Tabletop RPGs Have a Design Debt to Pay
There are two kinds of design flaws in tabletop RPGs.
First, there are the “flaws” — really, tradeoffs — that we can disagree over. These are mechanics that serve a purpose but impose costs elsewhere that may not be worth it or enjoyed by all players. Often these flaws relate to tone, flavor, play style, or competing design goals.
For example, player characters in Dungeons & Dragons have hit points roughly proportional to their level. As a result, encounters with weaker enemies become trivial at higher levels, and encounters with once-unbeatable enemies become manageable. Players who enjoy seeing their characters grow rapidly in power and outgrow old challenges may like this dynamic. And players who want ordinary human-level challenges to stay dangerous may prefer slower hit-point growth or none at all. We can reasonably disagree.
Then there are true, unambiguous flaws. These are mechanics that serve no purpose even as they impose complication and confusion, and detract in other ways. Perhaps because there’s less to passionately disagree over, these abject problems receive less airtime. Today, let’s focus on them.
First, I’ll give an extended example of one such flaw in D&D. Then I’ll draw out some general lessons about how bad design lingers and spreads and what we, as players and designers, can do about it.
Ability Scores vs. Modifiers
In Dungeons & Dragons, all creatures — player characters, NPCs, monsters — have both ability scores and modifiers derived from the scores. The modifiers are used in just about every roll in the game, but the scores don’t do much on their own. There are a few exceptions — a character in 5th Edition D&D can carry 15 lbs. of gear for every point in their Strength score, for instance. But these cases feel like half-hearted attempts to justify retaining the scores on a character sheet.
Meanwhile, maintaining the separation between scores and modifiers causes three problems.
First, ability scores have the awkward property that they do not translate one-to-one to modifiers. Only on even numbers do modifiers increase — a score of 12 and 13 both yield a +1 modifier, but a score of 14 gives a +2, for instance. As a result, items, magic, and other effects that increase ability scores by +1 have no effect on a character whose relevant score is already at an even value. It’s no surprise, then, that most such effects instead give an even-numbered bonus. But such bonuses are equivalent to directly increasing the modifier — they are attempts to get around the intermediating step of scores.
The second problem is confusion. When the DM says “add your Charisma,” it will be obvious to those who’ve played D&D a few times that they should add their Charisma modifier, not their Charisma score. But new players frequently confuse this. It’s a small and usually short-lived problem, but it makes teaching the game that much harder.
The third problem is the least severe but most visible: ability scores take up unnecessary space on character sheets and in rulebooks. Every inch of a character sheet should be quick and easy to use at the table. And each number and piece of text adds to the time it takes to find what you need. Likewise, every monster stat block is a little longer because it includes ability scores.
None of these problems is severe — neither are all three put together. But they are entirely unnecessary. Since most effects come in multiples of two, the transition to a modifier-only system would be smooth. As for character creation, there are plenty of easy and fun ways to generate ability modifiers without scores. Knave: Second Edition is a good example of how to make a modifier-only mechanic work in a D&D-like d20 system. As far as I can tell, there’s really no downside.
Design Debt and Contagion
It’s easy to find other examples of the second type of design flaw — mechanics that essentially no one should want — in D&D. Spell levels differ from the levels at which a character learns to cast them. Both spell attack rolls and spell saves exist, with no consistent rule for when to use one versus the other. Legacy terminology — check, save, feat — persists across editions despite being unintuitive. In each case, there’s a fix available: renumber spell levels (as 13th Age did), roll saves consistently or roll against spell defenses (as 4th Edition did), and rename old terms (compare Blades in the Dark’s crystal-clear action roll, resistance roll, and special ability).
But my point is not to harp on D&D’s flaws but to make sense of them and why they stick around. The first example, scores vs. modifiers, already illustrates two painfully common features of the unambiguous type of design flaw.
First, such flaws are a type of design debt. In software development, design debt refers to code — usually a quick, low-cost, but inferior solution that made sense at some point — for which there is a superior alternative. Until the debt is repaid — by fixing the code — it grows, getting harder to change and constraining what further work is possible. On the one hand, tabletop RPGs are far less brittle than codebases. The roleplay and stories remain fun even if the game rules are contradictory to one another or to the game’s design goals . The game system will seldom “crash” outright when you update an old mechanic.
On the other hand, players’ and designers’ expectations and imaginations are shaped by mechanics, including bad ones. Once we start thinking in terms of ability scores, it becomes easier to imagine a version of D&D in which ability scores have new uses — like Strength scores determining carrying capacity — than a version that does away with the scores entirely.
If Wizards of the Coast had abolished ability scores in 5th Edition, I expect the change would have faced intense backlash as many of 4th Edition’s bold changes did (this doesn’t feel like D&D!), not because the change would have made for worse play, but because we’ve grown used to the inferior solution. Thus, the cost of repaying design debt in tabletop RPGs is a combination of the cost of finding a better solution (if it isn’t already available) and the cost of getting players onboard with it.
Second, the debt is contagious. When we learn how to implement a quick solution and grow accustomed to it, it’s easy to reproduce. For example, Dungeon World adapts the Powered by the Apocalypse system, which lacks ability scores, to D&D-style fantasy adventure. In doing so, it incorporates the six core abilities from D&D — not only by name but also as scores and modifiers, with only slightly different math. Once again, the designers find the occasional way to make the scores themselves relevant, for instance, by keying hit points off the Constitution score. But the designers could have implemented a simpler PbtA-style system with a single number for each ability. It is almost as if the genre or the audience demanded — or was believed to demand — those fiddly old scores.
Hence, bad game design — even when there are unambiguously better solutions — has a way of haunting us. It sticks around, changes how we see it, and spreads. It is especially important for influential games like D&D to bite the bullet, pay off their design debt, and set a good precedent for the rest. There are plenty of examples of success. 3rd Edition, for instance, simplified the game’s core mechanic by introducing the d20 system, pushing the industry toward more consistent, unified designs.
Let’s keep up that trend. By making ourselves aware of the shortcomings of the systems we’re accustomed to — playing diverse systems and thinking hard about how they solve design problems differently — we can inoculate ourselves against the imaginative constraints of design debt, stop its spread, and build something fresh.