordingly. Take the pulse of your players: if they are chafing under the regime of stringent rules, then perhaps its time for a change.

I have a friend who really enjoys intricacies in games. I like them too, maybe not to the same extent, but we get along because I enjoy the little pieces of bookkeeping that go along with the game. However, this aspect of the game, the keeping track of rations and how much each little thing weighs, the locations of specific pieces of gear, how long it takes to get those gear items out of your pockets in a combat situation, this all can be frustrating to another, or even to the average player. And frustration for the sake of balance, or for the sake of verisimilitude is not worth it.

Pick your nits well, I say, choose those specific annoyances that ADD to the game. The goal of the game is to have fun, isn’t it?

About Nick

Nick is an inquisitive type, never satisfied with what he reads in a book.

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