Friday, May 20, 2011

What I Have Learned in Almost Three Decades of d20 Based Fantasy

For a lot of roleplayers, the first game that those players had contact with was Dungeons and Dragons.  You roll a d20 to resolve a lot of the big conflicts in the game, roll other dice for other functions, and your abilities in game are greatly defined by a choice of class and race.

You get levels, you get more powerful, and you get progressively harder to kill as your hit points go up.  If you find some treasure, you might end up with some interesting magic items that make your life easier.  You become more powerful by killing monsters and achieving other goals and gaining experience points.

Over the years, a lot of good things have happened to the d20 fantasy scene.  There is a lot more customization within character classes while still maintaining distinct abilities.  The ways that rolls work have been consolidated and made a bit more logical  (i.e. most d20 rolls have a bonus added to them and are compared to a difficulty class).

Classes and races once were balanced by what level they could achieve in various classes and how many experience points the class needed to gain a level.  In order to standardize things, over the years, classes have been streamlined and, in theory, are suppose to be balanced at each level against one another.

Tangent:  One thing that has been an annoyance to be over the years is that people tend to misinterpret what balance means in this context.  A fighter is "balanced" by being the meat shield, and should serve a similar function as a barbarian or a paladin, as part of a team.  Not that a fighter and a wizard at every level, fighting each other one on one, should each win 50% of the time.  Still, it is a pitfall of the class based system.

One other development has to do with the standard assumption of gear, and the adoption of the Challenge Rating system.  As a major break from previous editions, characters were expected to have a certain amount of gear, which translates to magic items of a given degree of power, by certain levels.  If a character had this amount of gear at the appropriate level, he should have a reasonable chance to defeat an encounter of a given Challenge Rating.

While this made it easier for Dungeon Masters to know if they were throwing an unfair encounter at their players, it also tending to introduce some changes in the overall assumptions of the game.  In previous editions of the game, adventurers were expected to run into something beyond their abilities to handle from time to time.  Adventurers that lived a long time probably learned to be a bit more cautious over time.

The other paradigm shift that this created had to do with the assumption of magic item availability.  While you can argue that the Forgotten Realms had a higher assumed level of magic than, say, Greyhawk, even in the Forgotten Realms magic items weren't really available for open sale.  You may not find as many magic swords in Greyhawk, but in the Realms you probably weren't going to "casually" get a magic sword unless you did a favor for the Harpers, a major church, the Lord's Alliance, etc.

But with the advent of 3rd edition, the game was built to assume that PCs with enough gold could get a magic item of a certain price in a settlement of a certain size, and if they didn't get it that way, they could take a feat and spend a little time and get the magic item through their own efforts.

On one hand, I don't think that this assumption is automatically devastating to introduce into a setting, but on the other hand, I don't think that any game publisher, to date, has really explored how this works in a manner that feels comfortable "on the ground," or in other words, in a way that the characters, in a non-metagame manner, can assimilate.  I think the closest any setting really got to that kind of comfortable explanation was Eberron.  But then, that was undermined a bit by the fact that high level magic items need to be available for high level characters, but Eberron was not suppose to have many high level established NPCs.

The magic item assumption also may have had an inadvertent effect on "wondrous items" as well.  In the past, if your group found a magical campsite that made itself and provided you with food, it was awesome.  However, when your wealth and gear are so important to making sure your character is up to the assumed power level of the game, suddenly you aren't amazed at the neat magical campsite.  You want to know how much its worth so you can get an item that increases your ability to hit, damage, resist damage, or augment your attributes or class abilities.

Again, nothing keeps people from roleplaying the way they wish, but at the same time, having sat on both sides of the screen, the temptation to sell that magical "wonder" for something more practical is very strong.  So, while whimsical items that do honest to goodness fantasy magical stuff still existed in the rules, those items were often the first ones to go to the magical recycling center for more combat oriented gear.  Interestingly, these items were often really expensive as well, meaning that whimsical magic items were almost another way of saying "art object worth 5,000 gp."

Because of the assumption of wealth per level, PCs end up having as much as the king of Imaginaryland has in his treasury, because its an entirely metagame difference.  It also means that because of NPC gear assumptions, the Emperor of Imperial Land, no matter how rich, should never have a +5 dancing sword of flame or +5 plate armor of etherialness since he's only a 5th level aristocrat.

Tangent:  One could argue that D&D was never a deep immersion style of roleplaying game.  It has always been, at its heart, a game about killing monsters and getting more powerful so that you can kill more powerful monsters, so you could savor those "sweet spots" where your character felt just beat up enough that ripping the head off the giant/dragon/demon made you feel like a bad ass.  Sometimes even the most hard core of roleplayers still enjoy that buzz, when it works just right.  And I think that people still wish that D&D could provide more than just the introductory level of "kill the monster, take its stuff, get more powerful" because its the granddaddy of all RPGs and because its the introduction that many, many people get to roleplaying.

There have been a few shifts in focus in D&D and its descendants over the years as well.  In the beginning, any setting information was for the express purpose of putting some context to adventures.  In 2nd edition, adventures became much less important, and settings were all the rage.

Another shift that happened came from the massive mix of all sorts of fantasy that comprised the game in the beginning, heavily skewing towards the pulpish side of things.  Second edition seemed to expunge much of the pulpishness and push the Tolkien aspects to the forefront.  Third edition seemed to try and reincorporate pulp "a little," but also attempted to make D&D more of "middle ages technology with magic and modern sensibilities."  Characters, "in setting," were much more likely to decry serfdom and nobility and indentured servitude and to question authority, and, actually, the magic item economy was someone fitting in this modern hybrid re-imagining  (although it seemed to be more of an accidental synergy than anything planned).

Third edition attempted to revive the adventure for adventure's sake, but by 3.5, adventures had largely given up the ghost.  Instead, 3.5 reached back to another 2nd edition tradition, that of expanding the rules that the players get to use.

Back in 2nd edition, there was a line of books called the "Complete" series, eventually having one for every class and race in the game, introducing specialized rules as well as "kits" to modify the base class involved.  Eventually AD&D also saw the Player's Option books, books that redefined how a character was built, not just using point buy for ability scores, but also for class features as well.

While 3.0 had its own player's focused books, in 3.5 these books became larger hardcover affairs, and they started to come out more often.  On top of that, WOTC began to question if even campaign setting books were worth the effort, because books that everyone at the table bought brought in more money than books that only the DM was buying would bring home.  The campaign setting books that survived this marketing theory had to become multi-purpose affairs.  Campaign setting books had some campaign information in them, but they also had to have spells, feats, and prestige classes taking up lots of page count as well.

Tangent:  I like rules.  I think sometimes situations come up over and over in a game and those situations make you think, "there should be a rule for this."  In this modern age, this would, in theory, be a great thing to communicate to a company for a product.  Unfortunately, companies that have become successful tend to "need" to put out rules.  So before you know you need a rule to help smooth out something in a campaign, you have a rule, some modifications to that rule, and rules that build on those rules.  Sometimes you have rules voids that should be filled.  Other times you have small rules divits that are filled with 15 pounds of rules spackle.

Now, what this means is that a lot of the rules space of the game is now taken up with player options.  If there were a way to be sure that ability X that replaces ability Y is exactly the same value, this would be great.  Unfortunately, the game tends to be a bit more complex than to do a quick, simple analysis like this.  Often times it takes a truly evil genius to work out the ins and outs of how to combine these new options before you realize where some loop holes might have been closed.

Tangent:  See the above for why I think large rules focused RPG products need to be rare.  Turn some number crunching optimizers loose on your rules and let them do an honest to goodness well run, focused playtest, and then tweak the results accordingly.  While many RPG companies will do a major playtest of the core rules, often rules expansions that are nearly as large as the core rules don't get the same level of playtesting.

So, what do I take away from all of this?  Well, first, let me thank anyone that isn't asleep or clicking over to another blog at this point.

I'm a little burned out at where d20 fantasy gaming is out now.  Both major producers of the D&D legacy, WOTC with 4th Edition D&D and Paizo with Pathfinder, seem to be in the same rut of producing lots of rulebooks that modify the core game and add tons of options, constantly, all the time.  (Let me just say, right now, before anyone else can, that, yes, I do consider three large hardcover player option rulebooks in one year a lot.  I don't really care if its less than what WOTC puts out)

Where do I wish the game had gone?  Honestly, I wish that the "balance assumption" had been a bit more based on PCs not having any special gear, and more monsters could be hit with more traditional "monster hunting" gear.  Monsters that can only be hit by silver?  Great!  Hell, monsters that can only be hit by adamantine?  Great!  Rare substance = good, generic magic weapon . . . not as flavorful, and requires magical gear.

I don't know if I am, in this hypothetical world, against magic item creation, or even buying magic items, but I think it needs to be a lot harder and more rare than it is.  Especially if characters are balanced for their levels independent of gear.

But I think, in the end, what I'm really burned out on is the base assumption being shifted out from under the GM.  New spells shift encounters and change environments in ways not originally foreseen when an adventure is written.  Some classes start to to the job of other classes, so that people loose track of what they are trying to do in the party.  Its just a lot to deal with.

And eventually you get to the point to where you wonder if the "problem," if there is one, is one that you should worry about fixing, or if its just indicative of the fact that you should find something that is already more in line with where your head is at now, at this phase of your gaming career.

Still, almost 30 years is a long time to be used to certain conventions, no matter how strange and infuriating the rules around those conventions may become.

And for anyone that is in my Pathfinder Council of Thieves campaign, don't worry, I've no plans to prematurely end the campaign.  I'm firmly dedicated to finishing the adventure path, because I really do enjoy the story lines of the Paizo adventure paths.  But I really am beginning to doubt that I'm going to be expanding the books allowed in the campaign.


  1. Hear hear! Enough is enough to rules bloat! I think in 3.5, one could run a great game with the core books (of course) or the core books and some reasonable additions (the races series and the first complete class series, perhaps, or a few more reasonable setting-specific sources). It is truly rare, in my opinion, that you can't multiclass something to fit a character concept pretty well with base races and classes in 3.5/Pathfinder. Whether it's going to work really well is another story, and as I see it, this is sort of the reason that there is player demand for this rules bloat. But with that comes added complexity, and the DM, who has to spend a lot of time preparing the adventure, has to in addition make sure he's up on all of the newest rules, and understand how 4-6(-8) different characters' classes and options work. And that's what I think about a lot--I've tended to define my characters more through their outlook, deeds, and party roles than through their combination attacks. If the rules are available, I'll try to do a bit of optimizing to make the character more ideal, but it's really incidental to the reasons I like to game.

    Anyway, I'm not saying throw out everything but core, because the game company, and more important, the FLGS, makes their money by continuing to publish and sell. However, I do wish a lot more supplements were a lot less crunchy. And I see the kind of nasty bind that Paizo puts DMs in by publishing excellent APs and then including non-core/PRD material under the assumption that you're buying everything they publish--that really does rub me (and obviously you) the wrong way.

  2. and people wonder why I don't do D&D/high fantasy...

  3. @Matt: Yeah, I was thrilled when I read the description of the Magus in Ultimate Magic, and it basically said that the reason the class exists is that some people don't want to multi-class and use the Eldritch Knight PrC.

    And yes, I'm even less thrilled now that Paizo's current policy is that they are going to use "expanded" material in the Adveture Paths, which makes it even more frustrating when people say "if you don't like the new options, you don't have to use them in your game," because now that also means, "oh, and don't run the Adventure Paths either."

  4. @Loquacious: Don't throw the baby halfling out with the bathwater . . . ;)

    But, yeah, I can imagine someone brand new that doesn't have someone that will help nudge them to just the essentials asking how many books make up the system in either D&D or Pathfinder at this point and running screaming from the game store.

    Thankfully I know some game store owners that are really good at explaining what books do what and how they are used, and also at narrowing down people's tastes in RPG material. ;)