In my last post I reflected on my experiences playing Rolemaster over the years. In particular I noted that playing in a Rolemaster Classic campaign over the last couple of years showed me that there is scope for running Rolemaster as an "old school" game - if you use an older edition, ignore the Companion books, and intentionally play in an old school style. However, it's gotten me thinking that there are a number of ways that this could be taken further, and I'm going to suggest some fairly radical changes to select parts of Rolemaster to see if it could be made even more suited to old school play.
Rolemaster has copped a fair bit of stick over the years for being unnecessarily complex, attracting labels such as "Rollmaster", "Chartmaster" and "Rulesmonster". Whilst I don't think these are unwarranted, complaints in the vein of, "but oh! the tables..." generate an internal response from me that the person probably hasn't really played Rolemaster, because the tables are definitively the best part. Are the tables overwhelming in number? yes; do they all need to be regularly consulted during play? no; do they make the game funner? fuck yes.
Ok, I'll concede it is possible that dislike of Rolemaster is a reflection of taste rather than ignorance.
|However the Angus McBride covers for RM2 are incontrovertible proof that Rolemaster is still worth playing for folks with good taste...|
Rolemaster first appeared as a supplement for use with existing published games called Arms Law, which presented the highly detailed and deadly combat system that Rolemaster is well known for. Arms Law was released in 1980 and was followed up by the magic supplement Spell Law in 1982. Later that year a book containing rules for making characters compatible with the early supplements (Character Law) was published and then all three books were released together as the first boxed set of Rolemaster. The character creation rules in Character Law remained largely unchanged throughout the first and second editions of the game and it wasn't until the release of a string of Companion books and the later "Standard System" edition that the initial steps down the skill based path really spiraled out of control. As I suggested in my last post, playing Rolemaster 1st ed / 2nd ed / Classic (hereafter just Classic) still leaves some room for an old school style of play. Whilst Rolemaster Classic does retain a high level of complexity and detail relative to old school D&D, a great deal of this is restricted to areas that are the most rule bound in D&D anyway, namely combat and magic. Even though there are many elements that are extremely clunky, overall there are just way less moving parts than later edition Rolemaster, and the infamous skill bloat hadn't set in yet. However, I'm going to advocate more than just playing early edition Rolemaster, and instead suggest that the ur-Rolemaster of Arms Law and Spell Law, could be used as the base of a game that is considerably less complex and more amenable to old school play.
Ok, some design goals in no particular order, just so you know where I'm trying to take this:
- Make Rolemaster more fun rather than just a different kind of fun (include scope for both player skill & character ability as playstyles)
- Significantly reduce the number of skills used and broaden their scope
- Create more options for how in-game situations can be resolved
- Make character creation significantly easier and quicker
- Use Arms Law and Spell Law pretty much as is, and retain the functionality of the many useful resolution tables within Character Law such as Resistance Rolls, Static and Moving Manuver tables
- Use Rolemaster Unified (RMU) as the foundation rule set - many aspects have been streamlined, and whilst there are still too many skills, the calculation of things such as Body Development, Power Points and Spell Acquisition are no longer needlessly arcane.
1) Reduce the use of skills and dice as a resolution method
What I’m trying to do here is shift the play style of Rolemaster away from being reliant on rolling dice for everything, so before I tinker with the mechanics of skills I want to suggest a framework for how in-game situations that would normally just be handled by a moving or static maneuver roll could get resolved. A good starting point for this is looking at what Rolemaster actually says... and it ain't pretty. The sections on skills and maneuvers are 90% the same across editions and explicitly state that success or failure at any meaningful action is based off the character's skill at the task and a dice roll. The most open ended guidelines I could find were those for Maneuvers in RMU:
Maneuvers are actions that have a chance of failing and entail an element of risk. Thus, normal movement and activities such as walking, climbing stairs, drawing a weapon, etc. are not maneuvers under normal circumstances. However, unusual activities or those performed under stress are maneuvers and require rolls (e.g., climbing a cliff, running over rough terrain, opening a locked chest). The GM is the final judge as to what is a maneuver and requires a roll, and what is normal activity and does not require a roll
Whilst this has potential if you define "normal activity" generously, it's still a binary approach, with automatic success (no need to roll) for mundane tasks and a maneuver roll as the only options. It doesn't consider resolving situations through player skill, or even that skilled and creative play could influence a subsequent roll. I reckon there's plenty of scope for broadening what falls under normal activity and space between normal activity and maneuver rolls that can be cracked open for player skill as a resolution method.
Ok, a few guidelines for what approach to use when resolving tasks:
a) Is the task normal activity or a maneuver? (i.e. can we just assume the character succeeds at the task and get on with the game?)
I think we could interpret this much more liberally than in the quote above. Some points to consider:
- What counts as normal activity? - i.e. what actions fall under the assumed baseline of competence allowing automatic success for PC's, especially around things they should reliably be able to do based on their abilities (level, Profession, stats, race, & background).
- Assuming a fairly high standard for what PC's can do without breaking a sweat makes the game quicker and more fun (in my opinion anyway, and I've never seen someone enjoy having their character fail at basic, consequence-less stuff just because of a poor roll on an arbitrary check)
- It may help to consider / discuss this at the start of a campaign to establish some guidelines
- Is failure likely / is the task actually difficult? (could most people succeed at it? What about for someone with the character’s abilities?)
- Does the task contain significant risks (likelihood of a bad outcome) or significant consequences (severity of bad outcome) if failed? - i.e. does it really matter if they fail?
- What will be the impact at the table of having to resolve the task? (how long will it take? will it make the game more fun?)
- What’s stopping you from just saying "yes" or "no"?
Here's a new take on the above quote:
Maneuvers are actions that have a significant chance of failing based on their difficulty relative to the character's abilities and entail a significant likelihood or severity of consequences if failed. Thus, normal movement and activities which do not meet the above criteria are not maneuvers under normal circumstances and can be assumed to succeed. However, unusual activities or those performed under stress are maneuvers and require some form of in-game resolution [ ]. The GM is the final judge as to what is a maneuver [ ] and what is normal activity [ ] and should consider what will maximize enjoyment (how long will formally resolving the action take? what will move the game forward in the most interesting way; saying yes, saying no, or spending time to resolve the action?)
E.g. A 4th level Ranger is scouting the perimeter of an enemy encampment, keeping to the treeline at a distance of at least 100'. The enemy is not on a particularly high state of alert, and the GM decides the worst thing that failure would do is result in a guard watching the area more closely for a few minutes.
- The chance of failure relative to the character's ability is low, and whilst the risk attached is moderate to high the likely consequence is fairly low. This could be classified as normal activity and handwaved.
- A maneuver might be warranted if the character were equipped in heavy armour or in a group of three (significant likelihood of failure), or if the encampment were on high alert due to a previous attack (high likelihood and severity of consequence for failure).
- The GM could also decide to ramp up the stakes unexpectedly, deeming that something occurs in the camp whilst the Ranger is mid reconnaissance, turning normal activity into a maneuver, or even something that will fail unless alternative actions are taken (e.g. a guard patrol with dogs sweeps the area)
b) If an action being attempted is a maneuver what is the most appropriate method to resolve it? (i.e. if the task needs to be resolved in some way, should you be using dice?)
Determining success or failure at a task in Rolemaster defaults to a skill roll, however this isn't the only possible approach. In the earliest editions of D&D there were no mechanics to cover many adventuring situations and players relied on description and problem solving to overcome challenges.
Ben Milton has a nice little rubric which I'll borrow (again):
Whenever possible, players should overcome challenges by simply describing what their characters do. [Dice rolls] are only used to resolve risky situations that would be too time-consuming to describe, or involve immediate danger.
e.g. Disarming a trap doesn't involve immediate danger, so as long as it is fairly simple, you have to describe how you do it. e.g. Picking a lock doesn't involve immediate danger, but describing the process would be tedious and hard to visualise, so you [roll]. e.g. Dodging dragon's breath is easy to describe, but it involves immediate danger, so a [roll] is required.
Following these guidelines a maneuver would only require a roll against a skill if describing the appropriate action would be too difficult, time consuming or inappropriate due to a high level of immediate risk and consequences. Also, when weighing whether to call for a maneuver roll or resolution through description and problem solving, the decision doesn't need to be binary one:
If a maneuver roll is called for the normal Rolemaster approach would be to roll, add the bonus from the relevant skill and lookup the result on the static or moving maneuver table. The tables and basic mechanics for resolving a maneuver roll are sound and are not something I'm looking to change. However this approach is dependant on having a skill to cover every situation (of note Rolemaster contains no guidelines for basic ability checks). Given one of my aims is to drastically cull the skill list, this will mean broadening the scope of skills significantly (more on this below) however they would still be used in the same way if a roll is called for.
Ok, Imma try put all of this into one simplified text block as a guide to resolving actions
When a character attempts an action with an uncertain result consider:
- Is it a challenge? (is there a significant chance of failure based on the difficulty of the action relative to the character's abilities?)
- Is it risky? (is there a significant likelihood of consequences or a significant severity of consequences for failing the action?)
Actions which are not a challenge or risky are considered normal activity and automatically succeed - get on with it!
Actions which are both a challenge and risky are considered a maneuver and must be resolved in play. The player[s] should describe what their characters do to overcome the challenges and risks. If describing the maneuver would be too difficult or time consuming, or the maneuver involves immediate danger a roll is made. If an action can only be partially resolved through description a maneuver roll is made, modifying the difficulty of the maneuver according to the quality of the description.
Actions which are either a challenge or risky should be considered normal activity unless spending time to resolve a maneuver will result in engaging play (the key here is that the players should be laughing or sweating, not yawning). Sometimes the GM may require a cost or add a complication to make an action normal activity e.g. resources spent (time, gold, equipment used up), favour owed, wandering monster check etc.
2) Reduce the number of skills
In Rolemaster the primary purpose of skills are to give you a better chance of succeeding at maneuvers. However given the changes I've suggested above there are a whole bunch of situations that will no longer require a roll (and therefore a skill) to resolve them. This means a lot of skills may see less use or no longer even be necessary (who'd ever imagine superfluous skills in Rolemaster eh?) but how to decide which ones? That could involve a drawn out process of weighing up the merits of each skill and whether or not a roll for that particular task might ever be needed - which would be pointless, as the guidelines I've given don't categorically rule out the possibility of ever needing to check against a certain skill. So rather than looking to sort and cull skills one by one, I instead looked for which skills would always need to be used in their current form. The list turned out to be pretty short: weapon skills, body development, power points and spell lists. All other skills are potentially handwavable as normal activity or resolvable through description (obviously some skills will still lean heavily towards resolution by dice, but bear with me) so to retain their usefulness it makes sense to condense the skill list significantly by grouping multiple related skills together under individual supra-skills with a broader scope. Again this could be a complex process, trying to work out which skills should go together (see: the similar skills tables in RoCo2 and the skill/category split in RMSS). I think the key here is leaning towards abstraction rather than the usual Rolemaster predilection for obsessive detail. I've kept the new supra-skills broad and loose in both scope and concept, and have harnessed the concept of Professions (making a quite radical change to what they represent).
In Rolemaster Professions are intended to represent the varying degree of ease a character can learn different skills. In practice a Profession is a set of skills that any character taking that Profession will usually purchase, e.g. "Fighter" represents a package of primarily combat skills and an additional smattering of athletic, outdoor and subterfuge skills. Sure, there will be small variations from character to character, the occasional expensive skill and a few secondary skills for colour, but in general the better a Profession fits to the character you are wanting to play, the more your skill choices will fit amongst those that are cheaper to purchase (this is the reason for Profession proliferation in Rolemaster - and spell lists!). Frankly, Rolemaster would work fine with no Professions, simply spending a budget of development points on the skills important to a particular character, without adjusting costs by Profession (see GURPS). The primary value of a Profession is as an archetype. When you choose a Profession it tells you what sort of character you want to play and what you expect they should be able to do - and that's what I want to draw upon.
The obvious solution to how to group skills (to me anyway!) then is simply to get rid of Professions as a "class" and instead make them a "skill" - instead of developing the bundle of individual skills that would normally match up with a Profession, you simply buy ranks in the Profession. Professions as skills will be quite broad and abstract, covering a large variety of actions relevant to a field of study or expertise, and also the very archetype of the Profession itself. The skill rank in a Profession can be applied to any maneuver roll related to that Profession (both primary and secondary skills, I’m not going to worry about making the distinction, and also actions that might fall outside the normal skill lst). You may wish to simply use existing Rolemaster Professions as handles (e.g. Thief, Ranger, Mystic, Magician - in fact RMSS Training Packages would work quite well for this too) or the GM can introduce setting specific ones or players just create their own (e.g. Witch Hunter, Apothecary, Circus Strongman, Runegraven). Whilst Professions determine what skills you know, there is no need to write down a list of specific skills contained within them, simply make a judgment at the time you need to make a skill check (essentially you are buying ranks in the archetype itself - the whole idea is to get rid of tracking extensive lists of skills). There’s room for discovery and negotiation in play about what the Profession actually covers (which I’m viewing as a strength) and the Profession could be renamed later to reflect how it actually plays (e.g. a Thief might end up being renamed as Scout or Unauthorised Entry Specialist or even Assassin). The degree of specificity in a Profession (e.g. Fighter vs. Soldier vs. Pit Fighter) will yield different skills and level of relevance of the Profession to a situation. A character could develop multiple narrowly focused Professions or just one broader one (or hell, one narrow one and simply leave gaps in what they are capable of doing well). Importantly, the Profession can also provide guidance about when skill checks aren’t needed and when an action can instead be considered normal activity (see 1a above).
(Also, credit where it's due, Joe Nutall's Explore (which is basically a mashup of Basic D&D and Rolemaster) uses a similar idea, which is what inspired this for me)
Ok, so how is all of this likely to look in play?
- First determine if the action needs resolving, and if so that rolling against a skill is the most appropriate method
- Identify skill/s that are a good fit for resolving the task and negotiate which one is to be used. (These may be drawn from the existing skills list or you could just make a suitable one up on the fly and assign relevant stat bonuses. You may not even need to identify a specific skill, simply that the task fits well with a Profession)
- Identify the most relevant Profession the character has which could contain the skill (players will likely preempt this by the skill they are suggesting should be used)
- Partially relevant Professions could be applied with a penalty - I've mocked up a table below based on RMU’s similar skills rules
Very Relevant (no penalty): Profession contains relevant techniques as well as a relevant focus.
e.g. using the Ranger skill to lay an ambush in a wilderness environment
Somewhat Relevant (-25 penalty): Profession contains either relevant techniques or a relevant focus.
e.g. using the Rogue skill to lay an ambush in a wilderness environment
Slightly Relevant (-50 penalty): Profession contains a partially relevant techniques or focus.
e.g. using the Illusionist skill to lay an ambush in a wilderness environment
Not Relevant (-75 penalty): Profession does not contain any relevant techniques or focus.
e.g. using the Magician skill to lay an ambush in a wilderness environment
- Make the skill check as per normal methods
In addition to Professions the four remaining skill types (Weapon skills, Body Development, Power Points, Spell lists) are able to be applied more generally in much the same way (e.g. Body Development could be used to cover Endurance type checks, Power Points could be used for Power Perception or Power Projection if you use those types of skills in your game).
There are a couple of other skills that I debated also keeping distinct from Professions, however I decided to embrace the philosophy I was going for and discovered on reflection that most of these could easily be covered by Professions or linked to one of the four other skills (one of the goals of this whole hack is to get away from highly specific skills):
- A lot of Combat expertise skills could be eliminated for simplicity or could be linked to a martially themed Profession or even to the weapon skill being used (for example, if a 20th level Fighter never developed the Disarm skill is it really helpful or fun to insist that they wouldn't be able to do so?)
- Maneuvering in Armour could simply be ignored or based off body development or a relevant Profession. (MiA is mostly used to preserve class balance in Rolemaster, minimum maneuver and Quickness penalties could still be applied and they provide enough of a balance against stealthy and spell using characters wearing armour anyway)
- Directed Spells and Spell Mastery could simply use ranks in the related spell list
- Adrenal moves could easily fit with a Profession, as relevant. Adrenal Defence is more significant, however shunting it off to Talents as has been done in RMU would fix this (as an aside, Background Options / Talents are a fun part of Rolemaster, so I'm a bit loathe to cull them too. If using a RMU method where Talents are purchased with Development Points you could grant a pool at 1st level just for this. The option to pump a large bonus into a specialised hobby skill [such as artistic, vocational and esoteric lore skills] rather than having to develop a whole Profession would also be a good gap fill use of Background / Talents) )
- Attunement, Runes, Channeling etc could just be based off a relevant Profession
- Languages are a tricky one (and could easily be included as a 6th skill type) however I'm inclined to go with make a check to see if you know it, with the majority of Professions having a penalty depending on the circumstances (e.g. Rolling against the "Thief" Profession might normally have a -50 penalty to know a language, but when visiting a new city has no penalty to see if they know the local cant).
3) Simplifying character creation
The decision to abandon Professions in their traditional sense and condense the skill list is already a big step forward in simplifying character creation. Getting rid of Professions as class also means not needing to worry about lists of skill costs varying by Profession. In fact the easiest thing to do is to completely jettison development points and just provide a pool of skill ranks each level and you allocate them completely as you wish (allowing overspecialisation if desired, if folks want to max-min that’s their prerogative, and leaving yawning gaps in what you can otherwise do tends to lead to lead to a bunch of balancing weaknesses). Rather than budgeting DP's this would simply rely on opportunity cost as the balancing factor (i.e. if you allocate ranks to skill x that's ranks you can't allocate to skill y). I'll suggest how this might look in practice below. Getting rid of Professions as class also leaves "level"/"category"/"profession" bonuses without a home, and frankly I'm inclined to just get rid of them too, which is another level of complexity for minimal gain removed (wow, watch out Character Law, who knows where the axe may fall next!). To compensate for this it would require changing the skill rank bonus progression per 10 ranks to 6/4/3/2/1.
|pew pew pew take THAT Character Law|
You may have noticed above that whilst Body Development and Power Points are obviously individual skills (although able to be applied more broadly as suggested in my examples), and Professions are now a catchall for a bucket of skills, I haven't really specified how Weapon Skills and Spell Lists might look (I'm assuming RMU as the baseline for this here hack, which uses individual spell development rather than needing to develop lists in blocks of 5-10 levels, which is definitely one of the greatest simplifications to later editions of Rolemaster). At present both Weapon Skills and Spell Lists are categories containing sub categories which then contain individual skills (Weapon skills>weapon groups>weapon skills and Spell lists>Open/Closed/Base>individual lists). I've to'ed and fro'ed about how many levels to cut from these, and am just gonna hedge my bets and present both:
a) Brutally condensed
- Weapon Skills become a single skill which determines your OB with all weapons (a slightly less condensed version would be to divide Weapon Skill into Hand to Hand Combat and Ranged Combat).
- Spell Lists would become three skills - Open lists, Closed Lists and Base Lists. There would be no need to develop individual lists, every rank in a Open, Closed or Base gives a rank in all lists of that type. Whilst this greatly simplifies things it removes all specialisation, and also meaningful choice about which weapons or spells you choose to learn - the only choices become which weapons you happen to wear and your favourite spells to cast. This isn't necessarily a problem, in old school D&D all weapons a class has access to can be wielded equally well and for Clerics all spells are available for memorization. It also makes spells pretty damn easy to learn, especially if I'm not putting weighted costs on the purchase of ranks.
As much as these fit with my aim to trim down complexity, I'm leaning away from this option.
b) Moderately condensed
- Weapon Skills do not need to be individually developed, just the weapon category (1HE, 1HC, 2H, Pole, Thrown, Missile, Martial Arts - I'm not going with RMU's inclusion of Siege Weapons or Shields). Combat is more about general principles than the specifics of a single weapon and skill at arms should be generally applicable (without needing to resort to Rolemaster's traditional kludges for this like level bonuses or similar skills). I'm also suggesting alternate weapon categories based on the range they are used at (close [unarmed martial arts, armoured fist, cestus, tiger claw, dagger, blackjack, garrote, etc], melee [most side arms and one handed weapons - swords, axes, mace, 1H spear], reach [2H weapons and pole arms], thrown, missile) but you can take these or leave 'em.
- Spell Lists would still need to be developed individually (remembering though that with individual spell development each rank = 1 spell known). Unfortunately this isn't really condensed at all from standard RMU, however I'm not sure how to do so without losing all individuation between spellcasters of the same type (hell even all casters of the same realm will be quite similar in the Brutal method).
Whilst I'm leaning towards this approach, it means that Weapon Skill is now 7 skills (or 5 with my alternate categories) and Spell Lists contains as many as 26 skills within each realm. However I'm thinking most folks are happy to tolerate (or even seek) a bit more crunch when it comes to combat and magic.
Ok, so how will spending ranks for a level's worth of development look in practice?
This will depend on which approach to Weapons and Spells that is taken...
Using the brutally condensed approach, just eyeballing it 6 ranks per level seems about right - a generalist could put one rank in weapon skill, body development, power points, one spell list type and a Profession with a leftover rank to double up somewhere, whilst a more focused character might dump all their ranks into 1-3 skills. If you wanted to force a little more commitment to a character type you could group the skills that survived the cut into five broad categories: Arms (weapon skill and body development), Essence (power points and spell lists), Channeling (power points and spell lists), Mentalism (power points and spell lists) and Professions (um.. Professions). Every level a character gets a major spend (put 4 ranks into skills in one group as they wish) and a minor spend (2 ranks into another). By having to choose two categories to place ranks in (or one, there's nothing stopping major & minor spend going into the same category) it supports a certain level of commitment being needed to advance in skills and further reinforces the opportunity cost paradigm. I think I actually prefer this approach to just allocating ranks anywhere.
Using the moderately condensed approach the difficulty is that due to the much greater number of weapon categories and spell lists compared to the other skills (over 30 versus Body Development, Power Points and however many Professions developed, which I can't ever imagine being more than you could count on one hand for a character) means that providing enough ranks to develop weapons and spells meaningfully, could allow the other skills to get overdeveloped. However I'm loathe to use increasing costs for further ranks in a level, and would rather trust that people are able to balance what is most fun for them with what works for the group they play with. I reckon you would need to up the number of ranks per level to 12, or if using packages of ranks a major spend of 6 ranks, a moderate spend of 4 ranks and a minor spend of 2 ranks.
Allocation of base spell lists could be tricky but I’ve considered a couple of ways this could be done. One is to allocate them based on ranks in a relevant Profession - e.g. two rank allows access to open lists, 4 ranks allows access to closed lists, and ranks 5-10 would each allow access to a base list (note that this just allows access, the spells still need to be purchased). Base lists could be chosen creatively, allowing created Professions to mix & match spell list access as appropriate (e.g. a "Sunlord" might have access to Fire Law and Light Law but also Repulsions, Inspiring Ways and Inner Walls). Alternatively, using the major/minor spend option above, access to base lists could be tied to how major and minor spends are allocated (e.g. a minor spend on a realm gives access to open lists, a major (or two minor) spend gives access to closed lists, and two major spends allows access to a base list). You may wish to place limits on the number of base spell lists that can be accessed in this way as dabbling across several could be quite overpowered (or maybe not, maybe someone can give it a go and get back to me!)
Note: I’d suggest that on 1stlevel a character get develop 3 levels worth of ranks.
By now I'm sure you get the picture, and are either deeply curious or think I'm mad (no, I don't want to hear about your vague disinterest!). The whole idea is that every corner case doesn’t need to be covered, and "gaps" can be seen as an opportunity to negotiate or make an at-the-table ruling (or even just leave it in the realm of description rather than rules (e.g. want to fight with two weapons? sure, just say you do!, but don't worry about getting any additional bonus from it until you get disarmed!). I’m definitely going for less is more, and abstract over concrete with this. For some folks this will seem pointless and ridiculous. Hell, until it gets playtested I cant say for sure that I will like it, but I think playing around with some of the more fundamental assumptions about how Rolemaster plays is something that hasn’t been done enough.
- character creation becomes quick and intuitive (everything except body devlopment, weapons, power points and spells known are contained in Professions, don't have to tally dp's
- flexibility, can play any character
- focuses play on interesting resolution
- may spend much more time adjudicating the appropriate skill and Profession for a situation and having to calculate stat bonuses and skill totals on the fly
- unfamiliarity, the level of abstractness may not mesh with a skill-based system
...or you could just ignore this whole post and play RMX or HARP or track down an old copy of MERP and play that (but not in Middle Earth, fun game but it's a shitty adaptation of the feel of Tolkein)