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I Am For The Darkmaster, Actually

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In my misspent gaming youth, there was a game that the other members of my gaming group spoke of in strange, hushed tones. A game where you rolled on chart after chart after chart during battles. Where critical hits were described in gory, R-rated detail. Where character creation took hours and characters could die in seconds. This game was called Rolemaster.

Whether or not Rolemaster lived up to the hype of those 8th grade memories, I can’t say. But I can talk about Against The Darkmaster, an OSR-style revamping of the rules from lead designer Massimiliano Carachristi. It may seem weird playing a product that’s built on nostalgia for a game that I’ve never played, but good OSR designs stand on their own without the need for nostalgia to carry them. Nostalgia, at best, is meant to flavor a design and smooth over a rough patch or two. How does this game fare without me fondly remembering the charts of my youth? Let’s look at the copy provided by Open Ended Games.

The book is a 570+ page tome with a full-color cover and crisp black and white line drawings in the interior. Art director Tomasso Galmacci is also listed as one of the interior artists and he nails the classic look of an 80’s rulebook. The work here reminds me of the sharp art in Forbidden Lands with some great full page pieces breaking up the chapters. Layout is kept to a simple two columns with scroll-like sidebars breaking in the text. It’s here where Against The Darkmaster starts to tip its hand that it’s not going to be a simple reprint of Rolemaster. Many of the sidebars scattered through the text offer rules hacks and tweaks with ideas that modernize the rules. I love it when designers offer these options in a rulebook.

The system starts out simple enough. Roll percentile dice, add them to a skill percentage and if they get 100 or over, the character succeeds. Roll over 175, and that’s a critical success. The success chart also suggests other modern elements, such as a success with a cost for a roll between 75-99 or a critical failure of 5 or below. Players can climb these heights (or fall into the mathematical pits of despair) because the percentile rolls are open ended. 95 or higher means the players roll again and add, while 05 or lower means the players roll again and subtract.

Combat and magic are where the charts start to truly make their appearance. Combat rounds are structured so that magic and ranged attacks sandwich melee action in a round. That allows for some weapon strategy too, as the longer the melee weapon is, the earlier it goes during the melee section. Instead of the base 100 target number weapons are rolled on a chart determined by their type of damage with each of the four armor types on the chart. If the roll is high enough, a second roll occurs on a critical hit chart also determined by the type of weapon. That’s where a short description of a nasty injury lives, along with some long term effects of the injury like a torn tendon or bleeding hit points each round. It also helps in the modern era for those with the PDF to print out any relevant charts and have them handy for each player’s damage.

Magic’s complexity comes in its versatility. The majority of the classes come with some level of inborn magic talent, with any classes having access to spell knowledge by trading in skill levels on a two for one basis. Multiple rolls for a single action slow down game play, but it doesn’t do so much more than separately rolling to hit and damage. There are magic points and modifier charts, but the real cost of magic is that if a magic user does too well, they run the risk of revealing the heroes to the Darkmaster and getting some supernatural goons sent to take out the good guys.

The Darkmaster is the main villain of the campaign created by the GM as a stand-in for them in the world. Rolemaster was related to Middle-Earth Role Playing and this element offers a chance to let the Game Master let their inner Sauron fly by taunting the PCs or sending some monsters to attack the party. It’s a fun riff on the wandering monsters concept and for those who might not have a fantasy villain in mind at the start of a campaign, the book offers a few charts for inspiration, as well as some sample villains and minions lavishly illustrated in some of my favorite art in the book. Creating a Darkmaster feels like a middle ground between the antagonistic play of early RPGs and the collaborative play of modern designs.

The Darkmaster creation is of the modern ideas incorporated into character creation, such as drives that come off as aspect-like ideas that encourage players to get into trouble to score advancement points. Players also get background elements that work a little like feats while also tying into drives and shared world creation. A character that has an Assassin training background is encouraged to make their relationship with their guild as a drive and the GM is encouraged to build the details of that guild together. While Against The Darkmaster is built by a team that loves the original game, it plays like the version of the game I would run: keep the stuff I like, add in stuff that fits my style.

If I wanted to run a game that felt like the weird, dark 80s fantasy of things like Dragonslayer or Willow, this is the game I would use. It’s heavier than my usual fantasy RPG choices, but sometimes you just have to play a game where you high five everyone at the table when you deliver a gnarly blow to the kneecap of the vampire king the Darkmaster sent to kill you.
 

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Rob Wieland

Rob Wieland

Banesfinger

Explorer
This is an awesome game. It feels like a 'lite' version of Rolemaster (RM); with the same target audience as HARP or MERP. But it can seamlessly get more advanced by adding more spells/weapon charts from RM. It has the level of PC customization that players expect from RM, but without a lot of the overhead math.
 

The system is actually far closer to MERP (Middle Earth Role Play) than Rolemaster, and the name is a clear reference to that lineage. (Darkmaster is a reference to Sauron.)

Given in the review you mention unfamiliarity with Rolemaster, and presumably that extends to MERP... Your list of innovations isn't. It's a list of the changes from RM to MERP. The look is stolen liberally from MERP.
Essentially, this is MERP 3.0, (There were 2 editions of MERP by ICE, who also made RM.)
 
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Hurin88

Adventurer
It is a fun article, but in addition to the points Aramis makes (that it seems more related to MERP than Rolemaster), I would make the following:

--The article says there once was a game called Rolemaster... in fact there still is. The newest edition (Rolemaster Unified) is set to come out this year. The core books have gone to art and layout, and you can still download and play the beta by signing in to the Iron Crown Enterprises website's forums, here: Official ICE Forums - Index . You can also still play older editions on Fantasy Grounds and Roll20, and the ICE team are working towards providing support for RMU on these platforms as well.

--Rolemaster was indeed 'related to Middle Earth Role Playing', but Rolemaster came first (originally as an add-on to D&D to make combat grittier). The ICE folks then got the Tolkien license, and created MERP as a kind of Rolemaster lite.

--The wording of the article might suggest that Carachristi was a designer of Rolemaster; I would just like to point out that he is just the lead designer of Darkmaster, and has never had anything to do with Rolemaster. [This might be clarified by just putting 'of Darkmaster' after 'lead designer' in the second sentence of the second paragraph].

--In Rolemaster at least, the skill bonus is not a 'skill percentage'. You can have over 100 as a skill bonus. It is just that the system is a d100 rather than a d20 system.

--The new edition of Rolemaster (RMU) is working towards eliminating at least some of the charts from previous editions of Rolemaster, to make the game faster and easier to play. The new edition for example does not require you to use a movement chart, or a maneuver chart, or a spell attack chart (aside from elemental attacks spells such as Firebolt), for example. And of course we now live in an electronic age, when computers can easily do the work of looking up an attack on a chart and applying the results -- Rolemaster has its own suite of tools (the Electronic Roleplaying Assistant, available on DriveThru) for handling that sort of thing. So if you were hesitant to play Rolemaster because of its reputation as 'Chartmaster', the new edition should be worth a look.
 
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Aaron L

Hero
I never played Rolemaster personally, but I've read through the books and our gaming group has all joked about the critical hit/fumble tables for decades. We still talk about rolling a 1 and tripping over an invisible, imaginary, deceased turtle.

Right now I'm exhausted. Just finished our Saturday D&D game we started 6 hours ago, and the last 2 were fighting against a green dragon on a small island in an underground lake, with half of our party unconscious most of the fight. We just barely slew all of the dragon's servitor monsters, drove it to retreat to its underwater lair, and escaped ourselves. Looking forward to our Sunday game tomorrow!
 



Banesfinger

Explorer
Thanks for the review, really happy you enjoyed our game!

And if anyone has questions or doubts about Against the Darkmaster, I'll do my best to answer them! ;)
Hi Topramesk,
Love the game and the direction you've went with the rules.
About the only criticism our group had was that Crit tables will often put PCs/Foes into 'stun lock'. There is nothing fun about being able to do nothing but parry round after round.
Do you have a suggestion on how to replace that? We've thought about a 'knock down' or every monster having a specific replacement (e.g. spider has web immobilize on that result).
 

The system is actually far closer to MERP (Middle Earth Role Play) than Rolemaster, and the name is a clear reference to that lineage. (Darkmaster is a reference to Sauron.)

Given in the review you mention unfamiliarity with Rolemaster, and presumably that extends to MERP... Your list of innovations isn't. It's a list of the changes from RM to MERP. The look is stolen liberally from MERP.
Essentially, this is MERP 3.0, (There were 2 editions of MERP by ICE, who also made RM.)
Interestingly this is a huge endorsement for the game for my group. We had some fun with MERP, but RM was just tedious as hell to us. I'm a little terrified by how many rules I might need to deal with in a 570-page book but still, better MERP than RM by miles.
 

Topramesk

Explorer
About the only criticism our group had was that Crit tables will often put PCs/Foes into 'stun lock'. There is nothing fun about being able to do nothing but parry round after round.

Remember that Stun only lasts one round, unless you're stunned again meanwhile. The best thing to do when stunned, is to go full defense, attempt to disengage, and re-engage the enemy when you're not stunned anymore. Meanwhile your companions should try to step in to avoid letting your foe corner you.
Heavier armors, shields, and parrying all help preventing Stun to a degree, but if you keep getting "stunlocked" it may be the sign your foe is out of your league.
Don't know about substituting it, both the Prone and Held conditions are actually worse than Stun, so I fear that by changing the results to those you may be making some foes more dangerous!

Interestingly this is a huge endorsement for the game for my group. We had some fun with MERP, but RM was just tedious as hell to us. I'm a little terrified by how many rules I might need to deal with in a 570-page book but still, better MERP than RM by miles.

Well, keep in mind that the book includes spells, monsters, and an adventure, so it's not all rules! :LOL:
 

Hurin88

Adventurer
About the only criticism our group had was that Crit tables will often put PCs/Foes into 'stun lock'. There is nothing fun about being able to do nothing but parry round after round.
Do you have a suggestion on how to replace that? We've thought about a 'knock down' or every monster having a specific replacement (e.g. spider has web immobilize on that result).
In addition to what Topramesk said, I would note that this was an issue Rolemaster itself later dealt with. The second edition of Rolemaster (RM2) introduced a 'Stunned Maneuvering' skill, which allowed characters to act without penalty if they made a skill check; they had to do that each round. Some players thought that was a bit too powerful (if you had high enough skill, you were almost immune to stuns), so in the new edition (RMU), there is a skill called Fortitude that allows you to ignore half the penalties due to stun/injury for one round if you make the check, as you momentarily push through the pain of the injury.
 

Matrix Sorcica

Adventurer
so in the new edition (RMU), there is a skill called Fortitude that allows you to ignore half the penalties due to stun/injury for one round if you make the check, as you momentarily push through the pain of the injury
Maybe if you rolled really high, you could still ignore all penalties? Would happen rare enough not to be unbalancing, but at the same time give those special moments only possible in merp/RM 😃

Topramesk, how hard would it be to include such a skill in vsDM?
 
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I also had ICE products as kid, and although I never implemented them in a game, I loved reading them. MERP was a particular favorite of mine (to read if nothing else). This review intrigued me enough to take the plunge and order the core rules. Look forward to reading through the game.

Also interested in seeing a Rolemaster unified product.
 

Paragon Lost

Terminally Lost
Supporter
Interestingly this is a huge endorsement for the game for my group. We had some fun with MERP, but RM was just tedious as hell to us. I'm a little terrified by how many rules I might need to deal with in a 570-page book but still, better MERP than RM by miles.

Yup. Back in the 80's I was fond of frequently pointing out that RM could be damn fine rpg if they uploaded all the charts and mechanics onto a computer. lol. Of course a few years later Gemstone III came out on GEnie and it was based on RM and Shadow World. The game is still around, it's now Gemstone IV and they de-ICE-ed it back in 1996, had to remove all the Shadow World names/references and tweak some of the other mechanics when they didn't couldn't keep the usage rights from Iron Crown Enterprises.
 


I also had ICE products as kid, and although I never implemented them in a game, I loved reading them. MERP was a particular favorite of mine (to read if nothing else). This review intrigued me enough to take the plunge and order the core rules. Look forward to reading through the game.

Also interested in seeing a Rolemaster unified product.
I've played RM, and run RM, MERP, and Spacemaster. I even managed one session of Cyberspace. Mechanically, Cyberspace is to Spacemaster as MERP is to Rolemaster.

The reduced tableset of MERP was a blessing for running it. 5 armor classes instead of 20, weapon tables by class of weapon rather than individual weapon types.

Note that, unchanged, the characters from any of the ICE ___-Master games are readily used in any of the others, Spacemaster had a table including extensions to allow SM skills and Psionics in RM, and RM Skills and Spells in SM.

AtDM looks about the same level of compatible.
High Men is the RM term for Numenorean.
 

Paragon Lost

Terminally Lost
Supporter
I also had ICE products as kid, and although I never implemented them in a game, I loved reading them. MERP was a particular favorite of mine (to read if nothing else). This review intrigued me enough to take the plunge and order the core rules. Look forward to reading through the game.

Also interested in seeing a Rolemaster unified product.
What we made use of was the fumbles and crit charts. Also the campaign setting information was something I was a fan of as well.
 

Topramesk

Explorer
Topramesk, how hard would it be to include such a skill in vsDM?
Not difficult at all, I guess, you could just make it a specialty skill.
However, one thing I forgot to mention before: in Against the Darkmaster you can also use Drive to reduce or even cancel the results of the critical strikes your character suffers. So, maybe an alternative solution could be just to start with more Drive (say, 3 points instead of one), for a more heroic feel.
 

Staffan

Adventurer
The system is actually far closer to MERP (Middle Earth Role Play) than Rolemaster, and the name is a clear reference to that lineage. (Darkmaster is a reference to Sauron.)

Given in the review you mention unfamiliarity with Rolemaster, and presumably that extends to MERP... Your list of innovations isn't. It's a list of the changes from RM to MERP. The look is stolen liberally from MERP.
Essentially, this is MERP 3.0, (There were 2 editions of MERP by ICE, who also made RM.)
I'd say MERP 4.0, with HARP being 3.0.

That said, I generally felt that one of the weaknesses of Rolemaster and HARP compared to D&D was that they basically didn't have class abilities (or other binary things). Everything is either a skill or a spell (or spell list). I think there may have been some cases where a race would give you a fixed ability, but if so that was always tied to race and something available at level 1. This means that there's very little room for getting new abilities at higher levels, you just get better at stuff.

To use the example of Stunned Maneuvering mentioned earlier, the Rolemaster way of doing that is to provide a skill you can use to get a chance to remove/reduce penalties for acting while stunned. In D&D, you'd instead either have an ability that gradually reduces stun penalties, or an ability that lets you unstun yourself X times per day. Is this a thing Darkmaster does better?
 

I'd say MERP 4.0, with HARP being 3.0.

That said, I generally felt that one of the weaknesses of Rolemaster and HARP compared to D&D was that they basically didn't have class abilities (or other binary things). Everything is either a skill or a spell (or spell list). I think there may have been some cases where a race would give you a fixed ability, but if so that was always tied to race and something available at level 1. This means that there's very little room for getting new abilities at higher levels, you just get better at stuff.

To use the example of Stunned Maneuvering mentioned earlier, the Rolemaster way of doing that is to provide a skill you can use to get a chance to remove/reduce penalties for acting while stunned. In D&D, you'd instead either have an ability that gradually reduces stun penalties, or an ability that lets you unstun yourself X times per day. Is this a thing Darkmaster does better?
Similar for RM's Maneuvering in Armor... IIRC, light armor, 7 ranks will cover all the available armor's maximum penalty of -35. So, for wizards, if you want to wear armor, only the exceptional spell failure channce matters after level 7. For the fighter, level 1, for the thief, Level 4 (2 ranks per level)...

In looking at the late 1970's an early (1983 or before) RPGs i've run (tho' not all run before 1883)...
  • D&D - OE {1973}: no specific level abilities other than spells and turning. Attribute driven
  • AD&D 1E {1979}: Infrequent level abilities. Still mostly attribute driven. (Note that this predates Non-Weapon proficiencies)
  • D&D Moldvay/Cook {1981/1982}: even less frequent level abilities,
  • Traveller (CT1e/2E) {1977/1981}: skill driven combat, with attribute as modifier and attributes as damage pool. Non-combat varies by GM. The Snapshot boardgame is a fully compatible add in which adds action-point economy to personal combat.
  • Car Wars {pocket 1981}: TN by action, fixed 2 dice, skill as modifier. Doesn't quite hit real RPG status until 1985, with the release of Deluxe Car Wars.
  • RuneQuest 1e/2e {1978}: skill driven, but some skills rated in maximum potency, while others are percentile based.
  • Rolemaster (2e, I think. AL/ClL, ChL/CaL, SL (3 colors of pages), C&T1). All skills ranked, attrbute mods to all skills, all attribues have both skill and non-skill uses. Classes determine costs for skills, and per level bonuses to skills.
  • Spacemaster 1E (Boxed Set: FL, TL, ConvL, big-ass map). Identical to RM mechanically
  • MERP (I think it quals): Fewer attributes, skill acquisition different method but same general ranges as RM. Fewer tables, broader tables. RM Lite.
  • WFRP1E (just hits the cutoff, IIRC): Skills bolean, Attribute driven. Lack of skill may be a ×½, a ×0, or may be a +0; possession either negates the penalty multiplier or adds +10 or +20.
  • Starships and Spacemen {1E 1978}: Levels increase attributes, class grants singular bonus and what earns XP, attriibute driven
  • Tunnels and Trolls {1E 1975, 5e 1979}: Levels increase attributes. Class controls magic use and value of armor, attribute driven non-combat, weapon dominated with attribute modified combat. Race multiplies attribute rolls
  • Monsters! Monsters! {1978 edition}: Race/Species also grants special abilities at level 1, and no classes, otherwise identical to T&T. Essentially, an additional T&T class (Monster) as a separate RPG.
  • Space Opera: Skill driven, some skills boolean, most ranked. Race modifies attributes, attributes have multiple effects, including modifying skill points, classes modify what can be bought in prior service cheaply. Attack rolls get a +15% just for being a PC...
  • Palladium Fantasy Roleplay: two different skill mechanics, all skills ranked. Combat skills provide specific benefits at specific levels, not all have benefits every level, and modify d20 rolls. Non-combat are all base percent at level taken, and additional amount per level thereafter. Class determines class skills and allowed elective skills, and some one-off bonuses.
  • FASA Star Trek the Role Playing Game {1983}: mostly skill driven, with some saves on attributes. "routine" uses are 1d10, easy 1d100-50, average 1d100, very hard 1d100+50, all vs a skill that competent members of the department will have 30-60, and many in other departments will have 5-15. Only one in this era I've seen using an Action Point Economy in combat in the core.
  • Heritage Star Trek {1978?}: attribute driven, combat system only. Really, just a minis wargame at character scale.
  • Enterprise: Japanese Star Trek RPG, IIRC, 1982. Not exported due to copyright and trademark issues. Attribute Driven.
  • Star Frontiers {1982}:

Of these, only one uses a mix of boolean and non-boolean skills: Space Opera. Clustering them into groupings by approach to skills and attributes:
  • WFRP: Skills boolean. Attribute driven, modified by presence/absence of skill.
  • S&S, T&T/M!M!, Enterprise, Heritage ST: are explicitly attribute driven.
  • OD&D, BX D&D: Attribute rolls used for anything not a class ability in many people use of these. Class abilities mostly combat focused, except for thieves.
  • AD&D: as with other D&D, but adds some boolean abilities to non-caster classes.
  • Palladium FRP, Palladium Mechanoids, RQ 1e/2e: some skills percentile, some have levels that provide non-success-chance effects, some table driven.
  • Traveller, RM/SM/MERP: all explicitly skill driven, with attribute effects on skills
  • FASA-STRPG: All skills percentile. Attributes do different things than skills.
  • Star Frontiers: each skill has multiple discrete subskills derived from the core skill. some subskills are boolean, earned at level 1; others are ranked.
While not one I've played, Dallas {1978} is also attribute driven.

The inclusion of boolean skills really wasn't something done much back in the day. There were plenty of arguments over whether class-based or skill based was superior superior. Given some of the realities of some of the very broad skills in use, in a few games, like Star Frontiers, essentially it's a game with a dozen very narrow classes, and six levels per class.

late OD&D's & AD&D's introduction of level-gained abilities are unusual - until the 2000's, that mode was mostly D&D-line, and often absent from D&D derived heatbreakers, or amped up to 11 by every level gains of new abilities.

In a way, I'm kind of glad AtDM didn't give in to feat-itus...
 

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