I picked up the hardcover version of True20 a few days ago, and I have to say that it’s been a long time since I was this excited about an RPG.
And I wasn’t predisposed to be excited about it, either — I’ve got oodles of d20 material that I’m quite happy with, and I wasn’t in the market for a new game. I’d also read some scathing criticism of some of the handwaving that plays a role in True 20, which didn’t exactly set my spine a-tingling.
But I do like to browse new releases, and in this case I’m glad I did: It’s got a few rough edges, but True20 is the natural evolution of D&D 3.x and d20 Modern, and it’s an excellent book.
Layout and Organization
When I pick up a gaming book, I start by looking at the basics: Layout, writing and organization.
Especially with core rules, these three make a big difference in my appreciation of a game. True20 has a good index and a layout that’s clean and functional (if a bit drab), and it’s well-organized.
The chapters flow well and break up topics in clear and intuitive ways; sidebars are included throughout, which is very handy.
True20 is written in a clear, slightly conversational style. It’s not as informal as, say, Burning Wheel, but it’s a lot less formal than the D&D Player’s Handbook. This is one of my favorite approaches for RPGs, and it fits True20 well.
This is a very clever system, and it looks like a lot of fun.
The back cover copy boasts that there aren’t any points (hit, experience or otherwise) to keep track of, and that you only need a single d20 to play. And you know what? That’s true.
True20 accomplishes these things in a couple of different ways. In a nutshell, it’s a mix of sharp, simple mechanics and GM fiat.
For example, you don’t have to keep track of experience points in True20 because the GM just tells you when you level up. There are a couple of paragraphs about how to handle this (basically, level up every 1 or 2 adventures), and that’s that.
This will drive some people nuts, but I actually found it refreshing. I played an excellent d20 Modern game in 2004-2005 where the GM did exactly that, and it worked out very well — it was satisyfing without requiring any bookkeeping.
The other side of the coin are the mechanics, which owe a lot to Mutants and Masterminds, Green Ronin’s superhero RPG — most notably, the concept of damage saves.
For instance, rather than rolling damage and applying it to a pool of hit points, every time you get hit you roll to save against the damage. If you make it, you don’t take any damage. Blow it, and you mark off the first level of damage — and if you blow it by a lot, you can drop several levels at once.
Classes (which True20 calls “roles”) are similarly straightforward: There are just three, warrior, adept and expert, and they’re versatile and broad-based — very much like d20 Modern‘s Strong Hero, Fast Hero, etc. Everyone gets a feat at every level, and apart from feats and skills there are very few other mechanical elements to keep track of.
Reading through the book, I kept thinking to myself that this was d20 done right — not just in terms of mechanics, but in terms of other choices, both small and large. It couldn’t exist without d20, but it improves on its source material while standing on its own.
For example, every skill features a list of challenges — modifiers you can apply to the Difficulty or to your roll under certain circumstances. Even though these are in many cases identical to the various skill modifiers in D&D (climbing at normal speed, for example), standardizing them — and boxing each one on a different background, making them stand out — makes a huge difference. True20 is full of little tweaks like this.
Other RPGs could learn a lot from three sections of True20: The introduction, the skills chapter and the combat section.
The introduction presents one of the best overviews of game rules that I’ve ever read, and does it in a way that gets across how sharp True20‘s mechanics are. It also makes the game sound like fun, and provides a solid foundation for the rest of the rules. This is one of the best parts of the book, and it should make it very easy to hook in your players.
True20 handles skills in almost the same way as the d20 System — under the hood, they’re nearly identical. But in terms of ease of use and presentation, True20‘s skill is just better. It addresses common situations (like using Diplomacy on PCs) concisely and well, and it breaks out and standardizes the different elements of each skill description.
The combat section is equally readable, and it flows nicely from overview to basics to details. It also makes one of d20’s biggest headaches, grappling, eminently accessible, and does away with attacks of opportunity entirely. Plenty of options are presented without being overwhelming.
There are a handful of problems with True20, notably the equipment section (and associated rules), the bestiary, typos and the mini-settings.
The equipment section looks very clean at first glance — nice sparse tables, without a whole lot of entries for each item. Unfortunately, there are two things missing from the lists: Weights and ammunition capacities.
There are rules for encumbrance and carrying capacity in the book, but without weights they won’t do you much good. There are also nifty rules for autofire — suppressing fire, cover fire and so forth, all well-executed — but no mention of how many shots autofire uses, or how much ammo any of the listed firearms holds. Those are pretty major oversights for a core rulebook.
The bestiary suffers from a different problem: There’s too much info on some things (why go into all of the standard d20 creature types?) and too little on others (how does one create a creature — or decide if it’s too powerful to throw up against the PCs?), as well as a lackluster assortment of monsters. With limited space for creatures, I’d rather not see entries for bats and housecats — that space could have been better used statting out beasties for genres other than fantasy (which are presently under-represented).
There are also minor editing mistakes throughout the book — True20 is sometimes italicized, sometimes not — as well as a scattering of typos. Since it’s a pretty slick book in other respects, these stood out for me; if you don’t usually notice typos, they aren’t likely to bother you.
And then there are the four mini-settings: Caliphate Nights, Lux Aeternum, Mecha vs. Kaiju and Borrowed Time. They’re included to showcase True20‘s versatility, and to give you a jumping-off point for your own games — but they take up too much of the book for my tastes.
True20 weighs in at 224 pages, and 74 of them are given over to setting material — nearly a third of the book. I would much rather have had some of this space devoted to a larger bestiary, or a section of sample NPCs for a variety of genres. Both of those sections would be more useful to more GMs than these mini-settings.
I do like that the settings introduce interesting extensions of the True20 system, like letting players use Conviction (True20‘s version of Action Points) to exert narrative control over the game, and genre-specific GMing guidelines, but I think a section composed solely of those two things — useful crunchy bits and more GMing info — would have been more beneficial.
That said, True20‘s postives outweigh its negatives, and the 2/3 of the book devoted to rules cover a lot of ground. None of the above would keep me from buying True20 — this is still a darned good game.
From a GM’s Perspective
One of the things that appeals to me about True20 is the way it builds GM fiat into the system. You might see that as a downside, but like many things about this game I find it refreshing — True20 assumes that you trust your players, and vice versa, but still supplies you with plenty of guidelines.
There’s a weird dichotomy at work in True20, though. Character creation, skills and combat strike a perfect balance between clarity and simplicity on the one hand, and engaging complexity on the other. But one of the most GM-oriented sections — Adversaries, which describes NPCs and creatures — is frustratingly lacking in detail.
While there are several pages of D&D-style creature types listed (elementals, undead, etc.), there are no guidelines for creature creation. Worse yet, there’s no info on how to balance encounters — and given the close relationship between True20 and d20, and the fact that damage in True20 can rack up quickly, it’s a substantial ommission.
True20‘s GMing section is also very short: Just 3 pages. It covers some good ground, giving you an overview of the major rules elements and discussing popular topics like fudging die rolls, but it would be useful to have some info on adventure creation, extending the core rules (“How do I create new feats?”) and other topics, as well.
On the other hand, True20 looks like a breeze to run — and it would make an excellent first system, both for GMs and players. “Fun” is hard to quantify, but based on rules alone True20 is just plain appealing; reading it was much akin to reading the Eberron Campaign Setting for the first time: It made me want to play.
And although I don’t have any play experience to back this up, I suspect True20 prep would be short and sweet. NPCs aren’t hard to stat out, and most other mechanical elements are pretty simple across the board.
But I Already Play d20!
I was stoked when D&D 3.0 came out in 2000, and for the next couple of years I GMed and played it regularly, and kept up with nearly every new release (WotC and third party). I’ve been a fan of D&D since I started gaming back in 1987, with the red box, and I love the direction that the d20 System and the OGL have taken it in.
What I don’t love is the prep, which I find involved to the point of being frustrating. And while I like options, in the past couple of years it’s been more of a chore and less of a hobby to keep up with d20.
I’ve also played in a 10-month d20 Modern campaign, and I had a blast with it. I like Modern’s streamlined classes and many of the other tweaks that it makes to the core rules.
Which is why I like True20: It streamlines d20 Modern (no small feat!), mixes in a handful of clever elements of its own, and retains much of the spirit and flavor of both D&D and d20 Modern — without the layers of options, interlocking details and other elements that, over time, have made me less and less interested in playing D&D.
On top of that, there are two pages of conversion guidelines at the back of the True20 rulebook — if you want to trim some of d20’s fat without losing access to reams of nifty material, you’re covered.
Should I Buy It?
If, like me, you’ve cooled on d20 over the years — but still like the basic elements of the system — then True20 will be right up your alley. Ditto if you’re looking for a light, quick game that doesn’t sacrifice completeness, as long as you’re comfortable with the degree of GM fiat that’s built into the rules.
If you like the crunchier aspects of d20, or prefer having specific rules for the widest range of situations possible (“How many Medium-size creatures fit in monster X’s stomach?”), then True20 probably won’t work for you. It’s a lot closer to the Storytelling System (Mage: The Awakening, etc.) than it is to d20.
Update: Thanks to RPG Blog, I found out that Green Ronin is offering a free PDF of the True20 Quick Start rules (385kb), as well as a free True20 conversion of Death in Freeport (3.4MB, playable with either the core rules or the QS rules). If you’re interested in sampling the system, these two PDFs are a great place to start.
Was this review useful to you? I don’t write too many reviews here on TT, but this one grabbed me by the throat right away. If you’ve got questions about True20, I’ll be more than happy to crack open my copy and try to answer them for you.
Out of curiosity, did you ever get a look at Blue Rose? I own it, and very much enjoy the engine which, by my understanding, is the core of true 20. The only thing that’s keeping me from sweeping up this book is a concern that I’ll basically be buying a large swath of content I already own.
Nope, I’ve never checked out Blue Rose. The design notes in the front of True20 mention that it’s a reworking of the BR system, with some Aldea-specific elements removed and — presumably — other changes, too.
I believe GR has a free quickstart version of the T20 rules on their site — you might want to take a peek at that, and see what’s changed.
This actually sounds like just the book I was looking for for an upcoming project. I’m going to see if my local gamesshop has it. Thanks Martin!
So far, I’ve only played T20 [actually Blue Rose] once at a convention. I could see that there were fun mechanics… but the GM got bogged down in “do what you want”, so we didn’t get to the good part of the adventure. Plus, she handwaved the diplomacy– which I hoped would be a stronger element of the system.
Your review was useful; I’d dismissed T20 as not far enough from D&D for my tastes, but after your review, I’ll at least flip through the book.
Rick: You’re welcome — I’m glad my review did the trick for you. 🙂
Scott: That’s pretty much what I expected when I picked it up, but after back cover hooked me in I knew I wasn’t looking at alt-d20, but streamlined d20. Let me know what you think once you’ve had a chance to flip through a copy.
Excellent review, Martin. I really like True20 for low-prep and streamlining d20 into something that keeps a lot of what I like.
Hey, I thought this was a great review. I do have a question for you T20 fans:
I GM’d Mutants & Masterminds once, and I didn’t particularly care for the damage system. The characters did a *lot* of swinging and dealing no damage; it was like everyone was standing around, waiting to get lucky. Is that problem still apparent? Or is it perhaps solely a problem with the superhero genre?
I don’t have M&M to do a comparison, but T20 breaks it down like this:
– You make a damage save vs. a difficulty based on damage dealt.
– Success = No damage taken.
– Fail, but not by 5+ = Bruised. You can rack up multiple bruised results, and each one hampers your performance slightly.
– Fail by 5+ = The first tier of real damage, with other thresholds at 10+, etc.
It seems like there’d be quite a bit of missing, but given the action movie feel of the rules, that seems appropriate: Getting hurt sucks, and jumping around dodging stuff sounds about right to me.
I have been reading my copy of True20, and I’ve got to say that I’m impressed. True20 is so much easier to use than regular d20. The rules to d20 are so involved that learning to play has kept me from becoming involved. But, the rules to True20 make gaming accessible to those must learn on their own.