Reviewed by Lowell R. Matthews, Copyright ©2000
Edited by Suzanne Campbell
for The Guild Companion
Gamemaster Law (GML), a "core product" of Iron Crown Enterprises' Rolemaster Fantasy Role Playing (RMFRP) line, is written by John W. Curtis III, Pete Fenlon, Jason O. Hawkins and Steve Marvin, and describes itself as "The essential tome for GMs!"
GML is divided into two major sections: Part I is a very thorough essay on the philosophies of role playing, applicable to any rules system, while Part II is a collection of tips more closely tied to RMFRP-specific mechanics. Most of the adaptations and/or revisions of previously published material appear in Part II, some sections of which are recognizable from the first Rolemaster books, e.g., Character Law & Campaign Law. The book, therefore, has something of a split personality, with most portions designed for thoughtful reading apart from a game session. Relatively few sections will find much direct in-session use, but those few are important and will be used frequently. I will offer suggestions on dealing with that later.
Part I, the RP philosophy section, contains major headings on the nature of gaming groups, story and campaign design and progression (four separate topics), and running sessions. While such a long (70-page) essay did take me a considerably long time to read through, I found myself thoroughly immersed. In several instances I began wishing I had read or had been told something like this years ago!
You see, dear reader, your humble reviewer is a relative "old fogy" who started playing RPG's in the summer of 1980. I had to learn the things described in this essay the hard way, in some cases at the expense of good stories and campaigns. In spite of my long experience and general familiarity with the techniques of telling a good story while simultaneously running a good game, I found new insights. For example, I had never quantified the ideas of "actual scope" and "visible scope" introduced in §3.1.1, though I'm sure I knew the concepts in a somewhat nebulous form. These terms are used to distinguish the portion of the story visible to the PC's, the visible scope, from the actual scope of events known only to high-ranking NPC's or to the GM himself. The section on story design also offers useful tips on finding inspiration, keeping the scope of the story from expanding too quickly, and building quality characters.
Part II begins with a short discussion of linear and bell-curve probability and statistics (akin to the article "Take Your Chances" which appeared in the February 2000 issue of The Guild Companion). From there the discussion focuses on some of the features new to the Rolemaster Standard System (RMSS) and its successor, RMFRP, which were not present in Rolemaster Second Edition (RM2). These include character points, the new initiative system, the new weapon-breakage rules, training packages, and the talentflaw system. Other subjects include discussions on the use of illusions and invisibility, diseases and poisons, commerce (including equipment tables), and conversions from previous editions of RM.
Following those discussions, four major sections on game-world design have been taken relatively intact from the older (RMSS) Campaign Law. As is true of the Part I essay, most of this material is not dependent upon the game system; rather, it contains advice on the construction of the game world's cosmogony, physical layout, climates, biomes, weather, cultures, and events. Personally, I have already done a lot of research in these areas, and the one game world I have under development is fairly detailed already, so the information in these sections was neither particularly new nor useful to me. Nevertheless, it would be highly useful for a new GM to use as a basic resource or for someone like me to use in creating a new campaign world.
Part II ends with a section called "GM Tips, Tricks, and Traps," which contains a few practical observations on martial arts (i.e., keeping martial artists balanced with respect to conventional characters), sinking ships, individualizing horses, NPC wages, and the effects of aging, fear, and cold.
Now comes the time to answer the question, is GML worth the money, typically $25? This reviewer replies with a qualified yes. As the title implies, all but a few pages will not be especially useful to ordinary players, only those aspiring to become storytellers, writers, world builders, or (naturally) GM's. (Hopefully, all players will aspire to become those things eventually, but obviously not all will.) The production values are not consistent between Parts I and II. It seems obvious to me that Part I is more a "labor of love" with high craftsmanship, while Part II shows many more signs of rushed construction and includes larger portions of older material. Furthermore, most of the interior artwork, while good, does not correlate directly to the subject under discussion. The product as a whole is, however, worth buying.
In closing, here are my suggestions for what to do with the book once purchased:
- Read the entirety of Part I at your leisure. You probably will not be able to incorporate everything all at once, but it is definitely worth your time. If you follow the suggestions, your campaigns, stories, and game sessions should all improve, and with them, your enjoyment of RPG's. (Yes, I plan to take my own advice.)
- Photocopy all of §11.0, "Diseases and Poisons," pages 8994, into a quick-reference section for your ring binder.
- Ditto that for §12.0, "Economics, Commerce, and Trading," pages 95100. I would also consider making a special copy of tables T-4.8.13A and T-4.8.13B, the inner columns of pages 9697, onto a single page. I would also make a special copy of the big table on the unnumbered page 100. Both of those special copies would be candidates for lamination.
- Photocopy all of the "Equipment Lists," §13.0, pages 101110, for your ring binder. Actually, I would divide it into two sections, with pages 101105 (equipment) in one and 106110 (pharmaceuticals) in the other. I would also consider making multiple copies, as this section will probably be used far more often than any other in the whole of GML will be; copies will spare your book.
This material has changed relatively little from the RM2 Character Law & Campaign Law, but then, why should it? It does contain a few new items and fuller descriptions of most items. It does not, however, expand upon the overly brief descriptions of the herbs, drugs, and poisons in CL that inspired to me to write the much fuller descriptions in the three-part article "Encyclopedia of Novi: Herbs (Including Breads, Drugs, Poisons, and Biological Weapons)," which appears elsewhere in this issue of The Guild Companion.
- Photocopy all of §16.0, "Climate and Weather," pages 123130, into a quick-reference section for your ring binder. Some of you will use it often enough to justify laminating the tables, others will not.
- Photocopy the culture tables, page 140, for your ring binder or for lamination.
- If your characters are planning to go to high latitudes or elevations, or to do extensive traveling in winter, then photocopy all of §19.7, "Extreme Cold," pages 165170. You will not use it much otherwise.
- Photocopy all of §A-2, "Race Generation," pages 174185, into a quick-reference section for your ring binder.
All of the copying I have recommended in the bullet points above should fall within the "fair use" doctrine of copyright law. It should spare your copy of GML from excessive wear on certain pages. Considering the out-of-session nature of the majority of the book's sections, it might be a good idea just to carry the photocopies to sessions instead of the whole book.
I hope you have found this review helpful and informative. For further information, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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