Words from the Wise (Guys)

Copyright Nicholas HM Caldwell © 2006

Edited by Nicholas HM Caldwell for The Guild Companion


To the ninety-first issue of The Guild Companion.

RM2 and RM Classic

In early August, ICE rereleased the core of RM 2nd Edition (the 1989 versions of Character Law & Campaign Law, Arms Law, and Spell Law) as scanned (not searchable) pdfs. ICE also revealed that they have been working with a team of volunteers to recreate these three books plus the original Creatures & Treasures as fully reworked books for full re-release as both print and pdf products. The four books are to form the basis of a new line called Rolemaster Classic. According to the official announcement, ICE "are planning mainly graphical and organizational changes with no material changes to the rules."

ICE do not plan to rerelease the RM2 Companions. ICE do not own the exclusive copyright to those works and so cannot republish them. Again quoting from the announcement: "Very few additional RM2 products will follow directly from ICE as few of the additional books contain intellectual property that we entirely own. At the moment I [ICE] do not expect to go back and purchase those rights, but we will be trying to work through The Guild Companion (http://www.guildcompanion.com) like we did with the recent Castles & Ruins release and the upcoming Essence Companion."

Avid fans of the RM2 Companions should not get their hopes up that we at The Guild Companion will be able to pull off miracles in this area - many Companion authors and contributors appear to have disappeared entirely and of those that can be reached, some are unwilling to see their work republished.

It has been suggested on the ICE forums that if sales of RM Classic are strong, then ICE may consider creating new Classic Companions in due course.

The announcement also states: "We are not abandoning RMFRP and both Rolemaster lines will see increased support in the coming years particularly in the area of adventures and background releases that can be done for both versions. The RM2 fanbase is still one of the largest parts of the Rolemaster world and this project allows them to fully participate now."

(The full announcement can be found at: http://www.ironcrown.com/ICEforums/index.php?topic=1918)

A Multiplicity of Rolemasters

The upshot of this is that in the very near future, ICE will have two supported and available versions of Rolemaster, RM Classic and RMSS/FRP. The hope of RM Classic is that it will coax long-time RM2 fans who never moved to RMSS/FRP to return to the ranks of purchasing customers again, and it is clear that many Rolemaster fans did prefer RM2 to the innovations of RMSS/FRP.

Anyone who has been a regular on the ICE Forums will also be aware of the long-running Rolemaster Revision discussions, which may lead to a new version of Rolemaster ("RM:X") in the future. So potentially there could be three versions of Rolemaster in print and pdf in the middle-to-long term.

A Personal Opinion on "Where Next?"

Let me be upfront that this is MY opinion from here on in. OK, now that's straight, we can get down to business.

Why is ICE considering a new version of Rolemaster (the RM:X) at all? Part of the thinking behind this is a desire to coalesce the divergent communities of Rolemaster fans into a single larger group rather than the splintered RM2 and RMSS factions. Equally important is the pressing need to create products that will have substantial sales. Most of the "meaty" products, such as realm Companions, have already been published for RMSS/FRP, forcing ICE towards more niche sourcebooks such as Construct Companion, which simply don't appeal to as many customers. A time-honored rpg industry technique at this point in the cycle is to reset the clock with a revision of the system that allows a wholesale fixing and modernisation of the rules and the publication of new revised core rulebooks and critical supplements. (Call of Cthulthu is in 6th edition, GURPS is in 4th Edition, Hero is in 5th, d20 has had D&D 3.0 and 3.5, etc.) With computer software deals to use Rolemaster as the engine for MMORGS in the potential offing, the desire for a system reboot becomes very strong.

My belief is that RM:X will not succeed in reuniting the Rolemaster tribes. There are many RMSS/FRP fans who are happy with their current rules set; there are at least as many (if not more) RM2 fans who are happy with RM2 and will soon have access to new shinier versions of RM2 in the form of RM Classic. PDF and new print versions of RM Classic removes one reason (that of disintegrating books) for RM2 diehards to change from what they've been playing for decades. So instead of creating a unified RM community, I believe that an RM:X is much more likely to create a third distinct faction, fragmenting the community even further.

So what to do?

I would postpone the RM:X revision indefinitely. Instead, I'd carry on with the RM Classic line and monitor its sales carefully. After the release of the core books of RM Classic, I'd consider the merits of publishing new rulebooks and sourcebooks that can support both RM Classic and RMSS/FRP. There are still subjects that neither have covered; a "Subterfuge Companion" addressing the needs of Thieves, Rogues and so forth would add new depth to such professions for instance. Where the copyright of RM Companions cannot be recovered, I'd consider producing conversion guides that allow RM Classic users to access RMSS/FRP Companions and possibly look at wholly new RM Classic Companions.

As for the Rolemaster-based MMORGs, I'd use RM Classic as the core game engine, possibly pulling in cool stuff from RMSS/FRP as appropriate, mainly because RM2/RM Classic is a smaller and simpler rules set, which ought to be easier to transform into computer software. Underpinned by a better rules set, the challenge would then be on the computer game designers to produce an exciting setting and engaging campaign storylines to draw in the online gamer community. Successful MMORGs have subscriber bases ranging from tens of thousands to several million individuals. The transformation of Rolemaster into a virtual format offers the hope of a digital future for the game that far exceeds anything that can be attained in the tabletop market.

Back to tabletop gaming. Rolemaster in all its incarnations appeals to gamers who like (great) detail, flexibility and some degree of realism in their gaming experience, and are prepared to cope with some necessary complexity as a result. Rolemaster can occupy that niche quite comfortably but it is not a sensible starting point to go head-to-head against the D&D 3.5/d20 behemoth, or indeed against D&D 4th Edition (which will not appear in 2007, but may appear in 2008). That's HARP's battle.

I would contend that HARP retains much of the detail, flexibility and even some of the realism that is the hallmark of Rolemaster but in a form that is faster and slicker than Rolemaster. HARP character creation and game-play is faster than Rolemaster for average GMs and players. HARP combat at all levels of power is as fast as D&D combat at low levels (at high levels, D&D combat slows to a crawl of multiple attacks per combatant interspersed with sudden death from an array of killer spells). HARP character creation (unlike D&D) does not compel players to work out feat and skill purchases over multiple levels in advance in order to enter a prestige class many levels later or overwhelm players with hundreds of prestige classes and feats.

I would also contend that HARP is more "agile" and self-contained than either Rolemaster or D&D. RM Classic's core is four slender volumes; D&D has three thick core rulebooks (and that's ignoring Dungeon Master's Guide II and three extra volumes of Monster Manuals). HARP (fantasy) is everything you need to play in a single volume and this provides potential opportunities for HARP to expand.

Gamers, by their very nature, "pursue the new". We are magpies who collect shiny nuggets of inspiration. We read a thrilling epic fantasy or space opera and we start thinking about how to use it as the setting for a game. We watch a movie or a TV drama, and we're posting on RPG.NET looking for the best rules system to use or conversion rules so that we can use our favorite existing system.

An agile and self-contained system such as HARP can exploit this because it is comparatively easier to write setting-specific rules for HARP than it is for Rolemaster. (Just compare the amount of effort involved in creating professions and training packages in the two systems.) A single setting book plus the existing HARP rules and you have a potentially winning combination, both for existing customers and to draw in new customers who want a game that will satisfy their latest pirate cravings (with or without supernatural elements, savvy?), interest in space westerns ("Shiny, Cap'n!), or whatever.

Moreover, while such inspiration can be the foundation of long-running campaigns, they may just as easily be the basis for short-term campaigns and one-off games, before GMs and players move on to the next game concept and hopefully another setting book. Thus a new range of genre books, packed with "gaming goodness" such as included scenarios and suggested campaign arcs, offers (to my mind) a means by which HARP can expand itself and its customer base. Equally importantly, well-chosen genre sourcebooks could provide relatively strong sales long after all the major rules extensions have been published.

Once HARP SF is published, HARP will have single volume core rulebooks for both fantasy and science-fiction settings. I am personally interested in developing the necessary rules framework to support (pure, semi, and quasi) historical settings within HARP; there's also an unofficial project to create a Superhero rules set. The elements are falling into place to make this a reality.

So that's my vision of the future: a gradual reunification of Rolemaster that supports both current RM2 and RMSS/FRP gamers, RM Classic powering MMORGs (where computers handle all the apparent complexity and detail that frightens so many people away from table-top Rolemaster), and an expansionist HARP targeting high adventure gaming concepts.

Farewell for now ...

I'm off to crack the whip on the Guild Adventurer and other projects, so I'll leave you to enjoy this month's issue. We'll be back in October, but until then...

Keep gaming and have fun,
Nicholas HM Caldwell
General Editor for The Guild Companion