Thursday, August 5, 2021

New System, New Face: Bumbling through Rolemaster's Geeky Little Sibling, Middle-Earth Role-Play

It finally occurred to me that I should
head these posts with an image of the
actual game.

Ye gods, I miss Warhammer- and not for the setting.

At least in WFRP I felt some intuitive grasp of the mechanics as I worked through making characters.

Here, I've written an entire post and I still don't know what to do for Middle-Earth Role-Play.

Fortunately its initials perfectly match the noise that flaps out of my mouth when my eyes glaze over at the fact that over half of this 270-page tome is made up of appendices needed to explain each part of the first half:


Alright, that's my last awful joke for the moment. Let's dig in, shall we?

Game/Context/More Rambling

MERP was yet another d100 skills-based fantasy game spawned by the 80s, with the notable distinction of being licensed to use the world of Lord of the Rings as its setting. There have been several other Tolkien Enterprises-licensed TTRPGs over the past four decades, including Cubicle 7's current work on Adventures in Middle-Earth, but MERP was the first of the bunch, published by Iron Crown Enterprises in 1982 and updated with a second edition in 1993.

MERP runs on an apparently simplified/streamlined hack of the Rolemaster system, also designed by the people from I.C.E. Rolemaster is chunky. It's crunchy. It places emphasis on granular, lethal combat where weapon and armor types interact differently, crits and fumbles have pages of tables, and you can earn XP per injury taken. It's a weird thing to pair with LotR in terms of execution and tone.

Of course you don't need a perfect system to be able to tell the story you want, since story flows from the storytellers involved rather than the mechanics they're using, but it certainly seems more difficult to do when the two parts are tugging in opposite directions.

Characters progress via a leveling and class system unlike the other games I've looked at so far here. There are six classes or "professions" that are roughly analogous to both AD&D character classes and to the roles embodied by many of the famous characters from LotR- warrior, ranger, scout, bard, animist, and mage, arranged in descending order of combat ability and ascending order of spellcasting ability, though pretty much anyone can conjure a trick or swing a stick if direly needed.

Yes, magic is a thing PCs can acquire in this game. It's rarely anything as flashy as the few attack or utility spells Gandalf throws out there in the books, and there are mechanisms in place to restrain both rampant spellcasting and the intent behind it if you want to remain a non-corrupted protagonist. Different spell schools or "ways" are highly specialized and limited by class. There's one way dedicated to walking or running on different surfaces, and another strictly dealing with staunching blood loss. But limitations aside, it is still conspicuous supernatural power learned and wielded by mortals (and elves) that is not conflated with sorcery originating from darkness, as Tolkien tended to treat it.

Tolkien hated describing things as "magic", and anything that looked that way from the outside was generally explainable as being just really high skill, craftsmanship, or a gifted blessing from a higher power of some sort. In my experience Tolkien purists dislike it when games make that jump to accessible magic, but many more people enjoy it because using magic is something people commonly find appealing in fantasy. Despite how often I prattle on about the universe or hyperlink to Tolkien Gateway like an appeal to authority, I am decidedly not a purist, so I have no qualms with the stylistic choice.

The default setting for MERP is, well, Middle-Earth, but not in any time period extensively touched upon by the books. Most of the modules take place a few years after the Great Plague of T.A. 1635, or year 1635 of the Third Age for those of you who at least occasionally see the light of day. The War of the Ring isn't for another 1,400 years in this era, and the Shire is a brand new community, founded barely four decades ago.

It's a time when the profound emptiness of the lands of Middle-Earth that we see in the trilogy has just truly begun, thanks in part to that aforementioned plague that killed hundreds of thousands of people. The population will only dwindle further from here, until barely any towns or cities exist for Sauron to try and take in a millennium-and-a-half. Salty Dan made an amusing observation from atop his Throne a little while ago about how weak and unimpressive this makes Sauron and how wonky it makes Tolkien's sense of scale and history when you take any time to think about it, but I'm getting ahead of myself now.

For now, it's the last hurrah of party-based adventuring in Middle-Earth. Let's populate it with a fresh new face or two.

So. Many. Tables.

After slogging through the first 77 pages of the MERP rulebook, you finally come to Part V: Designing A Character. That should give you an idea of how dense the rules are, simplified ruleset or no. The ten steps of character generation, as given by the book are:

  1. Decide in general what type of character to play.*
  2. Roll and assign your character's stats.*
  3. Choose a race for your character.*
  4. Choose a profession for your character.*
  5. Determine role traits and background.
  6. Develop your character's adolescence skills.
  7. Develop your character's apprenticeship skills.
  8. Outfit your character.
  9. Total your character's penalties and bonuses.
  10. Develop a persona for your character.
The asterisks mean these steps are all interrelated with one another.

As I went through each step, it ended up being simpler or much less significant than it was presented above or throughout the rest of the book, and the whole list could easily be reordered and condensed into half the above steps. That long-windedness throughout the book is a thing I think I can attribute to it being a crunchy '80s RPG- short, efficient instructions weren't the norm yet, and my mindset needs time to readjust to the delivery of information.

And here I thought I was an expert on rambling, inefficient writing. Oh well.

Step 1 also knocks out steps 3, 4, and 10 in my case. I want to make a female dwarf scout of the Blacklocks clan who's had one hell of a trek west into Endor- a refugee turned survivor, far from her ancestral home in the Orocarni.

I do want to give a shout-out to the sheer number of cultures characters can come from in MERP. Every variety of elf is available, plus dwarves and hobbits, as well as every human culture from Dunlendings to Easterlings to the people of Far Harad- even the Variags of Khand, those one-line wonders from the Battle of Pelennor Fields, get fleshed out with licensed fanfiction into a playable background. And that's not even counting the optional orcs, and trolls of all groups!

I really appreciate this. If I ever get back to my On the Trail of the Blue Wizards campaign idea about peoples of "darkness" finding heroism, I will definitely use much of the fluff of MERP's culture entries.

Back to our girl, though.

Her name is Grid, derived from the Old Norse name Gríðr, which could mean vehemence or peace depending. I figured that would be appropriate for a Tolkien dwarf when virtually all of their names are Norse in origin, but I also thought it would be grimly amusing if the way the name was decided on was because her workaholic architect dad couldn't be bothered to look up from his workbench when she was born, and he just jammed on the first thing his eyes fell upon- the blueprint grid.

Next comes rolling the 7 stats; Strength, Agility, Constitution, Intelligence, Intuition, Presence, and also Appearance- yes, this game shows its considerable age by having an objective physical hotness stat, and yes the higher your stat is, the better your initial reactions from people are.

I wanted to say that also feels tonally inconsistent with the setting because initially deceiving appearances and "foul seeming fair" are recurring tropes in Tolkien, but then I thought about how 90% of the time the other Tolkienian trope of exterior matching the interior results in goodness being innately beautiful and evil being visibly ugly, so I guess a mechanical beauty stat is only inappropriate for the setting if the character is a total monster without a shred of magical glamour to their high beauty score, or the utterly heroic character is conventionally unattractive- and I don't mean just being a little scruffy and unbathed like Aragorn at the Prancing Pony. But I digress again.

For each stat you roll d100 and as long as it's a 20 or higher, you're keeping it. 10-24 gives a -5 penalty, 25-74 is a flat 0, 75-89 is a +5, and the ever-narrowing ranges above that eventually top out at a +25 from rolling a perfect 100, with 101 (+30) and 102+ (+35) being theoretical but hard to achieve. These modifiers are used for pretty much all rolls, skills and combat maneuvers included.

On my first roll I managed to smash it out of the park with a 99. Not so much when the second came up 23. Next came 88, 87, 66, and 77. I decided my dwarf lass would have the array 99 Strength, 23 Agility, 66 Constitution, 77 Intelligence, 87 Intuition, and 88 Presence. By itself this would give her the mods +20/-5/+0/+5/+5/+5, but thanks to a rule allowing you to raise your profession's primary stat to 90 if it's lower, my scout can raise her Agility up to an even 90 to turn that -5 into a +10.

All of this is before cultural modifiers, of course. Dwarvish stoutness and gruffness means that Strength gets a further +5 to the mod, Agility takes a -5 hit, Constitution gets a massive +15, and both Intuition and Presence take -5. Thus, our mod array looks like +20/+5/+15/+5/+0/+0 for the moment, and normally that would be the final tally.

Ah, but next we have Background traits...

Childhood? There's a table for that. Awkward teens? Table for that. Xenophobia? Table for that!

Background options are the specific bonuses available through your character's culture, including skill ranks, extra stat buffs on top of the above, randomly rolled special abilities, access to certain schools or "laws" of magic, and even starting with magic items in one's possession.

Since my dwarf ain't magic and has been roughing it a couple hundred miles now, I declined both magic and magic items. Maybe she still has a really nice hair ornament in her beard, but it's quite mundane. I decided to go all in on stat boosts, since you can't purchase those after character creation. The actual numbers we rolled for stats become almost worthless after creation outside of some dramatic occurrences or magic, after all- it's all about those incremental modifiers. You get 4 background options, so I put them into +2 to Strength and then three iterations of +1 Agility/Intuition/Presence, mostly just to raise the latter two up to a +10 base bonus.

Her almost!final stat array becomes +35/+5/+15/+5/+5/+5. Sure, the scout is meant to be about stealth and, if need be, ambush and thievery, but that doesn't mean she can't also be an absolute beast of a unit too. Besides, she needs every edge she can get in this shallow, superficial world after getting an Appearance of 32, bumped slightly by her Presence modifier to 37.

Role Traits are a fancy way of dressing up stuff like personality type, character motivation, and moral alignment. Instead of giving a few examples as a guide to coming to one's own conclusion for their character, you're instead encouraged to pick from the given lists in order to fill out a prescribed part of your character sheet.

Personality is exemplified by a long list of poles arranged in opposition to one another, like Meek vs. Proud or Optimistic vs. Cynical. It seems you can pick several if you wish, as long as they don't directly oppose one another.

Motivation is why your character adventures at all. A surprising number of the 20 motivations are either self-interested like wealth accumulation or doing it for fun, or negative motivations like hatred, fear, or a desire to destroy X. X can be expected targets like Darkness or specifically Sauron's forces, individuals you have a vendetta against, or some more problematic choices like entire countries, cultures, or species. Earlier on in the book, playing an orc or troll is explicitly discouraged, but it seems that choice wasn't intended to limit a PC's capacity to be evil.

Alignment is weird. It's another collection of supposedly opposed traits, of which Good vs. Evil is only one, but the way all of the other dichotomies are arranged underneath them seems to imply which are also kind of good or bad without making it clear. The book then proceeds to bring in real-life examples that further date it in a way I found damn uncomfortable.

As if it needed spelling out, Dear Burrowers,
real life religious communities are not
diametrically opposed to one another.
Also I don't think we use "Moslem" anymore.

Grid's just gonna be Neutral for now.

Next come adolescence and apprenticeship skills, which are similar to background options except they're unique to your character's growth and development as a person prior to taking up adventuring. Both of these steps have a full page of tables dedicated to them too, because when you merp, you merp hard.

Being a dwarf means Grid's childhood trained her 1 rank in Unarmored Movement & Maneuvers, 1 in Rigid Leather Armor, 3 in Chain, 4 in One-Handed Concussive Weapons, 1 Thrown, 1 Climb, 1 Pick Lock, 1 Disarm Trap, 2 Perception, 3 Body Development, and 3% chance of learning a free spell list- I rolled a 77 on that, so that's a hard and fast no. Grid also gains 4 extra ranks to spend on languages- probably evenly divided between a smattering of some Elvish and nearby Easterling dialects.

Apprenticeship implies she was formally instructed by a master scout, but fortunately there isn't any sort of table where you roll the master's effectiveness as a teacher to affect how much your character learned during their apprenticeship or some such- though I wouldn't be surprised if that's a thing in true Rolemaster. Instead, we'll just say Grid picked up her extra skill ranks by sneaking around the dwarf hold, observing others, and reading or practicing in her weirdly spacious subterranean bedroom.

With all of this sorted out, or nearly so, we finally begin to get a clearer picture of Grid- by which I mean I frantically make stuff up to accommodate what the dice tell me.

Grid spent most of her life indoors, since only about 1/3rd of dwarves are female and they tend to be cloistered as a result. She is also quiet and reserved among outsiders out of unfamiliarity. She was tacked onto a delegation sent west by the Blacklocks because her father no longer believed the house's home was safe for her, what with all the troubles brewing in the east. The delegation dwindled until only Grid remains.

She has been kept alive this long by her adaptiveness, and her ability to put into practice the wide range of topics she read about while utterly bored back home. She wishes to bring aid to her people, but she might leave out the part of the mission where she was to be handed over for safekeeping. Being constantly misgendered by non-dwarves was and still is a confusing annoyance, but if it allows her to travel freely without being badgered by overprotective menfolk, she will allow it to continue- or perhaps even consciously try to 'pass' if the situation requires it.

Wrapping Up.

The last major step of character generation that isn't just review is Outfitting. After spending minutes flipping back and forth between the Outfitting page where limits and stipulations are set in place, and the Dwarf page (147) where the actual list of stuff offered, and the Equipment table on 255 where the weights are offered, I was finally done with Grid.

For some reason MERP dwarves don't have any starting ranks in one-handed edged weapons so they can effectively use axes, one of their most culturally important weapons. But Grid has likely just scavenged whatever gear she can from her dead traveling companions, so I doubt she'll turn down a shortbow and club that happen to be handy. Weirdly enough, she's way more graceful in mail armor than leather, so she gets a set of chain. She gets a set of clothing, probably weathered and travel-stained, plus some personal effects like a grooming kit- the beard needs to stay looking good, regardless of circumstances.

She also gets 2 gold pieces to spend on other gear, but since there's an entire section on economics in Middle-Earth and there are five currency subdivisions that fluctuate in value depending on time in the Third Age, I'm just going to treat the basic utilities as met. Grid is also going to have a donkey saved from the last cart of the ill-fated expedition so that she can carry most of her things without being subjected to a weirdly discriminatory encumbrance rule.

Carrying limits are determined by height in this system, with strength serving to offset some of the penalties for going over the limit. While height varies quite a bit between species and cultures, women are consistently one height class shorter than their male counterparts, so female PCs can carry less across the board. Shockingly enough there're no random table for height and weight rolling, so the gender averages given in each species' writeup are pretty much what you're stuck with.

There is a rule meant to offset this, giving female characters a +3% to either Agility or Constitution (I ended up going with Agility), but it's buried deep in the optional materials section toward the back of the book, sandwiched right in between Martial Arts in Middle-Earth, and a percentile table for how a character's blood proximity to the royal family of Númenor affects their ability to use Athelas as a healing herb.

No, I am not making this up.

I know Aragorn's prowess in the Houses
of Healing was ambiguously supernatural,
but surely they didn't mean this.

The end result of this whole experiment was not what I was expecting, but then again I went into this whole thing not knowing what to expect. I hope I haven't (completely) trashed MERP for anyone out there, because it does seem to be a common consensus that character creation is the first boss of the game- once you get around to the actual playing part, it becomes much smoother, simpler, and more fun.

For those who would want to play without generating at all, I have very good news that the book comes with 16 premade characters with level-up tracks included.

Then again, if any old LotR game by I.C.E. is what you're interested in, consider trying LoR, their later product that was actually designed as a simplified introduction to MERP. The designers recognized at some point that their game was too daunting for beginners, but instead of finding a rules solution in the system itself, they wrote an entire transitionary game designed to be played for a few weeks or months before moving on to the big leagues of the d100.

LoR had its own following, surprisingly, and at least one fan wrote an expanded homebrew ruleset for it called the Middle-Earth Adventure Game. MEAG is set somewhere in between LoR and MERP in complexity, but it's packaged in a mercifully svelte 30-page PDF that you can download for free on the website, which was last updated back in 2010. Yes, it has been a while, but at least it was in this millennium.


  1. I checked out MEAG and backed out when I realized the rules weren't numbered. How can you have a Middle Earth game where you can't refer to "Rule 1.A.5b"? It's unthinkable!

    But seriously, thanks for pointing those rules out! I like MERP, but I liked the TolkienQuest books/system even better.

    1. Ooh. A name that escaped me during my browse. I will check that out- from the name, my guess is it's a hack of RuneQuest?

  2. One ruleset I didn't touch on was Ambarquenta. It's free, but not openly available because it copy+pastes from other materials from crunchy systems, so I didn't include it in the article. You can read more about it here.

    I have to hand it to them it's an ambitious fan project, and a 2d10 system is not bad by any stretch. But when a longsword has a "damage code" of 1.5B/4E/2P and each character has attribute limits determined by a genetic predisposition table... yeah.