Monday, 11 April 2016

Drifting away from and returning to old school play courtesy of Rolemaster

Just a heads up before you read on, there's nothing really gameable here, and I'm not paying a Joesky - this is just me musing on my experiences drinking the skill-based kool aid with Rolemaster, and then rediscovering old school play and the part Rolemaster played in that.

I cut my gaming teeth on B/X and it remained my primary game well into the time of AD&D 2E (curiously I've never played 1st edition AD&D, unless the old SSI games count, and could count the sessions of 2E I've played on both hands). Our group's play style for many years contained many elements that would today be considered "old school". However over the course of time we followed the path of many gamers, moving towards complexity and "realism", at first through MERP, until we entered the dungeon of detail - Rolemaster. 

For many years Rolemaster was my game of choice, and I have had countless hours of fun with it. However, looking back it's clear for me to see that not only did the rule set we played change, but we also slowly shifted the way we played. Over time we moved away from typical aspects of old school play like player skill over character ability and rulings before rules (not that we didn't still heavily house rule). In fact the only classically old school part of play we kept was the deadliness (in fact we amped this up if anything!). As the Rolemaster Companion books (and later on RMSS) came out we continued to add options, rules and complexity. However, the biggest change over time was the amount of skills we used and relied on to move play forward.  By the end of our time playing together we were using well over 200 skills, dumping only the most egregious offenders of redundancy from RMSS, and at the time we considered this a strength of Rolemaster as a system! The thing I remember loving about this was it gave a really clear picture of who and what my character was, defining them by what they could (and couldn't) do - a picture painted in hyperrealism rather than abstract strokes. My tastes have come full circle in recent years, and I find it fascinating that this appeal was so strong that we made significant changes to how we played as a result. 

'cos ya never know when you'll need a conceptions chart handy..

Whilst Rolemaster sold itself with the notion that anyone can attempt anything, due to the fact that all classes can develop all skills, in practice the skills that our characters were good or bad at shaped how we played and what we even attempted. We moved so far from player skill as a playstyle that if we couldn't conceptualise our character doing or succeeding at an action then we wouldn't pursue it it any further. I think our solution to this was through an unspoken agreement on the genre and style of adventures we played and building characters that were successful at that style of game (and also an almost inevitable level of power creep), i.e. we got better at dealing with situations resolved through character ability by building more "effective" characters. I think the other thing that happened was the game shifted more and more to being around combat (which interestingly is where I think the greatest elements of player skill still reside in Rolemaster, if you don't fight tactically you die, in fact often you just die anyway). The fun from playing shifted towards "beat the game", and I think the compulsive gambling streak in some of the friends I played with manifested in this. We still role played, however resolution of adventuring activities tended to be almost entirely through dice rolls. I don't think any of this is intrinsically a bad thing (we were having fun) but it's interesting when considered through the lens of my current taste for OSR D&D. 

Rolemaster character sheets - we needed to fill the whole back page with extra lines for skills to fit 'em all in!

I had the chance to play in a Rolemaster campaign over the last couple of years using Rolemaster Classic (which is just a cleaned up republish of Rolemaster 2nd edition) with no additional rules (or skills!) with a group of gamers I'd never met before who were all either returnees to the game after an extended period of Real Life (TM) or completely new to Rolemaster. At first this was quite a culture shock (different player dynamics, the lack of character options, the significantly smaller amount of skills, and an overall lower power level), however it made me completely reevaluate the way I had been playing Rolemaster in the preceding decade. In the absence of skills to cover every situation we instead relied on description and problem solving, engaged in extended planning and plotting and were generally more creative in how we played. Whilst the game retained what for me are the classic elements of Rolemaster, namely the combat and magic systems, the surrounding play felt like the old days of B/X. After a dry spell of a few years with no gaming, getting to play in this campaign spurred my interest in the then recently released beta play test of Rolemaster Unified. However the level of detail in the new edition (despite being much consolidated and better organised than the previous edition) combined with my growing interest in the OSR (due to both the sheer level of amazing creative content being generated and my reawakening interest in old school play - courtesy of Rolemaster Classic) meant that I quickly started to lose interest in the new edition. Instead my focus shifted back towards B/X, and adding elements I liked from Rolemaster to it.

One of the things that musing on my history with B/X and Rolemaster has suggested to me is that the enjoyment derived from each games' style of play is different. A game focused on character ability supports a fantasy of being someone greater than yourself, doing things you will never get to do in real life, and helps immersion in-character. A player skill focused game leads to solving challenges through your own ability, which supports the fantasy that maybe just this could be you and creates a deeper personal immersion in the game. I'm wary of saying it but I wonder if a focus on resolution through character ability also promotes lazy play - that when challenges can be quickly resolved through a dice roll it incentivises doing so, allowing the play to get back to the "exciting" bits (which I guess is different to laziness, more like "gratification" play - that said, gaming is meant to be about fun and I'm wary to label one type of fun as superior to another). Whilst these are half baked and personal observations, I suspect there are common themes to what people enjoy in either player skill or character ability driven games. Given I've at various points in my gaming life enjoyed play focused on both player skill and character ability, I wonder if there isn't a holy grail somewhere in the middle that contains elements of both, that playing a style of game that is focused on only one misses out on opportunities for even more fun. There's an inevitable tension (almost to the point of mutual exclusivity) between play styles focused on either character ability or player skill, however I think it's possible to combine both styles by clearly delineating what situations are best suited to resolution through each approach (which is more a case of having two distinct approaches that swap in & out as needed rather than a truly blended approach). This could be partially achieved through a transparent agreement between GM and players but would also need to be reflected in the rules (enough depth of rules to support character ability driven play and rules light and incomplete enough to support player skill and rulings at the table - In many ways D&D 5E hits this line very well in its depth of rules, particularly player facing ones, and in what it leaves open to rulings, however it needs to do more to articulate when and how to use player skill to resolve situations). Curiously the Rolemaster Classic campaign I played in very much struck this balance without any particular need to spell things out. Given the version of Rolemaster we were using is essentially the same as first edition Rolemaster, and most of the guys playing were harking back to how they used to play, I suspect that our game looked very much like an early 80's one where old school play still informed many aspects of how Rolemaster played, before the creep of rules (and skills!) shifted it inexorably towards a character ability driven game. This has fired my interest now in how much Rolemaster can be pushed towards being an old school game, whether through the use of Rolemaster Classic, or stripping back things even further. 

This ramble started off in my brain as a result of the GM of the above mentioned Rolemaster Classic campaign recently emailing me his work in progress game (which melds many elements of Rolemaster with D&D 3E and an Ars Magica style magic system) combined with my last post about skills in OSR D&D. This sparked off a chain of thinking about how I would change Rolemaster if I were to radically remake it (sorry Dave, I'm meant to be giving you detailed feedback but have instead gone off on my own game design tinkering!), but that's for my next post...