Thursday, March 14, 2013

My History (And Future) With Rolemaster

Back in my early days as a young enlisted pup in the United States Air Force, I was introduced to a game very much unlike the versions of Dungeons and Dungeons or Rifts of the day. I really only needed a pair of percentile dice to play it. It had insane critical hits, a massive slew of character options, and the biggest spell lists I had ever seen. The game was Rolemaster, and needless to say, I played that game until my character sheet was worn out.

My GM at that time ran a sort of cheerful Rolemaster Standard System/2nd Edition hodgepodge, which ignored big swaths of the game, and threw in a ton of house rules and optional guidelines from the Rolemaster Companion series. Hey, it worked. When I decided to run it, a couple of years later, I jumped to Rolemaster Fantasy Role Playing, it being the edition of the game that was in-print at the time.

Rolemaster is famously derided (mainly by those who have never played it, I would think), as Rollmaster or Chartmaster, with the suggestion it is laborious to play. I’ve always found that to be false. Yes, there are charts to look up the success of a maneuver or critical hits, but so long as the charts are handy, resolution comes very quickly. It’s also a very fast game, since all your rolls are essentially percentile in nature. It’s also very easy to assign bonuses and penalties, or to express how difficult something is. Actual play of Rolemaster is generally very fast, especially if the Game Master is only using the parts of the system he wants. Yes, character creation is a bear, and that’s just something you learn to make as efficient as possible from experience. I have always thought the longer character creation was worth it, though.

It’s the sort of game where your Halfling Scholar can have a puncher’s chance against a Level 30 Fiend, where if the dice go well enough for you, not matter how miniscule the percentage, the incredible or weird can happen. There’s a suspense when someone rolls a 66 or 100, to see just what happens next. The critical tables are gruesome, unpredictable, and hilarious all at once. Skill monkeys can co-exist alongside fighters and (a dizzying array of) spellcasters. Anyone can learn any skill, albeit sometimes at a very heavy cost, depending on class. No matter your level, race, or class, there’s the potential for great deeds or terrible tragedy. That’s why those of us whole love Rolemaster continue to do so. We’ve seen parties of Dark Tribe Shamans, Halfling Farmers, and Gnomish Alchemists, thrown together with Wood Elf Rogues, Common Man Fighters, and High Elf Moon Mages. There’s a sort of poetry to the pluses and minuses, the modifiers, the spell lists, digging in to find another list of character options and fitting them together with skills and background options. With Rolemaster, you never feel as if you’re making the same character twice.

Now, it’s a well known fact if you threw a rock at a meeting of Iron Crown fans, you’d have just about equal odds of hitting someone who loved Rolemaster 2nd Edition/Classic, Rolemaster Standard System, Rolemaster FRP, or wanted to blow the whole thing up and start over. There are differences in the versions; though RMSS and RMFRP are fairly close together, there are some tweaks. Both are pretty big departures from Rolemaster 2e, which some RM fans consider superior.

I ended up going back to Rolemaster 2e right around the time Rolemaster Classic was released. These books cleaned up the Rolemaster 2e game, and seemed a little easier to comprehend and a bit simpler overall (again, different Rolemaster fans will have different opinions!). It was also linked to Rolemaster Express, an excellent single-volume introduction to the Rolemaster game overall.

Unfortunately, as I alluded to above, Rolemaster has had its share of the Edition Wars, which has made it extremely difficult to unite the fan base. I had hoped the RM Express/Classic would be that unifier, but the RMFRP/SS fans also are a solid part of the fan base. There doesn’t seem to be a single solution here, but there is yet another revision in the works by the current folks behind ICE.

Reading about that upcoming Rolemaster revision, I can’t say I’m exactly filled with hope for the direction of the game. Needing 5 books to play a game—let alone 3 for a player—is a non-starter today. If I had to purchase all 4 of the main Rolemaster Classic books I had to buy again today, as much as I love the game, I’d definitely hesitate—that’s a lot of money for a gamer with a family. Heck, 3 books is pushing it. The best introductory product Rolemaster has had in recent years was Rolemaster Express and the excellent Express Additions (affordable, small pdf supplements), something that has yet to be put back into print since Iron Crown went under new management. I think that’s a mistake, and one I’d like to see addressed soon. I actually lost access to all the Express Additions I downloaded, which also irks me to no end. You can keep the Rolemaster people love while updating the format to something more palatable to current gaming trends and uses. If the usual dialogue is any indication, I’m also not sure that a fan base with so much invested in their current systems will be easily swayed to adopt a new system. Over the years, regardless of Rolemaster version, the purchases add up. The hope has to be it somehow grabs the non-Rolemaster crowd and gets them playing. From what I’ve seen, I’m skeptical right now.

Right now, I’m having an amazing time with games from BareBones Fantasy to StarCluster 3, but there always remains the itch to run more Rolemaster. But when I run it, it will be from old Rolemaster 2e and Rolemaster Classic books. I hope that’s a line Iron Crown Enterprises continues to support—or license to someone who knows the system enough to give it the support and love it needs. If you’re interested in finally trying Rolemaster, and getting that badge of honor among gamers, there are a few Rolemaster Classic products in print and pdf you can pick up that might help:

-Character Law
-Arms Law
-Spell Law
-Creatures and Treasures

That’s 4 books, so it is a bit of an investment (what I wouldn’t give for a Rolemaster Classic Omnibus Edition!!), and understandable if it isn’t your cup of tea, or too much all at once. Iron Crown's price points right now aren't what I'd call conducive to affordability or casual purchase! I would also recommend tracking down a print copy of Rolemaster Express if you can, though it will be a bit tough to find one for the $10 it used to sell for, being out of print as it currently is.

I’m actually trying to fill in my library with missing titles or backup copies of old Rolemaster 2e products, as you might see from my list at Amazon on the sidebar here. If you’re in a Rolemaster 2e/Classic frame of mind, feel free to use it for your own reference as well.


Tom said...

This is a game I'd like to try again someday. I have been in three Rolemaster campaigns under three different GM's. One was... bad.

The other two were tons of fun.

It surprises me that the OSR doesn't pay more attention to Rolemaster, as it was a big time contemporary of AD&D.

Colin from ICE said...

Great post.

Sorry to hear you're unconvinced about the new version of Rolemaster. I'll let the guys in charge know your thoughts on it.

If you haven't already you could check out our website and forum to try and source out of print products from other fans.

Keep up the good work

Colin (From ICE)

David Larkins said...

Back in the late 90s, after several years of eyeballig Rolemaster, I bought all the core RMSS books in one go. Unfortunately, this came right as my group at the time was falling apart, so I never got to do much more than a couple one-shots and some sample combats, but I really enjoyed the experience. (In fact, the first website I ever put together was an attempt at statting up the world of Warhammer FRP for Rolemaster.)

At any rate, those old RMSS books are long gone but the interest in Rolemaster remains. I'm wondering what the differences are between Classic/2e and RMSS and why you'd recommend the former over the latter.

Zachary Houghton said...

@Colin: Totally. Thanks for stopping by. FWIW, I hope I'm wrong about the new RM. There's definitely a place in my heart for the game, and I wouldn't express worry if I didn't care.

I do hope you guys decide to go with a good introductory product to the game. For your older editions, I'd really love to see RM Express and Express Additions reprinted soon. They're a great, inexpensive intro to the game!

@David: The differences are many, but in short, RMSS/RMFRP is more complicated in some ways I didn't care for. RMSS adds skill categories, which was a big pain. Character creation I found to be faster in RM2. And as imperfect as they were, the RM2 books read a bit less like a textbook, which crept into RMSS now and again. There are arguments for each system--I just have my personal preferences.

Again, fans' mileage will vary. Just my experience!

Rich said...

I was able to get a copy of Rolemaster Express on Ebay but for $20!!!

I'm currently working on running a rolemaster Forgotten Realms game using the Rolemaster Express rules with selected bits added on from my old RM2 books.

I agree that as they are play testing the new version of Rolemaster they really should think about an "express" version. All the critical rules in 1 book, with streamlined charts. Or 2 books at the most. Kind of a B/X strategy "basic rules" followed by "expert" additional rules for rolemaster.

I think with rolemaster, the key to selling it to a gaming group is to get the point across to folks that it really is a simple system with a metric ton of optional rules.

Yong Kyosunim said...

I got to play Rolemaster at a con and we used the critical hit charts in our 2e AD&D games back in the day. It was a lot of fun and I have a couple of editions as well as HARP and Middle Earth RP (both editions).

It's definitely a game I would jump in and play again though I'm a big believer that character creation should equate the level of lethality of a game unless the process of creation itself is really fun. Rolemaster was just too deadly for me to come up with a fully fledged five-page character sheet. HARP was better in this regard, but I never got a chance to play it.

I do agree though that games should include everything needed to play in a "box" (or a hardcover, etc.) and that addons and supplements should come later. The Pathfinder Beginner's Box is a great example of this and if Iron Crown went this route, I'm sure that they could reach a new market as well.