Jul 28 2008 7:17am

Review: Microlite d20, by Greywulf and others (2008)

4D6This is another reading review, like my review of Hot War. But this is a very, very different kind of product. Microlite d20 is a free rpg available online, created by a fellow with the handle of Greywulf in collaboration with a lot of other folks on the Microlite site and various other gaming forums.

This one needs some context. As many of you already know, Dungeons and Dragons, the ur-roleplaying game, is now in its 4th edition. Ever since Wizards of the Coast brought out the third edition in 2000, some people just haven't been satisfied with the trend toward ever-greater rules detail, complexity, and specificity. Originally, D&D was very much a game in the spirit of "here's a framework, wing it". It didn't take long for a creative emphasis on detail to emerge, but that original impulse hung on a long time and has never gone out of fashion in some quarters. As preview information emerged about 4th edition's rules and also about likely changes in the 3rd edition policy of very easy access to much of the official rules, a bunch of gamers said to each other, "We're gonna have to do it ourselves if we're going to get what they want." And so they went to work, with Microlite d20 as the most extreme-yet-viable rules set among several in a spectrum of complexity and focus choices that's way removed from where D&D 4th edition is going.

How compact is Microlite d20? Well, the core rules are less than 1100 words long.

They're actually viable rules, too. They don't explain everything, and they probably work best with a skilled referee to help newbies, but that's true of almost all roleplaying games, and Microlite d20 isn't actually any less accessible than a lot of games that are orders of magnitude longer. Characters have three stats: Strength, Dexterity, and Mind. There are four character classes: fighter, rogue, mage, and cleric, each with distinctive benefits and restrictions. There are also four races: human, elf, dwarf, and halfling, each with one distinctive racial bonus. And there are four skills: physical, subterfuge, knowledge, and communication.

Combat works like it does in countless RPGs and computer games, pretty much: the attacker's level and a bonus based on class added to the roll of one d20, trying to the target's armor score, with damage taken off of hit points based on Strength and character level. Successful encounters give levels' worth of credit, and when the credit is ten times a character's current level, they advance, getting bonuses to hit points and scores. Simple rules cover environmental challenges. And that's about all there is.

What's impressive about this is that it actually covers, in very simple form, at least three-quarters or so of what ever goes on in the typical D&D campaign. With these rules one can rule epic pre-written adventures and ongoing storylines, use great resources published for D&D over the decades, everything, just very fast. I got out the single hardest game writing gig I ever had, involving high-level necromancers for a 3rd edition D&D setting - one that went slower and involved more strain and calls for help than anything I've ever done - and found that, yes, I could convey their essence in just a few lines of rules and notes Microlite d20-style.

Besides the core rules there are two things of note.

First, there's an extremely active and good-natured wiki, in addition to an equally good-natured forum. There's an amazing variety of things in there, from additional weapons all the way up to campaign settings, alternative magic systems, and adaptations of other games in the d20 ecology of rules and settings in the same spirit of exuberant simplification.

Second, there's one of the neatest darned things I've seen in a while: instructions on printing and folding the rules to make teeny little booklets! You can see a < ahref="">picture of the results on the Microlite d20 homepage. I fell in love with this at first site, and I think it's very indicative of the spirit of the whole project.

I'm not sure I can do justice to the sheer delight of all this. Check it out. What the heck, it's free, so any fun you get is pure free lunch, right?

[Photo taken by Flickr user Mariano Kamp, used here under a Creative Commons Attribution-No Derivative Works 2.0 Generic license.]

JR Peck
1. stoolpigeon
When I was in 7th grade, I couldn't really afford D&D - and quite frankly I doubt most of those rule book covers would have done well in my home. Dave Schultz and I created D&J - we had rules, dungeon maps and played a game or two, but found actually making the game to be as (if not more) fun than actually playing.

I've never understood people who get real worked up over rule changes in RPGs - or who gripe about the cost. And I'm really surprised there aren't more "open source" gaming systems. Maybe there are more and I just don't know about them all though.
Avram Grumer
2. avram
This is my favorite use of PocketMods so far.
3. DarthCestual
As one of the M20 gang, thanks for the kind words Bruce! I for one have totally gotten sucked into Microlite20. For years, the biggest problem I've had with D&D was how convoluted the rules kept getting. Hours of gameplay were always eaten up by the player or GM hunting through books looking for a rule or clarification. This has made me loathe crunchy rule systems. Then Greywulf comes up with Microlite20 and I was enthralled. So much so, that I've been contributing rules sets, me, the guy who hates rules, making rules. M20 is a wonderful system and inspiration, and it's our hope to show the gaming community that simplicity can be just as fun as any complicated, hard bound, glossy paged new edition.
Soon Lee
4. SoonLee
Wow! This looks really a nifty stripped-down version of D20.

Our gaming group doesn't get too hung-up about the rules; we tend to take a common-sense approach of adopting new rules only if they improve the gaming experience; current campaign uses 3.0 ruleset plus some from 3.5 with no plans to go 4.0 any time soon.

As a group we're quite leery of the whole 'here's a new edition, I can haz more of your money?' mentality of some gaming companies.
Bruce Baugh
5. BruceB
DarthCestual: I love me the really classy game book (as witness my praise for Paul Bourne's design work on Hot War). But I also love the sheer elegance of the ultra-simple. I am really happy to be in an environment where I don't have to choose just one.
6. DarthCestual
Don't get me wrong Bruce, as an artist, I love me a flashy game book with tons of beautiful art, but I like my rules simple. If M20 were ever to come out dead-tree style, and comparable to rpg books on the market today, I'd want my 1-2 pages of core rules, however many expansion rules and settings, and then a ton of adventures, all in one book. I just hope I can get some art in there too. ;)
7. Winchell Chung
There is a four page RPG called "Minimus", available here (PDF file)
Bruce Baugh
8. BruceB
Hey, neat, Winchell. I particularly like the use of relationship maps, which I find a great aid in play.
chuck parker
9. cphaurckker
This is actually pretty cool...I'm not sure if I'd play it, necessarily, but I appreciate the simplicity.
10. Ken Burnside
Hi, Bruce - Minimus grew out of a BBS post on, and the current version (v3.0.0) is still getting tweaked a bit.

I'm trying to de-jargonize it while keeping within my "2 pages of rules, 2 pages of GMing advice" constraints. This can be likened to removing words sized splinters from sentences to buy more lines of text on specific pages.

It's also my experiment at donation-ware to see if that marketing technique can actually work.

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