Dev Blog #2: DHU and the d20 System

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In late 2004, and early 2005, Max Gaming was working on a number of video game projects, including contract work for other designers, lending or newly developed expertise to those designers. We started talking about how cool a Massively Multiplayer Role Playing Game (MMORPG) would be set in our Dark Horizons Universe and began looking for ways to make that happen. Of course, we were old school geeks, and veterans of the tabletop genre, including games like Battletech and Dungeons and Dragons, and part of our research was to figure out what game system we would use for the role-playing aspect of the game. Wizards of the Coast had released a generous license to the d20 system, based on the Dungeon and Dragons 3rd edition ruleset, and there were additional official rules for modern and futuristic settings.

This was perfect, at least so we thought. As part of our RPG education, and to give our yet-to-exist computer RPG some good old-fashioned reference material, we started working on a proper, tabletop version of our universe, using the d20 Modern and d20 Future rules that were available at the time.

Talk about a learning curve! While we were experienced software developers, and newly minter computer game designers, the effort to create written material from scratch, bent to the d20 systems confines was a pretty epic undertaking. In addition to the core sourcebook, we also looked at our video game, Lore, and created a standalone supplement, based again on the d20 system, which recreated the video game as a print-and-play board game, that could also be used online in the precursors to the immensely popular Roll20 platform.

We released a number of books, modules, and datasheets, including d20 Lore in the ring of 2006, leveraging the DriveThruRPG print-on-demand platform and distribution system. In retrospect, we could have spent more time editing the final sourcebook, but even with the typos in the final product, holding a book, with your name on it, was an AWESOME feeling. We even worked with the amazing folks at Ral Partha (now Iron Wind Metals) to create actual, metal, miniatures!

d20: Lore was released at the same time, as a nod to our existing video game fans, many of which were also old-school tabletop and D&D nerds, and miraculously, we managed to capture the speed and tone of the video game released a couple of years earlier. Games were fast, despite using a combat system not exactly known for “fast” gameplay, and actually fun. Thousands of people have downloaded it over the years, making it one of the most successful games we have ever released (even if it was free for most of that time).

Fast forward almost 20 years, and now I am playing it with my kids:

And now I had the bug to revise it. We had rules for the original mechs, rules for power armored infantry from the main DHU supplement, and in the intervening years, Max Gaming had released a new mech video game with all new unit types. What to do?

Earlier this year, while I was thinking deep thoughts about resurrecting the game, the owners of the Dungeons and Dragons franchise, and the d20 license under which we had released our games 20 years ago, made some “interesting” business decisions regarding the future of that license, which threw into doubt the ability of licensees to continue to use the system for future board games. They eventually changed their minds, but the damage was done. Many popular game publishers began to withdraw their works from the d20 ecosystem, and when my former business partner reached out to me about formally reviving the project, that was the first thing we decided. We needed a new system, that was not reliant on the good graces of some large company.

It had to be simple and use fewer dice. It had to be fast to play, at least as fast as the original d20 version. We settled on prototyping rules using 10-sided dice as a differentiator and hopefully limiting the number of dice we needed to roll. The mechs had a large number of hit points, and some of the new units had even MORE. They were big, stompy, hard-to-kill vehicles, dealing dozens of points of damage per turn.

Now all I had to do was convert the unit statistics from two different d20 game rulebooks, and a “never seen a tabletop” video game, balance their hitpoints, account for damage per second and vehicle speed, and concoct a system that only used a handful of d10 dice while still keeping a fast-paced game play.

Simple right?

Sometimes, it’s important to get things on the table…