So I came across Against the Darkmaster this week and it peaked my interest. The game is, according to its website, vsdarkmaster.com a fan developed game derived from the original Iron Crown Enterprises MERP.
So right now the game is in the public play test stage and has a kickstarter planned for next year.
This is just a literal first look as I have not even read the play test document yet.
There are lots of things you want to see if you are looking at something that shares its DNA with Rolemaster and MERP. Open ended rolls are one and they are definitely in here, skills based characters are they are in here, combat tables are here and criticals. All of those you can tick off.
The character creation is a little different to how I remember MERP being. Here you just get some may bonus points to distribute between your stats. This not uncommon in Rolemaster circles as the actual 1-100 stat is never used just the stat bonus. vsDarkmaster has gone down the same route and scrapped the unused 1-100 stat and just kept the stat bonus.
VsDarkmaster has eradicated the work Race from the game and uses Kin in its place. Despite the name change the kins are exactly how I remember the MERP races to be and they have even retained the Background options. If you never played Rolemaster or MERP then you can spend background points to get some form of bonus for your character such as a magic item as starting equipment or extra money or something less tangible like coming from a respected family or a bonus to one of your stats.
Characters each have a culture and these give you a selection of skill ranks that you can spend buying skills. Skills are all grouped into categories and the cultural skill ranks are distributed amongst these categories so you cannot just pile them all into combat or magic!
Character classes or Professions are called Vocations in vsDarkmaster. There are six vocations in this play test version Warrior, Rogue, Strider, Wizard, Animist and Dabbler. the first three have no magic and the last three are all spell casters.
Each vocation gets a number of development points to spend in each skill category. This is exactly how it was in MERP. Rolemaster had a single pool of development points you could spend how you pleased. MERP and vsDarkmaster gives you 0 to 5 points to spend in each category to reinforce the vocations strengths and deficiencies.
The game describes 32 skills and one of the strange things in MERP was that Martial Arts was a secondary skill and not a combat skill. That oddity is replicated here in vsDarkmaster.
When you spend your development points you get ranks in the skills. Each rank gives +5 for the first 10 ranks, then +2 for the next ten and then +1 thereafter. this is a familiar diminishing returns curve for anyone with experience of ICE games.
This is not a straight IP busting clone of MERP though. There is a rather nice Passions and Drives mechanic that in many ways behave like Fate points but with a really good mechanic for gaining Drive points and how they can be spent.
Looking at the combat rules they are pretty much lifted directly from MERP with barely a tweak here or there. In MERP critical tables where from 1 to 120 with an E critical getting a +20 on a d100 roll. Here E criticcals are called Lethal and get a +50 on a critical table that goes from 1-150. The net effect is that there is a very slight increase in variety of critical descriptions but that is the only real change.
Other cosmetic tweaks are things like experience points come in the hundreds in MERP and you need 10,000 to level up initally, here experience points come in 1s and you need 10 to level up. The progression you you needed the same exp to level up from levels 1 to 5 and then more for 6 to 10 and so on is preserved, it is just the numbers have been make 100 times smaller.
So the magic system is lifted directly from MERP, you get spell lists going up to 10th level with each vocation getting its own base lists.
The only addition is the ability to warp spells for different effects. This is has two effects, the chance of the caster being detected by dark forces and the spell effects being modified by the warping effect.
This is the first real hint of any kind of setting specific tweaks to the underlying game.
So Criticals A to E have been replaced by labels superficial to lethal and the two hit and critical tables expanded to add a few more possible results. Apart from these really minor changes this is really familiar to anyone who has played MERP.
So is this just a rip off game?
I don’t really think you can ever say that about a Rolemaster variant. The entire system started as just house rules and drop in replacements for sections of the AD&D rules. It was only when those house rules became so complete that Rolemaster was considered a complete system in its own right. MERP was derived from Rolemaster and is considered by some to be the pinnacle for the system. You cannot buy MERP new any more and Rolemaster is going in a very different direction.
If you were a MERP fan, the idea of a new version and hopefully new materials, adventures and companions then this could well be exciting.
So right now you can register at the games website and download the play test rules, a starting adventure, pre-gen characters and character sheets.
This is just a first look and I may have missed some subtle differences, the play test version is 109 pages of text and tables and I have only skipped through it.
If you like what you see then when their kickstarter is live it could well be worth your support.