I’m sure many people have had the experience of sitting down to watch a favourite movie or television show from childhood only to wonder 20 minutes later just what the hell you had been smoking back then because it was pure unwatchable, unadulterated shit. If you have, then you’ll understand the trepidation I felt revisiting Rolemaster, a game I last played almost 20 years ago. As part of our Grand Gaming Experiment I had the opportunity to run Rolemaster Classic, the current incarnation of one of the first roleplaying games I ever played to any great extent. Originally coming from D&D and AD&D 1e/2e I had absolutely loved the far more freeform character creation; that any character could do almost anything given enough effort. A wizard that uses a two-handed sword and backstabs in combat? Awesome! I loved that I could create almost any character I could imagine. I loved the basically homogenous mechanics, the exciting (and risky) combat and the tongue-in-cheek critical hit system. Would I still enjoy the system after 20 years however?The answer to that question it turns out, is yes. Though in some ways my tastes have changed over the years (I no longer have the time or patience to spend the time gaining an encyclopaedic knowledge of a vast body of rules for example and my GMing style is a lot more freeform than it was back then), many of the things I loved about the game back then I still enjoy today.
Rolemaster is a traditional fantasy roleplaying system, with tolkien style elves, dwarves, hobbits (I mean halflings), orcs etc. along with the usual selection of classes; fighters, thieves, wizards, healers, rangers, alchemists, martial artists and bards to name a few. It is high fantasy, with powerful magics and heroic characters doing amazing things yet somehow manages to stay somewhat gritty; to this day still an unusual combination.
One of the confusing things about Rolemaster is all the editions. Rolemaster first and second edition were basically the same game, 2e just added more detail and optional rules. in the 90’s however Rolemaster received a major overhaul in the form of the Rolemaster Standard System which completely changed big chunks of the skill system, the combat sequence and spellcasting and was either loved or hated by existing fans. a couple of years later they performed a slight restructuring and it was reissued as Rolemaster Fantasy Roleplaying. In 2007 they did a (badly needed) reorganisation of the rules for second edition and released them as Rolemaster Classic to appeal to a some of their old fans who had dropped away in the Rolemaster Standard System and Rolemaster Fantasy Roleplaying days, and in an attempt to bring in new blood, released a one volume, cut-down and simplified version called Rolemaster Express. Got that? Phew. Our group decided to test drive 2e/Classic because not only was it the version I was most familiar with, but it is also the version that is in print and you can buy in stores.
The first thing you want to do when starting with any new gaming system is normally create a character, and our group was no exception. Unfortunately none of the players had actually read any of the rules before starting to create characters. Though Rolemaster character creation isn’t difficult there are a LOT of steps to go through. Even after the rules reorganisation they are still scattered throughout the books more than I would like. We only had 1 copy of the rules so character creation was a lot more painful than is usual with our group. In fact, I am sure that there are a couple of players who still haven’t recovered from the ordeal. I would generally recommend using one of the automatic character generation spreadsheets if you want to avoid some of the pain. The other issue with Rolemaster is that it’s not so much of a game system, as a game system construction set – so there are a large number of sometimes contradictory optional rules – establishing which ones you will use can be a huge task.
Character creation out of the way, the next thing to come to grips with in a game is just what your character can do, and how do you resolve the actions you attempt. This I think is where Rolemaster starts to shine. Ignoring magic for the moment, there are no special rules for classes, no powers to learn how they work, just skills. In fact, in many ways there really are no classes – classes only determine how much effort it takes for a character to learn skills. Everything is a skill, and from the players point of view everything is resolved in basically the same way – roll your d100, if you roll 96-100 celebrate and roll again (if you get 96-100 again keep going…), add your skill bonus and report the total to the GM who will apply modifiers and tell you the degree of success (or failure) of what you attempted. From the GMs point of view, things are a bit more complicated. Many rolls get looked up on a table of some kind and keeping track of all these tables can cause a GM a fair degree of grief unless they’re very organised, giving Rolemaster it’s (somewhat deserved) nickname of ChartMaster. Personally, I didn’t have room for lots of sheets of tables on the table our group games on so I put most of the common tables into a computer program to do the lookups without having to flip through tables in the rules all the time.
Combat is the next facet of the game where Rolemaster is somewhat unique. Most deaths in Rolemaster aren’t due to hit point loss, nothing so pedestrian as that! No, they are caused by broken bones, disembowelments, severed arteries and limbs and all manner of gruesome events. Successful attacks generally cause critical hits which are rolled and looked up on yet another set of tables but add a huge amount of flavour and grit to combat. Personally I think they’re hilarious, and they certainly make players consider alternatives to combat occasionally but players who have issues with character death may not enjoy them quite as much.
I’m not doing a full review here, so I won’t talk about the magic system (which is also quite unique as far as I know), character advancement, items and equipment or many other things. There are many reviews available on the internet if you are interested.
Like any system, Rolemaster Classic isn’t perfect. I’ve already mentioned the organisation of the books which I think could still be improved and the relatively complicated character creation. I could also add the artwork which is (in my opinion) pretty ordinary and the initiative system which seems out of place as it’s the only roll in the game that doesn’t use d100. The class system, while allowing any character to learn basically any skill, does restrict character development in terms of changing character concepts, as out of the box it doesn’t allow any kind of multiclassing. It won’t handle very well for example, a character that grows up on the streets stealing to stay alive (a thief in game terms), who later in life learns magic and becomes a powerful wizard. A thief can learn magic, but they are preordained by their class to never be more than a dabbler in magic. It’s also a system that, far more than most, that requires a GM who is organised, has a fairly good rules knowledge and is generally on the ball. Having said that, if you enjoy a system that allows you to create almost any kind of character and attempt any action you can think of, like exciting life-and-death rolls and situations where literally anything can happen, then maybe, just maybe, you might consider giving Rolemaster a test drive in your gaming group as well, though I would probably recommend starting with Rolemaster Express to lessen the learning curve and save your (and your groups) sanity.
- The flexible, class-based skill purchase system.
- The simplicity of having one basic mechanic for almost everything.
- The deadly combat system with it’s flavoursome critical results and elegant handling of attack, defence and parrying.
- That nothing is impossible, even if highly unlikely. I guarantee that every Rolemaster group will have stories they remember fondly about the time that they accomplished something incredible against all odds – singlehandedly killed the dragon, or was brought low by a humble orc.
- The elegance of the magic and mana system.
Dislikes (and prime candidates for houseruling for me anyway)
- Character creation is still too slow and complicated.
- The mechanics for casting some spells could be streamlined in my opinion.
- Playing low-level magic using characters can be frustrating. “What do you mean that the only spell I know allows me to boil water?!”
- Character evolution can be problematic without house rules.
- Running a game can be a lot of work for the GM to keep track of everything.
- The books themselves – can be hard to find things, not a fan of perfect bound books in general and I’m not a huge fan of the art.