Why I Love And Hate BRP

BRP, aka “Basic Role-Playing,” the percentile based system most commonly encountered in Call of Cthulhu and other Chaosium games, is experiencing a bit of a renaissance.  A number of new games are coming out that are BRP-powered, including the Charles Stross novel-based The Laundry and the future science fantasy Chronicles of Future Earth.  That’s good to see, it’s also good to see Chaosium not being on the way out, as it was feared for a time.

If you haven’t played the BRP system, the great thing about it is that it is super easy to pick up.  You have a skill list and the skills are all percentiles.  If you want to see a BRP character sheet, go check out my site with the Scooby Doo crew statted up for Call of Cthulhu.  I take this to conventions, and have yet to have anyone have trouble picking up the rules. Percentiles are intuitively obvious. “What is my chance of success?  60%?  Okay!”  Much better than “Well I’m rolling 8 dice and I need 4 results of 4 or more to succeed, and I can swap sixes and ones on Tuesday” kind of cutesy crap some games do. And as a nice bonus, skills you use improve – when you successfully use a skill you mark it, and later you roll the skill to see if you got better at it.

The problem is the flat percentiles. It’s fine for something like a one shot Cthulhu scenario where death by bad luck is part of the package. But for any skill where failure could be bad, you either want nothing in it or want it maxed out.

A simple example.  I had a race card driver pregen character given to me with a “Driving: 60%” skill. Seems high, right?  Not really, in practice.  “You’re driving fast down the road at night?  Roll Driving.  You failed?  Whoops, off the road, smash everyone roll damage!” Basically with that 60% skill, there was a 40% chance of death or disability if you failed it. How high of a skill do you then need to even bother to attempt something in a system like that?  Even 70% or 80% is shy, you really need 90% to not feel like you’re throwing your life away. And certainly not with a 20% or 30%, so why put points into it at all?  People end up stuffing all their skill points into a small number of skills to ensure a somewhat small number of humiliating defeats.

Sure, you can say the GM “should” assign bonuses or penalties for every check, but the reality is that flat-roll systems tend to be going against the skill most of the time, as opposed to a difficulty class system.  Or that they should make everything a complex skill check to provide some normalization – but again, that’s not supported by the rules per se.

It’s a shame, because it really is the simplest system to pick up – everyone understands percents at a level even deeper than “I have a skill of 4 and am rolling d6.”  But without any normalization, the outcomes always end up frustrating me.  And if you need some kind of esoteric advice to run the system, it’s not really that simple after all is it?

Of course, you can just take the easy death thing in stride, and the games it’s been used for (Cthulhu and Runequest especially) have in my experience been about high mortality one shots or very short campaigns.

So what’s the solution to this, without losing the beautiful simplicity of “roll vs your 25?”  I guess changing the dice to something more normalized, but not sure what that still has a 0-100 spread.

 

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33 responses to “Why I Love And Hate BRP

  1. The “solution” is to not treat failure as a catastrophic failure. The driver does not have a 40% chance of turning his car into a fireball. It could be a burst tyre, a broken axle, the car getting stuck in the mud, or any number of things; no BRP game I’ve ever read, played or run has made the assumption that a failed roll is a total failure, so I wonder where you get this impression?

    Call of Cthulhu is deadly because it pits normal people against ancient cosmic horrors. Runequest is supposed to be gritty, but it’s also supposed to be mythic, so you can end up with heroes that make Exalted characters look weedy. In other words, it’s the genre which creates the conditions for “easy death”, not the system.

    • I get the impression from experience in games I’ve played… Even if it doesn’t kill you, “broken axle” or whatnot means one failure roll means you are down and out, at a minimum. If you fail a Climb or a Jump, for example, there are usually dire consequences. In most games there’s something major riding on the success of these scenes… Again, maybe this is a lot of CoC talking, but usually you don’t get a lot of second chances. So what you get is PCs that are “90%’s and default %’s”, it completely doesn’t make sense to spread the points around. It also promotes extremely conservative behavior. “The cultists are speeding off!” “Fuck it,let them go, we’ll just kill ourselves or destroy the car.”

      This is where I think GUMSHOE sprang up to fix some of these problems on the investigation side. Sure, it’s “bad scenarios” or “bad GMing” but in the end there have ben way too many circumstances where “the bad guy’s plans are written in Language X… Who has it? You, at 30%? Roll it… Nope, can’t read it.” “Well, what are we supposed to do now?”

      GUMSHOE unfortunately does not shine with the “action parts” of the game (when I bring up action and GUMSHOE I get a lot of “oh it’s not about that…”) .

      • My thoughts exactly – most stuff like car driving, you’d have a base percentage to start with. You’d add your own skill as time goes on, but someone who knows how to drive and has mastered some hairy situations would have the base 75% everyone gets upon receiving a driver’s license. Under stressful conditions they would refer to their acquired skills, which add and while you might end up with 150% driving skill, you’d also have modifiers in the opposite direction, reducing it somewhat based on difficulty, etc.

        And like the first fellow said, it doesn’t have to end in a fireball or even ‘down and out’. It’s always up to the GM to set the lethality level, I should think.

        • I think that’s a very good point, that maybe skills shouldn’t top out at 100%, but you should commonly see skills higher than that which are only taxed when there’s penalties for difficult situations.

          • In some versions of the system — like Runequest or Elric! — skills go beyond 100%, but this is to emulate the heroic level mode of adventure; you wouldn’t see it in Call of Cthulhu, because as I mention below in reply to Erin, 25% is considered base competence in a skill. Even a doctorate level of knowledge is only about 70%.

      • I’m sorry that you’ve had bad experiences with the system, because it’s really not like that. It’s not supposed to be a binary pass/fail mechanic. If you miss your skill roll, then it might take a bit longer to complete the task (the cultists get a head start on you), or you complete the task, but with some negative result tacked on (you keep up with the cultists, but your car is ruined).

        It’s not just play style either, it’s in the rules. All versions of BRP have some type of critical/fumble system, which would be entirely pointless if you got a catastrophic failure on any failed roll. If you’ve been playing games where a failed roll ends the adventure, then your GM has been doing it wrong.

        They wouldn’t be the only one. You mention GUMSHOE, and that appears to have arisen as a response to bad GMs not reading the rules of the game they’re running, but has been accepted as “fixing” BRP; if it’s fixing anything, it’s poor play style, not the system, although to be fair, a lot of official adventures also assume a binary pass/fail mechanic, so I can see how it arose.

        That’s not to say BRP doesn’t have problems. It’s an old-school system that’s gone untouched since the early 1980’s so it’s full of clunky bits, but the binary pass/fail skill system and the infamous “golf bag syndrome” are problems with the way people use the rules, not the rules themselves.

        On a final note, you see a lot of 90% skills in Call of Cthulhu because you get a Sanity bonus for every skill you have above 90%. All it means is that they’ve played the game before. 😉

    • I agree with Kelvingreen, 80-90%. So if I roll bad you die!
      In the CoC games I’ve participated in, as GM and player, the rolls were usually for a specific action. Single rolls that could result in mundane fiery deaths are usually the result of more then one bad choice. Usually in mundane actions like driving the basic driving is assumed. There are often more then one roll before you get killed.

      Take the speeding car example.

      Player: I jump in the car and smash down the gas peddle.
      GM: You know the MU Library closes in 30 min. How fast are you going?
      Player: As fast as the car will go!!!
      GM: The road is now flanked on both sides with trees.

      GM: You see what may be a sharp turn in the road a short bit ahead of you?
      Player: I’m going try to take the turn at speed. I have to get to the Library or they wont let me check out any more arcane lore!!!!!
      GM: As you enter the turn you realize that you are going way way too fast. Roll your driving.

      GM the car loses traction and starts to slide.
      Player: I try to recover.
      GM: Roll your driving to see if you can recover. Note that it will be at a high penalty -20% given the lose gravel shoulder of the road.

      GM: You have lost control of the car.
      Player: Can I try to avoid the trees.
      GM: Yes, but it will be at a -40% penalty since the car is mostly moving sideways.

      GM: You miraculously missed the trees, your in a ditch. You all get to roll for minor injuries.

      • Assumes 60 driving skill and at each point the GM asks for a roll the values should be:
        61 – fail
        41 – fail
        15 – sucess

  2. Unknown Armies uses the percentile system, but their basic premise is that the percentages are for when you’re under stress. Otherwise, if you have a skill of about 30% (if I recall correctly) then there’s no need to roll and you are automatically assumed to succeed, unless you’re in combat or other high-risk scenario.

    • This is the assumption in BRP as well; 25% is considered base competence, so you’d pass a driving test with 25% in Drive, because the driving test isn’t assessing your ability to maintain position in a high speed chase against tommy-gun-wielding cultists. In the rain.

      • The problem is that by the rules, “high speed chase in the rain” is then assessed a good -40% penalty on top. To have the system really support the theory of routine vs stressful given the current percentile range, then really there should almost never be penalties.

        • Except it’s not. Call of Cthulhu doesn’t have penalties, except I believe in the French edition. BRP yellow book offers penalties as an optional rule — although everything in the yellow book is optional — Pendragon doesn’t use them, nor does the edition of Runequest I have.

          Bonuses and penalties are not an inherent part of the system. This may be why you’re running into this problem, although it sounds more like you’ve got a GM who hasn’t read the rules.

  3. In the car scenario example — and since this is CoC we’re talking about — a failure by 10% to 20% could also mean you simply slow down. Or encounter unexpected traffic (because you didn’t hit the pedal to the metal hard enough to zip past it in time), and face the decision of either hitting the brakes, swerwing, or running over a pedestrian.

  4. I’m not a fan of roll-under systems either, for exactly the reasons you mention. Even if, as lot of above posters argue, you’re playing it wrong if failing the roll results in failure, that’s how a lot of games wind up going. As you note, complex checks are what is needed to normalize the results, and those are hard for some GMs to remember to do.

    I wonder if you couldn’t reverse engineer the system to do exactly what some of the above posters are suggesting (i.e., if your skill is X%, you shouldn’t have any problem with X% of situations). Treat the percentile skill as the percentage of situations you’re completely competent to deal with: if you have a 25%, you can automatically succeed at the lowest-difficulty 25% of tasks (unless you have a penalty for some reason).

    Then, depending on how often the GM wants players to exceed their competency threshold, the player can roll one or more dice and add to his score vs. higher-difficulty tasks. So, say, you have drive at 30%, and the GM rules that driving safely in a night car chase is a 40% difficulty task: you need to get at least a 10 on whatever dice to do it.

    It would have the effect of making a lot of things purely out of the reach of even a lucky player, but in a gritty game like CoC, that may be desirable. If brain surgery is a 95th percentile medical task, someone with 30% probably shouldn’t even attempt it, even if he’s totally competent to do first aid.

    • See, this is exactly what I’m saying – whether it’s what you’re “supposed” to do or not, roll-under-skill systems always seem to devolve to this lowest common denominator if the GM isn’t adding sophisticated rulings every time. What is failing by 10% vs 20% vs 50%, on driving vs climb vs Read Latin? Who the hell knows?

      “It’s not the system’s fault” – if more than 1 in 10 people use it wrong, it is the system’s fault. Toys get recalled after too many kids choke on them, even though it’s not “the way they’re supposed to be used” – there is an understanding that part of design is to craft something so that it IS used in the way it is intended/needed.

      So yeah, converting to a DC mechanic can help. It does make the dice mechanic less simple, but I like the idea.

      You could treat it like Feng Shui, and roll +/- d20 around your skill. So if you had a 20%, you’re only going to perform in the 0-40 range, somewhat normalized to 20. Really you’d want the range to be a little larger but here is where the percentile system tends to not add itself well to funky dice tricks, the math gets big.

      • What is failing by 10% vs 20% vs 50%, on driving vs climb vs Read Latin? Who the hell knows?
        Someone who’s read the rulebook? I’m not trying to be snarky here, but I don’t understand why this is such a difficulty.

        “It’s not the system’s fault” – if more than 1 in 10 people use it wrong, it is the system’s fault.
        You can’t blame the system for people not reading the rulebook. Again, I’m not trying to be belligerent, but it has become clear over the years that people just aren’t reading the BRP books properly, or stuff like this or the golf bag syndrome wouldn’t keep cropping up.

        Look, I’ve been reading your session summaries for years now, and they often throw up situations where it’s clear you’ve embellished things beyond what the rules state. You’re not tweaking or changing any rules, but you’re turning raw numbers into story, which is why we do this in the first place.

        As such, I am puzzled why it’s fine to describe a miss by two or three in D&D as “you swing, but your opponent ducks at the last second”, but missing a Drive roll by 2% or 3% in Call of Cthulhu is described as “your car crashes and explodes and you’re all dead” when — rules as written — there should only ever be a possibility of anything like this happening on a roll of 00.

        In Pathfinder, you fumble on a 1, or a 5% chance. In Call of Cthulhu, you fumble on a 00, or 1% of the time. If your characters are suffering catastrophic failure more often than that, then yes, you are playing it wrong.

        • Sigh, sure, you’re right, it’s not the system, there’s nothing to fix or make better, it’s just all the GMs, I guess I’ll just avoid playing BRP then.

          • There’s no need to be like that. I’m just having a difficulty understanding the problem you’re trying to fix, because it’s not in any version of the system I’ve used.

            I don’t deny that some sort of issue exists — GUMSHOE wouldn’t exist otherwise — but it’s not a problem supported by the text.

            If you fail your Drive roll, your car crashes and your characters die, your GM hasn’t read the rules.
            If you fail your Drive roll, you get stuck in traffic, the cultists get away, and there’s no other way to progress, then your GM has read the rules, but is still not a good GM, or — more likely — the writer of the adventure is doing it wrong.
            If you fail your Drive roll, you get stuck in traffic, the cultists get away, but you figure out where their hideout is through other means, then you’re playing the game. Let’s order pizza.

            Note it doesn’t matter what the task resolution system is in the above examples; it might be that you fail by rolling 76 when your Drive skill is 65%, or by rolling a 7 when you have five ranks in Drive and the DC is 15. It’s what happens after the roll that counts, and BRP is no more punitive than any other system in that regard.

        • As such, I am puzzled why it’s fine to describe a miss by two or three in D&D as “you swing, but your opponent ducks at the last second”, but missing a Drive roll by 2% or 3% in Call of Cthulhu is described as “your car crashes and explodes and you’re all dead” when — rules as written — there should only ever be a possibility of anything like this happening on a roll of 00.

          The disconnect, in my experience, is that combat is a complex challenge. Failure already has a defined result: you didn’t make any progress this round.

          I’ve found that a lot of GMs have a hard time modeling complex challenges outside of combat (either due to inexperience or just distraction at the table), and so skill rolls tend to become pretty binary when they’re called for. That is, if you’re only going to wind up calling for one Drive roll in the session, the result of that roll winds up receiving far more importance than the designer really intended.

          Systems with flat dice results tend to work better with multiple rolls to normalize the results: i.e., complex skill challenges. Systems with curved dice results can hang more importance on a single result. It seems to me that the issue is, no matter what BRP intends, it’s liable to get used for one-off rolls that aren’t interpreted favorably. If you’ve never seen that, you’ve been lucky. In my experience, roll-under systems, particularly ones with flat dice, seem to always attract that behavior.

  5. I asked this question on RPG Stack Exchange too, and there were a couple good ideas there especially from Unknown Armies.

    1. Reduce bonuses/penalties to very discrete levels
    2. Allow “die swapping” tens-vs-ones to create normalization

  6. The least pleasant percentile game I’ve played was Warhammer Fantasy. Starting skills were so low, that even with tweaked attributes and skill focuses a 50+% roll would be months away ( always at the whim of a GM’s EXP hand outs). Furthermore, you had to make sure one player was excellent at every challenge type, whether shooting guns or studying the lore of Sigmar. In contrast, our games using STAR FRONTIERS benefited from a higher starting base (45-70%), and skill overlap (all but so-n-so can shoot a laser pistol well, use a computer).
    WHFRP is a harsh setting, but it was the “tiny nicks and dumb shrugs” from routinely rolling over that kept my party wallowing in a RP funk.

  7. I have to agree with a lot of the commenters in that this is on the part of the GM mainly. For example, I was playing Call of Cthulhu last night, and we were sneaking into a building to steal medical records. As we were on our way out, the GM asked for a sudden sneak roll, which every single person failed by less than 10 points. He stopped and thought, and decided that the guard looked up for a few seconds and then looked back down, still not seeing us.

    Part of the failing is also fun in a way. Sometimes you get a random “roll a spot hidden roll” in a room and you fail, and then it’s interesting to try to find out what it was. If the GM is causing you to fail catastrophically, then it’s the GM you should be speaking with, not the system. When there’s something that my GM knows we need to continue with the game, he won’t allow us to fail at getting it. If we need a certain book and none of us pass our library use rolls, he’ll allow us to stay as long as we need until we pass and end up finding the book. Sure, it took 5 hours instead of 1, but we can then continue on with the game.

    There’s nothing “flat” about the percentiles in Call of Cthulhu. If the GM determines that you need to be able to do whatever you just failed, he’ll give you the means to complete it a different way. If you don’t NEED whatever you’re rolling for to continue with the game, then it’s just part of the game to tell you that you failed and now you’ll have to figure out how to manage without it.

  8. I think the big problem is that the core rules (CoC anyway; I’ve never seen the BRP Yellow Book but I just got The Laundry yesterday and it seems to address the problem to some degree) don’t provide much in the way of guidance. One nice thing about the old FASA Star Trek game is the section in the GM’s book that gives you an idea of what sort of things you should be rolling for at different skill levels; basically, there are things someone with a skill of 9 has no chance at, but someone with a skill of 49 can do without rolling, and the book goes out of its way to tell you this.

  9. The real trick to understanding BRP is that

    1st, You never really need to roll for everyday events. Driving to work, shooting some rounds at a target, patching a boo-boo with first aid, or finding a common book via Dewey Decimal are so routine that you need not roll drive, guns, first aid or library use.

    2nd as mentioned lots of rolls have a bonus to them.

    3rd as mentioned before, most failures are not catastrophic. For example, to use driving as an example. Your character is a cabby with Drive 60%. .

    GM: Some jerk cuts you off at the exit. Roll drive at +20.

    Player: uh 83.. crud just missed it

    GM: You miss your exit and have to drive to the next one. This will make your trip take an extra 10 minutes. Hope thats not too late .. heh heh heh..

  10. The real issue with BRP is that there *are* binary pass/fail skill checks, the worst being the dreaded ‘spot hidden’ . The drive skill example that was brought up can easily be ruled as degrees of failure, spot hidden on the other hand, is a pass/fail and when a party all fails theirs, they then are made aware that there is a clue (possible necessary) in the location and they will begin metagaming ways to get said clue – i.e. bringing in another friend/cousin/random npc to have a look at the location. You can say that the sidetrack is all part of the fun, but it never would have come about if it weren’t for the meta knowledge that they received from failing the rolls.

    The other issue with BRP is the excessive number of skills – with the number of points you have to spend on a build, there is really no way you can be more than mediocre at a handful of them. I find CoC games tend toward comic slapstick instead of horror when an entire party is consistently failing rolls and looking like a pack of fools. It does match the Lovecraftian idea of the weak protagonist, but it certainly does not drive the plot forward. What is worse is when a supposed ‘expert’ in some skill fails their roll while the total novice manages an 01 roll and gets to explain to the rocket scientist how some basic principle of physics works. It just ends up being comedy and a far cry from the setting of a horror game.

    Gumshoe is really a stronger system for delivering the right mood and allowing the players to feel that the profession they have chosen actually makes a difference in play. I find that the action aspect of gumshoe can be improved by simply ruling 1’s as failures and 6’s as successes to add an element of chance to it – especially for stability checks which IMO should not be opted out of through spends.

    • Hey, great comment, very perceptive, and I like that you talk about GUMSHOE and action – in fact I have a relevant question for you.

      I have several GUMSHOE games but haven’t had a chance to play yet. From my read I have one big concern – the handling of investigation seems brilliant but I’m worried about the spend mechanic as it impacts the action part of the game.

      Mainly I’m concerned that, since points don’t replenish, that players will either hoard scuffling/etc points, or they’ll use them and then have to militantly avoid risk and combat for large spans because they have no points left and know it’s certain death to enter into action scenes with no points. Have you experienced that or no? And if yes, is there a mitigation?

  11. Most people get so wound up about the the skill fails etc. >eing a BRP gm it is easy to fix. A failure means something failed not that the car crahed into a tree killing all etc. The catastrophic failure are realy in my mind a remanent from the dnd mind set. With the simple skill system like BRP a failed rolled simply means a hitch in the game flow. ( i am on wife’phone) with a broken arm so forgive missellings.

  12. I revisted CoC this past week and I hadn’t played it in ages. I had picked up the supplement CoC Dark Ages (awesome setting) and was GM’ing. The game was going incredible, and even skill fails had become a great source of drama. As many of the previous people commented, it’s how the GM describes a fail. My issue, however, was with combat. One of the investigators had a blunt weapon skill of 55%, which isn’t terrible, but the fight just descended into a slapstick comedy of errors with the investigator AND the creature rolling “fails/misses” for about 12 combat rounds. Finally, my creature (a resurrected girl from the village) hit a critical fail and I simply had her fall onto her knife! I really enjoy BRP’s simple system and that it doesn’t concern itself with intricacies, but I’d like some suggestions on how to handle fighting a little better because it seems we hit a wall. And yes, I know that CoC isn’t about fighting , but since there is so little combat, I want to ensure the fights that are present are dramatic and memorable. Thanks!

  13. zombieboy — a couple of simple things I use (1) hit locations — combat doesn’t mean dead or unharmed but often a hurt arm or leg or a knockout etc (2) I let players pass for a bonus, so a lowish skill player gets +10 on their skill (up to a bonus of 1/2 their skill) for each round they don’t roll, so they run the risk that the attacker will get some extra blows in but eventually they have a much better skill, your 55% investigator could wait out 2 rounds to get their skill to 75% but of course the creature would have 2 extra shots — I never use this for creatures or cultists but I might for villians (3) I put an extra success level of Good in so if you roll less than 1/2 your skill but more than a 1/5 you get a Good (<1/5 is still special and <1/20 is crit) so if you get Good your target needs Good or better to defend — we end up with more hits this way.

  14. Most systems has a way to pass or fail a roll. It is true for d20+skill >= DC and it is true for d100 <= skill + mod. It is equally true for bell shaped dice like 3d6 <= skill or most of the pool based ones. Why do you dislike it especially when it is d100, roll under?

    • Just a quick question, if normal circumstances dont require any rolls at all and a roll below skill is mostly not catastrophic – then what’s the use of bonus/penalties like -25% or +25%?

  15. I’ve always played that if you fail your drive roll you have to brake and go around another car that cut in front of you, so the guy you are chasing gains on you. Roll again. A critical success now might make up the lost time, another failure could mean your blocked bad and losing more ground. A fumble means you pulled onto the shoulder in a cloud of dust and the bad guys have a huge lead now. Better have a backup plan.

    As stated above, i’s all subtle grades of failure, not just live vs die.

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