Words from the Wise (Guys)

Copyright Nicholas HM Caldwell © 2007

Edited by Nicholas HM Caldwell for The Guild Companion


To the ninety-seventh issue of The Guild Companion. As always and more than most, this editorial is my personal opinion.

A Rally of Rolemasters

ICE now finds itself in the interesting position of having two versions of its Rolemaster rpg as officially supported product lines. Rolemaster Fantasy Roleplay continues to have the benefit of a strong back catalogue of in-print and pdf products, even though nothing more substantial than a GM's screen and four short pdfs have been published for it by ICE since the middle of 2004. Rolemaster Classic has revitalized the RM2 core books and Classic Character Law and Classic Arms Law are already available with Classic Spell Law in the final stages of development as I write.

One Rolemaster To Rule Them All

ICE is a small company, much smaller than it was in its pre-bankruptcy era, and a weaker company in terms of the size of its customer base and the generally poor state of the tabletop rpg segment of the adventure games industry. The question that many people have been asking is can ICE support two similar product lines? (Looking at the state of HARP: 4 printed products in 2004, 2 in 2005, and the much shorter Codex in 2006, an outside observer might say the answer is obviously "No".)

The upshot of this is that concerned fans are defending their version of Rolemaster against all comers, in a fashion reminiscent of the ancient flamewars that raged between RM2 loyalists and RMSS advocates in the old days of the silent-tower mailing lists. Some have called for official support for RMFRP to be terminated. More constructively, there's been calls for future Rolemaster supplements (once the core volumes of RM Classic are all published) to be dual-system with rules and stats for both RM Classic and RMFRP. Naturally this means more effort by writers in creating such products and more effort by editors in selecting products that can be dual-system, as well as in editing and effectively laying out two rules sets in the same work. But in return, we would have products that can be used by aficionados of both flavors of Rolemaster with equal ease.

There's an argument that, with some effort, a competent GM can convert material from one version of Rolemaster to the other and vice versa. But frankly, who really wants to have to do that? Better one designer spend the time doing it right once than many GMs duplicating the conversion and wasting time that would be better spent on world building, or adventure writing, or simply gaming.

Not Long Enough and Too Long

RM:X is the unofficial name of the currently unofficial proposed revision of Rolemaster. At a couple of hundred topics and five thousand posts, it is one of the most populated areas of the ICE forums, although less active now than originally.

The current perceived wisdom is that RMX will not be published until (at least) 2011. By comparison, D&D 4th Edition is anticipated as being the colossus release of 2008.

2011 is some four years from now. That's not a long time for a relaunch/revision of a role-playing game, particularly since 2007 will be and is the year of release for RM Classic. With its new layout, its new reorganisation, its new options, RM Classic is not just a rerelease of RM2. It would be more accurate to say that it is a fractional system revision - much like RMFRP had some differences from RMSS (the so-called 5% difference) and on a greater scale D&D 3.5 was a partial revision of D&D 3.0.

A significant proportion of D&D 3e fans felt betrayed with the relatively swift release of 3.5 after 3.0. They had made substantial financial and time investments in 3.0 and their books had just become obsolete overnight; if they bought into d20 3.5, they had to relearn the details of feats, skills, classes, monsters, etc., because the 3.5 changes were in the low-level detail and they were everywhere and all "core". RM Classic is not a death of a thousand changes for RM2, just as RMFRP was not a total revamp of RMSS. The point I'm making here is the short timespan between d20 3.0 with its infelicities and the 3.5 revision.

(An aside to the aside: HARP has already had its own fractional system revision in a much shorter time frame of a few months from the original 160-page volume to the 192-page Revised rulebook. The difference here was that ICE made the right decision - make the changes fast and before any supplements were published that relied on the original rules set. Thus the rancour that followed the 3.5 revision never had any serious equivalent in the HARP community.)

I've declared in an previous editorial that I believe that RM:X is more likely to spawn a third faction of Rolemaster fans than to unite the existing branches of the Rolemaster family. I will go further and say that the very proposal of RM:X is harmful to both RM Classic and RMFRP at this time. A surefire way of killing sales in the adventure games industry is to announce a revision of a game system. Sales of the current system dry up as people are reluctant to buy "obsolete" products - this does not mean that they will buy into the new revision, they may just make do with what they have when it comes out. And of course in a world of pdf versions of older products, let alone print-on-demand, there is no reason why their existing books should ever fall into total ruin from overuse.

For a purchaser of RMClassic, the spectre of the future RM:X causing an obsolescence of the new shiny RM Classic products in a very few years must give some cause for concern and that cannot be good for business. For a current fan of RMFRP, focusing on RM:X is a distraction from the here-and-now of support for the existing rules set. RM:X promises "jam tomorrow" at the expense of "bread and butter today".

2011 is less than four years away. It is not a long time in the gaming hobby.

2011 is four years away. It is a very long time in the gaming industry.

Between now and 2011, we will undoubtedly see the release of D&D 4th edition. Computer-based "roleplaying" in all its myriad forms will become an ever more appealing alternative to tabletop gaming - if nothing else, Internet connections will continue to improve (more people are already now on broadband than on dialup modems in the UK, for instance), computers will get faster and better. Companies may find that other markets are much more profitable than traditional rpg games (witness Steve Jackson Games and their move to two hardback GURPS releases for 2007, and everything else in pdf and print-on-demand simply because their Munchkin product line is so more profitable.) Distributors may come and go, the number of local game stores will probably shrink further, compelling potential customers to shop online and reducing the opportunities for casual purchases. And given the changes of direction in ICE's business that have occurred in the last several years, many things may change within ICE itself.

Four more years of discussions about RM:X might seem like a great way of finding the conceptual breakthroughs that propel RM into a quantum leap forward in gaming. And then again, maybe not. I've tried following the discussions, wading through the discursions and asides that necessarily accompany such things, trying to avoid the hobby horses and bÍte noires of the prolific advocates. Every so often, I've critiqued ideas as being beyond Rolemaster or too byzantine in concept or likely implementation. However, and no offense to the forum participants, I have yet to see anything, either individually or collectively, that would tempt me to trade in my RMSS or even my RM2 books. Nor have I seen anything that would "improve" HARP.

The danger of continuing the debates for four years is that a consensus may emerge from the handful who persevere with the discussions. Which may be a good consensus. Then again, it could just as easily be something that isn't recognisably Rolemaster, is less suited to the "average" Rolemaster GM (despite being perfect for its advocates), or simply ignores the realities of the gaming marketplace of the future. RM:X today (in the sense of nebulous discussions) could be the greatest threat to RM:X tomorrow (in terms of a playable and marketable role-playing game.)

A Radical Solution

For the sake of RM Classic, RMFRP, and yes, even some future RM:X, the current RM:X needs to be "indefinitely postponed". 2011 is both too soon and too distant to be making sensible decisions on the future direction of Rolemaster. I think, however, more needs to be done than postponing RM:X. The RM:X discussions as a gargantuan many-headed hydra need to be locked down and archived off. By all means, have occasional threads in the Rolemaster boards about ways in which Rolemaster can be improved, but avoid the current morass which seeks to solve everything and fails. And because there is far too much of it, the current forums will be a nightmare haystack to sift for the proverbial needles.

When the time is right for a revision of Rolemaster, bring the discussions back in the year before projected publication. That's the time when they can usefully inform system development and the knowledge of a real schedule will concentrate minds on fruitful directions to solve problems.

Farewell for now ...

Feel free to comment on this or any other article in this issue on either our forums or on ICE's boards. Meanwhile it's time for me to return to the real-world, so I'll let you enjoy the rest of this month's issue. We'll be back in April, but until then ...

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