Gamebook store

Friday 12 April 2019

Game rules that lead to ridiculous results

One of the problems with game design is that the rules you come up with may have unlooked-for consequences. Well, I say it’s a problem; actually it can be rather satisfying. Early playtesters of Deus Ex realized they could get out of a maze by planting a limpet mine on a wall and rocket-jumping off it. The designers accepted that as a rather neat bit of lateral thinking. Not a bug, a feature.

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.


  1. The only thing that readily comes to my mind happened in FL6 where you can swim across a river with a successful SCOUTING roll even if your character is wearing Heavy Plate +6.

    Still... try to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich in a step by step way, like in a text adventure game, like


    Real life has way too many variables to adequately simulate with game rules. Really the best real-life defense against people abusing equipment bonus is "you'll look stupid and weird." If your player and going around in plate armor, they'll attracted negative attention from authorities might sit out a couple of adventures in a Victorian Era insane asylum.

    1. The social cost of gadding about in armour can be invoked in games where the players are interacting within a society, not so much in the Wild West or a WW2 commando mission. I'd accept some arbitrary ruling in a much simpler game system, but GURPS spends hundreds of pages laying claim to being an authentic simulation of the real world. Given that it fails so badly at that, they could just as well have put all the rules in 20 pages and saved GURPS players a lot of time and money.

    2. Doesn't GURPS have, like, 50 books on various settings and Tech Levels? And none of them noted that plate armor doesn't work so well against bullets (which would certainly be available in a Victorian setting)?

      For my part, I like the way TORG: Eternity deals with armor. It gives a + to Toughness to resist damage, but heavier armor gives a Fatigue penalty (which effectively works as a kind of unsoakable damage inflicted on the character. Also the heavier/bulkier it is, the less your Maximum Dexterity (which controls how effectively you wield weapons and/or dodge said weapons). If you're wearing armor with a max Dex of 8 and your normal Dex is 12, that's a 4 point penalty to a whole host of actions, many of which are important in combat.

    3. I've lost count of GURPS books. The irony is that GURPS does distinguish between different damage types (crushing, piercing, etc) and the concept of armour divisors (ie reducing armour's effectiveness against some attacks) but doesn't deploy those rules in a way that realistically discourages heavy armour. In a Wild West game, for instance, a .38 revolver does 2d6-1 damage with no armour divisor, while plate armour can stop 6 or 7 points and is quite light enough to run around in if you're moderately strong. So logically everybody ought to dress like Ned Kelly.

    4. Well, to be fair, the tactic Kelly used worked pretty well for him until the police took "aimed" shots at his legs with a shotgun.

    5. True dat. Although I bet his homemade armour was a lot more encumbering than a GURPS metal cuirass.

  2. I absolutely like Warhammer Fantasy (I mean the first [French] edition) but its damage system is often criticized.
    In my first self-written scenario, there was an execution scene, more exactly the flogging of a woman. I hadn't pre-written but *played* it in real-time, throwing the dice to reckon the damage on the poor victim.
    As she was an "inert target", damage was doubled and the second whip-stroke... cut her in two... :-(
    (by the way, I mustn't have been the only side-victim of that rule, since changes for whip-damage were already introduced in "Restless Dead")

    1. I understand that flogging in Roman times was sometimes called "the half death" but I don't think that's quite what those classical writers had in mind!

  3. Even in medieval(ish) games, armour doesn't tend to be mechanically penalised enough for non-combat activities, I think. GMs tend to be far too content to allow characters to traipse around in full armour all the time. If PCs are ambushed in their tents, they won't be in full plate, and they won't be wearing it to travel on foot either. (Oddly, I reckon many systems underplay the effectiveness of full plate and shields *in combat* while ignoring their awkwardness in other situations.)

    In fact, I don't think *any* kind of heavy armour is likely to be a natural choice for adventuring unless the 'adventure' is something like a full-frontal assault on an orc stronghold. The Fellowship of the Ring had a shield, a 'short shirt of steel rings' and a hidden mithril shirt between nine of them - and that sounds about right for most RPG adventures.

    Gambesons would be practical for protection and warmth, and maybe the odd breastplate or mail shirt would work, but the fact that so many adventurers go potholing in plate armour seems to me exactly the sort of ridiculous result that you're discussing here.

    Because the mechanics of RPGs tend to be combat-focused, the positives of armour tend to outweigh the negatives (not least because people tend to forget about encumbrance rules during games). A while ago, I had a few ideas about how GMs could penalise overly laden adventurers:

    1. Interesting post with some real food for thought. Off the top of my head: encumbrance rules often get overlooked because players hate book-keeping, which is why armour ends up being too useful. Just noting your potholing example, I have spelunking friends who have had to strip to their underwear to get past boulders. No way would they have got armour down there. But GURPS has a double problem, as it is too lenient about the encumbrance of armour and shields anyway. So even if you apply the rules, it still doesn't work. I know, I know... the answer is: don't use GURPS!

  4. Hah - an amusing DW related one - a dagger does 3 points of damage. A player falls unconscious at 0 or less HP, and as long as they don't fall to -3 HP or fewer, will wake up with 1 HP.

    One of my players made a joke of this with the line "I am Conner Macleod of the Clan Macleod, and I cannot die". He then stabbed himself with a dagger until unconscious. On awakening, he repeated the line, and stabbed himself again. Repeating this sequence a few times.

    Of course a GM ruling can over-ride legally valid rules, but it was amusing to let it play out.

  5. That made me think of Steve Martin's line in Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid. "This wound's never gonna heal!"