Early Dungeons and Dragons was a whole other matter. The world it presented was ostensibly medieval, but if you really plugged those rules into the Middle Ages then you’d get something unrecognizable. I don’t mean because of elves and dwarves. It’s the rules themselves that skew everything. The different physics. One lone paladin confronting a regiment. Magic users firing off spells like 19th century artillery.
That’s why I made magic extremely rare in Dragon Warriors, so as to make it credible that the world looked and behaved like the real Middle Ages. Or you can go the other way, as Professor Barker did with Tekumel. He worked out how many powerful sorcerers a city or a nation could deploy and worked that into the fabric of Tsolyani society. You haven’t been in a real battle until you hear your own lines beginning the chant for a Doomkill.
The biggest source of counterintuitive behaviour in my own games comes from GURPS’s attempts to have a set of rules for all worlds and all times. I’ll give you a recent example. I was planning a commando scenario set in 1943 and the players wanted to equip with flak jackets. In the real world that’s utterly insane. Flak jackets of the period were bulky and restrictive, not to mention mostly useless against gunfire as they were designed to stop slow-moving shrapnel inside the body of an aircraft – and weren’t terribly good at even doing that.
But here’s the snag. GURPS lists flak jackets as weighing 20lbs and stopping 7 points of damage. That means a moderately strong character (ST 13, say) can have a flak jacket plus all their other weaponry and still count as completely unencumbered. Which is nuts. And that jacket won’t just stop shrapnel; in GURPS terms it will stop most handguns. In fact, if you just went by the GURPS rules, you may as well go on your commando raid wearing medium plate (DR6, weight 20lbs). Hey, you should be able to parachute jump wearing that, right?
In a 19th century campaign of ours, some of the player-characters actually walked around in plate armour. You can't blame the players; under the rules as written that's a perfectly reasonable thing to do, but that was the end of the road for me and GURPS. If a system that claims to be believable throws up results like that, it's really not worth the effort of memorizing all 570 pages. I went cold turkey with the much more enjoyable (and more realistic, even) Sagas of the Icelanders and haven't looked back.
As it turns out, the British did experiment in the early 1940s with infantry body armour weighing just 3lbs. The US Army took a look at this and, to nobody’s surprise, concluded that:
“…all reports indicated that any advantages of such armor would be very slight as compared to the overall loss of combat efficiency and to the increase in the soldier's carrying load.”And, yeah yeah, you’ve seen videos of re-enactment fellows doing press-ups in full plate. But listen to the impressively scary Stan W Scott explaining why “travel light is travel right”. I wouldn’t argue with him, would you?
It’s annoying because I don’t want to have to say to players, “You can’t have that item.” The rules should rule; on that I’m with Hammurabi. If it's going to come down to arbitrary decisions by the umpire, why bother with game rules at all? Yet if the rules are supposed to be generic and universal, then they should not lead to wildly unrealistic tactics.
Yet… we don’t want more fiddly rules. It's bad enough that you need to fire up Excel just to create a GURPS character sheet. At least that's all in the prep, but nobody likes book-keeping in the middle of a nail-biting game session, which is why encumbrance and fatigue rules tend to be more honoured in the breach. Hence the rules for them are often quite abstract. But it would be very simple for GURPS to factor size into the weight of armour, as Runequest does. I say simple because the weight of armour for a given protective value (ie thickness) goes up with the square of linear dimension - and so too does strength, more or less, being a function of muscle cross-section. So twice as strong means almost twice the weight of armour to carry.
Another factor that many game systems ignore is that even modern body armour is hot. It may not matter in a ten-minute engagement, but it would certainly tell in the course of a ten-mile yomp over the Brecon Beacons. And that aspect is independent of strength. Indeed, greater muscle bulk heats up more, because the surface area goes up with the square but the mass goes up with the cube - meaning that the guy with bigger muscles already loses heat less efficiently, and thus gets fatigued regardless of how easy it is to lift that gear, with or without armour. How might we represent that without continually having to cross off fatigue points? One solution could be like the Psychic Fatigue Rolls in Dragon Warriors. When you fail the roll, you’re fatigued by one level. It’s a little arbitrary, but people do have some days when they’ve got more energy – and the virtue of that kind of rule is that there’s not much book-keeping.
And then there's the restrictive nature of armour. However well articulated, full covering is never going to allow the full fluidity of movement possible without armour. And armour cannot perfectly replicate the weight distribution of the human body, meaning that in effect there should be a separate skill (with defaults, of course) for fighting in armour. Again, that’s not too arduous to factor in – especially not in GURPS, with its veritable thicket of default skills.
What about your games? Have you ever had by-the-letter rules interpretations leading to bonkers results? Georgian adventurers with chainmail overcoats? Private eyes going around ‘30s New York armed with flame throwers? Medieval footmen using longbows like sniper rifles? Share the craziness below.