Wednesday, July 21, 2021

"Is It Fun?"

Chaosium's Basic Role-Playing is a remarkable little pamphlet. Only sixteen pages in length in the version I first encountered it, BRP isn't just a tightly-written little ruleset; it's also a collection of thoughtful musings about roleplaying as an activity and entertainment. Take, for example, this three paragraph section entitled "Is It Fun? – Cooperation and Competition," which starts off with some sentiments with which I heartily agree.

Gaming is social. If you want to use your imagination alone, you could read a book. But be warned: when a number of people get together cooperatively, they can form a communal fantasy far more interesting and imaginative than could any one person, and the joint effort results in an extremely satisfying experience for all involved.

This is very well said. The emphasis on gaming as a social activity is important, because a big part of why roleplaying works – or doesn't – in any given group comes down to its members' sociability. Just as important is the notion of "communal fantasy." A successful campaign is the result of no single person involved in it, not even the referee, but rather is the fruit of cooperation between everyone involved. As we'll see, though, writers Greg Stafford and Lynn Willis aren't advocating free-form anarchy. 

Players must work together. For instance, a party of adventurers will not survive against a batch of monsters of they are not willing to aid each other, heal each other, and guard each other. This is not to say that you cannot play a back-stabbing thief, only to suggest that if everyone plays that way, there will be no incentive to play together – there must be honor even among thieves, so far as gaming goes. And if all your characters are cut-throats, who will be interested in playing with you?

The matter of evil, untrustworthy, or disreputable characters is a difficult one and I don't know that there's a one-size-fits-all way to deal with it. In my House of Worms campaign, for example, all the characters are generally pulling in the same direction, united as they are by bonds of kindship. Instances of back-stabbing (broadly defined) are largely non-existent and that works for this particularly campaign. In other games I've refereed, on the other hand, there have been more examples of dubious behavior player characters and they made sense in context. 

There are also needs to be cooperation between players and the referee. Though the referee does mastermind the world and does set up and run the details, it's also true that the game remains a game for him as well, and that he likes to have fun playing too.

This is a topic on which I've written before: the referee as player. It makes me very happy to see the writers of Basic Role-Playing also saw it as a worthy topic. 

The player-characters should pit themselves against the world, not the referee. The referee should not be afraid to ask others for their opinions on game matters, and the players should not be afraid of debating rules questions or play opportunities with the referee.

This completely comports with my own experiences (and philosophy) as a referee.

Referee rulings should be final, though, and players must be willing to take losses if the referee is adamant in his thinking. Work out questions by discussion, not fiat, and players and referee should be willing to change their minds if necessary, and occasionally change the game somewhat to adjust to the situation at hand. 

To me, this is common sense. I particularly appreciate the fact that Stafford and Willis do not shy away from stating that "referee rulings should be final." In this, they're not very far off from Gary Gygax's comments in the Dungeon Masters Guide on related matters

Simple communication will build an enjoyable and understandable world to play in. The rewards of cooperation are great; hostility and resentment are fatal to play. Remember, the object of all this is to have fun.

This whole section in the BRP pamphlet is very important, but its final sentences quoted above are especially so. Sometimes, when I hear people talk about their experiences playing RPGs, I don't get the sense that they're having much fun doing so and I wonder why that is. If roleplaying games ceased to be fun for me, if all I ever did was complain about the games I'm playing or the people with whom I'm gaming, I would not hesitate to stop playing. 

In any case, I continue to be quite impressed by the original Basic Role-Playing pamphlet. Despite its short length, it contains a great deal of wisdom and is well worth reading if you've never done so. With luck, Chaosium might make it available once again.


  1. The original BRP might be the best intro product to RPGs ever and is certainly my favorite!

    Maybe it's the age when I first encountered their products, but I felt/feel that RQ, CoC and other Chaosium RPGs games of that time did such a great job of cutting through all the BS/Verbosity of typical RPG authors, and instead gets right to it in a concise and logical way. It was the complete opposite of AD&D, most FGU games, and a whole lot of others of the late 70s/early 80s time period.

  2. Two things...

    First, far more interesting and imaginative, yes, but most importantly, other people make the fantasy more like reality, which is consensual.

    Second, the objective of RPGs is to have fun, but how to achieve that fun varies. Immersion is key, and it's why we roleplay, as opposed to reading a book or gardening. Sometimes, striving for a sense of immersion details the fun, which is counterproductive.

  3. I was hoping the Classic Call of Cthulhu kickstarter would reprint that, as part of 1e coc, but no, sadly, they went with the 2e integrated product.

    Still 2 days left, for those who are on the fence:


  4. There is a word for things that are not fun: "work."

  5. It's been put in as a stretch goal.