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.