Now there is Against the Darkmaster (VsD for short). This game is clearly inspired by, and draws heavily on, MERP. But it’s not a retro-clone (i.e., it’s not the MERP version of OSRIC). Rather it’s what I would call a quasi-clone (a game that draws heavily on an earlier one, and retains broad compatibility with its predecessor, but also deviates from it in some important ways). VsD looks like it’s compatible with MERP, in the sense that it should not be difficult to use MERP material with the system. But VsD introduces some new elements. For instance, VsD separates “races” from “cultures”: both humans and halflings, for instance, can have the “pastoral” or “urban” backgrounds. These elements of characters were not distinguished in MERP.
It goes without saying that VsD is stripped of any specific references to Tolkien’s Middle-earth. It is easy to find equivalent races and cultures, though, if you want to use the game in that setting, say, if you want to use VsD with some of ICE’s old MERP campaign and adventure modules. Dúnedain Rangers of the North, for instance, would be High Men with the “Weald” culture (or perhaps the “Fey” culture for those raised in Rivendell).
I’m very impressed that the Against the Darkmaster core book includes a small setting and set of connected adventures—an entire mini-campaign—called “Shadows of the Northern Woods” (almost 50 pages of material). Running these adventures could easily take a group 10+ sessions. I think it’s important for games to include starter adventures, as they provide an easy way for groups to test out new systems. But to include a small but rich setting with three adventures is exemplary. The plot of the campaign also strikes me as quite intriguing. I’d love to run “Shadows” sometime.
The book is incredibly thick (565 pages!). The rules strike me as well considered and potentially a lot of fun (although I’ll need to go through them more carefully once I find the time). The MERP foundation is clearly there, but with many interesting refinements and improvements. VsD fixes some of the main problems with the MERP system, I think, while keeping all the good stuff (critical hits, the solid class-with-skills system, the core d100 'higher-is-always-better' mechanic, etc.), and making the system setting-neutral. It adds options while at the same time making the system overall more coherent and straightforward. It’s an impressive accomplishment!
The art is top notch as well (though not quite McBride caliber, of course).
In short, my impression of Against the Darkmaster is very positive. This may be my favourite new FRPG since Mythras!