What happened in my Middle-earth games back in the day, essentially, is that the players would create characters in Esgaroth, Bree, Tharbad, or wherever. I would contrive some reason why they all knew each other (usually something like: “you meet at an inn and intuit that you’re all solid, trustworthy fellows looking for adventure and to protect the free peoples of Middle-earth”). The characters then would simply wander around, following whichever adventure hooks they liked. While I added hooks, encounters, and adventures to what was provided in the Middle-earth campaign modules, the books typically provided very solid frameworks for such campaigns. Or at least the ones that I used did so. As I think I’ve mentioned before here, I ran a summer-long campaign during high-school (we probably played at least 12 hours every week in those halcyon days) using the Rangers of the North (Arthedain) book, building on the adventure notes in the back (years later, these notes would be expanded by ICE into their Palantir Quest book).
I learned a lot from using ICE’s Middle-earth campaign modules. Indeed, trying to figure out how to use them, and doing what I could as a teenager to run challenging and fun sessions in a Middle-earth “sandbox” was a formative experience. (Beyond gaming, I think running MERP helped me to learn how to “think on my feet” far more than running D&D/AD&D adventures – whether published modules or my own creations – ever did.)
Yes, the books varied in quality – well, not the maps by Pete Fenlon or the covers by Angus McBride, which were always amazing. And yes, some didn’t really belong in Middle-earth, like the (totally awesome) Court of Ardor. Nonetheless, overall, I loved MERP, and I still do to this day. Hence my present joy in running the MERP-influenced Against the Darkmaster, both in 20th century Eriador (“Against the Witch-King”) and in my “homebrew” world of Urkasia (“Against the Court of Urdor”).
[This post is a modified version of a comment I posted over at the blog Grognardia, in response to a rather negative, but not unfair, review of the original Iron Crown Middle-earth module, Southern Mirkwood.]