Many Basic Flavours

As with any game with its long pedigree, the publishing history of RuneQuest is awkward and complicated and has included more than a few missteps – I get the impression, for instance, that Moon Design/Chaosium these days consider farming the publication out to Avalon Hill and then to Mongoose to have been serious historical mistakes, and given how annoying overcomplex RuneQuest 3 was and generally shoddy the Mongoose RuneQuest products often were I can’t altogether disagree with them. However, between that, Mongoose’s SRD experiments, and Chaosium’s own attempts to promote the Basic Roleplaying system in other ways when they no longer had control of RuneQuest (including putting out the component booklets of RuneQuest 3 as Basic Roleplaying monographs), there has been a proliferation of fantasy-leaning setting-agnostic Basic Roleplaying-based systems out there.

I already covered Magic World in my review of the Stormbringer RPG, due to the fact that Magic World is basically 5th Edition Stormbringer with the Moorcock scraped off and a new setting tacked on the end, but it’s probably worth taking a look at various other BRP-based fantasy RPGs I’ve gathered over the years and see whether they are entirely redundant, or whether their differing focuses makes them useful for different purposes. It seems particularly apt at this point in time because the new Moon Design-controlled Chaosium has made it clear that generic or setting-neutral RPGs are not where their heart is at: they would rather put out games where, as in pre-Avalon Hill editions of RuneQuest, or Call of Cthulhu, or Stormbringer, the game is constructed around supporting a strong setting from the get-go, rather than a setting being an afterthought, opting to allow other publishers to struggle over the crowded “generic BRP-ish fantasy” space.

Basic Roleplaying (“The Big Yellow Book”)

Aside from the Worlds of Wonder boxed set, which rather felt more like a demo of what BRP was potentially capable of as opposed to a fully developed game with enough meat on its bones to sustain long-term play, this was Chaosium’s first real attempt to push BRP as a setting-independent system capable of handling a range of different genres. Jason Durall was handed the mammoth task of poring over the entire Chaosium back catalogue and coming up with a unified version of the system; what he delivers is a truly mammoth toolkit which will be very useful to any referee who wants to cook up their own homebrewed BRP-based game.

The major problem facing Durall in pulling this off was the way different iterations of BRP offered very different approaches to critical rules features. Do you go with skill categories, with attributes contributing to bonuses in particular categories, or do you not bother and just go with baseline probabilities for all the skills? Do you use an EDU stat? Do you use RuneQuest-style Strike Ranks, or do you just have people act in combat in order of DEX? Do you use hit locations or a global pool of hit points?

Durall’s solution is to provide all of the above, offering a range of optional rules for the referee to consider using. Unlike in some games, this isn’t a matter of optional rules layering on extra complexity to taste; not only are some of the options genuinely mutually exclusive, but in some spots you have to pick one option or the other to make a call on how your game is going to handle something. Additional flexibility is given in the form of guidance on what sort of choices should be made in character generation for particular power levels, from the ordinary to the superheroic.

The price paid for this is clarity – although Durall moves heaven and earth to make the rules easy to follow, there’s still a lot of “if you are using this option, do this, if you are playing a normal-tier game, do that” and so on. In an ideal world, you could input the options you wanted to use in a particular campaign into a program on the Chaosium website which would then generate a player handbook for your campaign just presenting the options you are using.

As it stands, Durall offers the next-best solution by offering up a handy checklist covering all the important optional rules, so you can just present your group with a completed checklist (or negotiate which options to use together) and they can then use that to decipher the character generation process. Though he doesn’t go so far as to say “these are the options you tick to get Call of Cthulhu, these are the ones you tick to get Superworld“, he does provide a wide range of example genres of game with guidance on where to set the power level dial and which subset of optional rules to use for each to start out with.

Those looking for a truly complete collection of Chaosium’s rules to date will also be disappointed – in particular, some varieties of magic are missing from the Powers chapter (which also covers psionics, mutations, and superpowers), and all the types of magic and powers presented are rather truncated for space. On top of that, some additional subsystems from past books are absent – for instance, Nephilim had quite a nice set of guidelines for working out just how much trouble a police investigation of the PCs’ actions might cause, which strikes me as being useful in any setting with reasonable standards of policing, but you won’t find those rules here.

This is a sensible decision, though, because even as it stands the book is already an imposing tome and rather dense with it. Even with the checklist and Durall’s excellent work on keeping things clear and easy to follow, picking through the thicket of options is a bit of a job. This may explain the shift back to self-contained core books in the BRP line with products like Magic World. Ultimately, the big yellow libram of Basic Roleplaying feels rather akin to FUDGE, since like that text it is a toolkit from which a game can be constructed, rather than a ready-to-play game in its own right. Even those games covered in this article that don’t come with a premade setting are much easier to use straight out of the book than this, because their designers opt to make decisions that, by the nature of this project, Durall had to leave open.

As a result of this, Basic Roleplaying in this incarntion isn’t “basic” at all. Whilst the book is a useful tool in the hands of referees who are experienced enough with BRP-based games to know what they want out of them and have enough time on their hands to use this book to craft their own bespoke iteration of it, it’s in no sense a good introduction to the system and dooms itself to be a hardcore-fans-only product.

Although under Charlie Krank some attempt was made to support the Big Yellow Book with a scattering of supplements and a line of monographs, I never had the impression that Chaosium really had a firm direction planned for the line. The new Chasoium haven’t completely left fans of the line high and dry – they’ve said that even though they aren’t going to print any more copies of the Big Yellow Book for the traditional distribution channels, they will be keeping it available via PDF and print-on-demand for those who want it. However, extensive support probably shouldn’t be expected beyond that, since it simply doesn’t fit the new Chaosium’s declared strategy of putting out self-contained games with strong settings intimately woven into and supported by the system, and given that Big Yellow didn’t exactly set the world on fire outside of the Chaosium faithful I can’t really fault them for considering it a low priority.

Use This When: You are feeling creative and want to design a bespoke BRP-inspired RPG of your very own.

Legend

Legend is the game formerly known as Mongoose RuneQuest II, before Mongoose lost the RuneQuest licence. Designed for them by Laurence Whitaker and Pete Nash, it presents a substantial tidying-up of the previous edition of Mongoose RuneQuest. A lot of the innovations of that game are recognisable here – a split between common skills which every character can access and more advanced skills not available to anyone without appropriate training, the clever way each skill’s base chance is calculated by adding together two attributes, the use of a budget of combat actions in combat, and so on.

To a certain extent, the main work of Legend is tidying this up somewhat. For instance, to my eye it seems to me that the skill list has been tweaked and toned to, amongst other things, make sure that some attributes didn’t end up in the position of contributing to far more skills than others, a welcome change because it means that whilst characters will vary in their fields of natural competence, it will be rare for a starting character to outright suck next to their compatriots unless they have rolled miserably on all of their attributes. Other tweaks include improvements to the combat system (which actually makes sense this time) and the magic system, as well as playing down (though not eliminating) the feat-like character options and other design issues which had reminded people of D&D 3.X when the original Mongoose Runequest came out.

The really exciting thing that Legend brings to the table is the inclusion of special actions you can take in combat under the right circumstances. For instance, as a defender you might not have a weapon or shield that will allow you to effectively parry a particular weapon’s attack, but it can still be worth rolling a defensive reaction anyway, because if you get a better class of roll than the attacker you can get to activate one or more special defensive moves to help swing things your way (though if the attacker rolls better than you they may likewise be able to get some special moves off). This is a neat way of avoiding the swinginess of combat in some incarnations of BRP and avoid the whole “I hit you/nope, I parried so your success is cancelled” syndrome.

The Legend rules have undergone a few weird U-turns as far as the extent of their “openness” goes. The original edition of Mongoose RuneQuest came out under an OGL, but the second edition didn’t at first. Then, when the retitling happened, the rereleased Legend core book came out under an OGL again. If you want to be charitable, you might interpret this as Mongoose deciding to use an OGL to encourage people to put out Legend-compatible material in order to make up for the loss of what draw the RuneQuest name brings these days. If you want to be uncharitable, you might see it as an attempt to make it difficult for Loz and Pete to prevent people putting out material which is compatible with their version of the game. For when Mongoose and the RuneQuest overlords parted ways, the Rune Lords smiled on Pete and Loz, who started a new venture – The Design Mechanism – with an eye to putting out the version of RuneQuest they’d actually envisioned creating.

This divorce might have been best all round. Whilst Legend is a perfectly functional document, by itself it doesn’t really feel especially exciting; the inclusion of the special combat moves is fun, but as with the previous version of Mongoose RuneQuest I can’t feel motivated to use Legend for very much when there’s plenty of other options for fantasy BRP-based rules out there which are much more flavourful and generate much more enthusiasm in me. Moreover, in interviews Loz and Pete have expressed dissatisfaction with Mongoose’s handling of MRQII – uninspiring presentation, unexpected cuts to the required page count, a really annoying-sounding failure to incorporate the final round of proofreading corrections before going to print, and general sloppy editing – and based on the reviews I have seen of the wider Legend product line it looks like those issues have persisted. See, for instance, this thread about the Legend adaptation of the D20 fantasy adventure The Spider God’s Bride, wherein it becomes distressingly clear that whoever did the conversion job barely understood how the Legend magic system works – to the extent that, to my eye, it looks like the big bad magic-using baddie will fail at casting spells more often than not! Apparently the NPC stats in the product were revised, but even then the revision has its issues compared with the original D20 version. As much as I like some Mongoose products – the first editions of their versions of Traveller and Paranoia are, I think, the best versions of the games in question out there – their quality control has always been patchy, and it seems like the Legend line is one of those which they’ve taken a more “cheap and cheerful” approach with.

Use This When: You really want to run a BRP-based fantasy game, you don’t have any other rulebooks to hand, and you’re willing to pay a dollar to get to use special moves in combat rather than just downloading OpenQuest for free. (If you hadn’t already guessed, I’m not going to hang onto my copy of Legend – I just don’t see a situation coming up where I’m going to be keen to use it.)

RuneQuest 6/Mythras

So, Legend has its issues, but has the advantage of being available very reasonably. Let’s take a look at the game currently known as RuneQuest 6 and which will later this year be branded as Mythras – is what it brings to the table enough to justify the price point?

Well, for a starter, because it hasn’t been hacked down to provide a loss-leader SRD, Mythras (which I will refer to this game as for the rest of this review on the basis that it’s probably best for everyone if we all get used to the name change ahead of time) is able to provide much more in the way of examples and explanation, with sidebars on many pages applying the various ideas in the rules to a sample character whose adventures you can follow all the way through the book, much as was the case in the core books for Runequest 2 and 3. In addition to the special combat moves from Legend, it also introduces the idea of combat styles – rather than having skills in particular weapons or combination of weapons, your combat style skill gives a distinct flavour to your combat, and has an influence not just on what weapons you use in combat but also comes with particular traits that give you advantages in specific situations. Combined, these two features make basic, non-magical combat more flavourful in Mythras, though at the same time a bit more cinematic.

In fact, it’s the flavourful handling of combat that makes Mythras stand out from the BRP pack, but seems to have simultaneously made it unsuitable for the new version of RuneQuest that Chaosium is cooking up. The combat here is great for cinematic action and for games where combat is significant and you can attain a high degree of martial prowess without ever dipping into magic. As explained in the most recent designer’s notes for the new RuneQuest, for Gloranthan gaming purposes Chaosium are more after a gritty system where once you hit a certain level of combat skill you then bring in magic as the deadlock-breaker – a good theory sometimes let down in practice in past editions due to players being reluctant to obtain and use spells by sacrificing POW. The new tweaks to the RuneQuest systems sound like they will be great both for presenting that style of combat and making RuneQuest cults even more flavourful than they already are, but at the same time it makes sense that Chaosium opted not to include combat special moves and the like, because aside from the reasons they have already stated for walking away from the Design Mechanism approach the inclusion of combat special moves and the like in the system would risk upstaging magic.

That said, if you really wanted to run a Gloranthan campaign using Mythras, the core book has pretty much done all the heavy lifting for you. Magic systems corresponding to the various types of magic in Glorantha are provided, a useful framework for designing cults is also present, so it honestly wouldn’t be that hard to do. You could do a bunch of work converting Gloranthan spells in the like, or just not worry too much about canon and go with what’s already in this book; more effort would be needed to make an appropriate “Gloranthan Mythras” as a commercial product, but for the purposes of a home game it’s already close enough unless your group is particularly fussy about canon. At the same time, the Design Mechanism’s supplement line has shown that Mythras is adaptable to a range of different settings, with the recent Luther Arkwright supplement showing how it can be adapted for more modern eras.

Additional system features include no less than five fleshed-out magic systems for you to pick and choose from and decent rules for incorporating Pendragon-style Passions in a way which is still important but doesn’t quite overwhelm the system the way that the Passions do in Pendragon (not a slam on Pendragon, by the way – it makes sense that Passions are so potent there, partly because the game is largely meant to be driven by them and partly because in the absence of RuneQuest-style battle magic Pendragon uses Passions as the deadlock-breaker much of the time).

I can’t help but think that the Myth in Mythras is at least partly intended as a little dig at Legend – especially since Pete and Loz have not exactly been overwhelmingly complimentary about the experience of working with Mongoose (and nor have Moon Design, for that matter). Comparing the sleek, purring sports car that is Mythras with the rather bland nonentity which is Legend, I kind of see the point. To a large extent, Legend is the theatrical release of this game, with an irritating voice-over and tacky changes to the plot mandated by the studio. Mythras, conversely, is the director’s cut, with the game presented as the designers originally intended and benefiting from an extra round of polishing in the light of further play to boot. On balance, I don’t think it quite feels right for Glorantha, though that’s entirely down to a personal taste issue there, and I’ll certainly be interested to see what new settings emerge for Mythras in the future.

Use This When: You want very flavourful and quite cinematic non-magical combat.

OpenQuest

Written primarily by Newt Newport (with a few contributions by others), OpenQuest began as an exercise in taking the first version of the Mongoose RuneQuest SRD and producing a more rules-light version of it; according to the interesting timeline of the game’s development tucked into the back of the book, early feedback suggested that it felt too much like RuneQuest with the rough edges filed off – which was what Newt was aiming at, but is also something anyone with access to the SRD can do for themselves. Newport was thus inspired to go a bit further and make additional changes to the game, to better reflect the way he runs his own BRP/RuneQuest derived home games, which he has something in the region of twenty years of experience with.

The end result is a game which reminds me of a radically simplified version of RuneQuest 3, sharing that edition’s setting agnosticism (and taking it further by removing culture as a default component of character creation) whilst avoiding going overboard on complexity to the same extent and rolling back a lot of Mongoose Runequest‘s innovations. In particular, the feat-like heroic abilities from Mongoose’s game are out, as is the distinction between basic and advanced skills – everyone starts out with access to all skills, intrinsically implying a game set in a comparatively simple society where the basics of any particular area of knowledge are widely available and easily acquired.

What makes the OpenQuest 2 Deluxe rulebook such a treat is how approachable it is – the system is supported by plenty of examples, there’s a decent sample setting offered with some really interesting fault lines and lots of freedom to interpret what the truth behind them is and how they shake out, and a lot of insight into adventure construction and formats. A particularly nice feature is the idea of a “Realm Quest”, a situation that the entire area the PCs are adventuring in is faced with, and the notes on how different tiers of characters may interact with it – particularly low-powered sorts might simply be out to survive it, mid-tier sorts will ponder how they can profit from it, whilst high-tier sorts will typically be out to resolve it to the benefit of their Realm.

As far as character generation goes, Newport evidently has little patience for games where the PCs start off fragile, since by default character generation is set up to yield mid-tier characters, though enough information on different tiers of play is provided to allow you to lower or raise the starting levels if you wish. On top of that, by giving everyone a set portion of skill points in each different skill category, Newport guarantees that most characters will have a baseline level of competence in most areas of expertise, though if you want to specialise in one area at the cost of competence in areas there’s options for that; this is handy for newcomers to the system, since it makes it quite difficult to create a character who is very badly unbalanced.

On the whole, OpenQuest succeeds at accomplishing what very few games manage – it’s able to be a release that I would feel 100% comfortable in putting in the hands of an interested neophyte to tabletop RPGs who wanted to run a game. A newcomer running OpenQuest by the book will probably not go far wrong and odds are they will turn out an adventure which is an enjoyable experience for their players. That is a rare accomplishment in the field and deserves kudos.

Use This When: You want a system that everyone can access easily and master quickly.

Renaissance

Penned by Peter Cakebread and Ken Walton, Renaissance is the system they cooked up for the rerelease of Clockwork & Chivalry. Originally, Clockwork & Chivalry was put out as a third party supplement for Mongoose’s Runequest II; however, the demise of Mongoose’s Runequest prompted the duo to look at cooking up their own system, which would simultaneously allow them to avoid the pitfalls that come with tying their product to somebody else’s product line and free them from having to maintain compatibility with Mongoose’s take on Runequest, allowing them to tailor the system (or rather, OpenQuest, which Cakebread and Walton used as their starting point) to be more suitable for the time period in question.

The end result works nicely for more or less any period of Western history ranging from the early development of black powder firearms to just before the Victorian period (at which point my inclination would be to use something like Cthulhu By Gaslight if I wanted a BRP-flavoured system for the 19th Century). Character generation consists of rolling up stats, selecting a social class (with a breakdown that broadly reflects the social order from the demise of feudalism to the Industrial Revolution), selecting a profession, choosing a political or religious faction (which can include various forms of “Self-Interest”), and then spending free points on skills. The baseline at which skills start are derived from your statistics, and then you get bonuses to skills based on your social class, profession, and a little something from your faction; skills are divided into basic and advanced categories, with everyone having some ability in the basics but the advanced stuff only applying if you specifically got it from one of your choices or spent your customisation points on it.

If you’re reasonably conversant with BRP and Runequest variants, this is a nice, brisk character generation system with gives you enough of a free hand with your customisation points to get you the character you want but at the same time makes sure that every character has a broad enough range of competences to have a range of useful choices but at the same time have sufficient weak spots to be interesting, and also ensuring that your character will have the baseline level of skill necessary to be an averagely competent member of their class and profession. You get enough free skill points to have a reasonable level of customisation but a hard cap on how many free points you can spend on any particular skill helps prevent you from specialising too narrowly.

As far as the combat system goes, the system is clever enough to simply and easily distinguish between matchlock, wheellock, and flintlock firearms, and those with and without rifling, and the actual combat process will be reasonably familiar to experienced players whilst having some fun wrinkles – for instance, there’s a quite simple and effective system for handling dual weapon use like the iconic sword-and-pistol combination, and there’s also a nice fast system for coming up with critical hits whenever you inflict a major wound on someone.

The book also includes rules for alchemy and witchcraft, based on the treatment of those magic systems in Clockwork & Chivalry, which is a good call in my view: whilst the clockwork system is very specific to that setting, alchemy and witchcraft were things many people believed in during the time period in question and consequently a wide range of historical fantasy settings drawing on the black powder era could utilise them. The only real gap in the document is a lack of historical details about the period itself, but that rather makes sense – it’s not meant to be a system plus a setting in one book, it’s meant to be a SRD-type thing to provide a system underpinning a whole range of settings.

On the whole, historical settings have been extremely well-served by BRP variants over the years – Call of Cthulhu alone has covered Rome, the Dark Ages, the Victorian period, the 1920s and more, and that’s just counting products published via Chaosium. However, by my reckoning there’s a whole bunch of BRP derivatives which are optimised for pre-gunpowder eras, and several that are good for post-Industrial Revolution eras, but Renaissance is the only one out there which I feel really bridges the gap between those two. I’ve really enjoyed the sessions of the Clockwork & Chivalry campaign my Monday evening group has engaged in so far, and if I were to run a historical game set during the black powder period and a BRP-based system was what was called for, Renaissance would certainly head up the shortlist.

Use This When: The Bronze Age-to-medieval scope of most other BRP fantasy games begins to feel stale.

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2 thoughts on “Many Basic Flavours

  1. Pingback: Two Systems, Both Generic In Dignity… – Refereeing and Reflection

  2. Pingback: A Quick Introduction to What We Already Know – Refereeing and Reflection

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