Why Rolemaster (RMFRP) is my favorite RPG I will never play

Rolemaster Fantasy Roleplaying (RMFRP) is a 1999 tabletop RPG by Iron Crown Enterprises. It’s very much a D&D style game—goblins, dungeons, loot (and lutes). It’s the fourth(ish) iteration of the original Rolemaster system from 1980. They were introduced as a cohesive system, or as modular add-ons to other fantasy RPGs. For example, Arms Law (both the original and the RMFRP versions) are a couple chapter of rules about how fighting and weapons work, then tons of stats and tables. Like, tons. There’s statistics for when weapons might break, how different kinds of weapons work against different kinds of armor, and unique critical hit tables for every kind of attack imaginable, with dozens of entries each.

It was incomplete, by design. It was exclusively for fighting and weapons, not a whole system of roleplaying. You free to, and in fact, encouraged, to use them as a “swap-out” for whatever lesser-detailed rules your RPG system may be using. That’s a huge deal. It’s interesting to think of a world where this RPG-design culture became the norm. Instead of shopping through full tomes of totally complete and comprehensive rules, you would pick and choose the ones that interested you, individually. Maybe you like the idea of very crunchy and explosive combat, so you chose Arms Law as your combat “engine”. But maybe, you don’t like very complex and time-intensive character creation. In that case, RMFRP’s Character Law is not for you. Instead, you would pick up a simple 12-page pdf online that makes that part of the game a breeze. And maybe, the traditional Vancian D&D magic doesn’t do it for you, so you go for a real wacky magic “engine”, where spells are chaotic and unpredictable (like DCC). To use a web development analogy, you would be building a stack of resources to run your game off of. This could give you unprecedented control for maximizing fun for your individual table. After all, no two tables play any game the same way! But it is a tradeoff—by distributing all your content across diseparate systems, you are required to be the “glue” that holds them together.

Rolemaster provides an interesting hybrid approach to this (entirely hypothetical) issue—it is both a set of separate modules, as well as a cohesive system. The rules encourage you to use the parts of it you want, and discard the rest. This is very sound advice, but is a bit frustrating. After all, why did I buy these expensive PDFs if I’m not going to use large chunks of them?

As a gnome, I enjoy the inherent experience of enjoying an established “thing”. Modifying and personalizing things is a great joy. But so is observation, the act of enjoying something without interefering with it. I want to experience things for what they are intended to be, so that I can add to my mental database of what I like. If I go in and mess with all the internal bits and bobs before I’ve fully explored what a given system has to offer, then I feel as if I’ve missed the “thing” I was originally trying to explore. And don’t get me wrong, I certainly house rule many things in my TTRPGS—but i default to playing things with their rules as written. That, uh, poses a problem here; but I’ll get back to that in a moment.

Rolemaster books are dense, and there are a lot of them. At the time of writing, I own nearly the complete collection of RMFRP PDFs from DriveThruRPG, and two of the books in physical form. I have spent an, honestly, embarassing sum on this game. I can’t help it—I love detail, and dense writing, and roll tables, and modules, and imagining how wonderful it all must be when it comes together… But I will not be bringing it together, at least not any time soon.

“Complex” is an understatement. My current RMFRP archive contains 2004 pages of content, and notably, none of that includes “campaign stuff”, like maps or plots or characters. That’s all rules and content to fill them in. I’m not even going to pretend like I’ve read all of that. I’ve probably read about 25%, optimistically. But what I have read fascinates me deeply.

There is an old and frequently-criticized notion in the RPG-o-sphere that RPG rulesets primarily fall under three main archetypes: gamism, narrativist, and simulationist. The categorization is not fantastic overall, but it fits what I’d like to illustrate pretty well. “Gamism” games are ones that bring to mind video games or board games. You’re given a very well-defined set of rules and things you can do. You then use them to achieve some kind of goals, usually massacre. A “gamish” game I like is Pathfinder 2e. Even non-combat things are given very fun frameworks to make sure everyone can use their characters’ unqiue goals and abilities. Narrativist games often try to be a framework for making sure the story is always engaging. They typically offer numerous ways to introduce plot twists, backstories, character detail, and emotional story beats. 10 Candles is a very good one, and I’ve always wanted to try Chuubo’s Marvelous Wish-Granting Engine. “Simulationy” games require me to get a little more abstract to talk about.

The very original Dungeons and Dragons was fairly simulationy. The rules were not about “how to tell a good story”, or “how to make fun and balanced fights”. They were simply a description of what happens when A, B, or C occurs—the why is secondary. When a character strikes another with a weapon, they deal 1d6 damage. When You make noise while in a dungeon, there is an X-in-6 chance they’ll hear. When you tread through fetid swamps, here’s some diseases you may contract. It makes few assumptions about why any of those situations may occur, just that they may. A simulationist game is focused on giving you a world that behaves in a predictable but interesting way. In order to do that, it must be comprehensive in the situations and circumstances it covers.

AD&D was a logical advance (heh) on this realization. Within it, TSR tried to encapsulate just about everything they could imagine might happen, often with brain-bending complexity. Very, very few players actually played the rules as they were written (many old form threads will verify this). Players simply took the bits they thought were interesting, and ignored what they didn’t. However, as the D&D versions progressed, they stripped back heavily from the complicated simulationism of AD&D, going in a more gamey direction. Thus, a niche had opened for Rolemaster to fill.

And, seriously, if you thought AD&D was impossible to play as written, then RMFRP would be about as easy to play as a Touhou Black MIDI on a physical grand piano. Here are some choice snippets:

The difficulty of an artistic maneuver generally cap- tures the depth or significance of the subject matter. The maneuver roll then indicates the beauty and el- egance of the art. If the product of these two factors is determined, one can approximate the greatness of the result. In more specific terms, the following formula indi- cates how widely known a given piece of art is generally recognized. Within this radius, the art can be consid- ered part of the local culture. Beyond this radius, the public’s familiarity with the piece of art diminishes un- til only serious collectors and fans are familiar with the art. (Difficulty Level x (Maneuver Roll - 100) ÷ 20)²

Transparency is the amount of light transmitted through a substance. Transparency is effected not just by the chemical structure of the stone, but by its thickness color, and the presence of flaws in the gemstone. A stone is considered to be transparent if light will pass through it as if it were glass. Semitransparent stones will allow the outline of an object to be seen through them. Translucent stones allow some light to pass through but one cannot see an object, or its outline, through them. Non-transparent or opaque stones do not allow light to pass through them even in small sections. If a stone is both transparent and colorless it is often called lucid.

Loss of Vision — You may suffer temporary blindness when- ever you are struck in the head. Any time you receive a blow to your head, there is a 5% chance that you will be blinded for d10 minutes, after which your vision will return to you normally. See the Blind physical flaw for more information on blindness.

Moose: ktcf-(—),FLMS,(—),DPT-4; 8.5-9.5’ long, 1 young. Moose are the largest deer, being distinguished by their huge antlers, overhanging muzzle, and flap of skin hanging beneath the throat. Although large and weighty, they negotiate bogs and swift streams quickly and gracefully. They feed on woody plants in the winter and water plants in the summer. Moose are known for their vicious contests between rival males. [Caribou, Rein- deer, Elk.]

This is the level of granularity we are talking about. But if you’re like me, this attracts you, not repels you. In a sense, RMFRP is like the wikipedia of tabletop games. If you have a question about the most minute detail in your fantasy world, you’ll probably find a couple paragraphs on it in one of the books. In the School of Hard Knocks: Skill Companion book, there’s a fully detailed character skill for knowing and applying calculus. I cannot imagine the joy of telling a player to “roll for calculus”, and then actually be backed up with rulings on it. The price of the book was worth it just for that daydream.

In all honesty, the Skill Companion is my favorite of all the Rolemaster books. It’s the only one I have physically, aside from the core book. It systematically lists out just about anything you could ever imagine doing. Of course, one of the core tenants of roleplaying games is that you can do anything, even in extremely rules-light systems. This is true! But how often have you played a D&D session that was just go to goblin camp -> kill 8 goblins -> rescue NPC you didn't care about. It’s the blank-canvas problem: when everything is a possibility, we suddenly become very reserved and predictable. But School of Hard knocks is, in my opinion, exactly what you need to combat this problem: inspiration! If your campaign is feeling tropey and generic, drop this book in front of your players.

“Wait, I can gain proficiency in advertising?” “Next session, can I have an opportunity to use the star-gazing skill?” “I have suddenly decided that Bolrax, the legendary Orc warrior, is a highly skilled midwife.”

By being shown a plethora of paths of what’s possible, suddenly, the world feels a lot bigger. You don’t have to just run around and kill stuff—you can play sports, build traps, become a mime! This feeling is what I think draws people like me to overly detailed and complicated games. There’s more to explore, and more depth to be found in every activity. And it isn’t just skills—there is so much to every aspect of the game. Dozens and dozens of pages of ailments you might have. Stat blocks for more monsters than you could ever use in a lifetime. So, so many critical hit effects. Ideally, the players and GM would have to do so little work, because everything that could possibly come up in your campaign is written out right there for you. Ideally! Ideally.

The reality is different. Games with rules overhead this heavy are not popular for a reason. In practice, you just want to have a good time with your friends. The best way to do that, for most groups, is to play something magnitudes faster and lighter. Rules that are non-comprehensive are often good, because when an unexpected situation comes up, you can just make a ruling. Probably the classic X-in-6 chance will be good enough, then you can get back to your dungeon delving. This is why I may never truly play Rolemaster, and it’s a bit sad.

But still—I really love it! I can’t help it, if your game is comprehensive enough to include a section on biochemistry, I’m already in love. These books feel like raw experience. In the potential sense, they contain more gaming experiences than I could ever dream of having. It makes me happy to just flip through these books and imagine the situations that could make all this detail relevant. The creators of Rolemaster must have had some campaigns that went off the rails in wild directions! And I wish, desperately, that I could make use of all this content, but I can’t. The best level of complexity and simulation for me is about OSE level—comprehensive rules to cover the most important stuff, and just go with the flow on everything else.

However, an important idea here is rules vs content. Having a 500 page book on different magic items doesn’t actually make your game any more complicated, it just gives you more options. And, as I talked about earlier, Rolemaster is encouraged to be modular. You can totally just cut off small bits of it you like and drop them in other games. I’ve considered using the Skill Companion with OSE, but I’m not optimistic it will work—OSR games work best when you stick to dungeoning. And really, that might be the heart of the matter. Being able to handle everything is nice, but it’s better when you can locate the one thing you want to do and make that work amazingly.

As a gnome, I am unable to enjoy something without wanting to replicate it myself. Studying these books have made me want to rework their philosophy a bit. Is there a way that I could shift the rules-heavy nature of the game into being content-heavy? Perhaps the revolutionary approach Rolemaster originally had, the hybrid between modularization and comprehensiveness, is its weakness. Perhaps fully commiting to being as pick-apart and modular as possible could be a way to keep the huge amount of detail and “potential gaming experience”, while keeping the actual game process quick and simple to execute. I could even imagine something like a fantasy RPG “search engine” where you could look up things relevant to your game or scenario and ignore everything else. Getting even more abstract, I think there could even be some reconsideration of the internal RPG dialog itself, but that’s another musing for another night!

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