Race as Class in Rolemaster Games

The other day I was looking up something in Middle-Earth Role Playing (MERP), and I came across a passage I don’t recall reading before—ever before, even when I aspired to run MERP just last year!

Elves have certain advantages over the “mortal” races … , and in terms of a fantasy role playing game this is reflected by a restriction on how they assign their stats. Each Noldor Elf must assign his highest stat to his Presence, each Sindar Elf must assign one of his two highest stats to his Presence, and each Silvan Elf must assign one of his three highest stats to his Presence.

The rationale for this appears to be twofold. In Middle-earth, Elves are awe-inspiring, and the rules should reflect this. Also, Elves are inherently powerful. Later generations of gamers would begin to characterize Elven character features as “unbalanced” or “overpowered” (“OP”). MERP appears to make up for this perceived unfairness by necessitating that Elven characters need to boost what is usually regarded as a dump stat. This can be seen as a kind of “tax” or handicap for playing such a capable player. I instantly see the appeal in this stipulation and am looking for a way to adopt it into my Against the Darkmaster (VsD) campaign. 

In MERP—and now in VsD—nonhuman characters are further restricted by receiving, at the start of the game, fewer Background Points to spend on goodies. They also have class restrictions. For example, Dwarves can’t be Wizards. We see some of these tendencies in Rolemaster’s current d20 siblings, as well. But some of the first versions of D&D did something that always has struck me as quite elegant: when it came to nonhuman PCs, Basic editions decided that, in these cases, character “race” was its most important distinction. In fact, the character race was character “class.”

Class, of course, is what RM calls Professions, what VsD calls Vocations. Basically, Class is a character archetype or a description of the kinds of skills in which a character specializes. D&D character Classes seem to derive from early gamist considerations and the vaguely medieval milieu—which emphasizes a strict social structure—that D&D emulates. In this case, classes might be considered the hereditary training in which characters should specialize. RM should receive credit for being an early system to push against the rigid restrictions resulting from class. But the game did so by innovating a complex skill system ultimately adopted by D&D 3e.* In this conception, a Fighter might choose to be skilled at Picking Locks but at significantly higher cost than were she simply to improve a Weapon Skill. In other words, the Fighter was best built for fighting. He developed other interests at expense to his primary vocation.

Now, D&D and its progeny have come a long way from its sources in early fantasy literature to become its own thing. In a typical fantasy setting for D&D now, it’s perfectly acceptable to find nations of Elves, Dwarves, Halflings and more, all with guilds and specializations largely indistinguishable from their usually-more-numerous Human neighbors. But when I consider the literary inspirations for the genre, classed races don’t make much sense to me.

When it comes to high fantasy racial cultures, Tolkien’s Middle-earth must be the best referent. In considering that property, what character Class was Legolas? A Rogue? Well, he didn’t seem particularly thiefy. A sneaky and agile Fighter? Certainly, but how about a Ranger?

And Elrond? In The Hobbit he is presented as a kind of sage, but he also has survived many wars and battles. The point is that, in Tolkien, all Elves are free and all Elves are awesome. They live forever, with ample time to master any pursuit. Elves are essentially their own thing, not Rogues, Fighters, Rangers or even sages.

So what about Dwarves? Well, they’re Fighters, obviously. But shouldn’t they know something about locks? Okay, give them a bonus on those skills. Might they also be Rangers, though? Many are in a diaspora. They have to explore the mountains, too, prospecting for new mines and homelands.

Modern conceptions of Halflings have moved far from Tolkien’s Hobbits, but I think we’re still apt to class the diminutive folk as Scouts or Thieves. This probably is because Hobbits are inherently sneaky, and for this reason Bilbo was unfairly branded as Master Burglar. But the kinds of classes that the little people most likely are to produce are modern vocations—gardeners, millers, postmasters and, yes, Bounders, to name but a few. As a racial feature, I would give these guys a bonus Secondary Skill in a mundane profession.

For the precedent set by my fantasy literature, therefore, I’m attracted to “race as class,” and I have devised a chart for VsD. VsD seems to “balance” its Vocations by distributing 15 Rank Points among 5 different categories. For versatility, it also distributes as many as 150 points in bonuses among the individual Skills.

I must confess that I can’t find “balance” or structure in the latest RM race rules. Anyone have an idea how to construct race as class in that rules set? Might such a project be undesirable in that context?

*For the purposes of this discussion, I’m ignoring the “No Profession” Profession.