Can Rolemaster survive as a generic game system anymore?

While originally designed as a bolt on system to DnD, the Rolemaster “Laws” were always unwieldy to adapt to a d20 system. That didn’t matter for long, as the full suite of rules were published in fairly short order: Rolemaster was a standalone system.

Unfortunately from there, Rolemaster became ‘bipolar’: it contained quite a bit of DnD DNA but tried to establish an RM specific setting with the Loremaster line of products. (Iron Wind, Cloudlords, Vog Mur). Rolemaster was torn between the path forward in the gritty world of the Iron Wind or the well established cartoonish tropes of DnD. And soon after that, ICE rolled out the Middle Earth setting, although there is general agreement that the first few ME books (Court of Ardor & Umbar specifically) had more the feel of the Loremaster world than Middle Earth.

In balancing out these various constituencies, ICE decided to spin off a simplified version of RM for the Middle Earth products (MERP) to better fit the system with the setting, but Rolemaster continued to be torn between its roots in DnD and its flavor and style represented by Loremaster. When Shadow World was introduced in the late 80’s it established it’s own DNA, but still drew from the standards found in Creatures & Treasures to maintain product line conformity. Third party Shadow World products were more generic, diluting the world flavor–since then most have been stamped as “non-canon” by Terry.

Now 35 years later, MERP is gone and Rolemaster has been redesigned and soon to be published. Unfortunately, the redesign only united the previous versions of RM (RM2, RMC, RMSS) and NOT united the game system with a game world. That was a mistake.

I’ve blogged quite a bit about the “gap” between the RM rules and Shadow World, and deconstructed different rule mechanics and how they are in conflict with that world setting. Rolemaster has one foot in and one foot out of the established game setting (Shadow World) leaving RM as an orphan: a generic fantasy game system in a market place that doesn’t need one with mechanical bits that are remnants of early 80’s 1st Edition AD&D.

ICE has little chance in reliving their heydays of the 80’s. There is more competition, more niche products, more OGL’s and more self published material than ever. Shadow World may not be for everyone, but it has a following, is a good setting and Terry continues to write new material and improve existing material. Shadow World needs to embrace it’s uniqueness and Rolemaster needed to fully adapt the rules to fit the setting.  A comprehensive and unique eco-system can bring in new players and/or unify exiting ones.

The new rules, the creatures and the spells in RMU should have been fully united with Shadow World. That would require, among many other things, Pantheon specific spell lists, rational rules for death and resurrection, elimination of some earth/cultural weapons for clarity, expansion of unique SW creatures, Professions for Loremaster, Navigators and other SW specific organizations, clarity in Essence manipulation/perception with Essence Flows and Focuses etc etc. The rules should reinforce the setting and the setting should reinforce the rules.

There has been a lot of discussion about who the target market is for RMU. There is skepticism that the existing user base will adopt RMU entirely after decades of playing and modifying earlier versions. It’s been pointed out that many RM players are older, in their 40’s and 50’s.  These are important questions and discussions–how can ICE generate a all new base of younger roleplayers?

Putting aside OSR self-published products, it seems to me that new game systems are packaged with the setting. In fact, the setting itself becomes the draw while the rule set supports the setting. This was even true in the 80’s.  Gamers didn’t play Ringworld or Twilight 2000 because the rule set was excellent–they played for the setting. Numenera didn’t market it’s rule set–it marketed the unique setting (which I think Monte borrowed heavily from Loremaster/SW).

It’s not too late. RMU doesn’t seem that close to publishing that an intensive effort to adapt SW to the new system couldn’t be done. It’s not like SW would require much work to adapt to RMU–most of the work would be tweaks to RMU to conform with SW. But the roll-out needs to be a combined effort of rules and setting. If that could be executed, ICE and SW would be a multi-platform property: rule expansions, modules, fiction, graphic novels and maybe a small allowance for open license materials. This isn’t revolutionary–ICE has done some or all of that but via a fragmented strategy. RM was used for online MMORPG for a bit, Terry has started his SW novelization, fans have written comics, SW art etc.

This doesn’t mean that RMU can’t be used as a rule set for other settings. But another iteration of a generic Rolemaster isn’t going to differentiate  it from other new products on the market and may not appeal to much of the established player base that have years invested in one of the past editions.

14 thoughts on “Can Rolemaster survive as a generic game system anymore?”

  1. In truth, as an RM player since the 80’s, marriage with Shadow World would mean I don’t buy RMU. You are asserting that RM suffers for allowing GMs to build their own worlds. This is a fallacy based on little empirical data. D&D5e isn’t wedded to one world and sells fine. RMUs appeal is niche within a niche, for gamers who seek verisimilitude. To get new players, existing players need to demo the game to new gamers. I’ve done it for years.

    1. 5e is hand in glove with the forgotten realms and has WotC have a following in the millions that know and love the realms. There was a howl of anguish when 5e reset the realms again but the majority of players have been carried forward.

    2. “You are asserting that RM suffers for allowing GMs to build their own worlds. This is a fallacy based on little empirical data.”

      I’m not suggesting that RMU be mutually inclusive of a setting, only that it loses market competitiveness without a ready to play game setting and it has to make some assumptions on a setting for purposes of spells, healing, resurrection and dieties. What should those assumptions be based on? 80’s DnD tropes? Forgotten Realms? Some other setting? Since it needs to make those assumptions, why not for a proprietary setting than another company’s game world?
      RMU can still be used w/o the setting and there will always be RM2, RMFRP, RM Classic and RMSS floating around for players to adopt. My argument is what is the most effective way for RMU to reach a new audience, not the one already baked in relative to other gaming products on the market.
      Anyway, thanks for contributing to the discussion!! I read your blog!

  2. To reinforce your point if you look at new game reviews they are more about the strength of the setting than the game mechanics.

    I think many of us fell in love with the game mechanics while adventuring in middle earth. We did not read rules and have a desperate need to play the game.

    Tables of numbers do not excite.

    I am convinced that RUM is exclusively being written for the diminishing cohort of current players. That is why no attempt was made to beta test outside the family.

  3. I have always contended that RM needs a solid setting, but I am also one of the minority (it seems) who feels SW is not that setting. In any case, the modern stuff I’m working on will come with setting options so new GMs have something to work with. That’s what settings should do in some ways: show newcomers ways to frame their games and then give them frameworks they can modify or outgrow as they wish.

    And if we’re talking what RMU might be intended to do, I’d say it’s HARP enhanced in many ways, and might be intended to lure in those who played RMSS.

    1. I agree that SW is not for everyone. But realistically, there is no way ICE can create another world setting at this point. If there were resources I might even argue for a fresh take on a setting despite my own long term investment in SW.

  4. While I think Brian makes some good points about marketability, I still prefer to have RMU be generic or system agnostic.

    One reason is that I like backwards compatibility. Right now we’re playing RMU in Middle Earth, using a mix of hard copies and pdfs of the old ICE Middle Earth books. There are a lot of them, and it is great to be able to use that setting. If RMU were SW specific, they wouldn’t be as compatible.

    I like SW as a setting, but the mix of future technologies and Sci-Fi elements does turn some of my players off. It is not everyone’s cup of tea.

  5. I found this a thoughtful article and I suspect you are correct about getting new players into RM via a world setting.

    I have been using RM as my system since the 80’s (as it seems most have) but have never used Shadow World as my setting; I tried a few years ago but I could not make it seem alive as I could for my home grown worlds so did not use it on the crew.

    Having Shadow World and RMU linked would not put me off looking at RMU but I suspect the time I have spent getting my home brewed rules working means I will just lift the parts that make telling the story smoother and richer.

    1. Thanks for contributing! It’s unlikely that the all of the existing RM user base will adopt RMU. After decades, does any GM want to make those types of changes. I suspect that most will cannibalize parts as they see fit–not unlike material in the various companions. Even if the active user base all buy every RMU product, sales will only be measured in the hundreds or a thousand I think.

  6. This is a bit of new vs old.

    As older established RM users we don’t need any of this, we have our own settings we are happy with, I have done my Forgotten Realms conversion and RM2/RMC with its D&D legacy fits that quite nicely. Others have their own homebrew world’s that have probably been flexed around the RM rules as much as the rules have been flexed around the setting.

    We also all have our own favourite flavour of RM.

    On the other hand we appear to be a diminishing number of players and as a ‘market’ ICE can expect to sell us about 250 copies of each book. That is it. No business could survive with such a small market.

    New players though are less likely to have a fixed idea about their setting. Truly new roleplayers will have no setting at all.

    RMU needs to attract new players and attract them in the thousand. It also needs us to become an army of evangelists. That appears to be their only marketing plan. That isn’t going to happen unfortunately as roleplayers are rather insular. We tend to play games with our friends for year and not too from group to group.

  7. At the moment, I see purchasers of RMU being largely existing players, those who like the system (or parts of it) and those who want to support the company. Which isn’t really enough. I feel that there are some ways of broadening the scope, some of which have been mentioned already.

    Opening up the IP to a degree, through a Community Content Programme.

    Creating a ‘lite’ version of the game.

    Making a Shadow World Master Atlas for Pathfinder and D&D 5E. Pathfinder in particular is well suited; Paizo’s Golarion setting has magic and technology and there are new technology rules as well.

    Going back to its roots and making versions of Arms Law/Claw Law/Spell Law that can be plugged into 5E and Pathfinder as extras.

    1. I like the idea of a DnD or PF version of Shadow World and I think most of the source books wouldn’t need much work. In fact, a revision can push most rule-specifics to the back appendixes and leave the bulk of the book rule agnostic.
      Terry is working on a new Jamain source book. That combined with the last piece of Emer (IV) and you have a great base for the two major continents. The body of work is quite broad and additional adventure and city supplements would only add to that. Maybe make all the other continents available for community content (like Priest-King).

      1. I have a feeling that a Pathfinder/D&D sourcebook might need a Kickstarter to successfully do. Otherwise, it could be years before it’s ready, if at all – the d20 book didn’t manage to make it.

        Even if the areas of the Alliance and the Raven Queen are kept separate, there is still a huge percentage of the planet that could be further developed, that in many cases only has a few lines in a Master Atlas. Islands of the Oracle showed that you could add a fairly detailed area in one that’s so small it barely shows up on the world map.

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