In the Pen & Paper RPG Bloggers Community on G+, Tim Baker linked to a blogpost by Robin Laws in which he laments that there’s no easy way to talk about D&D and its descendants, in contrast to non-D&D old school RPGs or modern non-fantasy relatives of D&D, like D&D Modern. For legal reasons, we use circumlocutions, such as one he cites: “d20-rolling fantasy games”. And he suggests the term “F20” as a good shorthand for exactly this.
I, of course, object.
First and foremost, fantasy RPGs derived from D&D certainly share things in common, making “fantasy” a reasonable keyword to distinguish these games from others, like Call of Cthulhu. But the “d20” part is an absurd thing to focus on. Plenty of people, especially in the early days of the hobby, substituted 3d6 or 4d6 or some other workaround when a d20 wasn't handy. Can you really claim that D&D with exactly one change – which dice to roll for attacks and saves – is a completely different game, so far out on the fringe that it can barely be considered related to D&D? Can you really tell me that Rolemaster, which started as optional combat and magic systems for D&D, is nothing like D&D because of its use of percentiles?
Related to this: if you are going to single out “rolling a d20” as an important criteria, shouldn't you also specify how you roll? I have a friend who wrote a game system called ORCS (Organic Rules Components System,) which uses a d20 roll, but it’s clearly not the d20 System for other reasons: classes are more like backgrounds, adjusting costs for skills, for example. He hates D&D fantasy, so none of the games he’s published would be “F20” games… but if someone were to write a dungeon-crawl ORCS game, would you seriously consider counting it as a D&D derivative and an “F20” game, just because it shared one thing in common, the die rolled for attacks?
I’ve said before: I think dice mechanics are the least important part of a role-playing game. The other rules, the ones that provide the structure of how you play the game, those are the important part. Which leads to another objection: the real defining criteria of “D&D-like fantasy games”, much more so than “rolling a d20”, is the class and level system. You have a class that defines your main abilities, and adventuring allows you to increase your level, adding or improving your class abilities. This is why Tunnels & Trolls or Rolemaster are obviously closely related to D&D, even though neither uses a d20, but why Runequest or Call of Cthulhu are much further away: not because of the percentile dice, but because of the absence of classes and the focus on skills.
I’d almost be tempted to suggest calling D&D derivatives “Class and Level Fantasy Adventure Games” or “CLeF Adventure Games”, or even “A-CLeF Games” if you wanted something really short. But then you run into my biggest objection to the Robin Laws suggestion: clever abbreviations are more trouble than they are worth. If you come up with an abbreviation like “F20” or “CLeF”, no one knows what it means until you explain it to them. So, if you want everyone to adopt it, you have to waste a lot of time spreading propaganda about your clever abbreviation. You could have just wrote “Class and Level Fantasy Adventure Games”, which maybe people can figure out without too much problem. Maybe add “in the tradition of Gygax and Arneson”, or something. Sure, it’s longer to write, but it’s more immediately understandable. If you use “A-CLeF”, you have to expand it, anyways, so you saved nothing. If you use “F20”, not only do you have to expand the abbreviation, but you get into the discussion above on why certain games that use a d20 aren't F20 games, or why games that are much closer to D&D aren't considered F20 games.
It’s just a huge mess.
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