Solitaire Storytelling: The last voyage of the Barcosa

The year is 1802. The Barcosa, a merchant ship equipped with cannons, sets sail from Amsterdam under Captain Claas de Ruyter to buy goods in Java. The ship’s hold is filled with bricks and weapons. Chief merchant Henk Kuipers manages gold and silver coins which are to be used to buy spices, textiles, and fine fabrics.

What follows is the journal of Gerrit van der Zee, a sailor aboard the ship. How we came into possession of it is something we cannot divulge, but it is enough to say that the journal covers about three weeks, and that van der Zee had no idea upon leaving Amsterdam that this would be The Last Voyage of the Barcosa.

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Rolemaster Unified Review

The OSR is a movement of nostalgia. Rather than seeking to actually emulate the way RPGs were played in the 1970s and 80s, the OSR is seeking to bottle the lightning of the first time you found a Player’s Handbook or Basic Set and just played, actual rules be damned. While the OSR as a movement is certainly informed by the cultural phenomenon of having the D&D red box show up in toy stores and in the hands of many kids and teens in the 1980s, the roleplaying hobby itself was already significantly more diverse than any one movement could capture. As an example, around the time that the OSR casts its rose-tinted glasses toward, there was a successful and long-lived game called Rolemaster.

Rolemaster is the antithesis of the OSR credo: rules, not rulings, character ratings over player skill. Ironically, when reviewed in 1984 it was lauded for the amount of freedom it allowed compared to other games (read: D&D). This freedom, of course, comes from the breadth of Rolemaster’s rules, which D&D did not have (and, it could be argued, never got). Once you included supplements like Spell Law and Campaign Law, the result was more fantasy gaming than you could shake a stick at…provided you finished the math prereqs. Yes, Rolemaster was astoundingly complex even in 1980, when wargame-based RPG design ruled the roost. Now, though, in 2023, it’s not merely on the complicated end, it is a profound aberration. So with the 2022 release and success of Rolemaster Unified, what exactly do we make of that?

The Basics of Rolemaster

Rolemaster was first released in 1980 by Iron Crown Enterprises. While Runequest was released in 1978, Rolemaster was the second percentile-based fantasy RPG system of note and enjoyed fair popularity throughout the 1980s. Iron Crown used the basic mechanics of Rolemaster to release several other RPGs, including Middle-Earth Roleplaying (MERP), Spacemaster, and Cyberspace. Rolemaster itself saw four (maybe three) editions; the second edition was released in 1984 and the Rolemaster Standard System was released in 1994. Rolemaster Fantasy Roleplaying was released in 1999, but was also arguably a repackaging of supplements a la the Rules Cyclopedia as opposed to a whole new edition. Iron Crown went bankrupt in 2000, and all of the IP was bought out by a holding company. While Iron Crown properties had been published under license during the 2000s (including a reprint of the second edition called Rolemaster Classic), the last rightsholder took on the name Iron Crown Enterprises in 2017. A new spate of material for Iron Crown’s more contemporary game, High Adventure Roleplaying (or HARP), was released in the early 2020s, but as of late last year the first revision of Rolemaster in nearly 25 years was released to acclaim and solid sales.

There is nothing like Rolemaster, and I’m not sure that’s a bad thing. The core of the game is a percentile system, where players roll a d100 and add the appropriate bonus to find the result. As opposed to Runequest and other BRP games, Rolemaster is additive; your bonus plus the die roll must add up to 100 in order for the roll to succeed. While this means there’s more math, it also means that your skill bonus is equal to the probability of success for a ‘medium’ task. As your skill bonuses for new characters will be in the 40-60 range (or lower), this should perhaps concern you.

While stats and skills are both percentile-based, they simply do not work in the way you think they should (how they work in BRP games, Eclipse Phase, WFRP, and many others). Your stats range from 11-100, but you cross-reference this value against a table to generate a bonus of between -15 and +15, somewhat like how modern D&D does it but with more than triple the results range. Similarly, your skill ranks do not simply create the base of your skill bonus, rather you get a number of bonus points depending on the number of skill ranks you have which declines as your number of skill ranks increases, but only for the ranks in the marginal bracket. Yes, bracket. Like tax bracket. In total there are five different elements which go into the skill bonus, but don’t worry, if you don’t remember the rank-to-bonus translation it’s available in Table 3-0b (yes, that’s what it’s called. It’s on page 84, along with Table 3-0c).

While it’s done in perhaps the least direct way possible (welcome to the 1980s), all of the math in the basic stats and skills of Rolemaster essentially works statistics into the mechanics. Normal distributions for stats, diminishing returns for skill advances, even controls on stat advances. This particular element I found a neat compromise between stat-heavy advancement and making stats untouchable: when you roll stats randomly for a character, you roll 3d100 for each stat. The lowest die is thrown away, the middle die is your stat, and the highest die is your ‘potential’, or the maximum you can advance the stat to. And then, of course, there are different rates for stat advancement depending on what level they are. It’s all very granular, but it’s all intended to make every element of the game work in a specific way. ‘Work in a specific way’ is basically the motto of Rolemaster, and when you get to the combat system, it goes terrifyingly fractal.

Actuarial Tables for Gamers

The math behind character stats, despite likely being more involved than any RPG you’ve ever played, is on the simpler scale of things. Skill rolls have multiple results: failure, absolute failure, partial success, success, and absolute success. Each skill type has a different version of the table with these results, giving specific outcome rules especially for the absolute outcomes and partial success. It’s a lot more detail than you’ll find in most RPGs, but the table is templated and easy to follow. That all said, for all of the detail there’s not a lot of difference in what happens, certainly not what one could expect from a PbtA game where each move feels completely different. Of course, in the context of Rolemaster the skill outcomes aren’t much detail at all, because we aren’t talking about combat.

Utter focus on combat is unsurprising for games of this vintage, though Rolemaster’s single-minded dedication to resolution mechanics makes even AD&D seem much broader than perhaps it actually is. Nonetheless, the ‘Arms Law’ section of Rolemaster Core Law is the most detailed and…it’s just the most detailed. You’ll see what I mean.

The combat system in and of itself is perhaps crunchy but not really out there. Each combat round has four phases, and each character has four action points to spend. This means that if a character were to perform a 3AP action (see Table 8-1! Still not kidding) they could start the action in phase 1 and complete it in phase 3. This means, among other things, that you may go down the initiative order four times before a character’s melee attack is resolved.

But let’s say you do resolve a melee attack. How? Well, this is where we get into the meat of Rolemaster. Sure, make a d100 roll, add your characters Offensive Bonus and subtract the opponent’s Defensive Bonus. So far, so good. But then you must consult a table. And what a table it is. Every weapon in the game has a table; the tables are a full page, or the entirety of Grant Howitt’s award-winning RPG Honey Heist. On this table you cross-reference your die roll with the opponent’s armor type (fully described in Table 7-2b) and see how much damage you do. Of course, if you roll well enough, you need to then check the appropriate critical table, looking up one of the five tiers of critical severity across 15 different critical tables, sorted by damage type. Each critical table is, once again, a full page, and contains roughly 1200 words of descriptive text. On the plus side, that text is mostly gruesome outcomes describing the various ways your opponent (or, if you’re unlucky, your character) is maimed, mutilated, sterilized, scarred, or just plain dead. Though, with that being said, I don’t believe there are any ‘plain’ ways to die described therein.

The weapon and critical tables are the above-referenced actuarial tables for gamers, and if you play with any amount of combat you’re going to be referencing them all the time. Criticals in this system are more like criticals in WFRP where they start happening more often as combatants get more hurt. They also come up relatively often anyways, requiring only ten percentage points over any hit at all for a lightly armored character. Of course, how much this slows down the game does depend somewhat on how many different attack types are being used (remember whether you’re using Bolt, Fire as opposed to Ball, Fire) and how good you get at remembering what ‘12BP’ means on the arming sword table. You’ll need to be fairly good at it…and you’ll probably need to enjoy the table lookups. It’s as the Brits say, a bit Marmite.

Rolemaster and the Future

I don’t think it’s exactly fair for me to declare whether Rolemaster is ‘good’. Rolemaster Unified is at a fundamental level the same game that Rolemaster was in 1980, and frankly it has way more of a purpose in the market as exactly what it is than if it was watered down; that’s one reason I thought that HARP never really went anywhere. I had the same comments back when I reviewed Cyberspace in 2016 (though I opened Cyberspace to reference for this review and found to my horror that in some places it’s quite simplified compared to Rolemaster): I understand statistics well enough that I actually see the reasoning behind most of these mechanics. That said, I’m not in Intro to Probability, I’m playing a game.

There is absolutely an element of me seeing this game’s audience and knowing I’m not in it, and given that I’m trying to be fair. That said, crunch has evolved a lot since 1980. GURPS is significantly lighter, more elegant, and yet more feature-rich than Rolemaster (note it down, the only review you will ever find unironically calling GURPS light and elegant). Even Hero System, which is less user-friendly and more granular than GURPS, found an audience through its clever, modular design, which Rolemaster does not emulate.

I’m sure there are wargamers who want exactly this; hell, Rolemaster Unified shot to the top of the DrivethruRPG top sellers upon release. If you are a fan of Rolemaster and its granularity, nothing came close until Rolemaster came back. This level of detail does not exist in contemporary RPGs any more, which is why an honest-to-god resurrection of Rolemaster was immediately noticed. And if the note at the beginning of the book explaining the shifts in stat distributions is any indication, the guys at Iron Crown v2 know their audience, and knew they’d check their work on the math.

The audience is what creates the split with this game. From a practical perspective Rolemaster is a design nightmare; as much granularity as there is there is almost no functional or outcome-based element of this game that couldn’t be done in half as many steps. Despite having five roll outcomes (and earlier versions having more), PbtA manages more interesting gametime results with just three. GURPS provides half as many defense types and less action economy detail, but still too much detail for a large number of players.

If you’re on the other side, though, there’s basically nothing like it. Each number means something, each die roll is going to provide something specific. You never have to worry about a binary hit or miss, there will always be more information. You feel like the system is telling you more, is giving you more. And that, ultimately, is both why Rolemaster will always have its fans and also why it will never, ever be popular. We do want systems that give us richness and impact from our actions. Making the die results more granular (even if they’re also more precise) isn’t an efficient or particularly compelling way of doing that. In some weird ways, Genesys may be the spiritual successor to Rolemaster, because it too is trying to make every die roll different and interesting. The difference between the two, really, lies in how realistic you insist your fantasy games are, and how much math you’re willing to do in service of your hobby.

Is Rolemaster an artifact of the 80s? Yes. Does the new version live up to its legacy? Absolutely. Would I ever play it? God no. Am I glad it exists? Yes, I am. Rolemaster is not an old broken game; arguably it was popular in the 80s partly because the math was so nailed down. This game has its fans, and I’m glad there’s a new version out there. That said, Rolemaster represents a mode of fantasy gaming that doesn’t really exist anymore. Rolemaster provides verisimilitude as one of its core promises, but delivers it at a level that’s beyond what most people want in video games, let alone at a tabletop where you’re doing all the algebra yourself. All this means, though, is that Rolemaster will remain niche, and you can say that about most RPGs of any rules density. There are unironic fans of this game, number-crunchers who will be more than happy to pick it up again. And hey, if you like math, and you want buttoned down and consistent mechanics to support your fantasy world, you could do pretty well with Rolemaster. Just consider printing out a few copies of Tables 2-5a, 5-1, 8-1, and 13-1a.

Core Law for Rolemaster Unified is available on DriveThruRPG.

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Most Games Don’t Matter

After graduating into one of the worst recessions the global economy had yet seen, I cut short a fruitless job search to go to grad school. I ended up with a Master’s Degree in Innovation Management, a field which sounds like it was made up by the Business School industry but yet taught me a lot. While invention is the act of creating something new, innovation is the act of deriving value from new things, from inventions. According to the World Economic Forum 1.7 million patents were granted in 2021, which is a huge number. But even setting aside things like filing the same patent in multiple countries, a small fraction of those patents represent anything like tangible value to society at large. While invention can happen with a bit of creativity and some work, innovation is significantly more dependent on exogenous factors, on what happens to the invention after it comes into being. RPG designers are like inventors in that way; many many people are designing, are inventing, but the vast majority of games will never make an impact on the market at large.

While there are certainly forces contributing to a greater stagnation of the RPG hobby (D&D comes to mind), the low ‘hit rate’ for new RPGs when it comes to moving the needle in the greater marketplace is largely structural, and unlikely to change in the long run. On the creator side, making an RPG is relatively easy, requiring significantly less money and specific skill than making video, digital games, or visual art, and often less time than writing long-form fiction. This means that the number of entrants into the market will be relatively high. On the consumer side, RPGs have higher switching costs than virtually any other form of media; a consumer needs to find a minimum of 2-4 friends to play with them, with a play time of two hours on the low side. Beyond that, when the presumed norm of the medium involves campaigns of literally dozens of four-plus hour sessions and understanding at least one densely-written rulebook, the perceived switching costs are significantly worse than the already high actual switching costs. These things combined to make the number of consumers in the market relatively low, and the number of games they will consume lower still.

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Cannibal Halfling Radio Episode 19: In-game Incentives

How do you encourage players to engage with the game? How do you bribe, er, guide them into certain habits? How can the players do the same for the GM? Where do designers fit in all of this? Aki, Aaron, and Seamus are plenty incentivized to figure it out!

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Intellectual Property for Gamers

The biggest piece of news in the RPG world so far in 2023 has been OGL 1.1. Wizards of the Coast announced a revision to the Open Gaming License for Dungeons and Dragons back in December, and then earlier this month a copy of the new license, OGL 1.1, was leaked to the gaming press. As of last week, the full text of the leaked license is available for anyone to read. While the terms of OGL 1.1 are simply worse for third party creators than OGL 1.0a, the previous version of the agreement, the worst part of the whole thing is the attempt to ‘de-authorize’ OGL 1.0a, a move which, if deemed legal, could threaten the futures and possibly even the back catalogs of dozens of creators. With the stakes that high, there has been an outcry on social media directed towards Wizards of the Coast and its parent company Hasbro. Among that outcry, though, is a lot of armchair legal work which is only confusing matters.

There are really only two things that need to be understood about what’s going on with the new version of the OGL. First, OGL 1.1 is a problem for game designers because it gives Wizards of the Coast a lot of control over licensees’ work, and takes away licensing rights which many designers assumed would be there in perpetuity because of the earlier version of the agreement. Second, intellectual property law and contract law, which cover what goes on both in and around the OGL and games affected by it, are both arcane enough that nothing about the new agreement’s legality, applicability, or enforceability is truly known unless a case goes to court. With that said, let’s take a look at intellectual property law and why it’s particularly weird for games.

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For RPGs, storytelling will win

Role-playing games were initially an offshoot of wargames. What made them different was first a question of scale, moving down from military units to single combatants, and then a question of intent, aiming to play out scenarios with more ambiguity than a classic side versus side battle scenario. As soon as the RPG medium began spreading out from its origin, many people other than wargamers saw the promise that these games held. Science fiction and fantasy fans flocked to RPGs, driven by the promise of new stories and new paracosms that could be created with the games. They were the largest influx into the hobby until the Basic D&D Red Box completely opened the floodgates in 1981.

Now, at the beginning of 2023, the influence of the RPG is seen a little differently. Sure, we’re still over here with our books and dice, but over the last fifty years or so RPGs carved a path through interactive media, permanently changing the board game, wargame, and video game hobbies. In the same way, these hobbies, no younger than the RPG at their youngest, have changed the RPG. The world of games, in a broad sense, is different, and that means the RPG fits into that world differently. With the constant growth and innovation happening across the tabletop games industry and across entertainment, it’s clear that the differentiator in RPGs is story.

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