Three Things RPGs Get Wrong

I’ve been thinking about a post I read a couple days ago about gear rules in RPGs. I don’t have a problem with gear per se except when it’s boring, but it did get me thinking about the top three things I don’t think any RPG has ever modeled or expressed or whatever to my satisfaction. Which may mean I just haven’t seen them! So tell me where to look for example of games that get these right.


Oh lordy, becoming a parent made it obvious that this is one of the Great Huge Topics that RPGs just haven’t gotten right. So, sure, pretty common to see “they kidnapped/murdered your child! Revenge!” Whatever. But the ongoing other stuff, as far as I can tell, is utterly unaddressed. 

I think it’s easy to express parenting-specific insights in the fiction of nearly any game with other parents. But on an intentional procedural level? Or as a core theme of a game? Never seen it done.


I’m really hoping Ryuutama changes this. I have the PDF but I haven’t read it yet (damn you Urban Shadows, let go of my eyeballs). But honestly, as someone who has traveled an awful lot, it is constantly dismaying to see how it’s treated in gaming. The One Ring has some interesting ideas that I’d love to try out: not just the map game and navigating your way across the countryside, but also in how you interact with strangers.

What I’ve found is really missing is the transformative power of travel. How seeing the world changes people. I don’t mean earning XPs, either. I mean more in the Mark Twain way:

“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”

Mark Twain


Was there ever a more badly treated subject in gaming? I think this reflects general social awkwardness that many gamers, I think, struggle with. So they treat Charisma as a superpower and/or a dump stat and/or something it isn’t, i.e. hotness. Hurr hurr look at that body, that’s what CHA 18 looks like yo.

Terrible. Embarrassing. The broader category of emotional intelligence (yes, it’s an imperfect term) just hasn’t been handled right in any game I’ve ever seen. I’d go so far as to say that the traditional approach has been downright bad for learning how actual people actually work.

My actual list is a lot longer but those are the topics that spring to mind hardest and fastest.

What topics do you think have been most mistreated in gaming?

0 thoughts on “Three Things RPGs Get Wrong”

  1. Mental illness. I think this is on its way to improving in the indie/freeform world (and there are some great digital games like Depression Quest), but it’s a difficult thing to do right. And we have however many decades of “roll against your Sanity stat” to push back against.

  2. Ribbon Drive gets some parts of travel (the personal transformations, the bonding with companions, the small moments) really right, but it doesn’t always do the encounters with random strangers.

  3. Travel & Charisma
    Hexcrawl rules and reaction rolls based on Charisma do everything you’re complaining about. As usual, D&D is the best solution for all roleplaying issues.

  4. Aging. It’s either just color or, most often, a disadvantage. Maybe it’s too nuanced a topic. Sure, lots of RPGs take on characters who change, but I dunno any that really address getting old or maturity.

  5. Love.  Both “brotherly” and romantic.  It gives and takes, but never in interesting ways.  Put simply, there’s very few reasons (mechanically) to fall in love in most rpgs.

  6. Parenthood and travel: Yes. Entirely.

    On Charisma, though … I think many of the AW hacks handle manipulation, charisma, and hotness fairly well. Monster Hearts in particular.

  7. As for other things that are treated poorly: human beings reactions to violence, and capability of starting it. Generally, in D&D — to pick on the giant — there is no long-term psychological ramification from enacting violent act after violent act. And, it is really easy to start violence.

    With that, there’s also only one level of stake: to the death!

  8. William Nichols I get what you’re saying! But a lot of PbtA social solutions I’ve seen feel way more, I don’t know…transactional than how things work in real life. Granting that there are certainly transactional social relationships.

    I think they’re among the better treatments.

  9. Space-ship to space-ship combat. In fighters it never captures the speed and excitement, in bigger ships most of the players sit on their hands while one or two of them do everything.

  10. What topics do you think have been most mistreated in gaming?
    I can’t think of a single thing! “mistreatment” seems like such a loaded term. I think things have been done badly, though

    like, um

    “Getting Lost” has always seemed kind of hard to gamify and make fun & interesting and not just Stalling Obstacle.

    The usual dilemma of Getting Info From Captured Bad People. How do you make that fun and not awkward? Beats the hell out of me.

  11. Vigilance. I’ve written about this before, but the mental effort of staying attentive, the stimulus overload and awe of a rich visual field e.g. a view from high up, looking down over a clearing-dotted forest, and you’ve been tasked to watch for orcs; staying glued to your scanner for any sign of a blip; looking for a hint of wreckage as you pass over the mountains in your Cessna.

  12. Oh yeah, violence for sure.

    For me that sort of falls under a bigger umbrella of how people change under all sorts of circumstances, including the travel thing. And come to think of it, the charisma thing.

    We almost certainly all game with some eye toward the pleasure/comfort/safety of control. Work an economy to get what you want. Direct the fiction to get what you want. Hold your character at arm’s length to make them act how you want.

    I know the emotional traits rules in King Arthur Pendragon were a serious source of friction here for those reasons. And the turn them on rules in Monsterhearts tend to be love/hate deals as well.

  13. Putting stuff back together and/or maintaining it.

    In most trad games keeping a stronghold or an  organization or that stronghold you get at 9th level becomes an exercise in die rolls and number crunching.
    In non-trad games that are about organizations and communities, the players are expected to play hard and work towards conflict, which often means that trying to create something worthwhile is pretty much begging for a kicking.

  14. Paul, do you feel like the things you’ve listed belong in existing published games and were unfortunately overlooked by the creator, or you would just like to see a game that explores some of those concepts?

  15. Not just overlooked but actively incorrect. Well, parenting as a meaningful topic I think has been overlooked. EDIT but when it shows up, it’s about on par with any other melodramatic hook ie you lost your family and now you’re looking for revenge. The other two, though, are misleading in every treatment I’ve ever seen.

  16. I admit that I’m with Casey G. (filthy  D&Dplaying murderhoboists that we are) at raising an eyebrow at the idea that RPGs do Travel poorly.

    Every RPG I’ve ever played with has been – at least partially but usually almost entirely – about Exploration, Discovery and Wonder – all the things that Traveling is, at its best. I think there’s a model of linear point-crawling Go from A to B to C in objectives and maybe locations and the lack of in-between fidelity there that you might be critiquing, but what in-between fidelity would there be beyond tinier A, Bs and Cs?

    Experience Points may be unsatisfyingly abstract as a This Changes A Person Like Travel Does metric; I absolutely agree with your quote that progressiveness and mind-expanse is directly attributable to exposure, challenge & curiosity, but, man… those are things that tabletop roleplaying does woooooonderfully, at least through the mindscapes of our shared imaginations and possible imagined interactions

  17. Charisma isn’t emotional intelligence, though. That’s empathy. Like, Donald Trump and Sherlock Holmes have charisma, but they also behave like a sociopaths. (God, Paul, stop being wrong about games.)

    And empathy is my addition. Empathy is usually a skill that is either a lie detector or a clue dispenser.

    What kirin robinson said though. What is the purpose of these things in games? To create an honest and authentic portrayal, or as instruments that push fiction forward? Why can’t they be both sometimes? And why can they not be both other times?

  18. I totally agree with Paul Beakley​ that travel is handled terribly in games. Even beyond the internal transformation, games do precious little for the sense of awe and wonder that comes from being exposed to new and astonishing things.

    There’s a moment in the movie Gladiator where Djimon Honsou’s character sees the Flavian Amphitheatre for the first time and says something to the effect of “I did not know men could build such things.” I’ve felt similarly many times in my travels, gawking at both human-made and natural wonders. No amount of XP can properly represent the feeling, and as yet, I’ve never seen a game that tries to emulate it in any other way.

  19. Oh no, see, IMO Trump has enormous emotional intelligence. He knows exactly what his audience wants to hear. 

    Agreed re empathy. Excellent addition.

    Also, totally a side note but here’s as good a place as any: I’m getting worn down by the “wrong about games” meme. And, yes, I have participated with great glee in the very recent past. But it hit a saturation point with me recently so I’d ask to please hold off on that around me for a few days. And again, my apologies because I am being 100% hypocritical about that.

  20. Paul Beakley Sure, AW and Dw are intentionally transaction. And the beginning social moves in MH are — but Make Someone Feel Beautiful? Or, the advanced seduce/manipulate in AW?

    I think that’s intentional. Teenage monsters don’t know how to really connect, neither do most people in AW. You have to really work on improving those skills (advancing/growing up) to move it from transactional to not.

    Basically, any of us would be super cultured in those realities.

  21. Re: Trump – I think he’s good at observing behaviors and figuring out how to elicit the reactions he wants. That’s not empathy, though. I think that matters because the reality is that most of us don’t want to really engage in empathy at the game table. It is taxing and hard to be empathic. It’s easier to just look at the effects of traits and how they can be used to make a story that grabs you. That’s why game stories fridge kids but don’t make you roll to change a diaper, I suspect.

  22. Clover hits me in the parent. It’s not the whole of parenthood/childhood but it gets at a part of it. I’m hoping that The Warren gets at another part. I can’t wait to see future inroads to those themes!

  23. A followup on charisma and emotional intelligence, which Travis Scott​ I think correctly points out I’m conflating in a confusing way.

    I think the thing that’s missing is the thing I mention up a few comments: the lack of control. Or rather, it’s the game-y desire/need for control that makes interpersonal reactions so unrealistic. There’s a baked-in assumption in RPGs that humans are rational actors that I think is interestingly political and mostly unexamined.

    Tenra Bansho Zero, actually, does a neat thing with its reverse-reaction table. It’s mostly IMO a storygame tool: it tells you how you react to someone else, which may imply or require backstory material to rationalize. Or fuck it, it’s totally irrational but you hate this NPC. 

    I mean, beyond a few controllable variables (working with/around the other person’s prejudices and history), we don’t really have much say in who we like/dislike. I’ve got clients who make me batshit but I cannot help but like them. I know people who share literally every one of my interests and we want to claw each other’s eyes out.

    So, charisma. I think that in the real world some of it is controllable and learnable (via understanding emotional cues, mirroring, careful deployment of stuff like vulnerability and controlled access — yes, I know, this sounds like applied PUA bullshit) but a lot of it is just…chemical. Subconscious. Fate or luck or whatever. And the reverse is true: some folks just rub everyone wrong.

  24. Not just parenthood, but childhood. Happy Birthday Robot, for instance, is what adults want to believe childhood is like, and not at all what it’s actually like.

  25. Health. Not combat hitpoints, but general health. Maladies and malaise, long-term injuries and disabilities, fitness or lack thereof. Mortality isn’t just “the human body is a car that breaks down over time”. Bodies get better/worse, change, adapt. They get sick on foreign food, tired when awake too long, emotional when distressed.
    Thematic games are starting to capture it, but holy cow, it’s usually just treated as a point buy and ignored.

    All that being said, I once played a Comanche guide who was shot in a gunfight, and spent two gaming sessions laid up in a makeshift hospital in a church. Realistic? maybe. Fun, not really.

  26. It sounds like Paul should make a game about leading a wagon train of families across the American west in the 1800’s. That should tick off all the boxes.

  27. I’m interested in the origins of the Charisma stat. When was it first used? White box D&D? Why? And what was the original intent as having that as part of the game?

  28. I would guess that Charisma comes from “leadership / morale” rolls in war games, since “reaction” rolls are kind of a variation on that: a social roll to see how bad things are for your unit (though relative to foes, rather than the unity of your own unit).

  29. Jesse Coombs  It was part of Empire Building from the wargaming roots. D&D was basically what the heads of the armies of miniatures did in their off times to… well, raise imaginary money for their imaginary armies. Spreadsheet fun before computer spreadsheets ever existed. Charisma was something you could play with to play around with how good you were at raising your armies

  30. Paul Beakley

    So I’ve seen parenthood, travel (in several different ways), empathy, and personal, political, romantic, and entrepreneurial charisma — and celebrity — dealt with well, intentionally, and head on in multiple games.

    All of which were tight little LARPs, with characters created by the writing team to highlight those issues.

    And Nap Time was a fabulous game of being kindergarteners, played Sunday morning of Intercon after two late late nights of gaming.

    I can go into detail on all of those things, but the general thread is that these are complex, messy, and very personal things, and they’re far easier to reach with immersive storytelling than cerebral or representational mechanics.

    Unless you’re Larping at MIT, in which case you probably need both.

  31. Side note, but I felt that Unknown Armies made some progress in showing the damaging effects of violence. I haven’t seen another game do it as well. Maybe Serial Homicide Unit…

  32. Michael Prescott I usually see it kinda handwaved.  It functions usually as a small bonus conferred to other characters.

    But there are so many different leadership styles, and so many situations and people that will mesh well or not so well with them.  Sometimes you want to do your best because you don’t want to let your boss down.  And sometimes you’re flat out afraid to let them down.  Some people need to be micromanaged, others trive when someone delegates and disappears.

    It’s a dynamic that has the potential to be very interesting.  It can also make a game run more smoothly.  Ever been to a con game where one of the characters offered is the leader of the group?  Who that character goes to is being to have a massive impact on the rest of the game.

    And also.. players are usually just left hanging about leadership.  No help whatsoever.

  33. “There’s a baked-in assumption in RPGs that humans are rational actors that I think is interestingly political and mostly unexamined.” – Paul Beakley  – SO very much this. I spent mumblety-mumble years in academia going down the psychology rabbit hole and our ability to manage our own behaviour is sooo much smaller than we appreciate. (Even me, after all this time.)
    I mean, gamers can argue for a million years about realism in combat mechanics and gun statistics but the fact that players have perfect control over their character’s behaviour is eternally ignored and renders that whole argument ludicrous.
    I love games that complicate that stuff somehow. Wraith’s Shadowguide comes to mind – another player whispering stuff in your ear is a pretty blunt way to model non-linear internal processing, but it certainly has a visceral punch to it.
    So that’s my answer – human psychological reality. I look forward to better systemic support for this (in games that it suits).

  34. Building and supporting communities and institutions.

    Big problem there is that you’ll straightaway be making political statements implicit in your design, often of a kind that, say, adolescent and young adult men aren’t likely to like much (contrast D&D).

  35. I think charisma’s inherently hard to model, right? I mean, what’s a functional model of a complete range of human social interactions look like? The earth, shrunk down to fit in your book? Or would you consider just a large village sufficient?

    For all that we’ve spilled orders of magnitude more ink on it over the years, RPGs don’t do swordfighting much more justice than social interaction. The best I’ve really seen there are radically abstracted systems that capture a bit of the feel. There’s a big difference in that we know and accept and expect that, of course. (IMO stuff like some of the PtbA transactional social mechanics or the Duel of Wits does work on this level: it’s a reasonable abstraction of the feel of certain social interactions. If we could get that kind of coverage on a broader variety of interactions, maybe we could call that a win on charisma.)

    Dunno, it feels like a very different sort of category to your other two: it’d be possible to do a few good games about travel and/or parenting and kinda check that off, right? Those are fillable gaps, at least potentially. Not trivial, you’d have to “get it right” or at least generate some interesting takes on the subjects, but I can imagine it happening in the next few years. Solving charisma, on the other hand, is… Well, if you could answer that one and you’re thinking about doing so, STOP MAKING RPGS. Go share your layman’s-terms understanding of the totality of human social interaction with a mass audience, not just a few thousand nerds.

  36. It doesn’t have to be a perfect model, Devin Binger. I just would love to see something that’s closer to approximating the interesting and unpredictable wrinkles of actual human interaction than “can I make them do what I want?”/”how much do I need to pay my hirelings?”/”I’m super attractive so that means people will like me.” All of which grosses me out.

    I’ll be the first to acknowledge that this sort of unpredictability may not be “fun” for a large percentage of the roleplaying audience, especially if they’re deriving a lot of pleasure from the control and safety of traditional game rules.

  37. Rob Alexander oh man community building was the best part of the Ark rules in Mutant: Year Zero. I thought it really did a good job of not only making community building and mutual support necessary, but constantly introduced stresses to that arrangement that prompted the players to evaluate their self-interest balanced against community interests. It wasn’t strictly mechanized but the fiction really brought them to that place.

    I understand Kingdom and The Quiet Year hit that stuff pretty hard, but I haven’t played either one. Might be that they’re more…storyline oriented (for lack of a better term) than human-level engaging.

  38. Paul Beakley (Just for clarity) TQY isn’t tactical at all, it’s more like a series of prompts to come up with community events. (“Someone leaves the community forever, who is it?”) Together, the experience is powerful, but you need to be firmly in author stance. (I played with an 11 year-old that showed the game breaks instantly if you try to “win”.)

  39. Paul Beakley without getting into the old “is it a game” debate, TQY is as much a game as any other story-level play structure, like Microscope or particularly abstract games of Archipelago. Maybe even more than Microscope, because there is a definite end-point. You don’t play a unique character, but everyone plays the community as a whole, and it’s quite common for people to start to embody certain factions within the community over the course of play.

    It does actually do a good job of simulating community, in my experience, especially the little resentments and distrusts that develop when people don’t agree…

  40. Adam D “What is the real definition of x“? questions were created by the devil to waste people’s time. There’s no right answer. In casual speech, concepts like ‘toy’ and ‘game’ are just fuzzy balls of associations, ‘toy’ perhaps being more strongly associated with ‘children’ than ‘game’ is (and hence pejorative to us grown man-children who take our games seriously but nurture insecurity about it).

    I’m much more interested in declared definitions so we can get on with finding out what useful distinctions they draw within the subject they relate to.

  41. Snark answer is “whatever gets a rise out of fans.”

    I don’t have a deeply reasoned and defensible real answer: Toys feel like they don’t drive play in any particular direction. So like…the difference between rules for creating a dungeon, versus Torchbearer.

  42. Paul Beakley “Toys feel like they don’t drive play in any particular direction.” Then TQY is not a toy. It drives play hard toward conflict and the inevitable end-state.

    As for science fiction, I watched four distinguished (or at least successful) scifi authors and publishers (the two I can remember being Robert J. Sawyer and Daniel Abraham) at a writing conference this past weekend argue for nearly 30 minutes about what scifi is, using the Gernsback and Asimov definitions as starting points without coming anywhere near consensus.

  43. Different and pervasive social rules. Some of my players always seem to wind up as anachronistic and indignant modern thinkers whatever setting they’re in. The powerful hook of social standing in general.

  44. Michael Prescott YES!

    I had forgotten about that when I wrote the OP but, yeah, I would looooove to figure out how to move players into a different — either decidedly non-modern or deeply post-human — head space.

    That head space problem was a major struggle, tbh, when we played Circle of Hands. I think the rules try to get you to this older and more primitive place but it’s just…very hard to stay there. What do you mean they’ll just kill us if they don’t trust us? That’s insane!

  45. Tore Nielsen To clarify, I should split up my  points a bit.

    1) When you provide detailed rules for community building and influence, you’re going to make pretty clear political commitments – they might be only implicit in your rules, but they won’t be well hidden. That’s because those rules will deal with the core subject matter of most real-world politics – the matter of how our society works.

    2) In my specific case, I’d be working from my own understanding, which is that individuals are primarily significant via their influence on other people, that direct violence and intimidation are very limited tools, always costly to employ (in terms of collateral damage), and that everyone who functions in society is unavoidably dependent on many other people.

    That’s no going to sit with a lot of angry (and anxious) young men, who are disgusted (and a bit terrified) by dependency on others, are very attached to escapist violence and violence-as-a-robust-solution, and are very focussed on individual achievement and status. And, traditionally, it’s been those young men who have been the main audience for RPGs.

    Obviously people have pointed out the politics implicit in most D&D, which do sit well with the aforementioned young men, but I don’t think they’re so obvious because the rules deal primarily with action-adventure.

  46. Rob Alexander Good points.

    The drive towards conflict by the shortest possible route is a thing that works against creating and maintaining as an objective, When you drive hard towards conflict and the dysfunctional, well, that’s where you end up. Your boyfriend’s breaking up with you during a gunfight at the volcano’s mouth.
    Maybe that’s the next revolutionary development in rpgs, taking your foot off the accelerator.

  47. Rob Alexander On the subject of ‘those young men’: Eric Berne wrote in the 60s about the ‘time structuring problem’ – here we are together for a while, what shall we do? Ask each other awkward questions? Smalltalk about the weather is one answer (which itself has rules about its required duration, it’s fascinating). Unstructured or unconventional interactions can be genuinely frightening. (“What does this guy want from me?” “I won’t know what to say!”)

    RPGs provide a highly structured activity that provides ‘strokes’ without having to negotiate and renegotiate our relationship/conversational roles.

    I see the specter of this in the FUD that arises from some quarters when discussing games that redistribute (say) the traditional GM/PC roles, or playing games which more overtly involve collaboration. Something foundational to a vital human interaction is being tinkered with.

    I think problems with simple answers are in short demand. Real-world problems are often so complicated and thorny that the most a small group of people could hope to do is apply a small change in how people think about it, inspire others, or make a small, meaningful dent.

Leave a Reply