Rolemaster Spell Law Deconstruction.

If you follow the Rolemaster threads or the RMU threads you’ll see people  asking for clarification on a certain spell, list or spell mechanic. With so many spells, various realms and lots of companion spell lists, it’s not surprising that the Spell Law edifice is showing a few cracks after 30+ years. For me that started the process of “deconstruction”–tearing down Spell Law and looking at it from a unbiased and objective mindset.

Examining RM from an outside perspective is hard, especially after playing it for almost 35 years. Us older players perceive Rolemaster through “incrementalism”: a slow gradual process of accepting new rules, add-ons, discussions and analysis that occurred over decades. Rolemaster now is the result of layering new rules onto older accepted ones–even if the original rules don’t stand up to new scrutiny or are not needed since RM has transitioned past its role as a D&D bolt on.

Every time I sit down and work on spell lists, I discover some new issue, opportunity or conflict that I want to tackle to rebuild my spell system to something newer, better and more consistent. I have 5 rough spell law “issue groups” that I have pinned to my work space for easy reference. These are:

  1. Thematic or mechanical inconsistencies
  2. Exceptions to established rules.
  3. Bonuses for compound actions.
  4. Realm incompatibilities.
  5. Form vs function.

I use these to test spells and lists. What Realm should they be assigned? How does the spell work? Is it structurally consistent? What is the casting mechanism? Does it work using Rolemaster rules or does it require a one-off rule?

What are some examples of “broken” spells? (this is just my opinion!)

Bladeturn. Few spells garner as much discussion as the Bladeturn spells. But rather than contort mechanics to make the spell actually work in the game, how about we examine the spell fundamentals. Here are a few issues:

  1. Do the various Bladeturn spells work with the Shield  or Blur spell on the same list? Clearly Turn/Deflect works as some type of telekinetic process, while Shield is a energy manifestation and Blur is a visual distortion. So while they can be grouped thematically as a “defense list”, I would argue they don’t quite fit together mechanistically.
  2. Spell Law spent a lot of rule making energy establishing  class I-III for casting times and makes a case for a vocal and nonvocal components to casting. Given that, how do you then justify “instantaneous” spells? Essence casting requires 1-3 rounds, vocalization, hand gestures to cast…except a handful of spells littered throughout the Essence lists. That’s consistent. The reason Bladeturn is instantaneous is that it HAS TO BE, for the spell to work as intended.
  3. Even accepting the rule exception of instantaneous Essence spells, RM describes a melee roll as representing a “flurry of blows”. How then does an instant, specific bladeturn work when there is no discrete, single swing or stroke of a weapon that can be identified as “the one that hits” within an abstract combat round?

Solutions. I have come up with my own in BASiL, but a couple of quick ideas: incorporate Bladeturn/Deflect spells into the Essence Hand list where they belong; change its mechanistic underpinning. For instance, call it “Slow Blade” so it works within the context of a “flurry of blows”.

How about Charm, Sleep and the whole Spirit Mastery list? I’ve commented on this before, but if you look through the Essence lists there are few, if any, other lists that work on the “spirit”, “conscious” or “mind” of a target. Does this list even belong in Essence? Of course the answer is that D&D established the principle that Magic-Users were to have Charm and Sleep spell, and so too Rolemaster.

How about Lofty Bridge? Does Leave/Jump/Teleport work on the same principles as Flying, Landing or Leaping? Again, half the spells work as “gating/teleporting”, while the other through telekinetic or motive energy. While they are arguably both types of “transportation” spells,  it seems illogical to have a spell list comprised of spells using very different mechanics.

What about spells that give bonuses to skills or actions? How does this work mechanically? Combat is a compound action–a confluence of skill (ranks), natural ability (stats) and other modifiers. What is this spell affecting? Does the spell guide the hand that holds the sword? Does it make the sword sharper? The swordsmen’s strength higher? Their agility improves? Any one of these could be a good mechanic, but aren’t explained. Why make spells that require so much hand-waving when Rolemaster is a system that rewards realism?

A few other ideas to improve Spell Law:

  1. Consolidate Spell Reins and Spell Enhancement. Spell Reins has 11 open slots, Enhancement only has 12 spells. Both deal with manipulating spell effects.
  2. Combine Physical Enhancement with Living Change but dump the “Merge” Spells.

Peter has blogged about his own spell system–basically it allows players to organically “grow” a list from 1st level using spell research. I’m assuming Peter requires some internal consistency when players develop a list, otherwise why wouldn’t they just build one dream list of: 1. Sleep 2. Shock Bolt 3. Fly 4. Charm. 5. Fireball 6 etc….


So interestingly, while I like how Peter approaches spell development, I think it would be difficult to encapsulate into a rules system–it’s too loose. However, Peter’s system is basically how I write new spell lists!

Once you start deconstructing and re-examining Spell Law, areas of improvement are both numerous and fairly obvious. But in the end, few people have the time or energy to fiddle around and make large revisions to Spell Law.

6 Replies to “Rolemaster Spell Law Deconstruction.”

  1. I’ve never really looked so deeply at the mechanics of RM magic, so there is lots of food for thought here. I was always uncomfortable with the Lofty Bridge list – partly because I don’t like teleport much in any event – but I believe you’ve put your finger on the problem: the list is organised around a conceit, not mechanical consistency. I think you could probably say something similar about the Sorceror – why does a Channeling/Essence hybrid have the Mind Destruction list?

  2. I do insist on each list being conceptually coherent. I spent several years playing Champions, the supers game, as our system of choice. In that you are expected to build your super hero PC around a concept and all the heroes powers are meant to hang together as a coherent whole. Spiderman can climb wall and spin webs, just like a spider. Ironman has all his powers centred around his mechanical suit of armour.

    This is now how I see spell lists, just like a super heroes set of powers. So if your Pyromancer can manipulate fire then you could take Light as a 1st level spell under the guise of a floating ball of flame but you are not going to get shock bolt as that doesn’t work. Conversely, I would be open to a ‘burning hands’ spell.

    Taking this list…
    1. Thematic or mechanical inconsistencies
    2. Exceptions to established rules.
    3. Bonuses for compound actions.
    4. Realm incompatibilities.
    5. Form vs function.

    The theme (1) is incredibly important and I think that is inextricably linked to the form/function (2).

    I do not like spells that give bonuses (3) without having a good function (5) so shadow spells giving a bonus to stalk and hide make perfect sense but a straight +10 OB for no reason is a non starter.

    I have finally abandoned realms altogether. There is just magic.

    1. I think we can all agree in principle. However, past RM spell lists break almost every one of these rules because they were designed to support a Profession concept first and foremost and not a wireframe approach to building spell lists. Has RMU solved this problem? Do the majority of RM players even care?

  3. In one earlier incarnation of my campaign I spent many hours, probably days, dissecting and rearranging the spell lists, so I can vouch that I have had considerable reservations at various times about RM magic. Other times it doesn’t bother me so much. Usually when I’m going through a more ‘purist’ phase with regards to the setting, it bugs me more, probably due to it not being a perfect fit.
    In the revision mentioned above I scrapped spell-using professions and reorganised lists into packages attached to societies, cults, faiths, wizardly orders and lower-powered lists that anybody could learn. Magic had one source but several modes of transmission (not realms, however), with magical capability a function of particular skills (e.g. the Augurs of Kemantat couldn’t cast spells to their full potential without lengthy exercises in meditation and ritual, and were restricted in the maximum level of spell they could learn not by their own level, but rather their skill in mundane divination).

    All that aside, it looks to me as if RMU has made some effort to render things more consistent in the terms you mention above, but not to the point of breaking ‘canon’ – Lofty Bridge and Spirit Mastery, two of the Essence User’s best friends, are still right where they’ve always been, and largely unchanged.

    1. Not sure if you have read my various “screeds”, but, like Peter, I have also eliminated “realms” in some respects. Instead I organize magic by it’s casting methodology and affect. Essence is the raw manipulation of energy for physical manipulation and elemental summoning. Channeling is drawing magical effects from a higher entity via prayer and devotion. Mentalism is the narrow use of magic to effect other people through a targeted focus; Word magic is a few lists that are instaneous but limited in scope; Investiture magic is the process of creating magically invested items through repetitiveness and the quality of the vessel; inscribed magic is magical effects through runes, sigils, glyphys, symbols, circles etc. There are more, but the organizing principle is through their mechanistic process, scope, result and limitations. The beauty of this is that can be easily adaptive to many settings or systems. In my opinion.

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