Naturally, I frequent the Rolemaster Blog. And it has become quite interesting lately with a new contributor’s system analysis of Rolemaster’s central feature. In the midst of this discussion, the term “simulationist” has come up a number of times as a description of the type of game that Rolemaster is.
For some time, I had been using this term to describe Rolemaster simply because I knew the meaning of the word; I meant it to mean that the Rolemaster rules seeks to “simulate,” as accurately as possible, the “real world.” Now, there are two reasons to put “real world” in quotations. The first is because Rolemaster — and most simulationist roleplaying games — are fantasy roleplaying games. Fantasy is not real (as if you needed to be told). The second reason is because, in my reading of simulationism in roleplaying games, I find simulationist used as a synonym for “emulationist.”
This is yet another word that I had been employing in conversations about roleplaying games, but I wasn’t applying the term to Rolemaster. Instead, I would say, for example, “Many argue that Rolemaster, being a derivative of D&D, isn’t very good at emulating Tolkien. Some people say The One Ring does this exponentially better.” But I believe that Rolemaster is simulationist because I see, in its aims, an attempt to simulate what one particular weapon would do against a specific type of armor. It seeks to move away from damage as articulated as only abstract hit points and brings breaking bones, bleeding arteries, stunned bodies, nerveless arms, organ and limb loss, and even instant death through its critical hit tables. Through this it seeks to emulate the “real world.” So, the other reason for quoting “real” is because of the postmodernist conceit that there is little agreement in what comprises the “real.”
It so happens that just recently — I’m not sure why now, perhaps the changing seasons? — my reading has moved away from Gygaxian Appendix N stuff into nonfiction, though the texts still bear on my gaming, particularly on Rolemaster’s Middle-earth. I just finished The Worst Journey in the World — dubbed adventure writing — and this certainly is why specific references to dogsleds and “finnekso” are in my current play-by-post campaign. I’m reading Weapons through the Ages, studying Old Norse, and recently opened up what essentially amounts to a botanical textbook called Flora of Middle-Earth. All of these have corollaries in Peter Fenlon’s original reading list in Rolemaster, even the MERP reading list.
Gygax’s Appendix N is composed entirely of fantasy and science fiction that D&D is designed to emulate. The Rolemaster recommended reading list, in comparison, is almost entirely nonfiction, and thus the two lists demonstrate my own developing distinction of a simulationist versus emulationist in game systems.
Many online discussions appear to designate simulationist roleplaying games as older rules sets whose popularity was greatest during the 80s and 90s. Today, now (to generalize), the vogue appears to be “rules lite” and emulationist games that evoke specific source material or intellectual properties — though, naturally, this emulationist project began in the 80s and 90s. A personal favorite game of mine is West End Games’s Star Wars Roleplaying Game, an emulationist game that is, in my opinion, superior to the current Fantasy Flight version. And the d6 system that West End uses for the property is “lighter” than Fantasy Flight’s, and this contributes to a fast pace more conducive to the frenetic action of Star Wars movies. The major criticism I’ve heard for these rules is that Jedi characters are overpowered or “broken” after long advancement. But this, in my view, contributes all the more to the emulation — have you seen how powerful Jedi are in the movies? Moreover, this system might have been the first to formalize emulation by giving the GM direct advice about the kinds of stories and narratives that are essential features for (in this case) a Star Wars adventure. According to WEG, the Star Wars adventure formula is as follows: every adventure must contain at least one episode solved with combat, one involving ship-to-ship combat, one involving a chase, and one requiring interaction with NPCs.
Early in the history of rpgs, a genre that began to be emulated was the superhero milieu. But, as I discovered one commenter detailing on the forums, does a specific rules set seek to allow a player to be Spider-man as if he is in the “real world” or Spider-man as if he is in a comic book? In short, the observation posits that various genres contain different tonal and narrative “rules” that might not be present in “reality.”
To bring these musings back to Rolemaster, I imagine that The One Ring plays out as if one is in Tolkien’s epics, whereas MERP plays as if one is in the world as visioned through Tolkien’s epics. For this reason many have criticized MERP as an emulation of Tolkien’s world. And it certainly doesn’t give advice to the GM about how to tell stories as Tolkien does!
Nonetheless, might Rolemaster also contain an emulationist aspect, perhaps one that is buried? The answer here is difficult because RM is derived directly from D&D. So one would expect its pedigree to be similar to the one evolved from Appendix N. But I don’t think so. I already have pointed to notable differences in RM’s recommended reading, and I find even more differences in RM’s Creatures & Treasures versus D&D’s Monster Manuals. Many Appendix N readers find direct analogs from Appendix N to D&D monsters. What’s curious is that, between RM and D&D, even the same name of a monster does not necessitate a similar character.
A first evidence of this can be found on the ICE boards. One gamer was puzzled by a description of the Goblin in RM’s Creatures & Treasures: “Goblins possess greenish, yellow skin and tender, toeless feet. To protect these sensitive appendages from hurt (and, perhaps, to hide their lack of toes … ), Goblins wear clumsy, stone clogs. When particularly enraged, they attempt to denude a scapegoat of his clogs and stamp with laughter upon the exposed limbs.” As has been pointed out on the forum, the antecedent for this description does not come from a Monster Manual but from George MacDonald’s fairy tale classic The Princess and the Goblin. Is MacDonald included in Gygax’s Appendix N? It appears not.
Another obvious monster to look at is the Troll. The D&D troll, with its regenerative properties that can be halted only by acid or fire, clearly is drawn from Poul Anderson’s Three Hearts and Three Lions. The RM trolls, naturally, are derived from Tolkien, who himself derived them from Norse Mythology. Most notable with RM trolls is their relationship to sunlight: Stone Trolls, in daylight, are turned to stone.
Gnomes also are interesting. For a long time in manuscript forms, Tolkien’s Elves were named Gnomes rather than Elves. This probably is because of the name’s association with wisdom (see the adjective “gnomic” or even the Oxford Dictionary entry for “gnome”). How do RM’s Gnomes compare to D&D’s? Well, for starters, they are not short. They also seem more regal, not the tricksters and tinkerers of D&D: “Bald, wizened men who usually live in shallow caves, long-lived Gnomes gather knowledge and lore as a hobby. Ancient tomes and rare scrolls litter their crowded libraries, precious chambers that usually fall to ruin with a Gnome’s death.” It’s clear that RM has fastened on the association with “wisdom.” But it’s not so clear how much, at the writing of C&T, the contributors knew about Tolkien’s early use of the appellation.
These are examples that have come to me randomly, as I have returned to the game of my youth and expanded my game options with C&T. I’m sure that I will encounter many more curiosities as I continue with my preferred game. And I want to share one last one, mostly because of how linguistically interesting it is: the Gnoll.
Because I finally began playing D&D at 3e I now know what a Gnoll is: those hyena-like humanoids of fields and plains. But I had heard this term as a designation of a kind of being well before 3e, and in my own mind had made of it something quite different: a short, green skinned, perhaps warty humanoid that lives in a hill. This last idea was probably suggested by the Gnoll’s close association with the word knoll, which of course is a type of hill. I also might have had in mind the cutified Norwegian trolls of the mounds, the “hill-folk,” the “underground people,” shortish beings with cow tails who herd reindeer. These are the ideas and associations that composed a picture, for me, independent of the Monster Manual. I would be interested in where the contributor for Gnoll in C&T got his or her ideas, for these Gnolls likewise are not hyena-men, but “small, wrinkled men with grey skin and little hair.” They live in caverns and grottos and typically wear “sober, earth-toned clothing.” I think that my young imagination and C&T is more in agreement about this fellow than D&D’s Monster Manual, but what is the “real” or literary antecedent for the being? I can’t find one. There isn’t even an entry in the Oxford Dictionary.
I think that I have begun to reveal something interesting about Rolemaster. It’s rules system quite clearly is derived from D&D with an aim towards more “real world” simulationism, but in terms of literary inspiration (and therefore emulation) it is almost entirely on a parallel track of imaginative storytelling. I would love to understand exactly what the original designers of RM might have had in mind, because at this point I’m willing to predict an alternative “Appendix N” for Rolemaster, one that might not share most of its literary influences. It might look something like this:
Alexander, Lloyd; The Book of Three and others
Eddison, E.R.; The Worm Ouroboros, The Mezentian Gate Trilogy
Dunsany; Complete Works
The Faerie Queene
Hodgson, William Hope; Complete Works
Le Guin, Ursula; A Wizard of Earthsea and others
L’engle, Madeline; A Wrinkle in Time and others
Lewis, C.S.; Complete Works
Lindsay, David; A Voyage to Arcturus
MacDonald, George; Complete Fantasies
Morris, William; Complete Fantasies
Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained
Peake, Mervyn; The Gormenghast Trilogy
Tolkien; Complete Works
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
Stewart, Mary; The Crystal Cave and others
White, T.H.; The Once and Future King
Interestingly, the only books in common between this and Appendix N appear to be Lord Dunsany and Tolkien. The works on this list also seem to be more “English” in nationality. The writers also seem to be more often “theistically minded.” What do you think should be included in this “Appendix RM”? Did I miss anything obvious?