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MERP: Dawn of the Fourth Age

This is part of an ongoing campaign. You can find the other sessions over on the sidebar.

One of the things that I want to accomplish during the social isolation period, is to play some of the RPGs that have been sitting on my shelf for years. Many of these have never been played, others have not been played for years. Iron Crown Enterprise's (ICE) Middle Earth Roleplaying (MERP) fits into the latter category.

I have written before about how my start in the RPG hobby came through game books in the '80s. My favorite of these were the Tolkien Quest books (sometimes called Middle Earth Quest). Like most game books, they came with a rule set that allowed for combat and some exploration, I honestly always felt that the Tolkien Quest books had a better defined system than most. They also came with tables in the back to allow the books to be played as solo adventures for MERP. Of course my friends and I did not know what that was, or even what a RPG was when we picked the game books up. I devoured as many of these as I could find, and soon we were looking for more content, but I found many of the other available game books to be less satisfying.

In order to solve this problem, I started to make my own stories for the game books. I did not really write them down, I just kind of stole the monsters and treasures from the books and made up new locations and events for a friend to play. I was basically a talking game book for him, or, you know, a DM. I don't have a lot of memory of how all this worked, but I can guarantee that it was awful. Eventually, another kid saw us doing this and said, "Why don't you dummies just play D&D?"

Is that what that is?!? We should try it?

Someone lent us a Red Box and we started reading through it. It even came with a game book style adventure to explain how to play! This was exactly what we were looking for! Sadly, our excitement was cut short because the second thing we learned about D&D was that we weren't allowed to play it.

This was very disappointing, but we caught a lucky break. Armed with our knowledge of D&D, we finally understood that MERP was basically D&D without being called D&D. No one was mad about MERP. Heck, no one had ever heard of MERP. Plus, it was based on The Hobbit. Led Zeppelin liked The Hobbit. How could anything Led Zeppelin liked be harmful for 9 year olds?

So, the RPG hobby for me really starts with MERP. We played for several months before my mom finally figured out what these games were, and decided that all the fuss was ridiculous. Once we had the clear, we immediately switched to D&D and MERP went on the shelf.

If you are not familiar with MERP, this may seem ungrateful and cruel. But, if you have played MERP, you understand why 9 year olds would trade it in for D&D in a heart beat. First, mid-80s D&D just looked cooler. The art was aimed at catching young boys' attention, and the artists were very good at their job. Second, MERP was complicated. MERP was based on RoleMaster, a system intended to make AD&D more complicated. It mostly accomplished this through tables... lots of tables.

MERP, while better than repurposing rules from game books, was not ideal for kids that young. When D&D opened as an alternative, we rightly set it aside. But, was it really that bad? Was there anything redeeming about it? I have long suspected that the answer is yes, and what better time to find out than now.

One thing I knew going in to this project was that MERP was going to take a lot of prep. First, I needed to get the rules down cold, because there was not going to be time to look things up while playing on Roll20. I do a lot of gaming on Roll20, and it is already slower than gaming in person, no need to bog it down more than necessary. Second, I knew I was going to have to build an adventure from close to scratch.

I have several MERP modules from when I was little, and I found a CDROM with the whole line that fell off the back of a truck in the mid-2000s. The setting books for MERP are great. They take the framework that Tolkien laid out and run with it. Not everyone may like where they ran to, but I find that they are full of great information that I can use at the table. What ICE pretty much failed to make was good adventures. What exists are either Palladium-style outlines in the setting books (sometime I am going to write about how much Palladium Fantasy and MERP have in common), or adventure modules riddled with the sins of the late '80s and early '90s. I won't go into these issues too much, but it was a time when railroading was very much in vogue for adventure modules.

In order to address the first problem, I read through the rulebook a couple of times and made a bunch of characters. One of the strangest things about MERP/RoleMaster is how they are superficially similar to D&D, but are just "off" because of their reliance on tables. For example, weapons don't have "damage" in the same way that RPG weapons usually do. Which weapon you have just dictates which tables you roll on. Once I got familiar with this system again, I could see that its complexity has largely been overrated over the years. It is more unfamiliar than it is more complex than the AD&D offerings of the time. I could tell that as we got used to referring to the tables, speed would pick up quickly. In response to this, I printed out all of the tables and entered key ones into Roll20 as handouts.

As I researched a solution to the second problem, I decided that I wanted to set my game in the Fourth Age. MERP has a lot of great support for mid-Third Age gaming, but there was something about having an open future ahead of me that made early-Fourth Age gaming especially appealing. Almost all of the setting information would still be useful as background (and most of it was just background anyway, I would just have to "ruin" the cities.

Looking at the available material, I decided to adapt Palantir Quest. Palantir Quest is a mega-adventure, or mini campaign, set in the Fourth Age. It had a lot of elements that I liked:

  1. An epic quest feel
  2. A lot of travel
  3. Some interaction with known figures and locations
It also suffered from a lot of mid 90s gaming supplement problems:

  1. Overly linear presentation with little thought to why the players would actually take a certain course.
  2. Hamhanded ways to get the players "back on track"
  3. Weird scripted sequences. Including a literal script for a play.
  4. Additions to the source material that were readily identifiable as coming from the mid '90s.
The outlines of the module (I am not going to say too much to avoid spoilers for my players) provid a good framework to hang something better on though. I started off by developing ways that the game could open up after the first adventure. With a wealth of MERP source material to work with, this was not too hard. The quest as designed sends the party to an old, ruined city and throws a bunch of encounters at them on the road. I reworked the plot to open up and give them several ruined cities to explore.

The available source material has enough detail to make each of these cities distinct, even when they are in ruins. Their unique locations, the nature of how they fell, and the thousand-plus years of history following their fall offer plenty of options to make them interesting. The use of the Fourth Age setting allows some of the cities to be in various states of being reclaimed by Man as well.

That is probably all I can say without including spoilers for my players. By the time you read this, we will have finished our first (only) session. If that goes well, I have set the groundwork for more, but have only actually done the prep work for one adventure. 

I will be following up with a report on how it goes. 


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