Service to Gondor
To help players understand Rolemaster, I am going to give comparisons to DnD 3.5. The systems are much more similar than at first glance.
DnD 3.5 has 6 ability scores: Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, Intelligence, Wisdom, and Charisma.
Rolemaster has 8: Agility, Constitution, Empathy, Intuition, Presence, Quickness, Reasoning, Self Discipline, and Strength. Here are DnD stats translated to Rolemaster.
DnD stat = Rolemaster stat
Strength = Strength : pretty straight-forward; raw strength and ability to deal physical damage in hand to hand combat.
Dexterity = Quickness & Agility : dexterity is broken down to fine motor control and reflexes. Quickness is the initiative and AC bonus part of dexterity — raw reaction time. Agility is ranged weapon hit bonus and the part of dexterity that gives bonuses to stealth and sleight of hand — finesse and physical grace. (This has always been one of my favorite features of the Rolemaster stat system. It prevents 1 stat from being overly influencial and allows customization of characters with regards to how agile vs. how quick they are.)
Constitution = Constitution : pretty straight-forward; durability and hit points.
Intelligence = Empathy : Empathy is trickier to pin down; it is the sensitivity to emotions. It also represents the character’s sensitivity to the all-pervading essence or force that is common to all things and is the basis of most things supernatural. Empathy serves the role of Intelligence within the Rolemaster system; It is the primary stat for wizard type spell casters and provides bonuses to most knowledge based skills.
Wisdom = Intuition & Self Discipline : wisdom is broken down into insight and will power. Intuition is the part of wisdom that gives bonuses to sense motive and perception skills — instinct or gut feeling. Self Discipline is the part of wisdom that gives bonuses to will saves — mind over body. It also affects the “self control” aspect of the mind and body.
Charisma = Presence : Presence is definitely the part of charisma that gives bonuses to diplomacy and bluff — personal magnetism.
Ability Score Modifiers
To give perspective on ability scores in DnD versus those in Rolemaster, double the ability modifier in DnD to get the ability modifier in Rolemaster. So a DnD character with an +4 to strength (ability score of 18) would be roughly the same as a Rolemaster character with +8 to strength.
There are 11 basic classes in DnD if you don’t divide wizard into specialties: barbarian, bard, cleric, druid, fighter, monk, paladin, ranger, rogue, sorcerer, and wizard.
Rolemaster has 20 professions: fighter, warrior monk, thief, rogue, , warden, ranger, paladin, monk, magent, bard, dabbler, cleric, druid, magician, illusionist, mentalist, lay healer, healer, mystic, and sorcerer. Many of the Rolemaster spellcasters are basically specialist wizards.
DnD class = Rolemaster profession
Barbarian = Fighter or Rogue : no profession inherently has the iconic rage ability, but it’s easy enough to build a fighter or rogue with frenzy, light armor and outdoor skills.
Bard = Bard : pretty straight-forward.
Cleric = Cleric, Lay Healer, or Healer : you probably won’t find many Rolemaster clerics in metal armor, as that interferes with channeling magic, but both can heal and have powerful offensive magic. A lay healer is similar to a DnD cleric who specializes in healing. A healer is also similar, but has a unique mechanic that is not really seen in DnD.
Druid = Druid : this is closer than the cleric as you wouldn’t find druids in metal armor in DnD either.
Fighter = Fighter or Warrior Monk : Fighter is pretty straight-forward. Warrior monk would be more appropriate for a disciplined fighter such as a Spartan or samurai.
Monk = Monk or Warrior Monk : Rolemaster monks use magic to obtain the magical abilities DnD monks have. What Hong Kong cinema achieves with wires and props, the Monk does with magic. Warrior monks can be superior martial artists.
Paladin = Paladin : like the cleric, you won’t find too many Rolemaster paladins in metal armor, as that interferes with channeling magic.
Ranger = Ranger or Warden : Ranger is pretty straight-forward. Warden is a non-spell casting version of the Ranger; an outdoor version of the Thief profession.
Rogue = Thief or Rogue : Thief would be the so-called “skill monkey” version of the DnD rogue with reasonable combat skills. They are specialists at stealth and subtlety. The Rolemaster rogue is more combat-oriented but retains much of the utility of a thief.
Sorcerer or Wizard = Any Essence or Mentalist spellcaster : because spell casters in Rolemaster don’t have to memorize spells, they are more like DnD sorcerers in terms of spell flexibility.
Enchanter = Mentalist : dominate, charm, confuse!
Evoker = Magician : both wield the elements to inflict heavy damage upon foes.
Illusionist = Illusionist or Mystic : pretty straight-forward; illusions.
Necromancer = Sorcerer : this is more along the lines of debilitation. Rolemaster sorcerers do not necessarily utilize undead.
Transmuter = Magician, Mystic, or Sorcerer : weak comparisons, as magicians only alter the elements, mystics do subtle changes, and sorcerers are all about destruction (think disintegrate).
Divination = none : no Rolemaster classes are good comparisons. Most casters have some information acquiring magic, but nothing along the lines of a specialist.
Abjurer or Conjurer = none : no Rolemaster classes are good comparisons. All mentalism users have spell lists that give strong personal defense against attacks. Rolemaster clerics have a strong summoning spell list, but are more along the lines of a divine spellcaster.
Two Rolemaster professions don’t have great single basic DnD class comparisons. The Dabbler is more of a wizard/thief with the flavor of the arcane trickster prestige class. The Magent is also similar to a wizard/thief, but is closer in flavor to the assassin prestige class.
With the psionics rules being used, DnD has three types of magic: arcane, divine, and psionic. Rolemaster has three parallel realms: essence, channeling, and mentalism.
Arcane = Essence : both utilize the magical forces that surround the world and shape them into desired effects. Like arcane spellcasters, essence spellcasters have trouble casting in armor. Essence is not tied to an intelligence-type stat (in my opinion) like arcane magic typically is, so I see essence spellcasters more like DnD sorcerers (even though essence users must make an effort to learn spell lists).
Divine = Channeling : both are the magical conduits of higher powers, such as deities. If these powers chose to, they could cut off both from casting spells. Metal interferes with channeling, so you typically won’t see a Rolemaster cleric or paladin in full plate like you would with a DnD cleric though both can train up the ability to wear metal armor.
Psionic = Mentalism : both utilize the personal power contained within, especially in the mind, to create magical effects. Both can wear body armor freely, but any thick head covering hinders mentalism users. Mentalism spells tend to be more personal-focused than those of essence or channeling.
Saving Throws vs. Resistance Rolls
A big difference between the two systems is how you resist magic and poison/disease. In DnD, resistance is separate into attacks the body can fight off (fortitude, governed by constitution), attacks the body can physically avoid (reflex, governed by dexterity), and attacks the mind can fight off (will, governed by wisdom).
Rolemaster has 5 resistances: physical, fear, essence, channeling, and mentalism. Physical covers disease and poison which uses constitution, similar to DnD. Fear is influenced by self discipline, somewhat similar to DnD. However, resisting magic in Rolemaster is heavily influenced by the stat that realm uses to cast spells. So resisting essence spells is heavily influenced by empathy, the stat that essence spellcasters use to cast spells. That means if you have an easy time casting it, you have an easier time resisting it; take that, DnD clerics!
In DnD 3.5, physical combat is represented by attack rolls and armor class (AC) at the core level. The player rolls a d20 and adds his attack bonus. If the resulting number meets or exceeds the monster’s AC, the attack hits and the player rolls damage. To think of it another way, the player rolls a d20, adds his attack bonus, and subtracts the monster’s AC. If the resulting number is greater than or equal to 0, the attack does damage.
Attack Result = d20 + attack – defense
Success when Attack Result ≥ 0
The damage that is dealt is independent of the Attack Result. The player can score a critical hit, but this relies solely on the d20 roll and not the Attack Result. This system can produce highly accurate duelists who always make contact but never break skin, and raging barbarians who can only: 1. completely miss, or 2. cleave you in twain, (but no results in between).
Rolemaster has a similar system but adds some complexity to link Attack Results to damage. Instead of a d20, the player rolls a d100 and adds his attack bonus, similar to DnD. Monsters have a defense bonus which is subtracted from the attack result, similar to how AC subtracts from the attack in DnD. Simple so far. However, success is determined by how large the resulting number is. The larger the number, the more likely the attack did damage. The player can score a critical hit by having an abnormally large Attack Result, whether from an incredible attack bonus, a monster’s dismal defense bonus, or a lucky roll.
In this way, the highly accurate duelist may playfully scratch each of your cheeks, grin as you touch the cuts, then run you through as you blankly stare at the blood on your fingers. In this way, you can duck the barbarian’s attempt to cleave your head from your shoulders, but be a little too slow on dodging the backswing as his axe cuts your shirt near the waist and nicks your stomach; he drew a little blood, but at least your entrails aren’t spilling out.
DnD 3.5 and Rolemaster differ on how they treat defense and armor. In DnD, a suit of full plate is treated the same as an incredibly high dexterity. Both help avoid attacks, but if an attack connects, the same amount of damage is dealt regardless of the armor. Therefore, the fighter in a metal suit and the lightning-fast thief have the same amount of protection (provided their ACs are the same).
In Rolemaster, armor doesn’t subtract from the Attack Result. Instead, it changes the damage dealt and lessens the likelihood of a critical hit. Heavier armors tend to get hit more often, but take less damage and get critical’d less severely. Light armors tend to be missed more often, but take more damage when they are hit and get critical’d more severely. Therefore, the fighter in a metal suit can’t avoid as many hits, but his armor absorbs most of the blow, whereas the lightning-fast thief can evade more attacks, but has little protection for any blows that do connect.
In DnD, hit points are the only mechanic that represents ability to take physical damage. Any kind of wound is represented as hit point damage, whether it be from an axe swing or fireball. As long as you have 1 hit point left, you can fight as well as if you were at full health. Hit points can be healed naturally, albeit slowly, over time with rest, or they can be healed quickly using healing magic.
Rolemaster has a similar mechanic called concussion hits. Concussion hits represent (relatively) minor flesh wounds and bruises that can be healed pretty easily with rest or healing magic. Most battles don’t end because of loss of concussion hits, however. When a combatant gets in a “good hit,” a critical is rolled depending on the type of attack used.
The result of the critical is (usually) a deeper and more severe wound that is not easily overcome, whether it be internal bleeding, broken bones, or even limb loss. The more severe the wound, the longer it takes to naturally heal (if the victim even survives), and the higher the level of magic it takes to treat it magically. Even magical aid does not instantly heal severe wounds (save for the highest levels of spells); even after the cleric rejoins the arm that troll ripped off, you are still going to need some time to recover.
This difference in lethality leads to greater respect for even low level creatures in Rolemaster, and hope for low level adventurers against a seemingly impossible foe. In DnD, a level 10 fighter has nothing to fear from 100 level 1 goblins; even if a goblin manages to get in a lucky strike (aka critical hit), the fighter still has a lot of hit points left and can bug the cleric for a cure light wounds spell later and be none worse the wear. In Rolemaster, a level 10 fighter will easily defeat a level 1 goblin; however, 10 level 1 goblins have a decent chance of causing some bad wounds and maybe even getting a lucky fatal blow. Even if he succeeds and has a cleric friend to heal him, he may need a day or so to recover from wounds.
In this way, it is entirely possible for David to fell Goliath or for Bard the Bowman to bring down Smaug the Golden with one extremely lucky and well-placed shot. In this way, it is highly unlikely for even the mightiest warrior to slay an entire army single-handedly.