Saturday, 26 May 2012

D&D Previous & the "Core Mechanic"

Yeah, so as you may guess from the title of this post, I wasn't at all impressed by the D&D Next playtest rules. As I've seen some other people opining, it seems to be a kind of D&D 3 "lite". Which is fair enough if you like that kind of thing -- and actually I think they've done a good job so far of D&D 3 "lite", if that's their intention. I guess there's a big market for that kind of game.

Two things in particular grate for me though.

Firstly their insistence on giving monsters ability scores. This leads to a plethora of ludicrosities (such as having to decide how charismatic a beetle is), and apparently is only for the benefit of opposed rolls (sicK) and saving throws. The latter could obviously have easily been implemented using a different system (in fact I'd say that for monsters who ever needs more than a single save value, really?).

The second, and primary reaction I have to the playtest rules actually just reminds me what I dislike so much about all WotC incarnations of D&D: this idea of a "core mechanic". I find it hard to explain exactly why I find this so distasteful, but here are some reasons:
  1. It makes the game bland. Imagine a game of monopoly where all rules subsystems (such as the auctions and the various types of cards) were replaced by a simple 2d6 roll... Charmless.
  2. It leads to players having a knee-jerk instinct to start rolling d20s whenever their character does anything. Before the referee has even told them if it will "just work", is impossible or will require some kind of roll.
  3. It makes some things which should be easy too hard, and makes some things which should be hard too easy. I'm no expert on mathematics or probability, but whenever I've played d20-based games (which D&D Next is, from what we've seen so far) I've gotten this annoying feeling of my character not being able to do anything successfully. The to hit roll in combat, which is where the whole d20 roll originates, is designed to be very random. Other things in life just aren't that random. Using one single die type for everything assumes that everything is equally random. I find it extremely unpleasant to play with such a system.
  4. It leads to a kind of fallacy that rules simplicity == a core mechanic. (D&D 3.5 was undoubtedly the most complex and fiddly form of D&D so far, yet had a veneer of having been "optimised" and "rationalised".)
I mean, regarding D&D Next, I wasn't expecting anything different to be honest, and I wasn't expecting to like it (though totally open to being surprised).

I guess my point is that, though they've made this big deal about having modular rules systems which can be added and removed to taste (like the "feats" and "skills" systems), I find the core of the game (as far as we can see it now) inherently unpleasant.

It has definitely reinforced my love of TSR D&D though, which is a nice thing :)

Long live B/X, AD&D, Labyrinth Lord, Swords & Wizardy, LotFP Weird Fantasy, etc etc!


  1. I do like the idea of "a" core mechanic, but I don't think the d20 mechanic is actually any good.

    The biggest problem is that chance of succes isn't really depended on the character's stats, but on the DC for the roll. With combat rolls in TSR D&D this isn't really a probem, because AC was capped at 0 (or -10 in AD&D). In 3E, and to an even much larger extend, 4E, the cap on target numbers was removed, causing the game to break down at higher levels.

    1. That's a good point as well... I find games with a decent core mechanic (Savage Worlds would be one example) much more palatable than d20-based games.

      The addition (in D&D 3, at least) of weird hackish sub-rules like "take 20" and friends clearly shows, I think, that the basic premise is flawed.

      It's a shame WotC seem to love this mechanic so much and slavishly stick with it.

  2. I am generally opposed to the idea of a "core mechanic" and really agree with your point #4 above. That said, your commenters have it right: IF you are going to design a game WITH a "core mechanic," at least make that mechanic a good one. d20 is not very good, for the reasons you point out. Hence my utter lack of interest in ever playing DnD Next (or any iteration of DnD after the first couple of editions).

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  4. I have always used an Xd6 roll under system for ability checks, with X representing a rising number of d6s depending on difficulty. I am not sure where I picked this up from, but I remember using this system back when we were playing 1e in the early 80s, and I have held on to it ever since. I even carried it over to 2e when we switched over. I know The Fantasy Trip used this system as its core mechanic, but I could swear I read about this system in an old gaming zine back in the day.

    I don't have a problem with a flat d20 roll for combat. As you said, combat is supposed to be wild and woolly. It should be unpredictable, and not always work in the favor of the combatant.

    As for D&D Next, I was left with a flat feeling about the whole thing. I wanted to be excited, but just wasn't. It is a step back toward the right direction, but it is not a big enough step in my opinion. Trying to please everyone is going to lead to no one being pleased with the game. I will stick with retro-clones and homebrews to fill my gaming addiction for now.

    1. Hey Shane, that system of Xd6 roll under attribute is pretty nice, I've never tried that.

      Yeah, it's interesting to see that WotC obviously consider the d20 system to be at the heart of D&D, and that when talking about the "core module" that's what they have in mind. It'll be super interesting to see, in the end, how many old-school people end up playing D&D Next... Not that many I guess...

      I think the great revelation / revolution is that we already have all the rules we need, and as a creative bunch can easily homebrew stuff from all the components to our hearts' content.

      Hah, how about that: the Old School Revelation ;) Sounds a bit Catholic.

  5. I play 1e AD&D and what I was hoping for at best was a system from WotC that would allow an easy conversion of any adventures.

    If WotC were smart they would see that their new rule system every 3 or 4 years while dropping support of the old system is a bad idea for a business model. It gives them a short-term shot in the arm with purely rulebook sales but it has lost them the forefront in as the leader in sales for a fantasy RPG. That took effort

    All they need to say is that they screwed up and go back to publishing 3.5 edition and at least releasing all their old material as pdfs again. Insted 5e just seems like it is going to alienate their current 4e supporters and fail to drag anyone away from Pathfinder or interest the old AD&D crowd.

    1. This is what has me wondering... I'd got the impression that they wanted to come up with a system which would be easily compatible with all the old TSR D&D modules. I'm not sure that the current form looks like that'd be the case.

  6. Core Mechanics are like training wheels for DMs.

    Without it DMs learn to homebrew on the fly, at the table just to play the game. It teaches him and the PCs that he's the boss, then the gonzo weird shit comes out.

    With it, he just chooses DCs. A slave to the rules instead of their master.

  7. The Core Mechanic is not the problem.

    Robin Stacey proved that with Microlite 20. When you strip away the overabundance of sub-systems designed to think for the GM then you see a completely different beast at the center.

    I have read countless posts of people using M20 to run everything from OD&D to 3.x and even Pathfinder material with no problems.

    I HATED 3.x when it came out. Since then I have seen that we already have this 'modular system' already in place.

    A great example is Randall Stukey's M-series over at:

    He has written both 'no skill' and 'skill' based versions and has created some minor masterpieces that demonstrate the modular system potential.

    It just strikes me as odd that someone does an entire post on disliking the Core Mechanic and then ends it with "Long live B/X, AD&D, Labyrinth Lord, Swords & Wizardy, LotFP Weird Fantasy, etc etc! ", most of which are based on the SRD. :)

    1. It just strikes me as odd that someone does an entire post on disliking the Core Mechanic and then ends it with "Long live B/X, AD&D, Labyrinth Lord, Swords & Wizardy, LotFP Weird Fantasy, etc etc! ", most of which are based on the SRD. :)

      Haha, interesting point... I would of course argue that none of the games I wished long lives for really have a core mechanic though, even if half of them owe their existence to the licensing terminology of D&D 3. I'd say that's two separate issues. I can see the irony you point out though :)

      I've never looked at any of these "micro" systems, so I can't comment on those.

  8. You should check out the M20 stuff man. I have read posts where it has been used to run classic D&D modules with no headache, got folks (like me) to consider using a 3.x based system,etc. It turns it into a big tool box that you can build whatever you want.

    Remember, there were 4 SRD/OGL products released around the same time that covers the many angles of the rules (Everstone: Blood Legacy-Fantasy Craft-Trailblazer-Pathfinder) which offer interesting material all around.

    M20 proper is ONE page. A really fleshed out system can fit in 10 and you can build a beast using OGC that would rival any commercial operation. It's whatever you like. If you get a chance check this out:

    These are games that were built starting from that single page system. I have all the collections (2010-2012) and have watched it grow into over a thousand pages of pure goodness.

    It put the fun back in gaming for me and my work is all based on it. People can complain about 3.x if they want, but there really is a good engine underneath all that weight. It puts the DM and the players back in control of their game.


    1. Hey ADD Grognard, thanks for the links :)

      That's really cool stuff, and you're absolutely right -- the "modular D&D" is already right there! Funny I've not heard Microlite* mentioned before in the discussions around D&D Next and this idea of a modular system.

      Personally though I still don't like the d20 system as a core mechanic -- I'd much rather stick with the woolly charms of TSR D&D (or clones thereof) ;)

    2. You can also try Beacon ( if you like the microlite feel but want a bit more support for class advancement and some other nice stuff.

  9. I have to admit I felt the same way until the M20 dropped on me. Suddenly a universal simple and open system to work with? I was hooked. But that is the great thing about play what you like :)

  10. Hate to be the voice of dissent, but D20's core mechanic comes from ODD thru AD&D 2E using a D20 from combat & saves (and Ability checks in at both versions of AD&D). While a veteran GM does learn to make decisions on the fly, you have to be able to get the GM to the veteran level. I'd say at least as many people like a core mechanic as don't.

    1. No, please dissent away! :)

      To be honest I feel like what you suggest is a bit of a stretch. Those three uses of a d20 which you mention, while they share the use of the same die, use a completely different mechanic (to hit rolls = roll against a table then compare against AC, saving throws = roll equal or above a fixed value, ability checks = roll equal or under a fixed value). I don't feel like that qualifies as a "core mechanic", although certainly you're right in that the use of a d20 to determine quite a few important things has been central to D&D since the early days. (There are plenty of other equally important things it doesn't cover though: thief skills, turning undead, searching for secret doors, surprise, initiative, reaction rolls, etc.)

      I'd say at least as many people like a core mechanic as don't.
      Absolutely. I've heard rumours that lots of intelligent people like the d20 core mechanic ;) The post is just about my personal preferences, and why the D&D Next playtest rules aren't for me. I'm not proposing anything universal :)

      While a veteran GM does learn to make decisions on the fly, you have to be able to get the GM to the veteran level.
      This is an interesting point, and not one that I often consider, as I'm already a veteran GM. Apart from the blandness factor (which is just personal preference I suppose), I do think points 2 to 4 in the post are still relevant though, even bearing in mind the potential benefits of a core mechanic based system in terms of ease of learning for new players.

    2. The problem with d20 is setting the DC is much more important than the character's stats. This is worst in 4E, where the appropriate DC is dependend of the character's level so the chance is about 50%. At that point, you could as well flip a coin.

      In older games, ability checks, saving throws, proficiencies, thieving skills, as well as the skills from the D&D Rules Cyclopedia are rolled against stats on the character sheet. I believe that is a much better way to go about it.

      That said, I think it makes sense for WotC to keep d20, though, and it's not unsavable. I like the way Castles & Crusades sets DCs, making it both dependend on the character and the level of opposition.


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