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 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. 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. 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.
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) – 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.
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. ↩
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. ↩
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. ↩
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. ↩
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. ↩