There and Back Again d20 Style

At long last 4th Edition is almost upon us, and lots of gamers are talking about what they’re going to do come the release of the new rulebooks. It’s reaching apocalyptic proportions to the point where you’d think that 4e was actually the code-name of some asteroid heading t’ward Earth.

“When 4e comes, I’m going to hide in a cellar and eat tinned tuna until the mutants take over.”

“When 4e comes we’re all gonna die!!! Aiiiiiii!!!!!”

“When 4e comes I’m going to eat my own leg and use these kewl new powers to grow another one once per encounter.”

Ok, maybe it’s not like that. Not much, anyhow. Mostly. Kinda.

What people are doing though is looking for options and alternatives to 4e, as if it’s arrival necessitates a shift in your gaming habits, whether you buy 4e or not. In some ways that mindset has merit, because the release of 4e means all of WoTC’s future products will be exclusively for that edition, and Pathfinder has announced a shift to it’s own RPG engine – for now, at least; I predict Paizo will release a 4e specific Adventure Path when the dust has settled.

I’m going to throw my own hat into the ring (or I would, if I had a hat. Or a ring.) and jot down my own thoughts and options. These are they.

Do nothing and stick to 3.5 Edition

This is the simplest, and most logical course of action. Books don’t rust and all that 3rd edition goodness will be just as good and useful in June as it was the month before. By now it’s likely that you’ll have house-rule’d the game to your satisfaction and know the rules well enough to work around 3rd Edition’s quirks. It was a quantum leap (an annoying phrase which really means a very, very small leap. I shouldn’t use it. Moving on.) forward compared to the horrendous rules mess that was 2nd Edition AD&D, and it’s 98% great. Why get a whole new system to fix the broken 2% when it’s gong to mess with the other 98% which does work as well? 3.5 is familiar in the way an old woollen sweater is familiar. It might have holes, but they’re your holes and you know where they are.

Switch to d20 Modern

WoTC’s forgotten child is, arguably, the true claimant to the 4th Edition crown. It has way better character generation, sleeker combat rules and all the fun of an action point mechanism yet still manages to be as-near-as-dammit 100% compatible with D&D. Add d20 Future and the jaw-droppingly amazing ClassicallyModern and you’ve got a generic system to rival GURPS running off the d20 mechanism we know and love. All that’s required for Fantasy flavouring is to replace the Wealth system with cold, hard gold pieces, add in the Fantasy-based Advanced Classes from ClassicallyModern and you’re done.

This is a great solution if you prefer your D&D grittier and tougher than the norm. For the first few levels the characters will be relying entirely on their wits and abilities from the Basic Classes, meaning Better Role-Playing and less blasty magic stuff. Allow the mage (or cleric) to be to have Magical Talent in their area so they’ve access to Cantrips/Orisons, and you’re good to go. Making them work through the Basic Classes means they’re weaker spell-casters (compared to D&D), but better adventurers, and that’s entirely a Good Thing in my book.

Unlike 4th Edition, a d20 Modern based game will work just fine with any published 3rd Edition adventure; just pick up, and play. There’s no conversion required. Oh, and there’s the potential for true multiverse-spanning adventures at higher levels too. 20th level Elven Cyberjockeys, anyone?

The downside is that d20 Modern does suffer from a few of the pitfalls of 3rd Edition. Unless you’re running published adventures, it demands a lot of prep time, and encounter balancing is a fine art best approached with caution and a long stick. If that’s not a problem for you though, d20 Modern is a great, sadly under-rated system.

4th Edition

Of course, the other logical option is to jump ship and move to 4th Edition with it’s release. This is a great option if you want continued support from WoTC and are eager to be a part of their Online Initiative program. One word of warning though – WoTC do not have a good track record when it comes to computer programs, so it’s worth waiting and taking what WoTC say about their Digital Initiative with a pinch of salt until it’s actual release. And the less said about Gleemax, the better.

That said, 4th Edition does look exciting. What we’ve seen of the rules seem more streamlined, more fun and go a long way toward fixing what problems it inherited from 3rd Edition. There’s no doubting that 4e is going to set the role-playing world on fire and become the new standard by which every other game is measured. And that, perhaps, is as good a reason as any to sign up from the start.

Classic D&D

Alternatively, why not take a step backwards? The veritable D&D Rules Cyclopedia contains rules for every level from 1st to 36th and beyond, information about mass combat, stronghold building, how to rule a domain, naval and aerial warfare and much, much more. It’s a single-book solution that promises and delivers decades’ worth of fun in a single package.

Unlike its successors, the Rules Cyclopedia recognises that an increase in levels means a change in play style, and caters for that beautifully. With 9th level comes the opportunity to build your own stronghold and rule over a domain, opening up the game to all sorts of politicking and role-playing goodness. The characters can lead vast armies and control the fates of Empires – a much more exciting prospect than fighting ever more powerful foes as you climb the Challenge Ratings. Around 24th level the characters can begin to consider Immortality and work toward the path of near-Godhood, and beyond.

And all from a single book. Phew.

The Rules Cyclopedia is the book we turn to, again and again. In our opinion it’s the Best D&D Ever; it’s fun, gloriously clunky yet simple enough for new players too. The Weapon Mastery rules are a work of brilliance that eliminate the reliance on Kewl Magic Weaponz at higher level, meaning your 12th level Fighter is as deadly with Any Old Longsword as his 3rd Edition equal armed with a +3 Vorpal Thingummy of Whatsit. Simpler character classes means more opportunity for role-playing too; this is a game where “Fighter” just means skill in combat; it doesn’t dictate your lifepath, outlook or even skillset. We’ve found that 3rd Edition players find that distinction a liberating experience.

Offshoot RPGs

With Paizo’s announcement of the Pathfinder RPG, Monte’s Book of Experimental Might (not forgetting his Arcana Evolved too), Iron Heroes, the Conan RPG and others, there’s no shortage of alternative RPGs based on the 3rd Edition core. Each of these has it’s own merits and play-style, so it’s not difficult to find one that suits your gamer group.

The biggest problem with any of the alternatives is buy-in. Moving from D&D to any other system is a decision for your entire gamer group, so while you might ache to play Iron Heroes, if you can’t convince your group it’s a waste of your hard-earned cash. Of course, this is a problem with any system shift, but at least a move from 3rd Edition to 4th (or even Classic D&D) is a simpler sell. In general, Gamer Groups Resist Change, but with the release of 4th Edition, there’s no better time to push that system you’ve been wanting to try.

With the unfortunate demise of Gary Gygax, Monte Cook now has the mantle of Greatest Living Games Designer, so my vote would be to take a long hard look at his material first. Arcana Evolved is a brilliant alterantive Player’s Handbook that restores some of the Fantastic to D&D; while it doesn’t solve all the problems inherent in the core system, it does clean out an awful lot of cobwebs. I’ll post a review of his latest Book of Experimental Might when I have a copy in my grubby hands. If only Paizo had employed Monte to create their Pathfinder RPG……..

Leaving D&D behind

Surprisingly few people are considering jumping ship altogether; that’s a testament to the strength of the D&D brand as much as anything. Here’s hoping that 4th Edition delivers on it’s promises, otherwise more people will consider this option. If you do want a change of pace to D&D there’s no shortage of other rules systems out there, with more being released daily. GURPS 4th Edition is perhaps the best all round solution with a solid rules core and a long history of delivery great quality sourcebooks chock full of fluff and crunch. There’s even a set of Dungeon Fantasy supplements if you want old-school dungeon crawl goodness but points-based GURPS crunchiness.

The long and short of it

When it comes to D&D, we live in interesting times and I know I’ve only scratched the surface here. Folks are looking at 2nd Edition AD&D (shudder) with fresh eyes, and groups are dusting off Moldvay-era D&D (circa 1981 vintage) for a fresh spin. The Warhammer RPG has been saved from the bargain bin of history, there’s the option to roll your own ruleset with FUDGE, and White Wolf lurks in the shadows with the Exalted system, aiming to pick up a few stragglers like…. well, like wolves, really.

Intersting times, indeed :)

Good gaming, all!

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