Rolemaster Reminiscing

For anyone interested, I recorded a video chat I had with Sean about his experiences with Rolemaster (and mine, such as they were). This came about because he had talked about Rolemaster in the recent probability seminar, and I took note — my play of the game in college was fairly unmemorable, but the game itself has a long-enduring fascination, and I’ve often thought about trying to do more with it. So I reached out to Sean to find out more about what he had done with the game. Here’s the video:

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13 responses to “Rolemaster Reminiscing”

    • I look forward to that! I

      I look forward to that! I thought about keeping your points about Against the Darkmaster in the video, but ended up not doing it out of absent-mindedness as much as anything else . . . short version, you pointed out that Against the Darkmaster has rules for making up a Sauron-like world-scale antagonist, which gives the game the built-in situation development that I was saying we didn't see in Rolemaster.

    • If you’re going to play with

      If you're going to play with your gnoll fetish on full blast, count me in. I'll play this guy.

    • I’ll be honest, I was of two

      I'll be honest, I was of two minds. One a bog standard collection of fantasy tropes trying to bring down the Darkmaster, which is fun OR…

      In against the Darkmaster, Stone Trolls are a playable race, but they turn to stone when they are hit by the sun. I do not see that as fun if one player has to be punished like that. BUT

      A party of Stone trolls, hated and feared, traveling by night or in the dark places trying to defeat the Darkmaster. Just as easily could be a group of gnolls. I think that has some appeal.

  1. In the 80s …

    … for one of my good friends and long-time fellow role-players, Rolemaster was the Great Hope. He had been very committed to one of the famous setting or module series (I think it was from a licensed/"compatible with" publisher) involving something called dragon masters or lords. In play, first early D&D and then Advanced D&D had run aground for him, mainly because the system didn't lend itself to well-differentiated or motivated characters, and because higher-level play tended to turn wacky and hyper-legalistic, when he wanted it to be dramatic and epic.

    There's a lot more to say about our time playing together using five or six notable systems, including switching to GURPS as the "real" Great Hope, quite a lot of Champions, and the publication of Cyberpunk. But to focus on the Rolemaster phase, he had pretty much internalized the dragon-masters-whatever setting as "his," and was determined to see it realized through play as truly stupendous, astounding adventures and a setting-shaking climax. He had found, he thought, the game which took combat seriously, allowed customized or designed characters, included rules for "anything," kept magic nice and manageable, and even provided full anatomical breakdowns for different types of dragons.

    As with many others, he was convinced that if the system "handled" any situation through logical subroutines based on realism (which being real, could not be argued about), and if players' options provided them with colorful actions but minimal "disruptive" input, then at last, a True Fantasy Saga could be achieved, as long as, you know, the GM was a real visionary and maintained the direction of play. This is not snarking. My friend wasn't stupid or making up delusions by himself. The authors of Rolemaster were terribly sincere in advocating and promising exactly this, and they were not alone. No other articulated ideal or principles of role-playing had been offered, especially not for fantasy.

    My position, however, was deviating fast, and I had been carefully studying all of the latest fantasy fiction. At the time I was thinking of them as "Tolkienesque," and developing my understanding of different historical branches of 20th-century fantasy fiction, but I soon realized there was another variable in play. A lot of it not only showed clear influence from role-playing, or rather, had been conceived as "role-playing but a real story." The early versions with varying components included Thieves' World, Liavek, and Jhereg; later versions which were hitting the bookstores very hard in the mid-late 80s included the Magician series, the Belgariad, and the Iron Tower trilogy. You will probably be amused that I was completely unaware of Dragonlance and did not understand its role in all of this at the time.

    Anyway, my conclusion at the time, which is not particularly changed today, was that fantasy as such was basically completely absent in this body of work, and indeed, the chance ever to have any again with these particular images and literary traditions was very low. This viewpoint was integrated tightly with our experiences playing Rolemaster, which are a good example of good faith on everyone's part disintegrating into interpretations of bad faith from everyone toward everyone else.

    This isn't because it's a bad game. It was conceived and offered toward the service of something many fantasy fans thought they desperately needed. No one could know at the time that "no arguing any more because realism" and "a guiding hand on the tiller" were antithetical to good design and enjoyable play. And the cosmic, or at least cultural joke is that tractable, manageable, terribly serious fantasy … isn't.

    • I can see the point in the

      I can see the point in the last paragraph. And I think there is a strong relationship to discussions about remembering all the ways D&D / fantasy game X was played, which are often more nostalgia than fact. I think this is the same thing with the fantasy literature of the day. At least the most popular touchstones and idoms presented in those works. After all Tolkien (or Moorcock) was not the beginning of fantasy, or maybe better called myth emulation, but instead a variation on themes that alraedy existed. 

      Rolemaster, for me, held a strange place in my thinking and still does. I like the system, genuinely, but was happy to accept that not everyone did or that it had been past its time for a while. Like finally buying that heavy metal band tee-shirt everyone had in high school, but you are in college. How many wears do you get out of it, before people begin to wonder why you still wear it? In my case not that many. 

    • Your closing analogy seems

      Your closing analogy seems off to me, so I need to ask something to see if that's how you really meant it. Which is closer to your intended meaning?

      • "I wear this shirt because I liked the band and I always wanted to have this shirt, so now I have it and will wear it. … But on reflection, everyone else is past it and hell, most people don't even remember the band, or worse, only the hit song that was co-opted to be an underwear commercial. So I'm not feeling the social charge that my younger self would have died for back then."
      • "I wear this shirt because I liked the band and I always wanted to have this shirt, so now I have it and will wear it. … But on reflection, now that I have it, I'm not really feeling all that much about the band after all, or anything that I may be expressing by wearing the shirt, so the shirt isn't as fun to wear as I suppose it would have been back then."

      I empathize strongly with the second and I am baffled by the first (and always have been regarding pretty much anything). Therefore the real question about the game for me would be based, probably, on playing Rolemaster now, to observe and feel what it "is" now, for us.


    • I empathize strongly with the

      I empathize strongly with the second and I am baffled by the first (and always have been regarding pretty much anything). Therefore the real question about the game for me would be based, probably, on playing Rolemaster now, to observe and feel what it "is" now, for us.

      The second for sure. As for play, yes I agree on that as well. I know that I have better tools, a better idea of what I want from a game, to be able to look at it with a critical eye and remove the aura of nostalgia. 

  2. Why Rolemaster 2E

    Johann asked me on Discord why 2e as opposed to any of the other editions. My response is mostly not exciting I think, but it may lead to further discussions. 

    Nostalgia is the primary reason for the choice. This edition was my first RM play experience and is the one I am most comfortable with. It makes it easier for me to be consistent in how I make decisioons as the GM in RM. Rolemaster was the first time I had really allowed traditional "monsters" as player options in one of my games, which may be one reason it has stuck with me over the years. 

    Do you have a preferred version of the rules?

  3. Rolemaster Situations

    There was a discussion a few weeks ago that briefly spoke about what kind of fantasy one runs with different games, when Rolemaster came up. Diving deeper into more discrete and focused play, I think it is a fair question to ask: What Kind of Fantasy Story Situations does Rolemaster handle respond to? What kind of idioms does it serve best? Where is the juice for Rolemaster?

    I have my own thoughts about it, likely changed from other comments I have made, but I am thinking specifically about how I am going to prep my next RM game. Here is where my head is.

    Medium Weirdness. There is some weirdness here, I do not know if I would say high weirdness. This is especially true if you read some of the supplements. In particular, the Elemental companion.

    Cultural Conflict. The cultures are influenced by Tolkien; MERP (Middle Earth Role-Playing) coming out before Rolemaster, I think. I have always noted the Men and Greater Men split, which feels a lot meaner to me than perhaps it is intended.

    Dungeon as Destination, Not Journey. I realize this might not make total sense, but here I go. In a dungeon crawl, the dungeon is the central part of the situation. Almost all the action happens there. In Rolemaster, my experience has been that although dungeons appear in the situations, just often old ruins and great stinking cities and seedy sorcerer hookah dens.

    Those are a few of my thoughts. I would love to know what others think or what situations they have found to provide satisfying play?

    • I ran second edition (and

      I ran second edition (and Spacemaster) for the better part of the 90s as an illusionist GM, handcrafting adventures for the tastes of my players. Great times, particularly a five-year campaign with my two best friends, though I have utterly lost interest in this way of play, first as a player (I can hardly affect anything… *grrr*), then as a GM (I know how most of this will turn out… *yawn*).


      Rolemaster was my fifth or sixth RPG, but is definitely the game with the strongest hold on me. For years, I tried to integrate its critical hit tables and skill development into various homebrews (with largely horrific results) and I long to one day run or play in the mysterious ruins depicted on Angus McBride's red band covers. That's my white whale.

      Your recording helped me understand my continued longing a bit better:

      Rolemaster feels epic to me, i.e. suggestive of vast scale, deep history and heroic (or tragic) fate.

      You mention the fascinating list of herbs, level 50 spells, experience points for travel, and involved terrain generation in this context. I have more to add:

      • Levels going up to 50 in the core books already (compared to D&D, which RM supposedly can be slotted into, so that's our emotional baseline here) are supported with these level 50 spells and more. This rules support is hardly relevant to play but its mere presence feels different than "+1 hp for every level hereafter".
      • Small details scattered throughout the Rolemaster Companions like skill bonuses for high age: A 3000-years old elf will have a sizable bonus to predict the weather. Optional and hardly relevant except for that feel.
      • The Angus McBride covers do not depict a dungeon entrance or lone wizard's tower but a vast, ruined city. The Shadow World modules feature 'real' architecture (with floorplans for mansions, temples etc.) and usually include NPCs of insanely high level. I yearned to run these adventures, or just to inhabit their world, but had no idea how. A heist, maybe? Surely, direct confrontation with a 20th-level high priestess and her 30th-level crystal panther pet golem was not an option. Your typical D&D starter dungeon with its goblins, bugbear bosses, +1 swords and labyrinth-like maps feels pedestrian by comparison (but is actually ready to play!!).
      • (I ran a Shadow World module for a bunch of Space Master characters who immediately set themselves up as space gods for the local villagers. Armed with living mine detectors and high-tech, they plundered parts of a pyramid… That's just about the only time I actually used one of these modules.)

      RM certainly promises an epic experience – and as an illusionist GM I successfully provided one -, but I'm unsure if it actually supports it. For instance, I doubt that XP for travel incentivizes players to send their characters on long journeys.

      (Similarly, RM may feel 'realistic', but I don't think details like variable fumble ranges for weapons, from 2% to 8%, matter in actual play. Realism was never the point for me, though — I ditched penalties for hp loss, exhaustion points and the entire XP system.)

      I'll weigh in on other points and where the juice is in another post. Your conversation has had me musing about Rolemaster for many days now, Rod & Sean. Thanks!

  4. Man, this was our go-to in

    Man, this was our go-to in the '90s. No Shadowrun, no Vampire, not even any AD&D really — Rolemaster all the way. I'm always eager to play it again, but unfortunately I am the only person I know who feels that way. And when I did get to play it again at a convention like five years ago… the GM didn't run it the way that we had run it, and it bugged me. Like, if I'm not using 20% of my action to roll Adrenal Speed, what are we even doing here? That's wildly unfair, I know, but it's like, I dunno, eating at Baja Fresh for years, then one day they go out of business and now you have to get your burritos from Chipotle, and there's nothing wrong with it but it's not the same. (The only inaccuracy with this analogy is that neither Baja Fresh nor Chipotle are all that great, whereas our RM games were all that great.)

    In our Vancouver RM group, I don't think there was a single person who wasn't totally willing to spend four hours on a single combat. This may be because the crit tables meant that any attack roll could suddenly turn a slog into a rout. I wouldn't say I'm a math nerd at all, but maybe I'm an arithmetic nerd, because the addition and subtraction of bonuses and modifiers and whatnot in RM (see also: Champions) always felt exciting to me for some reason. There's that gambling aspect to it, too. You think "Man, if I open-end on this next attack I can get through for maybe two crits — and what if I open-end twice?"! Absolutely the same self-delusion that keeps gambling addicts coming back to the roulette wheel.

    So anyway, nowadays I don't think I know anyone who would tolerate all the… Rolemaster-ness of Rolemaster. It's not hard math, but, if you're doing it right (IMO), there is a lot going on. 

    And re: bolting those crit tables onto D&D, the OSR-adjacent Blood, Guts & Glory (the third in a series of Rules Compendium-alikes, following Dark Dungeons and Darker Dungeons), is basically Rolemaster divided by 5. I'm about to start running a Greyhawk 5E game, and I'm seriously considering finding a way to jam those crit tables in there. But that may just be because a) I rarely get a chance to run a campaign these days and b) I tried to sell my players on a bunch of cool non-D&D games and they went off the menu to choose D&D instead, so I have the urge to at least make things more interesting than the standard 5E game (which, it should be said, I like just fine, RAW).

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