Combat Strategies in Rolemaster for Low Level Characters

Rolemaster is a fantasy role playing game with a detailed combat system. Here I’ll provide some tips players of low level characters can use to stay alive, and kick some butt.

I came up with these tips while reading through Arms Law & Claw Law, one of the Rolemaster 2nd Edition core books (now just Arms Law in the new Classic Edition), and taking notes.

Why Rolemaster?

Isn’t D&D all anybody plays anymore? I can hear you say.

This post isn’t about D&D; I have a stack of Rolemaster 2nd Edition books to use from my teenage years, which saves me money. I also thoroughly enjoy some of the design choices made in Rolemaster, such as the friction-free spellcasting and the flexible skill system.

Then there’s the fact that as GM I tend to prefer running a game system which most players don’t know inside and out. Perhaps I’m a control freak but really I think it cuts down on rules arguments when the players aren’t on equal footing with the GM, and instead of spending their time trying to exploit loopholes and find ways to abusively min/max their characters they get involved in the game and story itself. I’m not saying every player does these things, but usually it only takes one to drag the whole party down.

Low Level Characters? Really?

Some groups don’t like to start characters at level one. I lean toward the opposite end of the spectrum; whether it’s origin stories or a triumph of the underdogs I tend to enjoy low level characters a lot, often tapering off as they gain more and more power.

Tip #1: Initiative Counts in Melee (and Melee Only)

Rolemaster’s combat system includes phases for spellcasting, missile fire, moving and maneuvering, and melee attacks. For all but that last phase actions are announced and then results are determined simultaneously.

However melee attacks are resolved one at a time in order by initiative. Thus a quick combatant who gets in a lucky blow early that incapacitates (or simply penalizes with a negative modifier) their opponent could be spared the counterattack. And given Rolemaster’s love of criticals (seriously they have dozens of detailed critical strike tables, each with multiple severities, one of the features I was obsessed with when I played in my youth), such incapacitating strikes are not out of the question.

Advice: If you have a high quickness stat consider skipping the shield, or a second weapon, and go with a long one-handed weapon like a rapier to improve your intiative bonuses.

Tip #2: Shields or a Second Weapon for Parrying

The rules in my old copy of Arms Law & Claw Law are slightly unclear, but the way I’m interpreting them is that a character holding a single weapon may only get the weapon’s shield bonus when sacrificing 100% of OB (offensive bonus) for DB (defensive bonus) – going for full parry.

However, holding a shield or second weapon in their off hand should grant the wielder the shield bonus even when they’re not parrying. I’d probably apply the same restrictions: they must be aware of the attack, and can only apply the shield bonus to a single attacker per round.

Advice: If you could use a boost to your DB, and aren't concerned about missing an initiative bonus or two, consider carrying at least a target (buckler) shield. Or a main gauche, which has a nice shield bonus and could be used on the offensive as well if you're desperate. The extra DB might just save your skin.

Tip #3: Pick the Right Weapon for Your Skill Level

Arms Law & Claw Law offer a bevy of weapon attack tables, each with hundreds of results for a specific weapon against a specific armor class. Looking up your modified attack roll you might find a miss, some number of hits, or hits plus a critical.

It’s easy to focus on the results with criticals, since they are flashy and might even take out a foe with a single strike. Yet I think that the more important results, particularly for low level characters who haven’t had time to develop high skill ranks, are the zeroes. How often do attacks with different weapons result in absolutely no damage to your opponent?

Chances are against an average opponent also of relatively low level, in “average” combat conditions, your OB will be mostly or completely nullified by their DB and other modifiers. That means you’re going to have to rely primarily on your percentile dice results – on an average roll of 50 a majority of weapons don’t do anything against most armor classes.

Tip #3a: Choosing a Missile Weapon

Missile weapons stand out in this regard, they offer a lot of misses before the higher results where they finally start giving out hits (and criticals very shortly afterward, thankfully).

Advice: The heavy crossbow is among the easiest with which to cause damage, but its reload time is obnoxiously slow. The sling is almost decent, and quick to reload, but suffers short range and doesn't hit more agile unarmored foes as easily.

If you're looking for a good compromise check out the composite bow. It reloads quickly, has decent range, and hits relatively early in the result columns compared to most missile weapons. Still, developing skill ranks becomes extremely important when using missile weapons.

Tip #3b: Choosing a Melee Weapon

Close combat weapons are all over the place on the charts, ranging from daggers and clubs to battle axes and lances, each of which have different levels of slashing or crushing damage, fumble ranges, ability to penetrate heavy armor, and so on. While they differ greatly in the number and severity of criticals delivered, they also have significant differences on the low end in terms of how frequently they hit and damage the different armor classes.

Advice: Rapiers and short swords are nimble enough to hit fairly easily, compared to most weapons. They may not devastate foes at the high end the way a battle axe can but are much more reliable for frequent hits and damage, and should serve a low level character well.

Surprisingly the whip also hits pretty easily, though it has a higher fumble range and delivers criticals a bit later than most.

Moving into two-handed weapons the quarterstaff stands out as especially effective at delivering hits across the board, even at relatively low rolls, making it an excellent choice for spellcasters who might never develop high skill ranks in a weapon.

Tip #3c: Don’t Underestimate Martial Arts

There are two martial arts attack tables, one for strikes and one for sweeps and throws. Martial arts strikes are effective against lightly armored opponents, while sweeps and throws are more effective against slower, more heavily armored foes.

Though there are four different limits for four martial arts attack “ranks”, which must be developed separately and in order, even the lowest-rank attacks can connect for hits, and especially criticals, to take down a foe. Relatively low rolls still have an effect, which is more than can be said for a lot of weapons.

Advice: Monks and warrior monks can be effective fighters at low level, particularly for their relatively easy and frequent criticals. Monks also bear mention for their additional flexibility as semi-spell users; combining some spellcasting capabilities with martial arts seems the perfect way to be underestimated by your foes for your lack of weapons or heavy armor.

Comments and feedback welcome! Particularly if you’ve heard of Rolemaster before.

To my players: yes, you’ve got plenty of time to reconsider your character before we get started on an adventure, if/when we ever make it that far 🙂


    Cool to see you blogging again. Hasn’t been much to read around here lately.

    Looks like you’ve done some pretty serious analysis of the early-game combat options. That sort of stuff can be really helpful for your players. I hope they appreciate the hard work you’ve done.

    I’ve never played Rolemaster, so I don’t have much more to comment on this post, but I did go reply to your note-taking post to encourage you to keep blogging.


    Encouragement is much appreciated 🙂

    The holidays are always a rough time to keep up with gaming for Josh, myself, and my group, which often leaves less inspiration for writing here. There’s also the fact that I’m splitting time among a bunch of different projects (pretty much all my own projects, at least), some unrelated and a couple which may eventually be mentioned on this site.

    The good part is that I’m usually thinking about, or working on, something gaming-related and then occasionally out comes a post like this one.

    Tom Says:

    I’m relatively new to Rolemaster, and I have a question about multiple opponent combat that I haven’t seen answered on the web. Someone in melee combat can only parry the person they are attacking. They can also use their (relatively paltry) shield bonus against a second opponent if they carry a shield. Against a third opponent, I presume, they can only use their basic DB (quickness bonus x3). This seems to mean that a lightly armored combatant has no means (at all) to defend against 2+ opponents. Even if the person up against 2 opponents is not interested in fighting, and only in saving their own skin, they’re doomed.

    2nd and 3rd attackers in any round always get a completely free attack.

    Is there something I’m misunderstanding about RM combat? Thanks.


    Tom, I’m not sure where you’re getting quickness bonus x3, your base DB is simply your quickness bonus. At least, in the versions of Rolemaster I’m familiar with (RM 2nd Ed., and I recently picked up the RMC Arms Law PDF to print copies of the relevant attack tables for my players).

    Otherwise I believe you’re basically correct, parrying with your main weapon plus a shield is really the most you can do – unless you happen to be near objects/terrain that could be used as cover. Don’t forget that a second weapon can be used similar to a shield for parrying; a main gauche works reasonably well.

    Without some of those bonuses you’re going to be in trouble when faced with multiple opponents, if their OBs are any match for your base DB and armor type. Even worse, at least one of them will probably get a flanking bonus.

    All of which makes sense to me; a character jumped by three capable foes shouldn’t have an easy time of it.

    Tom Says:

    Hey Scott,

    I’m basing that off of RMFRP page 215. RMFRP is supposedly fully compatible with RMSS, but I don’t know about RM2. I think that the stat bonuses might differ between the systems, causing the quickness x3 discrepancy.

    I think my problem lays here – a 1st level character and a 20th level character can both defend themselves equally (exact same DB) well against 2nd, 3rd, and ++ attackers. That doesn’t seem strategically correct to me.


    That makes sense, I didn’t realize RMFRP differs in that way from the versions I’m used to.

    Yes, once you get beyond parrying, similar options like adrenal defense, and shields, multiple attackers after the first or second are generally going up against the same value of defender’s base DB. In my opinion that’s not unreasonable; a higher level defender probably has more hits and can handle attacks better, and should be able to strike back (even if they’re just going for “attacks to subdue”) harder than a lower level character.

    If that’s not for you, Rolemaster is chock full of optional rules and ways to modify the game to fit your style. I haven’t looked but there may be something that covers this situation; if I were to take a stab at it myself I’d probably opt for something like this:

    Parrying multiple attacks: if the defender is aware of multiple attackers and has freedom of movement they may assign portions of their OB to parrying any number of these attacks.

    To parry attacks made by attackers flanking the defender, reduce the defender's OB assigned to parry that attack by the flanking modifier. Hence the defender should assign more than 15 OB to parry an attacker who's flanking, to overcome the flanking modifier (-15 for defender). Likewise for parrying an attack from the rear (-35 for defender).

    David Says:

    When it comes to parrying multiple attacks Rolemaster does handle this in the following way. This per optional rules from secondary authors.

    To parry multiple attacks, the attacker cannot be on your rear or your flank. Skills or talents or Weapon styles CAN enhance this, for example a weapon style with All Around Parry might give you a -15 to flank and -30 to rear like you have above. Also the player MUST be aware of the attack that is coming hence why flank and rear end up getting around the parry. Also for each additional player you parry you have to sacrifice a -20. After all of this is said and done you split split your parry against these multiple attackers.

    Now I never liked the -20 rule since splitting your parry is hard enough for low level characters even middle of the range so I dropped that modifier and noticed no effects to it whatsoever. All Around Parry is my own invention but I think it works since All Around Defense and All Around Attack seem to be in there and I push for Weapon Styles on my players as most people are trained in a fighting style anyways. Also when it comes to multiple attackers, I also give them modifiers if two attack at the same time. If one attacks at each attack phase then I don’t assign any modifier as this is how i feel realistically an organized fight should be. One person goes in for a quick jab to off balance the foe while another looks for an opening or sets him up for the last person who is waiting for the perfect opening.

    Just a few thoughts. Great article by the way!


    I agree that an extra -20 modifier seems unnecessary as there are already enough things going against the defender at this point.

    Thanks for the feedback David!


    […] is an older post from 2010 that covers some basic strategies for low level combat, and while much of it seem commonsensical, […]