Thursday, March 15, 2012

Remembering MERP: Middle Earth Roleplaying

Of all the RPGs I've played over the years, one of the most memorable was MERP, Iron Crown's Middle-Earth roleplaying system, based, of course, on Tolkien's Lord of the Rings. Effectively, it was a "rules-lite" version of ICE's flagship Rolemaster system. It capped out at 10th level and had a more limited selection of classes, spell lists, and critical hit charts, all admirably geared towards bringing Tolkien's world to life at the gaming table.

I played the game over a 2-month summer break with three guys I was introduced to at a local game store, one of the few I ever recall being in a shopping mall. Remembering back, it seems more like we played for years than just 8 or 9 weeks, but those of course were the summer days of youth, which we all know work on a wholly different time scale than we experience today as adults. We played enough to max out our characters at 10th level, before Fall and the impending school year split us all up, never to meet again.

In those two months, we had a pretty great campaign, set in the "Fourth Age", some years after the War of the Rings, with the emphasis on clearing up "loose ends" left by the books. We plumbed the desolate ruins of Angmar and Dol Guldur, explored the wastes of Eregion in search of lost Ring-lore, cleared Shelob's growing brood from the tunnels beneath Cirith Ungol, and even delved into the forsaken halls of Mordor on a mapping mission to pave the way for Dwarven recolonization.

Since there were only three players, the GM allowed us to roll up two characters apiece. I went into it hoping for a sort of Aragorn/Gandalf duo, but the GM had us roll our homelands randomly, and I ended up with two Black Numenoreans! These, of course, were the evil refugees of Tolkien's sunken Atlantis-like island who had given their support to Sauron (like the "Mouth of Sauron" character from the books, for example). It was an interesting challenge; I had no interest in playing villains or anti-heroes in those days, but being "forced" into the role gave the characters a lot more depth, and some interesting dilemmas and prejudices to deal with as they interacted with the other folk of Middle Earth.

Mechanically, the system was easy to run, as I remember it, which was not to be my experience later on with the game it was derived from: Rolemaster, which I found to be a confusing, arcane rule set of nearly endless complexity. Combats were quick and deadly, highly entertaining (with the crit charts frequently dealing out fun stuff like arrows through the eye and severed noses), and the spell system was engaging. Casters had a pool of spell points to draw from (and, hopefully, a couple of magic items to increase that pool of points), and lists of spells. Casters learned new Spell Lists as they advanced, and each level gained also granted more access to the spells in those lists. Most resolution rolls were made with percentile-dice, such as finding traps, sneaking, or fighting, and agile characters had a score that could be subtracted by the enemy's chance to hit. Multiple attacks were available by splitting your percentile chance to-hit in half, for instance, if you had an 80% skill in "broadsword", you could make two attacks at 40% each.

I can't for the life of me remember the name of my sorcerer, but I do remember my warrior quite well: "Gorum the Butcher", as this would also become the name of my long-running online Neverwinter Nights character. Interestingly, one of the core deities of Pathfinder's Golarion setting, the god of War in fact, is named Gorum, and I like to allow myself the conceit that this warrior of mine from the 80's finally achieved apotheosis.


  1. Thanks for sharing this story about a magical segment of your gaming youth! Sometimes I think it would be nice to be able to experience that freedom, that slowed time phenomenon that comes from lack of responsibility. I truly wonder about all those days spent so freely, days blending one into another, with us having no care for time. Ah, sorry, I'll stop waxing nostalgic. Again, thanks for sharing. I have a copy of MERP Second Edition that I picked up years ago, but I've never played it. I was always intimidated by the setting, and trying to stay "true" to it...whatever that means. I'm assuming that you guys weren't too worried about that. I guess I worry about doing the setting's "spirit" justice, as well as worrying about all the important locales and landmarks, making sure I fleshed them out properly, etc.

  2. I love MERP. I really enjoy Rolemaster too, but I completely agree with the criticism that it is overly complex. I feel that MERP is a much overlooked system, but probably suffers from being tied to the Middle Earth setting. HARP seems to be ICE's attempt at a "lite" version of Rolemaster, and from what I have seen it's pretty good. I might have to give that or MERP a try again.

  3. I never played MERP but like Drance I had to comment on what it was like playing these games back when were kids. Your post brought me back a little to those days of yore so thanx for that!

  4. Thanks for sharing your experience. Great post! It made me remember of my first AD&D and GURPS games, which we played 3-4 nights every week (I still astonished at how we managed that).

    MERP is a great game and I too enjoy it a lot more than Rolemaster (although I do liked of HARP).

  5. I was never all that fond of ICE's rules (though I liked MERP better), but I *loved* their supplementary products, both for the level of useful detail and those gorgeous maps. Coincidentally, I'm toying around with a campaign that, while not set in Middle Earth, would make use of pre-second edition adventures.

    Tolkien was my gateway to roleplaying (way back in the 70s) so I'll always have a special fondness for the MERP line.

  6. I never got to play MERP; as much as I enjoyed Rolemaster it was a bit fiddly in some areas and it sounds like MERP was much less so.

    I'll have to find a copy sometime and read it!

  7. MERP is awesome! Except the the Games Workshop edition rulebook was a real rush job with 17th century woodcut graphics, but it had a nice colour floorplan. More recently a friend at work gave me an ICE edition (that red-boxed reprint) which is much more friendly on the eye.
    Like you say MERP was "rules-lite" and perhaps an advert for the mighty Rolemaster (which seemed really inaccessible with all of the different rulebooks). Like a gateway-drug game?
    Some of the time periods when the adventures were set did confuse me a little: TA 2342 Witch of Angmar's nose-flu period...
    I did like the fact that many of the modules acknowledge other systems sometimes with a conversion table from d20s to percentages.
    My friends were always better experts on Tolkien than me, which sometimes sent me crawling back to other games (where I could make my own world).
    Cool post. :)

  8. I also started with MERP, and have so many hours of fun to back upon. It was a neat system, I think. The ability to divide the offensive bonus and such small nice tweaks made the system wide open for player inventiveness.

    One thing I always found ridiculous with Rolemaster was those tables in Arms Law. There is really minor differences between two kinds of knives. I never understood why people bothered with those. It's only item fetishism. I use the weapon class tables even when I run RM these days.

    Spell Law on the other hand had some use. The expressiveness of the spell lists was interesting.

    One of these days, any decade now, I will run a campaign in the southern Harad. I think those great area modules was enormous fun, even those that didn't really feel like Middle Earth. Like the ones about the south.

  9. Never played the system, but I can imagine it is a treasure trove of amazing adventures for those wishing to indulge.

    I wholeheartedly agree with what you say about summers of youth being answerable to different laws of time than we experience now as adults.

    But, can't stop, I have to tile out the bathroom. Nice post :)

  10. Believe it or not, despite all of the work I did on MERP and all of the MERP products that I owned, I never actually used the system or played in a MERP campaign (even at ICE's office). I did play a lot of Rolemaster over at their office and elsewhere with those guys and had a blast. Quite a bit of that was play testing for new products. I also used used Arms Law, Claw and Character Law before working for them as add ons to AD&D (or Character Law instead of AD&D) before switching over to Rolemaster. If you like a lot of detail Rolemaster is cool but I remember updating characters was always a pain when they leveled up. I never really ran Rolemaster though so I can't really comment on running it as a GM.

  11. Hi there. I created an app for calculating the experience points. I hope it's useful for you:



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