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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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A Return to PAX Unplugged (2022 Quick Recap)

PAX Unplugged returned to Philadelphia this year, marking the fifth time the convention has taken place. I was fortunate enough to attend this year, making it the third year I’ve managed to go. Before I begin, I want to take a moment to thank the organizers for a few things: One, for continuing to choose Philadelphia as the site. I think that the area and community are an excellent fit with abundant transportation, housing, and food for a bunch of tabletop nerds, along with a city that prides itself on inclusivity. Philadelphia has gotten some bad press as of late, but I never felt anything but safe and welcome as I walked through, to, and from the event space.  Second, I want to thank them for the amount of logistics and cat wrangling it takes to get a group of tabletop gamers to do anything. My GMing has increased since my last visit to the convention, and with it so has my appreciation for the work that it takes to get this rolling each year. This year, the team made sure that getting through the door was about as pain free as possible despite requiring proof of vaccination along with the necessary ticketing and security checks for entry. So I absolutely want this convention to keep going. 

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Blade Runner Review

Cyberpunk is having its second wind. The genre of postmodern science fiction best defined as ‘high-tech, low-life” was born in the 1980s, first in film, then literature, then game. Though declared dead in 1991 after Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash seemed to parody the genre as much as embody it, Cyberpunk came roaring back in the 2010s in the wake of Citizens United, Facebook, and the second tech boom. By the time Cyberpunk 2077 was released in 2020, the setting year of its RPG predecessor, the combination of 80s aesthetic being cool again and the continued specter of corporate overlords made the children of Gibson, Sterling, and Shiner seem all too relevant. Tabletop RPGs were no exception to the trend; in addition to Cyberpunk Red becoming the best-selling non-D&D RPG of the decade so far, many imitators cropped up from all over the game design map, some adhering well to Cyberpunk themes and others not so much.

Free League, a Swedish publisher of ever increasing significance in the last few years, has stepped into the Cyberpunk ring with a licensed title. This isn’t Free League’s first go at a licensed game, with Alien receiving broadly positive reviews, but like Alien Blade Runner is a property with a lot of history and high expectations attached. Based originally on Philip K Dick’s novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, Blade Runner basically started the Cyberpunk genre when it was released in 1982. While William Gibson had started writing in what would become Cyberpunk a little earlier (Johnny Mnemonic was published in 1981), so influential was Blade Runner that he feared Neuromancer would be dismissed as a coattail-grab.

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Avatar Legends Review

Magpie Games currently holds the record for the most funded tabletop RPG Kickstarter with Avatar Legends, its game set in the universe of Avatar: the Last Airbender and The Legend of Korra. The Kickstarter campaign earned nearly $10 million from over 80,000 backers, a truly staggering total that, when considering campaigns for specific RPG titles, has yet to be beat. Surely the completion of this game would be met with renewed interest and immense sales success, so we’ve been looking forward to the release- wait. I’m being told that the game was released before Halloween. Huh. Well, one would naturally assume that the release would see a second wind of- so apparently the PDF version on DriveThruRPG hasn’t sold more than 500 copies since coming out. Odd. Now, to be fair, the physical game isn’t yet available, and PDF fulfillments from those preorders don’t count among the numbers I’ve cited. Even so, the campaign sold nearly 8700 PDF-only rewards, so getting not quite to 5% of that number upon release is…worrying.

As many pointed out and grumbled about during the campaign, Avatar Legends is the largest licensed RPG Kickstarter as well as the largest RPG Kickstarter in general, and as such the buyers’ motivations are often a little different. Consider: around 2,800 people paid $50 for the pledge tier which got them a physical core book and PDF copies of everything else. However, over 39,000 people opted for the $75 tier which added all the physical stretch goals. Those physical stretch goals were one more book, dice, a cloth map, a card deck, a pack of journals, and a tile. Combine that with the tier level that gave the physical stretch goals in addition to a copy of the special edition core book, and the vast majority of backers paid for the doodads. And everything I have to say in this review will not take away from those doodads, I’m pretty sure.

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Twitter and the TTRPG Hobby

If you haven’t noticed, Twitter is imploding. Since Elon Musk bought the company, it’s been learning experience after learning experience, with the most important one being the public at large learning that perhaps Elon isn’t a genius after all. Unfortunately, though that lesson was a long time coming, he’s probably going to destroy Twitter in the process.

Twitter in a lot of ways represents the worst of the app-driven attention economy internet. It’s created the term ‘doomscrolling’ and one of the most common euphemisms for it is ‘hellsite’. But, as much as we hate it, we can’t peel our eyes away. This has been strongly true, among many places, in the TTRPG community.

Twitter’s relatively easy engagement algorithm means that even small creators can find eyeballs, and they can do it without much concerted strategy. Though we’ve often termed using Twitter for promotion as ‘shouting into the void’, the fact is that if you keep at it, you will build a following, and it can be really difficult to figure out how to rebuild such a following in the absence of, well, Twitter.

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So You Want To Change The Rules

Play in any game system long enough, and you’re going to want to tweak things a little – there’s something missing, or a rule doesn’t quite work the way you want it to. Or maybe you’re coming at things fresh with an idea of what you want to do. No game system matches your idea 1:1, but there are a few that come close enough that you don’t want to have to design a game from the ground up. Whether it’s just for a home game or you’re designing one yourself to publish, that means it’s time to change or ‘hack’ the system in question. But what thoughts might you want to have along the way? I’ve got three.

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Apocalypse Keys Review

Powered by the Apocalypse, or PbtA, is one of the most popular RPG rulesets in the indie gaming sphere. After getting its start with Apocalypse World and the Bakers’ permissive license, PbtA blew up first among single designers and small groups and then in the wider gaming sphere. While Apocalypse World was modestly successful in its own right, many of the games it spawned, including Monster of the Week, Dungeon World, and Blades in the Dark, multiplied its success many times over.

Mainstream PbtA success continues to this day, fed mostly by two mid-sized publishers: Evil Hat Productions and Magpie Games. Magpie Games, arguably the largest and most successful company to design primarily PbtA games, first saw success with titles like Urban Shadows, Bluebeard’s Bride, and Masks, and has gone on to rake in millions of dollars from some of the first licensed PbtA games, Root and Avatar Legends. Evil Hat Productions, more known as the company behind Fate, doesn’t design PbtA games in house, but publishes several of significance. Evil Hat publishes Monster of the Week, Thirsty Sword Lesbians, and Blades in the Dark, and they’re about to add another PbtA game to their library.

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The Trouble with RPG Prices

In the past we have discussed playing RPGs, of course. We’ve also discussed reading RPGs, and collecting RPGs. One thing we haven’t discussed much, though, is buying RPGs. A tabletop roleplaying game is a creative work that can take up to hundreds of man-hours, not to mention the intellectual and emotional investment of almost everyone involved with bringing it to fruition. Despite this, there are plenty of people on the internet who deign to call RPGs overpriced. This is in spite of the fact that most indie RPGs cost $30 or less while D&D Monopoly, a monstrosity of branding that should pay me for having to know it exists, costs about $50.

The trouble with pricing is that people not trained in economics think it’s a science. I, however, am the Level One Wonk, with over five years of real actual economics experience and actual professional industrial economics training. All economics aligns to a popular aphorism by George Box: “All models are wrong, but some are useful”. The notion of an ‘invisible hand of the market’ is wildly incorrect, even something you consume every day, electricity, only can be sold in a carefully constructed market that is watched every day by engineers (and still fails wildly from time to time anyway). Similarly, creative goods, far from the ‘widgets’ of every dismal Econ 101 textbook, don’t follow nearly any of the rules proscribed by the masters of micro. So, in order to speak more clearly about RPG pricing, we’re going to talk about some of the economics that doesn’t really work for role-playing games, and then talk through some of the psychology that does.

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