Squishing Levels

A topic came up on the ICE Discord server recently that I feel deserves some discussion: The leveling curve in Rolemaster.

As a frame of reference, the initial commentary was that a 2nd level HARP character was equal to a 9th level character in the RM framework. Without having a real knowledge of HARP, this got me thinking about other systems and the relative curve of power as characters level. Consider that D&D has historically had a system based on levels 1-18, or more recently levels 1-20. By comparison, RM has a highly bloated (at least at first glance) system of leveling from 1-50.

Before we delve further, let’s look at the advantages of such a spread out system of leveling. Bear in mind that these are generalizations:

🔸 Levels 1-10 seem to be where the most progress is made, with characters mastering their core skills. Consider that during these levels, the character is maximizing the 5/3/2/1 rank progression, and by roughly 10th level is starting to see diminishing returns on these skills.

🔸 Levels 11-20 are where we see some real diversification of skills. At this point a fighter may have some decent bonuses in skills like fighting styles and periphery combat talents (disarm, protect, etc). Spellcasters have some talents in extraneous skills like Spell Mastery, applicable lores, maybe some rituals. Semis at this point now have a chance to spread out some development since they are typically DP-starved at lower levels. Characters in general have more DP available to sink into skills like lores, trades, leadership, and the things that make them unique.

🔸 Levels 20+ is a bit of an enigma. Rank progression at this point slows to a halt in all core skills, so this really becomes the point in the game where class lines begins to blur the most. Looking at old MERP supplements, Aragorn is depicted as Level 27 at the outset of the War of the Ring, and 36 at the end. So rangers can pick up some magical expertise and leadership skills to become party leaders, mages like Gandalf develop some skill at arms, other classes distinctions are blurred since most people inclined to learn magic have picked up many of the same spell lists, and so on and so on. At the same time, this is where classes gain some of their biggest power boosts and distinctions as spells 20th level and above are typically game-changing. While a Bard may be able to cast some elemental attacks at this high a level, the mage reigns supreme with Triad Bolts and the like.

More nutrition, in a smaller package?

This notion that level 20+ is where characters can break out of their class-limitations is not a bad thing. At this level of play, characters are supposed to be special and transcend some of these limitations. However, I wonder if this is actually conducive in the long run to a good gaming system. With RMU on the horizon (somewhere… we hope…) the idea of selling this system is limited by a few of the disadvantages:

🔻So many other systems have a faster, smoother inherent progression. While GMs can certainly increase XP awards to compensate, the fact that HARP seems to scale better, and that D&D has more delineated thresholds makes these systems seem to have more tangible rewards.

🔻A slow climb seems to be the accepted fate in Rolemaster in general. A number of articles have been written here, on the forums, and in Discord about the perils of low-level gaming in RM and the grind to survivability. Consider that the RAW in RMU suggest starting characters at 3rd level or above simply so they have enough skills to make gaming fun. I don’t think this is a design flaw, so much as a design choice that I don’t necessarily agree with, but it’s an issue that many have been vocal about in discussions.

🔻High-level gaming seems like the crawl is even more profound. When a character is only learning new spells every 5th level, that has a profound effect on player investment, as does reduced rank progression.

I know that a lot of what I’ve said here has multiple perspectives, and I’m not trying to be overly critical of a system that I see as a truly enjoyable one, but perhaps there’s some ways to make RM a bit more… fluid? I have two starting suggestions:

🔹Squish levels 20 through 50 so that there isn’t a 30-level gap in power development. By retooling some of the 20+ level spells and making them available at lower levels (even if the new level “cap” was 30th) that might create a smoother progression overall. Drop some of the repetition on lower level spells and move the higher level ones down so they are available from around level 15 onward.

🔹Retool magic at the starting levels so that it functions more like cantrips. One contributor on Discord suggested making all spells from 1st-5th level cantrips that can be cast at will (with normal restrictions, just no PPs). Even if you took only 2-3 spells per list and made them cantrips, and then scaled all of the other spells down accordingly, this would make early levels more palatable, especially for magic users. I see it as giving Semis a boost since they struggle to find a role early on in the game.

Any thoughts from the elders on these concepts? The goal is not to make RM more like D&D or even HARP, but to create a system that sees a more linear progression rather than an asymptotic one. Admittedly, these are just quick thoughts about some very large, complex concepts and I’m not suggesting a full-scale redesign, but this seems like a project that might be on the horizon.

Author: Eladan

High school English Literature teacher, coach of soccer, swimming, and track, lifelong RPG gamer, and husband/father of three. Hobbies include writing, reading, scotch, and backyard sports.

4 thoughts on “Squishing Levels”

  1. Since HARP describes itself as High Adventure RolePlaying – it is no surprise that characters should rapidly accelerate their progression to heroic status: a point of D&D’s foundation principles of roleplaying (hero being mentioned a lot). Likewise, I guess, with RMu currently trending towards a start at level 3, there is a move towards high-powered, heroic status adventures. In which case, why call it level 3? There are lots of things that are wrong with the whole idea of levels within a roleplaying game if your principle is roleplay not powerplay. Principle among these is:- what is the purpose of your game? Should you want heroes with a rich background earnt in the blood and mud then RM2 level 1 is your go to if not just start at the appropriate level and fill in the backstory with some caveats against system bending rules that result in characters that are overpowered for the story line or the other characters.

  2. A few random thoughts.
    1. Skill Bonuses. As you point out, the rank bonus of +5 peaks at 5th lvl, so the marginal utility for most players, and based on peoples feedback, campaign levels is 5th to 10th lvl. One solution, which we did, is to modify the progression curve by adjusting the bonuses. In our case, it pushes the average peak utility to 8-10th lvl, but we also allow for unlimited skill advancement. You can read about it here.

    https://www.rolemasterblog.com/rm-optional-rules-alternate-skill-rank-bonuses-aptitude-bonuses/

    2. Spells. We did add spells for levels 20-30 on many of the BASiL lists, but many are just scaled versions of lower level spells. I would point out that “Lord” and “True” spells look great on paper but don’t add much to the game. Unless you are playing with huge numbers of PC/NPC, the ability to cast Running True on 30 targets is cool, but not practical in a game setting.

    3. Levels. There hasn’t been a lot of focus on high level adventures in Rolemaster. Certainly SW has been accused of being high level, but that’s the result of powerful NPC stats, a focus on Politics & Power in the gamebooks and a general lack of ready to run adventures. There are a few forums threads on campaign and PC levels, but it’s rare to see anyone gaming over 15th lvl and 25th+ is even rarer. That’s why we just skilled ahead to the good stuff and designed our 50th level adventure series. Comments on high level play can be found here:

    https://www.rolemasterblog.com/random-musings-high-level-adventures-balance-even-possible/

    The issue that you bring up, and I have written about, is that between levels 10-20 characters have maxed out their top skill bonuses and that frees up DP’s for a well-rounded skill set. Casters end up acquiring most or all Open and Closed lists, and semis and arms users can pick up non-core skills. This leads to a lot of similarities between higher level characters and a cookie cutter result of abilities. If you look at NPC stats in any RM/SW book, a 20th lvl Magicians only differ by name; they have all Base, All Open and Closed to 20th, all the core skills, secondary skills and most are at or above +75 so skill checks or almost automatic. The solution of course is scarcity driven by DP costs. Less skills, less spells means each character will have to make trade-offs to either be really good at a few things or ok at a lot of things. This smooths out progression, even at high levels and solves many of the issues you raised.

  3. I feel for developers on this issue because there really doesn’t seem to be a solution. Players who want high level content are by far the minority, but they REALLY love their power gaming. Basic D&D went to level 36 then unlocked rules for playing as gods (immortals) from 10 to 50 HD. I think that’s the widest range in any D&D. But the 5e devs have revealed that products with content for high level sells worse than content for low level. 13th Age, Savage Worlds, Call of Cthulhu, and many other games with recent rules all emphasize low power gameplay. Players who come to roleplaying via video games often want many levels gained fast. To the extent that I’ve seen players complain if they don’t level after every single game session. Systems like GURPS work well for this type of player because you can give a few points per session, instead of big blocks of levels. I’ve experimented with this in RM where I didn’t do levels all in whole blocks but spread out over several sessions. There is a large movement in gaming happening right now called the OSR (Old Skool Resurgence) where people are making new systems and variations of existing systems that are more lethal, in general lower power, because it is more exciting to be faced with death. After years of watching this play out and listening to people argue for high power play and against it, and everything in between, I think most people are missing the entire point of the issue and arguing about details rather than prime factors. What I see as the prime factors are : #1 stakes, #2 speed of combat resolution and #3 the right balance of things to do without “analysis paralysis”. #1 if the players know they will always win, they get bored. Low level play is deadly, high level play is not. Players in many game systems have access to resurection even if they die, wishes, can talk to gods, etc. And there are so few 1-shot kills that they usually have plenty of chances to avoid death even if it was going to be permanent. When games (for example paranoia or call of cthulhu) have ways to make even the most powerful PC die instantly and keep them dead, or attack other parts of their character (Vampire the Masquerade is good for this, and cthulhu’s sanity) then combat is exciting at every point from noob to epic. #2 RM’s critical hits really help here keeping even high-level combat moving, but sometimes large creatures just become a slog trying to get those killing blows. D&D has a major problem in every edition where combat gets stupendously boring as levels get higher. The newest Vampire rules made a system where nothing goes more than 3 rounds, if you haven’t finished by the 3rd round then something happens and you get separated and the fight is over. Video games are the worst offenders here, especially anything with the “holy trinity” of tank-dps-healer, and far too many developers have internalized this dynamic as if it were good. It is not. Fast battles are generally better but if it is exciting enough a long battle is fun. The core issue is keeping it fun and having enemies be more than damage sponges. #3 is the biggest flaw of high level play. Most games just add more and more and more and more and more options, so that by the time you’re at high level you get stuck not knowing what to do because there’s too many choices. D&D 4e was the best, in my opinion, at this because after a point you stopped getting more choices and instead swapped out powers for better versions of them. Super Hero games also tend to have great options here where you build up power stunts and have more effective ways to use a power rather than more powers. RM had some interesting optional mechanics I’ve seen used, where you can tweak how spells work. My favorites I’ve seen players use were things like casting Jump III which causes the target to jump 15 feet three times in one round, on an enemy while in a hallway with a 10-foot ceiling. Smash-fall-Smash-fall-Smash-fall. Awesome. In general though, RM spell lists have so many options that after a given point character sheets are the size of the entire rulebook if the player has printouts of all their spells. That’s just too much. that’s not making the high-level experience better (as you mentioned with the discussion of spells that get to target huge numbers of people on a single cast). No matter how you work out these three factors though, you still can’t get around the fact that some people want a power fantasy (like the anime Overlord) and think low-level play is lame, and other people want a tense struggle for survival (like walking dead) and think high-level play is lame; and there’s no way to make both of them happy at the same time with the same rules.

  4. It is true that RM progression is different than DnD, but I would not want a DnD style system. The curve is so strange in DnD: level 1 is rocket tag (insanely deadly), which is the opposite of what you want. Then high level play does get very boring, as Gavin points out. Again, that’s the opposite of what you want.

    RM doesn’t have that problem. RM combat remains deadly at high levels. I’ve never had a problem with high-level RM combat being too boring. The chance of critical hits and instant death solve that problem easily.

    I do agree that the level 30-50 spells are almost never used though. They are fun for NPCs or Big Bads, but players are pretty much never casting them. So I wouldn’t be opposed to changing spell lists to go from 1-30 with spells every level rather than 1-50 with ones over 20 being only every fifth level.

    I don’t think you need cantrips in Rolemaster though — certainly not in RMU. RMU has made casting spells of the caster’s level or below MUCH easier than in previous editions. Basically, you can cast spells your level or below with no prep. That makes a huge difference for low-level casters, and eliminates any need for cantrips IMHO.

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