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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

Hurin88

Adventurer
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 😃

Actually, the current rule in RMU is that if you get an absolute success (176+) on your Fortitude roll, you get '2x normal benefits', which I think you could easily interpret as ignoring all penalties.
 
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Topramesk

Explorer
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?

This is interesting, because class abilities were something we tested very early on in our playtest phase, but eventually decided to remove because we felt that:
  • they tended to "shoehorn" characters into their vocation's role a bit too much for our tastes
  • they didn't really seem to support any of the tropes of the fantasy sub-genre we were going for
So, no, there aren't class-based abilities in VsD. There are background options that give you some special abilities (for example, Battle Hardened makes you immune to the Bruised condition; Underground Uprising lets you create contacts on the fly; etc) but they don't advance with level.
Note that, however, VsD advancement works differently than in RM or D&D, and you can unlock new abilities for your character through the Heroic Path, which is tied to Passions and Drive expenditure.
It's a sort of virtuous cycle: you get Stunned -> spend Drive to unstun you -> get Milestones -> spend Milestones to unlock the "unstun" ability.
 

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.
Yeah do we know what happened with ICE and computer games around then? Dark Age of Camelot was developed in 1999 and the originally wanted to use Rolemaster as the basis for the rules but something happened with ICE that stopped them. Seems weird because ICE weren't exactly doing huge business in TT RPGs back then.
 

Hurin88

Adventurer
Yeah do we know what happened with ICE and computer games around then? Dark Age of Camelot was developed in 1999 and the originally wanted to use Rolemaster as the basis for the rules but something happened with ICE that stopped them. Seems weird because ICE weren't exactly doing huge business in TT RPGs back then.

ICE went bankrupt in 2000. It was all the rage back then. Brick and mortar stores were contracting, and TSR was headed in the same direction, IIRC, until Wizards bought them. ICE also had a dispute about licensing which caused them to lose the Tolkien license, so that was the end of MERP, all the old dual-stat Middle Earth modules, and the Middle Earth CCG. Ironically, some of the enterprises ICE was connected to would enjoy financial success shortly afterwards: Dark Age of Camelot would be a hit, and Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring would hit theaters the next year. But timing is everything in business.

After some years in the wilderness, the ICE name has now been revived. They produce High Adventure Role Playing (HARP), which is kind of a spiritual successor to MERP. They also offer support for earlier editions of Rolemaster on their forums and on Fantasy Grounds, as well as with their own software (the Electronic Roleplaying Assistant). And of course there is the new edition of Rolemaster set to drop.
 

Paragon Lost

Terminally Lost
Supporter
Yeah do we know what happened with ICE and computer games around then? Dark Age of Camelot was developed in 1999 and the originally wanted to use Rolemaster as the basis for the rules but something happened with ICE that stopped them. Seems weird because ICE weren't exactly doing huge business in TT RPGs back then.

My memories of the time were that a lot of game companies were struggling or going under. Magic The Gathering really took a huge chunk of the business. Players and GMs alike found that it was easy to get into, prep time was very low and easy etc. I recall ICE, GDW, TSR etc all struggling by around that time. I knew I was finding it harder and harder to find players or get into games myself. I honestly thought that the industry was dying.

Also as you mention, the online gaming thing. I knew I was really into Gemstone III, Mechwarrior, DragonsGate and Hundred Years War off and on on GEnie, NWN (Neverwinter Nights) on AOL, Shadow Of Yserbius on Sierra's Network, Drakkar on MPGNet etc by 1992-94 but still did a lot of tabletop gaming since online was pretty costly even for a working professional.

I'd love to have been a fly on the wall of some like ICE, to know what happened and why they didn't evolve. Seemed like a bright group of folks working there. I was always a fan of Terry K. Amthor's work with Shadow World as an aside.
 

Topramesk

Explorer
I was always a fan of Terry K. Amthor's work with Shadow World as an aside.

They're still releasing new Shadow World books (and re-releasing/updating some of the old ones) on DTRPG!

And of course there is the new edition of Rolemaster set to drop.

Can't wait for the new Rolemaster to come out! I've deliberately avoided RMU discussions/playtests in the past years while developing Darkmaster, so I'm really curious and excited to try it out.
 

ICE went bankrupt in 2000. It was all the rage back then. Brick and mortar stores were contracting, and TSR was headed in the same direction, IIRC, until Wizards bought them. ICE also had a dispute about licensing which caused them to lose the Tolkien license, so that was the end of MERP, all the old dual-stat Middle Earth modules, and the Middle Earth CCG. Ironically, some of the enterprises ICE was connected to would enjoy financial success shortly afterwards: Dark Age of Camelot would be a hit, and Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring would hit theaters the next year. But timing is everything in business.
It didn't help that Champions 4 and the Hero System 4 Corebooks were at the end of edition cycle, Champions: New Millennium was a flop, and Hero Games was breaking from releasing through ICE for 5th ed.

During the breakup, Steve Long got back rights to Champions... 5th ed hitting shelves in 2001.
 

Hurin88

Adventurer
They're still releasing new Shadow World books (and re-releasing/updating some of the old ones) on DTRPG!

Yes, the latest release was Emer III (the SE quadrant of The Great Continent) and Terry is at work on the final quadrant (Emer IV).

Can't wait for the new Rolemaster to come out! I've deliberately avoided RMU discussions/playtests in the past years while developing Darkmaster, so I'm really curious and excited to try it out.

We've definitely been intrigued by Darkmaster too over at the Rolemaster Blog (d100 solidarity!). Our blog has posted a few articles on it during the course of development. I think you have some good ideas:


 
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Hurin88

Adventurer
It didn't help that Champions 4 and the Hero System 4 Corebooks were at the end of edition cycle, Champions: New Millennium was a flop, and Hero Games was breaking from releasing through ICE for 5th ed.

Yes, and personally, I think another factor was that the edition of Rolemaster that released earlier in the 90s (RMSS) made some changes to the system that not everyone liked. That's why the new edition is called 'Unified' -- it's trying to take the best of both worlds (RM2 and RMSS) and give it modern support.
 


Ace

Adventurer
ICE went bankrupt in 2000. It was all the rage back then. Brick and mortar stores were contracting, and TSR was headed in the same direction, IIRC, until Wizards bought them. ICE also had a dispute about licensing which caused them to lose the Tolkien license, so that was the end of MERP, all the old dual-stat Middle Earth modules, and the Middle Earth CCG. Ironically, some of the enterprises ICE was connected to would enjoy financial success shortly afterwards: Dark Age of Camelot would be a hit, and Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring would hit theaters the next year. But timing is everything in business.

After some years in the wilderness, the ICE name has now been revived. They produce High Adventure Role Playing (HARP), which is kind of a spiritual successor to MERP. They also offer support for earlier editions of Rolemaster on their forums and on Fantasy Grounds, as well as with their own software (the Electronic Roleplaying Assistant). And of course there is the new edition of Rolemaster set to drop.

I own most of the HARP books in paper. Its a pretty solid system but like every game in that line and its cousins char gen can be slow. Last Rolemaster I played back in the late 90's we made 5th level (about 2 or 3 in AD&D 2e) starting characters.

It took me half an hour to 45 minutes with a spreadsheet and I had a lot of experience with Rolemaster.

However once you get past that (HARP is easier for example and software makes things simpler) and if you are prepared (have your charts ready at hand and a calculator or device ready) the game is really fun and plays quicker than you imagine.

Also I am heartened to see the end of the movement charts. We found that not using them made the game play a lot better.

I am also really glad to see them come back and will be taking a long look at the new edition doubly so if Nick Caldwell involved. He was IME a great steward of the game lines.
 

Hurin88

Adventurer
Nick is still the one in charge of ICE; Jonathan Dale is now line editor for RM (and is doing a great job too IMHO).

I should clarify that there is still a movement chart in RMU, but there is also an option to ignore it and just spend action points (each point = 25% activity) to move. So when you do that, you no longer need the chart. It's a very intuitive system that my players grasped very quickly.

The RMU team has also made a concerted effort to remove superfluous charts or develop ways of resolving things like actions, moving maneuvers, spell attacks, etc. without using charts.
 


Topramesk

Explorer
Just got the core rules today. I like it so far (admittedly a quick skim through the rules), reminds me very much of MERP.

Edit: As a fan/musician of heavy metal, I especially like the suggested tracks! \../

Glad you're enjoying the game... and the soundtrack! 🤘

We've got a few other things coming up this year, so stay tuned for more!

Also,I think it's worth mentioning that we've also got an Open License! So all of you are free to publish your adventures, hacks, or other creations for the Open00 system and sell them or distribute them for free.
 

Banesfinger

Explorer
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.
I'm not sure I understand:
  • You are not allowed to go full-defense when stunned (pg. 191) "stunned characters can only parry with up to half of their CMB..."
  • You cannot attempt to disengage while stunned (pg. 195: stunned condition) "stunned characters cannot take full actions..." (Disengage is a Full Action)
By-the-rules, it seems all you can do while stunned is 1/2 parry. (They cannot attack back because they are limited to half-actions). All foes gain +20 to attack the stunned character.
 

Topramesk

Explorer
I'm not sure I understand:
  • You are not allowed to go full-defense when stunned (pg. 191) "stunned characters can only parry with up to half of their CMB..."
  • You cannot attempt to disengage while stunned (pg. 195: stunned condition) "stunned characters cannot take full actions..." (Disengage is a Full Action)
By-the-rules, it seems all you can do while stunned is 1/2 parry. (They cannot attack back because they are limited to half-actions). All foes gain +20 to attack the stunned character.

Correct, sorry, my answer was badly phrased. What I meant was: while Stunned you should parry with everything you can (1/2 CMB in most cases), and possibly disengage as soon as you can (hopefully your allies will come to your aid). Note that meanwhile you can still take Half Actions, such as casting Istantaneous spells, which may come handy in these situations.
As I said before, shields and heavier armors will help, but Drive is really what'll keep the heroes alive when things turn dire. So, if you're cut off from you companions and your foe Stuns you, better spend that Drive and get away ASAP.
 

Cool, thinking of creating a Spellblade/Eldritch Knight style character by simply changing up some spells from the Champion Template. I think you could create a Paladin and Fighter/Mage style character pretty easily by simply changing their starting spell lores (to me the Champion, as written, is very RM/MERP Rangerish ). Also, any recommendations on the standard D&D style cleric vs Animist armor prohibitions?

Lastly, a bit of hopefully constructive criticism: Character creation is fairly cumbersome. Not because of the options (which I love), but as an example, for someone who isn't familiar with the way hit points are calculated, the info in Chapter 8 could be more concise, instead of referring back to the health and healing.

Lastly, since this is, at this point, still a fairly niche system, I think it would be helpful to put a section on your forums for groups looking for players/players looking for groups. I like crunchy d100 style rules, but most of my current gaming group does not.
 
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I own most of the HARP books in paper. Its a pretty solid system but like every game in that line and its cousins char gen can be slow. Last Rolemaster I played back in the late 90's we made 5th level (about 2 or 3 in AD&D 2e) starting characters.

It took me half an hour to 45 minutes with a spreadsheet and I had a lot of experience with Rolemaster.
The Character Sheet book made RM (2E?) pretty quick... by having all the skills and their costs prefilled on the sheet for a given class. IIRC, it covers all the classes up to RMCIV.

By pretty quick, took me about 30 minutes, same for my friends.
MERP was about 15-20 minutes due to the reduced number of calculations and lookups.
Which said reduction AtDM inherits.
 

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