A New Setting – Part 2: The Far-Realms

In my last post, I discussed the need for rich, unique settings that are labors of love in order to create an appeal to players learning about (and hopefully investing in) RMU. While I’m not sure how unique my setting is, creativity begets creativity, so enter my world…

🔸Introduction – The Far-Realms is a “middle-fantasy” world; the setting is roughly medieval-level technology, with most scientific advancement at a relative halt due to the global political landscape and the subtle presence magic. Magic is not completely unknown to most of the population, but is still treated with reverence and awe by the vast majority… it and its users are considered rare, and often distrusted. The reason for this distrust is due to relatively recent events in the timeline. Here’s a quote from my notes:

The effects of the War of the Magi still lie upon the land. Where once lush and vibrant forests stretched as far as the eye could see, now there are barren and blasted remains of mighty trees. Dotted intermittently across the landscape are wastelands where nothing grows, and that which does is sick or, in some cases, cursed. Dust storms periodically ravage the countryside as weather patterns work to reestablish themselves. Some of the grandest and most ancient cities from the Old Empire lay deserted and crumbling, victims of the devastating war and the passage of time. Those who travel to these places seldom return, and those who do speak of dark spirits and worse haunting the once populated avenues and passageways beneath the streets.

And yet it is a time of relative peace and healing. In the five centuries since the War, new centers of civilization have begun to spring up across the land and small areas of commerce have become bustling cities. In the wilderness, signs of life have started to reemerge in those places that were once laid waste, and not all of the untamed places of the world suffered during the conflicts of the past. In some cases, the land has become more beautiful, and more savage, without the presence of humanoids and their banal struggles. In short, it is a wondrous and dangerous world for heroes to emerge… or perish.

Some classic fantasy elements, with a bit of a post-apocalyptic flair and savage garden meshed together. So let’s get into the basic mythology…

🔸Mythology – I’ll try to make this brief. In the beginning, the Great Dragon created the universe, but it was simply pure imagination until he constructed the final element to give his imagination form: Time. When he bellowed and started time, the echo of his roar gave rise to the Demon, which creates the Balance necessary for reality to exist. The Dragon represents Balance, while the Demon represents Corruption. Note that Balance is not necessarily always in favor of good, while evil is not always aligned with Corruption.

The Dragon then curled around himself and began the Dreaming, so that his creation could have a home in the infinite void. His body became the earth and all magic, no matter how it is used, draws from the Dreaming and the infinite possibilities therein. From his Dream, forms of life began to spring up, and from the species of bestial, animalistic drakes, he empowered the race of dragons with intelligence and magic to serve as his agents, enforcers, and teachers of the Balance.

The dragons are arranged into seven different Dragon-flights, each representing a core element (fire, water/cold, earth, air/light, spirit, mind, and time). One of these flights, namely the Dragon-flight of Time, was corrupted by the Demon and its offspring twisted into demons as we know them now. While in ancient days all the dragons of time were destroyed, dragons periodically fall from the other flights and join the ranks of Corruption, aiding the demons in their pursuit of destroying creation.

As you can see, there’s a ton of DNA from literature and games here, but I’m trying to create a setting with some unique flavor to it. My dragons might seem similar in scope to Tolkien’s maiar, and the image and even the terminology of “flights of dragons” is inspired by the cartoon of the same name. The idea of Corruption being a pervasive element is something I want to explore in my world. I always liked the idea of evil turning on itself when a villain realizes he is being used for goals not his own, and the struggle to retain identity amidst the pursuit of power.

A dragon as a bastion of Balance facing the forces of Corruption

🔸Races – I was pleasantly surprised that Rolemaster is creating (or at least rebalancing for gameplay) so many races for its upcoming product. That being said, I’m bored of so many classic fantasy races and tried to whittle my custom races down to a handful that have some distinctiveness to them:

  • Hume – Humans. I don’t have any distinctions regarding “high” men or anything like that. I want them to be a baseline that other races are compared against with a lot of DP for customization. They are the most prolific race in the Far-Realms, having spread to most regions of the world. I do have a few custom cultures with some genetic variations (infravision, recurved musculature, etc), but nothing unbalancing in terms of stats.
  • Sidhe – At first glance they might be mistaken for some traditional fae race, but these magically adept people have a number of differences. They have no eyes, but have a form of ESP that allows them to sense different aspects of their surroundings based on their sub-species. They have two branches – the Woads, who are a feral, sylvan folk, and the Elurae, who have forsaken the wilds for pursuit of arcane lore. A key to their culture is preservation of the Balance and tend toward lawful alignments of every variation. If you ever read the Thomas Covenant series, they are inspired by the Waynhim.
  • Trols – Not much originality here, but think a combination of the World of Warcraft orcs crossed with Trolls from Dark Age of Camelot. A large, savage, yet noble race made from stone. They have a scattered nomadic culture because of a racial rage that builds over time as they spend time with one another. As such, they tend to function almost like ronin or mercenaries, serving lords and seeking combat to earn honor amongst their kin.
  • Saurians – In the Far-Realms, lizardmen are one of the oldest species, and have two additional sub-races as a result of selective breeding in their past. The main race (the Sauros) bred the mighty Varan (hulking, larger, and heavily scaled) as shock troops for their wars, and the diminutive Gilan (squat, frog-like and hardy) as a servant class. After millennia of service, the Varan developed a peculiar warrior code of honor and freed the Gilan. All three races have a complicated history and relationship to one another.
  • The Redeemed – When the first Dragon-lord of the Dragon-flight of Time betrayed her Flight to the service of the Corruption, their eggs were warped and turned into the first demons. Millennia later, a group of demons was spared and eventually cured, becoming the Redeemed. This race is uniformly good, as any deviation from the Balance inevitably results in their fall back into Corruption. They inadvertently are somewhat similar to the Draenei from WoW. Their culture is based around a crusader esprit de corps, and make excellent spell and semi spell-users.

🔸General Notes – For the most part, this world plays like a traditional fantasy setting, but am trying to build a sense of fatalism and savagery into the atmosphere. The world is harsh, and it may be too late to stop the world’s slide into ruin (eerily close to our own… hmm…). In this way it harkens to White Wolf’s original World of Darkness setting, with occasional flashes of epic fantasy where heroes actually make a difference.

The current timeline is set 500 years after the Old Empire fell and 50 years after the last of the survivor states fell defeating the Armies of the Demon-Kings. It seems as though Corruption was defeated, albeit at great cost. I am using the War of Magi as a mechanic to level the playing field; only a handful powerful individuals exist in the world as a result of the devastation, to the point that perhaps only one or two 50th-level people in each profession exist in the entire world.

Any thoughts? Trying to decide what exactly should be detailed in Part 3

A New Setting – Part 1: Intro

“And will I tell you that these three lived happily ever after? I will not…but there was happiness.”

In response to Brian’s call to arms for new content on the blog, I figured I could hit two birds with one stone. As has been discussed here, on the I.C.E. Forums, and on Discord, one of the issues RMU has to somehow overcome in order to attract new players is the question of setting. It seems, at least at present, that RMU is moving in the direction of a relatively generic fantasy setting — the standard fantasy races, a smattering of the elements that have become Rolemaster staples, and a smorgasbord of creatures in Creature Law that GMs can mix and match to create a setting. This isn’t a bad thing necessarily… RM’s strength has always been its modular nature. But looking over some older content from other games, D&D in particular, I’m more convinced that setting is its biggest weakness.

I was thumbing through the D&D 2e Monstrous Manual the other day, and the first page is a reference of their various game settings at the time: Greyhawk, Forgotten Realms, Ravenloft, Dark Sun, Dragonlance… each with a distinct flavor and lending to the overall mythology of the WotC multiverse. In recent years, this has only grown and now is a key element of their game appeal. The addition of Diablo II, Magic the Gathering, and other worlds to their repertoire has only given D&D more fuel and appeal.

This isn’t new to RM which has some rich settings in its vaults already: Shadow World is easily the most developed, although the sheer amount of lore can be daunting. The RMSS Shades of Darkness setting is fascinating, and deviates from the standard fantasy tropes without deviating from fantasy roleplaying. And of course there is MERP…

What I’d like to see are some truly developed world settings with some unique flavor to them that I.C.E. embraces as their “core worlds”. A quick Wikipedia search shows over a dozen world settings in D&D that have the backing of the main developers, and living lore that continually gets development. Every GM (and there seems to be a lot of us old veterans floating around out there) have takes on worlds in which we’ve created our adventures… some of them are cookie-cutter fantasy settings, some of them are built into the aforementioned RM settings, and some are our brainchildren with their own unique flavor, rules, and lore. This may be presumptuous in the extreme, but would the powers that be of RMU be open to creating sections of their forum or website dedicated to living worlds that they could call their own? Would GMs be willing to work on them, largely as a creative endeavor, as a project for expanding the accessibility and appeal to RMU? Thoughts? Or am I simply repeating what’s already been suggested?

Stay tuned for additional writings. In Part 2, I’ll introduce my own setting under development: The Far-Realms, a universe created by Dragons, warped by Demons, and a place of primeval magic and natural wonders attempting to recover from the constant blighting assaults by the forces of Corruption. Think of it as Lord of the Rings meets the apocalyptic fantasy elements of the Gunslinger world (minus the technology).

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?