In my previous post, I highlighted what I felt were the fatal flaws of the d20 System. I’m going to reverse what I said and praise it now, but in a way that is sure to upset d20 fans in the same way the previous post might.
Though d20 is a poor choice of system for creating unique and interesting characters — again, it can be done, but you have to work around the system rather than with it — it shines when placed in the right setting: computer games. Though the trend in cRPGs of late seems to be toward the “action RPG” mode of play (The Elder Scrolls, Mass Effect), several games have had incredible success in adapting the d20 System to a cRPG with few modifications. The turn-based play of combat is often transparent, but two stand-out examples of d20 games spring to mind: Neverwinter Nights and Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic.
While both games put d20 through heavy modification (condensing skills, modifying feats, spells, etc.), they both kept the core idea of d20 at heart. They are also both tremendous fun to play. When the player need only call out to whom they wish to speak, on whom they wish to use a skill, which target they wish to attack, and so forth, d20 works well. That’s not to suggest that the system is too complex; it isn’t. What it is, however, is suited to a user with an avatar and a computer game-style, objective-based mode of play in mind. I would argue against such a mode of play being labeled “role-playing” by any stretch, but that’s a battle with too much inertia pushing in one direction.
Where Levels, Classes, and Races fall down in player-based RPGs, they are a great tool in cRPGs. Levels and experience provide a measurable way for a player to chart their advancement through the game, classes provide a focus down which a player can target his character toward completing that advancement, and races provide interesting visual differentiation and customization options.
I can hear d20 enthusiasts clamoring about how all of those arguments might apply to tabletop games as well. I suspect I would find myself bored in the type of tabletop game they would enjoy. If that’s the kind of game you want to play, why not play it on a computer? Computers can’t (yet!) afford us the possibilities that tabletop games provide for role-playing opportunities; if you don’t care about exploring them, why don’t you play NWN?
In a computer game, too, the weakness of using a 1d20 as a core mechanic is less of a problem. Though I find the visuals a little silly at times (we’re standing still, two feet apart, I swing at you with my three-foot-long sword, and you duck?), it provides a reasonable amount of variation coupled with predictability that tabletop versions of the game don’t seem to afford. Hit Points become much more acceptable, since a paced way of tracking a character’s degradation is more important. Few players would be happy with seeing wound penalties stack up until they drop from a single blow.
I’m sure that systems better than the d20 System can be concocted for cRPGs. Computers are fast enough now that a simulationist’s wet dream should be possible, while leaving the player unencumbered by having to remember all of the mechanics associated thereto. Still, of the games produced (that I’ve played) with the d20 System at their core, they seem to be quite successful.