Friday, June 15, 2007

MERP memories

MERP 1st edition Back in the days the second fantasy game my original game group played was MERP by ICE. That's Middle Earth Role Playing by Iron Crown Enterprises, if you didn't know. Well, strictly speaking I -think- we played a single session of Dragonraid, the fundy Christian rpg where you had to recite Bible verses to cast spells. Jonathan Tweet has some interesting comments about Dragonraid here. At the time my game group consisted mostly of Good Christian Lads so we tried to give Dragonraid a fair shake, but we quickly found it less than suitable for beating up monsters and stealing their treasure.

But MERP was our first post-D&D fantasy game that we played for long enough to sink our teeth into the system. My school buddy Dave (still one of the coolest and most talented guys I've ever slung dice with) bought a copy of MERP and ran at least one or two sessions of it. But I quickly found myself GMing our longest uninterrupted go at the game. I ran most of the longer campaigns for that group, excepting Dave's highly awesome 2nd edition AD&D game and his brother-in-law Jim's Greyhawk campaign. Jim was the guy who once decided that my new PC should come into the game pre-raped, but that's another story.
MERP 2nd edition
We really liked MERP a lot, even though we had some trouble with the crunchier mechanics like the Movement & Maneuvers charts. The ability to tap directly into the world of Tolkien appealed greatly to Dave. He was the kind of guy who loved the appendices with all the genealogies, Elvish language materials, and such almost as much as the actual tale itself. Me, I like The Hobbit a bit and The Silmarillion a lot, but I always got bogged down in The Two Towers. It was only within the last five or six years that I've read the Lords of the Rings from start to end. I still haven't seen the second or third movies.

So when I ran MERP I tended to run it as D&D+. For which it works just fine. This game was written well before the solidification of the idea that mechanics had to be ruthlessly tailored to genre expectations. So instead of some sort of epic storytelling extravanganza, MERP was a fairly crunchy but chopped-down version of Rolemaster. Like RM, the game is almost entirely percentile driven, with classes, levels, skills, and races/cultures used to trick out your character. Spells were power point driven. The classes available are Warrior, a spell-casting Ranger, Bard, Wizard, Scout (thief), and Animist (cleric/druid). Classes didn't get ad hoc special abilities, instead they got access to different spell lists and per-level bonuses to different skills.

The skill list was long for kids used to D&D's lack of skills, but compared to many systems nowadays it was refreshingly light. You didn't have to develop separate ratings in both longsword and short sword skills, instead you could take ranks in 1-Handed Edged Weapons. We liked that a lot. The only oddity was that armor required skill to wear effectively and was broken up into Soft Leather, Hard Leather, Chain, and Plate subskills.

Combat used charts similar to Rolemaster's infamous to-hit and critical charts, but far fewer charts were involved. The result was combats running a lot more hassle-free, but still being able to enjoy some pretty wicked criticals. Spell went from first to tenth level and you learned them in lists. So if your wizard knew the Fire Law list when he reached the appropriate level to cast fireball he already knew how.

As kids used to Expert D&D's 14 levels and AD&D's unlimited advancement, the fact that the game kinda topped out at tenth level seemed a bit weak to my group. But nowadays MERP looks compact and self-contained. You can do all your standard dungeon mungery inside a tight little system. I think it would be aces as a system choice for someone wanting to run Harn or maybe Kenzer's Kalamar setting. A faux Arthurian game could probably flourish under these rules. It wouldn't be Pendragon, but maybe more like the film Excalibur.

The MERP line had a lot of really good supplements. I only used two in our short campaign, Bree and the Barrow Downs and Hillmen of the Trollshaws. One MERP item, Terry K Amthor's Court of Ardor, is a significant collector's item nowadays. It's a noncanonical campaign setting south of the region of the novels. And I've heard it's pretty spiffy.

The Barrow Downs were an interesting ride. The Wights that live there are badass. My group decided to try looting a barrow mound at about 3rd level or so. On paper that was extremely unwise, like taking on Doctor Doom when your team consists of Howard the Duck and Bucky.

But Eric, one of our resident munchkins, had the world's greatest elvish crossbowman. He tricked out his elf's dexterity and bow skill to the maximum allowed by the rules. The he bought a crossbow, which under MERP is +25% to-hit at short ranges, and a single Mithril crossbow bolt. Between all the bonuses for dex, skill, the point blank crossbow rule, and the mithril arrow, Eric's 3rd level elf had a to-hit bonus akin to a god. And the mithril on the arrow allowed him to score vicious crits against undead types.

I had seen Eric's elf in action among some hill trolls. His modus operandi consisted of firing his one awesome crossbow bolt and then hiding out the rest of the fight. He outright killed one of the four rampaging trolls, which was quite a piece of work. The rest of the party only overcame the other three by use of poisoned blades. Poison wasn't going to work on an undead, so the party basically gambled their lives on the suppositions that A) there would be only one wight in the tomb they cracked open and B) Eric would kill it with one crossbow shot. Anything else and they were hosed.

Surprisingly, this plan worked! The mound they selected was small and contained only one wight, which Eric promptly shot dead. For 3rd level characters they made a bigass haul of loot, too. The next and final adventure of the campaign involved a sorcerer-haunted tower. The players throught they were clever when they found a secret entrance into the basement of the tower. They assumed that the wizard lived on the top floor. Wrong. He lived in the dungeon below. When the dude popped off a readied fireball everyone in the party took a 'C' heat critical. It wasn't a Total Party Kill, but close enough it soured the players on MERP. The same thing happened with this bunch when we later did a Call of Cthulhu campaign. One bad run-in with the Spawn of Tsathoggua and they were ready to play something else.

Which brings me around to what I still love about MERP. It's like CoC at its best: a very upbeat, fun game about fighting evil at nearly impossible odds. MERP is hard. Crits and fumbles mangle a lot of PCs. Average orcs are 3rd level and the game has no half hitdie kobolds on which to cut your teeth. Hell, Dave and I ran a test combat where a milkcow kicked a first level elf warrior's ass. FYI If you've never lived among livestock animals, a cow kicking your ass is totally realistic.

Like CoC spells can be as frustrating as they are helpful. Spellcasting is slow and easy or fast and error-prone. A first level fire wizard knows how to Boil Water and that's it. My players were much smarter dungeoneers for having struggled in Middle Earth. In order to be really successful you've got to think strategically just as much as tactically.


  1. MERP was definitely not tailored to the world. I recall playing in a convention game of MERP and being a little put off by how much it didn't feel like the Hobbit or Lord of the Rings.

    ICE games (other than Silent Death) were always somewhere between "a little" and "way the hell" above the level of niggliness I cared for in a game.* I still have a copy of Star Strike, but only because I haven't yet found someone to trade it to.

    *Other games that vary between niggly and insane: Phoenix Command, Rolemaster (ICE!), Champions...I think I avoided any others.

  2. Keep on blogging. You'll note that i've again used your thoughts as a springboard for my own over at Adelaide Gamer. I never got to play with MERP, couldn't deduce it from the modules and never saw a copy. Loved the modules for themselves (Can't say that about the TSR equivalents).

  3. Our group had pretty much the same experience with MERP. We ended up going after the trolls in the Trollshaws rather than barrow-diving. Three trolls, five players, and the combat lasted I think two hours in real time... and was finished by three criticals in quick succession against the trolls. After that we all looked at each other and said, "Let's go back to D&D."

    I've always liked the MERP/RM critical system and the spell point system, and have adapted bits of it to various pre-3E D&D campaigns over the years, usually with less than spectacular results. Most players I've encountered just don't like the extra detail, even when it goes in their favor. And gods forbid you try to bring a non-d20 System element into 3E D&D! Nearly had a riot on my hands that time. One of the reasons I hate 3E as I do, I suppose.

    I've jury-rigged a spell point system and a critical system somewhere shy of the level of detail found in MERP for my current Castles & Crusades game. We'll see how this group likes it... maybe next time I can try out the full MERP crit tables!

  4. Anonymous12:25 AM

    Morale to this story: Don´t mix the paradigms of Adventure Gaming!

  5. "[...]It was only within the last five or six years that I've read the Lords of the Rings from start to end.[...]"

    Out of a general, vague sense of obligation to do so, I've tried several times to choke that sucker down, but I've never made it past Helm's Deep.

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  7. "FYI If you've never lived among livestock animals, a cow kicking your ass is totally realistic."


  8. Anonymous11:19 AM

    Loved the RM/MERP critical tables. Movement/Maneuver...not so much. But, they were easily forgotten.

    After D&D we cut our teeth on MERP and then worked in bits of RM (additional crit tables, classes, etc.). It was great fun, didn't really feel like "Middle Earth". Our party consisted of: Brave Sir Eric: the chicken-hearted elf-wizard who always wore armor (even tho with it on he couldn't cast spells). The Half-Troll and the The Orc rounded out the group. Good Times.

    If I remember right, wouldn't the 3rd level dude who stuck the Wight get boku experience for killing such a high-level opponent, thus like launching him several levels up?


  9. Anonymous9:11 PM

    Because of the lethality of the MERP combat system, I eventually introduced "fate points" into my games. PCs would earn the fate points as they gained levels and could burn the fate points to offset combat criticals and other disastrous rolls. To give the system more of a LOR feel than a AD&D variant feel, I tended to discourage non-human characters and eliiminated most minor magic. If you had a magic item, it then became a REAL, REAL big thing. For example, a PC had a Dwarven helm with more-or-less a fear spell in/on it. Until the owner actually needed to use the artifact, he had to keep it under wraps for fear of thievery and Dwarven attempts to retrieve the artifact.