Background and Product
The core of Basic RolePlaying: The Chaosium Roleplaying System dates back as far as first edition RuneQuest in 1978. Since then, a number of games - mostly quite successful - were produced by the company based on the same model, including Call of Cthulhu (FP 1981), Stormbringer (FP 1981), Ringworld (FP 1984), ElfQuest (FP 1984) and Nephilim (FP 1994). Among these and others there was always a vague promise of crossover games or even a complete system which unified all the above - variations of this came in the form as the simple Basic RolePlaying and the far more elaborate Worlds of Wonder (1982). This new tome, expressed in the thirteen-chapter, four-hundred page softbound form, is the fulfilment of this promise.
In my first decade of gaming I was quite favourably disposed towards the various BRP games. The character creation system provided more opportunities rather than implausible restrictions, it had a simple roll-under percentile skill system, combat was relatively realistic, deadly and usually resolved very quickly - not to mention armour reduced damage rather than making you harder to hit (indeed, armour in BRP games often made you easier to hit because it was encumbering). But perhaps most of all, the games captured a deep sense of genre almost invariably expressed in the magic system. When the opportunity to join the playtest occurred, I eagerly accepted. The playtest procedure was highly structured (leaving but modest opportunities for playtester contributions to development) but well conducted and I'll take this opportunity to thank Jason Durrall for his approach which was both friendly and professional.
The cover of Basic RolePlaying features a variation of Da Vinci's study of man but, in paper-doll dress-up style, features elements of a multi-genre being. It is fairly strong in terms of creativity, but more modest in technique, which is something I noted throughout the text which included quite a number from prior publications. Other images of note include an impending confrontation between Cthulhu and a space fighter near the rings of Saturn (p372) and an old classic for the resistance table "Burly Bob" (p170) who made an appearance in the original Basic RolePlaying booklet. Effort was clearly made to provide appropriate illustrative art to the text.
The book is well-written with rules explained maturely and with a notable degree of clarity. There are more than a couple of typographical errors (perhaps the most amusing being the description of a crack as an "active" force), but the genuine meaning is usually discerned with some ease. The layout of the book is likewise generally good with two-column justified text, boxed areas for particular emphasis, somewhat small page numbers and chapters marked on each page (albeit with a binary method to indicate chapter numbers) and roughly the right use of whitespace. The table of contents is a little spartan with merely the chapter headings provided, but there's a good five page index to major topics. The back of the book also includes a collection of useful tables, a pretty well-designed character sheet, an options checklist, and so forth.
The seven step process (neatly summarised on pages 22-23 with character sheet references) begins with characteristics. There are five core characteristics determined on 3d6 rolls (Strength, Constitution, Power, Dexterity and Appearance) and two determined by 2d6+6 (Intelligence and Size). Further there is an eighth also on 2d6+6 (Education) and options for cultural and species modifiers, higher starting characteristics (all on 2d6+6) and a point-buy option. All characteristics have equivalent percentile characteristic rolls (Step Four) based on five times the characteristic amount as a percentage score.
The second step is perhaps the most important; determining a character's powers, which are entirely game power-level (Normal, Heroic, Epic and Superhuman) and genre dependent. The text says, quite bluntly and appropriately, "Stop everything and read this!". Characters may have access to one or more of Magic, Mutations, Psychic Abilities, Sorcery and Super Powers and can receive various levels of powers depending on the GMs setting. Starting age (Step Three) is based on 17+1d6 years, however for every 10 years older that the default starting age a character may add 10, 20, 30 or 40 professional skill points depending on the power level of the campaign. There are also reductions for youth and characteristic loses for age.
Derived charactersitics (Step Five) are damage bonus (STR+SIZ and table reference), hit points (average CON + SIZ) with major wound level equal to half that value (along with an option for sectional hit points as per RuneQuest), Power Points equal to POW, Experience bonus equal to half INT and Move equal to 10 units (usually metres) per round. There are also options for Fatigue points (STR + CON) as per RuneQuest and Sanity as per Call of Cthulhu (POW times five). A further derived characteristic of soughts is the optional "Distinctive Features" based on variations on average human appearance (this probably would have been better if it was species-specific). Step Six is rather oddly described as personality and consists of rolling (or choosing) one of four approaches which are basically an approach to problems; fighting, technique, smarts, and and persuasion. These give a bonus of 20 skill points to a number of appropriate skills. One is tempted to describe such personalities as "Fighter", "Thief", "Mage" and "Cleric". A better profession system (from Pendragon) is discovered as an optional rule on p294-295.
The seventh step consists of distributing the appropriate number of skill points according to power level, profession and from a personal pool based on INT time 10. The profession system is like Call of Cthulhu; a profession title is given, equipment based on wealth levels (step nine) and a pool of skills to allocate skills to. There are some fourty-four professions described in this manner. It's not a bad method by any stretch of the imagination, but it's a bit simplistic and a far cry from some of the detailed efforts by BRP-derived games in the past. Skills are also provided a species and historically specific base chance and are modified by category bonuses (e.g., Combat skills, Communication skills, etc) based on characteristic scores.
Skills, System and Combat
As mentioned, the skill system is a simple roll-under percentile task resolution system. There are 57 listed skills with further required specialisations for various weapons, languages, arts, crafts, knowledges, sciences, technical and so forth. Effect explanations are given according to whether the skill check was a fumble, failure, success, special or critical which, along with the description, means that about 1/2 a page is dedicated to each skill. The effect descriptions can be a little human-centric at times (e.g., a critical success allows a character to Swim at 8m per round - but of course, some species do that naturally) and there are some quirky inclusions resulting from the historic BRP games (for example separate skills for Science - Psychology and Psychotherapy and the use of DEX*2 to determine the base chance to Dodge; both from Call of Cthulhu). The description of how the skills apply according to different historical and genre periods is somewhat lacking.
Skipping the hefty Powers chapter for a moment and moving straight into System, as with other games in the BRP line percentile skill rolls are not the only resolution means. In addition there is characteristic rolls and resistance rolls, although all three do use a roll-under percentile mechanic and have the same possibilities for special successes, fumbles, etc. Characteristic rolls chances are determined by a multiple of an appropriate charactersitic to a task. The well-known forumula for resistance rolls are based on characteristic vs characteristic conflicts with the active force requiring rolling under an equation of 50% + (active force * 5) - (passive force *5). Common examples of these tests include Power vs Power, Potency vs CON and so forth. Competing skill rolls are determined by one of three options; highest successful result, subtraction of one's roll from another's base chance and finally, based on a division of skill chances by 5, using the resistance table. As with most game systems skill chances are modified by circumstances, equipment and so forth. As an entirely new addition BRP also introduces an optional Fate Point system with die modifications based on expenditure of Power Points.
Other elements of the game system include some fairly detailed information on time and movement, including expected time to carry out skills), terrain and weather modifiers, and character improvement to skills. A 1d6 experience improvement is based on a successful (non-easy) use of a skill in adventure and rolling over the existing skill rating with an INT bonus of half the character's INT score. Improvement can also be achieved through training or research, although these are a slower and more expensive path to improvement. Characteristics can also be increased with POW gains through successful magical (or other POW vs POW) conflicts and require a roll over 5 times the existing POW. Characteristic training requires 25 * the current value in hours, usually a financial expense. STR or CON can be increased to the highest of STR, CON and SIZ and APP or DEX can be increased to 1.5 times their starting value.
Combat is resolved in rounds of 12 seconds and ordered by statements, use of powers, actions and then resolution. Statements are made in DEX rank, although optionally, an initiative roll on d10 plus DEX (or INT for powers) can be used for a degree of randomness. For even more detail in a static system an optional Strike Ranks system (from RuneQuest) is offered. Actions occur on DEX rank and for every 5 points less; thus a character with DEX 16 will act on 16, 11, 6 and 1. Standard DEX rank actions include Move, Attack, Disengage and Non-Combat Action. At any time a character may Parry or Dodge, Fight Defensively or Speak. Attack versus Parry or Dodge is a contested skill and a matrix determines the relative success or failure. Generally speaking, a criticial attack will do maximum damage plus rolled damage, whilst a success will do normal damage plus a bonus (entangle, knockdown, impale, bleed) - and keeping in mind that a criticial is also a success. There are fumble tables for weapons, missile attacks and natural weapons for those less fortunate. Damage is resolved by rolled according to weapon type, minus armour and applied to hit points with options for sectional hit points and more random values for armour, as found in Stormbringer. Wounds are either applied in the sectional method or according to a major wound table when half hit points or more are received in a single blow. By way of indication, an average character has about 12 hit points before death, a sword will do 1d8+1 damage, hard leather armour will protect for 3 and 1d3 hit points will be healed per week.
Also appropriately described here is the chapter on 'Spot Rules' which is largely a collection of unusual and situational events which mostly occur in a tactical time. This includes rules for sudden encounters that PCs may have with acid, aiming and targetting specific body areas, autofire, a pretty cool chase mechanic, drowning (and it's cousin, falling), light sources, prone actions, radiation poisoning, two-weapon use, and zero-gravity combat. These all seemed to be expressed in a manner that is mechanically simple yet captures the core experiences of each particular circumstance. My only gripe is the lack of detail of what actually constitutes "stifling heat" or "freezing cold" for the effects, as described in the spot rules, to come into effect.
The fourth chapter, Powers, weighs in at some 80 pages making it the longest in the book and certainly deserving of a special discussion on its own. There are five sources of extranormal power with different sources from the BRP line; Magic (Worlds of Wonder), Mutations (Hawkmoon, Psychic (ElfQuest), Sorcery (Stormbringer) and Super Powers (Superworld). As with skills and characteristics the availability and level of starting powers varies, although there is discussion of mixing these (e.g., Normal Powers, Heroic skill and characteristic level) and mixing power types in a story (e.g., Mutations and Psychic powers co-existing in the same world). By way of example, a starting Heroic magic character may select 6 spells which they know at their INT as a percentage but may spend skill points on these during character creation.
The mechanics for each power type differes somewhat as appropriate to its description. Each magic spell is a separate skill, cast in increments of power point cost, taking one DEX rank to do per point, and may require a resistance roll check. Mutations are "always on" powers, and are distinguished between beneficial and adverse, major and minor. Like magic, psychic powers are also treated as individual skills that cost power and may require a resistence roll, although they are faster to cast. sorcery spells however do not require a skill check, although they may be prevented by a resistance roll failure. Finally superpowers, purchased as a function of character points and campaign power level, do not usually require a skill roll (although a new skill, 'Projection', is added for those powers which do).
Overall the powers are quite appropriate to their genre-orientation. Psychic powers, for example, tend strongly towards subtle mental manipulation; there is not where one will find energy blasts and the like, whereas sorcerors summon demons, elementals and seek divine aid. Further, each power type has a number of appropriate special additions. Magic users, for example, have the opportunity to make a staff or summon a familiar, whereas psychic characters may engage in a special psychic combat with each other, not unlike the old RuneQuest spirit combat. Superpowered characters, in true four-colour style, have the opportunity to boost their starting character point bonus by taking character failings.
The powers are reasonably well balanced against each other, although there are a couple of oddities in the text. The magic Blast spell, which does 1D6 per 3-power point level, is described as being "non-kinetic" and therefore the spell Protection will have no effect; however normal armour (which the Protection spell replicates) will work, and the spell can be parried with a shield. Conjure Elemental is described as a spell with varying power levels, but it is difficult to discern what these additional levels actually do. A ranged fire attack is described as both 'Flame' (p95) and 'Fire' (p97). But these are certainly exceptions rather than rule. In nearly all cases the powers are well described, well balanced and make sense.
Settings and GM Material
There are four chapters that can be appropriately described together; Equipment (chapter 8), Gamemastering (chapter 9), Settings (chapter 10) and Creatures (chapter 11). Equipment is differentiated between 'primitive', 'historical', 'modern' and 'futuristic' which is a simple yet very accurate general categorisation of societies. The settings chapter breaks down these further with a general title (e.g., 'Dark Ages'), probably character types (i.e., professions), common powers, technology, inspirational source material and the sort of adventures than can be expected. Some twenty-three settings are described ranging from the prehistoric to space opera, with about 2/3rds of a page dedicated to each. Further there are also some notes for combined settings (e.g., "Samurai and Six-Guns") and multi-setting games. Two additional options included in the settings chapter are Allegience (from Stormbringer), which provides bonus power and hit points for aligning oneself to a supernatural power or even an ideal, and Sanity (from Call of Cthulhu), which includes the mental damage that occurs from encountering bizarre horrors.
Rather than adopting a universal currency or even a concern with specific quantities, a highly abstract method is used to determine both character wealth and the price of goods. Whilst there is nothing wrong with abstraction as such, some elaboration on the categories would have been appreciated and also some mechanical implementation of alterations to wealth levels. What happens, for example, to four destitute characters who suddenly acquire the equivalent of one affluent assets? Are their wealth levels now average, or poor? What if there was six of them? There are substantial notes covering issues like equipment with powers or skills, skills required to make equipment, varying quality and so forth. The equipment list itself consists of various missile and melee weapons, armor, shields, artillery, explosives, and with far more modest descriptions for robots, vehicles, medical equipment and books.
The Gamemastering chapter described player arrangements, logistics, story presentation ("one-shot or campaign?"), choosing a setting, preparation, a standard plot development, sandbox approaches for open-ended settings, campaign design, character integration, tone house rules and an optional rule checklist. It's a fairly complete discussion of the science and art of gamemastering, although the inclusion of the Pendragon-style personality traits and the SIZ-weight table do seem to rather odd inclusions at this point.
Finally, the Creatures. These are described in terms of characteristics (core and derived, plus any species based modifications), weapons and armor, skills and powers. Special rules apply for creatures with particular characteristics (e.g., fixed intelligence representing an instinctual rather than reasoning intelligence), the limitations of creatures without particular characteristics (e.g., a ghost with no Strength). The ordering of creatures themselves is broken up into Natural Animals, Fantasy Creatures, Science Fiction Creatures and a Non-Player Digest. Whilst the quantity and breadth here is certainly impressive, there is not much in terms of colour, ecology or descriptions apart from those which are directly related to the game system.
Basic RolePlaying is a solid, adaptable game system which is built on the excellent foundations put in place some decades ago. It uses "thin glue" to bring together several game systems which whilst sharing a common core system each had their own quirks. There is a sense however, that the solutions were a little lazy - where there was any possibility of doubt, an optional rules was provided. Also, sometimes the core rules took some choices which may be considered a little unusual - for example the slightly clunky bonus method to skills from early editions of RuneQuest etc rather than the simple additional of relevant characteristics as used in ElfQuest.
There is also a sense that the game system is showing its age, and hasn't incorporated some of the features which are largely commonplace in design, such as advantage/disadvantage systems for social, personal and physical traits as found in the Hero System and GURPS or an appropriate narrativist device rather than converting power points into an additional 'at will' power. It is understood that such elements are not part of past BRP game systems, but this in itself is illustrative - this is "not really" a new game, but rather an efficient and effective unification of several previous related games.
Overall I found the product above average in almost all regards. It is well written, well designed, with quite a good content to page count and good scope. It is fun to play and is a largely 'bug-free' rules system. I give it a good four out of five for both style and substance. But most importantly, now the question can be raised. What does happen when Elric hits Cthulhu with Stormbringer?