on Mar 6, 2006
I admire the d20 system of gaming. I think it has survived for 30 years for a reason, and that reason is that it offers the right balance of fun and playability, while preserving the in-game metaphor of swordplay and sorcery. It works.
But a lot of video games have tried to adopt a d20 based system, and I’ve never been entirely happy with the result. KOTOR was a fantastic game, but it was hampered a great deal by the underlying d20 system. Official D&D games (such as Icewind Dale) also use this sytem, and in doing so they cripple what might otherwise be a great game with an akward combat system.
The d20 system is just ideal for tabletop gaming, but not for computer gaming. In a table game, each dice roll is an exciting moment. Let’s be honest: Rolling those colorful and oddly-shaped dice is fun. But even when the game is moving at a good pace, each attack takes about ten seconds. If something unexpected happens, you might spend almost a minute resolving a single attack. In a video game, attacks happen at least ten times that fast. On the computer, the excitment doesn’t come from individual attacks, but from the outcome of the battle as a whole. The battle is the event on the computer. Combat is much more common, much faster paced, and you can’t expect the player to get excited about dice rolls spewed out by a random number generator at the rate of once a second.
The d20 system is also designed to reduce complexity. You don’t want a bunch of paperwork to do with each attack, and so everything is simplified. For example, if my weight for encumbrance is 100lbs, then I can run around with 99lbs of stuff on my back with no penalty, but if I pick up a 1lb item, I suddenly start moving at half speed. This is done because you don’t want to be doing long division and cranking weights through some formula to figure out how fast you can move. To keep things simple, you want to add and subtract whole numbers. But on a computer, this is no problem. It can handle oddball movement speeds like 1.35 and having things like 23.41 hit points.
The d20 system allows for a lot of randomness. This is because, as I said before, each dice roll is an event, and you want each event to matter. You want suspense. Will I hit? Miss? Score a critical and lop this Orc’s head right off? Roll a one and fall on my butt? Lots of randomness means lots of variety and lots of suspense.
But on a computer, you don’t see the dice rolls. The randomness of the rolls makes the game itself feel random. I’ll fight one Orc and take no damage. I’ll fight another and nearly die. Since I’m not seeing the dice rolls, I don’t see that he got a critical hit. I don’t see that I “rolled” a one and dropped my sword. I just see that I fought the same monster twice and got very different results. The whole thing feels like a crapshoot. Because it is.
The other major problem with using a d20 system on the computer is that the game almost always assumes the player has a deep understanding of d20 mechanics. I can’t tell you how many times I’d find an item in KOTOR that said “+2 to all attack rolls”. Wow. Really? Um… is that good?
Or how about: “extra 2d6 + 2 to all damage rolls vs droids” Do the makers really think “2d6 + 2” means ANYTHING to non-D&D players?
Instead of, “+2 to attack rolls”, it should say, “+10% chance to hit”.
Instead of, “2d6 + 2 damage”, it should say, “4 to 14 damage”.
Instead of “+3 to all fortitude saving throws”, it should say… geeze. That’s hard to explain. I mean, in combat sometimes you have situations where your player might… ummm. Well, first let me explain how the CON attribute and fortitude are linked, and how that affects combat. If you look at page one of your character sheet…
You know what? Let’s toss this d20 system in favor of something that is easier to grasp. The computer is doing the legwork, so we don’t have to keep the math simple. We just need it to make sense.
I like the system used by Morrowwind, which was something entirely new. Every time you hit something with your sword, your “sword skill” meter went up. When the meter filled up, you gained another level of swordfighting skill. There was another one for using a bow. And wearing heavy armor. And bartering. And diplomacy. And using various kinds of magic. In short, the more you did something the better you got at it. The player is easily able to grasp this. There was a huge list of diverse skills in the game that worked this way. On paper, this would be impossible to use. Every battle would require stacks of paperwork. But on the computer the system is easy to understand and intuitive.
I’d like to see more RPG’s dump the d20 system and try to come up with something new and different. If they did, I’d be willing to pay $(2d20) + (1d4) for something like that, with a +1d4 chance to buy the sequel.
Shamus Young is an old-school OpenGL programmer, author, and composer. He runs this site and if anything is broken you should probably blame him.