Sunday, August 30, 2020

Mail Room: HARP Monsters: A Field Guide

So this very rare and out of print book came today and I gave it an initial flip-through. My first impressions are the book is less of a hard-core stats book and more of a informative fan book. At one or more pages per monster, the book has a lot of flavor text with each entry and fewer monsters overall than something like the Rolemaster Classic guide.

The book is nicely long at 127 pages, with some full page charts and summaries and a lot of art throughout. It does have a lot of background information on monsters, almost a full essay on each important one, and I feel at times it goes a bit overboard in this area. Medusas have two pages of write up, for example. Some may like this, but I am a fan of a more concise format telling me exactly what I need to know, and then letting me fill in the blanks on the monster's ecology and nature of how it fits into my game world.

Is More Information Better?

Quality over quantity? I don't know, I wanted a complete set of monsters and what I got was more a selected collection of monster information with lots of background. Granted yes, if you just say this monster is a Aberaxitchect and stat it out without letting me know what it is, where it lives, and what it looks like that is pretty worthless. Stats alone do not make a monster, but I get a feeling a lot of the flavor text could be trimmed down for some of the more familiar monsters.

You know, like an orc, giant ant, or goblin could be pretty much well presented as a standard type of monster in a condensed format with just a couple suggestions on customizing them. You do have stats like those for some of the standards in the base HARP book, but I would like to see these organized and presented with options in a condensed, quick reference format.

Powers in Descriptions

Part of the problem I feel here is they are writing a lot of monster powers in the descriptions as special-case rules, and they have to repeat these or write new ones every time a new power comes up. These could be collected together in a power section, or integrated in the rules and the powers made a little more concise.

A turn-to-stone gaze could be used by a couple creatures and be handled as one power in the back of the book. Similarly for fire breath, acid spit, shape-shifting, or any other special power. To be fair, in GURPS they do this as well, where powers are done inside the monster descriptions, but they do it in a much tighter format in less space. I just found these special rules in the HARP monster book to be a bit on the long side and not as easy to read and use as I would like.

Wide but not Deep

They try for a wide variety of monsters, so the selection is broad but not terribly deep. There are a few monsters of each type covered in detail. That's depth, right? Deep for the ones chosen, it is like calling a river deep if there are a few deep holes here and there under the water. Overall, the river is shallow, with some spots where the fishing is good.

On second thought, I could shelve this book and go through and do my own monsters based on an OGL source. That is really what I want, a good, solid, comprehensive list of OGL style monsters with the standards and some unique ones to spice things up. That would take a lot of work, and I have a full list over in Rolemaster Classic that fills my needs.

The layouts too feel slightly off, some of the monsters start halfway down the page and end halfway down the next page. I would have rather had one monster (or group of monsters) per-page and edit or cut text to fit. As it is the book feels slightly messy in terms of layout, like the book was rushed or the flow just had to be the way it was and it got printed.

I get this feeling if the editing was tighter and the powers consolidated, each monster (or related group, like spiders) could fit on one page and the book would be easier to use, and you would have a better variety of creatures with more and varied powers. I do feel some monsters that should have special abilities are missing them, I could add them myself, but I would be house-ruling.

POD Version Needed, with Updates

If they are working on a revised version for POD I would like to see them base it on the Rolemaster Classic selection - that would be my ideal monster book for HARP.

This feels like an essential book to those playing HARP, but another part of me wishes for an updated version as print-on-demand and PDF. It is out-of-print and hard to find, which makes it sort of a reluctant purchase for me. This isn't all I wanted it to be, but it shall have to do. It does suck that most HARP players will have trouble getting their hands on it, and I am actively searching for alternatives to this that fill that "meat and potatoes" monster list I wanted for this game. This is okay for now, but not on the level of what I feel many OGL games (Basic Fantasy, Labyrinth Lord) provide in conciseness, organization, and variety.

I do want to see this out there as a POD though, even in its current form. This is an essential book regardless, and a great help for those looking for a variety of monsters that can get you started beyond what is in the base rulebook.

Saturday, August 29, 2020

SpaceMaster 2nd Edition: Computers


The late 80's and early 90's were a strange time for the role of computers in pen-and-paper games. I remember the 4k to 4 megabyte supercomputers old Space Opera in the late 1970's, and those seem laughably quaint by today's standards - but who could have known?

ZIP Drives

SpaceMaster falls into the pattern of limiting CPU power and storage for programs, given a computer and the programs loaded on it. They have 3cm diameter memory disks which hold 100 megabytes (like a mini CD or a ZIP Drive). Your computers have "mark numbers" which rate power, CPU, RAM, and storage. A Mk 10 computer would have 10 CPU points, 20 RAM points, and 100 storage points.

Some programs have "unit picks" and those can add a skill roll bonus to certain skills (mainly science/technical, but evasion and tactics can also be unit picked up. These give you direct skill roll bonuses.

The lesson is, when talking about computers, never use today's terms or even capabilities. Likely 10 years from now they will be mass-producing silicon wafers with every movie and song ever created in bulk and those will be how you stream legacy data. Next year you buy a new chip with the new stuff added on and you don't have to store that in memory. Could we see that coming? Probably not, so it is best to invent your own terms and processing units and de-link them from technology that will look archaic by the time the game goes to print (or most people find out about it).

Oh, You Didn't Buy...

Some of the programs are hidden penalties (which I don't like), such as the Target Lock-On program and heavy energy projectors being at a -30 to-hit without this program. I just feel those lock on systems should come with the guns and you should eliminate having to remember to buy this for each and every design. You are paying enough for those giant turret lasers, why are you space arms manufacturers ripping me off with optional extras that I really need?

Answer: because they are space arms manufacturers.

Also, in Star Strike, they (for the most part) discard this computer system and opt for a simplified one. So if your primary use for computers in your game is for starships, ignore the computer rules in this book (except for the reference programs) and go with Star Strike's rules. I don't like they "kind of" abandoned this system and still support programs (reference) from this one, make the systems independent, use on or the other, and clean this up.

Either way, the computers cost millions of credits and they take a considerable amount of time to spec out, buy programs for, and design. And you have to buy auxiliary computers if you want back-up systems.

Space arms manufacturers, everybody. 


Part of me dislikes these types of overly detailed computer purchase and simulation type rules. Yes, I know they are needed, but I would like these to be optional purchases that give bonuses to the baseline systems, not required for everything as an add-on checklist to every purchase I make and if you forget N-Space course you are not going anywhere. It is like buying $30 cup-holders in a new car and being forced to buy the $70 cup holder protectors as well, and you just feel you are being nickled and dimed instead of making meaningful choices.

Bonuses and Extra Function

If I buy "advanced space targeting" give me a +10 on weapons fire - otherwise - just use my base skill and the targeting systems that came with the ship's weapons should be enough for "basic usage." By default, the ships "parts" should come with with enough switches, screens, and control panels for basic use. Weapons come with basic control and targeting. Jump drives can do basic jumps. In-space drives can thrust and get you places, but you will be working on pen and paper and your space telescope to plot a course.

If you want to automate these, get extra functionality, link them together, plot courses on a holographic map, improve them over and above standard, or get bonuses over your basic skills - then you break out the checkbook and see the glint in the salesperson's eyes. Cool stuff and bonuses will be extra, please, but at least they shall be meaningful options that give in-game effects and not cup-holder covers.

There is that point where you will do anything to get out of the spaceship dealership, and it is done by making you wait until dinner and you will sign anything as long as the ordeal ends. It seemed like a great idea to buy a starship today, but please get me out of here! I get that feeling when I read through these design rules and see how one requirement is tied to another, and my brain melts at having to initial 300 pages of forms in 250 places.

Friday, August 28, 2020

Gaslands Refuelled

This looks fun. I heard Car Wars was finally doing a new edition and Kickstarter, so I decided to check that out, and found this game that many car-combat fans were playing. Both of them look fun, but this one in particular looks like an homage to "glue weapons to your Hot Wheels and paint them" sort of a hobby kitbash game that gives you a lot of style and customization.

People say this also plays incredibly fast once you get used to the rules, and any number of players can play. The 6th Edition Car Wars is limited to 2 or 4 players (as I hear), and this allows any number - just bring a car. Or cars, as one player could control multiple vehicles.

If I ran a hobby shop, I would definitely run this game on the weekends and have tournament ladders. It has a very low cost of entry and allows entry players a chance to personalize their cars and play with others. It is a good game that would get people in the shop, and it leverages toys that we are all familiar with and you could make some eye-catching terrain to draw people in who walk by the front windows.

Plus I love Car Wars and the whole vehicle-combat genre, along with the DIY hobby aspects, so this game is a win-win for me. I am going to check this one out.

Thursday, August 27, 2020

GURPS Space and Sci-Fi Worldbuilding

I mentioned GURPS Space previously in comparison to the SpaceMaster 2nd Edition Game Master book, and the GURPS line does a lot right when it comes to add-on books. They keep the fiddly character-building stuff out of the genre books and focus on the things the GM needs, random systems, worlds, aliens, cultures, and lots of imagination-expanding suggestions and discussions on how to build a sci-fi universe.

The book is great even for sci-fi writers not even interested in playing the game, you could just wander through this book and explore all the possibilities and come away inspired. There are discussions of theoretical space drives, fiction, theory, and all sorts of mind-blowing sci-fi goodness. They hit upon some recommended advantages by the end of the book and present some pregen characters, but you do not need this book to design sci-fi characters.

A lot of games make that mistake, where they come out with a source-book and then every player needs it to design characters because the genre-specific talents are in the book. Yes, it provides expand-ability for your base system, but the game suffers bloat and then there are twenty other supplements needed to design and build characters. With GURPS, you could get away with just owning the base book as a play and be set for any type of world or campaign.

I would dare say the rules for system, planet, and alien generation here are better than SpaceMaster's and a lot more useful. But...

GURPS is Cool

GURPS for me is a dangerous game, once I pick the books up I want to play it and nothing else. It is just the better set of tools to express an idea or explore a genre. I don't like picking it up when I am trying to learn other games, because the rules just work so well and everything is a clear and unified whole. Some people say "GURPS is the game we play if we don't have the licensed official game."

For me it is the opposite, GURPS is the patient monster in the room waiting for me to put other games on the shelf because of their flaws and limitations, and come back to something that works in a unified and comprehensive whole. It shall always be there, waiting for me to return. It doesn't have the crit tables...but with this much cool stuff and support, did you really need them?

GURPS sits there waiting for other games to falter, and finishes the contest strong through endurance and a solid selection of play options and character builds.

There is sort of a idol-like and pedantic fascination with the crit charts in Rolemaster, like you put up with the game's clunky parts just to get to the good parts. GURPS is likely to be every bit as real-feeling as Rolemaster, just a lot less clinical in the details. Then again, do I need a chart to tell me what happens when 30 points of crushing damage hits an arm in GURPS? I can pretty much well imagine it myself, rule what happens using logic, and let the shock and other realistic combat options in GURPS pick up the slack for the aftermath.

A lot of people use forced random hit locations in GURPS to amp the realism, along with some of the realistic combat options. I can see this working, since you are essentially saying, "unless you target a location, what you hit will be random." In a melee or gunfight, what you hit will be affected by the chaos and confusion of the moment. I have always thought the "default to torso unless called shot is made" targeting felt a bit too much like "the gentleman's rules to pistol dueling" and it eliminated the random factor of chaos and unpredictability to combat.

More on combat realism in GURPS later.

Back Into Space!

Just contrasting the SpaceMaster GM Book and GURPS Space is really no contest, and GURPS Space is 100% capable of replacing the SpaceMaster GM book for universe generation because 90% of the book's content is honestly system-neutral information about creating worlds, aliens, cultures, and discussions of space campaigns and future technologies. If you don't mind rolling d6's, then GURPS Space can do everything you need without even requiring another GURPS book in your library (that is a hard thing to do, trust me).

Then the question becomes, why not just play GURPS Space?

I like learning and playing games, so there is an educational aspect to tearing apart a game and understanding it. By doing that, you can appreciate other games, and the game you are analyzing, better as well. Plus people still play Rolemaster and Spacemaster, so all games are good. But if I can enhance my experience with the game by borrowing some top-notch material from other books, that is a good thing in my feeling. You can get the best of both games by mixing and picking what you want from each, and it isn't an all-or-nothing play this OR that affair.

Both games do certain things well, and GURPS has the advantage of a lot more research and many modern updates. Spacemaster is a retro product of its time and I fondly remember my games with the rules and charts. Both are cool and have their place.

The question for me really isn't a question. I am playing SpaceMaster. I am also playing GURPS Space. For different reasons, and for different games. I can enjoy both and have preferences for either given the game and feel I am shooting for.

Wednesday, August 26, 2020

SpaceMaster 2nd Edition: Art and Feel, the GM Book

The art in Space Master 2nd Edition ranges from the cool to the not-so-cool, but overall it does the job. It presents sort of a generic Space Opera style universe that we for the most part ran like any other Space Opera type world. You have a detached galactic government, corrupt local planetary factions with agendas, and a mess of independent operators scattered through the light years between stars.

If I were to play this today I would mostly ignore the art and insert my ideas and designs into the world to replace the slightly dated imagery. I would not go the HARP-SF route and do the 3d art style of sci-fi, there is a sameness to those assets across a lot of Internet sci-fi art and I feel you need to stand out with a unique look and feel, plus there are so many talented indie and up-and-coming artists looking to make a mark and show their stuff.

The art though in sci-fi games does give you the basic feel of the game. It is important. If I were to play with players, I would collect a series of cool pictures that express the feeling we were shooting for and tell them to ignore the art in the books. If I found a series of cool painted-looking horror moonscape art with wiry monsters and laser-firing spacesuit soldiers with giant sphere ships - I would go with that.

This is what we are playing.

Please ignore the art in the book.

It isn't terrible, mind you, it is just I need a visual style to express what I am shooting for creatively, and art helps unify that in my mind and that of my players. Even I were playing in the default SpaceMaster setting, I would find art to fit my interpretation of it today and go with that - a fresh coat of paint helps excite people and drive interest.

To me, the rules and feeling are important, again, mechanics will drive the world design and the art should support that goal.

The GM Book

Sop what do we get in the GM book? Let's look at the table of contents!

We have the standard star system and planet generation rules, and these are a good starting point but not overly detailed (a surprise, given SpaceMaster and its charts). I really wanted more here with all sorts of cool tables for unique planetary types and compositions, like cave-worlds, glacier worlds, ring worlds, and all sorts of other charts where you could roll millions of planet types with unique personalities, current situations, and problems. As it is, it is basic and workable but a lot of imagination is needed to take it places.

The encounter generation is a step up and gives you a lot of options, and this helps fill the gaps some for the planets. You get nice businesses, missions, cultures, and a simple random events table. All this does a good job getting the creative juices flowing and this is a highlight.

Another highlight is the Milieus Section, where they run the gamut of classic sci-fi fiction one could play with the system. This is actually pretty cool, and it is fun to see classic TV series such as U.F.O. and Space 1999 get nods, along with Star Trek and even the Masters of the Universe cartoon. Star Wars is never mentioned, and that is probably for the better since it is the 800 pound gorilla in the room. Or wookie. A lot of fiction is mentioned as well, and it is nice to see some of the classics represented.

So it is supported and possible to play "other stuff" with the rules. But then again, that is possible with any sci-fi game, and I would more likely use GURPS to do many of these if I wanted to do them with a minimum of effort.

The rest of the book is devoted to the game's setting (which I will cover later) and a sample adventure. Part of me wishes this book were meatier with more planetary generation, scenario generation, mining and colony rules, intergalactic trade rules, faction generation, random ship creation, random alien races, space anomaly generators, space monsters, and other stuff that would help the GM out in any setting rather than have the official setting described. I would have loved an official setting book separate from this one, and the GM book to be more "rules for the GM for 1001 crazy, silly, or smart space things players could do."

Overall, a good book, not really equal to a giant encyclopedia of fun like GURPS Space, and I would like a little more in terms of generic campaign support material.

Tuesday, August 25, 2020

SpaceMaster 2nd Edition


Spacemaster was my introduction to Rolemaster - I did not play Rolemaster at all and picked up Spacemaster 2nd Edition first. My book was the 1992 large floppy all-in-one version, which I still have in a box around here. The book itself is covered in clear plastic Contact paper, like some textbook, but that has kept the book in neat perfect shape for nearly 30 years - and that is saying something for a soft-cover floppy book.

I recently got the PDFs as I sort through dozens of boxes of rulebooks looking for my copy, and I still love this game. But why?

Many Better Choices Today

GURPS Space is cool and it does a lot. Cepheus Engine is another great sci-fi game, and it is OGL as well so it shall live forever. You can even find copies of Space Opera and Star Frontiers out there, and those are classics. Traveller too, in all its interpretations. Star Wars - for our group - shined with the old d6 System books. And many generic games do sci-fi just as well, from FATE to Savage Worlds to many, many others. HARP even has a HARP-SF book as a sci-fi role playing option while keeping you in the Rolemaster style rules continuity.

So why Space Master?

Specifically, the 2nd Edition of the game and not the later "SpaceMaster Privateer" version? For starters, the Privateer version was based off of RMFRP, so I get this feeling the skill bloat that makes me cautious of that game will get weighed down in those two-form skill sheets for 300+ skills. SpaceMaster 2nd already has a lot of skills, and if at all possible I want to keep them simple.

SpaceMaster 2nd also is closest mechanically to RoleMaster Classic, so all my experience with one will mirror itself nicely with the other. The two are compatible, so I can re-use my RMC monster books and put latex masks and some foam-rubber carapace on them should I need some creepy-crawly monsters for planets and asteroid caves with minimal conversion effort.

If I am currently interested in Rolemaster Classic, SpaceMaster 2nd Edition seems like a nice fit.

But the Other Games?

SpaceMaster to our group has always been sort of "the messed up version of Star Trek." Back when Trek was still idealistic and innocent of the modern tendency to smear the smelly brown goo of 2020 relevance all over our fiction and entertainment, SpaceMaster was the messy, corrupt, violent, dark, and twisted version of the Federation and the better society that failed and never was.

Corrupt politicians had private armies, ran prison ships, and started wars just because they wanted to profit or take out petty revenge on planetary dictators. Criminal syndicates ran wild and black markets for illegal goods were everywhere. If you were a star miner, you didn't file a claim, you just flew somewhere, setup shop, and mined whatever you found and prayed no one would jump you on the way back. If there were others mining the area, join in or blow them all up, your choice, there are no rules of conduct in this galaxy.

The way we ran it, it was really a mix of the worst of the cocaine-wars, Iran-Contra style deals, drug and gun running, wars as politics, media as gatekeeper, evil mega-corporation, and corruption filled 1980's and 1990's version of Star Trek as we could dream up. It was fun and the campaign lasted a long time.

The Crits were a Part of It

The number of violent and clinically specific ways you could die were a huge part of this game. You could be a corporate executive selling drugs on the side to your mining colonies, encounter a bunch of space thugs, and get blown to smithereens by laser fire in spectacular fashion. In a way the original Robocop movie influenced a lot of the gunplay and action, brutally specific and violent like a horror movie - but since many of the characters were horrible people there was a puritanical sense of just desserts to everyone's fate in this game.

Horrible space people died in horrible ways trying to do horrible things to each other.

The game was played PvP with factions, and when one got wiped out, we would create another and have the players who needed new characters work together there to attack the survivors of the first round. That would continue with backstabbing and all sorts of plots and intertwined fates, with the PvP aspects of how bad you could foil the others and mess with their plots taking center stage.

Some groups went off on their own for sections, to do mining or specific missions, but everyone was tied into an area of space that seemed like Miami during the cartel drug wars of the 1980's, so characters got stepped on and pulled into plots with alarming frequency. Often players found reasons just out of spite, but it was all in good fun and it gave players a reason to PvP so we loved it.

But again, the mechanics of the game supported our game world, and the brutal nature of the game helped create the world and conflicts. We could not get that with a d6 System Star Wars or GURPS version that easily, so SpaceMaster provided a great fit of brutal realism while serving as the sandbox for violent space mayhem.

More soon on this, and it is fun to read these again and reminisce.

Monday, August 24, 2020

RM FRP and Skill Complexity

So out of curiosity, I picked up the Rolemaster: Fantasy Role Playing (RMFRP) base book's PDF (offer a POD please!!!). Mainly because it is hot here and digging through boxes to find my hard copy would take me at least 2 days of work.

Yeah, remember me saying a week ago, "...a year from now when I am playing RMFRP and changed my mind?"

Wow. I had forgotten how incredibly well laid out and summarized this game was. It makes Rolemaster Classic look like a confused pile of cords behind an entertainment center. This game? This game is like having a professional come in and do masterful cable management with colored zip ties and an artful placement of the cable bundles for maximum aesthetics. Check out just a part of the one-page summary of character creation on page 11:

The entire character creation process is boiled down into a one-page summary, with NOTES, table numbers, and PAGE NUMBERS. I dare say this game is better organized than HARP (way more complicated though). It is better organized and cross referenced than possibly even some versions of D&D and Pathfinder I have played. Anywhere I flip in this book, there is a easily found summary of the procedure I am looking for, and often with a short example. Take melee attacks on pages 216-217:

Part 1, a summary, and note all of the page and table numbers throughout:

Followed by 2 pages of rules for all the options, and ending with these two summary sections, defensive:

And offensive, again, if you need a table reference it is right here with a page number:

I have everything I need right here. I don't really need to write articles deciphering how to play this game. Now, RMFRP's skill bloat in legendary, there are so many tables it makes my tax forms look simple, and the character sheet is 4 pages long...but this game is so darn well organized it may just be easier to find things and play than Rolemaster Classic. There is a lot more bloat, but the game looks like it was rebuilt from the ground up by people who knew the system incredibly well and had a goal of making the experience clear and straightforward to follow.


Compared to this, HARP feels like an introductory game with some of the complexity we missed from  the earlier editions later patched in via add-on books. HARP is faster to create characters and play, and there are way less tables to manage and reference.

The needing to bolt-on expansion books in HARP to replace lost complexity bugs me. The crit charts from HARP's martial book are now a must-have. I am probably missing several other pieces in the other books I have that I did not read yet.

But is HARP too simplified? I admit, when I look for a Rolemaster style game I am coming in desiring the complexity of the classics. One must ask themselves the question, does the complexity do anything for me? It is like having a CRPG where you can adjust all sorts of builds, numbers, tweaks, and factors about your characters and party and you feel great about your well-oiled killing machine - and you later realize you miss a simpler game where the action and story was the highlight of the experience.

I look at these games and I wonder if there isn't some secret set of requirements I am expecting and a second set of what I really wanted that I really care about in a game like this. This is one of those things where I am going to have to read a lot more and ask myself some deeper questions about what is important to me in a solo fantasy RPG. I am going to need to make a list of my expectations and requirements for a game like this to make a final choice.

One of the questions will be, does the complexity add to the experience or take away from it? And...what do I expect?

RMFRP vs. Rolemaster Classic

This is where it gets tricky. RMFRP is dozens of levels better organized than Rolemaster Classic. It is like a word processing Gandalf came down from his tower, banged his staff on the ground, and cross referenced all of the kingdom's spell books with page numbers, table numbers, and summaries of how things work. RMFRP is so well organized it cleared up some things I have been wondering about in Rolemaster Classic.

But the bloat in skills and characters makes me hesitate. I like the more focused feeling of Rolemaster Classic, the sort of stripped down dungeon adventure focus of that game compared to "the god RPG of life itself" that is RMFRP.

The problem is, even with all the character design bloat in RMFRP, Rolemaster Classic feels like a game that is more difficult to play and learn - just due to organization and all the little gotchas I have been running into when looking for what X or Y means. Until...

The Big Downside of RMFRP

Is the skill system. I feel it is way too complex. In fact, this may be the thing which makes me play Rolemaster Classic instead of RMFRP. Reading more into this, when you create a character, you need to fill out TWO sheets for skills, a category record sheet to create a category skill bonus (note the +43 in Weapon 1H Edged):

...and a skill record sheet (see how the +43 for 1H Edged slots into this sheet for the Broadsword skill):

There are some very strange issues with a skill level contributing its level TWICE to a final skill total, one value for the category (first sheet) and a second number for the rank bonus (second sheet with the specific skills). For example, this character's Weapon 1H Edged skill of "6" contributes a +12 to the rank bonus on the first sheet, while contributing a +18 when it is used for Broadsword on the second sheet - and that +12 (now inside the +43 bonus) and +18 are eventually added together in the final +76 total, and it comes from this chart:

Note the two columns for standard bonuses, and the other special skill types denoted by the asterisk, cross, and double-cross symbols - those are used for the first skill category record sheet to determine category bonuses (along with the first gray column for standards).

Somewhere in my mind, the words "communicative property of mathematics" comes from the past from the words of a long-lost math professor of mine. Please make this one chart, one column, on one sheet, and make this a normal +30 for skill rank 6 like it is in RMC and HARP. Why split the number and add it twice, and create an entirely new chart with two columns for essentially the same modifier, split in two?

Rolemaster Classic Skills

It is at this point I run screaming back to Rolemaster Classic's skill system and suffer the insanity point loss for even trying to understand this. Rolemaster Classic has a simple, skill level X is percentage Y chart like so (and notice what skill rank 6 is):

...and a character sheet where you take that number and add it to your ability score mod like that:

My Perception skill is rank 2, that is a +10% skill rank bonus! My stat bonus for the perception skill is the average of my intuition (+10) and reasoning (+0) ability modifiers, or a ...+5%! That makes my bonus for using this skill a ...+15%! We are done. The math is simple.

This system feels a lot more straightforward, it is easier to level-up with, and you are not filling out two sheets and referencing multiple charts just to determine a character's bonus for a skill roll. I can see why they did the RMFRP system, when you have all sorts of selections from training, classes, and special bonuses applying to a skills "base category bonus" it can get confusing (first sheet). Then after that, characters can have item and other special bonuses that apply on top of that (second sheet).

But with over 300 skills...the system feels like a huge lead weight of percentage charts and complexity for every character I create. It makes me miss HARP. RMC is simple by comparison.

Worse yet, RMFRP feels like I need a computer program to manage my character designs (and to have any hope of doing the m correctly), and in these days of continuously losing access to these with every new rules addition or operating system incompatibilities - needing a computer program to create characters is one area I feel is a non-starter for me these days. If I don't understand character creation, how can I understand builds and the rules which these work with?

Also, note that for a level one character in RMC you are dealing with skill bonuses in the 10-30% range for a level 1 character, which feels like a low and manageable range. In RMFRP, the example skill sheet above for Varak, his broadsword skill for a level one character is +76%. That is a huge difference in the numbers you are adding and dealing with, and I find myself preferring the lower numbers in RMC and HARP than the up to +100% percentages built off of two sheets in RMFRP.

A RMC Organized like RMFRP?

What I would love is a Rolemaster Classic organized like RMFRP, but with the simplicity of RMC preserved. I am getting the feeling I am sticking with RMC for the time being, and using RMFRP for reference (and noting the huge differences). There are also some great ideas in RMFRP like training packages I would like to see in RMC, but more on those later.

I do love RMFRP's organization. It is FAQ-like, looks like the old Squad Leader game's rulebooks, and everything is presented cleanly and in one place. Nothing beats this style of organization, given the game's complexity. This was an odd article today, loving the game at first glance and then the "oh yeah..." kicked in and I felt happier with something a little more simple. There is a sweet spot with complexity I feel and RMC hits it more on target than RMFRP, even with RMC's obscurity at times.

For now, it is fun to have the version of Rolemaster I started with (RMFRP), and be able to compare it with the version I have yet to play and discover (HARP and RMC). More soon!

Sunday, August 23, 2020

HARP: Monsters A Field Guide (2004 edition)

I hate doing this to people, but I found a copy of the HARP monsters book over on a hobby store site - the last copy there so I ordered it. I did not even know this book existed. Now, this book is from 2004 and likely the pre-POD version of HARP and likely has somethings change via errata in the POD version - but this is quite a find.

When it comes in the mail I will do a full review.

Why no POD or PDF version of this? It seems like a huge omission not to have a monster manual for a game available via even by PDF, and I do not see this on Amazon (sold out there) or DriveThruRPG (no entry) at all. I was wondering if there were 3rd party monster books for HARP, and then I found this.

I have plenty of monsters for Rolemaster Classic, three books of them across Creatures and Treasures I through III. RMFRP has a 200-page creatures book as well, but since I am holding off on RMFRP (all but the base book) so I have not got that yet.

More when this finally comes in the mail, and I will report back then. This is one I am happy to have found.

FATE Condensed

Here is an interesting one. Evil Hat condensed FATE Core into a 50-page book to make the game easier to learn and play. The final version was released over on DriveThruRPG and I picked it up since FATE was a favorite around here. They made a couple changes under the hood too to speed play, as follows:

Interesting stuff, and I can see why they did this. FATE Accelerated was a great little game, but ultimately limited to six ability scores and a soft interpretation about "what covered what." A lot of my games saw "high flashy" characters glam-ing their way through adventures in a flashy-fest of trying to justify every action with one or two high ability scores. It was fun, but it didn't really have staying power.

FATE Core was where our games were and our thinking about the game, but the book itself was long winded and very hard to reference. For such a simple game, the book was huge, and what isn't said can sometimes be more impactful than what is.

This is a good development I feel. It keeps the game in my mind, shrinks the rules needed to play, and improves readability while maintaining builds and options. Your character's abilities and skills still matter. The game is for the most part the same. I need to read more on this and share thoughts.

Saturday, August 22, 2020

HARP vs. RMC: Development Points


So I was reading through HARP's character creation last night before I went to sleep and having did a deep dive on Rolemaster Classic's (RMC) character creation I can see where they made optimizations and can guess at some good reasons why. Let's just focus on skills for a moment.

50 Development Points Per Level

You get 50 DP per level, and 100 to start when you create characters in HARP. RMC relies on a calculated number based off of the values of secondary developmental stats. There is an option in HARP for calculated, but they recommend going with the same amount for everyone.

There is a tendency in RMC for the "rich to get richer" as characters level up. A RMC character with 45 DP per level versus one with 60 may not seem all that huge of a difference at low levels and during each level up, but you factor the power difference between them of the character with 60 having 150 extra DP over ten levels and you start to see the issue, and it only gets worse as time goes on.

Is It a Problem?

That said, is it a problem? In my "be completely fair and optimize my character" mentality, it is. I must have the same options and power level as other characters, and it is easier for the GM to gauge power level if all characters of a given level are roughly equivalent in power every level.

In RMC, it may not be a problem, if I take points away from my character's primary stats to put into developmental stats, I am betting on the future and turning up the difficulty at low levels. RMC already has a very weak low-level game, so you are really hindering yourself by taking points out of your developmental stats and putting them ion your primaries. If I were playing RMC and going for an epic game, most of my points would be in developmental stats and I would choose to be rich later instead of having my character suffer as they leveled up.

So then, is it really a choice or more of a negative game design mechanic? For me, it isn't a choice. Those developmental stats win, since they will act as a multiplier to total character power later. In D&D terms would you take a 10-20% boost in character power at later levels than low? I know I would because later levels is typically where that difference really matters. If I roll bad and don't get a certain amount, my character is hosed though - I might as well re-roll.

GM Reasons

To me though, the benefit of fixed points per level is for the game master's ability to balance challenges at later levels across a party of characters. Tom is a 45/level and Sarah is a 60/level, and they are both level 10 so Tom might have trouble with this encounter but Sarah will blow right through it. That for me feels like the problem here. If I were GM'ing HARP, I would want equal points per level because I don't want players feeling bad they rolled bad during character creation (a negative play experience), and I prefer having a better grasp on character power at later levels.

RMC = Life Sim

I do like the "sim" aspect to this where RMC is more of a "life sim" where your adolescence and first-level training matter and setup the costs of skills that you will be later developing in life. If you were a talented student with high developmental stats, of course later on in life you are going to stand head-and-shoulders above others - even at the same level. RMC simulates potential and greatness, so while I don't prefer how the game handles development points per level, I understand why it does so.

Few games simulate potential, and RMC this is a critical factor in building a character. You also tend to spend a long time "pre-designing" your character and picking skills you know you will need later in life in RMC, sort of the "evil" pre-optimization that they do in software development that wrecks software design. To pre-optimize effectively you have to know the game, be on your third or fourth character and know the system well, and also this is influenced by the gaming group. Are social skills more important than combat? Is there a lot of technical challenges and stealth in this group's game? Is magic important and used often? Are there times when lore is needed?

The skills you need later in life are heavily influenced by your group's play style, and also a good understanding of the rules.

HARP = Buy It Later!

HARP really doesn't care, and it ensures you have protection from mistakes made in character design. Just buy the skills later if you forgot them during character design! Your character's favored categories will be as cheap then as they were at character design, so just suffer a little and buy them later, and you won't really be penalized. Skills are capped as a function of your level anyways, and it isn't too hard to buy to cap. In RMC, if you forget a skill at character design that sticks with you through life.

This gives HARP a "modern game design" style feel to me, along with its higher power level at low levels and more forgiving character builds and level-up options. It is a more new-player friendly game as a result. You get free skill levels when you pick a class! You get more free skills when you pick your background! Only your class affects the cost of skills, so don't really worry too much about optimization! Just design your character and play!

HARP does require close attention when selecting skills, and I will get into this in a later discussion.

RMC = Modeling Greatness and Potential

HARP is fast and loose fun, where character power is similar during leveling up. RMC tries to model in the factors of potential and greatness into its design, so characters will diverge in power as they level up. There is such a thing as a "gifted student" in RMC, and that potential multiplies through the character's life.

The Question

So you now have arrived at a deeply personal question when it comes to game preference. And this also plays into how you see heroism. Do you believe in that statements "anyone can be a hero" and "greatness can be achieved later in life despite their life's circumstances?" HARP shall probably appeal more to you if you feel this way. Heroes are equal in power. There is no factor of potential modeled into the system - it is all the current set of choices you make. You can be effective and make good choices on your first character, and the system protects you from mistakes.

For RMC, you are in an older game design with a strong sense of traditionalism. Potential for greatness matters a lot. The rich do get richer. Early choices in life matter a great deal and choose your path through life. Modeling natural talent and seeing that blossom and flourish is a reward of the system. However, having less potential and still managing to be a hero regardless is a victory for the little guy. RMC rewards playing through the game multiple times very well, since system mastery on your third and fourth characters mitigates less-ideal characters and gives you a sense of what your character will need to succeed. There is no mistake protection.

Those Factors Influence the World

Those character design factors would influence how I design my game worlds for both HARP and RMC. HARP for me would be more of a MMO-style world of adventure with lots of large sweeping plots, stories, and plup-adventure of swinging swords and mysterious magic. Anyone could rise to be a hero, learn on their own, and the skills needed to become great were learned out in the world. All heroes are equal, and it is the risks you take that determine your future - and the world's.

RMC would be more of a dark, gritty world where the rich controlled the fates, talented students were highly prized, schools would guide choices, and there was more of a focus on tradition and the powerful maintaining the status quo. What you learned and how you learned it would matter, and education would be a powerful weapon used in wars between empires. There may be a stalemate in parts of the world due to mediocre thinking and talent, and a legend may need to rise to change history.

The game's choices flavor the world, at least in my view, as the mechanics support the stories, histories, and worlds in a natural and reflective way. This is not saying you can't do either world in either system, you totally could, but I just find in my games if you understand the game's mechanics, and reflect those in the worlds you design, you get a world that feels like it belongs to the game a lot better than just saying "something is" and the rules say something different. It is personal preference ultimately, but this is how I like to run my games.

Mechanics shape the world, and understanding mechanics helps you understand and succeed in the world as well.

Friday, August 21, 2020

HARP: Martial Law and College of Magics

So when I got Rolemaster, I just picked up the base HARP book - to check it out. I seen reviews saying HARP was the simplified Rolemaster, and got it as a fallback book in case Rolemaster was too complex to learn given my time and projects.

I liked what I saw in HARP, it was different, but the very few crit charts (plus Rolemaster's evil magic) pulled me more towards Rolemaster than this game.

Then I picked up HARP: Martial Law.

Roughly Equivalent in Crit Results

Wow, a surprise when I counted charts and results and realized HARP plus HARP: Martial Law gives you roughly the same amount of crit chart results as Rolemaster. Now, the weapons charts are still a point of difference, there still is "one chart per weapon" in Rolemaster and HARP aggregates weapons into classes, but that feels like less of a huge difference now.

So HARP isn't as limited on crit chart results anymore? I see the base game as a "starter book" like RMFRP's base book, and they give you a choice between the first book's crit charts and this one's. If I played, I would use these.

This was a huge issue keeping me from this game, and now it is gone. This plus the ease of character creation may win me over - but I am still learning Rolemaster Classic because I feel that game is worth the effort and a true classic played and loved by many.

Evil Spells?

Another big difference between HARP and Rolemaster is on the assumption of magic being neutral, versus it having sides like good, neutral, and evil. HARP assumes all magic is neutral and the use and/or culture determines good or evil. Rolemaster assumes there is evil magic, thus there could also be good and neutral magics.

I picked up HARP: College of Magics and they have a spell design system which could be used to simulate all of Rolemaster's evil spells roughly equivalently. It will take some work but it is doable. I am not normally a fan of spell design since I like working with a toy-box full of choices, but having it and using the base game as a starting point and filling in the gaps as needed with spell design is a compromise that works for me.

And another reason to not try HARP is gone. The two games are mechanically similar but different in implementation and focus, so I could see myself getting started with a hero or two in HARP while still working through Rolemaster. To me, Rolemaster's spell lists are a huge box of fun to dig through and master, years of fun had by players around the world. The game is worth learning and playing.

Equal but Different

This is a strange choice. I like both games, and after reading this and learning what I did, I like HARP a lot more than when I started writing about the system. Times change, so do people's minds. Yeah I know it's only been a week.

There is a sweet spot for Rolemaster for me, the sandbox experience with no assumptions of heroes or villains, and the wide variety of results on crit charts for lots of surprises. These two extra guides fill those needs nicely while allowing for the easier to learn and play game that HARP provides.

There still are some mechanical differences, plus a higher low-level character power, but those were not as huge of preference impediments as the two I mentioned were when I started reading Rolemaster. I still have a special place in my heart for Rolemaster, having loved Spacemaster long ago, but HARP now is stepping up and proving it is just as flexible and expressive as its classic forefather.

Very interesting indeed. HARP articles shall be forthcoming as I read more.

Thursday, August 20, 2020

Rolemaster Classic: Background Options (Option 8)

Wow, 4-6 picks on the options tables? Check pages 62-69 in Character Law, and unless I am reading this wrong, this option seems really overpowered. Considering the sample characters used as creation examples only have one of these bonuses each, I would consider doing the same for characters I create.

You get one positive bonus, just like the sample characters.

But there are negative options in these tables as well, as rolled results on the tables - but you can still pick (?) on these tables so why would you ever pick those negative results? If I were allowed to pick 6 I would load up on +10 skill bonuses to primaries and some special abilities as well.

Take a Negative Bonus, Get an Extra Positive!

So why take negative traits, like criminal backgrounds? I would houserule you get an extra positive bonus, so two of them, if you take a negative trait. One positive trait otherwise. This way, you can create characters like the sample characters, or ones with an extra positive trait for the cost of a negative trait.

Spell Adders?

I seen this on table 06-02 Set Options Category and at first I could not figure it out. I honestly seen this and thought, it must be a magical snake. Later, via a text search of the PDF, I realized this was a magic item that assists in casting spells, like a magic wand. It is a slightly strange name for these items, I feel something more conventional like spell focus or spell power item would be a little more obvious.

I like the idea of a talking, magical snake though. If it were me, if a player wants a magic snake as a background option, they can have a magic snake. That is my illustration by the way, not in the book.

Spell adders are strange, they aren't like power points, which are consumed at one per level of spell, spell adders are "1 spell of any level." I am so used to having unified rules for these things, once designers create a system like power points, they tend to integrate them into everything, like making some wands have 5 PP, and others 10 PP to tweak power levels. These are wonderfully strange and the mechanics are different, a quirk, and also reflective of the times when unifying systems and rules wasn't such an important goal.

There are times I feel games optimize themselves too much, like we are shipping a software product and every mechanic should be part of a hierarchical whole.

But this funny misunderstanding does highlight the fact that these bonuses should be "make them up based on background!" And really should not be limited by a table. If a person really, really wanted to play an angel-like race with wings...guess what? Let them have wings and flight as their character bonus. I would not limit myself to these charts, nor present them to players as options to choose from. I would rather have the players use their imagination, rule it as a gamemaster, and use these options as guidelines for power level.

That is old-school to me. Be creative, let the players dream up cool stuff, and rule it in with the best balance you can come up with based on other choices.

Now if that angel character wanted an extra holy-type power, they will have to take a disadvantage to offset it. What is fair is fair, and we balance things with equal offsets.

Wednesday, August 19, 2020

Rolemaster Classic: Complex Characters?

Looking back at some of my old articles, I am noticing a shift in my feelings about complicated character systems. Yes I know, this is the Internet and everything you say will be held against you someday, but hey, I am human and my feelings can change.

I had this assumption that games with complicated character design systems were bad. Now, reading through Rolemaster and enjoying some of the stakes and depth, my mind is slowly changing. Also, being alone I have a lot of time on my hands to read and understand things. In my old life, yeah, my gaming group lived fast and loose. We wanted to get in, shoot some lasers and swing some swords, and kick down the door to the room with the loot. 

These days, I have time. Time to think and to understand.

I still appreciate the simple games, the ones quick to get into and enjoy. There is an art to crafting those, and to create one with depth and a lasting appeal is a difficult thing. I am planning on reading HARP and enjoying it post Rolemaster Classic, but diving through this games lets me relive a part of my experience gaming and understand things a little better.

"But have you played this...?"

I am looking at all the confused rules and tables, trying to figure them out, and getting a rush when I discover the secret that makes it all work. That is the arcane knowledge that made a good gamemaster back in the day - someone who knew their stuff. Someone who could teach others, be the cool kid, and start others on the journey to be as cool and smart as they were.

It was like this with AD&D, if you were a great dungeon master in your school, that was social status. That was being popular (among us nerds). That was being someone all the cool kids wanted to play with.

If you were a great DM, kids knew you. You were a wizard like Gandalf who knew all the arcane rules and could unlock the door to unlimited adventures.

Simple games were for kids (that was our group's feeling back then). We play this because it is hard to play for a reason. Your commitment to that game, and to those rules, and your investment in time and brain power to decipher the game you loved wasn't only a commitment to yourself, it was a commitment to your friends and your group.

The Appeal of Simple Games

As I got older, I had less time. Simple games were where it was at. It did not help the profit model for these companies required them to revise and reprint their rules on a schedule, and expand the game into obsolescence and "create a reason" for the next edition. Simple games were an immunization versus that, and that in part lies in the appeal of the OGL retro-clones today.

Those won't change. Games like Basic Fantasy are here forever.

But having more time means once I read a simple game, the effort spent understanding it is simple, and while i may get a weekend of fun reading it, I never end up playing it. I would with new players, perhaps, if I had a group. I would not start new players on a game like Rolemaster, no way.

To Pour Over Ancient Texts...

I still like the simple games, but to play them alone feels like an exercise in math and dice rolling. Whiff, whiff, hit, damage, whiff, damage, win fight, treasure, next room, roll initiative and repeat. There isn't much there, nothing to hold my attention.

At least with Rolemaster, the crit charts provide a source of accomplishment, terror, and unpredictability. They are really the heart of this game, and the involved character design process that forces you to think and care about your character puts the emotional impact on those results. I like HARP, it is just I fear the crit charts won't be as meaningful as a game that takes a little more care and time to build a hero.

Plus there is the fun of deciphering this game and sharing my experiences. For a simple game, why would I need to post anything at all except a post saying, "I got this today!" At least with Rolemaster Classic, I am diving deep into the game's strange nooks and crannies and sharing my experiences trying to understand a source text that - while revised and cleaned up - still manages to be obscure and mysteriously vague at points. There is a fun in breaking the code, and sharing that thought process so others can enjoy my story.

Perhaps people will read those posts and learn how to play, or become interested in the game enough to pick it up. A lot of the posts I wrote here still get hits, and great roleplaying blogs have long-long lifespans. The material doesn't change. The games can still be played. The information presented here really never ages.

To say, "I did it."

I do like teaching, and I write really clear, conversational stuff. There is a goal here, to be able to play through a short game, to see what happens, to build a character and guide their fate, and to master a complex system. Will it mean anything? Likely not. What, maybe less than a 1% chance I find a group to play with? I do this for myself, and also to teach others the path so they might have a better chance to enjoy this game.

But more than enjoyment, to understand the time it was written in. To share that time and those feelings with people is cool. What was it like back then? We were a bunch of scruffy nerds having fun with games people were afraid of, nobody understood, and that were for us "older, smarter kids."

I know girls would come along eventually and ruin everything, but there was a magical time right before that moment where being cool meant knowing the rules - no matter how obscure and arcane they were, how many charts you had to reference, or how hard things were to find in the book.

Because if you knew where to look, you were a wizard like one that laid waste to the darkest dungeons below. You knew the secrets and could guide others to greatness.

Tuesday, August 18, 2020

Rolemaster Classic: Base Casting Level Bonus

Okay Rolemaster, don't hide things! I am normally one to never create a caster first because it means learning how the magic system works as well as character creation, ability rolls, combat, skills, and so on. But I want to immerse myself and if I don't learn how magic works it means hours learning in the middle of a combat when an enemy flings a spell at my character and I have no clue.

So I wonder, how do you cast a spell? So in Spell Law, page 38, I find this:

Base Casting Bonus? I flip to section 1.4 of Spell Law, definitions, and look for it there. Not there. Hmm. Index in the back of the book? Sends me back to page 38. Where else did I hear this?

Character generation with the sample character in Chapter 2, Character Creation Overview, of Character Law:

Did she buy that as a skill? Nothing else is said here. Let me check the Index of Character Law. Nothing under Base Casting Level or Casting Level Bonus. Hmm. Wow, I am lost. So I start skimming the book. Maybe it is mentioned in Character Law under Experience and Advancing Levels? Here it is on page 127 of Character Law, but it isn't called Base Casting Bonus:

To be fair, this is also in Spell Law, in a summary chart in the back of the book on page 269, but it isn't called Base Casting Bonus (note the +20 cap is not mentioned here):

Okay, that mystery figured out, cool! Next time, please put all the rules for how to cast a spell in one place! Those of us learning the game are going to go crazy looking for rules like this. Then again, it was the 80's and like people's style and hair, they were all over the place.

Spell To-Hit Types

That mystery solved, the rest of the magic system is a bit crunch-heavy on modifiers and tables, but it doesn't seem too difficult if one understands the concepts.

Non-attack spells are a straight d100 roll with a 2% chance of spell failure.

Attack spells have a handful of modifiers and use a single attack table that results in spell failure or a modifier on the resistance roll table on the next page. That is cool. Note there are no skills covering these types of spells and you don't have to buy any, you are just using your level as a bonus and NOT using a skill.

Elemental skills use special Directed Skill Bonuses from special skills your character needs to buy per spell. If you don't have the skill, you use your agility bonus. The modifiers to the attack roll here are different, and it follows the weapon to-hit system, with charts per spell, skill plus modifiers pushing the number up, and defenses pushing the number down. Crits happen like all other attacks.

Note there is another spell skill type in Channeling, which besides a Directed Skill for a Spell, are the magic skills you buy to use magic. Or at least the ones I know about so far. This answers the question: do I have to buy skills to use spells?

Yes for Channeling, maybe for directed elemental attacks (but recommended, otherwise Agility bonus), and no for all other general purpose spells - this uses your Base Casting Level Bonus. Runes and Staffs/Wands skills are also required before you use those too, and you can find those rules in Character Law on page 86, near Channeling. Now I can design a magic-using character and know what I need, and how it mostly all works with the system.

Informational Spells

A side note here on how cool this game handles scrying - a universal problem to many of the games derived from D&D. Targets pf scrying and informational rolls get resistance rolls, and if they roll high enough they can detect the scrying, information about who is scrying (like location), and the spell can even fail. A smart magical target could scry back, and I may even house rule a powerful wizard (with the spells to do this), could provide the scrying party wrong information on purpose.

Lesson: Don't scry on Saruman. He will let you see what you want to see, or lead you right into a trap without you knowing. Cool stuff and I can see the scrying wars being risky and dangerous business, which solves the problem of divination and puts a fun meta-game of cat and mouse on the normally "we know everything" problem of these types of spells.

Okay, understanding spells is out of the way, now on to this Background system...

Monday, August 17, 2020

Rolemaster Classic: How Many Skill Levels per Level?

This was one that bit me last night, and this is some of that invaluable "new user experience" feedback my team used to pay people to give back when I was in software development. The question is as follows:

In Rolemaster, how many skill levels can you buy when you level up?

I was reading through the two character creation examples in the chapter for creating characters, and I saw some of the examples buy four levels of a skill, two levels, or just one. The first question that came into my mind was, can I buy as many levels as I want when I level up? Then I felt that familiar sense of panic I felt when I know I don't know something for sure.

The answer is surprisingly easy, and thankfully very consistent across both leveling-up, and the first two skill increases you have during character creation. Let's look at the skill chart:

For every class, there is an entry with either a single number (such as "9", two or three numbers separated by a slash (such as "2/7"), or a number-slash-asterisk (such as "1/*").

If there is one number, you can buy only ONE level of that skill during a level-up. Check the green circle, there is just a "9" there, so that means we can buy one level of the skill for 9 points and that is all for the level-up.

If there are two or three numbers, you can buy the first level at the first cost, the second at the next cost, and if there is a third, a third at the next cost. If there are only two, you can buy up to two. Check the blue circle above, this is a "1/5" which means you could buy one level for one point, or two levels with the second level costing 5 points - for a total of 6 points to raise the skill two during this level-up.

If there is a number-slash-asterisk, you can buy ANY NUMBER of levels of the skill during this level-up, at a cost of the number before the slash per level purchased. So above, in our red circle, you could buy any number of these skill levels for one point each, say you wanted seven levels of this skill, pay 7 x 1 = 7 points to get 7 levels.

During Character Creation

Here is where I got confused. I wanted to rush and buy everything at once, and when I checked out the example character sheets given, I saw levels of skills all over the place. I assumed you could buy any amount at any level - and then I discovered I was wrong.

One level-up is the adolescence level up when you first begin, and these rules apply.

Then you get a potential ability score increase. I would recalculate your development points after this in case you are owed an extra point or two, because you will be doing another level-up shortly.

The final level-up happens for apprenticeship skill development and you buy skills again.

Each time you level-up, the same rules explained above apply. When your character starts, some skills will be capped at 2 points (if you bought a level each time and you were only allowed one increase for this skill per level), some will be capped at 4 or 6 points (2 increases per level and three, respectively), and some will not have any cap (the asterisked ones). You do not have to buy them to the cap, but the cap exists.

Game Design Reasons

I am guessing Rolemaster's designers use their level and skill increase system to cap skills important to classes and to control player ability. If I am a fighter and could buy 16 levels of sword-fighting at level 1, that would give me a huge advantage and put me on a skill level (for that skill) comparable to a level 8 fighter (since 16 potential levels is the cap for level 8 with what I am assuming is the character's primary 1/5 weapon skill).

Knowing these caps also lets you GM the game a little better, since if you are estimating the power of a NPC bad guy, you can figure their capped skill levels petty easily given their class.

Well, that wasn't too hard, but it caused some confusion for me so I thought I would mention it, and I hope I got this right. Now to figure out this spell system...

Sunday, August 16, 2020

Rolemaster Classic: Character Creation


So I was on the couch reading through my printed copies of Rolemaster Classic last night trying to understand the character creation process. I was getting impatient with the entire complicated process, choosing a profession, the two times you buy skills, a strange stat-increase between those skill buys, background development, choosing what armor and weapons you were trained with early in life (and choices that stay with you throughout life), your final bonuses, and outfittting.

Couldn't this get any more complicated? I wanted to throw my hands up, put the PDF printouts on the shelf, and go read HARP. I want my character now, darn it!

But then it hit me. This is one of those magical moments where the concept clicks with you and you start to take that first step into the Rolemaster way of thinking.

The designers of the game slammed the brakes on character creation for a good reason.

Character Creation is Class Creation

It is strange being put into a position to defend lengthy character creation. I have played many games that make you run around in circles, going from chart to chart, just to take up time for no good reason and for no meaningful impact on gameplay. I love the roll 3d6 three times, pick a class, roll hit points, grab a short sword and leather armor style of play a lot. Being able to start playing like that is cool.

When I realized there is a strategy Rolemaster my mind started to change and get the concept. In the skills you pick how you setup your favored weapons and armor, how you acquired spells (many you can't use yet), and a lot of other point costs and factors that will stay with your character through their life. In essence, you are designing the character's class - one custom to your character's upbringing and life - when you begin play.

This is somewhat like Traveller's character generation, but you get to make the choices. Your fighter or mage won't be the same as another player's character of the same class - your adolescence and apprenticeship character creation steps let you write "mini background stories" and make real mechanical class design choices during them that stay with your character.

What spells do you want to start with? What is your favored weapon? What type of armor did you train with? What are the background skills you picked up? What magic system do you believe in? The magic system is sort of important, because even non-magic users can acquire and use spells (at a greater cost later).

These choices stick with you. They will be of critical important during that first adventure. You can change your mind and later buy the skills you need, sometimes at a greater cost, but this first set of choices you make is like a customized class design step for your character before you even begin play.

Now I can see why in RMFRP they went crazy and added over 300 skills to the game (in both good and bad ways). Part of me loves that detail, but another part of me wonders if "too much is too much" and Rolemaster Classic's more focused list of 60+ skills doesn't work better and is a easier list to manage and design with. If you are a character design fetishist, I would go with the later 90's version of RMFRP. If you want a tighter design that is more focused on the adventure and dungeon crawling, I would gravitate towards the 80's Rolemaster Classic and cut out the extra information.

It is tough since I like detail and role-playing, but I am just getting started with something complex and prefer straightforward over depth.

Character Creation is Investment

Putting the brakes on character creation and slowing the process down increases player investment into their character. This is kind of an obvious argument, like a 2 + 2 = 4 thing, but it has some important ramifications later on. I put some time into creating this pen-and-paper "avatar" and invested some emotion into building him or her. I have chips on the table now, I am bought in, and I care what happens to them because the process took some time and required me to make choices. This is all good.

Now let's bring HARP into the equation, or even the old-school D&D style character generation of: 3d6 six time, class, hit points, gear, and go. Character creation is fast, and we aren't really making many decisions for our character. The character is a lot more disposable. We don't care if the character meets a quick end by stepping into a 10' deep spike-filled pit with poisonous snakes at the bottom. Again, if this is the type of game you are playing and enjoy this, all well and good.

But now consider this. Rolemaster is a game with a lot of detailed critical hit tables. Lots of bad things can happen to your character. Your character could get an eye poked out, or lose a hand from a bad roll.

Now which character would you dread rolling an attack against using these detailed crit charts?

The disposable one you took 30 seconds and little thought creating?

Or the detailed one where the player wrote stories about their background, how they grew up, and how they first trained in their class?

I would hate to roll for the second one, myself. Now there is a fun to the HARP style "this is almost like a horror movie and the characters are disposable anyways" sort of play, and that is also good if you are into that. But another part of me likes the emotional investment of a slower character creation process, and then putting all that "on the table" during combat.

It is the difference between making a huge bet at a poker table versus a smaller one where you don't care if you win or lose. Character creation is what gives Rolemaster's combat tables their punch, emotional weight, and meaning.

Horror Movies

I watch Youtube shows where people review horror movies, and in my earlier article I compared Rolemaster to a horror RPG and the game really fits in that genre of play. Some games need artificial "insanity" stats and fear rolls (and I am sure there are options for that in Rolemaster somewhere), but to me those crit charts are Rolemaster's insanity rolls. Fear exists in the mind of the player, exactly where it should be.

Do not roll on that chart against my character! Don't do it! Not with that high of an attack bonus!

A lot of games go our of their way to design a positive player experience, to make death hard, and to engineer the experience so people want to come back and play with their "comic book hero" the next time. This is all well and good, but it runs counter to the aim and feeling a horror game should deliver.

I want to stare at that dark hole in the ground in the dank marsh and wonder if my character will make it out alive. There is a million things that could go wrong, and I tried my best to design a survivor with the skills and abilities I think my character needed to survive, but I am not sure. One can never be sure.

Also, in those horror movie reviews, the reviewers often say something like "Well, the movie never showed us why we should care about this character, so why would I care if the monster gets them?" It is a dark and funny comment on human nature, but this is true in movie making. If the film maker never gave us a reason to care about someone on the screen, the tension of something bad happening is gone, and the impact of their ultimate fate has less meaning.

This ties back into character creation as investment, above. This a faster system of character creation where no histories are written, the tension and impact of a loss is lessened to a great degree.

Computer Aided Generation?

Well, let's get a computer program to design characters with! Right? Well, something says in the back of my mind, "Do this by hand." Yes, I may make mistakes, but I can fix those in the next character and read through. A computer design program takes some of the investment out, as computers can handle a lot more complexity than I can, but a part of me likes the experience of character creation to not be so complicated a computer is needed and a human can work through it. And a computer lessens my emotional investment in the final product.

I want to be able to do this on my own, and I want the designers to be forced to keep the process manageable and straightforward enough that I can do it without a computer. There is a designer-player contract here that I feel is important. We had games recently like D&D 4 where the books just felt like paper manuals for the computerized character creator, and then the books get errata'ed out of usefulness and sit in boxes in my closet, worthless.

I want the printed book to mean something, I want the process to be manageable, I don't want choice paralysis, and I don't want computers taking over the game. This is one of the huge reasons I did not choose the 90's RMFRP version and went with 80's classic - I wanted the core experience, not a more in-depth one where too many choices could distract me from the experience I came to enjoy. I can see how the 90's version was a love letter to core fans and those wanting "more" - which played to their base, but I feel ultimately was an expansion "more for more's sake" than keeping the game focused and manageable.

In a year or two when I am playing RMFRP and enjoying the complexity and depth I will probably change my mind. This is pen-and-paper gaming, after all.

But it does highlight the important pillar of design to keep the base game simple, and save the "extra skill lists" for optional expansions. If I were designing a new version of RMFRP, I would keep the core experience as close as possible to the 80's version in simplicity and focus, and make the depth added by the 90's additions completely optional. This is the professions book that adds 80 optional crafting skills! Oh, nice! Thanks for the options! Maybe we won't be using that this time since we are just focused on dungeon-ing.

Starting with everything is overwhelming.

TLDR; I am Starting to Get It

It was a fun feeling reading that printout and finally getting how all this works. I was sitting there, reading, becoming more and more frustrated with all of the hoops the game made me jump through when the light went on in my head. It was an uplifting feeling, almost euphoric as all of the gears in my head realized what was going on and why all this was here.

Oh yeah...

And then realizing how it all started to work together with the combat system and spells made more gears turn. This is a good example of a game with design decisions hidden in the system that aren't really explained, but they are there for a reason. Once you take the time to read and discover them you get it, and all of the notorious charts and reference work melts away and become the framework for which you build and explore ideas upon.

Saturday, August 15, 2020

Rolemaster Classic

So here I was looking for "realistic combat systems" in pen and paper games, because I wanted to simulate an MMA fight on the tabletop. I came across a thread on Reddit, and one of the posters recommended Rolemaster:

I felt like a grizzled Jedi Knight saying the words, "Rolemaster, now there is a name I have not heard in a long, long while." My gaming group's history with Rolemaster in one focused more on a lengthy campaign of Spacemaster we ran as a multi-player sage spread across dozens of worlds and starring some of the cool spacefighters and starships out of the Silent Death game.

And then I learned they did a re-edit and re-printing of the classic rules out of the 1980's. So now there are two versions of Rolemaster to try, and a third if you include the semi-related HARP.

And there were several videos on Youtube saying people loved Rolemaster as a solo game. All right, I knew what I was getting into, and I wanted a solo game desperately now that I am alone - so let's take the plunge. I got everything I wanted, including POD copies, from the incredible DriveThruRPG:

What Version to Try?

Well, hold up - there are quite a few versions of the game to try. Let's break this down, from what I can piece together:

Rolemaster FRP / Rolemaster Standard System: The 1990's version of the game. Hundreds of skills, lots of character customization, very detailed characters I feel are better suited for roleplaying and social encounters. Sort of like the "epic adventure" setting for those who really get into their characters and want a more robust and detailed game. Character creation is the slowest here. The spell systems are split into 3 books, and 6 books total are needed for a complete game. You can play with just the basic book though.

Rolemaster Classic: Sort of like the AD&D version of the game as it was in the 1980's, but this version is edited, cleaned up, and things cleared up. Less skills and a tighter focus on dungeoning. Character creation is still complex, but not as many choices as RMFRP so things move faster. The basic books are more complete, but you need four books for a complete set - and a minimum of three to play. Characters are weak at low levels, like RMFRP.

HARP: A lot of people like HARP, and the system is very similar, so I added this to the discussion since this was one of my choices. This is a stripped-down, easy to play, one book game reminiscent of a D&D retro-clone these days. The mechanics on how things work are a bit different than RMC and RMFRP/SS, but the game's origin is the same. Character creation is lightning fast. The combat tables are aggregated. Magic is more generic. The character options and spell usage are a lot less restrictive, and characters are stronger at low levels. HARP has a sci-fi option too that looks fun.

Wow, Lots of Choices!

Choice paralysis set in. My first instinct was to go HARP, get something simple up and running, and forget the rest. All I wanted was something quick and simple, with lots of options, capable characters, and a fast character creation time. You can go to town and buy five main books for HARP, but I opted for the one PDF you need and printed that out to read.

And then...I started to read people's experiences with Rolemaster Classic. The books full of charts. The one table per weapon type combat. The lower-powered and less-capable heroes, one hit away from certain unlucky doom.

But what sold me on RMC (RMFRP has these too) were the evil spells. The game did not make a moral choice for you like most games do these days. You could play the bad guys. Weak, powerless, conniving, take every advantage they got and stab each other in the back classic AD&D "please ban this game from being played after school" type bad guys. That felt so 1980's to me and familiar I had to take a look. You could be the good guys if you wanted, granted, but the game made no decision for you.

It was a sandbox that you used to craft your own world and game.

And yes, RMC became my Rolemaster. I have a copy of RMFRP in the house in a box somewhere but I can't find it, but seeing a cleaned-up classic throwback retro version of the original game warmed my heart, and I wanted to support that and let people know. My articles here still get hits and reads every month, and I felt strongly about this so I am back.

Solo Play?

Another cool part about the game is solo play. Now, you can solo-play just about anything, but very few games surprise you like this one does - and this applies to RMFRP, RMC, and HARP equally - all of them are excellent for solo play. These crit charts for combat make the magic happen. You are not sitting there rolling to-hit, damage, next combatant, to-hit, damage, and then playing "math and statistics" all the way down zero hit points.

No, you crush collarbones. You stab goblins in the eye. You immolate your enemy with fire spells and all that is left are ashes. Cool stuff happens not only to your opponents, but your character as well. You got stabbed in the foot and are limping along, what now? You going to press farther on into the dungeon with a reduced movement rate and then need to run from something you can't handle - and you can't? You get one-shot killed a lot, and that adds to the danger. Every combat, even against "low level" monsters - is still a threat.

You do have to deal with a lot of charts - less so in HARP which is why so many people like it - but I feel playing solo you are not being pressed for time as much as you are sitting in front of a room full of impatient players looking for a ruling. You can learn a complex system better if it solo plays well.

Plus there is an appeal of creating a character and watching what happens in this fantasy world simulator. One character, alone. Your choices matter. You can be good or bad. Your character may meet an early end, but the story of the footsteps this person took through the world is what you came for.

Horror Gaming

It needs to be said that the tables in these games (more so in RMC and RMFRP, HARP's are condensed and there are not as many results) are like walking through a horror aisle at your local 1980's video rental store. You are not going to get your arm chopped off in D&D, or bleed out from a gaping wound you can't effectively bandage. Again, this is really fun 1980's throwback gaming that would upset parents and teachers - and thus, it is cool. You can imagine a teacher listening in as an goblin gets beheaded by a good ax swing, or the players debate charming the townsfolk against their will to complete a task.

Um, please play another game in the library next time or your after school club's rights will be terminated. It makes me laugh, but few other games are like this, and the tables are a very effective instrument of fear for players - nobody wants this stuff to happen to their characters - so let's play careful - or as careful as we can manage. And you still get bit by a bad roll and suffer a loss when you don't expect it.

This is effective, powerful horror pen-and-paper gaming at its best. It isn't "numbers versus numbers" but actions and consequences, and if I need a reason to wade through all these charts and learn the game, this is it.

It is also worth noting that HARP provides this level of fear as well, though some have said the limited number of character mean you see the same result come up more often. To me, you resolve this by getting enough experience and dropping in house rulings and differing effects for rolls you saw too many of recently.

The Plan

I have HARP, and if RMC galls flat I have that to play. I want to learn RMC and play it effectively, and that is going to take a little time. I also have RMFRP in a box somewhere, but I eliminated that as a choice because I have not experienced the original as much as I would have liked, and the original has a simpler focus and 1980's feel to me. If I find the book, I will read it, otherwise I am not going out of my way to search through boxes.

I will probably keep things updated here as I go with both HARP and RMC, and that will give me another reason to work through the books. Sharing on a timely basis is a good excuse to commit time to read and learn a new game.

Until then, that dark dungeon looks really, really dangerous.

Are you sure we want to go in there?