Greetings and salutations! We are back to the land of uber-super-geekiness: rpg systems! This is Part 2 of a series comparing tabletop rpgs both for gameplay and as tools for word modeling. In Part 1, I provided the background and then the analysis of the first system under the scope: Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. Now we continue with the next on the list: Rolemaster. If you’re a non-gaming writer who doesn’t care about game mechanics, skip to the bottom.
As a refresher from part 1, here are the compared areas:
- Basic Mechanics and Overview
- Overall situation resolution (non-combat)?
- Combat system?
- Magic system?
Refresher: the two criteria:
- Evaluation for game play: (How fun is it to play? (Character perspective); How fun is it to run? (GM perspective))
- Evaluation for writers and world-builders: (How flexible/fun/powerful is world building? How flexible/fun/powerful is character building?)
Without further ado…
RM Mechanical Overview: The premise in Rolemaster, and its stripped down version, Middle-Earth Role Playing (MERP) is simple: make a more realistic system than Dungeons & Dragons and add complexity through the use of charts. Some have called it “Chartmaster”. This is rather simplistic in that it misses both the beautiful underpinning of the game system, and fails to understand the failures of the game system.
This was gaming at the masters level. You graduated AD&D to Rolemaster if you were daring enough.
The system is simple: there is only one kind of die roll, the percentile, or “d100”. To resolve every and any situation, role a “d100”, add your bonus, and look up your result on the relevant chart.
Every weapon had an attack chart.
And this was its failure as well. RM is an accountant’s dream game. The preparation time is astronomical. Whereas in classic AD&D you could roll up a character in ten to twenty minutes, a RM character could take five hours. (!) A lot of it involved the player pouring over choices and options, and then doing the spreadsheet math to derive the skill and attack bonuses that would be used in gameplay for each and every situation.
Sounds boring, right? Well, executed well, this was one of the most fun systems to play, though somewhat difficult to run. It demanded a GM of exquisite skill, and one who had access to a photocopier. With every weapon having its own attack chart, it made sense for each player to have copies on hand for their respective weapons.
Before I get into specifics, the overall strength is that the system was an integrated whole, faced on realistically simulating living in a sword and sorcery world. There was risk at every level–it was somewhat more deadly than AD&D–yet you felt more unique from the start.
RM is not revolutionary. Its basis is AD&D, but taken to the nth degree of detail and flexibility. There are no “you can’t” in RM. You *can* wear armor as a wizard and wield a sword (rather than the AD&D arbitrary rule of not being able to try to pick up and swing a weapon not permitted for your class)… but if you do, you’ll suck pretty hard, and you’ll have a more difficult time casting spells. But, you can do it, and if you’re desperate you can gamble on the luck involved. There is always a chance of success (in RM, if you rolled a 95 or above, you rolled again and added… so in theory, you could keep rolling and re-rolling for a higher success score). Characters are still categorized by classes and levels, using an experience-point based system. Raising a level in a class raises your skills and abilities. Multiclassing is nonexistent, but nothing is forbidden. Classes define a character’s aptitude, not what they do… so a “wizard” advances faster in magical skills (costs fewer development points) and slower in martial skills (costing more development points).
Non-combat situation resolution: Non-combat situations are skill based. They had a generic success chart the Gamemaster (GM )could interpret, and custom charts built for specific skills if the GM wanted to use them.
Combat: As mentioned, each weapon had its own chart. There were two things of beauty about the combat system. First, unlike AD&D, there was a distinction made between being easy or difficult to hit and being easy or difficult to hurt. In addition, the opponent’s weapon skill had a factor in your to-hit roll. In AD&D (and even the modern d20), your opponent’s ability to parry a strike is not addressed–it is artificially rolled into a meta-stat called “hit points” (in AD&D and d20, “hit points” does not equal actual life). So, for the first time in my roleplaying experience, the opponent’s skill with a blade affected the attacker’s success. Second, the charts had this peculiar effect: opponents with heavier armor were easier to hit… but if you hit, you did less damage (the armor offers more protection) and it was harder to get a critical hit. If you were in light armor, or cloth, you were harder to hit… but if your opponent landed a hit, it was more devastating. This is a nuance that neither AD&D nor the current d20 systems have.
The fun item of combat were the critical hit tables. Each kind of attack (slashing, crushing, impact, fire, frost, etc.) had its own critical hit table. If you scored a lucky hit, you got to roll on a second table, with amusing text, for a chance to score spectacular and cinematic results. The famous example a high roll on the impact critical table: “Foe bursts into a bloody pulp. Use a spatula.”
Magic: Magic was also quite detailed, between Essence (classical magic), Channeling, Mentalism, and hybrid classes. Instead of individual spells, you learned “lists”… if you learned Fire Law, you would automatically get its more advanced spells as you advanced in level. The idea was that as you worked more with fire, you learned to do more complex stuff with it (graduating from fire-bolts to fire-balls, for example). There were a large number of utility spells, and clerical healing spells were highly detailed for bleeding damage, nerve damage, muscle damage, etc. (One could argue, maybe too detailed for game play… but then the kind of person this game attracted relished detail anyway).
As a new spellcaster, you needed to spend a few combat rounds preparing your spell. You had to first roll to see if your spellcasting was successful. Only if successful could you roll for the effect (such as the attack role of a firebolt). The more you prepared, the more chances you had of your spell not “fizzling”. If you cast hastily, you were likely to lose mana points without getting your spell to work. However, as you got better, you didn’t have to prepare as long… you could cast spells a few levels below your experience level on the fly.
And, if you were super successful with a Force Bolt attack, you could crit and get the coveted result of “use a spatula“.
RM Evaluation for Gameplay
Running RM: I ran a RM campaign for 3 years, and I was somewhat mediocre at it. The great thing with RM is its complexity; the problem with RM is its complexity. Rolemaster will let you do anything… but with all its charts and options, it started to feel constrictive in spite of itself. It’s not constrictive, but the problem is that exercising flexible options requires effort, and after a while, the effort involved in bending the system to your will start to become a straight jacket. It’s difficult to create new monsters with any understanding of underlying game balance, and it’s all but impossible to create a new weapon. The GM’s just not going to realistically build on of those damned charts.
Character Creation: As mentioned, character creation is both flexible and time consuming. Filling out the character sheet is akin to filling out a tax form, and RM is the reason I mastered Microsoft Excel. I cut character creation time from 5 hours down to about 90 minutes, or even 30 minutes if you were familiar with the options available. But, in its own way, creating a character was fun. More fun than AD&D or any other system, with the possible exception of GURPS (which will be reviewed next in this series).
Playing: Playing RM. I mentioned the excitement in rolling on critical hit tables… and the fear when monsters scored a critical hit on you. Death was always possible. An orc could kill a master fighter… everyone had to play with safety in mind, and you could never get cocky. The artificiality of the system wouldn’t make a high level character immune from a lucky dagger strike.
However, after many combat sessions, the crit charts became familiar. Combat became somewhat tedious. And, rolling d100s over and over again isn’t inherently fun. Spells gave a lot of options, and creative players could get thoroughly immersed in a detailed world, especially when facilitated by a great GM.
As with any system, the GM can make or break it. Rolemaster is a fantastic system, but there is nothing casual about it.
RM World Modeling Evaluation for Writers
So what about using it as a world-modeling system? It can be great, and spawn some neat, detailed ideas… but the learning curve for the system is too high if you’re not also intending to play, or already an interested gamer. However, there is one products that is an excellent resources for a non-gaming writer, if you can find a copy somewhere (there seem to be some on Amazon):
This is not a game-rules book. This is a realistic castle and ruins building book. You don’t need to understand the game mechanics to take advantage of it, and you can build a realistic castle backdrop for your stories. I recommend a copy if you can score one.
So, even more to follow, and cheers all! The next time I revisit this series, we’ll look at GURPs, arguably the best world modeling system available.