Along with last week's retrospective, another product -- well, set of products -- I remember seeing relentlessly advertised in the pages of Dragon was Claw Law & Arms Law, one of several rulebooks that would, in time, join together to create the game system known as Rolemaster (as, as my friends and I called it "Rulemaster"). Back in 1982, though, (when the boxed set pictured here was released) products like Claw Law & Arms Law were initially sold as add-ons to other RPGs. Certainly, one could buy all the various Law books (such as Spell Law and Character Law) and combine them to play a wholly different game (or simply buy the boxed Rolemaster set that included them all), but there was no way I was going to do that. My friends and I were still deeply devoted to D&D and there was no way we were going to forsake it for another fantasy RPG. We'd house rule the heck out of D&D, of course, but, in our minds, that was somehow different and so it was that we decided to take the plunge and add Claw Law & Arms Law into our campaigns.
You must remember that 1982 was the tail end of the Golden Age. The fantastic realism that carried the day in the early part of the Silver Age was becoming an undeniable force in gaming culture, with lots of our older contemporaries dabbling in games they'd earlier told us were "for weirdos," like RuneQuest and Chivalry & Sorcery. Why? Partly because those other games had more "realistic" combat systems. That's where Claw Law & Arms Law came in: they were designed to make your RPG's combat system more realistic -- and deadly. That greatly appealed to us, as we'd already had solid experience with critical hit tables and, while their results were decidedly mixed, we nevertheless continued to see the appeal in making D&D's combats bloodier.
The big problem was that, for all their advertisements as add-ons to other games, they worked very poorly with AD&D. Like Rolemaster itself, Claw Law & Arms Law used percentiles for its combat system. To use it with Dungeons & Dragons, you weren't merely modifying the existing combat rules; you were completely replacing them. That caught us off-guard and probably ensured that we'd never adopt the rules on a permanent basis. To our way of thinking, it was perfectly fine to add or subtract to the existing combat rules, but to replace them entirely was a different thing altogether. At the same time, we wanted to see what all he fuss was about and so we decided to test out Claw Law & Arms Law.
The result not pretty, not because the new combat system was difficult to use; it wasn't. Indeed, despite our own mocking of Rolemaster by calling it Rulemaster, the game isn't particularly rule-heavy but it is chart-heavy. The new combat rules slowed down play, because we had to keep consulting charts. I am sure that this was because of our inexperience with the system. Indeed, I know it was, as I'll explain shortly. Charts catch a lot of undeserved flak in certain quarters, but my experience is that they're often better at presenting complex rules than are formulae, unless the formulae are very simple. Once one becomes familiar with which charts are needed and when, speed is increased considerably.
But the simple truth of the matter is that, for D&D, the addition of Claw Law & Arms Law just never felt right. We were far too accustomed to the existing combat rules (including weapons vs. AC modifiers, but not speed factors) to change midstream. The additional detail these add-ons provided simply didn't justify the cerebral rewiring necessary to make it all run smoothly. Yet, there was still something about these rules that we did like, which is why, when Middle Earth Roleplaying was released in 1984, we happily played it. MERP felt nothing like Tolkien's novels in my opinion, but the rules presentation was cleaner and more compact than in Rolemaster. We enjoyed playing the game as an alternative to D&D rather than as a replacement for it. That seemed to be the best way to use Rolemaster and its derivatives and we had a lot of fun doing so.