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Reviews - Basic Roleplaying (2008)
by Demian Katz

Basic Roleplaying cover

Basic Roleplaying: The Chaosium Roleplaying System

Published by Chaosium
Revised by Jason Durall and Sam Johnson
Edited by Charlie Krank and Lynn Willis
Based on the Basic Roleplaying system created by Steve Perrin, Steve Henderson, Warren James, Greg Stafford, Sandy Petersen, Ray Turney and Lynn Willis
Basic Roleplaying system contributions by Ken St. Andre, William Barton, Bill Dunn, William Jones, Ben Monroe, Gordon Monson, Sam Shirley, Mark Morrison, Richard Watts, et al.
399 page perfect-bound book

Since its birth in the late seventies as part of RuneQuest, Chaosium's Basic Roleplaying has been used in a lot of different ways, distinguishing itself as perhaps the first stand-alone generic system and probably best-known as the core of Call of Cthulhu. Although the game system hasn't always been given the presentation it deserves (see my review of the 2002 release for a painful example), it has held up surprisingly well over the years and remains one of my first choices for running a game.

The key to Basic Roleplaying's success is that, as the name suggests, it's fairly basic. There are really only two core concepts that have to be understood. Most of the game is built around character skills that have a percent chance of success. Characters also have D&D-ish character attributes (Strength, Constitution, etc.), and most actions that aren't covered by skills are resolved by comparing relevant attributes on a "Resistance Table" and using the resulting percentage. Of course, there are also Hit Points to keep track of when people die, and there are a host of customizations that vary from game to game, but most of the game comes down to determining a percent chance of success, rolling some dice, and moving on. It also helps that everything in the game, from characters to equipment, is defined in the same terms (for example, weapons and armor have Hit Points that determine when they break), so there aren't a lot of disparate concepts to understand.

The percentage concept is quite easy to explain to new players, and it makes running a game quite smooth – you don't often have to wade through tons of rules to figure out how to deal with a given situation, and it's not hard to improvise something that feels consistent with the rest of the game. The system tends not to bog down and get in the way of role-playing, but it has enough game to it to feel like you're doing more than just playing pretend. It also has the best character experience system I've ever encountered: rather than accumulating arbitrary "experience points" and then leveling, you instead check off all the skills that you actually use during an adventure. At the end of the adventure, there is a chance that those skills will improve. A perfect example of how this system tends to just make sense, rather than feeling like a system for the sake of being a system.

The New Edition
The 2008 edition of Basic Roleplaying is certainly the most ambitious presentation of the game as a stand-alone system, following the lamentable 2002 booklet and a limited-distribution multi-volume version produced in 2004 as part of Chaosium's "monograph" line. In just under 400 pages, the book provides all that you need to run a game in practically any setting or style of play. In addition to the core rules, there are subsystems for magic, mutations, psychic abilities and super powers, plus substantial numbers of sample creatures, items and campaign worlds. No prior knowledge of role-playing is assumed, so the book is aimed at new gamers as well as experienced veterans. Being literally everything to everyone is an incredibly lofty goal, but this volume does an admirable job of coming pretty close to succeeding at a clearly impossible task. Exactly how successful the book is at satisfying your needs depends on where you fall in the audience...

Basic Roleplaying for Beginners
It's sort of an industry given that every role-playing game is written as though it is the first role-playing game the reader has ever seen, even though most games are only realistically going to be found by people who already have a basic idea of what they're about. Basic Roleplaying is no exception, devoting space to the expected "what is role-playing," "what does d20 mean" and "gamemastery tips" material. These sections are well-written, particularly the game mastering chapter and the sidebar on miniatures, but I still think this book is a hard sell as an introduction to role-playing. It's like giving somebody a thesaurus as an introduction to English literature – it's a great tool, but it's mostly a dry reference work, and it takes some experience to put all the pieces together into something useful. I would expect most beginners to be either intimidated or bored. A really motivated, creative potential gamer might find this incredibly inspirational, but the average person probably needs a bit more hand-holding to become comfortable with the hobby. Generic role-playing is a wonderful thing, but a narrower scope is generally an easier entry point.

Basic Roleplaying for Veterans
On the opposite end of the spectrum, players with a long history of using the Basic Roleplaying system will not be disappointed at all by this release. The authors of the current edition are long-time fans of the system, and they have not forgotten about its history. From the introduction, peppered with cover illustrations from past games using the system (anyone remember ElfQuest?), through to the appendix mapping variant skill names from multiple games to the generic forms used here, it's clear that every available reference was used to compile this volume. Great effort has been made to maintain compatibility with every Basic Roleplaying game. To accomplish this, some terms have been made generic (for example, the same "Power Points" fuel everything from psychic powers to magic, and most skill and power names are intentionally bland), and potentially incompatible ideas from different games have been presented here as parallel optional rules for players to choose from. This certainly has the potential to be confusing, but it's presented well – if you know what kind of rules you want to use, you can plug them into your game with reasonable confidence that they will interact well with the rest of the system. Basic Roleplaying offers the chance to add superpowers to Call of Cthulhu... or car chases and automatic weapons to RuneQuest. The possibilities are endless!

Basic Roleplaying for Game Masters
If you haven't previously played a Basic Roleplaying game and you're looking to start a campaign of your own design, this is definitely a worthwhile purchase. The book is an extensive tool kit, and it's really just a matter of choosing the options that fit your game. There are a lot of decisions available here. The game adjusts to four different power levels ranging from normal (where characters are everyday people) all the way up to superhuman (where characters are gods or superheroes), and the book does a good job of accounting for the differences between these styles of campaigns. The basic core system is sufficient for a light game, but players who prefer complexity have lots of optional subsystems to add. Need hit locations and critical hit tables? They're here. Need Call of Cthulhu-style sanity rules? It's here. What about weapons, armor and equipment ranging from fantasy to modern to science fiction? Here. About the only thing that the authors admit is beyond the scope of this volume is mass combat, and even that gets some loose guidelines and the promise of deeper coverage in a possible future volume. As a nice touch, the book actually provides a checklist of all the optional rules, so a game master can easily show players what is in effect in a given campaign.

One of the biggest decisions in building a game using this book is which Power system (or systems) to use. Each system provides a list of special abilities that can be applied to characters to give them unique powers beyond the more mundane basic skills along with rules for how and when they may be used. There are five options, all quite adaptable. Magic and Sorcery provide two different approaches to spellcasting, allowing different flavors of fantasy gaming (which is not to say that they're unsuitable for other genres as well). Mutations cover unusual physical changes to characters, both positive and negative. Psychic Abilities cover mental modifications. Super Powers are largely the domain of the costumed hero, but many can also be used in more mundane environments where some individuals stand out; they also stand out by having interesting customization rules – for example, you can reduce the cost of using a power by imposing prerequisites on its use or limitations on its effectiveness. It's also important to remember that these Power systems are not solely the domain of player characters - they can be applied to anything in the game. You can create all kinds of monsters by taking animals from the creature section and giving them Super Powers. You can create magical items by adding Magic or Psychic Abilities to swords and helmets. The game's internal consistency really shines here – almost anything is possible with a little creativity.

While this book provides rules for just about anything you can think of (or at least something close that you can adapt for your needs), it does not go beyond the basics. If you have a cool idea for a spell, you can probably find something similar here and adapt it, or combine a few abilities together to come up with reasonable rules to make it happen. However, you should not come to this book looking for cool spells to add to your campaign – it's all fairly basic, obvious stuff. This is not a criticism of the book; presenting crazy new ideas is simply beyond its scope. If you're looking for innovative new ideas, you may be disappointed, but if you're looking for solid general guidelines that adapt to nearly any application, you can't do much better.

Basic Roleplaying for Players
A game master building a new campaign may appreciate the broad scope of this book more than a player trying to participate in it once it is built. However, tools like the "Optional Rule Checklist" help players narrow their focus to the relevant sections, and the step-by-step character generation coverage is a decent guide to the broad range of options available. As with everything else in the book, professions and skills are described in general terms so that they adapt easily to any setting, but there's plenty of detail on how they can be used. The skill descriptions are particularly well-done, with every listing providing notes on how it adapts to various settings and explaining the effects not just of success or failure but also of fumbles and exceptional successes. Some negotiation may be necessary between the player and the game master to customize skills and powers, but just as the book provides the pieces necessary to build nearly any campaign world, is also does an admirable job of allowing nearly any character concept to be built.

Though it has a few typos and organizational quirks, the overall presentation of this book is above average, especially considering its size. A few rules seem a little out of place (why is Sanity covered in the "Settings" chapter?) and the index could use a little work (I'd rather see "Acid" as an entry by itself under the letter A rather than as a subsection of the "Spot Rules" listing), but these are relatively minor complaints. The artwork in the book reflects the diverse potential of the game and provides some unconventional possibilities (gun-wielding squirrels, campaigns built around genre-blending or less familiar cultures), but many pieces look dated or rushed, and the overall effect isn't especially stylish. Again, this doesn't particularly diminish the value of the book, but it might be a turn-off for some.

Basic Roleplaying isn't for absolutely everyone, but it's an excellent addition to anyone's gaming toolkit, especially if they already like the system or are planning on a do-it-yourself campaign. This is the best generic role-playing tool I've encountered, and it's an impressive encapsulation of thirty years of growth and development. There's still room for improvement, and I hope we see an even better edition in a few more years, but for now, this is quite good enough, and I look forward to putting it to use in my next game.

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