Comparative Character Generation, Part 3

Same Crap, Different Year

Frank Mitchell

April 11, 2009

It's been close to three years since I started this "series" (see here and here). A lot has happened since then:

  1. After years of talking, I finally started a BRP campaign ... which has two players, and so far two sessions after I announced it in January.

  2. Another edition of D&D has come out, completely unlike 3.5 or any preceding edition. Having played in one short game, I can't say I like it much: too much attention to tactical combat, and only a bare-bones set of skills for all non-combat activities.

  3. I've discovered other systems I'd like to run or at least play, notably Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay (2nd Edition) and Don't Rest Your Head. A few more are waiting on my To-Read pile: a new edition of Traveller, A Song of Ice and Fire Roleplaying Game, and Grimm (still). I'm even assembling ideas for a GURPS campaign. But they're not D&D ...

So, I'm going to take a second look at D&D, and how I can bend it to the sort of game I'd like to run.

My Sort of Game

Low Magic Fanasy

Back in 1985 (I can't remember the year) Greg Stafford explained why 1st edition Pendragon had no magic system. To summarize, he noted that, in most myths and fantasy literature prior to D&D, protagonists rarely if ever used the sort of "bang-flash" magic one finds in D&D. Magic was the province of reclusive witches, evil sorcerers, and semi-divine beings. Especially in the Arthurian cycle, "magic" was a plot device to start a story, make protagonists more terrifying, or help the protagonist -- usually once -- over a hurdle.

That thesis resonated with me, and magic in typical RPGs seemed to me "alternative technology" instead of the mysterious force from literature. Conan had no use for magic; in his world, magic came from blasphemous creatures that had no business on Earth (following his friend Lovecraft). Gandalf used his powers sparingly, and Sauron and Saruman had only indirect influences on the world. Elric sometimes summoned beings to help him, but usually trusted, unwisely, in his sword Stormbringer. Yet the typical mage in D&D, GURPS, and so many other systems simply pointed his finger, did a chant, and cast a fireball at his foes; depending on system, he had to wait until he refilled his "spell slot" or got his fatigue/magic points back.

Why can't magic stay in the background, to "explain" mysterious storms, sleeping princesses, and shambling ape-bear-pig-things? Why can't the GM dole out bits of magic for the players to find and use for a particular adventure? Isn't that that more interesting, more challenging, than point-and-chant?

Well, I think so. So I'd like a system where I can try different types of magic: ritual magic, spirit-summoning magic, psychic magic, artifact-based magic, and (horrors) no magic apart from steel and wits.

Not Fantasy

I'm also a little tired of fantasy gaming. I'd like to try historical, modern, science fiction, post-apocalyptic, and alternate history settings.

No version of D&D supports those genres, except as a temporary romp like "Expedition to the Barrier Peaks" or fantasy-heavy science fantasy like Fading Suns. d20 Modern supports those genres, but I can't get past the "Smart Hero", "Strong Hero", etc. base classes; even Modern^20, with its revised characters, doesn't help much, and Spycraft's "condensed rules" cost as much as some complete games.

True20 also supports non-fantasy genres. Perhaps it's D&D-like enough to lure in a few D&D players, and it's "Pocket Guide" costs only $15. On the other hand, it doesn't have D&D's brand recognition, and I've stated my reservations about True20 two years ago.

Elements of Horror

No matter what genre I'm playing, or GM-ing, I must put in some sort of gallows humor, if not outright horrific events: the book made of human skin, corpses walking, sardonic sadists, whatever.

D&D isn't well-suited for true horror; characters beyond the capabilities of ordinary men defeat undead, demons, and twisted monstrosities on a regular basis. Throwing a nigh-unstoppable threat against most players would illicit howls of protest that the beasty is way out of their recommended Challenge Rating. Pelor help the GM if a PC actually dies. So there's no real sense of danger, and therefore no horror except for spook-house props and purple prose.

Subverting Tropes

Mostly I like to take standard tropes and expectations and twist them a bit. For example, my current campaign centers on civilized orcs battling encroaching humans, and raiding the ruins of a bygone orcish empire. I chafe at the Tolkien races, or even the notion of "races", since everyone does them (including Shadowrun). I tire of standard RPG magic (see above), of cannon-fodder bad guys, of "monsters" described explicitly in some tome or other. "My sort of game" removes or inverts some classic assumption, introduces one or more uncommon ideas, and sees what happens.

D&D, and much of fantasy gaming, thrives on the tropes above. Few games posit a world filled almost entirely with humans, or where statistically significant populations of intelligent creatures aren't just humans with funny ears or height and weight problems. Few think of monsters as truly "monsters", previously unseen corruptions of nature with unknown strengths and weaknesses. Few question the social and economic effects of rootless "adventurers" raiding old ruins for loot and swanning into town to spend it. For that matter, few non-fantasy games question the similar trope of "free traders" jumping across the galaxy.

D&D 4th Edition

Where do I start? How about with what I dislike:

  1. 4e simplified the skill system, which in some ways is a good thing, but it went too far in my view. Gone are rules for PCs making mundane items. Gone is any sort of "Appraise" ability to judge the value of the loot you've just acquired. Gone are any allowances for specialized knowledge, area knowledge, or indeed any knowledge that doesn't fit into Arcana, Dungeoneering, History, Nature, or Religion. Sure, the DM can improvise or house-rule for those situations, but now he or she must improvise even more situations than in 3.5. The implicit assumption is that PCs will always get fair market value for their loot, will seldom if ever move far outside their known world, and never need information checks on (for example) styles of art in different civilizations.

  2. By contrast, the combat system has gotten more baroque, with the addition of Powers. Even the lowly Fighter, once the simplest class, now must choose among two or more At Will Powers, and whether to expend Encounter or Daily Powers ... all of which, at least at low levels, provide small but slightly different bonuses or effects. Fighters must also choose who to "mark" every round, for further tactical advantage. Every other class has the same choice, each round, although Wizards naturally have the flashiest and most easily differentiated Powers.

  3. In the interests of adding "excitement", attacks push and pull characters -- i.e. their miniatures -- across the game board. The game also measures ranges and areas of effect in "squares". I suppose that's one way to solve "stand and whack" syndrome. However, I don't find counting off squares any more exciting than "I roll to hit", and it takes an extra second or three besides.

  4. "Skill Challenges" are an interesting, if not entirely original, idea: non-combat tasks require a specific number successes in one or more skill rolls, and a certain number of failures cause the whole "encounter" to fail. However, examples are few and far between: persuading a king, disarming traps, and other adventure-support activities. The DM sets them up in advance, as part of an adventure; I can't imagine many DMs who can come up with one completely on the fly. Plus, Skill Challenges are a pass/fail mechanism; there's no notion of degree of success that I can detect.

The net effect of these changes seems to exalt combat to the primary focus of D&D, with other activities secondary and quickly dispensed with. Anything not part of a typical "adventure" -- the "downtime" that in other games provides opportunities for self-improvement and mundane pursuits -- relies on a few of "tools" and DM ingenuity.

Honestly, I can't see how D&D 4th Edition can bend to my will, even though it's the top system for new games around me. With the addition of Powers at specific levels, adding or changing classes is non-trivial, and removing any standard races will make certain Feats inaccessible. I'd have to bend my ideas around the system, which is no fun for me.

d20 Redux

D&D 3.5 did not self-destruct, and some people prefer it to 4th edition. As I discussed last time, bog-standard D&D doesn't appeal to me, and simply cutting things won't endear players to me, but maybe some existing rules might fill the gap.

Darkness and Dread, by Mike Mearls

Darkness and Dread describes variant rules for a horror-based D&D campaign. It starts with two options for PC classes:

  1. Standard D&D classes, modified or forbidden for a horror atmosphere, notably clerics, sorcerers, and wizards.

  2. New, career-based classes, only a few with limited access to arcane and divine magic.

Other rules include Insanity, Corruption, and simplified Knowledge skills to represent omnidisciplinary scholars.

Unfortunately, Darkness and Dread is out-of-print, and unavailable even as a PDF. All the rules are OGL so I can type out the ones players need if I need the typing practice. Players might find class option #1 more palatable, and it's certainly easier for me, but players may miss their arcane artillery and divine healing batteries.

The Psychic's Handbook, by Steve Kenson

The Psychic's Handbook presents an alternate "psionic" class and system, which prototyped the True20 magic system. Unfortunately, it's out of print. That won't sit well with PCs, especially if it's the only magic system available.

True Sorcery, by Robert J. Schwalb

True Sorcery presents a ritual-based, improvised magic system for D&D and other d20-based games. Unlike the last two entries, it's still in print. Players may resent having to buy another book. In addition, the system seems pretty calculation-heavy, especially at the table.

Omega World, by Jonathan Tweet

Dungeon #94/Polyhedron #153 introduced an elegant mini-game emulating Gamma World with 3.5 rules. Changes include:

Unfortunately, "mutants" strike me as kind of hokey, considering what we've learned about radiation and genetics. Lopping those parts out of the game, and substituting robots or other beasties limits PC options and removes the retro feel. On the other hand, maybe I could adopt a similar strategy in my game.

E6, by Ryan Stoughton

E6 relies on a very simple idea: after 6th level, PCs stop gaining levels and start gaining feats instead. New feats add skill points, "train up" characteristics, and give spellcasters important healing powers accessible only after 6th level.

Whether limiting spellcasting classes to 6th level is "low-magic" enough for me will depend on the actual skill list. On the other hand, E6 seems to have a lot of mind-share. I personally have never been in any campaign where we progressed far past 6th level.


I discussed True20 last time. (I also considered Iron Heroes, but on reflection it's too complicated, and nobody supports it anymore.) To summarize, it's a significant departure from D&D, although all changes simplifies the rules. Not long ago, Green Ronin released a $15 "pocket edition" containing the core player rules, so players buying a whole new book is less of a concern.

In addition, Green Ronin released the True20 Companion; the True20 core rulebook now incorporates the Companion instead of four campaigns (three sort of lame). The Companion contains a point-based system for creating balanced "roles" beyond the primary three, and optional rules tailored for specific genres like fantasy, horror, and science fiction. If I want to limit magic, I can make another role; if I want to mix Expert and Warrior abilities, I can do that too.

True20 looks more and more attractive, except that it doesn't have D&D's name recognition.


Some people still play AD&D, Basic D&D, and Old D&D, either for nostalgia's sake or in protest of newer editions. Those versions lack the complications of 3.x and 4th Editions: no skills, no feats, no powers. For emulation's sake, though, they do reintroduce Attack Tables.

Swords & Wizardry

My most recent find is Swords & Wizardry, a work-alike of Original D&D, only more coherent and readable. The first few pages show how to make a "character sheet" out of an index card, which appeals to me a lot.

Unfortunately, the only classes in that version are Fighting Man (Fighter), Cleric, and Magic-User. If I reject the magic system, I'm left with one class. Not too exciting.

Labyrinth Lord

Labyrinth Lord reproduces the Basic D&D edition penned by Moldvay, et al. This system has multiple types of saving throws and more character classes (including Elves, Dwarves, and Halflings), but still fits on a half-sheet of paper. Third-party products add options like character classes (Rangers, Monks, Paladins, and Bards) and three optional skill systems; Goblinoid Games and other small companies provide a few adventures and supplements for LL.

Labyrinth Lord gives a little variety, but Clerics and Magic Users are still integral to the system. It's probably the best compromise between simplicity and crunchy bits.


OSRIC reproduces AD&D 1st Edition in all its glory. Unfortunately, I was never that thrilled with AD&D the first time around. It is popular, though, so if I go the retro-gaming route I might have to bite the bullet.

Mutant Future

Mutant Future emulates the setting of Gamma World, using a modified version of Labyrinth Lord. Willpower replaces Wisdom, and comes into play only in psychic combat; Intelligence modifies the percentile roll to understand technology. There's really only one "class", with hit dice equal to the characters CON. Pure Strain Humans get a d8 hit die, and mutants get a d6. Android characters start with a flat 50 hp.

As with Omega World, the mutant angle doesn't appeal to me, even though it's a huge chunk of the game. On the other hand, Mutant Future does demonstrate how to customize an old-school game for a different genre.


I've omitted Star Wars Saga Edition from this discussion, for the sake of brevity; it would be hard to explain a SWSE campaign not in the Star Wars universe, and what would I do with the Jedi? Other d20 variants lack name recognition, and fail the other criteria I noted in my previous installment.

Fourth Edition is out unless I play it straight, or come up with an angle that keeps the rules intact but twists the backstory. I've considered angles like "Martial Characters Only", but Martial Powers are quasi-magical in an of themselves, so what's the point?

Third Edition suffers from the Catch-22, noted previously, that the further I move from straight D&D, the less appeal it has to other people. As I see it, I have two real options:

  1. E6 changes very little rules-wise, and it's free, but I don't know if limiting spell-casters to 6th level is "low-magic" enough for me.

  2. Using the Omega World approach, I could create an uber-class and add in enough feats, skills, and other options (like Iron Heroes traits) to make characters interesting. For example, I can reboot Orc Lands so that all orcs start as a variant of the Fighter class, but open it up to all skills and feats. Maybe I can replicate the 4e skill system, for simplicity, or ... wow, that sounds like a lot of work.

True20 already does most of what I would do to the d20 system. How many D&D players would try it? Really, how many? I don't know.

There's been some buzz about retro-clones and old-school gaming, so maybe I could scare up some grognards who'd give it a go. Unfortunately, I didn't like early-edition D&D the first time around, and I don't really want to give up skills and the d20 mechanic.

So I guess I've talked myself into True20, E6, or d20 with modified character generation, unless I come up with some clever twist to 4th Edition fluff. Next time I'll work up some specific campaign ideas, and how each of these approaches would fit.