d20

Tagged: Game

Role Playing Game (2000). Wizards of the Coast (WOTC). Designed by Jonathan Tweet, Monte Cook, Skip Williams.

d20 is a generic system for running any type of RPG, with a unified mechanic for performing most actions using a twenty-sided polyhedral die (a "d20"). The original rules were derived from the third edition of the Dungeons and Dragons fantasy game, the rights to which were acquired by Wizards of the Coast when they purchased Tactical Studies Rules, making the system a distant descendant of Gary Gygax's and Dave Arneson's original RPG. d20's game mechanics are significantly streamlined compared to earlier versions of Dungeons and Dragons, but retain such core concepts as "classes" (which specify a character's basic role, such as Medic or Soldier) and "levels" (which measure a character's progression to higher ranks of power and ability). New characters are normally generated randomly, in contrast to other generic systems such as GURPS (1986) in which they are built according to the player's concept. While GURPS is supplied as a set of core rules accompanied by supplements, variant versions of the d20 mechanics were presented in different formats for different styles of game. Thus d20 Modern (2002 WOTC) designed by Bill Slavicsek, Jeff Grubb, Rich Redman, Charles Ryan contains the basic rules used for genres other than fantasy, specifying appropriate character classes, skills, and other details. d20 Future (2004 WOTC) designed by Christopher Perkins, Rodney Thompson, J D Wiker is a supplement for d20 Modern which includes background information and suggested settings for science fiction games using d20. The book recapitulates most of the history of TSR's involvement with sf; much of the somewhat generic content is taken from Alternity (1988), while the suggested backgrounds include versions of StarDrive (see Alternity) and Bughunters (see Amazing Engine), as well as worlds apparently influenced by Star Frontiers (1982) and Gamma World (1978).

Most of the d20 rules were published under a set of licenses which allowed other companies to create modifications and sourcebooks for the system without paying for use of the intellectual property. The core motivation behind this innovation was commercial. Adventures, settings and other supplements are generally not very profitable products for RPG publishers. Nevertheless, players will typically only buy the core rulebooks in the large numbers required for their creators to make significant amounts of money if their Gamemasters have access to a wide range of such supplements. Adventures and settings are thus sometimes loss leaders for large role playing game companies, in the same way that Videogame console manufacturers such as Microsoft or Nintendo often sell their hardware for less than it costs to manufacture so that they can make money by selling compatible games. If, however, small RPG companies – which have lower overheads than large publishers such as Wizards of the Coast, and thus can survive on smaller profit margins – could release material for d20 without paying a license fee, they could create the adventures and sourcebooks required by Gamemasters while Wizards concentrated on developing and selling the more valuable rulebooks. This approach resembled one common in the early days of the Role Playing Game industry, when major systems such as Traveller (1977) were often supported by officially licensed products created by other companies. Many of these licensees were highly inventive; the most successful, Judges Guild, created the Wilderlands of High Fantasy for Dungeons and Dragons, the first RPG world setting to be sold separately to the rules of its game.

Two different forms of the license were created. The "Open Gaming License" (or OGL) made the vast majority (but not the innermost core) of the third edition Dungeons and Dragons mechanics available for modification and use without charge, so long as the source was acknowledged. The "d20 Trademark License" allowed publishers to use the official d20 trademark to show that their products were compatible with Dungeons and Dragons, again without charge. To be compatible, a supplement had to depend on all of the key Dungeons and Dragons rules, including those not covered by the OGL, meaning that the product's purchasers would also need copies of Wizards of the Coast's d20 rulebooks. The d20 Trademark License could be revoked at a later date; the OGL could not. Initially, the licenses were highly successful. A flood of new material was created by smaller RPG publishers for use with d20 and third edition Dungeons and Dragons, and sold exceptionally well. Many of these sales were made to old players who had acquired the revised rulebooks and wanted supplements and adventures to go with them, but some proportion of those buying "d20 trademarked" products were undoubtedly new players attracted by the media attention lavished on the new edition.

Over time, however, the consequences of Wizards' continuing changes to the base rules (as in the "3.5" edition of Dungeons and Dragons) became clear – other companies' products would be made obsolescent whenever the d20 system changed. This began a general shift to companies producing their own role playing games which used the OGL and were only broadly compatible with the d20 mechanics, rather than supplements for the current version of Dungeons and Dragons, which could have used the full d20 Trademark License. Ultimately it also became apparent that much of the material released under the Trademark License was poorly written generic fantasy, often created out of a sense of nostalgia for early versions of Dungeons and Dragons by designers for whom playing the original game was a formative experience. This proved to be a diet for which many fans eventually lost their enthusiasm. The result was a crash in the market, similar to that caused by the ending of the Collectible Card Games boom in the mid 1990s.

The 2008 fourth edition of Dungeons and Dragons replaced the Open Gaming License with the markedly more restrictive "Game System License" (or GSL). This only allowed developers to work on products in the fantasy genre, and stated that such works must depend on the core Dungeons and Dragons rules (which could only be sold by Wizards). Most remarkably, it included a provision that any group of products which made use of the GSL must never again include works which employed the third edition OGL. The terms of the GSL thus suggested a desire on the part of Wizards to uninvent the Open Gaming License, and replace it with something more akin to the d20 Trademark system. As a result, most RPG publishers chose not to make use of the GSL. Many instead decided to support their own games built from third edition Dungeons and Dragons rules using the Open Gaming License; others published Dungeons and Dragons compatible material without a license but with disclaimers which protected them from Wizards' legal department. This eventually led to a new Game System License which removed the provisions banning future use of the OGL for products in the same line as those employing the GSL, but this late revision made little difference. The fourth edition of Dungeons and Dragons, like the first, has come to depend on its own designers and a limited pool of licensees to create its adventures and supplements. Unlike the original version of the game, however, it also has to compete in the marketplace with works derived from its own previous iterations, notably the OGL licensed fantasy RPG Pathfinder (2009 Paizo Publishing) designed by Jason Bulmahn.

Related works: d20 Cyberscape (2005 WOTC) designed by Owen Stephens, which focuses on Cyberpunk motifs, and d20 Future Tech (2006 WOTC) designed by Rodney Thompson, J D Wiker are expansions for d20 Future. d20 Apocalypse (2005 WOTC) designed by Eric Cagle, Darrin Drader, Charles Ryan, Owen Stephens is a supplement for d20 Modern which deals with Post-Holocaust settings. DarkMatter (2006 WOTC) designed by Wolfgang Baur, Monte Cook is a version of the Alternity DarkMatter setting converted to d20 Modern. Dawning Star (2005 Blue Devil Games) designed by Justin Jacobson, Lee Hammock was the first published background for d20 Future, set in an extrasolar colony founded after the destruction of Earth.

Of all the various Open Gaming License games which use the basic elements of the d20 system as the seed for their own mechanics but are not fully compatible with the standard set by Dungeons and Dragons, one of the most interesting is the science-fictional Etherscope (2006 Goodman Games) designed by Nigel McClelland, Ben Redmond, set in an "ultra-Steampunk" world based on a hundred and fifty years of evolution in its fantasticated nineteenth century technology. [NT]

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