Sunday, 6 June 2010

Modernise that d20

A wet and rainy hangover Sunday; time to talk about d20 modern. I played it for the first time last weekend, and thought I'd give a little precis/review of the experience.

First things first, it was a very fun session. We're playing a post-apocalyptic scenario based on the background of a series of Joe Dever gamebooks called Freeway Warrior, which has a nice flavour of cheesy 80s near-future sci-fi, sort of like a mixture between Black Rain and Mad Max Return to Thunderdome. There's been plenty of opportunity for both player ingenuity and blowing things up, as well as good comraderie between the players. (It really is true that system comes a distant third to a good group and good GM.) So on that front, things are really good.

I was pleasantly surprised by the way character classes work; having different varieties of 'hero' (tough, smart, strong, etc.) based on abilities is the logical move that somehow never managed to be completely realised in D&D, and it makes good sense - even if I'm not particularly sold on the whole "being a hero" motif. It's a bit superhero/action-movie-esque for my tastes, which as you probably know if you read this blog leans towards the gritty, the rogueish, and the low-level. On that note the Action Point mechanism didn't impress me very much either, even though it allowed my character to survive death on a couple of occasions; I'd rather both GM and players be on the same playing field, though I recognise that's just a personal taste thing.

My main beef with the system, as always with d20, is the rules for combat, which manage to combine both the annoyingly fiddly and the misplacedly abstract while diminishing neither. The GM did a good job of making combat go smoothly (I suspect by ignoring lots of rules most of the time), but even so I found myself becoming a little irritated with all the attacks of opportunity and complicated grappling manouvers.

That's okay inasmuch as you can simply discard those rules. The worse problem is the abstraction of hit points, which destroy all realism in d20. In older editions of D&D, hit points work because you can buy into the idea that they represent a combination of physical and mental will-to-fight, both of which can be reduced over a 1-minute melee round by wounds, shock, tiredness, fear, and so on. They're a way of representing all the many variables which come into play in a 1-minute hand-to-hand melee with a very simple mechanic.

With d20 a round is 6 seconds, so obviously it is supposed to represent blow-by-blow combat rather than a back-and-forth melee. In this paradigm hit points start to make no sense at all; if losing them only stands for physical injury, why is there no physical effect of injury until they're reduced to 0 (whereupon the character loses consciousness)? But if they represent "will-to-fight", mental and physical exhaustion, etc. etc. as they did in older D&D, then are we really to credit this being (potentially) completely eliminated within 6 seconds of combat for a first level character?

This problem was bad enough with D&D 3rd edition, but once you introduce guns into the mix the system quickly becomes unfit for purpose. People are hit by multiple bullets and almost killed, only to recover almost immediately thanks to medical treatment. You can be hit by a grenade, rendered comatose and bleeding to death, but on your feet and walking around as happy as larry a few hours later thanks to a painkiller. You can be set on fire by a molotov cocktail and recieve third degree burns but have no consequences to speak of once you've "healed" your 7 hit points, which takes a week. In D&D this sort of thing can be hand-waved thanks to the existence of magic; in d20 modern you don't have that get-out clause. D&D-style hit points and modern combat don't mix; give me the system from Cyberpunk 2020, GURPS, or Twilight 2000, or even Shadowrun, any day.

A subsidiary beef is character generation, which takes forever. I don't mind the notion of skills in a modern-setting game - it's reasonable to assume that people who aren't trained in chemistry, demolitions, computer hacking or scuba diving can't perform associated tasks. But why there have to be skills for things like 'swimming' and 'listening', I have no idea. And then you have to pick from lengthy lists of feats and talents which are a min/maxer's wet dream, but draw out the entire process and don't seem to add anything substantive in terms of play (it all seems to boil down to: "if you have feat x, in situation y you get bonus z", which is all very dull).

I suppose this goes to show that even mediocre game systems are fine if you have a good group, GM and snacks. I can't help but feel that we'd be better served with something else, though.


  1. Interesting article, but for most of it I was just riding the wave of nostalgia about Freeway Warrior and then the associated Lone Wolf memories... Happy days.

  2. Interesting analysis. I grew up playing Classic D&D, where rounds are 6 seconds and hit points are never explained in that Gygaxian rationalization for being a mix of toughness and gusto. With that and with d20 Modern's stated desire to emulate action movies, the hit point thing doesn't bother me.

    Other than that, I agree with what you wrote--but then character gen, AoO and grappling are a pain in the ass in every d20 game I've played.

  3. zero_zero_one: You can get them all for free at Project Aon or whatever it's called, you know. Joe Dever gave permission.

    Lord Gwydion: You know what? I totally forgot that Classic D&D had 6 second rounds. We always houseruled it to be a minute, and I've played it like that ever since.

    The comment on guns I stand by, though - I really think if you're going to have firearms, a system built for medieval technology, which is what d20 is at root, doesn't work.

  4. I never thought I'd see "hit points" in the same sentence as "realism" in any edition of D&D or d20. :)

    IMO, hit points are just as unrealistic with guns as they are with melee weapons. Realistically, being stabbed with a knife can be fatal. The only time that is fatal in D&D or most d20 games is if you are playing a first level Wizard/Commoner/etc. At higher levels, you can roll around naked on a floor of broken glass and still take on a horde of knife wielding kobolds.

    That said, it's just a trade off. The strength of hit points are that they are simple and easy to track, as more realistic games tend to take a long time to get through combat. *shrug* Best thing to do is figure out what level of abstraction/realism your players want when it comes to combat, and then use a game system that models that.

  5. I agree entirely about the hit points in d20 system, but I hated the old abstraction as much and I don't think it was consistently applied in the original form (e.g. constitution affects hps, which implies they're toughness) or the subsequent ideals of very many players.

    So I prefer a system of abstracted attacks with death spirals and injury-related trouble (criticals etc.) that's also simultaneously actually easy to play.

    I like attacks of opportunity, for what that's worth, though I think you could do away with the need for them by house-ruling a) no missile attacks in melee and b) no magic in melee.

    Finally, as someone who completely cannot swim, I thoroughly support the use of the "swimming" skill.