Diversity vs. Playability: Skills in Rolemaster

Today I’m looking at the ‘problem’ of skills in RM: consolidated skills (of which RMFRP is the paradigmatic version, and which appears to be a certainty in the new version, although with far less skills) or individual skills, each with their own development cost, as was the case in RM2. Let me nail my flag to the mast: I am rather more in favour of individual skill costs, primarily for the tremendous variety and granularity they offer. You simply can’t get that under the skill category system (although the RMFRP rules do allow a certain amount of tweaking, and my rather freewheeling interpretation of the talent rules enabled more).

Further to this is the issue of the dreaded skill bloat. It seems that many folks object – quite reasonably, I feel – to the tremendous explosion in increasingly fine-grained skills introduced by the RM2 companions (and carried over to RMFRP, although restrained and managed by the category system). I understand the objections: if you have, say, 300 skills and 50 professions, that’s a lot of trawling through tables in order to generate a character, and a lot of skills to study up on, in order to decide whether your Burglar is better off taking Defensive Manoeuvre, Feinting or Tumbling Attack, or just ignoring it all and retiring to a farm after buying ranks in Horticulture, Herding, Animal Handling, Animal Healing and Weather-watching.

I only wanted to play Rolemaster!

But, and here’s the thing, I love having that range of options – ridiculous though that may seem – simply because of the ways in which, as a GM, I can fine-tune races, cultures, professions and NPCs. I can understand how you might justify having a Prepare Herbs, Herb Lore and Using Prepared Herbs skill, or a Using/Removing Poison, Poison Perception and Poison Lore skill. I can imagine a rough-and-ready soldier who knows nothing of herbs, but has grown used to applying unguents to wounds. I can equally imagine a scholarly-type who has learned a bit about poison but has never handled it – or even considered using it! That argument makes sense to me, although there is, conceivably, a limit beyond which realism need go.

There are ways of managing skill bloat without consolidating or eliminating skills. The last RM2 campaign I ran I divided skills into Core, Professional and Extra-Professional skills. Everyone, regardless of profession, race or whatever had instant and permanent access to the Core skills. Then, each profession had 25 professional skills to which they had access. All skills outside that group of Core + Professional were restricted, requiring the expenditure of Character Points (which accumulated as the character reached Prime Levels, of which more on another occasion).

I’m including a link to a table showing an example of what I did in my attempts to manage skill bloat whilst maintaining breadth and diversity. This is the RM2 Hunter from the Arms Companion. I’ve not included the development point costs for copyright reasons, but the table is hopefully sufficient to demonstrate the idea. The listed skills show those available to the Hunter at level 1. They can’t consider new skills until reaching their next Prime Level (i.e. level 3). At each Prime Level, a character gains Character Points equivalent to 3 + the modifier derived from their Prime Statistic (the first appearing of their Prime Requisites, in this case Quickness), as if it were a Power Point stat, rounded down. (For example, if Bhorg the Hunter has a Qu stat of 95, he’d gain an extra 2 Character Points, giving him 5 in total. Bhorg could then spend his Character Points unlocking access to an Extra-Professional skill, or buying talents, or saving them for later).

I thought it a reasonably elegant solution, although like all my solutions, it generated a fair amount of work to get it up and running. I’d be interested in your thoughts on possible futures for this approach, any problems you locate and any possible fixes.

5 Replies to “Diversity vs. Playability: Skills in Rolemaster”

  1. That is a very cool first post!

    I am really pleased that you have a very different point of view to Brian and I. It can feel sometimes like the only voices heard are those calling for ever greater simplification.

    Needless to say where you see tremendous variety and granularity I see bloat and complexity.

    Please tell me that your prime levels are 3rd, 5th, 7th, 11th, 13th, 17th?

    Here is an little challenge for you. Could you time yourself creating a character from scratch? It has been a ‘thing’ on here and it seems that 20 minutes per PC is about ball park for a GM using their own house rules to create a starting PC.

    In my experience using RAW and inexperienced players, and one frantic GM trying to herd/support them all character creation can take 3hrs or the entire first session of a game.

    The major time savings seem to come from assigning skills in a block to characters via cultures or training rather than letting the player choose freely for some or all of their skills. This cuts down the trawling through book after book and reading skill descriptions and trying to work out what works with what, what you can get away with relying on complimentary skills or similar skill rules and what skills will be allowed in the game setting.

    A room full of inexperienced players struggling to create a first character is not a good experience for those who are trying RM for a first time.

  2. There’s definitely a lot of food for thought in that great post, Brad.

    Like Peter, I would be a little worried about skill bloat in the system you outline. The other concern I had is what happens when you ‘unlock’ a skill at level 3? If you don’t start buying ranks till level 3, it seems that you’re always going to be a bit behind the curve in using that skill. Can you explain how that works?

    On the other hand, I agree 100% with your comments about individual skill development. You are preaching to the choir on that point. You’ve also given me a lot to think about on how to try to tread the line between granularity and bloat.

    Thanks very much for your post!

  3. I happen to dislike the block skill category costs quite a bit. I’ve started expanding the Combat skill model (set costs assigned by the PC or GM depending on what’s being done) to other skill categories. That way you still control bloat but gain some of the granularity of the true individual skill cost system,

  4. Thanks for the warm welcome! I might have to do a follow-up post to answer some of the questions – I did leave quite a bit of detail out. However, I can confirm that the Prime Levels are 3,5,7,11,13,17,19 etc. I use them to manage the purchase of player talents and skills, and a few other things (e.g. use this special ability once per Prime Level per day), and chose prime numbers because they create a bit of oddness and irregularity.

    In terms of the time it takes me to make a character using the above approach, I suspect about 40 minutes, but I’ll test that over the weekend. I use cultural packages and ‘everyman skills’ (ranks every character gets for free) to substitute for adolescence development.

    As to unlocking skills at Prime Levels – I suppose this does leave one behind the curve in a skill, but that’s true of starting any new skill with or without the artificial restraint of Prime Levels and Skill Unlocks. That said, I do allow Rapid Skill Development as per RoCoVI, where in a skill that costs, for example, 2/5, extra ranks may be bought at a cost of 5. So a concerted effort might allow someone to make up for lost levels.

    I’ll try to post about the further outlines of the system – which will no doubt raise more questions than it answers….

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