Thursday, May 10, 2012

Blast of the (d20) Past

Preface: The following is a critique - okay, it's a rant - I posted on EN World in 2005 of d20 Past, the historical supplement for d20 Modern. I was a big fan of d20 Modern for a long time, and used it to run a number of historical roleplaying campaigns, so I was right in Whizbros' wheelhouse for this one. It's safe to say I was underwhelmed by the final product.

I wouldn’t attempt to speak for anyone else’s expectations, but here’s a rough idea of what I was hoping to see from d20 Past:
  • A discussion for adapting the existing occupations, skills, talents feats, and advanced and prestige class abilities to the pre-Modern era
  • A section on overland travel, something that d20 Modern doesn’t cover
  • A selection of pre-Modern advanced classes
  • New skills appropriate to the pre-Modern era
  • New feats appropriate to the pre-Modern era
  • A series of equipment lists appropriate to different eras, including weapons, transportation, and adventuring gear
  • An expanded section of mostly mundane (non-FX) “monsters” appropriate to the pre-Modern era
I was hoping for a book with an approach similar to that of d20 Future: a modular tool box that covers the broader picture well with a few details for specific campaign modules.

If the authors felt they could cover this ground and still had a bit of space, then an expanded list of generic ordinaries to plug-and-play would be nice, but not essential.

I did not want to see adventures or extensive campaign module summaries. I also didn’t want to see a long historical treatise. What I wanted was a book that handled the crunchy, rule mechanics-intensive bits for me so that I could focus my creativity on creating the campaign-setting and adventures. In this at least I expected to be disappointed – FX sells, so magic and sci-fi and “monsters” were anticipated though not welcomed.

As far as what I was hoping to see, does d20 Past deliver? In my opinion, no, it does not.

The book spends two of its 96 pages on “approaches to history and campaigns,” an esoteric discussion of possible world-views and temporal ramifications of historic campaigns – these two pages are made all the more pointless by presenting three campaign-modules that emphasize fantasy over history.

D20 Past includes advice on using the occupations, feats, and so on from d20 Modern as part of a pre-Modern era historical game. It also includes a few new occupations, which is appropriate given that a number of the existing occupations are excluded. The skill Computer Use is eliminated and other skills curtailed. There are no new skills – personally I would’ve liked to see something along the lines of Long-distance Communication (could cover everything from semaphore and heliographs to drums and smoke signals) and/or Telegraphy (the Internet of the Victorian era) added. Feats receive a similar treatment, and a number of new feats are added, most (or all) of them previous published in the Pulp Heroes d20 mini-game in Polyhedron 161 – I didn’t do a one-to-one comparison with my copy of PH, but if memory serves, it’s pretty darn close. Moreover, these new feats are extremely limited in focus, reflecting their roots in a pulp adventure game, not a historical one.

Then there are the advanced and prestige classes. Only a single ‘universal’ non-FX AdC, the Explorer, is offered to cover the span of 500 years that d20 Past purports to represent – one other, the Gangster, could possibly used as an AdC regardless of period, but the Gangster has its own issues that need to be addressed. The Explorer and the Gangster were ripped straight from Pulp Heroes with only minor changes, as were the new starting occupations.

Some might argue that there isn’t a need for additional AdCs – I disagree.

Some argue that the pre-Modern Past is so similar to the Modern that few or no additional AdCs are warranted. However, according to the Modern SRD, “An advanced class represents a focus and a calling for the experienced adventurer. It provides a specialization and a range of power and ability to give a character that something extra to set him or her apart.” If those who feel that the current AdCs adequately represent the historical period from the late Middle Ages to the early Information Age are correct, then there’s really nothing about the pre-Modern era that represents a specialization that isn’t adequately covered by the AdCs in the core rules. Again, I disagree, and I’ll explain why in a moment.

There are a couple of approaches that can be taken to creating AdCs. One is to create AdCs that represent genre archetypes. In my opinion this is the approach taken in Dog House Rules’ most excellent Sidewinder: Recoiled Wild West game and Adamant Entertainment’s Thrilling Tales pulp adventure game. It’s also the approach I’ve taken in creating AdCs for my homebrew historical campaigns using the Modern SRD. In each case the AdCs offer specialization specific to the genre archetypes.

Another approach is to look for ‘universal’ areas of specialization – this is much closer to the method used in the Modern core rules. D20 Past takes the stance that there is no compelling reason to create additional character ability specializations for the span of five centuries of human history. I believe this is a myopic view of both history and the Modern rules.

The AdCs in d20 Modern are not universal to all periods. The campaign modules in d20 Past specifically exclude the Techie from all three – the Gunslinger and Field Medic are excluded from from “Age of Adventure” and the Field Scientist from “Pulp Heroes” as well. Moreover d20 Past makes only the most minimal of effort at creating universal AdCs appropriate to the pre-Modern age.

Where is the Cavalier, with specialized abilities relating to animal mounts such as horses, elephants, or camels? Where is the Sea Hawk, with specialized abilities relating to sailing ships? Where is the Scholar, with specialized abilities related to non-technological knowledge? Where is the Doctor, to replace the Modern Field Medic? Each of these four AdCs would be universal to the whole of the period ostensibly covered in d20 Past.

Some might argue that the existing rules cover horsemanship or sailing or healing – a character can take Ride as a Strong hero or Soldier, Treat Injury as a Dedicated hero, Drive and Surface Vehicle Operation as a Fast or Tough hero, and so on. However, this does not replace the role that AdCs are intended to play in d20 Modern, that of specialized powers and abilities. Modern is not Grim Tales – AdCs serve a specific purpose in the game, one that appears to have been largely overlooked in d20 Past.

Another problem is that the AdCs offered are overpowered compared to those offered in the core rules. Compare the d20 Past Gangster to the Dead Shot in The Game Mechanics' Modern Player's Companion which requires expending an Action Point to gain an extra +1d6 damage at 5th level, or the Gunslinger in Dog House Rules' Sidewinder: Recoiled which can expend an AP to gain +3d6 damage at 10th level.

In the Pulp Heroes minigame, David Noonan (the author) wrote, "Characters in a Pulp Heroes game tend to make more saving throws than in many other d20 Modern campaigns, however. Accordingly, the advanced classes presented below provide above-average saving throw bonuses" (Polyhedron 161, p. 15, emphasis added). Looking over the class abilities, I think the same could be said of the AdCs generally: compare the Gangster to the Bodyguard, which both begin as Tough heroes and have similar saving throw progressions - however, in addition to having those good saves, the Gangster also has a huge boost to offensive skills which makes the Gangster more effective on both offense and defense whereas the Bodyguard's good saves are linked to his mostly defensive abilities.

It appears that WotC boosted the PH AdCs with little regard for balance: while the AdCs for Pulp Heroes are internally consistent with one another (so that the relative power level remains the same), they are out-of-kilter with the other d20 Modern AdCs. (BTW, if you have Polyhedron 161, you have the Explorer and Gangster already - aside from swapping the Defense and Reputation scores for the Explorer, the classes are identical.)

For me, d20 Past offers little in the way of skills, feats, or AdCs useful to creating non-FX historical games. That leaves equipment, overland travel, and monsters.

First, there are glaring errors and omissions in the equipment section of d20 Past, as well as a couple of questionable choices for inclusion. The omissions are mind-boggling. There are pages of sailing ships and trains and cars and aircraft but not a single animal-drawn vehicle. None. No carriages, no stagecoaches, no hansom cabs, no buckboards, no prairie schooners, no caissons. There’s also no howdah, no dog sled, no ox-cart, and no travois, for that matter. It’s as if everyone prior to the late nineteenth-century walked or sailed everywhere.

Cart or wagon - 2 mph or 16 miles per day.” That's what d20 Past offers with respect to animal-drawn transport. According to the designers, a prairie schooner drawn by two teams of yoked oxen travels the same overland speed as a stagecoach drawn by four teams of horses or a sleigh pulled by a pair of reindeer or a gig drawn by a single horse or a carreta drawn by a pair of mules. That doesn't make a whole lot of sense to me.

Would you like to run a chase scene involving a pair of carriages and several riders? You have your work cut out for you. How many squares is a buckboard? A Concord coach? How much cover does a landau provide? a brougham? What's the initiative modifier for a Conestoga wagon? a hansom cab? How about the cargo capacity of a dog sled? a travois? What about hardness? maneuverability? purchase DC? I don't think that asking for vehicle stats comparable to those in the d20 Modern core book is reaching for the moon.

Now a GM has a couple of choices here. First, hand-wave it all away - just describe the chase and give the characters a couple of modifiers to combat and skill checks. To me that misses some of the interesting tactical choices that playing it out with vehicle rules provide - this is true if playing with a tactical grid as shown in d20 Modern or a more free-form system like AEG’s Spycraft or Adamant’s Hot Pursuit.

Second, a GM can research and develop sets of stats herself. For me that takes away from the time I spend developing my campaign and removes one of my main reasons for buying a supplement at all - it's not that I can't invent things from scratch, it's that it takes away from my enjoyment of the game and cuts into my time spent writing adventures and campaign background. More fundamentally, how do you write a game supplement called d20 Past without paying at least a little bit of attention to something so basic?

(I suppose there is a third option as well: a GM can make it up “on the fly.” This makes it difficult for a player to make informed choices with respect to buying and using equipment, however. If a player is faced with choosing between a couple of different revolvers for his gunslinger, having the GM say something along the lines of, “Well, I'll make up the relevant stats when you need them,” probably won't sit too well.)

There’s no mundane adventuring gear in d20 Past. None. No snuff boxes, no daguerreotype plates, no plumed hats, no pocket watches, no spyglasses. Nothing. This is inexcusable.

There are a number of errors with the weapons presented. Neither the Spencer rifle nor the Winchester M1873 has box magazines – both have internal magazines. (I believe the first lever-action Winchester to have a box magazine was the M1895.) The range of the M3 grease gun is shown as higher than that of the Thompson submachine gun, the opposite of how the stats should have been presented based on the material I could find on both. The range of the M1 Carbine is not the equal of the M1 Garand, despite the assertion in d20 Past – it’s as if the authors don’t understand the concept of a carbine in the first place. The reloading times are pure silliness: reloading a flintlock takes just two full-round actions? A percussion cap and ball takes the same time to reload as a metallic cartridge? There seems to be no attempt to capture any of the flavor of the period weapons. (Check out Sidewinder: Recoiled to see reloads done well.)

There is some unnecessary duplication of weapons as well, which makes no sense given that d20 Past already suffers from a critically short page count as is: the Colt M1911, fragmentation grenades, and the machete are already covered in the core rules. Then there’s the inclusion of the LeMat revolver and the Ferguson rifle, the “FN FiveseveNs” of d20 Past, the sure-to-be-munchkined guns that don’t reflect their historical insignificance – if they had to include a weapon strictly for its “gee-whiz” factor, why not the Walker Colt instead (perhaps taking the spot wasted on the M1911)?

Second, as mentioned earlier a portion of the overland travel rules are imported directly from D&D without regard to the fact that d20 Modern uses different rules for handling non-lethal damage. No one should have to say this but here it is anyway: the first step in writing a good d20 Modern supplement is to hire authors and editors who know how to play d20 Modern.

Third, the lack of animal powered transport is matched by the lack of appropriate draft animals – no camels for adventuring across the Sahara, no elephants for marching across India, no reindeer for sleighing across Lappland.

Then there are the campaign modules and adventures, which take up roughly two-thirds of the book – that’s a higher proportion of pages than either Urban Arcana or d20 Apocalypse. As far as the adventures go, I can’t really comment on the content – I haven’t read them. There is a design philosophy at work at WotC that says that every book is supposed to come “ready to play,” which means that some portion of every book’s page-count is devoted to something that can be used once, if at all. (In many cases the players have the same book as the GM, which discourages many GMs from running the included adventures.) That is the anti-thesis of the toolbox approach I was hoping for from a core-rules supplement d20 Past.

With respect to the campaign modules, I think at least one non-FX campaign module should have been included, if for no other reason than as an instructional aid to GMs – the book begins with a discussion of historical gaming, so it would stand to reason that an example of a historical game would be a good model to present for novices, highlighting the different approaches described in the first pages of the book. With “Age of Adventure,” for example, a discussion of the real Musketeers compare with how they were portrayed by Dumas could be used to bring the point home on different approaches to history and gaming.

As far as the FX goes, does the “Shadow Stalkers” campaign module really need two new FX classes? Does “Age of Adventure” really need dragons? It suggests that pirates and swashbucklers and tomb raiders and mad scientists so weak and lacking in appeal to the larger gaming population that the only way to sell this book is to make it Past Arcana, an assumption that I find highly suspect. For example, the authors could have stripped out the FX classes and monsters from “Age of Adventure” and focused on a campaign module that recreates The Three Musketeers or The Scarlet Pimpernel, turning the FX pages into suggestions on how to run a swashbuckling combat environment, such as advice on how to combine Jump and Climb checks to recreate a character leaping from a balcony, swinging on a chandelier, and kicking an opponent off a table

I have questions about the utility of much of the information presented in the campaign modules. I started putting together a campaign based on “Age of Adventure,” stripping away the FX trappings for an historical swashbuckling game. I found that the material offered in d20 Past as a whole and the “Age of Adventure” module in particular to be so thin that I ended up starting from scratch and creating it all on my own.

As far as online support for d20 Past, a single web enhancement, a bibliography of historical resources, was offered by WotC. Given that the designers themselves noted that historical period details were kept to a minimum in d20 Past since so much material is readily available in libraries and on the Internet, these seems like a pedestrian choice at best. Personally I think making one of the three campaign modules a web supplement and using the print pages for more gamer tools would have been a more efficient use of both resources.

There’s also the question of designer interaction with the users. When d20 Past was about to hit the shelves, Gwendolyn Kestrel began posting on the WotC Modern bulletin boards talking about the book – she posted the table of contents, which together with the art gallery on the Modern web site gave a pretty good picture of what was to come. Many of the responses (though certainly not all) were negative, my own included – after asking the posters to take a “wait-and-see” approach, Ms. Kestrel did not return to answer any additional questions (as far as I could find on reviewing the two threads on the WotC boards). Compare this to the designers of d20 Apocalypse who stood in and answered questions, some of them pointed, about the mechanics and design choices of their book. It says a lot to me about commitment to both the consumers and the product when the writers are willing to offer themselves up in this way – it also encouraged me to look at and ultimately buy d20 Apocalypse, a book I had no interest in adding to my gaming library when it was announced.

Coda: I did actually attempt to use this, to put together a Zorro campaign, but what d20 Past provided was so thin that I found I was making up a bunch of rules to cover the gaping holes. It proved to be too much work at the time, and I shelved the campaign as a result.

For an actual review, try

1 comment:

  1. I don't remember a lot of the details of d20 Past, but I do remember being underwhelmed by it. d20 Future was really well done (not perfect, but a nice toolbox for a variety of sci fi settings/styles). Apocalypse was alright. Past sucked.