Race as Class in Rolemaster Games

The other day I was looking up something in Middle-Earth Role Playing (MERP), and I came across a passage I don’t recall reading before—ever before, even when I aspired to run MERP just last year!

Elves have certain advantages over the “mortal” races … , and in terms of a fantasy role playing game this is reflected by a restriction on how they assign their stats. Each Noldor Elf must assign his highest stat to his Presence, each Sindar Elf must assign one of his two highest stats to his Presence, and each Silvan Elf must assign one of his three highest stats to his Presence.

The rationale for this appears to be twofold. In Middle-earth, Elves are awe-inspiring, and the rules should reflect this. Also, Elves are inherently powerful. Later generations of gamers would begin to characterize Elven character features as “unbalanced” or “overpowered” (“OP”). MERP appears to make up for this perceived unfairness by necessitating that Elven characters need to boost what is usually regarded as a dump stat. This can be seen as a kind of “tax” or handicap for playing such a capable player. I instantly see the appeal in this stipulation and am looking for a way to adopt it into my Against the Darkmaster (VsD) campaign. 

In MERP—and now in VsD—nonhuman characters are further restricted by receiving, at the start of the game, fewer Background Points to spend on goodies. They also have class restrictions. For example, Dwarves can’t be Wizards. We see some of these tendencies in Rolemaster’s current d20 siblings, as well. But some of the first versions of D&D did something that always has struck me as quite elegant: when it came to nonhuman PCs, Basic editions decided that, in these cases, character “race” was its most important distinction. In fact, the character race was character “class.”

Class, of course, is what RM calls Professions, what VsD calls Vocations. Basically, Class is a character archetype or a description of the kinds of skills in which a character specializes. D&D character Classes seem to derive from early gamist considerations and the vaguely medieval milieu—which emphasizes a strict social structure—that D&D emulates. In this case, classes might be considered the hereditary training in which characters should specialize. RM should receive credit for being an early system to push against the rigid restrictions resulting from class. But the game did so by innovating a complex skill system ultimately adopted by D&D 3e.* In this conception, a Fighter might choose to be skilled at Picking Locks but at significantly higher cost than were she simply to improve a Weapon Skill. In other words, the Fighter was best built for fighting. He developed other interests at expense to his primary vocation.

Now, D&D and its progeny have come a long way from its sources in early fantasy literature to become its own thing. In a typical fantasy setting for D&D now, it’s perfectly acceptable to find nations of Elves, Dwarves, Halflings and more, all with guilds and specializations largely indistinguishable from their usually-more-numerous Human neighbors. But when I consider the literary inspirations for the genre, classed races don’t make much sense to me.

When it comes to high fantasy racial cultures, Tolkien’s Middle-earth must be the best referent. In considering that property, what character Class was Legolas? A Rogue? Well, he didn’t seem particularly thiefy. A sneaky and agile Fighter? Certainly, but how about a Ranger?

And Elrond? In The Hobbit he is presented as a kind of sage, but he also has survived many wars and battles. The point is that, in Tolkien, all Elves are free and all Elves are awesome. They live forever, with ample time to master any pursuit. Elves are essentially their own thing, not Rogues, Fighters, Rangers or even sages.

So what about Dwarves? Well, they’re Fighters, obviously. But shouldn’t they know something about locks? Okay, give them a bonus on those skills. Might they also be Rangers, though? Many are in a diaspora. They have to explore the mountains, too, prospecting for new mines and homelands.

Modern conceptions of Halflings have moved far from Tolkien’s Hobbits, but I think we’re still apt to class the diminutive folk as Scouts or Thieves. This probably is because Hobbits are inherently sneaky, and for this reason Bilbo was unfairly branded as Master Burglar. But the kinds of classes that the little people most likely are to produce are modern vocations—gardeners, millers, postmasters and, yes, Bounders, to name but a few. As a racial feature, I would give these guys a bonus Secondary Skill in a mundane profession.

For the precedent set by my fantasy literature, therefore, I’m attracted to “race as class,” and I have devised a chart for VsD. VsD seems to “balance” its Vocations by distributing 15 Rank Points among 5 different categories. For versatility, it also distributes as many as 150 points in bonuses among the individual Skills.

I must confess that I can’t find “balance” or structure in the latest RM race rules. Anyone have an idea how to construct race as class in that rules set? Might such a project be undesirable in that context?

*For the purposes of this discussion, I’m ignoring the “No Profession” Profession.

11 Replies to “Race as Class in Rolemaster Games”

  1. RMU already has the mechanic you suggest for other systems, and in fact it is more refined in RMU. Above, you suggest giving the races ranks in skills native to their race. RMU can not only do this, but balances it with development points. So you can just assign some of each race’s leftover Development Points to the appropriate skills; you could even do it in the form of a talent that already exists (Prodigy: +5/tier to a given skill).

    In short, none of what you want to do above seems impossible to me in RMU; I think RMU actually does it better, because unlike MERP or DnD, RMU has a more sophisticated system for balancing these sorts of extra perks.

    1. That is awesome, Hurin! But is it in the playtest materials—CL&AL? Perhaps I have too much of a casual familiarity with the latest rules, but I didn’t find anything in there while preparing these thoughts.

    2. I think I see now that RM has “tools” well equipped to these purposes. I’m going to take some time to read RM with more attention. Thanks again!

  2. Also, the chart you give above for Kin development points and bonuses looks a lot like RMU’s Culture ranks chart. So, instead of giving each of the races you mention (Elves, Dwarves, Halflings) one of the normal RMU cultures (E.g. Cosmopolitan, Highland, Reaver, etc.) you could just substitute a race-specific culture (E.g. Elven, Dwarven, etc.). You could give the Dwarven culture ranks in maneuvering in armor, locks, and survival: Mountains.

    1. VsD has a Culture Chart too. This essentially replaces the old MERP Adolescence Skill Ranks Table. Then a VsD character develops Ranks from a Vocation (RM/MERP Profession) Table at Level 1. These DPs get used at every Level thereafter, but the additional bonuses happen only once, at Level 1. I expect this isn’t clear in my post here.

      My argument is that Races (VsD Kins) in my conception don’t fit into Vocations, per se, so a nonhuman Kin has its own DPs per Level. Actually, even Human Vocations might be misleading. A better term than Vocation or Profession now might be “Type” — like the old Gauntlet game: are you a Warrior, Wizard, Valkyrie or Elf?

  3. All flavours of RM also have No Profession as an optional Profession. If all characters are No Profession then you can a both a Sage and a survivor of many wars. You just keep on developing the skills that you see as becoming important rather than struggling to develop skills that fall outside your class definition.

    1. Perhaps understanding the No Profession is the key to comprehending how Professions overall are built and balanced—if they are indeed balanced.

      1. There is little to understand. It is just a broad or generic set of skill costs with a few more options for the player so you pick your own ‘professional skills’. That allows you to place an emphasis wherever you like without making any skills prohibitively expensive.

        1. Oh, I can understand that. Maybe we’re talking at cross-purposes. No Profession can be used by players and GMs to make whatever character concept is desired—within reason. I’m seeking to understand how, say, a Warrior and Ranger are weighted and valued together, or why a player would choose one over the other, how they are equally “fair,” so to speak. Take 1e, for example. Players sometimes wondered why they ever would play a Fighter. A Ranger was a Fighter AND a wilderness tracker. Some tables therefore decided ONLY Fighters enjoy multiple attacks vs characters of lower than one HD, and ONLY Fighters get combat bonuses for high Strength.

          I’m porting these considerations into the formulation of Race as Class, too, recognizing the assumptions of many games that races such as Elves are inherently powerful, perhaps “unfair,” or—for those leaning more toward gaming rather than roleplaying—why someone ever would play a character other than an Elf.

          1. In a No Profession system ALL characters are No Profession. It is not a sort of add on profession with no real focus.
            You need to seperate in your mind what the actual CHARACTER believes their profession to be and what the PLAYER writes on the piece of paper.

            So in this career…
            Conan the Freebooter
            Conan the Wanderer
            Conan the Adventurer
            Conan the Buccaneer
            …Conan thinks that his profession has changed four times from Freebooter to Buccaneer. At no time did the player make any changes to the written profession, Conan remained No Profession as a game mechanic at all times. What did happen is that Conan’s main source of income and his endeavours changed.

            So what is the difference between a Fighter and a Ranger? The answer is that there is no Ranger, but there isn’t a Fighter either. If you (the player) wants to play a Ranger you buy the skills that you think reflect the distilled essence of Rangerhood. You then act like a ranger, you look like a ranger and you can do the things a ranger can do. To all intents and purposes you are a ranger.
            If three adventures later you find yourself on a ship as an oar slave and the adventure has you overthrow your captures, take control of the ship and then wage a hit and run war against an armada of pirate ships controlled by the same pirate king. That may give you time enough to level up a couple of times and you learn some nautical skills, fast learn Cutlass and Harpoon as weapons and you are now fully functioning as a seafaring adventurer. The crew may call you “Cap’n” and your reputation on land may be that of a daring privateer. Are you still a ranger? Are you a privateer? Are you a pirate but with good PR?

            That is how No Profession plays out in an extended campaign.

  4. Gabe, some of the issues you describe is the usual power gaming question. Does the player sympathetically develop a character? After all, in Middle Earth, why is the elf seeking adventure? What is it the dwarf wants that has forced him/her from hearth and forge. Remember in Tolkien, these races are only ever involved in great quests or battles (can we call the Hobbit a Great Quest?). Restricted background/adolescence/development options are great for channelling a racial stereotype but as you say each has its own society and will have a wide range of vocations and as a result, all races should be able to adopt all adventuring professions (class), but it will be less desirable for some. For example, Hobbits make poor warriors/fighters due to low ST. Prime stats are supposed to be the indicator of profession/class, indicating a preferred skill set. I am thinking about this in terms of learning skills over time. Although lots of people can learn skills to do something, why is it that some people pick things up quicker than average and continue to excel above the average. My leaning is towards describing this as an innate ability and perhaps I can use this with levelless development and in a bit of a brute force way is used with profession/class.

    By the way, thanks for the reminder on the elf presence stat – I’d forgotten and although no-one has played an elf where this has been an issue (Limolas was created as a pretty boy airhead) it is worth remembering as a method of encouraging players to think about characterisation.

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