ICE’s open letter to subscribers of “Other Hands”
For ICE, Peter Fenlon
This is an open letter to anyone who might be perusing “Other Hands.” It embodies a few thoughts that the crew at Iron Crown Enterprises (ICE) want to impart to people who are interested in gaming in Middle-earth. We hope to shed some light on our publishing program and invite some constructive discussion about our future plans.
As you may already know, ICE holds the exclusive, worldwide license to produce adventure games based on J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. We acquired these very special rights in 1982. It took us two years to convince Tolkien Enterprises and the Estate of J.R.R. Tolkien that we were a worthy choice, and it has taken us another ten years to reach the stage where we are ready to revise and relaunch what has become our most notable product line.
Where we’re coming from…
Before talking about ICE’s plans, however, we think it is important that you know where we are and where we have been. In this context, chew on the following:
ICE cares about “what gets written” as much, or more, than “what gets sold.”
While we have failed on occasion to produce an excellent (or even tolerable) work, ICE believes that quality is much more important than quantity. Well researched, well written, and well-presented material makes us feel better about ourselves and our careers. Of course, about our work, it also makes commercial sense. Quality products generally perform better, especially in the “long run.”
ICE has always tended to look at matters in terms of the “long run.” (Having started with very little capital, we had no other choice.) This perspective can be dangerous, in that it creates a rationale or pretext for some unhealthy delays; however, it has also enabled us to build a company and learn a craft in the face of some very daunting obstacles. Patience and commitment form the foundation of ICE’s strategy.
ICE treats the Middle-earth license as a fundamental part of our publishing program. We will remain commit ted to the property forever. What we have published so far is only a beginning. ICE intends to keep laboring and tinkering until we get things “just right” —which means we will persist in our quest until we perish. This open-ended commitment is not unlike Professor Tolkien’s own creative journey.
ICE’s crew is trained in cartography, history, architecture, and (perhaps most importantly) anthropology. We care about these, and numerous other, disciplines which impact on the sort of creative and interpretive work fundamental to the study of Middle-earth. We try as much as possible to employ the same techniques employed by Professor Tolkien, and we share his broad, interdisciplinary approach (with special emphasis on land and language) to every aspect of our research. The idea is to create “seamless” works.
ICE pays more attention to, and takes greater care with, this subject matter than any other potential licensee. The point is to combine “real world” experience with “fresh fantasy.” For example, when we do a piece on barrow-downs, we travel to Europe and actually visit similar round-barrows, long-barrows, and the like. When we endeavor to create proper names in the Variag tongue (Varadja), we study Russian (which Tolkien alluded to as an analogous language). At the same time, we do not rely on tired and mundane fantasy formulas (e.g., simply plugging in “Chinese-like” peoples and cultures in “the East.”)
ICE long ago dedicated itself to producing both outstanding maps and fine linguistic-based, interpretive fantasy, staying true to the methods employed in the creation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s works. We have always tried to employ good cartography, solid graphics, and compelling artwork in our publications. In most cases, we have succeeded. Nonetheless, we feel that there is a lot of room for improvement. If nothing else, our past offerings have often been too uneven in quality and a little too “text heavy.”
ICE does not design products that simply retell tales already well-told; rather, we provide consumers with adventure and mystery in a wonderful setting borne out of those tales. This approach is in the best interest of all parties concerned with quality gaming. We do not dilute the tales, nor do we demean them.
ICE originally designed the Middle-earth Role Playing (MERP) game in 1982. We wanted to provide consumers with a set of solid game mechanics with which to adventure in Endor. We tried to avoid grafting Tolkien’s world onto an existing game system (as is the case with most other licensed adventure games). While we accomplished one of these two goals (MERP is a good set of adventure game guidelines), we fell short of effectively achieving the other goal.
Unfortunately, ICE’s presentation of the MERP rules left much to be desired. We often created a sense of confusion and complexity, even where the guidelines were conceptually simple. In some cases (e.g., with the magic and character creation rules) ICE also failed to create a feeling that MERP was designed around the setting. We failed to create the feeling that the rules were uniquely well-suited to the world of Middle-earth. So, while our Middle-earth products are generally very well received, and while the vast majority of our fan mail is extremely positive, there is a lot of room for design improvement.
Much of the problem can be attributed to the fact that ICE wanted the supplements, not the rules, to tell the tale of Middle-earth, This enabled us to reach more consumers, for we knew that many gamers would prefer to play another game or even make up their own rules. We suspect that, to this day, a large portion of the folk adventuring in Endor use TSR’s Dungeons & Dragons or AD&D rules, even though they employ our Middle-earth supplements. This philosophy, however, has “diluted the line.” We plan to address this problem in our forthcoming revision program (see below).
There is little doubt, though, that MERP has been a commercial success. Besides selling over 300,000 English-language copies, ICE has generated one of the best foreign-language translations and distributions ever seen in our industry. Middle-earth products are now available in nine different languages. Three more translations are currently in progress.
Where We’re Going
While quite profitable, ICE has spent the last three years focusing on the elimination of its large and old external debt load. This necessarily affected our Middle-earth-related publication, sales, and marketing programs. We curtailed production, advertising, printing, and focused our efforts on clearing out our old inventory and laying the groundwork for what amounted to a hoped-for revision and renewal program. Now that we are once again healthy (more so than ever), we are launching what amounts to a rebirth of our line. The plan involves a four-part strategy:
- the completion of the Lord of the Rings Adventure Game subseries;
- the revision of the entire Middle-earth Role Playing game line;
- the debut of the “three-dimensional” Middle-earth Adventures series of gamettes; and
- the development and announcement of a Middle-earth board game (slated for release in 1994).
A few specific thoughts about our future plans follow:
1) The Lord of the Rings Adventure Game
First, ICE hopes to continue publishing supplemental adventures for its introductory Lord of the Rings Adventure Game. This game and its associated sub-series provides ICE with the perfect vehicle to reach new markets, novice gamers, and anyone interested in exploring the idea of gaming in Middle-earth without a lot of rules.
2) Middle-earth Role Playing
Second, ICE hopes to thoroughly revise and repackage its eight-year-old Middle-earth Role Playing game (MERP), releasing the very new 2nd edition for Christmas 1993. 2nd Edition MERP will retain the current rules; however, it will incorporate a wholly new layout and presentation. ICE will revise, rewrite, and/or re-edit the entire product. We will add new cover art, interior art, and new play aides (e.g., a full-color map board-style intro adventure). It will look and read as well as, or better than, any adventure game product ever produced.
Substantively speaking, the newer material will include guidelines to inject a more “Middle-earthian” flavor into the character creation process. Fully illustrated and pre-designed “Character Templates” will enable both novices and Lord of the Rings Adventure Game aficionados to start playing without having to wade through new rules. A special section dealing with the problems of magic in Middle-earth should satisfy anyone’s concerns about rampant spell use in MERP. This section will address key concepts such as “magic and the Balance of Things,” “magic and religion,” “magic and the sources of power,” and “magic and the nature of evil.”
We will also add a section dealing with how to use introductory Lord of the Rings Adventure Game adventures with the MERP rules.
In accord with the rules revision, ICE will be revising its entire Middle-earth line. Besides insuring that the new interior and trade dress are compatible with 2nd Edition MERP, the new trademark, and the new packaging, ICE will be reorganizing its entire approach to the subject of Endor. None of the current Middle-earth titles will ever be published (as they are) again. Instead, ICE will be publishing fewer but larger titles like Arnor (the first of the Realms Campaign Atlases). The races outlined in Lords of Middle-earth, for instance, will each be given their own separate, expanded work (e.g., “Elves” or “Orcs” in the new Peoples subseries. Much of the old material will find its way back into print as part of the new tides (e.g., Most of Sea-lords of Gondor and Havens of Gondor will appear in the new “Gondor” product, and Gorgoroth will be incorporated into a future “Mordor” piece), but we will be taking great care to reedit and improve all the old prose. Each of the new titles will focus more on the later years of the Third Age and the early part of the Fourth Age.
3) Middle-earth Adventures
Third, ICE plans to launch a series of “three-dimensional” adventure game products called “Middle-earth Adventures” sometime in 1994. A line of self-contained board game-like adventures, they will contain simple guidelines providing consumers with three options:
- for use as a board game using a simple rules system common to all the games;
- for use as a Lord of the Rings Adventure Game adventure; and
- for use as a MERP adventure.
In other words, these products will serve both as standalone games using a standardized set of rules and as programmed adventure supplements for both Lord of the Rings Adventure Game and MERP players. In the latter context, the series will replace ICE’s old Adventure Modules and Ready-to-Run Modules.
Each Middle-earth Adventure (e.g., “The Mines of Moria”) will be boxed and will contain full color cardboard playing pieces, plastic playing pieces, linkable full color cardboard playing surfaces, dice, full-color creature and character templates, and a booklet covering both the adventure plotline and the associated guidelines. Playable in an evening, each adventure will serve as both an entertaining board game or as highly visual role playing game supplement. They will be the perfect link between traditional board games and more advanced games.
4) Middle-earth Board Games
Fourth, ICE hopes to finally produce a mass market strategy board game that captures the drama and flavor of Middle-earth at the time of the War of the Ring. We have three solid designs to work with, and we have finally located cost-effective sources for all of the components necessary to produce an affordable, first-class board game offering. The product will contain plastic playing pieces, a mounted map board, and beautiful cards. Targeted at consumers aged 13 and older, it will provide both introductory and intermediate level rules.
Should the 3D Middle-earth Adventures series appear successful, we hope to produce full-blown board games based on the same game rules.
ICE believes that it has the education, experience, and skill to create the finest line of adventure gaming products ever published. After all, we are working with the greatest fantasy setting published in modern times. In order to achieve this goal, we have sought counsel from a host of interested sources. ICE is hoping to address all of the critical criticisms expressed in the past — including product quality, product format and revenue flow — and we should be able to build an extremely strong program upon the current foundation. Should you wish to contribute any thoughts along these lines, feel free to write us at the following address:
ICE — P.O. Box 1605 — Charlottesville, VA 22902 — USA — Attention: Pete
We look forward to laboring in the world we love so dearly during the coming years, and we hope to continue refining and improving our work. Ultimately, ICE believes that our labors will be fruitful. We hope you agree.
For ICE, Pete Fenlon
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