Rolemaster Escapes Under Cover of Darkness

Rolemaster, in terms of its official editions, is stagnant. I know that’s a stark statement, but it’s essentially true. No major new version of the game has come out for over two decades (Rolemaster Classic is not a new edition but a rerelease of the second edition with spruced-up art and layout). The fanbase is splintered between several camps. Some consider the original system as developed during its first and second editions to be, if not perfect, at least solid enough for their purposes, and regard the changes of later editions to be mistakes which ultimately took the game in the wrong direction. Some swear by the Rolemaster Standard System (RMSS), which the consensus seems to regard as the most complex variant, perhaps because they consider the complexity to pay off or because they prefer it as a generic system which yielded some extremely interesting contributions outside of the fantasy genre, or Rolemaster Fantasy Role Playing (RMFRP), the 1999 version which retained a lot of the crunch of the Standard System but pivoted back to a focus on fantasy. Others prefer HARP or MERP, simplified systems which incorporate ideas from Rolemaster to differing extents without encompassing the whole package.

The current incarnation of Iron Crown Enterprises has, for some years, promised that a new edition is forthcoming, and have billed it as Rolemaster Unified. In and of itself, that title is making a big promise, and it’s one which is reiterated by the first line of ICE’s webpage about the playtest process.

Looking forward, the multiple variations of Rolemasterwill be unified into a single Rolemaster system. This new edition of Rolemaster will include the best of all versions of Rolemaster as well as new enhancements and improvements to the Rolemaster system for the 21st-century.

That FAQ concludes by saying that “the voice of the community is very clear that multiple competing editions are a major problem.” However, I feel like the very mission statement of Rolemaster Unified gives ICE a tremendously difficult task, and one which is perhaps impossible. Sure, it is probably possible to make a version of the game which takes elements of Rolemaster Classic and RMFRP/RMSS and blends them together, but the differing tastes between the camps mean that producing a new edition which will please everyone (or even the majority of invested fans) is a tall order – and that’s before you consider how a failure to reach new fans to cover attrition in the player base and maybe even expand it would also be undesirable.

Essentially, it’s the RPG design version of this XKCD comic: a far more likely outcome than the reunification of the fanbase behind one edition to rule them all is that the Rolemaster Unified camp will be added to the other factions with Strong Opinions about the optimal direction of the game. It turns out that when a game puts a high priority on well-honed rules crunch, and gets a reputation for being all about that crunch, it develops an audience which has very strong opinions about that crunch and will react strongly to changes in that crunch, and it’s quite hard to change that crunch in a way which will gain universal approval because often in RPGs one person’s bug is another’s feature.

That’s if Rolemaster Unified is ever finalised at all. The open playtest has been grinding on since October 2012 – that’s over eight years. To put that timespan in context, consider that eight years is…

  • …the same length of time that 3.0 or 3.5 Dungeons & Dragons were the current edition (3.0 released 2000, 4E released 2008).
  • …one year longer than 5th Edition Dungeons & Dragons has been out there. (5th Edition dropped in 2014).
  • …two years longer than the commercial lifespan of 1st and 2nd edition RuneQuest (first edition published 1978, third edition published 1984).
  • …three years longer than the commercial lifespan of Rolemaster Standard System (debuted 1994, RMFRP published 1999) or the era when Mongoose was using the RuneQuest name for the game now known as Legend, (released 2006, licence ended 2011).
  • …four years longer than the commercial lifespan of 4th Edition D&D (released in 2008, last product came out 2012), or the era when The Design Mechanism were using the RuneQuest name for the game now known as Mythras.
  • …five years longer than it took James Wallis to finish writing Alas Vegas and release the PDF of the rulebook (Kickstarter ran 2013 with the text allegedly mostly complete, PDF released 2016).

In terms of absurdly long development processes for games, only the infamously botched Far West Kickstarter compares (funding period ran in 2011, game is still not released as of time of writing)… except presumably the playtest was preceded by a certain amount of design time and consultation prior to the playtest documents being released, so it may well be even more delayed than that.

Alright, fine – but there’s free playtest versions of the core books, right? Well, sure but that’s not the same as a finalised product for two important reasons. The first is that as a playtest product it is subject to change – which means that everything is still up for grabs for those who want to amp up the Rolemaster Classic factor and dial back the RMFRP influence or vice versa, or anyone else pushing a particular vision of the game. Until the playtesting is done, we can’t be 100% sure what Rolemaster Unified will actually look like once the dust settles.

The other and perhaps more important difference is that the playtest is free, a finalised product (or group of products – they’re proposing releasing it in five books) can be sold for money. ICE are now talking about getting the thing officially released in this coming year, but by running such a long playtesting process could they have suppressed their sales due to more or less everyone who was especially looking forward to the new edition finally signing up to the playtest and downloading the beta versions for free?

In the intervening time, however, Open Ended Games may have stolen the march on ICE. Game mechanics, after all, are difficult to patent (and it’s entirely too late to patent Rolemaster‘s mechanics) and, if they are presented in a rephrased form, hard to protect through copyright as well. Against the Darkmaster is a new RPG from Open Ended Games, for which they have put out a licence to make third party products using the Powered By Open00 mark. Its system is not an exact retro-clone of any version of Rolemaster or related games – but it does include the same general principles of character generation and play, and so by making the system accessible in this manner Open Ended Games have ensured that these mechanics will not be trapped in the Rolemaster ecosystem.

Against the Darkmaster takes as its primary inspiration MERP, but Open Ended Games have an advantage here that ICE didn’t allow themselves when designing the original Middle-Earth Role Playing. You see, MERP was based on a trimmed-down subset of the full Rolemaster rules, and that was one of the selling points: you didn’t need to use the full Rolemaster package to play or run MERP, but anything released for Rolemaster could with reasonable ease be implemented in MERP.

However, precisely as a result of this there was a limit to the extent to which MERP could simplify itself: it needed to include enough of the same game principles to ensure that Rolemaster books were intelligible for someone coming from MERP, and in practice this meant that the simplification in question consisted of trimming down the number of options (less professions, less spell lists, etc.) rather than addressing underlying complexities of the system.

As well as being constrained in what they could take away, ICE were constrained in what they could add. The other side of the mutual compatibility was that ICE wanted to be able to sell MERP books to Rolemaster referees. This being the case, they couldn’t put anything into the core MERP rules which did not already have some basis in Rolemaster, otherwise Rolemaster referees would be faced with material in MERP books they couldn’t understand – a clearly unacceptable situaiton when MERP was meant to be a subset of Rolemaster.

Though Open Ended Games are trying to produce a game on the same basic system principles as MERP/Rolemaster, they are not in the position of trying to reunite the scattered clans of Rolemaster itself. And since Against the Darkmaster is free to deviate from Rolemaster to a greater extent than the original MERP was, the designers are free to add to, subtract from, and alter the system as they wish, and seem to have done so.

When it comes to the subtractions, they have filed off some rough edges here and there and provided some sensible concepts which broadly simplify things without overly throwing things out of whack. For instance, in MERP your base stats range on a scale from 1-100 and are recorded on the character sheet as such, but they are not used in that format – instead you consult a table to look up a stat bonus or penalty, and apply that to applicable rolls. For Against the Darkmaster, you just roll on the table to obtain a bonus or penalty (or use one of the provided stat arrays), directly record the bonus/penalty, and then any subsequent changes through play are applied directly to that. Other rationalisations include modifications to the skill list (no more is there an array of different armour use skills, and the selection of utility skills seems broader and less fussy) and the lack of separate combat tables for 2-handed and 1-handed weapons.

Some of the alterations and a few additions are done to enable this sort of rationalisation and simplification. For instance, a new way is offered to differentiate between weapon types without burdensomely increasing the number of tables by setting a maximum score that weapon can obtain on the attack table. As a reminder, Rolemaster and its derived systems work on the basis of a single attack roll, modified by attacker and defender stats, on the appropriate attack table for the weapon: this not just tells you whether you succeeded or failed, but also tells you how much damage a successful attack does, whether it does a type of critical, and what type of critical it is.

By setting this maximum score, this doesn’t disqualify any weapon from necessarily getting a successful damaging strike on anyone – but it does mean that your big chunky two-handed sword can do way more damage in a blow than a small butterknife could, even if the butterknife-wielder made an astonishingly lucky roll. In Rolemaster-derived systems, many D100 rolls – including combat rolls – are “open-ended”, which means that if you roll high you can reroll the percentiles and dd them to your total, potentially multiple times, which means that without that cap the butterknife would have a small but valid chance of getting the most devastating combat result possible.

This goes double for the way the critical hit tables have been altered. They have been extended from a scale maxing out at 120 to one which tops out at 150, with appropriate additions and redistribution. This is not merely a cosmetic tweak to ensure that the tables cannot be taken as mere copy-pastes of copyrighted Rolemaster material. The change makes it somewhat less likely that PCs will be insta-killed or rendered incapable of participating in the adventure as a result of a lucky critical (since the most devastating critical results are shunted to the higher scores).

In addition, it allows for a change to how critical hits of different levels of severity are handled: now, as well as potentially providing a modification to your roll on the critical hit table, the severity of critical hit you strike also defines a maximum level on the critical hit table you can roll; for instance, a “Superficial” critical hit has no bonus on the roll and cannot hit a result above 100; a “Lethal” one not only has a chunky bonus to the roll, but can also hit the top result of 150. When combined with the cap on maximum attack rolls, this again avoids absurd situations like a character being decapitated by a single stern blow from the aforementioned butterknife.

However, Against the Darkmaster isn’t just a rationalised, clarified, reorganised version of the MERP system with some further tweaks for a copyright figleaf. (All the names of the six base stats have changed to self-explanatory synonyms, for instance.) One of the big criticisms of the MERP system over the years is that it doesn’t necessarily feel all that appropriate to the Middle-Earth setting.

It’s not awful – after all, Rolemaster as an early fantasy RPG was influenced by D&D, and D&D had its baked-in Middle-Earth references to pander to the Tolkien crowd. The problem is that, since the core MERP rules are merely a subset of Rolemaster and don’t add new mechanics to the mix, they don’t provide any Midde-Earth specific mechanics to support the themes of the original novels in the way that The One Ring excels at. As such, it feels like a set of contracted Rolemaster rules that the setting has been bolted onto, rather than a set of rules which have been specifically been developed to suit the setting.

Against the Darkmaster is not a Middle-Earth RPG – Open Ended Games don’t have the licence. However, it does have a narrower genre focus than merely “fantasy”: it’s specifically about that brand of epic power metal-ish high fantasy which involves plucky parties of heroes setting forth to overthrow a dark lord. Tolkien fits the bill, as do the Shannara novels, the Dragonlance novels, and great mountains of similar material besides.

It’s a type of fantasy particularly fashionable in the 1980s and early 1990s, prior to the rise of more grimdark material, and which the 2nd edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons rules are highly reminiscent of in a lot of their artwork (especially in the earlier versions of the rulebooks with the less dungeon-oriented covers and the interesting monochrome blue line drawings) but didn’t necessarily support as well as classic dungeon crawling (hence the “back to the dungeon” emphasis of 3.0 and the last days of the 2nd edition line). It’s comfort reading for a lot of people, and so a very solid breed of fantasy for Against the Darkmaster to angle for. And many of the additions, alterations, and innovations that Darkmaster offers helps adapt the system to support this style of fantasy much better than the core MERP rulebook supported Middle-Earth.

For instance, one of the reasons that Dungeons & Dragons pays a lot of attention to cold hard cash – both its acquisition and expenditure – is that whilst Arneson and Gygax threw in a sprinkling of Tolkien nods because they knew it would sell well to the fantasy wargaming market (attempts at doing Middle-Earth wargaming were replete at the time), their tastes – especially Gygax’s – tended more towards low fantasy, sword and sorcery-type stuff, the sort of Robert E. Howard/Fritz Leiber material where protagonists prioritise their personal enrichment a lot of the time and get dragged into adventure that way rather than setting off on an epic journey to put the world to rights.

Making the acquisition of money central to play was therefore a hallmark of early editions – you had XP for treasure being very significant (with 1st Edition AD&D even requiring you to put money down for training before advancing in level), you had the encumbrance rules tied to gold pieces because that put a cap on how much gold you could haul out of the dungeon and played into the logistical side of the game, and so on.

Rolemaster carried over a money and purchasing system based on tracking each individual coin in the party’s possession from D&D largely because that was more or less how all RPGs of the era did it; MERP inherited this. Darkmaster pivots away from this and shunts the focus of play away from insatiable treasure-hunting by using a wealth level system. Characters have a particular wealth level; they can buy things rated at less than their worth level without reducing it, but once they buy an item which is rated at their wealth level, their wealth level goes down by 1. Treasure troves have a treasure value rating; if you acquire treasure of less than your wealth level it does nothing for you, if the treasure is of equal value to your wealth rating your wealth goes up by 1, and if it is of higher value than your wealth rating your wealth instantly goes up to a level equal to the treasure rating.

This instantly saves a lot of number-crunching and accountancy on the part of players and referee alike, and in addition means that whilst in the early game or in the immediate wake of some impoverishing disaster the acquisition of minor amounts of treasure may take a high priority, later in the campaign the scrabble for funds should fade into the background. Treasure which is not even of the level of the most poverty-stricken party member will be of little interest to the party, and indeed a suitably wealthy party member can outfit the others. (Purchasing multiples of the same item adds one to the price rating for buying purposes, but this still means a wealth 3 character can buy light armour for the entire party without even reducing their own wealth appreciably.) This means that seeking funds need only be a priority if the party has been left truly impoverished; otherwise the party can focus on their real goal.

As the title of the game implies, this involves facing off against the villainous Darkmaster – the local Dark Lord, Dark Lady, or Dark Noble of your game setting. Who is the Darkmaster? That’s down to the referee – and can have system impact. There’s an entire chapter about defining the properties of your particular Darkmaster, with options for giving them particular properties which have significant system knock-on effects, so each campaign of Against the Darkmaster will be significantly shaped by the actual Darkmaster involved. That said, combat stats are not provided for them – for, true to fantasy stories of this type, you’re not meant to fight the Darkmaster like a dungeon boss monster, you’re meant to find some signature weakness of theirs and destroy them with it (and the game offers support for coming up with your own example of such).

Other rules include the incorporation of Passions – statements about a character’s most deeply-held values and ideals. Each character starts out with a Nature, Loyalty, and Motivation – if you are stuck thinking of one it’s suggested you go for some inspirational metal lyrics, and if circumstances change in-game it’s entirely legit to change them. Whenever you do something notable or perilous as a result of your Passions, you earn Drive, which can be spent to get bonuses here and there – one point for a minor bonus and five for a major one (you can hold no more than five at a time).

Whenever you spend Drive, you log this on your Heroic Path; every time you hit a multiple of 10 on your Heroic Path, you are owed a Revelation – a big moment of spotlight time when your character realises something important about themselves or makes a major discovery. These must be activated either when your character has time to rest and reflect, or in a suitably dramatic situation when your PC might have a sudden moment of clarity, and they confer on your character a small permanent bonus – one way the game suggests to handle high-level campaigns is to cap the levels off at 10 (the assumed maximum) and have all future character advancement come solely from Revelations.

In a particularly nice touch, if your character dies and you must roll a new one, you get to carry over half your Heroic Path points – and that can mean you start out with a stack of Revelations to spend before entering play. If your character’s death was particularly heroic (the classic “sacrifice yourself to save your companions” thing being the most obvious example), all your Heroic Path points carry over.

Various other features – rules on safe havens, guidance on running battles – are added into the system, but the vast majority of the rest build on the basic building blocks as set out in the system. The end result is a system which feels much more flavourful and appropriate to the broad flavour of fantasy it is aiming at than MERP itself ever was, but is also still basically true to the game design principles underlying MERP.

On the whole, this is a far more approachable game than either Rolemaster Classic or MERP itself – not because it’s radically simpler than those games, but because it does a really good job of explaining itself clearly. The full rulebook might be dauntingly thick, but that’s because it has a deep well of bestiary entries, spell lists, and other support material to use; it comes with cover art which, as you can see, pays tribute both to MERP (with the “party standing on a hill looking over at the Dark Lord’s lair” artwork) and classic Rolemaster (in the form of the font). There’s also a free set of basic rules you can dip into, whose cover mimics the presentation of classic MERP even more closely.

(Production of this chunky tome was funded by a Kickstarter, of which I was a backer; I’ve not done a full Kickstopper article because I have nothing particularly notable to say about Open Ended Games’ handling of it, they did a good job of keeping backers up to date and the game was not outrageously late given COVID times.)

The interior artwork is in a rather nicely-executed black and white style. In many respects it’s quite good – there’s a good amount of male and female characters in various roles, villainous creatures like orcs are portrayed in costumes reminiscent of a range of cultures (historical or fictional) and so don’t seem to be presented as closely connected to any one specific culture or real-world ethnic group (an improvement over Tolkien’s unfortunate comparisons of orcs to Mongols) and so on. On that front, there’s even a clear statement that orcs are not inherently evil – they’ve been prone to recruitment by the Darkmaster, not least because of mistrust from the other peoples of the world, but this is by far from inevitable. This is an improvement over Tolkien’s vacillation over the nature of orcs and the tension between wanting them to be inherently evil and also wanting them to being thinking individuals with personhood.

I do have one complaint on this front, though. The illustration for the “Desert” culture shows a sinister, clutching figure who seems to be designed to evoke “shifty Arab” stereotypes. The description of the culture is less demonising, but also tends towards stereotypes about hot-tempered Arabs who honour their word and whatnot. It’s clearly meant to fit the “Arabian Nights with the serial numbers filed off” cultures you often see in fantasy novels of this era, but such depictions were often extremely tone-deaf, and mimicing them like this is deeply unfortunate and a jarring misstep. The other cultures seem fairly Eurocentric in their illustrations and the archetypes they draw on.

Though it should be possible to draw on MERP and Rolemaster to obtain more useful material, the chunky core rulebook for Against the Darkmaster already includes much of what you could wish for. The bestiary includes suitably copyright-shifted versions of Tolkien entities (“Awakened Trees” for Ents, etc.) as well as various other monsters, including Dragonspawn, which clearly fit the niche of the Draconians from Dragonlance, and there’s enough variety to give you plenty of options for your Darkmaster’s signature troops and whatnot. The spell lists are somewhat rationalised and changed from the MERP/Rolemaster Classic originals, again both for copyright and in sensible ways, and as with MERP an impressive variety are offered, so that should give you plenty to get on with before you get into the deep well which is the wider world of Rolemaster spell lists.

Against the Darkmaster liberates the underlying system principles of Rolemaster/MERP from the shadow of the Iron Crown, and I feel like that’s a useful service. Some of the ideas underpinning Rolemaster have percolated out – I genuinely think it was a clear influence on the design of 3.X D&D, for instance – but many have remained locked in its ecosystem and burdened by a reputation for excess complexity which I think is undeserved – it’s not that old Rolemaster is at its core radically more complex than RPG players are used to these days, it’s just that ICE haven’t really updated the presentation of the system for a good long while and, in subsequent editions, have been catering to a vocal fanbase loudly encouraging more crunch.

Against the Darkmaster‘s improved presentation, more precise focus, and additional innovations refresh the game’s concepts considerably and make it seem more viable to run with modern groups than ever. Rolemaster Unified already has a daunting challenge in front of it to unify the disparate Rolemaster editions; it’s going to have a real headache doing that and update the game to an extent that Open Ended Games have managed to freshen up the system here.

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