A Reply to ICE’s “Open Letter”
James Owen — Wolfson College, Oxford OX2 6OD, England
In Other Hands #1, Pete Fenlon of Iron Crown Enterprises wrote a long piece which was part history, part mea culpa, part “whither ICE?” It was designed to “invite some constructive discussion about our future plans.” I think that in many respects Iron Crown has done a good job on their Middle-earth output over the last ten years. However, like the curate’s egg, other parts are not so good.
Since ICE holds the exclusive license for Middle-earth role-playing games, we should in good faith, and with constructive criticism, help them improve their products and remedy these deficiencies. I wish therefore to provide my opinions, good and bad, and reply to their letter in detail, first with my criticisms of their current output and then with some suggestions of my own, in the hope of stimulating debate.
“Where We’re Coming from…
By their own account, ICE is attempting to fill the gaps in Middle-earth which Tolkien left unwritten, so as to provide a detailed campaign setting suitable for discerning role-players, while at the same time remaining faithful to Tolkien’s original vision. They “care what gets written” and believe that “quality is more important than quantity.” What has been the result of this “patience and commitment” over the last ten years?
While some of the earliest titles are not so good, either in artwork or content, the general form and layout of the Middle-earth Role Playing campaign modules is very good, and the emergent “Iron Crown style” has matured well. The maps in each supplement are extremely good to look at, not least because the style is reminiscent of Christopher Tolkien’s. A complete set of these maps (rather than the glossy poster maps) should be published, covering the whole of northwestern Middle-earth. Angus McBride’s cover artwork is also attractive, although it may in some minds overemphasize the combat side of role-playing1. The front covers certainly go a long way towards making the supplements the high-quality products that ICE desires.
The internal artwork is of slightly more variable quality, but at its best (such as the trap pictures in Moria) it is elegant and informative. Looking inside the covers, the area description and site plans are good, although restricting the modules to TA 1640 often clashes with the natural desire to write about places as they are best known from The Lord of the Rings. This is particularly noticeable in Isengard, where most of the description of Orthanc tacitly assumes the presence of Saruman, even before he went there.
Other supplements, such as the “Lords of Middle-earth” series, are less satisfactory, in my opinion, because they are mere compilations of data derived from the campaign modules and Tolkien’s own characters, without much editing or revision. It is rather annoying here to see two separate sets of stats for MERP and Role-master, including two different classes (the MERP one usually being rather generic and less apt). Treasures of Middle-earth is far too fat to be “faithful,” and has been compiled without discretion, including treasures even from such out-of-print modules as The Court of Ardor.
Pete Fenlon tells us that ICE’s authors are trained in necessary specialties such as cartography, history, architecture and anthropology (3). I am, however, forced to be skeptical about the breadth of this expertise. For example, it is obvious to me (as one whose field is materials science) that the author of the materials sections in the Lórien and Moria supplements (which have been merged in Treasures of Middle-earth: 129 — 132) was not an expert2: .
It is one thing to introduce a magical substance with amazing properties (such as laen or mithril), or even to suggest that a uranium-mithril alloy could act as an anti-gravity device (many science fiction writers have done worse); but it is quite another matter to invent common properties of real, well-known metals such as iron or aluminum, or to misinterpret the consequences of these properties. This is not “combining ‘real world’ experience with ‘fresh fantasy (4),’” but carelessness.
Even one of the many helpful maps in the recently published Gazetteer (see review on pgs. 26 — 27) — a geological one detailing the mineral deposits of Middle-earth — is technically marred. By all means, use chemical symbols such as “Fe” for iron and “Au” for gold to indicate the locations of minerals; but don’t at the same time use “C” for copper (Cu) or “S” for silver (Ag), especially as these are the chemical symbols for carbon and sulfur. If you are making a (laudable) attempt to “employ the same techniques used by Professor Tolkien (4),” then you must also include an obsessive attention to details, because “quality products perform better in the ‘long run’”3.
This may seem unnecessary pedantry, as the vast majority of readers would not notice these errata. However, if I spot something wrong in an area that I do know about, then I will not be able to trust the research done by the authors in other fields where I am not an expert. Simplification of the complexities is necessary, but it can be done without sacrificing accuracy.
The next question raised by Mr. Fenlon is whether MERP is a good role-playing system for Middle-earth. As they stand, the ICE supplements seem to have been written with Rolemaster (rather than MERP) in mind, so that a separate rules system seems almost unnecessary. Original Rolemaster is a good set of rules, designed to accommodate any setting, with the GM given free rein to modify rules as appropriate, although the proliferation of companions has rather detracted from this simplicity. MERP seems to me to be a trimmed version of Rolemaster, removing some of the options without actually making the system any simpler, nor do I feel that it is sufficiently tuned to role-playing in Middle-earth.
As Mr. Fenlon says, ICE has produced a good set of rules, but they have failed to avoid grafting Tolkien’s world onto an existing game system. The magic system, for example, is too D&D-like, although some sort of compromise between Tolkien’s vague references to magic and a playable and interesting role-playing game has to be made. Gamers are going to want to play magic-using characters, even if there is little overt magic in The Lord of the Rings, but the current system is oriented far too much towards this kind of “playability” and too far away from the correct “flavor.”
At a time when there was a move away from generic “multiverse” role-playing to setting-specific rules systems, MERP seems to have tried to swim against the tide by allowing too many “multiverse” assumptions to creep into the rules, and by making the style and rewards of adventuring too generic. The adventures in the back of the rulebook are littered with magic items and treasure, and the introductory scene at the front is a combat between the players and three nameless orcs. This is perhaps an attempt to interest non-Tolkien gamers and wean them away from other worlds, but by the same token this strategy could backfire by driving away Tolkien fans who are potential gamers.
I myself started playing Rolemaster because it was a far better system than AD&D, but I was not looking to role-play in Middle-earth at the time. It was only later that I started using MERP supplements (and then only because they were there), but without modifying my characters or my style of play. This was mostly my fault, but the way in which the adventures had been written did not help. That players are not using the “house” rule system is not a serious problem. As Mr. Spock might have said, “rules are the beginning, not the end, to good role-playing.”
Most good role-playing consists in talking rather than dice-rolling. For this reason, ICE is quite right to hope that the supplements will sell on their own as descriptive material, even if they are being used by GM’s with other rule systems. I have found that they even sell to non-gamers who are Tolkien fans because they are a good read as a description of an area or time not detailed by Tolkien himself (I predict that the Gazetteer will be a good example of this.).
To encourage this kind of audience, the way to go about writing modules would be to avoid system-specific artifacts, characters or monsters, and to concentrate instead on a more general description of people and places. One way in which ICE docs this well already is by describing everything in words, followed by a clearly-defined (and ignorable) box converting the description into Rolemaster and MERP stats. Here again there is a role for attractive artwork, plans and cartography.
When Iron Crown has finished its Akallabêth and the world has been made round, there will be four ways to run ICE games in Middle-earth:
- As “self-contained board-game-like adventures”.
- With the Lord of the Rings Adventure Game.
- With 2nd edition MERP.
- Or with Rolemaster (see OH 1: 5 — 6).
To have four gaming systems applicable to Middle-earth seems otiose. I have not played The Lord of the Rings Adventure Game, so I cannot comment on it, but Rolemaster is not a beginner’s game, and some sort of novice rules would therefore be useful.
As I see it, 2nd edition MERP will be one of two products. Either ICE should design a rules system specifically tuned to Middle-earth gaming, without reference to Rolemaster, or it should content itself with a modification of Rolemaster. In the first case, starting from scratch should produce a set of rules highly suitable for Middle-earth, but would mean much more effort for ICE, who would have to rewrite the current modules from a much lower level because they would be completely incompatible with future output. This might have been an option ten years ago, but I don’t think it is a serious one now.
My second suggestion for 2nd edition MERP would be to go through the Rolemaster system and all its many companions, and sort out from these the optional rules, character classes, magic, etc., which would be applicable to Middle-earth; then combine these into one book called Middle-earth Companion or something (along the lines of the Vikings, Pirates, and Mythic Greece/Egypt supplements). 2nd edition MERP would then be either a boxed set of Rolemaster plus this companion, or existing Rolemaster players could just buy the one supplement. This would avoid having to have separate MERP and Rolemaster stats for the NPC’s in all the supplements, and allow the great flexibility of the Rolemaster system to be used to its full extent. From a marketing point of view, it would also mean that more people would be buying the complete Rolemaster system, as opposed to the less expensive MERP rules.
Digressing slightly, most of the new character classes which have appeared in the later companions should be ruthlessly rationalized. The original strength of Rolemaster was that a wide variety of characters with different abilities could be produced from one class, because of the freedom of players to develop any skill they liked at a cost, so that stereotyped fighters or thieves were rare, and no one could say: “You can’t do that, you’re not a cleric.” But now with so many classes, the raison d’etre of the character generation system has been eroded, while the complexities remain4.
On the magic front, one sweeping and possibly simplistic suggestion would be to restrict the magic available in Middle-Earth — even more than has been done in MERP — to Channeling magic only, on the grounds that all power originally comes from the Valar. Nowhere does Tolkien suggest that magical power came from the earth itself, which would be required for Essence. However, I will leave possible new magic systems to future issues of Other Hands.
Middle-earth is not combat or magic-heavy (The Fellowship were certainly trying to avoid a fight.); it is much more a character-oriented world (In the last campaign I played, for example, I never used my sword over an entire week’s gaming.). Gandalf knew that his job was not to use his 70th level magic to blast Sauron’s forces to pieces (although he did use low-key magic where necessary) but to use his personality and wisdom to persuade the peoples of Middle-earth to fight and win their own war. The importance of combat for experience points could therefore be downgraded.
Once all these modifications have been incorporated, do not be afraid that the resulting rule system will be very Tolkien-oriented (it is supposed to be Middle-earth role-playing, after all). For every “hack and slay” maniac you lose because there aren’t enough magic items falling out of every chest, you will gain a Tolkien fan who decides that in some insubstantial way the system “feels” right. An advantage to this will be that the Middle-earth material will then fit seamlessly into the rest of ICE’s output, but will still retain its autonomy.
Having read the Vikings supplement, which had virtually no gaming data in it anywhere (and was obviously well-researched), I believe that this approach could work well. Gamers who do not care for the MERP flavor can still adventure in other more suitable ICE universes (such as Shadow World) and can easily move between that and MERP.
I do not pretend that I could produce a perfect game system, or even that these are novel comments about MERP. I am quite sure that there is much more that could be said, both as criticisms of current output, and hopes and ideas for the future. However, I hope that my comments amount to “constructive discussion” of the sort Mr. Fenlon desires, and that I have provoked others to share their thoughts on MERP, both with Other Hands and with ICE.
Some of this cover art is worthy of being published on individual posters. I would like a large poster of his Eowyn vs. the Nazgûl for a start. ↩
As many of my criticisms necessitate an extensive discussion of this topic, I shall reserve the specifics for another occasion. ↩
I was slightly worried about Mr. Fenlon’s gleeful description of the accessories in the projected line of new, boxed adventures. I am afraid that an overemphasis on packaging, “cardboard playing pieces, full-color character templates (6),” rather than good writing and high-quality content is moving in a direction away from the unfettered imagination, which is where role-playing must lie. ↩
I also think that skill costs should depend upon personal ability more than class. ↩
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