Tuesday, 22 March 2011

Golfing: 78% (or, Familiarity Breeds Confusion)

One persistent criticism of Chaosium's Basic Roleplaying system in its varying incarnations over the decades is that of "Golf Bag Syndrome", but it's not something I've ever encountered in all my years of playing BRP-based games, so I've often been baffled by how pervasive the criticism is.

BRP works on a percentile roll-under system, so a character might have "Shotgun 57%" on their sheet, which means that the player must roll 57 or less on a d100 to succeed with that skill. The sheet will also have a little box next to that skill, and this tiny box is part of the subsystem used to simulate character development.

(I'll try to make this as not-boring as possible, but there's only so exciting this stuff can be.)

Under certain circumstances, this box is ticked -- "checked" if you're a Colonial -- and then at the end of the session or scenario,
the player rolls a d100 against any ticked skills; if they roll under the current value -- a "success", although there's no actual skill test being performed -- then there is no change, but if they roll over -- a "failure" by normal in-game rules -- then their score in that skill increases by a certain amount. This represents the character learning from their experience, in particular their mistakes, and the more competent a character becomes, the less they have to learn.

It's quite an elegant experience system, but it's been misrepresented or misunderstood over the decades, and it's this confusion which leads to Golf Bag Syndrome. The idea is that a player uses a skill, gets a tick, then pulls another skill out of their "bag", gets a tick, and so on until everything is ticked, and the game becomes some bizarre collecting exercise.

The thing which always confused me was how these players were getting ticks with such ease, when all the incarnations of BRP I knew placed all kinds of restrictions on how the ticks were awarded. I have three versions of the system to hand at this precise moment -- the Games Workshop-published third editions of both RuneQuest and Call of Cthulhu, and Chaosium's fifth edition of the latter -- and all three are quite clear in stating that ticks are only given when a skill use is successful in a stressful or notable situation, and even then only at the GM's discretion. This is far from the automatic collection of ticks outlined by the Golf Baggers. Fifth edition Cthulhu suggests that ticks be given by default for a skill roll of 01 -- a critical success, more or less -- but that's also not quite the same thing.

(I was surprised to discover that Cthulhu doesn't give a tick for a critical failure, as it's something I've always done when running the game.)

It's not, I admit, an exhaustive sampling of BRP's many guises, but it's still interesting to see that there is no sign of Golf Bag Syndrome in these version of the rules. So where does it come from?

Stormbringer, apparently.

Guy Fullerton of Lord of the Green Dragons -- although everyone in the western hemisphere is a member of that blog -- and Chaotic Henchmen Productions did a very decent thing, and instead of following the standard operating procedure of the internet and throwing his toys out of the pram, went to his books and dug out actual quotes and references to the old Golf Bag. Guy's a veteran Stormbringer, er, guy, and he's seen this glitch in action many times over the years. With his permission, I'm going to relay his findings:
Stormbringer (2nd edition boxed, 1" thick box, 1985):
- "If … your player-character scores a hit, then your character will have a chance to improve his weapon skill with the weapon that scored the hit. If you score a hit, but it is parried, you did not truly hit, and so there is no improvement by experience in such cases." (Section, Players Book, page 37)
- "If your character uses a skill while playing a game of Stormbringer, note that he has done so, and when the game is over you will have a chance to see if his skill has improved." Note that the rule does not explicitly require a successful use; it only says "use". However, the example of improvement shows a character successfully using a skill. (Section 4.1.2, Players Book, page 50)
- I looked through the gamemaster sections for additional requirements/prerequisites for gaining of a chance, and I found nothing.

So, in 1985, Stormbringer was pretty lax on experience requirements. The next two editions are more or less the same, according to Guy, except these particular rules change their positions within the text.

The only version of the game I've played is 1993's Elric! which I've always liked for the unnecessary exclamation point. Of this edition, Guy says:

- Requires success and gamemaster decision: "Sometimes, but not always, your gamemaster will instruct you to check a skill just used successfully in play." (Experience, page 51)
- Offers guidance for the gamemaster decision: "When an adventurer succeeds with a skill in a dangerous or stressful situation, the gamemaster may grant the player an experience check on the adventurer sheet." (Experience Check, page 151)

This is very close to what Call of Cthulhu fifth edition says, which suggests that there was either some attempt to consolidate BRP in the mid-1990's, or this edition of Stormbringer borrowed its text from Cthulhu rather than RuneQuest; I do recall that the layout and format of this edition was quite similar to fifth edition Cthulhu.

Guy also has a copy of the bog-standard setting-agnostic BRP core rules from 1981, and its only requirement for a tick is a successful use of a skill.

Some more data, again from Guy:
RuneQuest 2nd edition (from 1979-ish):
- Weapon skill rolls don't require an unparried hit to garner a check mark; any hit will do: "During the bookkeeping phase of each melee round (see Chapter III) the player should keep track of whether the character managed to land a blow with a weapon (it doesn't matter if it does damage, bounces off armor, or is parried) or managed to parry another attack." (Learning by Experience, page 23)
- Other skills: "To learn a skill by experience, a character must use it successfully in conditions of stress." (Introduction, page 44)

Call of Cthulhu 2nd edition (1983):
- "When a character uses a skill successfully during play, the keeper may allow that character's player to put a check by that skill." (Rewards of Experience, page 15)
- There is no separate weapon skill section.

Basic Roleplaying (2002)
- Requires success on a skill for a chance of improvement: "… check over [the] character sheet to see what skills were used during play. If your character succeeded in using skills, they should have been marked on the sheet." (Experience, page 8)
- The rest of the text content of the book looks largely similar to the 1981 version.

One could argue that Chaosium were cracking down on the Syndrome by the mid-90's, but BRP's backtracking means that it's all a bit inconsistent, and it becomes apparent that there is a possible reason both for the prevalence of Golf Bag Syndrome as a criticism of BRP, and my complete inexperience -- heh -- of the phenomenon. I first encountered the system through Call of Cthulhu, which is more strict than most versions of the game -- although the 2004 quick start rules allow a tick on any successful skill use -- while Guy got in through Stormbringer and proceeded to Golf Bag his way through the 80's and 90's.

So it seems to be that BRPers tend to pick up their habits from the first version of the system they encounter, and carry them through to other versions. I have seen this in action: my first Cthulhu GM, despite using the fifth edition rules, kept on bringing in things from RuneQuest and Cthulhu's fourth edition, entirely without conscious knowledge. I wonder if the broad similarity between BRP flavours also has the downside of concealing the -- sometimes important -- differences between them?

(Of course, sometimes you do want to mix and match, and the close familial similarities are more helpful there; I use the Elric! serious wounds table in my Cthulhu games, for example, and the recent big yellow BRP book is a wonderful toolkit for players of any of the variants.)

So I wonder how many people out there think they're playing fourth edition Stormbringer but are really playing the second edition? Or think they're playing Call of Cthulhu but are really playing RuneQuest, only with librarians? Not that there's anything wrong with any of that of course, but perhaps we should be more observant and discerning when using our chosen rulesets, if only to avoid missing something cool; the upcoming seventh edition of Call of Cthulhu apparently has some clever new rules ideas in it, and it would be a shame if they were overlooked simply because BRP is so very familiar.

Thanks again to Guy for being a good sport and digging out all the data.

EDIT: There's been an update on all this, drawing in some data from Pendragon.

Saturday, 12 March 2011

Tarzan of Lothlorien

James Maliszewski said:
Here's what I'd love to see propagate across the old school blogs: an example or two like the one I posted above about orcs. I love hearing how referees have made the raw materials D&D offers their own, especially if doing so draws on longstanding information or images associated with the game. The examples don't have to be long, unless you want them to be; all I ask is that they reveal a little bit of that do-it-yourself spirit I think is so representative of our corner of the hobby.

Now this isn't really an old-school blog, and I have an on-again-off-again relationship with D&D itself, so I'm probably not qualified to comment, but I do have one hat to throw into this ring.

I've never been happy with the traditional fantasy elf. They seem too easy somehow; they're fast, intelligent, better at magic than everyone else, and are usually immortal. It's Superman Syndrome, and like Superman, there's no edginess to them, nothing to grab and twist and make interesting; the closest you get is some ill-defined malaise, like the ennui which affects Tolkien's elves, the harmful decadence of Games Workshop's Eldar, or Moorcock's Melnibonéans -- though not elves per se -- which combine both. This is of course a sweeping statement, and I'm not nearly well-read enough to identify the exceptions, of which I'm sure there are many.

Even so, it's difficult to translate these social and psychological aspects into a game about kicking in doors and killing stuff, so my thoughts have tended to follow a different, more practical, path. Taking the forest-dwelling aspect as my starting point, I've expanded that along somewhat realistic lines, influenced in no small part by an old White Dwarf article -- in #69, by Peter Blanchard -- about how underwater societies would develop without access to metalworking (no fires, see) and other such markers of civilisation.

So my forest elves would be agile and stealthy, as comfortable in the canopy as they are on ground, somewhere between the alien in Predator and your average wuxia showoff. They probably wouldn't have metalworking, since mining seems out of character and you don't want to be setting up furnaces if you live surrounded by trees; so there's no elven steel, no mithril, or any of that extraneous bling. There might be the odd item that they've stolen or traded, but for the most part these elves are using sharpened stone, bone, the odd bamboo spear here and there, and probably their fists too, as unarmed combat seems a logical consequence of a dearth of proper weaponry. On a similar note, they'd probably be nomadic, as carving homes into the trunks of trees seems too destructive, and the typical Ewok village type treetop construction would be saved for the odd meeting place rather than each and every settlement. I want them to wander the forests and not be tied down, so that when outsiders come into the woods, the elves seem like ghosts, difficult to pin down and predict.

So essentially my elves would be barbarians -- with a touch of monk -- in D&D terms, one part archetypical jungle savage, one part Princess Mononoke.
Despite their long lives, they'd have a society based around impermanence, with little in the way of metal and probably no paper, although they'd probably make use of standing stones and the like. They would be shamanistic and their magic would be based on illusion and druidery, with a fair smattering of earth-based spells in there. I'd also place more importance on their alliances with other forest dwellers, such as earth elementals, shambling mounds and even sentient animals, again like Princess Mononoke. Their utter rejection of the --literal -- building blocks of human society would make them seem more alien than the usual Immortal Skinny Bloke, and I'd consider giving them penalties when in urban situations, and perhaps full-on panic attacks when in a dungeon.

I'd keep the immunity to ghoul paralysis though, as I've always liked how strange and unexplained it is.

Oh, and no dark elves, sorry. The idea that you can tell the a "good" elf from an "evil" one just by looking at them appals me -- yes, even in a game about kicking in doors and killing stuff -- and I won't have it. You can tell my good elves from the evil ones by seeing whether they frighten off the loggers, or just skin them alive on the spot.

Friday, 11 March 2011


I have a number of useful resources to share with you all, but alas they're all tied into my upcoming Savage Eberron scenario, so I have to keep them under wraps for the moment. Look out for scans of my game notes, a handy play aid -- I don't want to say more about this one now as I want to surprise my players -- and what will, I hope, be a fun little subsystem.

Here's a hint:

Saturday, 5 March 2011

Savage Eberron: Dragonmarks (Part 2)

Following on from the first part, here's the second instalment of my rules for emulating Eberron's dragonmarks in Savage Worlds. This time, I'll be looking at the individual marks and their game effects.

I've followed the general advice given by the Savage Worlds core book and have tried to use existing rules rather than create new ones. As such, most of these abilities are covered in the Savage Worlds Explorer's Edition (SWEX); a smaller number come from the Fantasy Companion Explorer's Edition (FCEX) -- which I'd recommend to anyone running a fantasy game for the system -- and two are borrowed from the Hellfrost Player's Guide (HFPG).

Each mark has two abilities: one general Trait bonus that is always active, and a special spell-like ability that can be activated at least once per day.

  • +2 Notice.
  • Detect/Conceal: as Detect/Conceal Arcana (SWEX, p89), except limited to a specific object, which must be specified at the time of activation.

  • +2 Tracking.

...I must admit I failed to find an existing Savage Worlds equivalent to the original Mark of Finding, and I am reluctant to simply build one. If any Savage Worlds fans out there have a suggestion, do let me know in the comments.

  • +2 Ride.
  • Beast Friend (SWEX, p86).

  • +2 Healing.
  • Healing (SWEX, p89).

  • +2 Charisma.
  • Feast (HFPG, p88).

  • +2 Repair.
  • Reconstruct: as per Healing (SWEX, p89), except it only works on items like barriers, armour, weaponry, and so on. It also works on warforged and constructs.

  • +2 Survival.
  • Speed (SWEX, p94).

  • +2 Charisma.
  • Speak Language (SWEX, p93).

  • +2 to resist Taunt/Intimidate actions.
  • Armour (SWEX, p86).

  • +2 Streetwise.
  • Darksight (FCEX, p33) or Obscure (FCEX, p40)

(One might want to split the two powers between Houses Phiarlan and Thuranni, but it might be more interesting and organic to not do so.)

  • +2 for Agility tests involving balance.
  • Environmental Protection (SWEX, p90).

  • +2 Notice.
  • Lock/Unlock (HFPG, p90).

Tuesday, 1 March 2011

The Ministry of Blades : The Madness of Angels, episode 5

Prentiss flattens a steward; Curruthers shoulders the load.


3rd February 2011.

Dramatis Personae

Lady Antonia deVore - a Heavily-armed Aristocrat (player not present).
Captain Benson Curruthers - a Military Policeman.
Doctor Zephaniah Pleasant - a Sinister Surgeon.
Miss April Sharpe - a Self-taught Inventor.
Jack Prentiss - a Dodgy Pedestrian.
Mr Erasmus Rooke - the Boss.
Henderson - a Dedicated Cryptologist.
The Chief Verger of St Paul's Cathedral.
Several Members of Staff at the Capitoline Club.
Lewis - an Unsuccessful Burglar.


Following their rebuff by the President of the Capitoline Club, Captain Curruthers and Prentiss determined to enter the premises by other means, opting for the hitherto-unheard-of disguise of workmen making a delivery. Acquiring some work clothes from a nearby shop, along with a long crate, they returned to the rear entrance to the Club. Knocking on the door, they informed the steward who opened it that they had a delivery for the Very Reverend Greenfield. When the confused young man disappeared off to confirm this, they sidled in and, using the crate as a cover, headed towards the front of the building. Finding their way up to the first floor (lounges and games rooms) and then the second (bedrooms), they were caught trying door handles by one of the stewards. Their attempt to explain that they were trying to make a personal delivery was justly ignored as they were ordered back downstairs. Prentiss lost interest and knocked him out. They dumped the unfortunate man in one of the bedrooms they’d discovered, taking his keys, but further explorations proved pointless as they were unable to discover anything new.

Curruthers and Prentiss returned to the Ministry just as Miss Sharpe and Dr Pleasant returned from their own excursion. Meeting with Lady Antonia, they found she had continued her research and had turned up some interesting information concerning Wren’s interest in sacred geometry, although it seemed he was less interested in using it for power, more as an architectural aid. They discussed the day’s discoveries and learnt of the collapse of another Wren church, before being interrupted by the somewhat manic appearance of Henderson, waving some paper about. It transpired that he had decoded some of Greenfield’s notebook, having solved a kind of enciphered shorthand. He had broken his usual habit of waiting until he had finished the whole job before reporting the results, realising that this was quite urgent. Looking at the most recent entries first, he had discovered that Greenfield had been suspicious of the activities of one Dr Jacob Sorenson, the Head Choirmaster, who had been appointed about six months earlier. While Dr Sorenson had acquitted his duties as Choirmaster admirably, he had also taken a very intense interest in the structure and history of the building. He was forever being encountered in obscure corners of the galleries, taking rubbings or drawing sketches; once or twice, he was found knocking on wooden panels and listening to the echoes. He did nothing that was actually inappropriate, at least by the [INDECIPHERABLE]'s standards, and Greenfield had been advised to wait and watch by his colleague 'ER', but then his name turned up authorising a docket for work on the walls: Greenfield had been a bit bemused by this, as that should have been the Verger's responsibility. The last entry in the diary mentioned his plan to investigate the site of the works after the masons had gone home to see if there was anything odd about them.

The team now realised that Greenfield had merely discovered the plot, not instigated it.

With time ticking on to their appointment with the employer of Lewis, they collected the luckless criminal from his cell and headed for the indicated tavern. Upon entering, they seated themselves around the lounge so as to have all fields of view covered. Curruthers then became aware that a familiar figure was trying to catch his attention from an inner doorway: it was Erasmus Rooke. Bringing them all into the private room, he paid off Lewis and sent him home. Sitting down, he explained that he had been the one that hired the burglar. Rooke and Greenfield, it appeared, were both members of a group dedicated to keeping the world safe from supernatural dangers, although Rooke refused to give any more information on this. Realising that Curruthers’ investigation would lead him to search the Dean’s home, and believing that the regalia associated with the organisation would cause an unnecessary and pointless diversion, he had arranged to remove them. Unfortunately, Lewis had been caught before he could finish the job, instigating the very situation his employer had been trying to avoid. With the most recent reports from the team indicating the scale of the situation, Rooke had decided to reveal what he knew. Between his information and what the team had discovered, they figured out the story.

It appeared that Sorenson had realised that an archangel was bound to the cathedral, in order to prevent its elaborate structure from collapsing. That archangel was also lending its strength to the rest of Wren’s London churches. Over two centuries of captivity, however, the archangel had become somewhat insane and was trying to escape. Sorenson wanted to release it and bind it to his own service, which would both collapse the churches and give him great power - assuming the archangel didn’t break free and lay waste to London first.

The team decided it was time to track down Sorenson. Heading immediately for the Cathedral, they contacted the Chief Verger, discovering that Sorenson had vanished the day the Dean died. Obtaining his home address, they gained entry to the premises, finding that they had been deserted. Curruthers did discover a map, with a crude pentagram drawn out on it, centred on Lincoln’s Inn Fields.

Suspecting trouble, they gathered weapons and headed for Holborn becoming aware of choral singing as they arrived. Venturing into the park, they saw torchlight at the bandstand, which was surrounded by choirboys, while two hooded figures were chanting in the bandstand itself.

Finding their lines of fire obstructed by apparently innocent choirboys, the team closed for hand-to-hand combat. Pleasant did his best to put the choirboys, who appeared to be possessed, out of the fight bloodlessly, while Prentiss found himself engaged in a fistfight with the larger of the two hooded figures. Curruthers brought down the chanting Sorenson with a double shotgun blast, in spite of his magical protection, but it was too late, as a misty figure began to form over the carved stone block at the centre of the ritual. Miss Sharpe’s orgonator now became useful as it wore down the spirit’s still coalescing physical form, allowing Curruthers to disperse it with a final blast from his firearm.

With the choirboys apparently safe and both villains under control, the team returned to headquarters with the stone, apparently the focus for the spirit’s bindings. The heroes passed on responsibility for the stone to Rooke who ultimately returned it to the church, in order to shore up the cathedral until it could be strengthened physically.


This episode started out fairly rushed, as I had promised to finish the whole thing this week. This meant that a number of investigations had to be completed in quick succession and I was worried it wouldn't be possible. Luckily, despite the vast amounts of exposition, the players put the details together very quickly. The final fight was nice and quick.

Next time, my investigative plots will be better planned: I'd got so far with this one, then dropped the ball, having to play catch-up. Given that the original idea was to not railroad the players, it came dangerously close towards the end.