Sunday, April 5, 2020

MERP - The first PBtA game

Because I've been quarantined for ??? days, I'm attempting to get an online West Marches game started with my broader friend group because I'd rather talk to friends than rewatch Fargo again. I'm running it in Middle-earth Role-Playing (MERP). 

Art from the First Edition Rulebook by Angus McBride

It's been several years since I last looked at MERP. It's nuts, but utterly charming. Normally I'm a stickler for canon Tolkien (with maybe some exceptions), but MERP goes off the rails. You want to play a half-dwarf cleric who invokes Yavannah in the Third Age? Go for it, bucko. You think magic is rare and mysterious? BZZZ, wrong again baby boy. Everybody's grandmother has a magic ring made by the Elven smiths as an essay in the craft. 

In all the hullabaloo of the "Old School Renaissance," people have been meticulously combing through the first editions of D&D and giving them a tender kiss. But where are the blogs breaking down the esoterica of MERP? 

In preparation for the first session, I reread the core text a few times. As I was looking at the resolution charts, I had a realization:

I'm just reading PBtA moves. 

No, Just Look
I'm making a (deliberately) inflammatory claim, but check it out.  
On a 7-11, choose one...
The core mechanic of MERP is sort of buried and hidden (in the same way that THAC0 was), but it's essentially this: Roll 1d100. Add the appropriate bonuses. On a 5-75, you miss. On a 76-90, you hit, but there's a complication. On a 91-110, you hit solidly. On a 111+, you gain an extra benefit. 

It might feel overwhelming to look at tables all of the time, but really each skill category is just an Apocalypse World move. 

XP is Weird, Too
Another weird thing is XP in MERP. It's probably the hardest part of the game. You get XP for the following things, to be tallied at the end of the game:

  1. You gain an XP for each hit point you've lost.
  2. You gain XP bonuses if you get a critical hit.
  3. You gain XP if you defeat an enemy. This may be "kill" this might also be "bested in an riddling contest."
  4. You gain XP if you succeed in "movement maneuvers." Movement maneuvers are probably the closest thing to "attribute tests" that exist in the system. They're modified by the armor you're wearing, so lightly armored people succeed more frequently than heavily armored people.
  5. You gain XP for casting spells during combat.
  6. You gain a measure of everybody's total XP, divided up and given to you by the GM based on his subjective feeling of how "smart" you were.
  7. You gain XP for every mile traveled through the wilderness.
  8. You gain XP because the GM can do whatever he wants.

For everybody crowing about how old school games give you treasure for XP and how that incentivizes a particular type of play, MERP definitively doesn't do that. Most of these are for combat, and combat in MERP is very dangerous and potentially very deadly. I've seen the introductory encounter in MERP go off the rails when a warrior fumbled their attack against a troll, hit their closest ally with a critical success, and punctured their lung resulting in death in 6 rounds. 

But imagine if this was recast as PBtA. It wouldn't feel out of place, for instance, if it was written like this:
When you reach the end of a session, answer these questions:
  • Did you get hurt?
  • Did you defeat a significant enemy?
  • Did you travel through the trackless wilderness?
  • Did you score a 12+ roll?
For each time you answer yes, mark XP. 

Anyway, MERP is nuts. Let me know if you want to play.


  1. My 'trigue is definitely in.

    So this is a West Marches game set in Middle Earth?
    What edition of MERP?

    1. As near as I can tell, the two editions are functionally identically. 2nd has some additional optional classes (which we're not using) and reformats some of the tables. But the differences in edition are minor.

  2. This sounds zany and fun.

    In days these days of universal house-arrest, I'd love to try something new. If you still have an open seat let me know.

    1. Would be happy to have more players. The gimmick (as I understand it) with West Marches is that it's a rotating cast of characters with no fixed schedule. More people saying, "Yeah, I can play that night" is never bad.

      The game's group is being hosted on Facebook (yeah, I know). If you DM me your details on my twitter (@riseupcomus), I'd be happy to add you. So far it's sleepy, but feeling hopeful that a few games will come out of it.

    2. I haven't used twitter since 2016 but my contact is deadtreegivesnoshelter at the Google email.

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