Though 4th Edition is on the horizon, I thought I would spend some time discussing d20 System, of which the most visible representative is the 3rd Edition of Dungeons & Dragons. This will be a two-part entry, the fist focusing on the weaknesses of d20 and the second on the strengths.
As should already be evident, I have a love-hate relationship with D&D. On the one hand, AD&D2e is the RPG that first introduced me to the dice-based RPG genre. On the other hand, as I have learned more and more about that genre, I have become more and more aware of how weak a system it is. It’s unfair to group AD&D2e and D&D3e into the same discussion, so I will address the latter rather than its predecessor.
I won’t argue that d20 is a versatile system; it is. That it has been successfully adapted to countless different genres is testament to that. That d20 is a universal brand name that most every role-player knows is testament to its notoriety (or infamy). The system’s biggest engine, Dungeons & Dragons, is synonymous with RPGs for most people. Some implementations of d20 even manage to short-circuit or remove some of its pitfalls, making the system that much stronger.
However, the system is also a mascot for the bad genetics of RPGs, as discussed in the previous post. There’s no more clear example of this than in d20’s Class, Race, and Level system. I am at the point where those terms are a virtual death knell for my interest level in a game system. I have read countless arguments for and against said mechanics, and find myself without question in the camp of the nay-sayers.
Class and Race systems are a shortcut. I suspect part of the appeal of d20 is the fact that it permits said shortcuts. They represent a player’s acceptance of a game designer’s opinion of what a Cleric or a Druid is, of what “racial traits” an Elf or an Orc has, and so forth. In general, unless one is speaking of a gifted role-player, these two systems give rise to stereotypes that are replayed over and over. One can of course be creative within this framework, creating characters that are unique and interesting, but the tendency is to make cookie-cutter characters.
The Level system further shoehorns not only the initial basis for a character’s operating mechanics, but indeed the entire advancement path for that character. Rogues always receive Sneak Attack bonuses at pre-defined levels, for example. What of a character who plays a Rogue with no interest in combat ability, who never trains such ability? From where does it come? Perhaps that player wants a different ability that is instead inaccessible to him until some much higher level. What is he to do?
Another big detractor for the d20 System is its namesake: the d20. The mechanic operating the d20 System is a flat line. You roll 1d20, and you’re as likely to see a 1 or a 5, a 10 or a 20. Couple this with the Level system, which shoe-horns combat modifiers and limits skill advancement, and you encounter very frustrating play. It’s the rare occasion when reality — which I use here to mean the reality of a world, not our real-world reality — operates on a flat-line principle. Far more common is the notion of a bell curve distribution, where one’s rolls are clustered toward the center. Great success and great failure are restricted to rare chances. A common bell curve that will be familiar to players of d20 is the 3d6 Ability Score role. The 3d6 roll is an excellent example of the bell curve distribution, with most rolls clustering around 10 or 11, and the rolls of 3 and 18 both having a mere 1/216 chance of occurring.
A major flaw in d20 and many of its offspring is a direct result of its ancestry: Hit Points. For a long time, I had never conceived of a different way of tracking injury. Once introduced to the concepts of a damage track, however, I never looked back. The objective of Hit Points, of course, is to represent durability rather than actual physical health and well-being. A Fighter who had lost 50 of 60 hit points may have not taken a single wound, but was at the threshold of his endurance. This abstraction is often lost on players of d20, and even when it isn’t, the tendency to make it a shortcut for physical health ends up breaking the verisimilitude for me.
I have a number of additional issues with some of the D&D-specific d20 mechanics, focusing on the area of magic use, but those are the broad sections that kill d20 for me. Beyond mechanics, d20 continues to feel like a miniature wargame with a loose role-playing system bolted on top in a haphazard manner. The combat rules are detailed and robust, within the framework in which they operate. I have some objection to how they work, but most of those objections are nitpicks rather than fatal flaws.
I can say this with a high degree of confidence because there do exist implementations of d20 that address many of my issues. A great example is Green Ronin’s Mutants & Masterminds, which takes the d20 System and transports it into the realm of superheroes. Classes, Levels, and Races are all done-away with, as are Hit Points. A point-buy system serves well in their stead. Further, M&M focuses everything through the lens of its Powers mechanic. Powers can be used to construct any concept, from a simple billy club to the ability to move stars.
At the end of the day, though, M&M doesn’t abandon the d20 core mechanic (published under the d20 System banner, how can it?), and so it still falls down in the same way that other d20 System games do. It manages to be more fun than most while it does so, though.