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d20 as a Universal System

Started by Valamir, December 03, 2002, 09:02:33 PM

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I'd say the larger constraint than simply systems, is the constraint on an entire attitude towards presentation.  For example, if you look at the very layout of D20 products, they tend to be laid out in a similiar manner.  

Compare the attitude of D&D to that of Whitewolf games.  In the first, you get very system specific, and have to "construct" the setting by mashing together the various species, magics, classes, and magic items("Well, obviously a world with beholders and drow, and this and that is like this!").  In the second, you have all the setting and background laid out for you, then you get the rules and system on how to do it.  

I'm also a big fan of L5R, but the biggest change hasn't been system, but that of presentation.  Instead of giving you a great short story to illustrate an NPC, they describe them just like a D&D character.  Instead of the monster being illustrated in the myth, you get a full list of powers, breeding habits and body weight.  Instead of a map that is supposed to be unreliable, you get exact distances measured to the mile.

D20 products tend to not only demand certain things be presented in a certain way("A character without stats?!? What am I paying for?"), but also strongly encourages a certain sort of presentation("It says here that the rainy season of Wonderland means a 27% chance of rain today!").  D20 is very focused towards concrete action and detailed stats.

I have no beef with the system for what its supposed to do, but I do have beef with several companies for not recognizing that one can still produce D20 products without having to swallow the whole D20 presentation enchilada.


Steve Dustin

I don't know, I kind of think D20 is worthwhile in absorbing a lot of the "unique" systems out there. Frankly, if you're releasing a game that is in the same basic model of most RPGs on the market -- a simulation game -- why make a new system?

Really, how different is D20 to BRP or to Storyteller? Sure there's some minor tweaks, or a different game mechanic, but the whole thing follows the same style of game play. GM makes the adventure, task rolls are about success/failure, characters have stats, skills, maybe some special defects or abilities and combat goes initiative -- roll to hit -- roll damage.

Why would I need another system to do that?

I think D20's a better route then re-inventing the wheel yet again. Unless that system did something different in gameplay (like Over the Edge) then why not D20?

Take care,
Steve Dustin
Creature Feature: Monster Movie Roleplaying


Quote from: Steve DustinUnless that system did something different in gameplay (like Over the Edge) then why not D20?

Take care,
Steve Dustin

Two reasons that have always been major sore points of D&D: classes and levels

No matter where you fall on the GNS spectrum, many people just hate those two concepts.
--- Jonathan N.
Currently playtesting Frankenstein's Monsters


I'm going to try to go back to the beginning here and give my two cents. I'm not dismissing the discussion so far -- I find Clinton's comments particularly germane -- but because of the drift I'm going to try to focus on Valamir's original question.

Quote from: ValamirTo what degree is the obsession (in some circles) with doing everying in d20 stiffling design in the sense that we're seeing fewer (if we are) truly original and unique systems designed for a specific setting vs. seeing as many settings as possible d20ed.

Or, are we instead seeing settings that wouldn't otherwise get made (like Nyambe, and probably Slaine) get made simply because of the attention boost they'll get by being d20?
As Clinton said, I think we're seeing both effects, but the latter outweighs the former.

Certainly there are areas where settings are going d20 (or started out d20) and there's no reason for it, and in fact it's a bad idea. Deadlands (particularly the "future" Deadlands stuff, like Hell on Earth and Lost Colony) and Spycraft come to mind here as the most prominent examples of this.

Deadlands does much better with its own system, and all d20 has done is water down the quality of the product. In fact, I think Deadlands d20 is an example of a syndrome that is damaging many of the smaller publishers, the perception that they need to do d20 or they're gonna die. Fact of the matter is, if you don't like d20, you shouldn't be doing anything for it -- the lack of love shows, and it certainly shows in anything d20 that Pinnacle puts out. There's a reason future installments in the Wierd Wars series of games from Pinnacle are planned to NOT use d20...

Spycraft is the opposite side of the this syndrome, but still bad. There's a lot of love, but the fact of the matter is that d20 is not a terribly good match for the spy genre. Sure, if you start out as higher-level characters it's better, but this feels like a kluge.

Even if you disagree with my examples you have to admit that there are games that match what I'm talking about: games that already had a working system that didn't have to go d20 (Fading Suns leaps to mind as another example) and genres that are not a good match for d20 in its vanilla, Player's Handbook style implementation. (I'm leaving aside OGL, tinkered with d20 like Mutants and Masterminds for now, as that's a realtively new phenomenon.)

However, for every one thing that "shouldn't have gone d20", there's at least -- in my opinion -- two good things that probably wouldn't exist without d20. Most of these, admittedly, are good setting for D&D. But that doesn't mean they're 100% standard "back to the dungeon" stuff. The Scarred Lands setting by White Wolf's d20 imprint Sword and Sorcery is an excellent example of this: Sure, you can do the dungeon crawling thing, but the setting is filled with White Wolf style metaphysical conspiracy and politics, unfettered by the need to fit it into the background of something that resembles the real world on the surface. Considering how burnt White Wolf felt after the whole GURPS Vampire fiasco, I doubt the Scarred Lands would even exist without the freedom offered by the d20 license.

Other examples abound. XCrawl -- the extreme sports parody take on the standard dungeon crawl. Dragonstar -- taking the "space fantasy" aspects of space opera to its logical extreme. Slaine, which I never even heard of before d20. The Iron Kingdoms -- an excellent fantasy steampunk world. The list goes on. None of this would have come out without d20, and while system does matter -- setting does matter, too.

(Yes, I know some people argue that even if the d20 license and the OGL didn't exist you could still legally publish stuff using the D&D system. But I KNOW White Wolf wouldn't have published the Scarred Lands without the assurances built into the d20 license and the OGL, and I'm pretty sure the same goes for other publishers.)

So, overall, while I think there have been some stifling effects of d20, I think the overall effect has been good -- especially for those of us who don't mind D&D fantasy, and especially for those of us who realize the d20 engine can be used for more than D&D fantasy. (More on that in another thread.)
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Kirt "Loki" Dankmyer -- Dance, damn you, dance! -- UNSUNG IS OUT


Quote from: Blake HutchinsDream Pod 9, frex, will evidently publish a d20 version of Silhouette with their Core Rules book in 2003.

Just a quick clarification because I really like the DP9 folks. They're putting out conversion rules between the 2 rules sets. They're putting out a d20 Mech-building book to try and draw d20ers over to Silhouette. Unless they radically changed their minds within the past few days they're still primarily a Silhouette company.

Sorry for the interruption.
Alex Hunter
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Quote from: xiombargSpycraft is the opposite side of the this syndrome, but still bad. There's a lot of love, but the fact of the matter is that d20 is not a terribly good match for the spy genre. Sure, if you start out as higher-level characters it's better, but this feels like a kluge.

And that right there is one of the main problems with the d20 system and which greatly hinders its adaptability. d20 characters start off far less competent than characters in many other systems. The Feng Shui/D&D crossover module had the D&D characters start off at 7-8th level in order to be close to equal to the Feng Shui characters.

If you're designing a setting or game in which characters start off at just a cut above normal then d20 works but for setting/genres which begin with more competent characters, like spy and supers, then you need to throw out so much of the d20 system that it really isn't worth it.

Now, I also agree that some good ideas have come out wrapped in d20 clothes. The Scarred Lands and the Iron Kingdoms are two very cool settings. And XCrawl is probably the best thing to happen to D&D since it was first created.
Alex Hunter
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M. J. Young

I've been stalling getting involved in this thread because I'm really inclined to address the spin-off question more than the original question; but I'll satisfy myself by addressing the spin-off first, and then get to the main.

Is D20 a good universal system?

I don't use that word that way. I would say that D20 is an adequate generic system, but has no chance as a universal one.  A generic system is one which is designed to work with any setting; a universal system is desinged to work with every setting.

I mean that with a lot of tweaks and twists, you can probably play any kind of world with the D20 game system. People already did that for decades with other systems. Is there anyone here who never encountered a game in which some guy adapted his preferred game to play some setting for which it was never intended? Sometimes it seemed like you were wrenching the setting onto the system, but it was done. D20 is loose enough that you can make it fit any world you want, if you're willing to do the work to make it fit.

But in my mind a universal system is one which attempts to join all kinds of worlds into one game. Rifts attempts to do so, creating rifts through which characters can pass between worlds of different genres. It's long been a dream of game designers to make a game that would do that; TSR included crossover rules to go between D&D and Gamma World and Boot Hill, and appended a system to AD&D for moving to worlds in which technology went up and magic down. Multiverser is universal; player characters move from genre to genre as part of play.

D20 offers nothing to support those genre differences during play. That is,  the game engine built for swords and sorcery can be easily adapted for space combat, but it can't easily support a battle between wizards and space marines in either world. It requires too much tweaking from world to world to work well for that sort of play.

Now, is the game discouraging new product, or encouraging it?

From the inside, I can tell you that there's a lot of pressure in small game companies to jump on the D20 wagon. One well-intentioned Multiverser supporter released a rumor that we were going to do a D20 conversion of Multiverser. It's difficult to quash rumors. I won't say it can't be done; Multiverser can integrate with anything. I just don't think it can be done within the terms of the licenses, and a lot of the strengths of the game are in its system in ways D20 couldn't emulate. But it still comes up periodically. There is this feeling that if you're not doing something with the D20 logo on the front, you're not going to reach the customers. I've even been asked to resurrect a vast and unfinished D&D game world and revamp the entire thing to work under D20 so it could be published--an immense project which I think would be "in the works" until D&D4E hits the stands.

Today I received a letter from an independent filmmaker wanting to do a documentary about "Dungeons & Dragons". The questions she asked demonstrated that she had no clue about the subject. Are there D&D conventions? Does partaking in D&D make young people anti-social? How do people get into it? It also showed that she had no concept either that D&D was part of a larger hobby game industry that pre-existed it or that it was only part of a larger role playing game industry that grew from it. To her, there is Dungeons & Dragons, a completely unique and isolated activity with no connection to anything else in the world that she can see.

That is how this OGL/D20 thing is perceived by game creators: here is a chance to be part of the only game that is really recognized outside the hobby, indeed outside the hardcore hobbyists. White Wolf managed to get a monster manual on the game store shelves before WotC, and put "official" on the cover; the point was to get the unwashed masses of D&D Only players and the uninitiated newcomers to the hobby to buy something that was published by White Wolf, to get a food in the door, money in the coffers, and the chance to introduce themselves to the real market. Problem is, it doesn't seem to work. It makes money for some; but it doesn't really bring a lot of people over to other games. In fact, I think it starts to create a feeling among D20 players (as perhaps was once prevalent among GURPS and still is among Fudge players) that they don't ever need any other game system, because anything they want to play they can play with D20.

I don't believe that. I don't even believe that Multiverser is the best game engine for every game world. When we built Multiverser, we included the interfacing rules precisely because we recognized that some games did some kinds of worlds extremely well, and for a system to truly do all worlds it would have to use the mechanics of those games when in those worlds. D20 runs roughshod over that idea. It treats every world as if it can be reduced to the same ideas, systems, stats. It misses the nuances more often than not.

So I think D20 is mostly reducing the production of good games and encouraging the production of a lot of setting material most of which is dross. The fact that some of it is good stuff is to be expected; I don't think there's as much good in it as there is money.

--M. J. Young


I strongly agree with MJ's conclusion.  

In many ways I think the whol debate is misplaced.  What is the nominal virtue of d20?  That it captured a broad market for a given product with its brand identity?  Surely, this is good specifically for D&D players, and at best irrelevant to everyone else.  That it brought products into production whcih would otherwise not have been produced?  Well how and why; what this seems to say is that capital was reserved for the brand line, and that their production serves to extend the brand.  Is that virtuous?  Surely this cannot be BETTER than producing your own game as you see it; pandering to the presently existing cvoncentrations of capital may be a business reality but I don't see how this can be claimed to be beneficial.

To say that a game, frex Nayambe, would not have been produced were it not for d20 begs the question: WAS it produced?  I don;t know from whence Nyambe derives, but is the final product what the writer intended, or is that what was produced after it went through the brand-coherence grinder?  Was Nyambe really produced, or was a pale d20 shadow of Nyambe produced?  Could anyone see d20 Sorceror, or d20 Nobilis?  I can't.
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Quote from: contracycle
To say that a game, frex Nayambe, would not have been produced were it not for d20 begs the question: WAS it produced?  I don;t know from whence Nyambe derives, but is the final product what the writer intended, or is that what was produced after it went through the brand-coherence grinder?  Was Nyambe really produced, or was a pale d20 shadow of Nyambe produced?  Could anyone see d20 Sorceror, or d20 Nobilis?  I can't.

I guess that's really the heart of the question...though perhaps one that can never really be answered decisively.  But I guess the corrollary question to it which can be least in a personal theoretical sort of way would be:

Is it better to have a pale d20 shadow of Nyambe than no Nyambe at all.


Where is this 'if it weren't for D20 it would happen" come from?  Hellooooo (banging on the door of the fallout shelter) I have news... !people have been bringing out fantasy settings for both D&D and unrelated and even setting unique systems for decades!   I find no substance to the idea that D20 has produced this completely new market.  The primary difference is the d20 logo on the front and the fact they primarily arent being made by the publishers of D&D.  (By the way wasn't one of the main marketing ideas behind the Dancey plan that settings books were losers?)
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Quote from: b_bankheadWhere is this 'if it weren't for D20 it would happen" come from?

Supposedly, releasing your setting as D20 makes it more economically viable so the work is done to get it published instead of just being used privately in your rpg campaign.  I don't know if this is actually the case but it is definitely the perception.
--- Jonathan N.
Currently playtesting Frankenstein's Monsters


Quote from: ValamirIs it better to have a pale d20 shadow of Nyambe than no Nyambe at all.
My answer, as some of you may have guessed, is "yes".

I think it's obvious that I diagree with MJ and Gareth on this, from my previous posts. I don't think the majority of d20 stuff is "dross". However, since this is largely a matter of taste, I'm not sure what else can be said about it. As I said before, while I think that while there is some seriously crappy d20 stuff out there, I think that there's some seriously innovative stuff that wouldn't exist without d20. As Valamir said, it's probably not possible to definatively answer this question.

To address Mr. Bankhead's point: Sure, all sorts of setting and unique systems existed for D&D before D20... but the key is the last thing Bankhead said: the new settings "primarily arent being made by the publishers of D&D."

This IS a big difference. There are a lot more creative minds ("more creative" in the sense of quantity and quality, tho I primarily mean quantity) working on these things than ever before. Do NOT underestimate the power of a lot of people on more or less the same wavelength interacting and exchanging ideas... Hey, isn't that kinda like the Forge?

And, yes, part of the Dancey plan was the idea that settings were losers... for the people who produced D&D, since it diluted their market focus. But they didn't have as much creative effort in one company as the d20 market as an aggregate whole -- such a thing was impossible. Creating a d20 "community", even for profit, means an exchange of ideas like never before.
love * Eris * RPGs  * Anime * Magick * Carroll * techno * hats * cats * Dada
Kirt "Loki" Dankmyer -- Dance, damn you, dance! -- UNSUNG IS OUT

Mike Holmes

So the answer Loki, is just what Gareth said. It's good for people who like D20, and at best irrelevant to others.

I've succumbed to the urge to buy D&D supplements in the past thinking two things. 1) I can probably convert them for use in some other system, and 2) after all this time certainly the content will have improved to the point where the content is actually good.

So, for eample, one day I decided to purchase a discounted Al Quadim, thinking that I could get some ideas for as sorta deserty game I was running. Nope. Wrong. 1) the nature of the difference in presentation of the materials made conversion next to impossible because, 2) the content was the same as it ever was. A map with locations on it, in which were described the encounters that could occur.

This is just so totally different in style from what I need that I literally get no use out of D&D materials. Even were I to play D&D, I would not use D&D published materials. I just can't play that way. I'd be drifting hard to Sim.

Now, I haven't read Nyambe. But I have no confidence that, given the track record of the past, and the relatively minimal change in system focus, that such materials will be presented nowadays in any more usable fashion. Can anyone correct me if I'm wrong?

The point is that for me it's the same as if there were no Nyambe at all. So at best, it's irellevant. At worst, it's taking the efforts of some designer that could have benefited me, potenetially, and throwing them away. Thus, for we who can't use the stuff, it's not something that's in any way worthwhile.

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Well, Mike, I guess the answer would be, for me, to admit to a certain extent you're right. If you don't like d20, a lot of d20 stuff -- like a book of prestige classes -- is useless to you.

However, it's notable that your example is Al Quadim, which is AD&D and not D20. In my opinion, D20 is solidly designed enough that assuming you don't mind a "roll against a target number" system a lot of stuff is usable. And the setting stuff is VERY usable.

Take, for example, the Scarred Lands, my favorite D&D 3E setting. I think there is a lot there for a non-D&D player.  The Scarred Lands Campaign Setting: Ghelspad book is 99% setting -- the only D20 stuff is in the back. It's good stuff, an interesting dark fantasy re-configuration of several mythic ideas. (There's this Greek-style gods vs. titans thing, but they've done such original work with the basic idea and twisted it in a very cool and original non-Greek way). The Divine and the Defeated contains a very interesting mythological structure that anyone could steal for a non-D20 game with a mimimum of effort. (Some of the other Sword and Sorcery stuff, like Relics and Rituals, is much less useful outside D&D, but then again it should be obvious that if you're not interested in D20, avoid the books that are almost entirely crunchy bits.)

Without D20, ideas for settings like the Scarred Lands or Diomin would have never been published, and would never have been available. And they're quite usable outside D20. (In fact, I'd be tempted to run a Diomin game using Big Eyes, Small Mouth...) And many of them are (IMHO, YMMV, of course) very good.

As another example, Avalanche Press has produced all sorts of historical and mythic d20 supplements like I, Mordred: The Fall & Rise Of Camelot, the compiled data from which is highly useful to non-d20 people. (You gotta ignore the Heavy Metal style cover art in favor of the actual meaty text within, but ya know...) I doubt they'd risked it if d20 didn't exist.

So, I dispute that if you're not interested in d20 that d20's efforts are "at best" indifferent. Because a lot of creative effort is going into d20, much more than went on in AD&D because so many people are involved, that there is plenty there for the non-d20 gamer. Now, obviously it's not going to be quite as useful, but it's like GURPS with ten times the creative effort. Non-GURPS players find GURPS supplements useful idea mines, and that's one company's output. d20 has more companies and people than I care to count...

I think you'll find most actual, full-on setting supplements for d20 aren't like "Al Quadim", which is very much the product of the TSR AD&D mentality, which does NOT exist in d20 -- it's much more open. YMMV, of course -- since I don't mind d20 I can't fully put myself in your shoes.
love * Eris * RPGs  * Anime * Magick * Carroll * techno * hats * cats * Dada
Kirt "Loki" Dankmyer -- Dance, damn you, dance! -- UNSUNG IS OUT


Quote from: Steve DustinWhy would I need another system to do that?

I think D20's a better route then re-inventing the wheel yet again. Unless that system did something different in gameplay (like Over the Edge) then why not D20?

I can only speak for myself, but it's a matter of specific mechanics and personal taste. No one system and it's specific mechanics are universally appealing to everyone. Someone might just prefer rolling 3D6 instead of 1D20 or having opposed rolls instead of static DCs, for whatever reason. So it's not just a matter of reinventing the wheel, but customzing the wheel with chrome hubcaps for one person's taste, and hubless for another's :)

Of course, one can just mod the system, but that might not fully jive and work or look as good as it could or should. It'd be like nailing some chrome hubcaps meant for a car to an old wagon wheel, as opposed to building a wheel from scratch with the chrome hubcap intended for it from the start.

Personally though, if one has the time, resources, and desire, I ask "Why not create a new system?". Yeah, I know it sounds kinda silly, but I think it's better to encourage than discourage in pretty much every situation.
Amos Barrows