Wednesday, March 31, 2010

True 20 Admiration

As a part of my halting and haphazard progress on Studio Manta and System X, I recently finished reading Blue Rose, a Green Ronin RPG that uses their True 20 game system. (I've carefully hidden some alliteration in the previous sentence. Can you find it?) I've been slowly reading through some old school games and contemporary games, as part of my effort to understand game design (why do we do what we do?), and that's how I encountered Blue Rose.

The True 20 System builds upon Jonathan Tweet's revisions to the venerable Advanced Dungeons and Dragons. Which is to say, it embraces his axioms "rolling higher is better" and "all systems must work the same way." Personally, I don't agree with the direction, primarily because it's come to dominate the game design community. To me, all games after AD&D 3.5 look the same, even if they try not to (I even recall Warhammer 40K using the term "stack" in its rules, which shows you how wide ranging Tweet's influence has been). But there is an elegance to the True 20 system, which I immediately appreciated.

There are no numeric stats in True 20. The use of numeric attributes to define your character is as old as the hobby itself (which goes to show you the dominance of Gygax and Arneson). Every game defines a character by things like strength, dexterity, intelligence, or whatever nouns the designer chooses. Some games use three stats, others use 23, but they all use numbers to represent the physicality of the character. Which begs the question: why? Why are we so obsessed with how strong, fast, or smart a character is? But that's a subject for a later post. Anyway, True 20 eschews using whole numbers; it goes directly to the modifier. Players choose whether they have a +1 to Strength, or a +2 to Intelligence. The actual way in which the player chooses their modifiers is pretty simple, too. What I like, however, is the break with defining the character as Str. 13, Dex. 10, Int. 16. It's simple, elegant, and gets rid of a meaningless step (generating those numeric scores).

Similarly, I like the skill system. Every class has one or more favored skills, as well as "known skills." Favored skills are the skills on which the profession focuses; a thief might focus on Disable Device, for example. Known skills are those other skills the character simply knows, like riding a horse. A table provides you with the skill level for each skill type, based on level. So at first level, your character's favored skills are ranked at 4, and your known skills are all at 2. So once you decide the skills your character possesses, skill level is simply a function of level. No spending skill points. No rolling for number of skill ranks. Again, simple and elegant.

Finally, the game lacks hit points. Instead, all characters utilize a "wound track" ranging from perfectly fine to "dead." Damage becomes folded into the saving throw system, which makes perfectly good sense to me. I never understood why one type of damage was treated with hit points (getting whacked with a sword), and other kinds could be avoided with a saving throw (dragon fire). It seems so simple that it never even occurred to me to violate the hallowed sanctity of hit points. But now that True 20 does it, it makes perfect sense. When you get hit with an attack, the damage inflicted adds to a base saving throw value; you have to roll over this on 1d20 to avoid the damage. All attack forms have a modifier, so a longsword might cause +5 damage. If you fail the saving throw, your character checks off a box on the aforementioned wound track. So you would go from "healthy" to "wounded", with an attendant modifier being applied to all your dice rolls. What's really nice about this is that it jibes not only with the saving throw concept, it also harmonizes with the attribute system (turning what is normally a randomized whole number into a modifier). Nicely done.

I don't know if I'd agree with eliminating rolling damage, because I think gamers like to chuck dice and roll maximum damage. It's a lot more fun to yell "take that!" after rolling 16 points of damage on 2d8, than when you cause a mere +5 damage with your sword. And I'm not certain about eliminating hit points, because that's a key element driving a leveling system; gamers want to level up to get more hit points. Also, since all characters use the same wound track, there's little to distinguish between characters. It would be nice if there were some way to add additional levels to the wound track (like at level 5 you get two boxes at "wounded").

But hey! I respect True 20 for the decisions it makes. It takes on certain tropes in game design -- attributes, the concept of damage -- and doesn't look back. For what is basically your typical contemporary RPG (see above, paragraph 2, the "Tweetization of Gaming"), it's pretty sweet. Good job, Green Ronin!

(It's also got me thinking about doing away with the concept of attributes altogether, since we're taking on foundations of game design. Next up I want to look at Dragon Age, because it seems to do just that (what with its inclusion of a Magic stat, which I think points the way).)

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