Is Rolemaster Worth Saving?

This is a bit of a gloomy post but if you don’t like it skim down to the ‘…and finally’ which hopefully is a bit more fun!

Over the decades I have bought a great many role playing games. Many of them, or most of them, got played once and are now just on top of a wardrobe. The death blow for all of these games was either I didn’t enjoy running it or my players didn’t want to play it.

It doesn’t matter which side doesn’t want to play, if either withdraws their support the game is dead.

My first RMU play test ended when my players didn’t want to play it anymore. These are all players that have played RM2 and RMC since the early 1980s.

My second play test is going a bit better especially since I have adopted JDales new tables.

Now what happens if the RPG community treats RMU as so many of us have treated other games, that it is condemned to the top of the wardrobe? What if the existing RM community condemn RMU to the wardrobe of oblivion?

The first reaction is to say “stick to RM2/RMC/RMSS/RMFRP (delete as applicable)” but that is not going to work. If ICE is committed to RMU then there will be no more legacy publications. All the new Shadow World material will be HARP or RMU compatible. There will be no more companions and no more guild companion articles. I guestimate that 95% of all the forum discussion is about RMU in the beta boards. If you are not playing RMU then the ICE community will wither away for you.

The second option is to house rule just about everything you don’t like in RMU so you get a working system that your players will play. That fixes it for you but not for the RPG community.

This is a rather gloomy look into the future but it is a real possibility. The RM community is not big. RMSS did not convert all the RM2 players. RMFRP did not convert all the RMSS players. RMC is the most recent version of RM that you can buy and none of the RMSS and RMFRP players will have converted. Very few RM2 players have converted to RMC. It was recently revealed that the core books have only just achieved Silver status on RPGnow. What that means is that 250 copies of the core rules have been sold up until 2 weeks ago. 250 copies in 4 years is not a lot of sales!

Given the really negative impression touted online about chartmaster, rulesmaster and rollmaster any new version of RM has to overcome these prejudices and misconceptions and go on to enthuse a new generation of players. That is not going to be easy in this world of thousands of free or almost free games and in a time when OSR and simplified games are rising in popularity.

I suspect that ICE have a massive marketing challenge ahead if RMU is to be a success. Given the effort so far in getting RMU as far as beta two and the current ‘behind closed doors’ changes, I think that the greatest effort is yet to start for the RMU team.

…and finally

My adventures regardless of whether I write them for my own game or for publication always have a title. I frequently take a film title or a song title or lyric. I was on a long journey recently and one song stuck stuck in my mind. The song was Here Goes Norman by The Undertones.

My gut reaction was when hearing the song was a sort of Bates Motel style of adventure but then I thought what if Norman was the victim in the story? Think along the lines of The Hunchback of Notre Dame with the outsider vilified by the public. So with the title of There Goes Norman what adventure hook does that inspire with you?

31 Replies to “Is Rolemaster Worth Saving?”

  1. I think you may have meant Electrum on RPGNow. The situation isn’t quite as bad as that; as well as all three core books being Electrum on RPGNow they are Silver on DriveThruRPG, which means somewhere between 100 and 250 sales. So each core book has sold at least 350 copies with probably a top end of under 500. Probably a lot lower than 500, but I don’t know when they went Silver on DriveThruRPG. Doubtless there will have been other sales on the other OneBookShelf sites, even ones they aren’t listed on (I get a few).

    I agree about the marketing, and I don’t think ICE has really done any marketing for the existing stuff, rarely even using publisher promotions on the OBS sites (it was years before I saw a single ad). I imagine they’re holding back for RMU, and most existing purchases of RM are probably existing users rather than new.

    The question is how to get new customers. Favourable, and unbiased, reviews will really help, because, as I’ve said before, RM really isn’t that complicated when you compare it to Pathfinder these days. One idea I had was to do a Pathfinder SWMA then give all the purchasers a discount link for RMU.

    1. Yes, sorry it was electrum. It is still a rather poor showing. Even more so as I have personally bought or made my players buy at least 3 copies out of those 350. So I personally account for about 1% of all the RMC sales.

      At those figures it pretty much says there is no viable market for RMU amongst the existing RM userbase. That is just not enough people for the writers to earn enough writing the books.

      1. I’d agree that you’d have difficulty earning enough from the existing fan base to qualify it as a proper job, but there are a number of systems that sell lower quantities; basically, part time jobs/extra cash for the writers. Heck, the industry as a whole is difficult to earn a living from (but not, I believe, impossible). It’s worth noting that the typical per word fee for RPG writers is one cent. Which is pretty low for writing in a field that requires expert knowledge.

        I don’t think ICE will abandon the existing systems completely once RMU is developed. For one thing, I think Terry is always going to write for RM2. For another, I don’t think they could actually afford to. Wizards of the Coast may be able to stop writing for existing systems when they develop a new one, but ICE don’t have their fan base, 40+ year back extensive catalogue or even the Open Game License which all provide a wealth of material for people to buy, use and adapt.

        I think ICE really needs to up their product output significantly, even if, as mentioned, it’s just small things. We’re halfway through the year and they’ve released four products, three of them software addons.

        1. You are right that you can make a living from rpgs, just about. That tends to be one person owner/writers though. The combination of extremely low production costs and virtually no business overheads. ICE on the other hand are looking at paying the writers and artists. While Nicholas is editing then he cannot be writing. Writers, artists and editors are only half the equation as well. Digital marketing is a necessary skill set and if they had that on board they certainly have not shown it so far.

          Introducing a new product into an already crowded market place is a really difficult task and is frankly expensive.

          1. This is where such as Patreon and Kickstarter help. Raging Swan is able to pay writers far more than average thanks to Patreon, and can also buy custom artwork, as well as stock. Sine Nomine Publishing – a one man band basically – manages to publish professionally done supplements with custom artwork – which he then releases for free – thanks to Kickstarter. His Godbound Kickstarter aimed to raise $8K; it raised over $43K. Admittedly, by that point he had a good reputation and it would likely be difficult for ICE to raise the same amounts, at least to start with, but it could certainly help. Even a Community Created Content Program would help with the amount of content available.

            1. I don’t think there is any appetite for a community content programme. Think that is short sighted and a real pity.

              1. Perhaps that will change once RMU is finished. I don’t think ICE by itself at the moment can produce enough content; there are too many bottlenecks.

                1. So “What if…” RMU is not a success? What do the RM2 and RMSS communities do? For ICE to continue to support the legacy systems would be a massive climb down and I think I read somewhere that they would not continue to support the old versions after the release of RMU.

                  1. And that is the rub, whether it will be successful. This is a hard one to guess, because we don’t know what ICE’s definition of success will be. Nor do we know what, if any, plans they have to broaden interest in the system, and I definitely think they need to expand outside the existing base. Just looking at the birthdays listed in the forum shows a fan base that is getting older.

  2. I did think the post was a little gloomy, but I don’t know enough about marketing and sales to speak to that.

    Creating RMU has been a slow process, but I’d prefer that to a rushed job. We haven’t had a truly new edition of Rolemaster since SS, which I think was 22 years ago. So I’d prefer them to take their time and try to get it right.

    I’ve always thought that vigorous criticism makes for a stronger end product. I’d hate to think that any of the bugs I’ve found and or criticisms I’ve made could possibly harm the game’s chances of success, so when I point out these things I always try to make suggestions for how they can be fixed.

    I do think that one thing that will help is when RMU is released, we all get on the forums of places like ENWorld and let people know that Rolemaster is back. I think that there are a lot of groups out there that would play if only they knew it was being supported again, and you could download pdfs rather than paying exorbitant prices on Ebay.

    Let’s not forget that Rolemaster groups tend to be more willing than say DnD groups to customize the rules to their own playstyles; all those years of Rolemaster Companions showed just how much you could shape the game to the way you wanted it. So I do think there will be some Rolemaster players who will be happy to use RMU for some parts of their game — say the attack charts and new spellcasting rules, for example — while still using some or all of the old books for things like professions or spell lists.

    1. There is some good stuff in RMU and I have adopted some of it into my RMC game from the beta rules.

      Some of the existing players using some of the rules does little to push the game into the spotlight. I made the move from RM2 to RMC when I introduced a new GM to rolemaster and new players. So we all had the same rules I bought into it as well.

      We all know that it isn’t 100% compatible but it is close enough. I have got over my initial dislike of changing some things that I thought were better in RM2. But I survived.

      I wonder if I would have made the same shift if it was from RM2 to RMU? That is a big step.

    2. That bit about customisation is why I think Pathfinder players, if they only took the time to give it a shot, would be okay with Rolemaster. With all the official and third party rules and options out there, Pathfinder can be hugely customised. Which is why I’d try to attract that fanbase.

  3. The challenge I see with RMU as opposed to RM2 is the apparent lack of willingness to look beyond fantasy (and even then it’s their definition of fantasy). RM has always suffered (IMO) from the lack of a solid, accessible setting, and RMU just seems to accelerate that trend. They also took steps (especially in the combat system) to render it almost useless for non-magic settings if you leave it RAW. The flexibility that came with RM2 (and even RMSS in its own way) seems to be disappearing.

    As for Kickstarter, the new edition of Top Secret hit its funding goal in I think 2-3 days. It’s a viable option for a game with a following (and TS hasn’t been published for decades).

    I think ICE really needs to look at licensed products and other options. Their output is simply too low (and always has been if you look at modules and setting products outside of MERP) to sustain interest, especially with newer gamers who might need more in the way of support products.

    1. Yes, there was a decent amount of MERP stuff; I would like to see similar things done for Shadow World. 16-32 page supplements are a heck of a lot easier to do than 200+ page ones. Even though if you went through everything Terry has created for Shadow World there is a heck of a lot of content that would keep a group occupied for years, when a new player comes along and measures it against what you can find for the Forgotten Realms or Golarion, it doesn’t seem like much. It actually is, but comparing it against dozens or hundreds of supplements makes it seem quite spartan.

      It doesn’t help that ICE’s current official partners actually have a lower output than they do, except perhaps Metal Express who have had a major burst in output recently.

  4. I worry about the future of Rolemaster. I’ve been a fan for 28 years. RMU seems… OK, but not mind blowing. I think the direction that RMX started was the way to go. ICE has been down and out before. Losing the MERP license was a heavy blow. They really do need a slick property to attach themselves to, and the staffing power to do it. As great as Rolemaster is, it does best when it has a setting it can run with. A lot of people grew into Rolemaster from MERP. As much as I like Shadow World, it’s not what’s needed. If It were, RM wouldn’t be where it is.

    I really hope there’s a RM Renaissance on the horizon. Let’s hope it’s sooner rather than later.

    1. I hope there is a renaissance too. Any new edition of a game, if announced with enough fanfare, should create an up surge in interest and bring lapsed players back to give it another go.

      ICE need to be in a position to ride that wave and capitalise on it when it comes. They need to get then conversation going and keep it going to create a buzz around the game.

      There is nothing wrong with shadow world as a setting. The fault lies in ICE’s half arsed attitude to their own game setting. (In my opinion obviously)

        1. I hope it went wall and they continue to create interest in RM. The problem is, for them, the only versions of RM you can buy are the single book RMFRP and the 5 RMC books. Both RMFRP and RMC are about to be discontinued in favour of RMU. ICE have said they are not going to support multiple competing product lines.

          If is a bit of a tough sell to push products that are past their sell by date.

          On the other hand they have HARP and Shadow World both of which are going strong, but don’t seem to have the heart and mind of Nicholas in the way that RM does.

          1. I think the biggest problem ICE has – and this applies to Sparta’s suggestion for a new setting as well – is a lack of resources. Everything has to go through Nicholas, which is a serious bottleneck. I think most stuff, perhaps all of it, goes through Terry as well.

            Developing a new setting would be great in some ways but, unlike anything covered by the OGL, you can’t find hundreds of RM authors who can put the time in. Never mind all the part time OGL authors. Then it’s got to go through the bottlenecks and those are already slowing down existing work.

            I just don’t think that ICE could cope with a new setting and be able to develop it fast enough for the author. Any author licensing his setting is likely going to be looking for a new income stream in a year and I seriously doubt ICE could manage that. Getting a license and then having it pulled would be more damaging than sticking with what they have.

              1. It probably won’t come as a surprise to find that I agree with that.

                It might be that once RMU is done they will be more open to such concepts. Yet another of the bigger publishers has set up their own community content programme recently, and there are a few new ones I hadn’t seen before.

                1. The thing is, on this blog we are sneaking every closer to community created content. If you put all of our house rules together in a single document you pretty much have an unofficial companion. We have published adventures but we have been light on the stats.

                  What we haven’t done yet is charge money for it explicitly but even that veil has been pierced with the fanzine.

                  If we keep on doing what we are doing and it can be shown to help ICE and RM and it doesn’t cut their income then we can hope that they become more open to it.

                  1. I’d make use of a source code that would show if you were actually generating sales for ICE as well. And a community programme wouldn’t cost them money; it would make it.

                    You’re right in the amount of content is getting equal to a companion, and some of those had a fair old mix of content types as well (especially the later ones).

                    1. The fanzine runs to 30-45 A5 pages each month so that is about 20 full size pages and we are up to 4 issues so far. In a year that would be a full on 240 pages of content.

                      It would be really cool to take the full 50 adventures once we are done and create a single volume Adventure Annual. That would be worth putting out as print on demand.

                    2. Yes, that would be fantastic. Especially if it could be done with artwork that matched all through the book. Unfortunately that would be expensive and probably require a successful Kickstarter, and those are difficult unless you have a history of them and a decent fan base.

                    3. That is true.

                      With artwork there seems to be three options. The buy it in approach where you commission an artist and pay them for the their work, as you suggest via a kickstarter or out of your own pocket. Option two is to find a student or young artist prepared to work on a royalty basis. Royalties are easily managed if you are selling via OBS. That helps if you have a college or university near by and you can contact tutors and have them pass around your ‘job opportunity’. The third option is in house art. That helps if you have a modicum of talent to start with but with some of the arts packages available today it is almost possible to fake it.

                      I did a bit of art for one project where I printed off images and then cut them up, rearranged them to make the scene I wanted and then drew what I saw. I used photographs bits of clip art and all sorts of bits. Once I had the image drawing it was not too bad. I then used an image editor to apply a filter to the whole image which helped hide some of my wonkier art work. If it was a serious project then investing in following some drawing classes online and actually practising I think could produce commercial quality art. The investment is then time not money.

                    4. I’d forgotten about the second option; I think someone mentioned once in the ICE forums. There’s also Patreon – you could use income from that to buy art. So far I’ve either bought stock art – it doesn’t matter if styles are different across several supplements and in those where I’ve used several pieces they’ve tended to be consistent – or created it myself. Either tweaking photos or making things in Blender.

                      Time can be a problem. I don’t seem to have huge amounts of time currently for learning new things. That can vary though.

                    5. I am not really in this for profit so I am quite happy to reinvest any earnings in stock art or eventually in commissioning art. In real life we employ students as freelancers and it works quite well. They have time and talent and a need for money to buy beer or prosecco.

                    6. Yes, I’ve already invested a bit in stock art and templates. I’m not actually sure how much, given that it was from earnings, but I wouldn’t be surprised at over $200. Custom art does cost more, so people you can pay in booze might be useful!

      1. You’re correct in that there’s nothing wrong with Shadow World… I quite like it. I ran a campaign in Xa’ar. What’s needed is something to take M-E’s place. SW has a lot going on in it, and doesn’t really jive with RM’s feel IMO, which is “Tolkien as seen through the eyes of Gary Gygax while he was running Phoenix Command for Garry Kasparov while on blow”. And I mean that in the best possible way. It’s awesome. SW is more like Talislanta than classic elves and orcs fantasy.

        ICE already approached the Mithgar author, but their pockets weren’t deep enough. What other settings out there would be good for RM? My first thought was Lodoss, but I’m pretty sure that’s taken. Freeport would be great, but everyone and his dog has done Freeport: d20, FATE, and SotDL. Then again, I would totally buy a RM(X) Freeport book.

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