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Rolemaster is by it's very nature a rather deadly rule system, up to the point where there are even some passages in the rule books mentioning this - alongside some advice for players to not neglect defensive stats and using some of their weapon-bonus for defence.

I think this is largely based in two important mechanics:

  • Critical hits are deadly. In Rolemaster critical hits are rolled seperately from the attack roll, and they happen quite frequently. Though there are many different levels of critical hits (separated acc. to severeness and damage type), even the least severe ones can be deadly according to the rules - having at least some 1-3% chance of outright killing their target, with a 5-10% chance of de facto disabling the target for combat.
  • Escalating penalties. In Rolemasters characters who took certain amounts of damage will get increasing penalties on essentially all their rolls, importantly including their combat rolls (attack/defence). Furthermore most of the critical hits will result in additional penalties - as a matter of fact this is really one of the main mechanics behind the critical hits.

Now, I can somehow deal with the extreme critical hit rolls by fudging them. Our group has always been doing that up to some degree, as we think spontaneous insta-kills just aren't a lot of fun - neither when happening to a PC years into a campaign, nor when happening to the BBEG in the final boss fight.

What gives me trouble are the escalating penalties: they have a sort of "the poor get poorer" effect, where already injured parties get penalties, which in turn lowers their defense, they are thus more likely to be injured further, thus getting even more penalties, etc. Often landing the first critical hit will essentially decide how combat will develop, or at least if an encounter is difficult/dangerous for the PCs or just a walk in the park.

I understand that this is a deliberate (and somewhat realistic) choice in the Rolemaster system, but IMHO it makes encounters rather hard to balance:

  • Often what I thought would be a challenging fight is finished quickly after a player rolls a lucky crit, either outright killing his opponent or disabling them severely.
  • Other times what should be a trivial skirmish suddenly takes a turn for the worse, when a PC suffers a steep critical hit that leaves them with almost none of their defence.

--> How can I as GM balance encounters where getting in a lucky hit has such a big effect on the course of combat?

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    \$\begingroup\$ How useful an answer would "pick a system that's not built around being super deadly" be? \$\endgroup\$ – Erik Oct 10 '17 at 13:17
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Erik I suggest posting that as an answer and finding out; this is close enough to an answer-in-comments it's probably not going to last too long. I suggest frame-challenge answers are usually risky when they don't also/first solve the problem as given, so take care, and if going straight to "play a different game" is a suitable solution, it will be well-received proportionately to how well you demonstrate it's suitable going straight to that (skip go, don't collect $200, etc). Relevant meta on frame challenges: rpg.meta.stackexchange.com/a/3319/1204 \$\endgroup\$ – doppelgreener Oct 10 '17 at 13:30
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    \$\begingroup\$ I'm not sure what you're looking for here, but it sounds like you need to make house rules not help with encounter design. I mean, no amount of encounter design advice will turn a lethal system into a less-lethal system, unless you're looking for answers to a question like this one specifically for Rolemaster. (I say this as a dude who GMed a stock GURPS campaign for a decade and eventually stopped for exactly this reason!) \$\endgroup\$ – Hey I Can Chan Oct 10 '17 at 18:53
  • \$\begingroup\$ Always wear a helmet. \$\endgroup\$ – bytepusher Apr 29 at 22:47
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Balancing

Rolemaster has levels which are a clear indication of balance.

This is more or less all you need.

Anything within ten levels is doable, anything outside that range is either trivial or too hard. Within that range, encounters are fair: everyone is playing with the similar powers, no one dominates so massively that the encounter is trivial, and this is by design. Note that I said "fair", not "balanced". There is a difference in my mind as a fair encounter spreads the risks around while a balanced encounter makes sure the PCs can easily dominate it. It could just be me, and your mileage might vary.

Rolemaster is a lethal system

As system matters, games run with Rolemaster will be lethal, by definition -- this is almost a circular reasoning. By trying to designed "balanced encounters", you are trying to fit a square peg into a round hole.

There is no way to either fudge or tweak Rolemaster to make it less lethal and retain the core system mechanics.

This is a good thing™. It forces everyone to apply finesse to what they do, to beware of combat, to plan, to flee, to adapt, and to not take anything for granted.

A first level goblin could potentially one shot a level thirty character. The chances of that happening are negligible small. Just as in real life, a junky could knock out Ali. In practice however, my money is with Ali. Besides, as a GM, you can fudge dice rolls behind your screen if you feel that the encounter is too unfair. Swapping a E 66 critical for a 65 might be appropriate is some cases. Then again, if the PC attacked a Nazgul, they should not be surprised if they die.

A computer game equivalent would be Bloodborne vs Dragon Age: They both have levels but Bloodborne require more finesse than Dragon Age… You can blunder in any area of Dragon Age because all the encounters are balanced and take no great effort to overcome. Bloodborne on the other hand will require you to be switched on in any encounter since anything hitting you will kill you whatever your level, attire, and weapons.

I suspect your players (and maybe yourself) are missing some of the finesse of the system. ← From fgysin's comment, it appears that assumption is wrong. My sincere apologies. I shall leave the rest of the answer as is in case that helps others.

Some finesse in Rolemaster…

For example, you can (read should) split your skill into OB and DB depending on your opponent. A 50/50 split is dangerous unless you are sure of the capabilities of your adversary. Personally, I go 20/80: it leaves me enough to attack a little and I should not get hit badly unless I am unlucky -- which happens way way too often ☹!

Then it is up to you as GM to tell your players how the combat is going. After a few exchanges, a fighter should be able to gauge the abilities of whomever they are fighting thus allowing them to shift the split to either more or less aggressive.

In all cases, what you are looking for in critical is the "stun" effect. Not only does it mean that the adversary cannot attack, it also state that they get a -50 to DB. The upgraded effect "stun, no parry" is even more lethal for obvious reasons. Now, is the time to go full on attack and smash. Another effect is "bleeding" which takes hits per round. All you have to do is wait and not get hit.

Two vs one is also a great tactic. The adversary has to split it DB between the two targets thus allowing for better hits. Thus, one should always seek to fight on its own terms. Running away is not cowardice if you call if tactical withdraw. For everything else, there's ranged weapons. A nice javelin or thrown poisoned dagger or axe does wonders to get groups split.

Medicinal plants are great at giving you buffs. There is a huge list of them in the player book which can be found by PCs looking for them in nature if the eye watering prices are too much.

There are dozens of spells that add buffs and that can be used to great effect for unintended consequences: Lofty Bridge "Leap" is a level 1 spell that makes you jump 15 feet in either direction if you fail your resistance roll. Jump up into the ceiling (one crush attack) and then fall over to the ground (second crush attack)…

Spells that conceal you are great for that surprise attack.

Spells that heal you are even better for obvious reasons. A simple "summon animal" spell combined with "animal handling" can give the PC access to fresh potent poison. Note that the level of the poison and the level of the animal are different.

In case of death, there are even preservation spells which will keep one's soul from departing thus allowing them to be revived easily.

So, yeah, finesse not brute force.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ This doesn't really answer my question about encounter-design... I know how the game works, I know the mechanics and all the ins and outs. But how can I design survivable encounters when every level-1 goblin can potentially instagib a level 50 warrior. \$\endgroup\$ – fgysin reinstate Monica Oct 10 '17 at 14:18
  • \$\begingroup\$ @fgysin Ah, I see what you mean now. Answer edited shortly … \$\endgroup\$ – Sardathrion - Reinstate Monica Oct 11 '17 at 7:25
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    \$\begingroup\$ +1 I like it better now. I'm sure that me/my group could always learn some more finesse with the system, but for now the players are plenty good at interpreting spells and mechanics to their benefit... :D \$\endgroup\$ – fgysin reinstate Monica Oct 11 '17 at 9:21
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Rolemaster is a deadly system as has been observed, a kobold with a pointed stick can take out a level 20 warrior with a lucky shot which is part of the systems charm.

So what you're looking for is ways to mitigate insta-kill critical effects and large penalties (broken arms et al) from the critical tables, there are a couple of ways you can do this, some of which I've used in my mumble mumble years of running Rolemaster and MERP.

Bennies and Fate points
Fate points are generally used for a single reroll, which lowers the chance of a kill from a crit, but they're generally fairly scarce; instead you could use Bennies, similar to a fate point but only available for a single session; this will give the players (and the bad guys) more chances before they go do, but this is really just making it a bit more unlikely.

Something for the pain
As Sardathrion has already mentioned, there are plenty of herbs and spells that can help players - expand these to assist with the penalties, herbs that block pain (reduce one wound penalty by up to -30 etc) there is also the oft overlooked Lay Healer spell "Numbing" (Level 2, Nerve and Organ mastery, Lay healer base list) which could be used as well to reduce penalties, potions of this can give players a way to get around the big penalties they've taken, while still meaning they need a healer afterwards. You could also use a skill to cover dealing with penalties as well; Stunned manoeuvrer, a new Adrenal move skill (see RMC2) so when the player takes the penalty they can make a roll to offset it, at least until the end of the fight.

Apocalypse Option
But when it comes down to it; you are trying to stop the insta-kill crits and massive penalties from crits which are a fundamental of the critical tables. There's only one final way to deal with this - modify all the critical tables. Yep, that's a lot of them - however there is a fairly simple way you can deal with this I can see. 1) Halve all penalties from wounds on the critical table (-50 becomes -25) and 2) If the critical is an insta-kill Eg "Foe is reduced to a gelatinous pulp, fetch a mop." Move down the table until a non-insta kill is found and double the hits damage for it.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ +1, like the ideas. When you used fate points, how many did you allow players? One per session? X per level? \$\endgroup\$ – fgysin reinstate Monica Oct 11 '17 at 9:24
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    \$\begingroup\$ I gave the players two fate points when they started, then 1 fate point on a level and one if they do something cool/impressive/heroic. I also let them reroll after fate point roll; but this cost them 2 fate points, so 2 rerolls costs 3. \$\endgroup\$ – Rob Oct 11 '17 at 9:31
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Provide easy tactical advantages initially, and then gradually take them away. While the players are getting used to the system, send them out after semi-static targets that let them put together a plan and pull it off without many surprises. This could be an ogre, troll, cave bear, etc. in a cave, or undead in tombs, and so on. The enemy is individually powerful, but numerically inferior, with a known location and predictable behavior. Generally, this should (if you've estimated the odds correctly) result in a couple of scares for the players (maybe someone dies, or loses a limb), but the big-bad guy should get worn down faster than the players: a stun for a single combatant is much more serious than for one among many on the numerically superior side. If things really get out of hand, well, the players might be able to escape: maybe the monster won't follow into the sunlight (trolls, wights, etc.).

Also, you can use Fate points, as described in the Channeling Companion: each player typically starts with three and can accumulate more. They allow for expending one to re-roll a critical, resistance roll or maneuver roll (defensively only). Some players can run through these quickly, but conservative use can essentially remove instant fatalities completely from the game.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ +1, this is definitely the one way to go (and the answer I would have given). Getting the first strike is often enough already (for exactly the reasons the OP mentioned, RM being rather lethal especially once you're wounded / stunned), surprising and / or outnumbering an otherwise balanced opponent basically ensures victory. Or, to paraphrase The Mighty Jingles, if you're finding yourself in a "fair fight", you've done something wrong. \$\endgroup\$ – DevSolar Jan 8 at 14:04

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