Words from the Wise (Guys)

Copyright Nicholas HM Caldwell © 2008

Edited by Nicholas HM Caldwell for The Guild Companion


To the 115th issue of The Guild Companion, and a significantly bigger issue as a number of really great articles emerged from the editing queue while I was busy on conference duties in Albuquerque, which was very nice despite the thunderstorms!

Rolemaster Companion I is back!

It's for real. Revitalised, reformatted, mildly reorganised, and with updates for compatibility with Rolemaster Classic, Rolemaster Companion I is now available for purchase as a shiny new pdf from our three e-outlets - guild.ironcrown.com, www.rpgnow.com (and all its affiliates) and www.yourgamesnow.com. For those who don't know, Rolemaster Companion I (written by Mark Colborn) was the first RM2 Companion and introduced to Rolemaster such concepts as Arcane magic and Earthnodes, monsters now legendary among RM players such as the Black Reaver, intelligent artifacts and Will Contests, and professions such as the Archmage, Druid, the Nightblade (the spell-using assassin), and the Paladin. For those who treasure their ancient copy of Rolemaster Companion I, everything you loved about it is in the pdf with an improved presentation - the Delver spell lists aren't crammed into a page and a half any longer, the addenda at the back has been put into the book proper, and so forth.

Next Up

City of Archendurn (now with less d20, and a lot more RM Classic and HARP) and Dun Cru (with Rolemaster both flavours and HARP) have been sent to Andrew Ridgway for layout. I'm waiting on the final scenario for Guild Adventurer #3 before performing an editing pass and kicking off its formal ransom phase. There are a number of other projects at earlier phases of the cycle, but I'm not going to jinx them by making annoucements about them.

Rolemaster, Categories and Skills

Despite trying very hard not to think about how to "improve" Rolemaster, I ended up jotting down some notes in my notebook after an incident in my HARP SF campaign.

In the revision of Rolemaster from 2nd Edition to Standard System, there were (as far as I am concerned) many improvements to the game engine. Acquiring spells by rolling percentile dice to have a chance of learning a block of a spell list was replaced by individual spell acquisition. The stat gain table was simplified, the randomness of hit dice were replaced by simply buying skill ranks, power points could be bought through skill ranks rather than tied to a stat and forcing every spell-using character to have multipliers to be anything other than one shot wonders. Adolescence skill ranks provided an easy implementation of a character's cultural and environmental upbringing. The invention of training packages with specialist spell lists reined in the need to create umpteen variant professions (although the ever-changing secret formula made costing TPs a nightmare for all succeeding ICE editors). The explicit separation of mechanical results from the descriptions in the RMSS Arms Law made critical tables easier to use and adapt in game.

The flipside (and undoubtedly the sticking point that prevented many people switching from RM2 to RMSS) is the skill/category system with the standard progression for some skills, the combined progression for still others, and special progressions for another handful. Then add in the Everyman/Occupational/Restricted classification which initially altered skill costs and was later changed to be spend the same number of Development Points and get double, triple or half the number of skill ranks. Then throw in lots of categories and many, many skills, and the pain that similar skills caused in play for RM2 becomes transferred into the character creation phase of the game and Jonathan Dale's amazing spreadsheet (and similar creations from other people) becomes the only sane way of making a character. The idea of the skill category system is a good idea - there are groups of skills in reality and they do share foundational knowledge - but the implementation became carried away in trying to model every exception.

Let's leap to HARP, where there is a mantra to restrain skill proliferation. Here there are a couple of mechanisms for handling similar skills, namely weapon skills have classes and groups (ensuring that characters don't need a different skill for every weapon) and the mandatory speciality subskills (introduced in HARP Sci Fi) which handle shared knowledge within a single broad skill. Between more diverse skills, the in-game mechanism instead of similar skill calculations or category progressions is to use supporting maneuvers. In the most recent session of my HARP Sci Fi campaign, our heroes had decided they needed to subvert a spy satellite network, so two of them (the tech-savvy dilettante Dack and FedPol inspector Harry) had to spacewalk to one of the satellites. They launch themselves in the general direction and naturally they miss (and it looks like they will miss by thirty klicks.) So I ask if either of them have Space Pilot, preferably specialised in "pods", knowing full well that neither of the characters have it. To make life more difficult, the rest of the party can't cruise into the rescue in the mini-shuttle as the satellite will almost certainly detect that and communicate their presence to the enemy fleet hunting the party. The players are now busily engaged in a scramble around their character sheets to find any relevant skill. Eventually they spot that Dack has a couple of skill ranks in Mathematics, so I allow them to make a Mathematics supporting manuever to calculate how to get back to the sat and let them roll on the Bonus column of the maneuver table. That's good enough for a +20 bonus which mostly cancels out the -25 penalty for no Space Pilot skill. The pair of them link up and boldly try to go where they've never been before - the players decide that they'll each roll one d10 die, Andy rolls a `0' on the tens dice for Harry, Steve rolls a `0' on the units dice for Dack, a modest additional roll courtesy of the open-ending, bonus and penalty cancelling each other out, some stats in play, and they are on their way. (Just to show that we don't need explicit skill challenge rules in HARP, the sabotage task involves multiple maneuvers on Perception, Locks & Traps, Electronic Bypass, Engineering and Computer Hacking to gain control without waking up the sat's computer or setting off its self-destruct.)

To my mind, importing supporting maneuvers from HARP into Rolemaster would be a lot more sensible than the similar skills method of using half or quarter number of skill ranks from a similar skill as a replacement for the real desired skill. (Even before we start considering such horrors as chains of similar skills being used by desperate players.) That would be part of the solution in terms of in-game assistance to the "I don't have this skill" issue that all Rolemaster, Spacemaster and HARP players have from time to time.

The other part of the solution lies, I believe, in character creation and advancement. RMSS has its one-off bonuses to categories, RM2 has its level bonuses to all skills in various categories. Both are grouping skills into categories, you'll note. Returning to the idea that skills do group together naturally and, to some extent, there are shared portions of knowledge and the like between skills, I would suggest that in a future Rolemaster, 1st-level characters get limited category bonuses to all skills in specific categories according to their starting profession. Now because this is a one-off benefit received at first level, we neatly avoid the whole problem of whether this benefit is the result of the skills having commonality or the character simply gaining a smidgeon of familiarity with distinct skills over the length of their adolescence and apprenticeship. And so we avoid the pitfall of multiple skill progressions. Now a future Rolemaster will almost certainly have professions and levels as core rules, but it might well allow characters to change profession. The problem here is that we don't want fighter-thief-mage-cleric characters that are as good as characters who stick to a single profession. Flipping back to HARP, characters who switch professions lose out on all but one of the new profession's special abilities, can only develop spells of their profession when in that profession, have a slower acquisition of level bonuses, and pay a Development Point fine for changing professions. Now to Rolemaster, the key is to make it worth staying in a profession and going for depth, not breadth. Here I would propose giving level bonuses to characters' skills - rather than a flat +3/per level to all skills in a category etc., each level after the first spent in a profession gains a character a +5 bonus which can be applied to a skill in the profession's preferred category. For example, at 1st-level, a Thief profession would get, say, +10 to all Subterfuge skills, then if the character stayed in the Thief profession, the character could a +5 bonus to one subterfuge skill, say Stalking & Hiding, at 2nd level, and then gain another +5 bonus at 3rd level - note we'd need to put an upper limit on the number of bonuses that could be stacked to a specific skill. If the character decided to change profession at 4th level, then the character would pay a DP fine (in terms of a Talent), gain the new skill costs for the new profession, but no level bonus at 4th level from either profession and no category bonuses from the new profession. By preventing characters gaining category bonuses from multiple professions, we maintain the primacy of a character's initial training and core aptitudes, and prevent multi-profession characters from outclassing their single profession counterparts in depth of skill.

Your comments on this are welcome on either our own forums or ICE's forums.

Farewell for now ...

Enough ramblings from me. I did finish that chapter of Something Wicked, so as soon as I have this month's issue tidied up, I'm off to start the next chapter. We'll be back in October with issue 116, but until then …

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