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Get a grip man!

By Nick McCarthy


Well the revelation of the hate mail that our beloved Ed has received has broken me out of my Polish reveries (more on that later maybe) and got me thumping the keyboard for Places To Go, People To Be once more. Now if you Like D&D in any incarnation then that's fine, good luck to you. But those of you who are reading this and starting to prepare a rebuff for any slight on D&D and its many and varied related items need to take a breath and pause as you go on to read what follows. Go on, deep breaths, imagine a kitten having its tummy tickled, and inwardly digest some of the following. Having done so, wait for at least three days before you reply or send me death threats; consider if your rage is justified.

The D&D system

It's simple and every one (almost) knows it. The majority of role-players have played D&D several times, if not hundreds of times. The newest version of the game has greatly streamlined and improved the way skills work, and got rid of the ridiculous 'sometimes you need to roll high, sometimes you need to roll low' that crippled the game play for new players. So far so good right? Nothing bad has been said about the d20 system or the related worlds you can play in. Now for a given type of game, D&D does what it should. And then there are other types of games.

The simple fact is that a higher-level character cannot be brought down by a lower level character. You can talk about 'coup de gras' attacks and the epic feel induced by the action of building yourself up to the level of being able to take down the arch-lich of the fens. And if that is the style of play you are interested in then d20 will do it. But what if you are not interested in such a game? What if you want vulnerable heroes, who have learnt the hard way that even the local bouncer can stick them on their ear if they get out of hand? If you are intent on creating a world where the players play the same characters for an extended period, but do not gain sufficient power to take on all comers with impunity, then the d20 system will struggle with that paradigm. It also struggles in having inexperienced or inappropriate protagonists. If you try and Play D&D with a barmaid picking up a wood-axe and defending her village against a Lizardman raiding party, unless you tinker with the rules you will soon have a dead barmaid and a fat looking Lizardman (unless the barmaid was a warrior princess forced to take on a demeaning job as a punishment for her over-weaning pride in her martial skills of course!).

You can change the rules, and alter the way experience works, you can tinker with the hit dice system and change from a single d20 to 2d10 to give lower armour classes a better chance of being penetrated. But once you do that you are not really playing d20 any more are you? You are effectively writing your own alternate rules. Now why should some one have to tinker with and adjust the rule set just to play the style of campaign they are interested in? I for one don't think they should have to. Now I freely admit that I will tinker with any damn system I please and change it into a vile chimera that the original writer would shy away from, bewailing the perversion of his perfectly formed construction (I even write inside the rule books themselves, sometimes crossing out entire sections with my stubby and chewed pencil 'o' death). I see no reason however why others should be forced to take this approach when wanting run/play a game. If there is another system out there that does what the GM wants, then let them play that system, and rather than say 'd20 sux', say instead that d20 doesn't do what I want it to do.

D&D is not the perfect system; it does not readily mimic the low-key and deadly. It does huge epic combats, lasting day and night, very well. It does provide a great base for the very different (insanely different, gnome monks for goodness sake! No other game would ever let you make a gnome monk!) characters working together. It does not welcome single character type parties I have tried to run an infantry unit game using AD&D and found that the party were crippled when it came to doing anything other than beating hell out of things.

The settings

I have yet to read a D&D setting that I considered anything more than average (Calm down, calm down, remember, 'kitten having its tummy tickled' and breathe deep). Most of them struck me as being mishmashes of dozens of fantasy ideas thrown together without any consideration of the internal Logic that such a world would create. They are also universally badly written, with the dull recitation of 'facts' taking the place of tales of daring do and mythic heroes that I for one would prefer. People talk about 'Forbidden Realms' or the 'Ravenloft' worlds being two of the better such supplements, but the truth is that the socio-political consequences of these worlds have been overlooked. I don't want a half-arsed attempt to provide a world where any character/skill combination I can think of holds sway. I don't want to have to try and get my head round an expansionist renaissance society living cheek by jowl with virtually Stone Age region.

Now those two societies coming together and the stone age population having to defend itself against the renaissance society is interesting. If you keep the internal discipline of such an encounter in mind, and maintain a logical development of the history, it could make a great game. The idea that the two groups having coexisted together (and even fought wars against each other in the past that didn't result in the extermination of the flint wielding mountain fighters) for centuries seems farcical to me. It throws me straight out of the world. As soon as I find such an inconstancy it alienates me form the game, making me want to play something else, and I am not alone in this view. Many others find this freedom refreshing. Enjoying the mismatched co-existence and loving the option to have a swashbuckling pirate team up with a spear wielding nomad, and both being equal partners in their crimes and adventures. Good for you. Once again play what you like, but understand that others find such a world disjointed, and distracting from immersion in the world.

In The Lord of the Rings, there were the 'woozes' if I recall correctly. The Horsemen who surrounded them were slowly crushing these Stone Age 'savages'. They were forced into permanent hiding, and were hunted down by the Lords of the Plains. This holds true to me, and seems an honest reflection of society as we know it, addressing the issue and giving it a new slant due the presence of magic in the world, exploring the options and putting a new light on the situation. I have yet to read or hear of a D&D world doing the same (though I have in no way read every D&D world book nor have I made a point of studying the ones I have read in depth, and will stand corrected if such an event is pointed out to me).

The licensing menace

As for the D20 licence settings, I have so far been very disappointed with the conversions I have bothered to read (Godlike, Cthulhu and Star Wars). The system is shoehorned into a mutated form that brings a confusing selection of new rules and abilities that often contradict the D&D game, in no way making it easy for hardened d20 players to just pick up the game and go. The characters in Star Wars start off so underpowered that the mad blasting of energy beams from a stormtrooper seems like the carefully aimed rounds of an Olympic shootist. Cthulhu investigators can become powerful enough to shrug off the blast of a shotgun (if any one in my CoC game ever got shot at point blank range by a shotgun and walked away from it the rest of the party would assume the worst and run two yards of silver candle-stick through him and burn the remains!) and the Godlike "that game" system is so loose and free form that the conversion is almost pointless.

There are real fears in the RP-community that the open licence is not a utopian invitation to expand the hobby we all love to a greater audience. Hasbro Inc. are of course the one international business conglomerate that is renowned for its preferences for Buddhist teachings of inter-related prosperity for all rather than the war-like writings of Tzun-tzu that every other major corporation deals in. That's sarcasm, in case you hadn't noticed.

Certain companies have gone to the trouble to employ legal representation and on their advice have made a concerted effort to avoid the use of any WoC/D&D/Hasbro trademarked terms or names whilst still trying to take advantage of the hoped for 'cash cow' that the open licence seemed to promise. The main fear is that at some point in the future WoC/Hasbro will revoke or re-interpret the licence so that all those companies that once took advantage of the open licence will now find themselves on the wrong end of a legal suit that will result in the collapse of their companies. Worse still is the (perhaps far fetched but still feared) possibility the open licence agreement could be used to exert control over those companies who have used it, perhaps even forcing them to surrender the profits of any game or supplement that ever carried a d20 conversion.

This would hardly be the first time that such underhand tactics have been used by big business. If it were not for the desperate, decades long, legal battles fought by car manufacturers at the start of the 20th century then the Electric Vehicle Company (EVCo) could have put a complete stop to the production of internal combustion (IC) engines. They held the patent to the IC, not to mention the taxi rights for almost every large city in the US and actively encouraged the expansion of the IC companies. It was their intention to let the IC firms (such as Ford) build up their profits and then milk them dry or assume control of any company using their patented IC engine. This plan very nearly worked and has been tried several times since. Whilst the d20 licence is nowhere on the same scale as that momentous battle, the small size of the RP business makes it far less likely that the RP community could over turn any copyright dispute that adversely affected them.

The Shock of the New

Perhaps my biggest problem with 'single system' or single setting is the tendency for players and GMs to fall into a rut. Now I am sure that none of YOU ever do this, and your games are a stunning myriad of scintillating colours and plots. I am sure you all never fall back on a standard division of labour, never run two or three remarkably similar adventures one after the other and always avoid the standard clichés (that was sarcasm again :)). It has been my (admittedly anecdotal this) experience that single system/genre groups tend to be very static. There is a definite tendency for the same people to perform the same basic function in every PC party. Familiarity with the system means that the 'weaker' or less effective skills/classes/races are neglected (I am talking about games in general here and not just d20/D&D, I have seen groups that only ever play Gurps and WoD games fall into the same pit). If those 'lesser' abilities are selected it is assumed that it will be a joke or due to direct GM intervention ("one of you must have farming for this scenario to work, ok? Roll off to see who gets lowest and that person has to take it"). If you take the trouble to learn a new system, if you are lucky it will get you and your players out of that rut. ("Hey look at this, if I take farming I get 10% extra income every year... ok, forget the Carpathian Warlord, this time I think I will play a farmer).

The quirks and peculiarities of a new system can, in a well-written game, add to the feel of that game and its world. The use of 'Karma' in Marvel superheroes 'feels right'. I know statistically you could reduce the distribution of Karma to get roughly the same impact on the game mechanics. But on a more human level screaming "I spend 200 karma to reduce the damage" has more impact than "I spend 20 karma to reduce the damage". It may have the same mathematical outcome, but lets face it, 200 is a lot more than 20. Your gut reaction is that 200 is more than 20, and whilst they might both represent 95% of your health points, that takes a moment's pause for thought for the majority of players to work out. It's not just the numbers either. Some systems have totally different requirements to others. Most people who try Pendragon are at first intimidated or feel stifled by the 'Traits' system (a list of about 20 opposed traits that have to assigned a numerical value, and are an indicator of the way your character behaves). Once they realise that they can choose to ignore the dictates of their traits and behave as they wish, they suddenly become very possessive and attached to their highest traits, almost being forced to 'role-play' to maintain their 'lustful 18' or their 'vengeful 17'. If you insist on using Gurps/d20/whatever for all your settings then you are missing out on a great deal of the charm and style of many games out there.

Whilst you could tack on these systems to any other generic system and have them work quite well, there is another more subtle advantage to a totally different rules system. I know I am in the minority on this one, but for myself the different rules, different dice mechanic (or even lack of dice), and even the differing font of the character sheet makes the game world more, well, different. If I have a d20 style character sheet in front of me, my first thought is that I need to make sure I maximise my feats and plan ahead as I advance for the feats I want in the future, I also know I will have to be very careful at the start, selecting my opponents so that I can gain experience without being torn to shreds and progress to the point where I can really let rip and start having fun in the big, mad, bad world. If I am handed a Marvel sheet I know that I have the edge, and I can leap of a five story building and walk away, I also know that I don't just have to beat up bad guys, I have to do it with style and be funny at the same time, so as to get the maximum karma that I need to get all my cool funky powers. If Pendragon then I instantly know that I will have to decide if I am a war beast or a carpet knight. Will I take my lance and sword up to 16? Or will I take intrigue and orate? Straight away I am having to decide if I will risk the battle field and seek glory that way, or will I gain political power and gain my glory through my lands and three mile line of servants who follow me everywhere.

Perhaps that makes me a bad role-player who lacks the mindset to divorce the rules from the game. Perhaps it's a handy tool that lets me get into character for a given genre faster and easier than those who only play a single system. Either way the differing mechanics add to my enjoyment of the game.

Broaden your Mind

I have recently acquired the game 'Godlike'; super powered soldiers battling against the Nazi threat during World War Two. We did the short adventure, and the guys liked the system, I liked the system, and now I am in the process of writing up a campaign. Imagine my surprise when the group I game with decided to play a Resistance type game. They are well aware that such a game will have little direct conflict with enemy forces and they are unlikely to 'see' any major battles till the liberation of their country of choice, nor are they likely to be covered with glory and paraded through the streets mounted on the shoulders of admiring men, being kissed by beautiful girls. Yet this is what they selected, and I realised that I had fallen into a rut.

The last few games I have been running put the players in prominent positions of power, or made them the ultimate force in the land, or the legal representatives of the local government. In choosing to buy and try a new game, I have given my party the option of doing something different. I know that if I had noticed the rut we were in I could have changed things within the same system. But as it is, the purchase of a new game, with new rules and world setting none of us know very much about, revealed the mistakes I had been making.

Imagine my further surprise when the lads revealed they wanted to play in Poland! What the hell? Now I know a little bit at least about the Resistance in France, and I know a bit less about the Resistance in countries like Norway, but Poland? So for the past three or four weeks I have been slaving away at my Poland campaign, and I have learnt much. I have had sleepless nights dreaming about children in concentration camps, I have become enraged at the backbiting, political infighting and factionalism of Polish resistance groups, the British secret service and a long list of others.

In short ladies and gents, I have learnt things that I never knew before. I now know more about the history of Poland than any one else I know (OK, so I don't know any Central/Eastern European History students) and am happy to say that reading these things has brought me a greater understanding of the inter-dependence of the countries of the world. Well, maybe that's all a bit pretentious and high falutin', but I have learnt some Cool New Stuff: did you know that Polish tanks were superior to Germans ones, and it was the poor strategy of the Poles that let the Germans smash through so easily, and not the technological superiority of German armour? And that the Polish-designed P28 and P40 airplanes were thought the best in the world, but that the Poles sold all those they produced and bought in cheap foreign imports as a way to save money when equipping their Air Force?

Anything that gets you to learn Cool New Stuff, especially in a field that you would normally have no interest in (I am not a WWII buff by anyone's standards, and up until recently found all those war documentaries on discovery/history channels a waste of electricity) has got to be worth 20 or 30 quid of your money. If I had stayed with my normal systems (Pendragon, Cthulhu and STOCS) I would not have been taken down this path.


Last and by no means least, diversity is good. In and of itself diversity is a protection for role-playing games producers. If every one gets involved in d20 and nothing but d20 then dozens of companies will be dependant on the continued popularity of the d20 system. Does anyone here think that we will still be using the d20 system in 1,000 years time? How about 100 years? Or 50? The more groups there are who only ever play d20 the faster it will pall and become dull. Before you know it people will be leaving it in droves. Mankind is a fickle beast, with an average attention span of about, um, what? Where was I? Any way, by having a wide range of gaming products out there, each one competing for a share of the market we have some hope of maintaining a healthy environment for the RPG market. I know that things have not been great of late, and that the average Games company is more of a labour of love than a sound money-making scheme, but by making games designers fight harder for their diminishing returns, we will get greater variety of products, and variety at least holds out the hope of one day getting a truly perfect system; or at least a system that makes loads of money and keeps the hobby alive for a bit longer.

My thanks to Jack Spencer Jr and Alex Loke whose articles in issue #22 of PTG, PTB set me to writing this article.

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