Thursday, May 13, 2010

RPG Excavations: Rolemaster 2nd edition

I’ve had copies of the Iron Crown Enterprise’s Rolemaster books among my rpgs for about fourteen years. I inherited them from a friend who was moving away and wanted to get rid of his gaming manuals. During the time I’ve owned them I would sometimes take them out and try to read through them. I had trouble making any kind of sense of these books. They were filled with charts and abbreviations which were, to say the least, inadequately explained. Arms Law’s notorious critical hit charts were fun to look at, but I had very little idea of how they might be used. MERP was supposed to be a simplified version of Rolemaster, but I found myself lacking the patience to even get through that book. I considered getting rid of them numerous times, but I hung on to these tomes because, for all their obfuscation, they still called to me: there’s a good game in here somewhere.

Back in my rules lite days of playing Amber Diceless and Fudge, I used to make derisive comments about the guys who I saw at the local game store who were all clearly Rolemaster heads. They couldn’t have been roleplaying, right? They were just sitting around looking at charts, weren’t they? The even more complicated versions of Rolemaster that came out in the 1990s seemed to confirm to me this vision of the game as “Chartmaster” or “Rulemonster” as its often referred to by its detractors.

So the other day I was taking a look at Arms Law and suddenly the light came pouring in. I found myself understanding more and more. This led to much more intensive investigation of the game than anything I'd previously done.

My reaction? Holy $*%#! It is quite a game, and it has some brilliant aspects. However, this is a game for hardcore gamers who are looking for a very detailed system, but it actually uses a fairly simple system at its core. The game's major flaw isn't the system itself, but it is the confusing organization of the rules. Like the AD&D 1E Dungeon Master's Guide, there's more here than you'll need and sometimes important things are not clearly spelled out.

One of the things you have to realize about Rolemaster is that the system was designed to be modular. The golden rule is: use only what you need. You can always expand things later. I initially was thinking that I’d create some bastardized homebrew drawing bits from Chaosium’s Basic Roleplaying system (which I love) and Rolemaster, but I’m becoming more enamored of Rolemaster on its own.

The character creation system is interesting because it combines elements of a skill system and a class/level based system. Basically you buy skills as you advance in levels with what are called development points. The catch is that different skills cost different amounts to buy depending on what your class is. Fighters can buy weapon skills relatively cheaply while they pay much more for magic based skills. The nice things is though that you can build whatever skills you want into any class. Swordwielding mages are totally a possibility here.

I’ve got a pretty good handle on Arms Law, which contains the combat rules, and I even managed to roll up a character using Character Law. Spell Law, the game’s magic system, still eludes me, but I’m confident that I’ll soon get a handle on that as well.

I likely won’t be playing this game anytime soon as my group is currently deep in 4E territory, but I’m glad I’ve got a better understanding of just what’s under Rolemaster’s hood. Now I just need to take her out for a spin. I’ll being doing a follow up post soon.


  1. Rolemaster is a great game. Character creation is the hardest part, which kinda stinks considering how dangerous combat is. But I played the heck out of RM in the late 80's.

  2. I rolled up a second character the other day and it took around ninety minutes (which is down from the over two hours it took the first time).

  3. Some of my best memories of gaming were playing a MERP/RM2 hybrid during high-school.