Classic RPG Review #6: Middle-Earth Role Playing

boxed set, Games Workshop UK edition
by S. Coleman Charlton
1985 Iron Crown Enterprises

Although fantasy role playing would probably not have existed if it were not for Tolkien's Lord of the Rings novels, role players had to wait some ten years before a game could actually use this setting wholesale. This has to do of course, with the rights to the possible multi-million dollar profits such a game might generate. They would wish.

No, maybe the Tolkien heritage just wanted to be sure that their father's creation would not be distorted. That the game would be worthy of the Tolkien name. Or at least of the Middle-Earth name. And that is indeed the only part in which the developers of MERP (Middle Earth Role Playing) seem to have succeeded. With painstaking detail and with painfully small print a good deal of the hundred plus pages of rulebook have been dedicated to description of Silvan Elves, Numenorians, Haradrim, Hobbits and a host of other races unique to the world where Sauron also hides. A Tolkien fan confided to me that the writers may not have been experts, but they know what they write about. So far, so good.

The game system is a simplified version of the ICE (Iron Crown Enterprises) system. Simplified? It seems hard to believe once you flip through the many lists and tables in rather minuscule print. There are tables for encumbrance, encumbrance calculation by profession and race, moving maneuvers, bolt damage, critical hits by fire, bonuses, poisons and diseases, stat deterioration after death, and so on. You name it. It's probably there. The critical hits tables are fun to read if you're in an aggressive mood, but you wouldn't want these hits to ever happen to your heroes.

Reading through the rules I got the impression that the game was devised by miniature war gamers. I don't mean small people playing war games, although that would explain the small print, but war gamers that play with miniatures. War game rules are often also this complex, and the detail always seems more important than game flow. Rummaging through the box and looking at the typical adventure in MERP strengthens this impression. Precise hex sheets (maps) of many locations are provided, and so are cardboard figures of creatures and heroes. And most telling, a typical MERP adventure is a detailed skirmish or a hit and run military mission. Or it's a series of these.

There is little wrong with war gaming. It's better than fighting out wars for real. But role playing evolved away from war gaming. And this game is quite a few steps back towards the war game. Maybe that MERP appeals to hard core war gamers who love this kind of rule detail while they enjoy their beer and pretzels. But my players decided that we should try another game next session, after we spent a complete afternoon trying to make a hero. And we still weren't quite ready to play.

(rules are complex, complicated, extremely detailed and possibly overly realistic)
(the game is fairly true to Tolkien's world, in detail, albeit limited to the Third Era, and this is a strong backdrop)
(even a computer will find the bookkeeping of this game a tough cookie, creating a hero takes longer than the average life expectancy of that hero)
(fantasy true to Tolkien's Middle-Earth, humans, elves, orcs and hobbits, skill based, combat and tasks percentile based with extended critical hit tables, races and professions, magic accessible to some, with spells grouped in lists)



  1. I used to play this game at school in the 1980s between the ages of 12 and 15. The rules are not very complex as this reviewer suggests and I remember having a lot of fun playing it. So for points scores from someone who has played this and many other role playing games over the years try:
    Rules:3.5/5 (not complicated at all); Inspiration: 5/5 (i.e., based on an extremely rich fictional world); Playability 5/5 (very easy to adapt or extend to play long and short campaigns.)

  2. @Sir Gowther: Hahahaha! LOL! I guess it's a matter of taste then. My players tend to be lazy when it comes to math, and actually it's not my favorite passtime either. That the Tolkien backdrop is a very strong one I must agree - but that's Tolkien, and not this ruleset. And I also find that (like the Star Wars universe, for example) it also stifles my imagination, because I feel less free to add to the richness. Hence the 3/5. How come? Maybe that's for another post.