What Is True20?

Curiosity finally got the better of me, and I decided to buy a PDF copy of True20, the the D20 roleplaying game variant from Green Ronin. True20 features numerous rules changes and has a respectable following among both players and writers. So what does it bring to the table?

If you’re familiar with D&D 3E or another D20 game, True20 brings two major changes. First, it streamlines certain rules to expediate combat and place more focus on character and story. Secondly, it’s a “generic” system, meaning you can play modern, sci-fi, fantasy, horror or something else, using the same rulebook. I’ll go through just how it does this in more detail.

The basics

Ability scores now simply the ability score modifier, so rather than 16 Strength (+3) you simply have ‘+3’. You divide six points between six ability scores at character creation, and can take a negative score to gain more points. Your maximum is +5, and your character is knocked out if his attribute ever falls to -5. I like the simplicity of this and it’s something D&D can’t do when it’s tied to the traditional attribute range of “3-18”.

Race and class are replaced with “background” and “role”. In fantasy your background is a race, but if you’re playing a World War II game the background selections will be something different. Classes are reduced to just three roles: Adept (a user of supernatural power), expert (a skill user) and warrior (a trained combatant). Class abilities are chosen as feats, with four feats gained at first level and one at every subsequent level (same as skill ranks). Multiclassing is permitted and GMs may create more specialized roles for their setting.

A new interesting mechanic is Conviction points, which players may spend to gain a benefit: reroll a die, shrug off fatigue, take an extra action or similar. What differentiates Conviction from action points is that you regain points at GM discretion by following either your Virtue or your Vice - two adjectives, one positive and one negative, which describe your character a little like D&D’s alignment system. An Honest character (virtue) might regain a point by telling the truth when a lie would be to his advantage, or a Greedy character (vice) might be offered a point to steal a risky item.

Combat evolved

Combat sees several fundamental rules changes. Hit points are replaced by a damage save system: roll a saving throw when injured, with incrementally worse consequences for failure depending how much you fail the save by. Narrow failure imposes a cumulative penalty to further damage saves, and serious failure imposes penalties or even death. Weapon damage values are flat number bonuses to the saving throw DC. Dexterity now applies to all attack rolls, while Strength applies to Parry or Block (a bonus to Defense as long as you’re carrying a melee weapon or a shield).

There are a few nice small rules. Multiple attackers can make an “aid another” style combined attack. You can spend a full round to “aim” for +5 to a melee attack or +2 to ranged, at the cost of your Dexterity bonus to Defense. Characters can attempt a “Challenge” when making a skill check, taking a -5 penalty in order to perform two checks at once, or one check more quickly than normal. You can have “minion” NPCs who go down in one hit, a rule later adopted by a certain other RPG.

Magic works quite differently to core D&D. Members of the “adept” class can learn a supernatural power in place of a feat (of which PCs learn four at first level and one at every other level). These are usable at will, but some require a Will save to avoid becoming mentally fatigued, which makes it harder to cast more spells. Although I’m referring to this as “magic”, the rules are broad enough to cover other genres; what a fantasy True20 game will call “spells” might as easily be psionics, mutant powers, miracles, cyberspace hacks or alien technology.

Running True20

Guidelines for treasure and XP are sparse, and left largely up to the GM. This is advantageous if you’d rather avoid penny-counting and XP-hunting, and would rather reward players for completing adventures than fighting all the opponents. Wealth is handled using a D20 Modern style Wealth system, where a numerical score determines how easily you can purchase equipment.

As a bonus, the revised True20 rules include the full content of The True20 Companion, which adds extra rules for fantasy, sci-fi, horror and modern adventures. This includes honour rules, a gold to Wealth score chart and full equipment charts for fantasy, magic rules for horror, alien and future technology for sci-fi, and background, skill and other information for modern.

Rolling your own

One of the best features of True20 is that it actually looks easier to invent your own material than in core D&D third edition. Simpler mechanics means less mechanical work and easier mechanical balancing, so you don’t need an intimate understanding of game mechanics like you do to write balanced 3E material. True20’s rules suggest a more narrative gameplay mode where imagination is much more valuable to the GM than number crunching.


In truth, a lot of what makes True20 different isn’t new. Many rules come from Unearthed Arcana (generic classes, injury, action points, reputation and the honour system) or D20 Modern (wealth, vehicles, modern equipment).

Nevertheless, it combines these rules well and expands upon them. What it leaves is a very flexible and versatile system. If you like D&D 3E but want to advance to a more narrative style or try something different, give True20 a look.

Comments (3)

Noumenon (February 2nd, 2010)

Your article makes me want to learn more. I love the simplicity, but I want someone’s opinion on how it plays and whether the design works. For example, +5 to aim sounds easy to remember, but does it end up being all you ever do? Do the adepts outshine the experts?

Doc Ryder (February 5th, 2010)

I gave True20 a try, and I wasn’t happy with it. The combat mechanics are such that whoever hits first will win the entire combat, almost guaranteed. If you like death spirals, True20 is for you. I don’t so it wasn’t for me. I also *hate* the Wealth system, as I have yet to see it executed in a way that really works outside of an old game called “Swordbearer.”

Bingham (May 23rd, 2010)

I enjoy the generalized classes, makes the game far more adaptable, but this wound system that Green Ronin favors is just unwieldy. I once played a character with a truly ridiculous healing factor, and one bad roll would still have killed him off. you can have a max level, nigh indestructible character, and roll a 3 on your save and he’s dead as a doornail to a minion that got in a lucky shot.
and keeping track of the wound levels rips you right out of the story, the adjustments that a wound makes to almost every score takes far too long to calculate.

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