Saturday, August 07, 2010

d20's worst mistake

I spent a long time running, playing and even writing for d20. It's a great system.

However, like most people who spent a long time with the system, I noticed how difficult high-level play was to manage. I believe this difficulty is what led to d20 being artificially capped at level 20.

Lately, I've been playing more and more AD&D and one thing that blows me away is how well that game handles high level play. d20 begins to spin out of control around level 15, while AD&D handles characters of 30th level with ease.

After giving this a lot of thought, here is what I believe to be the main culprit:

Never-ending Hit Dice.

In d20, a character gets a hit die every level. This vastly inflates hit points at high level.

In AD&D, you stop getting hit dice between 9th and 11th level and thereafter get a hit point bonus of between one and three hit points.

You also stop getting Constitution bonuses to hit points at the same time.

This means a 20th level AD&D character doesn't have many more hit points at all than his 10th level counterpart.

Whatever else you want to say about balance in d20, I think this fact alone causes most of its problems. Characters are harder to kill, combats take longer, and threats are much harder to scale up, requiring much more work to use adventures outside their suggested level range.


Jason Tondro said...

I never played much high level AD&D, at least not without being a total junior high-schooler about it and making it Monty Haul to die for.

But I am running 4E right now, and we have gone level be level from 1-20. Combats definitely take longer. About 1 1/2 hours for a group of 6 players. But scaling up and making decent threats is not hard; in fact it is very, very easy. The biggest drag on the pacing are the three players in my group who can't add up all those dice quickly. At 3rd level, your attacks do 2d8+4, but by 20th they're doing 4d12+16 and my players are all English nerds.

Desert Rat said...

I really don't see the difference, to be honest. Hit dice vs. 1-3 HP per level doesn't seem like a big deal. Especially since my group long ago house-ruled average HP per level upon leveling up to make things easy.

Where d20 falls down at high levels isn't hit points. Where it falls down is the amount of time a GM/DM has to spend allocating skill ranks, feats, talents (for d20 Modern or SWSE), spells, etc. for higher level characters. These are the things that weren't present in AD&D 1 or 2.

This was one of the things SWSE got right. It tossed out the skill ranks in favor of a simpler system. I can't speak about D&D 4E in great depth, as I don't see enough compelling about it to make yet another upgrade after the 3.5 experience. I'll probably run 3.5 until I finally shuffle off the mortal coil.

That being said, I have no great desire to go back to AD&D/OSRIC/whatever they call it next week. I played in an AD&D game at a con a couple of years ago, and I found myself frustrated by all the things that are easily defined in D&D 3/3.5 that were just kind of seat of the pants GM fiat in AD&D.

AD&D is basically a combat system, not a role-playing game. While you can certainly build an RPG on top of it, out of the box, it isn't much of one by itself. It felt great playing it in the late 70's/early 80's when I first played it, but I don't want to go back. It'd mean that I'd have to forget all the cool things that have depeloped in RPGs in the last 30 years.

It'd be like going back to play nothing but 8 bit games. There's a bit of nostalgia to fire up an old game on an 8 bit emulator, but after a while, you realize that no 8 bit game really holds a candle to a 32 bit/64 bit counterpart for long enough to keep me interested.

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