Once upon a time, Green Ronin produced a roleplaying game of romantic fantasy, and called it Blue Rose. After a while, they noticed that a lot of people were using the Blue Rose mechanics to play all kinds of other games as well, and realised they had a generic RPG that worked in many settings; so they reworked it, and released it as True20 Adventure Roleplaying, written by Steve Kenson.
This review is of the 2006 edition, which has the core rules and four capsule settings. I believe there was a later version which dropped the settings in favour of material from some of the supplements, but since I already had the supplements, I didn’t pick that up. There’s a try-before-you-buy Quick Start version here, which gives you the heart of the system in 7 pages (5 if you exclude the cover and OGL).
IF YOU’VE NEVER PLAYED TRUE20 BEFORE…
It’s a class-and-level system, where you roll 1d20 and try to match or beat a target number to succeed. It’s a lot like 3rd edition D&D or other d20 products, but has no hit points, no spell slots, no money, and no experience points. How the heck does that work? Read on…
Foreword, Introduction etc: 12 pages. This includes your standard what’s-an-RPG piece, an example of play, and a handful of pages giving a top-level overview of how the system works – die rolls, task resolution, combat.
Hero Creation: 14 pages. This is largely D&D 3rd Edition, with the following changes:
- Point-buy character generation, but your points buy you ability modifiers rather than a D&D ability score – your Dexterity ranges from -5 to +5 rather than 3-18.
- No hit points. I’ll come back to that in the Playing the Game section.
- Races are relabelled Backgrounds – this is because there can be other Backgrounds that aren’t a race.
- The numerous classes of d20 are collapsed into three; Adept (casts spells), Expert (relies mostly on skills), and Warrior (breaks things and hurts people). You can mix and match as you level up.
- Conviction, which is the local equivalent of Savage Worlds bennies, D&D Action Points, and so on. PCs start with 3 Conviction, and gain another point at each odd-numbered level (3rd, 5th etc). Adepts and Experts can use a Conviction point to gain temporary access to a skill or spell they don’t officially know, while Warriors can use it to erase damage.
Skills: 14 pages. These work like D&D 3rd Edition; roll a d20, add your skill rank, ability score and situational modifiers, and if the result at least matches the GM-set target number, you succeed. There are 28 skills, each with roughly a half-page of description covering what it is and what you can do with it; for example, you can use a Bluff check to divert attention, boosting a later Stealth check; Feint to bypass a target’s defences; send secret messages via innuendo; seduce an NPC; or daze a target with the sheer outlandishness of your patter.
One notable thing about the True20 system is that it places equal emphasis on interpersonal exchanges and combat; d20-based systems are usually combat-heavy. I imagine this comes from the game’s roots in romantic fantasy.
Feats: 12 pages. These are the equivalent of Edges or Advantages in other games; specific things your PC can do, which those without the feat cannot. Typically, they might grant a +2 bonus to certain types of die roll, or allow you to take a penalty on one roll to gain a bonus on another.
There are 68 General Feats, which any character can take; 11 for Adepts; 22 for Experts; and 18 for Warriors. Adepts might seem short-changed here, but consider that they are focused on Powers.
Powers: 20 pages. Using a power is much like using a skill; the die rolls and modifiers are similar. There are 68 powers, which are broader in scope than their D&D equivalents; this is achieved by merging related spell effects together. For example, Elemental Blast covers just about every ranged damage-inflicting spell in D&D; fireball, lightning bolt, acid arrow, ice storm and others. Exactly what it does depends on which element you base it on, and what Feats and options you apply to the casting.
There are no power points, mana points, spell slots or what have you; if you know a spell, you can cast it, and there’s an end to it. However, some spells are "fatiguing"; after casting one you make a Will saving throw, and failure gives you a level of fatigue. If you cast multiple fatiguing spells in a short period of time, this applies increasing penalties to the saving throw. (Several optional rules are suggested for fatigue, as a way to tailor the rules to your setting.)
Powers can be maintained, but each power already operational applies a penalty to casting and resisting fatigue.
Equipment: 16 pages. This starts by explaining the game’s Wealth system; True20 has no currency, just the abstract concept of Wealth, which is treated somewhat like a skill; buying something is a Wealth check, with the difficulty set by the item’s relative cost. You can improve Wealth in play, by levelling up, being rewarded for a quest, or using certain skills to earn money; but buying things whose target number exceeds your Wealth reduces it.
There’s the usual mixture of adventuring gear, mundane items, weapons and armour, and transport; if you’ve played D&D and d20 Modern you’ll recognise most of it. On the "magic items" front, masterwork weapons or armour can be imbued with powers, and charms (potions, candles, crystals or what have you) can be imbued with a single use of a power.
Playing the Game: 24 pages. Physical actions, social actions, fighting, hazards and the environment. These are the core rules. Much will be familiar to D&D players, as the basic mechanic is the same: Roll 1d20 and try to match or exceed a target number. However, everything in True20 is a 1d20 roll; no other dice are used.
Damage is the main difference from standard d20 here; when hit, you make a Toughness saving throw, based on Constitution and modified by your armour and the attacker’s damage bonus, with a target number also depending on the attacker’s damage bonus; if you succeed, you take just a scratch, but if you fail, your character acquires one or more damage conditions – which ones depend on whether the weapon is lethal or not, and how much you missed the roll by. There are 7 common conditions, and another 29 not-so-common.
This is in fact the thing that eventually drove me away from True20; I could not for the life of me memorise the damage tracks and conditions, which meant combat went very slowly as I cross-referenced the weapon type and the score with the table of conditions inflicted. That’s my fault rather than the game’s, I’m sure, but it was enough to kill it in my group after a couple of years’ play.
Narrating the Game: 4 pages. This covers what the GM does, namely assign difficulties, and judge character advancement. Levelling up in True20 is easy; there are no experience points, when the GM thinks you deserve to level up, he tells you so, and you level up – typically every one or two adventures.
Adversaries: 24 pages. This begins by explaining Ordinaries, a fourth character class limited to NPCs; these are the ordinary people going about their ordinary lives. They are essentially a much weaker version of the Expert. True20 was also the first game where I encountered Minions (called Mooks or Extras in other games); expendable minor foes. In True20, they work like other characters or monsters, but never have Conviction and always take the maximum damage possible when they fail their Toughness save. This means they automatically die if they fail to save against a lethal weapon.
Then we have a section on types of creature, common features and templates, and how to read their statblocks, before galloping into a list of around 30 stock monsters, ranging from 1st to 16th level. The creatures in the core rulebook cluster around 1st-4th level, so are more suited to beginning characters; but using the conversion guide in the appendix, it’s easy to convert any of the hundreds of d20 monsters freely available on the internet.
Worlds of Adventure: 64 pages. As I say, this isn’t present in later editions, but in my copy there are notes on creating a game world, and four example settings in outline, several of which went on to become full setting books. These are:
- Caliphate Nights: As you can probably guess, this is the Arabian Nights in game format.
- Lux Aeternum: The Three Musketeers – in Spaaaace!
- Mecha vs Kaiju: PCs pilot giant anthropomorphic robots (mecha) into battle with Japanese movie monsters (kaiju). Nice explanation of anime character stereotypes in particular; I’ve often thought of borrowing this for the party’s NPCs.
- Borrowed Time: Secret cabals with time-twisting powers wage a cold war for control of the world. I like this one best.
These are, as they were intended to be, fine examples of how you can expand or modify the rules to reflect a particular setting.
After all that are rules for d20 conversion and a character sheet.
Colour covers, mostly green, wrapped around a basic two-column layout in printer-friendly black on white, with notes in grey boxes and headings in white on black. Lean and efficient.
Interior artwork is black and white, and varies in style and quality, although it’s all reasonable.
SUGGESTIONS FOR IMPROVEMENT
Archetypical PCs that players can just grab and go would be nice.
A more intuitive damage system would be good, too.
This is d20 Lite, or D&D 3.5 Lite if you prefer; the d20 system pared down until it’s lean and generic. It’s good. In many ways, it’s what I think D&D should have become. If I could’ve got my head around the damage system, I’d probably still be playing True20 today, as it was my go-to roleplaying system before I discovered Savage Worlds; then, I would have given it 5 out of 5, now that I’m Savaged I’d still give it 4 out of 5, so let’s call that…
Overall Rating: 4.5 out of 5. I won’t make a habit of these fractional ratings, I swear.