Fun is more important than realism.

I know that the cornerstone of Rolemaster has always been a more realistic D&D. It all goes back to throwing yourself off a 100′ cliff and knowing you cannot die because you had 63 hit points and the damage from a 100′ fall was 10d6.

But, realism in fantasy is just a bit weird. How do you calculate the psychic shock from confronting an entity from a different plane? We have a Fear mechanic, but how do we know it is ‘realistic’. Ultimately it is all made up and game balance is of greater importance than realism, and this is a game and not a simulation.

The problem with that is when something is compromised in favour of game balance, and the compromise works against your character. “Yeah sure, in the real world that would work, but it is unbalancing in the game so it doesn’t”. That would upset some players.

We can fix these things on an ad-hoc basis by ignoring the compromise if it would make sense narratively. The danger is that at some point you will meet a player that will argue that if it worked once it should work every time and will then attempt to engineer the situation that the compromise was designed to avoid. There is always at least one!

It is no secret that I was very opposed to the size rules. I found them distinctly unfun. I remain unconvinced that they fix anything at all. Having said that, I haven’t seen the finished rules, so I don’t really have a valid opinion. In all the playtests I ran, they did not add anything to the experience but did suck the fun out of combats.

This is the sort of ‘problem’ that VTT automation will simply make go away. It will know the sizes and it will auto calculate the results. There will be no shifts to forget. There is one major problem that I cannot really see an easy solution to. There were originally two size effects. The first was multiplying the hits damage and the second was shifting the critical severity. The hits multiple is optional.

How can any published encounters account for such widely differing danger levels? If games that prefer the increased realism of modifying hits delivered will be doing massively more, or less damage than the book says, how can a published adventure ‘balance encounters’ to a ball park level?

In a sandbox, balancing encounters isn’t so much of a thing. If you are stupid enough to confront a dragon at 1st level, that is your own fault. In an adventure intended for 1st level to 3rd level characters (the starting range for RMu) you want encounters that are challenging, but not suicide. You can die in any encounter via stupidity or bad dice rolls, but planned encounters that can only be survived via exceptionally good dice rolls remove all layer skill from the game, and are distinctly unfun.

I was planning an encounter recently and I wanted foes that had a ‘glass jaw’. I wanted them to do large amounts of damage but to have extremely poor defences and low hits. The reason for this was that I wanted to put my characters under time pressure and so the fight would ideally be over quickly, and not turn into a slugfest.

Adding the Frenzy skill/ability to weaker foes does the trick, they gain OB, lose DB, and double damage. Frenzy and no shield makes things extremely easy to hit and do good damage too.

Would this encounter have worked with the full size rules in play? I am not sure it would. The characters were fairly low level, so being able to hit 175 on the tables would only happen on an OE roll. Dividing the damage down for the smaller characters, or those using smaller-sized weapons would have just dragged the encounter out. The critical shift would have been less important as the fight was intended to be finishable just by taking the foes’ #hits down.

This isn’t a thought experiment, this is a real encounter from a real game that I don’t think would work under the size rules.

The issue with it making published adventures extremely unpredictable is also a very real problem. If RMu is going to be played, it needs playable material.

If RMu is going to be played it has to be fun.

If RMu is going to be played it also has to be fast at the table.

There are enough long in the tooth detractors that will remember the endless page flipping and book hunting of previous editions. If we want to win over these people, people who may be willing to come back and try RM again, RMu needs to dispell their fears that RM is slow and more work than fun.

Ultimately it all comes down to games have to be fun, or they won’t be played.

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Quickie Dungeons?

This was a tip published for D&D, but it is equally applicable to any fantasy games.

Build dungeons quickly with a map, some one- to three-word room descriptions with fantastic monuments, and a handful of potential encounters (good and bad).

Casting this into Rolemaster throws up so interesting ideas.

  1. Three Things. This is an improvisational theatre technique. When you want to improvise something you only create three very general facts about the ‘thing’. Then if your attention or focus falls on the thing, you create three more facts about the thing. You can continue to drill down as greater detail as you need.

    In RPG terms this could be describing a room as being dominated by a pair of statues of angels (1), an altar stands between the statues (2) and the floor is made of chequered black and white tiles (3). At this point you can possibly imagine the room, but much of it is vague. If your players think that floor is suspicious, they want to know more, so… Each tile of the floor is made of marble with only the faintest hint of coloured veins (1), the joins between tiles are near perfect and no caulking has been used or was needed (2), the tiles running along the centre of the chamber are worn and scratched from the passing of hundreds of feet over years or decades (3).

    You can keep drilling down to almost forensic levels, if the players have the interest or the means of discerning ever more detail.
  2. A handful of potential encounters. This one is something that Rolemaster has traditionally been very bad at. For two reasons (at least). The first is that no one has ever thought to publish books of encounters. If you ever get the chance to read the rules of Forbidden Lands the random encounters are fantastic. You are not just looking at the combat stats of a random monster, but you also get roleplaying advice on how to play them, strategies and context, why they are doing what they are doing.

This one is about as basic as they get. Now, the interesting thing is that they include no game mechanics. If you replaced “page 64” with Creature Law/Creatures & Monsters/Creatures & Treasures and the page number, this could be for any flavour of RM.

The second reason that published encounters are harder than one imagines is that your version of RM is the sum of all the optional rules. Almost invariably the optional rules in the companions made the player characters more powerful. Sometimes it is neglible, sometimes the power creep was obvious. But, as soon as you tweak the player characters any published encounters go out of whack.

If you have to roll your own encounters, tweaking all the monsters to fit your version of RM this stops being quick, by any reasonable meaning of the word. If you are using published encounters, you are going to have to rejig them to challenge your players. Flexibility is Rolemaster’s greatest strength and weakness.

3. The last part is the quick dungeon map. There are dozens of random dungeon map tools. This one is more interesting for the GM that wants something not entirely random but fast and customisable.

Take a look and have a play.

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Rolemaster (u) tips?

I started this blog in November 2014. At that time I thought Rolemaster Unified was imminent.

Now, I again feel that it is just around the corner. There is a scene in Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy where the planet Margrathea is closed until the galactic economy is strong enough to afford their designer planet-building service.

I kind of feel the same way now. I set the blog up waiting for RMu, I started the fanzine in April 2017, again expecting RMu to be right around the corner. This time I hope that it is third time lucky.

What I would like to gather together are some Rolemaster tips, not version-specific, but generic Rolemaster tips that will be as useful to old hands like us as they would be to new blood. The kind of people we need RMu to bring in.

I will then turn the tips into articles and start regular posting again. As you may have noticed I took a bit of a break this year. Then if I can get the posting habit back, I can kickstart the fanzine again.

If you have what you think would be a good tip, or piece of GMing advice, you can contact me via the contact form on the ‘about’ page.

I will gather them up and start posting again.

Campaign Themes

Can you boil down the overarching theme of your campaign into just one or two words?

And, why would you want to?

I have been thinking about this idea, and the essence of it is that if you know what your campaign is about at a conceptual level, it becomes easier to guarantee that each adventure sits within that theme, and you are not drifting toward something generic fantasy. It is also a useful prompt for when you are knocked into improvising. If you have to start making stuff up, if it is bang on the theme, it should be easier to reintegrate the stuff you made up on the fly with the stuff you have prepped for future sessions.

The theme of my Rolemaster Classic campaign is Deception. Dark Elves have deceived the dwarves into believing they were attacked by surface elves. The person the characters beleive is the villain is actually trying to prevent a brewing war between elves and dwarves. This person will use any means available and is one person against an entire conspiracy of dark elves.

Powerful artifacts that all sides want have been hidden in plain sight and protected by deceiving magics.

The list goes on. At first, the characters had no idea what was going on, but they have slowly started to pick at the loose threads and are getting a glimpse of what lies behind all the lies.

It is possible that in the next session they will work out that their early patron had been lying to them.

If my players flounder, such as when one of my ‘obviously brilliant’ clues goes right over their heads, I can easily make something up that will fit the overall theme of deception and misdirection.

If I need to get my characters back on track, I can have one of the opposing forces misdirect the characters back towards that groups natural opposition. The dwarves share evidence of elven treachery, the elves portray dwarven reprisals as unprovoked attacks, and the dark elves are just trying to drag both sides into conflict. It gives me enough levers to pull.

By sticking to my theme I am also signposting, bit by bit, what kind of powerful magics they are eventually going to have to face down. I am not going to go from deception, deception, deception to fireball.

I am finding having defined my theme that it is making my GM prep more fun. It is a challenge to weave the theme into, not every encounter, but all the big encounters and when building NPCs.

What is your Rolemaster Passion?

Many of you may remember my struggles with characters that were risk-averse. They avoided committing to conflicts and always tried to either control everything or take the safest route possible.

I recently did an exercise called writing a passion statement. It is intended as a business activity but it worked well for RPGs and adventure design.

The exercise starts with completing this “Looking back at my roleplaying days I enjoyed…” but write for 10 or 15 minutes. No one else is going to see it. It is just about getting ideas out and on to the page.

Once you have that text, pick out what looks like the important ideas. Pick out as many ideas as you like. Just make a list of them.

Once you have that list, rate each idea on a 1 to 5 scale, with 5 being the things you enjoyed the most or were most important to your enjoyment. 1 is the least important ideas.

Now look at the things you rated 5 and try and build a single statement that encompasses all those ideas. It could be a single sentence, or a short paragraph.

My statement distilled down to almost one word.

I roleplay so I can be the hero.

I asked a couple of my players to do the exercise and their statements were very different. They were much more about winning, or achieving power or leveling, and defeating dragons and demons.

The overriding sentiment was that they wanted to win.

To me, winning and RPGs are kind of uncompatible. You win at an RPG by having fun. But, all my players are hardcore wargamers and in a wargame you have victory conditions. You can win. Winning is the goal.

I don’t think my players want to win rolemaster. They want to win each encounter, they want to defeat the orcs nest, beat the giant monster.

They achieve their goal by minimising risks.

They only want to take on challenges where they perceive that the odds are in their favour.

I can use this to tailor their adventures, encounters and the plot hooks I dangle in front of them. I need to make them more imperative, effectively limiting their ability to procrastinate. I can also launch adventures with a surprising turn of events, so there is no time to prepare and contemplate avoidance.

These feel a bit like railroading. But, as long as I know there is a risk of railroading I should be able to guard against it.

Their current adventure started with a lost child in an area with a lot of goblin activity. My characters have defeated a great many goblins. They will happily fight goblins because they have always won against goblins. They discovered the child at the bottom of a hole being attacked by a zombie. They had no real choice. They could not leave the child to die, so they had to jump down and fight the zombie.

Once they were committed, and they defeated several groups of zombies and skeletons, their confidence rose they did withdraw and rest, their healer was out of PP, but they are volunteering to go back down the hole. Their dungeon delve is hitting the right buttons, they are winning each encounter.

This also makes running the game more fun for me. I can now create adventures that I know the characters will engage with. There is much less frustration about prepping stuff just to have it ignored by the players who don’t want to take risks.

Two sessions down, and no one is dead yet

Last night was the second session after the restart, and the first combat since we got going again.

We are playing over Fantasy Grounds and between when I last used it for RMC and last night there have been tons of improvements.

The table resolver now how little Apply buttons after each result which seemed like a tiny change, but made a huge difference in the game session.

Putting marveling at the technology aside, the encounter I wrote months ago, suddenly seemed pretty tough when it came to run it at the (virtual) table. The party are mostly 3rd level, except the NPC healer who is 7th. The foes they were fighting were 8th level.

I threw one naga at them at first, and they surrounding it and beat it to a pulp in no time. That was to be expected. In the second encounter they took on two, one was up front, and a second dropped from an upper level down into their formation. That caused them a few problems. The grappling criticals shattered two elbows (two characters, one elbow each), and shatter repair is 12th level so out of power range for the healer. The characters won the fight and deleted a fair chunk of their herbs.

They then came across 3 nagas, and their healer was not with them. The healer is a centaur and didn’t physically fit into the tower. So this was a three on three fight against tougher opponents. The characters had control of the only easy exist, so could have retreated at any time. If they had done so, their healer could have joined in. The centaur isn’t particularly tough but does know Shockbolt, and is capable with a morning star. That would give them 4 vs. 3.

The dice were very much on the characters’ side at the start of the fight. I think two of the three attacks in the first round were open-ended, and they got two of the nagas stunned with no parry. One went down quite quickly to a critical. The characters then had numbers on their side. They kept one naga stunned, but the third started to take a toll on the characters.

At the end one PC was down, their main fighter, another had a shattered knee, the party thief. and surprisingly the remaining character hadn’t taken a single point of damage.

Patching themselves up again drained more herbs, and a fair chunk of magic.

I don’t know how long running three different combats would have taken me using books and dice. but I doubt that I would have got through all three in a single evening. We played for just under 4hrs last night. Overall, I was impressed. They were tough fights, and it could have gone either way. It was supposed to be a minor encounter on route to a destination further up the road. It actually proved to be a valuable team building exercise for the party, now they are one player less, the dynamic has changed.

All in all, Peter was a happy GM, with happy players.

Campaign Restarted

After what turned into a much longer break than I had expected my campaign is now back. You probably don’t care that much about my personal game, but it is in my game that I play through all the adventures that turn up in the Rolemaster Fanzine. No regular game means no playtesting and that means no fanzine content.

We played the first Tuesday in January, and that was mostly getting back into the characters, working out where we were, and I brought the characters virtually up to the front door of their next encounter.

I have misplaced a player, at least temporarily, so the party is now two player character fighters, a former player character rogue that is now an NPC, and the only non-human is a centaur healer, who was always an NPC.

My game has restarted because the game I am playing in Shadow World is taking a break. That was my Druid under old RM2 rules. My Druid is 5th level, possibly pushing 6th once we get the final experience.

Our group now has four GMs, one running Call of Cthulhu, one running 5e, and two Rolemaster. We are playing every Tuesday, alternating one RM game with one of the others. Right now it is CoC and RM.

Do Powerful Magic Items Spoil Games?

This is an observation I have made over the past 30 years. When a character is given a powerful magic item it seems to have a negative impact on the game as a whole.

The GM we have just finished with is the kind of GM that don’t kill characters, it is very hard to die in his games. His villains are more likely to take the opportunity to escape than to press their advantage and kill characters. He enjoys high-level campaigns and big battles against powerful foes. In one game we started session 1 at 10th level. It is only in the final session of the campaign, the final battle that the gloves come off and let the dice land where they will.

Given that this is a GM that actively tries to save characters, in each of his last two campaigns, there have been two character deaths, and they were both effectively character suicides. Where the player has said that they don’t want to play that character any more. The reason in both cases was that one character with a powerful magic item had made the other character superfluese. This happened not once but twice. In both cases the players talked to the GM, created a new PC that was not going to have to live in the shadow of the other character and rejoined the game after their original character was killed.

I have seen players get very upset or feel their character is suddenly underpowered when they lose a powerful item that they have become accustomed to.

A GM I used to play with many years ago used to enjoy throwing characters into rivers or in the sea, and then washing them up on the beach or bank without half of their equipment. It was his way of resetting the magic item economy. He did this once and one player left the game and never returned because they felt robbed.

Players who knew the GM was used to these regular inventory resets and took them in their stride.

I would honestly say that I have never seen a game improved by powerful magic items.

I tend to not give out items where the bonus is more than +5 more than the characters level. At 5th level you may get something that is +10, and +15 at 10th. It means that I can frequently give a magic item as a reward, knowing that it will still be an upgrade from what went before.

I recently saw a character at 4th level given a +30 broadsword that did x2 round so of Stun. +30 is a huge bonus anyway, but if your opponent of almost constantly stunned that is almost a +60 bonus (+30 + another 30 for being stunned) and you rarely ever need to parry because they cannot attack you back.

I suppose the problem is at its worst when only one or some of the characters have these over-powered weapons, those without will always be overshadowed by their allies.

In the game with that+30 sword, most of us would just parry and wait for the uber-fighter to come around and kill everything. Even the other fighter in the party would just parry every round. We all became bit parts in the story, which is not what RPGs are supposed to be about.

I suspect that this is only really a problem for items that have a lot of utility. Swords get used almost every session, something that allowed you to transform into a great white shark would be less useful but could be a lot more powerful.

Dwarven Stronghold

I should have been publishing the next Rolemaster Fanzine this week, but I am digging into a bigger project for the next issue.

At the end of last months ‘zine I said I was going to detail out one of the Dwarven strongholds. As I have been creating Dungeondraft maps of each location for use on VTT this stronghold is taking somewhat longer than I had anticipated.

I have also invested some time in improving my map-making, thanks to YouTube.

I am also on a drive to use a wider variety of foes. My first dwarven stronghold is long abandoned, at least by dwarves, but it gives me an opportunity to use Constructs in all their myriad forms.

I have a subterranean river on the map, and that is plied by animated paddleboats that will ferry non-existent passengers back and forth from the mines to the inner stronghold for all of eternity (or until they meet an angry player character).

It is quite fun to have three basic stat blocks but they have an infinite number of forms, one could be a sentry suit of armor, another boat, and a third a noble child’s toy warhorse.

I am also building in some physical challenges, the adventure isn’t just a hack-fest through unthinking machines.

I was hoping to be playing my campaign again by now but the Shadow World game I am in is taking a little longer to complete than we had anticipated. One of the three players had been ill and needed an operation. The illness meant that he couldn’t play for a few weeks, then the operation definitely put him out of action. We had our first session back on Fantasy Grounds (RMC) last night and he was exhausted by 10pm, we normally play to near midnight.

But, he is on the mend. We left the session last night as we just rolled for initiative to fight a Giant. Not just any giant, but a GM tweaked unique giant. It is several hundred years old, cyclops-like, but very intelligent, sophisticated, and seems to be using some nature magic, possibly druid lists. We are not sure.

The party is strung out, I am halfway up a cliff face doing a free climb, the two fighters are charging into melee, but it is a long way away. The paladin got flattened by a thrown boulder in the first round, but has shaken off the stun but is carrying a lot of bruising with its associated penalties. The bard is our weakest party member. Little or no armor, little skill with weapons, and very few spell lists. The giant started hurling rocks at the paladin, but I started jumping around and shouting to get its attention. This is not a way to guarantee a long life, but it did buy enough time to get the remaining two fighters close enough to launch an attack. I have light armor, so I am hard to hit, and a pretty good DB. I am also the party healer, so I have a reasonable chance of standing up even if I do take a direct hit.

We will see how this fight pans out.

We believe that we need to take down this giant, scoop out its eye, deliver that to a witch that lives in the swamp, and she will guide us to the stronghold of the necromancer that has been plaguing this region. Simple!

Apologies and Neglect

I have been neglecting the blog recently. My own RM campaigns have been on hiatus. My face-to-face game hasn’t been played since Feb 2020, which is no surprise. My VTT game hasn’t been played in two or three months now.

I am playing a druid in a Shadow World RM2 game, and a cleric in a 5e game, so I am still playing, but my group of players and I could not sustain three games running at once.

Now, the Shadow World game is reaching a natural point to take a break, and we will be pausing to pick up my game again.

It is harder to think of really interesting things to write about when you are not planning and running games.

I even skipped a month of the Rolemaster Fanzine. It has been exploring an idea about two extremely dangerous weapons, one slaying to elves and the other to dwarfs. Without the stimulus of the running and planning, it was incredibly difficult to build a gripping scenario.

But, that is all about to change. I am getting my game notes in order and preparing for some upcoming sessions. Hopefully that will spark some interesting topics to put out here on the blog.

Maps, 5e, and a campaign on life support

I was putting the finishing touches on issue 50 of the fanzine today and I just uploaded a zip file with the maps for this issue.

There seem to be two aspects to maps. The first is having the talent to come up with a really cool idea for the map in the first place. The second is having the talent make it look good once you have had the idea.

I fail on both counts.

What I have hit upon is grabbing some of the Dyson Logos maps, and using them to ‘trace’ over using Dungeondraft.

This is the original map.

and this is my take on it.

I think it looks half decent!

The actual image is 1800px x 1800px so you can add your own grid in your favourite VTT in hexes of squares, whichever you prefer.

I recreated the underground area as well and that looks pretty cool as well.

To 5e or not to 5e?

I have been playing in a 5e campaign recently. We are up to 4th level and about half way to 5th.

We have three players, two of us have played D&D before and one is new, having only played Rolemaster/Spacemaster before.

Last night, the new to D&D player declared that he didn’t want to play D&D any more. It wasn’t the same as Rolemaster, and he just didn’t like the system.

Where this leaves our 5e game, I don’t know. He is chatting with the DM today. I dislike games that die without warning. I find it very dissatisfying.

I am still running my RMC game. The map above is from on of the locations in that game. I am running an open sandbox where the players can do what they want. Now they have their healer, they are getting a bit braver.

I am also playing in Shadow World where I have a 3rd level Druid.

So, I am not without a game or two, but I still think it is a pity if the game ends, which is what I expect to happen. It is a no win situation. If the game carries on with just the two players, we risk losing the excluded player, but the only other alternative is to end the game.

I do feel for the DM, he has spent a lot of money buying the 5e Fantasy Ground rules, an ultimate license for FG, and the adventure path.

The 5e rules seemed OK to me. 5e is a bit gung-ho, with everyone being some kind of spell user, or near magic abilities, and healing being two a penny. Is it a bad thing? Well, killing stuff is generally fun, sitting around unable to do anything because you are all down to 1hp is not so fun.

One suggested solution seems to be that we play Call of Cthulhu instead. With these players I cannot see that turning out too well. The other two players are real power gamers who have been known to sulk if there characters take a kicking. In CoC, you are always going to take a kicking, and it never ends well.

I should find out on Tuesday what the fall out is going to be.