Breaking the d20 Paradigm

“Dear d20 System, we’ve had a good run you and me… No, no relax, this is NOT that conversation. I am not breaking up with you! I just think we should see other people. You have your legions of adoring fans, and that shiny new 4th edition, you can see whoever you want, I have met some new systems, Indies mostly, and I want to explore my options. You can understand right? And we’ll always have Pathfinder…”

All kidding aside, I am not giving up on the d20 system, heck at least 70% of my gaming collection is d20 or earlier iterations. My currently on hiatus fantasy game uses the Pathfinder RPG rules and the current supers game is Mutants & Masterminds. I am happy with both systems, and probably will continue using them for these specific genres. Looking back over the last 6 years, all my long lasting campaigns have used a variation of the rule set: D&D 3rd ed., then Star Wars Saga System, D&D 4th ed., Pathfinder and now M&M. There have been intermittent one shot games using other system, Savage Worlds, Don’t Rest Your Head, Lady Blackbird and others, but my gaming group is firmly entrenched on their ways.

I recently began mentioning possible rules for a future sci-fi game. I threw around Alternity, Savage Worlds and Stars Without Number and got a less than enthusiastic reaction. They in turn suggested d20 Future, Star Wars Saga system or even adapting Pathfinder.  Mind you, I did not speak with all my players and I know one player will be up to trying new systems and another is more interested in the story than the rules, but do you see what their suggestions have in common? If you said they are all d20 you are correct.

I was in the d20 bandwagon when it began. The idea of having one system for all games seemed like a great idea at the time, but in implementation, the rules that work for a fantasy game are not always a good fit for other genres. I think Mutants & Masterminds is a stellar example of adapting the basic mechanics into another genre effectively. I can’t say I am impressed with the sci-fi adaptations out there!

Now that I have expanded my gaming horizons and tried out so many new games I want to play with another rule set. I can’t put all the blame on my players, I have been a big influence on the games we play, after all I am the Game Master full time for the group and I have preeminently chosen d20 over all systems. Also we are a pretty crunch intensive group. My players like complex rule systems that allow creating detailed character, so rule light or too far out there indie games are not their cup of tea.

And I’m not proposing a great departure, Alternity was almost a preview of what was to come for D&D 3rd edition with a really unique dice mechanic and Stars Without Number is definitely inspired by old games and there is a lot of the old school gaming goodness in it. Savage Worlds is perhaps the greatest departure, but it retains things like tactical combat and detailed characters, both things they like.

So I find myself in the conundrum, should I go the d20 route and try to adapt what I have to the campaign I want to develop, like filling off the numbers of Star Wars Saga system to make it a generic sci-fi game, or using the Infinite Futures (sci-fi rules based off the Pathfinder System) I recently purchased?

Again, I don’t want to stop playing with the d20 system, I just want to expand my horizons. I know many of you have gone through similar situations. What did you do? Do you play any d20 sci-fi game you think I should explore? I don’t want to simply say “this is my game and you’ll play what I want”, but I also want to run a game that challenges me as a GM. What was your experience, any advice?

PS – To my players, if you read this, this is not a slam on you. I want to hear your opinion and ultimately this is a decision we’ll make together as a group. I just want to hear what others have gone through. Thanks for playing the game week after week, you are the best!

Welcome reader, thanks for taking the time to find out just who I am! My name is Roberto, although in the Internet I usually go by the name of Sunglar. Long time pen & paper RPG player, mostly a GM for the better part of that time; some will say that’s because of my love of telling a good story, others because I’m a control freak, but that’s debatable… I was born, raised, and still live in Puerto Rico, an island in the Caribbean, with a small but active gaming community.

I’ve played RPGs for 30 years, and for most of that time I played D&D in all its various permutations, including Pathfinder and I'm currently playing D&D 5th edition. Other games my regular gaming group has played over the last few years include Mutants & Masterminds and Savage Worlds, but I have played many other games through the years, and plan to play many more. I am a compulsive homebrewer and rarely play a campaign I have not created myself.

You can follow me on Twitter as @Sunglar, and find me in Google+ also as Sunglar. I'm very active in Facebook where you can find me posting regularly in the Puerto Rico Role Players group. Looking forward to hearing from you!

10 thoughts on “Breaking the d20 Paradigm”

  1. Indie games break up the monotony. It's something to try when you've bored with what you're doing. They often suffer from poor quality control and are geared heavily to the designers gaming philosophy. Most have good ideas buried within them somewhere but I've found it is the story that keeps me interested not the game system.

    Some folks love learning new rules and enjoy seeing how different game mechanics play out. After 25 years of gaming I think I'm past that. What I love is creating or learning new universes. Some are page turners where you can't wait to uncover the next tidbit of a setting. If I'm creating them its like a huge crossword puzzle with an infinite number of mutable pieces I have to fit together only to have my players add some new nuance that makes the entire creation shine.

    So rather than try new systems I try new settings. My game of choice is Savage Worlds. It could just as easily have been GURPS or HERO but SW landed in my lap when I decided to give d20 the heave-ho and I've stuck with it ever since. Not because it's the ultimate end-all-be-all system but because it lets me tell the stories I want to tell as a GM and create the characters I want to create as a player.

    Thanks for another great article.
    My recent post Screencasts from The Savage Troll- Maptool Servers- Chat- and Dice Rolls

  2. Stars Without Number has a lot of d20-isms to it. Why not try to run a one-shot or two with it, and see how/if your players warm up to it?

  3. I reached the same conclusion about a year ago. I was a hardcore d20 guy, playing 3.0, 3.5, d20 Modern, d20 Future, all three Star Wars games, Iron Heroes, and M&M 1e. At this point, I am trying play anything that is not derived from d20. I got to a point where I just wanted to play a game with different mechanics.

    There are a ton of good games out there that are not related to the above mentioned games, and many worth exploring. Happy hunting.

  4. If you are like me, the thought of d20 SF makes your stomach churn. Converting *anything* is preferable in my opinion. I've even thought of just adding a few skills to Mercenaries, Spies & Private Eyes.

    Best of luck in changing their minds.

  5. I fully believe that any roleplayer should spend some time to expand out of d20. When you play as single system, and especially as system as large as d20, you end up having all your expectations crafted by that system. Different games can have wildly different philosophies, and I guarantee you and your players will find things you like that you'll want to bring back with you to d20.

    If you're looking to go into a space science fiction, here are three suggestions for you:

    1. Savage Worlds will handle the pulp space opera, such as Star Wars, very well. There's a setting called Slipstream if you like the idea of basing your game on 1930 serial sci-fi with rayguns and rocketships.

    2. Traveller tries to be harder sci-fi inspired by Azimov and Niven era writing. This is a good choice if your group is full of science fiction nuts.

    3. Eclipse Phase is a transhuminist horror space setting, and a relative newcomer to the industry. If you're looking for a deeper setting, this is the place to go.

    I also want to put out a strong recommendation for giving Shadowrun a try sometime. One, because I adore it, and two, because it's about as far from d20 thinking as you can get.

    My recent post Savage Mondays – March 21- 2011

  6. I went through something similar recently. After running Dungeons & Dragons from the early 1980s boxed sets through D&D4e, my latest groups took several months off last year for one-shots and miniseries in a variety of genres and rules systems. I tend to run homebrew campaigns, so this was a good break.

    I'm also a big fan of Mutants & Masterminds, Star Wars: Saga Edition, and Pathfinder, but my group ultimately chose FATE 3e Starblazer Adventures over various D20 science fiction games. So far, we're enjoying that game's narrative emphasis, pulpy space opera feel, and relatively simple rules.
    My recent post Vortex Update 5a13 — Leaving space dock

  7. I basically missed the d20 run, but I did try to get into 3.5. It was really too much rules-play for my liking. So I ran Green Ronin's True20. It is basically a streamlined D20 game made into a generic system with Mutant's and Masterminds influences . It does have it's issues but I found it is similar enough for d20 players to feel comfortable with to get into. So I did manage to lure some d20 players into True20. I think it deviates from d20 just enough that it may be a nice jump-off point for them to get into other RPG systems out there.

    Gun Metal Games has a couple of titles that may interest you: Reign of Discordia(space opera )and Interface Zero(cyberpunk). I believe these may have been packaged with the Haiti relief bundle.

    And if they like the settings, then maybe jump into other RPG systems with the same settings? Reign of Discordia also has a Traveller version and Interface Zero has a Savage Worlds version as well.

  8. As someone who purposefully avoided the d20 craze, but is enjoying the Old School comebacks of games like Stars Without Number, I was still a fan of d20 Modern/d20 Future. As a game line, d20M does make D&D very generic and you may need to re-absorb the rulesets that you enjoyed. You will also need to be careful adapting, as d20M works at about half the power level of D&D3, and has far fewer go-to resources for classes/feats and adventures.

  9. Thank you all for your kind words… Like I said I’m not giving up on the D20 system, expect more posts about that rule system and reviews, I just want to try OTHER things as well…

    @TheSavageTroll, I concur that the story is the most important for me as well, but I also want to use rules that fit the genre well. I guess the point could be made that whatever rules you play with and you like are the best fit. Thanks for the input.

    @johnkzin, I am actually planning exactly that. In April one of the regular players may be away and I plan on running a once shot probably with Savage Worlds or Stars Without number.

    @DNAPhil, I will let you know how the hunt ends up…

    @~V~ I have played D20 SF and while it will not make me convulse it is far from my favorite, there is something on the implementation of D20 Modern/Future that doesn’t quiet gel for me. I have neve rplayd Mercenaries, Spies and Private Eyes.

    @Jeff, Savage Worlds I have played with them and they did not seem too hot for it. Granted, it was one session and my first time running it. Traveller is an old favorite but not their taste either. Eclipse Phase I LOVE, but the setting did not spark the interest of my player. Different strokes and all that… Shadowrun I have played on previous incarnations, not 4th edition.

    @Gene D. Fate intrigues me BUT it is a little too indie for my players. They are a crunchy group. I may need to trick them into playing it…

    @ronFiction, when True20 came out I loved it, even gifted some books to close friends and thei reaction was lukewarm. Thanks for the recommendations.

    Just to make it clear, my players are a wonderful group, this post may seem like they are inflexible but that’s not it, they are all excellent players and good friends.

  10. Hi All,

    I’ve broken up the monotony by running one-shot games using different systems. Some are good, some are bad. What’s reinvigorated my gaming juices, and ramped up my groups was going to a Classless system. Mind you, I’ve played in White Wolf d10 systems, so I have seen well implemented classless systems, or the build as you go systems. My d20 classless system of choice is ‘Eclipse: The Codex Persona’ (It’s free and you can grab it from the Author’s Site – ). [I figure it’s okay to link back to a site, but you might not want the direct link to the download]

    I’ve seen “By the Numbers” and “d(liberation)20” and I’m sure the people using those systems love them, but they lack the flexibility for further expansion, fall into the trap of pre-requisites, and frankly get a bit confusing (That is my opinion and personal experience from trying them out). I’m happy to say Eclipse might have a bit of a learning curve, but once you understand the basics, leveling, maintaining, expanding, etc., are a breeze. (And Eclipse can handle Races and Templates, something the other two systems I listed above can’t handle).

    I’ve never started a game using True20, but I’ve liked the implementation. Just never had the right time to start a game using those rules. I do think you need the right kind of players to run a more story-based system though.

    Yes, d20 can be a bit rules-heavy, but I’ve made good use of RULE 0, change what you don’t like, and use what you do like. Just my comments and opinions.

    Happy Gaming!

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