Thursday, April 23, 2020

Licensed Tolkien Role-playing Games

Whatever you call a Tolkien weeb, I guess that's what I am. I read the books every year. I wrote my thesis about the "magic system" of the trilogy. I'm a big Tolkien nerd. 

As such, I've played every licensed Tolkien RPG. I just started back up with a MERP game, and it's made me reflective of my career playing Tolkien games.

Here's a quasi-review of all of them. 

How many licensed games are there?

There're about 3-ish.
  • Middle-Earth Role Playing (MERP): Iron Crown Enterprises came out with MERP in 1984. It used their generic fantasy game, Rolemaster, but a bit stripped down. Rolemaster was a D&D clone that said, "Yes, like this, but with more tables." MERP had the widest license of the Tolkien Enterprises and featured a very mixed stew of everything from the Silmarillion, the Appendices, the Hobbit, and the trilogy.
    • Lord of the Rings Adventure Game: Published in 1991, three years before ICE lost the license, the Lord of the Rings Adventure Game was a stripped down version of MERP (which, in turn, was a stripped down version of Rolemaster) aimed at beginners. The game was published as an "adventure path" that was never completed; only 3 of 5 planned volumes were published.
  • The Lord of the Rings RPG: Released in 2002 by Decipher, this game was essentially a movie tie-in. The "art" in the book is just stills from movies. The game system was essentially "every generic 90s/early aughts game." Loose classes, attributes, skills, no playtesting. 
  • The One Ring RPG: Released in 2011 by Cubicle 7, The One Ring was an honest attempt to marry the license with modern sensibilities. It remains faithful to the tone of the books and uses a (vaguely) custom set of d12 and d6 dice. It contains a series of adventures that are somewhat railroady. Cubicle 7 apparently lost the license just prior to releasing the 2nd edition of this system; the license has been picked up by Free League Publishing.
    • Adventures in Middle-earth: Released in 2016 by Cubicle 7, Adventures in Middle-earth translates the rules of The One Ring to 5E d20. It's fucking garbage. Ptoo ptoo.
Let's think about them one by one. 


MERP 2nd ed cover

MERP has the broadest license of any of these games, and so feels very much like a stew. Do you want to be a Hobbit mage and adventure with a Noldo Elf scout, a Black Numenorean warrior, and an Orcish animist? Well, you can! There are vague sentiments about the GM needing to set limitations, but there are rules for everything from 1st Age Elves to 4th Age Trolls. 

The upside to this is there are, like, a million sourcebooks. Everything Tolkien ever mentioned or hinted at is in here. This can be very good for running a sandbox game. Do the players want to go south from Bree to Dunland? Sure, let me just whip out my Dunland book. Do the players want to go even further south into the deeps of Harad? Sure, I think there are like, three sourcebooks that cover those lands.

Appearance: Rereading MERP has given me a deep appreciation for modern layout and informational design. Each page is double columned small text, with little clip art pictures of wolves smashed into the corners to make sure that everything fits as tightly as possible. 

Some of the art is great--really flavorful stuff--and some is shit. Angus McBride, who did many of the covers, is a personal favorite Tolkien artist of mine. I love the character art for the pre-made characters that are included in the 2nd edition. A lot of the art is given a disservice by being absolutely shoved into the bad formatting. 

Play: As I said in a previous post, in some ways MERP is a forefather to PbtA attitudes of mixed success and "move" mentality. The game seems to imagine you have a very specific set of things you will want to do, and has created buttons that you press to do them. 

The main mechanic is simple: Roll a d100, add your skill modifier, add the difficulty adjustment, and compare it to a table. The table tells the GM what to do. In practice, this requires a lot of minor math equations and page turning.

In combat, this is both slow and somewhat fun. Sometimes, when you hit, you get a critical. This is another roll, but leads to flavorful results. For example, I once saw a dwarf warrior critically miss the troll they were attacking and critically succeed at accidentally hitting their nearest companion. The dwarf collapsed the poor hobbit's lung. He died in 6 sounds. Classic MERP. 

This slow, methodical, chart-oriented play creates a very specific feeling at the table. It's not a "bad" feeling necessarily, but it is not one that I would seek out in normal circumstances given my personal predilections. 

Final Score: Oof. Honestly I love it, but the game gives me a headache. C +

Sidenote: A team of old MERP fans created a modern love letter to this game called Against the Dark Master. I read the sample PDF and was impressed. Cool art too. Worth checking out.

The Lord of the Rings Adventure Game by ICE

I'm a sucker for a boxed set

Also by ICE, the Lord of the Rings Adventure Game was a stripped down beginner's box set of MERP, which, itself, was a stripped down version of ICE's generic fantasy game Rolemaster. The game is abbreviated "LOR" and I have no idea how they got the acronym. I just looked in the first book and it doesn't give any explanation. It's just called "LOR" a lot. Does that mean...Lord Of (the) Rings? What about the "adventure game" part? Inscrutable. 

This game is a series of three adventure paths with a simple rule system and pregenerated characters. It's aimed at a younger audience that has never roleplayed before. It has a lot of hand holding. But honestly? The examples are super tight. This is a good example of what a good beginner's boxed set should look like.  

Three adventures were published. Two never saw the light of day before ICE lost the license. Sort of a shame, really. In a lot of ways, this was the more successful game.

Appearance: Like MERP, there's double columns of cramped text. Unlike MERP, the layout is somewhat cleaner and the images feel consistent and well set. Not good by modern standards, but less migraine-inducing to read. 

Play: The numbers are shrunk down to be handled by a 2d6 roll against a set difficulty. Bare bones. Simple. The game is tighter than MERP though, and that's a good thing.

The adventure paths are the railroad express choo choo chugga chugga chugga where's your ticket. They say it really explicitly. "If your players try and wander off the path, here are some tips to get them back on track." 

That said, the writing of the adventures and the setting feel really appropriate for Middle-earth. Obviously the author, Jessica Ney, was a passionate fan. The "feeling" of the setting is more apparent in LOR than MERP. 

Final Score: This is MERP's hotter, nicer younger sister. A solid B

The Lord of the Rings RPG  by Decipher

OK so picture this. The year is 2002. I dressed up for the Fellowship movie. I am a senior in high school. I find this book in a Barnes & Noble and go nuts. I immediately buy it and run it for all my high school friends. 

We play it for like a year. The game falls apart in our hands. 

"Wait, if I take the Defensive Action move, I roll 2d6 for my Defence. My Defence is already an 11. I'm probably going to become easier to hit?"

"I'm a magician, and I have the Strong Will feat, so my Fatigue check is made with a...+10. I'll only get Fatigued if I roll snake eyes. No wait, I can reroll snake eyes. OK, I make it. I turn the troll into a frog." 

Have you ever bought a video game based on a major motion picture and been disappointed? Yeah, this is that, but in RPG book form. 

Appearance: The game is a movie tie in, so features stills and images from the movie. There were maybe a few pieces of art but it was pretty pathetic. 

Rules: Do you remember RPGs in the early aughts? It was very formulaic. You had a feats. You had attributes. You added your skills to your base attribute chance. Nothing new, nothing weird, nothing innovative. 

I collect a lot of RPG books just to like, harvest mechanics I like. There's nothing worth stealing here. This is Generic City.

Final Score: Was this thing ever playtested? C -

Caveat: OK I fucking lied. This game had one SUPER sweet module: the Moria boxed set. I still use this anytime anybody wants to go into Moria or a Moria-like dwarf dungeon. The maps were dope. The lore about the seven houses of the dwarves felt super authentic and played within the "space" of the setting very well. To me, this is the definitive Moria role-playing game. A+

The One Ring by Cubicle 7

Handsome book

This is a great game that I don't have any interest in actually playing. 

I'm not trying to be mean. It's just not for me. I think what they did was good. They figured out the feeling of the setting, they iterated inside the bounds intelligently, the game has good modern design, and it's just not my particular cup of tea. 

Here are some things I really, really like about this game:
  • The game has a limited scope in the core book. It ostensibly is about the space that Bilbo traveled in during The Hobbit. You can play Shire Hobbits, Mirkwood Elves, Lonely Mountain Dwarves, Bardings, and Woodmen. That's great. Bounded choices make for interesting conversations. 
  • Scope is slowly increased by optional splat books. If your initial party travels to Rohan, you might make an ally that will join you. Very cool. 
  • The maps are incredible. The travel system is hex based. You travel through different hexes--free, wild, oppressed, under the Shadow, etc. Based on the danger of the hex that you're traveling through, the harder your travel rolls will be and the more likely that travel mishaps (getting lost, losing food, encounters with monsters) will happen. 
  • The game forefronts race as the main "factor" for PCs, not class. In D&D, your class is your main thing and race adds in a few doo-dads: new languages, dark vision, a 1x/spell. The One Ring reverses the paradigm to good effect. After all, the books highlighted that Legolas was an ELF and Gimli was a DWARF, not that they were both "fighters" (ostensibly). 
The game also includes a few adventure paths. They feel very much in the vein of LOR: railroady, but appropriate for the setting. 

Appearance: The books are very pretty. The art is nice, consistent, and appropriate. They're perfectly adequate as RPG books. 

Rules: The rules are sort of where I get tripped up. It's fine, just not my cup of tea. In general, players roll small pools of d6s and a d12 at the same time. The d12 can either produce a number, an eye, or a "G rune." If it's a G rune, it's an automatic success. If it's an eye, an automatic failure--or invites some sort of critical miss. If you're fatigued, you ignore rolls of 1-3 on the d6, which is clever. 

The thing that somewhat rankles me about the rule systems is it feels very gamey and random. I find it hard to get immersed into my character. For example, travel encounters are mostly random and mostly ping your Endurance for failed tests. This basically boils down to luck, not player skill. If you roll poorly while traveling, you'll get penalized and start the "real encounter" at a disadvantage. That means there are certain skills you "have" to dump points into to be "successful" at the game. I get bored figuring these things out. 

Final Score: The crunch isn't my cup of tea but the game feels appropriate in breadth and scope for a game set in Middle-earth. It's very nicely delivered and marries the mechanics to the setting. A -

Adventures in Middle-earth by Cubicle 7

Adventures in Middle Earth Loremaster's Guide: Cubicle 7 ...
I'm begging you to play something besides D&D

Whenever somebody wants to take a unique concept and then "translate" it to d20 it makes me gnash my teeth, rub myself with ashes, rend my clothes, and wear sackcloth. Adventures in Middle-earth did a bad job at doing a bad thing and it sucks. The original TOR was pretty good and this is so deeply disappointing. Just ignore this. 

But Josh, aren't you just being persnickity?

No! RPGs are like recipes. Different recipes produce different tastes. Sometimes when you cram two recipes together it's like chocolate and peanut butter. Other times its like chocolate and sardines. AiME is more like chocolate and sardines.

Any attempt to make a play experience conform to d20 that isn't narrowly about being fantasy Avengers fails hard. Saying, "OK gang, how would you run D&D but--get this--low magic? Only fighters and rogues allowed," is pathetic. Get the fuck out of here and play goddamn Burning Wheel or something. Learn a new game. 

Final Score: F


  1. I enjoyed playing in your MERPS game. Deciphering the rules was a challenge. I've gotten spoiled by improved layout and concise explanations making even Old School games simple to understand (the OSE SRD being a good example).

    I like learning new systems, so puzzling out MERPS has been fun, but it's not a system I'd turn to generally. I'm not sure that it emulates the feelings and themes of LotR any better than vanilla D&D.

    All that said, exploring Moria as a dungeon crawl sounds awesome. Is that something you'd enjoy running?

    1. I have also enjoyed playing it, thanks for joining.

      I think I agree with your opinion that there's nothing in the _crunch_ that emulates the themes of LotR more than D&D. There may be one or two things, though:
      1) The critical tables evoke a weird sort of fun. I'd argue that all of the wounds taken in the book (from breaking off a dagger in Frodo's arm, to Gimli blunting his axe on an orc's torc, to Gimli's helm being split, etc. etc.) can be pointed out in the vast critical tables.
      2) For any critical wound you suffer, there's some herb on some herb list in the MERP books to cure it. Your lung collapsed? It's a good thing that in yonder hills _sylvestarminethyme_ can cure lung collapse. Big lists of herbs and finding them is pretty Tolkienesque.
      3) The 2nd edition introduces rules for magic "corruption" and inviting Shadow observation by casting spells--again, pretty Tolkienesque.

      Would love to run a Moria campaign. Sounds like fun. 

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  4. This is a terrific review! And spot on in every detail.