Sunday, March 26, 2017

Rolemaster - How It Could Prosper Today

Rolemaster is one of the tabletop RPGs of the 1980s made originally as bolt-on rule system replacements for Dungeons & Dragons, and would later get used as the basis for Middle-Earth Role-Playing (still the only published Tolkien TRPG worth a damn). It's often mocked as "Chartmaster", due to its reliance upon cross-referencing the results of dice rolls against this or that chart to determine the outcome of a mechanic.

The image in this post is from the most well-known edition of the game, its second edition ("RM2"), which is the basis for the aforementioned Middle-Earth game ("MERP"). Later editions iterate upon this version, attempting to resolve known issues while not addressing fundamental concerns, but the game never sustained the fanbase that it had during its peak of popularity in the 1980s and 90s- and never shall enjoy again, in its original medium.

Crack open the rulebooks and you'll see why instantly. That ruleset, once you grok how it works, is impressive as an artifact of game design. However, it's also far too complex for common people to make proper use of at the table because operating the mechanics gets in the way of playing the game. It's not just the difference between an automatic and a manual transmission; it's the difference between a high-performance air-superiority fighter such as a F/A-18 and a single-engine plane used by Alaska bush pilots.

In short, it's the sort of tabletop RPG that should've been made as a videogame. Today, if the folks publishing Rolemaster were competent and serious, they would turn their property into an application compatible with (or, at the least, not conflicting with) other applications like Discord, Roll20, Fantasy Grounds, or Tabletop Simulator. All of the mechanics and detail that makes this game unwieldy with a high learning curve as a series of printed books in a boxed set--the biggest factor killing interest in it--not only disappear, but become assets when shifting media from print product to software application.

The minimum is that the application contain the character sheet, handle character creation and development, and run all of the dice rolls. The actual rulebooks should be turned into a company-run wiki, with the application linking to relevant wiki pages (opening a browser window) for players to read when they want to refer to them. Take all of the bitchwork of running the mechanics out of human hands, and allow human players to focus on making decisions and remaining focused on the situation at hand- that's the goal of making Rolemaster an application backed by a wiki.

Your business model then becomes selling the application, because you now have a database of users looking to find other players; your application is the means by which you sell the tool that facilitates users connecting and playing the game. It does not matter if they play online or in-person, and you even go further to encourage eu-civic behavior and engagement by promoting the best user contributions through the app and wiki.

Remember this, game designers and gamers: The Internet changed everything. Turn that to your advantage, and you can not only prosper, you can make fundamental changes to how the business works- and we've not had one in tabletop RPGs since the year 2000, when the open source concept got adapted for D&D's third edition. We're long overdue for another; the opportunity is there, so seize it.


  1. Rolemaster is available on Fantasy Grounds (although not RM2)