Saturday 4 November 2023

[Review] Basic Roleplaying: Universal Game Engine

While the OGL-Gate scandal earlier this year might not have toppled the 800-pound gorilla of the tabletop industry, some publishers still benefited greatly from it. Chaosium was one of them. They held kickass sales, quickly made a bunch of out of print books available again, jumped early on the ORC bandwagon, and churned out a new edition of Basic Roleplaying in under three or four months1. Yes, we are talking about the same Chaosium, that told us last year that there are no plans for BRP in the near future, released a lackluster OGL/SRD2 a few years ago, and has books in the pipeline that have been delayed for years3. But I digress...

Past and present.


Back in the day when OD&D was released there was much rejoice, but of course it didn't satisfy everyone. There were people who thought it was a complicated mess. Enter Tunnels & Trolls. There were others who preferred sci-fi over fantasy. Thus Traveller was born. And then there were those who thought D&D is too unrealistic, including SCA founder Steve Perrin and his friends. They created RuneQuest, a percentile skill-based system with revolutionary features like freeform character creation, abilities improving by usage, realistic combat with opposed attack and parry rolls, point-based magic system, per hit location damage, and so on. Later they realized that their system works well for other genres too, including eldritch horror (Call of Cthulhu), dark fantasy (Stormbringer), superheroes (Superworld), science-fiction (Ringworld).

First released in 1980, the original BRP (pronounced as "burp", at least by me) condensed the core of the Chaosium system into a 16 pages long booklet. It was handed out with other games as a tutorial, packed into the Worlds of Wonder boxed set along with four genre books, released on its own, and got expanded by a stream of supplements. Fourth edition, also known as the Big Gold Book after its chunky size and iconic cover, is different beast: it is a compilation of all kinds of mechanics and content Chaosium found worthy to include in a single volume generic multi-genre rpg.

The brand new Basic Roleplaying: Universal Game Engine is the revised edition of the BGB. If you are familiar with the BGB, you can skip the Mechanics and Content sections and jump right to What's New.


As expected from Chaosium, the production values are top notch. The Vitruvian Person montage on the front cover is both a great piece of art that emphasizes the generic nature of the ruleset and a cool homage to the BGB's cover. The interior illustrations showcase a good variety without becoming a cacophony of inconsistent art styles. With a subtle but background, a clean layout, and warm brown headers and headings the rulebook is pleasing to look at. It is also printed on a thick matte paper, has a proper sewn binding, comes with a neat ribbon bookmark, and smells good. I love it!

There is one thing that slightly bothers me, which might be a dealbreaker for some. BRP:UGE has roughly the same amount of content squeezed into its 264 pages as the BGB had on 404 pages4. This is only partly because of better editing and layout, and has more to do with tiny fonts and dense text. The charts are the worst offenders here, with their small condensed font that's straining to read even for my youthful eyes. Feels like a step back after the immensely readable Call of Cthulhu 7e Keeper Rulebook or RuneQuest: Roleplaying in Glorantha.


Nice loot. I hope your GM doesn't
use the encumbrance rules.
BRP describes characters using seven or eight characteristics (Strength, Constitution, Size, Intelligence, Power, Dexterity, Charisma, and optionally Education) ranging from 3-18 for humans5, a bunch of derived characteristics (Damage Modifier, Hit points, Power points, Fatigue, Sanity, etc.), a few dozen percentile skills, powers, and personal details. How complicated, lengthy, and random the character creation process is largely depends on what checkboxes the Game Master ticks for their campaign from the many available options. By default you roll for characteristics, choose a profession, and distribute a number of skill points based on your age among your profession's skills. Professions are not like D&D's classes: they are just premade skill collections, something you can easily make on your own.

To resolve a test you have to roll less than or equal to a percentile success chance on d100. This is 90%+ times one of your skills. There are two edge cases though, artifacts from days of yore. If there is no proper skill for a task you might need to make a characteristic roll, where your success chance is a characteristic multiplied by an integer. If you have to compare two opposing integer values (like two characteristics), you have to check the Resistance Table to get the success chance6.

BRP differentiates five degrees of success. Besides the self-explanatory success and failure you can have a critical success when rolling under 5% of your success chance, a special success when rolling under 20% of your success chance, and a fumble when rolling in the upper 5% of your failure range. These can be a nuisance to calculate or look up on the fly, and the very rare criticals usually do the same things as special successes, but better. Stormbringer 1e-4e and Mythras has a more elegant solution, with criticals being at the 10% of the skill and fumbles happening on 99-00. You can ignore degrees for most mundane tests, but they become important for opposed tests, where the antagonist's degree of success lowers the protagonist's degree of success.

Combat is divided into 12 second rounds consisting four phases: statement of intent, activating powers, taking actions, and resolving their results. Phases are part of the game's old-school heritage (or baggage, depending on your taste). I'm curious how many actually still use these as written. Combatants act at their DEX rank, going from highest to lowest. If you move during a round your DEX rank gets reduced. If you can perform multiple actions, you can do the follow up actions at 5 DEX rank lower than the previous one. RuneQuest's fiddly strike ranks were left out.

Attacking someone requires a weapon skill test versus their weapon or dodge skill. The results are a bit more nuanced than for the usual opposed tests, but thankfully the Attack and Defense Matrix neatly sums up all the possible outcomes. If you hit someone you roll damage, subtract their armour from it, and subtract the result from their hit points. Parrying may also result in the defending or attacking weapon taking damage depending on who wins. It is completely possible to hurt someone and breaking your weapon while doing so, or to take damage while parrying because your weapon was shattered. Depending on your weapon a special success may cause a bleeding, crushing, entangling, impaling, or knockback effect7.

Following Chaosium traditions BRP has an entire chapter for various spot rules. BRP has more than 60 entries that covers a wide array of situations, from environmental hazards to combat manoeuvres. Learning all of them is pointless, looking them up on the fly can grind the game to a halt, so the best a neophyte BRP GM can do is collect the few they want to use, and make judgement calls for the rest.


Probably not an adult constrictor
snake, those roll STR with 3d6+12.
BRP doesn't joke about being a skill-based system. Those used to the modern trend of tight skill lists will be shocked to see the whopping 57 skills the game has to offer, many of which have specialties. Some of them are very setting specific though, so it is unlikely you will ever play a campaign that requires all of them. Each skill has its own base chance, and there are two optional rules that allow characteristics to influence skills - one simplified, and one more complicated borrowed from RQ3e. For some reason there is no option for root skills like RingWorld8.

BRP offers five power sets right out of the gate: magic from the Worlds of Wonder boxed set, mutations from Hawkmoon, psychic abilities from ElfQuest, sorcery from Elric!, superpowers from Superworld. It only covers the essentials for them, so if you want to expand the tools you have to either homebrew new powers or borrow more from other books.

Equipment covers all tech levels from stone to space age. Prices are given in abstract value categories, which can be compared to your Wealth level and Status skill to see if you can buy something. If you want an exact system for currency, you have to borrow one from other sources - ...and a 10-Foot Pole is a good candidate, if you can get your hands on it. The equipment list is exhaustive when it comes to weapons and armour, but it is a bit lacklustre for other objects. The chapter also covers important topics like crafting, powered items, and how much damage it takes to tear down a wall.

Creatures chapter offers a small selection of animals, monsters, NPCs for various genres, along with guidelines for customizing them and using them as players. We only get one typical adult as an example for each creature, and no way to reverse engineer what their base chances were. I would have been happier with having a separate template for some races, like in RQ:RiG Bestiary. The list itself is overall decent, and because creatures work exactly the same way as player characters, it is easy to come up with stat blocks and compare them to PCs to figure out their relative strength.

Tackling such a smorgasbord of rules and content can be intimidating even for experienced GMs. BRP tries its best to help even the neophyte GM in getting a campaign started, handling players, preparing adventures, using various tools to enhance the game, et cetera. I found the Optional Rule Checklist and the premade campaign packages with recommended character types, powers, technology, adventures, and rules options especially useful. It would have been even better if they marked which rules they deem basic or advanced. Way too many campaigns recommend hit locations among its options, which can be  an overwhelming option for newbies. Speaking of campaign options, there are rules for allegiances (your alignment with cosmic powers), passions (personality traits that can alter your behaviour and influence your rolls), reputation (helps others in identifying you, helps you in influencing others), and of course sanity (psychological injuries) too.

Kudos, for including a conversion guide and a bibliography of what sources were consulted while writing BRP. All that's missing is an Appendix N for various genres, but that would ramp up the page count quite a bit.

What's New

All female Highlander campaign?
Say no more fam, I'm in.
The new BRP is a revision, not a complete overhaul. The goal9 was to keep it compatible with the large family of previous Chaosium games, which comes with the cost of ignoring the mechanics of some newer games. Those who expected novelties from Call of Cthulhu 7e and Rivers of London like pushing, advantage and disadvantage dice, hard and extreme successes, Luck characteristic, or damage categories, will be disappointed. Except for pushing, I don't miss any of them. Some of them I consider pointless additions to the system10 and some already have equivalent mechanics.

That doesn't mean though that BRP is stuck in the past. The new edition cuts down a lot of fat, streamlines some systems, fixes tons of errors, and of course introduces new ones. The biggest change is that weapon skills are no longer split into a separate attack and parry skill. The former insanity mechanics have been swapped out with a more generic system. There are rules for reputation and passions á la Pendragon, Mythras, and RQ:RiG.

Skill descriptions is where the book lost most of its weight. In BGB every skill had the exact results for each degree of success spelled out in a paragraph. These were most of the time pointless, but at least those with an OCD had an urge to crack the book open for every test to see if there is anything special to account for. Only a few medical and combat skills have kept these, the rest at best have an ambiguous example about how the degree may alter the result.

If you already own the BGB, you don't miss much if you don't get BRP:UGE. Your book isn't getting replaced by a shiny new editions and future BRP products will be still compatible with it. So buy it only if you want a second copy or you want to support the publisher.


It's probably not surprising after the introduction, but the book feels a bit rushed here and there. Despite the community actively contributing in rooting them out, there are still inconsistencies, issues, mistakes. One of the new features is using the weapon skill for both attack and defence, yet there is still a Parry skill. Weapon skills now use weapon categories for specialization, but base chances are per individual weapon. While having a separate Knowledge and Science skill makes sense, there are edge cases which are not clear where they belong - in case of Natural History even the authors could not decide, because on the profession list it is a Knowledge specialization, while in the skill chapter it belongs to Science. And the list goes on...

There are also some legacy issues of the engine that are here to stay. Skill base chances are all over the place, skewed heavily toward physical skills. Social and knowledge skills have such low starting values that they become skill point sinks if they aren't your focus but you want to be at least half decent in them.

Because the main way of improving your skills is by using them, the way your character improves depends largely on what kind of adventure the GM prepared. At the end of the session there is still an improvement roll for each skill, which in case of failure means your skill does not improve jackshit. The higher your skills are, the more checkmarks you will have, and the lower chance to actually improve at anything. You can end a session with no skill improvement at all.11

Increasing characteristics is even more tedious: with the exception of POW, which is increased by POW vs POW tests and is meant to fluctuate during a campaign, your only option is rigorous training12.

And then there is a good old whiff factor. I don't think it is as bad as many make you think13, but the ways to bypass it do feel lacking compared to the huge range of options Mythras has to offer.

It is worth noting, that because of the original system was written with realism in mind, BRP works better on a human scale. Epic heroes and street level supers are fine, but if you throw in late season shonen-level shit, it will break the game.

"Hans, ze Flammenwerfer is useless!"

Summa Summarum

BRP is a system that stood the test of time. Its flexibility in rules complexity and power levels was proven by the large family of games using it, and thanks to the lack of major shakeups to its core the old content is still relevant and easy to use with its modern iterations. It is both an awesome toolbox to create your own game and a great supplement to enhance other members of the family. Its age shows in some of its clunkier parts. It lacks artsy, flashy, trendy mechanisms you can bedazzle players with. But it is a system that gets shit done, and will remain, even when the current Kickstarter sweetheart is long forgotten.

Rules system: BRP
Publisher: Chaosium
Publication date: 2023

Format: print, pdf
Size: letter-size
Pages: 266

Available from:
  Chaosium (print, pdf)
  DriveThruRPG (pdf)
A timely facelift for one of the best
rpg toolboxes, though some of
the wrinkles still show.

1 And it went to printers with a still unfinished ORC license. Yes, they were that keen on keeping the momentum.

2 On the other hand, their community content platforms are exceptionally lively. So much so, that Call of Cthulhu 7e is basically on autopilot nowadays.

3 It has become a running gag between me and my CoC7e Keeper, that whenever he complains about a CoC7e product being delayed, I complain about Mythic Iceland 2e.

4 Despite its relatively humble page count the book is as thick as the BGB.

5 At least for humans, who roll INT and SIZ by 2d6+6, and everything else by 3d6.

6 You can do the calculations even on the fly though, if you aren't mathematically inept. The success chance is 50% plus/minus 5% for each point of difference between the two values.

7 These specials and some of the combat manoeuvres explained among the spot rules are the forefathers of the special effects seen in Mythras.

8 Root skills in Ringworld have specializations with their own values and a root maximum, which is the sum of two characteristics. This root maximum represents your generic knowledge of the field - anything above is handled by the individual specialization's value.

9 Besides putting it on the shelves as soon as possible.

10 I like pushing, which is a fun risk vs reward mechanic. I find advantage and disadvantage dice to be unnecessary additions. The game already has modifiers and multiplication/division to handle difficulty levels, why add another mechanic for it that is less transparent than the already existing ones? Yeah, I know, rolling dice makes people feel a tingle in their tummy...

11 Training and research are also an option, but the former is limited to 75% and an awful Teach roll from your tutor may result in losing valuable percentiles from your skill, while research improves skills in a snail's pace.

12 SIZ and INT by default aren't even meant to be trained, although BRP has a more lenient wording than RuneQuest in this regard.

13 You can choose whether your high level combat becomes tedious because the large number of HP you have to chip down over time to kill something, or because of your blows getting parried and absorbed by armour.

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  1. I've spent a good year being obsessed with this book, and recently done a deep dive with the aim of crafting a standalone Fantasy game. It should have been an easy route that I've done before (OpenQuest). I gave up because its all over the place, and will be taking the new content I generated back to my own D100 rulesets (so not to waste my time if nothing else).

    While it hits all my nostalgia buttons, and is a brave attempt to gather a large amount of rulings in one coherent rules-set it ultimately fails because of the large number of editing mistakes. Its particularly damning that there is no Editorial (or proof readers) credit.

    1. Editing has been a weak spot of Chaosium for a while now. Considering the book was churned out in a furious pace, I was surprised it isn't worse.
      Any plans for a generic OpenQuest? It's a neat and fast system, it has tons of unexplored potential.

    2. Yes. Its a bit further down the road, i.e. not this year, but I've got a killer way of doing a multiverse version (I'm a big fan of stuff like Jerry Cornelius and Luther Arkwright, and I previously did a setting for another game, the long out of print Worlds of Wordplay, that is good to go. I've run a quickly hacked version at a convention and it was one of the most fun games I've run ever :)