I appear to have received my Christmas wish and am scheduled to run a MERP (Middle-Earth Role Playing) adventure on New Year’s Day! I have been diligently preparing, and I thought that the player’s accessory I devised might be of interest to more than just my players. This is because it shows a little of what I intend to do with MERP. It also delivers some of my thoughts on the game system and what it means in terms of tactical play and the context of gaming in Middle-Earth.
It is the Fourth Age of Middle-Earth, one hundred years after the passing of Elessar (1641 F.A., to be precise), Ringbearer’s Companion, Warden of the North. Now Elessar’s son Eldarion is King of Gondor, reigning from Minas Tirith.
The Peoples of Middle-Earth
Dwarves have retreated deep within their mountain fastnesses. They are more reserved and belligerent than ever. Their hues have taken on a rock-like, dusky temperament. Their beards bristle like wire or sparkle like quartzite. They now are affected by sunlight much as Orcs are.
All the High Elves (Noldor) have departed for the Western Shores. The Sindar Elves (those who never dwelt in Aman) remain in secret redoubts, here and there, reticent to leave the only land they ever have known. Along with the Silvan Elves, who reside within the deepest forests, they are fading and diminishing, both in stature and in temperment. The Silvan Elves, in particular, have become cruel and capricious in their intolerance for humans.
Hobbits populate the vast majority of Western Middle-Earth, over which they have unbroken jurisdiction, though the men of the South, in these later years since the expiration with the King’s Peace following Elessar’s passing, are pushing at their borders. Hobbits have grown larger over the generations and, in some cases, are hardly distinguishable from their Southern brethren.
All manner of Men flourish in the Fourth Age of Middle-Earth, though Woses have become increasingly rare, now that, in the years following King Elessar’s passing, they have been hunted almost to extinction.
Orcs and Trolls have become very rare, retreating, like the Dwarves, deep into the hidden places of the earth. Some Orcs, however, have begun to pass as normal men in some of the larger, more cosmopolitan populations. There also are rumors of great Orc migrations traveling by night, leaving their caves and fortresses around Mordor and the Misty Mountains and traveling, sometimes with the secret aid of evil Men, into the deserts of the Haradwaith.
Initial Location and Situation
Month: Hithui (Fall). Weather: Windy (normal rain). Location: Pen-arduin, banks of the Anduin, feet of the Emyn Arnen.
The PCs are inhabitants or vagabonds among the rural homes Pen-arduin, hill country southeast of Minas Tirith and along the banks of the Anduin. Over the last few days, the PCs have heard whispered mention of Herumor (see “The New Shadow” in The Peoples of Middle-Earth) and “the Call.” While gathering in the common room of The Merchant’s Scythe (Tiviel the “merchant’s” original scythe, with which he began his hay business, hangs rusting above the door), the PCs, one way or another, have been told that on this night someone all in black is going to come for them and invite them to a meeting. If they choose to accept “The Call,” they are to dress in black themselves and join this person and others on a pilgrimage into the hills, the Emyn Arnen.
The Player Characters
Dunadan Warrior. Long have you served in King Eldarion’s Royal Guard, but of late you have heard troubling rumors of a conspiracy undoubtedly led by the Fellowship of Blood. To ease your mind, you went on leave to visit family in the Emyn Arnen area, only to encounter the same sorts of rumors. Weapons: Broadsword, Short Bow (20); Armor: Shield, Chain; Items: Ring of Healing (1d10 4/day), 2 gp.
Sinda Elf Mage. You are a member of a dwindling species. Many of your kin have retreated deep into quiet contemplation within the forests of Middle-Earth, where it is said they become one with root and branch or dwindle into diminutive spirits. Others have set forth across the waters of Endor in search of new stimuli. You, on the banks of the Anduin, are contemplating doing exactly this, yourself. Weapons: Broadsword, Long Bow (20); Armor: None; Items: Ring of Invisibility (1/day), 2 gp.
Wose (Druadan) Ranger. For all you know you are the last of your kind. Recently you buried your mother and your father in a cave in Dunland before journeying to Minas Tirith, the center of civilization, seeking knowledge of your culture and, failing that, perhaps new purpose in life. Unsuccessful in your quest to learn of more of your kind, you nonetheless have befriended one or more of the other PCs. Weapons: Spear, Handaxe; Armor: Soft Leather, Shield; Items: Onyx stone of shade on a leather thong (3/day), 2 gp.
Dorwinadan Bard. Restless, always seeking adventure, you accompanied a merchant bearing Dorwinion wine to Minas Tirith. Once there, you decided you would stay awhile and perhaps see the ocean. It is for this reason that you are refreshing yourself at a common house on the banks of the Anduin. Weapons: Mace, Longbow (20); Armor: Shield; Items: Crystal of light mirage on a silver chain (2/day), pet weasel, 2 gp.
Urban Animist. Recently you have decided to set up shop and offer your services in Emyn Arnen, the suburbs of Minas Tirith. Weapons: Short Sword, Crossbow (20); Armor: Soft Leather; Items: Ring of Calm II (3/day), 2 gp.
Hobbit Scout. You believe you are of distant Brandybuck lineage and have traveled to Minas Tirith to learn more about the great Meriadoc’s last days. Your researches indicate that Merry might have stayed for a time in a cottage in Pen-arduin. You found no further leads, but you did find passable ale in The Merchant’s Scythe! Weapons: Short Bow (20), Sling (20); Armor: Shield; Items: +10 lockpick, 2 gp.
Comments on Game System
Some have criticized Middle-Earth Role Playing as not being a proper emulation of Tolkien’s ethos. The main criticism for this has been the observation that the game system used in MERP is Rolemaster, which is a fairly generic fantasy rpg ruleset more in common with Dungeons & Dragons than Tolkien’s specific vision. A secondary criticism might be that Iron Crown Enterprises introduced non-canonical campaign material. In my own view, both of these features are benefits to gamers who would like to explore experiences of their own devising within the winds of Tolkien’s inspiration.
Many believe that MERP is “not Tolkien enough” since almost any character has the potential of, at some point, gaining magical ability. In addition to this, many of the higher level spells are “spectacular” along the lines of D&D, not nuanced and innate like those of the Maiar or Elves in Tolkien’s work. If a character has any magical ability, then that character knows at least one Spell List, and this means that the character automatically will know more spells to cast from that list as that character ascends in profession levels. Characters have a better chance of successfully casting spells and spell effectiveness if they prepare them for a number of rounds before casting.
Part of the Rolemaster project was to develop a “realistic” or simulationist system for combat. As such, MERP can be pretty lethal. This is because of the numerous Critical Hit Tables upon which even relatively unexceptional rolls might score. For some of these results, the only hope for survival or avoidance of maiming is to have suitable armor in the areas so struck: helm, leg or arm greaves. Be warned.
These critical hit tables often cause damage outside of hit point loss, and this is where Rolemaster introduces a feature that is serendipitously in line with Tolkien’s vision: herbs. MERP provides lists and prices of unique flora that can be used to treat bone, muscle, and circulatory damage.
Another feature of Rolemaster is its experience point system. Just about everything that a character does — or has done to oneself — is worthy of experience! Criticals scored, hits taken on self, enemies slain, ideas had, miles traveled. It seems like, in an attempt to distinguish itself from or comment on D&D, the only thing that doesn’t generate experience points in MERP, rules as written, is gold. In my game, though, it does! For every game session, I will have organized charts available so that players can keep track of all of their characters’ feats. This also will help keep track of damage and conditions (since, as noted, these, too, award experience points), though I, as the GM, will try to be keeping a record of this myself.
I hope that MERP proves to be an enjoyable experience for everyone, and I appreciate everyone willing to take time away from Yggdrasill to give this a go. As a demonstration of my gratitude, and in hopes of you experiencing a longer MERP campaign, I will be doubling all xp gained till Level 3. This reflects your commitment and investment in the Yggdrasill game as I ask you to patronize me in our exploration of Middle-Earth’s Fourth Age.