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In the first part of our design philosophy, we’ll discuss what makes d20 v3.5 the best and worst roleplaying system available. In the second part, we’ll talk about the design principles that will drive our decision-making.
Our philosophy begins with the following assumption:
d20 and the 3.5 ruleset are the best iteration of tabletop roleplaying. Full stop.
The simplistic nature of six Ability Scores feeding into innumerable other statistics and most results determined with the roll of a d20 is elegant. Seriously – suppose you’re running a game, and you’re unsure how to proceed? Ask your players to roll a d20, add the relevant ability modifier and determine success against standard DCs. It’s the most accessible fallback, and it feels good.
The action system is descriptive. Move and standard action are understood without extensive rules. Swift, immediate, and free actions all indicate their timespan and effort. The action system is intuitive.
The ruleset is infinitely skinnable. While created with a medieval fantasy trope in mind, the d20 system has been adapted to support modern play, espionage-centric campaigns, Victorian steampunk, and survival-focused games (to name only a few).
Domains and feats are riddled with flavor and mechanics. They represent the best of both worlds in RPGs: role-playing and crunch.
Plug-and-play-like modules can drastically change the feel of the game. For instance, many of us at Ready Action Press are fans of the Wounds and Vitality subsystem (from Wizards of the Coast’s Unearthed Arcana). Last heroic acts become common, death becomes purposeful but not necessarily rare, and the game speeds up as less time goes towards healing after a fight.
There’s so much content. Limiting ourselves to first-party products, we find the game has more than 80 books, nearly 60 base classes, 350 prestige classes, and hundreds of races. That’s just first-party. When layering on third-party supplements, it gets even more intense.
Nostalgia. I’ll admit it – I’m a sucker for things that happened in the ’00s. Blockbuster Video, stuffed crust pizza, pop-punk, YTMND, and D&D 3.5. It just so happens that d20/3.0 and 3.5 hit shelves during my formative years when I was done with college and becoming a real adult.
We’ve further built our philosophy on the following assumption:
d20 and the 3.5 ruleset have some busted aspects that make it horrible
Grapple is overly complicated and lacks a defined purpose. You could put other combat maneuvers in there as well – because why sunder and break my future new magic weapon when I could just deal 80 points of damage to the bad guy? These options should be viable within the scope of the combat system.
Linear martial growth vs. exponential caster growth makes late-game martials unfun. Game designer Ryan Dancey said d20/3.5 has four different phases based on the level of the character (grim, heroic, wuxia, superhero). The chart of what magic can do drives those phase shifts more than any other factor. This is a bad thing – leveling should grow power but maintain the campaign feel.
Too much content. I know you’re thinking “cheater.” But hear me out. There is so much content for 3.5 that it’s hard to know what’s good, what’s busted, what’s a good fit, or what’s out of place. We’re playtesting an Arthurian Romance Campaign with a specifically curated list of feats and spells, and it’s a total killer trying to sort through it all. Content and mechanics should be tailored to match your campaign theme.
Save or suck (die) abilities. Hold monster, feeblemind, slay living, etc. These abilities are extraordinary when a player gets to launch them against the baddie. They suck when leveled against the players. Future versions have done things to mitigate this aspect of the game, but there’s more to explore here. Effects that remove a player from the game should be exceedingly rare and heavily signaled. Conversely, players negate negatives too easily (heroes’ feast eliminates fear, poison, and disease as threats; death ward eliminates negative energy, etc.). Adverse effects should not be eliminated so readily.
Monsters are boring and often don’t “do their thing” well. A choker is a CR 2 monster. An assassin vine is CR 3. They both are ambush and grapple-focused. One of them (the plant) is good at grappling. The other is not. In combat, a choker and an assassin vine aren’t going to feel much different. Monsters should have a purpose in the fight, come with a distinct feel, and do those things well; they should be allowed to “do their thing.”
Monsters have too much stuff to read, and they’re too hard to make. As the GM, I can’t just see Improved Grab and understand what that means – I have to read it for every monster because it could mean something different. Full attack. Extraordinary abilities. Spell-like abilities. Supernatural abilities. Blah blah blah. And if I want to make an iconic monster more difficult, I need to add additional hit dice (and do a bunch of math), or I need to add character classes (and do a bunch of different math). Stat blocks should be concise and convey combat-relevant data; modifying monster difficulty should be easy, and so should monster making.
High-level play is too slow. There are a few bits influencing things: 1) high-level monsters are too complicated, 2) high-level spells alter the playing field too drastically, 3) high-level math gets too big for no real reason, 4) high-level players don’t have anything to do when not their turn, and 5) too many actions don’t matter (I’m looking at you 4th iterative attack). High-level play should be fast and engaging, and it should require 100% of the player’s attention all the time – not just when it’s their turn.
These assumptions are where we start. In Part 2, I’ll discuss how we decide to fix some of these things. We tend to operate in scales – complex vs. straightforward, deep vs. shallow, fast vs. slow, active vs. passive, etc.
This is a new venture, and as we play and develop more rule systems, these assumptions and decision guides may change. At its core, however, this should help you understand what you’re getting when you use a Ready Action Press publication.