Monday, February 20, 2012

Spreadsheet Comparison of D&D systems

So this long weekend granted me by the school board gods has allowed me to put together a somewhat rough and dirty spreadsheet comparing many of the predominant D&D inspired systems. First and foremost I make no claims as the greatness, completeness, or even perfect accuracy of the information contained in this file. It needs lots of clean-up and still lacks comparison of several factors present in all systems. I have just decided that enough is enough for right now. I think my basic answer was attained in this preliminary look via the information included here. (This file is an Excel file hosted by Mediafire--it's the first one I've done this way. Let me know if it works or not.)

Most notable for it's absence is the expansion or change of combat rules. I simply didn't have the time to go in depth there yet. And I wanted to get this posted before the weekend was up and I had to get back to work. And I also managed to get a couple Labyrinth Lord sessions in with my kids and their cousin too.

My motivation here is simply to get a handle for myself on the development of systems over time and what clones and simulacra have tried to hearken back to. For me this is now fairly clear--and not only that another thing became clear that wasn't as to me clear beforehand. And forgive me for this if it seems to start up an edition war or something--it's just what the data says. Presented as it is, in chart form, here--even in this preliminarily rough form--the conclusion is inescapable. So here I present the most surprising thing, to me, in bold and hi definition color:

The d20 systems are NOT the same game we grew up playing.

Dungeons & Dragons was built upon an identifiable and distinct system designed by Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson.

All that changed with the development of the d20 system by Jonathan Tweet, Monte Cook, Skip Williams, Richard Baker and Peter Adkinson.

There it is, with the culprits clearly named. A spade called a spade. 

Now, the d20 system is elegant, smooth and efficient.  About the only way it could be made more simple is to make saving throws just a one mechanic role. I for one might import C&C's Siege engine into d20 and you would have a system so snot-slick-smooth that it would freakin' reflect four pointed ninja stars. Yeah, don't get me wrong--d20 is a shit-slick system, well designed. But it is NOT the system we grew up playing. You can shout all day that it's better, it's quicker, it's more intuitive, it's faster and I couldn't really argue with you much at all--except maybe of the definition of "better". But one argument you can't win is that it is the same game we were playing back in the day. It simply is not.

Now I suppose you might say it's a lot like playing cops and robbers with different kids. But the kids in your new neighborhood play by different rules, but that in the end it's still cops and robbers. But by that definition every fantasy game with elves and dwarves and classes is Dungeons & Dragons. Sorry bucko--it just don't quite wash that way. The D&D name doesn't lay claim to all fantasy RPGs. even tho' it might have inspired them. Cops and Robbers under your rules is another thing entirely compared to cops and robbers under my rules.

The d20 system changed the game. That is clear to me now. Notice I'm not saying anything about this being good or bad--it is just a fact.

Also, something else that became clear to me is that the main change in the game (what I am going to call the actual D&D system) was in player options. Now to a degree this also includes combat maneuvers and mechanics, but principally involves addition of classes, races, proficiencies and the like. The actual expansion of the game centers around PC development. And unfortunately in some cases this led to a rule heavy system designed to incorporate all of these changes.

The most noteworthy, and honestly the last development of the actual D&D system was with 2e. The basic system was still in place, but options went through the roof. I feel like they had made an effort at curtailing this by consolidating classes under a four archetype system, and developing PCS via kits. They tried to make the combat system more intuitive via THAC0, and then developed an entirely new approach to the game via their options line. And although there were adherents to certain of these changes they could actually all be counted as dismal failures. Some might blame the splatbook phenom which 2e initiated as reason for their demise, and they wouldn't be totally wrong. But 2e was the first to begin to take the system in new directions, and in so doing they began to lose, what Gary himself had said was so solid that little should be changed going forward. And then the 2e TSR team did just that.

Which in my opinion leaves AD&D as the last incarnation of true D&D commercially published. And truthfully, AD&D was actually a very specific and personal sub-manifestation of D&D engineered by Gary. The game as presented in Original D&D, and later cleaned up some for the Classic D&D line (B/X) was the heart of the system. A system that could be expanded upon endlessly by those playing the game. AD&D was claimed to be by Gary the ultimate expression of the game, but obviously this was only one possible manifestation of what D&D could be in the hands of the creatively imaginative player and DM.

The crux of expansion in the game really seems to center around offering the player increased options. Which is open ended in the actual system itself. Even AD&D continued this trend in its supplements and magazines. None of which bogs down the system much.  What tends to bog down the game is increased combat options--which didn't really occur much until 2e. But what increased player options does do is introduce power creep. We can see this across the development of the actual D&D game and its d20 variants. Each one more powerful than the ones before.

All of which brings me to how one can  meet the expectations of increased player options while avoiding power creep and keeping the game lite and flexible. And I think Gary answered this question quite nicely in his last game--Lejendary Adventures, which we'll explore some next time.


  1. I agree 100% on the bright bolded green. More people need to figure that one out.

    I do think you're being a tiny smidge too hard on 2e. In my day we mixed 1e and 2e freely (I didn't even know we were using books from different editions!). That _did not_ happen with 3e. Considering just the core of 2e and ignoring the splatbooks, it even improves on 1e in some ways! Worse in others but better in some.

    Other than that small nitpick I think you're right on the money.

  2. Mechanics matter. The change in feel was palpable in 3E -- not saying it was bad or good, just different.

    In fact, I was less concerned about 4E than I was with 3.5. 4E deserved to be called its own edition, because the rules were so different. 3.5 left a bad taste in my mouth -- they could've been alternate rules.

  3. Good article, I'm not validating that it's 100% accurate but good legwork doing the spreadsheet to back up your arguement. Have a cookie!

  4. Yeah, thanks everyone. I know the spreadsheet needs cleanup, and it's my intention to do so eventually. But as I kept adding to it here and there over the weekend my main goal was accomplished without actually finishing it completely. That was convincing myself of the predominant differences between stages in the development of our game.

    And yes, it's true that 2e got a bit of the focus in my entry as a significant dividing point, but it wasn't meant to be negative. In fact none of my analysis was. Solely as statements of fact based on a quick and dirty breakdown of system structure. 2e is closer to AD&D than it is the d20 systems, and for this reason much of it could be used with earlier games; but it was the first significant diversion from the actual D&D.

    Now, that being said I think it took some steps towards offering the options players want while still preserving the core system more or less. The problem was that it introduced a level of complexity into the system that was in my opinion to inspire some of the complexity that was tacked onto the d20 model.

    The d20 model is actually incredibly lite and intuitive, but they bog it down with so many bonuses and combat variations, exceptions and the like you literally need a worksheet to create your PC.

    That's why C&C and BFRPG play so well. They take a core d20 model and play it lite and fast. The problem is they give too few options, and players can get a little bored or feel slighted with the simplicity they often feel forced to play within. And regardless, if you are playing d20 you aren't playing the actual D&D system you are playing d20 fantasy, which is what they really should call the system--regardless of whatever IPs they may own.

    And please understand this is not hate dialogue, it is simply the facts based upon an analysis that showed early on that it didn't need to be any more thorough.

    I suppose one could do like WoTC have been doing and define D&D by factors like HP, Abilities, Races, Classes and the like--but if that is the case it becomes very difficult to draw that line between where D&D ends and other class based fantasy RPGs begin. And when you come right down to it NONE of those factors have stayed the same in the d20 model.

    HP have gone to being con + die roll, Abilities have no limit instead of 3-25, and core races have morphed into something barely recognizable as classic fantasy.

    It just seems very clear to me that if you want to play actual D&D you will be playing under a certain model, and that model is not d20.

    But I'm not certain that many players are going to be happy playing without a way to customize and develop their PCs with a high degree of personalization--which is what d20 does in spades. And this movement really began under actual D&D with 2e.

    What is important to remember here is that what 2e did is not a bad thing. It could have been trying to address some of the very issues I'm talking about. But I'm not sure how successful all these changes were; 2e really proved to be one of the least popular versions of D&D, except for maybe the second edition of d20 (4e). And had the distinction of being the version under which the company failed (though to be fair this was due to many factors).

    I'm very intrigued at this point with Gary's LA system. I think he attempted to answer some of these questions--even though he did create a an entirely new system himself.

  5. Very cool idea to compare these like this on a spreadsheet. Some quibbles:

    No Holmes? He had pretty much the same alignments as 4e (!), which I'd also equate with the Warhammer world.

    Anyway 1/2 orcs are not really in AD&D2e as a 'core' race ... you need a splatbook for that.

    More significantly, Holmes Basic (maybe also B/X) and OD&D do mention PC monsters as an option.

    And you missed the BX hit dice.

    Re your larger point, I'd agree, d20 system is a real paradigm shift.

  6. I happen to agree with you—so great post :)

    But what I especially like is the structure of the argument. Even if you were wrong, it would be great to see similar methodology applied to proving it.

  7. I pretty much agree with your analysis but would add a few points.

    1. The tendency to power creep can be seen much earlier. Unearthed Arcana at the latest, and depending on what you think of as power creep, potentially some of the OD&D supplements. Even Mystara in the basic line had a boatload of classes added. I think this is just the nature of the beast. It only becomes a problem when people stop looking at the options as a toolbox and start treating them as player entitlements.

    2. I think 4E is too different to be considered the second edition of the d20 system. The new system for hit points, defenses rather than saving throws, a unified power progression for all classes, etc.

  8. Interesting post on the D&D variants!

    @Mike Monaco:
    Nope. The B/X rules do not mention 'monsters' as a PC option.(Interestingly enough, (A)D&D defines a 'monster' as every creature *not* a player.) Unfortunately the most popular B/X's clones have followed suit; not even Labyrinth Lord's Original Edition Characters booklet mentions utilizing Monstrous races as PCs. However, Swords & Wizardry hints at the possibility: in Chapter 2, pg. 7, under 'Choose a Character Race', the rulebook states that 'the Referee might permit races that aren't covered here'. Probably because S&W was inspired more by OD&D/Holmes than Moldvay/Cook/Marsh B/X.

    Bitd, Dr. Holmes lamented the removal of 'Monsters as PCs' option in his review of the Moldvay Set in Dragon #52: "I am personally sorry to see the range of possibilities so restricted. The original rules (the three little brown books) specifically stated that a player could be a dragon if he wanted to be, and if he started at first level. For several years there was a dragon player character in my own game. At first level he could puff a little fire and do one die of damage. He could, of course, fly, even at first level. He was one of the most unpopular characters in the game, but this was because of the way he was played, not because he was a dragon. I enjoyed having dragons, centaurs, samurai and witch doctors in the game. My own most successful player character was a Dreenoi, an insectoid creature borrowed from McEwan’s Starguard. He reached fourth level (as high as any of my personal characters ever got), made an unfortunate decision, and was turned into a pool of green slime."

    Man, I'd love to have been in on Dr. Holme's games! I'm glad to say my groups play in his(and Dave Arneson's, and Dave Hargraves', and Ken St. Andre's, et. al) spirit!