Tuesday 9 June 2009

Most aptly named RPG of 2009: Brutal by David J. Stanley

Brutal is far from just a name. It's an ethos that David has carried throughout this gorey, wicked and belligerent fantasy roleplaying game. If performing acts of violence without hesitation to NPCs or PCs is your desire, then Brutal will satiate your thirst in several dimensions. Its roots are set deep in war game clay but unashamedly draws strength from this solid base, rather than dressing itself up in hokey modern ideas.

Character Creation

You begin with choosing a Character race. Characters can take on one of a plethora of races that need to be seen to be believed: Adventure Beetles, Catlings, Cesspoolers, Cyclops Turtles to name but a few. It is by far the most bizarre selection of player character races I've ever seen in a RPG. Sci Fi RPGs would have trouble matching it for oddness. You almost get the feeling that David was having a happy old time specifying races only then to realise that he should really put in the stock fantasy ones.

From here, a character is defined by eight abilites: Combat, Co-ordination (Dexterity), Corruption (how easily you take to tripping, picking pockets, etc), Intellect, Magic, Nature, Strength, Willpower. These can be impoved with experience points. You also have Abilities that are immutable from their starting state: Dark Vision (Night vision), Movement, Spring (jumping ability), Size, Life Force and Hit Points. Abilities and Attributes are both measure by a number of D6, the more the better.

David has provided helpful recommendations that outline what races are good for what and what attributes to concentrate on for different types of character. This can only help new players get a grip on whether their Cyclops Turtle would be any good as a Mage. These suggestions also help prompt the creative juices and it is easy to see where interesting combinations could come about. Increasing the levels of Abilities and Attributes is performed by point-assignment.


The mechanics are simple to a fault. You roll a dice, add the dice together and compare against a target number or opposed roll. Anyone still around at the end of the battle gets Experience points.

Restrictions occur when you can only choose from one of the listed Actions. If you want to do something not listed, you add that new action to the list. This is where Brutal leans heavily toward the war game and I think would have a detrimental affect on the narrative. For example, you can't actually just smash open a chest, you have to do a Bash To Bits Action. Does this mean I have to say I'm doing a Bash To Bits action or do I just say I'm kick open the chest with my size 12? Each Action lets you know which Ability or Attribute to use but I feel that should be obvious.


As one might expect from game that flaunts itself as being part war game, the combat rules is where the war game stands tall, puts a flag in the ground and declares everything attached to it as his. There are three forms, a simple Basic combat for fisticuffs, a larger Hack and Slash system for massive battles and a very comprehensive Big Bad Ball Busting Bloody Battles. Which is just that. It goes even further to augment these rules with full-on war game combat. The aim for all combat forms is to keep it fast and fluid, players and monsters moving simultaneously in a gridless, miniature laden table. I'll take a look at the Basic system to demonstrate how quick things can be:

The combat sequence is initiative, move and attack/defend. Before combat kicks off, you split your Combat Dice (one of the Attributes) between attack and defend. You then get to use these dice to help you attack and defend. Think of it as your stance in the given combat (loads of defense dice makes you chicken, loads of attack makes you a nutter). To defend, you get dice for natural bonuses, armour and shields. Roll the lot and sum for your defense value. To attack, you get dice for the weapon and skill. Roll them and sum for the attack value. If the attack value is larger than the defense value, damage is done.

Horror and Gore for the Adults

In a chapter rightly entitled Horror and Gore, there is a list of new Actions with a more gory lilt. Definitely more of an adult theme here. I wouldn't point Brutal at the already sick minded teens inside the bodies of grown men that I have the pleasure to GM. Their imaginations are already festooned with the blood lust filth that you would tell your children to avoid. A short list of traps is included as is a magic system, which fits into the rest of the system: the more dice you have, the more powerful the spell is going to be. The higher the result, the more damage you do. A combat-oriented list of magic items has some splendid descriptions and random treasure tables make an appearance. There is an Index and a Contents page too. Hurrah!

The graphics and prose is charming throughout. Even the eyebrow-cocking gory sections have a hint of much needed mirth. The graphics are well chosen and in a variety of styles. It does well to lift up a simple yet easily read layout.

Is it roleplay?

It's a question that I'm finding difficult to form an answer for. There is little in Brutal that facilitates roleplay but then do many roleplaying games? Even in Monopoly, if people want to roleplay being a tycoon by taking their family to the cleaners, they might venture a cackle or tell them they are fired. However, Brutal feels more like a war game than a roleplaying game. Roleplay could be assisted here with more information on the world, how the races interact and the like. Sometimes the nomenclature is needlessly unique. As all the dice are D6, the rolls are listed as simply 2D. I understand the logic but it impairs clarity. There are assorted spelling errors, capitalisation to give emphasis and grammatical head scratchers. A good proof read should precede the next version.

A Hack and Slash Conclusion

Brutal has a single aim: to make a combat system that is as rich and gloopy as the congealing blood of your slain enemies. At that, it succeeds. The combat detail, player character races, gore and guts set it apart from other Fantasy games. Complexity is offered with options to the core rules, which remain consistent throughout: roll a load of dice, add them up. If your players are the sort to start roleplaying during Top Trumps, then you will find plenty here to roleplay out. Old School? As far as roleplaying is concerned, Brutal is the School at Athens.


Rolnem said...

Wow, its fantastic game!

Anonymous said...

4th edition is coming. Add your ideas to the mix, and get in on the play testing.

Rob Lang said...

Great to hear that you're bringing out a 4th Edition. Please let me know when its out and I'll do a news post on it. :)

David Stanley said...

4th edition was posted online December 20, 2013. Including unarmed combat, three more character races, updated monsters, better game balance, a new layout (no more folding pages) and more. Enjoy.

Unknown said...

"BRUTAL Big Bad Ball Busting Bloody Battles"
Edition 4.1 released on Feb 4, 2016 (new)
Still 100% free :-)

Using 4th edition (released Nov 10, 2013), ..three groups ran a total of 250 hours of gaming, play testing, trying out various house rules and stuff. The results have been wrapped up into edition 4.1. This edition is my favorite so far. It is organized way better, has no missing pictures, and offers the best combat rules ever. Also, it is compatible with 4th edition characters, monsters and adventures so I decided to call it 4.1, ..not 5th edition.

Hi Rob. You did a wonderfully honest review of my 3rd edition back in 2009.

I would LOVE to hear what you think of my game now!