Wednesday, January 6, 2021

Retrospective: Basic Role-Playing

When asked to name an old school roleplaying game, most gamers would, I suspect, immediately say, "Dungeons & Dragons," and not without good reason. Being the first and still most successful RPG ever published inevitably brings with it enviable name recognition, even outside the hobby. Readers of this blog, however, could almost certainly name many other early games equally important to the history of the hobby, both in terms of their innovations and influence. A supremely good example of such games is Chaosium's Basic Role-Playing, written by Greg Stafford and Lynn, based on the pioneering work of Steve Perrin, Ray Turney, Steve Henderson, and Warren James, each of whom had contributed to the design of 1978's RuneQuest

First published in 1980, Basic Role-Playing is a 16-page distillation and development of the rules found in RQ but shorn of their connection to Glorantha or any other setting. As its subtitle makes clear, BRP was intended as "an introductory guide" to this new form of entertainment 
wherein the players construct characters who live out their lives in a specially made game game-world. The characters need not be anything like the people who play. Indeed, it is often more rewarding and enjoyable to create characters entirely unlike themselves. For instance, the most popular sorts are warriors and magicians – how many knights and wizards do you know in this world?

I like this passage a great deal both for what it says and how it says it. Basic Role-Playing is written in a very engaging style that is clear without being vapid, to the point that it includes a number of genuinely insightful philosophical digressions, such as this one on "life and death," which I reproduce in full, because of how delightful it is.

Danger is a common part of role-playing. There is satisfaction in non-dangerous occupations, and players are urged to have some non-combative characters if time allows. But the sharpest spice is the performance of characters in life-or-death situations. Dying is the one experience we cannot know more than once, and few of us are interested in hurrying-up our chance for the knowledge. Role-playing gives us surrogate danger without the risk.

Even so, you will experience real emotion when your characters gain victories, and undergo real agony when they die. Players and their characters have a very intimate relation, and the longer a player runs his character well, the more likely there will be a sense of loss when death comes and resurrection is not possible. This can be traumatic if you are too close to the characters at hand. For this reason, people are advised to never play themselves in a game. Always maintain a proper mental attitude towards the game, and remember that it is only imagination, no matter how real it seems during play. 

Possibility of loss makes success rewarding. Commit your characters to battle and play without restraint.

There's so much good stuff in these three short paragraphs that I could write an entire post discussing it (and perhaps I will), but I share it here to illustrate the balance, good sense, and even wisdom present in this short staple-bound booklet.

I first encountered Basic Role-Playing in 1981, when I bought the first edition of Call of Cthulhu. The boxed set included a copy of BRP, to which the game's rulebook frequently referred when it came to describing certain rules. Though this was unwieldy, to be sure, it did afford me the opportunity to spend more time with the text of Basic Role-Playing itself. The text presents an easy-to-understand and use percentile-based system for handling combat and skill use, along with probably my favorite experience rules for any RPG. The skill list is small and focused primarily on physical actions and combat is relatively fast and potentially deadly. It's a terrifically compact but sharp set of rules – little wonder then that it's been used in and imitated by so many roleplaying games over the last forty years.

I have only good things to say about BRP; it's a true classic of the hobby, right up there with OD&D, Tunnels & Trolls, Empire of the Petal Throne, and Traveller, as examples of brilliant early rules sets. Correction: I can think of one criticism and that's that the original 16-page version of the game is no longer available. I know that Chaosium has, in the years since, produced a much lengthier version of the game and I'm sure it's fine, but, for me, those additional pages are just gilding the lily. They can't hold a candle to the 1980 version I read all those years ago. It's still one of the best things Chaosium has ever released – a sterling example of old school rules economy to which few can compare.


  1. One thing I love about Call of Cthulhu is that same rules economy; the essential rules of the game run to about 20 pages and that's all you need. I adore the efficiency of it.

    That's not true of the current 7th edition, which is why I'm a great deal less fond of it, in a similar way to how you see the current version of RuneQuest. Overly elaborate rules must be in fashion at Chaosium.

  2. Chaosium recently published a concise BRP srd:
    It is short and close to the original rules. It does not have the very good prose you are referring to.
    The original text was last published in the early 2000s in booklet form, prior to the publication of the extended version edited by Jason Durall in 2008. Chaosium is making lots of older titles available in POD. They hav said they will at some point release a reprint of Worlds of Wonder box, which includes the BRP booklet.

  3. BRP4e (the Gold Book) is an awesome buffet of game mechanics you can cherry pick for you campaign. The abundance of choices can lead to paralysis though, plus all the stuff you don't use make using the book on the fly harder. I find the BRP1e-3e pamphlet with the Worlds of Wonder boxed set a tighter and more approachable package. It might lack in some areas one might find crucial for long term campaigns, but that just whets my appetite for homebrewing. Fingers crossed we'll see a pdf version eventually.

  4. In my gaming roup, we just concluded a 6-year campaign using BRP yesterday :-)

    But anyway, I also admire BRP very much, also as a historical development. By using a unified %-based system both for combat and skills (and anything else ...), for me it's a major step in moving away from combat-centered designs such as D&D. Early rpgs pretty much were combat only, with other actions added as an afterthought, often with their own special procedures. But BRP has a clean rules engine from the start (at least in theory): everything is decided by a D100 vs %skill.

    Such design also makes it easier for adding all sorts of other actions (you have a common framework), rather than adding special procedures for all new type of actions you want to use in the game.

  5. I have an unusual take on BRP (or at least one I haven't heard expressed elsewhere). I think part of its relative obscurity is that it is too well designed. Whereas OD&D is kind of a mess and called for new editions and patches and revisions creating a continuing revenue stream for the growth of the game - besides the advantage of being first of course. While with BRP once you have it there's not much reason to buy new editions. I still have 1st edition Runequest, Cthulhu, & Stormbringer and have never felt much need to buy new editions. Though I did buy one of the later deluxe editions of Cthulhu because the hardcover format and layout were so good.

    1. That's an interesting perspective – and possibly even correct!

    2. As a youth we dropped D&D like a hot potato in favor of RuneQuest. Not because we cared about Glorantha, but because the RQ rules were consistent and clearly someone had put some thought into them.

      What’s the first version of D&D that’s not a mess? 3rd? I dunno as I had been out of the hobby for 30 years before we started playing 5e. 5e is perfectly fine.