Sunday, November 7, 2010


When I transitioned to high school...a looooong, long time ago...I found myself bereft of "gamer companions." For a variety of reasons, my old group of friends dissolved and scattered and I was left with a pile of gaming material and no one with whom to play. Well...I had my little brother and his friends, but he always took things a bit less seriously than I did (and I don't mean to imply any judgment of that...people approach role-playing in different ways and his "light-hearted" approach is plenty valid...just dissimilar from my preferred style).

Fortunately, I somehow managed to make a few friends with similar interests, including some who already played RPGs, and others who were willing to learn. Through the years, I've lost contact with most of these folks but we did have some gaming-related fun, and high school would have been a lot less bearable (for me anyway) without the creative outlet that gaming afforded me. I always did have too much imagination (and a penchant for escapism) than what was probably healthy, but having imaginary worlds to explore gave me a somewhat better distraction than the binge drinking in which some of my peers indulged.

[and by the way, I don't mean to imply any judgement there either...I certainly engaged in plenty of binge drinking and unhealthy behavior after high school and during my "roaring 20s" and had some rather shameful fun exploring the "dark side." However, going down that road in one's teens is a quick road to major trouble, and I have plenty of horror stories regarding peers that were trying to act older than the limits of their developing bodies/personalities]

Anyhoo, meeting new people with their own "gaming backgrounds" exposed me to other games besides Dungeons & Dragons, and other companies besides TSR. For example, I'd never heard of Palladium prior to high school (I may have already picked up TMNT due to the comic book, it wasn't a game I was playing and I wasn't aware of Siembieda's burgeoning empire), but by the time I'd finished my freshman year I had the chance to play Heroes Unlimited and Robotech with all their various supplements (and when Rifts came along a couple years later, I was the one who introduced it to my Palladium-loving buddies).

However, there were guys I met in high school who had no knowledge or experience of RPGs and yet, despite the "un-cool" status table-top gaming carried, were willing to try out a game or two. Perhaps because of their own "inner escapists" (wow, did they like Steven Seagal movies), they wanted to try living vicariously through table-top RPGs (in the 21st century, these guys would probably have been satisfied with networked console games of the Call of Duty variety).

One of these latter individuals, a buddy by the name of Mac...who wanted to be a Navy Seal and considered Tango & Cash the greatest film ever made...actually went so far as to buy an RPG of his own and introduce it to us "veteran gamers." The game he picked up, interestingly enough, was Iron Crown Enterprise's Middle-Earth Role Playing game, commonly referred to as MERP. I say "interesting" because I never knew the guy to read a fantasy book, Peter Jackson had yet to make his epic, and I don't ever recall playing anything D&D-esque with Mac prior to this.

Personally, I still hadn't finished the LotR trilogy (despite reading The Hobbit and The Fellowship of the Ring multiple times in my youth, I wouldn't be able to get through the O So Dull Two Towers until my last couple years in college. Hell, I think I may have finished that damn Thomas Covenant trilogy first!)...and so wasn't a huge Tolkien fan. My idea of hobbits was, of course, "fat halflings" and to my mind halflings were all thieves, right? So while MERP held some interest (after all, I'd seen it advertised in Dragon magazine enough over the years) it wasn't a HUGE interest. Nice artwork, though.

But we never actually played MERP. He showed me the book in math class one day and, goof-offs that we were, we spent the whole class making me a character. I was delighted to find that I could make a Black Troll for a character and rolled up, or built, a pretty badass character...I think my character's profession was that of the "ranger" though I might have just gone for broke with a warrior Troll, immune to the stoning effects of sunlight and ready to crush some Dunedain skulls.

But character creation is as far as we ever got...I don't remember ever playing the game and the next game we played was probably Rifts, with Mac playing his customary Headhunter character. And that's the last time I've really seen or thought about MERP in 20+ years.

Enter the game shop (of course)...picked up a used copy of MERP for $8 at Ye Old Gary's the other day and I've been trying to read it all weekend long (I mean...when not doing the normal weekend chores or watching torturous Seahawk games).

"Trying to read" is the operative phrase. This shit is crazy!

MERP appears to be a "streamlined version of Role-Master" a game with which I have zero experience. It's paperback and only 128 pages, including lavish illustrations, a 17 page adventure, conversion notes, and dozens of pages worth of charts and tables. And I can't hardly make heads or tails of it.

I can see why we never played it back in high school. I could perhaps follow along well enough to make a character for the game, but the weird tables scattered throughout the book don't seem to be ordered with any particular rhyme or reason.

For example: How is table ST-1 (Languages of Middle Earth) on page 25 with tables CGT-3 and BT-3, related to table ST-9 (Strategic Movement Rate Table) and ST-6 (Treasure Table)? And why is ST-9 on page 47 when ST-6 is on page 84 and ST-2 on page 86 (keeping in mind ST-1 is back on page 25). This shit doesn't make sense!

Looking at the table of contents (there's no chart following instructions in the text or introduction) gives me some clue as to the obscure acronyms of the tables; for example, "ST" means "Summary and Strategic Tables," while "CGT" stands for "Character Generation Tables," and "IHT" is "Injury and Healing Tables." However, there's no clue as to why they are not numbered sequentially. You'd think (for instance) that the NUMBER would be in the order in which they appear. Nope. For Character Generation Tables, the order is:

CGT - 3 (page 25)
CGT - 1 (page 26)
CGT - 5 (page 27)
CGT - 2 (page 29)
CGT - 4 (page 31)

How the hell does that make sense? Plus, the tables are often grouped together in haphazard fashion...which has got to make for some damn long search & handling times when actually trying to run the game.

Though I am finding it difficult to decipher how one would actually run this game. There is good and useful text in MERP...especially decent summaries of Tolkien's world (including information from the Silmarilion and more obscure works) well as some very straight-forward advice for how to organize a campaign and what it's about (surprisingly, it seems to be mostly about killing monsters and taking their loot...i.e. it's D&D with a different system and rather specific IP). However, any time the book tries to dive into the actual game mechanics, it becomes hopelessly the point where I simply flip ahead past the weird, random tables to the next piece of Tolkien-inspired prose.

I don't know if there's a good game buried within MERP or not. Really, I don't. Maybe one needs to be familiar with Role Master first, and then MERP is a tasty little "add-on." Right now, I would need to spend a lot of time...and make a lot of my own notes and re-writes...just to figure out how to play the damn thing. And it must have less than 100 pages of actual rules! That's just nutty.

Still, it has plenty of useful source material and ideas for running a Tolkien-style game with a different, simpler system (*ahem*)...with a little adaptation, of course. Vancian magic is NOT Tolkien magic after all, and I would not call Elrond a "cleric" even if MERP does (well, they call him an "animist" and the profession of animist lists "cleric" as its parenthetical title...just as the scout profession lists "thief;" how very original...).

All right...that's enough complaining for now. I may just be cranky over the Seahawks getting totally ass-clowned by the Giants. I'll keep struggling a bit with MERP and see if I can come up with something more constrictive to say about it. However, I will note just two more quick notes:

A) MERP is a level-based game system which is fine (I suppose); however, I really LIKE that it only goes to level 10 (even as some dragons and balrogs...appear to have a level of 50 or 60). This is similar to Holmes but less extreme. I may have more to say on this subject later, especially in regard to B/X.

B) The constant hawking of Role Master throughout the MERP text, especially its power-gaming aspects ("MERP characters only go to level 10, but if you get Role Master you can crank that up to 50") is completely unappreciated by Yours Truly. Skip the advertisement/apologetics, and just write the game in a coherent fashion!

C) No stats for the characters of the books? No Frodo, Aragorn, Sauron, or Gandalf? You've got to be shitting me! That's totally lame dudes. Especially with all the fantastic artwork and character portraits; how hard would it have been to list a few stat blocks? Ever seen Chaosium's Stormbringer?

All right, folks...time to hit the hay!
: )


  1. In all fairness, the plot of The Hobbit is "kill the monster and take its stuff", so it's not out of place as a campaign theme.

    I've played MERP once, when it was in a much later edition than this. We didn't find it complicated -- so they must have fixed the organisation by then -- but we did find it dull, so we only ever played one game before moving on.

  2. They got it about right with the third edition, which was the hardback version. That said, not sure that they got the game right even then, it always felt too complex. There was a very stripped down Lord of the Rings RPG that was a lot easier to play.

    In the meantime, we await the arrival of the new version from Cubicle Seven.

  3. As someone who does layout for a living, it is a lot like the old adage about the CIA. Your successes go unnoticed while your failures are painfully obvious. Layout design has really improved in the past 30 years.

  4. Very complex game, with very little Middle Earth flavour. The 2nd edition was somewhat better edited, and they added some more background information. But actually playing it is a nightmare; rolls upon rolls on those damn tables, which made a GM screen practically mandatory.
    Note that "levels" in MERP work only approximately as in D&D; when you increase in level you only improve some aspects of the character, not all of them. W.r.t. spells, it's true that there are spells of the 50th level, but you won't find spells of the 49th level. I.e. the progression is not uniform.

    ICE instead produced a nifty little game, Lord of the Rings Adventure game, which has sort of "racial classes," works only with 2d6, and is very rules light.

  5. I just remember that MERP had really classy-looking metal miniatures (or was Mithril Minis not explicitly associated with MERP?). More proportionally accurate than your average big-hands, big-head, big-feet minis.

  6. To me, MERP was a scaled-down version of Rolemaster (aka Chartmaster). We converted from AD&D 1E to MERP for awhile - there were some improvements. Like critical hit tables, XP gained for miles traveled, highly survivable 1st-level characters, and flexible classes (e.g., spell-casting warriors if you wanted).

    Cons include the difficult spell system, the percentile-based mechanics, XP for monsters killed only goes to whoever lands the killing blow, and the fact that unless you ate, breathed, and slept Rolemaster, play was painfully slow for having to constantly reference charts in the book.

    Not exactly something you'd play as a "pick-up" game. BUT, ICE did a lot of excellent work by fleshing out Middle Earth through their supplements. I picked up a lot of them (and maps) rather as annotations to the actual novels.

  7. JB, I don't know if you read it, but I did a post a couple weeks back on my own struggle with MERP (the 2nd edition "collector's edition" found at the used book store.) I tried reading it again the other night, and after about twenty minutes I said "screw this" and tossed it back into the pile of books I'll likely never finish reading.

  8. I realize I'm coming into this late, but...maybe it's my ADD or something, but I've not only run and played in MERP but also RoleMaster, SpaceMaster, and RM Cyberpunk. I am all about "rules-lite" today, but in my youth I was always looking for more detail and more realism. The combat tables incorporate whether you hit, amount of damage, type of critical, etc. The resolution charts simply listed how successful you were (or weren't) when you attempted a skill or some such. Easier (and faster) than Rifts or d20 if you ask me.

    I will concede this: MERP magic was completely ill-suited to Tolkien. They should have re-written the spells from the ground up, starting with the books as reference, rather than their own RPGs.

  9. Hi there! I've created an app called MERP PEX if you are a MERP DM, that facilitates the experience points calculations. Hope it helps you!