While originally designed as a bolt on system to DnD, the Rolemaster “Laws” were always unwieldy to adapt to a d20 system. That didn’t matter for long, as the full suite of rules were published in fairly short order: Rolemaster was a standalone system.
Unfortunately from there, Rolemaster became ‘bipolar’: it contained quite a bit of DnD DNA but tried to establish an RM specific setting with the Loremaster line of products. (Iron Wind, Cloudlords, Vog Mur). Rolemaster was torn between the path forward in the gritty world of the Iron Wind or the well established cartoonish tropes of DnD. And soon after that, ICE rolled out the Middle Earth setting, although there is general agreement that the first few ME books (Court of Ardor & Umbar specifically) had more the feel of the Loremaster world than Middle Earth.
In balancing out these various constituencies, ICE decided to spin off a simplified version of RM for the Middle Earth products (MERP) to better fit the system with the setting, but Rolemaster continued to be torn between its roots in DnD and its flavor and style represented by Loremaster. When Shadow World was introduced in the late 80’s it established it’s own DNA, but still drew from the standards found in Creatures & Treasures to maintain product line conformity. Third party Shadow World products were more generic, diluting the world flavor–since then most have been stamped as “non-canon” by Terry.
Now 35 years later, MERP is gone and Rolemaster has been redesigned and soon to be published. Unfortunately, the redesign only united the previous versions of RM (RM2, RMC, RMSS) and NOT united the game system with a game world. That was a mistake.
I’ve blogged quite a bit about the “gap” between the RM rules and Shadow World, and deconstructed different rule mechanics and how they are in conflict with that world setting. Rolemaster has one foot in and one foot out of the established game setting (Shadow World) leaving RM as an orphan: a generic fantasy game system in a market place that doesn’t need one with mechanical bits that are remnants of early 80’s 1st Edition AD&D.
ICE has little chance in reliving their heydays of the 80’s. There is more competition, more niche products, more OGL’s and more self published material than ever. Shadow World may not be for everyone, but it has a following, is a good setting and Terry continues to write new material and improve existing material. Shadow World needs to embrace it’s uniqueness and Rolemaster needed to fully adapt the rules to fit the setting. A comprehensive and unique eco-system can bring in new players and/or unify exiting ones.
The new rules, the creatures and the spells in RMU should have been fully united with Shadow World. That would require, among many other things, Pantheon specific spell lists, rational rules for death and resurrection, elimination of some earth/cultural weapons for clarity, expansion of unique SW creatures, Professions for Loremaster, Navigators and other SW specific organizations, clarity in Essence manipulation/perception with Essence Flows and Focuses etc etc. The rules should reinforce the setting and the setting should reinforce the rules.
There has been a lot of discussion about who the target market is for RMU. There is skepticism that the existing user base will adopt RMU entirely after decades of playing and modifying earlier versions. It’s been pointed out that many RM players are older, in their 40’s and 50’s. These are important questions and discussions–how can ICE generate a all new base of younger roleplayers?
Putting aside OSR self-published products, it seems to me that new game systems are packaged with the setting. In fact, the setting itself becomes the draw while the rule set supports the setting. This was even true in the 80’s. Gamers didn’t play Ringworld or Twilight 2000 because the rule set was excellent–they played for the setting. Numenera didn’t market it’s rule set–it marketed the unique setting (which I think Monte borrowed heavily from Loremaster/SW).
It’s not too late. RMU doesn’t seem that close to publishing that an intensive effort to adapt SW to the new system couldn’t be done. It’s not like SW would require much work to adapt to RMU–most of the work would be tweaks to RMU to conform with SW. But the roll-out needs to be a combined effort of rules and setting. If that could be executed, ICE and SW would be a multi-platform property: rule expansions, modules, fiction, graphic novels and maybe a small allowance for open license materials. This isn’t revolutionary–ICE has done some or all of that but via a fragmented strategy. RM was used for online MMORPG for a bit, Terry has started his SW novelization, fans have written comics, SW art etc.
This doesn’t mean that RMU can’t be used as a rule set for other settings. But another iteration of a generic Rolemaster isn’t going to differentiate it from other new products on the market and may not appeal to much of the established player base that have years invested in one of the past editions.