rpg system battle: true20 versus d20

As I continue to putter about (mostly in my head as I walk to and from the bus) on the fantasty RPG that I plan to run in 2009 or so, I’ve been trying to decide what set of mechanics to use. I had initially thought I’d use Dungeons and Dragons (the “d20 system”) with a highly modified magic system. I was intrigued, though, by True20. It’s a d20-derived system that attempts to simplify a lot of mechanics. There are three basic classes. The only die you ever need is a single d20. It replaces D&D’s bookloads of spells with a small catalog of powers, which is likely to be great for what I want to do.

So far, I’m just not so sure about its combat system. Here’s a quote from the official True20 web site:

True20 even does away with point accounting: no keeping track of hit points, spell points, fatigue points, and so forth. True20 uses various conditions to describe exactly what’s happening in the game quickly and easily; so you can say your character is “bruised” or “staggered” rather than “down 11 hit points” or “exhausted” rather than “only having 4 fatigue points left.”

Maybe this is the programmer in me, but I think it’s much easier to account for points than adjectives. The sci-fi RPG that I’m running now is using (quite successfully, I think) the Storyteller System (d10) from second edition World of Darkness games, only slighly modified. In it, a character’s sheet has a section like this:

+--- HEALTH --------------+
| Bruised            [ ]  |
| Hurt            -1 [ ]  |
| Injured         -1 [ ]  |
| Wounded         -2 [ ]  |
| Mauled          -2 [ ]  |
| Crippled        -5 [ ]  |
| Incapacitated      [ ]  |

We always say, “Martin has taken four levels of damage,” rather than, “Martin is Wounded.” Why? It’s very, very easy to remember that everyone has seven health levels, and thus to know how badly injured you are. Even in D&D, in which a player character has anywhere from four hit points to well over a hundred hit points, every player can be reasonably expected to know how many hit points his character has. It’s also easy to understand that doing twenty points of damage to an orc is probably a lot, and doing that to a great wyrm is not much at all.

The other reason we end up talking about health levels is that numbers are objective, but adjectives aren’t. The usual demonstration of this is that nearly every player has, at some point, looked at his or her sheet and said, “Wait… being mauled isn’t as bad as being crippled?” (I can’t help but agree: I think I’d rather have a game leg than be run through by a pair of horns.)

In D&D, the damage section on a character sheet probably would look like this:

Total Hit Points:  _____
Current Damage:    _____

Actually, most have “current hit points,” which is, I think, less straightforward. Either way, we’re looking at two numbers, which will form a fraction. When it reaches 1 or 0, you are nearly dead.

Now, in True20, the damage section on a character sheet looks like this:

Damage Track

0           5+        10+         15+
Bruised     Dazed     Staggered   Unconscious
            [  ]      [  ]        [  ]
            [  ]      [  ]        [  ]          [  ]
Hurt        Wounded   Disabled    Dying         Dead

The rules are something like this: when you take non-lethal damage, the damage you take is determined by the amount by which you fail your Toughness check. If you fail only a little, you are Bruised. You can get bruised over and over, adding tally marks under “Bruised.” (These are not point counters! We’re not counting hit points, but Bruised Counts… or something.) Every “Bruised” tally means another -1 on further saves against non-lethal damage, meaning that sooner or later you will fail by five or more. At that point you start accumulating checks in those checkboxes. If you fail by 11, you are now Staggered. If you fail by 6 afterwards, you are Unconscious, because only a Bruised status can be stacked.

Dazed, Staggered, and Unconscious all have penalties that are not just extra stacked penalties. (To be fair, the penalty for Unconscious is pretty straightforward, but you still have to remember how Dazed and Staggered differ.)

Just like non-lethal damage, there’s lethal damage. Lethal damage counting works exactly like non-lethal damage, but taking lethal damage also inflicts a level of non-lethal damage. Getting hurt will stacked bruises, but being disabled will cause staggering. Both penalties apply, and the penalties for Wounded and Disabled are different again from Dazed and Staggered.

The d20 system for damage is much easier, and could probably be adapted for use somehow. The only difficulty would be figuring out how many hit points of damage various attacks would cause, while using only a d20. My main gripe with d20’s core damage system is that there are no effects until you are unconscious. If you are a tough thug with ten hit points and I beat you with a lead pipe until you are down to one hit point, you can still run, fight, and operate delicate machinery with the same ability as if you were at full health. The game designers have said that they think it would be depressing for heroes to be limping around constantly, but that seems like a false dichotomy. It would, instead, be very heroic for them to be able to stand at death’s door and, with great and harried effort, still defy death.

The great thing about the Storyteller system’s damage is that the effects are really, really simple: you get an increasing penalty to your die pools as you are more gravely injured. It affects everything (except, basically, your ability to resist more damage), and the penalty is written right there next to the checkbox. If you want a monster that can take more damage, you change its health levels – you add a few extra -1’s and let it make get down to -7 before it hits Incapacitated. There was originally no built-in system for non-lethal damage, but the usual bolt-on is easy: any health level can be marked off as lethal or non-lethal, with lethal counting as non-lethal but not vice versa. Getting “killed” by non-lethal damage knocks you out.

I think that if I do use True20 for the basics of the game, I will have to replace its damage system with something more like Storyteller’s system. I’m not interested in remembering all the True20 adjectives, and my players will be even less interested.

Written on August 1, 2007
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