Since I first started playing their games back in the early 80s, Chaosium’s Basic RolePlaying—the engine that powers most of their RPGs—has been my “baseline” system, the rules set that I return to again and again. Be it RuneQuest or Call of Cthulhu, Superworld or Nephilim, Stormbringer or Pendragon, or more recently the “generic” presentation of the rules in the Big Gold Book, I must have run thousands of BRP sessions by now. Like any GM who spends a lot of time with a system, I occasionally tinker with it, tweaking it for different genres or styles of play. Part of the charm of BRP is how flexible it is, and how modular. You can add, subtract, or modify the rules without “breaking” the game.
I have published some of these tweaks in Six Seasons in Sartar, The Company of the Dragon, and The Seven Tailed Wolf, as well as the Six Seasons in Sartar HQ/13G Conversion Guide. But I thought here at the end of 2022, I might share some of the tweaks I use for more “cinematic” styles of play.
Make Opposed Rolls A Fight
One of the reasons combat is such an RPG mainstay is that it contains multiple variables. Skill rolls tend to be pretty binary…you pass or you fail in a single throw. But in combat, you roll to hit, and the opponent rolls to dodge or parry. Then if you do hit, you still roll your damage…which could end up being a negligible amount blocked by your opponent’s toughness or armor. Combat is thrilling because of the back-and-forth, the tension of extended uncertainty.
But this can work for opposed rolls as well.
Whenever I want to make opposed rolls particularly tense, I do the following. Take the two skills being pitted against each other and divide them by 5. This gives you “contest points.” For example, you are interrogating a prisoner. Your Intimidate skill is 72%. The prisoner resists with their own Intimidate of 58%. This gives you 14 contest points, and your prisoner has 12.
You begin the first exchange. You put them under hot lights, threaten them, rough them up a bit, and they resist. You roll Intimidate and fail with an 83. The prisoner succeeds with a 37. The prisoner spits in your face, tells you to do something anatomically impossible to yourself, questions your mother’s virtue, and so on. For “damage” I like to use a D6, but your mileage will vary. For longer contests use a D4, for shorter, a D8 or D10. Because the prisoner won the round, they roll a D6 and get a 5. You get red faced and flustered, and your contest points are not down to 9. The prisoner still has 12.
If one side fumbles a roll, I like to make them roll a D4 and remove that from their own contest points. This is in addition to any “damage” inflicted by the opponent. For example, if the roll above had been a fumble instead of a failure, in addition to the 5 points you from your contest points, you would lose an additional D4 as well. In the case of a critical, roll double damage. If both sides score the same relative result—both fail, both succeed, both get specials or criticals—it’s a stalemate. No points are lost on either side.
The exchanges continue until one side or the other reaches zero contest points or less. In the example above, if the prisoner reaches zero they “break” and tell the players want they want to know. If the player reaches zero, there is no way to get the prisoner to talk. They need to try something else.
Obviously, you aren’t going to want to do this with every opposed roll. Just use it when you want to increase the drama and tension. I find it works well with:
- Chases (more on this shortly)
- Seductions (like the lady says, “love is a battlefield”)
- Drinking contests (use CON as contest points and CON x 5 for rolls…”damage” depends on the strength of the alcohol)
- Dance offs (in case you are running a campaign based on Footloose or West Side Story)
I used BRP several years ago for a Mission Impossible/James Bond kind of cinematic spy campaign, and used a modified version of the opposed rolls contest rules above. It works like this:
Each side uses the appropriate chase skill. Drive, Ride, Pilot, Swim, Fly, etc. For a chase on foot, go with DEX (or if you want to get really serious about it, average DEX and CON). This gives you your “chase points” (basically the contest points from above). For skills divide by 5. For DEX, multiply by 5.
First, determine the range. I basically use the range track in Basic Roleplaying, p. 216 but omit range 5, “out of sight.” Range 1 is “side-by-side,” range 2 is “near,” range 3 is “far,” and range 4 is “very far.” If circumstances don’t dictate the starting range, just roll a D4.
MOV determines initiative. If both MOVs are equal, the side with the higher DEX goes. They declare what they are trying to accomplish. “I run the red light.” “I lock lasers and fire.” “I run faster to escape.” “I try to pull a 180.” “I turn down the alley.” The opponent declares what they are doing to stop them. “I raise shields.” “I accelerate to catch them.” “I evade their fire.” Keep range in mind. You can’t ram their vehicle or tackle them unless you are “near” or “side-by-side.”
Now both sides make appropriate rolls. This does not necessarily have to be the skill that determined the initial chase points! If your Aston Martin has built-in machine-guns, you can roll your Machine-Gun skill rather that Drive.
Compare rolls as per the opposed skill roll rules above. If you like your chases faster-paced, use a D8 or D10 for damage. Fumbles still add an extra D4 (feel free to use a D6 instead).
When one side or the other reaches zero they are “out” of the chase. The side that wins gets to declare what happens to the loser.
Example 1: Two characters are in a roof-top chase, leaping from building to building. The GM rolls a 3, so the range is “far.” While they are running, the GM decides that the critical skill here is actually “Jump.” One character has Jump 45%, the other has Jump 30% (for 9 chase points and 6 respectively). Both characters have MOV 8, but their DEXs are 14 and 12. The 14 goes first. He is the pursuer, so he says “I am going to try to close the distance between us.” The other character says “I am going to leap on to the next building and slide down to the gutter.” They both roll Jump. The pursuer rolls a 29, a success! The other character gets a 17, also a success. He leaps to the next roof top and slides down, but his pursuer does as well. Neither loses chase points. Next round the pursuer says “I will leap and make a grab at him,” but the GM reminds him the range is still “far.” “I try to catch up then.” The other character keeps running. Since both are running now, the GM decides each should roll DEX x 5. The pursuer has a 70% chance and rolls a 35. Success again. The evader has a 60% chance and rolls 43. No points lost. the chase continues. The third round they have to Jump again. The pursuer fails this time with 33. His target rolls a 24, a success! The GM had declared “damage” for this chase is D10, so he rolls. A 10! He only had 6 chase points. The GM declares the evading character makes the jump to the next roof but the pursuer doesn’t. The evader gets away and the pursuer is not dangling precariously from the edge of the roof. he now has to make a STR roll to pull himself up or fall…
Example 2: Special Agent Dina Might is in her cherry red Ferrari racing through the streets of Paris. Two police vehicles are chasing her. Her Drive is 86%, the police only have 45%. This makes the chase points 17 for Dina, and 9 for each police car. Dina has a sports car with a MOV 200. The police cars are MOV 150. She goes first. The range is 2 for the first police car and 3 for the second.
“I will slam on the brakes and spin in a 180 degree turn so the first police car blows past me,” Dina declares. She rolls a 34. A success. The first police car rolls a 07, a special success! The damage this time is a D8. The police roll a 3. Dina’s chase points are reduced to 14. The GM says, “the police car slams on its brakes and turns sideways, bumping into the front of your car but stopping you from going forward.” The second police car rolls a 71. A failure. The GM rules they close to range 2 however.
Dina curses and slams into reverse, racing backwards down the street. The first police car will right itself and resume the chase. The other police car will try to close. Dina gets a 64, a success. The police get 64 (a failure) and 09 (a special!). Dina is having a bad day. Dina beats the first police car, so they loss a D8. She rolls a 7, so the first police car is down to 2 chase points. The second car beats Dina, so she also suffers a D8. She loses 5 more points and is now down to 9 chase points. The GM decides the second police car closes the gap to range 2, near.
Dina declares she will turn down a side street and try to get away. The other two cars pursue. She gets a 16, a special! The first police car gets a 98 (a failure) and the second gets a failure too (64). Dina rolls a 3 against the first police car and a 1 against the second. The first car is out of the chase, and Dina decides that they miss the turn and crash through the window of a doughnut shop (this is Roger Moore era light comedy). The chase continues…
You will notice we are not taking into account vehicle speeds, hit points, armor, etc. That all works for more realistic genres, but this is cinematic…it is the character’s skill, not the equipment, that matters. On the other hand, there are times when it might. Imagine your spy mobile comes complete with caltrops, smoke screens, a slippery oil slick, etc. The GM might inflict a penalty on the opponents’ rolls in this case (-30 to -50% maybe). If your vehicle has heavy firepower, add a +1 or +2 to the D8 or D10 roll when you damage their chase points by shooting at them.
Crashes will do damage when appropriate. GMs should feel free to approximate (“You ski right into the tree, taking 2D6 damage,” “you slam into the wall but the airbag goes off, take 1D8 damage”).
Stunts: As a final word on chases, sometimes the player characters will want to pull a “stunt.” This amounts to taking a penalty intentionally, but the opponent needs to take it as well. Usually I let the players declare stunts, not my NPCs…but you do you. “I leave the ski slope and ski down the bobsled run trying to escape! I will take a -30%.” “I push the nose of the fighter jet straight down and pull up seconds before I hit the ground. I take -40%.” They take a penalty to their roll but so too must the opponents.
Games like Feng Shui and 13th Age call them “mooks.” They exist to make player characters look tough.
Basically, in a game like RuneQuest, Paper Tigers only have 1 hit point in each location. Any damage that gets through armor reduces that location to zero or less. In other games, just give them 3 hit points total. They might still have armor, or even dangerous fighting skills, but they have glass jaws and go down easily.
Give It Hit Points
Like the opposed rolls rules above, this applies a bit of combat magic to other skill rolls. Basically, it amounts to giving a task “hit points.”
Imagine the player character has to crack a safe. Security guards are on the premises and time is of the essence. The GM has decided the safe has 18 “hit points.” Your character has Safecracking 68%, and the GM rules you can make one roll each minute (he simultaneously rolls each round to see if guards show up). As above, you do a D6 on a success, and double that with a critical. Each successful roll lowers the “hit points” to zero. At zero, the safe opens. A fumble might inflict penalties to further rolls (-25% or -30% is a good number).
I published a form of these in Six Seasons and Company of the Dragon as "CRs" ("character ratings"). When you need quick stats for an NPC, rate them on the same scale you would rate STR, CON, INT, etc. Basically, Computer Programmer 14, or Security Guard 12.
Assume this rating is their highest characteristic, their number of hit points, their magic points, etc. Their other characteristics are 2 or 3 lower, and they have a low characteristics at 4 or 5 lower. Their best skills will be that number times 5. Other skills can be based off their other characteristics or lower.
For example, we have an Innkeeper 13. We assume his CHA and INT are 13 each, other characteristics are 11, and his STR is just 8. He has 13 hit points, but just 11 magic points to reflect his assumed POW. He has the skills he needs to run an inn at 65% (13 x 5), other skills around 55% or lower.