One thing I’ve noticed from my visits here and on the RM forums is that I appear to be alone in the method I use to develop both cultures and backgrounds for characters. Most GMs use the No Profession skill costs and a number of development points to generate both cultures and background options. I’ve gone a different route.
What does a first level character look like?
I’ve talked a fair amount about both modern gaming and first level characters, so I figured I’d write up an example of what a first level character looks like in my developing rules. Creating one of these characters takes a few steps, and I’ll try to provide some “time hacks” so you can get an idea of how long it takes. It’s a bit long, but this isn’t something you distill into 150 characters.
If we’re soapboxing, I’ll jump on one of mine: First Level shouldn’t suck! The whole premise behind first level should be giving a player a character who’s gone through her formative years and experiences and is ready to set out on her own, not some abstraction of early adolescence who can’t survive being stung by a bee, let alone a minor encounter with a wild dog. The old joke about D&D magic users having to hide behind fighters until they were about fifth level has a sad basis in fact, and Rolemaster (in my opinion) seems intent on turning first level into a collection of those magic users.
My somewhat recent post about time in campaigns got me thinking about another of my favorite topics (aside from modern gaming): the relationship of a rules system to its setting. In my view, the best rules systems are always strongly tied to a specific setting. This isn’t so much about stats or combat mechanics, but rather classes/professions, races, and cultures.
In my last entry I talked a bit about how I revised the attack tables for firearms in Rolemaster. That’s not the only change you need to make if you plan on adding realistic firearms to a game using any flavor of the Rolemaster rules. I’m a firm believer in using a two second, phased round for firearms, but you also need to make some core mechanics adjustments. That’s what I’m talking about today.
Hurin’s recent post got me thinking about combat and general and Rolemaster’s combat in particular and how various Rolemaster products handle firearms. That (of course) led me to thinking about how I’ve revised those rules for settings outside of standard fantasy. It also got me thinking about the proposition that lots of combat mechanics equals an emphasis on combat.
One of my least-favorite elements of Rolemaster is the whole idea of “Profession = lifeway.” While this concept may have some merit when it comes to settings with magic (and I’m not convinced that it really does), it breaks down when you leave the realm of fantasy and start dealing with more modern, magic-free settings.
Rolemaster in its various versions has a wide range of strengths (real and perceived) and weaknesses (again, real and perceived). Although people like to talk about the wide range of skills, attack tables, and various formulas that go into the game (in both positive and negative terms), for me those discussions miss the greatest strength of Rolemaster: flexibility. Looking at all the Companions published for RM2, it’s easy to overlook one point: all those rules (Professions, skill changes, new spell lists, and so on) are possible because Rolemaster is such a flexible system.
Although I’m not a fan of “levelless” gaming, the fact that RM can be modified to this style is a testament to its flexibility. I do a fair amount of modern setting gaming (espionage, Old West, and so on), and have modified the basic Rolemaster systems to work with those settings without missing a beat. Of course, you have to redo the weapon tables for firearms (most of the published Rolemaster modifications for firearms, in my opinion, don’t do the job) and make some modifications to ATs to bring them up to more modern armors, but it’s still possible. In fact, taking magic out of the game entirely helps you see how flexible and simple core Rolemaster really is.
Of course, there are weaknesses, too. For the type of gaming I often do, the RAW combat system is a major weakness. The round seems to be calibrated for spell casting, and taking spells out and adding in firearms means you have to cut the round down to about two or three seconds (at most) in order to model firearms correctly and maintain fun and balance. And I’ve never been a fan of the combination of abstract melee and specific missile combat in the same round. The flexibility of the skill system can lead to skill bloat if GMs aren’t careful about limiting them ahead of time (I play RM2, and we actually redid the skill lists to fit my campaign setting, shifting some skills from primary to secondary or secondary to primary and cutting out quite a few), but planning before playing makes this less of an issue.
I’ve always considered the magic system one of Rolemaster’s strengths, but I also modified most of the Channeling Professions to reflect the fact that a deity has direct control over a character’s access to spells. If you enforce the casting limitations in RAW RM2 you have a check to balance some of the more powerful spells and casters.
All this flexibility leads to (in my opinion) Rolemaster’s greatest weakness: you need a competent GM to run a proper campaign. With all the options and variables in the system, a GM needs to understand what she and her players want from a game, and be willing to say “no” almost as often as she says “yes” when it comes to rules. Just because a Profession is in a Companion doesn’t mean you have to allow it. The same goes for skills and spells. A rookie GM has a steep learning curve when it comes to any version of Rolemaster. That can make it difficult for newcomers to pick up the game, and it’s also not helpful when a veteran GM modifies Rolemaster beyond recognition and introduces concepts that may make perfect sense to veteran gamers but make no sense to someone new to the hobby.
Something to consider, at least. What do you readers think?