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Tempus Fugit: History for Games

Basic Roleplaying - The Big Fix

by Paul Elliott
Sep 10,2002


Basic Roleplaying - The Big Fix

This article forms a departure for Tempus Fugit. My intention was to use the column to offer advice on running historical-based roleplaying games. Over a year later I find that much of what I know is now down on record. I've fulfilled my original goal and my job is done. I still want to use the column for more irregular articles, though, and some of these may incorporate a historical angle, while others will not.

Here I want to give you an insight into how I 'rectified' the Basic Roleplaying rules (found in Call of Cthulhu, RuneQuest, Elric!, Superworld, Ringworld, and undoubtedly a few others I've forgotten). Ask any GM - they'll tell you the same thing - the system I use is fine ... except for ... and every GM has tweaked a rule here, changed a mechanic there, even trashed whole aspects of the rule system. I've done more than my fair share of tweaking. Like most GMs I've ripped up games and slotted in new rules, swiped rules from other games, added and added and added more rules until I finally gave up in frustration. These days I take a much leaner and organic approach to the games I modify. My overriding ethos is one of 'minimal disruption.' I try not to 'invent' new fixes or rules or use better ideas from other games. I look at the game as a whole and try and find a solution to the rule problem elsewhere in the rulebook. I've done this successfully with two systems: Basic Roleplaying, which I discuss below, and Classic Traveller, which I will discuss next time. Much of the article pertains to Call of Cthulhu, since other BRP games have come up with their own fixes for some of these problems (with varying levels of success).

Basic Roleplaying (BRP) has a loyal band of supporters as well as its fair share of detractors. Whichever side of the camp the gamer stands on, the simple truths about Basic Roleplaying (and Call of Cthulhu in particular) are as follows:

1 - BRP uses a fairly uninvolved game system, with simple percentile rolls being made against skill values (eg. 70% - roll 70 or under to succeed).

2 - With incarnations such as Call of Cthulhu the system is quick and easy to learn, often being described as an 'invisible' system or a 'non-' system.

3 - The combat rules tend to favor gritty play, with a survivability rate much lower than in more "cinematic" games when weapons are drawn or natural hazards appear.

Since BRP is a simple system with a very basic approach to task resolution, I want to keep it that way. I don't want to add new rules, create super-cool tables, redefine whole areas of the system, or anything so drastic. I want to find quite elegant and in-character fixes for the fundamental (and most often quoted) problems with Basic Roleplaying. And what are those? The most commonly associated problems with BRP include: a far lower correlation between attributes and skills than in most games, the lack of an established method to alter the difficulty of a task, the way that highly skilled characters still fail their tasks a lot of the time, and the hit point system in general. I'm sure there are others, but these are what concern me.

I Crashed the Car? Again?!

My first task is to find a satisfactory method of resolving varying difficulties of skill test. A pilot with 30% skill is going to find taxiing in rain easier than landing in fog with one engine on fire. A flat 30% skill rating doesn't help us, and some BRP sections use a minus 10% or minus 20% system to emulate this, while in other sections (notably firing guns at range) a division method is preferred (half, quarter and so on). Neither satisfies me. Bound up within the same BRP quirk is the obvious fact that a 30% pilot does not fail his flying tasks 70% of the time, he doesn't crash his plane 70% of the time. What does 30% mean?

For me 30% is a qualified practitioner. Not an experienced veteran or experienced professional, but someone who has been taught the skills and can just about do the job. In comparison, at 5% or 10% a player character pilot might be expect to have just begun flight training, or just flown solo for the first time - a novice. A veteran might be at 70% skill and an expert or master (the Call of Cthulhu rules tell us) would be at 90% or more. Obviously then, the BRP percentile 'roll under' technique should only be used to resolve exceedingly difficult tasks, tasks where a pilot rated 10% may well crash.

Using standard BRP nomenclature let's call the skill value the Active characteristic, and create a Passive characteristic to test it against. This Passive number is a difficulty rating scaling from 5 (routine) up to 50 (challenging) and the dizzy heights of 100 (formidable!). Now we can test the percentile skill against all kinds of variable tasks. If the Active characteristic is equal to or exceeds the Passive characteristic, the task has succeeded, don't bother rolling dice unless you feel something just might go wrong (and then only apply a fail on a result of 00). If the Active characteristic is less than the Passive characteristic then the character is trying to tackle something that is out of his experience. His player makes a standard percentile roll against the skill value (30% for our pilot). Obviously experience gains can only be made for successfully rolling your skill in a situation that is out of your experience in this way.

Let's say that a helicopter suffers an engine shutdown and must perform a forced landing (called an autorotate, a tricky manoeuvre taught to all student chopper pilots). This is a Passive characteristic of 20 (fairly routine). A newly licensed private chopper pilot (skill 15%) must roll his meagre 15% to land successfully. A 70% Vietnam chopper jock can perform an autorotate with his eyes closed. The GM asks his player to roll the dice and avoid a result of '00' (a freak accident). When the chopper jock is hit in the face by a piece of shrapnel he must test his 70% skill against the Passive characteristic of 100% (ouch!!) by rolling 70 or less on d100.

I've named these Active and Passive characteristics because they can be either skills or regular characteristics (such as STR, DEX and so on). Multiply the traditional BRP characteristic by 5 to get a 15 to 90 range. You can have lots of fun testing these things against whatever you like! Test Hide against the seeker's Spot Hidden, test INT against a foe's Track to realize false tracks have been laid, test STR against STR to hold a door shut. The possibilities are endless! Of course this bare bones system replaces the traditional Resistance Table that appears in every BRP rulebook.

Part of my rules clean up is the equalization of Base Chances. I state that 'specialized' skills (Languages, Pilot Aircraft, Archaeology etc.) begin at 00%; I state that 'common' skills (Climb, Spot Hidden, Library Use etc.) begin at 10%. I suppose the GM himself must decide which skills are 'common' or 'specialized,' using the original Base Chances as a guide.

Clumsy ... But A Great Athlete!

This task resolution satisfies me, and retains all the simplicity and unsophistication of the original - but it doesn't tie in those standard characteristics (INT, DEX etc.) which is often a complaint made against BRP. In many RPGs a high DEX character is better at athletics than a low DEX character, a high INT character is better at mechanics than a low INT character. It works like this in D&D, in Cyberpunk, in BESM, and in 9 out of 10 other systems. BRP does dabble in the concept: in RuneQuest separate tables award small skill bonuses for high characteristics and equally small skill penalties for low characteristics. In the stripped down Call of Cthulhu rules, two skills (Dodge and R&W Own Language) begin at a 'base chance' equal to a multiple of DEX or EDU. We could extend this system to every skill, but I think that is inelegant and clumsy. I like things simple.

My fix for tying standard characteristics into skills begins by loosely matching up each skill with an attendant characteristic. APP (which I run as charisma and personality as well as appearance) I align with Persuade, Credit Rating, and Fast Talk; DEX I align with Drive Auto, Pistol, Stealth, and Pilot Aircraft; INT I align with Archaeology, Mechanical Repair, and so on. During character creation no character can set a skill at a level higher than its relevant characteristic (when multiplied by 5). If you are stupid you aren't going to reach the heights of medicine, a doctor with an INT of 8 will only be able to set his Medicine skill at a maximum of 40%. GM's may want to let players push the skill values higher, but at a price, perhaps asking that each skill percentile now costs two skill points instead of one.

Shoot Me! Go on, I Won't Feel a Thing!

I don't get on with hit points and never have, but they fulfill a useful function that I understand. They are ablative, indicating not how hard your character is to kill, but how long he lasts within the adventure. I can live with that. In BRP a typical character has 12 hit points, but the weapons in the BRP world often inflict damage that has no substantial effect on a victim. A good, solid hit from a handgun or heavy sword might well do 6 points of damage, not enough to kill the character, and if a shock roll is made (because those 6 points are equal to half his hit points) there will be no effect on the character other than what the GM includes as in-game description. Stab wounds from knives and such have equally negligible results. Strange ...

I believe that in a game which tries to be gritty and errs on the side of realistic injury, every wound suffered should have some immediate and obvious effect on the victim. Treading on a six-inch nail might only be a 1 point injury, but you don't ignore it! Continuing with my theme of 'minimal disruption' my instinct is to use the rules for Stun which normally apply only to electric shocks, knock-out attacks, and so on. A character suffering any kind of wound is stunned for a number of combat rounds equal to the points inflicted on him. A 5 point gunshot injury will stun a character for 5 combat rounds.

I also want to utilise the BRP rules in the Call of Cthulhu rulebook for Shock. The player checks for unconsciousness, but whether awake or not the victim is badly injured, in pain and his situation steadily deteriorating. Lose 1 hit point every 3 hours until dead or in receipt of medical attention. In addition his skills are halved due to pain and shock, as are his STR, DEX, CON, INT and APP.

The Hospital Is Full of Tough Guys!

The way that healing works in BRP seems fairly common sense, but on examination is a little strange. Characters recover 1D3 hit points per week until fully healed; if receiving the attentions of a doctor (i.e. Medicine skill) this increases to 2D3 hit points per week. But this just means that tough guys with huge amounts of hit points spend longer recovering from injuries than those with only a few hit points.

My revision turns to the rules for recovery of Magic Points, where all Magic Points are returned after 24 hours and partial losses are returned on the same scale. Let's use a similar system. All hit points will be healed after 12 weeks, and lesser hit point losses will be restored at the same rate. Lost half hit points? You must wait for 6 weeks. Lost a quarter hit points, you must wait for 3 weeks. This is a little rough and ready, but it's the same basic rule that is used for Magic Points and so shouldn't prove too controversial.

First Aid and Medicine skill should obviously have an important part to play. First Aid can be matched against twice the hit points lost (the Passive Characteristic). With a success here 1D3 hit points are immediately restored and a deteriorating character in Shock will stabilize. Medicine skill has two major uses. It can be matched against twice the hit points lost to repair a serious (Shock) wound and allow that wound to begin healing at the normal rate (perhaps failure means further damage, say 1D3). It can also be used with a lesser injury to halve the recovery time - again simply test Medicine against twice the hit points lost.

Let's try an example: Leroy (hit points 14) is shot in the street with a 9mm and takes 8 points of damage, a very nasty wound. He is Stunned for 8 combat rounds, writhing in pain, bleeding and on the sidewalk. The injury is over half of Leroy's hit points, so he goes into Shock, blacking out and halving all of his skills, his STR, DEX, APP, CON and INT reduced to half. He is losing 1 hit point per 3 hours. The paramedics (56%) arrive and test their skill against the 80% wound. Let's say they make their roll and restore 2 hit points. Leroy stops bleeding (for now).

At hospital Leroy is rushed into surgery. The surgeon is 40% but the wound is still a Passive Characteristic of 60% and he must roll D100 to repair the injury and get Leroy on the mend. He fails and so Leroy loses 2 points. At the next attempt the surgeon makes his roll and so our patient must wait 6 weeks to reach full hit points.

Obviously there are many ways to address BRP's 'quirks', and this is just one method. I could go further but it's the ethos I want to get across here, just as much as the actual mechanics I created.

Next time: Classic Traveller!

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Tempus Fugit by Mithras