D20 and the D&D Off Ramp

In the midsts of my 13th Age writeup, I made a tweet that I promised some follow up on. The gist of it was that Numenera, 13th Age and Dungeon World represent a trifecta of post-d20 gaming. I promised I would elaborate on the thought, and so I shall.

I kind of wish I had the stamina to give Dungeon World a treatment similar to the one I gave 13th Age and Numenera. It’s a great game and deserves the love, but I also feel like a lot of what needs to be said about it has already been said by other people. If you’re curious about 13th Age or Numenera, I’ll shamelessly point to my own posts, but if you need to know more about Dungeon World, I will mostly point you at Google (though suggests for reviews will be welcome in the comments).

So, let me start with a premise: d20 was a big deal. I don’t think anyone would argue with that, but I want to focus on something that gets less spotlight. 3e was much more radical than a simple improvement on 2e, it transformed the game into (and introduced a generation to) a game framework.

To illustrate what that means, it helps to look at how TSR (then WOTC) produced other games, especially back in the days of Boot Hill and Gangbusters. Those games had many conceptual similarities to D&D, but were structurally very different. This is because the rules of D&D were, essentially, non portable. You could technically use them for non-D&D things, but doing so required a lot of closing your eyes and hoping. Similarly, the addition of a new class (or similar) was an almost entirely self contained[1] process because there was no structure to hook into. You’d throw together some stuff and hope it worked right (or, as was more often the case, that it wasn’t grossly overpowered).

With 3e, there was a clear framework that the rules fit into. There was a small set of core rules, and everything expanded on that. If you added a new class, you had a scaffolding to build on, whether it was to expand D&D or to build a game in a whole new genre.

Importantly, it was not a true generic system, in the way that games like GURPS and Hero are[2]. Those were broad flexible systems where the system could be expanded to cover any situation. That is subtly but critically different from the framework model, which sacrificed that breadth in favor of modularity. That is, if I added a space pilot to my D&D game, I have not changed or expanded D&D beyond the self-contained rules of this character. If In GURPS. adding the space pilot would be a subset of adding space rules.

In any case, the introduction of this idea was a big deal, and paired with the OGL, it was very influential on game design. This idea of not needing to rewrite your game for every new thing while at the same time not needing to have a truly generic game became so common as to be expected.

So, fast forward a bit. 3e matured into 3.5, and then matured further into 3.75 (aka Pathfinder) while WOTC proceeded with 4e. Now, no sleight to 4e – I like it, but it’s not the topic here – but it did not supplant 3e the same way the 3e had 2e. Pick your favorite reason for why this is so, there are lots to choose from, but whatever the cause, a lot of the 3.x fanbase chose not to move on, and instead continued to polish and refine the engine.

Which brings us to where we are today. I feel it is safe to say that at this point in time, the 3e engine is very mature. Not to say there’s nothing left to do with it, but I’d suggest there is less left to do than has been done[3]. Sure, there will always be new content to be excited about, but the body of 3.x is pretty near its final form.

This is not me saying that it’s time to put 3.x out to pasture. That would be obviously nonsensical – Pathfinder continues to rock out. But as it matures, more and more gamers are going to reach a saturation point with it. Maybe they want to try a different game. Maybe they want to simply buy different products. Their reasons will be their own, and their numbers will be subject to debate[4].

However many they are, there are gamers out there looking for an “off ramp” from 3.x (arguably, I might call it an off ramp from D&D, but that’s contentious)[5] – the game to go to next. It’s possible that if D&D Next knocks it out of the park, the off ramp may be an on ramp right back onto DDN, but in the absence of that, the question is what off ramps are available. If I’ve played a lot of 3.x and I’m ready for the “next thing”, what am I going to gravitate towards?

My argument is that the three strongest off ramps are 13th Age, Numenera and Dungeon World. And, interestingly, each offers a meaningfully different kind of off ramps with different focuses and experiences to offer.

So why those three and not something else (like Fate, if I’m feeling self serving)? Well, that’s what we’ll get into tomorrow.

  1. The exception to this is the unsung hero of D&D’s rules engine – the spell lists. Often taken for granted, they are the single most magnificent, versatile and flavorful element of the D&D rules, and the failure to appreciate that is the reason that a lot of D&D knockoffs end up feeling bland and flavorless. It’s not just that their generic spells are dull, it’s that the sheer volume and scope of D&D’s spells is huge foundation for secondary rules elements. This blandness arguably extends to 4e.  ↩

  2. Though, of course, a generic system could be built using d20, as illustrated by things like Green Ronin’s True20, but that’s another kind of beast.  ↩

  3. And by “do” I mean substantially expand, improve and change. We can keep producing new spells into infinity, they just change the body of 3.x less and less with each new iteration.  ↩

  4. Whatever the number, I think it’s growing. This is based on simple math – I think Pathfinder (and 3.x in general) has passed its apex. If you think otherwise, then you will probably think the number is growing much more slowly – there will always be some that are just a function of time, but if Pathfinder is still on the upswing, then it will be pulling in more than passing along. So, do the math in accordance with your own judgement.  ↩

  5. In this analogy, the OSR is going back to a previous off ramp because you don’t like the direction the highway took you. And as with all roads, the side streets connect in many and varied ways.  ↩

18 thoughts on “D20 and the D&D Off Ramp

  1. Justin D. Jacobson (@JustinDJacobson)

    Good points, Rob. You hint at it, but I think it’s worth mentioning: 3e was a victim of its own success. I don’t really mean “victim” of course, but just using the cliche as a crutch. By being an open system and by virtue of its popularity, it ate up all the oxygen relatively quickly.

    1. Rob Donoghue Post author

      I’m not sure how much that hurt D&D – I totally agree that the overall d20 glut resulted in an oxygen-starved environment for publishers in general, but there’s a reasonable case that this was a net benefit for D&D as the market leader (though it did become more true late in the life cycle, when they were producing more and more specialized books).

  2. Paul Weimer (@princejvstin)

    Importantly, it was not a true generic system, in the way that games like GURPS and Hero are.

    I’d add FATE to that, or at least it seems to be the ambition you and Evil Hat have. Certainly, for me, personally, it seems easier for me to frame and cast random game x with FATE than just about anything else except GURPS. I don’t see FATE as an off ramp from D20 at all.

  3. Ed Gibbs

    I actually am going to go ahead and put Fate up as a write-in candidate for that off-ramp. I run a lot of one-shot public games, and (based only on my own highly non-scientific observations), most of the 3.5/Pathfinder crowd who attend have a couple of blank Fate character sheets in their folder, too. Obviously, you can easily argue that that is simply because 13th Age and Numenera are considerably newer, but nevertheless when I ask these 3.x grognards about their out-of-d20 experience, many of them say “Fate.”

    You probably can’t see it because you’re so close to it (or refuse to look due to conflict of interest) but Fate’s dual emphasis on structure and narrative freedom make the game a far more attractive option than you may realize. You seem to be looking at the criteria for this off-ramp as “needs a lot of rules and d20, but also introduces the idea of player authorship.” Fate may not have too many rules, but the internal logic that guides its use of Aspects do provide a structure that, from the right point of view, is not entirely different from d20. This is especially the case when you pair Fate with some of the “crunchier” iterations, such as Strands of Fate or Legends of Anglerre/Starblazer.

    1. John M. Campbell

      I don’t know where Rob is going with this, but I think Fate is what you eventually get to after you use the Dungeon World off-ramp. Dungeon World is a more natural progression from D&D. Dungeon World is wholely story oriented, but limited in scope to a world and situation that D&D players are familiar with.

      FATE is a parallel road that has popped up since Spirit of the Century. (or Fudge)
      Or to torture another analogy, Dungeon World is Fate-ish with D&D training wheels.

  4. Jeb

    Interesting points. I agree with your main premise. And I think that you are right to ponder what the off-ramp from Pathfinder might be.

    I’m not sure whether the D&D spell lists are an asset or a liability (though you may have a good point about 4e). But I’m pretty sure that I’m not the audience for that as the desire for a better spell list was part of what took me on an off-ramp to Rolemaster some 30 years ago.

    1. Rob Donoghue Post author

      Notably, rolemaster was one of the only other fantasy adventure games with the same kind of depth of spells as D&D (and, in my opiniion, was structurally superior, but that’s a matter of taste).

      The rub with D&D spells is not that the *casting* system is good, but that the sheer volume and scope of the spells is, in and of itself, a profound effort of worldbuilding, paired with a very modular mechanic (classes could be differentiated with spell lists, monster abilities were effectively spells and so on)

  5. Ian

    I’d like to add The One Ring to the list of possible off-ramp games. It is Middle-earth and the system well suited to the setting. The system also fulfils, I think, a framework nature in the same way as early Fate iterations did (change skill names to suit genre). D&D players will need the same sort of mind shift as with Numenera, in that it’s not all about killing things and looting their stuff. But the setting will feel comfortable to a D&D player.

    1. Rob Donoghue Post author

      So, I will fully cop – I haven’t read One Ring, so I can’t really make a case for or against it. That said, you’re right that it’s a potent license, but history has shown that it’s never quite as potent an RPG license as it seems like it should be.

      1. Maroney, Kevin

        Hmm. In the 1980s, there were 2 main reasons I didn’t play the Middle-Earth RPG. First, it was based on Rolemaster, which I never liked. But probably equally important was my sense that I wasn’t enough of a Tolkien scholar to appreciate the setting, a sense that the canon was too big for a dabbler like me. I think the same phenomenon works against Runequest/Glorantha now; it was smaller and more managable in the 1980s but now I’ve got a bookcase full of Gloranthan material, much of it covering the same material repeatedly and with mild contradictions, so that reading Gloranthan books becomes an exercise in textual criticism.

        I suspect some of this same effect is at play now with Star Wars–when Greg and Eric did the first SW game in the late 1980s, the non-gaming canon was very small, just 3 movies and a small handful of novels, so that both West End and the individual players could feel like the universe was a familiar core and then blank in every direction for as far as the starship could travel.

        If I’m right, it would argue that the most successful gaming “franchises” would be ones that allow you to take fairly small, but compelling, pieces of setting/story/conflict and build around them in an unconstrained way. D&D was certainly like that at least through the end of 1st Edition, and the only game to challenge it for popularity in the 1980s was GURPS, which definitely fits that rubric. But then the 1990s were dominated by Vampire and the other World of Darkness games, which definitely took a “fill in all the blank spaces with licensed product” approach. So maybe I’m full of it.

        * I’ve also got a sense that, if you’re not playing Frodo or Gandalf, you’re not *really* playing “Middle-Earth”, and their stories have already been told. But that’s a different issue.

  6. Cam Banks

    The guy at Gen Con who was our DM for DnD Next called it “2.5” probably half as a joke and half as being utterly serious. My opinion on the matter is that Next is what happens when 3rd Ed and 4th Ed go back in time, A Christmas Carol style, to AD&D and tell it what happened in the future. AD&D then says “Wow, that’s a thing” and proceeds to veer off into a new direction, creating a branch at the 2E to 3E point, but drawing on what its creators believe worked for 3E and 4E but tossing out what they thought didn’t.

    13th Age is very clearly a game that branches out from 4E with some 3E influences, but I wouldn’t put it on the same branch as Next. Numenera occupies a road all of its own, as I don’t think it actually plugs in anywhere along that D&D path except on a purely synergistic creator/designer level; because it’s Monte Cook and Monte makes great games, Monte’s d20 fans in large part are picking it up. So if that’s a branching off from 3E (maybe?) it’s not on a technical or design level at all but a personality one.

    And Dungeon World is a * World hack which you could argue branches off from the same place as Next is, but instead of using 3E and 4E as its Ghosts of D&D Future 1 & 2, it uses Apocalypse World.

    1. Tom

      The real 2.5 to my thinking was the black ‘Player’s Option” version of second edition. That let one literally build entire customized classes (which I used to great effect to differentiate different flavours of arcane and divine casters in my games in profound ways, including using several of the optional magic systems).

      DnD Next to me feels a bit like an eviscerated 4E that is trying to repaint itself with some of the OSR charm. Mechanically, it reminds me of 4E, flavourwise its character builds remind me of 4E/OSR (or 4E/AD&D/D&D) hybrid.

      Rob makes some excellent points in his follow up post about figuring out what the value proposition for a D&D player is in a potential off-ramp. Some off-ramps are tied to the mechanics of D&D moreso than the feel of old school or later day D&D and some are more tied to the flavour (setting, gameplay) rather than the mechanics. Some are tied (the more vague ones) to some of the thematic hooks.

      To me, for instance, you can sum up prior D&D value propositions somewhat as follows:

      Basic/Expert/etc: Open world, simple mechanics, limited optimization. Go out, adventure, find some new lands, lay the smackdown on some monsters, get some nice kit, maybe build a Castle or start a Guild. Don’t look too closely at why all demi-humans have such particularly iconic limitations to who they can be. Simplistic world view in terms of alignment.

      AD&D/Players Option/2E: Lots of worlds (oriental, middle eastern, Greyhawk, Realms, Maztica, etc), more complex mechanics, optimization starts to show up. Can tell more sorts of stories easily and allow more sorts of characters than Basic D&D stream. Less simplistic world view (more alignments). Still focused on the dungeon crawl with the occasional outdoor adventure to get you to the dungeon. You could whip up or even fudge PCs and NPCs even up to mid-teens level fairly quickly. Personal Note: Good play engine, although idiosyncrasies grated (why no hide/move silent for anyone but rangers or thieves, poor NWP system, etc).

      3.x: Some cool and very different worlds, but fewer (Greyhawk, Eberron, Realms). Way more crunch to rules, more focus on minis and tactical board, way more math behind it all, long character creation at levels above 3, optimization critical for capability, more feats, classes, prestige classes, MIs, spells and so on than you could shake a stick at (and so many options for monsters too that poor GMs drowned). Very crunchy with very particular expectations about ELs, CRs, etc. and rates of progress. Many more playable levels of characters than prior editions, way more range to the stories that could be told, but way more work and way more lockdown of how the game was played at the table. Personal Note: Played and ran some great games, but took way too much work for players and GM.

      4E: Limited worlds, easier than 3.x for GMs, making PCs still involved but simpler, paragon paths, heroic tiers, and at-will, encounter and daily powers tend to offer options, but reduce the overall range of choices that 3.5 had. More playable like a tactical board game in combat than 3.x or prior versions. File-card powers tend to lead to a very different style of play. Personal Note: Play lacked flavour to me. Gameplay here was generic enough I can’t tell you what the game’s flavour (dungeon crawl, outdoor, wild adventure, plane hopping etc) might have been as it felt too mechanical and generic.

      D&D Next: Looks like simplified 4E. Personal Note: Better in some ways, still not very interesting.

      Each generation of D&D has given us a different at-table experience and I’m sure that we’ve each enjoyed or hated different parts depending on temperament and tastes. The versions are different enough that most of us have a favourite version and find the others pale by comparison. The differences explain why new people love some new version while older players fall off to something new (or out entirely).

      The funny observation I have about 3.x D20: For the first 5 levels, it plays and GMs like a better AD&D (character creation is a lot different, but I mean what PCs and monsters can do and feel like and how the combat flows). After that, the crunch of D20 starts to bog down players and GMs with feat-trees, monster feats, magic items in profusion, multiple stacking effects, etc. AD&D, when it came out, and 2E, both felt like better and neater versions of D&D with more options, but the play at table felt similar if a bit crunchier.

      By contrast, 4E felt not much like 3.x and 3.x felt not much like prior versions after a handful of levels. That to me is the best barometer of how different a game is – how the gameplay changes by rules version.

      I find myself wanting something like DW, but with a little more GM input and a little less player control, and an ability to easily support stories other than dungeon crawls (mysteries, explorations, political machinations, etc). DW seems particularly mechanically different than D&D but locks itself to the class/adventure type flavour of the D&D model, thus limiting the sorts of things you can have in a game without some serious hacks.

      1. Scrivener of Doom

        Great article. 4E is my favourite version of D&D from the past 32 years but I’m still looking at 13th Age with greater and greater interest.

        One of the many reasons is that “theatre of the mind” combat is so much easier to do on Skype and, for the time being, I am stuck with gaming online.

        BTW, I’ve taken to calling Next “Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Third Edition”, although it neither rolls off the tongue or the keyboard. It feels like 1999 and an attempt to create a new Third Edition, but maybe a tad closer to Gygaxian AD&D than the real 3E was.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *