Wednesday, May 12, 2010

z20 Reviewed

For nearly three years now, I have had a love-hate codependent relationship with D&D. In short, I can't live with it, but I can't seem to live without it, either. When I come back to it after a break, I feel rejuvinated and excited by this old comfortable friend I know so well. But after a couple weeks, all the old irritants come back, and I'm driven away to some other gaming system thread... until I eventually come crawling back again.

I have come to think of "z20" as describing the history of this abusive relationship, including all my attempts to change d20 (rather than love it the way it is). It includes Drudge, mini20, d20house, etc.

Hyperbole aside, it is time to review z20 (again) to see what I'm trying to get out of it. What is my goal here? Is z20 meant to be a simple tweak of d20? A conversion of d20? Or a whole new system simply inspired by d20? I'm hoping that, if I can decide what I want out of it, I can then move past the tensions it's causing in my design work.

z20 is not meant be a whole new system--though it often seems to drift in that direction. There are other existing systems I could use if that was my goal. But instead I want to retain all my existing d20 content. Basically, I'm too invested, with hours and years of learning and a number of existing storylines and worlds defined in terms of D&D. I can't easily let it all go. (I would say zilch has been strongly inspired by d20, but compatiblity was never a concern there, and so zilch is largely separate from z20... except that now it is starting to feed ideas back to into z20.)

But z20 is not a simple tweak, either. It has gone too far for that. I've tried to throttle things to back to this level as d20house--which approximates a relatively normal level of house rules or the degree of changes made by Pathfinder.

So, if z20 is more than just a tweak, but not a completely separate and independent system, that means it's a conversion. It is a kind of bastardization: no longer the old d20 system, but not a new truly system with a life of its own either.

Other such hybrid/conversion systems already exist--such as True20 fantasy or Microlite20 (both of which have served as inspiration). So why not just play these then?

Mainly, because I don't feel the conversion goes far enough to capture all the content. Microlite20 actually caused the revival of z20 and serves as its core. But, while it simplifies characters--attributes, skills, feats, etc--it doesn't simplify the rest: conditions, special abilities, spells, magic items, monsters. This is frequently a problem: a d20 conversion system essential streamlines the first half the Player's Handbook, but neglects to do the same for the second half (the spells) or the other two core books.

And, I've come to realize, it's not really the character sheet that's my problem. Yes, it takes a long time to develop a character. But 1) this is usually fun in and of itself and 2) this is relatively minor investment in terms of a campaign that will take months or even years to play all the way through. Simpler characters really only help for one-off games or similar quick start situations with new players.

Instead, my problem is with the modifiers, the numbers to track, all the little details that are going on during play: basically, the reason it so often takes 3 hours to play through two minutes of combat. And this is not easy to simplify because of how entangled all these rules are. Monsters rely on all the special ability rules and spell-like abilities; spells rely on the possible character conditions; the combat rules inform spells and conditions and feats. Simply touching one of these systems ripples through all the others.

Another insight I've had is that a "conversion" is a temporary state, not a finished system. If the conversion is not completed, then it is simply an elaborate tweak--which is worse than the original system in terms of quick use. Even if the conversion ultimately simplifies the rules, it must still be applied on the fly. Each rule lookup now requires the DM do the lookup in d20... and then apply the conversion (hopefully without also having to look up the conversion rule). This is why I prefer finished system documents where all lookups need to be directed to only a single resource.

But, if I apply the necessary conversions throughout the system, I end up with a new system! Any additional d20 material must undergo the same conversion to be used. Furthermore, this is a massive undertaking. I'd have to touch every monster and the over 600 spells in the core rulebooks. While I've thought that some of this could be automated, it is really just not worth the effort. This much effort could instead be spent loosely converting existing material into a completely new/alternate system.

In short, keeping z20 compatible with d20 is only useful if the content can all still be used without conversion. But, since all the rules are form an interdependent system, more than a few tweaks breaks the system or makes it a new, incompatible game.

I've now slept on this, and I think the conclusion is clear. z20 is essentially a new game system, but it does not offer enough new or exciting differences from d20 to make it worth a lone-man translation of all the core content. I can think of z20 as Zludge for d20: an assortment of modular rules, sort of like Unearthed Arcana on steriods. As such, much of the work I've done could rollover into any future work I do on a new fantasy or generic rules-heavy RPG.

But I think my time and effort would be better served by searching for (or even developing) a new system unfettered by vague d20 "compatibility" or "equivalence" constraints. I could then translate only the necessary content of my world--a handful of characters--rather than all the d20 core content.

Therefore, my current plan is to shelve z20 indefinitely. I may be able to use the work for later Zludge Prime efforts. In the mean time, I'll play my existing d20 lines through to their ends (or at least to a good conversion point) as d20. I'll probably still poke at zilch, since that has a neat boardgame aspect to it. But, between d20 and zilch, I don't see a real need for a third fantasy RPG in my life. My game system design efforts would be better spent elsewhere.

For the curious: This is where z20 stands now.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Recent Threads

The spring semester is drawing to a close. It's been a busy one, with me actually focusing on my dissertation/implementation for a change. Sadly, this has meant less time for gaming. I hope to continue implementing into the summer, so there probably won't be too much of a gaming resurgence for a while. But, despite a grading backlog to still get through this week, the coming summer has stirred me to look through my various gaming threads once more:

d20: I've been brushing off d20house and my Tellurian Tales characters and trying to get back into d20 again. The two players I actually have await me in two other D&D storylines. So I'd really like to get out of my current d20 doldrums.

In brushing off my characters, I'm reminded once more of the huge "character creation" side of D&D. As I was explaining to S., it has some of the same draw as Magic: The Gathering: There is a collection of different abilities that can be combined to form awesome combos. And, thanks to WotC's prolific publishing schedule, the library of possible components constantly expands. So there's this draw to familiarize myself with all the possible components and then flesh-out the "perfect" combos in accordance with some initial character (or deck) concept.

While this is still fun, sometimes of late I find it a bit tedious. Specifically, prestige classes annoy me. Many are close to what I want but none are "just right". So I've been designing a couple custom classes--but, since there's no real mechanic for this, it tends to take me hours of thought.

Caligo: I poke at this occasionally and I'm quite happy with how it's coming along. So far it's staying pretty simple, which is good. I have a few different one-off story ideas I want to try... someday.

Dark Heresy: A break-thru here in that this week I decided to drop my Zludge translation of this. While I'm sure the work already done on this will inform eventual Zludge Prime work, I decided to just leave Dark Hersey as it is.... because it's actually quite a nice system, especially now that I've come to appreciate some of the advantages of a roll-under die mechanic. I have lots of story ideas here, and I'd like to move into some serious campaigns with this once my d20 lines end. So I'm trying to shelve it again until then (and focus back on my d20 threads!).

zilch: I was thinking about this yesterday and this morning. I was refocusing on it's mission: a boardgame-like dungeon-crawling RPG. Some elements of it--such as the spell system--I think could be used elsewhere (like in z20). But I really need to get back to a boardgame sort of focus. This morning, I started sketching out stuff on that: particularly, how I might generate a story/dungeon on the fly so no pre-game GM planning is required--only some (potentially collaborative) refereeing. We'll see where this goes...

z20: Now I'm turning my eye to z20 once again... that old sore tooth that I can't stop poking.

[I apologize to my readers that my blog is so often a review of threads or a whining reiteration of the same points over and over again, but this blog is really sort of my gaming journal. This is where I come when I need to record (or, frequently, reaffirm once again) some gaming insight or goal.]