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Rolemaster Reminiscing

For anyone interested, I recorded a video chat I had with Sean about his experiences with Rolemaster (and mine, such as they were). This came about because he had talked about Rolemaster in the recent probability seminar, and I took note -- my play of the game in college was fairly unmemorable, but the game itself has a long-enduring fascination, and I've often thought about trying to do more with it. So I reached out to Sean to find out more about what he had done with the game. Here's the video:



Sean_RDP's picture

I did enjoy the conversation. It has lead to me diving into Against the Darkmaster a bit deeper with some ideas. 

Rod_A's picture

I look forward to that! I thought about keeping your points about Against the Darkmaster in the video, but ended up not doing it out of absent-mindedness as much as anything else . . . short version, you pointed out that Against the Darkmaster has rules for making up a Sauron-like world-scale antagonist, which gives the game the built-in situation development that I was saying we didn't see in Rolemaster.

Ron Edwards's picture

If you're going to play with your gnoll fetish on full blast, count me in. I'll play this guy.

Sean_RDP's picture

I'll be honest, I was of two minds. One a bog standard collection of fantasy tropes trying to bring down the Darkmaster, which is fun OR...

In against the Darkmaster, Stone Trolls are a playable race, but they turn to stone when they are hit by the sun. I do not see that as fun if one player has to be punished like that. BUT

A party of Stone trolls, hated and feared, traveling by night or in the dark places trying to defeat the Darkmaster. Just as easily could be a group of gnolls. I think that has some appeal.

Sean_RDP's picture

I went ahead and made a video to illustrate making a Dark Master.

Ron Edwards's picture

... for one of my good friends and long-time fellow role-players, Rolemaster was the Great Hope. He had been very committed to one of the famous setting or module series (I think it was from a licensed/"compatible with" publisher) involving something called dragon masters or lords. In play, first early D&D and then Advanced D&D had run aground for him, mainly because the system didn't lend itself to well-differentiated or motivated characters, and because higher-level play tended to turn wacky and hyper-legalistic, when he wanted it to be dramatic and epic.

There's a lot more to say about our time playing together using five or six notable systems, including switching to GURPS as the "real" Great Hope, quite a lot of Champions, and the publication of Cyberpunk. But to focus on the Rolemaster phase, he had pretty much internalized the dragon-masters-whatever setting as "his," and was determined to see it realized through play as truly stupendous, astounding adventures and a setting-shaking climax. He had found, he thought, the game which took combat seriously, allowed customized or designed characters, included rules for "anything," kept magic nice and manageable, and even provided full anatomical breakdowns for different types of dragons.

As with many others, he was convinced that if the system "handled" any situation through logical subroutines based on realism (which being real, could not be argued about), and if players' options provided them with colorful actions but minimal "disruptive" input, then at last, a True Fantasy Saga could be achieved, as long as, you know, the GM was a real visionary and maintained the direction of play. This is not snarking. My friend wasn't stupid or making up delusions by himself. The authors of Rolemaster were terribly sincere in advocating and promising exactly this, and they were not alone. No other articulated ideal or principles of role-playing had been offered, especially not for fantasy.

My position, however, was deviating fast, and I had been carefully studying all of the latest fantasy fiction. At the time I was thinking of them as "Tolkienesque," and developing my understanding of different historical branches of 20th-century fantasy fiction, but I soon realized there was another variable in play. A lot of it not only showed clear influence from role-playing, or rather, had been conceived as "role-playing but a real story." The early versions with varying components included Thieves' World, Liavek, and Jhereg; later versions which were hitting the bookstores very hard in the mid-late 80s included the Magician series, the Belgariad, and the Iron Tower trilogy. You will probably be amused that I was completely unaware of Dragonlance and did not understand its role in all of this at the time.

Anyway, my conclusion at the time, which is not particularly changed today, was that fantasy as such was basically completely absent in this body of work, and indeed, the chance ever to have any again with these particular images and literary traditions was very low. This viewpoint was integrated tightly with our experiences playing Rolemaster, which are a good example of good faith on everyone's part disintegrating into interpretations of bad faith from everyone toward everyone else.

This isn't because it's a bad game. It was conceived and offered toward the service of something many fantasy fans thought they desperately needed. No one could know at the time that "no arguing any more because realism" and "a guiding hand on the tiller" were antithetical to good design and enjoyable play. And the cosmic, or at least cultural joke is that tractable, manageable, terribly serious fantasy ... isn't.

Sean_RDP's picture

I can see the point in the last paragraph. And I think there is a strong relationship to discussions about remembering all the ways D&D / fantasy game X was played, which are often more nostalgia than fact. I think this is the same thing with the fantasy literature of the day. At least the most popular touchstones and idoms presented in those works. After all Tolkien (or Moorcock) was not the beginning of fantasy, or maybe better called myth emulation, but instead a variation on themes that alraedy existed. 

Rolemaster, for me, held a strange place in my thinking and still does. I like the system, genuinely, but was happy to accept that not everyone did or that it had been past its time for a while. Like finally buying that heavy metal band tee-shirt everyone had in high school, but you are in college. How many wears do you get out of it, before people begin to wonder why you still wear it? In my case not that many. 

Ron Edwards's picture

Your closing analogy seems off to me, so I need to ask something to see if that's how you really meant it. Which is closer to your intended meaning?

  • "I wear this shirt because I liked the band and I always wanted to have this shirt, so now I have it and will wear it. ... But on reflection, everyone else is past it and hell, most people don't even remember the band, or worse, only the hit song that was co-opted to be an underwear commercial. So I'm not feeling the social charge that my younger self would have died for back then."
  • "I wear this shirt because I liked the band and I always wanted to have this shirt, so now I have it and will wear it. ... But on reflection, now that I have it, I'm not really feeling all that much about the band after all, or anything that I may be expressing by wearing the shirt, so the shirt isn't as fun to wear as I suppose it would have been back then."

I empathize strongly with the second and I am baffled by the first (and always have been regarding pretty much anything). Therefore the real question about the game for me would be based, probably, on playing Rolemaster now, to observe and feel what it "is" now, for us.


Sean_RDP's picture

I empathize strongly with the second and I am baffled by the first (and always have been regarding pretty much anything). Therefore the real question about the game for me would be based, probably, on playing Rolemaster now, to observe and feel what it "is" now, for us.

The second for sure. As for play, yes I agree on that as well. I know that I have better tools, a better idea of what I want from a game, to be able to look at it with a critical eye and remove the aura of nostalgia. 

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