My Beef with d20

On with the gamer hat. The following is an attempt to articulate some thoughts I’ve had about the effect of the d20 system on current roleplaying game design. It is part rumination, part rant; if you’re someone I talk about RPGs with on a regular basis, you�ve probably heard it before.

When the third edition of Dungeons and Dragons came out a few years ago, it made a big splash, and the ripples are still, well, rippling. All in all, it was an incredibly positive development. Wizards of the Coast called on good people like Jonathan Tweet to work on the new edition. The new rulebooks were sleek and even well-written, an unusual perk in the industry. More importantly, the rules had gone through a major streamlining and, unlike previous versions of D&D, were actually functional by modern design standards. Like every third roleplayer on the planet, I started playing D&D again when third edition came out.

D&D 3.0 was just part of a larger program, though. It formed the core of something called the “d20 Game Engine” or just “d20 System.” Part of it was something innovative and cool — Wizards was open-sourcing their rules. Basically, anyone could write adventures, sourcebooks, or campaign settings for D&D, or even design entirely new games based on the core rules. There were strictures, but they didn’t involve licensing fees — only the clear delieanation of open content, the placement of certain logos, and a plug that “The D&D Players Handbook is required to use this product,” or something to that effect.

So far so good. The Open Gaming License allowed for a big burst of RPG content, and helped Wizards sell lots of Players Handbooks along the way. But above and beyond all this, was interested in making the d20 system a sort of universal system for roleplaying. In-house, they developed Star Wars d20 and d20 Modern. They let other companies do d20 Call of Cthulhu, d20 Babylon 5, and probably others I�m not aware of. (A clarification: the different between an OGL game and a d20 SL game is that the former has to say in it ‘requires the Players Handbook,’ whereas the latter is a standalone game based on the same mechanics.)

All these games, despite their widely different milieux, shared some core mechanics. Universal roleplaying systems are nothing new. Everybody remembers GURPS; some people even still play it. I don’t have a problem in theory with the notion of a universal system, but I do have some problems with d20 and the number of games it’s gobbling up along its merry way. I can see the problem that d20’s designers faced — they needed a system that was flexible enough to fit virtually any story setting, but detailed enough that it would be something they could actually trademark. For example, no one could object to the following as a universal game system:

1. Characters in the game shall have Attributes, which are general, and Skills, which are specific.
2. To resolve an action, a player rolls a die, and adds the value for a Skill and one for an Attribute, if applicable. These are compared with some target number in order to resolve what happens.

Though I’m sure someone imaginative could construct a setting where even this ruleset would prove limiting, it’s pretty darn flexible. But it’s also way too general for anyone to claim ownership of. d20 has added a few things to it:

  • The signature addition is that that randomizing die has twenty sides to it. A minor addition, though it is one that has concrete implications — compared to the use of a four-sided die, say, in d20 games fortune is going to play a relatively important role.

  • In d20 games, the Attributes are the same: Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, Intelligence, Wisdom, Charisma. Making these part of the core system irks me to no end, for reasons you can bet I’ll get to.

  • d20 games have character classes and levels. Classes are general ways of describing who a character is, and depending on the game, can be tightly or loosely structured. Levels are a widely familiar notion — as you increase in levels, you get more powerful. You go up levels by acquiring experience points.

There’s a little bit more to it, of course, but the stuff described above hits on the problems I have with d20. Its origins are in D&D-style sword-and-sorcery, and key elements of its design remain rooted in that setting. They don’t translate as well into other settings and genres, and using d20 for those purposes creates games that aren’t as cool, wonderful, and helpful in telling stories as they could be.

First Problem: The d20 Six

The distinction between Attributes and Skills isn’t a necessary one, but it’s helpful and common, and there’s no reason to quibble with it. But there are a couple different philosophies about what distinguishes the two groups:

1. Attributes are a character’s intrinsic qualities, and Skills are things they pick up during life. Your basic nature/nurture division.
2. Attributes are core aspects of a character that are important to the setting and that all characters have to greater or lesser extent. Skills are more focused aspects and abilities that characters may or may not have.

From either perspective, d20 has problems. Let’s go with #1 for a moment. The core six attributes suit D&D to a T. Built into the game is the notion of a party of adventurers, including the Burly Fighter, the Quick Thief, the Smart Magic Guy, etc. But if we were designing Grad School: The Roleplaying Game (to use an extreme example), how helpful would these six be? Neither Strength, Dexterity, nor Constitution would be likely to come up very much. It might be easier to go with a simple “Athletics” attribute that included a lot of those things. Intelligence should probably be broken up — into Memory and Reason, at the very least. And so on.

For an actual d20 example, let’s use the Star Wars RPG. The first edition of the game (designed by Greg Costikyan, who has a fine blog) used Strength as an attribute, sure, but it also had “Mechanical,” which described how good you were at operating and fixing vehicles, and “Technical,” which described how good you were with computers and bypassing security systems and whatnot. These made sense for that particular setting, and would have been ridiculous in a D&D game. Sure, you can use the d20 Six in a Star Wars game, but why wouldn’t you want an Attribute that described how you good you were, generally, at flying stuff — something that comes up all the time in Star Wars?

Moving on to #2. This is the take on Attributes and Skills that I prefer, because it gives a lot more flexibility, and also because making a distinction between your innate and learned abilities doesn�t strike me as all that important in a roleplaying game. Lots of great games use attributes that are custom tailored to their world. Examples: Amber (Psyche, Strength, Endurance, Warfare); Everway (Earth, Air, Fire, Water); My Life With Master (Self-Loathing, Weariness, Love).

In the original Call of Cthulhu RPG, one of the attributes was Education. This fit perfectly in a setting where many of the characters were scholars, and their ability to pore through ancient tomes was often a central part of the story. In the Cthulhu mythos, in other words, how educated you are is one of the most important things that describes you. It ought to be an Attribute. But in d20 Call of Cthulhu, it’s not — we have our old friends the D&D Six, and education is a side stat.

The reason that the Six work at all is that they do cover a number of general traits that people have, and they’re nicely divided between physical and mental attributes. Over the years, their definitions have slightly shifted to accommodate gaps — for example, Wisdom now includes “perceptiveness,” which it didn’t do in the first editions of D&D. (There wasn’t an easy way to measure how good you were at noticing things back then — one of the system’s glaring weaknesses.) So they do a pretty good job. But it seems to me that picking the attributes for your game system is an easy, elegant, and clear way to say “This Is What This Game Is About,” and forcing the Six to fit into any mold diminishes the games that emerge.

Second Problem: Character Classes and Levels

Classes are only a problem if they’re as stringently defined as they are in D&D. Again, sword-and-sorcery stories are full of archetypal characters like the Sorcerer and the Valiant Warrior. In D&D your class determines all the most important things about you, but fortunately d20 is flexible enough that this doesn’t have to be the case in all games. Call of Cthulhu d20, for example, is largely skill-based. But I can think of cases where plugging characters into character classes at all feels wrong. But why on earth would you want character classes in, say, Babylon 5? The characters on the television show had such varied pasts, and came from such vastly different races, that a broad, skills-based system definitely seems appropriate. But d20 B5 labels Sinclair as an “Officer” and Delenn as a “Diplomat.” I’ve just been re-watching season one [yes, yes, I know, thanks for asking . . . there are some wince-worthy moments but it’ll be worth it in the end], and Sinclair is both more active and more effective as a diplomat than Delenn. Trying to boil down such complex characters into classes just ends up being reductive.

I haven’t played d20 Modern, but in reading through the rules I noted that its basic character classes are: The Strong Hero, The Quick Hero, The Tough Hero, The Smart Hero, The Dedicated Hero, and The Charismatic Hero. WTF? When the classes don’t even represent anything specific in the game world, but are just abstraction of the Attributes, then what’s the point?

But, as I said, that’s not an intrinsic problem to d20. Levels are, though.

I first understood the source of the whole level thing in D&D when I read the Iliad in college. Here were all these heroes trapsing around the battlefield, getting into fights. They were clearly a cut above the rabble that fought around them, and it was equally clear that there was a hierarchy of strength, combat ability, and general bad-assedness — the Greeks called it “arete.” No one doubted that Achilles was the highest-level fighter at Troy, and that Hector was right below him. Odysseus and Sarpedon and a few others were on the next rung, and on down from there.

This sort of hierarchy works for Greek epic myth, and it works for sword-and-sorcery. It wouldn’t make sense in a game that, for example, wanted to recreate absolutely realistic Bronze Age combat. I’m betting that in the chaos of a real battlefield, being very skilled is important, but no matter how good you are you’re not going to be able to fight off six opponents surrounding you, and luck is going to play a very strong role in whether you survive until sunset.

Levelling presumes a certain kind of story, where the characters are much more powerful a few years into the storyline than they were at the beginning. It also works best if the stories you want to tell involve starting out with young, wet-behind-the-ears characters. Now, you could easily make a game where there isn�t a big power difference between levels, but then why bother with them in the first place?

That sums up my quibbles with the d20 system. The problem is not that d20 leads to bad or ruined games. Lots of people play them and are perfectly happy with the systems. But the d20 system is pervasive — Star Wars, B5, and Call of Cthulhu all already had roleplaying games, which are no longer being published or developed. Almost all the new, high-profile RPGs that come out — certainly the ones I saw at Gencon this year — were either under the OGL or the d20 System License. And none of these games are quite as good as they could be if they had a little bit more design flexibility, so that their rules could more naturally fit their setting, so that form could follow function. (I should also note that the problem of glomming a system designed to do something else onto a new setting isn’t specific d20, and isn’t even new. Both the old Middle Earth Roleplaying and the new Lord of the Rings RPG make the same mistake.)

If I ran the circus, I would change the d20 System License so that the d20 Six weren’t the required Attributes. I’d also do away with levels and character classes as core required elements of the d20 system. (It’s possible that without those things, there wouldn�t be enough left in d20 to license — I’m not sure.) Then I’d encourage d20 designers to explore the boundaries of the license in order to come up with truly innovative games, instead of carbon-copying D&D and making a handful of cosmetic changes.

Don�t let the fact that I�ve rambled on about this for far too long suggest that I think that The State of Roleplaying Is In Crisis. But none of the big new games of late have been quite as good as they could be, because they’re all bound too tightly to d20.