This isn’t the first time I’ve discussed this; one of my first blog posts went into way more depth and complexity on this subject; you can find it HERE.
The elegance of splitting the offensive bonus (OB) into attack and defense has been a hallmark of RM since it’s first publication. It’s intuitive and hands more agency to players during combat. However, I’ve always felt there was 1 piece missing that took this a step further: allowing OB to be split into 3 parts. Attack/Defense/Initiative. This also feels intuitive and we’ve been using this system for years (if not decades now). I’ve played around with the conversion figures depending on the initiative system I was using and testing, but it’s always felt “right”.
Not only does it create 3-dimensionality to combat decisions, but it brings in weapon type choices that go beyond their ability to deal damage or inflict a critical. As we all know, striking first can be the real advantage in Rolemaster!
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.
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.
Today I’m looking at the ‘problem’ of skills in RM: consolidated skills (of which RMFRP is the paradigmatic version, and which appears to be a certainty in the new version, although with far less skills) or individual skills, each with their own development cost, as was the case in RM2. Let me nail my flag to the mast: I am rather more in favour of individual skill costs, primarily for the tremendous variety and granularity they offer. You simply can’t get that under the skill category system (although the RMFRP rules do allow a certain amount of tweaking, and my rather freewheeling interpretation of the talent rules enabled more).
Further to this is the issue of the dreaded skill bloat. It seems that many folks object – quite reasonably, I feel – to the tremendous explosion in increasingly fine-grained skills introduced by the RM2 companions (and carried over to RMFRP, although restrained and managed by the category system). I understand the objections: if you have, say, 300 skills and 50 professions, that’s a lot of trawling through tables in order to generate a character, and a lot of skills to study up on, in order to decide whether your Burglar is better off taking Defensive Manoeuvre, Feinting or Tumbling Attack, or just ignoring it all and retiring to a farm after buying ranks in Horticulture, Herding, Animal Handling, Animal Healing and Weather-watching.
But, and here’s the thing, I love having that range of options – ridiculous though that may seem – simply because of the ways in which, as a GM, I can fine-tune races, cultures, professions and NPCs. I can understand how you might justify having a Prepare Herbs, Herb Lore and Using Prepared Herbs skill, or a Using/Removing Poison, Poison Perception and Poison Lore skill. I can imagine a rough-and-ready soldier who knows nothing of herbs, but has grown used to applying unguents to wounds. I can equally imagine a scholarly-type who has learned a bit about poison but has never handled it – or even considered using it! That argument makes sense to me, although there is, conceivably, a limit beyond which realism need go.
There are ways of managing skill bloat without consolidating or eliminating skills. The last RM2 campaign I ran I divided skills into Core, Professional and Extra-Professional skills. Everyone, regardless of profession, race or whatever had instant and permanent access to the Core skills. Then, each profession had 25 professional skills to which they had access. All skills outside that group of Core + Professional were restricted, requiring the expenditure of Character Points (which accumulated as the character reached Prime Levels, of which more on another occasion).
I’m including a link to a table showing an example of what I did in my attempts to manage skill bloat whilst maintaining breadth and diversity. This is the RM2 Hunter from the Arms Companion. I’ve not included the development point costs for copyright reasons, but the table is hopefully sufficient to demonstrate the idea. The listed skills show those available to the Hunter at level 1. They can’t consider new skills until reaching their next Prime Level (i.e. level 3). At each Prime Level, a character gains Character Points equivalent to 3 + the modifier derived from their Prime Statistic (the first appearing of their Prime Requisites, in this case Quickness), as if it were a Power Point stat, rounded down. (For example, if Bhorg the Hunter has a Qu stat of 95, he’d gain an extra 2 Character Points, giving him 5 in total. Bhorg could then spend his Character Points unlocking access to an Extra-Professional skill, or buying talents, or saving them for later).
I thought it a reasonably elegant solution, although like all my solutions, it generated a fair amount of work to get it up and running. I’d be interested in your thoughts on possible futures for this approach, any problems you locate and any possible fixes.
This week my challenge is to read up on OpenD6. The reason for this is that they have have a very simple approach to descriptive critical wounds, they have hit locations based upon the attack roll and features like ‘stunned’ and bleeding. At first glance their combat system seems a lot less fluid or more cumbersome than Rolemaster but on the other other hand the rule set is a lot more flexible in that it copes with spells, shotguns and superpowers all in the core rules.
One of my intentions is to scavenge any interesting spell effects for my magic system. I, like BriH, intend to create a stand alone magic system. I would like mine to be compatible with all flavours of RM, from HARP to RMU. It has a working title right now of SPaM (Spells, Powers and Magic).
What I can scavenge from OpenD6 will be added to spells I have scavenged from the 5e SRD spells. This continues the circular journey. RM was originally a set of house rules for D&D and now I am house ruling RM to add in the best of 5e.
The finished product eventually will be released under a badge of Open100 and be free for anyone to modify and extend. Take a look at this… In the ‘star’ box out (upper left) you can see how Might Six has taken and extended Mini Six…
Getting back to Magic…
SPaM will sit alongside my open monster companion. These two alone will be sufficient for any independent adventure writer to create standalone adventures for Rolemaster.
The solution to that is also a solution to another problem. Many of the monsters need spell lists and innate spell abilities. One criticism of the monster rules in RMU was that you almost had to roll up every orc before you could play any combat. I don’t want to do that to my potential users. So the solution would be to create exemplar spell lists from my freeform pools of spells and the exemplars would be all the spell lists required by all the monsters in monster compendium.
So now you will get the flexibility of pools of spells and unique lists sat alongside exemplar lists.
I think that should address that weakness. Is it enough?
I huge thank you to everyone that sent me character sheets!
The brief was intentionally vague to give everyone creative freedom. Most people produced a non spell using rogue or thief which is what I has sort of expected. My Xan is exactly in that vein.
Things that really stood out were that I got three RMU characters. Seeing as RMU is still in play test and the experiment was for people who had house ruled character creation I had only expected one RMU character and that was Hurin’s who uses individual skill costs.
An interesting aside here but RMU is not yet published and the developers are pretty determined to stick with category skill costs. On the other hand there is already one ‘officially sanctioned’ optional rule in the form of Hurin’s individual skill costs published in the Guild Companion completely undoing the developers work. Only in Rolemaster eh?
The fact that RMU character creation is being house ruled while still in play test make one wonder about what is being tested? My personal intermittent play test is still RAW but with JDales new tables applied.
Back to Xan
I have distilled the character down to just a few really basic numbers. If you were reading a module or adventure and she was an incidental NPC then you may just get a one liner.
The ‘average’ Xan taking every sheet I received looked something like this.
#Hits 64, OB (shortsword) +59, DB +14, Perception +28
She typically has 18 additional skill including primary and secondary skills.
If you compare that to the off the peg NPCs in Character Law (RMC version) you get
#Hits 20, OB (shortsword) +30, DB +0, Perception +15.
The house ruled characters are far more functional than the off the peg NPC. In addition nearly every Xan has a secondary attack and either multiple attack or two weapon combo and many have given her a thrown dagger as well.
Interestingly, one came back with a single spell list.
I do want to look at the characters in more detail later but I thought I should really do something immediately as you all took the time to send them to me.
So the immediate take away is that all these Xans are more functional than RAW characters. I make my starting characters more functional as it is more fun to be capable than not. There is more fun in being able to survive more than one hit with a sword, all baring the critical, than not. These heroes are more heroic than RAW player characters.
The impression I have got so far is that house rules in general are making RM more survivable for starting characters than the rules a written.
Imagine for a minute a player asks the perfectly reasonable question of “Can I remember what colour her eyes were?”
What I have always done in the past was ask for a skill check using the characters Memory stat bonus as the skill bonus.
When I moved from RM2 to RMC and the threshold for success went from 101+ to 111+ for most casual stat based tests success required an open ended roll. If that was reasonable 19 out of 20 trips to the shops for me would probably end in chaos and that could not be right. For me 1 in 10 trips to the shop ends up with me bringing home the right thing.
So I started thinking about these non-skill rolls. Not everything has a governing skill. Simple tests of memory, trying to catch a plate before it hits the floor or trying to lift a portcullis.
I have often thought that Stats in Rolemaster are largely irrelevant. Once you have rolled them you only ever use the Stat Bonus and never the stat. The exception is body development that uses 1/10th of the Con stat for base hits.
In eliminating the body development skill I have previously suggested using Con + 1/2 SD to find the Total Hits. That would give a starting character a typical 75 hits. That is more than the default starting hits under the RAW but that is not a bad thing. It gives starting characters a bit more longevity and is slightly more realistic than a starting character can take 18hits and a 10th level character can take 150hits. Why is the more experienced character so much more damage resistant?
I don’t use level so there will be no levelling up. I do use a RuneQuest style skill improvement. You roll higher than your current skill total and upon success you gain a skill rank.
I use a similar scheme for stat gains. During periods of rest & recovery you can roll against your stats. If you roll higher than your current stat then your stat increases by 1. You can only roll against stats that have been used. What that means in practice is if you used the Trickery skill you would put a small tick against the skill itself and against Pr and Qu. When it came to doing the tests for improvement then you could roll against those two stats and the one skill. This means that the skills you use tend to improve and the stats you are using tend to improve.
So going back to my simple memory test, to get a result of 111+ just to remember if your girlfriends eyes are Brown or Blue seems a bit of a tough call. That is a open ended roll for most people. If as a GM you wanted to put in a difficulty factor for recalling facts that character saw or heard weeks or months ago then the test becomes almost guaranteed failure pretty quickly.
What if we didn’t use the stat bonus but the actual stat? So Joe average has a memory of 50. What colour are his girlfriend’s eyes? Roll 111+ on 1d% OE +50. That pretty much gives a 60/40 chance of failure which in my experience seems pretty realistic, or is that just me?
So what about lifting a portcullis? Now with an average stat of 50 you, as GM, have scope to put a difficulty factor in there. Sheer Folly is a -50 so trying to lift a portcullis on your own would still require an open ended roll. That also seems realistic. If the character had the Athletic skill then by all means let him or her use it but you cannot make simple tests of strength dependent on such a skill. You cannot tell me that someone with a strength of 90 cannot lift something heavy without learning to play football first?
The final missing part of the puzzle is the racial differences. High Men are about the strongest commonly played race and they get a +10 strength bonus. Elves get a bonus to Memory. If you were to roll these Stat based tests as Stat + Racial Bonus then you would retain the flavour of the races.
Using this method what you get is more competent PCs, greater flexibility as a GM to challenge the characters and Stats gain greater importance beyond just a measure for finding the stat bonus.
There are really three parts to this, improving the spell lists you know, learning entirely new lists and improving your power points. I will take each in turn.
Improving the Spell Lists you know
This is the easiest bit. If you cast a spell off a list in a meaningful situation (not just rattling off a few spells at the end of the day just to tick the box) then you can mark the list as used. When you are in a situation where you can study, reflect and improve then you can roll to improve the spell list. For every rank you have it counts as 5. Roll a D100 OE and if you roll over the current total you gain a rank. So if you know Fire Law to Rank 5 (5th Level) you would need to roll 26+ to learn the 6th level spell. Progress through ranks 1-10 is pretty quick but then slows down. Once you get to rank 19 you need an open ended to improve.
Learning entirely new Spell Lists
You need to study to learn new lists. I use the same rules as are given for researching new spells for studying new lists. Essence lists require books and a teacher, mentalism require meditation and channelling, prayer. Hybrid lists need to meet all the requirements. If there is no first level spell then the time required would be to research the first available spell and at that point yu would have the number of ranks required to cast that spell.
Improving your Power Points
This is based upon improving your Power Point Development Skill. If power points are used in earnest (just as with casting spells that count for experience above) then when you get a chance to rest and improve then you can roll to improve your PPD skill.
This means that starting characters get more power points quite quickly but it then levels off, just like learning spells. That really is the intention of the entire experience system. Everyone should improve quite rapidly in the skills, stats and spells they are really using. Once they are competent then that progress slows but it never stops. Unless you are a real one trick pony each time when experience would have been dished out you will probably improve in something, a little here a little there. Having characters pay for training brings real benefits at that time, not six months later when they finally level up.
Finally, this system works really well with the new RMU spell law. The diference is that every level in RMU has a spell associated with it. RMU kind of expects characters to be higher level when they start so having characters improve quickly fits in well with that expectation. In RMC, my preferred system the gaps in the spell lists does add a bit of extra excitement when a character gets a new spell as often the rank will improve but this does not bring any new abilities. It is rather swings and roundabouts as to which you prefer.