Big Eyes, Small Mouth 2nd Edition
Big Eyes, Small Mouth 2nd Edition Playtest Review by Ricardo J. Méndez Castro on 12/04/02
Style: 4 (Classy and well done)
Substance: 5 (Excellent!)
An excellent and flexible generic roleplaying system. A playtest review and side-by-side comparison with Chaosium's Basic Roleplaying System on the same campaign (apples to oranges, I know). Full attack!
Product: Big Eyes, Small Mouth 2nd Edition
Author: David L. Pulver and Mark C. MacKinnon
Company/Publisher: Guardians of Order
Line: Big Eyes, Small Mouth
Page count: 278
Year published: 2001
Comp copy?: yes
Playtest Review by Ricardo J. Méndez Castro on 12/04/02
Genre tags: Fantasy Science Fiction Modern day Historical Horror Far Future Space Comedy Anime Espionage Conspiracy Post-apocalyse Old West Vampire Gothic Asian/Far East Superhero Generic
I must admit I've never been much of a fan of fully generic systems. Oroboros didn't impress me; The Window, while it has some good concepts, has a somewhat clunky dice mechanic that never took with my players; and the Chaosium Basic Roleplaying System, the closest thing to a generic system that I use, isn't really generic enough to accommodate different power levels and say, go from the gritty horror of Call of Cthulhu or the impending doom of Elric to an action-based cinematic horror game.
Nevertheless, when it came the time for my brother to start a new action-heavy campaign of ancient Catholic church conspiracies, vampire sects and horror, he decided to go with Chaosium's BRP: it was what we new best, and its skill system seemed flexible enough to allow us to use percentages for anything from spell-casting abilities to swordfight to deciding mental power contests. It never worked properly, however, and it seemed that the system needed to be twisted too far out of shape for it to work with the style that the players preferred.
I had been eyeballing Big Eyes, Small Mouth (BESM) for a while, uncertain if it would fit the bill better than the BRP. Players were reluctant to switch as well, being in love with their percentile dice and gradually-increasing skills. It was then that RPG.net kindly sent us a copy to playtest, which provided the perfect excuse to switch systems on the campaign - even if for a while.
The playtest went better than expected and BESM is now the current favorite gaming system for Dracul: Key to Hell.
BESM comes in a book smaller than what I'm used to (around 9x6.5 inches) that is just the same size as my Domu paperback and is, from what I'm told, the standard manga size. It is printed full color in glossy paper, and comes with both a comprehensive index (which seems to be correct) and a table of contents (which is at least 60% wrong - you'll have to download corrected version on PDF).
The book is separated on chapters for Introduction, Character Creation, Special Attributes and Defects, Game Mechanics, Expanded Game Mechanics, a chapter on Roleplaying in an Anime World and finally a Reference Section, which includes sample characters, the index and some character sheets. The game system is modular (as we'll see afterwards) and the chapter division is helpful in organizing the different areas.
It is fully illustrated, with some beautiful artwork, some amateurish and rather shoddy drawings, but mostly with good quality images. The font type is readable and there are both plenty of examples and summary boxes scattered throughout the book.
Attributes, abilities and defects
Character creation starts with the usual Game Master discussion and character outline. Here the GM must determine the power level of the game, and based on this, assign a total of points for character creation (say, 15 points for a low-powered game of Perfect Blue or 55 points when you want to have of people that would mangle Tetsuo without spilling their coffee).
Players can do two things with these points:
The three stats are pretty self explicative: Body is used for overall health, strength, dexterity, constitution, appearance, etc.; Mind represents your character's mental abilities and Soul your willpower and spirit (sort of like Power in Call of Cthulhu). Raising a stat one point costs you one character point, and they range from Completely and utterly Useless (0) to Significantly above human average (6) and Best in the Universe (12).
Attributes have a certain point cost per level (up to 5), and the higher the levels the more benefits they bring your character. Most attributes are associated with a certain stat. They are varied, compromising things like Appearance (to make you better looking than average), Damn Healthy! (extra hit points), Gun Bunny (interesting combat knacks like One Bullet Left or Steady Hand) or Mechanical Genius. Guidelines are also provided for the creation of unique attributes.
Special abilities are an optional component, since they provide extra whizz-bang capabilities to players like Weather Control or Resurrection abilities, and players should of course check with GMs before attempting to use one of these for their characters.
What if you're missing some points? You can then take on some interesting defects, such as Not So Fast, Nemesis, Skeleton in the Closet or Marked; which will provide you either 1 or 2 points depending on the severity of the defect and how much it actually impedes your progress. A guideline of maximum 8 defects is provided, but GMs can modify this up or down if they want to fine tune the amount of extra points a player can get this way.
Skills are another optional component of the BESM system and, from what I gather, weren't included in the first edition (I've never seen it myself). Just as attributes, Skills have levels (1 to 5) and an associated stat. Every character gets 20 skill points with which to buy skills, plus any bonuses or minuses they might have from the Highly Skilled attribute or Unskilled defect.
Here's an interesting thing: while the Attribute point cost per level is fixed, Skill cost depends on its usefulness in the setting - and the more useful it is the more expensive it will be. For instance, Piloting has a high cost of 5 in a Space Opera setting, but a much lower cost of 1 in Occult Horror. Using the same logic, Acrobatics costs 5 points per level in a Martial Arts setting but only 2 points per level in a Modern Military setting.
While this seems to make no sense at all at first sight, it gives the campaign an interesting twist since it makes it impossible for any one character to be a master of all important trades, and encourages the purchase of secondary skills that add color (for example, Political Sciences on a Horror setting).
Game mechanics use two six-sided dice for making Skill Checks, Stats checks or Attack/Defense rolls (note that Attributes are nowhere to be seen - I'll come back to that later on).
Stat checks are used when you ability is more important than any related skill you have (if they are being used). You roll your two dice, and if the result is less than or equal that your Stat Value (after applying any modifiers that the GM might deem appropriate) then you succeed. A natural roll of 2 (two 1s) is always a success, and a 12 always fails.
Skill checks are used, of course, for checking against one of the skills of the character. The dice are rolled against the relevant stat, and the higher your skill level, the higher the bonuses you get to the roll.
Combat rolls are rolled against your Combat Value (an average of your three stats) and modified by any relevant combat abilities you acquired. Weapon damage is always constant, something that I believe is a bone of contention but that worked well for us.
You might have noticed that I didn't mention any attribute checks. That is because attributes are something that you just have - you don't roll against them. A character with One Bullet Left, for instance, will always have one bullet left at the end of a shoot-out, without having to roll for luck or anything of the sort. If you don't use skills, actually, BESM can almost become a diceless system for most of the session, since in anything else other than combat attributes can take care of most situations.
I've tried to skip over most of the hard system points to get to this part, since I want to give you a glance of the system and not obviate the need for buying the book.
Now, how does Big Eyes, Small Mouth fares in a setting where you have spell-casting sword-wielding Templar Knights, gunslingers, shape-changing wraith-like characters, vampires, demons and fallen orders looking for the Grail and the Spear of Destiny, not to mention something that looks suspiciously like Nobilis and bark oblique orders from time to time?
First of all, assigning different power levels in points to the different characters and NPCs (depending on if somebody is a Knight Hospitaler, a Dracul or a Demon) allows for creating characters that will have a certain ceiling when it comes to abilities.
Character creation is simple, and since the game system is modular you can always tailor it for how much detail your players want. Skills, for example, were well received in our group, probably because their background with the BRP system, but you can leave them out if you want a lighter system. Having different costs for skills depending on how relevant they are eliminated a common syndrome on the BRP, which was the question of why putting an extra 10% to Credit Rating if it could be used to raise your Rifle skill.
The colorful attributes free the players to make action-movie stunts, such as declaring full attack (forfeiting the chance of defense for an attack bonus) and run screaming towards an enemy, jumping over them at the last moment and then stabbing them on the back, while at the same time throwing a knife at an enemy.
Actually, fights are so fluid and dreamlike that my brother described it as a roleplaying system by John Woo. All our players, who were originally reluctant to leave behind the BRP system, embraced BESM when they realized that it fit the campaign much better than the BRP ever could.
All is not roses, however. We never quite got the rules for dynamic sorcery, and they seemed complicated and easily open for player abuse (and to use my brother's words, boring). Since magic was an important part of the campaign, a replacement had to be found. Fortunately, BESM allows us to implement specific spells in the way of Special Attributes, so our players would take the spells they wanted - as long as they paid for them in character points.
Also, a Sanity stat is missed, to keep track of how mentally balanced the players are. Braulio decided to use Energy points as a substitute, a patch that works well.
Am I going to switch my Delta Green campaign from the BRP to BESM? Most certainly not: Chaosium's BRP has a gritty, detailed quality that I love and that my players have become used to. But BESM has proved its usefulness for action- (or at least special effects- ) heavy scenarios, and they already started playtesting it for a cyberpunk campaign set in mid-21st century. I'm sure that we won't be playing DnD 3rd Edition ever: anything you can do in fantasy or Space Opera with DnD, you can do with BESM as well.
My only question right now is how well would it work for more down-to-earth scenarios, something along the lines of Call of Cthulhu or Twin Peaks. I'll let you know if we ever get to playtest that, but for now, feel confident that BESM is a solid system that will probably adapt to most settings you can think of.
Hell, I'm already itching with the possibility of playing a couple of Star Wars session under this system.