Where Precisely Is the “Game” in MERP/Rolemaster?

6B3EB40E-E292-4204-90C6-D980A37168BBA player quitting my MERP (Middle-Earth Role Playing) campaign has caused me to think really carefully about the Rolemaster system. Because my lost gamer so very much enjoyed Yggdrasill, I have consequently framed my thoughts by comparing Rolemaster to that Vikings fantasy rules set. I’m seeking to understand what my gamer might have liked about Yggdrasill and therefore perhaps what he doesn’t like about MERP.

First, some broad strokes: Despite its reputation for complexity (or perhaps because of it!), I identify MERP as solidly an “old school” game. I shall elaborate on this in a moment. Yggdrasill, on the other hand, though evincing some indisputably old school qualities, clearly is informed by rpg innovations that began in, let’s say, the 90s. I shall elaborate on this in a moment.

What qualifies as an “old school” game? Well, Matt Finch’s Quick Primer for Old School Gaming definitely helps us here, and in my forthcoming comments I shall be making observations specific to MERP/Rolemaster that Finch makes for old school gaming in general. And I think it is helpful for us to immediately throw out the oft-made assumption that an old school game is inherently “simpler” than the new school. I consider Champions old school (and I am surprised at how much I’ve been hearing lately about how “crunchy” people consider my beloved Hero System). When I took a photo for my own Grognard Gaming Group, I included Palladium’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles as one of our three representative games (the other two being AD&D1e and MERP). It’s been a while since I’ve played, but my recollections are that there was a bit much to TMNT, specifically in character creation. The fact is that the multitude of OSR iterations of what basically is D&D are people’s house ruled versions of the d20 system. Some of these rulings, for sure, might be “simpler” or more elegant ways of resolving game mechanics, but some obviously are more complicated. At any rate, what the OSR provides outside of reprinted Basic and Holmes is “more.”

Returning to MERP, I was surprised to learn recently that this is what Rolemaster was (is?) as well: a highly detailed and optional modular rules set that was designed to be plugged into any D&D or FRP (fantasy roleplaying) game (and this is why I can easily convert monsters from my voluminous Swords & Wizardry and Pathfinder bestiaries!). But after Pete Fenlon had completed publishing all of his optional D&D rules, he had his own game.

But what does this have to do with my topic? Well, I think I have arrived at my first definition for old school (and this is not news at all to most people interested in the OSR): the rules are optional. Now, of course there have to be some rules. Otherwise there might not be a game. But the rules shall be what make most sense for the participants at the gaming table. Ideally, they should be amicably agreed upon by all present. If necessary, the GM has the final say — this is why she is the “Referee.”

Now, the second defining feature of old school gaming that I’m about to propose is much, much more tenuous. I’m going to attempt to make some observations on player choices and player resources. I propose that the choices and resources are (speaking entirely in generalities, of course) different between old school and new school gaming.

To begin with player choices, we can reduce these into two distinct kinds of choices present at a tabletop rpg: narrative choice and systemic/mechanical choice. In an old school game, narrative choice is the much more prevalent form of player choice. Mechanical choice (and here I would like to speak specifically about old school D&D and Rolemaster, not other old school games such as the Hero System and others), if one has it at all, seems to be entirely baked into character creation.

In old school D&D, a player has virtually no systemic/mechanical choice. The DM/Referee will let you know if you even get to choose where to assign your ability rolls! Magic-users sort of choose spells (pick which ones you want to roll your percentage-to-know for first). Finally, players choose equipment, and off you go.

This last choice, though it has some mechanical aspect (particularly with weapons), I think better suited to the category of narrative choice. And this is because of the Dungeon. Matt Finch told me at one of his games at Gamehole Con, “If it’s on your character sheet, you have it. If it’s not, you don’t.” Sometimes, in narrative play, it becomes paramountly important whether you have a bit of chalk, an empty vial, or more oil for your lamp that happened to leak after that fall into that 10’ hole. In fact, narrative choice becomes most of the old school form of playing. How do you look for that trap? What do you say to the king? How do you imagine you are sneaking up behind the ogre? Ultimately, this comes down to whether the party in the dungeon chooses to go down the left corridor or the right (and this is why I believe that, in OSR gaming, having the same thing down either corridor is plain old cheating!).

Now, in MERP/Rolemaster (and later iterations of D&D), gamers have a lot more choices and options at character creation. And I’m going to argue that, at least in the case with MERP, just about every systemic/mechanical choice is made at character creation. Players choose their cultures and professions, decide which weapons they are going to be good at, divide other points amongst whatever they’re going to privilege in adventuring skills, roll percentages to see if they get their desired Spell Lists, and they’re off. Those choices at character creation are consequently locked into the widely variable d100 rolls during gameplay.

Now, I argue that, this being an old school game, narrative choices still are quite powerful. How a player chooses to do something helps the GM decide what difficulty the Maneuver is going to be at. The gamer can manipulate his character within the tactical game space to try to get those combat bonuses from flanking. A new player at my table, after all, told me after his first session how surprised he was at how much talking vs. rolling there was at my game. I suspect there was a considerable amount of rolling more than he realized, because all the talking probably helped me determine the difficulty of the Maneuver to be resolved with a single d100 roll. But the point remains that the choices about hard numbers are made at character creation.

So what does that mean for a game like my current one in which the players didn’t actually generate their characters? In fact, one of my gamers went back and created his own character, and that was the one who quit! So clearly he didn’t find enough “game” there to enjoy his experience in actual gametime. At this point I find it useful to ask myself if I would offer a MERP game at a convention. There are a number of reasons why one would play this in a public “one-shot” context: just to experience the system and to enjoy a Middle-earth story are two of them. But I don’t think a gamer would enjoy herself if she were looking for a good, tactical roleplaying experience. Unless I were to allow him to build her character before gameplay, which would take an unjustifiable amount of time (Rolemaster isn’t denigrated as “CharacterGen” for nothing!), his choices in mechanical tactics would be reduced to if she were achieving that flanking bonus or not.

Before I move on to a discussion of Yggdrasill, which I’m describing as “new school,” and which I would offer (and have offered) for convention play, allow me to clarify this discussion of old school play. In old school play the rules are guidelines, not hard rules. The most meaningful player choices are narrative choices, not necessarily mechanical choices. A last observation I must make is the sense of “power” or competency that an old school character has. Overall, OD&D and Rolemaster characters are pretty powerless. At least this is the way they begin. Recently, in the MERP Facebook Group and on the Rolemaster boards, it has been clarified for me that a level one character pretty much is someone in his or her adolescence. A character can be older than that, but it should be assumed that this character hasn’t done much with his life — hasn’t garnered enough “life experiences” to be truly competent at much of anything. As a result, the “game” — at least in the first chapters of a campaign — is to go out and get that experience without dying. Again narrative choice seems to enter chiefly into the gameplay: seek out experiences, but not experiences that are too tough. Do just enough to get by. Fight when you think you have a fair chance of winning, but know when to run away. And a lot of this comes down to plain old luck. In many ways, there is no better emulation of “real life.”

Now, Yggdrasill and many other modern roleplaying games differ from or develop these core considerations in a few ways. First, to start with the last point first, players are a bit more powerful from the outset. In speculating why my gamer quit MERP, another player of mine considered how it might be a bit jarring to move from playing a Viking character who can kill anything to a peon who, in most cases, can’t even hit its target. This increased power ratio gives an idea of a difference in gameplay and design between old and new school. Whereas in the old school formulation, an aspect of the game simply is to “survive,” the beginning power level of new school games suggest that the “game” is in something else. And I propose that, in large part, it’s in the tactical rules and mechanical resources.

Yggdrasill, like many “modern” games with foundations in old school rules sets (I’m not going to address the so-called “story games” at all here), has a deceptively simple core mechanic: roll pools of d10s, pick two, add any hard skill points that apply, beat 14 for success. In actual play, however, it gets a lot more complicated. To hit someone in combat, one must beat 14 plus the target’s Physical Defence score. In addition, the attacker must choose the kind of attack she is using. Depending on the choice here, modifiers are applied to the attack roll and (in some cases) the resolution of the roll. Wait, there could be more. There could be environmental modifiers (high ground, flank attack, etc.) and conditions (such as the attacker or the defender being Wounded). Wait, there’s more. The attacker might want to use a special Feat, in which case more modifiers are applied to the roll. Simply choosing whether or not to use a Feat is a mini-game of its own, because the player must decide if the penalties on the attack roll (which could result in bonuses to damage with a successful hit) are worth the special result that a successful Feat would entail. Wait, there’s more. The player could decide to use Furor to add an extra d10 to the roll. This is kept outside of the pool and added on top of the resulting value. If a Gift or (in some cases) a Fate Rune applies to the situation, these too can be added to the pool but, in these cases, still only two d10s must be kept after the roll. Wait, there’s more. Any retained results of ten “explode.” More d10s can be rolled (also with the potential of exploding), and these results add to the resolution. But wait, that’s right, we were walking through a specific attack on one person. If the attack is a success, the amount by which the attack succeeded is added to a static damage value of the weapon used, this sometimes modified by other game mechanics. Even then we are not done, because the total damage has to be subtracted by the target’s Armour Value. And even after this you might not be done, because the target can elect to Parry this attack. Remember the number you just resolved, because now that is the target number for the defender’s Parry test likewise possibly attendant on a number of modifiers and variables. Even if the Parry fails, if it is higher than the original target number, it becomes the new target and therefore a new damage value must be calculated from the success threshold. This is just one example. There are further complications based on the type of character one happens to be playing in combat.

Now, compared to this, where is the legendary complexity in MERP, perhaps even Rolemaster? Build a character. Sure, this part takes some time, perhaps more time than it does in Yggdrasill. But then, when it comes to adventuring, roll d100, add your skill, apply any modifiers (sometimes environmental, conditional, weapon-specific and defensive bonus), consult a chart. Depending on that result, you might have to roll again, make a simple sum, and consult another chart. Sure, after that you might have some conditions to keep track of (bleeding, stunning, etc.), but overall I’m calling Yggdrasill, at least during gameplay, the more complicated of the two (and consequently slower-paced).

Here’s the thing, though. While considering what I’d rather offer for convention play, Yggdrasill is the game! By now I hope the reasons for this will be evident. For MERP, all the choices are made during character creation and level advancement. After that, it’s more or less left up to the narrative choices and the luck (or unluck) of the dice rolls. For Yggdrasill, gamers have more meaningful choices for the tactical arena of gameplay. Should they use Furor on a roll? Should they hoard it? Might they try a Feat for a special effect, or is it too much of a risk considering the negative modifier required?

In some ways, new school games like Yggdrasill (I’d put the current Conan 2d20 into this camp, as well) seem really focused on tactical combat choice and less on narrative choice. In fact, these games (and MERP can be considered guilty of this, as well, with such things as “Secondary Skills”) seem to make even those narrative choices tactical through skills involving social encounters and information gathering, which, whatever their original intentions, seem to reduce those aspects of roleplaying likewise to die rolls. Don’t get me wrong. This is not “bad fun.” It’s great fun, just a different kind of fun from another kind of great fun that, albeit, clearly isn’t fun for everyone.

5 thoughts on “Where Precisely Is the “Game” in MERP/Rolemaster?

  1. When asked about RM I have always answered that RM is a toolkit for GMs to use to fit your needs. A great GM with the perfect group (that always trust the decisions of their GM) and enough energy, time, and creativity does not need a system–they can tell and live their story without enhancements. But if one or more of these elements is missing, RM can help. Very few, if any gms/groups, use every thing in rm, most every “rule” in rm was needed by some GM some where.
    RM can help a GM short on time, energy, and the minutia of detail involved in running not only a storyline but also the campaign world. A rm GM can tell the pcs which parts of of rm are being used, and the pcs can provide assistance and shoulder part of the load and provide expertise and energy that can help the GM and the story.
    MERP was and is my attempt to define a specific subset of RM that a GM can use to run a campaign in Middle-earth. It is a creature of its time and place. It had to meet the aesthetic requirements of the books. It had to meet ICE’s commercial requirements. It had to be more accessible to a wider audience than rm. etc.
    Would I use exactly the same subset of rm today? No, of course not. I have changed, rm has changed, you have changed, Middle-earth has changed. So do what fits your story! I am using Merp as my starting point and adding elements of rm that make my life easier and help the story.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Somewhat of a late reply but RM was designed by a bunch of nerds just like us but being an old school system it fails miserably when it comes to mechanics. It is full of flaws and it is far from realistic or historically accurate.

      Your player gave up because narrative time is reduced for calculations that are irrelevant in the greater picture. Fantasy Flight’s Star Wars system is much easier to play and allow for much more complex skill and action resolution. Warhammer Fantasy 2nd edition is the same but more old school like.

      Merp itself is very easy and basic but when you use RM to extend the encounter levels above level 10 or even as the basic ruleset for a Middle-earth based campaign, it becomes too slow and the complexity does not help with the game flow.


  2. I would speculate your leaving player is a power player – less interested in the complete group narrative and more in their individual success. There are a couple of things you mention that suggest this.
    1. they preferred the instant heroic form of Yggdrasill.
    2. They were unhappy with the pre-roll and didn’t attempt to make it their own character
    3. They rolled their own and then left – which suggests they hoped they were going to create something more powerful and ultimately wasn’t.
    Love the comparison between realism mechanics and narrative fate systems. Of course, they are both games in the same way that marbles and chess are. Perhaps, the question should be how do the players create the game with the story setting and systems used to support the gameplay.


  3. This is a very good analysis. Yes, in a long-term campaign game, both Rolemaster and MERP start you out as a youngster with very little strength, power, or much in the way of skills. This is a pretty realistic starting place, mirroring real life. Yes, it is frustrating, but part of the fun is to re-live your difficult adolescence in a fantasy realm where you can go from normal human (or whatever) to superhuman (or whatever) in a very short time, compared to real life. The story in the game is how this character/life development plays out. Hopefully, it’s way more interesting than real-life youth and young adulthood!

    Having only played proto-Rolemaster, Rolemaster, and MERP, I can only comment on these, which are really all the same game. But your description of combat in the Norse hero game made me laugh. It’s not all that different than combat in RM at higher levels. You still have to know all your adds (innate ability, weapon, magic items, enhancements from spells, and so on). And the gamemaster has to know all the defensive subtractions (same list, plus armor and parry). Only then can the two d100 rolls be resolved. The super-fun part is going to the critical hit charts. Or, if one of the combatants rolls above 95 or below 5, figuring out how to resolve the extraordinary rolls. I love the unexpected outcomes, even if my character is badly affected! The possibility of truly random outcomes is a delightful part of the RM/MERP systems.

    I am sorry that your player did not have the patience to get through the lower levels. We all want to be fierce and powerful, don’t we?


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