Low level combat in Rolemaster.

Building 1st Level Combat Encounters: SlyFlourish.com

There is a lot of discussion and criticism of the deadliness of Rolemaster’s combat system. Many times, these critiques are used in conjunction with arguments about the impotency of Level 1 characters. Unfortunately, this type of talk may turn people off from trying Rolemaster, the older versions or the upcoming RMu edition. The good news is that the deadliness of RM’s combat is probably overstated and outlier results can be easily addressed by good GMing, proper planning and some defensive strategies by the players.

For me, as a GM and player, low level adventuring is often the most rewarding. Level advancement feels like a real achievement, the stakes are high when survivability is uncertain and each new ability feels earned and appreciated.

I’ve heard descriptions that RM levels 1-5 are the frustrating “kill zone” range, 5-10th seem to be the normative gaming range, 11-15th are normal for longer run campaigns, and levels 15+ are much rarer. That’s probably as it should be, with general character ranges following a distribution curve of some form.

There is an older post from 2010 that covers some basic strategies for low level combat, and while much of it seem commonsensical, it bears review from time to time.

As a GM though, it’s relatively easy to design encounters that the group not only has a good chance of surviving, but can do so with some simple planning.

Encounter #. For me, this is the simplest approach to handling low level encounters. Having the group face a single foe has many advantages. First, it allows them to work cooperatively in a group and balance the various skills and abilities. Second, the focus of the group against one target improves upon their chance of success, and conversely reduces the random risk of a severe critical that kills a player. Rolemaster’s open-ended system is flexible, but the law of averages will create very high rolls and critical results. The more attack rolls a GM makes, the more likely an aberrant result. Having a dozen foes, even low powered ones, will make the odds of a high roll more likely.

Intel. Provide the PCs a chance to gather some intel or observation about the foe. Is there a mysterious animal attacking villagers in the night? Providing some clues about the creatures size, type of attack or similar details will allow them to plan for the encounter better.

Picking the battle map. RM allows for significant combat modifiers for terrain and cover. If the players can choose the terrain, they can tip the combat to their advantage and favor. Partial cover, bottlenecks or rear attacks against a single opponent give a group of low level characters more than a fighting chance.

Certainly, individual strategies like the use of shield, parrying and armor and weapon selection matter, but overall, it’s the GMs responsibility to provide balanced encounters, and the players responsibility to be prudent and strategic to survive! Rolemaster combat doesn’t have to be deadly, but rather dangerous and rewarding.

5 thoughts on “Low level combat in Rolemaster.”

  1. Yes, and I would in fact go so far as to say that low level combat in Rolemaster is slightly less deadly than in D&D 5e.
    D&D has real problems at low level because starting hit points are so low, the death threshold for hit points is based on starting hit point value (which again is low), combat is so swingy, and characters don’t have a lot of resources. All of this means that first level in D&D is often the deadliest level (I see this as a problem personally, at least for first-time players). Players have even coined a term for this phenomenon: Rocket Tag.
    Rolemaster doesn’t necessarily have those problems. RMu has given starting characters more hit points (based on race), so starting hit points are not so low. Characters in RMu don’t automatically die if they take damage beyond the negative of their hit point value. And while combat in RM is swingy, it need be no swingier at level 1 than at any other level.
    So this is one of the aspects of Rolemaster that I think is better than D&D. Rolemaster doesn’t have the same problem of level 1 being a game of Rocket Tag.

  2. One of the most important strategies that beginning players don’t always get is the importance of parrying. The books are really clear that the rules assume players will do that, yet it doesn’t always get through. In my current group (maybe #6 or 7 in the line) I really, really repeated that to the players. And then I asked at the start of each new fight “are you parrying?” They do seem to have gotten the idea, and it saved more than one of them at lower levels. They just reached 10th, and I’ve noticed one of the tanks no longer bothers. The others start by parrying half, to see how dangerous the enemies are, then adjust. The one that doesn’t adjust has adopted a different strategy, essentially “parrying” with the other tanks and then stepping in to fight, a tactic that’s gotten her the nickname “Oneshot.”

  3. I think, as with many things Rolemaster, quite a bit of it comes down to the GM’s ability (or lack thereof) in designing adventures. As Hurin pointed out, there are other systems that, at their core, are more deadly to first level characters. RM in pretty much any version has plenty of things built in to allow character survival at lower levels (more hits than most games, parrying, and so on). But if the GM messes up when designing an encounter the results can be bad…and given the depth of any version of RM’s character creation the players feel that mistake more than they would with a system that has you just pick a pre-generated archetype or roll four times to make a character.

    Like most here I stress parrying to new players, along with the utility of a shield and knowing when to cut their losses and run. I’ve always stuck with the Cyberpunk model of designing encounters based on player level and party composition, but I’ve played in games run by GMs who didn’t put much thought into encounter design and experienced more than a handful of TPKs as a result. Parrying only gets you so far when you’re facing opponents that outnumber the party by at least 3:1 and are four or five levels higher… Or a dragon when you’re fifth level.

    1. Cutting and running is a valuable maneuver, I didn’t think of that in this context, though. I do give players experience for doing it, I call it “Avoidance” points. I think it’s 1.5x (Kill points+HP+Bonus EP). Low level characters that flee could gradually rack up a level or two.

      1. Agreed. Players should never feel like they can battle to the end and the GM will put his thumb on the scales to tip it in their favor.

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