Low level combat in Rolemaster.

Building 1st Level Combat Encounters: SlyFlourish.com

There is a lot of discussion and criticism of the deadliness of Rolemaster’s combat system. Many times, these critiques are used in conjunction with arguments about the impotency of Level 1 characters. Unfortunately, this type of talk may turn people off from trying Rolemaster, the older versions or the upcoming RMu edition. The good news is that the deadliness of RM’s combat is probably overstated and outlier results can be easily addressed by good GMing, proper planning and some defensive strategies by the players.

For me, as a GM and player, low level adventuring is often the most rewarding. Level advancement feels like a real achievement, the stakes are high when survivability is uncertain and each new ability feels earned and appreciated.

I’ve heard descriptions that RM levels 1-5 are the frustrating “kill zone” range, 5-10th seem to be the normative gaming range, 11-15th are normal for longer run campaigns, and levels 15+ are much rarer. That’s probably as it should be, with general character ranges following a distribution curve of some form.

There is an older post from 2010 that covers some basic strategies for low level combat, and while much of it seem commonsensical, it bears review from time to time.

As a GM though, it’s relatively easy to design encounters that the group not only has a good chance of surviving, but can do so with some simple planning.

Encounter #. For me, this is the simplest approach to handling low level encounters. Having the group face a single foe has many advantages. First, it allows them to work cooperatively in a group and balance the various skills and abilities. Second, the focus of the group against one target improves upon their chance of success, and conversely reduces the random risk of a severe critical that kills a player. Rolemaster’s open-ended system is flexible, but the law of averages will create very high rolls and critical results. The more attack rolls a GM makes, the more likely an aberrant result. Having a dozen foes, even low powered ones, will make the odds of a high roll more likely.

Intel. Provide the PCs a chance to gather some intel or observation about the foe. Is there a mysterious animal attacking villagers in the night? Providing some clues about the creatures size, type of attack or similar details will allow them to plan for the encounter better.

Picking the battle map. RM allows for significant combat modifiers for terrain and cover. If the players can choose the terrain, they can tip the combat to their advantage and favor. Partial cover, bottlenecks or rear attacks against a single opponent give a group of low level characters more than a fighting chance.

Certainly, individual strategies like the use of shield, parrying and armor and weapon selection matter, but overall, it’s the GMs responsibility to provide balanced encounters, and the players responsibility to be prudent and strategic to survive! Rolemaster combat doesn’t have to be deadly, but rather dangerous and rewarding.

Pick your targets

Today for some reason I was in procrastinating mood. Rather than doing what I should have been doing I ended up catching up on loads of really out of date forum topics that a really had very little interest in, which is why I hadn’t read them when they were fresh.

From my forum browsing a few bits stuck out. There was a comment by JDale about some of the people he had met at the weekend were fencers (at Pensic?  I have no idea what that is.)

I also came across Intothatdarkness talking about ballistic weapons and damage and critical locations.

So lots of things came together earlier when I had moved on to procrastinating by walking the dogs.

When I am fencing many of my fights are ‘first to 5 points’ as a competition format. My plan A is to press the attack and do three rapid ‘flurry of blows’ type attacks to my opponents wrist. The idea being that they will pull their wrist back and normally up out of the way exposing the underside of their wrist/ forearm. My next attack is to ‘beat’ their blade, I am left handed and most opponents are right handed so I snap my blade across them left to right to strike their blade. This knocks their blade off line and my blade bounces off theirs as I lunge forward to strike their chest or upper arm. My third attack is to feint to the knee before stepping in to strike the neck or head. If these are successful and I am three points up or at least in the lead in the bout I will then press the attack forcing the opponent back but not actually attack, I would rather have them pinned to the back of the fencing piste so they can only come forward. I can then stand off waiting for that attack and counter strike into their arm as they try and attack me.

The point of all that waffle is that the actual target for each attack is known to me before I take a single step forward. The idea of a random result that could be a foot or head or elbow doesn’t really come into it.

IntoThatDarkness has different critical tables for each location.

This seems like a really good way of doing things. I know that fencing is not combat. If I get hit I lose a point not a kidney. But I would counter that no skilled swordsman is going to go into an attack without a plan. Even if that plan is being revised every five seconds.

If the attack declaration phase started with pick your target area we can have very easy armour by the piece rules as you know where you are hitting and then location specific criticals, as Into has done it. Then the last piece of the jigsaw is just attack roll mods to make aiming for the head harder than hitting the body.

What we don’t need is some newfangled method of determining the hit location before rolling the critical or rolling the critical before the attack roll or reading the dice backwards or upside down which are the sorts of solutions we have seen so far. You just say I am going to aim for the head, if you hit you hit and if you miss you miss, end of.

That all sounds a bit too simple. Have I missed something?

Player Combat Charts

Do you give your players a copy of their combat chart for rolling their own attack?

I know lots of people do this but I am not one of them. I believe the objective is to speed up combat. Everyone has one copy of every chart they use so there is no page flipping back and forth through Arms Law. The GM only then has to manage the NPCs attacks.

I do something similar with Spell Law so everyone has a copy of their spell lists so the spell casters are not queuing up to get their hands on spell law to see what spell to cast.

I think combat tables are different. Here is my thinking.

Now imagine this. The players had discussed their plan. They were going to take out any patrols on the castle wall, dumping the bodies over the wall into the marshy ground beside the moat.

The players attack a knight with surprise, from behind. They make their roll, add their OB and I then have to tell them the knights AT and DB.

The knight has a DB of 90! Yes, that is right a DB not dependent on shields or being aware of the attack. Telling that to the player is certain to raise an eyebrow at least. Do you honestly think that the characters are still going to throw the knight, armour and all over the wall and into the moat?

Or how about the poor knight is wearing cursed armour? It looks like AT17 but protects as AT2. What will the players think then?

I think giving the combat table to the players, for me, is giving away too many spoilers. Those situations do not come up every day or every session but they do come up.

I have ‘cured’ my players from excessive meta gaming. We had a situation where all the players fell into a detailed and somewhat heated discussion about their plans while they were in easy earshot of an informer. There was no possible way for the characters to share the information that the players were sharing without vocalising it so I rolled a perception roll for the informer and he heard it all. Several crimes were part of their plans and one of the bad guys was the local sheriff. Things got hot for the characters pretty quickly and one of the players said that his character would never have said all that out loud in the middle of the market. The obvious answer was to ask well how did you think the characters were having this discussion? Other players were still interacting with people in the market while the discussion was going on. I was still describing the evolving scene as more stalls opened and more towns folk filtered into the market and so on.

From that point on the players all accepted that all their communications are their characters communications unless they have explicitly said they are passing a note or using some kind of magical method.

Bandying around the foes AT and DB to me seems to be too much information to be giving the players. I think it has the potential to change the characters tactical thinking based upon things the character simply cannot know. If there are two enemy in from of you and you don’t have a very good OB, you are going to pick the one with a poor DB, it is simple self preservation surely?