In a “Why Combat should come with risks” I explained why I thought the ICE combat system used in Rolemaster (RM) and cut down for easier reference in MERP were great systems for a roleplay. When you read any blog post about RM or MERP the complaint generally appears to be that the characters taking part die too readily because of the criticals. This can be most obviously true with low-level characters whose skills and hits levels leave them vulnerable.
Previously, I suggested that characters should not be charging straight into combat. As the adage goes, ‘There are bold pilots and there are old pilots. There are no old bold pilots‘, so the same should be true for adventurers. Anyone who has ever taken part in a contact sport of any kind can describe the feeling of fear that has to be overcome to allow you to compete. They could also tell you that you don’t take on the black belts or international players when you are a white belt or it’s your first full match. So low-level adventurers need to exercise a little bit of discretion. This is all very well, however, there are occasions where avoiding combat is not possible, or is the best solution to the problem. What ways can players maximise the chances of characters surviving the battle?
For RM and MERP there is nothing you can do about the roll of the dice on criticals. Therefore, avoiding criticals is part of the strategy that needs to be adopted by PCs. However, hits are just as important reflecting as they do your ability to take concussive blows. Lose half of yours and a -20 penalty is applied to all actions as your character reels with ringing ears. In this section, I’m only going to consider the MERP tables. RM Tables exist for pretty every weapon type making it harder to make generalisations, but the principles are roughly comparable.
For the system, this is really down to your defensive bonus (DB). In MERP this is based on your agility (AG) and in RM (Quickness). Really regardless of how mobile fast you are an average DB of 10 is not going to make a substantial difference to the critical level. So how can low players increase DB?
Armour would seem a logical method of reducing the impact of criticals. Indeed, many players adopt wearing armour although being able to afford (at low levels) armour is problematic. The pay off is the loss of mobility, and because the combat is based on higher move manoeuvre (MM) advantage in resolving actions, being last to attack can be an issue. In general, plate armour gives you an equivalent DB of +25 against your first critical compared with no armour. The downside is you take hits more often, which means with an average body development of around 30, a character will last a minute before collapsing into unconsciousness.
So what is the best armour class? The reality you need an armour class that grants the mobility of not being hit and as high as a possible critical threshold. This puts early adventurers in rigid leather where criticals start around 80 and hits are only received from about 70. The alternative is no armour where there are no hits and the critical level starts at the same range, but here the severity will lead to rapid incapacitation. In RM the principles are pretty much the same but the number of armour classes is wider.
A shield provides an instant +25 (dependent on size) subtraction from your opponents offensive bonus (OB). Cost wise its a whole lot cheaper than plate armour and still grants you mobility (providing you are not carrying too much other gear). Greaves both arm and leg are also a useful addition. They do not confer a protection against criticals, but if your MM can take the reduction, they do reduce the severity of some critical results. So my advice is to buy a shield and unless your Agility bonus is above 10 wear rigid leather armour.
At this point, our newbie adventurers are about as well equipped defensively as they can be when setting out on their first adventure in the wild world. How else could these new adventurers survive their first encounter? In both MERP and RM players can opt to use part of their OB as DB by choosing to parry. In D&D the combat assumes a certain amount of parry and thrust, in RM this is not assumed and actually is quite important to remember as a survival tactic. For low-level characters, the OB range is 20-40, enough to overcome an opponents defences, but it still requires a roll of 80 to give a chance of dispatching an opponent with a freaky critical. Throwing your OB into a parry can help a newbie adventurer avoid not only criticals, but also from taking those strength-sapping hits. On a rough estimate, a 50% parry with the armour described above gives a “DB” of 50-70, enough to keep your opponents attack below the 80s crit range and perhaps below the 50s where no damage is taken.
Hopefully, by adopting a defensive stance the low-level party will be around for long enough to land a few blows. Of course, by using at least 50% of your OB in a parry, the tyro-adventurers will be relying on the strength of dice rolls to land telling blows. The quickest way to dispatch an opponent is through the fabled critical blow. In MERP these generally appear at roughly the same point no matter what class of weapons you choose, but without a doubt, 2-handed weapons are the most effective passing the roll neutral C critical before 100. Oh, but we said to use a shield so that becomes problematic. Then again if you are a spell caster who will get limited weapons development, and has to keep the metal levels down, going for a two-handed weapon is the best option.
Criticals though are not the only way to dispatch an opponent. Concussion hits are a far more consistent way of disabling an opponent. Remember at 50% of the total hits a -20 penalty is applied, suddenly your opponent will be a less effective fighter. In RM and MERP your weapon of choice needs to deliver hits consistently in each round. Here two-handed weapons are less effective. For MERP it is about playing the balance one-handed concussion are better against heavily armoured opponents and one-handed slashing are better against lighter armoured opponents.
A short sword is a very good choice of weapon in RM. In MERP if you apply the bonuses correctly it is still effective. You gain a +10 against lightly armoured opponents meaning you only need 66 (versus 76 with a broadsword) to hit an un-armoured foe. Even the -10OB against heavy armour only shift the threshold to 56. An alternative is to carry a handaxe as a second weapon (+5OB against heavy armour).
Warhammers are also a very good choice of MERP weapon. It might seem a bit Dwarven, but the +5OB is a useful bonus, but if you are prepared to live with the fumble risk a Morning Star +10OB and an additional crit roll could be rather helpful in dispatching your early opponents.
Spears offer great flexibility, they offer the chance to use them 1-handed with a shield or 2-handed and should you so desire to throw at an opponent. This allows a defensive stance right up until you need to make the killing blow. They can be used from 5′ away, allowing the player to strike from behind another character or to use the range to keep an opponent. The only real issue in MERP is a -5OB due to the length.
Then there is the question of ranged weapons. Which is best and how effective is it to shoot at your foe first? Purely from a practical point of view, missile weapons are only useful in the first round of combat at low levels. As soon as the combatants are engaged in melee the penalties are too high for a regular result. Add on to this the need to change weapons or move out of range, the basic advice is don’t if you are a low-level character. The only time to use one is when you have the element of surprise and get a free round to close or move to a safer location.
On a purely hypothetical level though, what is the best missile weapon. In RM in terms of pure damage, it is the crossbow, but the composite bow provides the best compromise. In MERP the waters are muddied as there is no bonus difference between the manual bows and the mechanical ones. The only difference between these bows is the accuracy range and the time to reload. So if you want a quick fire bow for combat to go for a short bow. On the other hand, if you plan to fire once and then engage (run away) the crossbow is the best. You can carry it loaded and fire it within 50′ and you gain a +20OB.
Now our low-level characters are equipped both offensively and defensively. However, approaching combat as a low-level character in MERP also requires a bit of tactical nous. In each ten second round spells and then missile attacks happen simultaneously in the mentioned order. For melee though, the strike is determined by MM, another reason why rigid leather armour is a better bet than heavy armour. If you do get the initiative then it is usually worth throwing all your OB at your opponent in the hope of a wound that results in a minor penalty of the same level of your measly OB used in parry. If you aren’t going first then hunker down and wait for an opportunity.
As most experienced gamers know, but newbies take time to discover. Melee does not have to be a formal, chivalrous one on one combat. There are various ways to press the advantage of numbers. One option favoured by those with a wargaming background is to try and form a fighting wedge. At the point, you can opt for either your most damage resistant warrior who takes the first strikes and allows their companions to deliver full OB blows with impunity, or a quick fighter and the wedge pushes forward as each opponent is attacked and then passed by to reduce the risk of a follow-up blow. Trouble is that this kind of fighting requires a level of practice and familiarity that most low-level characters won’t have developed. Depending on the GM, characters may be required to develop a skill in-formation fighting or be allowed to get away with it on a random percentile roll.
An alternative to the wedge is the shield wall, again it needs some sort of practice. It is more defensive, with fighters with high hits opting to soak up attacks on interlocked shields, but on a signal quick fighters striking out from a gap and dispatching a targeted opponent. Unlike the wedge which can be formed with a group of three, the wall really needs a large group of fighters.
Requiring less organisation is to gang up on an opponent. RM and MERP give face bonuses (+15 for the side, +35 for rear) valuable to boosting your OB. Allowing a quicker character to flank an opponent and forcing to concentrate on the slower defensive character can tip the odds. If the opponent changes face they suffer a penalty and the slower character gets a strike to add to the quicker character early strike. If not the early strike may result in a critical that evens the score, and at the very least give some damage. Ah but what about the other opponents, won’t they try to do the same? Well yes probably, and that is where players will need to work out where to get the advantage of cover and restricted access. Mobility can be key forcing opponents to move and create openings for mismatches. The free 10′ movement for a melee action may not seem much but it can move you into different arcs of attack for no penalty. Too often players opt to leave their characters going toe to toe and miss out on using the face bonus.
One character that never seems to miss out on the facing bonus and a +20 surprise bonus is the Scout (assassin, thief, rogue) of a party. There always appears to be one player who thinks that sneaking off the moment combat starts and then sneaking up on an opponent is a good idea. In a way it is; if there is enough cover (or they are magically enhanced). However, I always think that a group of attackers would count off their opponents and probably would notice one less. As a result, they are either going to press the extra man advantage (the thief may survive but the party doesn’t), or hold back one attacker to cover rear and flanks against such an attack. In addition to your opponents adjusting their attack plan, your companions also act differently. Rarely have I seen players think the sneak has run off, but they often react by over-stretching in attack to prevent the sneak claiming all the combat points. Silly I know as this is roleplay, and you would think it would be about survival and the quest, but we are only human after all! The end result is that low-level characters are less defensive and more vulnerable to critical hits.
Survival then is the aim of the game. Low-level characters are not yet the heroic figures they dream of being. Heck, they aren’t half-trained militia at level 1! There is a reason we give the newbies blunt weapons to train with and it is not so they won’t hurt their sparring partner. MERP doesn’t suffer the specialism penalties of RM, so players can easily swap weapons to fit with the style of their character when more experienced. Until that time, making your DB as effective as possible will prolong your life, but even then it won’t guarantee that you will not get killed.