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.


  1. Great post!

    I've never even heard of the "golf bag syndrome," let alone experienced it. Like you, I started my BRP experience with CoC 5th edition. I think you're absolutely right about how and when one starts out with BRP influencing one's perceptions of the system even in the face of later revisions. I blame the lack of an authoritative core book for so many years. GURPS players don't have any problem understanding the changes between editions, and I think understanding and debating the changes between D&D editions is a hobby unto itself. BRP players, meanwhile, are like these little isolated pockets scattered across the hobby, each understanding the system in their own highly personalized ways depending on which particular game (and edition!) they started with. Palladium players are probably a bit like that too.

    I'm just getting a Cthulhu campaign off the ground and already I've turned to the core BRP book a couple times to supplement gameplay--once where I used opposed rolls between two socialites who were trying to flex their respective Credit Ratings, and then after the session when I was asked about skill training. That's one of the things I love about the system, actually--its robustness and flexibility.

    Really looking forward to what Chaosium does with Seventh Edition!

  2. Hmm well, speaking as a player of a combat-oriented character in a long-running RQ3 game in the early 90's, we were definitely guilty! My character was explicitly a martial artist and that was reflected with multiple weapon and unarmed combat skills (including left and right hands). I did make sure that they all got used in combat which, with descriptions of each manoeuvre, also reflected the varied nature of the combat style.

    Of course, RQ is technically a much more combat-oriented game than CoC and you can certainly definte combat as stressful!