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Reviews - Basic Roleplaying
by Demian Katz

Basic Roleplaying cover

Basic Roleplaying

Published by Chaosium
16 b & w pages
Published in 2002

I first encountered Chaosium's Basic Role-Playing booklet when I purchased Fantasy Paths, a set of tiles for use with miniatures in RuneQuest and other fantasy role-playing games. I later got additional copies from both Castle Paths and Village Paths as well as from several other products; Chaosium seemed happy to take almost any excuse to give this thing away, and I still have copies lying all over the place. The book was ostensibly included in these third-party products just in case the owner of the set didn't have a full-fledged RPG yet, but the truth of the matter is that it was really just a plug for RuneQuest, since as a stand-alone game it's pretty near useless. I suppose it was a mostly adequate introductory essay on role-playing at the time it came out, but the far superior red-boxed Dungeons & Dragons Basic Set that came out shortly after its release soon overtook it.

For me, the most memorable thing about 1982's Basic Role-Playing was its utterly pathetic solitaire adventure. As a connoisseur of such things, I was truly impressed by its pointlessness. It's sort of a tradition to include pointless solitaire adventures in role-playing rulebooks, but they usually at least feature some, well, role-playing; there should be at least a couple of decisions that feature different consequences for different actions. In Basic Role-Playing, though, the "solitaire adventure" is more like a cross between an example of play and a very simplistic quest requiring a GM. There are no numbered paragraphs or branches to follow. It's just a linear procession of text that tells you what decisions you made without giving you any say in the matter and then leads to an ending that basically says "and now make up what happens next." This is a joke, and a rather unfunny one at that.

Anyway, when I saw that Chaosium was re-releasing Basic Roleplaying (note that the new version removes the hyphen from the title), I first laughed, and then I realized it was a pretty good idea. Since D20 is becoming so prevalent, it would be kind of clever to stir up the market a little by repackaging the basic system from all of Chaosium's old games as an inexpensive, generic gaming engine. With some proper updating – well, let's be honest – with a complete overhaul, Basic Roleplaying could become a new and exciting way to bring people into the hobby.

Unfortunately, this product is not a complete overhaul. It's actually almost a word-for-word reprint of the original version of the booklet. I am honestly baffled. As I said, if this had been dramatically changed and rethought, it could perhaps have become a useful product. Unchanged, though, Basic Roleplaying remains hopelessly out of date and unhelpful (especially since RuneQuest, which the thing was designed to promote, is no longer with us).

At the other extreme, I can see why it might be fun to create exact reproductions of the original booklet. It's certainly possible that some people look back with great fondness on the original Basic Role-Playing, and if it was somebody's first game, they might want to own a copy of it for nostalgia's sake. Unfortunately, what Chaosium has done here is present the worst of both worlds – they've retained most of the old booklet's dated, unhelpful text, but they've updated it just enough to kill the nostalgia factor. It is a relic of the eighties with a hastily-applied veneer of new-Millennium gloss.

Most of the changes that have been made to the text are pretty straightforward: The acronym "FRP" (for Fantasy Role-Playing) has been changed to the more contemporary "RPG"; the description of the twenty-sided die has been updated to reflect the fact that such dice are no longer commonly numbered 0-9 twice; and references to defunct games and magazines (including good old RuneQuest) have been removed and, in some cases, replaced with references to the Internet. Other changes are more mysterious. Why has the Charisma stat been changed to Appearance even though it still functions as a measure of charisma, not attractiveness? Why have "kick" and "dagger" been removed from the weapons table? Why is there a giant squid on the cover? A few changes even make things worse. This edition adds at least two new errors: the sections are misnumbered so that section III is followed immediately by section V, and the original booklet's potentially confusing description of falling unconscious has now been "corrected" into something that is not only confusing but also blatantly wrong. I suppose the worst change of all, though, is the price. I felt kind of ripped off when I got this thing for free; I really can't see anyone paying $5.95 for it, especially since the only people likely to have an opportunity to buy it are already experienced gamers.

This is a tough decision when I consider some of the disappointing products I've reviewed lately, but I think the new Basic Roleplaying is a strong contender for my 2002 "What Were They Thinking?!" award. Anyone can create a disappointing and worthless product, but it takes a special talent to resurrect a twenty-year-old disappointing product and, despite its great potential for improvement, to make it worse. Kudos to Chaosium for a job spectacularly done.

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