Basic Roleplaying: Universal Game Review

11 June 2024
A landmark game from Chaosium, perfect for beginners and veterans to take inspiration from for their roleplaying games – Basic Roleplaying: Universal Game Engine is a must purchase game.

Written by George Chrysostomou

What is Basic: Roleplaying Universal Game?

Basic Roleplaying: Universal Game Engine is far from a conventional RPG book. It doesn’t contain a fictional world for players to inhabit, nor is it packed full of specific lore to ponder over. It isn’t brimming with named NPCs to utilise, and it cannot act as a standalone book without the player’s input. It is in fact the ultimate guide to building an RPG from the ground up, using a system that has been perfected and applied to a whole host of pre-existing titles.

Originally deployed by Chaosium in RuneQuest in 1978, the BRP formula is now integral to games like Call of Cthulhu, Rivers of London, and Nephilim. Basic Roleplaying is thus not a game unto itself, but instead acts as a blueprint for readers to take the principles of the system and form their own game, campaign, characters, and concepts around these basic rules. Beautifully written by Jason Durall and Steve Perrin, the book specifically caters to all. 

One of the great strengths of Basic Roleplaying is that it is utterly accessible, regardless of whether the player is well-versed in BRP, or is a complete newcomer. The introduction sets out the choice players face, making note that the book can be explored at the reader’s own pace based on their level of understanding. It even highlights a few points that veterans might want to stop for, so that a reader’s time is maximised.

Related article: How Chaosium changed roleplaying

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What's the Basic Roleplaying System?

Before diving into the contents of the book, it’s important to explore what the Basic Roleplaying system actually is. It’s essentially a blank slate that can be built upon and customised based on the needs of a game. It’s one of the earliest systems to use full skill mechanics that can be customised for each character, and utilises core characteristics like strength and dexterity, which are crucial for making those classic RPG dice rolls. Defence and armour are often treated separately, but by and large, the core mechanics are hugely simplified and adaptable. There are countless subsystems that have been forged off the back of BRP and it’s doubtless that after reading the Universal Game Engine, that players could create their own version.

So what’s actually in the book? The chapters are divided into Introduction, Characters, Skills, Powers, System, Combat, Spot Rules, Equipment, Gamemastering, Settings, Creatures and Appendices. There’s almost too much to cover in-full, but the book definitely has its strong points that will be pointed out in due course.

Related article: RuneQuest RPG review

Inside Basic Roleplaying System Engine's Book

The Introduction itself is one of the best that’s ever been produced in this genre, considering it is a definitive guide for anyone to fully grasp the concept behind an RPG in a very short space of time. From the responsibilities of the player and the Game Master, to key phrases that newbies will need to know to grasp the concepts effectively, the Introduction really holds the hand of the reader and takes them on a journey through the fundamentals. The book falls apart without this gradual step into a much wider world, and ensures that the text is just as accessible as the system being discussed.        

Elsewhere, the book goes to great lengths to provide readers with the inspiration they’ll need to create the kinds of games that they want to play. It feels like it was Durall and Perrin’s mission to remove any limitations that players might have previously faced, with this royalty-free system offering up so many opportunities to develop a never-before-seen world.

The chapters on Settings and Characters for instance, are brimming with fantastic ideas on how to world-build with believable locations and the people to populate them. The Settings section highlights an array of genre-defining backdrops to set a campaign within, like High Medieval or Noir, which in-turn propose specific adventure archetypes and powers or technologies that could influence these universes. The Character category on the other hand provides an array of titles like Hunter, Engineer, or Farmer, which are attached to attributes or skills that may shape the way a figure is created.

In this same vein, the book highlights the type of equipment a player might use, or the creatures they might fight. This bestiary is especially useful as it builds some monsters from the ground up that could easily be featured in any of the prior mentioned settings. Their armour, hit points, attacks and other major statistics are explained, to be modified or directly copied according to the Game Master’s discretion.

Skills and Powers cover the range of options players have when navigating a campaign, whether it’s the ability to bargain with an NPC, or perhaps the talent to turn invisible. But the book doesn’t just contain a seemingly infinite list of potential choices. It’s also full of advice on how these can be narratively applied to a game. The Powers section cleverly highlights how these abilities could be gained through origin stories, and how a character could mechanically take on or lose their powers throughout the course of a campaign. These are additions that make all the difference when players are looking for help once in the nitty gritty of their adventure.

Sections like the System, Combat and Spot Rules chapters are the densest of the bunch, but are the glue that hold the game together. The System section leaves no stone left unturned and tries to aid Game Masters in completely understanding all the tools at their disposal, to guide players along in determining their actions. Fate Points, the passing of time, movement, and the variety of rolls included in an RPG are all discussed in surprising detail. These principles are then applied to the combat scenarios that can occur, which cover both the decisions players may make, and their consequences.

While these are all critical components of the book, GMs will find the Gamemastering Chapter the most rewarding. Regardless of how many campaigns a GM has run, the chapter is written with such nuance and insight that it is sure to boost anyone’s confidence when entering a new game session.

The book is rounded out with stunning artwork that brings these imagined sequences to life, a much-needed bookmark, and robust RPG sheets that can be used again and again. These are curated for player characters, NPCs, and even vehicles, to help players along their way, organising all of the information included in the text as effectively as possible.

Basic Roleplaying: Universal Game Engine Review

In a nutshell Basic Roleplaying: Universal Game Engine is a behemoth of a book. While some chapters might contain an overload of information, the key to this title is in its accessibility and customisation. So much of what’s included acts as recommendations and suggestions, but what the book is ultimately doing is empowering the player and Game Master. It’s hard to imagine there’s another text that covers so many bases so succinctly, while arming its reader with the tools to create titles that could one day become just as popular as Chaosium’s work. Universal Game Engine is a gift to the community and undoubtedly a resource that will be relevant for decades to come.


Should you play Basic Roleplaying: Universal Game Engine?

We consider it a must play, must purchase game. Basic Roleplaying is a fantastic guide for beginners and veterans to take inspiration from as they create their own RPGs. Its historical significance makes it a standout compared to other similar products.

You should try this if you enjoyed RuneQuest. Utilising the same systems, RuneQuest helped to originate Basic Roleplaying and is a fantastic example of how the concepts in the book can spiral into a full RPG.

Buy your copy of Basic Roleplaying on Amazon

About Basic Roleplaying: Universal Game

Designer: Jason Durall & Steve Perrin

Publisher: Chaosium Inc.

Pages: 264

Age 10+

Price: £39

Sometimes we may include links to online retailers, from which we might receive a commission if you make a purchase. Affiliate links do not influence editorial coverage and will only be used when covering relevant products


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