Strengths and Weaknesses of Rolemaster – My View

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?

5 thoughts on “Strengths and Weaknesses of Rolemaster – My View”

  1. In no particular order:

    1. I always like the PC v Mac comparison where RM is a modular hackable system compared to Apples closed and fixed ecosystem.

    2. After reading your post I think it’s a good argument for the original modularity of RM as bolt on products, but I doubt that is a needed solution for competing game systems now.

    3. Reconciling combat round length. So I first thought that yes, a modern setting would require a shorter combat round to better simulate the speed of modern firearms. But then that throws off other actions (picking locks, MM’s, etc). I think that a 5 sec. round is sensible given the constraints of physical actions, movements etc. The only change would be the % of a round that particular attacks take. That maintains core consistency of the rules throughout genres and makes the “action packet” of player decisions manageable to a GM. This goes to situational penalties based on individual weapons and NOT weapon attack type (melee, thrown, missile etc). So a semi-auto pistol may only require 10% action/rnd allowing for multiple shots or combinations of firing/action. I posted up a chart of weapon specific penalties that create more benefit/negatives in weapon choice beyond the efficacy of an attack table. This type of approach would work well for modeling specific RL firearms or futuristic weaponry.

    4. I don’t see the issue between the discrete attack of a missile weapon and the abstract nature of melee combat. Hand to hand combat is a mixture of attack, dodge, block parry in combinations–usually much messier in reality than cinematic depictions of hero/anti-hero trading punches. This contrast between melee and missile resolution is dealt with through the % of round determination.

    5. From a marketing standpoint, having to deal with multiple systems, game content written for the older version AND the introduction of RMU (which is not necessarily simpler, just more reasoned out) it would be difficult to market the game to newbies. In fact I would argue that marketing the system as a the most flexible (as you argue) for experienced GM’s provides the more compelling sell.

  2. Thanks for the reply! As for combat systems, I’ve gone over to a Phase-based system for firearms as a way to both model “fire and maneuver” tactics/training in a fairly invisible way and to improve character survivability. I don’t particularly care for either % action mechanics or the Action Point systems, as I’ve found them to be fairly inflexible at their root. They also break pretty seriously when modeling rates of fire for both semi- and full-auto weapons. I can see the use if you’re dealing with muskets and possibly cap and ball weapons, but once cartridge weapons become common they have issues (at least in my view and with the style of games I run).

    I also use a Combat Round (2 Seconds) and a Tactical Turn (about 30 sections) in my games. Since most lock picking doesn’t take place during combat, the Tactical Turn covers that quite well.

    1. ah, yes that makes sense. but..how would you reconcile the two (modern v fantasy) to create a consistent rules framework for any setting or genre? or would you? Not sure Spacemaster will get the RMU update treatment but once its done it should port across to other genres without much work?

  3. I’m honestly not sure you can, if you want to retain an accurate (in my view) feel for modern (or at least non-magical) combat. The combat systems are fairly “plug and play” in terms of switching them out, since I do provide some options for using APs in firearms combat (but don’t recommend it for the reasons I mentioned earlier). If you go over to a phase less round I think you can expect higher player casualties until they start thinking tactically, and I’d rather build that kind of thing into the round itself (to simulate the training or experience their characters would have had).

    To me the challenge comes down to firearms. If you want to weaken them in terms of damage, you can use an AP or % action system. But if you want to model them accurately you really can’t without imposing tactical stuff on players. I found Phases within a Round the best way to do that without players having to really think about fire and maneuver and all that stuff. I think with sci-fi (where damage is if anything higher than standard firearms) you’d really need a Phase system.

  4. I had been using the phase system for decades and the only thing I ever liked about it was for keeping my unrulely players in some semblance of order as I declared each phase of the round progressed.

    I had read but not used alternative rounds because my main players were not in favour. When I introduced a new GM to RM a few years ago he only had RMC books and that has the % action as the default round and so far that has worked really well for us and it has been adopted in all the games we have bar one GM who refuses to move from phases.

    I do think that 10 seconds is too long for a combat round. The RMU 5 seconds is acceptable and my personal favourite is 2 seconds. The question of what to do about lock picking in combat is to reduce the % completed from the MM roll by 5 to get from the default 10 second round to 2 seconds. Trying to pick a lock under fire is a scary thing to do!

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