Squishing Levels

A topic came up on the ICE Discord server recently that I feel deserves some discussion: The leveling curve in Rolemaster.

As a frame of reference, the initial commentary was that a 2nd level HARP character was equal to a 9th level character in the RM framework. Without having a real knowledge of HARP, this got me thinking about other systems and the relative curve of power as characters level. Consider that D&D has historically had a system based on levels 1-18, or more recently levels 1-20. By comparison, RM has a highly bloated (at least at first glance) system of leveling from 1-50.

Before we delve further, let’s look at the advantages of such a spread out system of leveling. Bear in mind that these are generalizations:

🔸 Levels 1-10 seem to be where the most progress is made, with characters mastering their core skills. Consider that during these levels, the character is maximizing the 5/3/2/1 rank progression, and by roughly 10th level is starting to see diminishing returns on these skills.

🔸 Levels 11-20 are where we see some real diversification of skills. At this point a fighter may have some decent bonuses in skills like fighting styles and periphery combat talents (disarm, protect, etc). Spellcasters have some talents in extraneous skills like Spell Mastery, applicable lores, maybe some rituals. Semis at this point now have a chance to spread out some development since they are typically DP-starved at lower levels. Characters in general have more DP available to sink into skills like lores, trades, leadership, and the things that make them unique.

🔸 Levels 20+ is a bit of an enigma. Rank progression at this point slows to a halt in all core skills, so this really becomes the point in the game where class lines begins to blur the most. Looking at old MERP supplements, Aragorn is depicted as Level 27 at the outset of the War of the Ring, and 36 at the end. So rangers can pick up some magical expertise and leadership skills to become party leaders, mages like Gandalf develop some skill at arms, other classes distinctions are blurred since most people inclined to learn magic have picked up many of the same spell lists, and so on and so on. At the same time, this is where classes gain some of their biggest power boosts and distinctions as spells 20th level and above are typically game-changing. While a Bard may be able to cast some elemental attacks at this high a level, the mage reigns supreme with Triad Bolts and the like.

More nutrition, in a smaller package?

This notion that level 20+ is where characters can break out of their class-limitations is not a bad thing. At this level of play, characters are supposed to be special and transcend some of these limitations. However, I wonder if this is actually conducive in the long run to a good gaming system. With RMU on the horizon (somewhere… we hope…) the idea of selling this system is limited by a few of the disadvantages:

🔻So many other systems have a faster, smoother inherent progression. While GMs can certainly increase XP awards to compensate, the fact that HARP seems to scale better, and that D&D has more delineated thresholds makes these systems seem to have more tangible rewards.

🔻A slow climb seems to be the accepted fate in Rolemaster in general. A number of articles have been written here, on the forums, and in Discord about the perils of low-level gaming in RM and the grind to survivability. Consider that the RAW in RMU suggest starting characters at 3rd level or above simply so they have enough skills to make gaming fun. I don’t think this is a design flaw, so much as a design choice that I don’t necessarily agree with, but it’s an issue that many have been vocal about in discussions.

🔻High-level gaming seems like the crawl is even more profound. When a character is only learning new spells every 5th level, that has a profound effect on player investment, as does reduced rank progression.

I know that a lot of what I’ve said here has multiple perspectives, and I’m not trying to be overly critical of a system that I see as a truly enjoyable one, but perhaps there’s some ways to make RM a bit more… fluid? I have two starting suggestions:

🔹Squish levels 20 through 50 so that there isn’t a 30-level gap in power development. By retooling some of the 20+ level spells and making them available at lower levels (even if the new level “cap” was 30th) that might create a smoother progression overall. Drop some of the repetition on lower level spells and move the higher level ones down so they are available from around level 15 onward.

🔹Retool magic at the starting levels so that it functions more like cantrips. One contributor on Discord suggested making all spells from 1st-5th level cantrips that can be cast at will (with normal restrictions, just no PPs). Even if you took only 2-3 spells per list and made them cantrips, and then scaled all of the other spells down accordingly, this would make early levels more palatable, especially for magic users. I see it as giving Semis a boost since they struggle to find a role early on in the game.

Any thoughts from the elders on these concepts? The goal is not to make RM more like D&D or even HARP, but to create a system that sees a more linear progression rather than an asymptotic one. Admittedly, these are just quick thoughts about some very large, complex concepts and I’m not suggesting a full-scale redesign, but this seems like a project that might be on the horizon.

Why Realms?

As my project to convert RM2 professions into the new RMU format continues, I continue to run up against an issue that has plagued me through every iteration of Rolemaster: a lack of distinction amidst the various professions, due in large part to the constant overlapping of spell lists.

As I continue to analyze the issue, I realize part of it is tied to concept of realms of magic. The problem as I see it is twofold:

1. Repeating Lists – Certain lists have repeating versions across the realms (Mentalism and Essence both have an attack avoidance list with Bladeturn/Deflect, Channeling and Essence both have a Delving/Lore list, etc).

2. Realm Focus vs Professional Focus – It seems like certain professions are over or underpowered based on their realm, and don’t necessarily match the concept of the profession itself (While Paladins are a martial semi-spell using class, and their base lists reflect this, they don’t have access to attack avoidance spells, while the Bard and Dabbler do).

I know this has been discussed to some extent, and some of you have even integrated house rules to correct these discrepancies. For me though, the concept of realms is the culprit. As far as I can tell, realms are really a holdover from ICE’s connection to Middle-Earth, derived from the concepts of power in that universe. If RMU is going to be a more generic system that allows world-building, I think a new vision of magic might help clear up some of these problems. Enter the concept of Spheres.

I’ll admit there are some D&D / Mage: Ascension genes in this idea, but here are the broad strokes:

🔸 Rather than three overly-broad realms, I have been building a new experimental list of Spheres, each with three lists, that are categorized thematically (Healing, Perceptions, Knowledge, Movement, Nature, etc)

🔸 Instead of each profession having access to 10 open and 10 closed lists, pure spell users have access to 3 primary spheres (with open costs) and 3 secondary spheres (with closed costs) that are assigned based on their specific profession. This gives them initial access to 18 lists vs the current 20 per realm, with all other lists perhaps having restricted costs. For semis, perhaps 2/2 spheres?

🔸 Each profession still has full access to their 6 base lists at the corresponding cost.

The real advantage to this in my mind is that it forces some diversity amongst the various professions. Instead of every Mentalism or Essence using profession having access to Bladeturn, a Monk might have access to the “Combat” Sphere (Anticipations/Attack Avoidance/Damage Resistance) while a Magent has access to the “Chi” Sphere (Self-Healing, Speed, Shifting). Obviously the lists might need some adjustment and swapping, but this prevents everyone in the game from dumping ranks into Attack Avoidance early on and requires that characters play to varied strengths.

This also allows GM’s to balance spheres across professions to match their respective power levels in terms of development costs. Realms can still be used to balance spellcasting requirements such as armor and verbal/gesture limitations when casting. Rangers still can cast in leather, Mages still can’t, etc.

I am hesitant to post a picture of my list of spheres up here, only because I’m not sure of the nuances of the privacy agreement we all sign as RMU play testers, but would be happy to share if you think it’s acceptable. Thoughts? Am I complicating something that doesn’t need revision? Or is this a new mechanic that might help streamline professions for you somewhat?

Summoning – Concepts and Mechanics

Summoning is a concept that I’ve always been fascinated by in the fantasy genre, and yet never quite able to put my finger on in terms of how it should play out in terms of mechanics. I think that it’s a great niche of spell casting that can add flavor to a game system, so I wanted to explore some of the influences and how it could work more effectively in RMU, especially in light of my latest piece of the RM2 ➡️ RMU profession conversion project. I would love for the conjurer/summoner to rejoin the ranks of playable professions.

My earliest exposure to the concept comes from video games, and the Final Fantasy series in particular, so you’ll have to forgive my heavy leaning toward that framework. In basically every version of those games, Summoning magic was essentially just elementalism on steroids: A Mage could throw a fireball, but a Summoner could bring an ifriit itself to the battlefield in exchange for more magic points and more time. Later iterations became a little more utilitarian as they allowed the summoned creature to have aspects other than attacks: magic shields, invisibility, and other fun mechanics were available, again, at the increased cost/time model. It wasn’t overly complex, but the concept was clean and it worked.

At least to me, as an RM2 veteran, Rolemaster has always seemed to have very underdeveloped summoning mechanics, or at least very unexciting ones. Clerics could summon demons, various other magic users could summon mundane creatures, at higher levels there was some potential for some fantastical elements, but nothing overly exciting. Not only that, the mechanisms for controlling these creatures were hodgepodge; demons had to be controlled through still separate spells, while the animals summoned sometimes had the ability to be controlled and sometimes not. Overall, neither I nor my players were ever impressed enough to give it too much attention. I did dabble with some necromancy but that’s a tale for a different time…

After some invigorating discussion, I think that the Conjurer and some of the mechanics from its lists in Rolemaster Companion II hold the secret to making this profession viable and summoning at least a bit more consistent and interesting. There are a few concepts I’d like to propose for summoning in the new order:

🔸 Power: Summoning magic is supposed to be powerful. You aren’t flinging a temporary manifestation of elemental magic like a Bolt, but dragging a being of some kind across space/time in a more lasting fashion (even if it’s only a few rounds).

🔸 Circles: The use of circles is an essential part of the Conjurer (hereafter referred to as the Summoner) so that concept may be part of the balancing act. If summoning magic is to be more/bigger/powerful/impressive, then the requirement to have to draw/cut/create circles can add time element that balances the Power concept above. This helps create the idea of a “bunker” style caster that needs time to set up but has a trade-off in power to do so.

🔸 Components: Rolemaster has (to my knowledge) never really required these, which is a welcome departure from D&D, but maybe there’s some room for them here. What if summoning can be more finely tuned or sped up through the use of components? A Summon Elemental spell could summon a specific type of elemental if the caster has the requisite element (enchanted rock, magical water, etc from the elemental in question).

🔸 Control: I personally like the idea of control mechanics built into the spells themselves, or at least dependent on certain conditions. If a Summoner wants to control the creature he summons, a circle is needed. But perhaps he can summon it without the circle if he has the components (which are then consumed). Or perhaps the control doesn’t require concentration if both the circle and the component are used. Lots of possibilities here.

🔸Utility: Jdale mentioned this on the forums, but not all summons have to be battle-oriented. Some creatures can be used for travel, some for more utilitarian purposes like construction, but these diversified uses make the Summoner more useful than simply a magical siege engine.

This is just one possible way of looking at summoning magic, but I think that using some old lists with new ideas about mechanics might just make the profession work a bit more smoothly, and make summoning as a whole something that more players would use. I also envision a multitude of summoning lists so that there is at least some diversity in each build (Divine Summons, Elemental Summons, Animal Summons, etc), along with some of the utility circles that existed in RoCo2 like Circles of Power. Any thoughts?