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MERP: the simple rulez

Copyright ©2001 George Chatzipetros
Edited for The Guild Companion by Joe Mandala


I had always loved the works of JRR Tolkien. More than simply being my favorite books, I think that they provided the inspiration to delve into the worlds of fantasy and role-playing. ICE's adaptation of Tolkien's books that became known as MERP unfortunately suffers a lot. While the supplements themselves are of high quality and contribute a lot to Middle-Earth, the game system fails to achieve the feeling produced in the books.

Middle-Earth may be one of the few occasions where the game system plays so great a role in the final result. This is because of the level of detail put in the world by Tolkien. A game based on a book with few details can use nearly any system without being untrue to the original source. A highly-detailed work on the other hand, needs a game system that adapts to all of its particular characteristics. ICE's Rolemaster system unfortunately failed miserably to do this. It was a heavy, cumbersome system with great complexity and slowed down the flow of playing in many occasions. But, more importantly, Rolemaster failed in reproducing the mysterious ambience of magic found in Tolkien's works. Tolkien wrote about magic that was rarely direct or perceived, but which you always could feel at work and had long-term results. Rolemaster used the typical high-magic found in many fantasy RPGs: fireballs, flying and invisibility spells. It's not only that those spells found in Rolemaster were too powerful or had too fancy effects to be in Middle-Earth character. There were many that were entirely out of character for any Middle-Earth campaign.

Take for example flying and teleport spells. Why didn't Gandalf use those to escape from Orthanc when Saruman imprisoned him there? Instead, he had to wait for a Great Eagle to show up. Resurrection spells? I didn't see anyone resurrect Feanor when he died shortly after being wounded by balrogs. Rolemaster has even got spells that restore an amputated arm. So, I guess Maedhros wouldn't need that artificial arm after all... Or how about those miraculous healing spells that cure a disease withi n seconds? Imagine that Aragorn cured Faramir and Eowyn in seconds. They wouldn't have stayed in the Houses of Healing for long, wouldn't have met and wouldn't have loved each other, granting us one of the best (in my humble opinion) passages of LOtR.

So, I have constructed my own system which I use in my campaigns. It's fast and easy to learn, keeping the game flow smooth. Its greatest difference with Rolemaster is in magic though. This system favors the quiet magic of Tolkien. In fact, every spell contained here is drawn from examples of magic found in the books.

I would appreciate some feedback concerning this system. I can be reached at neonblue@GameBox.net. If you like my work, you can visit the dark dreams site, to see some other stuff that I' ve pulled together (including a universal game engine and a dark fantasy RPG). They have nothing to do with Tolkien, but what the hell.
Hope you find my system useful,
George Chatzipetros

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