Tuesday, July 05, 2005

Holy crap, people. True20. Have you seen this thing? It makes my brain hurt.

I grabbed it from RPGnow after seeing it referred to as "Narrative d20" (capital N) several times. Figured it was worth a peek, and it's only twelve bucks. I want my twelve bucks back.

Not only is there nothing particularly "narrative" about this game design, there is nothings particularly "good" about it either. The game text is very poorly executed for something that wants to be an entry game for brand-new roleplayers.

Let me save you the download. It's d20, without the other polyhedral dice. It has three classes, damage saves (a la Mutants and Masterminds) instead of hit points, and a streamlined combat system. In other words, it is a bog-standard stat+skill+d20 system and you have seen it and its cousins a thousand times before. Which wouldn't be so bad all by itself. It kind of has a Savage Worlds* vibe going on, for folks who like d20 and want to stick with it in a simpler package. That's fine. But as a stand-alone game? Or a game for utter newbies? It's a joke.

Here are some highlights. And yes, I am going to nitpick a bit.

Page 4: Game Play
When the action starts happening, such as when the heroes are staving off a disaster or fighting villains, time becomes more crucial and is broken down into rounds, each six seconds long, and the players generally have to make die rolls to see how well their heroes do.

Six seconds, eh? Are we supposed to have a stopwatch handy? That wasn't listed in the "What You Need to Play" section. As far as I can tell, the distinction between real-world and game-world time is never made in the text.

True20 provides systems to handle most situations likely to come up during a game, but these systems are just guidelines. Ultimately, it’s up to the Narrator to decide exactly what happens in any given situation.

So... I guess I'll just put the book down now, then. What happens? The Narrator decides. Wow... this is an easy game to learn.

Now we get to page 8: Hero Creation. Apparently we will be creating heroes. What will our heroes do? We don't know. The game has yet to tell us what it is about. Oh, there was this bit:

A session of True20 resembles one or more chapters from a novel. The Narrator and the players get together and tell a story by playing the game.

but that doesn't tell us what the players are supposed to do with their characters. What kind of story? Are we hardboiled detectives? World War II resistance fighters? Wealthy Texas oil barons? Don't bother searching for an answer. It's not in there. New to roleplaying? Well... I'm sure you'll figure something out.

You know what? Let's jump ahead. There's a bookmark in the PDF to Chapter 6: Playing the Game. That must be what we want.

In True20, heroes attempt many deeds, from wooing hearts to felling monsters. This chapter—joined with the chapters on skills, feats, and powers—gives rules for doing things, whether mundane or heroic, in the game.

Now we're getting somewhere! So... what do we do?

The paragraph headers on this page are:Oooooookay. So far, it seems this game concerns itself with moving around and carrying things, sometimes while hampered. Not exatly catchy copy for the back of the book, but... okay. We are heroes! Who carry things.

The chapter moves on to: Throwing, Extra Effort, Carrying Capacity, Carrying Loads, Bluff, Influence, Diplomacy (maybe we're Diplomats!), Perform (eh?)... and... that's it. Next up is something called "Fighting: Combat Sequence". We're fighting diplomats who carry things! Maybe. The rest of the chapter trails off with stuff about acid, cold, darkness, falling, heat, starvation, suffocation, and water. Our hampered movement performing diplomats sure travel to dangerous places, or so it seems.

Onwards, to Running the Game. The book seems like it's for the Narrator, anyway. They must have put the "what do you do" stuff in there. Sadly, no.

While the players are responsible for keeping track of their own heroes and deciding on their actions, the Narrator is responsible for everything else in the game. A good Narrator tries to make sure that the game runs as smoothly as possible and is enjoyable for all of the players. Many components go into creating a good True20 series. The following pages give you the basics, but simple experience is the best tool to help you become a better Narrator.

So, lay it on me. Tell me how to "run" one of these games. Go on... give me the good stuff.

Paragraph Headers again:
Damn. Nothing about what we, the players of this game that we just bought, are supposed to be doing. Making checks? Something like that.

And oh yes... "Secret" checks. That brings us to the best part.

Page 80: Altering the of Outcome Die Rolls
On occasion the outcome of a particular roll may seriously impact the game. For example, the heroes are walking into a trap and none of them make the necessary check to notice the danger in time. Or a hero gets in a lucky shot and the villain rolls a 1 on his Toughness saving throw, resulting in a quick defeat. What do you do?

Well, friend, if you follow True20's advice, you simply "fix" things by ignoring the roll and telling the story you want to.

Besides, the players don’t have to know that you change the occasional die roll. That’s one of the reasons it’s a good idea for Narrators to roll their dice out of sight of the players and then announce the results.

Of course it is. The Narrator needs to be able to tell His Story, after all. We wouldn't want the game we have all agreed to play to get in the way of that.

How can this advice be in a modern game book? When I read this, I had the same sensation that I get when I listen to Dick Cheney talk. Like, "Are you serious?" Black is white. Up is down. If this is what modern mainstream design looks like (from a respected publisher, Green Ronin) I am badly out of touch.

I have to quote this line again. It's giving me fits.

On occasion the outcome of a particular roll may seriously impact the game.

On occasion. Oh man. The rest of the time? Those rolls you make don't mean jack. They're just window-dressing anyway, because as we learned on page 4, it's up to the Narrator to decide what happens.

And the thing ends with d20 conversion notes and a character sheet. That's it. There's space on the character sheet for a "virtue" and a "vice" but they have no impact on gameplay as far as the text mentions. I guess they're just good things to know for "roleplaying."

Whew! Man, I'm feeling ranty. We can safely call this an "uncharitable reading." Page 4 sapped all the charity I had to give and it was downhill from there.

As a game for new roleplayers, this is one of the worst ever. Red box D&D is about a million times better in terms of telling the reader what the hell he or she is supposed to do with this game, and it's over 20 years old. There's really no excuse for something like True20 to be as badly written as it is.

I can recommend True20 only to prospective game designers. It is a blueprint for precisely how not to write your game for new roleplayers. Let's try to learn from its ham-fisted mistakes.

If you are an experienced player of d20 and its clones, True20 will make perfect sense to you. It may even be very appealing, given that it ditches a great many things about d20 that some people dislike.

It is, however, not a complete game design as written. It fails to tell you what to do in order to play. It has no examples and no procedures for actual play between players. None. Pick up any game at a toy store (Monoploy, Taboo, whatever) and you will find procedures for play. Every game design, at bare minimum should include such instructions. We are too far along in the life of this hobby for any game to printed without them.

(*Savage Worlds is a much superior product, in terms of design. I recommend it highly for light tabletop skirmish/roleplaying, which is not the target audience of True20)


EDIT: A post by Tim in the comments made me realize my wording was unclear. During the above bitch-session, I talk about two issues which seem similar at first glance: 1) What do the characters do? and 2) What do the players do?

The first is a matter of Setting and Situation design, which covers a broad spectrum of personal perference. I don't happen to like the vague way True20 handles it (simply assuming you will all play "heroes" in some unknown situation), but that's jusy my taste. It isn't a mark of bad or good design, really.

The second, however, is a matter of effective game design. What do the players do? -- in other words, what are the specific procuedures for play? (do this then do this, etc.). Every complete game design includes instructions for how to play. True20 lacks those instructions. It assumes, like far too many RPGs, that you already know how to play (any) RPG. Which also assumes that the procedures for playing one RPG are the same for every other. Which is, in a word, ridiculous.


Blogger Matt Wilson says:  

How weird. I just downloaded it on Sunday. I missed the "N" hype, so I wasn't as bothered by all the 'how to be a narrator' crap. The 'go ahead and cheat' bit got a sneer from me, though.

If I look at it as just a minor revision to d20, or an 'open' version of the M&M rules, I like it okay. I'd laugh really hard at anyone who says it's a real breakthrough or great for new gamers or anything like that, because like you say, the changes are cosmetic.

But you know, somewhere out there, there's maybe a Gamer who's thinking, whoa, all this time we've been using Acrobatics and Balance and Tumble, and we could have just had one skill for all three... and maybe that'll snowball.

And also maybe I'll win the lottery.

Oh, and if you want your $12 back, it's open game content, so you could just cut/paste from the file, republish it and sell it on RPGnow for like $2 less. Not like you could do a worse layout.

Blogger Eric Provost says:  

I laughed so hard I bit my tongue.




Blogger John Harper says:  

Matt: Yes.

Eric: Thanks. I'm glad it had that effect. Also, your blog is cool. I linked ya.

Blogger Phil says:  

I'm a bit surprised this rant didn't go on Attacks. In fact I'm just gonna go and cross-post a link and short blurb about it.

It's heartwarming to see that good ol' red-box D&D retains its title as the Game That Tells You How To Play.

Blogger Tony says:  

waitaminute, isn't that what narriative means: the gm just makes stuff up.


seriously, mighty fine rant.

Anonymous Tim says:  

You know I'm surprised a bit.

I don't think True20 is as brilliant as people go on about but the whole;

Perhaps I misundestand the point.

"What do heroes do?" bit bothers me.

A game doesn't need to explicitly lay down a specific plan for "what characters do." that as always been the GM's job. D&D doesn't tell you you must play elves frollicking in the forest, oh and killing orcs from time to time. But a GM can. A rule-book is "rules" it is not a specific campaign of play. Now some games confuse this with metaplots, highly laser like focuses that limit their utility for actually using them in play (The Farm for example, I'll never use, because I've no interest in playing that kind of setting/plot/idea.)

On the otherhand with most games systems, that don't get so focused they forget flexibility. I could run a game inspired by "The Prisoner" but set in space. I could run a game set around faery tale creatures who've taken over an amusement park, their lives and drama, and social intereactions all under human's noses. I could run a standard, run around and kill things and take there stuff fantasy game.

So the task of a game to me is not to present what the character DO, but instead present how they can do things, so that what they do, no matter what it is, works.

One system isn't the point here, but leaving "room" for a person to envision any number of potential play sessions, encouraging them to create, not railroading them into a specific pattern of (rather) limited play.

Blogger John Harper says:  

Ah, Tim, I realize now that my wording is unclear. There are two things going on here.

1. I think that a game is better when it focuses on a situation for characters to act within. This is my own preference, and not a bad/good design element.

2. A game should tell the players what to do in order to play. This is a mark of good design. A game manual that does not explain HOW to play is a very poor manual.

True20 fails on both counts. The first is my own personal taste. The second is just plain bad game writing.

Blogger John Harper says:  

Thanks for bringin up that issue, Tim. I added an edit to the post to reflect my thoughts.

Anonymous ScottM says:  

I think the biggest thing you're overlooking is this-- True20 is supposed to be a core that you adapt, much like Fudge, Fate, or the SRD. It's really just a pay version of their system's SRD.

The work you want is in their game that uses the same system: Blue Rose. This is just so you can make your own setting without the details that squicked the squeamish (homosexuality, golden harts, etc.)

Blogger Joshua BishopRoby says:  

Yeah, what scottm said.

The True20 stand-alone is something like GURPS -- it's just the rules toolbox. Everything else -- the setting, the situation, the social contract -- is DIY.

Look at Blue Rose for an example of implementation. It's still on the Illusionist side of the tracks, but it's more realized in directions that you seem to be looking for.

Blogger John Harper says:  

I'd have to be some kind of moron not to know that.

The fact that True20 is meant to be a "core" system doesn't change my complaints. Except possibly for the one about not saying what characters are supposed to do. Then again, a good design would have said, "This is set of core rules. When you play a game of True20, the GM will use one of the True20 setting supplments to provide guidelines for what kind of characters you will make and what kind of situations they'll find themselves in." It isn't rocket science.

It has a "What is roleplaying?" section, which means the writers expect new gamers to read and understand it. And yet is has NO procedures for play and NO examples of play. GURPS, Fudge, Tri-Stat, D6, Savage Worlds -- all "core rules" and all much better written and designed than True20.

And what about the "narrator decides outcomes" and "narrator should cheat" sections? Are those okay design because these are core rules? I don't buy it.

Anonymous tim says:  

Re: John
-I understand what your sayingit does need examples even if they are broadly taken from off the cuff ideas say pick three possible genrees and write game examples from that.

-I prefer non-generic games over generic games, but I make use of generic games from time to time--because I have a niche that there is not suitable engine for, or makes assumptions of play I cannot dismiss without more effort than simply using the idea on a system whose base assumptions (for the most part) are neutral. There are situations where I don't want someone else's assumptions of play in the way of mine as a GM. But I think the core issue in this preference is that I've been playing a long while, I've not remotely been a new gamer in ages, so I've firm ideas of what I want, while someone new may not.

--On the otherhand True20 is available as a only a PDF from RPG sites which suggest that it isn't going to be a random purchase, it takes effort to find. A New roleplayer is unlikely to pick it up unless someone suggests it to them otherwise, someone who is likely an experienced gamer they can ask questions of to fill in the blanks. (and honestly this seems a valid way to me of doing it IF it occurs because the game is a social game and should encourage interaction with others who play.)

Now when the print version comes out next year, they're planning on having settings (chosen by a competition)that give them a more focused "hook" if you will--that will likely be a solution to this issue, and of course make sense in context as a print version is FAR more likely to fall into new players hands than PDF's (in my experience at least.)

I don't disagree that it needs to assist new players. I'm just not sure that the "hook" the focus of play is as needed as you think--but we're both old hats at this, the only real way to know would be to buy one and pick some person at random and say "run/play this" and then examine there feedback.

Blogger John Harper says:  

Yes. Okay. Forget the hook or no hook bit. It was one of my many complaints. I'm willing to drop it.

In fact, I'm not at all interested in "attack" or "defense" of True20, despite my ranting tone in the post. What I am interested in is talking about how RPG rules are written with so many buried assumptions that they are an alien language to non-gamers. How modern games should no longer confuse real-time and game-time. How RPGs -- yes, ALL of them -- would benefit from more procedural text and more thoughtful writing with regards to the actual instances of gameplay that the game is supposed to produce.

That's what my post is about. If anyone wants to discuss those things, be my guest.

But "defending" True20 is a waste of breath. I've made up my mind about it. I'm smart. I can read and draw my own conclusions. I don't need anyone's help to understand it within the larger context of the RPG world.

Anonymous W. Alexander says:  

I don't disagree with the rant here, in general. I, myself, do not purchase non-setting specific games simply because, as a gm, it is the setting which interests me. There are hundreds of systems out there, which came complete with their own setting, that one may mix and match to serve their current needs. So, as a game suppliment, I see no use for such a thing.

That said, I am going to defend "Cheating" in the game. It is part of the gm's responsibility to make certain he and his players are enjoying the adventure at hand. If the scenario has been building for sessions toward a climactic confrontation between the pcs and their nemesis, it takes something from the encounter should the villain be removed from play in the first round. The players are going to feel cheated out of their heroic struggle and dramatic victory (or defeat); the gm is going to feel cheated because of all the wasted effort he put into the villain, etc.

If the gm has to flub a die roll in order to maintain the atmosphere and excitement, then he should be given freedom to do so. "Cheating" in this regard is an expected part of the game - a tool which has been used throughout rpg history to good effect. The problem, of course, arises when the gm makes a practice out of this, arbitrarily overriding the successes or failures of his players. That sort of heavy handedness becomes evident in short order and ruins the sense of tension and occomplishment the gamers come to the table for.

As to the topic of burried assumptions. Perhaps games should start labeling themselves "novice" or "advanced". I know, as a gamer with a decade and a half of experience, that the sections on "how to role play" become tedious and feel like a waste of book space better spent elsewhere. More often than not new gamers come to the hobby at the behest of an experienced player anyway - so they already have someone to explain the basics for them. This is not to say that no game should include that introduction, but the publishers should be making a conscious decision of which market they are pursueing, new gamers or experienced, when a game is written and make content decisions based upon their target audience.

Blogger John says:  

True20 is a simplified D20. That's not necessarily good and that's not necessarily bad - that's just what it is. Don't you have something better to do than waste your time on posts like this?

Blogger John Harper says:  

John: Please read the entirety of a post if you're going to comment. In particular, these sections are relevant:

It kind of has a Savage Worlds* vibe going on, for folks who like d20 and want to stick with it in a simpler package. That's fine.

If you are an experienced player of d20 and its clones, True20 will make perfect sense to you. It may even be very appealing, given that it ditches a great many things about d20 that some people dislike.

The rest of the post is a pure rant. It's very snarky, but I stand by my conclusions.

Anonymous Anonymous says:  

Wow, what a completely narrow minded rant. Keep playing d20 moron and let the real role payers out there play a game that is far superior the the rules heavy monster that it d20.

Blogger John Harper says:  

Dude. You're awesome. Typos, bad grammar, and anonymous posting? Rad. And you thought it was a pro D20 rant? Incredible.

Please tell me you were wearing a cape or duster jacket when you wrote that.

Anonymous Anonymous says:  

No cape and jacket, but I was wiping my arse with your crap game.

Agon scores 0 points for originality.

Blogger John Harper says:  

Your opinion matters to me deeply, crazy anonymous person. After all, the idiot loser demographic is huge. If I can just win you guys over, I'll make a fortune.

Maybe I should add katanas to my game. No. Laser katanas.

Is that better? Will you wipe a different part of your body with my game now? I honestly don't know what idiot losers want anymore.

Blogger Matt Wilson says:  


I'm pretty sure that word is reserved for characters in trashy fantasy novels.

But I'm glad someone called John on claiming to invent ancient Greece when clearly it was Shakespeare. AGON is totally a ripoff of Julius Caesar.

Anonymous John Fastolf says:  

Goodness me, what a bilious outpouring. Where does such a core of venom come from i wonder?

I recently purchased True20 as i've been looking for a playable 'generic' ruleset for quite some time.

The les foam-soaked comments you make are actually quite lucid. As a game for new players, this is probably not the best choice (but than any new player not brought into the hobby with a Star Wars setting or the Pendragon rules is being seriously let down).

The point however has already been well-made, new players are almost always brought in by existing experienced chaps. I'm not sure you can just 'happen upon' the hobby without someone to hold your hand through those early games.

So, while accepting that True20 isn't the top choice for new players, i come to my point.

I've been gaming 30 years and True20 suits me perfectly. Unlike most rule books its not cluttered with unneccessary introductions and illustrations as to what roleplaying is.

I've found it to be an excellent, streamlined system that offers a solid core of rules upon which i can hang my own game setting. Personally, i find d20 a total turn off as its massively over complex. True20 has won me over because of its basic familiarity and simplicity. It reminds me strongly of early Cyberpunk rules but without the 'written on a napkin' feel of those classic black pamphlets.

I think your self-confessed rant is a little misplaced. Nothing is ever perfect. Perhaps True20 could have been written better. If yout hink so, stop complaqining and have a go yourself.

Anonymous Anonymous says:  

Wow. I would really hate for you to be my GM.

Blogger John Harper says:  

I don't game with anonymous Internet dickheads, so you're safe.

Anonymous Geezer says:  

Matt Wilson said...

I'm pretty sure that word is reserved for characters in trashy fantasy novels.


offensive slang for anus or rear end. What Americans call a 'fanny' (which is a vagina to the rest of us)

An ass is a donkey.
Seems you are getting vaginas confused with anuses, and anuses confused with ungulates.

To quote one of your countrymen "English, motherfucker, do you speak it?"

Ass is only used in the US & Canada. You can try and change the English language however you like, 'y'all', but it doesn't mean we aren't laughing at you, mate.

I was reading ths rant to see if True20 was worth a look, and found some ass making an arse of itself.

Blogger John Harper says:  

When it says "comments" it means "comments on the post topic" not "comments on whatever random thing crosses your mind." FYI.

Also, check out the follow up post about True20. The second version fixed several problems with the original.

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