Middle-Earth Role Playing

From 1d4chan
Middle Earth Role Playing
MerpCover.jpg
RPG published by
Iron Crown Enterprises
Authors Coleman Charlton
First Publication 1984 (1st edition)
1986 (2nd edition)

Middle Earth Role Playing was an ancient relic from the Dawn of Time. How old it is, you may wonder? Let's say that it predates the diffusion of the 10-sided dice.

It was a more streamlined version of the generic fantasy Rolemaster system (streamlined as in "one fight takes one whole session instead of four"), the integration between the two being so seamless that one would be able to play M.E.R.P. with the extended set of rules that Rolemaster provides for one aspect - say, magic - without using those for other aspects - say, combat. It was developed under licence by the Tolkien society and set in Middle Earth, and became pretty popular in the '90s before fading into obscurity.

It survived for a whooping 16 years until I.C.E. went bankrupt in the 2000, making M.E.R.P. a sort of highlander of the RPG world.

The Game[edit]

M.E.R.P. is a D100 based game, meaning you use 2 D10 dices to get a random number that you will use to look up a result on a fuckton of different tables to obtain a result. Said roll is open-ended, so if you get a number above 95 you re-roll and sum the results and if you get a number that's lower than 06 you re-roll and subtract.

To the first time user M.E.R.P. can look like a spreadsheet fetishist wet dream, but was still quite accessible to new players due to good quality explanations and lots of examples. If you're playing it in the present day and age, however, chances are that you are a crusty oldfag that knows it inside out and can trace the results in a couple of seconds.

Fun fact: the original handbook had a total of 116 pages, and from 68 to 92 there are NOTHING BUT TABLES. That's more or less 20% of the whole book, NOT including those for character development, racial attributes and so on...

Attributes[edit]

Every playing character had a set of seven attributes, with values that started from 20 (you got to re-roll any value lower than that) and can be added or subtracted to by the player's race.

  • Strength: pretty much self-descriptive. Essential for Warriors.
  • Agility: Used for movement an defence.Important for the Scout (old school thieves).
  • Constitution: How much of a resilient person you are.
  • Intelligence: memory, reasoning, common sense. A must for any Mage.
  • Presence: How charming you are - Bards needs this, otherwise it is a dump stat - but read on.
  • Intuition: a mix of wisdom and animal cunning - The key for the Animist.
  • Appearance: this stat was calculated last, wasn't subject to any re-roll and was modified by Presence. This could lead to hilarious result when your Dunadan super-intelligent Warrior ends up looking like the spawn of a frog and a wombat due to a single bad roll.

Every value, modified by the racial bonuses/maluses determines a "stat bonus" that is applied to your ability scores.

Character generation[edit]

As this a simulation game, character creations is pretty detailed. It was a kind of a nightmare for new players, and it could take you a session to create a character. Seasoned players could pull out a character off in half an hour. Remember, kiddos, this was the '80s: we had no spreadsheets, no handy programs or * shudder * apps nor online creation tables. All was done by blood, sweat and tears.
So how did you proceed?

  • First of all, you rolled your attributes. There was some leniency, but if you wanted do play elves you had to assign the top values to Presence, that was more or less a dump stat.
  • Then you choose your race and culture, and modify the values you've got by your racial modifiers. If your Game Master was evil, you had to roll on a table and say hallo to your new half-dwarf munchkin persona. Otherwise, you had nearly 20 different options, and you had to reverse-engineer a table to know what languages you were able to speak, and to what degree.
  • After that you got a fixed number of points for skills you developed in adolescence, according to a big table. Points that you had later to convert in actual bonus values, looking at shiny new table.
  • At this point you choose a profession, THEN you developed your Background points (that you can use to get magic items, increase skills and so on)
  • Finally you developed you apprenticeship skills, outfit your character, solved a couple of theorems to get all values just right and BINGO you're ready to play.

Combat[edit]

M.E.R.P. goes for the simulation approach: combat is detailed and rather messy and as you may have come to expect, involves an unholy number of tables.

Weapons and armour are used in a pretty clever way: instead of "you hit with X, your armour absorbs Y damages, your Hit Points go down to Z", you had to go for a trip down the merry lane as follows: When you attacked you roll a D100 dice, added your Offensive Bonus, substracted your target's Defensive Bonus and cross-referenced the final result with the armour your opponent was wearing on the appropriate table - 1 handed slashing weapons, 2 handed weapons, magic bolts and so on. If you were using the expanded rules Rolemaster provides, EVERY single weapon (down to and including raw fishes and thrown henchmens) and offensive spell had its own damage table, that gave you different results against 20 different types of armour. Anal retentive much? This process gave you a code like 8A, 30E or similar, and the fun was just starting.:

  • The number was the quantity of damage you had inflicted, that was subtracted form you opponents hit points.
  • The letter - if present - was the severity of the Critical Hit you achieved, meaning that you've done additional damage. You the rolled ANOTHER D100 dice, applied a modifier based on the code and looked up the result (you may have guessed it) on another table where the damage - that varied accordingly to the type of critical you were inflicting - was described in gleeful details, like "Blow to upper legs, +5hits", "Minor forearm wound, +2hits, stunned for 1 round" or "Strike through ear destroys brain. The unfortunate lummox dies instantly, and any ear wax is removed" or "Blast annihilates entire skeleton. Reduced to a gelatinous pulp. Try a spatula". Something tells me that The Toady One played this game at one point of another of his life.

The tables actually made sense: quick and light weapons caused damage stating from lower rolls, but it was harder to achieve a critical hit, while heavy weapons started to be effective with higher rolls but caused heavier critics. In the same way it was harder to hit a person with light or no armour, but critics were a lot worse, and with heavier armour you started taking damage earlier but it was harder to get a good shot.

This mechanism made fighting interesting but slow, and while in games like D&D you win by grinding down the hit points of your adversary, M.E.R.P. fights tended to be won by getting a good critical hit to land. It also meant that you were always at risk of being butchered, as it was possible - albeit unlikely - for a low-level character to one-shot a strong adversary with a lucky roll - or vice-versa.

Magic[edit]

This is probably the most skub aspect of the whole system. It was not that magic was overpowered or messy or defective, but something about it didn't sound really right.

If you've read The Lord of the Rings (and if you have not, leave NOW, as you don't belong to this Wiki at all), you will remember that Middle Earth is a very low-magic setting: even Gandalf was pretty much into hack'n'slash rather than spamming fireballs and magic missiles, so blasting your way through a dungeon casting thunderbolts left and right didn't really fit into the setting well enough to satisfy purists. Tolkien was a old schooler that took a lot of inspiration from classical sources, so being able to heal people by imposing your hands on them was sufficient to identify you as King of the most powerful nation in existence - remember Aragorn? - and being able to outclass him with low-level spells is surely odd.

That said, magic was a straightforward affair: you had 1 type of full magic users and 1 type of "half" magic users for each of 2 schools of magic, and a bunch of classic spells. You could optimize your characters to cover all the classic roles that are normally covered by magic users - from the wacky fellow who likes to blow up stuff to the healer and so on. And, because you can transfer the Development Points you got when levelling up, all classes had the possibility to multiclass as a magic user.

The progression was the same as many other games: a 1st level wizard was about as useful in combat as a wet sponge, then it started getting better and better until it had a spell to solve every situation. Magic is learned by Lists, and when you have learned a list you continue to acquire spells in that list. So at 1st level you had 1 spell, then you got 4 spells at 2nd level, 9 at 3rd and so on. You see where this leads.

However using magic is risky, bringing the eye of Sauron and his agents. Players take a risk every time they cast a spell which can lead to encounters with dark forces.

The Setting[edit]

You don't really need any additional manual to play: Tolkien had made a big amount of work, and if someone had read The Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit and The Silmarillion - not to say the massive History of Middle Earth series compiled by his son - that's about all an halfway-decent GM would need to put a campaign together. But I.C.E., being the awesome band of Nerds that they were, supplied us with many goodies.

The game was supposed to be played in the years between 1600 and 1700 of the Third Age, and all the modules detail this period, that feels a lot like the original but with a little more spice - Khazad-Dum was still a thriving Dwarf Fortress and no Fun had yet occurred, Arnor and Gondor are still powerful kingdoms, etc. - so you have plenty of adventure going around - but nothing stops you from using different Ages.

All geographic modules - of which I.C.E. put out a good amount, of varying but generally good quality - read like history books and can be interesting even for non-players as good sources of lore about Middle Earth and Tolkien-related stuff. Among them there's a Sourcebook which’s nothing but a big dictionary of the Elvish tongues and a glossary of Middle Earth terms, in case you want to experience the full Tolkien experience and roleplay everything in Quenya (one of the Languages Tolkien created) without subtitles.

See also[edit]

Links[edit]

As this is a game made by a bankrupt company under an expired licence, everything is out of print since the previous millenia. Some awesome guy scanned his collection put it online for us all to enjoy and revive the glory days of yore.