Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Retrospective: Worlds of Wonder

Chaosium's Basic Role-Playing (which I've lauded previously) was extracted from the rules of RuneQuest, simplifying and genericizing them in order to serve as a foundation for other RPGs. The first game to explicitly do so was 1981's Call of Cthulhu, whose rulebook, unlike that of its contemporary Stormbringer, referred back to Basic Role-Playing for an understanding of certain foundational mechanical concepts. BRP was thus intended as a "high level" document, establishing only the most basic principles of the game system, such as characteristics and skill rolls, while individual games dealt with the specific details of expanding upon those principles.

1982's Worlds of Wonder was another step along the road to showing how Chaosium wanted Basic Role-Playing to be used. This boxed set came with four short booklets (three are 16 pages in length and one is 18 pages). The first is BRP itself, while the other three each presents a different "world" (i.e. genre) in which to use the rules of Basic Role-Playing, complete with all the rules needed to play. Of course, "complete" is a relative term and there's no question that by most standards (even back in 1982), the world books were more like the skeletons of games rather than fully-fleshed out, ready-to-go games. Consequently, Worlds of Wonder has an "experimental" feel, as if Chaosium were testing the waters to see if how much BRP could be stretched beyond its roots in RuneQuest.

The first of the three world books is Magic World, a fantasy game that is reminiscent of a between a de-Glorantha-ized RQ with some nods toward Dungeons & Dragons. Not huge nods, to be sure, but Magic World is very traditional in its presentation, largely lacking the idiosyncrasies that make RuneQuest so appealing to its fans and frustrating to its detractors (and might-have-been fans). As a BRP derivative, it's skill rather than class-based but starting characters must choose one of three "professions" -- warrior, rogue, or sage -- which determine the starting skills to which the character has access. Interestingly, the default assumption is that a new character is a rogue, as it has no entrance requirements, while becoming a warrior or a sage requires a roll to be accepted for training.

As in RuneQuest, new skills are acquired through training (which costs money), while old skills are improved through use. Magic is potentially available to all, but it requires admittance to the Sorcerer's Guild to learn (again, with entrance requirements). The selection of spells is small and somewhat bland (compared to RQ, CoC, or Stormbringer anyway). Spells are divided between sorcery and ritual magic, with the former being magic one can cast on-the-fly and ceremonial magic requires greater time, expense, and concentration. Magic World includes a small selection of monstrous opponents, pretty demanding that referees either create their own or swipe them from other BRP games.

Future World is the longest -- and densest -- of the three world books, presenting a science fiction world in a "galactic empire" vein, with the PCs assumed to be agents of ICE -- the Imperial Corps of Engineers, which, despite its name, is in fact an eclectic collection of troubleshooters for the Empire. Like Traveller, Future World characters begin play with prior experience. However, there's less randomness and more breadth to this prior experience, with players choosing which skills they wish their characters to have and the ability to switch professions multiple times, thereby allowing "cross training." Like Magic World, there are still entry requirements for certain professions, meaning that character generation is still somewhat at the whim of dice rolls.

Several sample alien races and robots are presented, as is a great deal of equipment. Combat and other mechanics receive some large expansions, mostly due to the highly technological nature of weaponry. There are no starship rules -- travel is assumed to be via gates and ICE missions are all planet-bound, it seems -- or any planetary creation guidelines. There is a sample adventure included, which is odd, given its length (nearly five pages), which in my opinion could have been more profitably spent on including a few other sub-systems of use to science fiction gaming. Far moreso than Magic World, Future World very much feels like a sketch of a game rather than a complete game in its own right.

Superworld (which would later be expanded into a full game of the same name) is a BRP treatment of the superhero genre. Characteristics are still rolled randomly, but any one that is below 11 is given a +3 bonus to bring it more in line with the expected level of character power. Adding together one's characteristics gives a pool of "hero points" with which skills, superpowers, and even characteristic boosts can be purchased. Hero points can also be spent on "energy points" by which superpowers function. More hero points can be acquired through taking on "disabilities" or in some way limiting a character's superpowers -- all standard fare for superhero RPGs.

Superworld describes about 30 powers, many of which are quite broad and in fact encompass several sub-powers. Combat receives some modifications in order to better simulate four-color action (with knockback, etc.), but is still very much in line with BRP's assumptions. There's a very short sample adventure (more a slugfest than a true scenario) and some notes on various topics of interest (referee's advice more or less). Also included are some designer's notes by Steve Perrin, who explains that Superworld grew out of his dissatisfaction with Superhero 2044, which he found contradictory and unsatisfactory to his needs.

Worlds of Wonder was an ambitious project and one whose results were mixed. All three of the worlds have elements to admire, but, as I've said, they all require some amount of work on the part of the referee and players to become "proper" RPGs. For many, this is undoubtedly a plus, but, then as now, I suspect that many will lack the interest in becoming a "co-designer" with the good folks at Chaosium just to play science fiction or superheroes. Still, I can't help but think that Chaosium's approach of having a very basic -- in the "foundational" sense of the term -- set of core rules, with each game built on their foundation adding specific complexities, is a better approach than a huge, sprawling "generic, universal" philosophy. Games like HERO and GURPS simply hold no appeal for me, especially nowadays, whereas Basic Role-Playing's appeal is increasing, in part, no doubt, to its genuine elegance. It's a simple, straightforward system that's surprisingly robust and flexible, as Worlds of Wonder makes abundantly clear.

19 comments:

  1. I understand that personal preference comes into play here but you really ought to look at GURPS lite if you going to compare Basic Roleplaying to GURPS.

    GURPS is just as elegant and simple as BRP and BRP is just as complex and dense with all the options thrown in.

    Note that I recognize there are issues with GURPS drawing in novices and gamers experienced with other system. So I understand your preferences.

    The main issue two is one of presentation and focus. Chaosium has made the 16 page BRP book an integral part of their products. And more importantly each BRP games fully implements Basic Roleplaying for that game.

    This in contrast to GURPS which GURPS Lite is a free introduction and the rest of the line is presented as a toolkit leaving it up to the referee to implement a specific campaign from it.

    To me it is obvious the Chaosium approach with BRP is much more attractive to gamers either learning roleplaying or coming in from other systems.

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  2. Chaosium's recent (and excellent) generic BRP rulebook contains practically all the options from Worlds of Wonder. I recommend you take a look at it, if you haven't already.

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  3. You're right: GURPS Lite is a pretty good product and I'll admit to having been tempted to use it in the past, but there's just something about GURPS -- it's "gear-headiness," to invent a term -- that rubs me the wrong way. It reminds me unhappily of HERO, with its obsession over points totals and comprehensiveness. That just doesn't appeal to me.

    That said, I also have little interest in Chaosium's latest iteration of Basic Role-Playing, which seems to have a case of "GURPS/HERO envy." Certainly it's still not as intimidating as either of those two games, but most of what I like about BRP is its simplicity of presentation and the new BRP rulebook more or less dispenses with that entirely. A pity.

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  4. Yes GURPS indeed has it's gearheads. But I will defend SJ Games in that it always been optional. I know more than a few that use GURPS Lite (either 3rd or 4th edition) and bolted the stuff they wanted from the core books and the supplemental books.

    I agreed that Chaosium need to still have that 16 page BRP in print updated to whatever the current rules are (if it needs that). Relying on the big thick BRP would be a mistake for the system as a whole.

    But then each of the BRP games stands alone (I have 6th edition CoC) So this is probably not as big of an issue with them as it is for GURPS.

    I think the designers of Universal systems need to be careful in how they present their system. That the history of nearly every universal RPG publishers has caused their games to be steadily become less accessible.

    For example GURPS would be better able to draw in new fans if they have a core system with the same complexity as 2nd edition. Not the 2nd edition rules (there were some true issues that were later fixed) but the selection of skills, advantages, and disadvantage.

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  5. Worlds of Wonder was a go to fill-in game for me back in the 80's. We played superworld the most and futureworld the least.

    You made a slight omission if the character types for MagicWorld; while folks could choose Warrior, Rogue and Sage they were also able to choose Sorcerer as a profession.

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  6. Still, I can't help but think that Chaosium's approach of having a very basic -- in the "foundational" sense of the term -- set of core rules, with each game built on their foundation adding specific complexities, is a better approach than a huge, sprawling "generic, universal" philosophy
    I believe this is how the current World of Darkness line does it.

    For what it's worth, the sixteen-page [i]BRP[/i] is still in print, as I recall, or at least it is available as a free download from the Chaosium site.

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  7. Hmm. I was working from memory, so I'm probably mistaken, but I thought a "sorcerer" was merely a character of another profession who'd gained admission to the Sorcerer's Guild and thus the ability to learn magic and related skills. Could you start the game as a sorcerer?

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  8. One of the reasons I like Savage Worlds so much is that it is based entirely on the concept of having a solid basic rules set while allowing for individual settings to add complexities. I appreciate this same quality in BRP.

    BRP's reliance on percentile probabilities adds a nice intuitive touch to the system. A neophyte may not understand what a +5 to acrobatics means, but a 78% acrobatics skill is easily understood by even the least experienced gamer.

    BRP isn't perfect, but it is quite good and its flexibility goes a long way to explain its longevity.

    I'm not as critical of the new BRP book as many. It is attempting to be a replacement for WoW and as such has sections on Superpowers etc., but these are largely unnecessary and feel as if they are sourcebooks inserted for bulk.

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  9. Chaosium used to include a free random book from one of their games if you placed an order. That was how I was first exposed to Worlds of Wonder. Eventually, I bought the complete game. The overall connection between the games (other than BRP) - that the players are playing characters who are entering different "worlds" for entertainment purposes - reminds me of Dream Park by Larry Niven and Stephen Barnes.

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  10. @Rob Conley:

    I agreed that Chaosium need to still have that 16 page BRP in print updated to whatever the current rules are (if it needs that). Relying on the big thick BRP would be a mistake for the system as a whole.

    They do have a "BRP lite" booklet available, weighing it at 48 pages: http://is.gd/c64SK . I don't own it, so I can't speak to what it does and doesn't include. I'd probably buy one as a table copy for new players, however.

    I agree that the BGB (Big Gold Book) can be a bit intimidating; though I have no problem with big books a la this or Hero, I think I agree with James that I'd have liked to see the "BRP Lite + genre supplements" approach continued. Perhaps there just isn't a market for that these days, however.

    Of course, one way to deal with the BGB is to remember that one doesn't have to include everything: there are two magic systems (one based on Magic World, the other on RQ2, as I've been told), the psionics system, and future tech. By making some decisions at the start, a GM can decide which chapters to trim and thus lighten his load.

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  11. I haven't seen WOW in years. Never played it, because we were already playing RQ, Stormbringer and CoC. The fantasy options sound interesting to me now, as do the SF.

    I agree with James re GURPS. Never appealed to me, although friends made abortive attempts at running it. I even own the Uplift book, but just can't bring myself to play GURPS again.

    As someone posted, there's a free BRP intro pdf still available.

    I like the new BRP book, and it's intended as a menu system. It's a little intimidating in that you have to read through all the options if you want to make informed decisions as to what you want to include. But I'm a fan of BRP, so I'm enthusiastic about using it for various genres and worlds.

    @ Anthony, the "BRP Lite + genre supplements" approach is still there. There are a slew of genre books out for BRP now, and again, you can go with "Lite" either with the free PDF or by picking out the components you prefer from the big book.

    All in all, I hope BRP's popularity grows. Maybe Mongoose will help that process along.

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  12. "I agree that the BGB (Big Gold Book) can be a bit intimidating"


    Is BRP (Gold Book) really that intimidating? Yes, it is presented as a toolkit system that requires some small work from the GM to 'focus' it - if they want to. But, it's hardly the encyclopedic collections of widgets and gizmos that you'd find in GURPS and HERO. There is no extensive number crunching, or hundreds of component entries to familiarize yourself with (Ads, Disads, Powers, etc).

    Personally, I view BRP-GB as a nice collection from the "rpg lines of BRP-past". Available now to GMs that don't have easy access to those older, out-of-print game lines.

    Suggesting that BRP-GB wishes it was GURPS or HERO is overstating the comparison, IMO. No offense intended.

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  13. @ KP: Suggesting that BRP-GB wishes it was GURPS or HERO is overstating the comparison, IMO.

    I don't think I was suggesting that (unless you meant that for someone else?), but that some might simply be put off by its size. I agree it's quite easy to pick up and just use the parts you need.

    @Baron Greystone: ...the "BRP Lite + genre supplements" approach is still there. There are a slew of genre books out for BRP now,...

    Yep. I have the Witchcraft PDF, and I'm waiting for the revised Classic Fantasy - as I recall, the author was fixing some problems with the first run. (As an aside, the price of Chaosium PDFs puts me off a bit, but then I'm a notorious cheapskate.)

    Security word: "Bilia," the vile daughter of the demon lord Bilious.

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  14. @Anthony: Actually, it was James that made the comment about GURPS/HERO "envy". Sorry about the confusion.

    On topic: About 3 years ago I saw a shrink-wrapped copy of Worlds of Wonder in a game store off the beaten path. They were selling it for $25. I was tempted, but, of course, thought "eh, I'll pick it up next week. Who's going to buy that out-of-print game?". :) How wrong I was.

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  15. J.M. "Could you start the game as a sorcerer? "

    Yes. A starting character developed according to the BRP rules could be a sorcereor if they rolled INT + POW as a %.
    Established MW character can also attempt to join the guild and become a sorcerer. One isn't stuck in a profession forever but a sorcerer is limited in how high non-sage skills can advance.

    Just pulled out the booklet to make sure, I haven't played the game in over a decade.

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  16. "There is no extensive number crunching, or hundreds of component entries to familiarize yourself with (Ads, Disads, Powers, etc)."

    For me, this is THE key difference between GURPS/HERO and BRP, despite the seeming similarity in core book sizes, and it's what converted me to BRP from GURPS after 15 years of GURPS boosting.

    There's nothing in the new BRP core book that hasn't been presented before; as has been mentioned, it's just a collection of all the available BRP "dials" between two covers.

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  17. I thought GURPS became ridiculous with the amount of skills presented. I always thought they would have benefited from skills painted in broad strokes, and then the character could perhaps specialize with a couple skills that fall underneath that umbrella.

    BRP had such cool games, such as Call of Cthulhu or Stormbringer, that we preferred to traditional GURPS or D&D. It was easy to make a character, and you could have a game up and running in 30 mins or less.

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  18. You might well be right that I am doing the new edition of BRP a disservice. I don't own a copy but have seen it in game stores and I find its format and length quite off-putting. I would have much preferred that it stick with a smaller "core" game (16-32 pages), with individual genre/setting books that include specific rules changes/additions as needed.

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  19. Some interesting trivia on the subject of Worlds of Wonder and BRP: the oldest and most well-known role-playing game in Sweden is Drakar och Demoner, a product that, despite its name, is based on BRP.

    In fact, the first edition of the game was a straight translation of the BRP rules combined with the MW booklet.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Drakar_och_demoner

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