Rolemaster, Combat, and Firearms

Hurin’s recent post got me thinking about combat and general and Rolemaster’s combat in particular and how various Rolemaster products handle firearms. That (of course) led me to thinking about how I’ve revised those rules for settings outside of standard fantasy. It also got me thinking about the proposition that lots of combat mechanics equals an emphasis on combat.

Rules Light Doesn’t Mean Less Combat

First off, I don’t necessarily agree that more combat mechanics equals an emphasis on combat. My gaming experience runs along the lines of the more survivable combat is, the more likely groups are going to get into fights. Back in the day, the worst fight imaginable was two Gamma World characters going at it with clubs. You’d be there for hours. One of the lightest combat rules systems I’ve ever played was an old game called Recon, but combat in it was so lethal you avoided it if at all possible.

Most older games hit a balance, with Top Secret and Gangbusters coming in with a good split between lethality and playability. Top Secret has more developed combat rules, but that didn’t encourage fights in my experience. Both, by the way, are excellent games. I don’t recommend the later version of Top Secret, but that’s another entry.

Firearms and Rolemaster

That leads to my second fixation (some might call it a mild obsession): how Rolemaster usually treats firearms. First, the standard combat round is optimized for spell casting, which makes it too long for firearms combat. Second, I’ve never seen a Rolemaster product (including Spacemaster) that deals well with firearms damage. They either make them too weak (the old Outlaw genre book, where a buffalo rifle did less damage to AT 20 than a heavy crossbow) or come out with a ton of attack tables that don’t seem to have a basis in ballistic facts (The RMSS Weapon Law: Firearms book, which has in the neighborhood of 30 different tables but doesn’t square with actual bullet performance as far as I can determine).

My Solution

The first thing I did to was shorten the combat round to two seconds. Then I reintroduced Phases. Why Phases? They force (gently) players to use tactics without realizing it. Most games I’ve played with actual deadly firearms that don’t use Phases have a high character mortality rate. Phases balance that to a degree. Fire and movement is standard training, and Phases replicate that in a fairly seamless manner.

Second, I took a serious look at damage and how to calculate it based on actual data. My starting damage baseline is simple: Concussion damage from a .45 ACP round should be able to drop a 5th level character with three shots. Don’t forget, in Rolemaster reaching zero hits means you’re unconscious, not dead. Then I worked out a formula using a bullet’s muzzle energy combined with projectile weight to model the maximum damage possible with one round (a 230 grain .45 ACP bullet maxes out at 31 points, while the massive Browning .50 does 337!). This allows me to model most weapons with a handful of tables (using the Spacemaster Mark system you can put all handguns in one table, all rifles in another, and so on). This same system works for shotguns, too.

The final step is building critical charts based on hit location. A basic point about firearms is you can aim them. Any system that doesn’t allow hit location loses a great deal of flavor (and makes skills like Sniping more or less useless or simply cosmetic). There’s still only a handful of tables (Center Mass, Limb, and Head). They still kill, but based on blood loss or shock when the character’s unconscious (although the big .50 will likely kill based on Concussion Hits alone, since most characters aren’t going to have Hits + Constitution that can sustain over 300 hits).

Final Thoughts

Obviously this system is fairly lethal. It’s also detailed. Does that mean combat’s more likely? In my experience the answer is an emphatic no, at least after the first couple of character fatalities. Once players learn that the game is “for keeps,” they are more cautious and don’t blunder into fights they can’t win. When there are fights, they enjoy the detail and smoothness of the system and don’t feel cheated when their big .44 only does 6 hits.

Remember, Rolemaster also has detailed mechanics for other activities if we choose to use them. If a GM or group emphasizes combat, there will be combat no matter how simple or complex the rules are.

12 Replies to “Rolemaster, Combat, and Firearms”

  1. 1. You shortened the round to 2 sec. with phases–does that mean you have (2) 1 sec. phases; 1 sec move and 1 sec fire?

    2. I vaguely recall Top Secret rules. Here you discuss single shot firearms–do burst/auto just allow for more rounds fired in the 2 sec. round? Do you allow for targeted shots in burst or auto modes?

    3. Did you read Peters blog on set Hit Points (levelless). With the realism of a modern setting, does escalating HP’s due to level and/or Body Development make sense to you?

  2. I’ll reply to points:
    1) My CR has two Fire Phases – one prior to and one after movement. The Phases aren’t exactly discrete blocks of time, and the Round is based more on movement than anything else.

    2) Each weapon has a Rate of Fire (RoF), which can be spread over both of the Fire Phases IF you have enough RoF. For example, a semi-automatic pistol has a RoF of 2 (which is still low, but represents aimed fire). Those shots are targeted, but there’s a stout Consecutive Shot penalty unless you take a Phase to steady. Bursts are more of an Area Attack sort of thing intended to simulate suppressing fire. They expend half of the weapon’s magazine, come last in a Fire Phase, and have a To-Hit penalty. They also use their own attack and critical tables, and the target of a Burst suffers penalties in the following CR (that suppressive fire thing).

    3) Escalating HPs make sense because to me HPs are more of a representation of how the character deals with shock and the like (since RM has you die from either critical hits OR the Constitution stat reaching 0 from bleeding). As a character gains experience in dealing with pain or builds body mass (going up in levels), they become more capable of dealing with pain and shock from combat injuries. I’ve also found that with firearms the increase in hits isn’t as problematic just because of the damage firearms can do.

  3. I like the 2 second round in all genres. I have never been a fan of the flurry of blows idea.

    I can see your logic with point 3 but I don’t agree. In Spacemaster terms I am probably something like a 7th level tech and I have no experience of taking combat damage. In games terms you could be a medic with no combat experienced but still have many levels of experience.

    On the other hand you could be built like a brick out house but be a 0th level, 17 year old hobby boxer who. In the body development system out 17 yr old could only have 2 ranks in BD despite having a natural 100 in both Strength and Constitution.

    That would give our apprentice boxer something like a max of 31 hits but a 7th level IT technician a possible max of 120-ish hits probably capped by racial maximums.

    With ‘fixed’ hits they still increase with experience but on a much more gentle slope as it is based upon stat increases not whole dice per rank.

    1. I’ve also boosted backgrounds and cultures for most of my stuff, so most characters start out with more than 2 picks in body development. And with your medic example, a medic would understand the mechanics of shock and such, and thus be able to (in theory) offset some its effects on himself. I view HPs as a combination of the physical ability to take damage (Constitution) and the ability to deal with the mental shock of being hit or hurt. Thus a character with low hits might just have a lower tolerance for pain (which he overcomes as he gains more hits).

      But under your fixed hit system, a character that’s been in play longer will still have more hits than one who hasn’t. I don’t see much of a difference except that most characters will have similar hits since they all increase at the same relative rate. That’s problematic to me since some occupations should build hits faster (another reason I’m not a fan of no profession).

  4. I think that increasing hits based on level and profession is very cinematic. (ie Bruce Willis can be shot multiple times or Boromir can be hit with a dozen of arrows and still fight) but with the new RMU rules I’m leaning towards fixed hits. Just my 2 cents.

    I’m curious though–on one hand you argue against melee abstraction (flurry of blows) and yet on the other you support the hit point abstraction (“combination of the physical ability to take damage Constitution”) and the ability to deal with the mental shock of being hit or hurt). This seems inconsistent?

    1. I see it as flurry of blows simply cannot work under RM combat whenever ammunition comes into play. An arrow or a bullet was fired or it wasn’t. Criticals and the attack roll are meant to represent the attack most likely to hit in a given round but you are still still rolling one explicit attack. We tell new players that there is a flurry of blows but it is not represented in play, it has no effects on your character and there are no rules or mechanics for it in the game, but trust me it is there. Why have it? What purpose does flurry of blows serve? Why is it good for melee but unnecessary for ranged? Are directed spells a flurry or discrete attacks?

      Flurry of blows just seems inconsistent, unnecessary and only actually exists during conversations between GMs.

      #Hits on the other hand are universally applied are understood by both GM and players alike and are always abstract. I don’t particularly like #hits and if I could produce a mechanic I liked for it I would scrap them in favour of physical damage actually reducing the temporary stats so wounded characters are slower, weaker and less clear headed than fresh non-wounded ones but the core of RM is just a bit too entangled for that to work. I am never going to ask my players to recalculate there skill totals after every combat round.

      Does that make sense?

    2. I don’t think it’s inconsistent, because HPs are not directly derived from a stat. If they were based on, say, CON+STR/2 then I would consider them concrete and based directly on the character’s physical attributes. Yet they’re not. And since they’re concussion hits, there’s obviously something beyond physical damage resistance going on.

  5. I’m not sure if I’m going to be able to word this correctly, but I think hits can also be considered to be the ability to not get damaged as badly. So, you might still get hurt, but your experience/training/whatever enables you to, say, get a less serious injury than you would have before.

      1. To a degree, yes, but I think hits are an abstraction, at least partly, because otherwise they aren’t that realistic. Unless you want to go down the disposable characters Call of Cthulhu route, where they probably are.

    1. I don’t really agree with this. If a villain strikes a character completely by surprise from behind with a great big club; how does the players experience/training or whatever reduce the impact? Likewise imagine two characters one is a 10th level magician and the other a 3rd level Paladin. They both fall down huge pit trap and are knocked unconscious. The magician is likely to have more hits being 10th level than the 3rd level Paladin so being unconscious is likely to be on less of a minus. The Magician is going to wake up first as he will reach positive hits first but the Paladin would arguably had more training and experienced more physical punishment in that training but still wakes up 2 days after the magician.

  6. Yet I think the same could be said about level-less gaming, although the terms would be different. A character that’s been in play longer would recover faster because she has more hits based on game time. Unless they’re based directly off stats (and only stats) hits will always be an abstraction of some sort. And I’m fine with that, because to me hits also represent the ability to avoid going into shock or passing out. It’s the mixing of abstract and discrete in attacks (melee versus missile or spells) that has always bothered me.

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