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What is Rolemaster?

Rolemaster

What is Rolemaster? A little bit of history.

This article provides an introduction to the various versions of Rolemaster to aid those that may be thinking of trying the game out. It will first give an overview of the history of the game and then will offer some suggestions on which books are recommended for purchase for playing Rolemaster.

First of all, what exactly is the Rolemaster System?
Rolemaster is the Fantasy Roleplaying system from ICE (Iron Crown Enterprises).
Kalu (Kaspar Lundsby) had an excellent description of the Rolemaster system:

“Rolemaster is – contrary to common belief – not a very complex system. It is a very detailed system, but since it’s generally very consistent and intuitive, it is a simple system to understand and use. At the same time it’s a highly customizable system, which, paired with the fact that it’s so consistent, makes it very modular.
The main features of the system are the number of skills it contains and the combat system.
Since Rolemaster is a skill based system, all abilities of a character are recorded as skills with a certain proficiency in each skill. All skills in the system are available to all professions – what differentiates one profession from the other is the cost of developing certain skills. The result of this approach is that characters are more thoroughly described than in most other systems.
The combat system in Rolemaster is often considered one of the most deadly combat systems in role playing games. It is based on the expectation that combatants parry as a natural part of the fighting in order to avoid getting hit. Once hit, damage consists of hit points and often also of a critical that can give various additional effects (e.g. stun, bleeding, penalties to maneuvering or even death) – and it is often said that it’s not the hits that kill; it’s the crits! Thus it is possible for the lowliest peasant to kill the best knight in the realm on an incredibly lucky shot. However, combat is certainly not just arbitrary – usually the most skilled combatant will win – but in the end, skilled characters are never invincible, and unskilled characters are never completely hopeless. The result is that combat is always very tense.”

Over the years, many products have been brought out for Rolemaster and it can be confusing to figure out which of these were put out for which version of the game and what books are needed to play.

There have been five versions of the game produced, which fall into three major groups. First Edition and Second Edition Rolemaster belong to the first group, usually just referred to as RM2. There was then a fairly major revision to the game when the third version, Rolemaster Standard System was released (RMSS). This was then reorganized, with very few actual rule changes for the fourth version, Rolemaster Fantasy Roleplaying (RMFRP).  This was followed by Rolemaster Classic (RMC) which was a reworking of the Second Edition Rolemaster rules.  The rules were cleaned up and reworked to be easier to use than the original books but is still compatible and usable with RM2 material.
Finally, the third group is Rolemaster Unified (RMU). The first book, “Core Law” was released in PDF format on December 3rd 2022.

Lists with cover images of the all the products for the various Rolemaster versions can be found at:
https://www.icewebring.com/ice-products/

The term Rolemaster First Edition (RM1) is generally used to refer to the products released between 1980 and 1982, the first versions of Arms Law, Claw Law, Spell Law, Character Law and Campaign Law. These were available as individual items and in various boxed sets. The original idea of these products was to replace portions of existing Roleplaying games (particularly Advanced Dungeons & Dragons) rather than being a stand-alone game on it’s own. However, once the full set of material was available, it was quite capable of being an independent game.

In 1984 the information in the books was expanded and revised, some of the books were combined and the material in them was rearranged. An initial boxed set was brought out in 1984 which resembled the previous Spell Law and Arms Law/Claw Law boxed set but contained a new Spell Law book and a combined Arms Law/Claw Law book but the older Character Law and the Vog Mur module.

A new boxed set was released shortly after containing three rule books and an Adventure module. The rule books were the combined Arms Law/Claw Law book and the Spell Law book from the previous boxed set and a combined Character Law/Campaign Law book. Several additional books were published from 1985 to 1988, including Rolemaster Companions 1, 2, and 3 and the first Creatures and Treasures book.
Technically, the products released between 1984 and 1988 are also First Edition Rolemaster products. The official start of the Second Edition Rolemaster series came with the Boxed Set containing the Arms Law & Claw Law book, the Spell Law book, and the Character Law and Campaign Law book, all with red-bordered covers.
However, other than a slight modification to the Combat Sequence and some rearranging of material, there are very few differences between the 1984 Rule Books and the 1989 Rule Books. This means that in most cases the term Rolemaster Second Edition (RM2) is used to refer to everything published from 1984 to 1994. In particular, Rolemaster Companion II included the Complete Skill Descriptions section and Master Development Point Cost Tables as well as several Professions that are often considered the distinguishing features of Rolemaster Second Edition.

With all the material that was published for Rolemaster Second Edition, it really became more of a method of developing a Roleplaying Game than an actual game itself. You could play in several different campaigns, all of them using Rolemaster, and they could all be quite different. It’s a matter of quite a bit of debate whether that was the strongest point of RM2 or its weakest point. It made for a very flexible system with a lot of options, but could easily suffer from play balance problems if particular sets of rules were used together.

In 1995 the game was revamped and released as Rolemaster Standard System (RMSS). The biggest changes were to Character Generation, particularly in the number of skills available and the way bonuses for the skills were calculated. Skills were now grouped into Categories of similar skills, and you could buy ranks (bonuses) separately in the Category and the actual Skill. Also the way combat rounds were laid out changed as well. The way Spell Lists were learned was changed and most of the Spell lists were adjusted and rebalanced. The actual method of doing attacks and figuring out damage did not change much, and there weren’t much more than cosmetic changes to the stats for Creatures and Monsters.Like most changes, opinions on whether the changes were for the better or not vary widely, some people really liked the changes, others were not so excited by them. To quote Smug (Adam) from the ICE Forums: “RM2 was the high point of the game of Rolemaster. RMSS and RMFRP are widely considered to be harbingers of the end of the world from a calamitous impact with a huge asteroid from outer space”
For the most part the objections to RMSS from RM2 players was more to do with not feeling that Rolemaster needed an overhaul and sadness that RM2 was no longer going to be supported rather than any major complaints about the system itself.

In 1999 the game underwent a slight restructuring when Rolemaster Fantasy Roleplaying was released, but this was mostly a rearranging of material with very few changes to the rules themselves. A detailed comparison of the RMSS and RMFRP systems can be found at: https://www.icewebring.com/rmss-vs-rmfrp/. 

One thing that this version did was to include everything you needed to get started playing in the core rulebook.  Additional books expanded on this but weren’t required to get started.  There had been a similar boxed set for RMSS called “Rolemaster: The Basics”

In late 2006 the first book in the Rolemaster Classic line was released.  This stepped back to the second edition rules in most ways.  You once again needed multiple books in order to play.  The rules were the Second Edition Rules with some reworking and with some options added include some to incorporate some of the RMSS/RMFRP rules.  It did include one brand new book, “The Combat Companion” which included new Armor and Combat rules not found in any previous Rolemaster books.  This book would be a good one even for those still using the original RM2 books and is compatible with RMSS/RMFRP as well, except for the new professions that are included in the book.

On Dec 3rd 2022 the first book of the new Rolemaster Unified line was released, “Core Law”.  This is a new set of rules, its stated goal is to draw upon the best elements of the previous versions of the previous editions to create a streamlined and consistent game.  The “Unified” portion of the title reflects the hope that this version will appeal to both the fans of the RM2 and RMSS/RMFRP games.

This is the newest game and will be the one supported going forward, so it makes sense that if you are looking at getting into the game it will be the easiest to get hold of and is the one that a new player is likely to pick up.

The Core Law book has three sections that will look familiar to Rolemaster players. They are “Character Law”, “Arms Law”, and “Gamemaster Law”.  This means that the main book is all you need to play a non-magic using character.  Four additional core books are planned for release.  Spell Law, Creature Law and Creature Law II, and Treasure Law.  Spell Law should be released in January 2023, presumably the others will follow shortly after.

Core Law allows you build a character by cho0sing from twenty-three Races, ten Cultures, twenty-two Professions including a “No Profession”. You then add Skills from twenty-five Skill Categories and optionally select Talents and/or Flaws for your character.

I hope this article has been helpful and leads to many hours of enjoyment playing Rolemaster.
If you have any further questions about the various products, the ICE Forums are a great place to get additional information from many long time players.

8 comments to What is Rolemaster?

  • […] What is Rolemaster? […]

  • Pedro

    This is a big confusion! I Love rolemaster, hard to say which one of them I´ve played! lol
    You guys shold release a definitive release with 1 box for each type!
    I played the old fashion, Character law with the red stripe on the cover, spell law, arms and campaing law, companions 1, 2, 3, 4
    But the rules are confusing, the new versions have much better explanaition of the process, the step by step is so much clearer…but the changes createt a simplification into professions and skills.
    Congrats for this amazing game!

  • […] And for those of you who know nothing about Rolemaster:   http://www.ironcrown.com/, and    http://www.ironcrown.com/ICEforums/index.php  are good places to get info.  Also look here:   https://www.icewebring.com/what-is-rolemaster/ […]

  • Justa

    We’ve played a number of campaigns in Rolemaster (both RMSS and RM2) that were based on MERP source-books. It works out well enough, but a little conversion is neccasery.

    The good thing is that most difficulty-levels of actions and all attack/critical-stats of creatures/etc can be used almost verbatim.
    Only thing that needs a little bit of attention there are the armor-levels (especially in the area of metal/non-metal heavy armors and electricity-bolts, etc).

    You’ll need to cook up some of the missing stats for RMSS unless you already use 10 stats there.
    Note, however, that a lot of the ‘low-power’ aspect in MERP will be lost once you start integrating extra realms of magic into the game and/or allow _all_ spell-lists to be chosen (according to the rules for spell-development costs for inter/intra-realm choices). Some types of spells really don’t work well within a Tolkinesque framework. Especially ‘Arcane’ , ‘Elemental’ and doubtlessly a lot of stuff from the ‘Spell-user’s Companion’ is gonna be _waaay_ over the top for MERP.

    Other than that; MERP is basically a ‘simplified’ Rolemaster… tuned for a specific fantasy-setting. Much like CyberSpace RPG was a Rolemaster/Spacemaster simplification for Sci-Fi.
    Making both the system-mechanics AND the fantasy-setting be containable in one book are the main challenges for those types of games, really.

  • If you are using the actual MERP modules then Rolemaster Classic is closer to the MERP system than Rolemaster Fantasy but I think either one would be usable.

  • Dora

    I wonder… which system would be more appropiate for running a MERP-compatible game – Rolemaster Classic or Rolemaster Fantasy?

  • An introductory version of Rolemaster, called Rolemaster Express is now available as well. This is a stripped down version of Rolemaster Classic and contains everything needed to play in one book.
    As far as Rolemaster Classic, Spell Law has been out for awhile now and Creatures and Treasures has just been released.

  • Just to confuse matters more, there is now a new version of RM2, called Rolemaster Classic (RMC) which is a re-release of the RM2 books. The books have been reorganized and tidied up, with a little bit of new material added, particularly examples. at some point I’ll update the article to include this new release. So far Character Law, Arms Law, and a beta of Spell Law have been released

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