A Basic Role Playing Rules Toolkit for Eternal Champion Roleplaying
by Nick Middleton
Being recommendations for the gamemaster who wishes to streamline and experiment with the existing Basic Role Playing rules in their Stormbringer game. In this first article, I examine skills and systems. Part II will present more substantial additions to the existing rules: namely a framework for determining the adventurers’ success in embarking on large scale, extended projects (such as building an ornithopter or constructing a Planar Observatory) as well as a set of notes about handling modern and futuristic firearms in Stormbringer combat.
This article is not a complete rules change, but rather an extensive collection of small (or at most “medium” sized) tweaks to Stormbringer’s existing rules. Whilst refinements and alternatives for the core mechanic are suggested (and assumed in the Projects and Firearms sections, which will be presented in Part II of the article), no radical changes to the Stormbringer rules are contained herein. Everything contained within this article should be considered an optional alteration: suggestions for a GM and playing group to consider and use or ignore, as they feel appropriate. Nothing in this article is correct: some of it may fit your game and some of it won’t.Some of these suggestions are culled from other BRP games; some are logical extrapolations of things in the current rules; some are house rules from campaigns I have run over the years; and some have been adapted from other people’s games. Whilst the sources and influences are too diverse to easily summarise, those interested will find the appendix, which lists many of the BRP based games and some current BRP web sites, of interest.
Why do things differently? Because sometimes, as a GM or player, you may want more, or different, detail in a game about something than is available in the standard rules. For example, one could handle the entirety of a party’s pursuit of a band of Weeping Waste barbarians with one opposed CON vs. CON roll on the resistance table… but this rather robs the event of its potential drama. Similarly, the Battle of Londra could be war-gamed through using miniatures and all aspects of the battle simulated, but from the perspective of a tabletop role-playing session, aren’t we more interested in what happens to our characters rather than every spear-carrier? Whilst this article doesn’t look at either of these specific cases, it does provide the referee with options for adding detail or altering the emphasis from that used in the current rules: and any such change will subtly alter the “feel” of the game.
In a typical Young Kingdoms game, it is unlikely that the GM or players will care about or wish to have the game influenced by technological innovation. Should the action switch to Hawkmoon’s Tragic Millennium Earth or von Bek’s Nazi Germany, then the GM may well wish for some guidelines on how to adapt combat to better reflect the presence of technological weapons such as Flamelances or sub-machine guns. Most of the ideas presented here are designed to allow a GM to retain Stormbringer’s inherent simplicity but alter the detail when she wishes to emphasise different things
Many of these suggestions are ways of making the player feel more involved, more immersed in the character and their game environment. Sometimes this is achieved by adding detail, sometimes by providing the GM with better tools, sometimes by streamlining things in the existing rules.
“How hard is it?” and “How well did we do?”
A common criticism levelled at BRP systems is that they often lack clear guideline for a GM to vary the challenge a particular situation offers, and no qualitative evaluation of a Characters success. Most skill based games, certainly since the advent of the Digest Group Publications standardised task system in Traveller, have classified doing something non-trivial in a role-playing game setting by describing it as some sort of task and classifying how difficult it is.
Stormbringer of course has fumble, failure, success, critical and for some weapons impale as grades of success or failure. But if one considers some of the Spot Rules for Combat, for example the Point Blank and Extended Range rules, a pattern begins to emerge: things that make a challenge sufficiently easier to attempt that the game system actually quantifies that change in difficulty, in general double the character’s skill before rolling. Similarly, adverse external factors that make the challenge sufficiently more challenging to be worth quantifying generally halve the characters skill before rolling. Bearing in mind the section in Stormbringer on when and why skill rolls should be made (p97, the start of the Game System chapter), the GM can generalise from the spot rules to define three levels of challenge to a skill:
- An easy challenge is tested by rolling against 2 x skill
- A routine challenge is tested by rolling against 1 x skill
- A hard challenge is tested by rolling against ½ x skill
Interestingly, given that by the rules a challenge will always fail on a roll of 00 no matter what the characters skill, we can also adapt the notion of 50% marking basic “professional” competence. At this level of skill and beyond, easy challenges become as simple as they are ever going to get, as a character will succeed on any roll except a 00. The 50% competence threshold is mentioned is several Stormbringer skill descriptions, as is 101%. As short hand for beleaguered GM’s, consider the following scheme:
- A Skill at base score indicates a novice, an individual with some raw talent but no experience or tutoring to speak of.
- A skill at greater than the base score but less than 50% indicates the individual is competent: she has had some training or experience, but couldn’t make a living from the skill; e.g. an apprentice who has yet to complete their training.
- A skill at 50% to 100% indicates the individual is expert: she has sufficient expertise to be able to make a living from the skill (although even some routine tasks may be beyond her in pressure situations i.e. those where the GM’s deems a routine skill roll is required); e.g. a newly qualified journeyman, perhaps setting up on her own, or still under her masters auspices.
- A skill of 101% or greater indicates the individual is a master: she has at least an even chance even in pressure situations of dealing with a hard challenge, provided other factors don’t interfere. This level of skill represents a Craftsman known by name, at least locally.
So the GM can quickly scribble down notes on an NPC (He’s a master swordsman, an expert at Potions but a novice physician) and can instantly assign approximate values to the same NPC three weeks later when the players finally catch up with the plot. It also gives that GM and players a handy set of labels to use when a PC assesses an NPC’s skills; having been tasked with stealing the Grimoire of Screaming Masks from the house of the merchant Tormiel in Bakshaan, the PC’s are considering engineering a duel with Tormiel when the one of their number happens to observe Tormiel in a duel: a success at a routine Insight roll will tell the observing character that whilst Tormiel won the fight and is unquestionably an expert swordsman, there was also something unnerving about his sword…
One important consideration is that the existing rules also include less dramatic modifiers (e.g. the Careful Aim spot rule or the -30 percentiles for an additional Parry in one round). Where the GM feels these are also appropriate, they should be applied AFTER the base difficulty modifier has been applied. So the Careful Aim spot rule (allowing a character to trade 5 DEX ranks for adding 1/10 of their skill) would be applied after the basic difficulty of the shot being attempted.
Game masters interested in more qualitative distinctions might also consider ruling that a character’s degree of skill influences the outcome of a skill roll as well as the degree of success. For example, a critical Insight roll from a master of Insight who has been studying the guards on a Merchant’s house in Cadsandria will give more information than a similar degree of success from a novice. Conversely, a simple failure from a novice attempting to forge a document from the Church of Law in Argimiliar could be ruled to be worse than a failure by an expert attempting the same task…
Do bear in mind that part of the strength of the Stormbringer rules is their simplicity and this may be a step too far in terms of added complexity. But if the GM feels the added detail enhances their game, it can add much by emphasising the worth of having the relevant skills, and can encourage characters to seek out expert assistance: why let the dabbler in Alchemy from Dhakos brew up a critical potion, when the party can hire a master Alchemist? And what unusual payment might the Alchemist require, given how sought after his services must be?
An additional simple variant is to allow all rolls to impale, so that for all skill challenges there is a level of success above and beyond a critical roll that indicates really superb, faultless performance of the task at hand: word perfect recollection of a piece of information (Young Kingdoms), a uniquely tough or well made piece (Craft), a faultless imitation of a native accent (Speak Other Language) and so on. If nothing else, the rarity of rolling 01 or 02 on any percentile roll is probably worth rewarding with an in-game effect.
A simple, skill specific variant, would be to handle ‘information retrieval’ rolls differently. Where the GM doesn’t wish the player to be certain of the accuracy of information, rather than rolling herself (which leaves the player uncertain but robs them of the sense of involvement from it being their dice roll), both GM and player roll. If both succeed, the character learns accurate information, if both fail the character learns entirely misleading information but if one succeeds and the other fails, the character learns a mixture of truth and falsehoods…
For example Blarian has broken in to the smithy to confirm whether the smith is making Chaos talismans in secret but having found nothing in the workshop, decides to sneak in to the front room of the smith’s dwelling through the door from the workshop. The GM calls for a Listen roll and both she and the player roll dice against Blarian’s Listen of 56. The player rolls 50, but doesn’t know what the GM has rolled (60, indicating a mix of truth and falsehood). The GM tells the Player that Blarian hears footsteps (true) on the duckboards in the street outside (false) and Blarian continues his search, more alert but oblivious to the fact that the Smith is awake and about to come down stairs! It would simplify matters, if using this option, to ignore special successes and fumbled rolls, or GM’s could rule that they are still solely determined by the player’s roll (so one advantage automatic to a critical Listen roll is that the Player can be entirely confident of the information provided). Alternatively, only the GM’s roll can critical or fumble, so a player never knows if their characters certainty is misplaced or not until it’s too late…
GM’s might want to consider a more substantial reworking of the levels of success and failure. Note that this variation comes with a similar health warning regarding added complexity:
- Rolling less than or equal to 1/100 x skill is an impale (4 levels of success): so skills 01-49 can’t impale but a skill of 150-249 can on a roll of 01 or 02.
- Rolling less than or equal to 1/5 x skill is a critical (3 levels of success).
- Rolling less than or equal to ½ x skill is a good success (2 levels of success): a new level of success to which I wouldn’t attach particular combat benefits to, but which would be distinguished from:
- Rolling less then or equal to 1 x skill is a normal success (1 level of success).
- Rolling greater than skill but less than 1½ x skill is a marginal failure (1 level of failure).
- Rolling greater than 1 ½ x skill but less than 2 x skill is a significant failure (2 levels of failure).
- Rolling 99 or 00 (00 for skills over 100) is a fumble or catastrophic failure (3 levels of failure).
When two skills are rolled in opposition, the GM can use the above to resolve what happens, thus adding a finer level of detail. Simple questions of skill opposition can be resolved by comparing the degree of success, and if that results in a tie the degree of skill could be compared. So if two characters (one a competent swimmer, the other an expert) are both trying to reach the shore ahead of a hungry shark, both make Swim rolls and the greater degree of success gets ahead of the other; if both make good successes, then the more skilled character (the expert) pulls ahead. If in such a contest both degree of success and skill are identical the lower roll wins, and in our example avoids being the shark’s first course…
One could also count the levels of success achieved, as a way of accumulating a score, rather than instantly answering the question of success or failure. Indeed, one could do this with Stormbringer’s current success and failure levels. In this scheme one would make an impale worth 3, a critical worth 2 and a normal success worth 1. For example several characters attempting a task together could roll individually (giving all the players something to do) but add their respective success levels (so an impale and two successes is worth 5). One could also count levels of failure, with a normal failure worth 1 and a fumble worth 2. This would allow a GM to assess a group effort: if of the three characters mentioned previously one rolled a failure (one failure level) that still gives the group a total of four success levels, more than enough for the group to have successfully cleaned and re-arranged the Pikaraydian Ambassador’s quarters such that it is impossible to tell they searched it this morning…
For more direct competitions, the GM could use the success shift rule. Each level of success achieved by a “defending” skill would reduce the success level of an “aggressive” skill. So a good Sneak would reduce an impale on Search to a good success (which means the Sneaking character is rumbled, but their exact location not revealed “There’s someone in the bushes on this side, not sure where!”) but a significant failed Hide would promote a normal Search success to a critical (“Ok, you behind the tree with the pole-axe, stand up, we can all see you…”).
Combat Sequence and Spell Casting Times.
The standard Stormbringer combat round has a slightly surprising structure for some people, in that it completely separates out Magic from other physical action, putting it before all combat, but then imposes a single full round for casting to be complete. Where sequencing between casters matters, INT is used to determine the order. This has the admirable qualities of simplicity and consistency, but some GM’s may feel that it lacks variety and is overly limiting, especially in terms of representing different forms of magic on other planes.
The most obvious change to consider is to fold spell casting in to the DEX ranking system for melee actions: since Stormbringer spells clearly take physical and verbal actions (not to mention concentration) to cast, it doesn’t seem unreasonable to say that a Sorcerer starts a casting at his DEX rank in the current round and using standard Stormbringer magic rules, completes casting at his DEX rank the following round. GM’s should consider the fact that this removes the advantage a high INT low DEX Sorcerer has in the current rules: under the existing rules he will only face once set of actions from opponents (as on the round he commences casting he does so in the magic phase, before ALL physical action, and completes in the magic phase of the subsequent round), whereas under the variant proposed against higher DEX opponents he could face two sets of actions before his spell completes and takes effect as a higher DEX opponent will act before him in the round he commences casting AND in the round the spell completes and takes effect.
The advantages of using DEX for all activities is that it emphasises the importance of timing, and actually simplifies the combat round as everything is sequenced by the DEX of the participants. It also allows the Games master to impose different time requirements on spell casting. For example, it might be possible for certain types of mage to cast minor spells and move or even fight. The Games master could impose DEX rank penalties, either directly relating the MP of a casting to the DEX ranks forfeit (Chaosium’s long out of print Magic World did this on a 1:1 basis, so a 4MP Blast imposed a 4 DEX penalty on the caster) or proportionally so 1-2 MP spells take 5 DEX ranks and 3-4 MP spells take 10 DEX ranks.
Such changes to timing would make it advisable to look at the disruption, and success or failure of casting. In normal Stormbringer, casting can only be attempted by characters who are not engaged by an opponent (Stormbringer page 111) that is, who are not in hand to hand combat (either attacking or being attacked). However, some GM’s might want to allow Characters that are under attack to attempt magic – some sort of DEX rank penalty would then seem to be in order (at least 5 DEX), and limiting their defensive options to Dodge. As to whether the spell should still automatically succeed is another question: that magic is always quite so reliable (if known) is a great simplifier from a GM’s point of view, but perhaps not the best idea, especially when trying to represent spell casting in difficult circumstances or in environments other than the Young Kingdoms. Some suggestions are offered below for the non-automatic Spell Casting.
Combat Styles and Actions
Basic Role Playing combat amongst unarmed humans can be remarkably lethal: two average Stormbringer characters have 13 hit points and do 1D3+1D4 damage with a Brawl attack. Three average punches by one such character that hit in a bar room brawl will kill such a character. Whilst in general Stormbringer combats should be epic, sanguinary affairs, it would perhaps be reasonable to assume that such obviously non-life threatening situations as a bar room brawl in the Strong Arms Tavern in Menii will, unless combatants specifically state otherwise, all be using the Knock-Out attack spot rule (Stormbringer page 132). Only use the normal, lethal damage rules in situations where the combatants clearly do not care about inflicting potentially lethal damage on opponents: being attacked by savage beast in the wilderness, or murderous bravo’s on the Menii docks, for example.
Another change that both addresses the lethality of combat and encourages more “swashbuckling” and less “Armoured knights down the pub” is to make wider and slightly different use of the “chance armour affected” values for armour. On the Weapon Table section for armour (Stormbringer page 123) an optional rule is mentioned for imposing a chance that wearing heavier armour will halve non-combat skills whilst it is worn. Instead, why not impose the value stated (e.g. 25% for Yong Kingdoms Half-plate), as a penalty to ALL skills (including combat skills) whilst wearing said armour? It provides an incentive for characters to develop Dodge skills and place less reliance on heavy armour, especially when not expecting to face significant combat: the penalty for wearing full Young Kingdoms plate (50 reduction in ALL skills) means that unless expecting to go in to combat, one wouldn’t choose to wear it… Just as characters in the Elric saga or Hawkmoon stories rarely wear full harness in the Tavern, but do fully armour up before a major battle…
A frequent criticism of Basic Role Playing is that combat can get deadlocked when high skill opponents face each other: with such skill levels, the chances of one combatant succeeding with an attack and their opponent failing to defend is quite slim it is usually argued, and this leads to protracted, dull combats. In the first instance, game masters who feel this is a problem should review the Attack and Parry matrix (Stormbringer page 113) and the rules on damage to parrying weapons (Stormbringer page 117), as since the Elric! revision of the rules this is not as great a problem as it was in previous BRP related games such as RuneQuest. Similarly, game masters should bear in mind that numbers are a great leveller in combat – even in Stormbringer with multiple Parry and Dodge attempts allowed per round, the situation swiftly becomes untenable for even great swordsman facing several opponents.
In general, one of the advantages that a skilled swordsman will have over a less skilled opponent is that they will be harder to defend against: their greater skill allows them to use feints, bluff and misdirection to weaken an opponent’s defence. One can say that this is represented in a high skill, but this then leaves combat as a rather static matter of repetitive rolls vs. fixed values. A better but more radical solution to stalemated duels is to borrow from RuneQuest II‘s rules for Runemasters and allow master swordsman to reduce their effective skill and, if their attack roll succeeds at the reduced level, to impose the amount they reduced their skill by as a penalty to the defenders skill. So for example, Elric (fighting without Stormbringer) has a Greatsword skill of 150% (and a Dodge of 110%) and whilst duelling with Dyvim Tvar (Greatsword 145%, Dodge 85%) could elect to reduce his effective skill by 80 and if he succeeds at an attack roll against his reduced skill of 70%, Dyvim Tvar’s Greatsword skill would be effectively reduced by 80 points to 65% for Parrying (or his Dodge to 5%, not a good option for Dyvim) Elric’s blow, greatly increasing the chance that Dyvim would fail to avoid Elric’s blow. On Dyvim Tvar’s DEX rank, he too could elect to penalise his own attack chance by say 70 points, leaving Elric with a choice of Parrying at 80% (or Dodging at 40%)…
Magic Options and Exceptions
We have already mentioned folding the sequencing of spell casting in to the DEX ranks for normal actions in combat, and looked at giving spells variable casting times rather than the fixed rounds of standard Stormbringer. Another significant option is to look at other published BRP games with “magic” systems (Elfquest, RuneQuest, Call of Cthulhu, and Magic World) and use their magic systems as how magic works on a different plane. Chaosium have recently published the Basic Role Playing Magic Book monograph, which could be plugged in to a Stormbringer game fairly easily, and presents four, interrelated magic systems. Darcsyde’s Corum supplement is specifically compatible with Stormbringer 5th edition, as are the excellent Bronze Grimoire and Unknown East supplements originally for Elric! which can with older variants (such as the Rune system for first edition Stormbringer in Demon Magic) be obtained from DriveThruRPG.
On a less grandiose scale, a GM could consider altering the automatic success rule for spells (“Reliability of Magic” Stormbringer page 140). Magic World style “Spell as Skill”, where every spell is a skill that has to be successfully rolled before it works, could render spell casting quite disruptive to the game (as spells would frequently require multiple attempts to cast until mastered). But consider that casting any spell is fundamentally a Chaotic act that bends the world to the casters will rather than allowing it to follow the immutable calculus of Law. So why not require a POW vs. POW roll of the casters POW against the “strength” of Law on this plane? This also allows for GM created areas where that strength is lowered (ancient ritual sites) or raised (holy sites dedicated to Law) or specific techniques for weakening (blood sacrifices, the scribing of runes) or strengthening the rule of Law (performing repetitive Lawful acts). As a rule of thumb, assume the Young Kingdoms at the start of the Elric saga has a typical strength of 15 (2d8+6), which gives a minimally qualified spell casting PC a base chance (assuming POW 16) of 55% to cast spells. As the saga progresses the typical STR of Law in the Young Kingdoms is reduced as the influence of Chaos grows on the Young Kingdoms, until by the end it is very low, perhaps as little as 5 or 6.
One could also under this scheme apply a characters net allegiance to Chaos (Subtract the characters Law points from his Chaos points) as a bonus to their casting chance: this means that, logically, those with a net allegiance to Law have a penalty to successfully cast spells, at least on a plane like the Young Kingdoms. On a plane with true “Lawful Magic”, a characters net allegiance to Law could be a bonus and net allegiance to Chaos a penalty.
GM’s who feel that the Stormbringer magic system doesn’t reflect the nature of magic as they find it in the saga should consider either removing the spells entirely, or requiring more stringent requirements for allowing characters access to magic. In the standard rules a character must have POW 16 to use magic: raising this to 22 puts magic beyond the reach of ANY human, albeit simply ignoring step 3 from the “Creating an Adventurer” spread on pages 52-53 would make Sorcery using characters much rarer.
Less drastically, dropping most of the spells and leaving only Summoning, Binding and Enchantments which whilst not particularly true to the saga (where Elric makes at least some use of “spells”) would return the game to its more wild and chaotic roots and would certainly push magic-using characters into dabbling ever more deeply with the forces of Chaos…
The GM may also wish to consider imposing more invasive, subtle downsides for those who follow the path of Chaos. For example the GM could impose the character’s net allegiance to Chaos (Chaos allegiance points in excess of allegiance to Law) as a penalty to all communication skills or perhaps subtract 1 CHA per 10 points of Chaos allegiance. Or even apply the same penalties but as either a penalty or a bonus, depending on whether the character is attempting friendly relations or too scare and intimidate the person into a particular behaviour.