Tuesday, February 4, 2014

XD20: an appreciation (and thoughts for Dungeons and Dragons)

Since this year is the 40th anniversary of the Dungeons and Dragons system, this year's first post takes a quick look at an obscure off-shoot of that famous game, XD20.

XD20 is an extremely free-form, rules-lite system included in XDM: Extreme Dungeon Mastery, a guide to DMing and RPGs by Tracy Hickman and Curtis Hickman. XDM as a book shows signs of hasty development and editing, as well as containing considerable filler in the form of mostly unusable stage-trickery and dice prestidigitation, but at its core there is also a sound and interesting guide to bringing fun, action, humour and interest back into roleplaying games, as a reaction to the slow, overly-cautious, procedural style of dungeon-crawling play that D&D games can slip into.

This review on RPG.net is a pretty good summary of the XD20 system, and interested me enough to buy the e-book version through Kindle.

In brief, the 'advanced' version of XD20 generates characters with three scores or stats: TAC (Toughness and Constitution, the only acronym that is explained), PSYCH (intelligence and skill), and WAH (luck, willpower, and magic specifically). There is also a Health score, based on a combination of the other scores. Characters have a few notes regarding skills and abilities (based on their character Type) a Level, and any equipment the DM deems reasonable at the time.

The three scores combine ability scores, bonuses and saving throws, and so lower numbers are better (except for Health, oddly).

The mechanics are even simpler. The player describes an action, and the DM may ask for a related stat and apply any modifiers that seem relevant or entertaining and sets the target number. The player then rolls greater than or equal to the target number on d20 to succeed. If the success or failure has some effect, like damage or magical strength, then another d20 is rolled and the higher the roll, the better. In essence, the DM estimates the chance of success based on a stat or the situation, and sets the target number accordingly.

Combat rounds are unstructured. The only rule is that everyone gets a chance to act in a single round, and damage is fudged – you can roll, or apply a fixed number, or the DM can make something up.

The mechanics may seem sketchy and rather arbitrary, and in a sense they are. But XD20 captures a deep truth about RPG systems which has influenced my thinking considerably: there are only 20 digits on a d20, and most rules in all their calculations, modifiers and tables are ultimately aimed at proposing a number that seems fair given the situation: so why not just cut to the chase, pick a reasonable target, and roll?

The handling of magic has a similar elegance. A magician describes a spell, the DM sets a target number, the roll is made and the effects decided. The Hickmans point out that magic should be consistent with the rest of the rules of the game and the nature of magic in the game-world, not based on exceptions and special cases. This of course requires inventiveness as well as consistency and a great deal of judgement, but it also pushes players and DMs to treat magic as, well, magic, rather than a sort of special in-game munitions in prepackaged units.

Finally, although characters have a Level, there is no material benefit from gaining a level (which happens whenever the DM thinks it should happen). Instead, characters simply face challenges and opponents consistent with their level and the general difficulty of play remains the same.

XDM is clearly based on playing and revising D&D, with its vast lists of specialist classes, optimal "builds", spells, special abilities and feats, and countless modifiers, options and case-based exceptions. After all, everybody knows what a fighter or a barbarian or a wizard should do, what equipment they carry, what they can face at first level or tenth level. XD20 urges players and DMs to cut away the detritus and focus on the action, puzzles, roleplaying and story. With a few scores on the character sheet for fighting, skill and magic, some health points, a few dice, a few equipment tables to adapt and plenty of imagination and judgement, what could be closer to the original spirit of the first fantasy RPG?

Of course, the XD20 system is not perfect, and even some of its very few rules (in particular, how Health is figured) run against common-sense, which can hamper engagement. But its core ideas present a huge amount of flexibility, and I'll be looking at these options in an upcoming post.