Rolemaster High Level Play. Pt 1.

There has been some continued chatter in the RM channels about high level play, and recently some “D&D” blog post topics as well so I wanted to weigh in again. A few recent blogs about high level D&D play may be worth checking out:

First let me clear in my position: I believe d100 systems like Rolemaster are better suited for high level play than systems like AD&D. That may seem a curious stance to RM players who feel that higher level RM play isn’t workable at all, OR, at least isn’t embraced by the community as a whole. It’s been my experience that high level Rolemaster is not much different than lower level play; which ultimately may not be a selling point! For AD&D you can at least say that high level play is doable, but it can be almost a different game.

Let’s examine a few elements of Rolemaster that may affect the perception that it’s not suitable or appealing for high level play:

  1. Game Rules Support Low Level Play. Perhaps RM is seen as “gritty” or “low fantasy”. Copper coins, exhaustion points, and workman like magic items and realistic/verisimilitude mechanics lend itself to this perception and to lower level play.
  2. The Hero’s Journey. Many players, myself included, enjoy the challenge to get the PC to a level that’s at least survivable and have some effective skills and spells. Higher levels may seem just “more of the same”.
  3. Lethality. If low level combat seems deadly, then it’s easy to assume that high level combat is even worse.
  4. Complex Large Scale Encounters. Big bad buys aren’t going to single handedly confront the PCs. It’s expected that high level encounters could include dozens of combat participants including retainers, summoned creatures, armies and followers. Admittedly this can be quite a lot of work to track and make for a smooth running combat session. Why not just avoid it!
  5. Arms vs Magic Gap. Like many RPG systems, an abilities gap occurs between fighter types and magic users. By 20th level, a RM spellcaster will have all of their Base lists, all of the Open and most of the Closed. Their spell abilities will cover virtually every skill set needed: offense, defense, analysis, movement, control etc.

These are just general perceptions and in my experience haven’t been borne out in actual high level gameplay. I’ll explore this more in depth in future posts.

So, are D&D style games subject to the same perceptions? The Expert system introduced the Companion rules (covers characters levels 15 – 25); Master rules from 26 – 36; Immortal rules from 37 on up. Some of that ruleset and rule philosophy bled into AD&D and Gary even acknowledged that the next steps of high level AD&D should be in extra planar environments. But in general are the AD&D rules also seen as cumbersome or problematic for higher level play? My perceptions:

  1. Even at high levels, average hit point attrition makes almost any combat worth engaging in: if things go downhill you can usually disengage. This greatly reduces risk.
  2. Spell powers are GREATLY enhanced at higher levels. Wish, Globe of Invulnerability etc completely changes gameplay .
  3. Many professions get special level abilities that are real power enhancers that impact play balance.

Most seasoned gamers’ exposure to high level adventures comes from early AD&D modules: Vault of the Drow, Tomb of Horrors or Isle of the Ape. These were very much “railroad” style adventures with very specific challenges matched to PC skills, abilities, resources and powers. It feels like the best way to handle high level play is in very specific, carefully defined adventures like modules, but can high play work in a open world, “sandbox setting”?

We don’t have much guidance for high level Rolemaster play, but you could extropolate the Grand Campaign into a very high level adventure and much of the material in the Emer books could require high level PCs. I’ve commented elsewhere that one of the most common criticisms of Shadow World is that it’s a high level setting, and yet, no one seems to lean into that and play high level!

I’m going to explore this more in future posts but I wanted to get everyone thinking about this and perhaps offer your own comments. What do you think works or doesn’t work at higher level play?

Perhaps, after some examination, one appeal of the Rolemaster system is it’s useability at all player levels?