Let me give a you a little background to this review. I played Rolemaster way way back in the day. I didn't own the books, I wasn't the GM, but I played it and had a great time. Since then played and GM'ed Rolemaster's little brother "MERP" and really enjoyed doing so.
I saw the three Rolemaster books on eBay and snagged them, thinking "this is a great system and going to be a great read".
So here I am to present you with a review of the first book of three "Character law and Campaign law".
This book is split into three sections, RoleMaster, Character Law, and Campaign Law.
The RoleMaster section is about 24 pages (including the contents list). The text is split into two column layout and uses a tiny font. This first section is also printed on grey rather than white which can make bed-time reading difficult due to the lack of contrast.
The introduction covers the "what is rolemaster" and the "what is roleplaying" sections somewhat poorly. There are many words but no real clear description and with no example play this wouldn't be a good introduction to a total newbie.
The book makes a strange choice next. We go straight from introduction into rules for healing and death. Stat loss, recovery rates, types of injury, loss of soul are all covered. It's a poor way to start, The reader has no idea what half of the terms mean at this point. Then come Disease charts, Poison Charts, again referring to terminology yet to be explained.
The introduction of rules relating to subjects you don't know about continues with Movement, Encumbrance, walking pace etc, with constant forward references to sections you haven't reached. The problem with these references, is that they are "forward" to things that have yet to be explained and not “backward” as reminders. Without reading the other sections first these rules are somewhat confusing.
Next up are equipment, coinage and magical item rules, again the newbie reader will most likely be totally lost here. The rules are very detailed and exacting.
Then come a series of charts. Charts are the strength of the Rolemaster system, and as reference these are without comparison. Resale values charts, Purchasing prices, Armour charts, Magical Item costs, Food, Lodging, Transport, Weapons, Herbs, Intoxicants and Poisons. Lots of detail in each chart and rules for each where applicable. Excellent reference material.
At this point we get to the Character Law section of the book. This starts out with definitions of game terms such at experience, skill-ranks, action, defensive bonus etc etc etc. Once again someone new to this system is going to have trouble reading through this, there are so many new terms and each is defined outside any context. As an example, defining defensive bonus before even entering the combat section of the rules doesn’t help get it straight in your head.
Finally we get to Character gen. Sadly it’s as incomprehensible at the preceding sections., perhaps worse. 2 pages detailing stats, the differences between temporary and potential, development and non-development, primary stats, stats bonus’ calculating hits based on stats...only at no point in this section does it mention rolling dice to determine you statistics! The next couple of pages give you statistic based tables for getting bonuses and penalties and utilising stats in contests.
Next we jump into Skills and Ranks. This section fortunately is better composed. The skill rank and development system of Rolemaster is complex, with skill groups, the player having to choose the advancement rates for each before even allocating points to them. Yet I think they’ve managed that pretty well.
The rules spend some pages on using these skills and presents some tables (rolemasters strength). For instance the Maneuver and Movement table is introduced here (one of my favourites) in relation to the movement skills.
The basic skills are covered and explained before dropping into magical skills, including descriptions of the various magical realms that a character may choose from. Sadly in another round of confusing layout choice we drop back into the descriptions of more mundane skills!
Next up are professions. Each is described along with the “magical realm” each belongs to (although fighting professions belong to a non-magical realm). Sadly the layout man has hiccuped again. Having described the professions but not supplied related character gen rules, the book jumps into Experience levels, advancing your character and spending xp.
Now come the various races and cultures that a character can belong to each is descibed and limits and bonuses described. The next section describes the softer bits of generating a character, the background, personality, alignment etc.
Only now do we come to section 10, creating a character. There are 13 steps to the process each of which refers back to the preceding 56 pages. I think the layout guys was trying to introduce you to the concepts before introducing the process. A nobel ideal, yet a few paragraphs of introduction would have sufficed, followed by bringing in the 13 point process and the associated rules in order would have created a cohesive logical process. It is all back to front here.
The last 14 pages of character law are “optional rules”. This is a list of disparate rules that can be “injected” into the system across all aspects of play. Reading through this list I’m confused as to why they are introduced as optional, they all seems to fit the system and should have been presented in the appropriate place, not as a seperate section.
The final section, is Campaign law, once again printed on a grey background.
I like this section a great deal. It’s designed for the GM to help through through the production of a game-world and a campaign. It gives you great list of things to consider when building your woulrd and campaign, and by responding to each bullet point you’ll cover most of what you need as a GM to make a complete world.
There are some charts here for such things as weather and animal distribution which can help you fill in the environmental “culture” of the world. There is much more but it is all “offline” content, not to be used during play. Although there’s nothing outstanding or amazing here, it is a good reference section. The section on developing sentient “cultures” is very good.
The campaign advice is good too, and includes a few gems such as advice to avoid rail-roading although back in 1987 it was called “contrivance”.
So in summary, what do I think of the book?
It’s an awful mess. Disorganised beyond comprehension. Hard to read (small font, grey backgrounds). It would be a crime to give this to a new player. The system too, is very old school and complicated beyond need.