Monday, September 21, 2015

Why I Love Basic Roleplaying

A while back Dyvers proposed an interesting idea: a collection of blog posts and stories that were love letters to our favorite games. The principle idea was that these talked about how great the game was while (and this was, I felt, the important part) not down-talking other games in the process. I'm not sure all the essays succeeded in this regard (gamers have a hard time not trash talking the stuff they don't like) but a lot of them were great. I'm not sure where the project is right now, but decided since it seems to be in limbo maybe I should put my Love Letter up to BRP for posterity on RoC....

Why I Love the Basic Roleplaying System

Basic Roleplaying isn’t just a fancy gold book that gives me virtually everything I need under one cover to run a game in any genre. It’s a sort of history lesson on role playing games and a system I’ve been playing with since I was a precocious eleven year old in 1982. Basic Roleplaying’s inception was with the rise of Runequest in 1978, and at the time was regarded as one of the “big three” in the industry next to Traveller and D&D. By the time I discovered this system it was already in a 2nd edition for Runequest, as well as a boxed set called Worlds of Wonder, the first effort by any publisher anywhere to make a multi-genre roleplaying game. In 1983 I got my hands on a copy of the Games Workshop edition of Call of Cthulhu…and that was pretty much it for me. By 1984 I was playing anything but AD&D; the BRP-powered games had ruined me forever more from being “just” a D&D gamer.

So what makes BRP such a good system? Why has it been the single engine to power the majority of Chaosium RPGs, and the foundation for so many others? Why is the Gold Book edition (the nominal 4th edition of BRP) the best version out there, the one book I would keep with me on a desert island (presuming there were also players on said island)? Even though BRP is the core engine for dozens of RPGs and spin-offs, from different editions of Runequest to Legend, Renaissance RPG, Openquest and so many others, the current BRP core book is a special beast unto itself. It’s a sort of “glue” edition….the book which binds the rest together, if you will.

BRP isn’t good just because it’s consistent. Even the most divergent versions of the game (such as the Legend-based spin-offs) are still 95% compatible with other editions; you can pick up a Legend supplement or an old Stormbringer sourcebook (Rogue Mistress remains one of my favorites) and still use the content with almost no conversion required in BRP. That’s some amazing consistency in design over time, and only recently has anyone considered rocking the boat--Call of Cthulhu 7th edition mixes up the core conceits of BRP just a tad. In fact the divergent game systems often introduce rules which make for fine optional mechanics in other editions of BRP….the core conceit of the mechanics is that tight. That’s not something you find in the history of many game designs over time.

BRP also isn’t good just because it’s extensive. The Gold Book edition of BRP is specifically designed to emulate a variety of genres well, and provides enough rules to do almost anything you could want. Every other BRP-derived or powered game covers additional genres in amazing depth. The inter-compatibility means that it’s one of the few systems out there where you can grab a few books and do your own genre mashups. Pick any three and make it your own terrifying beast: Val-du-Loop, BRP Mecha and Gladiators of Legend? Sure why not. The Green, Elfquest and BRP Rome? I’d play that.

BRP isn’t good just because it’s grounded in a core conceit of realism. The game mechanics are rooted in a core sense of realistic verisimilitude; this remains consistent across editions, variants and genres such that you have to push hard to make BRP act outside the norm. This means you can run a BRP game….any BRP game, even Supers or Nephilim or a Legend game with all the legendary abilities pumped to the max, and it will still feel “grounded” in a fantasy version of our own world’s physics and expectations. I tend to think of it like this: over the decades I’ve run a lot of games, and sometimes a rules system will surprise me in unexpected ways, those “hmmm” moments where you scratch your head and question the outcome of a certain set of rules. A certain cognitive dissonance sets in as you work to equate what has happened with what the rules tell you has happened. This has never happened to me in all the years I have run BRP; it has always demonstrated a consistency in design and intent that matches my expectations of BRP and the worlds I have used it to model.
Nope, BRP is good because it does all of the above, and a lot more. It’s a reality-based set of mechanics that are consistent across a wide variety of genres and flavors, with rules inter-compatibility that makes utilizing sourcebooks from different editions remarkably easy, and encourages borrowing rules, mechanics and ideas from different iterations of the game. Someone who has only ever played the BRP Gold Book will still be able to have a conversation with someone who’s only ever experienced Runequest 6 or Legend, and the differences will simply provide new, optional rules concepts to deploy in your own games. I could grab an old copy of Ringworld right now, for example, and use it with BRP as-is.

The Gold Book edition of BRP is the great grandkid of the original tiny BRP core rules, a modest brochure-like booklet which accompanied Worlds of Wonder, a boxed set with three additional rulebooks for SF, fantasy and super hero gaming. It was the hobby’s first efforts at making a multi-genre RPG, something which could handle more than one type of game flavor. WoW was superseded by Champions and later GURPS, but the point of the set remained a core driver behind Chaosium’s use of the mechanics to power any game they produced. From licensed products like Call of Cthulhu, Stormbringer, Ringworld and Elfquest to unique innovations like Nephilim and Supers, BRP was the engine that made it happen.

It wasn’t until the 00’s that BRP got to really return to being its own thing, however. Initially there was an effort to release a version of the rules in monograph format based on a generic version of the Runequest 3 mechanics; there is much history on the Runequest version of the game that doesn’t really relate to the current iteration of BRP, so I will leave this part with the relevant fact that everything worked out in the end, and led to the plethora of choices we have today as BRP fans. This initial foray into a monograph edition paid off for everyone when eventually the Basic Roleplaying gold cover rulebook was at last released. Following BRP’s core rules were a range of supplements in the form of Chaosium’s monographs and official releases, as well as licensed support from Alephtar Games, Cubicle 7 and others. The support level was second only to GURPS and Hero System in terms of diversity of resources. Of special note is that BRP now commands some of the best and most extensively detailed historical sourcebooks available. BRP Rome, Val-du-Loop, Crusaders of the Amber Coast and others continue to show that historical roleplaying has a home here.

BRP as a rulebook is a thick single-volume tome of rules which gives you everything you need to run any genre you feel like. It provides a load of information, and a ton of optional rules and variants that you can deploy to suit to taste. It can look a little daunting to a new player, yes….but once you realize just how much of it is marked as optional, letting you customize your gaming experience, then the formidability begins to evaporate. You can run BRP in a very slim, easy version with few bells and whistles…or you can run a mean, hungry mechanically robust version with all the strike rank mechanics, hit locations and elaborate skill modifiers pumped to max. And the best part is no matter what character your player rolls up, you can make it work….the optional mechanics are layered effects and the game’s core conceits never change.

So what are the core conceits? One obvious one is in the alternative name used for BRP systems: the D100 mechanic. Almost all task resolutions in BRP are done on a D100 percentile roll. Skills are based on percentile scores; and attributes, while rolled with a typical array of three six sided dice (give or take), also offer up a set of percentile scores for task resolution outside of skills. Every current BRP game works this way, without exception. Some of them vary exactly how you resolve certain percentile tasks, and the most common rule that varies from one edition to the next is how to manage contested or resisted rolls….but each version of how to do this is a perfectly functional alternative mechanic you can poach for your own preferred version of the game. The BRP Gold Book itself utilizes the classic Resistance Roll table, something which has held true for the game since its earliest days, but I admit I have a fondness for the Legend/Runequest 6 resolution mechanic myself, which has a simple and functional elegance to it.

The BRP Gold Book provides rules for an array of character types, which are built with a 3D6-style mechanic for ability scores (strength, intelligence, etc.) and percentiles for skills. You have a variety of optional modules that can be turned on according to genre, including mutations, psionics, magic, sorcery and super powers. These modules cover all sorts of sub genres….for example, superpowers will work for a comic book adventure game, but will also work for building cybernetics in a dystopian cyberpunk future setting. Mutations can let you craft a post-apocalyptic wasteland of mutated survivors but, coupled with super powers, expand your supers game into something more akin to X-Men or Doom Patrol. Or pair it with psionics and go for a future based on Gordon Dickson’s Dorsai or the movie Scanners..or even Akira if you want some dystopian body horror in the mix.

Two magic systems in the core reflect a smattering of the diverse options out there for magic and fantasy in BRP. Add supplements like The Magic Book and you can include four more magic systems based on Runequest 3. Grab Magic World and you can include magic based on the old Elric version of the game. Add Advanced Sorcery and you can add eleven more weird magic systems in. Enlightened Magic lets you replicate the weird Victorian era mysticism of the turn of the century….then there’s BRP Witchcraft….you get the idea. Magic can be done in a lot of different ways in BRP, but in the core book you get the two core systems that let you replicate 99% of the adventuring fantasy we’re all familiar with. And so far we’re only talking about official BRP books; there’s a lot more out there for the extended BRP family.

As a new GM this might sound daunting, but remember: it’s all optional. You don’t need any of it in your game if you don’t want it, and the rules make no assumptions about which, if any, of these systems you will use, other than give you the ones you will find to have the most universal applicability. Certain genre books will have their core conceits, but for your game? You can do whatever you want. You can even scrub all of the optional plugins and go with your own. One suggestion if you are not sure about how simple or complex you can set your rules: sit down and play two games, one with the current edition of Runequest (6th edition), and one with Call of Cthulhu 6th edition (since 7th edition is still not quite out as a physical thing in meatspace yet as of this writing so I can’t vouch for it yet). You’ll learn quickly just how different the game can be depending on whether you like to play with all the rules “on” as in Runequest 6, or just go with the bare minimum (as in Call of Cthulhu). It really helps set the stage for imagining just what you can do with BRP. It also shows how, at its core, no matter how many (or few) rules options you use, in actual play you’re mostly still just roleplaying and occasionally rolling some percentiles.

Keep in mind that you can also experience BRP directly and with minimal fuss by grabbing the Quickstart edition, which even includes an array of short adventures. Nothing like actual play to demonstrate how easy BRP is! BRP is also supported by a fantasy-themed ruleset as well, called Magic World, which is a direct demonstration of how you can take the full rules of BRP and customize them to suit your needs. Magic World is a great primer on how to play BRP as well as a fully functioning fantasy iteration of the BRP system in its own right.

Once you’ve settled on your comfort level of play with BRP…noting that even at its most rigorous BRP is not a difficult system to run…you’ll want to settle on a genre. The BRP Gold Book supports pretty much any genre, although a few might need a bit more prep work than others, depending on how much additional crunch or flavor you want to inject into the process. It also provides you with all the core support you need to design your scenarios and settings, although some sourcebooks go into much greater detail. As an example, you can design mecha in the core rules as impressive gadgets as written, and examples are provided. However, if you really want to dive deep into the fountain of mecha madness, there is a BRP Mecha sourcebook waiting for you with more construction design rules than you could ever want.

Is BRP perfect? For many it is, or can be. It has some limitations, of course, as all systems do. BRP’s baseline focus on realism and verisimilitude means that you have to push the system in strange directions if you want to make it function on levels of more abstract reality; if you wanted to emulate a video game level of physics or survivability, for example, BRP is probably not the best system for your needs. Some genres work well as long as you remember that they are spinning out of the baseline assumptions of the rules: BRP for Supers is an excellent system to run a gritty superhero campaign, such as one might see in Batman, Watchmen or Top 10. It is probably not the best system for a more abstract comic book hero game like something modeled after Young Justice or He-Man.
BRP is also what I would call a mixed toolkit/creator’s system, at about a 60/40 split between out-of-the-box features and do-it-yourself needs. The game provides enough material in the core book to run any genre….but at some point you as GM will want to add to that. Designing new material for BRP is as simple as figuring out how it works, but BRP does not offer point buy mechanics in most cases (except when you use plugins to design stuff), so rigorous point buy/balance systems aren’t really a core part of the experience. The important question on how much this impacts you depends really on your aesthetic needs. For example: if you run a cyberpunk game, as I mentioned earlier you will likely use super powers and maybe mutations as a mix to replicate cybernetic enhancements. If you want a consistent baseline for what sort of cybernetics are available (say, modeled after Cyberpunk 2020’s lists), you’ll probably want to sit down and work out the rules and options using the powers and mutations as a base of design. If you’re not so concerned about this consistency, then the process is as simple as letting your players know what powers are available, the starting points they have, and the key rule that their choices must be defined as cybernetic.

Ultimately, BRP does something that I love more than anything: it keeps all of this under one cover. You really don’t need to buy any other books (even though you will probably want to simply because there are so many interesting BRP-powered and compatible resources out there) and having just the Gold Book alone will give you an infinitely re-usable rule system with the foundation for any genre you want to run, and a set of core rules that any player can quickly grasp. It truly is a one-stop shop for role playing, and will remain on my shelf for the life of my gaming career. I’ve run adventures in all sorts of weird genres, including:

· A grim dark fantasy world of humans who survived a Cthulhu-level Stars Are Right Apocalypse

· A future space federation in which humanity seems alone in the galaxy, as cultures of earth spread out to entire worlds, all while a hidden threat in the form of non-baryonic lifeforms threaten to destroy us all

· A gritty film-noir inspired near future tale of government agents who discover there’s a conspiracy with bug eyed aliens

· A “set in our home town” zombie apocalypse tale that starts with Day Zero and ends when everyone is dead or a zombie

· A post-cataclysmic future Earth where a rogue planet wiped out humanity on Earth, and an alien seed ship recolonized it with xenoforms, while humanity hangs on in its space colonies.

· A planetary romance about humans on a crashed colony worldship that landed on a planet of psionic insects

· And once even a story about old world gods reborn as mortals, facing off against ancient awakened threats

I have other multi-genre systems I absolutely love….but every time I imagine a new setting and start thinking about what system to use, I come back to BRP. It involves the fewest steps between “imagine a new campaign” and “we are actually playing” of all the multi-genre systems I own, and for that it will remain my “Trapped on a Desert Island book” forever more.

You can find BRP and all of its many supplements and variants here at Chaosium’s website:


  1. The font color changes to black past the "Why I Love the Basic Roleplaying System" header. Would you mind to change it to the usual #CFF? Thanks!

    1. Gah! Let me work on that. Apparently copy/paste from Google Docs does weird things.

    2. I was about to post exactly the same comment, Robe!

    3. Yep, apparently Google Docs doesn't copy/paste nicely. It imported a ton of specific coding for color/font/style. All clean now....

    4. Just now I realized that the first comment I've made since reading your (fantastic and inspiring) blog has been something so inane, and I've been reading your posts for a couple of years! Meh me.

      BTW, I can't believe Google Docs and Blogger have some sort of incompatibility.

      And totally off the rails of this post-related conversation... could BRP depose SW as your go-to multi-genre?

    5. BRP has sort of been my go-to for longer than Savage love of SW is quite recent. They definitely support different "styles" so it's hard to replace one with the other. I think SW works well for my current Wednesday group, though. BRP works best when its "ordinary Joes against weird times" while Savage Worlds is more of a "minor superheroes and epic cinematic adventurers against Crazy Pulp Villains" sort of vibe. That can go more gonzo in BRP and less gonzo in SW. I think SW has an edge in that it actually has edges...stuff which helps define the character that's more along the lines of stunts/feats/tricks, and BRP is missing that style of character design, focusing more on an old school notion of skills and specific power sets by genre.

      Right now though I think BRP works really, really well for low-key modern horror, zombie apocalypse, fantasy and adventure/pulp...and it's Pirates sourcebook and a few others are amazing settings. Savage Worlds is my go-to game for SF, but I think SW breaks down badly when you run it with fantasy (it requires a lot of trickery to make it work), and also isn't nuanced enough to get the level of detail BRP handles naturally. So SW probably still takes second place for what I need, although it still is my go-to engine for space opera style SF gaming right now.

    6. Honestly though, what BRP is missing that it needs badly is a Science Fiction Sourcebook that looks, feels and acts like the one for Savage Worlds, which is a beautiful example of economy of get the most bang for your buck in the Savage Worlds SF Companion. If BRP could produce something of similar versatility I would have no excuse not to use BRP for all SF gaming once more.

    7. First I wanna say I love what you wrote on BRP, and I as well have been reading your blog for a long time only to post now. My two go-to systems are also SW and BRP. I wholeheartedly agree with everything you wrote but I can't not ask: why would you say SW breaks with fantasy?

    8. A good question! The problem I've encountered on the occasions I tried fantasy as both player and GM in SW is that the number range for fantasy characters...especially at novice really narrow. It is very easy for a fight to become a series of blows traded, in which no one quite manages to do enough damage to send a mook flying or themselves take damage. SW has a number of gimmicks in combat to help break these stalemates, such as ganging up on opponents, but a common problem I've seen in SW is that many new GMs gravitate toward a fantasy scenario and don't know about the tricks well enough to advise their players....or the players aren't accustomed to thinking outside the box, and miss opportunities. I once played in a SW fantasy game where a single graveyard combat against a dozen mook skeletons took like three was painful. Later on the GM and I agreed that everyone needed some cheat sheets to help figure out the range of combat options.

      I'm still open to fantasy via SW, but it's just such an easy system for sci fi I never get around to trying it again. I suspect if I ran an fantasy game today I would have a decent chance of making it fun.....but I just love the BRP/Magic World/RQ6 method of fantasy that it's hard to even find room in my schedule to think about SW fantasy.

  2. Hey, I remember that precocious 11 year old!...
    Your essay was awesome and I really enjoyed reading it. Thanks!

    1. LOL!!!! Yep you would be one of a handful out there now who did know me back then that I still am in touch with....still miss yoru shop from the good old days! Things for Thinkers in Tucson was the best gameshop ever.

  3. I think it's really cool to stumble across someone from The Ancient Times and discover they are still involved in, and excited about, gaming.

    1. Ditto....honestly, gaming is something that many people remember fondly from their high school or college days, but otherwise left behind....and then there's a few of us, many of whom are bloggers, for whom it was like a fever without a cure. If I'd known that the hobby I started at age 10 would be with me for the rest of my life I'd probably go back to that young me and say "Dedicate yourself to photgraphing Swedish super models in the nude" but it was D&D instead so I guess I got in to the next best thing (hmmmm I'll just keep telling myself that)....