Thursday, September 26, 2013

The Place of Dead Games: Rolemaster

I remember playing Monopoly, Clue, and Life growing up and enjoying them. Until I stopped enjoying them. I played Star Fleet Battles through expansions and editions until I realized I didn’t want to any more. I played Micro-Armor, Napoleonics, and Warhammer 40K but I don’t anymore. And in each of those cases, I don’t have any real feeling of nostalgia- no desire to go back and play it again. It isn’t so much about new games grabbing my attention, but what I got out of those games being less important now. With RPGs, my feeling’s a little different. I can’t think of any rpg I played in the past that I wouldn’t go back and try again- if someone I knew was pushing it. I might do so reluctantly, more in some cases than others. But I don’t have the sense of “Nope, not again” that other games give.

But many things would have to line up to get me to the table for some. I have three game systems I played for years- multiple campaigns, characters, groups, and stories. Then I put them aside. For many people I know D&D would be on this list. But D&D never held on as a solid option. I started with it- learning from the tan box and then moving on to the Holmes box and then AD&D. But I didn’t play anything long term- pick-up games and some modules. I don’t recall ever having a character last for more than a level or two. In high school I ran AD&D briefly, but eventually dropped it in favor of other games and systems. The last time we went back to play it long-term ended up a tongue-in-cheek parody game that lasted for several months.

In our area, a split happened pretty early. We had a faction of older gamers who’d come out of the wargames tradition to D&D. They saw it as a strategic game of the GM trying to kill the players. We also had a younger gaggle of players who pretty much bought TSR games. But we also had my sister’s age range- a large cohort who tried new games of all kinds and set some of the tastes for the area. That produced a focus on V&V (and then Champions), Call of Cthulhu, and oddly Rolemaster. RM became the go-to fantasy system for people wanting to do more. Still young, I had the chance to sit in and watch a couple of RM sessions run by a GM named Matt Myers. He blew me away with the level of detail, both in world building and rules. I wanted to be that kind of GM- spinning a world that players talked about after the game, with an encyclopedic knowledge of the setting I’d created. I was in Middle School, so sitting in on a game run by these older players (seniors and college age!) had a huge impact.

Not long after I watched those sessions, I actually got to try out Rolemaster. As a system it had some problems. Early on it had presented itself as a set of options to bolt on to other FRPGs. Spell Law, Campaign Law, and Arms Law came out of the early tradition of third party products trying to expand and offer new options. In some cases, they offered new games which looked like old games (Arduin). In others, they presented generic options which could be tacked on…maybe (The Compleat Alchemist). Rolemaster straddled that line. It stood out in presentation with everything printed on parchment-style paper and some books on heavy cardstock. When I actually first played RM I didn’t like it. At first level I had one spell- "Boil Water," which couldn’t be used to actually hurt anyone.

However in high school the first seeds of the steady group I’d play with for the next decade began to form. We had a mix of players my age and four years older. One GM, Paul Dunivent, made Rolemaster his own. He bought up everything for it- the Vog Mur and Iron Wind modules as well as the newly released Rolemaster Companion. Iron Crown had just redone RM in a more accessible approach- not the later red cover edition, but a reprinting and reorganization that made the game feel complete. Bizarrely, Paul combined the high-power gameplay of Rolemaster with the low-fantasy setting of Harn. Somehow it worked- particularly because Paul mostly used it for place names rather than themes. We played a lot Rolemaster, exploiting loopholes in the system and trying to interpret the rules as best we could. A couple of times I played it at conventions only to discover very different interpretations of the mechanics. Our campaigns for the next several years broke into one of four groups- Rolemaster, Superhero, GURPS, and other weirdness (including AD&D nostalgia). We played every Friday and Saturday night on a weekly basis.

All through high school and college, Rolemaster became more and more complicated. Well, not complicated- because you could really make it as complex as you wanted. Instead ICE kept putting out new options and supplements. We bought all of the Rolemaster Companions, of course. But we also bought the Creatures and Treasures books, War Law, Sea Law, Shadow World, the Alchemy Companion, the Arms Companion, Spell Users Companion, and eventually the power-gamer crazy-assed supplement the Elemental Companion. I ran and played that flavor up through the late 1990’s You had to pick and choose your poison from the system- which classes actually fit, which spell lists didn’t break the game, which skills of the hundreds would actually get used. We had a good time with it over many campaigns.

Then we switched over to Rolemaster Standard System, a retooling of the basic engine (also called RM 3e). It consolidated the rules, cleaned up the skill system, and tried to make it feel like a coherent and complete system. It still had optional bits- but the supplements offered more bolt-ons than new approaches to the rules. The switch ended up being fairly painless- except for the price of buying new books. I ran a complete multi-year campaign using it, as well as a reskin to handle Legend of the Five Rings. A couple of other people ran campaigns as well. However the change to something less slap-dash cost Rolemaster something. Before it had been f*cking insane. I mean seriously crazy with all of the bits, bobs, dials. Look at all of the stuff going on in the Rolemaster Companions I-VII plus the others and try to stitch that together. Even basic concepts- like initiative-- could have several parallel complicated and arcane rules versions. And part of the charm of the game lay in that weirdness. When they clean it up it lose some of that magic.

But more importantly, it felt like too much work for what you got out of it. Character creation and advancement became a bear. The power curve as you advanced become silly. Plus I lost some of my appetite for a combat heavy fantasy campaign. I wanted more of a balance- between the low-power fantasy I got in running GURPS 3e (the other big fantasy system I used) and this old-school power game. In the end, I packed up all of my RM stuff and handed them off to another player. They had fond memories of the games and tried it, but eventually ditched in favor of 3.5 and then Pathfinder. Rolemaster hugely influenced my gaming- showing me lots of options and forcing me to really gain system mastery in order to make the game hum. But I don’t think I’ll ever run it again. At times I have nostalgia and consider what it might be like to run from just Character Law, Spell Law, and Arms Law, but I think better of it. I have other game systems I’d requiring less effort to push uphill. These that’s that really important to me: I don’t want to fight with the game system I’m running.

  • Tons of cool chrome including many, many interesting character classes
  • Love the concept of classes partially defined by the costs paid for different abilities and skills
  • Gonzo world suggested by the mechanical choices
  • Combat resolution system- to hit and criticals- remains tremendously flavorful and cool
  • Wide ranging magic system

  • Incoherence throughout the system
  • Too many skills divided and subdivided
  • High randomness
  • Too long to make a character
  • Many core systems like actions ended up over-complicated
  • Multi-page character sheets
  • The power of magic at upper levels
  • Spells lists often felt samey
  • Too many rules in too many different places
  • Wealth of options paralyzed as much as it freed
  • Had players in the group who absolutely hated it, but no one who absolutely loved it 
First in a series on games I loved, but no longer play. You can find Part Two: Champions here and Part Three: GURPS here


  1. There's a new version of Rolemaster being written, and there's also a lot of player input. Of course I haven't checked on the progress of the new version for a while, but it could be a very playable RPG.

  2. There was a local GM who used to run Rolemaster. He was damned amazing at handling it and had all of what he used from the various books photocopied and bundled up into binders for the players to use. Eventually he moved to another state and some of us tried to take up the system but we just couldn't get it. Eventually those of us (like me) who had purchased books while he ran it put them up on the shelf.

    I would like to play in another Rolemaster game with a GM who knew the system well. But I don't think I have the right mind set to run it myself.

  3. I love that system still. The ability to tool it into whatever you like is an allure that keeps calling to me.

    For some reason I imagine there is a smooth and simple game in there, with chrome on top if you need it. God knows if it will ever crawl out from under the weight of the rest of the system.

    I really wonder if I will every go back to games wherein it takes a long time to generate a character...

  4. I keep playing RM, and I'm 33... Best game ever.

  5. I ran an RM game for years and absolutely loved it. I always started groups off at 5th level because I couldn't conceive of how to make an adventure fun for 1st level characters (they were so weak). I learned early on not to take the rules very seriously. Probably as much as half the rules I used were made up on the spot.