29 July 2010

Rolemaster & MERP Nostalgia

This thread over at RPG.net – and this “necro’d” thread from three years ago – reminded me of my ancient yet resilient love for the games of Iron Crown Enterprises, specifically, Middle-earth Roleplaying (‘MERP’) and Rolemaster second edition (‘RM2’). (RM2 recently was revised and republished as ‘Rolemaster Classic’ (‘RMC’).)

I played a lot of MERP, and eventually a MERP-RM2 hybrid (essentially, MERP’s character creation and skill system, with the combat and magic systems from RM), during the peak of my role-playing activities, from the mid-1980s to the early 1990s. Like most gamers, I started with (and still like to play) TSR’s D&D and AD&D games. However, many of my fondest RPG memories, especially as a gamemaster, involved running MERP and my MERP-RM2 hybrid. And I still love, with a passion, many of ICE’s excellent Middle-earth campaign modules. I got a lot of use out of this one during one high-school summer:

The threads to which I linked above got me thinking about possibly running some Rolemaster again. In particular, I’m tempted to build my own ‘customized’ version of RMC, using the minimal Rolemaster Express (‘RMX’) rules as a base, and building on them by drawing selectively upon material from the full RMC rules, as well as the various ‘Express Additions’ that ICE has released in recent years. (More info on the relation between RMC and RMX here.)

I’m not sure whether (or when) I’ll act on this particular nostalgic impulse. If I do, though, I’ll be sure to post my ideas here.


  1. This is REALLY weird that you posted this today, because I just had a strange impulse just last night to pull out my copy of MERP second edition and peruse it. I bought it years ago with the intention of using it as a resource if I ever wanted to run a Middle Earth campaign. I never intended to use the actual rules, just the setting!

    I've always been intrigued with Rolemaster and MERP, but I never could seem to wrap my head around the rules. It always seemed a cool "competitor" to D&D, one that sprang from a completely different set of rules, with different artists doing the illustrations and all that (I always loved the Rolemaster art).

    But maybe I was just so steeped in the D&D rules that the Rolemaster rules just didn't compute, you know? Plus, I never wanted to up and invest a ton of time and cash into a system, especially one that no one else I knew was playing.

    Over the years it's gotten a bad rap, with people calling it "Chartmaster" and all that. And I guess I just decided to go along with the crowd and avoid playing it.

    Do I have it all wrong? Is Rolemaster really "too complicated" or am I just brainwashed?

  2. There are two main lines of Rolemaster currently being supported (3 if you include RMX as separate from RMC, but more on that below), RMSS (sometimes abreviated as RMRPG) and RMC. The former being the latest edition of the rules, and the later being a rerelease of the 2nd edition of the rules. The major difference between the two is the skill list and how they are broken out, though overall RMSS has a lot more potential subsystems than RMC.

    In RMSS skills are broken out by both category and specific, such that Perception is a category while Searching is a specific skill under Perception. Your total skill bonus of a particular skill is the sum of specific ranks in the skill and its parent category. In RMSS there is a skill for nearly everything, including beurocracy and killing yourself in a medatative trance. Some skills have rule implications detailed only in the skill description (which as mentioned, there are quite a bit of, so easy to miss something). One example is skill ranks in certain secret arcane languages can grant a bonus to spell casting if used to utter the spell.

    It is initially daunting, but it actually works, and has the advantage that all the calculations are done up front during character generation and level up, then it is just a matter of reference. The biggest issues I personally have, are skill bloat and keeping track of all the various modifiers, sometimes scattered across the books.

    By contrast, RMC's skill list is slim and focused on adventuring skills. In fact, if you compared a list of the skills side by side to the various skills available to each DnD class, they would line up pretty close. RMC does include a longer list of secondary or background skills, and except for 2-4 exceptions (such as First Aid and Tracking) they remain mostly as additional flavor and are not necessary for play. RMX promotes the handful of truely useful secondary skills to full skills and ditches the rest.

  3. RMX is put forth as a quick and cheap way to get into Rolemaster (and specifically RMC), but in my opinion is a superior version of RMC in it's presentation. The problem with RMX is that you pretty much have to pick it up in pieces through a single book and a growing list of mini-supplements. The good news about the mini-supplements though is that each only contains a handful of items such that one can easily pick and choose which are of interest, and the price is right at just a handful of bucks each. To me it seems that RMC aims to stick close to the original RM2 source, while they give RMX a little bit of extra leash to present some new options and systems that were not part of RM2 originally. RMX and RMC though are fully compatible.

    As far as RMC/RMX are concerned, there really are not that many charts to the base game. Besides the combat charts, there are only 2 main core charts, the resistance chart and the move and manuever chart. The combat charts are where the system earned its name as Chartmaster. If one plays with Armsmaster (as most do) there is a separate chart for each weapon. However, there are several alternate systems (one presented in RMX, another in the Combat Companion) that use one table per class of weapon (Edged, Crushing, Piercing, Twohanded, Martial Arts, Grapple, Tooth&Claw, and Directed Spells if I remember right), much like the original MERP rules. This is much more manageable for some, but the one chart per weapon also works well if each player has a photocopy for their weapons.

    I feel there are two main points of complexity, both applying much more to the RMSS line than the RMC line. Roll modifiers and combat sequence. There are quite a number of modifiers to deal with, especially for spell casting. This can overwelm players and GMs initially, but once some system mastery is gained, like most systems, it is not really an issue. The combat sequence is rather fiddly in my taste, as you rate each action in a round as a percentage, not to exceed 100% (exceptions exist of course due to wounds or haste type effects). Example: I move with 40% of my action and attack with the other 60%. This means my character moves up to 40% of their base speed and attacks with 60% of their normal combat skill. RMSS adds an additional layer where you can rate each action as Swift, Normal, or Deliberate, which allows you to gain a bonus by going later in the round, or take a penalty to get your action off quicker.

  4. For me, the major weakness of Rolemaster is the level of power for low level spellcasters. A first level mage, by the book, is capable of amazing feats such as...boiling water a couple times per day... And it takes 3 rounds to cast that boil water spell... The traditional "fix" is to start all characters off at 5th level, a solution I never liked, though it makes sense. I am weird in this way, but I wouldn't have a problem if that was an actual rule the game was built around, rather than just a suggestion.

    Iron Crown also puts out a game called HARP that you should look at, it shares a lot in common with Rolemaster, though it actually has one of the best magic systems of any RPG. My perfect ICE game would be a combination of RMC and HARP, a project I have attempted once before, but never completed.

    Sorry for the long post, I sort of rambled on. I think the main point was that the "complication" is mostly imagined and you should not let that reputation stop you from giving it a shot.

    Now the disclaimer, I am not an expert with these rules by any stretch, and have not played them in quite some time, so anyone that knows better can post with any corrections to what I have said.

  5. Wow, thanks for that comprehensive summary of the various ICE lines, Harvicus. I agree with most of the points that you mention, although I suspect that I like RMSS even less than you do.

    As for first level spellcasters in RMC, I don't think that they are quite as useless as you suggest. First level magicians (as well as other Essence spellcasters with access to 'Closed Essence' spell lists), for instance, can cast "Sleep V" (the first level spell of "Spirit Mastery"), which is a very helpful spell indeed. There are a few other useful spells for beginning spellcasters of any realm.

    But I would definitely use the "+10 PP" bonus for all spellcasters provided in RMX.

  6. DRANCE, the core mechanic of RM is d100 +/- modifiers (skill bonuses, etc.). Higher is always better. This mechanic underlies pretty much *every* aspect of RM -- combat, skills, magic, resistance rolls, etc. Yes, you usually have to consult a chart (more than one if you score a critical hit or fumble), but everything is built around the 'd100' mechanic.

    The second RPG.net thread to which I linked in my original post describes one gamer's attempt to try out RMX. It may be helpful to see how someone previously unacquainted with the game found it.

  7. Hey there. I'll go back and read that thread, and let you know what I think. Heck, I may try to find a way to get my hands on some Rolemaster stuff in the near future. Heh, like I need ANOTHER RPG to throw into my already confusing mix of games on my brain! ;-)

  8. I have Rolemaster 2nd edition, boxed set, sitting on my shelf. I found it last summer at a used bookstore in my 'hood.

    I have only tried to learn it once, and it did not go well. To my defense, I had consumed a few brews prior to the attempt, which was probably not a great idea.

    I would like to try RM someday, preferably as a player in an experienced RM Guru's campaign. Unfortunately, I don't think there's a single soul in this city that plays RM.

  9. I had forgotten about the sleep spell, well pointed out. RM with a GM that knows the system well is a treat, I was fortunate to have such growing up, though that GM was not me.

    I am currently falling in love with Runequest for the first time. My only exposure to the system as a kid was a friend that had a copy of the AH version, and the proto classical earth setting it came with was a bit of a turn off so never gave it a chance.

    That all changed recently after finding out about Openquest and the latest Mongoose incarnation, now trying to learn all about a part of RPG history I totally missed out on.

  10. The thread did the same thing to me. My experiment is going to be with RMX and The Mythic GM Emulator.

  11. What is the "Mythic GM Emulator", Nathan?

  12. This comment has been removed by the author.

  13. The Mythic GM Emulator is sort of a "GM In a Box" or more specifically, in a light framework and a few charts.

    Here's the link to the Mythic GM Emulator product page:

    Here's a bit of what I've been doing with it:

  14. Thanks for those links, Nathan. Interesting stuff.

  15. I hear you. I have been toying with the idea of a hacked RM for a long time myself. MERP was my first game, and I have many fond memories of it.

  16. Funny enough I just recently started looking over my HARP and RMC/RMX books. Started thinking about running one of them. Or coming up with my own set of rules using them all.


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I'm a Canadian political philosopher who lives primarily in Toronto but teaches in Milwaukee (sometimes in person, sometimes online).