Bureau 13: Stalking the Night Fantastic (1992 edition)

Supernatural Role Playing

Tri Tac Systems 1992.

By Richard Tucholka

B13

8 1/2" x 11" perfect bound softcover. 192 pages.

 

Supplemental materials in the collection

Aliens Among Us, by Bruce Sheffer

Back to the Horror Wing
Back to the main lobby

We are not alone on this earth. Supernatural beings, spirits malign and benign, aliens from other worlds, and extradimensional horrors periodically appear, often with malevolent intentions. How is it that we are unaware of these invasions? How can we defend ourselves from the things that go bump in the night?

"Mac, cut loose with the machine gun as soon as you see anything move! Jonah, you've got the silver ammo in your AR-15, right?"

"Yeah. But I stubbed my toe on something."

"Get ready with the flood lights! No, wait a minute. Jonah, what did you hit with your foot?"

"Don't know, but it was slimy."

"Slimy...? Hit the lights! Hit the lights!"

>Click<

Luckily for us, the Government of the United States is aware of the problem. Or at least a part of it is.

"What the heck is THAT?"

Ever since 1862, the secret Bureau 13 of the Justice Department has been charged with protecting America from everything paranormal. Bureau agents Stalk the Night Fantastic, identifying and neutralizing potential threats, all the while keeping everybody happily in the (figurative) dark.

 

The Setting

Bureau 13 was one of the earliest paranormal investigation games. It was originally published in 1983; after the pioneering Call of Cthulhu but before the classic Chill. The usual tropes were present—the public must be kept ignorant, agents have access to all kinds of wonderful top secret equipment, teams must operate with no official support—but there were some unusual features as well. One of the biggest innovations was portraying the supernatural as being good as well as evil. Agents were expected to determine the nature of the situation before taking action. Sometimes, the proper solution was to protect the paranormal from the normal. Second, the nature of the Bureau's relationship to the government was unusual. While agents were portrayed as patriotic Americans working for the government (protecting America from Everything), the exact nature of the Bureau's relationship to the government was unknown. Was the Justice Department aware of their paranormal branch? Was the President? Meanwhile, Bureau agents were recruited from the general public based on their skills, but they essentially remained secret employees, maintaining their day jobs as a cover. Third, the paranoia trope was based around secret enemies rather than the government itself. The Bureau was traumatized by the Massacre of '77, where unknown assailants bombed the agency's Washington D.C. headquarters, killing two thirds of the staff. There were suspects, but the Bureau didn't have proof, and all agents were required to keep a low profile.

There was a strong dose of James Bond here, too. There were all kinds of gadgets available that were just beyond the technology of the day. Two way communication implants. Packets of cigarettes with garrotes, plastic explosives, and smoke bombs hidden inside. The standard-issue Colorado RV, equipped with missile pods, an oil-slick function, smoke screens, mines, gas, a machine gun, radar, nitrous oxide injection engine, and a self destruct mechanism. Don't forget the vehicle is fully submersible to forty feet! Agents could restock their supplies from secret supply dumps, hidden all over the country, although these drops might not have been restocked since the Massacre.

Another unusual aspect is that the Bureau is relatively well-informed. Having continuously dealt with the supernatural for over a hundred years, agents could count on all kinds of support for typical encounters such as vampires, ghosts, and werewolves. Many creatures were known to have weaknesses—"banes"—and agents were expected to be able to wield these solutions when needed. However, since the Massacre, resources may not be available quickly enough, and agents should plan on innovating in most instances.

Speaking of the Massacre, Bureau 13 featured an unusual NPC in J.P. Withers, a rogue agent. Withers represented a wild card for the referee: obsessed with protecting agents from their hidden foes, Withers's assistance could be requested by any member of the Bureau. But Withers's help usually involved over the top violence and explosives. While Withers could rescue any agents from a situation, they'd be left with the difficult task of smoothing over and covering up the messy results.

Which brings us to the tone of the game. It's clearly comic: the Phil Foglio cover showed a delightful scene of Federal Agents bursting into a dungeon room filled with assorted uglies. The game included were-squirrels, The Real Big Book of Demon Summoning, the 6th Reich, and other weirdnesses. Sample character Robert Harrison Blake became a Bureau 13 agent after killing a werewolf at a convention by braining it with his silver-plated Hugo award. If Bureau 13 was a "James Bond of the paranormal" game, this was Roger Moore's Bond, with a twinkle in his eye, winking at the audience.

Or not. The rules were realistic and grimly serious. While characters might be expected to act in a cartoonish fashion, the results were very graphic: combat and accidents were messy, horrifying, and deadly. This disconnect between the tone and the rules made the game difficult to play, and was one of the primary flaws of the game.

Another flaw of the game was its odd organization. The rulebook had a clear order of presentation, and rules were interspersed with character equipment, discussions of various monsters, and so forth. Most game systems offered both simple and complex versions, and readers who didn't follow things carefully were easily confused. There was an index, but this listed topics in the order they were presented in the book, not in alphabetical order, which rendered it less helpful than it might have been. On the positive side, the book was full of examples which helped clarify many rules, but in some cases the examples introduced new rules which weren't explained in the main text. The examples were generally about Robert Harrison Blake and his lengthy feud with Brother Johnson of the Brotherhood of Darkness. These examples connected into a narrative that was fun to read.

Character Creation

Before we discuss character creation, note that the Tri Tac game system was a product of the 1980s: while the basic system may have been easy to grasp, it was buried under a host of (optional) special cases and modifiers. At the risk of boring our readers, we describe these systems in detail.

Character generation in Bureau 13 was neither simple nor elegant. Characters were described through twenty characteristics, most rolled on a 4d6 - 4 system, and a few calculated from other scores. Tucholka was very blunt: there were to be no re-rolls or modifications. You got what you rolled.

The basic rolled abilities were Strength, Constitution, Dexterity, Agility, Intelligence, Wisdom, Luck, Charisma, Accuracy, and Supernatural Sensitivity. Throw was calculated as the average of Strength, Accuracy, and Dexterity. Dodge was the average of Strength and Agility, and Mental Stability was Constitution plus Wisdom plus fifty points. Hit points (Whole Body Damage) were determined as Strength plus twice Constitution plus the result of a d10 roll.

Additional characteristics were needed for characters with psychic abilities or magical powers. These are discussed below. The separate ability of Magic Resistance was rolled on a single d6. (Notice that you had to roll less than this value on percentile dice to avoid hostile magic!)

Players simply chose their character's Piety on a scale from zero to twenty; the referee arbitrarily set the character's social standing somewhere on a scale from negative twenty to positive twenty.

 

Skills

Once basic scores were generated, the character was fleshed out by occupation and skills. The main skill list was reasonably lengthy. Skills were listed alphabetically and classified by the means by which characters learned them: work experience, technical school, military experience, higher education, or self-taught, all indicated by letter codes. There were also Talents, Extra Legal Skills, and Bureau Skills, each with their own lists. Skill levels ranged from zero to twenty, although it was possible to have expertise in a skill at above level twenty for experts.

Players started by selecting their main source of education (work, military, higher education, etc.), choosing three skills of that classification. Their main occupation skill started at d4 + 4, and the two secondary skills at d4 + 2. Players could buy more skills with points based on their intelligence. Characters also gained d4+2 skills from the Bureau list. An optional rule gave older characters skill points based on life experience (age - 21 skill points).

Characters could boost some skills by naming two skills as hobbies, a creative talent, or a "long used" skill. In addition to all this, referees were informed that all characters were assumed to have whatever skills were needed for day to day living—these were generally not on the skill lists.

Skill points could alternatively be invested in improving some of a character's physical characteristic scores through exercise, body building, or martial arts training.

There were additional notes on generating military characters, optional language skills, and a separate skill list for characters with medical training.

 

Character Advancement

Characters earned experience points for successfully completing missions, as well as less tangible goals such as "good group organization," "not jeopardizing civilians," and "outstanding aid." In short, referees were expected to reward good play with experience. There was also a rule about negative experience, where GMs penalized players for bad play, but no real examples were given. When enough experience points were accumulated, characters improved their hit points, gained additional skill points to spend, and Stability, Magical Power, and Psychic Power improved. The experience system duplicated the features of level-based game systems, although Bureau 13 characters did not have levels.

 

Game Mechanics

In general, the system was fairly basic. But there were pages upon pages of optional modifiers, and the way the rules were distributed through the book made it difficult sometimes to see the simplicity underneath. Further, the various sub-systems (melee, martial arts combat, magic, psionics) worked slightly differently, and the projectile combat system was further removed from other systems.

The basic system for everything (except projectile combat) was to roll under the character's skill times five on percentile dice. A roll of 01 was always a success, while a 00 was always a failure. As noted above, there were many different modifiers to the situation. For some systems, modifiers were multipliers, while for others they added to the skill level.

For the skill resolution system, the referee added the task difficulty (ranging from +95 to -95) to the skill level. Modifiers added to or subtracted to the total. An alternate Easy Skill use rule said to use a skill and a couple of modifiers, then use a final multiplier to handle task difficulty. Perhaps this was easier in that the referee didn't have to gauge the difficulty of the task as much. Certainly using fewer modifiers would help.

 

Combat

There were three separate basic combat systems: hand to hand, martial arts, and projectile. These were combined with two different damage systems, and information about each sub-section was dealt with in a different part of the book.

Initiative was described in the hand to hand combat rules; we assume it was the same for all of the combat systems. Players rolled a d10 and added either their Agility characteristic or their Martial Arts skill.

For hand to hand combat, characters attacked using the basic skill system, using Dexterity as their attack skill. There was no task difficulty modifier, although there was an optional modifier based on the size of the attacker and defender, cross-indexed on a table to produce the proper score. A player could also defend, using their Dodge characteristic, and following the same rules.

If the hit was successful and was of a damaging nature, damage was rolled on d6s, the number of dice based on the attacker's strength and the weight of the weapon used (light, medium, or heavy). An attacker with an average strength of ten with a medium object did 2d6 of damage. (Average character hit points would be about 35, so the average character could withstand seven blows from a typical weapon.) Attackers could pull punches and use a lower strength level if they chose. Damage was taken from the character's WBD, or Whole Body Damage score, calculated as twice their constitution, plus strength, plus 1d10.

A more detailed combat system had combatants choose from eleven different options, each with an attack and a defense (for example, Punch and Block or Punch and Parry or Immobilize and Break Free). Each option listed specific results and a list of potential modifiers to pay attention to. For example, the Punch and Parry option said that if the attack failed, the defender got +10 on initiative on the next turn, and the modifiers to consider include damage, agility modifiers, personal/stress modifiers, and movement.

Blade combat deserves a special mention. Start with the type of attack made (stab, impale, cut, slash, or chop). Then, look up the base damage based on the damage table mentioned above (which considered the attacker's strength and the weight of the weapon). Add more damage based on the type of weapon cross indexed with the type of attack (a slashing scimitar did 3d6; an impale with a bowie knife did 1d8; a chop with a chainsaw did 3d10). Add the length of the blade—the amount of the weapon that actually came into contact, causing the wound. This was determined by the effective cutting length of the blade (found on the weapon damage table) and the type of attack (cuts do up to d4 inches, slashes do up to d6, an impale uses the full blade length). While it was never clearly specified, an example implied that each inch of length added one point of damage. Finally, the whole amount was modified by the sharpness multiplier (for example, x .25 for a blunt edge, x 1.5 for a very sharp weapon).

There was also an incredibly detailed hit location system. There were two hit location tables, one based on the size of body areas (for normal combat) and one that gave roughly equal odds to hit any body area (for truly random damage, such as shrapnel). There were seven and a half pages of damage tables for specific body areas. Once the players knew which part of the body had been hit, one rolled 2d6 to determine the specific sub-area hit. The table indicated how much damage that part of the body could absorb, whether or not there was bone in that area and how much damage the bone could take (if damage was less than the bone score, the weapon lodged in it; if greater, consult another table to see the effects of breaking that bone), whether the Artery table should be consulted for high bloodloss in that area, the amount of damage needed for the weapon to completely go through that part of the body, the probability of instant death, and the main organs of the body that were in that specific region. Depending on the organs hit, one could be incapacitated, knocked unconscious, or killed by the blow.

Characters could wear armor, of course. Armor subtracted from damage (to that covered part of the body, naturally), and as we'd expect, Bureau 13 was most thorough in listing potential armor: thin plastic, plastic chainmail, padded fabric, clothing.

If a character was skilled with martial arts, the procedure for combat was about the same (Martial arts skill times five, modified by attacker/defender size, roll under target number with percentile dice). Damage was based on the attacker's strength, unless he or she was using a weapon as part of the martial art.

Of course, if one wanted more detail than this, Bureau 13 was ready. The book listed seventeen different martial arts, including wrestling, street fighting, and SCA sword & shield. (No capoeira?) These were classifed as offensive or defensive and passive or active, and if the art required weapons to use (and what kind). Players decided what type of maneuver they were trying (for example, chop, throw, pin, or kick). A success meant doing the effect indicated by the type of maneuver they were trying. One could also aim for specific body parts; you always hit what you were aiming for. The body part was cross-indexed to the number of levels the attacker had in their combat skill, providing a letter code result, A to F. These codes indicated combat results ranging from light pain or a short stun up through agonizing pain up to possible instant death. (Notice that this was a completely different damage system than for regular melee combat.)

 

Projectile (usually gun) combat worked differently from melee combat. For the simple system, the basic attack was to roll under the character's accuracy characteristic with a d20, modified by a multiplier based on the difficulty of the shot. This was complexified with further modifiers, subdivided into five categories: size and speed of the target, range to target, type of movement by attacker and defender (slow walk, fast walk, jog, dodge, evasion, roll, etc.), special equipment bonuses (sights, bipods, radar, etc.), and unusual situations (terrain, weather, deflection (the quality of cover one's target is hiding behind), etc. An unexplained example implied that a roll of half or less of your accuracy meant the shot hit the very specific body part it was aimed at, while a success of greater than half of accuracy meant a random hit within that body part. (As noted above, larger body areas were subdivided into smaller ones for the melee combat tables.)

Individual guns were comprehensively statted out, with number of rounds, rate of fire, reload time, year of introduction, type of ammunition, hydrostatic shock bonus, accuracy bonuses at various ranges, damage multiplier (multiply the damage from the type of bullet by the gun's modifier), number of rounds automatic weapons fire with each trigger pull, weapon weight, chance of misfire, effective and extreme ranges, availability, how concealable the weapon is, how much recoil, and a few additional special details if needed. There were eleven pages of modern weapons, most of them guns. The list was not comprehensive, but there were enough to represent most of the basic weapon types with more variety for pistols and rifles. The list included higher powered weapons such as grenades, mortars, and vehical mounted missile pods. There were even a few exotic weapons such as bows, black powder rifles, and gyrojets.

Automatic weapon fire was only slightly more complex. Attackers rolled to hit as for any firearm. An additional d100 was rolled and added to the result. This result was cross-indexed on a table to the number of shots fired to determine how many rounds actually hit the target. Of course, each bullet then had to have damage calculated separately!

Of course, all this detail might slow a game down, especially when facing down an angry mob with a light machine gun. The referee might roll a single d10, adding one for each bullet that hit. The higher the result, the more injury the target suffered, with a six or better indicating serious damage, and an eight or better pretty much meant the target was done for. A separate but very similar table was provided for animals. In both cases, the referee might roll an additional d10 for further color to these simple results. They provided such detail as extra-effective armor absorbing more damage, an otherwise unnoticed obstacle deflecting the bullet, the target might be spun around or knocked back, etc.

 

Paranormal Powers

Bureau 13 had both magic and psychic (psionic) powers. Magic and psionics were described as fundamentally different talents, although an extremely lucky character might have both. Both systems required players to roll once at character generation, and if they rolled well, they had the skill. Otherwise, there was virtually no way to develop it in play.

Psionics

A character may have the talent naturally, or it might have "been induced" through external forces. In both cases, players determined their starting character's relevant background and rolled. For natural psi talent, a character's best bet was to have a grandparent with psi (8% chance of having the talent); we assume from the table that this meant "both a parent and grandparent," since having a genetically closer parent meant a lower 6% chance. No family history meant a 4% chance. If you failed by one or two, the character was noted as "latent psi," (which didn't mean an ability to develop psychic powers later, but rather an ability to detect psychic energies in your vicinity through physical discomforts such as migraines and nosebleeds) while a failure of 99 or 00 meant your character was anti-psi. An anti-psi added penalties to the abilities of psychics around them.

Induced psi meant your character was awakened into psychic power by a traumatic event. Depending on the nature of the event, one might have a 2% chance of psi powers (brain injury) up to 25% (an implanted device). But a successful roll here only meant the player progressed to a second table, where the character risked injury or death, but only had a 12% chance of actually gaining psychic powers.

Should a character be psychic, two new characteristic scores were needed: Working Psi (WKP), equal to constitution plus twenty points, and Mental Coordination (MCD), the average of intelligence and agility. WKP was the pool used to power psychic abilities, while MCD was a modifier to the use roll.

Psychic abilities were skills, and followed the basic skill system. Players had a skill level of 1 - 20. The target number to use the skill was the skill level times five. MCD was directly added to the target number. There were twenty different psychic powers, although the four most powerful were denied to starting characters. Psionic powers were what you'd expect: precognition, telekinesis, pyrokinesis, and so on. Unusual powers included spectrakinesis (the ability to control light, not including invisibility) and Psi Tap (the ability to raise WKP by draining free energy in the area). Characters generally started with 1 - 4 abilities, at a level of 1 - 4. One could try to obtain new talents, but this was not only risky (with a fifteen percent chance of losing skill levels, compared to a ten percent chance of obtaining a new talent), but also required 500 points of WKP, nearly twenty times the character's normal psi level. Tucholka apparently desired psychic powers to be tightly controlled for player characters.

Magic

The magic system was very similar to the psychic powers, but complicated by the nature of magic. Fitting Bureau 13's theme of good versus evil, magic was classified as white, grey, or black. The color of magic was largely a feature of how it was used, rather than any differences in the spells, but some spell types were limited to particular shades. While a player could simply choose which shade his or her character practiced, this was also linked to the social standing characteristic. The referee would adjust a character's Standing based on his or her actions. Should standing drop to minus ten, then character's shade of magic would darken (white to grey, grey to black), and standing would be reset to zero. The rules were less specific on lightening one's shade: it takes worthiness and GM agreement for a grey magician to become white, or a black magician to become grey. Once a magician has been black, only higher powers can bring them up to white again, no matter how long they've been grey.

Like psychic powers, a player rolls percentile dice at character generation to see if a character has magical talent. There's a base 5% chance, although this can be increased by family history, including rumored magical abilities or a family business involving magic. A character might also have studied magic independently or been an apprentice to a magician. With the right backstory, a character might have as high as a 60% chance of having magical talent. In spite of the self-study part, it appears that a character in play could never acquire magical ability if they didn't get it in this initial roll.

Also like psychic powers, magical spells were skills, and players who had the talent started with d4 of them, with additional spells depending on the character background. Characters also had a Working Magic score (WKM) and a Mental Coordination score, generated in the same way as for psychic characters. The chance to cast a spell was calculated in exactly the same way as for psychic powers: skill level with the spell times five, plus MCD, plus skill modifiers. Gestures increased the probability of success (or rather, not using gestures decreased it), and if a spell caster lacked the proper ingredients for the spell, there was another reduction in skill. Other special modifiers included the purity of the spell components, the nature of the area where the spell was cast (favorable or unfavorable grounds), or aid from higher powers.

The required spell components could be determined by random rolls, along with their costs. Some of these were quite creative: illegal pharmaceuticals, rare dusts, earth from special places, specially made candles, containers, and so forth.

There were twenty six basic spell types, and each had a number of variants, or sub-classes. You learned the skill of the basic spell type, and the sub-classes were all available as part of the basic spell type. Spell casters in Bureau 13 didn't throw fireballs, but they could shape change, heal people, transmute materials, enchant items, throw curses, control people, throw illusions, open gates to alternate realities, and in the case of black magicians, raise the dead and summon demons. All magicians could call angels, but angels were not bound to respond to summons as demons were.

 

The rest of the book

The rest of the book was a short encyclopedia for modern role playing. You could compute damage from various forms of asphyxiation, effects of thin or heavy atmospheres, noxious gases, the effectiveness of various forms of fire extinguishing systems, radiation, nutritional values of various foods, diseases and their specific effects, infections (gangrene, anyone?), some basic demonology, rules on the American legal system, and some suggested reading. The game also included a scenario which trains players in understanding that "unknown is not necessarily evil" and "Bureau 13 is a secret organization, guys!"

Conclusion

Bureau 13 had a reputation for being an impossible, hyperrealistic game system. While this is true to some degree, there were simpler rules systems included, even though they were difficult to find and extract without getting lost in the complex ones. But this criticism is partly unfair, as the game system was clearly a child of the 1980s when such complex systems were more accepted and design principles were less well established.

The real flaw in the game was the mismatch between the setting's atmosphere and the nature of the rules. Simply put, we don't see how the average gamer was supposed to run a comedic game when the consequences of failure were so severe. Bruce Sheffer's scenarios book, Aliens Among Us, avoided this issue by shifting the humor from goofy to dark humor. His vision of the Bureau 13 setting was serious, albeit unrealistic, with lots of superscience and alien technology.

Tri Tac is still in existence, still supporting its games, and has converted Bureau 13 to a d20 game. (See Tri Tac's Bureau 13 webpage at http://www.tritacgames.com/b13_bg.htm.) We hope d20 is a better fit for the game than the 1992 game engine, and hope the game has continued success. Bureau 13 is not dead at all, just keeping its usual low profile.

 

Personal note

I bought this game years ago and I tried using the actual rules once. (I ran the same scenario using Over the Edge's rules twice more.) There's something about the setting that periodically calls to me to write something supernatural and funny. My first scenario, "The Old Woman and the Shoe" has always been extremely successful. Perhaps I'll post it one of these days. There's something special about this setting, but it takes time and care to bring it out.

—RAD
12/22/09

Back to the Horror Wing
Back to the main lobby