First Level Shouldn’t Suck!

If we’re soapboxing, I’ll jump  on one of mine: First Level shouldn’t suck! The whole premise behind first level should be giving a player a character who’s gone through her formative years and experiences and is ready to set out on her own, not some abstraction of early adolescence who can’t survive being stung by a bee, let alone a minor encounter with a wild dog. The old joke about D&D magic users having to hide behind fighters until they were about fifth level has a sad basis in fact, and Rolemaster (in my opinion) seems intent on turning first level into a collection of those magic users.

Start at the Beginning

Take stat generation. In RM2 you were guaranteed two stats of 90 (your prime requisites). No longer. And if you’re using the default stat rolling system, you’re more likely than you used to be to create a character that isn’t really playable (and I don’t buy the ‘average stat’ argument created by using random number generators…what matters is what new players rolling the dice experience). The only way I’ve found to have a viable character is to use the supposedly optional stat purchase system. And if you don’t like stat purchase systems, you’re more or less sunk.

If it’s Broke…

I’ve lost track of the number of posts I’ve seen on the RM Forums from GMs and players who start at fifth level (or higher) for their games. To me that speaks more to a defect in the basic system than anything else. If that many people have found first level as provided by the rules essentially unplayable, there’s a problem. Suggesting that groups default to developing to fifth level (for example) doesn’t fix the problem…it just papers over it. And for new players the prospect of having to do that much development before starting play is daunting, made worse by the fact that their character could be killed in her first fight by a critical strike.

You Should Fix it

How do you fix this? RMU seems designed for a purchase system (in fact earlier drafts made that distinction clear, but it’s less so now), but if you don’t care for purchase systems for stats (I don’t, and I’ve found them to be difficult for new players as well) you can always haul out an old stand-by from d100 systems in the 1980s and 1990s – the roll modification table. I developed one for a project that works quite well, and it makes sure a PC will start with at least average stats across the board. That gives them a fighting chance. It also avoids a situation I saw in one of my RMU playtest sessions where a player had a character with NO stat above 50 (yes…that’s not a misprint). Her highest potential? A 71.

It’s what you know

Skills are a different matter, and can be approached from a number of directions. While some opt for increasing DPs, I prefer to beef up cultures and background options. This cuts down on rolling and purchase mechanics and lets a character enter play with a better balance of skills (including some that may be important to the setting but might not normally be chosen by players). Strong backgrounds leave players with more DPs to spend on skills they feel they need to round out their character concept.


First level should be viable. It should be the starting point of most games…at least those involving new players so they don’t spend hours creating an inflated character. Any time fist level isn’t viable there’s a problem.

16 Replies to “First Level Shouldn’t Suck!”

  1. First level should be viable, and simple.

    I n regards to viable, I would make sure to tell GMs not to put PCs up against powerful opponents, or to let the characters know that they are not heroes at this level: RM is more ‘fantasy Vietnam’ than Marvel’s Avengers at this point. Creatures should be AT 1 or 2 and very little DB or hit points; players should be encouraged to use positional modifiers like rear attacks. Let them know that failing skill checks is perfectly expected when you are just learning your skills.

    In regards to easy, I really think the stat generation does need work. The last thing new players should have to do after rolling up stats is use a chart to derive a stat bonus for that stat. Just use the simple equation (stat – 50)/3 to derive the stat bonus, or better yet, just roll the stat bonus directly (and do away with stats altogether). We roll 3d10 – 15, which gives stat bonuses in the range of the current RMU system but without the need for either stats or charts.

    1. You could always concentrate on roleplaying. Or killing fluffy bunny rabbits!

      Of course, some players are more action-oriented and may not enjoy roleplaying elements as much. I haven’t actually tested RMU, but the fact that players really need to be several levels higher before they start did come up in another discussion. Which I admit seems wrong, as if something like level 2 is actually level 0.

      1. I think as soon as you put sequential numbering on something, 1st, 2nd, 3rd then you imply that that is the order in which things should proceed. To then say you start at 3rd or 5th seems a little odd.

        With completely new players then having to spend the first three levels in character play is a big ask. It can be very intimidating to roleplay a character with a bunch of strangers for the first few meetings. Even I find I take a couple of game sessions to work out what my characters personality is actually going to be.

      2. Rabbits are encountered in groups of 5d10. given the statistical likelihood of open ended attacks my money would be on the fluffy bunny rabbits. (1 in 20 attacks are typically OE and on average there would be 25-28 rabbits so one or more open ended hits per round vs the characters).

        1. I know that wildlife is often more dangerous than thought but still, the idea of a party being killed by a bunch of rabbits doesn’t seem terribly realistic.

          1. Well in reality they would never attack the flock(?) of bunnies would scatter and the PCs have more chance of fumbling a MM trying to catch them than there is of a rabbit attacking. They could give you a nasty nip if you caught one.

            I just liked the idea as even if the bunny doesn’t fight back the PCs butchering poor little wabbits does not strike me as very heroic.

  2. I personally like point buy systems. The first one I ever came across was Champions and I really got the idea of being able to build the character I wanted to play. That is a personal choice but for me I really get it.
    What I don’t like about random stats is the randomness.
    1. I could have a desire to play a quick witted and intelligent thief and I end up rolling an 00 for strength, 95 for Co and no mental stat above 35. This is game why am I forced to spend the next X number of years not playing the character I wanted to play?
    2. On character creation day I roll middling to bad but not enough to justify junking the character and starting again. In the same session sat around the same table Hurin rolls like a demon possessed and has no stat below 96. So for the next few years my character will always fall short when compared to Hurin’s smarter, stronger, faster and more charming character.
    3. I guess it is down to how much importance you put on stats. If like Hurin you have scrapped them entirely then agonising how to generate them makes no sense. I on the otherhand put more emphasis on Stats and they assume the same level of importance as skills.

    From a starting character power point of view with a point buy system the GM can give a higher or lower point total to suit the sort of game they want to run and the players want to play.

    In my game using the whole stat as a ‘skill bonus’ for unskilled tasks such as strength rolls to bend the bars of a cell door means that first level characters are more competent. You cannot go through life just relying on your raw stats as a skilled person will soon outshine someone relying on pure stats alone.

    I have also found that having a somewhat reduced set of skills in the game make for more competent characters. If there are only 45 skills and the player can afford to buy 20 or so then they have some competency in just about half the skills. If there are 200 skills in play then those 20 skills represent only a tenth of all the available skills.

    My players do not need to need to buy Body Development (see my post from Dec 2nd last year So all my first level characters start off with a decent number of hits, a decent number of skills and generally able to function.

    I absolutely love cultural skill ranks. I give my first level characters free ranks to reflect their upbringing. I have done this as a replacement for the 0th level/apprenticeship/adolescence skills. I like this for two reasons. Firstly, as a GM I can really differentiate cultures, races and cultures within races in a controlled way. The cultures are all balanced in so much as there are the same number of ranks available as freebies but I am in control of where they get spent, which categories etc. Secondly I am use this to tweak the power level of the game. More ranks means more skills and more competent starting characters.

    I must agree that any game that pushes people towards starting at level 3-5 is probably broken. My RMU playtest started at 3rd level.

    1. That’s why I like point buy systems too. It just seems patently unfair sometimes when one player rolls exceptionally well and another rolls exceptionally poorly (or mediocre enough not to justify a reroll). It felt like playing on a Hockey team with one person being given awesome skates and the other Crocs. One was whizzing along doing marvelous things, the other could barely stand up.

      I know an RPG isn’t really a sport, but I feel badly for the person who rolled badly, and it can diminish the enjoyment that person gets from the game.

      1. I totally agree.

        The relative power of the individual characters can still diverge as fully engaged players tend to earn their characters more experience or equivalent but that will always happen to some lesser or greater extent.

  3. …and there is nothing wrong with soapboxing!

    One of the beauties of the blogging format is having a platform to express your opinions or throw ideas out for other peoples opinions and you will not get flamed for it nor will what you wanted to say get drowned out by people with an set point of view.

  4. I’m right there with Peter:

    1. I buffed up cultural & vocation packages so character creation is quick and PC’s have good starting skills.

    2. Stats as skills. My players are 8th lvl so I haven’t tested this on starting players, but I imagine it’s going to be a big boost to be very good at some basic things.

    3. Set Hit Points. I adopted Peters idea for set HPs (racial base HP’s + Co stat + skill ranks in endurance) Some of my PC’s lost some HP’s, some gained but it certainly would have helped when they were starting out.

    4. Unlimited rank development. This allows players to be very good at a couple of skills if they to focus, even at lower levels.

  5. I always allow players to assign their rolled stats wherever they wish, in no small part because I’ve never liked calling something random and then requiring rolls be assigned in some stat order. The other reason I like roll mod tables is they ensure that characters will be ‘above average.’ I also like the shading rolling gives. Point buy to me eliminates that, but it’s good to have options.

    I’ve also tailored mod tables for various power levels. That way you have better stats for certain flavors of games.

    1. I allow my players to freely assign stats too. I can see the appeal in randomness, of course, in that it can prompt players to try classes they otherwise wouldn’t; but I don’t want to force a player who always plays Rogues to try to play a Cleric, just because of random chance.

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