East of Constantinople, West of Shanghai

The RPG Shelf: Basic RolePlaying


In the end I always go back to the first gaming system I really worked to exhaustion – the engine of The Call of Cthulhu, of Stormbringer, of Runequest. My goodness, of the ElfQuest RPG. Thieves’ World!
The game engine they call Basic RolePlaying (aka BRP).
I spent so many hours in my life playing with these rules, I could reasonably sit at a table without the handbook right now, and still be able to run a game with a minimum of fuss. More about this later.

And yes, this is a post mostly aimed at roleplayers, so maybe you might find it boring, or obscure, maybe even cryptic. I am sorry. Feel free to skip this.

As I think I mentioned in the past, roleplayers often look for the Holy Grail of roleplaying – the perfect engine, the one that will run smoothly anything you throw at it. Some will swear by GURPS, others by more recent stuff. I am no integralist – I can mention a handful of games that have served me well, and they all were able to digest anything I tried to run on them.
My general philosophy: if it works for you, it’s the right system.

I had a chat with some friends, a few days back, about the Old School Revival that’s all the rage right now and that we old gamers found rather silly. If the kids want to play using the old D&D rules, why don’t they just get themselves a copy of the old D&D Rules Cyclopedia on DriveThruRPG or on eBay and go with that? Why the reprints? Why this thing about “the all new system that’s exactly like what was published in 197x!”?
But we are old, of course, we all have shelfloads of games. We have a copy of the Rules Cyclopedia on one of those shelves.

I recently tried to put some order hereabouts, and found myself handling a stack of gaming handbooks that for some reasons were here by my desk. So while I was looking for a place to put that stuff and I said to myself that I should do a review of Atlantis (and I did), I started browsing the Basic RolePlaying handbook.

The reason: I was trying to remember if there’s a bunch of rules for playing primitive men – because I’d like to do some gaming stuff based on the Garr the Cunning stories. Good news: there is.

Browsing the handbook reminded me why I like it so much: the physical thing is a 400 pages book covering all the needs a generic gaming system should cover. This is a toolbox to create games.
In terms of looks, it is an old-fashioned book: printed in black and white, with double-column text and a lots of tables, not much in terms of art. The cover I always found pretty unappealing.
I probably described it once as “zen in its simplicity” (note to self: wrap this baby in a nice piece of brown craft paper, to enhance its zen quality), but let’s be blunt – in this time of color-printed, hardbound supplements, this is a pretty cheap thing that gets sold for a high price (35 euro or thereabouts).

But so are most of my old university books, my language books, and my programming handbooks: cheap but expensive, rough, utilitarian.
This handbook is not an object of art (as certain modern games like Eclipse Phase can be).
It’s a workhorse.
It’s MacGyver’s Swiss Army knife.
It is made to be annotated, filled with post-it notes and scribbles, highlighted, indexed, earmarked…

And the system within is the old reliable: percentile-based stats, flexible skill-list, straightforward magic system.
Like all the games I really like, the BRP is thoroughly hackable, easily and on the fly. This is the reason, in my opinion, why it manages to handle anything – once you get the basic ideas underlying the system, and you have a good idea of your setting, you can create all the house rules and the objects, spells, skills and stuff you need. You can drop whole chunks of it if they are superfluous. You can run anything.
You can improvise quick work-arounds on the fly, if needed.
This was the way we did it in ancient times, you see.

But as I said, this is because it works for me.
Your mileage might vary.
You can check out the basics (aha!) of the Basic RolePlaying system (but really you never saw it?) by downloading the free quickstart. An enterprising game master might be able to do wonders just with that.

As I mentioned, I’d like to do something with this engine.
But my free time is at a premium, and right now I don’t have a gaming group. We remain in the realm of wishful thinking.
But it’s been fun going a little Old School in my own way.

Author: Davide Mana

Paleontologist. By day, researcher, teacher and ecological statistics guru. By night, pulp fantasy author-publisher, translator and blogger. In the spare time, Orientalist Anonymous, guerilla cook.

7 thoughts on “The RPG Shelf: Basic RolePlaying

  1. Personally I have always had the impression that behind the OSR movement there was a lot of marketing by authors (and publishers) in search of their 15 minutes of fame.
    Having said that, I am one of the first to get a copy of Mythras, which is the engine behind the sixth edition of Runequest (and an evolution of the BRP) and I found it, albeit burdened and limited by metasetting, flexible and customizable .
    Great system.

    (Side note, what happens to you with the BRP happens to me with M&M 3rd ed. I can sit at the table without the manual and start playing without problems. It works for me.)


  2. The BRP handbook was one of my favorite jobs for Chaosium. It feels weird to me that it’s an out of print “collectible” book now.


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