The Inquisition: Picking Nits

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?

The Inquisition: Freedom!

Thanks to flickr user ctj71081!! CC BY 2.0

The Inquisitor has been on holiday this past week, so I just have a few quick thoughts this week.  Next week we’ll continue with our regular features, drilling into the psychological and philosophical aspects of gaming. For now, on the history of the declaration of American Independence, we’ll talk about freedom.

We’ve got a lot of freedom issues in RPGs. There’s the freedom to play whatever character you might want, the freedom to go down whatever road interests you (commonly known as the freedom to NOT be railroaded), and so on.

But most importantly, we have the freedom to really do whatever we want when it comes to the games we play. If Rule 0 is that The GM is always right, then Rule 0.1 should be that if there’s something you don’t like about your game, change it.

I think a lot of us get caught up in the advanced rules systems whose heyday was the mid-90’s. Games move toward being universal; we started to see systems trying to account for every situation possible, and thus, rules creep became more and more of a problem.

We’re seeing the rubber band snap back nowadays: how many retro-clones have hit the “market” (which I hesitate to say since many are free) in the past few years?

This is not to say that these games do not have rules that cover every situation. They just have general rules that can be applied, rather than specific rules for every situation. However, there seems to be some kind of strange reverence for the olden days when there were no rules for grappling, or X, or Y, or Z. Having fewer rules is not necessarily a good thing if you live in a world where you have the freedom to choose which rules to use and which to throw out.

It seems that this is the way D&D Next is going: rules modules that you can choose to use or not. But remember, every edition of the Dungeon Master’s Guide has had a short section saying that if you didn’t like a rule, throw it out or change it. I’m not going to fault Monte Cook et. al. for giving me more options! I don’t know a GM out there who hasn’t changed or ignored a whole swath of rules to make their game more suited to their group’s style. Of course, changing or removing rules makes certain aspects of the game weaker, stronger, or simply nonexistent (removing Attacks of Opportunity for grappling would power up grapple-focused characters, for example), so keep that in mind. Every system is its own ecosystem; change some of the parts, and other things will be affected.

So, sometimes it’s hard to remember, and the worst rules-lawyers of us will complain, but we have the freedom to choose our system, but also choose which subset of rules within that framework is best for our group. Don’t be afraid to tinker.

Have fun at your barbecues, and if you don’t read this until a few days later, I hope you had a happy mid-week holiday.

The Inquisition: Splitting the Party

A split! Thanks to flickr user Composite Character. CC BY-NC 2.0

Sometimes I can tell when I begin writing a post whether it’s going to be long and ponderous or a markedly quick burst of text. (Ok, let’s be honest, it’s almost always the former, despite my best intentions for the latter.) While I generally attempt to be succinct, from time to time there comes a topic such as today’s, which promises to be divisive. Yes, it’s the age old question: should we split the party?

Last weeks’ article, still possessing the oven-fresh smell, dealt with the idea of the Trouble Player, and one particular behavior that frequently led to a player being Trouble was the isolation or fragmenting of the party. One might be led to believe, then, that the author generally does not favor splitting the group. I say thee nay, and point out that the selfish behavior of the Trouble Player is the root of the side-quests or solo adventures in this situation. For today, we’ll deal solely with legitimate reasons to split the party, the natural (or unnatural) ways they arise, whether dividing the players is a good idea, and how to do it if you do decide to go that route.

A good deal of ink has been spilled regarding this well-worn topic, and with good measure; it’s something that has plagued GMs and players alike since the early days of Dungeons and Dragons. Just Google the phrase “split the party” and you’ll undoubtedly find dozens of gamer blogs dealing with this exact topic. I read through a bunch of them, hoping to both hone my own arguments and thoughts concerning this behavior, but also to survey whether my thoughts were just the same re-hashing of what everyone already thinks (the prevailing opinion, as with most things, is: don’t overdo it, it can work in the right situation, with the right group of players, yada yada yada). I hope you find my advice more specifically useful.

Continue reading “The Inquisition: Splitting the Party”

The Inquisition: Trouble Players

This is a jerk. Thanks to flickr user hsld. CC BY 2.0

If you recall, last week we talked about trouble characters. This week I want to shift the focus a bit and talk about the pilots behind those characters. A trouble character doesn’t necessarily mean a trouble player; in fact, I think most trouble characters are the result of misguided or misinformed players. Whereas Trouble Players are a whole different taco altogether.

What exactly is a Trouble Player? 

In short, I’d say a Trouble Player is someone who detracts from the game. Everyone has a little bit of Trouble in them, times when they had a bad day at work or are just flat out exhausted, and we won’t fault ourselves too much for that. However it’s the consistent taking away from the game that becomes a problem. You talk about this player with the other guys and gals after the session; we say things like “the session was great except for the part where X did Y”; we consider changing the style of the game, the rules, or anything else for the benefit of one player above all others.

Furthermore, I think the Trouble Player resists friendly attempts to bring them back in line with the rest of the group. You can’t really become Trouble if you’re honestly trying not to be. I think the common thread that runs through each troubled player is that they are unwilling or unable to change their behavior. Whether someone ever should change for a game, that’s another question altogether. (Though I would say yes, you can need to change. No one is entitled to role playing. It’s hard to enforce a hard-line stance with Trouble, since he or she is often your friend, but there’s nothing forcing anyone to game together. Thus, its reasonable to have a “this is the way the game is, shape up or ship out”. It doesn’t need to be and shouldn’t be done with hostility or a bad attitude, but it is a reasonable thing to say, more or less.)

Where good players go bad

Not everyone starts out as a Trouble Player, but some obviously do. If you refer to last week’s post, I specifically talked about a social contract between the players and the GM, which can basically be summed up as: “we’re all going to have a good time here.” Now, that’s obviously a massive simplification, but the point stands: if everyone is on the same page, then you’re much more likely to have a good time.

It’s when folks have different expectations for the game that they can quickly become Trouble Players.

Continue reading “The Inquisition: Trouble Players”

The Inquisition: Trouble Characters

Some characters can be trouble, just like this guy.
Thanks to flickr user martin_heigan. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

This is the first of a two-part article about trouble at your gaming table. I’ve divided my thoughts into two sections: dealing with trouble characters, and dealing with trouble players. I’ll start with trouble characters, since they seem to be so much easier to deal with.

The idea here is that all the players involved (including the GM) are interested in having a good time and can work out their differences amicably. It’s hard to isolate when a character is creating a problem and when a player is creating a problem; usually, the character stems directly from the player, and thus its easy to associate lots of these kinds of issues to stubborn, annoying, or otherwise jerky players.

However, even the best players can inadvertently go wrong and make a character that ends up being too much trouble for a smooth game. I think there are definitely a few archetypes that are troubling, so I’ll talk about how to effectively deal with them. With good, conscientious players, it’s easy to just pull them aside and talk it over and fix any problems that might exist. But we know that not every situation is black and white, not every good player is open to criticism, not every GM is the best communicator in the world, and so on. So let’s dive right in.

What makes a problem character?

This is a difficult question to answer. I want to say something like “doesn’t fit in with the rest of the group” but that’s not really fair to all of the characters out there who are clearly alien and make it work. It’s not about culture, it’s about mindset.

Continue reading “The Inquisition: Trouble Characters”

The Inquisition: Do I Fit?

Puzzling, you say?
Thanks to flickr user INTVGene! CC BY-SA 2.0

Our inquisitor seems to be all about asking the probing introspective questions nowadays. What’s with that?

I was recently asked (along with my lady-friend) to sit in on an already-in-progress Dungeons and Dragons group. We were asked to play characters who had already been created and fleshed out and were right in the middle of a dungeon crawl, and we had never gamed with any of the other players in the group before, nor with the GM (One of the players is a co-worker of mine). This whole experience cast into relief the experience that a lot of people have when looking for or joining a new group – how does each member fit within the group? Are there any roles that exist at the table (and not just Healer/Tank/DPS or Controller/Leader kind of roles) – what kind of player roles do you or your players take? How difficult is it to fit in? How does playing a character someone else built change your perspective on the game? How hard is it to just join up in the middle of something? All these questions answered, and more! /circuspitch

Let’s start with a simple one: joining an already existing game. I think I’ve been fairly spoiled as a role-player; I’ve had the uncanny knack (and of course my own goading has helped this along) to have games spring up around me. Since I started playing I’ve never been for want of a group unless I wanted to take a break, I’ve convinced people who have never played before to game, have convinced old groups to try new games and so on. So I haven’t really had to face any adversity when coming into groups; I’ve always pretty much been able to cherry-pick (so to speak) my group’s membership. So, this game I played last weekend was something outside of my comfort zone.

I asked myself a lot of questions before going in. What would the general atmosphere of the game be? Slapstick or serious? Rules-crunchy or fast-and-loose? Lots of tabletalk and horseplay, or complete focus on the game? Obviously these are all extremes but I tend to fall on the less-serious (jokes welcome!), rules-y, and focused sides of the spectrum. I was worried that I might be too rules-y for these guys, who were more old-school types engrossed in a long-term (though infrequently meeting) 3.5 game. I tend to be a planner, and I really enjoy the aspects of a roleplaying game like DnD where you get to pore over details such as the construction of a room and try to figure out the inscrutable. I was worried that these guys might be hack-and-slash kick down the door types? Would I fit in?

I wondered about the character that was laid before me; another, former, player had created Gorstag the Barbarian, and he was (no offense) about as vanilla as they come. I had a very short backstory (I was hired by one of the other players at the beginning of the adventure) to be his bodyguard. That was it. Would the other players accept my expansion of his backstory? Should I just play him as the stereotypical barbarian? Should I even try to figure out what the original player’s modus operandi was?

As it turned out, I worried too much. Of course! It’s a game! We had some cheese and crackers, a veggie tray, some chips, some soda, and hacked and slashed our way through a dungeon. It was a bit awkward getting to know everyone at first, but that can’t be avoided. Two of us had new (old?) characters, so it took a bit of time to get the mannerisms down. I ended up going with the “alien” barbarian trope, where these customs and cultures were strange to me, and I got into a bit of conflict with the Cleric over “desecrating” remains, which I responded to by going on at length about my tribe’s belief in using everything and letting nothing go to waste. It was a good time, and I settled down from my usual hyper-creativity and just had some fun. I was definitely out of my comfort zone, but that’s not a bad thing.

Best of all, it kind of refreshed me. Like I talked about last week, this was something very different. I wasn’t running a game, I wasn’t able to come up with a detailed backstory or spend countless hours honing my character, I just showed up, was given a character sheet, had the stage set (in the middle of a dungeon, in the middle of a module, no less) and hit the ground running. I liked fleshing out my character on the fly, figuring out what he could do and why, figuring out how to re-tool my equipment the next time we went to town (literally the only pieces of gear on my sheet were Greatsword and Chain Shirt, not a single other thing – I assume I was literally naked from the waist down).

I think groups will naturally form their own chemistry, and the best groups will be so much more than the sum of their parts. It’s just hard to know how to piece everything together, and how it will work.

I guess the bottom line is: don’t be afraid to step outside your comfort zone. It sounds obvious, but try out games even with people who you don’t know. It’s great to introduce newbies to roleplaying as well; I haven’t yet met someone who didn’t love role-playing after trying it.

This is not to say that every experience will work out well. I’ve had groups not mesh and simply fall apart, but this usually happens because of scheduling and priorities (of which gaming is obviously not one). Usually, if everyone is having fun, then groups tend to stick together. I can’t emphasize how important having a dynamic GM is for this, but, and I know I seem to harp on this every week, being an attentive, creative, and energetic player goes a long way toward making everyone’s experience enjoyable.

Next week: Character classes for your players. Or, the roles we take at the table.

Blog at

Up ↑