Tuesday, July 05, 2005Holy 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:
- Physical Actions
- Movement Pace
- Hampered Movement
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:
- Modifying the Roll or the Difficulty
- Circumstance Modifiers
- Taking 10 and Taking 20
- The 50/50 Rule
- Secret Checks
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.