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

This 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.

[More after the cut…]

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.]


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