Core D&D offers 7 races and 11 character classes – that’s a combination of 77 different starting points for a beginning character. The problem is that one choice is pretty much all you get to make in D&D, as the selection of feats and skills is pretty limited. There’s only around 5 decent starting feats in Core D&D, and the skill choice is very limited, especially if you’re a Fighter. The only other choice a player gets to make is how to allocate the stats. Whoop di doo.
Here’s a simple example of a character that’s hard to generate in D&D. Say I want to play a Fighter who operates from the shadows. He hides, then ambushes folks. Simple, eh? Here are my “choices”:
- Straight Fighter, take Move Silently as cross-class. That’s 2 ranks of Move Silently at 1st level, one rank for each level after, plus maybe using a Feat to gain a Skill Focus (Move Silently). Wow. By 5th level, he might not be noticed! Add to that all those unecessary feats he’s got but don’t fit the concept (Heavy Armour Proficiency? For this guy?)
- Straight Rogue. A better choice, but then his combat ability suffers, and he gains yet more unnecessary Feats – “Trapfinding”? Why?
- Multi-class Fighter/Rogue. Fine, except the character still gets a lot of guff that’s not in the concept. Why should he gain “Trapfinding” or “Evasion” when that’s got nothing to do with who he is?
- Mould one of the core classes to fit. Take a Fighter, drop the unneeded feats, add in a few different class skills, clear it with the DM. Probably the best route – but why should this be necessary? The base classes should be flexible enough without tinkering. That’s the whole idea of base classes.
Core Rolemaster offers 19 professions and 11 races for a potential 209 combinations. But there’s much – much more. Each character is unique. Each Fighter, Mage or Rogue can choose their own mixture of skills and abilities without limit. While the stereotypes are there as a starting point, the system emphasises creating unique characters. Every character gains a number of Development Points based on their ability scores, and these can be spent in any way the player chooses. All professions have skills that are cheaper to buy; these are the ones that best reflect the profession’s core talents. While it would be foolish to ignore these core skills, it’s also not recommended to concentrate wholly on them either. Each character needs to be well rounded, complete, and have a set of abilities that reflects their upbringing and talents. In Rolemaster, every Elven Fighter will be different. Not so in D&D.
But it doesn’t stop there. Add in the first two Rolemaster Companions and the number of professions rises to 41 (including the “professionless” profession), and the number of races to 28 for a total combination of 1,148 different starting points. Of course, the wise DM will not allow all races, classes or combinations in his campaign (no Troll PCs, no Halfling Nightblades, for example), but that just serves to emphasise the freedom of choice that’s inherent in this game. The DM can define restrictions that serve to enhance the nature of certain races and cultures in the gameworld. Saying “only Elves can be Clerics” would be very damaging in D&D, and would require new mechanics to allow the other races access to healing. Saying the same in Rolemaster is no biggie in comparison because any character can learn about the healing power of native plants, and other classes have access to healing spells.
This choice extends to combat as well. The player can choose whether to fighter offensively or defensively, and how much. They can select the best weapon for punching through certain kinds of armour. They can use combat maneuvers and terrain to give them an edge. It’s all needed too, because Rolemaster combat is deadly. In D&D, a combat is judged to be “balanced” if it takes up 25% of the party’s resources. In Rolemaster, a combat is balanced if the party has a 50/50 chance of survival! Tactics and planning are much more important than having the right combination of feats.
Choice cuts rights across the system. The DM can choose how to mould their gameworld, setting access to certain weapons, equipment and Realms of power to add flavour to the world. He can choose which of the many optional rules apply, and when. The Core spell system offers around 2,000 spells. Add in RMC I and II for another 1,500 spells, and later Companions for many, many more – and more professions, races, etc too.
Because of all this choice, Rolemaster can be overwhelming, especially for an inexperienced role-player. It’s not for everyone, as the style of play demands a willingness to actually learn the rules rather than learn how to power-game.
It’s your choice.
2. It puts the magic back
Elves in D&D are so……..well, short. Apart from that, there’s not a lot to them. The look, act and behave like agile humans with good eyesight – a bit like Robin Hood, but without the green tights. OK, exactly like Robin Hood. Halflings bear more resemblance to Oliver Twist than Bilbo Baggins – unless they’re riding dinosaurs, so help me, and dwarves are just short fighters.
The point is, there’s no magic there. In D&D it got lost somewhere along the way when the rules lawyers came. Remember Sam Gamgee wanting to see elves? Remember the magic, the mysticism, the otherworldliness of the elven peoples of Middle Earth – and the solid earthliness of the dwarves? Rolemaster has it by the bucket-load. It should too – Iron Crown know their Tolkien. The Middle Earth Role-Playing game and the many supplements are some of the best researched works on Tolkien’s world, ever. That carries over to MERP’s big brother, Rolemaster, too. A lot of people who play Rolemaster game in Middle Earth for precisely that reason – it keeps the sense of wonder.
3. Talking of magic..
Three realms of power. Spell list up to 50th level with a logical progression. Over 4,000 published spells covering everything from Foetal Rotation (I kid you not) to Fire Mastery. The spell rules are clear, simple, consistent and wonderfully scalable. What’s not to love?
4. Never say “I hit for 6hp” again
- “Nerve strike shatters bone and severs artery. Foe cannot breath and is inactive for 12 rounds. The poor fool then expires.”
That’s an E crush critical for you – one of many. Next time you play a game where the word “critical” just means “double damage”, think about the damage you could have done. Combat is nasty in Rolemaster. It’s not something entered into lightly by any party, and the risks are high. This is how it should be – it encourages ROLE-playing over just trawling from one combat encounter to the next.
I know it sounds like I’ve a downer on D&D – promise I haven’t really. There are some things about it that still need fixing, and some things it just that will never be fixed. Rolemaster was first published in the 12th Century by monks (my 5th edition is circa 1987), and it gets almost everything right.
That said, D&D has a lot of cool stuff for it, and it would be a shame to ignore just because the core rules have problems. As it’s a conversion from a d20-based system to a d100 based system, it’s simple enough to multiply the important numbers by 5 and more the rest of the stuff over to Rolemaster equivalents. I’ve DM’d D&D adventures straight in Rolemaster while converting on the fly. If you know your five times table, it’s not hard.
In D&D, could a 1st level character kill a 10th level villain (or a CR10 Monster)? Or put another way, does a CR1 monster pose any threat at all to your 10th level character? No, barring the extreme circumstance – pushing that 10th level villain off a 100’ cliff, maybe. Even then, Reflex save for half and HP loss would probably mean the villain could just walk away.
In Rolemaster, the truely heroic does happen. A first level Fighter could get lucky and score an E critical against that vampire, or the lowly Magician’s Shock Bolt could wipe out the 15th level thiefmaster.
It’s all about being able to beat the odds, about taking on the impossible and winning. That’s what being truly heroic is all about. Rolemaster is designed for that. D&D isn’t.
Of course, the opposite is always true. In Rolemaster, any fight could be your last, whether it’s against a dragon or a lowly goblin. Combat is a risk. Again, that’s how it should be.
7. Let’s talk about orcs
This goes for any critter, but orcs are a good case in point. A typical D&D orc is a 1st level warrior rated at CR1/2. That single orc isn’t a reasonable challenge against even a single 1st level character. He’s not a threat. Any human, elf or dwarven army should be able to wipe orcs off the planet in one season and be back before harvesttime. Orcs are cannon fodder in D&D, nothing more.
That same 1st level warrior orc in Rolemaster is equal to a third level character. He’ll wipe out any trained 1st level fighter (unless the fighter is lucky – see above) and keep going. He’s bigger, stronger and tougher than a human, and what he lacks in training he makes up for in intimidation and might. Even an untrained orc whelp is 1st level in Rolemaster. Orcs are tough.
Just like in D&D, orcs can scale too, so you’ll not know until the first hit whether that orc wearing animal furs is a “lowly” warrior, a 5th level barbarian or the tribal shaman. It might be too late, then.
In other words, Rolemaster has put some of the power back into the familiar monsters. This means you respect them more. You’ll never consider Orcs just cannon fodder again.