Monday, October 28, 2013

Revising the Archaic d20 System

There were two very intriguing articles posted on the Gaming Security Agency recently - Die, d20 die and its follow-up, Extreme Makeover, d20-ish Edition.  When I first read them I thought "huh, that's interesting, and the arguments certainly have merit," but it didn't go much beyond that.  During last week's Pathfinder game I remembered these articles again, and it brought to light how the d20 system is actively impairing my gameplay.

I'm playing a Bard with 10 Wisdom and no ranks in Perception, so I'm rocking a +0, yeah!  For two levels a running joke has been that I might as well not even bother rolling Perception.  Aside from the fact that my d20s all hate me, often I won't even be successful if I take a 20.  For a while I just went with it, accepting that it was one of my character's weaknesses.  But then I got to thinking - isn't a score of 10 explicitly stated to be the human average?  Why am I running around like a blind guy just for having an average ability score?

The answer, of course, is due to a mechanical quirk exemplified by the Druid in our party.  He has a +20something in Perception (23 or 28 come to mind, but I honestly don't know for sure).  Granted he's specifically specialized in Perception, but that's a pretty big gap for level 5.  His static modifier is noticeably larger than the randomizer, and thinking about it THAT way really brings the point home.

Though the Druid is on the extreme end of the spectrum, the other PCs probably have modifiers around +10 for Perception, with no specialization other than putting ranks into it.  And that's already HALF of the randomizer.  Basically, the DCs have to be set pretty high to challenge PCs skilled in that area, but pretty soon every task you go up against is one in which your average guy literally stands no chance of succeeding.  This is an inherent problem in systems that represent increased skill by increasing the maximum result.  It's an archaic piece of game design that many modern games have abandoned.

The fix presented in the GSA article essentially turns a d20 roll into a d10 dice pool mechanic.  Instead of rolling 1d20, you roll 2d10.  Skill training, feats like Skill Focus, etc. all add an additional d10 to the dice pool instead of providing a static modifier, and you keep the best 2 results.  No need to project DCs into the stratosphere, smaller numbers equals quicker math, and you model that fact that skilled characters are still more likely to succeed while still giving unskilled characters a chance.

I like this.  Because it's no fun eliminating an option because my chance of success is slim to none.


  1. Do you find 13th Age has the same problem, as it has a +5 limit to backgrounds (and I believe +7 at Epic Tier)?

    1. Soooo I just wrote a lengthy response with a bunch of specific examples, but I accidentally hit "sign out" instead of "publish," and the comment seems to be gone forever.

      The short version is that no, it's not nearly as bad in 13th Age because the discrepancy is never allowed to grow too high, even if the numbers themselves scale (because even unskilled characters add level to all ability checks). In contrast, your modifier in Pathfinder only increases if you actively put ranks into skills (nobody can scale all of their skills), meaning the gap will always be greater at high levels compared with low levels.

      This is justifiable from a simulationist standpoint, but it makes for bad gameplay. The whole "but I used to be able to succeed untrained!" notion.

      Also flexible backgrounds help (your background isn't "Perception," but rather someone with military training might be good at noticing stuff in a military camp, while an archaeologist gets a "perception bonus" in old ruins). And the fact that the same background applies to potentially all of your ability scores.