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SYSTEM OVERVIEW
The Rolemaster RPG family is a generic fantasy system. Generic, if you need to know, refers to the lack of a provided world (cultures, maps, governments and organizations, deities, etc.) They provide the mechanics--you have to ‘put a face to it’. This is not 100% true, as the system has ties to Iron Crown Enterprise’s(ICE) Middle Earth RPG; for example, elves are naturally immortal and trolls turn to stone in sunlight, which is very different if you are used to more D&D-like elves and trolls. So there are some thematic constructs. The system is not particularly mature or juvenile, dark or light, or anything beyond simply fantasy. You can tailor it to your groups needs.
The Rolemaster(RM) family has been around for a while and has a few different flavors. Geekdo lists them as editions, but that is slightly misleading because the variants are individually and wholly supported by ICE; one is not a replacement for the previous. This review is only meant to cover what Geekdo lists as the 2nd Edition, the books with a red border on the spine-side of the front cover. (Series numbers #130_). I’m not sure that these books are any different than their predecessors except that several books have been combined (Arms + Claw; Character + Campaign.) If you were actually to find a box set these days of this edition, it would include 3 books: Character and Campaign Law, Arms Law and Claw Law, and Spell Law. All three books are required for play (unless you want to use RM to run a historic medieval game, in which case you don’t need Spell Law.)
Rolemaster seems to be an game designed by people who enjoyed D&D, but felt that it did not involve enough real-life physics and variation. The system takes care to differentiate when other systems would not, and transparently considers many factors when resolving outcomes. It is detailed in possibilities, yet simple in execution; the same mechanic is used throughout most of the system, which can help ease new players into the game. The general mechanic allows anyone to try just about anything, even if their chance of success is extremely low.
The books are soft-back and thick enough to not be staple-bound. The art inside the book is nothing astonishing, but not without talent. All drawings besides the cover art is in black-and-white. One of two negatives regarding the presentation of the system I find is that the Character Law information is not arranged intuitively one. Character creation sends one all over the book. Spell Law and Arms Law & Claw Law do not suffer from the same problem since they are mostly charts, but there have been pieces of information in those books which I have to find again and again, possibly because it doesn’t make sense to me where it is.

Brief summary: I love Rolemaster. I have played it and GM’ed it for a total of 4+ years. It is extremely malleable to what the group needs. There are catchy and enjoyable aspects, and the negatives can be lessened by the group working together and do not result in "But why can’t I"s from the players. (Impossible actions based on metagame concepts such as classes annoy me.) There can be more paperwork than in some systems, and you will have character sheets not sheet, but if you are looking for a system which covers nearly everything possible there is going to be a price.

SPECIFICALLY
MECHANICS

Rolemaster is IMHO a skill-based game. Stats only serve to boost skill bonuses; levels grant you more skills(and are involved in magics); races’ main affect is on stats, which only affect skills. And since there is no lock-out from particular skills (based on mechanics), and there are no ‘class-abilities’, it all comes down to what skills you want to develop. But that isn’t to say that class has no affect, it does. Please read that section for my thoughts on classes in RM.
RM is a d100 system, not exactly percentile. Generally speaking, the mechanic is roll d100, add skill bonus and other miscellaneous modifiers, look up the result on the appropriate chart. Most rolls are open-ended down and up, which means if the bottom or top 5% is rolled, roll again and either subtract or add to the previous result. This could theoretically continue forever, but it doesn’t and it’s a lot of fun!
One of Rolemaster’s nicknames is ‘Chartmaster’, and it is the numerous charts that lends it this name. Outside of combat there are 3 commonly used charts: non-combat spell success, move/maneuvers, and static maneuvers. The first is self-explanatory; the other two are basically athletic and non-athletic skills. Examples of move/maneuver skills would be: Jumping, Climbing, or Riding. Static maneuver examples would be: Pick Lock, Meditation, Use/Remove Poison, or Advanced Math. The GM would give each situation a difficulty, the roll and additions/subtractions done, and the result looked up on the correct chart. The chart reports the degree of success or failure. The move/maneuver chart has ‘digital’ partial success(you leapt 70% of the distance you were attempting), and the static chart has ‘analog’ partial success(almost, try again next round with a +15.) Inside of combat nearly every weapon and attack has its own chart to look up the results on, and this includes attack spells. The best way to GM this is to provide each player a copy of the weapon/spell charts they will be using. Please read the combat section for more details.
Aside from these charts, there are charts for numerous other less-used things, such as brain damage, buy/sell price modifications, infant mortality, you name it. Some of the charts you will see when flipping through a book are only needed for character creation, and won’t impede play after that. What is not included in this plethora of charts are any kind of generation charts, and by that I mean ‘what lock does the door/chest have’, ‘how large is this cave’, things like that. There are encounter and loot tables, but those are in the books Creatures and Treasures(1 -3). This is something I would have greatly appreciated, but I acknowledge that they could not have stayed within the idea of a generic system if they included lots of generation tables--all such tables assume some world aspects.
A handful of skills do not work the same as others, such as Language Spoken and Ambush. These non-conforming skills, however, do generally share a mechanic.

CHARACTERS
Races...actually Backgrounds: The standard Tolkien races are available--human, dwarf, elf, and hobbits renamed as halflings. Choosing a race affects stat bonuses, height and weight, resistances, death statistics, and gives a number of Background Points. The ‘death statistics’ are things like how many rounds after character death before the soul has left. The Background Points are spent during character creation for a variety of things. Mostly, each point allows you to roll on a selection of tables to get special starting items, extra staring gold, special family backgrounds, or a special ability. The special ability table is my favorite--a hound dog-sensitive nose you can use to track and identify, fine wrist bones resulting in awesome throwing skills, or differently coloured eyes which after a round of concentration switch your visual reception from the visible to invisible. But each of these comes with a negative counterpart (except one or two.) For instance, the hound dog nose is sensitive to atmospheric pressure, and starts to bleed and apply negatives(-5) per 1000 feet over sea level; the invisible vision has a 5% chance any time the character gets knocked around (weapons, falling/landing, etc) to switch and be stuck for a few rounds--remember, during this time the character can only see invisible things, so all the normal opponents, who are visible, are now effectively invisible. This table is my favorite, but with proper roleplaying character development any of the other tables can be used to provide just as interesting background to the character.
Classes, and thus Skills: Classes in Rolemaster are a significant paradigm shift. Classes are closely linked to skills, and requires an explanation of those first. Proficiency in skills are bought in ‘ranks’ during character creation and leveling. Each rank in a skill costs a number of Development Points(see Stats below). As I have stated earlier, every skill is open to every class. Your class determines how much you will be paying for each rank. Fighters can become masters at casting spells, and Magicians masters with the broadsword--but it will take them significantly longer and they will have by-passed many skills they could have excelled at to get there. Here’s the paradigm: Classes represent the character’s natural ability at different topics. It is not a representation of training--that mage everyone at the College of Magics makes fun of and flunks nearly every course may actually be a fighter who isn’t in touch with his personal calling. Some day he may pick up an axe, realize how much sense swings and blocks and tactical considerations make sense to him, and suddenly blossom as a student of armed combat. But because of this concept of classes, switching classes or multi-classing is not allowed. You cannot change who you are, only what you study. So Players, pick your classes carefully! If you make a small misstep, it won’t cost too much, but if you want both spells and weapons, pick the class which has both of them, even if your start might be a bit slower. (Personal example: My first character I misunderstood the class to be a thief-mage hybrid, but actually it was an assassin-mage* hybrid; the thief skills didn’t cost too much more, but I could have made much more progress had I not focused on Pick Locks and the sort.)
The classes available are basically: a fighter, a thief, a fighter-thief, 3 in each realm of magic, a semi-mage in each realm, and a hybrid mage of each realm combination.
Stats: There are ten primary stats: constitution(CO), quickness(QU), reasoning(RE), memory(ME), self-discipline(SD), strength(ST), agility(AG), intuition(IN), empathy(EM), and presence(PR). The first five determine your Development Points(DP), and the second group have more affect on skills than the first. IN, EM, and PR determine Power Points(PP); CO is instrumental in Hits(hit points.) If you get to arrange your rolls, you will have to decide what balance you want between immediate bonuses and development speed.
The different thing about RM stats is that each stat has two values: Temporary and Potential. At character creation you find your starting stats(Temporary) and then you determine how good your character will ever be in each stat(Potential). In my experience, 8-10 of the stats are maxed by level 4, though there is a small chance(4%) the stat degenerates.
Derived Stats: Characters also have Power Points for casting spells, magic and disease resistances, Endurance and Movement. Power Points increase by level and your magic stat if it goes up. Endurance is equal to your CO and is drained by movement. Movement represents the distance in feet one travels at a base pace and is determined by charting your height and adjusting the number by your QU bonus. Movement is a poorly designed system in my opinion. There are six paces--1x, 1.5x, 2x, 3x, 4x, and 5x--too many. Paces are restricted by armour and weight carried, and drain your endurance differently. This is one of the places I desired a simpler approach--though it would work great in a computer representation.

SKILLS
I have already described some of the important concepts regarding skills above in Classes. Generally speaking, each rank in a skill gives you a +5. Add a related stat{s} bonus, and you have the total you will add to your roll. Some skills you can buy only once per level, some twice if you pay a higher price for the second(this is called rapid development.) Your class determines if you can rapid develop a skill, and as you might expect it has to do with how principle it is to your class. So a fighter can pay 4 DP to gain +10 on a weapon skill, but the mage will need to pay 9 DP just for +5 and can’t go any higher that level.
A Rolemaster trait which offsets this apparent huge advantage a fighter-type may have is the weapon skills themselves. Each class is assigned 6 weapon DP costs and has to assign one to each of the weapon groups (i.e.: 1-Handed Edged, 2-Handed, 1-Handed Blunt, Bows & Thrown...) And then each weapon must be developed separately. Developing broadsword does not give you equal skill with a rapier or cutlass. A fighter doesn’t just become a weaponmaster--he must spend the DP if he wants variety in his weapon selection. A mage’s variety is in his spells, so it’s better for him to focus on a single weapon anyways.
Spells are represented in the skill list, but not in the sense of developing casting ability in a realm or something like that. You do spend DP acquiring the spells, but I will describe that process below.
A few skills are handled differently, but they are not difficult. The biggest surprise is that Hits are a developed skill, not derived nor given for free. And each rank doesn’t grant a number of Hits--it grants a roll of a die which is based on race(d6, d8, or d10.) The formula for calculating total Hits nearly takes an Advanced Math roll of 150+. I’m kidding, it’s not that difficult, but since you only do it once a level it is pretty easy to forget. On the plus side, the formula does incorporate many different ideas into your character’s physical constitution(not CO.)

COMBAT
Combat is where Rolemaster attracts the most fans, and the most houserules.
Rounds: Only experienced GMs whose games run into the higher levels use the round system presented in the core books. It breaks each round into spontaneous and deliberative actions, has different phases for when ranged, magical, and melee attacks are resolved. It is about the furthest procedure you could devise from simple 1-action-1-round approach without leaving rounds behind all together. Mages always get shafted, ranged attacks rule the battlefield (but not the skirmish.) Deliberate actions go later but get a bonus. Trust me, running combat is not for the short of patience or memory.
Initiative: I don’t know a soul who uses the official initiative system. It is d100, highest goes first, adjusted by a long list of things such as height of competing opponents, longer weapon, QU, colour of hair, what you had for lunch... These two subsystems are probably the most unwieldy and unwelcoming of the entire system, and in my experience get replaced frequently.
Then, then combat gets fun! RM combat is interesting because:
1) Most attacks have their own chart to look up results on. It is a little more work for the GM, but give each player a copy of their own weapon/spell table and that will help a lot. Because each weapon(and attack spell) gets its own table, the designers could work in concepts like how different attacks have efficiencies against armour types, how a sword (in real combat) may actually hit with the broad side, how some weapons have a hard time connecting but man when they do... This rewards/compensates players for factoring in style and/or attitude into their PC’s weapon selection. You can select a weapon which would be lesser in any other system and not lose so much. (A rapier was my assassin-thief’s weapon of choice. Never dealt a ton of damage w/o criticals, but landing a hit was easy and boy, enemies in chainmail didn’t like me.)
2) The critical system, where additional effects are generated, and given colourful descriptions, some of which are funny. The results may be as simple as additional Hits delivered, but more often also has stuns, partial stuns, bleeding wounds, specific wounds (i.e.: sliced hamstring, hand chopped off), and other miscellaneous effects(i.e.: container on body broken, sword stuck in foe.) It isn’t simply a wearing down of armour and/or hit points, which can be boring and repetitive(Rifts’s downfall, in my opinion.) The critical charts are columned by severity, and each type of critical has its own table and typical effects: Krushing and Ice tends to give extra Hits and stun, Slicing tends to give bleeding wounds, etc. There is even a critical table for your fumbles. (Trip over invisible dead turtle; lose initiative next round regaining your footing.) If you like nothing else from RM, you can convert whatever system you are using to a percentile system, adjust hit point values, and use their weapon tables.

You have to be careful in RM combat though. Between the critical system, the negatives applied to you when you are stunned, and open-ended rolling, any character can die pretty easily. I’ve seen a 1st level character with a rapier kill a 10th level fighter in platemail--in one hit. The critical declared him dead. Done deal. This works both for you and against you. It is a great aspect of the game as far as mood goes--every combat is serious, and you shouldn’t whip out your sword willy-nilly. Brings a much more real-life reluctance to entering combat, which I appreciate.

MAGIC
There are 3 realms of magic: Channeling(think clerical), Essence(think arcane), and Mental(think psionics.) But these are all magic in RM, whereas in other games they are separate concepts and have different rules. Each realm specializes in certain effects, but does not monopolize the ability. Shock Bolt is available to some Channelers or Mentalists, but at level 8, compared to Essence’s level 2.
Casting non-attack spells is pretty easy--don’t roll 4% or worse. Done. If you are casting a non-damaging attack spell, you roll, look up a table which gives a resistance roll modifier, and then the target must apply it to their resistance roll. Kinda back ‘n’ forth, but it works. Spell capacity is a point-system, not memorization, draining, nor skilled.
Learning spells is entirely unique(to my knowledge.) Spells with the same theme are organized into lists. These lists are classified by how intense they are in that magic realm--well, this is how I look at it. More general lists are called Open, lists thick with realm-specific ideas are Closed, and lists which have spells specific to a class within that realm are called Base lists. And the lists are divided into sections, depending upon the class’s magical expertise. It is those sections which are learned, all or none in a group, via spending DP. And spending DP only gets you a +5% per rank in learning that section of the list.
Here are the only "can’t"s in the RM system: Only that class can learn Base lists; only pure spell users can learn Closed lists(not dual-realm hybrids), and only character of that realm may learn Open lists. Non-spell-using characters, fighters and thieves, are assigned a realm based on their highest of the mage stats.
Yes, this means you may learn spells higher than your level. If you have the PP to attempt it, you can try overcastting a spell higher than your level. Risky, but needed at times.
Like the D&D of RM’s day, it is the combat characters who start off strong, but mages get crazy powerful late in game. This is because a fighter’s weapon skills and Hits eventually cap off, but a mage continually grows in PP and finding new spells. And when he runs out of those, he can feel free to learn more weapons and Hits.

ADVANCEMENT
Experience is earned in a fairly predictable manner, with the addition of getting more experience for criticals you receive in combat than criticals you dealt. Also, there are large bonuses and negatives based on task repetition. The first time you do something, it is worth 5x its normal amount. Then it’s down to 2x for a while, then 1x, then 1/2x... The game does not reward repetitive dungeon crawls.
Leveling amounts go up in groups. I mean 1st-4th are the same, then 5th-9th, 10th-14th, etc. And the amounts roughly double: 10,000; 20,000; 50,000...
When you level, you first see if each stat goes up, stays the same, or goes down. This goes pretty fast if you have a bunch of maxed stats. Then you get the skills you bought last level. Lastly, you refigure your Development Points, and go on a skill-buying spree, which you don’t actually get until your next level. RM’s twist keeps you thinking forward, and doesn’t let you be a cheap player saying "oh, I need that now, and suddenly I know how to do it." Nope, you have to purposefully study/practice, and then you get to have a positive skill bonus.

ITEMS
Nothing unusual here. You can get enchanted items which give you a bonus to their applicable skill (1-Handed Edge on a sword), enchanted items to increase spell casting ability (2x PP, 1 free spell), or items which are simply better crafted and give a bonus to their applicable skill (1-Handed Edge on a sword, Perception on a spyglass, Riding on a saddle.)

OPTIONS
The main book, Character Law & Campaign Law, is full of optional rules. A whole chapter. And later books in the series, Rolemaster Companions, add even more optional rules, replacement rules, classes, spell lists, and items. Here I will address 3 major options accessible in the basic set.
Stats for Skills. Each skill has anywhere from 1 to 3 stats associated with it. The basic way to play the game is to use only the first stat associated with the skill. The alternative is to average all the stats listed. Doing this makes the skill sheet a bit more math intensive each time you level, but it does incorporate more real-life physics and "why can’t I"s from the player. For example, in the basic approach you would use only ST on your 1-Handed Weapon skills; but if you go with all of them you average ST+ST+AG, which keeps ST in the forefront but also acknowledges precision like one uses with a rapier. Like the Finesse feat in D&D3E.
Secondary Skills. Another 30 or so skills are available for those who felt the basic set was not complete enough. I could not conceive of playing with anything less than these. Rolemaster Companion II adds over 200+ more skills, and that’s what I am used to playing with.
Extreme Spell Failure(ESF). This makes spell-casting much more difficult, but also keeps mages from exploiting otherwise gaps in mage restrictions such as armour. ESF counts up penalties due to weight, armour, preparedness, over-casting, triples the total, and makes a mage who failed to cast a spell roll on a ‘spell fumble’ table. The results can be devastating for the mage.

CAMPAIGN LAW
I don’t have much of an opinion on this section. It has lots of examples on how to do things if this is your first time being a GM, but I am sure there are better resources out there. Besides, learning by doing and having a mentor is best.

ARMS LAW & CLAW LAW
There is some rule duplication about how combat is conducted, which is good. Most of the book is tables for weapons and criticals. This book should get photocopied a lot, which may damage the spine. The Claw Law title refers to the attack tables for animals, such as Trample, Grapple, or Biting. These tables are just like the others, but also have limits of end results based on size.

SPELL LAW
There is some rule duplication here about how casting spells works and how lists are divided, but there are also rules not in Character Law & Campaign Law about spell research. There is also discussion about some of the magical effects such as invisibility. The attack and critical tables for damaging spells are in the back of this book. Spell Law’s biggest negative is that it tried to conserve space by referring the reader to earlier descriptions of spells. For example, a spell Blending may give range and duration but then say "Works just as Camouflage in Ranger’s Base list." I once had to copy 4 lists to provide my player with the info needed for one of them. (The newest edition, Rolemaster Classic, has alleviated this problem.)

SUMMARY OPINION
Rolemaster is not a simple sit-n-play RPG. You have to value the details it provides. You have to be a good manager of information. I would say that the best GM is either very comfortable creating as he goes or does not have a job. The system can be used for any fantasy world you want, and even non-fantasy if you just leave out the magic. Replacing/dropping complicated rules such as the initiative system does not seem to have a large detrimental effect on the rest of the mechanics, so replace anything your group is uninterested in(taking the usual care not to upset the game balance.) Open-ended die rolls, criticals, and life-or-death situations will add to the excitement your stories retain as you recall your nights with your RM gaming buddies.

*assassin-thief is in Rolemaster Companion 1, not the main set.
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Justin Rio
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My first review. Let me know what you think.
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Rainer Kraft
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Congrats!
Extremely detailed and doing a great system justice!
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Matthew Goddard
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The Critical Tables text alone makes this a worthwhile purchase
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Dave Bernazzani
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I wish to provide legendary service to the RPG community to help grow our hobby and enrich the lives of gamers everywhere.
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IndyOfComo wrote:
My first review. Let me know what you think.

Nice review Justin! Now that we've got a monster database with lots of good info, the next steps to the success of RPG Geek are reviews, session reports and community participation. It's great to see the reviews coming in slowly but surley and I encourage anyone with extra gg to tip good efforts generously

-Dave
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Mark Wood
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That sums it up nicely I think, ah the nostalgia, my mental arithmetic was never better! Issuing the relevant tables to each player was the way i chose to go when running the game, much easier that trying to do it yourself (the only downside, target difficulty had to be revealed).

This review is also fairly applicable to the currently-in-print Rolemaster Classic (which is pretty much RM2 with a better initiative system, I believe, however do not quote me on that).
 
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Justin Rio
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Yeah, I don't have the time nor money to reinvest in RMC, though I'd really like to help out ICE by doing so.
Another thing you can do is hand out the weapon tables, but don't hand out the criticals. If you are the type of GM who will steer results to adjust combat difficulty on the fly, it helps.
I was really active on the ICE forum board, and there the folks pretty much agree that the combat round is a must, that it keeps mages in-check when playing 20+. I was astounded at how they got that high, but some said they play every week for a whole day for decades, some even claim to play every day. I can't conceive of that...
 
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Samuel Sol
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All engines full to awesome land!
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IndyOfComo wrote:
There is even a critical table for your fumbles. (Trip over invisible dead turtle; lose initiative next round regaining your footing.)


Wasn't there a critical where if you were wearing a full plate and trip on the invisible turtle you would die?
 
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I don't think so, but it's pretty hard to remember them all. The invisible turtle is just a couple rounds regaining footing or losing initiative, something like that.
 
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"Stumble over an unseen imaginary deceased turtle. You are very confused. Stunned 3 rounds."

Funny that everyone has heard of this. It is possible to die on a critical fumble...like if you are doing something Absurdly difficult and roll very high. But some critical fumbles really could be avenues to new storytelling paths, like the Spell Failure result in which your character has a mental collapse and cannot cast spells for three months.

Another great one: "Worst move seen in ages. -60 to activity from a pulled groin. Foe is stunned 2 rounds from laughing."
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Justin Rio
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Yeah, that one's hilarious too.
 
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