Why is d20 a great system?

edited February 2011 in Story Games
In this post, Accounting for Taste said:
Posted By: Accounting for TasteYou know, d20 really is a great system, and I say that without any sarcasm or moral judgment. It didn't get to be popular by accident, and the people who like it are not uneducated fools who don't know better.
I really don't know a whole lot about d20 systems beyond the very basics, and now that I think on it, I'm not sure that I've even played much of it beyond D&D and CoC many, many years ago. I've had some of the same experiences as others in that thread, trying to poke friends with the pointy stick of System Matters and whatnot, only to have them stick steadfastly to what they know, no matter what. So, I'm genuinely curious - what makes d20 a great system? Aside from "it's what we already know", why would someone choose to play a d20 game over something more focused, or some other "generic" RPG system?

Comments

  • STAVROPOULOS, I SUMMON THEE!
  • Lots of people know it
    Lots of people are comfortable with it
    It has lots of places to tweak and customize
    It has lots to talk about away from the table / on forums
    Its first 6 levels are totally playable with a West Marches style game
  • (I'm enjoying these point-counterpoint threads)
  • edited February 2011
    Since I was so hard on D20 on the other thread, let me say some nice things about it:

    - It's an amazingly flexible system.

    - Its basic rules are fairly easy to explain to new players.

    - It allows for and encourages player-created content. It provides all the tools you need to make homebrew classes, races, skills, spells, settings, etc.

    - Rule 0 = <3

    - The monster manuals and other similar compendium are just plain fun to look at.
  • 3rd edition AD&D/d20 was better than 2nd edition AD&D. I liked having lots of skills better than 1 or two proficiencies. The mechanics were easier to teach than 2nd edition. OGL made for lots of splat books with good [and bad] fluff.
  • IMHO, YMMV, ETC:

    What is the d20 system? The 3.x SRD? Modern? Mutants & Masterminds? Saga? Pathfinder? Spycraft?
    I guess saying "it uses a d20" is not a satisfying definition, but there's hardly anything more to go on. It's much like trying to pin down FATE. It can't be done, not really.

    d20 is not really a system, it's a rules toolkit. As such it's nothing special, but it's fairly easy to scale, tweak, modify and produce content for. I wouldn't say it's got anything going for it, but there's nothing really bad either. Most sucky stuff we usually relate to d20 is a byproduct of too much extensions, inconsiderate additions and poorly guided play.
  • If you want you some turn-based tactical combat, it's my fav. It's got a rich tapestry of choices and trade-offs you can make.
    Flanking is a really cool way for players to cooperate without having to worry about character facing. (Especially when you sneak attack, but then you're risking your squishy rogue.)
    "Do I move to that advantageous position, exposing myself to the opportunity attack?" - a few times that's been the play of the night, someone risking the AOO to help a friend and it paying off.
    Much like in the Avengers every superhero gets an issue to shine, some nights your character will be the VIP.
    You usually don't get killed - you usually get knocked unconscious. It's a lot more forgiving than it seems.
    Orthogonal character classes. Striker, tank, healer, support+grenades always good.
    A good compromise with the time-slicing - you usually get to do one meaty thing on your turn, unlike games that split it up more finely ("I begin casting my spell...")
    And me, I prefer the grid to hex-maps.
  • There's none of that tell-me-about-your-mother or expose-your-deep-anxiety shit, like in indie games. With d20, you know exactly what you're getting. Nothing weird, just the fun stuff.
  • I don't mind so much the base mechanics. They are nice and simple and easy to understand. And like I said in the other thread, some of the d20 games I like. The current version of Mutants & Masterminds/DC Adventures is pretty damn good. Kinda brings narrative games and d20 rules-heavy games to the mediation table for peace-talks.

    Certain versions of d20 games, ones that are sorta out in left field, I think are better and more flexible than the version originally pushed by WOTC. DungeonSlayers, for example, is a good, solid d20 game, needing no other dice (I mean, I don't know why D&D etc are "d20" games when they require the whole gamut of other dice), and keeps some of the tactical feel without being laden with extra rules, details you have to keep track of, etc.
  • + 1 on "d20" not really telling you much.

    True20, Mutants and Masterminds, A Game of Thrones, Star Wars Saga? I'm there. A heroic-tier 4E game with a few hacks and a good DM that's taken the DMG2 to heart? Ditto. A lot of other d20 I've tried/played in the last thirty-odd years? I'll pass, thank you, and I'd expand on why if pressed in a thread or conversation that's about that.

    Some of my fondest gaming memories were at a table where a d20 was being rolled. In some cases (not the versions mentioned above) it's because we were mostly avoiding the game mechanics.
  • edited February 2011
    Some things that d20 does well (irrespective of if you think such things are good or bad):

    1) For much of its life, the D&D line in general just had flat-out better art than anyone else. This faded a bit as d20 really got going, but it has always been near the head of the pack. (Full color art for every monster, for example.) I think Pathfinder vaulted back in front of the pack in this regard.

    2) The structure of the game elements is quite good at driving a revenue stream with steady product, and this has an ancillary benefit: the line seems "fresh" for longer. That is, if you are into the game, it is tough to get sick of it when new shiny comes out every couple of months.

    3) The game clearly scratches a "min/maxing" itch among a huge percentage of its rabid followers. Go to any forum and witness an endless litany of "killer builds", how to combine various bits for maximum effectiveness and so on. Among casual players of the d20 line, the percentage who care about this is a lot smaller, but it seems pretty clear that a large portion of the die-hard players become so because it appeals to this "optimizing gene" (or whatever it is).

    4) As a "toolkit" it does a really good job of adapting to pretty much any combination of components. That is, it is easy to pick and choose from the wide body of classes, feats and so on and have the game still pretty much work within whatever subset you might choose. Want to ditch the every core class and define some others? No problem. Arcana Evolved games, for example, are still recognizably "d20", in spite of replacing almost everything.

    5) The "level vs. CR" system does a pretty good job of guiding everyone, especially gamemasters, as to how hard a given scene will be. Which matters a lot, because...

    6) The game supports a fairly broad "power curve" in a manageable way. Consequently, it supports long term play in ways that everyone can intuitively understand after a few sessions.

    7) Relative to the versions of the game it replaced, it does an OK job of unifying onto a "core mechanic" that anyone can understand in about 30 seconds. Roll a d20, add some standard stuff, compare to difficulty. (Granted, comparing this to AD&D, with its THAC0 and some rolls favoring high numbers and some favoring low, is faint praise.)

    8) Occasionally does weird, questionable, things for the right reasons. One example of this are the "types" of bonuses, and how they do or, more often, don't, stack (e.g. "dodge bonus", "enhancement bonus", etc.). All of that stuff is fairly wacky and cumbersome, but it does actually prevent the math of the game from falling apart in a lot of ways. At the same time, it allows variation of roles and everyone to still be able to do stuff, without turning everyone into ultra-buffed godlings (well, at least not right away).

    9) The alignment system opens up some interesting notions. (Bear with me here.) The idea that not only does every character in the game have a definitive moral stance, but that you can actually use magic to detect what that code is colors the game more deeply than you might think. If you ask a bunch of people "what makes this game great", pretty much no one will yell out "the alignment system", but I think it is a big part of it. I'm not entirely sure how, though.

    10) Even though many stories speak to the contrary, as written the game does a decent job of being "fair". That is, the type of player that cares about "fairness" is typically satisfied by the written rules. More to the point, the game provides a reasonable blueprint for "fairness" that still works even for situations not covered in the rules. The rules create a certain "expectation of reasonableness", and that expectation is fairly "standard" among all players. Even when everything goes to hell and players and DM are screaming at each other, a "detached observer" that knows nothing about the particular game can usually figure out what side of the argument is "correct" based on the rules.

    11) The d20 itself. Because a +1 means +5%, impact of various modifiers and rules is easy to see a head of time.
  • edited February 2011
    Posted By: Wordman9) The alignment system opens up some interesting notions
    Oh yeah - evil BUT lawful?
    And ... wise BUT dumb? foolish BUT smart?
    That's three fun-to-play characters right there.

    And Detect Evil is great if you just want to play a game where you kill monsters with no moral ambiguity. They needed killin'. (They nerfed this in Pathfinder, interestingly - you can't detect alignment on low level characters. It's like, "Look, how cute, he's trying to be evil, but he's such a n00b it doesn't show up on my evil detector." - we actually had some good moral-arguing-banter-roleplay in my last Pathfinder campaign.)

    And another nice thing about the D20 - you're pretty likely to see a nat 20 at the table every session or so. Crit!
  • Here's some story related things that d20 is good at:

    * Hit points are very much like pulp action. You fight and fight, and then you're down. Whump.

    * d20 Modern's attribute-classes are a very natural way to define what a character is about. "He's a smart and strong guy."

    * Spycraft's chase system is really fun and replicates the source material well.

    * the 1-20 level progression gives you a range from "pretty much a scrub" to "epic asskicker" which is a path many face in literature.
  • This alignment-stuff is really interesting, if you ask me!

    However, it risks derailing this thread, so I'm going to start another one. I hope to get your comments there:

    New thread
  • I was told by Calithena that it's a really good 80s system.
  • More generally - the redonkulous amount of d20 material out there makes it a good palette for a creative group to paint their action with. As with many systems with unwieldably many options (GURPS, Hero), it makes a real statement when the GM says "Everyone in this game starts with Improved Swinging Off Chandeliers, for free."
  • Yeah the d20 system is the Superman of gaming... no matter how dumb you think the original premise is, so many good writers have taken a crack at making it work that there's (IMO) a little d20/Superman for everybody. Some of it gets very tangential to how the system was presented in the D&D 3 SRD, but still...
  • It's what "everybody else is playing". Think how much many gamers want to "belong"....
  • Posted By: masqueradeballYeah the d20 system is the Superman of gaming...
    In my mind the behemoth is a more suitable metaphor ...
    - but I don't really think all that much of behemoths. ;-)
  • edited February 2011
    Posted By: GrahamThere's none of that tell-me-about-your-mother or expose-your-deep-anxiety shit, like in indie games. With d20, you know exactly what you're getting. Nothing weird, just the fun stuff.
    Plus let's say it Graham. Cthulhu d20 is ten thousand times better than the old Call of Cthulhu or Trail of Cthulhu. I know you totally agree!
    The d20 is not just flexible, it's realistic! I remember the pain a DM felt in her guts when she tried with 4th edition and could not ask us to roll the "cooking" skill while we were camping. What game can be considered realistic without the cooking skill?
  • Or ditch-digging. I refuse to play in any game that doesn't have Ditch-digging as a skill. Or tree-pulling.
  • Posted By: TeataineOr ditch-digging. I refuse to play in any game that doesn't have Ditch-digging as a skill. Or tree-pulling.
    Absolutely! And firemaking? Wanna talk about firemaking? How do you know whether your character succeeds in lighting a fire when the party camps without the proper ability?

    Oh one last reason why Cthulhu d20 totally rocks.

    http://i15.tinypic.com/8eat1sm.jpg
  • edited February 2011
    Posted By: SunaWhat game can be considered realistic without the cooking skill?
    I love you, Tazio!

    In my classical fantasy role-playing game Fabula the cooking-skill is maybe the most important of all skills. No experienced player will let his warrior enter combat on an empty belly. No witch of repute will harness the occult powers without a strong broth to go on. A group of adventurers without a cook, is nothing but a miserable gang of slosh-eating hoodlums.

    BTW: Fabula is the true D20-game; the system only make use of a single D20.
  • Not to derail, but oh the stories I could tell about Ditch-digging and Firemaking rolls in Burning Wheel games. There was a particularly memorable scene where a Christian convert, trying to build a fire in the middle of a winter storm, used his Bible to get a bonus die... by setting it on fire.
  • edited February 2011
    Actually, with no sarcasm (sarcasmoids get out, your irony is weak), Cthulhu d20 had better Cthulhu GMing advice than any other Cthulhu game created to that date. It was really quite good. Also the simple offensive/defensive class mix for that game was an interesting method of defining combat roles in its most simple form. All in all, Cthulhu d20 was pretty great.
  • Posted By: JDCorleyActually, with no sarcasm (sarcasmoids get out, your irony is weak), Cthulhu d20 had better Cthulhu GMing advice than any other Cthulhu game created to that date. It was really quite good. Also the simple offensive/defensive class mix for that game was an interesting method of defining combat roles in its most simple form. All in all, Cthulhu d20 was pretty great.
    QFT. I keep regretting that d20 was a dead-end in the evolution of Call of Cthulhu rules text, because it had excellent GM advice, especially compared to the weak sauce offered up by BRP. Seriously, all you have to do to fix the game for even moderately long-term play is to eliminate HP gains per level (did they actually playtest that?) and toss out the pointless combat feats, and it works very well. Faster character creation than BRP or even Trail, plus the ability to leverage existing system familiarity for a large player base, plus easy to teach? Sold.
  • Awesome, that's really good, useful stuff, everyone! I think I need some time to let that all simmer and think about it, but thanks!

    So, if I had time to read, say, a medium-sized core book for two d20-based games, which ones would you recommend to get a really good feel for the system and how it's used?
  • Whatever the latest edition of Spycraft is and Wheel of Time.
  • The base mechanic of d20 is really simple: roll a d20+modifier and compare to a target number. You want to roll high. That's it. Anything else (Feats, skills, powers, attributes) are things that can be added or left out for particular games. They, to my mind, aren't really d20. If you take the d20 mechanic and drop it on GURPS instead of the 3d6 it'd be a d20 game.

    The comment about GURPS and HERO having unwieldably many options compared to d20 is somewhat true, but I think that more has to do with dropping the whole set of core books on the player with a thump than handing them D&D Essentials Heros of the Fallen Lands and telling them to select a character from there. With GM preparation the "you get Improved Swinging from Chandeliers, for free" is absolutely possible in HERO or GURPS with the use of templates. The same feeling of being overwhelmend is entirely possible if you take the whole line of 3e books and hand them to a player (of 4e for that matter).

    Easily understood, easily modified, tweaked or hacked are all good points for the base d20 mechanic. I don't take the extra stuff like classes or stats to be uniquely d20 since you can find those design types in other systems that don't use d20 mechanic.
  • edited February 2011
    Posted By: masqueradeballWhatever the latest edition of Spycraft is and Wheel of Time.
    Wheel of Time would be one of my picks as well, for the other I'd go with Conan or Iron Heroes.

    Edit: If something more modern and light-weight (as in a smaller physical product mainly) is desireable, the True20 Pocket Player's Guide would be a terrific choice.
  • I'll second Iron Heroes.

    I mean, it super combat oriented but it's up front about it. Of my d20 experiences it was my favourite. Also no magic items. It's dope.
  • Not to pick a fight with helpful people but I think you've been recommended three gigantic d20 tomes and one medium-sized core book iteration of d20 that is alternatingly awesome and heartbreaking but which would give you little idea of a baseline for how d20 is being used these days. This from someone who logged more than a hundred hours hacking Iron Heroes.

    My recommendation would be to start with d20 Modern or Mutants and Masterminds depending on your genre preference and go from there to a larger book if you're interested in further investigation. (My gigantic tome recommendation would be A Game of Thrones...)
  • Posted By: nicholas.walkerThe comment about GURPS and HERO having unwieldably many options compared to d20 is somewhat true, but I think that more has to do with dropping the whole set of core books on the player with a thump than handing them D&D Essentials Heros of the Fallen Lands and telling them to select a character from there.
    ;

    Not to mention that the typical approach with GURPS and HERO is roughly equivalent to "here, build yourself a mature 10th level character that you don't expect to really evolve that much during play". If you said that and tried to play many D20 forms that way, you'd probably realize that the systems are more equivalently complex than you expected.

    Better than nearly any game I know, D20 elegantly smooths a players entry into a really rich mechanical experience down the line. The closest analog I can think of is the original edition of Squad Leader, where you had a series of scenarios that built on complexity and rules to introduce you to the game in layers, and did so alarmingly successfully (where each level felt like a satisfying experience, not like "write hello world" and then "here, write a device driver").

    To me, this slow introduction of players to the game over a long period of time by layering options onto characters is one of my two favourite features. The other is most specifically realized in 4e.

    More than just about any game I know, as a Referee, I feel like I can just put together a good encounter for my players that's balanced, interesting, and reasonably guaranteed to produce a fun outcome, by letting the game itself handle all the math balancing. 4e's a game that seems purpose built around "make it easy for GMs to do their jobs", and it works quite successfully. (Oddly enough, I'd put HERO and HeroQuest, especially 2nd edition, in that category as well, but I think 4e outshines both in this single aspect of play.)
  • Posted By: nemomemeMy recommendation would be to start with d20 Modern...
    d20 Call of Cthulhu is basically a streamlined d20 Modern, cleaned up by supporting just the one kind of setting, rather than trying to be a generic system. I respectfully submit that it would be a better starting point.
  • Personally, I found d20 Modern to be the worst part of the line by far. YMMV. I think Star Wars Saga Edition might be the most elegant implementation of the ruleset. Again, IMHO.
  • I'd second Star Wars Saga. Reasonable size, picked some of the better ideas from all over d20, and self-contained. It even has one idea I wish was in more games: most conditions are covered by just moving the character one step down the condition track. Instead of the usual d20 buffet of conditions (nauseated, dazed, blinded, confused, etc.) there's a few conditions for things that really have a different effect, everything else just works the condition track. I think non-lethal damage even used the condition track in some way, maybe?
  • Posted By: Marc MajcherSo, if I had time to read, say, a medium-sized core book for two d20-based games, which ones would you recommend to get a really good feel for the system and how it's used?
    Pick two: Iron Heroes, Star Wars Saga, Unearthed Arcana.
  • @Marc

    I'd pick the Perfect 20 system. You can add funny die typed back in fairly easily. It's free, light weight and very expandable.

    I am biased since it's what I use for a d20 D&D game of exploration, information gathering, etc...

    ara
  • edited February 2011
    Posted By: TeatainePersonally, I found d20 Modern to be the worst part of the line by far. YMMV. I think Star Wars Saga Edition might be the most elegant implementation of the ruleset. Again, IMHO.
    I agree completely that Star Wars Saga Edition is the most elegant implementation of that branch in d20 genealogy. I suggest Modern as an option to see the roots of that line and as a "generic" implementation rather than for a specific world.

    In many ways SWSE is what I wish 4E had been.

    I never picked up d20 CoC. I should.
  • 1. It's a fairly widespread system. Lots of folks don't love it, but they're willing to play it. Get people together and say, "I want to run sci-fi game". and you'll have all sorts of questions and discussion. Get folks together and say, "I want to run a Star Wars game" and things are much more focused. You say "d20" and there's a whole chunk of stuff that snaps into focus. Sure, there's variations on the d20 rules, but that's like saying "clone wars" or... I dunno, other eras of Star Wars. Some folks know 'em and some don't, but it's a common starting point.

    2. Lots of customisation already done for you. Plenty of different rule hacks of diffeerent sorts done. Assembling your frankenstein might take some work, but it's possible. Chances are, ifyou wanna run something, someone's either already done a chunk/entire thing for you, or there's something you can reskin and tweak.

    3. Lots of customisation you can do. Don't like screwing with XP? Fine, all characters level after 13 encounters. Want a game of a particular power level? Fine, start characters at whatever level you need, you can even lock the game at that level and give some other perk instead of levels; E6 is an example of on approach to this implementation.

    4. Explicit information on opposition. Characters are supposed to level after 13.33 encounters. There's instructions on how many encounters of what sort there should be and a way of rating the opposition. Sure, the CR system isn't perfect, but a)it's more than most games seem to come with and b) there's a fix for the CR system that helps increase the consistency of it.

    5. It's a "my first game design" for wannabes; either rule hackers or full on "designers". You can start out small and simple, tweaking a rule here or there, you can be more ambitious, playing around with class design, you can go all out and start screwing with some of the underpinning math. And there 's an active enough community, that you can be taken to task for lazy design, or simply uninformed design. You'll be told if it's been tried and what the effects were; sure, not all the feedback is reliable/stellar, but you'd have to deal with that anyway.
  • I don't consider any version of D&D except 3.0/3.5 'd20', FWIW.

    I also agree with posters who say it's not really a system. (So, on that, it's great because people think it's a system, and will buy games marked d20 because they think they like that system - or at least they did in 2007.)

    So, um, I guess I should not really be on this thread.
  • One other other thing that d20 does well (and, again, irrespective of if you think that thing is worth doing)...

    12) When confronted with a design choice for a rule where they could either make things more difficult for the players or more easy, the choice is almost always this: insert an obstacle for the character, but also add a feat that allows them to ignore it. For example, "should there be some sort of cost to trying to trip someone?" "Yes, it should provoke an attack of opportunity. There should also be a feat that allows you to ignore that cost." You see this pattern all over the rules. Because feats are a limited commodity, the result of this approach turns out to be the reinforcement of the "roles" various characters take, as well as the ability to make characters in the same role distinct. One interesting side effect of this: often, characters gaining more and more advanced options often makes the game faster, because it eliminates rules rather than adding them.
  • I just picked up the 4e essentials compendium to plunder for Dungeon World and haven't had a d20 ruleset since AD&D or the original runequest. I was pleasantly surprised by the well-written ruleset and sagely advice on manipulating the system based on the players needs (albiet in the D&D multiverse). Digest format, softback and just 20 seashells. Highly recommended!
  • Posted By: Wordman12) When confronted with a design choice for a rule where they could either make things more difficult for the players or more easy, the choice is almost always this: insert an obstacle for the character, but also add a feat that allows them to ignore it. For example, "should there be some sort of cost to trying to trip someone?" "Yes, it should provoke an attack of opportunity. There should also be a feat that allows you to ignore that cost." You see this pattern all over the rules.
    That's really pretty cool. I never thought of feats that way before.
  • Posted By: OrlyI'll second Iron Heroes.
    Iron Heroes is the most fun I've ever had with d20, hands down. And it plays so much faster than straight D&D! Seriously, remove 3.5 magic and you dramatically simplify the game. That's also why I like d20 Modern.
  • Posted By: nemomemeIn many ways SWSE is what I wish 4E had been.
    There were a lot of things I liked about SWSE, but what killed the game for me was the total lack of useful encounter design guidance, and that, IMO, NPCs were just as convoluted and hard to use as 3.5 NPCs.
  • Posted By: Calithena
    I also agree with posters who say it's not really a system. (So, on that, it's great because people think it's a system, and will buy games marked d20 because they think they like that system - or at least they did in 2007.)
    Yeah, but who does that any more? Even people who like d20 (raises hand) come to realize that just shoving the core mechanics into some new book with some new classes isn't enough to really float a system, and the popularity of such spin off d20 games tend to be fleeting unless the authors really bring something to the game and know how to make it work.
  • Pass/fail is easily understood, and d20 + modifier vs TN is also easily understood. Hit points are also easily understood. So the foundations of the system are very simple and straight forward, particularly compared to some indie games. This means you can just get started playing without actually understanding the whole system. That makes it good.

    Next, we've got all the rules for specific situations, and optional rules, such as attacks of opportunity, which end up being divisive. Those who enjoy rules mastery think it's great, so they have something that's simple to start with and keeps their interest with more complexity. Other people go the other way and decide that it's too complex and therefore not fun, particularly when you have other players with much more system mastery.

    So to really make it simple, the reason that people who hate d20 hate it, is what makes it a great system - just, like anything except oxygen and water, it's not for everyone.
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