Tuesday, July 06, 2010

My Return to d20 Modern, and Why I Shouldn't Have

The old high school gang is kinda-sorta getting back together this summer for some gaming. I say "kinda-sorta" because right now the posse consists of me, one of the four members of my original crew, her husband(!), and one of the members of the group I played with my last year of high school. There's some possibility that my brother and another member of that senior-year group will join next week, though I'm not sure how much of one. This is mostly cool, since I haven't seen most of these people much lately and I could use the excuse to get out of the house. But it also means saying "hello" to another old friend I haven't seen in a while: d20 Modern.

I've all but sworn off 3rd Edition and anything related to it, and this game, I suspect, is going to be a series of all-too-immediate lessons on why I really should continue that policy. I don't mean to harsh on anyone's buzz here; I know lots of people have all kinds of fun playing d20 and its derivatives. I've been one of them, and someday I might be again. But man, do I ever doubt that right now.

d20 Modern encourages me to focus on aspects of gaming I don't enjoy focusing on. Case in point: I'm putting together a Tough hero who specializing in surviving helicopter crashes. (Because she causes them.) I consider the Concentration skill. This seems like something my character should have. Flying helicopters is tricky; she's probably going to do it while being shot at and taking damage. And yet, in the back of my mind, I know -- we never used Concentration checks back in the day. So do I take the thing that the system says I should have, or should I bet that the GM isn't going to call me on it if I don't take it, and spend those points on something I can almost guarantee will come up? Intimidation, for instance -- I know I'll be able to create that situation. Likewise, I picked up the feat Aircraft Operation, and I probably shouldn't have, because all it does is eliminate a penalty to flying helicopters (anything besides ordinary planes, basically) that I'm pretty sure won't come up anyway. If I don't mention it, the GM's definitely not going to remember that exception.

This kind of thing pulls me away from in-game contemplation of "What can my character do?" to the meta-game judgement of "How is my GM going to handle this one particular rule?" Not to mention all the time I spend just manipulating the rules themselves. Point-buy is a major culprit here; I'm sitting there calculating the relative values of the various ability scores, thinking about the cost of odd-numbered scores versus even-numbered ones and trying to remember which of my character's abilities reference which scores, rather than, y'know, the character, or what I want to be able to do in the game.

Maybe this is a character flaw. Maybe I'm just easily distractable. But it seems to me that a large point of the joy, such as it is, in a system like this is the meta-game. And at this point in my gaming life, I don't care about the meta-game. I don't want to spend a whole lot of time manipulating the rules. I want the GM to roll some dice and tell me what happens and then get on with the actual game.


  1. This was one of the major things that finally drove me off 3.5 and it's various weird cousins; the game rewards you in doing what is mechanically effective over what makes conceptual sense. The next edition is even worse about that, in my opinion.

    Word verification: "preerec"
    Oddly appropriate, given the d20 subject matter...

  2. I have to agree totally. That level of meta-gaming is the game, and your reward for playing it well is that your character becomes an uber-powerful twit.

    Whereas I have a character I'd actually enjoy playing, and he just can't compete with this stuff.

    Plus, it brings out the rules lawyer in me.

  3. I've always thought it strange to roll a check for an ability such as "blah." And if I pass my "blah" check, my character succeeds in doing "blah." I tried playing 3rd edition a few times, but every group I played it with did things like making "blah" checks. Even the World of Darkness group I gamed in did the "blah" check. I can't stand those types of games.

    Now, in my 2nd Ed campaign, we do use proficiencies, but not in the same way. If you don't actually describe how you're building a fire, it doesn't happen. If you're a rogue and you attempt to pick pocket, you need to describe how it's done before you can roll so I can determine if it fails (or worse.)

    I guess none of this may not pertain to what you're writing about. But when you talk about taking one ability over another because the DM might not remember to make certain "blah" checks, it reminds of how much I hated gaming with those DM's and rules-lawyers players.

  4. Ryan & Will: To a degree I think that's an issue with all complicated systems. And there's a bit of it in any system, no matter how complicated. But yeah. It's a particular problem in d20, and based on what I've seen in it, worse in 4th D&D. Great for people who enjoy that kind of thing, not so much for people struggle with that constant temptation to rules-lawyer.

    Mr. Gone: For a while I was off all skill systems, entirely, ever, but I'm slowly coming around to the idea that a proficiency-based system like that could be handy. If run by a good DM, but that really ought to be a given. But I'm utterly and rabidly antipathic to skill systems as they currently dominate modern RPGs.

    Sort of frustrating, actually, because there's some neat stuff that I'd like to check out in systems like WoD, but every time I flip through the book I go, "Oh, yeah, the skill system" and put it back down.

  5. Depending on which, and how many, new games you play at Gen Con you may feel especially vindicated. Or not.

  6. Um...I definitely don't think is a flaw in YOU.

  7. Odd, I feel you. (Meaning that I sympathize, not that I -- you know.) I got tired of the d20ness when I realized what you have: I don't wanna micromanage my characters, I wanna get them into, and back out of, thrilling adventures.

    Sure, that's what the GM and players are there for; has nothing to do with the rules. Yes? Ah! But, like you said, those things are in there (the feats and the skills and &c.) for a reason, but the GM might not even worry about it. What to do, what to do...?

    D6 Adventure is free now, by the way.

  8. Hmm....World of Darkness type game without a skilly system... I wonder if that's doable...?

  9. Wasn't there a chat room on AOL in like '98 that was an RPG room? The Red Dragon Inn or something? I remember a fella I went to school with, who played VtM and WoD, always role-played in that chat room.

  10. "How is my GM going to handle this one particular rule?"

    It really seems that you're meta-gaming your GM, rather than your system-- and to me, that's a bigger problem than the system.

    Consider that the system doesn't matter-- it's your familiarity of the rules versus your GM's. You know all these details for the concept you want, and the GM does not... Why? Did you express to the GM that you wanted to play a game where you'd be regularly crashing(!) helicopters?

    (Total tangential side note: The sheer loss of resources! No commander in the world would let you back in the cockpit after the second crash, you'd be a jonah in the unit. Are you were doing it with stolen enemy hardware? What's the premise that makes this viable? There's a story right there.)

    If you had, I'd bet the GM would spend the time to build scenarios where you used the skills and the feats in the proper situations. I hate to harsh the buzz, but the problem (as you've presented it here) seems to be your failure to establish clear expectations with the GM and then design your character based on the gaps you are fairly certain exist in your GM's knowledge base. As a regular GM, it's irritating to see you consider exploiting the situation.

    Perhaps I'm an anomaly in that respect, but I usually set a short initial for a campaign, and while that plays out, I load the pipeline with more tailored material that draws on what the players created and provided...

    This has nothing to do with the skill system. This has everything to do with adversarial paradigm you're bringing to the table. You're looking for ways to gain the upper hand against your GM instead of looking for ways to enhance the storyline. In a sense, you're picking a fight with someone who's trying to throw a party, and then disappointed when he drops after being cold-cocked. I'm not surprised that the systems frustrate you when viewed this way.

    It's odd, too, because I didn't get this sense from your material nominated for the OGT-- in the soap-opera piece, you were talking about interactions and NPC relationships, things that require a much more cooperative and communicative relationship with the GM. *shrug*


  11. Tim Jensen: Neat. Not sure at this point how much actual gaming I'm going to do at GenCon yet, but that does sound promising.

    JB: I'm just being diplomatic. Maybe overly so. Not so much that it's a flaw, per se, as that I'm trying to acknowledge that a lot of people have gotten a lot of good out of this system, and part of the reason I don't (anymore) is because of the way I play.

    Dr. Rotwang: Oh, indeed? I may have to check that out. Pretty happy with Labyrinth Lord at the moment, and I've got way more gaming with that than I know what to do with. But it'd be nice to have a system that can actually handle some wacky pulp action without driving me crazy.

    Ryan & Mr. Gone: I might try freeforming it some time. I'm still a little wary of that kind of thing, though.

    Ben: It's odd, I think, mostly because you're making some inaccurate assumptions about how I'm playing and how this played out at the table. To a certain degree, you're absolutely right that I'm being a bit of an obnoxious twit in the way that I'm playing here, and that some of my behavior here is based on not like d20 for other reasons. But that in itself is another reason I don't like this system. I don't play like this in other games. The temptation isn't the same.

    Does my GM know what my concept is? Yes. She thinks it's awesome.

    How do are we justifying it in-game? Pretty much the same way we justified President Harrison Ford fighting ninjas who escaped in the Washington Monument (it turned out to be a spaceship) when I ran that game with this group. This game has been advertised as "silly," and is rumored to revolve around us fighting "incompetent mad scientists." So that would be me "enhancing the story."

    And yeah, I probably should talk to her about the Concentration skill issue. But I also have a pretty good idea that even if she says, "Yeah, take Concentration," that it still won't come up. We just don't remember that kind of stuff. I could make a point of pushing those rolls, but even then -- she's already told us to drop the business about buying licences for restricted items and just buy everything off the black market and up the DC a bit. She doesn't want to have to deal with the hassle. None of us do. Which leaves me wondering why we're using this system. It leaves me spending a lot of time making decisions about stuff like Concentration that I know in the back of my head won't ever matter -- if I screw it up, my GM will let me fiddle with the character to fix it, even in-game -- and yet I do any way.

    I have lots of systems where I don't waste my time with that kind of nonsense. That could be a problem with me or it could be a problem with d20, but at the end of the day, what it means is that I should be playing something else.

  12. "Did you express to the GM that you wanted to play a game where you'd be regularly crashing(!) helicopters?"

    Would there be a point to playing a game where you ask your GM for things and then get them?

  13. I wholeheartedly agree. Putting to one side the relative merits of d20, ever since I started on that system (my group was apparently utterly mesmerised by d20 from the outset- if I wanted to play, that was it...) I felt out of my depth. There was always another mechanic demanding my attention in prep that I found myself instinctively glossing over in play. For a long while I felt less-than and intimidated by my fellow gamers. Were they just better roleplayers than me? They seemed to revel in the same ridiculous minutiae that I found frustrating, irrelevant and time consuming.

    Eventually I got over that, and began to realise that there are different approaches to roleplaying. My approach was to get cooperatively engrossed in an imagined world, rather than competitively engrossed in the rules-system. I want just enough rules to lay a foundation for a fun, free-wheeling adventure. I want to feel confident to wing it when my PCs surprise me.

    In the end, old-school systems just seem to KNOW what they are in a rather relaxed way, while modern rules seem to be self-consciously attempting to out-do their predecessors with PC options and rules-authority.

  14. I might try freeforming it some time. I'm still a little wary of that kind of thing, though.

    I'm not really into the whole free form thing, personally. If I removed the skill system from WoD, I'd have to have some alternate mechanic for combat and various task resolutions... I think there is something to be mined from this.

  15. This is a key point as to why I’m no longer that big on point-based systems or skill-based systems.

    It’s not just “Is this skill worth it the way the GM/group plays?” It’s also just the general having to weigh different skills and their different costs and their different benefits against each other. I don’t enjoy that.

    And when I’m on the other side of the screen I have the flip side of it. Player A invested points in skill X, and player B invested points in skill Y. So, now I feel an obligation to work those skills into the session, and in a way that will—I hope—feel satisfying to them. I do want to try to provide situations that fit what the players want, but I don’t want to do it at that level. I want to do it at the level of the game’s fiction rather than at the mechanical level. If that makes sense.

  16. "So, now I feel an obligation to work those skills into the session, and in a way that will—I hope—feel satisfying to them."

    Eh, you shouldn't feel obligated as a GM to work said skills in to the session. And player's shouldn't feel obligated to pick certain skills (or proficiencies) when creating their characters. I hate it when PC's are rolling their first sheets and discussing who should get what proficiencies. It takes away from the individual, and are the skills really that important? I'm more concerned with my personality, morals, and goals when making a character.

  17. “Eh, you shouldn't feel obligated as a GM to work said skills in to the session. And player's shouldn't feel obligated to pick certain skills (or proficiencies) when creating their characters.”

    Exactly. When I play GURPS or post-2000 D&D, these issues crop up more. When I play classic D&D or classic Traveller, they don’t. One of the reasons is indeed because in GURPS or post-2000 D&D skills tend to be given more affect on the game.

    And from the player perspective, I wasn’t talking about a feeling of obligation. I was talking about the decisions required by overly-detailed point-buy character creation systems.

    While I discourage the “I guess I’ll play a cleric because we have to have one” kind of thinking, I don’t have a problem with players collaborating on character creation in general.

  18. Would there be a point to playing a game where you ask your GM for things and then get them?

    Of course there is! I don't play Risk and expect to be collecting rent for Kamchatka and I don't play Ars Magica and expect to spend a lot of time on politics or resource management when I've created Bonisagus, Flambeau, or a Verditius. I choose particular story flaws or a background and skills to tell the GM what kinds of stories I think will be fun. How the GM crafts those stories is up to them, but I certainly think it is important to express what you'd like to see.

    Please don't think I'm suggesting you should ask for particular bits of loot and simply acquire them. I'm referring to the tenor of the overall game.

    @Oddysey: Certainly, I can see how taking a light an humorous tone to the game makes things like Concentration checks while your divebombing Pave-low streaks toward a ninja-driven space ship less entertaining...but I guess that tone wasn't apparent to me, and my default is a more serious, dramatic game-- where those Concentration checks could be used to build tension and investment. I'm not advocating one style over the other, I'm all for a good, fun romp, but I'd just say your view of the game wasn't initially clear to me. This, combined with the fact that none of your group really wants to deal with the hassle of various parts of the game helps me understand where you're coming from. I don't know that I agree that the game's complexity is a drawback, but I see the basis of your position.


  19. When I use the word "game" I generally mean what we call our D&D "game." We just refer to it as our game or gaming; We gaming Saturday night? Sorry.

    There aren't any GM's in Risk to ask for particular story backgrounds, though. I guess I can see what you mean, but I'd still have to disagree. If I were to hop into someone's game, and I said "hey DM, how about a fun dungeon, or a scenario with vikings, or a blah," he or she would probably tell me to get real. I've always been under the impression that a DM will create a world or game, and you play in their creation. And if it doesn't suit your taste, you drop the game and find somewhere else to play. But it's understood that a good DM or GM will keep you enticed with yourself without you knowing it.

  20. @Mr.Gone:
    Ahh! And for me, I use the term "table" for the group, and "game" for the system, occasionally for the act of playing.

    If I were to hop into someone's game, and I said "hey DM, how about a fun dungeon, or a scenario with vikings, or a blah," he or she would probably tell me to get real.

    To which I quirk an eyebrow.

    If you're investing the time to participate and contribute, then you ought to be able to make suggestions. Personally, I like to make these suggestions as the game starts and then see how things develop, but I also haven't ever really joined a game already in progress, except in an NPC-adversary role. I've always been fortunate enough to be a founding member of a group, which I think makes a difference.


  21. Don't like the headyness of d20 Modern? Change to Savage Worlds. Less overkill rules, more houserule and GM rulings.
    Free movement rules, good abstract rules for mass battles, no messing around with classes, good chase rules, etc.

    Just give it a try!

  22. Right, but what I'm getting at is why not let them game develop into what the DM has created? Why hint and discuss elements you want in the campaign, when the DM might completely surprise you with elements you've never even thought about? But, again, the last campaign I play in lasted for almost four years, meaning I played under the same DM for almost four years. And before that, if I wasn't running my own game, I'd jump into random games that almost always left me unsatisfied. So I really can't say I've ever had to coach a DM about what makes a campaign good, because the only real epic campaign I played in completely blew me away.

  23. Ben: Cool. :)

    Ben & Mr. Gone: I'm actually a pretty big fan of chatting with the DM about what kind of game you want to play. Unfortunately, if you're both making assumptions that the other one doesn't realize you're making that can cause it's own weird problems, but if you're both mostly on the same page it can make a good game really sing. The next game that Trollsmyth and I play, for example, is absolutely going to be based on discussions we've both been having about different things we'd like to try.

    With new groups, of course, I usually want to get an idea of what the local flavor is before I start making my own suggestions.

    CalebtheHeretic: Labyrinth Lord and I are already madly in love. No Savage Worlds tart is going to come between us! Besides, I like classes.

    I'll file that one away for future adventures with this particular gang, though. Odds are at least decent that I won't be playing with them again, but that might be a good compromise between their tastes and mine.

  24. @Mr. Gone:

    Whereas my longest campaign was an 8 year Ars Magica saga, where we managed a gestalt of what you suggest-- part of that is inherent in Ars Magica, where character creation includes story flaws for character and covenant that create subplots the players can expect to see throughout the greater arc of the Storyguide's saga. However, even in that situation, the SG regularly blew us away by creating a very rich metaplot that did an excellent job of incorporating our individual hooks with the larger storyline. We had no hand in that bigger picture, but had an increased personal investment because the SG did a masterful job of blending everyones' story desires.


  25. One of the keys to running a "old school" flavored 3e game is the level based skill system from unearthed arcana:

    No more skill points
    A class skills is 1d20+level+modifier
    Non class skill = 1d20+modifier