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.

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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 insaneangel@insaneangel.com, 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 — http://www.jackiemustoart.com)

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)