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Out of the Suitcase #48: 'Good old Burly Bob' - a basic history of Basic Role-Playing

Posted by Michael O'Brien on 26th Jan 2024

Burly Bob

-- "Good old Burly Bob" - art by William Church --

Chaosium President Rick Meints shares stories from a life-time as a collector of all things Chaosium.

A few weeks ago during a podcast I answered a number of questions about the fabled “lost” manuscript for Chaosium’s Dark Worlds project (the ill-starred precursor to Call of Cthulhu). The short answer to the reason it failed lies with the creation of Basic Role-Playing around the same time. 

As usual, to help with my answer I went looking for something in the archives and while doing so happened upon the cut-and-paste layout of an early edition of BRP:

-- The individual pages were combined into spreads on much larger cardboard. -- 

While I’ll speak about Dark Worlds in another future 'Out of the Suitcase' post, I thought I might as well share some pictures from BRP along with a bit of history first.

The success of the RuneQuest RPG in 1978 and 1979 caused Chaosium to begin its pivot from publishing wargames to publishing roleplaying games and supplements. As Greg Stafford succinctly put it many years ago, RPGs took half the time to make, cost half as much to print, and sold twice as well.

Despite RuneQuest being set in the fantasy world of Glorantha, the potential for adapting its rules to other worlds and genres quickly emerged. Greg often heard from fans who were using the rules for their home brewed game settings. So in 1980 The Chaosium quickly distilled the RuneQuest rules into a succinct and elegant 16 page ruleset. The working title of Basic RuneQuest gave way to the more universal title of Basic Role-Playing.

The first printing of Basic Role-Playing debuted in the RuneQuest boxed rules set in the fall of 1980. It focused on people brand new to roleplaying games as its target audience. 

Constant small refinements and additions led to two new editions of BRP within the span of a year, yet it remained at 16 pages in length. 

-- This is the cut-and-paste layout from the third edition. --

Chaosium started including it in many of its boxed games, most notably in the first edition of Call of Cthulhu, which actually required it for character creation. It stands out as the only booklet in the 2" box not printed in brown ink.

-- The first, second, and third editions from left to right. --

Chaosium also allowed other publishers to use it in their products. Board-Craft Simulations, another San Fransisco Bay area company, included it in its three dungeon tiles boxed supplements: Fantasy Paths, Village Paths, and Castle Paths. Chaosium even tweaked the cover a bit for them, and surprisingly we had that updated cover layout in the archives as well.

-- Boardcraft Simulations featured the beautiful artwork of Lisa Free, who also illustrated a number of Chaosium products in the 1980s. --

While Chaosium referred to all of their games as being in the BRP family, the BRP rulebook itself disappeared for almost 20 years. It quietly re-emerged from its slumber in 2002 with an updated layout and cover, but was still 16 pages in length and with much the same contents. However, BRP's transformation into the product we see today was poised to begin... 

When the Avalon Hill Game Company became a part of Hasbro it ceased publication of publishing RuneQuest 3rd edition. Fortunately though, Chaosium had always retained the copyright on the rules themselves. By slightly tweaking the RQ3 rules to remove all references to RuneQuest, a trademark still owned by Hasbro, in 2004 Chaosium put the four main booklets from the RQ3 boxed set back into print under the title of Basic Roleplaying: The Chaosium System. Like most early Chaosium monographs produced during this cash-strapped era, they were tape-bound black and white photocopied books done in small batches at a nearby copy shop. 

-- The tape bound monographs. --

As print-on-demand became cheaper and of a higher quality Chaosium updated the 4 booklets to perfect-bound binding with nicer golden covers in 2009. 

-- The somewhat nicer POD versions of the monographs done by Lightning Source. --

Despite the slight cover design improvements, the real work on expanding the BRP system into a complete and much more comprehensive system had begun a few years prior. The Big Gold Book as we know it today first appeared with the Christmas 2007 “advanced reader zero edition” of the playtest rules. Its 420 hand-numbered copies sold well before the regular CHA2020 first edition BRP book debuted in 2008. Its enduring popularity led to a 2nd edition hardcover version (CHA2026-H) being published in 2011. 

-- The true pre-cursor to the Big Gold Book of today. The 2007 "Zero" edition is close to the BRP second edition cover from 1981. We have that Chaosium "Dragon" logo artwork in the archives as well. --

The current Basic Roleplaying: Universal Game Engine hardcover (CHA2036-H) is its latest incarnation.All that history, all stemming from a simple 16 pages of introductory material explaining the wonderful world of role-playing games, a mere 44 years ago... Good old Burly Bob...