Monday, October 25, 2021

New System, New Face: It's not Technically Cheating if the d20 System has a "True" in front of it

When I started this series, it was with the express purpose of exploring systems I've never really touched before, in light of my thus-far-brief lifetime of experience with d20 things. While I want to stick to that, I also kind of want to write about Blue Rose, the progenitor of the True20 system, a close but streamlined derivative by Green Ronin Publishing. And since this is my show, I'm going to exercise that agency my therapist keeps telling me about and do it anyway.

Romance and talking animals await!
Maybe not romance with the talking animals.
I dunno. The Kingdom of Aldis doesn't judge.


Blue Rose was first released in 2005. It was the debut of what would come to be named the True20 system, after its popularity caused Green Ronin to expand and republish the system for setting-agnostic use. Some of its DNA can be found in Green Ronin's current project, the 3d6-focused AGE (Adventure Game Engine) System.

Blue Rose is a Romantic Fantasy game, meaning it takes inspiration primarily from the literary genre of the same name. It is often said to have more in common with the stories of Mercedes Lackey than R. E. Howard, and in fact Lackey (alongside several other writers like Tamora Pierce) can be found in the core book's recommended reading section. Adventure and battle have their prominent place in Blue Rose, but complex interpersonal relationships, drama, and aforementioned romance are core elements.

The game is set in the world of Aldea, specifically in the Kingdom of Aldis. Aldis is unapologetically idealistic, though not without its own problems. The kingdom is ruled by a monarch who is selected by the Golden Hart, a divine being of Light that appears to select every heir, and has done so since it helped the world overthrow an empire of sorcerer-kings. The monarchy often runs down family lines, but can also transfer to another noble or to a commoner in this way. Nobles serve as part of a council of advisors to the crown, and may only become nobles after demonstrating their morality and purity of heart by being accepted by the eponymous Blue Rose scepter, a kind of divining rod of righteousness. And since it's all divine magic stemming from the Primordials, the gods of the world, it's hard to fake any of it.

It's an interesting mix of heavenly mandate and divine right of kings that is, once again, unapologetically idealistic.

Aldis is a pretty inclusive place, or at least more inclusive than many fantasy worlds of the mid-aughts were. Humans of a wide variety of ethnic backgrounds share the land with semiaquatic Sea People, psychic animal Rhydans (coming in dolphin, cat, wolf, and horse varieties), pseudo-half-elvish genocide survivor Vatas, and basically-orcs-except-fully-redeemed-and-also-conventionally-attractive Night People.

The book and the people within it make no fuss or assumptions about gender or sexual orientation, and creatively benevolent use of the Flesh Shaping sorcery found in-universe even allows for transgendered characters' bodies to more closely match who they are. People who take issue with any of the above are typically seen by Aldins as ignorant or bigoted.

This was apparently seen by some of the public as quite radical upon release, to the point that Google still offered the suggestion "blue rose rpg controversy" when I was researching the game recently. I want to say that's a funny artifact of a time since passed, but then again this is the same hobby where people made death threats over the existence of the Combat Wheelchair, so maybe I shouldn't be surprised.


Blue Rose's True20 system is essentially a streamlining of the more widely known d20 system. There are no other dice but the d20, which is used for all rolls including combat damage. The six classic ability scores are present, but their values are boiled down into modifiers between -5 and +5, so you never have to deal with calculating bonuses or having frustratingly useless odd numbered scores staring you right in the face until you finally burn an advancement just to make them nice and rounded.

There are only three classes or "roles" in True20- Adept, Expert, and Warrior. They approximate magic-users, skill specialists, and fighting types by themselves, but can be freely mixed and matched without multiclassing penalties. Aside from starting proficiencies, differing progression on roll bonuses, and role-locked feat lists, they don't have any class features, encouraging each player to build exactly what they want out of their character. It's an interesting take on a classed system that sometimes feels almost classless.

Skills are still present, in a form that presages later changes in many d20 systems. Instead of mucking about with assigning skill points every level, you are either trained or untrained in a skill, and you get a bonus to skill checks that scales with your level depending on if the skill is "known" or "favored". Favored and known skills receive your level +3, giving us the familiar 4 "ranks" at 1st level, while known but not favored skills received level +3 divided by 2. You can still make completely untrained skill checks, but your only bonus there is from the relevant ability score. Also, Diplomacy is still really really strong.

Feats are pretty much as featy as ever, except now you get them every level and they are your primary means of mechanical character growth. Skills, proficiencies, and combat tricks are gained through feats, as well as any and all magic abilities for adepts. There is a considerable range of power between feats, but I think there are fewer "newbie traps" than in D&D 3E, and the setting's less-than-total reliance on combat is always important to remember when developing a character.

And it's a good thing that Blue Rose doesn't demand huge amounts of combat, because it can get nasty. There are no hit points in True20- everyone has the same two-lane damage track for lethal and nonlethal damage. If you are struck by an attack, you must roll a Toughness check with a DC15 plus the attacker's damage bonus, which can include ability scores, weapon bonuses, and others. At 1st level an adventurer facing a random bandit with a short sword can easily be facing a steep DC18 roll to avoid damage.

When you do get damaged, you move down the damage track depending on how many increments of 5 you failed the Toughness save by. Each failed save gives a stacking penalty to future Toughness checks against that type of damage (lethal or nonlethal), and each level of the damage track offers a variety of other penalties to rolls. A few hits can debilitate you, and one botched roll that fails by 15 or more can leave you dying.

To escape the worst that bad dice rolls can throw at you, each PC (and any NPC with levels in a heroic role) has access to Conviction points. Conviction functions like a typical Luck or Hero Point mechanic, plus extra. You can spend a point to reroll and take the better of two die results, temporarily use a feat you don't possess (but can acquire normally), retain dodge bonus while surprised or flat-footed, take an extra action in a round, recover from damage or effects, or stabilize while dying. But characters have a set cap for Conviction that increases as they level, and they can only regain points passively at a slow rate (1/day) or by acting upon their Natures (described below).

One Sneaky Sphynx

To avoid some of combat's nastiness, I'm going to ignore the urge to make a Night Person earth elementalist and build someone a little more sneaky than usual. I will make a Rhy-cat expert who can easily prowl around while throwing up distractions and illusions and gleaning information with psychic powers. It's also going to be a wrinkly, hairless sphynx breed of Rhy-cat, because the last thing you want on a covert operation is for your team member's allergies to act up, or for the target to discover you thanks to a hairball. And besides, is there anything more demoralizing to the enemy than seeing this thing ambush them?

It can smell what you did last summer.

But first come ability scores.

Because they've been boiled down into modifiers, you don't need any point-buy system. The book just gives you 6 points to distribute among 6 attributes, with a starting max of +3 in each. Rhydans only get 4 points because of their other abilities. I decide on Strength -1, Dexterity +1, Constitution +1, Intelligence +1, Wisdom +1, Charisma +1. With Rhy-cat racial stats added on, that's +0/+3/+2/+1/+1/+1. I could have taken more negative modifiers and specialized further, but I don't enjoy having negative stat modifiers- playing a well-rounded individual without massive objective faults is one of the highs of escapist fantasy.

Since I've already picked Expert as this psykit's role, I next have to choose favored skills, known skills, and starting feats. I will make every choice I can while building, instead if just choosing one of the suggested starting Paths that get presented in the core book and then expanded as full 20-level builds in the Blue Rose Companion.

Remember when third-party d20 books would include "guides" to character types from their fluff that amounted to "just take this class or mix it 50/50 with this other class and that's pretty much it"? Don't get me wrong, I still like the novelty and own a lot of those, especially from the Conan d20 line, but looking back it feels like padding the catalogue.



Experts choose 12 skills plus one Crafting as their favored skills. Rhydans get a normally crippling -20 penalty to skills that require fine digital manipulation like sleight of hand, craft, disable device, etc. But with an arcanum to conjure a pair of arcane hands to do the manipulating for you, that penalty can get circumvented in favor of a mere -2, allowing them to still be valid choices for an animal adventurer.

In light of this, my Rhy-cat favors Acrobatics, Bluff, X, Concentration, Craft ( ), Disable Device, Escape Artist, Jump, Knowledge (Local), X, Search, Sense Motive, and Sleight of Hand. They also gain Climb, Notice, Sneak, and Survival thanks to their species and background.

Known skills are 6+Int to start off. I'll select Acrobatics, Climb, Disable Device, Escape Artist, Notice, Search, and Sneak. Rhy-cat bonuses grant +8 to Climb/Jump and +4 to Sneak, making our wrinkly friend a good prowler on tree limbs or on rooftops. I'm trying real hard not to make any cat burglar puns here.


Next come starting feats.

Rhydans receive Psychic Talent for free and Experts receive Armor Training (light), as well as my choice of 3 others. The armor training is a bit wasted on my cat at the moment, since Rhydans need specially fitted armor that raises the cost by +10 and my cat starts with 0 Wealth (more on that mechanic later).

I am dismayed that Rhy-cat natural claws and bites don't count as light weapons, or Weapon Finesse would be my first feat to get more out of my +3 Dex in combat. Alas they're not, so we'll keep going stealthy and avoidant with our feats. Arcane Training (Illusion & Sleep) will help, as will Shaping Talent (Manipulate Object) and Trapfinding.


Now to figure what, if anything, my cat has in their possession. To do that, we're gonna have to consult the Wealth rules.

Instead of measuring every price, reward, or value in exact gold piece amounts, everything is given an abstract Wealth Score or Wealth DC. Wealth Score is a character's ability to buy things, represented by a modifier that sits at +0 minimum, but can increase infinitely, with +31 being extremely, lavishly rich. Whenever you want to purchase something for your character, you must roll a Wealth Check against the DC or Cost of the desired purchase.

You can Take 10 or 20 on the check with extra time spent shopping, and if your score naturally equals or exceeds an item's cost, you can get it for free. Succeeding on a check to buy a very expensive item, or one whose cost is higher than your modifier reduces your wealth by X amount, so you will eventually burn through your cash, even if the system seems more generous or more luck-based than gold and WBL in D&D.

Most characters start with +5 Wealth, but my cat starts at +0 since Rhydans don't have a lot of use for humanoid tools or comforts. Even so, a +0 doesn't disqualify you from affording anything- you can still roll for anything with a cost of 9 or lower, and you can't ever dip below +0.

Rhydan body shape means the cheapest armor my cat could wear costs 16, so that's not happening until later. Weapons are also useless, though I am somewhat surprised there are no special Rhydan weapon attachments like metal claws or hoof spikes or what have you. This leaves my sphynx free to focus on the little things... or it would have allowed them to focus on the little things, had I not rolled a Nat 1 trying to purchase a fricking backpack in which to hold anything.

You are allowed to retry wealth checks, but not before spending X hours shopping, which I can't really do during character creation. That would feel more than a little cheap- why not then just reroll until I get everything I want from an arbitrarily long shopping spree at some point in the nebulous Before Time?

Fortunately a sack costs 0, and I got a 9 on the DC 2 belt pouch check, so my cat will just carry one around in their mouth between missions and rely on a utility belt otherwise. Manipulate Object allows them to interact with all of their items as if they had humanoid hands, so they can benefit from small tools like a waterskin, flint and steel, paper for writing down notes (they can't physically speak, but presumably they are still literate in their known languages), and a whetstone to keep the claws sharp.


The last major part of character generation is one we're all familiar with by now- all the little questions that help round your character out as a person with thoughts and feelings. The standard name, gender, age, appearance, alignment, and personality apply, along with Blue rose's addition of romantic inclination and/or status. Tajid, for their part, is an unfathomable wrinkle who has no need for such things- or so they think.

More unique to the game are a hero's Calling and Natures.

Everyone gets a Calling, which is their primary motivation to adventure, and in life in general. They are selected by way of picking a Major Arcana card from a deck of the Royal Road, which just so happens to be functionally identical to the tarot deck in our world. Since I don't own a tarot deck and it's weird to roll a d22 for the list of choices, I'll just pick The Moon- it represents the learning of secrets, which fits well with their whole M.O. as long as they have the sense to avoid the wrong kinds of secrets. Something about curiosity and cats.

Alignment is a simple three-point axis that is like but decidedly unlike the Lawful/Neutral/Chaotic axis of old. Everyone is made of varying degrees of Light, Shadow, and Twilight, and all it takes for one to become dominant is to make a decisive change of heart- every hero has a threat of darkness and cynicism in them, every villain a spark of hope, etcetera and so on.

Light is the belief in community (in any form, not just what one might consider "civilization", and without an emphasis on law & order), harmonious coexistence, and promoting the general good for all. Shadow is petty and selfish at its core, sometimes entertaining the notion of cooperation or moral justification, but only so far as it serves one's own interest. Twilight is anyone in between the two extremes, whether that takes the form of careful balance between the two natures or fluctuating back and forth between them to a certain degree.

Tajiid is still figuring things out, so we'll go with Twilight.

Natures are specific manifestations of a character's Light and Shadow tendencies that act as positive and negative character motivators, respectively. They also act as extrinsic roleplay encouragement, thanks to their role in regaining Conviction points. When a character acts on their natures to regain Conviction, they really gotta sell it, live up to their nature, and live with their consequences.

There are 56 natures for each card in the deck, with each nature being two takes on a particular quality- sometimes they are simple inverses like generous vs greedy, but others are more subtle/subjective distinctions of a single idea like enthusiastic vs overzealous, or resourceful vs sneaky.

For these I will randomly roll just to see what I get. 27 on my Light nature gives me Devoted, and 35 on Shadow is Reckless. I can work with this. Tajiid is a workaholic as mentioned before, and this reflects their devotion to their goal. They prowl, spy, and occasionally steal in the interest of gathering intelligence and keeping Aldea and peoples beyond it safe. But they can go overboard at times, recklessly pursuing something or someone beyond their means to safely or stealthily handle.

With these finishing touches in place, our Rhy is finished.

Going Forward

Of course we're not done at level 1, especially not in a system that allows one to fully build out their concept up to the max level. I won't be going as far as making multiple sheets at different levels because strangely enough I never enjoyed that part of the process much, but I will give growth examples.

Only three ability increases come to you over the course of leveling, at 6th, 12th, and 18th. One will definitely be devoted to Dexterity, likely two so that it reaches the +5 max. The other might go into Constitution, or even Strength just because it looks sad sitting there at 0.

You gain a feat every level in True20, so they pile up fast. Early on, Tajiid will take a Skill Training or two to flesh out their array of known favored skills. Skills requiring training to use at all will be definite picks, but not right away. Later on in the lower mid-levels Brew Elixir gives us some use for the required Craft skill choice made during creation, though they aren't pure buffs like most potions in D&D- many Blue Rose elixirs hit you with levels of fatigue after their duration is finished, and if you ran yourself ragged during that time you might take lethal damage.

Arcana will be the bulk of Tajiid's feat choices, I feel. There are several powers that would benefit a spy like Mind Reading to detect surface-level thoughts. Our wrinkle will need to be careful not only for their targets but for themself if they ever want to try reading deeper thoughts using Mind Probe, however. Any magic that is overtly harmful, invasive, or violates an individual's body or free will is Sorcery, which risks Corruption points. A situation may present itself where it seems necessary, but executing on it all depends on how dim their Twilight becomes.

As Tajiid adventures with or without companions, they'll begin to yearn for a pack of their own, and to appreciate the responsibility of caring for and nurturing the future. They'll learn the Familiar feat to gain a small, magical cat friend as a sort of nonstandard adoption, and they will befriend the mundane strays of Aldis with judicious use of one or two Animism arcana. No street corner or alleyway will be without eyes and ears. Weavers of Shadow beware.

Presumably the animal vocalizations every Rhydan makes will be enough for Tajiid to "speak" to other cats without magic, so either Handle Animal or Diplomacy might work instead, depending on your interpretation of things.

Someday, still a speck on the horizon, Tajiid will be able to afford better gear. Maybe even one of those absurdly priced Rhydan-fitted suits of armor. A set of masterwork studded leather armor adds +13 to the price for a whopping DC of 25 however, so it will be a while and more than a few odd jobs before they can wriggle their folds into a suit like someone trying to stuff a gallon of prunes into an old boot.

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