Rules or Setting?

My somewhat recent post about time in campaigns got me thinking about another of my favorite topics (aside from modern gaming): the relationship of a rules system to its setting. In my view, the best rules systems are always strongly tied to a specific setting. This isn’t so much about stats or combat mechanics, but rather classes/professions, races, and cultures.

Importance of Setting

One of Rolemaster’s greatest weaknesses (in my view) has always been its lack of a firm setting. I know there’s Shadow World, but the bulk of Rolemaster’s race and profession systems seem to have been developed for something else (likely Middle Earth, but we’re never told for sure). This disconnect makes Rolemaster feel like there’s always something crucial about the setting that’s never shared with the GMs or the players. To give one example: High Men. We’re told they’re a bigger, longer-lived race, but never really “clued in” to how they fit in the Rolemaster setting writ large. I also feel this helps explain the explosion of Professions seen in the various Companions. Given nothing to ground in, groups did their own thing and the results were published.

My Solution

When I set about doing my own world (Ennal), I started by consciously choosing which cultures and races to include and which to leave out. From there I went through the same process with Professions, but took it a step further and created Profession limits based on culture (and by extension race, since many cultures in Ennal are specific races). I also expanded the starting skills offered by cultures.

My biggest influence for this was Warhammer FRP (the first Games Workshop edition). They did a fantastic job linking game systems to their world, but I also took some cues from Palladium’s fantasy stuff and a number of games with modern settings. Fantasy Games Unlimited always put a great deal of work into ‘grounding’ their systems in particular settings or time frames, and that was inspiring as well.

On its own, Rolemaster is a modular system and it becomes especially obvious when you start using elements of Character Law. Arms Law can stand on its own, as can Spell Law to a degree. But Character Law always has that sense of ‘there’s something we’re not telling you’ when it comes to races and Professions unless you take the time to customize it to your setting.

That’s been my experience at least. Have other GMs who don’t use Shadow World (or old MERP stuff) had the same feeling or experience, and if so how did you handle it?

3 Replies to “Rules or Setting?”

  1. I have always felt that Shadow World has, to a degree (particularly High Men variants and Elves), been influenced by Middle-earth.

    Loved the old WFRP Enemy Within campaign!

  2. I think there are two equally good but different approaches. One is very easy for the GM and that is to have the system and setting as a single unified whole. The other option is to have a truly generic system that is capable of modelling any setting and giving the GM the necessary tools and support to do that.

    Previous versions of RM have claimed to be truly generic but have always been heavily flavoured with MERPiness. RMU has the core now where everything can be balanced and the mechanics are exposed to enable any GM to build those custom races, professions and monsters.

    I think the rules and setting ‘as one’ will always give the slickest game experience.

    1. I agree that it’s possible to have a generic rules set, but RM never really was a generic rules set (and even with RMU I don’t think it really is…). Rules and setting combined is to my way of thinking the best approach, since it smooths out the rough spots and makes for a better gaming experience. This is especially true for new gamers and GMs.

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