13 September 2021

MERP resurrected? Against the Darkmaster!

MERP (Middle-earth Role-playing) by ICE (Iron Crown Enterprises) is one of my favourite games of all time. It was the second game I played regularly (after D&D/AD&D). I must have spent 50% of my spare time during the mid- to late-1980s reading, thinking about, and playing MERP. I feel much the same nostalgia for the MERP core book and some early campaign books that I do for the first edition AD&D manuals and classic Gygax modules. 

[Chris Achilleos's rather "metal" cover for the 1985 UK edition of MERP.]

I fondly recall running an extensive campaign set during the early Fourth Age that involved the characters journeying to the far north—the Bay of Forochel—in order to recover the lost Palantíri of Arthedain. One of the characters was the son of Eowyn and Faramir, another the son of Samwise Gamgee. I made a lot of mistakes in running that campaign (in my defence, I was only a teenager). But I learned as it went on, and I think everyone had a great time. (This campaign was based upon a brief outline included in the Rangers of the North campaign book. Most of that book focused on Arthedain in the middle of the Third Age, around 1640, when it was the last kingdom of the north standing against the dark realm of Angmar and its Witch-King. However, the book did include some suggestions for adventurers during different eras, including a couple for the early Fourth Age. The adventure outline later would be developed by ICE into 1994’s epic Palantír Quest.) 

Over time I developed something like 600 years of history for the Fourth Age for my various MERP adventures. (I did not like the default 1640-1700 Third Age setting at the time, as I didn’t like the idea that my games would be bound by a particular “future history.” These days such a thing would not bother me at all, although I still think that that era is too unfamiliar to fans of The Lord of the Rings, as, for instance, Rohan does not exist yet and Moria has not fallen to the Balrog. The choice by the designers of The One Ring and Adventures in Middle-earth to set their adventures in the period between The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings makes more sense in this respect. But I digress…)

I loved the ICE campaign and adventure modules—even the ones like The Court of Ardor and Greater Harad that strayed away from Tolkien’s Middle-earth, both geographically and thematically. In fact, I was fascinated by the ways in which ICE’s writers developed Middle-earth beyond the areas described by Tolkien. Even as a teenager, though, I could tell that some of these developments were not fully consistent—in either detail or spirit—with Tolkien’s writings. Nonetheless, I didn’t care that much, as the material (usually) was cool, exciting, and full of flavour. Ardor in particular remains a favourite. (If I were to use it today, though, I would sever it from Middle-earth and place it in its own setting.)

The Peter Fenlon maps and Angus McBride covers were pure magic as well. I love them to this day—indeed, I rank Fenlon and McBride among my favourite FRPG artists of all time.

The system, for the most part, was not crafted to emulate Tolkien’s world. It was a simplified version of Rolemaster (RM), a version that, I think, kept what was good about the RM system (namely, its critical hit and fumble charts, and its novel—for the time—combined character class, level, and skill system) while helpfully streamlining the system overall. Eventually the game’s designer, S. Coleman Charlton, added a couple of subsystems to try to rein in MERP’s magic system (namely, a system for determining whether Sauron or his minions detect the use of powerful magic by the characters, and a ‘corruption’ system for the misuse of magic). These subsystems were meant to encourage keeping the use of “flashy” magic (e.g., fire bolts and the like) rare, and thus more closely resemble the way in which magic is portrayed in Tolkien’s books. I doubt that many groups in fact used these rules (we didn’t). Overall, the MERP rules were, I think, a poor fit for Middle-earth in many respects, magic in particular. But casting spells was fun, and we didn’t care that we were playing a rather D&D-ish game in an ersatz Endor. 

In short, despite its various shortcomings, I was—and remain—quite fond of the MERP system. It was a faster, more playable—and I think more fun—version of Rolemaster

Over the past dozen years or so, with the rise of “retro-clones” and “quasi-clones” for various editions of D&D and AD&D (and other games), including the quasi-clone Crypts and Things, I had been wondering about the feasibility of a “quasi-clone” of MERP. Just over a decade ago ICE produced something kind of like this with Rolemaster Express (RMX). However, RMX disappeared for some reason when ICE changed ownership, and it wasn’t really MERP in any case (but rather a very stripped-down version of second edition or “Classic” Rolemaster).  

[Against the Darkmaster's awesome cover.]

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).

[A couple of "Noldor" ... er, "Star Elves."]

In short, my impression of Against the Darkmaster is very positive. This may be my favourite new FRPG since Mythras!

[Angus McBride's original cover for MERP. Note the family resemblance?] 


1 comment:

  1. I think that the key to MERP is realizing that it's not really an attempt to simulate Tolkien (in that respect it would be something of a failure). I think that MERP is meant to allow you to play FRP set in Middle Earth... i.e. it's not trying to put Middle Earth into FRPG, it's trying to put FRPG into Middle Earth. If the feel is "I'm playing D&D but in Gondor instead of Greyhawk" then I think that's in line with MERP's intentions.

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I'm a Canadian political philosopher who divides his time between Milwaukee and Toronto.