Middle-Earth Role Playing – Returning to an old favourite


What I read, and the movies I watch, often influence what game system I pay attention to. For example, last year over a weekend my wife and I watched all three Hobbit films. Since then I’ve been wanting to go back to my M.E.R.P. (Middle-Earth Role Playing) material. At that time I did little more than collecting some more RPG material and sketching out a basic outline for a new campaign.

Over the last few weeks I’ve actually sat down and fleshed out my ideas, building a folder with some well developed information for starting characters and GM reference material to guide the campaign the way I want. I’m not actually expecting to run a game any time soon (the last MERP campaign I ran was 20 years ago), but my version of OCD means that I enjoy the planning and preparation; even if there’s no sign I’m going to use it. (I’m playing in a Pathfinder D&D campaign currently that shows no sign of ending, but I’ve already detailed what would be my next character up to 15th level – race, class, feats, etc.)

If you aren’t familiar with MERP, then here are the basics of the RPG:

ICE (Iron Crown Enterprises) released the game in 1984, as simplified version of their Rolemaster RPG. Players choose from Dwarves, Elves (Noldor, Sindar, Silvan), Half-Elves, Humans (15 ethnicities) and Hobbits, as races, with six base professions – Warrior, Scout, Ranger, Mage, Animist, Bard. It’s a skill-based 1-100 (or percentile) system. Your race gives you a number of points in specific skills, and each level in your profession gives points in skill categories. Each player chooses how to assign their skill points, and can transfer them to other categories under certain restrictions, which allows for considerable customisation. Most classes have access to spells. Actions are made as a d% roll, adding the appropriate skill bonus, subtracting any penalty for difficulty (if say, picking locks or moving stealthily) or deducting an opponents DB (defensive bonus) in combat. The final result is checked against the relevant table and damage, or the measure of success/failure is determined. Most actions (especially combat) have critical success and fumble tables – well detailed and lots of fun to use. Creatures and other campaign detail is based on the wealth of J.J.R. Tolkien’s works, and there are dozens of source books, campaign guides, and adventure modules to cover the length and breadth of Middle Earth. The material references different time periods, allowing games to be run in pretty much any part of the Third Age.

Most of a MERP Character Sheet (1st level Dunedain Ranger)

It’s also very easy to use the Rolemaster material to expand or enhance the game. For example – MERP has nine combat tables – for weapon types, spell and creature attacks. My Rolemaster “Arms Law” book has forty-two tables for individual weapons/attacks, as well as expanded critical and fumble tables.

My new “campaign guide” is 18 pages long (so far) – mostly giving the required info for the races and professions I’ll use. I’ve decided to restrict player races to a subset; only using six of the human ethnicities (Beorning, Dunedain, Dunlending, Eriadoran, Gondorian, Rohirrim), but all of the non-human. They will begin as 0-level adolescents or apprentices – only gaining the skills that their race assigns and no profession level skills (for 1st level) until the end of the first adventure. I’m allowing all six base classes, and also six of the optional classes (Burglar, Conjurer, Explorer, Rogue, Shape-changer, Wizard) – I’d love to see someone run a character that turns into a bear! I’ve created my own tables for starting ages, and height/weight for each race. (Based on the d20 tables, customised with the detail given in MERP.) I’ve tweaked Ability/Stat bonuses, the experience/level table and how characters gained XP. The MERP way of characters individually gaining experience from taking damage, casting spells, succeeding in manoeuvres, dealing criticals and defeating opponents gets quite messy to track and I greatly simplified things. I’ve got longer and more detailed equipment/goods & services tables – expanded using some Rolemaster material. I drew on both the Core Rulebook and “Creatures of Middle Earth” to make a two-page creature table with all the detail that I would require for combats, focussing on lower level creatures/monsters, and using the rules to detail a large variety of 1st to 5th level Orc opponents. (Building Orcs and Trolls in MERP is similar to adding Class levels to monsters in d20, so I’m much more comfortable mucking around with NPC’s/creatures than 20 years ago!)

My campaign will start in Bree, probably about 3015 Third Age. This is after the events of the Hobbit (2941 TA), and Bilbo’s 111th birthday party (3001 TA), when Gandalf has been regularly checking on Frodo, and he and Aragorn are searching for Gollum. If you have only seen the LotR movies, you won’t know that 17 years pass between Bilbo’s famous birthday party and when Frodo leaves the Shire with the Ring (3018 TA). The characters will meet Gandalf, and go to Rivendell early in the campaign. I plan to have them spend most of their early levels in Arnor (Rhudaur and Arthedain), and then probably bring them across the Misty Mountains. I’d like to get them involved indirectly with the happenings from LotR – following events in the background rather than the main story – eventually bringing them south to Rohan and Gondor to fight against Sauron’s forces.

I’ve still got some playing around to do with this – detailing encounters and creature stats for the initial Bree adventure (a player Scout character, or a friendly NPC, has been wrongfully accused of theft and jailed). Then I plan to list a number of published adventures I have in a suitable order to get the campaign progressing. After that… I should go back to some painting, convert some more 2nd ed Greyhawk monsters to PF Hero Lab, and I have a Gamma World RPG to do some work on. There’s always another project and not enough time!