Basic Roleplaying Review

Back in the 1970s, a new role-playing game built a foundation that would stand for years to come, a foundation of accessibility, hackability, and ease of use. Am I talking about D&D? Absolutely not! I’m talking about RuneQuest, a game which, in 1978, not only became a quick second place finisher to D&D in the fantasy genre but also established many RPG conventions we still see today. In 1980, the RuneQuest second edition box included a little 16-page booklet titled Basic Role-Playing, and from there it was off to the races. Basic Role-Playing (later Basic Roleplaying, also called BRP) would form the basis of every game released by RuneQuest’s publisher, Chaosium. As that esteemed publication history includes none other than Call of Cthulhu, BRP is likely the bestselling house system in the history of role-playing games.

Thanks to RuneQuest and Call of Cthulhu, BRP forms the cornerstone of how gamers expect d100 systems to work. In short, your attributes and skills give you percentile values which are equal to the probability of rolling under them on a d100 roll. Look at your sheet, you know how likely you are to succeed at a baseline roll. In addition to BRP itself, this mode of d100 mechanics saw widespread adoption in games as varied as Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay and Eclipse Phase. Now, Chaosium is staking the future of BRP on its utility as a platform. The new edition of Basic Roleplaying is here, and it’s being marketed to game designers as much if not more than game masters.

The new edition of BRP is called the Basic Roleplaying Universal Game Engine, and it is, depending on how you count, either the sixth or seventh edition of the system. Compared to the previous edition (or two), the so-called “Big Gold Book”, the Universal Game Engine is shorter and tighter; the Big Gold Book was a collection of mechanics from across the entire Chaosium library and as such included multiple contradictory rulesets for things such as magic. The Universal Game Engine, instead of merely compiling rules, seeks to set a baseline that anyone could use to create or run a game with BRP.

Creating games is a central part of how this system is being marketed. In addition to the mechanical revisions, the BRP Universal Game Engine is one of the first game publications to be released under the ORC License, an alternative to the OGL that is being financed and spearheaded by Paizo, though supported by dozens of other companies. Chaosium is so ahead of the curve that the final license isn’t even out yet, and the front matter of the book includes placeholders for certain specifics. Putting the need or utility of a license like ORC (or the OGL, or Creative Commons) aside, what’s clear is that Chaosium has seen the potential of an expansive third party ecosystem, and they want in.

The question is will it work? On one hand, Chaosium is perhaps better positioned than any other company selling something other than D&D. Call of Cthulhu is likely the most popular single property other than D&D when taken across the whole of RPG history, and RuneQuest is consistently one of the most popular non-D&D fantasy RPGs, beating out peers like Rolemaster and Tunnels and Trolls and having more staying power than newer upstarts like Earthdawn or Fantasy AGE. Adding to that, d100 systems are popular for a reason and having one with an SRD and a good open license can only make things easier. On the other hand, BRP is, at its core, a generic system. Call of Cthulhu and RuneQuest have followings, but BRP has neither Innsmouth nor Glorantha. Even RuneQuest specifically has suffered without the setting; The Design Mechanism still publishes the sixth edition of RuneQuest in a setting-less form called Mythras, but it was quickly overshadowed in 2018 when Chaosium released RuneQuest: Roleplaying in Glorantha. The question here isn’t whether or not system matters, it’s if a system alone is enough. With that in mind, let’s take a whirlwind tour of the system.

BRP as a game

BRP is a skill-driven ruleset, and thanks to RuneQuest it is likely the first skill-driven ruleset ever published. Characters are created by first rolling starting attributes using either 3d6 or 2d6+6, resulting in values from 3 to 18. Many games from the 1970s have these embedded sorts of ‘D&Disms’, and indeed the core BRP stats are remarkably similar to those from D&D: Strength, Constitution, Dexterity, Intelligence, Charisma, and…Power. Power is a stand-in for Wisdom that doesn’t make us ask weird questions about how Intelligence and Wisdom are split, but also directly powers, well, powers. Beyond the basic six there are two other attributes, Size (mechanizing height/weight a little bit) and Education, an optional stat used in more grounded and modern settings. Once attributes are rolled, skills are allocated based on pools of Professional and Personal skill points, and then equipment and powers are chosen based on the setting and character conceit. Like most of the rest of the ruleset it’s relatively straightforward, though the allocation of hundreds of skill points is likely more than most modern games require. Still, when comparing the game to its peers in the generic space (like GURPS), it stays on the simpler side.

‘Simpler side’ is relative; as BRP has its origins in the 1970s there are a lot of the gameplay norms of the time still baked into the rules. The mechanics themselves do a good job of not being overwrought, but man are there a lot of them. You have overland travel, encumbrance, a robust combat system (of course), and an extensive catalog of weapons, armor, vehicles, and enemies. It’s worth noting here that the range of time periods and genres covered in this guide is impressive, and though it may not quite reach the same depth as the GURPS Basic Set it gets fairly close to that benchmark. One thing I rather like is that all optional mechanics are clearly marked, and the few non-compatible mechanics (like hit locations and major wounds) are called out as such. Considering that one of the stats (Education) is technically optional, this is important. There’s also a checklist of every optional mechanic in the book in the GM’s chapter.

Many of the mechanics, coming from years of extant game design, are not that surprising or interesting. It’s important to remember that these mechanics aren’t derivative so much as they were done in BRP first, and other designers were inspired by them later. A couple particular highlights: First, essentially every corner case or highly detailed rule has been put together in a single chapter called ‘Spot Rules’. Putting every single weird exception into one chapter for the GM to quickly turn to isn’t something I can say I’ve seen before, but I rather like it. It makes, for one personally galling example, autofire much easier to find than it is in GURPS: Campaigns.

The second standout is the rules for advancement. In BRP, you earn ‘experience checks’. After a session you roll against a skill in which you’ve earned an experience check, and if you exceed the skill’s value on your roll, you get to add points to the skill. I really like this; it’s an easier skill-by-skill system than Burning Wheel, and still has increasing difficulty baked into it. Now this might not make advancement ‘even’, or ‘fair’, but it’s accurate to state that I don’t care.

It’s perhaps unsurprising that I’ve compared BRP to GURPS at multiple junctures so far. For generic traditional RPGs, GURPS is the high watermark, the game it’s impossible to avoid measuring against. GURPS helps tell one of the two stories of BRP as an ecosystem, that of a generic game for adaptation at the table. The other story, that of a ruleset for supporting third-party designers, will require a bit more speculation.

BRP as an ecosystem

BRP is usable out of the box, but that’s not really its value proposition; if you wanted to use BRP without writing anything, you’d be much more likely to buy RuneQuest or Call of Cthulhu than a ‘Universal Game Engine’. If you want to write your next campaign with a d100 system, though, that’s where the real value is. All of the items, enemies, and powers are intended to get you started, in the sense that from them you’ll be able to write your own.

Comparing BRP to the other two trad generic heavyweights, Savage Worlds and GURPS, it falls somewhere in the middle. BRP is clearly more rules-heavy than Savage Worlds, and doesn’t have anywhere near the same streamlining of that game. On the other hand, it has a lot less superstructure than GURPS, and is much more accessible for someone who doesn’t want or need that superstructure. Here’s what I mean by superstructure: BRP has four power levels, a few loosely defined time periods, and separable power sets (magic, superpowers, psionics, sorcery, etc) which are balanced flatly against each other. GURPS has all of those things, but more: There are 12 specifically defined time periods and quantitative checks for mixing them. Every single power, spell, and psionic ability is numerically balanced against each other and every other ability in the system. You can rewrite the magic system entirely and it will still balance (at least as well as before), and there’s a book specifically for that purpose. BRP doesn’t provide that, nor does it claim to. Instead, by offering a fairly flat set of worked examples for ‘powers’, BRP lets you write your power set and balance it for your game without too much trouble. If you want time travel and need to make absolutely sure you have a modifier for Leonardo da Vinci trying to learn stick shift…GURPS may be better.

For a gamer who wants a generic system to work with, BRP is easier than GURPS. It’s easier because it can do less, but that’s a tradeoff it manages very well. BRP maintains a solid amount of both detail and adaptability while reducing the mental load from GURPS nicely. Said from the other direction, BRP has significantly more to it than Savage Worlds while not requiring much more work. It’s a really good compromise, if I’m being honest, and it gets much, much better if you’re working in a genre like fantasy or horror where Chaosium has already released a lot of books. While reading through BRP I noted that the magic system wasn’t one I’d want to use in a fantasy campaign I was envisioning. I walked over to my shelf and pulled out my copy of Mythras, the setting-free version of RuneQuest 6th edition (a BRP game). Mythras has several magic systems, and I was interested in seeing if I could use one, Animism, with the rest of the rules in BRP. To call it easy is an understatement; after rereading the Animism chapter I immediately understood how I’d slot it in to BRP character creation. That’s powerful! It’s also another reason why pushing for more third-party BRP designers has so much potential.

We all understand the potency of an ecosystem, it’s what’s created the OSR, elevated D&D 5e, and kept games like Troika and Mothership in the consciousness of the hobby. Chaosium is trying to do something that, if they’re successful, will not only improve their business but possibly bring them back into the hobby forefront alongside companies like their ORC co-conspirator Paizo. RuneQuest is still successful but has a lot less breathing room with D&D being as much of a monopoly as it is. Also, while Call of Cthulhu is an iconic game its ability to keep selling has wavered; Seventh Edition nearly sank the company, and while the game makes headlines for its popularity in Japan its total historical sales in that market are smaller than the historical sales of GURPS in the United States. Third party support is what’s already driving Call of Cthulhu in Japan, and it makes perfect sense to try to replicate that success in the significantly larger market. Beyond that, the Chaosium founders are no more, between Sandy Petersen retiring and Steve Perrin and Greg Stafford both having passed away. While the current Chaosium staff has its fair share of luminaries, a thriving third party environment is what will allow them to find and nurture the next generation of talent and get that staff photo looking just a little less gray.

To be clear, I think they’re doing exactly the right thing, and I think this new edition of BRP is a good shot at it, along with ORC. What licenses provide is not legal permission but certainty, and Chaosium is coupling an open license with a legacy that is, arguably, longer than that of Dungeons and Dragons. The question is if creators will bite. And, given the relatively large base of aspiring designers, the next and more important question is if Chaosium will find, foster, and support those creators in the same way (hopefully in a better way) than Wizards of the Coast does. This is a question of execution more than anything else, but I want to see it go well for them.

This new edition of BRP isn’t anything new from a gameplay standpoint. That’s just fine; as both RuneQuest and Call of Cthulhu prove, the bones are solid. The product is an improvement over the Big Gold Book at least from a usability perspective; cutting length, trimming contradictory rules, and keeping the optional and alternative mechanics very clear make it an easy game to write with, and the whole of Chaosium’s library can also slot in very easily. I personally think BRP could be its own robust line if Chaosium revisits the Worlds of Wonder paradigm and releases a few sourcebooks of similar length to this core one. That said, I also know that’s not their angle, at least not right now. BRP could prove to be a highly effective spearhead for ORC, providing a familiar and well-regarded mechanical platform for a whole new swathe of game design talent. Will there be a d100 renaissance? I honestly don’t know. But by revising BRP with eyes to accessibility and usability, Chaosium has put their best foot forward towards making that happen.

Basic Roleplaying: Universal Game Engine is available at DriveThruRPG and direct from Chaosium.

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9 thoughts on “Basic Roleplaying Review”

  1. I personally like the big yellow book. Brp as a universal system is more tools for experienced Game managers or game organizational Directors. It’s allowed to run normal settings like realistic westerns .science fiction .fantasy of a more intuitive nature. Magic system of more historical origins. Like folk magic or ceremonial or ritual style. More as to Ars magica. Or my science fiction space opera Colonies x. Or my own Thriller Gravequest. I think savage world is a poor universal system . Gurps is fair but point buy heavy.forgot the hero system.
    Also point intensive. World of darkness as the story teller system is a universal system too.


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