Days of High Adventure
Rolemaster, Puppetmaster, Catan Master: Pete Fenlon

Allen Varney | 25 Mar 2010 17:00
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Tabletop roleplaying game designer, mapmaker and Chief Executive Officer: Peter C. Fenlon, Jr. has achieved, if not always enjoyed, one of the most varied and remarkable careers in gaming. He co-founded Iron Crown Enterprises, co-designed Rolemaster, drew those great maps in Middle-earth Role Playing and played Puppetmaster for the first viable Alternate Reality Game. Now 54, Pete Fenlon runs Mayfair Games, where he hopes to foster "this generation's Monopoly."

An Air Force brat (born to American parents in Tachikawa, Japan), Fenlon grew up in many countries. In his three years in Wiesbaden, Germany, "I saw a castle a week," an experience that "definitely inspired me." Attending the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, studying history and anthropology, he befriended a small group of ardent wargamers - he boasts, "I've played Europa - twice!" - and in 1975 they started a campaign using a new game, Dungeons & Dragons.

"We had a lot of fun, but I didn't like the game much," Fenlon recalls. Their DM was an Army vet, very by-the-book, and hence these wargamers didn't find much tactical richness in white-box D&D. When Fenlon eventually took over as DM, he and the group started designing a substitute combat system. At the first Winter Gen Con, Fenlon showed the combat system to D&D's publisher, TSR. "They made me a horrible offer." He abandoned dreams of publication.

But while studying law at the College of William & Mary, Fenlon kept playing his rapidly-evolving variant of D&D with his Charlottesville friends. The game evolved through many system changes - first 3D6-based, then percentile - but Fenlon says "the emphasis was always on storytelling." In 1980 he joined with several partners, including S. Coleman Charlton, Richard "Rick" Britton, Bruce Neidlinger and Bruce Shelley, to form Iron Crown Enterprises.

Though the first ICE publications included Britton's Civil War boardgame, Manassas, the company emphasized roleplaying, first with the combat system, Arms Law, then companion bestiary and magic books. By 1982 the young company had assembled these installments as the Rolemaster fantasy RPG.

Q: How many Rolemaster characters does it take to change a lightbulb?

A: Only one. However, on a roll of 00 the lightbulb explodes, sending shards of glass into the character's upper body. The character is blinded in both eyes. Shards shred the muscles and tendons in the upper arms and shoulders, rendering them useless. Due to severed arteries, the character also takes 1d20 points of damage each round thereafter from blood loss. Splinters of glass drive through the skull into the brain-case, causing instantaneous death.


In a 2002 article, game designer and theorist Ron Edwards coined the term "fantasy heartbreakers" to describe small-press RPGs from novice designers who know only D&D and design a close copy solely to fix the particular details that bug them. Though Edwards was discussing 1990s games, designers have hearkened to the heartbreaker impulse since the beginning.

Fenlon calls Rolemaster "one of the first second-generation RPGs" for its relatively consistent system - "logical, if not accurate." It was, no mistake, a heartbreaker, designed out of frustration with a single aspect of D&D: the inability to kill an opponent with a single blow. RM remedied that spectacularly, with dozens of full-page critical hit and fumble charts that described hundreds of grisly results from split fingers to instant death.

The ICE designers were unprepared for gamers who regarded the contents of Spell Law, Claw Law, Character Law and Gamemaster Law as, well, laws. "They were intended as just guidelines," Fenlon says. He himself only used a subset of the whole system in his own games, and happily threw aside rules that interfered with a good story.

But the published text didn't convey this "toolkit" attitude (to put it mildly). To this day "Chartmaster" suffers a reputation for, so to speak, encumbrance. Supporters assert that with experience and a small subset of charts at hand, RM plays fast, smooth and suspenseful. Through open-ended combat rolls, every character always, always has a chance. With a good enough roll, a lowly novice can fell a seasoned veteran - in meticulous, graphic and heavily cross-referenced detail.

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