I have a friend who hates using the d20. He pretty much hates any version of the d20 system. His primary gripe – although there are many other well-founded ones – is rooted in the randomness of rolling a single d20 to determine outcomes. Basically, no matter how good he is, bad rolling can ruin that at any time.
My own gripes with the d20 system(s) trend toward a different direction but ultimately, the randomness of these activities really grates on me as well, sometimes doing a disservice to another convenient part of many d20 related games – Niche Protection.
Essentially, because I’m hoping not to drive too far off the cliff here, niche protection is the idea that by prioritizing certain roles or rules you protect one type of character from being upstaged in its chosen role (niche) by others who have an “anything you can do, I can do better” card from their own role abilities. This is often seen in the case of thieves in D&D-style games where almost anything that “only a thief can do” is actually easier for other classes (usually spellcasters).
I’m going to pull out my anecdotal moment here to ease into a larger point. And this is not about a class-based game, but rather, a point-buy system. Mutants and Masterminds, 2e was the game and I was part of a very fun superhero game with a mystical bent. I was playing Stryx, a teenage girl who could turn into an owl. She had all kinds of perception abilities, she was – in many ways – built to be a perception character. Stryx was a second-tier fighter and a scout, a role often found on many superhero teams in one form or another.
So we find ourselves in Hell, in a room full of whispers. This is my moment. I turn into an owl, fly up into the thicket of whispers and proudly prepare to enjoy the fruits of being a perception-based character. And proceed to roll really terribly for the next several minutes. Really bad. Like, awful. And inevitably, the chorus began of “Hey, that’s a good idea, I’ll roll perception too.” It’s an unfortunate syndrome at the table where everyone wants to roll everything. It’s not only one of the reasons I dislike heavy-mechanics systems with a rule for everything but one of my least favorite examples of how not to roleplay (badwrongfun? Maybe, but more about playing to type rather than to numbers/scenario.)
Now don’t get me wrong, I understand that some readers right now are shaking their heads saying, “but that rolling and those failures/successes allow for emergent story when the unexpected happens.” I’m sure for some folks that’s true but it doesn’t really work well for me. I like winging it at the table, I like improvising and I enjoy emergent storylines that spring up from play. Failure to do what your character is actually good at/random shit just happening don’t really encourage that for me. Instead, it has the opposite effect of making me not trust the game-world or my character to work to expectation and therefore I feel more constrained and stymied than before. I’m not saying I should always succeed, I’m saying that the concept that my failure is tied to the whims of a d20 or d100 roll is simply more frustrating than fun.
My takeaway point is that the utter randomness of dice-rolling at the game table is still a source of frustration for me (and for many other gamers I know). It’s not that dice as determiner is inherently wrong or bad – hell, I’ve played a lot of games with a lot of different rolling systems and enjoyed myself – it’s that I often find that I get more enjoyment when playing a game where I have more direct control over the outcomes. I think this shifts the focus back to an idea of player skill vs. character skill in some ways (but that’s another post altogether).
As always, let me know what you think, and thanks for reading!