Tuesday, June 28, 2022

An RPG From the Past: Middle-earth Role Playing

During the height of the Satanic Panic in the 80s, my parents decided --with the help of some "encouragement" from watching The 700 Club* and from hearing some of my mom's hardcore evangelical in-laws-- to get rid of all of my brother's and my D&D material. 

Looking back on it now, I still get angry about the whole affair, especially knowing what an original Deities and Demigods (complete with the Michael Moorcock section) is worth nowadays, but in a bizarre way it pushed me into other RPGs that I would have ordinarily never tried. So... I guess I have to thank my parents for expanding my RPG horizons a lot.

Such as Middle-earth Role Playing by Iron Crown Enterprises.

ICE put out Middle-earth Role Playing --MERP for short-- in 1984, basing the game on a streamlined version of their Rolemaster system. ICE put out a Second Edition of the game in 1986 --functionally the same, but cleaned up in presentation-- and continued to release supplements and support MERP up until they lost the license granted by Tolkien Enterprises in 1999.

This is probably about half of ICE's output.
And no, I'm not selling any of them. I've had
most of these for 25-30 years.

I realize some people prefer The One Ring or the D&D version of a Middle-earth RPG as their go-to for adventuring in Middle-earth, but for me MERP was it. From practically the moment I spied the MERP RPG materials at our local Waldenbooks and opened up a few of the splatbooks, I fell in love with the game.


Okay, you have to be wondering how on earth I managed to hide a boxed RPG set --never mind the REST of the splatbooks-- when my parents were incredibly anal retentive about controlling major aspects of my life.** Therefore, I ought to take a step back and describe exactly what went into my thought process when I finally decided to pull the trigger.

Having attempted to toe the line for a couple of years, I began to look into RPGs again. I mean, I thought the entire "Roleplaying is Satanic" thing was bullshit***, but since I wanted to keep my continuing interest in Science Fiction and Fantasy novels/short story collections alive, I figured I had to toe the company line for a while. And believe me, when I bought the Dragonlance novels that was truly put to the test, as my brother conspired to use the fact that they were printed by TSR --the same company that put out D&D-- against me in an argument with my parents. Luckily, my parents didn't take my books away, but I knew I was walking on eggshells.****

Still, I wasn't going to give up on this. I knew I had to wait until I got to college to be more open about playing RPGs, which is rather ironic given the extremely low social status RPG players had on the teenager social scale, but I'd seen through the bullshit and I figured there had to be a way to pull off playing RPGs.

Normally, you'd just find someone playing D&D and sit in on their game, but the people I knew who played D&D had discovered girls and cars, and that was that. So if I wanted to play, I'd have to get a game group together myself.

So all of this was on my mind when I stumbled across the MERP materials at the bookstore, and I thought that this could be exactly what I needed. The books were all soft cover, the boxed set was the size of the old D&D Basic set with the Errol Otus cover art, and because of the (relatively) cheap production values the books were much cheaper than comparable D&D books. That they were softcover meant I could hide them inside my copy of this game without anybody noticing:

There was a LOT of extra space inside
once you put the ships together.
From Mandi's Attic Toys.

Between that and my copy of Risk, I could hide the boxed set and a couple of expansion settings. 

I then targeted my friends who loved reading SF&F, and I got a couple of people together for regular game sessions. They all knew my parents' opinions on role playing, so they were more than happy to be the hosts for the games. 

There were more than my share of close calls with my parents, but once I got away to college --and bought myself a footlocker to carry my books and whatnot back and forth from college over the summers-- I was set. Once my girlfriend got an apartment nearby for grad school, I just moved my MERP collection over to her place and I was set. Looking back on it, I'm shocked I wasn't caught with my hand in the cookie jar, because my 50+ year old self looks back at the risks I took and think that I had to have been out of my mind to think I was going to get away with it.

I mean, I did all the following:

  • Created a false bottom in the drawer in my old wooden desk
  • Built a false bottom underneath one of the shelves of my bookshelf  (I got cold feet putting the books there, so I put some of my old classwork from high school there instead. If it was found, the fact that I didn't want my old classwork thrown out would have worked in my favor.)
  • Hid some of the books under my dresser
  • Put some of the books between the box spring and the frame of my mattress
All of which sound on the face of it that I was hiding marijuana or condoms or Playboys.


The TL;DR of that whole thing is that compared to D&D, MERP was modular, cheaper, and had much better splatbooks than D&D had. The ICE team worked their collective asses off on MERP (and Rolemaster), and it showed.

And, in my opinion, until D&D 3e came along, MERP was the superior game.

If you looked at a MERP character sheet, it looked a lot like a D&D 3e character sheet. 

This is a scan of a character I created
when I was learning the game. The
photocopy came straight from the
core rulebook itself.

I absolutely love this version
created by Tensen01 on DeviantArt.

You see skill ranks, character stats, languages, and a few other odds and ends. Instead of the modern MMO nomenclature of "Mana", you have "Power Points" for casting spells. The Stats and rolls are all based on the d100 system, so no other dice are needed other than a pair of d10s. Oh, and those Languages? Yes, they have skill ranks as well, from 1 (can say a couple of words) to 5 (speak like a native). Each level you go up, you get a certain number of skill points to distribute, no fuss no muss.

All of these skill ranks and the d100 system made so much sense that I wondered why D&D bothered with all the assorted dice. And until 3e came along and basically took a lot of the MERP/Rolemaster system along for the ride, D&D felt weak by comparison. 

MERP did suffer from one major drawback, which was that the game went up until 10th Level. If you wanted to utilize higher levels, you had to use Rolemaster for that. But given that Rolemaster, or RM for short, was also straightforward I didn't have any issues with using RM on an as-needed basis.

But the sheer joy in MERP lay in the splatbooks and modules. And oh, were there a ton.

I found a couple of copies
of this in the box set.

I even kept track of what I was missing.

I'm biased, but I really liked Lorien a lot.


The default setting for MERP was in the mid-Third Age, while there still was a Kingdom in the North (Arthedain), the Balrog hadn't been unearthed yet in Moria, Rohan hadn't been founded yet (but the Horse Lords roamed south of Mirkwood), Minas Ithil was still intact, and there was a King in Gondor. There's plenty of opportunities for campaigns in this era, and if you wanted to run a campaign in another era, the books were easily adapted to those. Well, within reason: Minas Ithil was not going to be the same once the Witch King got a hold of it. The Balrog the same with Moria, but the largest difference between the two is that we know --courtesy of The Fellowship of the Ring-- that the rooms in Moria were largely intact, if unused or had signs of fighting in them.

The sad thing is that ICE lost the Tolkien license right before the Peter Jackson LOTR movies came out, because it would have been a huge shot in the arm to the system. Then again, people would have wanted to play in the era of Lord of the Rings in the same way as people do in LOTRO, so the concept of a mid-Third Age setting wouldn't necessarily have worked as well as I might have thought. But still, that the game is a love letter to Tolkien's works is something that can't be overlooked. The world of Middle-earth is so diverse that you could spend an entire campaign in the area around Bree, or maybe have an urban campaign down in Gondor, or even a wilderness campaign out in Mirkwood. 

Faerun ain't got nothing on Middle-earth.


It's a shame that the used prices for these splatbooks can be pretty high, because they're very much worth a perusal if you're a Tolkien fan. I'd checked out some of the splatbooks I was missing in my collection, but when I saw they were over $100 for a "meh" quality version, I took a hard pass. Finding PDF files of these rulebooks and systems are very much worth pursuing, however, because that's one way of keeping costs down.

If you happen to come across some of these books at a yard sale and you're interested in an RPG based on Lord of the Rings, I'd recommend picking them up. 

*Commence groans. Oh yes, I had to defend my listening to Rush of all things because they showed up on one of Pat Robertson's lists of "Satanic Heavy Metal". (At least Triumph avoided that listing.) If anybody knows anything about Heavy Metal, maybe --maybe-- you could count Rush's self titled first album, but that's it. 

**This absolute need to control my life fueled my desire to go to college away from home. Admittedly the University of Dayton was only 54 miles away, but it was just far enough away in the days of a 55 MPH speed limit that my parents weren't going to drop in on me unannounced. However, I found out a couple of decades later that during my Freshman year my father did just that, dropping in on the Physics Department and asking the Department Chair how I was doing. "We don't discuss such things with parents," he stonily told my Dad and showed him the door.

***I once had a huge argument with my mom over this, saying it was the same as acting, as playing a role is what actors do, but I swear the mental gymnastics on this she used to try to split hairs was absolutely ridiculous. "Playing a role" was fine, she said, but "role playing" was Satanic.

****My brother also tried to tie my interests in music to Satanism, but given that I didn't have bands like Ozzy or Black Sabbath in my music collection at the time, that failed as well.

EtA: Cleaned up some grammar.


  1. The "Satanic Panic" turns up in Season 3 of Stranger Things. As I've mentioned before, although it was a news item at the time over here, I don't recall anyone taking it very seriously. Of course, I didn't even start playing RPGs until after I graduated university so no-one was telling me I couldn't play. Might have been different if I'd been ten years younger.

    My group back then ran through a lot of differnt systems. MERP was one of them.We rotated GMs depending on who owned what and I was the one who had a copy of MERP so I GM'd it. I did one of my best ever sessions using it, too, but it was 90% improvised and I was pretty much making things up as we went along - the rules barely got a look.

    I found it a good but awkward system compared to others we tried. I have the core rule book somewhere and one or two of the scenarios. Sounds like its a pity I didn't buy more if they've appreciated in value so much.

    1. Er... Season 4. I'm watching Umbrella Academy now and that's the one in Season 3.

    2. The Satanic Panic --even though it did get national airplay-- was very much a regional thing. People I know in my WoW guild mentioned how it was barely a thing on the West Coast, whereas where I am, planted in the Midwest and just north of the Evangelical-based South (known colloquially as the Bible Belt) it was very much a huge problem.

  2. Ah, MERP. I have fond memories of the source books. While I never had a chance to play/use the system, I loved getting the supplements and reading their version of Middle Earth. Sometimes I wish I had kept all of the books, but with all the moves I've made certain things had to go. Thanks for reminding me of a fun setting. I may have to go PDF hunting...

    The 'Satanic Panic' was more laughed at in my circles because we were lucky enough to be older and in college when it started going around. I feel for those who had to suffer from the lies peddled by Jack Chick(?) and the rest. :/

    1. Yeah, PDFs are a more cost effective way to get the splatbooks. But to me, the physical copies were always worth it.

      Yeah, you were lucky enough to avoid all that stuff. My parents weren't even into Jack Chick and we got some real crap. What annoyed me the most, however, was that my brother became a turncoat and bought into the whole Satanic Panic thing: hook, line, and sinker. I never quite forgave him for that betrayal.

  3. Man, you've talked about that whole Satanic Panic thing before, but I didn't realise you went to such lengths to defy your parents. A hidden drawer compartment!

    1. Oh yes, it sounds bad. And I suppose it was, but given that they were going to actually screen my friends to make sure they wouldn't "lead me astray" I had to be very careful (read: paranoid).

  4. Wow, I had never heard of the Satanic Panic. Yeah, my Mom was raised in a Christian orphanage and after being walked back and forth to Church a bazillion times and being told how they were all sinners she was not that into religion. I admire your deviousness in alluding discovery!

    1. I discovered that parents who had to endure stuff like what your own mom went through end up --by and large-- not forcing religion on their own kids. And I did the same.

  5. It makes me shake in outrage on your behalf at such treatment by your parents and brother. Unimaginable to terrorize a kid filled with imagination and wonder like that. Kudos to you for being so clever and protecting yourself. I’m so glad you’re out of their reach. All respect to you, man. Atheren