Implementation of the rules (BRP/CoC)

A question was raised a while ago on the valuable question and answer site, RPG Stack Exchange, concerning ways to prevent or at least reduce the poor game play brought on by the implementation of the Basic Role Playing system, such as is found in Call of Cthulhu.

The question was phrased in such a way as to request methods for helping the GM implement the system more appropriately, and is built on the understandable point of view that most who try to run games using BRP tend to “do it wrong” unintentionally or accidentally.  If you are among those who “do it right,” or among the much larger group who have never actually used the system, but have read or heard that it is among the easiest and most intuitive to run and grasp, this may come as a surprise. In fact, many of the initial answers to the question on the site were based on giving GM advice or simply restating that those who were failing to implement the game well were “doing it wrong.”  For many, that seemed to be the only response, rather than systemic options, as the premise of screwing up BRP on its surface seems ridiculous. After all, BRP is a system built on percentile rolls…  Who can screw that up?

Lots of people.

The example given in the question itself was of a skill at 60% resulting in pass or catastrophe results rather than pass or fail results. To be fair to those who reacted in shock to this, that sort of approach does clearly violate the rules which explicitly indicate what normal successes, critical successes, or critical failures are, however that does not change the simple fact that under pressure a lot of GMs go this route for at least certain skills. That a whole game was marketed under the simple premise of “You can find all the clues automatically! No more adventures doomed by a bad Spot Hidden roll!” speaks eloquently about the sheer number of people who have wound up interpreting the rules of BRP in this skewed way.

Quick Review of the Implementation Rules

To make sure we are all on the same page, the rules themselves, such as in Call of Cthulhu 6th Edition, clearly state that rolls are not made under circumstances normal for that skill, unless the skill itself is inherently dangerous. That means that unless there is specific stress in the scene, or the skill, such as climbing, is used in conditions with a very small margin of error, that no rolls should be called for to resolve tasks. It is fair to call for a roll for free climbing a rock face, or for performing delicate surgery, and it is totally understandable that combat skills are always rolled, but otherwise they are not. A trip to the library to find a book is not really a pass/fail event, nor should it ever be conceived of as a pass/botch sort of situation. If the book is there, and if it is not hidden/lost/being obscured/accidentally misfiled then the book will be found, given sufficient time – no roll required.

When rolls are required, there are rules in place based on the roll obtained to determine if it is a critical success, or a critical failure. These do not apply in every situation, of course, but they do apply in more situations than you might think at first, and this in turn perhaps contributes to the problems that casual players of the system experience.

The Problem

In the specific example posed on RPG Stack Exchange, the situation was of a car chase. The PC driver’s 60% Drive score was rightfully invoked to determine success in the chase, but the interpretation of the 40% chance for failure was crashing. I suppose it could be debated if a crash is a critical failure in driving or a general failure, but it does stand to reason that it is not automatically a crash as the vast majority of us do not slam into buildings and pedestrians on 4 out of 10 times behind the wheel – even under stress. What led the GM to draw this extreme conclusion, then? More than that, what is that makes so many casual users of the system draw the same erroneous conclusion?

The Reason

In my eyes, the problem is caused by a combination of haste, system awkwardness, and tunnel vision – mainly the latter. In a lot of games, the only times rolls are being made is for pass/fail sorts of things like combat or picking a lock. More subtle situations come up less often in these games, and it strikes me are often mishandled as a result. Adding in the fact that the “simple to grasp” BRP system utilizes percentages and rolls are described as being “a 60% chance of success” helps demonstrate why there is a noticeable pull toward ruling in a pass/fail mode when interpreting results. This mode does not work for all skills, however and a good example of this is the in the area of languages. A 90% in English does not mean that a character misunderstands English completely 10% of the time, it more correctly represents a lesser ability to communicate in a specific register, or to penetrate the thought process of a poet. Not a sudden and catastrophic failure to remember the language in this one instance.

The problem really boils down to not recognizing what needs to be determined when the Keeper calls for a roll.

Success and failure are the two described results of rolls that do not achieve a critical or botch. The character is to succeed or fail if asked for a roll, and may additionally have a chance to perform exceptionally or to experience some form of disaster. In the driving example, a car chase warrants a roll because this is not a normal application of the skill, and because the situation is one of stress and importance. This is clear to most people who read the rules, but may become obscured in play if the GM is having to remember rule and setting details as the game goes on.  Where things get unclear is setting the focus of the roll properly. In our example, the task is the use of driving skill to pursue an escaping car, not to operate the car itself. Failure therefore, as outlined in the chase rules (which a new or casual GM may not even be aware of), is failure to close the distance and ultimately catch the fleeing villain. Failure is not a car accident. Getting the difference between these two is essential in learning to implement the rules as written, and that can reasonably be expected to take some practice to learn to do consistently. All skills require practice and consideration in order to develop.

The Solution

To fix the perception of variance (swinginess) and the arbitrary application of botch results to failed task rolls will invariably have to come back to training the people you play with to use the rules as intended. If that proves to be too hard, or the instances of using the game are too far apart to allow for proper retention, using different rules to produce the intended results may need to be considered. There are lots of options available now, from the aforementioned Trail of Cthulhu to Realms of Cthulhu which might work better with a given group or GM. I am not fond of this solution as it is essentially just giving up. While these games are great in their own right, switching to them because of a personal failure to get in tune with the spirit of the rules system does not remedy the problem.

To me, the thing to do is persist in attempts to get it right.  Perhaps the easiest way to do that is to keep a record of rolls and their in-game results to review so that the ratio of success to catastrophe results that have been presented can be clearly seen. Not only will this concentrated look reveal a rulings bias toward pass or botch, it will also highlight how often the GM is choosing to adjudicate the failure results in the proper light. If a failed roll to pursue produces results more properly associated with a failed drive check, and of a failed research roll produces results of sudden illiteracy, the problem is not with the system, but its implementation. Even the most stubborn person should be able to see and recognize this truth.

If they cannot… don’t play with them.

One Response to “Implementation of the rules (BRP/CoC)”
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  1. […] skill-based games over the years, particularly those in the mould of RuneQuest, is that of the chance for and results of failure. I find in most cases, that stems from the desire to roll for everything, to improperly frame those […]

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