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Dr. Rotwang -vs- The Mole People of Venus

by Dr. Rotwang

In which the Doctor gives us a logical and well reasoned analysis of the use of d20 as a universal gaming system.

By the time you read these words, 3rd Edition will be everywhere.

Oh, c'mon -- don't gimmie that "Huh?" look. You KNOW what I'm talking about. Who doesn't? Aborigines in the deep, dark jungles of Mexico City know what I'm talking about. "Si, si", they say, in their cartoony Cheech Marin accents, "Third Edition, amigo. Es muy bueno. You buy treenket? Five dalla." And you say, "No, no, 3rd Edition Dungeons & Dragons." And they say, "Aaaaah, si, si, donde esta casa de Pepe?" and you say, "You're not really aborigines, are you?" But by then they're gone, and so is your wallet.

Damned Fake Mexican Aborigines.

Anyway, the release of Dungeons & Dragons 3rd Edition marks a milestone in our hobby. It's's like Grandpa getting a new wife, or something, or at least a shiny new car. Yeah, it's like Grandpa getting a shiny new car, right, and it comes with a Central Gaming Engine -- not like his LAST car, that had a THAC0 on it. No, this one has a spoiler on the back, and you get to ride in it, but Grandpa's a nasty, selfish coot who isn't leaving you a damned thing in his will, and he says you can't drink soda in his car, but you ain't gettin' the car when he drops dead anyway so you shake up a can of root beer and, just to spite him, you take his coveted bowling trophy and you inser------




-----arks a milestone in our hobby. Not only are there now to be no real "Advanced" and "Basic" sets, but the game is seeing an overhaul greater than any since....well, since the last one. But it's a lot cooler this time. I never liked negative Armor Class, and the saving throws never made sense to me. The fact that combat, proficiency use, thief skill checks and bending gates/lifting bars all had separate rules systems and die conventions governing them is one of the many reasons why I dumped AD&D like a cheap, greasy fingernail taco and took up RoleMaster instead.

But then came 3rd Edition, with its fancy new d20 system. Under these new rules, combat, skill checks and saving throws all work under the same system. Fast! Sleek! Fun! Nothing at all like Boogie Nights! (Those of you who are my loyal, fawning fans know how I feel about that movie. Now exalt me some more and keep readin'.) Not only that, but this brand new d20 system is intended to be universal: it can be used in any setting, with any kind of game.


And Wizards of the Coast, who own (and license) the d20 system, are proving it, by shacking up d20 with their brand-new Star Wars RPG. Okay, we all know that by now, of course. Nice hardback with color pictures, the "Scout", "Fringer" and "Noble" chracter classes, etc. And why not marry d20 to Star Wars? After all, over in D&D, d20 keeps the game moving, combat is fast, and you can do flashy stuff -- just like a Star Wars movie -and game!- should be.

There you go. A match made in Heabben. ("Heabben" is, of course, where Jebus lives.)

Or...maybe not.

One day, at my games store (I don't own it, but I work there), my good friend and co-worker started a conversation with me regarding the new Star Wars game. I should change his name to protect his innocence and privacy, so let's call him Stinkbutt Rumbleshorts. Anyway, Stinkbutt asked me how I felt about the game; I said I thought it looked playable and all, but I hadn't really looked at it too well.

"Well," he said, "I'm starting to regret having bought it."

"Uh?" I replied, with my trademarked lack of comprehension of anything. "Howzzat?"

"I was looking through it," said Stinkbutt, "And I came across --" He reached for a copy of the game and began thumbing through it. He found a page, and opened it for me. "This."

There, I beheld a to-hit chart. No, not just a to-hit chart; a streaming cascade of modifers to your blaster-fire to-hit roll, depending on your basic ability to hit something, the kind of gun you're firing, and I think even the feats you may or may not have.

"Whoa," I said.

"Yeah," he replied.

I took it from him and looked at it. "I dunno, man. I see what you mean about regretting it, though."

The horrible thing, however, is this: mechanically, it makes sense. Think about it - any schmuck can pick up a blaster and start pullin' the trigger, but how likely is an untrained, inexperienced schmuck to actually HIT anything?

"Not very," replied Phoebe Cates, who had run off with Steve Darlington and was thus on my Poopies List.

It's not until a character is very skilled (read: in d20 terms, has a high Base To-Hit mod and Weapon-related bonuses) that he or she is going to have any luck with the hitting and the killing and the pain. Thus, it makes sense that someone with a Base To-Hit of, say, 1 will get only one shot with a multifire weapon that has a chance of hitting, yet a dude with a To-Hit of +20 gets (I don't have the exact figures, so let's just guess) two at +10, three at +8, four at +6 and ten at +2.

It makes sense.

WHOA! What? No! It makes sense, but MAYBE THAT'S THE PROBLEM. It sticks too closely to the rules - the d20 rules. Within that structure, ya see, it makes sense. But what I'm saying is that maybe Star Wars doesn't really NEED that kind of sense.

To wit: In Ye Olden Days, when Star Wars ran on the d6 system, anyone could pick up a blaster and start shooting like loco. In fact, why not? It looked good. The rules for multiple shots (or multiple actions of any kind) stated that the first action is free, and made at full skill dice (skills being rated in xD, where "x" is how many d6 you got to roll and tally up), but every action thereafter cost you a die off of your roll. So a guy with a (not uncommon) Blaster skill of 5D could take one shot at a target and roll 5 dice; two shots at 4 dice; three shots at three dice; four shots at 2 dice or five shots at 1 die. Considering that the average difficulty number (target number, you know) was between 10 and 15, and you could re-roll your Wild Die (you ALWAYS rolled one special die in your die pool! Always!) if it came up a '6', a guy with a Blaster skill of 5D could usually have a chance at hitting all of his targets even if he shot four or five times.

Mind you, you could have a Blaster skill of 5D even if you'd just created that character.

Realistic? No. STAR WARS? Uh-huh.

Here's where the d20 application of Star Wars began, for me, to fall apart. Whereas I don't dislike the class/level system (although it is a bit constraining, what with that static, all-or-nothing development and all), I don't like the level of detail applied to different kinds of multi-fire guns. Again, it makes sense, but in a space opera game like Star Wars, it doesn't need to. "You run for it, Princess!" Han shouted, levelling his blaster at the oncoming Imperial stormtroopers, "My Blastech DL-44 Heavy Blaster Pistol counts as a multi-fire weapon, so I get a good, oh, I dunno, say, three good shots at them..."


"Gimmie that gun!" PYCHEW PYCHEW PYCHEW-CHEW PY-CHEW! Urk! Imperial Stormtroopers become Lil' Smokies. Next round! Jumping over the chasm and re-programming the droid's astronav databanks? Okay! P-CHEW P-CHEW-CHEW-CHEW!

Oh Jebus, son of Gob. I hope I'm making sense.

"Not much," chimed in Phoebe again, from her comfy place in that hooligan Steve Darlington's arms. I closed my eyes and fought back tears; although my heart has been hardened by the many scars upon it, her taunting cut deeply into me, stabs of pain in my-

Uh....was that out loud?

Anyway. Um...d20, applications thereof to other game settings. Right.

You'd think it's a good idea to apply the d20 system to other settings, other genres, etc. And, again, on the surface, it makes sense: you've got a game system that is designed with contingency plans for just about everything that may come up in a given setting. But sometimes, as in the case of d20, the designers get too caught up in the notion of providing rules for things and events in the setting, but they forget about the flavor of the setting itself.

Take, for instance, the starship rules in Star Wars d20. There's a chart of modifiers for Astrogation skill checks; the difficulty for plotting a course goes up or down depending on how well-mapped both point-of-origin and destiation are. It makes sense. It's logical. But it doesn't need to be. In the movies, you never even SAW anyone plotting a course - that was all done off-screen. Your PCs will have to do it, sure, but is a whole chart necessary? Man, I don't wanna look up some DC modifier when I'm tryin' to peel outta Docking Bay 94. I wanna punch some buttons, tell the Wookie to keep shootin', throw a wrench at the 'droid and GO GO GO!

This is a problem that a lot of generic systems have. In their zeal to cover all the bases, they become engines for simulating reality, but often the 'reality' of the setting gets lost. And if the flavor of the setting is lost, then the game is lost. So if I have to wait 'till my d20 Star Wars Fringer character is 9th level before he can start poppin' Stormtroopers like tuna tins, I don't feel like I'm playing Star Wars.

Don't get me wrong: the d20 system is just fine by me. I like it. I have fun playing D&D with it. I think it's swell. But it doesn't necessarily make a good Universal system, and it doesn't bend well to all genres, and WoTC wants it to do stuff it has no damn business doing. Look, I love GURPS, but I'd never, EVER use GURPS for anything that required too much deviance from realism - like space opera, or four-color superheroes. The systems for superpowers, super-attributes, starship combat and gadgeteering make so much damned sense that they're no good for those genres. [Yes, I know about the starship combat system in "GURPS Lensman" and "Compendium II". Painfully vague. No dang good.]

So there.

"Aha! Foolish Rotwang! We, the Mole People of Venus, have come to destroy your world and not even YOU can save it!"

Yeah, whatever. Here's a copy of SpaceMaster.

"What?! We'll be playing this forever! Curse you, Rotwang! You win...THIS time!"

Hey, that was weird.

Dr. Rotwang is a chick magnet. No, really, he is. Please come back, Phoebe!

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