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Close to the Edit

The Best of 2003

by Ross Winn
Jan 15,2004


The Best of 2003

Well the column hasn't been going on that long, and I would hardly call my work to date a wide sample of the products available last year. At any rate, here is my opinion of the best in three categories; best DDL product, best Non DDL product, and best electronic product.

So what is DDL? To put it simply, I got tired of getting into arguments with people online when I couldn't use D20, OGL, D&D branded, D&D licensed, and cool whip in the same sentence. Frankly they all use the same resolution mechanic and they are fairly interchangeable as far as rules go so I need a term to describe them that is both broad and inexact. I chose DDL, short for D&D Licensure. This is a term I will use to describe all of the various permutations of D20, OGL, D&D branded, and D&D licensed.

A lot of role-players hate anything DDL. Now, they do have some cause. I personally won't review a lot of things because they simply reek of garbage. Most of the things that I get and cannot in good conscience review are invariably DDL. However many of us seem to hate DDL just because it is the "kewl" thing to do. We wouldn't want anything as mundane as facts getting in the way of opinion. So why do we hate DDL?

Not because the game is imbalanced, or incomplete. Not because it is pedantic or crude. Most simply wouldn't like anything because it plainly sucks in relation to [insert favorite system here]. Of course, there are the few who represent a slight variation on that theme; it plainly sucks because anyone can see how inferior D20 is when compared to [insert incredibly lame system they wrote in their parents' basement here]. Lets not forget those guys over there in the corner, who would hate D20 no matter how good it is because they hate WotC, Hasbro, Ed Stark (who is a really nice guy, by the way), hardback RPGs, color ink, or the printed word. Everyone loves to hate the number one, no matter how good it is.

In contrast to all of the opinions expressed by the naysayers, I personally believe that D&D 3e is the best version of D&D to date. We all have our little quibbles here and there, but it is a damn fine game with a huge audience and a great foundation. I think one of the most telling comments about just how good third edition is that I had ever heard was from Peter Adkison, retired gaming mogul and author of The Primal Order. I had bugged Peter for years about releasing more books like TPL. For some reason he wanted to do a silly little card game. Go figure. He said, and I am paraphrasing. "I don't think I would do a D20 or OGL version of the Primal Order. Frankly, I think that the way that the 3e design team chose to handle deities with the epic rules and the new deities book was better, in its way, than what I did." To me this was the highest kind of praise.

This cannot, of course, take away from the fact that there is an incredible amount of utter shite available for D20. I have mentioned before that if you have a hankering to do an Akkadian Chariot Racing RPG in D20 that there will almost definitely be a competing product at release.

So, we know the following:
1. I like DDL games.
2. Though there is a lot of crap the category deserves to be separate from the rest,
3. Though there is a huge amount of crap there are products that do deserve to be recognized for their brilliance, execution, and such.
4. We can now move on to discussing the best DDL (having established there can be one) and non-DDL products.

Best DDL Game or Setting
Testament From Green Ronin

This is the coolest D20 product of the year and the execution is perfect. It is respectful without being preachy. The Bronze Age is an era that has ample fodder for the grist mill of RPGs, but so much of that is caught up in the major religions that most games will not touch it.

Testament is a perfect blend of respect for the material and a refusal to make a moral stand. This is coupled with strong classes, skills, and feats that mesh wonderfully with the D20 system.

The new Feats presented are very heavily weighted towards the spiritual, which is as it should be when dealing with this kind of setting. Spirituality has a huge effect on all aspects of the game. Not the least of which is Piety. Piety is a very cool idea for replacing Alignments in DDL games. Basically rather than a generic alignment there are specific tenets for each culture to follow. Honoring those tenets gains the player character direct benefits. Casual disregard of the tenets can cause the player character no little harm. The system basically breaks down at the GM. When the GM chooses to enforce the system it works, when the GM chooses to ignore it the system breaks. Piety is an important part of a Testament campaign and GMs should pay close attention to this and enforce it evenly.

Even if you have no interest in the religious leanings of the subject matter, the historical pieces should keep you well entertained. Just go buy this book, buy it right now, and pick up a copy for a friend.

Honorable Mention
BESM D20 from Guardians of Order

Even if you do not like Anime this is a fantastic addition to your 3e collection and a whole lot better than D&D 3.5. A lot of other people have written scathing opinions on 3.5, so I don't have to. I only have to say that had the nice people at Hasbro been half as good at revising D&D as GoO was, I would have happily bought the new edition. As it stands I would rather give money to junkies for a fix than buy 3.5. BESM D20 is among other things, a very even revision of the imbalances in 3e. To top it all off, Mecha D20 is almost seamless when integrated with it.

There is ample anime feel and flavor to add to your D20 campaign should you want to. Guardians of Order knows anime, and it shows. While I am not telling people to buy copies for their friends, everyone should buy a copy for themselves.

Best Non DDL Game or Setting
Savage Worlds from Pinnacle Entertainment

Pulp genre games have been a favorite of game designers everywhere for as long as I have been paying attention. Witness games like Justice Inc. However in most cases pulp games have been failures. This does not seem to be the case with Savage Worlds. Shane Hensley has a hit on his hands to be sure. The mechanics are simple enough to learn in five minutes, flexible enough to accommodate a wide range of powers and talents, and robust enough for power levels from normal human to Doc Savage and beyond.

Savage Worlds is based on a set of skirmish rules that are based on Deadlands. These streamlined rules ended up being more balanced and flexible than the original Deadlands mechanics. When Deadlands: Reloaded comes out later this year the Savage Worlds mechanic will replace those mechanics, making the circle complete.

Honorable Mention
Cartoon Action Hour from Z-Man Games

The cartoon Saturday mornings of the eighties were in many ways the nadir of the animated art. That didn't stop me from loving them, because they were cartoons!!! And it obviously didn't stop any of the creators of Cartoon Action Hour. This is a fun game with a lot of loving tribute to my childhood at least.

A GM and dedicated players can make up their own settings, or simply steal an old favorite currently running in syndication. The mechanics are fairly simple, the mechanics reinforce the genre, and the mechanics don't get too much in the way. Three big thumbs up in my world.

Best Electronic Game or Setting
Wushu from Dan Bayn

I spent a lot of time on Wushu in The Matrix Unloaded, so I will not belabor the point here. I liked this game a lot, 'nuff said.

The RPG world needs games that are art, entertainment, and challenge. I think that these games do that. Please support these companies and games with your dollars.

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What do you think?

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