Rolemaster is a role-playing game and game system published by Iron Crown Enterprises. Rolemaster has come in four separate editions. The 3rd edition, first published in 1995, is also known as the "Rolemaster Standard System" (or RMSS for short). Since 1999, the current edition is called "Rolemaster Fantasy Roleplaying" (or RMFRP) and differs from RMSS only cosmetically, and in its organization.
Basic game mechanicsEdit
Rolemaster uses a percentile dice system and employs both classes (called "Professions" in Rolemaster) and levels to describe character capabilities and advancement.
Task resolution is straightforward: the player rolls percentile dice, applies relevant modifiers, and looks the result up on the appropriate chart to determine the results of character actions. There are various charts available to increase the realism of the results, but most of these are optional, and many rolls can be made on a relatively small number of tables unless the group desires otherwise.
Combat is similarly intuitive. Each character has an Offensive Bonus (OB), which takes into account one's natural physical adeptness, weapon skill, and other factors, and a Defensive Bonus (DB), which takes into account natural agility, the use of shields and "Adrenal Defense", the ability of martial artists to avoid blows seemingly without effort. In addition various modifiers for position, wounds, and other factors are present.
An attacking combatant rolls percentile dice, adds his or her OB to the total, adds modifiers, and subtracts the defender's DB. The total is then applied to a table for the attacker's weapon. The attack total is cross-indexed with the type of armor (if any) worn by the defender and the result will be a number of concussion hits dealt, which are then subtracted from the defender's running total. If sufficient hits are dealt, the defender may go unconscious, but death seldom results purely from concussion hit damage.
In addition to concussion hits, however, a critical hit can be dealt by the result on the weapon table. These are described by type (slash, crush, puncture, etc.) and by severity (generally A through E, with E being the most severe). Critical Hits (or simply "crits"), can inflict additional concussion hits, bleeding (subtracted from concussion hits at the start of each new round), broken bones, loss of limbs or extremities, internal organ damage and outright death. If a crit is inflicted, a second roll is made on the appropriate critical table.
Thus, unlike, for example, Dungeons and Dragons, Rolemaster describes wounds not only in the number of points of damage dealt (which are then subtracted from an abstract pool of 'Hit Points'), but with specific details of the injury inflicted. Death occurs, for both player characters and Gamemaster-controlled adversaries, primarily through this critical damage, and not through loss of hit points. In addition, specific injuries carry with them injury penalties, which inhibit further actions on the part of the wounded part, and loss of concussion hits (which represent overall health), can bring about similar penalties.
Also, it will be noted that strike resolution in Rolemaster requires one, or at most two, die rolls, with no additional modifiers made to the second (critical) roll, except in certain circumstances when specific special abilities are in play. In addition, the common flaw pointed out in pure hit point systems (such as D&D's), where a fighting combatant functions at full ability until the point he or she drops unconscious or dead, does not exist in Rolemaster.
Almost all die rolls in Rolemaster are 'open-ended', meaning that if a result is high enough (or low enough), you roll again and add (or subtract) the new roll to the original result - and this can happen multiple times, so in theory, there is no upper limit to how well (or poorly) one can roll. This means that a halfling does have a chance, albeit slight, to put down a troll with one well-placed (and lucky) dagger strike.
However, the fact that one's opponents also fight using these same rules can make Rolemaster a very deadly game for both PCs and NPCs; a lucky shot may let Joe-Bob the Ignorant Scullery Boy kill the Mighty Thargad, Orc Warmaster of the North, with a kitchen knife; and Angar the Strong, 30th-level fighter in full plate with a wide array of combat skills, can die to a lucky kobold fighting with a broken bottle.
Fans of the system maintain that this adds a great deal of realism not present in many other fantasy games, and reflects the true deadliness of a well-placed strike from a weapon, even a small one such as a dagger. Death from natural weapons (such as a fist or an animal's teeth and claws) can happen but is very rare against armored combatants. Unarmored characters may very well suffer serious wounds when mauled by animals, but again this allows for more credible confrontations than in other fantasy games, where the threat posed by an "unfantastic" beast such as a wolf, grizzly bear, or tiger is considered minimal.
Because Rolemaster's approach to combat favors a warrior that is properly armed and armored, a character that is poorly-equipped (as is typically the case with newly-generated characters) is decidedly vulnerable. Such characters can have a tough time prevailing against even fairly mundane opponents. This can prove frustrating for new players, and has given rise to hyperbolic tales of housecats cutting down promising young heroes in their prime.
Rolemaster is sometimes derisively called 'Chartmaster' or 'Rulemonster' for depending upon numerous tables and charts for character generation and resolving game actions, and for its perceived vast array of rules covering every possible situation. This is the hub of contention between the game's fans and critics. While Rolemaster does indeed offer many rules and tables, much of this content is strictly supplemental. The intent is for the gamemaster to pick the right tool for the right situation, rather than take an "everything-and-the-kitchen-sink" approach. The snag here is that some gamemasters do take the latter approach to heart. Practical or not, for them the intricacies of the rules and the unpredictability of consulting a table at every turn is what makes Rolemaster unique and endearing.
A GM wishing to limit a previously rather detailed table-oriented campaign may also run into rather elaborate discussion with players pulling out all stops in critical situations to save their characters' hides. A seasoned GM will therefore typically limit the rules rather brutally at the beginning of his or her game-mastering career in order to save trouble later. After all, more 'sophistication' can always be introduced later on in the game.
Character creation and developmentEdit
Rolemaster is a skill-based system in which no absolute restrictions on skill selection are employed. All character abilities (fighting, stealth, spell use, etc.) are ultimately handled through the skill system. A character's profession represents not a rigid set of abilities available to the character, but rather a set of natural proficiencies in numerous areas. These proficiencies are reflected in the costs expended to purchase the skills themselves.
Rolemaster characters have ten attributes, called "stats", which represent their natural abilities in such areas as physical strength, memory, self-discipline, agility, and so forth. Both random and points-based methods for determining stat totals exist, but the final result will be a number on a percentile scale (1-100), which is then used to determine the character's skill bonus at actions which employ that stat.
In character creation, and as characters advance in levels, Development Points are assigned, and can be used to purchase skills. In RMSS and RFRP, they can also be spent on Training Packages, which represent a specific bundle of skills, equipment and contacts gained through training. These are optional, and can be ignored if the player prefers to design his or her character entirely from the ground up.
Skills are purchased in Ranks; the more ranks a character has in a skill, the more able he is at actions covered by that skill. The number of ranks is multiplied by a set number dependent on the total number of ranks the character has, then added to the bonus for the relevant stats. The final number is the character's skill bonus, which is the number actually added to the dice when actions are attempted.
As noted above, there are no absolute restrictions on which skills members of any Profession can purchase. If a fighter wants to learn a few spells, he can, but at a cost that may inhibit his mastery of weapons.
History of RolemasterEdit
Over the years, a large number of products have been brought out for Rolemaster and it can be rather confusing to figure out which of these were put out for which version of the game and what books are needed to actually play.
There have been four versions of the game produced, which fall into two major groups. First Edition and Second Edition Rolemaster belong to the first group, usually just referred to as RM2. There was then a fairly major revision to the game when the third version, Rolemaster Standard System was released (RMSS). This was then reorganized and very lightly revised into the fourth version, Rolemaster Fantasy Roleplaying (RMFRP). RMSS and RFRP comprise the second group. Lists with cover images of the all the products for the various Rolemaster versions can be found here.
Products within one group tend to be almost 100% compatible with other products in the same group. Compatibility between the groups is also high, but problematic, especially in the case of RM2's vast array of optional rules, some of which will simply not work in RMSS or RFRP without modification. Many of RM2's options were added as part of the RMSS/RFRP core in different forms.
Rolemaster first and second editionsEdit
The term Rolemaster First Edition (RM1) is generally used to refer to the products released between 1980 and 1982, including the original versions of Arms Law, Claw Law, Spell Law, Character Law and Campaign Law. These were available initially as individual books, and later as combined volumes (Character Law & Campaign Law and Arms Law & Claw Law were combined virtually unaltered into single books), and in boxed sets.
The original concept was to produce a series of modular supplements which could be used to replace portions of existing roleplaying games (in particular Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, but also including other contemporary games such as RuneQuest, which was closer to Rolemaster in many respects than AD&D was). However, with the publication of Character Law, the full Rolemaster system became able to stand on its own as a distinct game system.
In 1984 the information in the books was expanded and revised and some of the books were combined and the material in them rearranged. An initial boxed set was brought out in 1984 which resembled the previous Spell Law and Arms Law/Claw Law boxed set but contained a new Spell Law, a combined Arms Law/Claw and the existing Character Law, as well as the Vog Mur campaign setting module.
A new boxed set was released shortly thereafter containing the combined Arms Law/Claw Law, the updated Spell Law and the combined Character Law/Campaign Law book, as well as The Cloudlords of Tanara, a detailed setting and adventure supplement which introduced ICE's original Loremaster setting, which would later develop into the more sophisticated Shadow World.
Several additional books were published from 1985 to 1988, including Rolemaster Companions 1, 2, and 3 and the first Creatures and Treasures book. The official start of the Second Edition Rolemaster series came with a Boxed Set (the so-called "Red Spine" set) containing redesigned editions of Arms Law & Claw Law, Spell Law, and Character Law & Campaign Law, all with red-bordered covers.
Technically, the products released between 1984 and 1988 are also First Edition Rolemaster products, but actual differences between RM1 and RM2 were slight (limited to a minor modification to the combat sequence, some rearranging of material, and a major graphical overhaul), and few (if any) compatibility issues ever arose.
This means that, in common parlance, the term "Rolemaster Second Edition" (RM2) is often used to refer everything published from 1984 to 1994. In particular, Rolemaster Companion II included the complete Skill list and descriptions section and Master Development Point Cost Tables as well as several Professions that are often considered the distinguishing features of Rolemaster Second Edition.
Numerous additional supplements were produced for the Second Edition, including "numbered" Companions 4-7, the Alchemy, Oriental, Elemental Spell Users' and Arms Companions, and two additional Creatures and Treasures volumes.
Much of this material, and the material that was published under the aegis of the first edition, took the form of optional and variant rules (some of which, like the greatly expanded skill system of Rolemaster Companion II, were widely adopted), and new professions and spell lists. Given this, many regarded RM2 as a toolkit for outfitting and developing one's own game. Some variants even replaced whole sections of distinctively "Rolemaster" rules, such as the combat system, with more traditional systems closer to the line established by Advanced Dungeons and Dragons.
Debate still persists over whether this toolkit approach was RM2's greatest asset or a terrible weakness. Ultimately it made for a very flexible system with a vast array of options, but could easily suffer from play balance problems if particular sets of rules were used together, since little effort was made to balance different variants against each other, and power creep in the later professions and spell lists was very much in evidence.
Rolemaster Standard SystemEdit
In 1995 the game was revamped and re-released as Rolemaster Standard System (RMSS). The biggest changes were to Character Generation, particularly in the number of skills available and the way bonuses for the skills were calculated. Skills were now grouped into Categories of similar skills and one could buy ranks separately in the Category and the actual Skill. Also the combat sequence was revised again, and some of the details of spellcasting were changed. The way Spell Lists were learned was completely overhauled and most of the Spell lists were adjusted and rebalanced. The actual method of attacking and adjudicating damage did not change much, and there weren't much more than cosmetic changes to the stats for Creatures and Monsters.
Like most changes, opinions on whether the changes were for the better or not vary widely; some fans really liked the changes, while others were unimpressed and elected to stick with the more familiar RM2. For the most part the objections from RM2 players had more to do with feeling that Rolemaster did not need such a radical overhaul, and disappointment over the fact that RM2 was no longer going to be supported as such.
Rolemaster Fantasy RoleplayingEdit
In 1999 the game underwent a slight restructuring when Rolemaster Fantasy Roleplaying (RMFRP) was released, but this was mostly a rearranging of material with very few changes to the rules themselves. A detailed comparison of the RMSS and RMFRP systems can be found: here
Rolemaster Fantasy Roleplaying is the current edition of the Rolemaster rules, and is thus well-supported and easier for interested new players to pick up and try out. One positive change made in RMFRP was a single core book, containing a stripped-down version of the complete game, so that only one book was necessary for play. Arms Law adds additional Attack and Critical tables, while Character Law adds additional races, professions, skills and the full talent and flaw system.
RMFRP has broken the older single-volume Spell Law into three separate books, Of Essence, Of Channelling and Of Mentalism, each of which expands that realm of power with additional professions and spell lists, and expanding each spell list to 50th level spells. All of this material was previously available under RMSS as part of the single-volume Spell Law and the Rolemaster Standard Rules.
There are other supplements as well, but most of them build upon the material presented in the books listed. Such as the Channeling Companion, which introduces a new profession called the Priest and adds a passel of new rules. Another supplement is Fire and Ice: The Elemental Companion. This book contains all you need to know to add elementalism to Rolemaster.