I hope that you all will indulge me while I pontificate/soap-box/rant about the evils of the d20 die (whose vileness is far surpassed by the d100). I promise that there is a point to this, and it should be illuminating to people interested in designing their own RPGs.
There is just so much randomness in a d20 roll (uniform distributions with large spreads give RPGs bad statistics) that it forces you to use large numerical bonuses, which are a VERY bad thing. I’m not privy to internal discussions at Wizards of the Coast, but I’d bet money that there’s been a significant in-house debate about this. I imagine that in one corner are the game designers who are pushing to scrap the d20 and in the opposite corner are the executives and marketing people who are insisting that the game designers find a way to fix it, because after all the “d20 system” is their brand.
You may be wondering why I suspect this. Star Wars Saga Edition did away with most of the feats that added a +1 to this, a +2 to that and replaced them with talents that granted rerolls that increase the average without increasing the maximum which decreases the variance (basically rerolls make the distribution non uniform and that’s a good thing, especially when the distribution has a large range); similarly D&D Next does away with Base Attack Bonus and adds expert dice. So yeah, WotC is very well aware of the problem even if they aren’t advertising it.
Using a d20 roll as the central mechanic was the biggest mistake that Gary Gygax, may he rest in peace, made when he invented D&D. But considering that Gary was working in a near vacuum (the “Chainmail” miniatures game was the primary inspiration for his rules) when he started our hobby roughly 40 years ago, I think it’s very forgivable… for him. But new RPGs should be held to a higher standard.
In all honesty, now is an absolutely awesome time to create a novel RPG system; the conditions are practically perfect. There are a lot of game-designing giants (like Rodney Thompson, Jay Little, Margaret Weis, and others) whose shoulders we can stand on and whose masterful work we can draw inspiration from, but not everything has been done yet.
Moreover, as a hobby, we’ve gotten past D&D 4e (read as the uber complex and tactical RPG), which I think was a mistake that NEEDED TO BE MADE so that we could learn from it. And really D&D, the grand pappy of all RPGs, is the game that had to make that mistake; otherwise the industry wouldn’t have learned the lesson nearly so well.
Now the gaming pendulum is swinging heavily towards narrative mechanics which are an amazing leap forward. But game designers starting now, have the opportunity to get ahead of the curve. We’ve seen “pure tactical,” we’ve seen “pure narrative;” my prediction is that the next big thing after “pure narrative” (which still has quite a bit of life left in it) is going to be balanced “simple” rule sets that handle both narrative and tactical play very well at the same time, and there are a lot of ways people can approach this (I’ve come up with 2 very different approaches, my 3D RPG is one of them).
But the first thing that we as a hobby need to do is to hide all our d20’s in the back of our closets and only take them out when we reminisce fondly about great (for their time) old school games like Star Wars Saga Edition (best d20 system EVER)… well alright we can also take our d20’s out for miniatures games and massive delves at cons.
So what are the alternatives? I’ve discussed these categorically in What do you want in a RPG? Part 3, but now I’m going to talk about some specific alternatives.
If d20 is what you know, and you want to make a d20-ish game for your first RPG, then I recommend using a 2d10 system. What’s that? I’m glad you asked. You roll 2d10, sum them (which gives you the triangle distribution),
and use the sum like d20 in a d20 system where natural 20 is a crit, and a natural 2 is a critical failure. Attributes can add numerical bonuses to dice roll (for example a +3 to melee attacks if you have a 16 in STR), but skills add additional d10s to the set of dice that you roll and you use the sum of the largest 2 dice as your “d20″. For example, class skills would give you an extra d10, being trained in a skill would give you an extra d10, being focused in a skill would give you an extra d10, and spending an action point would give you an extra d10. So if you were maxed out and spent an action point you could roll 6d10 and sum the largest two dice. All possible natural results for this roll still lie between 2 and 20, but the odds heavily favor large results, as you can see for yourself in this plot.
If you want something simpler, then a d12 is a good alternative to a d20; this makes a +6 bonus a really big deal. Or better yet each “rank” in a skill gives you another d12 to roll and you use the largest.
Also conditional rerolls are NOT good option because rerolls slow down game play, but rolling several dice at once and using the largest (or 2 largest) is a very good option.
So now that you’ve seen some better alternatives to a d20 roll, lets all do each other a favor and stop using them. Peace.
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