Diversity vs. Playability: Skills in Rolemaster

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.

I only wanted to play Rolemaster!

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.

Further musing on the skills system

I really like Brian’s take on skills where the number of ranks has an important role to play as well as the total bonus.

As I see it there are four types of skill roll in Rolemaster.

All or nothing.

This is the classic pass or fail test. You either heard the cocking of the crossbow or you didn’t. In RM2/RMC you need a total of 101+ to succeed in RMSS/RMFRP it is 111+ (which always struck me as a weird number if eleventy-one works for you then who am I to argue.)

Progress towards a goal

So you want to do something that is going to take time, you make your skill roll and depending on the roll and outside factors you get a result. That is how much of the task has been completed. if you get below 100 then you are part way through the task, over 100 and the task took less time than expected.

Opposing Skills

You are trying to hide and I am trying to spot you. Your hiding skill roll result would then be used as a penalty to my perception roll. The GM has to decide which way around to apply the rolls. Does my keen eyesight may your hiding more difficult or does your hiding position may my attempt to see you harder. I always go with the route of least rolls. If there is one hider and five seekers then I would have the hider’s one roll apply to the seekers five individual rolls.

Combat rolls

Here the result is not pass or fail, there is no straight hit or miss, and there is not really an opposing skill although the defender can use skills to make them harder to hit. You make your roll apply all the bonuses and penalties and look up the result on a table.

Now in most RPGs the combat rules take up a huge amount of space in the rule books even if combat doesn’t take up a huge amount of time at the table. Rolemaster in particular takes great pride in its combat system and we all love the critical tables and there blood splattered graphic descriptions. I am perfectly happy with my current version of the combat system and when I migrate to RMU I will junk the rules as written and insert my existing version. I have already rewritten all of the most commonly used critical tables so modifying the numbers of hits delivered and stretching them up to the new 175 cap will not be a massive endeavour.  Some people think that Rolemaster combat can be slow or overly complicated but it doesn’t have to be that way.

I am not so sure about the all or nothing skill roll. In the rules as written (RAW) all or nothing skills have a partial success result which allows a second roll at a penalty. If we were to abandon the whole all or nothing concept and make all rolls as static or moving maneuvers anything else than a 100% success would be a graduation of that partial success. Results at or below 0% would be failures.

In the example of the cocking of a crossbow if you rolled your perception and got less than 100% as a result then you could allow a second roll with whatever the shortfall was as a penalty. If of course there is actually anything there to hear after the event!

The question is would this simplify the game and speed up play?

 

Is RMU missing an opportunity to fix the rules system?

Rolemaster Unified Character Law Cover

I have been doing a bit of homebrew rules writing this week and I have taken bits and bobs of other games and mashed them all together to get a set of rules that did a particular job. It isn’t rolemaster so doesn’t belong here but bits of rolemaster ended up in what I was doing.

Now if you take bits of different games you get different mechanics and different ways of doing the same thing. In rolemaster particularly RM2 if you look at how skills work you you get different ways of doing things in the same game!

Lets take buying skill ranks.

Some skills you can buy as many ranks as you like each level eg Armour, languages and spell lists.

Normally you can buy one or two ranks but occaisionally some professions can buy more etc Healers and First Aid.

Some skills have ranks that always give a +5 bonus eg Armour.

Most skills have deminishing returns eg +5, +2 +½.

Some skills each rank is only worth +1 eg Ambush and Stunned Maneuover

Some skills have multiple options so Stunned Maneuver could be +1/rank but could be +5, +2 +½.

Some skills can only cancel out penalties but not give a bonus such as Armour and Transcend Armour

Some skills cancel out penalties but can give a bonus on top such as Spacial Location Awareness.

Some skills have the same function or role as other skills but at different costs and use different stats such as tumble defence and adrenal defence, Iai Strike and adrenal quickdraw, spacial location awareness and blind fighting.

Going back to the costs some weapons and musical instruments use the same mechanic of the first you learn is the cheapest, the second the next cheapest and the more you learn the more expensive they get. Languages on the other hand all cost the same regardless of how many you learn. Martial arts has yet another mechanic for its costing with the prices remaining constant but prerequisites on what you can buy.

Some skills come with special rules attached such as iai strike that can have you throwing your own weapon away on a bad roll. Subduing is another

Is all of that really necessary? I can understand that some skills are moving maneuvers and some are static maneuvers and different rules apply but RM2 has reputedly 200 skills all told and apparently 200 rules for how to apply each one. I kid you not! You would have thought that sprinting would be a MM skill to be applied as a bonus to MM rolls when sprinting. Wrong! MM rolls normally give a result that can go over 100% to show greater that expected progress of faster completion times. It would make sense for sprinting to be a bonus and help get those over 100% results but instead sprinting has its own special table that limits the gains you can get.

Now that is only a tiny snapshot of the problems in RM2.

I don’t know RMSS/RMFRP but I do know the real sticking point for players of either RM2/RMC and RMSS/RMFRP is the skills system. RMSS has categories that you have to do something with before you can buy a specialism but it has everyman skills that operate a buy one get a dozen free or something. On top of that you then get training packages that I think give bulk discounts and talents that give bonuses or cancel penalties. I am possibly being unfair to RMSS but as you all know I love minimalism so it was never going to be the system for me. There is nothing wrong with it if it appeals to you.

So where does RMU come into this?

RMU has the opportunity to really sort out the mess of different mechanics for skills. Do skills cancel out penalties, the new Combat Expertise works that way but will any future flying skill or Spacial Location Awareness skill work that way? What will happen if you get an EO downward roll on a quickdraw/iai strike roll? Can you get a downward roll or will it be a fumble roll?

I am really looking forward to the final draft rules. I want to apply my classless levelless house rules to RMU and as such I really want them to sort out a long lasting structure that will prevent the balls up that was the RM2 skill system.

That turned into more of a rant than I intended. It was not supposed to be that way and RMC (derived from RM2) is my weapon of choice. The more I looked the more inconsistencies I found and the more of my own post-it notes I found in my old paper RM2 rule books.

I have only seen the Beta II rules and that does appear to be falling into the different rules for different skills trap with the Control Lycanthropy skill having its own rules as do Piloting, Jumping and Adrenal Focus. There are also different Knowledge tiers for lore skills that do not apply to more physical skills. I repeat though, these are Beta rules and not the final rules. I hope you can see the reason for my concern. if you start off setting a bad example it is very hard to fix it later.

Springtime for Magic Users

Interestingly I have noticed that my fellow GM and I have been discussing magic users of all varieties and how they get their spell lists and on the Rolemaster forums there has been a rather heated debate on the new RMU and about how the spells that spell casters can cast define the archetype of that magic using profession and whether they should be able to learn lists normally reserved for other types of spell caster.

In Rolemaster spells are learned in lists and these lists fal into three strata, Open lists are open to anyone, even a fighter could attempt to learn some spells from open lists. Closed lists are reserved to the pure and hybrid spell casters. Base lists are defined for each profession or character class are are reserved to that profession. So an illusionist and a magician are both pure essence users so they could choose from the same open and closed lists but the magician can choose from up to 6 magician base lists and the illusionist from the illusionist base lists. The magician does have access to a lesser illusion list so illusions are not the sole preserve of the illusionist and the illusionist can manage some minor elemental attacks (Shockbolt and much later Lightning bolt) utilising his light based list. A cleric has clericy base lists and a ranger has rangering base lists and so on…

In the flavour of Rolemaster I play (RM2/RMC) a spell list does not necessarily have a spell for every level, some do but most do not. I have encouraged my players to research their own spells to fill these missing spells. This makes each spell caster unique. Also I make learning each spell list difficult and relatively expensive. This gives spell users less lists to choose from and as a consequence they ake better use of all the spells they do know and makes researching your own spells even more important. My fellow GM is more generous with learning spell lists so spell casters have more spells and more higher level spells and spel casters tend to throw more higher level spells piking from the top strata of each list. It is not uncommon in the other game for a spell caster of high level to know every possible spell that that character could possibly cast. This has never happened in my game and almost certainly never will.

Getting back to the RMU discussion the starting point is somewhat different. In RMU you do no learn an entire block of a list at once but spell by spell. You learn as far up the list of spells as you want and you can learn from multiple lists at once. You can also learn at least in principle spells from other professions base lists. Another difference is that list has no empty slots. The basis of the argument was that the base list system built very high walls between the different magic using classes and that as a consequence all mages were going to be pretty much identical and if you had a visiion of playing a mage that could control the weather, a spell list normally reserved for channeling users such as an Animist then you simply could not mix and match that within the core magician profession.

I think the real flaw is the way in that the spells are learned. In RM2 it would cost you 20 development points our of probably pool of 35 points to learn the list that gives you invisibility , and another 20 points to learn the list that allows you to fly and another 20 to learn the list that allows you to detect magic. These are three pretty core magic user abilities. As the character goes up levels then the invisibilty gets more powerful covering greater areas with the cloak of invisibility, flight get faster and starts to encompass teleport type spells and the detection spells get greater ranges and the number fthings that can be detected such as curses, living things and so on.

In RMU on the otherhand you only need to learn the first 4 spells to be able to go invisibly, the 5th level spell to fly and the 1st, 2nd and 3rd level spells to be able to detect all three realms of power. The total cost would be 24 development points and a character gets 50 points a level. The option to get a really wide base of just enough spells from every possible list means that characters hit these walls defining the profession really quickly.

Because the primary way of defining a spell casting class in rolemaster (all flavours) is through the base lists available to them in RM2 we ended up with about 70 professions if you used every single class in every single rolemaster expansion and companion. I suspect that RMU will rapidly go the same way.

It is interesting, I thought that the most heated discussions on magic both occured at about the same time but as they say Spring is  meant to be the most magical time of the year!

A Drow Fighter RMU vs RM2

Rolemaster Unified Character Law Cover

I have created a Drow fighter using the current Beta version of RMU Character Law. I have tried to stick as closely to the previous Drow warrior I used for comparing the four elven races so as to be directly comparable.

To boil down a character to the absolute minimum I have a little comparison table for you.

System DB Primary OB
Perception #hits Stalk/Hide
RMU 15 38 11 53 15
RM2 20 35 8 49 -25/0

The RMU character is 2nd level and the RM2 character is 1st level but if you take into consideration that an RM2 character goes through Apprenticeship and Adolescence and before becoming Level 1 and starting play both characters have two levels worth of development points and a single lot of stat gain rolls.

So the RMU character has slightly higher OB, perception, #hits and Stalk & Hide skill but the RM2 character has a higher OB. To be honest the differences are negligible.

If you look in more detail at the character sheet then you will see that we have lost the blind fighting skill, Iai Strike and the tumbling skills. Those skills do not exist in RMU (yet) and the Tumbling Evade works slightly differently. What the character does get is a much wider education, a greater range of combat skills including more weapons and unarmed combat and I said when I created the original character that I wanted to buy Poison Lore but couldn’t. The RMU character has Poison Lore (2 ranks).

What this has shown me is that although I quite liked the stripped down skills lists, that demand will almost certainly that they be reinstated. All the mechanics are in place for how blind fighting would work (it would be a Combat Expertise:Blind Fighting, the cost would be 1/2, no stat bonus and it would reduce the penalty for fighting whilst blind). Iai strike would be identical and it would reduce the penalty for drawing a weapon in the same round as your attack. It is all there ready to roll but that just means that so is all the skill bloat. It may not be quite as bad. Mechanical:Traps seems to serve as Build  Traps, Set Trap and Disarm Trap and that has to be an improvement. I never liked having to separate out Build and Set as two skills.

Just so you can go over them here are the two character sheets. The RMU one is a bit rough(!)

Just to clarify a little bit of shorthand I have used. After a skill it may say something like RC1 or C1122. That means that the first skill rank came from his racial background and the second from his culture the third from his 1st level DPs. In the second example he has one rank from culture and bought two ranks at each of level 1 and level 2.

I hope that makes sense.

 

Quaggoths and Boogin

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These are the two races/creatures I discussed last week as being both tied deeply into Drow culture. These two are in my opinion near perfect low level monsters to throw at beginer parties.

Why? Well if you look at their stats below they have a low OB, low-ish DB and not many hits. So they should in theory be easy to kill. When you are very low level with a poor OB yourself it is in many ways easier to kill a large creature than it is a man-sized one. If you are only doing A & B criticals then the chance of getting a killing blow is probably just 1% but Large criticals are open ended so you have a 5% chance of getting a takedown as any open-ended critical is enough to take out one of these guys.

It is not just that they are easy to kill that makes these two interesting though. They both have the tendency to go into a Frenzy. this gives them effectively more hits and a higher OB (+30). So if the characters are doing well then they can go into a Frenzy and get tougher if they party are doing badly then they are unlikely to go into a rage and they stay relatively weak. If they do go berserk then the tactical advantage goes to the characters and there is a likelihood that a Quaggoth may accidentally take out one of its allies.

When the party meet the Quaggoth they could be just in a small partol of just two or a small tribe of over 20. They may be lead by Boogin, their more inteligent half breed cousins or even orcs. Finally where you find Quaggoths and Boogins you find Huge and Giant spiders.

All in all you get a creature that is both weak and defeatable but also challenging and dangerous, you can use them in small encounters on their own or in mixed groups of varied races and species. Finally they are so closely linked to the Drow that I would suggest that a character with Faerie Lore (a fairly common skill) would recognise them as a race often enthralled by the Drow. Thus a single Quaggoth could be a plot hook into a bigger adventure.

So down to stats…

I have used the standard rules from Creatures and Treasures I to do the conversion to RM2/RMC

Quaggoths

Quaggoths are sometimes enslaved by other races, notably drow. Quaggoths usually live in underground lairs. They are about seven feet tall and covered in shaggy white hair, though brown-haired quaggoths are sometimes seen. When quaggoths live above ground they are savage, bestial hunters who live in nomadic tribes.

AT3(30), MV 150MS/AQ VF, Level 2, #Hits 20, Number encountered 2-20. Attacks Lge Claw (30OB) or Greatsword (20OB). All Quaggoth are immune to poison. They are 11′ tall and take Large criticals.

70% of Quaggoths groups are unarmed and will fight with their claws but 30% of groups will be armed with greatswords. For every 12 Quaggoths encountered there will be a leader wielding a battleaxe.

Quaggoths can speak haltingly and have a vary limited vocabulary.

They hate all surface dwelling elves.

Boogin

Boogins are brutish, hairy orc-quaggoth crossbreeds sometimes known as “spider killers,” a nod to the constant pressure from drow slavers. These half-breeds are more like quaggoths than orcs, though slightly weaker and more in control of their rages than their beast side.

AT3(30), MV 120MS/AQ F, Level 3, #Hits 55, Number encountered 1-10. Attacks Greatsword (35OB) or Spiked Club (20OB). All Boogin get +100RR vs poison. They will go into a Frenzy when attacked to get +30 OB and x2 concussion damage.

Boogin are the slightly more inteligent half orc/half quaggoth cousins of the pure quaggoth. They are often employed by drow as overseers of quaggoth patrols and are better able to follow orders.

 

Race Ag Co Em In Me Pr Qu Re SD St Chn Ess Men Poison Disease Size Fat Hits Rec Life DP
 Quaggoth -2 +1 -2 +1 -2 -2 -1 +2 immune L 25 x1 100 11
 Boogin -1 +1 -2 +1 -2 -1 -1 +2 immune L 25 x1 100 8

 Traits and Flaws

Quaggoth
Immunity to poison (costed the same as immunity to disease), Giantism I (11′ tall), Natural Armour AT 3, Natural Attack (Claw), Animal Empathy (Spiders), Frenzy.

Boogin
Immunity to poison (costed the same as immunity to disease), Giantism I (11′ tall), Animal Empathy (Spiders), Frenzy.

I have not created these races as player character races. I am just aware that there are a lack of creatures for the RMU playtest and with these, the drow I published this week and the orcs goblins and trolls from Character Law and the few creatures from the sample Creature Law (add in the special mushrooms and fungi from the herbs and poisons tables for good measure) that is almost enough to run an adventure into the Underdark.