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Words from the Wise (Guys)

An Editorial Rant


To the eighteenth issue of The Guild Companion.

The Third Age of M.E.R.P.

Greetings, gentle reader. I would like to tell you a story about a love affair with a game. It started (for me) in 1984. I was 12 years old. I had already read The Lord of the Rings, and I was lost in Tolkien. I daydreamed in Rivendell and despaired in Moria. I wandered wonderstruck through Lothlorien and felt hopeless at the breaking of the Fellowship. Through the long trek to Ithilien and the legendary chase across Rohan I was held spellbound. I thrilled at the battles, and felt horror at Cirith Ungol. I cheered at the victory of the Free Peoples, and finally I felt sad at the passing of the Company. All in all, I couldn’t get Middle-earth out of my head. Then a friend of mine mentioned in passing that there was a new game that was based on Middle-earth, and that I should check it out. I didn’t even know what role-playing was at the time, but I certainly learned quickly what it was all about!

Needless to say, I bought the first edition of Middle-earth Role-Playing. I began playing with my 8 year old brother and some friends. I have to admit that I did not really keep the spirit of Middle-earth in those early games. Huge fortunes were amassed, powerful magics were learned and used, and even Balrogs could not stand against my players. Over time I matured as a gamemaster, but I still feel that I have never quite captured the spirit of Tolkien’s world.

Some might say that Middle-earth is beyond the limited scope of role-playing, but I refuse to believe so. I continue to try to transport myself and my players to a world created by an English professor who lived in a world of war and massive change. We, for the most part, live in a world of peace and status quo. This difference may make it difficult, but I believe that we can create a system that will take us to Middle-earth.

I believe that part of the problem (perhaps only my problem) has been the way role-playing in Middle-earth has been treated by Iron Crown Enterprises. In what was a very intelligent decision from a marketing and distribution standpoint, M.E.R.P. became an easier and toned-down version of Rolemaster. Instead of a system being created to fit the world, an existing system was first simplified, and then the world was forced to fit the system. The result was a system that did not fit the world. M.E.R.P. has many redeeming qualities, however. It is a fun game to play, which is the point after all. It is based on one of the best systems out there, and it is an easy and natural progression to move from M.E.R.P. to Rolemaster. This is the reason M.E.R.P. was a success. It provided an introduction into Rolemaster, and exposed many people to source material that was, as a whole, good. It was not really true to the spirit of Middle-earth, but it was good material.

The First Age of M.E.R.P. was perhaps the darkest age. Most of the material published in the first few years was as far from Tolkien as the game has ever been. Modules like Ardor may have been exciting and internally consistent, but they were much outside the realm of what I would consider "Middle-earth."

The Second Age of M.E.R.P. was a good age. The second edition of much of the First Age material was made more consistent. The new material that was published seemed to be getting more consistent with the "purist" vision of Middle-earth. Books like The Shire and Hands of the Healer are good examples of this.

Now we enter the Third Age. As you have all probably heard or read by now, ICE has lost the license for Middle-earth gaming due to their Chapter 11 bankruptcy. Tolkien Enterprises now retains the license again, and the industry (at the time of this writing) is wondering who will purchase it. I would like to point out the eerily similar situation the Star Wars license went through prior to the release of The Phantom Menace. Now the fellows down in New Zealand are creating The Lord of the Rings movies, and suddenly the Middle-earth gaming license is available. Coincidence? Maybe, but I’m having trouble keeping visions of secret backroom meetings with Hasbro and Tolkien Enterprises out of my head. It’s the role-player in me.

In all honesty, the likelihood that Hasbro will buy the license is high; and that means TSR (via Wizards of the Coast) will finally get the Middle-earth license they’ve been lusting after for years. Now that D&D (in its Third Edition) has begun to really resemble Rolemaster, we might end up with something decent. What I am hoping for is a completely new game system created off of the assumption that it should fit the spirit of the world. Maybe I hope for too much, but I can’t help it. What will probably happen is this; that material will be produced to fit the new D&D - "3E." A fairly generic system by all accounts, which may lend itself well to Middle-earth if treated properly.

Magic is the largest problem M.E.R.P. had with capturing the spirit of Middle-earth. Magic in Middle-earth is a subtle and difficult-to-capture thing – "good" magic, especially. Evil magic, based off of the influence of Morgoth and Sauron, is more akin to the structured and learned sorceries of Rolemaster, M.E.R.P., and most fantasy gaming systems for that matter. This is not well reflected in the ICE modules. I beg the new owners of the Middle-earth license (whomever they may be) to consider the spirit of Tolkien’s Middle-earth most especially when constructing the system of magic for their game.

Let us not lose hope that this, the dawn of the Third Age of Role-Playing in Middle-earth, will be the brightest Age of all. Let us exhort, by all means at our disposal, the new writers of the Middle-earth gaming system to "keep the faith." Let us even beg them to consider the many fans out there who would love to see a true framework upon which to build our stories in Middle-earth. Even if it is not possible for this to happen, perhaps we can receive a fairer accounting. Perhaps if we are lucky, we will see the excellent writing of the M.E.R.P. source material joined to a system more in tune with the way Middle-earth works as a literary source.

This has been one fan’s attempt to explain the disappointment in, happiness with, fears of, and hopes for role-playing in Tolkien’s Middle-earth. Do not despair, gentle reader, for we may come out of these dark and confusing times into an Age both fair and wondrous. All is not lost, and we may hope for even better things to come.

For the Guild Companion,
Joe Mandala
Middle-earth Editor


The Guild Companion will continue to produce material for role-playing in Middle-earth based both on ICE’s systems and any systems to come. You are welcome to criticize and/or praise our efforts in the Middle-Earth Discussion Board forum.

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