Ask Not What Your Lineage Can Do For You

Lineage — also called “ancestry,” “species,” or (historically and problematically) “race” in different games — is often the starting point of the process of creating your character in a fantasy RPG. Even when lineage isn’t the first choice you make for your character, it’s still likely the first thing that defines your character in their own understanding of themself. Because of this, the setup of what lineage or ancestry means in a game often sets the bar for how the world of the game feels. But unfortunately, most fantasy RPGs have a pretty narrow perspective on what lineage actually represents.

Taking its cue from Tolkien, fantasy gaming has traditionally treated lineages or ancestries as cultures — often defining them as such explicitly. Even more problematically, lineages are typically defined as monolithic cultures, laying down a single set of parameters that define your character’s place in the world, and creating a very real sense that your lineage or ancestry first and foremost defines who you are. Your personality. Your sense of morality and ethics. The way you view people different than you. 

CORE20 takes a slightly different approach, working with the idea that your character’s lineage is an important part of who they are — even as they get to define what that lineage means to them. 

Chapter 3 — Lineages

In CORE20, twelve worldborn lineages have defined the spread of culture and civilization in the historic age — dwarves and gnomes; elves, halflings, and humans; essaruks and orcs; goblins, hobgoblins, and bugbears; and kobolds and lizardfolk. (“Worldborn” in CORE20 is a word that replaces “humanoid” as it’s used in other game systems, so that the majority of the peoples of the world aren’t being constantly and explicitly compared to a minority human baseline.) The realms those twelve peoples inhabit is referenced in the CORE20 rules as Isheridar — a world-continent whose modern age has been the domain of the worldborn lines.

Isheridar isn’t a world that anyone interested in CORE20 is required to play in. (Everybody knows that most GMs like to homebrew their worlds, even when using published campaign settings as a starting point, and the game is meant for anyone to do with what they will.) But the foundations of how the twelve worldborn lineages have shaped history together through times of conflict, peace, renewal, and global empire, creates the in-game framework for how your character’s lineage connects to who they are — and how lineage and culture are very separate things.

Every character in the game world, like every character in our world, has at least one culture. This is the perspectives and foundational beliefs that come from the land in which you were born, the people you lived among when growing up, the realm where you decided to make your life. The places and people that have been part of your life help to shape you, whether they define you or whether you defy them. (Alongside lineage, your character also has a background that relates to your culture but is again separate from it. That’ll be a later preview.)

Lineage, though, is something different than culture. Lineage is the unique history you bring to your place in the world, occupying a space more permanent and profound than your culture. Your lineage means that no matter what culture your character hails from, and no matter how many cultures have been a part of their life, they belong to something else as well. They’re part of something larger than they are — part of a story that goes back to the beginnings of history.

The mechanics of lineage express this connection to history with the same freeform approach to character building that CORE20 as a whole is built on. You choose a lineage — but then instead of being given a short list of traits that rigidly define your character through that lineage, you get a big list of traits to choose from, letting you define your lineage in terms of your character, rather than the other way around. 

There are no lineages that are better at one thing than another. There are no lineages more disposed to battle and bloodshed than any other. Martial, magical, and heroic traditions are found in the legends and tales of every lineage, and every character gets to draw from that in their own way.

Within those choices, you can often see the familiar archetypes of fantasy gaming in CORE20 — ambitious humans, stoic dwarves, disciplined hobgoblins, and so forth. But the wide range of choices you can make for your lineage traits (including characters being able to choose traits from any lineage if it fits their story, and to freely create characters whose ancestry is built on multiple lineages) lets you build archetypes rather than stereotypes. 

(Art by John Latta)

The Art of Non-War

In most class-based fantasy RPGs, there’s a default expectation that your character should be pretty good at beating other creatures up — even if that’s not part of what you want your character to be good at, and even if you’re playing a campaign where you want avoiding fights to be just as much fun as getting into fights. 

In CORE20, combat maneuvers are an attempt to help deal with both those issues.

Chapter 9 Excerpt — Combat Maneuvers

One of the best things about D&D is that despite its roots in wargaming, despite the epic fantasy baseline of evil creatures doing evil things and needing to be dealt with by the forces of good and their friends who just want to get rich, the game offers plenty of ways to avoid combat. There’s negotiation and trickery, obfuscation and illusion, and so many other options in between. As a player, I love being able to think of ways to defuse a conflict that doesn’t need to end in bloodshed. As a DM, I love when the players decide to avoid direct conflict with two factions of antagonists by figuring out novel ways to get those factions to fight each other.

That said, though, once D&D combat begins, it tends to follow a specific pattern of the characters trying to beat their foes into physical submission, and vice versa. D&D effectively becomes the war game it started out as once initiative is rolled, with everyone focusing on committing grievous assault with weapons and magic. As a fairly old-school player, I like combat in D&D. I like the underlying model of heroic fantasy that sets up the game as a war story, wherein combat acumen counts as an important part of a characters’ ability to stand up for what they believe in — whether those beliefs involve the need to fight otherworldly evil, or being driven to save the people around you from political corruption, or even just noting how much ancient treasure is just lying around in forgotten monster-haunted vaults so maybe someone should go grab it.

But given how the foundation of any RPG is the idea that characters should be able to do anything they want, I long wondered to myself why D&D combat couldn’t also cover options beyond the characters beating their foes into unconsciousness the same way, each and every fight? And what if there were a way to make not killing monsters just as much fun as killing monsters?

Combat maneuvers in CORE20 are an attempt to make fights in the game more interesting for players looking for options beyond baseline fantasy violence. Maneuvers are very much about combat, as the name suggests. But they provide characters with some different approaches to dealing with enemies, building on the existing foundations of nonweapon combat (primarily in the form of grappling rules) that’s always been part of the game. They’re a set of actions that your character can take with the intent of not hurting your opponent, but rather of messing with that opponent’s ability to hurt you. Whether you’re tripping a foe up, slowing them down, messing with their timing, or making them second-guess their own willingness to fight, combat maneuvers let you try to control the flow of a fight to your own benefit.

Combat maneuvers can be entirely useful as an adjunct to beating down one’s foes if that fits a character’s combat style. Throwing an enemy off balance or sending them prone to set up your next attack — or the follow-up attack of an ally — is a great way to gain an edge in a fight. But maneuvers also allow characters to get out of fights they don’t want to be part of, or to create a nonlethal buffer of a few rounds in which to try to talk a furious foe out of fighting. And within the context of CORE20 allowing you to freely choose everything your character is good at, maneuvers are a perfect way to build a character who doesn’t ever want to go toe-to-toe and blade-to-blade with their enemies — but who needs to be able to handle themself if they’re jumped unexpectedly, and to quickly and safely get out of a fight they didn’t start.

(Art by Jackie Musto —

Going Wild

For some reason, lots of folks seem to be talking about the druid’s Wild Shape ability right now. So I thought I’d talk a bit about how druid magic and wild shape connect in #CORE20RPG.

(TL/DR: Wild shape forms start with smaller creatures useful for recon and scouting, and you choose whether and how to power up to larger animals, wondrous beasts (*cough* owlbears *cough*), plant creatures, and even dragons.)

Chapter 10 Excerpt — Wild Shape


Like everything else in the CORE20 system, channeling druidas magic (the moniker the game uses for the magic of nature) is a choice you make for your character. The baseline feat that allows a character to channel magic is called Eldritch Spirit. It serves as the prerequisite for the game’s spellcasting feats, but also allows characters to channel magic in other ways.

Druidas spellcasting is a common path that a character channeling nature magic with Eldritch Spirit can take, learning to shape the power of spells that interact with and manipulate nature’s innate power, from converse with animals to entangle, barkskin to control weather, and more. Taking a druidas creed is another option, granting a character unique magical abilities themed around a specific aspect of nature — air or earth, fire or water, frostlands or mire, and many more. But perhaps the most personal path of druidas magic is that of wild shape, allowing a character to undergo a physical transformation into a creature of the wild world. 

As with everything in the CORE20 system, the Wild Shape feat that grants the wild shape ability is a distinct option that feeds into other options, but which isn’t automatically tied to other parts of the game. Among other things, this means that a character channeling druidas magic doesn’t need to learn spellcasting in order to gain the ability to wild shape, or vice versa. 

One character who takes Eldritch Spirit for druidas magic might be a dedicated caster with maximum spell potential. Another might be a warrior of nature fighting against those who despoil the wilderness, and leading that fight in animal form. A third character might combine the two options if that fits a player’s concept for the character. But there’s no distinct advantage to choosing one of those paths over the others. It’s only ever about who you want your character to be.

When you first take Wild Shape, the range of forms you can take are focused on smaller animals useful for observation and reconnaissance, getting into tight spaces, and so forth. But right from the start, you can choose to invest additional feat slots to gain the ability to wild shape into larger combat-focused creatures. And as your character’s experience with using wild shape grows, other options for chosen forms open up to them — including the ability to adopt useful bestial features while the character is in their true form, to take on the forms of larger and more powerful animals, to adopt the shape of plant creatures, and even to take on the forms of wondrous beasts (*cough* owlbears *cough*) or dragons at the apex of wild shape mastery.

(Illustration by Kaek)

Feats of Heroism

Presenting a big mechanical preview! Featuring (so to speak) an up-close look at the feats that are the mechanical heart of what your character can do in CORE20.

Feat Preview

This preview shows off some of the most ubiquitous and useful feats in the game, which appear within a broad cross-section of character builds and archetypes. But it’s not the game in its entirety, for that entirety holds many, many more cool bits and surprises.

To put the setup of these preview feats in context, check back to “The Start” and the introduction to Chapter 1: Building Your Character. That PDF preview goes into detail about how the feat format is read, and the different ways in which feats can be selected to build your CORE20 character.

• • •

Thanks to everyone who’s dropped feedback so far! It’s awesome to see people as excited about the potential of CORE20 as I am. You can always find me at, or on Twitter @scottfgray.

(Art by Beatriz Galiano Montesinos, used under Creative Commons)

Swing and a Miss

Another CORE20 RPG preview! This one builds on the previous skills preview, as it explores another way that the d20 rolls at the heart of the game can drive story in a robust fashion, rather than simply generating a string of pass/fail results.

Chapter 9 Excerpt — Attacks

The idea of turning skill checks into kind of continuum from failure to success, with degrees of partial success and failure in between, has pretty much always been part of the way I’ve played D&D from 3e on. And to be clear, that’s not a particularly novel idea. Lots of DMs grew quickly tired of the pass/fail monotony that can arise from 3e skill checks, and house-ruled the idea of partial success on a not-quite-good-enough roll. Lots of people (including me) have talked forever online about adopting the idea of a failed skill check not necessarily representing a failed action, but of representing succeeding on the action in an imperfect way.

Though 5e D&D’s skills system is quite different than 3e’s, 5e picked up 3e-style pass/fail checks largely wholesale for its rules — though one of the many oft-overlooked sections of the Dungeon Master’s Guide actually talks about a process for treating marginal success (1 or 2 lower than the target number) as a success at a cost. And of course there are other games that take a more nuanced approach to skill checks, even if they’re called something different in those games.

As you’d probably suspect, I like the current CORE20 approach to skill checks driving story more than I like other approaches. And as said above, I’d been informally playing that way for years, with previous versions of CORE20 using the usual pass/fail system, and me just processing skill check results in my head, deciding on the fly what degree of success any particular check felt like in the moment, and figuring out how the story changed as a result. 

Then at some point, I decided I should probably actually write up my process and incorporate it into the rules for skill checks. And I did, and it worked really well.

And then at some point after that, a thought suddenly popped into my head in the middle of a game: 

“If this system works so well for skill checks, how it would work for combat…?”

The answer, as I discovered when I tried it, is “Really, really well.”

So. This preview shows off the “Attacks” section in the combat chapter, which tells you everything you need to know about how your character can deal with those occasional moments in a fantasy game when other creatures insist on fisticuffs as a means of settling differences. Among the rules presented therein, this section sets up attack rolls using the same system seen in skill checks — embracing the idea that an attack can produce a continuum of effects between a clear miss and full contact, and rebuilding the foundation of the static hit/miss setup that’s been the default for d20-based fantasy combat since the beginning. 

As with the skill setup, I’ll be the first to acknowledge that this isn’t a brand new concept by any stretch. Lots of games have long embraced the idea of hitting for partial effect when an attack roll comes up short, from 4e D&D to Dungeon World and many more. But I like to think that what CORE20 does is just a little bit different. 

Because as with the original setup for skills, the point of partial success with an attack roll isn’t just the mechanical effect of dealing a lesser amount of damage, or allowing a foe to counterattack, or hindering an opponent’s defense (though you can do any and all of those things with a low attack roll if you like). Rather, it’s about the idea that thinking about how a less-than-perfect attack looks and manifests is a really great tool for keeping players engaged in what their attack-centric characters are doing in combat, giving them something to focus on beyond the baseline of “I need to roll high.” As with everything in CORE20, it’s about creating a framework where player and GM can work on and shape narrative together, transforming the mechanics of combat from a straight-up mathematical exercise into something better.

(Art by Jackie Musto —

Skills and Story

A dwarf alchemist at work

This update shows off a bit of the CORE20 skills chapter, and the place that skills and skill checks occupy at the center of the game. 

Chapter 6 Excerpt — Skills Intro

But to get the full gist of why skills work the way they do in CORE20, I need to ramble on for a bit about story.

For me, over forty-two years off-and-on of playing fantasy RPGs, story is everything.

I love story, first and foremost above all other aspects of the game. The sensation of being alive inside a story in a way I’d never felt before was what hooked me the very first time I played D&D. The urge to create and shape story with my closest friends was what fueled my long-term love of D&D and Traveller, and my later forays into Champions and MechWarrior and many more. 

Working in RPGs for nineteen years (as of this very week, in fact), everything I’ve ever written, every editing assignment I’ve taken on, has been filtered through a lens of understanding that everything in a game — general rules, hard mechanics, lore — is like an iceberg. The 10 percent we see is the words on the page, and that 10 percent is important. But there’s another 90 percent we don’t see, and that’s the potential for those words on the page to let players and GMs shape and create story from the foundations that the rules, the mechanics, and the lore provide.

Yes, I love combat. I love the mechanics of games and the way those mechanics work with and play against each other. I love monster mechanics and design. I love magic items to a degree that’s probably illegal in several states.

But in the end, for me, all of those things serve story. Story is what happens in the space between the GM asking “What do you want to do?” and the player’s response — with the coolest stories generally arising when the response is something the GM has absolutely no warning of and no way to predict.

Since 3rd edition, D&D has focused a significant amount of its “What do you want to do?” mechanic in the form of skill checks. Building on the combat engine that had always been the heart of the game, 3e skill checks were established along the same mechanical lines as combat — a die roll fueling a simple binary outcome. You make an attack roll; you either hit or miss. You make a skill check; you either succeed or fail. 

The problem is, binary outcomes are generally a lousy way to tell a story.

So CORE20 does things a bit differently.

Even as it’ll be eminently recognizable to anyone who’s ever played a fantasy RPG, the skills system in CORE20 allows a lot of customization. For a start, individual skills are set up within skill groups, giving players the choice of a straightforward focus on a broad range of things characters can do, or of drilling down to get really good at very specific tasks. Every skill group has two default ability scores it ties to, creating a baseline that says there’s more than one way to get good at something. Every skill check can also be made using a completely different ability score if the situation warrants.

Beyond that, though, skill checks aren’t a binary pass/fail in CORE20. Rather, every time your character makes a check, there’s a chance you’ll succeed perfectly, a chance you’ll fail badly — and an even wider range of chances for you to succeed, but not quite in the way you’d intended. The rules call this a success with complications, and it fuels the idea of the GM and the players working together to turn every skill check into a potential unexpected story beat. To try to make sure that everyone is constantly working within that space of having to deal with an unexpected outcome, knowing that that’s where the best story so often comes from.

(Art by Dean Spencer)

Side Quest: OGL

A warrior facing a dragon unleashing their breath weapon

So the last time I posted about #CORE20RPG was the end of December. I had great plans then for doing regular updates, and a bunch of stuff already queued up to show and talk about as regards the game and some of its inner workings.

And then Wizards of the Coast had a little thing happen with the Open Game License.

Maybe you didn’t hear about that? You can go look into if you like. I’ll wait.

You’re back? Excellent.

When I wrote up the first draft of the first bits of CORE20 as an actual game system, building on the collection of house rules the game was for the first couple of years, it was fiercely and proudly a product of the OGL. 

Those first rules were built not just around the D&D 3.5 SRD, but on other OGL material including the 3.5 “Unearthed Arcana” — a book of optional rules that WotC released as Open Game Content so that everyone could use those rules to create new works. As the OGL intended.

For a long while, I’ve been wanting to find the time to turn CORE20 into something other people could test and play. And during all that time, I emphatically embraced the reality that the game was a product of the OGL.

The foundations for creativity that WotC laid for open gaming were a big part of what brought me back to D&D in 3rd edition, and eventually to work on the game — for WotC, and others — for eighteen years. For a long while, the idea of creating an OGL game was a point of pride.

And all those feelings are supremely bittersweet now, because certain people at Wizards of the Coast have looked at the multiple worlds’ worth of wondrous imagination that have come out of the OGL over two decades and decided: 

“Yeah, fuck that.”

So the last few weeks haven’t been great for me, as for so many other people in a creative community that I’m proud to be a part of. Because I’ve had to think a lot more than I ever expected to about how I want this game to come out.

In December, rumors started swirling in earnest to suggest what some of us had guessed at months before — WotC wasn’t planning to release 6th edition under the OGL. And at that time, I assumed the same thing that most creatives working in the OGL community assumed.

We assumed that Wizards of the Coast would be pulling a 4e by bringing 6e out under a new license. A closed license. We wondered if they’d sweeten that closed license for some folks with the chance to put third-party products onto D&D Beyond at long last. We speculated a lot.

We heard about companies being asked to sign NDAs, which seemed to confirm those speculations. 6e would break from the OGL. But hey, we’d still have the OGL, right? The wealth of material produced for D&D, the huge base of 5e players — none of that was going away. 


Anyway. Unless WotC does an even sharper about-face with the next draft of their new OGL, there’s not a chance I’ll be signing on. (Other people have noted the problems of OGL 1.1 far more comprehensively than I can. I’m not going to recap the issues.)

Wizards is now promising that any game released under OGL 1.0a can stay that way. And CORE20 is already and has always been an OGL 1.0a game. People have seen it, people have read it, people have playtested earlier versions on the way to making it the game I wanted it to be.

And even if WotC reneges on that promise, as they’ve reneged on the promises made when the OGL was created, here’s a thing. Most of what came into CORE20 via the SRD has already been rewritten. Much of what’s in the wildly-being-finalized open-playtest draft is brand new. 

The foundations and palimpsests marking where the game came from are clearly visible, as intended. But there are precious few direct lifts from any SRD in the game, and it won’t take much work to polish those direct lifts into their own thing if that becomes necessary.

So, whatever happens, #CORE20RPG is absolutely coming out. It’s coming out as the game I want it to be, and as part of the larger movement of creativity that is the legacy of the OGL. Even if there’s no OGL left.

Lots of other amazing, creative folks have announced that they’re responding to WotC’s OGL debacle by creating their own games. Building on what D&D means to them, by homage and inspiration.

And apparently, without meaning to be, I’m one of them. 

I’ll be getting back on schedule with previews and updates next week, which you can find here at the #CORE20RPG hashtag, or right here at the new design blog, which you can get to via

I’ve been playing CORE20 for years, and having an incredible amount of fun, even as I’ve been looking at it constantly and thinking to myself: 

“This can be more. This can be amazing.” 

Now I get to find out if I’m right.

• • •


Literally four hours after I wrote and posted the above, Wizards of the Coast made the unexpected announcement that they were abandoning plans to implement an updated OGL, and that they had taken the extraordinary move of releasing the D&D 5th edition SRD under Creative Commons, in addition to its existing availability under OGL 1.0a.

(The story’s here if you somehow haven’t heard it. I’ll probably talk about this at some point, but am too generally giddy to do so today.)

The path forward for CORE20 still isn’t as 100 percent certain as it was prior to this past month, because although a promise has been made to leave OGL 1.0a untouched, that promise carries a tiny bit less weight than it did before the time that WotC decided it could revoke 1.0a. On the other hand, there’s been talk that Wizards might well release earlier editions’ Open Game Content into Creative Commons — including the 3.5 SRD that was the first SRD used to shape the game that CORE20 has become.

But this is huge news either way, and Wizards of the Coast deserves huge thanks for listening to what the creative community told them, and for understanding finally the real harm they were doing to themselves, their brand, and the community that loves the game.

(Art by Dean Spencer)

The Start

A doorway opening into a mountain

Like many creative folks, I have great energy once I get going but often have no idea where to start. So in trying to figure out how to start talking about #CORE20RPG, I’ve wisely decided to start at the start. Which should have been obvious, I guess…

Chapter 1 Excerpt — Building Your Character Intro

That 8-page download is roughly the first half of the first chapter of the game — “Building Your Character.” It sets out the broad strokes of how CORE20 works, but without too deep an initial dive into mechanics (which I think is a good thing for character building).

I think it makes a good preview because it uses the process of character building to set up the feel of the game, to sketch out what the book looks like chapter by chapter, and to focus on how those chapters feed the process of creating the character you want to play.

Because building unique characters and story is what CORE20 is all about, talking about character building sets up the scope of the game’s ambition. And in doing so, it hopefully gives players the strongest sense of what they can accomplish as they make the game their own.

More such quick teases will be forthcoming as we work toward getting a full playtest package together for early in the New Year. And if you have any specific suggestions for parts of the game you’d like an advance look at, just let me know.

(Art by Dungeon Influence Art)

I’ll Explain

A magical tome

So I’ve written a d20-based fantasy RPG, as one does, whose underlying system is called CORE20. (The game proper has a different name, but I’ll tease that later.) This is a thing I’ve been working on/playing for about twelve years now, because I’m pretty lazy.

I’ll explain.

First thing you need to know: Given the opportunity to do something, I will almost always sit back and wait for someone else to do it instead. (I’m relatively quiet on social media because I know that if I wait long enough, someone else will say what I wanted to say.)

Second thing you need to know: D&D was my first RPG, which I started playing in high school. It saved my life, in a very literal sense.

(I know that’s not a unique story. If it’s your story too, I’m glad we’re both here.)

Third thing to know: Traveller was my second RPG. And though it didn’t carry the same emotional/life-saving weight, it was equally important in shaping my sense of what roleplaying games were, and of the kinds of stories an RPG could tell. One of the things I liked about Traveller was that unlike D&D, its advancement mechanics featured no classes and no levels. I know lots of other games have done the same thing, but Traveller and D&D were my games. They were the framework and foundation for me.

So forty-odd years ago, I thought, “Wouldn’t it be cool to play D&D, but to have no classes and no levels like Traveller?” And because I’m pretty lazy, I assumed that because that was clearly such an awesome idea, someone would eventually get around to writing that game. So I waited.

I kept gaming. I waited some more.

I got out of gaming for a while. When I got back in, I looked around. Still no version of D&D with no classes and no levels.

Then I started working in RPGs. I started working on actual D&D! And I waited.

And then in the spring of 2010, I thought, “Screw it. I guess I’ll just have do it myself.”

So here we are.

I’ve got a game called CORE20, whose foundation is D&D — the game that saved my life, and that I’ve loved for forty years, and that I’ve worked on for eighteen years and three editions. It’s heroic fantasy in the style that D&D has long driven, with no classes and no levels. It’s freeform character building, built around the idea that even before the DM asks the in-game question, “What do you want to do?”, you get to ask the question:

“Who do I want to be?”

And then you get to answer that question in a new way.

(There’s a whole ton of other new stuff in the game as well, including pushing the rules toward maximizing the potential of a high-magic, high-fantasy world, and building real heroic story within that world. I’m lazy, but I’m also hyper-ambitious when I finally do get going.)

I’m looking at having a public playtest launch in 2023, and I hope folks will check the system out. I’ll be talking about it more before then, so keep an eye on this space or the #CORE20RPG hashtag on Twitter or Facebook for more info. And for any industry mutuals and other folks I’ve worked with: If you’d like more info to figure out if the game might be something you’re interested in working on, I’d be very pleased to hear from you.

(Art by Dean Spencer)