True20 is one of the many unexpected uses Green Ronin have put the OGL to. Having already made out like bandits with Mutants and Masterminds, their adaptation of the D20 rules to superhero games, Green Ronin originally developed True20 as the system for Blue Rose, an attempt to market tabletop RPGs to the romantic fantasy crowd – a portion of the fantasy market typically poorly-served in a gaming context. I don’t know whether Blue Rose made any headway in that section of the audience, but it did get a reaction in the tabletop RPG hobby – who soon began lobbying for a standalone version of the system without all that yucky kissing attached. The end result is the True20 core rulebook. In its first incarnation, this included a collection of sometimes interesting but generally not awe-inspiring campaign settings at the back, but in recent printings it has ditched these and instead includes the material which formerly made up the True20 Companion. Therefore, I’m going to review both here (skipping over the campaign settings, which I don’t personally have much interest in) since between them they cover the material which Green Ronin are presenting as being key, core material for the game.
So far as I can tell from the explanatory notes and from the general approach behind the design, the intent behind True20 was to provide a system which was somewhat more intuitive than 3.X Dungeons & Dragons but wasn’t so radically stripped on that you’d describe it as a “rules-light” game – I think the idea was that the audience they were going for with Blue Rose weren’t dyed-in-the-wool gamers, so they would benefit from a system which was intuitively easy to learn, but at the same time they also tended to be grown-ups and so didn’t necessarily need to have their hands held. I’ve not read Blue Rose, so I don’t know how the rules concepts were explained there, but I wouldn’t give someone the True20 core book as their first RPG myself; it’s a little too dense to be beginner-friendly, and I think designer Steve Kenson unconsciously assumes the reader has a little more familiarity with RPG conventions – and particularly the conventions of the OGL – than a complete beginner would necessarily have. (In particular, the explanation of how damage works feels confusingly brief and I’m fairly sure the accompanying roll summary and gameplay example are actually incorrect.)
That said, Green Ronin have done an interesting job in transforming the D20 system into a sleeker and more streamlined beast. True20 accomplishes this through a two-pronged approach; firstly, as the title implies it is a genuine all-D20 system, with dice rolls that don’t involve a D20 – and specifically, dice rolls which don’t work on the standard “roll a D20, add modifiers, beat a target number” OGL resolution mechanic – completely eliminated. For example, character creation is simply accomplished through point-buy, and rather than having hit points when you take damage you have to make a Toughness saving throw modified by your armour and the weapon’s damage rating and beat a target number, or be afflicted with one of various nasty conditions ranging from brusing to death.
Secondly, True20 allows itself to dispense with sacred cows which 3.X Dungeons & Dragons didn’t dare touch. For instance, whilst you have the standard Strength, Dexterity, Constitution,. Intelligence, Wisdom and Charisma for stats, they don’t run on the 3-18 scale of D&D – you just get a flat -5 to +5 modifier with 0 as the average, there’s no alignment system, classes are stripped down to basic archetypes of Warrior, Adept (person who uses supernatural powers) and Expert (person who uses non-supernatural skills) – and if you want to play someone who takes a little from column A and a little from column B you just have to go multiclass. Vancian spellcasting is likewise out, with supernatural powers basically acting like Feats (with some tagged as causing fatigue to prevent you spamming the especially potent powers).
In addition to this, the skill list is somewhat rationalised – not as much as I’d like, Sense Motive is still there and I’m convinced that it should just be part of Diplomacy (since figuring out what the other guy wants is kind of an essential part of diplomacy), but at least crap like Use Rope is dispensed with – and the Feats list is kept short and manageable, though again I still think it could do with a little more trimming (there’s still too many things which make me think “why the hell is this a feat rather than something anyone with the relevant skill can attempt?”). The way supernatural powers works is quite nice at making sure that magic-using characters get a little more power at lower levels and don’t quite go so crazy in later levels compared to mainline 3.X D&D, Wealth is abstracted out to a Wealth score which you use to roll to see if you can buy something, which is a nice idea, though some of the price lists in the core rulebook seem to need a little work. (Anything but a tiny disposable handgun is a major investment, apparently, regardless of how much you earn, which feels a little wonky to me.)
Still, what you have in True20 is a decent implementation of the basic ideas of the OGL with a lot of complexity stripped away – in particular, rules and stuff relating to grid-based combat seem mostly absent, in contrast to late-period 3.5 D&D – and which avoids the ugly compromise that the mainline D20 system tended to suffer from in my opinion, in which it held onto too many Dungeons & Dragons sacred cows to please people who wanted a 100% modernised system but added too much complexity for the tastes of those who wanted something a bit more streamlined and archetypal like TSR-vintage D&D. That said, it evades that worst-of-both-worlds trap only to fall into one of its own: like a lot of generic RPGs, it can tend to feel bland and flavourless, but at the same time it’s still a little too tied to the assumed “warriors, people with spells, and people with nifty skills” model to feel genuinely generic – it feels that it would fit a fantasy game far more naturally than it would hard SF, for instance, which perhaps isn’t surprising because it was originally calibrated to support Blue Rose.
The True20 Companion should in principle alleviate this, since it seems intended to provide logical extensions to the core True20 system, setting out the design underpinning of the system in more detail to aid groups in adapting it and providing specific pointers to utilising it in various popular tabletop RPG genres. I appreciate what they’re trying to do there, though I have concerns about the methodology. A lot of the thrust of the book involves tweaking the core abilities or producing custom character classes for the genre in question, and I do wonder whether adding complexity right back into a game designed with an eye to being rules-light isn’t just undoing the work you already did in stripping it down in the first place. In particular, adding new classes beyond the core three provided in the core True20 rules seems to me to sacrifice the really major point of simplification which the core game hit on, partially by sabotaging the nice threefold symmetry the Warrior/Adept/Expert breakdown offered and partly by opening the door to complex character building min-maxing – and since 99% of the complexity of the D20 system arose from its focus on character building allowing that back in seems to dispense with the major advantage of True20 to begin with.
In addition, some of the decisions made in applying the system to different genres here feel downright bizarre. For instance, in the fantasy section there’s an interesting optional rule on heroic archetypes, which you can pick in parallel to your character class to represent the particular mass market fantasy novel niche your character exists in – except whilst some of them are quite good, some of them have crap fluff and bizarre powers – the nadir being the Maiden, whose powers tend to involve being vulnerable and healing people protecting them and inspiring the other characters with how weak and feeble they are. (Their top level power allows them to spontaneously restore a character to life by sacrificing their own life – a power which feels pointless when by the time you’ve reached that level in a fantasy-inspired game at least one PC probably has access to some form of Raise Dead anyway – indeed, in core True20 Adepts can get an Imbue Life power which would let them do that, and of course their special Conviction power would let them attempt it even if they hadn’t bought the power otherwise.) On top of all that, I do wonder how successful True20 really is as a generic game if you need a whole additional book to adapt it to particular genres.
Ultimately, True20 is a game whose time I think has come and gone to a certain extent. It slipped out during that short window after people realised that you could use the OGL to produce games which diverged rather startlingly from the D20 system reference document whilst at the same time dipping into the SRD here and there as your project required, but before people realised that this extended to being able to produce outright clones of previous editions of Dungeons & Dragons. Frankly, if you want a rules-lighter but not fully rules-light fantasy RPG with mechanics which would be broadly familiar to a Dungeons & Dragons 3rd Edition player, pre-3rd Edition versions of D&D cover you more than adequately; equally, the OSR movement has adapted early Dungeons & Dragons rules to a range of different genres (for instance, Mutant Future essentially repeats the Gamma World trick of adapting D&D to a slightly cartoonish take on the post-apocalypse genre). Although True20 does have the advantage of having a cohesive core mechanic, there are plenty of games out there which offer just such a thing, and ultimately I suspect that if you dislike 3rd Edition Dungeons & Dragons then True20 isn’t necessarily going to be your thing – especially if the thing you dislike in 3rd Edition is the extensive list of feats, because the feat mechanic is alive and well and providing exception-based gameplay right here in True20.