Thursday, November 18, 2010

d20 Help! My Appeal To Better Geeks Than Me

Help me figure this thing out

Help me out, fellow gamers. But first, a confession: I have never played d20. By that, I mean no D&D, no Pathfinder, no d20 Star Wars. Nothing. The closest I've come is playing Knights of the Old Republic, which I understand is exactly the same thing, but somewhat more limited. Knowing that, I just need a little help getting acclimated so that I may better serve you, the gaming community.

The next phase of my Complete Characters is adding stats from various relevant open gaming systems, and obviously the d20 fantasy/modern are at the top of that list. It's everywhere, thanks to its place as the original system to go OGL. If aliens are watching us from the upper atmosphere, peering through telescopes and furiously typing notes on their space-Macs, trying to learn our language, it's the d20 lingo that they undoubtedly think is Earth Geek Standard. I, too, must learn to speak it.

I'm a relatively accomplished gamer, so the system doesn't really intimidate me. I understand stat builds and Occupations and Feats and Skills with very little difficulty, and when I trip and fall on these basic mechanical issues, I'm caught by the loving arms of the Internet and its various resources. What there is no substitute for, however, is live repetitions. I have no in-game context to gauge some of the finer points of the system, and that's where I need your help today.

If I may, please allow me to get your thoughts on a few subjects by jumping below the fold. Pretty please?

What's the proper level?
This is a tricky subject, because the answer invariably changes from group to group, Game Master to Game Master. My basic query is, what level character is appropriate for use as a major NPC? My gut instinct is that any of my Complete Characters should probably range between Levels 6 and 12, with most falling in the meat of that curve around 8 to 10. At lower levels, a character's collection of skills, and even character class, are still very much in flux. A Level 3 character is still growing up, such that when Level 4 is attained, that Tough Hero character is as likely to take a level in Strong or Charismatic as anything else, which really changes the basic character altogether. Likewise, that plucky Level 3 Fighter can just as easily grab a level of Rogue as continue on the established path.

By level 6 or 7, however, I surmise that most characters are well on their way to being whatever it is they are going to ultimately be. They have had ample opportunity to set down how they are going to multiclass going forward, either having taken the one or two extraneous levels in a secondary area of study, or have established roughly how the character will split classes in the future.

In terms of compatibility with a campaign, my guess is that an NPC of Level 3 or 4 will only be relevant to a campaign for a short amount of time, say, a handful of hard-fought sessions. Most adventuring parties will quickly climb the experience ladder and leave the early levels in the dust, while the road past levels 7 or 8 remains on the horizon for far longer in the career of the players, meaning that NPCs of that level will be relevant far longer.

So, I said all of that to try and determine what is the proper level for a key NPC, such as those detailed in Complete Character. In addition to the actual statted-out character, would it be helpful to list, as a part of the offering, what classes/feats/skills are a priority for the character over the next few levels? Does level even matter, or would characters be just as well served to be built by assembling relevant skills, feats, and various modifiers without going through a true character generation process?

What's the story on skill relevance/diversity?
I've always been a big proponent of skills being part of the character's background information. I'm the type of player and game designer that makes sure that any character that I write knows how to swim, use a computer, build a campfire, and drive a car (as is appropriate to the setting), actually taking these "life skills" as long as it makes sense to do so. So, my natural inclination is to assign some points to skills even if they do not maximize the utility of the character, even if they are cross-class. For example, for a random Academic-type character that I was generating, I put in a couple of ranks of Swim. The character wasn't particularly built to encounter the water, but in my mind he is a world traveler that would have picked up a decent breaststroke in his lifetime.

Obviously investing in a rank of Swim isn't crazy or inexplicable. My only question is, will it seem odd to a d20 player that picks up the character sheet? Is any self-respecting d20 gamer going to look at it and think, "Why the hell were these points wasted on swimming when they could have been put into something useful?"

This leads me to the second part of this question. How broad or deep do skills tend to be in d20? Is it understood that a character should find a couple of things to be very, very good at? Or do most characters have a few stray skills with only a rank or two each, and then several deep skills with most of the ranks? Or is it normal to spread the love around to be a jack-of-all-trades? Again, there isn't a right/wrong here, obviously, but I'm just trying to get a gauge of what people might expect.

And, one final skill question related to the above: What rank is considered to be poor, normal, or extraordinary in relation to level? For example, if a Level 7 character has seven ranks in Bluff, is that good? Great? What about a Level 7 character with 12 ranks in Bluff? Best ever? Too much? Should primary skills stay pretty well maxed out?

In closing
I have many, many more questions and issues to work out, but I figure I should take small bites at a time. Throw me whatever you've got, and I'm going to take a first stab at this. Look for a trial character to be posted in the next week or so, and you can do what you do best and tear it apart.

Should be fun!


pathunstrom said...

RE: Skill relevance in OGL D20:

Unfortunately, the 'usefulness' of skills depends wholly on the skill. Some have book set DCs that don't change much and so only so many skill points in that skill are EVER useful. Others the DC scales based on the CR of the target, and so you need to keep them maxed out all the time to keep them relevant. Good rule of thumb is anything with an opposed test needs to be maximized, anything VS the environment can typically be based on the book DC -5, -10, or -15 depending on how skilled you want the character.

Also: Don't worry about never playing D20, it isn't the end all of the gaming world, even if it is by far the most wide spread.

Peter said...

Personally, I'm a fan of options. If something only offers goodies and/or opponents for high-level characters, I'm less likely to take an interest. One thing that would inspire me to buy a product would be to present a character's background and three stat blocks: a low-level opponent (no higher than level 4), a mid-level opponent (below level 8 or 9), and a high/epic-level opponent.

The levels would also make it easier if you wanted a recurring villain, but didn't want to have to manually level the villain up when the characters need an increased challenge.

As for skills, I'm the same way - I like having the background just be there. I don't need to know what my character's skill at building a campfire is, only that he knows how. For my villains in a d20 game, I did some quick math on how many points I had available to spend at that level (keep in mind that level 1 in a class = CR1, modified by any natural abilities of the creature - i.e. a creature that had a Level Adjustment of +3 and was a level 1 fighter would be a CR4 opponent). I'd total all my skills from there, just making sure I didn't go over the available points (but I might not spend all the points and leave some that I considered spent on background skills).

I agree with pathunstrom, d20 is widespread, but it's not everything - there's better and there's worse. I still love my Palladium, but I'm really getting into the Savage Worlds game I started a few weeks ago.

Lastly for DCs, the general rule is: DC 5 is easy (no bonuses is going to succeed approximately 80% of the time), DC 10 is moderate (unskilled success 50/50), DC 15 means you probably have to be skilled to succeed, but you've still got a chance, DC 20+ means you better have a skill and, depending on how far above 20, you better be damn good at it.

Hope that all makes sense (and wasn't too much rambling). :-P Good luck and I'm looking forward to the next phase!


Jason Richards said...

Thanks, guys. Very helpful. For a while not playing d20 became some sort of point of weird geekpride, but I decided that was stupid and I need to just embrace it. :)

It's not the only system that I plan on using to stat out characters. Fantasy and modern characters will likely get the d20 treatment, but I want to use Open D6 at least for my sci-fi/space opera characters, and am going to look at leaning on such games as Savage Worlds and M&M and FATE for other characters. Eventually I hope to have all of my characters available in several systems.

Good suggestion on the multiple levels, Peter. Honestly, that's something I had considered (I swear!), so since you mention it unprompted, that probably means it's a solid idea. Now for the most tedious part of any game designer's life: character sheet design!

Keep those comments coming.

Yong Kyosunim said...

For most characters I think if you clearly have someone who is a lord or considered powerful than you should have them at the upper mid-levels to high levels. If any of the characters have descriptions in which they need to prove themselves, then they are your low-level choices. By default any character who is experienced or getting by are your mid-level characters.

I play Pathfinder so my range would be:

Low-level 1-4
Mid-level 5-10
High-level 11+

Another way is to present the character at three stages of their life--low-level, mid-level, and high-level. This is similar to what WotC did with their NPC / characters that they would put out once a week.

Jason Richards said...

Thanks for the insight, Yong. I think I'll be statting my fantasy characters for Pathfinder, so that's very helpful.

Peter said...

I'll definitely look forward to some Savage Worlds stats. I've only had two sessions of the game so far (using a now-out-of-print d20 setting for the time being) and I'm really enjoying the system. Still a few things I need to work on learning, but overall I like it.

Glad to hear about the multiple level thing. I couldn't remember where I'd seen it before, but the WotC NPC-a-week thing might have been it and it gave a good multitude of options for including the character and provided, I think, a better tool for introducing a recurring villain.

Looking forward to the end result!

Jason Richards said...

In the meantime, I just posted the latest Complete Character, perfect for your pulp action-adventure game. And, just FYI, if you pick up one of these characters and I add stats later, I'll be providing those to everyone who purchased, for free, so don't let that slow you down. :)

Ed said...

There are many components to the D20 system, more than are apparent at first. CR doesn't quite equal Effective Character Level (ECL) (if a character either multi-classes or starts as a race that is +1 or more for level adjustment, that is his ECL) Let me know if you need more clarification on this. But don't assume that a villain with a ECL of 3 is going to last that long against 3 lvl 1 PC's. Depending on the size of the group, it's almost always better to have mooks in the fight.

It also sounds like you are using D20 Modern. I only got so far as character creation in that system, but I have had a lot of experience with 3.5 and PF. It is still D20, but it seemed sort of weird to me.

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